My first writing teacher, Tom Spanbauer, spoke a truth I’ve always remembered: When we write, he said, we are burning a life. This is the story of ten years that changed me forever. It starts with a lit cigarette, and the story burns from there.

Fall 1974: First Drag

In 1974 I am fourteen, the beginning of ninth grade, a girl with small breasts, brown hair curled under at the neck, and solemn eyes. Thin. Maybe too thin.

I am…a marvel. That is what Mrs. Axelrod, my teacher, wrote about me in the “comments” section of my report card. Most of the adults in my life agree. I write poems and plays. I get only As, and blow the other kids out of the water because I always know the right answer, the correct spelling of a word.

We live—mother, father, daughter, son—in a town called Shrub Oak: deli, stone Methodist church, library. A canopy of trees arch over Main Street. In the supermarket, neighbors know each other by name. It’s 1974—on TV there are long-haired young people marching against the Vietnam War and footage of the drone of helicopters overhead, speeches about equality.

But not in our town. In Shrub Oak, there are tag sales and fire drills out on the endless green lawns of the schools and fourth graders sing songs about pollution:

Let’s clean up our water, clean up our air Let’s all get together and let’s all do our share

I know the town so well, it is an extension of my body. The pizza place, the green house with the wooden porch littered with holly berries. When I walk through it, it is like we are looking at each other—me and the green house with the sloping floorboards. Here we are. It has always been this way, and we are not sure why.

Other families in Shrub Oak live in raised ranches, watch The Brady Bunch after dinner. We don’t watch television; we read books instead. My father is a writer, an unlikely thing to be in Shrub Oak. Tall and commanding, he listens to Bach, eyes closed, with a glass of sherry in his hand. Because of him, our house is filled with odd objects: statues made by artist friends, poems typed on index cards and tacked on the walls.

My mother, a visiting nurse, is the one who fits in. At the dinner table, she likes to talk about her coworkers—gals, she calls them. One gal is having trouble with her daughter. Another gal has high blood pressure. This kind of talk bores my father.

I am like my father. I read everything he gives me: Dickens, Lewis Carroll,  Emily Dickinson, Wallace Stevens. That is how I became a marvel.

But at fourteen, something has changed; I have stopped reading Emily Dickinson and started reading Teen Magazine instead. I get it every month as soon as it comes out and study it, lying on my stomach on the four-poster bed that I have slept in since I was six years old. I look at the faces, take in their smooth, glowing skin, well-chosen outfits, flawless faces. I know what I want to be: perfect, like them.

It starts on a Saturday. Me, my parents, and Sally B. in the house. From the open door of my bedroom, their voices drift up the stairs to me, along with the smoke from Sally’s cigarette. I can hear my father’s low rumble, Sally’s amused voice darting in and out, my mother’s uncertain ha. Easy to picture them: my father slouching in his red armchair, his black hair swept back from his handsome face; Sally Bittner with her dirty blonde shag haircut, sky-blue pantsuit. At the other end of the couch, my mother in Bermuda shorts with her brown wavy hair, a lipsticked smile eager to be part of it all— but her voice is the one I hear the least.

Downstairs, that hushed tone adults get when they worry about something. I know what it is: Sally’s son Richie got in trouble last week.

Sally has trouble with all her children. They are all teenagers and she is raising them alone. Years ago, Sally divorced her husband.

I’ve heard my parents talk about Richie when Sally isn’t here. I’ve heard the word “troubled.” Last week when I was helping my mother do the dishes, I asked her why Richie was arrested, and she didn’t answer right away. The kitchen sink was in front of a window that looked out to our backyard. <y mother stood gazing out at the yard for a few minutes before she finally said, “drugs.” With a big intake of breath, as if she wished she never had to say the word.


Weed, grass, reefer—I know about these from the films they show in health class. Uppers, downers, smack, acid. I listened while the man in the film explained it all in an ominous voice. How it started with peer pressure. Someone offers you a cigarette and you try it. After a while, smoking cigarettes leads to trying marijuana, then you are on to harder drugs. Hashish. Acid.

I am not the kind of girl who will ever get mixed up with things like that. I am a


Today, I lay my head down, close my eyes. I inhale. That is when the smell of Sally Bittner’s cigarette drifts up the stairs to me.

Sally smokes Winstons. Chain-smokes, actually; she lights one up, lays it in the corner of our cut-glass ashtray, and the smoke curled upward while she talks. My parents have never had a friend who smoked before, and when she comes, they set the ashtray in front of her and sit back in wonder while she inhales, her hanging cheeks like a bellows, the smoke hovering in her open mouth for a minute then disappearing down the back of her throat. She blows it out in a funnel shape and the smoke fills the living room, obscuring the Morris Louis over the mantlepiece, drifting through the house.

Today, Sally’s smoke drifts up the stairs to my room. I inhale, eyes closed, and I see things. Parties, the kind adults have. Voices, lights, brightly colored short dresses and bangles on wrists. Laughter.

The world.

And I remember. It was an evening last month—I was coming back from the library and I passed Frankie’s, the town bar. It was busy—a lot of pickup trucks parked outside. The door swung open once and sound poured out. That same smell—the sharp perfume of cigarette smoke—drifted out the door.

Someone spoke—I hadn’t noticed him standing there, a guy with curly hair in a flannel shirt who smiled at me.

“Hey, beautiful,” he said.

I knew he couldn’t mean me. Me with the loose-leaf notebook and the small breasts.

“Wanna come in? Join the party?”

