Bi Bi Hua
by M. Elaine Mar
At the age of thirteen, I realized that my parents intended to arrange a marriage for me. They had not yet chosen a groom; my marriage was not predestined at birth, as in fairy tales or the apocryphal anecdotes that circulate about the friend of a friend from the Far East. But my parents’ plans carried weight all the same. Their actions made the message clear: My body and my sexuality did not belong to me. I was not free to explore the tantalizing nether regions of sex, as my non-Chinese peers were.
Imagine my surprise: I was a gawky adolescent entering the eighth grade. In the tradition of American womanhood, I’d already learned to diet. I wore my hair coaxed into some version of the famous Farrah Fawcett ’do. My favorite movies were Grease and the PG-rated version of Saturday Night Fever. Memories of my immigration from Hong Kong eight years earlier were dim and dream-like. I could not conceive of myself as anything other than American. I could not imagine my future unfurling any differently than the ones depicted in Teen magazine—first date, first kiss, first dance, first break-up, first true love.
Early that fall, I was granted one of my firsts—first boyfriend, a red-haired ninth-grader who attended a different school, in a different school district. I got to know him on weekends, working at my family’s Chinese restaurant. I was a dishwasher. He was a busboy. Like many hormone-driven teens, we were not terribly discreet about our relationship. We cuddled publicly, in the restaurant’s service corridors. We sat on the same side of a dining-room booth and held hands throughout meals. We disappeared on “walks” for embarrassingly long, suggestive periods of time.
My parents objected, of course. They said that my behavior would ruin our family’s reputation and demanded that we break up. I refused. A tortured, arduous series of arguments ensued. My father went so far as to hit me. In the end, the red-haired boy bowed out, unable to stand the drama. I was devastated, convinced that my parents had just ruined my life. I didn’t know that the real shock was yet to come, delivered by my Uncle Andy.
Very calmly one night, sitting across from me in a booth at the family restaurant, Uncle Andy announced that I was not allowed to have boyfriends. My family intended to send me back to Hong Kong after my high school graduation. There, they would arrange an appropriate marriage for me.
Uncle Andy’s words lingered like a curse. I hoped to defy my family’s wishes. I planned a long line of secret dates. But I was foiled—first by the boys at my junior high, then the boys at my high school, none of whom showed the slightest interest in me sexually. I resigned myself to the stereotype of Oriental geek and worked on suppressing my sexual urges.
As it turned out, my uncle’s prophecy was not infallible. Harvard was the key to my freedom. At the recommendation of my high school English teacher (who knew nothing about my family situation), I applied to Harvard—and got in. Initially, my parents refused to let me go. Cambridge, Massachusetts, near Boston? Seventeen hundred miles away? Too far, they said. But the university was so famous and so well respected that even people in my family’s highly insular immigrant community had heard of it. Once these people explained its significance to my parents, who didn’t know the difference between Harvard and the local community college, they had to relent. I was overjoyed, knowing that no other excuse would have freed me from my parents’ house.
So, upon graduation from high school, I was not shipped back to Hong Kong. Instead, I moved from my parents’ house in Denver, Colorado, to a dorm room in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I was assigned to Hurlbut Hall, which stood across the street from the Union, the building where freshmen took their meals. Hurlbut was one of the smaller freshman dorms, housing fewer than eighty students on four floors combined. I lived in a “pod”—an arrangement of locking bedrooms around a semi-private common room—on the third floor. There were seven one-room singles and a two-room triple in the pod; I lived in one of the singles.
Within the first week, my podmates and I agreed to treat the pod as one large suite. We set up furniture in our common room, exchanged home phone numbers, and made copies of our bedroom keys for one another to keep in case of emergency. I felt like a member of a typical freshman rooming group, rather than the occupant of a “psycho single.” For which I was grateful.
I was finding my Harvard experience less than ideal. Back in Denver, I’d imagined all Harvard students as being a little like me—socially inexperienced, slightly eccentric, intellectually passionate. My thinking had not been sophisticated enough to include socioeconomic factors in this portrait, nor had I possessed the self-awareness to understand where on the economic spectrum my family lay. Rather than characterizing us as borderline poor—which would have been accurate—I’d honestly believed that we were middle class.
Given such naivete, I could not have prepared myself for the social realities of a college where one year’s tuition roughly equaled my family’s total annual income. I could not have anticipated the large number of Harvard students who came from affluent backgrounds and thus shared cultural references that were a mystery to me: prep schools, tennis camp, European vacations, ordinary-sounding people’s names that turned out to be high-end clothing stores. Puzzled and embarrassed, I remained silent about my working-class background while resolving to learn the customs of this strange new land.
I befriended Leah, an activities-oriented student who lived in my pod’s triple. She was one of those girls who always knew what was cool and who fit into which clique. Her judgments about Harvard people seemed especially keen, at least to me, because her father was a Harvard alumnus and her sister a Harvard junior. I figured that by watching Leah, I could clue myself in on Harvard’s mysteries.
On impulse one night, I began writing verse in ant-sized letters on one of the windowsills in Hurlbut’s central landing. It was intended more to test the vigilance of Harvard’s custodial staff than as any real literary effort, but that first spontaneous poem got my dorm mates’ attention, so I continued writing miniature verse in random, half-hidden places throughout the dorm.
Not long after I began this project, a boy named Evan from the first floor pod started saying hello to me. Coming from Evan, this behavior was strange, since he rarely spoke to anyone. He tended to duck his head rather than exchange hellos when he ran into people on the sidewalk outside of Hurlbut. He was said to be a photographer of genius-level talent, and on faith, without having seen a single photo, I believed it. After all, Evan wore a lot of black. He had a high-pitched voice that was both intense and mocking. His tea-colored eyes were impassive behind a pair of black-rimmed glasses. He always seemed to be sneering. To me, these qualities, combined with Evan’s solitary air and hint of neuroticism, suggested that he was an artist. Besides, we were at Harvard. I was ready to believe that anyone was a genius.
I was on my way into Hurlbut one day in late September when Evan stopped me. He said, “I found the one under the windowsill on the second floor.”
I grinned involuntarily, understanding the reference to a poem I’d written a few days earlier.
“I liked the spiderweb imagery,” he continued smoothly. “What does it symbolize?”
I shrugged. “Nothing. I didn’t think that hard about it. I was just scribbling some neat images.”
Evan stepped closer to me. His eyes remained impassive, but his mouth twitched. “Really?” he breathed. “I thought there might be some hidden sexual meaning.”
My face grew hot. I couldn’t tell whether I was being teased, so I remained silent.
He smiled and murmured, “I thought of you as a black widow waiting for a fly to get caught in your web. I thought of you wrapping the fly in silk and eating him, sucking him dry.”
The sexual implication of his words was so obvious that even I understood. I wondered if this was some sort of flirtation. I didn’t know how I felt if it was. According to Leah, Evan was not socially acceptable. But her judgment had to be weighed against the rumors of his artistic genius. I didn’t have any strong feelings about Evan either way. I just didn’t want to make a fool of myself here on the sidewalk in front of Hurlbut for everyone to witness. Trying to sound detached and intellectual, I said, “That’s an interesting interpretation.”
Evan laughed. He took a step toward me and whispered, “You’re tough, little Denver girl. Cold. I like that.” His lips grazed my ear. Before I could respond, he walked away.
I watched him cross the street, feeling simultaneously intrigued and repulsed. I wondered who his friends at Harvard were. In my imagination, he was part of some artistic clique I had not yet discovered, a group of photographers and painters and poets who gathered in dimly lit coffeehouses to discuss their quest for an uncorrupted creative vision. I longed to become a part of this group, to have my own talents recognized. The image of this artistic clique, and my need for it to exist, were so strong that I never questioned its reality.
I began to see Evan everywhere—at the Union, his pale face and drab clothes shocking in the midst of preppy tan skin and pastel madras shirts; on the path in front of Hurlbut; loitering by the mailboxes in the entryway. He quizzed me about the ant-sized poems. He recited random lines of published poems and demanded that I identify the authors. He asked detailed questions about my day: What time did I usually get up? Did I eat breakfast? When did my lectures meet? When did I eat lunch? When did I eat dinner? I became increasingly confused and uncomfortable in his presence, but I remained uncertain about his intentions.
“Do you think he likes me?” I asked Leah after being stopped by him one day.
She looked over her shoulder at his retreating figure and wrinkled her nose. She declared definitively, “No, Elaine, he’s just weird.”
I felt strangely defeated. Leah disapproved of Evan, so he couldn’t improve my standing in her eyes. Still, I’d wanted her to say yes. No one had ever had a crush on me before. I’d hoped that Evan was the first.
I turned eighteen on October first of that year. My podmates threw me an impromptu party with champagne and an ice-cream cake. Various dorm mates and friends from my classes showed up. Peter, who lived in a suite on the first floor, impressed us all by opening the champagne with barely a pop. “It’s because he’s from Beverly Hills,” Leah whispered in my ear. I nodded sagely, trusting her judgment, because I’d never met anyone from Beverly Hills before. I didn’t question whether or not she had.
Evan didn’t attend the party, and I didn’t miss him.
I was coming back from dinner on Sunday of the following week when I saw Evan pacing the walk in front of Hurlbut. He ran out into the street grinning when he saw me. “Where are your podmates?” he asked, emphasizing the word sarcastically.
I answered him briefly, “They went to get ice cream.”
Evan made a face. “Oh, how sweet. All you girls are so sweet.”
Accustomed to his routine, I ignored him. I started up the path to the front door. Evan stayed close behind. “Why didn’t you go?”
I shrugged. “I have reading to do.”
Evan leered. “Why don’t you read in my room?”
I didn’t bother to answer him. I turned toward the staircase leading to Hurlbut’s upper floors. Evan stepped in front of me. “I’ll let you read Marilyn Hacker,” he offered.
I paused. During one of our sidewalk encounters, Evan had told me that Marilyn Hacker was his favorite poet. I’d been embarrassed to admit that I’d never heard of her—and I’d been too busy since that conversation to look up any of her work.
Evan noticed my hesitation and insinuated his way sleekly into it, murmuring, “Let’s go, Denver girl. Marilyn Hacker. My photographs. Everything you’ve always wanted.”
I looked into his tea-colored eyes, startled.
He smiled. “Isn’t that what you really want? To look at my photos. To spend time with an artist, someone on your level, instead of those preppy idiots like Leah and Rob.”
I opened my mouth to protest, but no words came. I nodded, embarrassed by the transparency of my motives, my neediness.
Evan unlocked the door to his pod, and wordlessly I followed him inside. We walked past flattened cardboard boxes and an upended bedframe. Evan opened the door to his room.
It was unlike anything I’d seen at Harvard thus far.
His room was about the same size as my own, ten or twelve feet square—large for a freshman bedroom. It had the same white walls and pale yellow hardwood floor, the same Harvard-issue furniture—extra-long single bed (or, in this case, the mattress), office-size desk, three-shelf bookcase, and Harvard insignia captain’s
chair. But there the similarities ended.
Evan had disabled the overhead light fixture. He’d strung a series of professional-quality photographer’s studio lamps close to the ceiling. They burned the walls and ceiling an incredible bright white, illuminating every corner, giving the room a spare, loft-like feel. The effect of his adjustments was to obscure almost all suggestions that this was a Harvard dorm room. Although I’d never actually seen a New York artist’s studio, I imagined that Evan’s room looked like one. It looked like the Greenwich Village poet’s quarters that I’d always imagined for myself.
The room was virtually undecorated—no rug on the floor, no posters on the wall. Instead, there were photographs. They were scattered rather than displayed, crowding the desk and the floor, pinned up on a clothesline, tacked to the wall. I scanned the black-and-white prints quickly, absorbing their sharp outlines. When I looked up, I was surprised to see Evan’s face, the faintly beige skin, the shocking red hair, the dark amber eyes.
His expression was inscrutable. “What do you think?” he asked softly. “Are the rumors true? Am I a genius, like everyone says?”
I stared back at him silently. I wanted to be mean and tell Evan no, he didn’t have any talent at all, but the words stuck in my throat. Instead, I said honestly, “Yes. I think you are.”
Evan chuckled. “So sweet,” he murmured, his voice silky. “My sweet little Denver girl.”
I scowled. “Where’s the Marilyn Hacker?” I asked impatiently, pointing at my watch. “It’s almost seven-thirty. I have, like, two hundred pages of reading to do.”
In response, Evan gestured toward his bed, which lay at the far end of the room, by the windows. It had been reduced to its most basic components, a single mattress on the floor, covered with black sheets. He said, “Make yourself comfortable.”
I hesitated, uncertain of his intentions.
Evan sneered, “What’s wrong, Denver girl? Afraid to sit on my bed? Afraid of what I’ll do to you?”
“No,” I snapped, instinctive bravado kicking in. “I’ve sat on lots of boys’ beds.” I crossed the floor and flopped down on the mattress.
“Oh really?” Evan breathed. “Lots of experience with boys’ beds? Tell me about it.”
My face flushed hot. “Just . . . I mean, I’m good at making beds. Hospital corners. So some of the guys at Harvard, freshman year, they need help . . .” My voice faltered.
I heard the challenge, the judgment about my lack of desirability. Just like high school. “Some of these guys have come on to me,” I told Evan defensively.
He made a dismissive sound and said, “That’s just because you’re Chinese.”
I tensed, hating the implication before I knew its exact nature. Up to that moment, I’d almost forgotten the racial difference between us and simply been comfortable in my skin, sparring with him student to student, girl to boy, exploring the boundaries of male-female relationships. What right did he have to take that away from me?
Choking back my anger, I snapped, “What does being Chinese have to do with anything?”
Evan cocked his head, looking amused. “Don’t you know? Chinese girls are easy.” He spoke casually, as if reporting a benign, well-known fact, like the color of grass.
But I’d never heard this stereotype before. I felt my mouth curve upward in an absurd, defensive smile. My smile faltered, then reappeared. I heard myself giggle. “What are you talking about?”
Evan elaborated, making sure that I understood: “All Asian women are easy. You should see the sex shops in New York, Chinese girls everywhere, their legs spread wide open, fucking strangers by the hundred, twenty bucks a pop. It’s the same here, at Harvard, the rich preppies looking for a taste of Chinese cunt. Guys just come on to you because they know you’ll sleep with them.”
“No.” My throat constricted. My eyes filled with tears. How could he say these things? The last few weeks at Harvard had been the best of my life. For the first time, boys were flirting with me, ignoring—or perhaps even appreciating—the Asian features that I’d always considered ugly. I thought that I might have arrived at a place where the standard for beauty could include me. But here Evan was, providing another explanation. The boys didn’t think I was pretty. They only wanted to use me for sex. I didn’t want to believe him. Words rushed out of my mouth defensively: “But I don’t, I’m not, I’ve never . . .”
My sentence lost force and drifted off. Images of another red-haired boy flashed through my head: A weekend at my family’s restaurant. Screaming voices and broken drinking glasses. My body vibrating with desire, insisting that I had a right to date the busboy.
In Evan’s room, remembering how young I’d been and how far I’d gone sexually, I was overcome with shame and guilt. But that had been a long time ago, I reminded myself—and I hadn’t had a boyfriend since. I forced the memories out of my head. “Marilyn Hacker?” I reminded Evan brusquely.
He snorted, dug through a pile of paper on his desk, and handed me a magazine folded to the right page. He sat in the captain’s chair by his desk. I proceeded to read.
Silence settled as I made my way into the poem. I read intently, trying hard to formulate an intelligent analysis. Then, after several minutes of quiet, Evan’s voice interrupted my concentration: “So when are we going to fuck?”
I looked up in surprise. “What?”
He repeated slowly and clearly, “So when are we going to fuck?”
I heard the words but wasn’t able to make sense of them. What was Evan hoping to accomplish? He didn’t actually want to have sex with me, did he? We’d never even kissed. I stared into his eyes, searching for a clue. They were opaque, as always. He must be testing me, tricking me into being that easy Asian woman, I decided. Determined to prove him wrong, I said coldly, “Never. Why are you even asking?”