I blushed. I walked fast, hoping he wouldn’t see it. That would be impossible.

Not me, the quiet, smart girl with the books on her arm.

The smell of Sally’s cigarette makes me think about the sound of that music. I think of him standing there—close enough that I could touch the sleeve of his flannel shirt. How would it have been if I followed him through that open door?

Sally’s smoke curls around me. It enters a nostril, snakes through my brain, and I hear the laughter through the open door of that bar, the music. Hey, beautiful.

A week goes by before I work up the courage. One Tuesday after school, I stand in front of the counter of the Shrub Oak Deli and ask casually for a pack of Winstons. I have always come to this deli with my father—the workers all know him. This time, I have my story—I am buying cigarettes for Sally B.

But no one asks. I am still just that girl who lives around the corner. Gus hands over the box wrapped in its shiny cellophane along with a pack of matches.

I know where to go: the playground behind the church, where I have swung on the swings, pushed myself down the dented slide. I sit with my back to the row of lilac bushes that grow behind the swing set, unpeel the cellophane, open the lid, pull one out.

I have to strike a couple of matches before I get it lighted. The first inhale has me rolling on the ground, choking, tears streaming out of my eyes. I clutch myself. My chest has never hurt this much before. I need oxygen. I grab at the air.

But I try again and by the third time, I’ve got it. I have to open my throat up, let it in. When I do, something amazing happens: my skin tingles. Everything is soft.

When I look out at the playground now, everything is the same—the Methodist church, the rolling green of the cemetery lawn—but it is also different. I am alive now; my whole body throbs. The world tilts—the green of the lawn blurs into the things around it.

I kneel on the grass, holding the lit cigarette between my first two fingers, laughing.

I’ve done it.

I have changed my life.

Spring 1975: Marlboro Country

My parents hate it. My father the most—at the dinner table, he won’t even meet my eyes.

At school, I change my image. No more getting up early to use a curling iron so that my hair makes a feathery wave away from my face. I let my hair grow, cut class, and hang out in the smoking area instead.

I meet Sue and Julie a month after I start smoking. I am stubbing out my cigarette when I look up and there is Sue, with her white-blonde hair falling down from her face, cuffed jeans, a wide-brimmed leather hat that shows the stitching. With her walking stick, she looks like a blonde hobbit. Next to her is Julie, taller, her hair almost white.

“It looks to me, Julie,” Sue drawls, “that there is a person here in need of a buzz.”

Julie giggles, her round, white face lifting in a grin. “We’re going up into the woods to get stoned,” she says. “Wanna come?”

I’d never been up there before: pieces of broken glass from green soda bottles, litter, beer can tabs. We sit on a row of gray rocks while Sue rolls the joint and licks it.

When I inhale, hot smoke fills my throat, chokes me. I cough my chest up while Sue and Julie giggle.

Then the world transforms. The air is fragrant. My body sings. Light falls through the trees, lights the leaves from beneath, dances off the beer can tabs littered on the ground.

After that we go up regularly during eigth period. Sue is the funny one. She takes two beer cans and makes them act out the conversations she has with her mother at home.

“Get that OFF THE COUCH” screams the-beer-can-that-is-Sue’s-mother. “I just vacuumed. Do you ever think about what you’re doing? Do you ever pick up after yourself?”

“You need a lobotomy, you uptight bitch,” says the-beer-can-that-is-Sue. “Go fuck yourself. Go take a bath in lemon-fresh Pledge.”

“You will not talk to me like that young lady,” screams the beer-can-that-is- Sue’s-mother.

“You will not talk to me at ALL,” yells the beer-can-that-is-Sue. Then her beer can dives into the other. They fight.

“Take that.” “Take that.”

Julie can’t contain herself when Sue does this. She laughs helplessly, holding her belly. “Lemon fresh Pledge,” she gasps. I laugh, too. But really I am just breathing, drawing the velvet air in.

Sue and Julie introduced me to Jeff. One day, Sue took me with her to buy a nickel bag and there he was, glorious with a mane of hair, torn T-shirt that revealed his chest muscles, his jeans sliding down and revealing a sculpted back.

“Sue-chi,” he called her.

“My favorite dealer,” said Sue. “Meet my new friend, Kate.”

“One hot chick,” Jeff looked me over approvingly. “You old enough for this?” “Yes,” I said defiantly, blushing.

“M-a-a-a-a-an, have we corrupted this one,” drawled Sue.

A day in June:

I am in the back seat of Etta’s car, a red Volkswagen bug. Outside the sun blasts; it’s only June but it’s ninety-five degrees. The music pumps into us—Jimi Hendrix—thump, thump, thump, thump Foxy Lady! Somehow we’ve managed to fit three of us together in the backseat—me, Sue, and Julie, our shoulders jammed together, the sweat like glue between our bare arms. The music is so loud it takes over our heartbeats. There’s no talking through it, and wedged together like this, all we can do is turn our heads from side to side like ventriloquist dummies, grinning idiotically, as Etta takes a left out of the school parking lot.

It’s eighth period. I have French with Mr. Witte, and there’s a test today on passé composé. I think about this as we pull out onto the road. Part of my body leans back to the school, but a stronger part of me leans forward. I’m used to this now: There are different worlds in my life—the smoking area, the classroom, the house. I have learned to pass through them, keep my head down, slide on by.