He grinned. “Oh come on, Denver girl. Stop pretending. You know that you’re attracted to me, and I’m attracted to you.”
My heart stopped, mid-beat, startled. Evan was attracted to me. He just said that he was attracted to me. If I weren’t so confused, I’d be flattered. Then I focused in on the rest of his sentence. He’d also accused me of being attracted to him. How dare he. My face flushed hot. He was far too quirky, too unwilling to be liked by the mainstream Harvard crowd. I couldn’t afford to be attracted to him. If Leah knew that I was in Evan’s room now, I’d be humiliated. I opened my mouth to retort.
Before any words came out, Evan spoke again, “You know you’re attracted to me,” he insisted. “Why else would you wear those tight jeans? Why else would you write those poems on the windowsill? You’re calling attention to yourself, waiting for me.”
The heat in my face intensified. His acknowledgment of my sexuality was so embarrassing it was almost unbearable. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I blurted out, lying. “What tight jeans?”
Evan grinned. “Nice trick, Denver girl. Playing innocent. It’s sexy.” He stood, slinked across the room, sat next to me on his mattress. “Marilyn Hacker,” he said, reaching across my body to take hold of the journal. I leaned backward to avoid his touch. His arm moved with me, motioning my body down toward the mattress.
I let myself fall, almost experimentally, curiosity fighting nerves over the anticipation of what might come next. No one had ever called me sexy before. No one had ever paid attention to how I dressed. So I’d never had to consider how I might act if someone showed interest in me beyond asking me to make his bed. I was dying to find out not only what Evan might do, but how I might react.
Evan stretched himself out on the narrow twin mattress alongside me, one arm draped across my torso. I lay motionless beside him, savoring the moment. Would he kiss me now, I wondered, and would I let him? Thoughts flurried, barely conscious memories of high school crushes and rejections, boys who’d fabricated ludicrous excuses for not accompanying me to school dances. I was a changed person now. Lying next to Evan, I felt desired for the first time. Powerful. I imagined all the ways I could tell him “no.” I could let him down gently or cruelly. I could string him along for weeks or end it now. I looked into his tea-colored eyes, smiling.
Evan said, “So do you want to take off your own clothes, or should I do it for you?”
Still smiling, I answered haughtily, “Neither. I told you, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Evan rolled onto his side, propping himself up on one elbow to look me in the face. Very calmly, he said, “Let’s just do this, Denver girl. No more of these games.”
“Do what?” I asked, my voice lilting flirtatiously.
Evan frowned. “Fuck,” he growled. “Let’s go ahead and fuck.”
“No.” I sat up angrily. How dare he use that word, that tone of voice? He should chase after me with promises of dinner and movie dates, not treat me like some prostitute. Fighting back tears, I said, “I need to go.”
Evan laughed. “No you don’t.” He pulled me back down, one deft move barely rougher than the flirtatious wrestling of a Harvard boy congratulating me for a well-made bed.
I inched sideways, squirming out of his grasp. “I do. I have reading for tomorrow, I told you—”
“Skip it. You’re smart enough to bullshit your way through class without reading.”
“Yes, but . . .” I hesitated, taken in by the flattery.
“Wouldn’t you rather fuck?”
“Aren’t you a little curious?” he countered, before I could complete the answer. “I can make you feel so, so good.”
My body tingled at his words, remembering another red-haired boy, reminded of other words and images, all the fantasy scenarios I’d struggled to suppress throughout my adolescence. “Yes,” I blurted out honestly, without thinking. “I am curious.”
“So let’s do it.”
“No.” I ignored the tingle and tried to regain control. “This isn’t right, this isn’t the way it should be.”
He laughed. “How ‘should’ it be?”
I shrugged. Turned my head. Mumbled, “I don’t know, but . . . I mean, we haven’t even kissed.”
He put his face close to mine. “Do you want me to kiss you?”
I shook my head. “No.”
His face hardened, moved away. “Good. None of that bullshit bourgeois romantic stuff.”
I tried to sit up again. “I should go.”
He yanked me back. “Okay, you win. We won’t fuck. Just a blow job.”
“No.” My voice annoyed.
“Have you ever given a blow job?”
I answered honestly, automatically, “Yes.”
Evan jerked back slightly, unable to hide his surprise. “Where? At Harvard, making other people’s beds?”
I congratulated myself for surprising him. “No,” I said, making sure I sounded bored and cavalier. “In Denver. Of course.”
Evan seemed to relax, regain his composure. “Denver,” he sneered. “What kind of blow job could you give in Denver?”
I shrugged elaborately. Told Evan, “Well, he said it was good.”
Evan’s eyes narrowed. He grinned. “Why don’t you show me?”
I sighed. We’d looped around again. I twisted my head, looked at the door. “I have reading to do.”
Evan made a sound of disgust. “I knew you couldn’t do it. You’re all talk, Denver girl.”
Anger flared in my chest. Evan had no right to call me a liar. The blow job had been all too real. My father had beaten me up for fooling around with the red-haired boy. If only Evan knew—but I didn’t dare reveal how provincial, backward, and un-American my family was. I tamped down my anger. “No, I can. I have. It’s just . . .” My voice trailed off, embarrassed by the words that were to come: It’s just that I don’t love you. I want to have sex, but only with someone I love. How quaint it would sound to his ears, but how daring to mine—the idea that I could choose to have sex at all.
Evan studied my face with his narrowed eyes. “Are you a virgin?”
I swallowed hard. “No,” I lied, hoping to end his prying.
Evan sat up and stripped off his t-shirt. “Let’s do it then.”
I shook my head.
He leaned over me, still propped up on one elbow. “Come on,” he wheedled. “At least a blow job. Show me how good you are. We’ll fuck like artists on the Left Bank, like artists in New York.”
I closed my eyes, blocking out his presence. In the weeks before leaving for college, I’d spent countless hours daydreaming about Harvard boys. I’d imagined intense relationships with artists and writers—but in every fantasy, my Harvard boyfriend was gay, and content to hold me in bed for the closeness, the solid warmth of a human body, making no sexual demands. This paradox had never struck me as strange. Growing up in a family where I had not been held since I learned to walk, the desire for even this amount of contact had seemed subversive, dangerous. I’d felt perverse wanting it and couldn’t allow my imagination to go deeper, to think about the places I could be touched, the places I could touch.
I had not met one single openly gay boy since arriving at Harvard.
Evan was the only artist I knew.
I didn’t know how long I’d been lying on Evan’s mattress, but suddenly, I didn’t feel desirable or powerful. I felt young, stupid, naïve. I didn’t have the prep-school poise of the mainstream Harvard crowd, and I wasn’t courageous enough to behave like an artist, either. I was only a backroom restaurant worker wearing her customer’s hand-me-downs off to college. A poor girl dressed in designer clothes that had been fashionable a year earlier, only I was too ignorant to know it.
Evan’s voice, insistent in my ear: “Just a blow job. What’s the big deal? A blow job, and you can go read those pages. You know, it’ll relieve tension and help you concentrate.”
I opened my eyes. How inevitable Evan’s face now seemed, the natural consequence of so many years of repression. For all the images I’d constructed, writing poems on dorm windowsills, I couldn’t imagine a way out of this scenario.
I gave in.
Time collapsed, events unfolding out of sequence. Evan’s voice curled inside my ear. The air filled with the bitterness of his skin, a pungency like copper. His penis scraped the back of my throat. I tasted his stickiness, his bitterness, the thickness of his copper scent. I gagged. His hand pushed down on my head. Fifteen minutes stretched into one hour, two. I was naked.
Evan’s torso rose above me, the muscles in his shoulders and arms twitching. He lowered himself onto me, into me. There was a quick, sharp pain. I tensed. I pressed my palms against his chest and pushed, but he was inside me. I heard myself say, “No, you bastard, stop,” but he was inside me, pounding away, and I could no longer feel anything, I could only see an impossible vision, the sight of myself and Evan from above as I was suspended from the ceiling: I saw his back above me, his glowing hairless flesh. I saw the cleft of his buttocks, the indent of his spine, the white skin, the impossibly white skin. But I didn’t see my body. I had no body.
It was after four in the morning by the time I got back to my room. My eyes felt electric, seared hot and dry. My skin smelled of semen. When I brushed my teeth, I gagged on the viscous mixture of toothpaste and saliva creeping down my throat. I spit. Rinsed. Wiped my mouth. I took off my clothes. Every time I moved, the smell intensified, a smell like rubber, like bleach. I couldn’t bear it. I wrapped myself in my bathrobe and slipped out to the shower.
My first class started at ten, but I didn’t awake until eleven. I figured that it didn’t matter. I could skip the class. I hadn’t done the reading, after all. Easing myself gingerly out of bed, I crept to the common room and curled up in a corner of our brown leatherette loveseat. The pod was absolutely silent; all my podmates must have classes of their own. A wedge of sunlight streamed from my open bedroom door. Motionless in the corner of the loveseat, I studied the dust motes floating in the light.
My pelvis ached, proof that I hadn’t imagined the previous evening. Even so, I couldn’t quite believe what had happened. I had had sex. My body told me this, but I didn’t want to believe it. I’d wanted to fall in love, to be in a serious relationship, perhaps one headed toward marriage, before I had sex for the first time. Now that was no longer an option.
I wondered what to make of my night with Evan. I’d never considered the possibility that I might have sex with someone that I didn’t care about, under circumstances that made me want to throw up. I wanted to think about my loss of virginity the way that I imagined an artist would, as a meaningless but necessary technical procedure, one more marker of adulthood—like college. But the night hadn’t been meaningless for me; my body felt paradoxically empty and weighted by it, as if Evan had removed all my viscera and filled that space with a dense, unbreathable air.
I still hadn’t come to any conclusions when I was stirred back to awareness by sounds from outside the pod—voices in the hallway, a key scratching the lock. My podmates, returning from class, or was it lunch? What time was it? How long had I been sitting there?
I wanted to get up to greet them, to smile and say hello, I wanted to go to my room and get dressed and comb my hair, I wanted to behave like a normal human being, but the weight was too much, and I couldn’t move, I could only sit there.
The pod door opened. Leah and two other podmates, Anna and Ellen, walked in, trailing the faintly metallic scent of cold air behind them.
What would they make of my situation? What did they think of sex? I’d never consciously thought about this before, but now I was forced to: I knew that Ellen was a devout Catholic; she was the only pod member who regularly attended religious services of any kind. I guessed that she was against premarital sex. Anna had a boyfriend in California; he was older and worked as a professional model. She’d lived with him the previous summer, in order to escape her parents’ marital problems, so they’d probably had sex—but we’d never talked about that aspect of their relationship, so I didn’t know for sure. I’d spent enough time with Leah to know that she disapproved of premarital sex, or casual sex, anyway. I could tell by the way she sniffed at boys’ sex talk and rolled her eyes at the mention of some girls’ names—girls who spent the night in boys’ dorm rooms.
Not expecting my presence, my podmates walked past me without looking.
But I needed their attention. I cleared my throat.
They stopped. Turned. Three automatic hellos.
Then, seeing my nightgown, the glasses heavy on my face, Anna laughed. “Oh, Elaine,” she said, mock scolding. “You missed classes again?”
She shook her head. “I don’t know how you do it,” she said, already turning away again, headed for her room.
Leah and Ellen followed close behind her, their laughter overlapping hers.
Anna’s voice continued, “If I slept in the way you do, I could never keep up.”
They were leaving. I didn’t want them to go. Without thinking, I opened my mouth. “Wait, you guys . . .” My voice sounded panicked.
I stared at them, brain stuck mid-sentence, not knowing what came next. For reasons unknown to me, I felt compelled to tell them about Evan. But what would I say? Last night I had sex for the first time? I spent the night with Evan? These sentences sounded so neutral. They didn’t describe the queasiness in my stomach, the tightness of my throat, the memory of his copper scent and his hand pushing on the back of my head. Suddenly I recalled a student group presentation from freshman week—“Response,” a peer rape crisis counseling group. No means no, they’d said. Date rape is real rape. Last night, I’d said no. I had said no, hadn’t I? My mind was blank. I couldn’t remember. I couldn’t remember whether I’d said no. I couldn’t remember anything except the whiteness of his body above mine, the dark cleft of his buttocks as he thrust into me, the impossible vision from the night before.
I opened my mouth. I heard myself speak. I heard myself say, “You guys, I think Evan raped me last night."
That one moment came to haunt me for a long time.
First there were the gasps, the ashen faces, the long silence as Ellen, Anna, and Leah took in my words. After a while, Anna said, “Are you sure?”
Their faces helped me realize the full import of what I’d just said, and I wanted to take it back. I strained to say the word no, but when I opened my mouth again, I only repeated the sentence: “Yeah. I think Evan raped me last night.”
Now, instead of silence, there were questions, then after the questions, advice, softly worded commands of the usual sort—you need medical attention, you need counseling, you need to call your parents, you need to report this to the dorm proctor and the police, you need to get this boy out of the dorm—out of our lives, as well as your own.
I followed along as best as I could, submitting to a medical exam with full rape kit, speaking to a University Health Services counselor, calling every person I could think of—excluding my family—to build my “support network.” Whenever I became confused about how I was supposed to act, I fell back on the “Response” pamphlets, faithfully trotting to the library to read the recommended books and articles.
I resisted only on one point, and only until I was worn down by Leah’s parents—I refused to report the incident to either the police or university authorities. To do so, in my mind, would mean making it an “official” rape, and I still wasn’t sure that the term was warranted.
Sex with Evan had not been entirely voluntary. Of this I was certain. I’d been coerced and manipulated. But I didn’t think that I’d been forced—and without force, was there rape? I studied the literature, looking for an answer, searching for a word to encompass the range of my experience—curiosity, confusion, naïveté, coercion, manipulation, fear, submission, an unwilling consent.
The pamphlets, books, and articles all came back with the same answer—I’d been raped. In its own way, the literature was as close-minded as my family on the topic of sex. My choices were dichotomous, an either-or, with no room for ambiguity. Sex was either sanctioned by marriage or immoral, entirely voluntary or rape. I had to choose one.
Leah’s parents, the Bauers, presented my dilemma another way: Refusing to report the incident as a rape, they asserted, was selfish. They were sorry for my hurt and confusion, but they couldn’t help me with that. In fact, they weren’t thinking about me at all; they were concerned for their daughter. According to Leah’s father, the most important thing was to report Evan so that he couldn’t hurt her the way he’d hurt me.
“He wouldn’t do anything to Leah,” I protested. “He doesn’t even like her.”
“If you don’t report him,” Dr. Bauer replied, “I’ll do it myself.”
Having no other choice, I contacted University officials.
At about the same time, giving up on seeing the event as anything other than a rape, I called Jim, a friend from a summer program that I’d attended between junior and senior years of high school. That summer, we’d spent one night secluded on a fire escape, talking about the meaninglessness of life until four in the morning. I’d hoped that the conversation might lead to a romance, but Jim had become involved with another girl at the program instead. Since then, Jim and Kirsten had broken up. Beginning this fall, Jim and I had talked by phone almost weekly. We’d discussed the possibility of his coming to visit me at Harvard—leaving open all that such a visit might entail.
But as much as I cared about Jim, I hadn’t actively encouraged him to make the trip. Knowing what I did about Jim’s relationship with Kirsten, I was certain that he’d want to have sex with me if he visited, and while I wanted him to be my boyfriend, I remained ambivalent about a relationship that included sex. Although my parents wouldn’t have to find out, because they were half a continent way, my podmates would know, and they were just outside my bedroom door. My social status at Harvard was too tenuous. Without my podmates’ explicit approval, which had not been expressed, I couldn’t agree to sleep with Jim.
Of course, after Evan, none of this mattered anymore. I called Jim.
He came up by train from Princeton a few days later. We hugged. We talked. I told him about Evan again. He took me out to dinner at a Mexican restaurant. We returned to Hurlbut, climbed the stairs to my pod, said a brief hello to my podmates, and locked ourselves in my bedroom. I took off my coat, sat on my bed. Wordlessly, Jim approached me. He bent, lifted my foot, removed my shoe. I lay back on the bed, watching him. He kissed the sole of my foot. I cringed, repulsed by the intimacy—but I didn’t protest. Without a single word, he undressed me, then himself, and we had sex.