Up front, fast-talking Etta with her short blonde hair, eyes blinking behind John Lennon glasses, drives barefoot in a loose flowered dress, hitting the steering wheel with each drumbeat. Next to her, Jeff, with his tawny mane of hair and raucous laugh. Jeff is the one kid in school that everyone knows—the geeks, the jocks, the greasers. In the smoking area he is always on the move—conferring over bags of pot, hanging in the car doors of souped-up Dodges. He is in the center of things and now I—me, the invisible girl—now I am in the same car with him, speakers blasting, town streaming past the windows as we sidle along East Main Street.

We pass the house with the sloping porch and the holly berries, Frankie’s, the pizza place. On the tape deck, the next Jimi Hendrix song. Sue swivels her head first to me, then to Julie. “Mars,” she mouths comically. Julie throws her head back, cackles without any sound.

Now in the car I look up at Jeff in the front seat, “Hey Joe” playing, and my body


We come to the end of Route 132, where there is a white Presbyterian church and a cemetery. Etta takes a right and we climb a hill on to a rocky dirt road, and the car dips from side to side. Sue and Julie and I turn our heads, make faces, the tops of our heads banging against the roof. It’s so hot the heat is radiating from my temples.

We stop. Etta and Jeff get out and Sue, Julie, and I push the seats forward, wedge ourselves out the doors, breathe. The cooler air chills the sweat on our bodies. Etta is already ahead of us. She’s put on flip-flops for the walk through the woods, but walking behind her, we can still see the dirty soles of her feet with each step.

Crazy Etta, with that short, white-blonde hair, the flowered dresses, the fast talking. She doesn’t even go to our school anymore (she graduated), but she comes around in that red Volkswagen when there are parties. She’s taken everything—uppers, downers, smack, acid. When she and Jeff are together there’s this energy. It’s like they both come from the same world; a world where the only thing that matters is the next party, the next good time. I want to be like that; a person who can leave home and not think about it . . . free . . . But I’m not. Even now, there’s something in my head whispering to me, reminding me I’m cutting French now; later, I’ll have to go home.

Halfway up the path, we stop, huddle behind a boulder, and Etta takes out a pipe. We can smell the difference in the pot right away—at school it’s usually homegrown, but this smoke is pithier. I haven’t smoked out of a pipe before—the smoke is hotter and sears my lungs.

“What is this stuff?” says Sue, startled. “Sense,” says Etta in a tight, getting-high voice. “Sensimilian!” Julie crows.

“Oh maaaannn can you taste it,” says Sue.

Two tokes is all it takes for my insides to turn to velvet and purr. My lungs sparkle. Shafts of sunlight fall through the trees, illuminate big, fanlike leaves.

Etta turns and keeps on climbing, and we follow, through the trees and up into the sunlight. The heat now is a blast furnace; I can feel it at the roots of my hair, an aurora around my head that encloses me.

But there’s the water.

Each of us steps out of the darkness onto a rock and it’s there below us, a thousand reflecting pinpoints spread out to the horizon with a fringe of trees all around. We blink, narrow our eyes.

Etta’s first, pulling the flowered dress over her head in one motion, stepping down to the edge of the rock, jumping. Small breasts, narrow back, red-blonde pubic hair.

There’s a loud splash and silence and we wait until her voice sings up, “Far OUT.”

I struggle with my jeans—they stick to me and I have to wedge them off. When I’m naked I don’t look down at myself—too embarrassed. I wonder if Jeff is looking at me, what he thinks. I step carefully down the rock, leap.

Freezing. The water closes over my head and for a minute I’m frantic, trying to push the cold out. I kick up, swim hard until my blood comes back. Swimming is something I’m good at and I swim fast, way out to the center of the water, before I roll on my back, feel the sun on my face, look into the plane of the sky.

And smile: Here I am. A miracle. I was an invisible girl who got up at six every morning to curl her hair with a curling iron and walk slowly to school. I was that, and now I am here.

Sue and Julie are two white bodies under the green surface of the water; wet.  Sue’s skin looks like a dolphin’s. She’s still got her glasses on; she’s blind without them. “Now that’s damn refreshing,” she says.

“Alright there, Junior?” says Jeff.

“Yeah,” I say, smiling shyly. Jeff’s thick forearms move under the water. When he comes up from his dive, he tosses his head and his wet hair falls down his neck in a sculpted wave.

Later we sit on the rocks in the sun, looking carefully at each other’s faces and not each other’s naked bodies. Sue talks about “the old man.” Usually it’s her mother she makes fun of, but today it’s her father. “The old man wants me to get a job,” she says. “He had a talk with me last week. Took me outside for a cigarette, y’know, talk to me father to daughter. The old man thinks he’s a cowboy,” she says. “He thinks he comes from Marlboro Country.”

To imitate him, she stands on the rock, naked, with a belt around her waist as a pretend holster, her tuft of blonde pubic hair sticking out under the belt. “Susie,” she drawls, “this here is Marlboro Country. Man’s got to be stronnnggg here. Got to take care of himself, stand on his own two feet. We don’t bellyache here. We don’t cry. Fall off your horse—” Sue shakes her head comically, “well you just have to get back on and ride.”

Julie can’t even talk, she’s laughing so hard. “Horse,” she squeezes out. Jeff raises his eyebrows. “Can you dress that way every day?” he says. “Shut up, Jeff,” says Etta carelessly.

“Now, Mr. Jeff, that was an inappropriate comment,” Sue drawls. “This here is Marlboro Country, and I ’spect you to treat the ladies with respect.”