We lay in bed together in the darkening room. Outside, the sun had set, but a residual bluish light limned the solid dark contours of the objects furnishing my room. When the phone rang, I could see well enough to answer it without flicking on a lamp.
“Hello?” I mumbled, crouched on the floor naked, phone to my ear.
Evan’s voice slid out the other end, a sinuous murmur: “I really like you.” Chuckle. “How about going for a walk and getting some ice cream?”
My breath caught. Against my face, the telephone handset glowed an eerie green, luminescence cast by the push-button numbers. The room seemed to darken, and I was suddenly, acutely aware of my nakedness. I curled in on myself further, hiding my breasts and genitalia. Although I knew it to be physically impossible, I was sure that he could see me through the telephone line, a pale, solitary figure glowing green in the darkness, illuminated by the push buttons of my phone.
I could hear him breathing. He said my name.
I bit back my panic and said, “Yes?”
“How about going for ice cream?”
“Oh, come on,” he wheedled, his voice teasing, oblivious to my panic. “Why not?”
He didn’t know yet, I realized. He didn’t know that I’d reported him to the Freshman Dean’s Office, and I didn’t want to be the one to inform him. “I need to study,” I lied.
“Awww,” he answered sarcastically. “How about some other night?”
“Yeah,” I said, then, “I have to go.” I barely gave him time to say good-bye before hanging up.
I stood up, arms crossed over my chest. I couldn’t believe that Evan had just asked me out on a date. I’d reported him as a rapist, and he’d asked me out for ice cream. Ice cream, just like the preppy idiots he made fun of. Could it be that he never intended to hurt me at all? I blanked out the thought. I wasn’t strong enough to feel sorry for us both. I’d read the literature. I’d been lectured by the Bauers. I’d been raped. There was no going back.
I walked across the room and crawled into bed. Jim pulled my body close to his. “Who was that?”
“Never mind,” I whispered. I edged away from him, ending the conversation, alone in the telephone’s green light.
Jim was still there on Saturday morning, two days later, when my proctor (the Harvard version of a resident advisor) knocked at my bedroom door.
“I’m not up yet,” I told George, the proctor, warily, embarrassed to be caught in bed with a boy.
George coughed. “I’m sorry. Can you come out here? I need to talk to you.”
Heart racing, I bolted out of bed and tugged on a robe. “What?” I slipped out the door and shut it behind me quickly, blocking Jim from George’s view.
George didn’t even bother trying to look over my shoulder. His face was drawn, a professional seriousness suppressing any more visceral reaction. He coughed again. Said, “Something’s happened to your pod.” Stepped aside so that I could take a look.
The pod had been vandalized.
In the middle of the night, someone had rigged a spider’s web of string and styrofoam cups across our ceiling. Inside the cups were broken eggs. Strings connected the cups both to each other and to our bedroom doors. This contraption was designed to release the eggs when our doors opened. Fortunately, my podmate Leslie had awakened early, discovered the trap, and untied most of the strings, limiting the damage to the pod. But despite her efforts, we spent the day scrubbing egg yolks off our rug, wiping them from between the cushions of the loveseat, and scooping them out of the corners of our common room closets. We found a total of seven dozen eggs.
None of us specifically named Evan when speculating about who might have committed the vandalism, but my podmates’ half-finished sentences and sidelong glances communicated their suspicions plainly. In that moment, I realized with the clarity of a premonition how public my story was about to become. Every sentence that remained incomplete in my presence would find its audience once I was out of the room.
Jim walked with me to the convenience store to buy more cleaning supplies—Ajax, Pine-Sol, Murphy’s Oil Soap. He got pizzas for the entire pod. He complained only briefly when he realized that we’d mistakenly used—and ruined—one of his towels scrubbing the pod floor.
Holding me in bed that night, he whispered, “What a psycho. I wish there were something I could do.” He stroked my hair until I fell asleep.
Unable to bear the confluence of emotional and physical intimacy, I did not invite Jim to visit again.
Two of my podmates, Leah and Becky, tried to gather evidence linking Evan to the vandalism but failed. We were never able to bring charges against him for this incident. We had to be satisfied with our own indignation—and the report of date rape.
Harvard’s protocol for dealing with date rape was brisk and cerebral: First, I was summoned to the Freshman Dean’s Office and asked to write a formal statement describing the events in Evan’s room. In a separate appointment, Evan provided his own formal account of the same night. We were called back to the FDO individually to read each other’s statements. We were allowed to furnish a rebuttal. Our statements were then discussed by the college’s Administrative Board, who issued a formal recommendation.
The Board suggested mediation.
As if Evan and I had disagreed about the results of an academic research project.
When the Freshman Dean informed me, I laughed—a hot, bitter sound.
The Freshman Dean asked why I was so angry.
I said, “I was raped. Why do you think?”
In response, he blinked once, nothing more.
Evan and I never met for mediation. We did not have any further contact, although I occasionally saw him around Hurlbut or in the Union. These instances were rare and fleeting—a glimpse of his wiry form across the dining hall, a flash of his red hair ducking in a door. Each time, I froze momentarily, panicked, short of breath and nauseated.
Evan remained on the edge of my consciousness for the next four years. Almost by instinct, without any effort or will, I stayed apprised of his activities. I knew where he lived, who his friends were, what subjects he studied, what films he made, what awards he won. By the time we graduated, he’d received a fair number of artistic accolades and had a steady girlfriend. I absorbed this information with a mixture of dismay and relief. Part of me found it unfair that neither Harvard nor fate had punished Evan. The other part, still ambivalent about having called the incident rape, was glad that I had not completely ruined Evan’s life.
I didn’t tell my parents about Evan. I didn’t want them to know that I was no longer a virgin. Despite my resistance to their traditional ideas about gender roles and arranged marriages, I still wanted to please them to the best of my abilities. Even if my first intercourse had been joyful, I would not have wanted my parents to know about it. I certainly was not going to announce that I’d been coerced into sex, that I’d reported it as a date rape, and that I was now the subject of dorm rumors.
Compounding the problem was Evan’s comment, “All Asian women are easy.” I wanted to protect my parents from these words, just as I’d protected them from racist remarks throughout my childhood by not translating those particular words. I’d always thought that if my parents didn’t understand the words, they wouldn’t understand the sneers on the store clerks’ faces or the intent behind the beer splashed down our backs the one time my family sat down to watch a men’s softball game in the neighborhood park. Despite my teenage rebellion, I never wanted my parents to know about racism. I didn’t want them to know that other people could hate them as much as I sometimes did—but without the love I felt to temper my hostility.
I grew up in a household where adults never touched, and no one was ever naked. Even as a young child, I wasn’t allowed to leave the bathroom after a bath until I was fully dressed—underwear, undershirt, pajamas, robe, and slippers. My mother still refused to talk about sex; she would only say, “Never be alone in a room with a man. Never let a man touch you.” And the only time I’d had a boyfriend, my family had reacted violently. Given these circumstances, it was hard for me to think of myself—or any of my female relatives—as sexual. Evan’s characterization of us all as “easy” felt like a violation.
Before my night with Evan, I didn’t realize that Asian women could be seen as sexual fetish objects. Growing up, I never saw Asian women portrayed as sex objects in the magazines that I read or the television shows and movies that I watched; I never saw them in these media at all. The boys in high school clearly did not think that I, as an Asian girl, was “easy”—they never asked me out in the hopes of receiving sexual favors, nor even attempted a pass at me during lunch periods. If anyone flirted with me, chances were that he wanted homework help, not sex. In high school, the one Asian stereotype I knew was science geek. Once, someone even called me “a typical Oriental” who made the word sex sound “scientific.” This, despite the fact that I nearly failed high-school chemistry.
I didn’t know what to do about Evan’s comment. It bothered me, but I didn’t feel comfortable discussing the issue with any of my podmates or even my counselor at University Health Services, a middle-aged white woman who nodded in automatic sympathy every time I paused for breath. We didn’t discuss race as an issue in Harvard’s mainstream population. It, like money and privilege, was an embarrassing topic. Feeling like I’d caused enough trouble already, I decided to remain silent about Evan’s comment, saving my confusion for my journals.