I wish I was like them. Julie’s mother is a born-again Christian, always telling Julie that she’s a sinner, but she laughs and does what she wants anyway. Jeff and Etta are always on to the next party, the next funny story, the next bong hit.

Not me. I sit here on the rock with them and laugh but I can’t forget. The way my father won’t look at me anymore, the curling in my stomach when I walk into the house and even the air feels hostile. Everything reproaches me. I have made a choice: drugs. Now, this is all I have.

My parents have made it clear—whatever I do, I have to be back at six. Behind me, Jeff and Etta talk in low voices about The Oak Room, a bar up on Mill Street where minors usually get served.

“Let’s,” says Etta to Jeff lightly.

They rise. “We’re gonna go to this bar on Mill Street,” says Etta. I hear my own voice, loud, pinched.

“Um, no I can’t do that,” I say. “I have a curfew.”

“A curfew.” Etta looks at me in disbelief for a minute, blinks. “How old are you?” she says, frowning.

“Fourteen.” She gives Jeff an annoyed look for bringing me, turns away. “You’ll call them,” she says.

“That won’t work,” I say. “I have to get back.”

But she’s already walking back down the path. “You’ll call them from the bar,” she calls over her shoulder. “Tell them the car broke down.” There’s a hole in my stomach—this is what I hate, when my two worlds touch. It won’t work; I know that. But they all want to go.

The phone call doesn’t go well. The Oak Room is hopping and I keep thinking my parents can hear the bar noise through the phone.

“Where are you?” says my father suspiciously. “Who are you with?” “Sue. Julie,” I say. “We went hiking.”

“After school, I hope,” says my mother. 

 “Of course,” I chirp.

“If you were hiking, why is there a car involved?” says my father.

“Well this guy came along and gave us a ride because we were lost, and then it broke down.” I say.

“Tell us where you are,” says my father. “We’ll come get you.” My stomach


“Um,” I say. “I’m not sure.”

“Ask,” says my father acidly. I put my palm over the receiver. Jeff is standing near me with a Molson in his hand.

“Where are we?” I hiss. He shrugs.

I don’t get home until eleven. On the way back, Etta plays the Stones, my favorite.

“Angie. Yyaaannnngiieee.” 

I close my eyes, try to walk into the music, but I can’t pretend, even to myself.

When I get home, there they are at the kitchen table, faces grim. “Hi,” I say weakly.

“Where,” says my father heavily, “have you been.”

“I told you. I called you.” I hate my own voice—high, frightened. The voice of

a liar.

“Do you think we’re stupid,my father says fiercely.

“It didn’t sound like you were on the street,” says my mother, looking at me steadily. “We heard voices. A lot of them. And music.”

“It was a bar. That’s where I went to call.” “That’s not what you told us,” says my mother. “It isn’t?”

“Do you think we’re stupid?” My father’s voice is full of renewed fury. “Do you think we don’t know what you’re doing.”

“What I’m doing is just being myself,” I say. “That’s all I’m doing.”

“Are you on something?” says my mother gently. “Are you taking something?” I feel the heat on my face.

“No,” I say. My voice is high. “I’m not taking anything.”

My father holds up a card. “Your report card came today.” He leans forward, eyes burning. “A ‘D’ in French. What are you doing at that school? Are you even going to class?”

“Of course I’m going to class.” I take a big breath. I think of those afternoons in the woods behind the school, the way the broken glass on the path glinted and the light fell through the trees.

“I guess I just didn’t study enough,” I say lamely.

“You expect us to buy that?” my father scoffs. “You could pass French in your


I hate the way he does this to me—I come home happy, there’s a world out there—and he takes it all away.

“Do I really even need French?” I say. I smile at him, trying to catch his eye, look ironic.

“Yeah, who needs French?” my father says sarcastically. “Who needs English, for that matter? Why even go to school?”

“It’s not everything,” I say sullenly. “You think school is everything.”

My father leans forward, eyes blazing. “You’re fourteen,” he hisses. “What do you know?”

Something rises in me, pushes away. “I’m not stupid,” I say, “just because I don’t agree with you. I’m not like you. I don’t think school is everything. It’s all you think about. You care about my marks. You care about me being smart. You don’t care about me.”

My father’s face convulses. He rises in one motion from his seat at the kitchen table and then I feel it—the stinging on my cheek, my neck stiff from the blow.

We look at each other. I know my body has never felt like this before—I don’t even know where the air stops and I begin.

Then I turn away and start walking up to my room. I pass the chest of drawers against the wall in the entrance to the living room. I move through the living room, past the orange couch, the red armchair.

I almost go back. I almost go back and say that I’m sorry and that I will be who they want me to be. Whatever I have to do. I want to be loved again. This is my house. This is what I know—what belongs to me, what is mine.

But I don’t. I keep on going. I pass the flowered curtains. The shelves with my father’s rows and rows of books—Areopagitica, Pnin.

There are some things I can’t give up; some things that I have to have, now that I’ve found them. Jeff’s forearms. Sue’s skin, smooth as a dolphin’s in the reservoir. The sun on the surface of the water. The world.

“You’re going to need a different environment,” my father calls out from the kitchen. “Away from these friends of yours. Next stop, boarding school.”

Boarding school.

My legs are rubber. I approach the French doors between the living room and the foyer that leads to the stairs, grasp the cut-glass doorknob.

Sending you away.

But this is where I have always been—this house, this town.

I climb the steps. They creak. As I climb, I build a wall inside.

My legs ache by the time I come to the top stair. I pass the rickety table with the black phone on top. The pale green wallpaper with white flowers on it; the framed print of my mother on top of a mountain in a red sweater with the wind in her curly, dark hair.

I open the door to my bedroom. There is the four-poster bed. There are the bookshelves with my books: Alice in Wonderland, Great Expectations. There is the full- length mirror. I close the door, lean against it, close my eyes.

And when the tears start to come, I stop them.

After all, this is Marlboro Country. If you want to live here, you can’t let them see you cry.

Fall 1975: Bum a Smoke?

For about two minutes, I am alone in the Dairy Barn common room. Gray stone floors; white cinder block walls, low blue couches. Beside the couches, waist-high orange ashtrays as round as car tires, filled with sand and dotted with forests of upturned butts. Outside the window, the acres of woods described in the school brochure. Darrow School: an independent college preparatory high school nestled in the heart of the Berkshires.

After dinner, this is where we all go. We need to light up, feel the familiar bite at the back of the throat, the aahhhh that hits the blood.

I lean against the wall, a pack of Marlboros tucked into a pocket inside my jacket.

Post-dinner is prime cigarette bumming time, and once news gets out that there’s a full pack somewhere, you’re finished. That’s why I snuck out early: to extract one cigarette from the pack without anyone looking, slide it back inside my coat. I inhale, drop my head back, send a plume of smoke upward.

The wooden doors between the dining hall and the common room thwack open and out comes Jamie Ehrlich, golden curls flying. He steps heavily in his Dunham boots and torn jeans; that pouty mouth makes him look like Little Lord Fauntleroy in a blue down vest. Behind him, Junks with his blond afro, hawk nose, and beady, watchful eyes. Tim Malloy, his face a mass of acne. Nevin, with his wire-framed glasses and helmet of wavy brown hair. They amass together near a window, bending over, getting lights. The Hinkley Boys, Valerie calls them—they all live on the top floor of Hinkley, the dorm right in the center of campus.

It’s a small school—one hundred students. A small school, and the Hinkley Boys are the stars.

It’s not like my old high school. There aren’t the greasers in the parking lots in souped-up cars wearing T-shirts with the sleeves cut off, the jocks in their jerseys, the geeks, the heads. We’re all country hippies. We wear jeans and Dunham boots because of the mud on the roads. Down vests, denim overalls, flannel shirts. There’s a golden retriever named Fred we throw a Frisbee for.

My parents decided to send me here at the end of June. I didn’t think it was possible. That they could send me out of my house, an extension of my own body. My town that knew me—the green house with the sloping wooden porch; the playground in   back of our yard.

Across the common room, Valerie, with her elegant shoulder blades, crown of blonde hair all different shades of yellow, from white to brown. Banana-shaped breasts in a rainbow-colored shirt; jeans she patched herself with a red bandana; multiple necklaces draped across her chest on fine gold chains, a different pendant at the end of each: a single pearl, a silver spoon, a wire twist.

The first day, I broke into sobs when my parents left. Valerie was the one who adopted me. It’s because of Valerie I’m accepted here. That I’m in with the Hinkley Boys. It was Valerie, also, who explained it: We were all here because we weren’t wanted at home. The way she put it, that meant we were free.

She stands next to Nevin, getting a light. Nevin leans into her—she must have said something funny because he turns his head to the side, laughing. I smile too, happy I’ve found her.

“10cc, the band.” says Valerie. “I’m telling you. It’s true.” “Aw come on, no, that’s disgusting,” groans Nevin.

“I’m serious.” Valerie gets vehement about these things. She doesn’t like to be disbelieved.

“Do you know where their name comes from?”

“No.” I don’t even know this band. I’ve never heard of them. Who am I, a girl who only read the classics up until a year ago, to know band names?

“10cc—the amount of sperm it takes to get a girl pregnant.” “Noooo,” says Nevin.

“Hey, you’re messin’ with Nevin’s head here, Valerie,” says Jamie. “You know how clean and pure he is.” He grins, wide face creasing.

After dinner, there’s always the same desperation. Study hall is coming: two hours of forced study, the hot, silent room and the book swimming in front of your eyes under the fluorescent lights. The antidote to this desperation always rests in a single name: Feds.

Last of the Hinkley Boys. Short, with a swinging walk. Long hair to his shoulders. Just a middle-class kid from New Jersey, but he’s got money and he’s addicted to pot, so he always has some. When Feds comes walking up the road that runs through campus, the call goes out, an endless drone, “Feeeeeddddsssss.” Here he comes,

Feder the school dealer. He walks along, a swinging walk, putting up with it. “Shut up guys,” he says, when he’s close enough for us to hear.

Tonight he is pressed, doggedly. “Nothing,” says Feds. “I’m out.”

“Oh come on, Feds, you expect us to believe that?” “I expect you to believe that,” he says.

“But we don’t.” Nevin throws his cigarette out in front of him, crushes it with a toe. “We really don’t.” He puts an arm around Feds’ shoulder.

“I need it,” he says.

“I don’t have anything, Nevin,” says Feds.

“Yes you do. You always have. You’re a have, Feds.” “Feeedddssss,” they all take the call up.

“Shut up guys,” says Feds comfortably.

“Don’t make me get violent, Feder,” says Nevin.

 “Jesus!” says Feds.

“Feeddddsssss,” the rest of us plead.

“Alright, alright,” says Feds finally. “Come on.”

We don’t all leave together—that would be too obvious, and other people would invite themselves. Valerie, Feds, and Nevin go first. I look down from the Dairy Barn window and watch them come out the front door and walk along the road, Valerie’s blonde crown pushing through the semi-darkness outside. A few minutes later I follow with Tim Malloy.