I quit counseling after three sessions, feeling like a failure because I didn’t know how to answer questions about how I felt, much less explain why I felt that way. I could talk about my situation intellectually, but I didn’t have any grasp of my emotional state. Most of the time, unless I was confronted with external clues—physical sensations like the wetness of my own tears or the sound of my raised voice—I had trouble naming my emotions.
I wasn’t so much avoiding the issue (consciously or subconsciously) as I was confused by the American concept of an individual self whose feelings and experiences have distinct boundaries from those of family and community. Growing up in a traditional Chinese family, I’d been trained to think of myself not as a separate individual, but as one part of a larger whole, seamlessly connected to my parents, my brother, my aunts and uncles—even in some small way to my classmates and schoolteachers, even now.
At an early age, I learned to define my emotions based on other people’s reactions to me. If my mother was happy, I felt happy. If my teacher disapproved of my work, I felt sad. If my friends were angry, I felt bereft. I had trouble understanding myself outside the context of interpersonal relationships, no matter how much I wanted to—no matter how American I believed myself to be.
In fact, I had no idea what it meant to have my own voice, one that was internally, rather than externally, constructed.
I studied the pamphlets handed out by the college rape crisis center. They spoke of depression, anger, anxiety, confusion, guilt. I echoed these feelings back to the University Health Services therapist, trying to be a good date rape victim. My head and throat and chest hurt when she told me I wasn’t examining my emotions deeply enough. I wanted to scream, frustrated by the lack of language, angry at the therapist’s assumption that I could so easily own myself.
My sexuality reeled out of control for a long time after Evan. I became intent on proving that no lasting damage had been done, and used sex as the method to do so. Angry at myself for having been so naïve about sex, and at my parents for having raised me this way, I worked to separate emotion from sex. I made an effort to view the act as insignificant, irrelevant to the rest of my life. “Sport fucking,” I laughed, echoing the Harvard boys. Wanting to know how sex felt when it was freely, unambiguously given, I had sex with a lot of men; I didn’t realize that my deliberation, in itself, created the ambiguity. Sex during this period was always voluntary but never enjoyable.
Whenever I could be honest with myself, I wished for physical intimacy with someone I loved—or even liked. I wished that my first time had been this way. In these moments, I understood exactly what Evan had taken from me, and the damage was irreparable. I kept myself busy, avoiding the flashes of clarity. I told Leah that Evan had not been my first, hoping to delude myself as well as her.
For most of freshman year, after Evan, I didn’t care why someone wanted to sleep with me. I collected men like books of poetry, objects for my shelf, within my control. There were men who prowled for random bodies, men who were seen at breakfast with a different Asian woman each week, men who seemed to desire me because they’d heard the rumor that I’d been date raped.
Then I realized that I wasn’t in control.
The pornographic avidity of this last group, which comprised three members of Hurlbut’s first-floor suite, shocked me to my senses. Initially, I believed these boys to be my friends, because they had the courage to ask me directly about what had happened, rather than whisper as I passed. But over time, their interest took on an obsessive, fetishistic quality. They started challenging me to get over the rape by sleeping with them, singly or as a group. They showed me soft-porn magazines and rubbed against me, asking, “Did he do anything like this?”
I finally broke down in the first-floor suite at the end of freshman year, collapsing in a crying fit more profound than any I’d suffered in the previous months. By the time the boys called for help, I was trying to cut myself with a piece of broken glass. The Harvard Police and my proctor intervened. They escorted me to the UHS emergency psychiatric ward, where I spent the night crying uncontrollably.
When I returned for sophomore year, I was placed on disciplinary probation for one semester. I wasn’t mandated to attend counseling, and I didn’t seek it on my own until junior year, the morning of my Introduction to Anglo-Saxon Poetry final. Chris, my boyfriend at the time, had broken up with me a week earlier. I remained devastated. He’d been my first “real” boyfriend, the first sexual partner I’d loved. We’d been together almost a year and a half. I’d expected us to spend our lives together.
I’d been crying non-stop for days, too depressed to get out of bed some mornings. The day of the final, I managed to make it out of bed but couldn’t stop crying long enough to attend the exam. That morning, sobbing into a Kleenex while a UHS clinician approved my absence from the final (which I would have to make up later), I realized that I needed to start evaluating the events of the last few years. Otherwise, I wouldn’t make it through another semester.
On my way out of the clinic, I scheduled a counseling appointment. It was only a beginning step in the long process of learning to become whole, one that continues still, although the counseling ended years ago.
I used to think that getting over the events of freshman year was like being an alcoholic—I was always in recovery, never recovered. But it’s been over fifteen years now, and long stretches pass when I don’t think of that period at all. I no longer have nightmares about lying in bed paralyzed while men creep in next to me. I don’t worry about being attacked every time I’m alone in an enclosed space with a man.
I’m not sure when the memories lost their edge and set me free. There was a point, senior year of college, when I stopped being ashamed of what had happened and started wearing my status as a date rape survivor like a badge of honor. I became politically active in women’s issues, particularly with regard to sexual violence. Today, I remain just as passionate about these issues, but I feel less compelled to present my life in such stark, polemic terms.
I think far more about the way I got to Evan’s room that night. I try to trace the trajectory from my teen magazines, the red-haired busboy, my family’s history of arranged marriages, and my own, conflicting desires, to Evan’s room. I try to trace the trajectory from that room to the choices I’ve made since. I think about my mother, and how she’s never been allowed to decide whom to love.
On a recent New Year’s Eve, I found myself standing outside a bar on New York’s Upper West Side with my friend Kiendel, whom I was visiting from Boston. It was four in the morning, and the party that we’d attended had ended. Now we were trying to get rid of some men—three or four total—who thought it was a good idea for us to have more drinks with all of them at one of their apartments. That night, I was wearing sharp-toed, black patent-leather pumps with four-inch stiletto heels. Kiendel is a natural blonde with hair so pale it glows like filaments of light. She is slender but curvaceous. Between the two of us, we fulfilled the criteria for any number of fetishes. Now that we were in our thirties, we understood this. We knew that these men did not see beyond our physicality. We would never be swayed by their arguments; we were simply trying to leave without being rude.
Mid-discussion, a taxi pulled up at the curb, four or five feet from where we stood. I turned my head, glad for the distraction. Perhaps Kiendel and I could take this, an available cab, as our excuse, I thought. The taxi doors opened, and three men poured out. There were two white men of the same approximate height, both with dark hair, one’s curly, the other’s straight. Their faces weren’t familiar, so I didn’t pay attention to them. The third man was black, with soft-looking, pale brown skin. His woolly dark hair was cut close to the scalp. His eyes were heavy lidded, giving him a perpetually sleepy appearance. They were familiar eyes, a familiar face, although I had not seen this man, a college friend, in over five years. I stepped away from Kiendel and said his name uncertainly, “Vaughn?”
He answered with my name. I ran to him, and we hugged. He said, “I think about you every day.”
“You liar!” I teased. “I haven’t seen you for five years, at least—not since I moved out of New York.”
“I know,” he said, “but the last time I heard from you, you’d left a message on my machine, asking me to come protest the opening of Miss Saigon. I didn’t come, but now I work in a building across the street from Miss Saigon. I think about you every time I look across the street.”
I laughed. I could barely remember that protest, it had been so long ago. I’d been twenty-four at the time, in my third year out of college and active with a number of political action groups, Asian and otherwise. I’d protested Miss Saigon for two reasons: first, because a white actor was playing an Asian role, one that he’d performed in London with eyes taped back and wearing yellowface makeup. Second, because I believed that the theme of the play—Asian prostitute waiting for rescue from her homeland by a white soldier—was denigrating to women in general and to Asian women specifically. At the protest, I’d carried a sign that said, “No more fuckee fuckee.”
Now thirty-two, I told Vaughn, “It’s been years since I’ve been to that kind of protest.”
He said, “It still inspires me that you would put yourself out there like that.”
Embarrassed, I shrugged. I introduced him to Kiendel. He introduced me to his two friends, José, the one with straight hair, and Jeff, the one whose hair was curly. The five of us went around the corner to a diner for breakfast, then upstairs to Vaughn’s apartment to drink a very expensive bottle of champagne that Vaughn, until now, had refused to open. We stayed up drinking and talking until eight that morning, when Kiendel and I finally left.
My vacation ended. I returned home to Boston, where I was preparing for the publication of my first book, a memoir. I’d almost forgotten about New Year’s Eve when Jeff, Vaughn’s curly haired friend, sent me an email several weeks later, inviting me to have dinner with him if I ever happened to be in San Francisco. Uncertain of his intentions, I wrote back cautiously, “I’ll be there on book tour in August. I’ll let you know if I have time.”
He answered, “Tell me when your book comes out, and I’ll buy it right away. Will you need a ride from the airport? I can pick you up, play tour guide, take you to your appointments, whatever you need.”
Touched by his generosity, I agreed to dinner in August.
I had more fun than I could ever have imagined. The meal stretched into a late-night talk, morning coffee, a day’s exploration of San Francisco bookstores, another dinner, another breakfast coffee—and not once did Jeff make a pass at me. Saying good-bye at the airport after thirty-seven and one-half hours together, I confessed my disappointment that he hadn’t.
Jeff laughed. “Maybe I thought that I didn’t need to.” I looked at him quizzically, and he elaborated, “I thought that we clicked. I thought that if anything happened between us, it would develop with time. Making a move now would only scare you off.”
“Hmm,” I said, already turning away. I hoisted my duffel bag over one shoulder, thoughts too full of my fledgling career to consider whether we’d actually clicked. Looking down the terminal, I said, “On to Seattle. Then Denver. Then Boston.”
“Can I call you?”
I shrugged. “You have the number in the alumni directory, right?”
Jeff didn’t answer. His throat rippled, swallowing hard.
We hugged briefly, not knowing whether we’d see each other again.
I didn’t anticipate leaving a message on Jeff’s machine two days later, asking him to call me in Denver that night, any time, it didn’t matter how late. My parents, who could not read English, had nevertheless called me an ungrateful daughter for having written a memoir (in English) about the entrenched poverty of our immigrant community. They’d told me to leave their house and never return, then called me a disrespectful daughter when I tried to check into a hotel for the night. My entire adolescence came hurtling back at me; I remembered sharply, viscerally, exactly why I’d fled for Harvard, for a voice I could call my own. I honestly thought that I might hurt myself.
In the midst of this chaos, Jeff telephoned. He stayed on the line with me for five hours straight, without once trying to hang up. At the end, he said that he’d even had fun. I didn’t believe him, but I didn’t need to. With his help, I’d made it through the night.
When I got back to Boston two days later, I called to let him know I was okay. We said that we’d keep in touch, and we did—every day. After a week of calls, Jeff bought me a plane ticket to visit him in San Francisco for the Labor Day weekend. We decided that either we’d get sick of each other or we wouldn’t.
A month later, October 1999, I was in San Francisco visiting Jeff again. He was planning a seven-month trip to Asia that was to begin in December, so I brought him a Hong Kong travel guide with mini-phrasebook included. I promised to teach him Cantonese, although my pronunciation was so corrupted and my vocabulary so poor at this point that I barely knew it myself. I speak bi bi hua, I told him—baby language.
Sneaking a sip from my coffee cup, Jeff groaned. “I’ll be walking around China asking for something yummy for my tum-tum . . .”
I nodded. “Pretty much.”
“Is that why you’ve never taught anyone else to speak Chinese?”
My smile froze. I knew he was teasing, but there had been too many strangers, too many boyfriends, too many well-meaning teachers, demanding, “Say something in Chinese!” And I always felt like a pet dog. But not with Jeff. Never with Jeff. I stared at him mutely. If I tried to explain, my trust would collapse under the weight of too many words. I would never be able to teach him my bi bi hua.
The silence stretched. Jeff cleared his throat. “What’s wrong?”
Jeff looked into my eyes for a long time without blinking. He took another sip from my coffee cup. “I like baby language,” he said quietly.
I looked away, suddenly aware of the motion of my heart. Jeff and I had agreed not to become too attached, because he would be away for so long. I wondered if we hadn’t already breached the agreement. I opened the travel guide and read aloud, “Ba-see zham hai BEAN doe ah?” Where is the bus stop?
Jeff bent his head over the book. Our shoulders touching, he repeated after me.
We went to Chinatown one day that weekend, and I guided him through grocery-store aisles, pointing out the dried, salted plums and sweet tofu pudding that had been my childhood favorites—that I still sometimes craved. I urged him to eavesdrop on nearby conversations, and, dutifully, he cocked his head in the direction of two middle-aged women nearby, his forehead scrunched in concentration.
“Are you getting any of it?” I asked.
“No,” he whispered back. “I don’t think they’re asking about the bus stop.”
I nudged him playfully. “They’re talking about the prices. Gum doh-ah! ‘How expensive!’ You know that.”
He inclined his head again, listening. “What are they saying now?”
I frowned. “They’re complaining about their daughters.”
Jeff looked at me suspiciously. “I’m getting the feeling that’s a common theme for Chinese mothers.”
Jeff stepped in closer, grazing my hip with his hand. “Then things will get better with your mother.”
We left the grocery store to wander the sidewalk stalls. We explored an herbalist’s shop, where Jeff gazed in wonder at the bins of dried jellyfish, dried scallops, dried sea slug. “Gum doh-ah!” he said solemnly, when I confirmed that the price of dried jellyfish—$245 a pound—was not a mistake. Then, taking my hand, he led me out of the shop. “Enough Chinese lessons,” he declared. “Time to rest.”
We found a park nearby, and I sat on a bench with Jeff’s head in my lap, my fingers absent-mindedly twisting themselves through his hair. The sun was about to set. The day’s heat rose from the concrete beneath my feet, cooled by the incoming night air. All around us there were Chinese people—old men on benches, gossiping; children scrambling down slides on the playground; garishly overdressed Christian Chinese families returning from church. I looked down at Jeff. His eyes were closed and his face relaxed but smiling, looking utterly content. For an instant, I had a sensation of being able to see myself both from the outside and within—I could see my face, as content and relaxed as Jeff’s, at ease with both him and the Chinese American community around me. I was no longer struggling, and in that moment, I believed that all my life up to this point had been worthwhile, because it all boiled down to this moment, this understanding that I had a choice. And I chose to be here now.
M. Elaine Mar is the author of Paper Daughter: A Memoir (HarperCollins, 1999). She lives in Cambridge, Mass. (5/2002)
Discussed in this essay:
The Making of the American Essay, edited by John D’Agata. Graywolf Press. 656 pages. $25.
The Lost Origins of the Essay, edited by John D’Agata. Graywolf Press. 656 pages. $23.
The Next American Essay, edited by John D’Agata. Graywolf Press. 475 pages. $20.
The Lifespan of a Fact, by John D’Agata and Jim Fingal. W. W. Norton. 128 pages. $17.95.
Reality Hunger, by David Shields. Vintage. 240 pages. $15.95.
John D’Agata’s The Making of the American Essay marks the completion of a large-scale canonizing project. D’Agata, the author of several books of non-fiction, most recently The Lifespan of a Fact, has also been collecting other people’s essays for the past thirteen years. Now they fill three volumes. The series began in 2003 with The Next American Essay, a haunting assembly of work drawn from the preceding three decades. Some of its authors are well-known essayists such as John McPhee, Joan Didion, and Susan Sontag. But as the anthology draws closer to the present day, D’Agata gently steers us away from the types of essays we are already likely to be reading in magazines — reported features, op-eds, structured personal narratives with scenes and dialogue — and draws our attention toward what he has called the lyric essay. In 1997, as a young editor at Seneca Review, D’Agata (with his colleague Deborah Tall) offered the following definition:
The lyric essay partakes of the poem in its density and shapeliness, its distillation of ideas and musicality of language. It partakes of the essay in its weight, in its overt desire to engage with facts, melding its allegiance to the actual with its passion for imaginative form.