Hinkley is yellow, built on top of a small hill. We all climb, then fan out in the patch of worn dirt at the smoking area and wait while Feds goes inside to get a pipe and reefer, and Junks goes in to put some music on and turn his Bose speakers out the window.

We peel off one by one—Jamie, Junks, Tim, me. Huddle behind a sumac bush. Feds arrives, lights up, inhales, passes to Nevin who passes to Jamie. Jamie takes it up, pulls the smoke in, hands it to Junks.

“What is this stuff?” says Nevin.

Feds shrugs. “I don’t know. New Jersey homegrown.” “Tastes like you mowed the lawn and dried it,” says Nevin. “Take it or leave it, Nevin,” Feds wearily. “Whatddya want?” “Just sayin’,” Nevin shrugs.

“Stop fighting you guys,” Valerie growls. She has pulled her hair up into a bun behind her head—she looks even more beautiful that way. She leans down, pulls the smoke into her mouth without touching the end of the joint. She has tried to teach me how to do that, but I’m no good. A bracelet jangles around her lower wrist. Music flows up the hill toward us, threads through the trees.

So get down

Get down children Get loud

Well you can be loud and be proud

Be proud you’re a rebel cause the South’s gonna do it again And again.

“What is this?” says Feds.

“Charlie Daniels Band. My man. Charlie.”

“South’s gonna do it again—What are we, in the Confederacy now? Back to the old plantation?”

“Southern rock, Feds.” “What are you a bigot, now?”

“Shut up, Feder. It’s about rebellion.”

“Oh yeah, who’re you rebelling against?”

“Junks is rebelling against his jeans,” jokes Jamie. “They won’t let his hard-on


“Seriously, Junks. You’re a rebel?”

“You’re a douchebag,” says Tim and laughs, but no one else does. “What are you rebelling against?” says Feds. “I mean really.”

“The powers that be, Feds,” says Junks, inhales, his voice all nasal and wise- sounding. “The powers that be.”

Valerie cuts in. “Don’t be a douchebag, Feds. You know what it is. It’s freedom.” she says. She does that—uses their language, hose, douchebag. I don’t even know what a douchebag is. “Freedom,” she says. “Don’t let people tell you what to do.”

For me, the only true freedom comes on Saturday nights, when I get as much as I can of whatever we’re drinking that night—rum, gin, tequila—and wait for the blackness to come. Then there’s no voice in my head, no “I” talking and no “you” listening. There’s just blackness, and finally I can rest.

That’s how it is every weekend. I am famous for it now. Nevin calls me “Wasted Kate.” Every Saturday night, we go down to Sam’s cabin in the woods, almost a mile away from the main campus, and I am always the first to get falling-down drunk. I can’t help it—I want the blackness. Drink enough and then you are nothing. The darkness opens up. You can dive into those folds and forget.

Nevin looks at his watch. “Christ—6:50, babes. Gotta go.” Feds flicks the ashes away between thumb and forefinger. I look down the hill: At twilight, the sky is regions of pink interrupted by bruised blue clouds.

It might be homegrown, but it’s done the trick—my lungs glow. The music reaches up through the trees, takes us.

You can’t be late to study hall—they make you stay over and that’s brutal. We start walking through the trees, Dunham boots crunching the dead leaves. Ahead of us, the yellow squares of light in Wickersham, where the study hall with its glass doors and sizzling fluorescent lights waits.

We walk toward them, unworried. On the outside we follow the rules, on the inside we have our own world, our own place to go. Put a piece of blotter paper on your tongue and an icicle can turn to a crystal palace. The sky can glow green.

Jamie walks beside me. His down vest flies open and one blond curl moves across his face. Everything takes its own time. We have our music.

And we’re free: the troubled teens of Darrow, the free citizens of Reefer Nation.

A new song, just before Junks goes up to turn the stereo off: Allman Brothers; “Midnight Rider.” The sound cascades over the smoking area behind our backs, fills the  air.

And I’ve got one more 

Silver dollar

And I’m not gonna let them get me, no— Not gonna let ‘em get the midnight rider.

We keep walking. We don’t care, so nothing can hurt us.

We are midnight riders, piercing the night, burning the atmosphere. Pot, acid, speed, Quaaludes. Tequila. Cigarettes.

No one to catch us or stop us. No one to call us their own.

Summer 1978: Burning a Life

Some scenes from the Divorce Diary:

Scene One: My mother sits at the kitchen table in shorts and a peach-colored T-shirt in the Shrub Oak house. My father left two days ago. Strands of brown hair have escaped the rubber band that holds her ponytail. There’s a bottle of wine in front of her— one of those big gallon jugs of cheap wine—and one arm rests on top of the table.

Someone is taking a picture with an instamatic camera, and my mother stares into it, unsmiling. Yes, her look says. Yes, it is the middle of the afternoon and I am drinking a bottle of wine.

Scene Two: I have just arrived home from getting stoned in a parking lot with some guy who picked me up hitchhiking. I walk into the living room: olive rug, low orange couch, flowered curtains. On the mantlepiece, there is an index card with a stick

figure drawn on it, and underneath it the words: Ariel the Whore. Ariel is the name of my father’s new girlfriend. I look around the room: there are about ten more of these. My mother is shouting.

Scene Three: My mother has sold the house. We are leaving this town: Gino’s, Frankie’s, the green house with the wooden porch that slopes down, the arc of trees over Main Street. At the end of the driveway for the garbage men to take away, my mother has placed the orange living room couch, the red armchair my father used to sit in; the Morris Louis that hung over the mantel. My mother is throwing my life away. I go out to the end of the driveway and pick things out: cushions from the couch, the antique lamp. My mother watches me from the front door. I make four trips, carrying things that she has left out as garbage back to my room, while my mother watches. On the final trip, I am holding the antique filigree lamp.

“There’s no room for that where we’re going y’know,” she says. I ignore her, climb the steps. The cord from the lamp bumps against each step as I ascend.

After the divorce, there was a lot of fighting. “I hate living here with you,” I said to my mother with regularity. “Leave any time you want,” was her inevitable answer.

I did.

At eighteen, I hitchhiked all over the place:

To Providence, Rhode Island, to see a Grateful Dead concert. To Massachusetts, to see Valerie.

To a store three towns over that sold feather earrings.

To the reservoir to go skinny-dipping, but I couldn’t find a break in the fence.

In people’s cars, I’ve talked about the weather and how screwed up society is and what a mess the government is, even though I never even think about these things.

Sometimes, I give hints about my home life: My parents don’t care about me, I’ll say. They don’t know what I’m doing. They don’t know where I am. Cheap appeals for sympathy.

The truth is, when I leave the house to go wandering, I don’t even know what I’m searching for. The old certainties about “freedom” and “being myself” are starting to leave me. I still do the same things—smoke, search for pot, spike my orange juice with vodka—but I’m no longer sure why.

A memory: I leave the house in the morning, amble out to the main road, stick my thumb out.

The man driving the car I get into has thin, greying hair, wears a golf jacket and polyester pants. When he asks where I’m going, I make something up. I tell him I’m going to the mall.

“The mall, eh?” he says. “What are you going to do at the mall?” “Look for a job.”

“What do you need a job for?”

I raise my eyebrows. “I need money,” I say. “Badly.” I wonder what he does, this man in a golf jacket. When I ask him, he says he’s a salesman.

“What do you need money for so bad?” he asks me.

I sigh, give him a conspiratorial look. “Get out of the house,” I say. “Away from my mother.”

The art of hitchhiking involves keeping track of your whereabouts while making small talk. Out the window I see that we are passing through the next town over, Thornwood. There’s the Honda dealer. There’s the red brick building with the Firestone sign.

“I could probably help you out with that,” he says, looking ahead. “The money


“Oh yeah?”

“I’ll give you $50 if I can put my hand down your shirt.” Out the window, Wendy’s is passing. I watch it, smiling.

“I don’t know,” I say. The Firestone station goes by; the Terrace Restaurant.

Then I say OK.

“Move over closer to me,” he says. He puts his arm around my shoulders, then slips his hand down under the neck of my T-shirt, brushing my nipples. He moves his hand from one breast to the other, very slowly. With his other arm, he drives, but under the steering wheel his legs start to twitch. “I hope I don’t come in my pants,” he says. I look straight ahead.

That’s when the town of Thornwood really makes its mark on my mind. The Thornwood Diner with its chrome sign. The parking lot for the Grand Union. As we pass Arby’s, I realize that we are close to my mother’s office. I picture my mother’s face when she just happens to be passing by, even though she is supposed to be at work right now, and how she will look at me. I start to sink down in the seat so my face can’t be seen through the windshield.

“I can’t reach you,” he says.

“Stop,” I say. “I’m getting out here.” “I was almost there,” he says.

“I’ll give you twenty-five,” he says, when I open the door. “It wasn’t very long.”

Here is what happens after my parents’ divorce, in the years between 1978 and 1980: My mother puts a lien on my father’s bank account for not paying child support. My brother fights with my mother about which college he could go to.

My father convinces my brother to break with my mother and live with him. He arranges a meeting with lawyers, calls my brother in, and asks him to choose which parent he wants to live with—on the spot.

My mother sobs the way she did when my father left.

I write to my father about what he did and receive a letter back from him: I don’t want to hear from you or see you for a long time to come.

Then silence. We were a family that lived in a town of tag sales and fire drills.

I am twenty-four when I give up smoking. That is also when the depression hits.  I stop sleeping. I lie down at eleven or twelve after slogging through another exhausting day at work, close my eyes, and start talking in my head to every person I feel has ever wronged me. How could you do that to me, who do you think you are, that’s not what love is.

Awake at one. Awake at two. Awake at three. At first I try aspirin, then Benadryl, then tequila. Then all three.

I have been taking a writing class, but one night at 3 a.m, after hours of rumination, I decide to burn everything I have ever written. The kitchen in my New York apartment has a hulking white stove, burners encrusted with black grime.

In the middle of the night, I sit in a straight-backed chair and turn the stove on.

Get up, take the stack of papers I have been working on, feed them to the flames.

Sit there, looking at the four blue crowns of flame on my stove, and listen to the sound of my own breathing.

Then I understand.

Everything burns. The girl who sits behind me at work. The man begging at the subway stop at 103rd Street. Family life.

And it would have happened anyway, sooner or later. Even if I hadn’t smelled Sally’s cigarette. Even if I hadn’t crouched in the playground in back of my house, my face laughing up to the sky, the end would still have come.

This is All that Matters by Amy Kiger-Williams

My father is having seizures in his hospital bed. The white sheet is drawn up to his mid-chest, his tongue is hanging out the side of his mouth, and his hands and arms are twitching violently atop the sheet. He looks like he might be connected to an electrical current, but the electrical current is coming from inside his body.