Many of the contributions to The Next American Essay were in fact written by poets: Albert Goldbarth, Susan Mitchell, Joe Wenderoth. Some of the work might easily be considered prose poetry; some even contains line breaks. Lydia Davis’s “Foucault and Pencil,” which appears in the volume, is normally considered a short story.
“Chicago, 1988,” by Kenneth Josephson, from The Light of Coincidence: The Photographs of Kenneth Josephson, published last month by University of Texas Press © The artist
D’Agata’s second anthology, The Lost Origins of the Essay (2009), gathers essays from ancient Babylonia to the present, while The Making of the American Essay contains exclusively American writing, beginning in 1630 (with Anne Bradstreet) and leaving off in 1974, the year before the first anthology begins. These two historical volumes include most of the names you would expect: Plutarch, Seneca, Sei Shonagon, Montaigne, Thomas De Quincey, Virginia Woolf, Emerson, Thoreau, Du Bois, Twain, E. B. White, James Baldwin. But there’s a curious omission. D’Agata leaves out many of the classic English essayists of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. There’s no Addison or Steele, no Johnson or Burke, no Lamb or Hazlitt. The absence is conspicuous, since this was a period in which the form reached one of its peaks. In the middle of a project that spans centuries and continents, D’Agata seems to have left a hole in the shape of a Georgian Englishman.
Is this a discreet form of homage, or a sign of antipathy? It’s hard to tell. D’Agata declines to explain his methods or to supply the standard biographical information about his authors. Instead, he introduces each essay with a mini-essay of his own, which sometimes, but not always, reveals something about the author or work in question. For instance, here, in its entirety, is his preamble to “Oil,” by the Mexican poet Fabio Morábito:
Or: Maybe we’re wrong; maybe the essay really is just a philosophical investigation that, masked as it sometimes is by the infusion of other forms — by story or memoir or lyric or fable — we’re just ignoring its most basic form.
D’Agata’s questions about exactly what constitutes an essay become even more pointed in the second volume. “Why is a text like William Blake’s ‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell’ a poem?” he asks in The Lost Origins.
Is it because it’s good? Is it because approximately 14 percent of it is in lines, and therefore, by the rule of poetic association, all of it is in lines? Is it because it’s more flamboyantly engaged with the imagination than most eighteenth-century English prose, and therefore it cannot be prose? Let me ask another way: Why do I want to think that Blake’s “Marriage” is an essay? Is it because it’s good?
Taken together, D’Agata’s headnotes constitute a meditation on the nature of the essay. For him, the essay is “less a genre in its own right than an attitude that’s assumed amid another genre.” If you had to describe that attitude based on D’Agata’s anthologies, you might say that it’s one of deep preoccupation. The narrator has puzzled over a problem or an incident or a feeling for a long time. She may not have answers, but she has certainly come up with every relevant question. And she has emerged from her preoccupation essentially sane; the form of the essay suggests that obsession leads not to madness but to productive thought. Where D’Agata sees an essayistic mode of address being used in a poem or novel — T. S. Eliot’s “The Dry Salvages,” say, or Chapter 42 of Moby Dick, “The Whiteness of the Whale” — he calls it an essay, a term that for him designates some of the best literature from both sides of the fiction/non-fiction divide. One gets the sense that if D’Agata were able to mold the reading public according to his own sensibility, “essayistic” would be not merely a term of neutral description but high praise, an epithet sprinkled liberally on book jackets the way that “lyrical” is today.
D’Agata’s elastic conception of the essay puts one in mind of David Shields’s Reality Hunger (2010), a provocative work of criticism that is much taught in writing programs and much cited by reviewers of fiction. Shields is the author of several memoirs and works of non-fiction that defy categorization, most recently War Is Beautiful: The New York Times Pictorial Guide to the Glamour of Armed Conflict, a scathing analysis of the newspaper’s recent war photography. In Reality Hunger, Shields assembles 618 short, numbered passages, some of them his own, some taken from other sources, to make an extended argument for a new kind of literature:
An artistic movement, albeit an organic and as-yet-unstated one, is forming. What are its key components? A deliberate unartiness: “raw” material, seemingly unprocessed, unfiltered, uncensored, and unprofessional.
The important word here is “seemingly.” The writing that Shields champions is in fact carefully shaped, but it achieves an effect of unmannered authenticity. If it’s fiction, the narrator bears a biographical resemblance to the author and the story makes use of conspicuously true facts. If it’s memoir, it points to the author’s inevitably subjective and fallible account of what “really” happened. The important thing, for Shields, is that the distinction between fiction and non-fiction should wobble.
Why do I so strenuously resist generic boundaries? Because when I’m constrained within a form, my mind shuts down, goes on a sit-down strike, saying, This is boring, so I refuse to try very hard. I find it very nearly impossible to read a contemporary novel that presents itself unself-consciously as a novel, since it’s not clear to me how such a book could convey what it feels like to be alive right now.
D’Agata and Shields share many touchstones. Some of Shields’s favorite authors — Joan Didion, Anne Carson, Lydia Davis, Fernando Pessoa, Renata Adler — are also anthologized by D’Agata. The Next American Essay includes work by Shields; Shields quotes D’Agata in Reality Hunger. For D’Agata, the essay is king, but “essay” is a sufficiently supple category to encompass fiction and poetry. For Shields, the most interesting literature occupies a liminal space between fiction and non-fiction, and the essay — the “lyric essay,” at any rate — is “the literary form that gives the writer the best opportunity for rigorous investigation, because its theater is the world (the mind contemplating the world) and offers no consoling dream-world, no exit door.”
This shared body of beloved works does not represent a self-conscious movement, as Shields acknowledges. Shields calls Reality Hunger a manifesto, but his argument is not new: his quotations are taken from throughout the postwar era, and, as D’Agata’s anthologies prove, the essayistic fiction and imaginative essays that Shields loves have antecedents going back to antiquity. Shields’s criticism of fiction also has a substantial lineage; his statements about the tedium or lifelessness of much contemporary fiction recall the essays of Alain Robbe-Grillet and John Barth. (Shields writes in an endnote that Robbe-Grillet’s For a New Novel was “the book that in many ways got me thinking about all of this stuff.”) Perhaps because the theoretical groundwork for his objections has long since been laid, Shields doesn’t so much mount an argument against fictional conventions as repeat, in different ways, how sick of them he is.
His idea of a way forward — a fiction that is even “closer” to the author’s experiences of life — is not one that was envisioned by Robbe-Grillet or other midcentury critics of the novel. But it is a real tendency among contemporary writers, and has become more pronounced in the six years since Reality Hunger appeared. Around the time that Shields published the book, a Norwegian novelist, largely unknown to Anglophone readers, wrote this:
Over recent years I had increasingly lost faith in literature. I read and thought this is something someone has made up. Perhaps it was because we were totally inundated with fiction and stories. . . . All these millions of paperbacks, hardbacks, DVDs and TV series, they were all about made-up people in a made-up, though realistic, world. And news in the press, TV news and radio news had exactly the same format, documentaries had the same format, they were also stories, and it made no difference whether what they told had actually happened or not. . . .
Fictional writing has no value, documentary narrative has no value. The only genres I saw value in, which still conferred meaning, were diaries and essays, the types of literature that did not deal with narrative, that were not about anything, but just consisted of a voice, the voice of your own personality, a life, a face, a gaze you could meet. What is a work of art if not the gaze of another person?
Some of the most inventive and widely admired writing of recent years seems to affirm Shields’s sensibility. On the fiction side, we’ve seen not only Karl Ove Knausgaard — the author of the above passage — but also Geoff Dyer, Teju Cole, Jenny Offill, Rachel Cusk, and Ben Lerner create strongly essayistic first-person narrators who sometimes efface the distinction between fiction and non-fiction. On the non-fiction side, Elif Batuman, Maggie Nelson, Hilton Als, Claudia Rankine, and Sarah Manguso have given us variations on high-art essays and memoirs.
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Elaine Blair lives in Los Angeles. Her essay “The Prisoner of Sex” appeared in the September 2015 issue of Harper’s Magazine.
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