I’m not expecting to see him like this. The last time I saw him, Saturday, five days before, he was heavily sedated and his body had been placed into a state of hypothermia. When I touched him then, he felt as cold as the last dead person I touched, his own mother who died eleven years earlier. But he wasn’t dead. The doctors had artificially lowered his body temperature in an effort to reduce the brain damage he suffered when he collapsed at the dinner table. When they brought him out of hypothermia, though, there was no brain function, only the violent twitching and writhing that was the byproduct of his current state.

I scream.

My husband and children trail behind me into the hospital room. I realize that I’ve just bulldozed my way into the ICU to see my dad. I realize this is not a good thing for kids to witness. This is not a good thing for anyone to witness. I am starting to do my own sort of convulsing: my breath becomes hyperventilation and my shoulders shudder. A male nurse leads my family out of the hospital room, then comes back for me. When we are safely in the hallway, he explains what’s going on. I watch another nurse draw the curtain around my father’s bed.

My father’s brain stem, the most primitive part of the brain, is the only part that’s functional, the nurse explains. Ironically, I’ve been taking a graduate course on brain-based learning, so I understand what he’s saying in a way that I might not have a month earlier. I start thinking of parts of the brain and how his frontal cortex will never again help him solve problems, or how his amygdala will never process emotion anymore (not that it did a great job of it while he was conscious). Not surprisingly, I will have trouble getting through the class, and only through a Herculean test of will do I actually finish the stupid papers required over the next couple of weeks. I spend most of my time thinking about how these brain functions relate to my father’s cold, dead brain, and it makes it very difficult to get any work done. My professor will be incredibly sympathetic, and I will feel guilty even asking for extensions, because that’s the way my father raised me.

My father’s brain stem is the part of him that’s responsible for the twitching, the uncontrollable spasms, the nurse explains. He tells me that they’ll be sedating him soon, so that by the time my brother and his family arrive with my mother, we can feel comfortable that he won’t be in any pain when it’s time to take him off the ventilator.

Because it’s come to that. It’s come to the time when there’s no hope, no way my father can function at all without life support. He’ll be a vegetable, twitching and flopping around in a bed, if we can’t do the humane thing and let him go. I think about the cat I put to sleep months after my own grandmother died. Roscoe was my baby before I ever had babies, and when he died, I felt the breath escape from him as I held him and the vet gave the injection. I never thought I’d get over his death. I spent the next day at work in a stupor. Nobody understood how I could get so worked up over a cat. The people at work weren’t cat people. But everyone’s a dad person. People would understand how I’d get worked up over losing my dad.

I think about how sad it is that I’m putting my dad down like a cat.

My dad really died on June 3, though the death certificate says June 9. June 3 was the day my dad collapsed at the dinner table. He was eating a baked potato, and we don’t know whether he choked, had a heart attack, or whatever. We didn’t order an autopsy. My mom felt like he’d been through enough.

My mom told me that when the EMS workers left, she tried putting the baked potato back together again. She said the two halves fit together perfectly, as if he hadn’t even taken a bite.

June 3 was also the day I got a new job. I interviewed with the principal and the superintendent, and they offered me a job teaching English to ninth graders. I posted something on Facebook about it. My dad apparently saw it and was proud of me, even though I didn’t get to talk to him about it at all.

Not surprisingly, later I am ambivalent about this job. I try not to think about the fact that I got it on the day my dad left us. I am also ambivalent about the job because a lot of the kids are just out of control. One of the freshmen told an aide that there was a rumor about him having sex in the bathroom with a senior, and he claimed it’s just not true. The aide later found out that he really did have sex in the bathroom with a senior. This is the same student who got an out-of-school suspension when he left school during a pep rally to smoke pot in the woods. I try to be fair to this kid. His house flooded in August, and two of his friends died along the train tracks in October. This kid has problems, too. But when he tells a girl in my class that she has a huge bush, it’s the last straw. I write him up and he serves a detention. He whines about Ms. K. giving him detention for nothing.

I think about how much I’d like to tell my dad about these kids.

My dad got kicked off Facebook for chatting with one too many strangers, so he used my mother’s account to talk to me.

HI AMY. The chat box popped up at the most inopportune times. While I was writing a paper, working on a deadline, helping kids with homework. I’d have to drop everything for Dad.

Hi Dad.

He’d ask me crazy questions, things that made me wonder if he was losing his grip on reality. My mother told me that he’d watch Teletubbies on TV as if it was the most fascinating thing he’d ever seen, as if the rest of the world didn’t exist, and it made her wonder the same thing. EVERYTHING HE WROTE WAS IN CAPITAL LETTERS.

Eventually, I had to go offline every time he went online.

Then I got a message.


My dad did several things online. He pop chatted me. He talked to people he knew from the small town in Indiana where he grew up. He did genealogy research. He looked at pornography.

The day after my dad died, my mother asked me to clear the porn from my dad’s computer. I should have waited until my husband came back for the funeral, but I held my nose and wiped out every JPG file from his computer. I couldn’t look at it; too upsetting. Nobody wants to know that about their dad. After I was done, I needed a glass of wine like I’d never needed one before, but my parents don’t drink, so there was no booze in their house. Instead, I took my kids and my mom out to the movies. We watched Kung Fu Panda 2 and I cleared my head, Teletubbies-style.

Every day I go to work is a day that my dad is not a part of this world anymore. 

Oh, the irony of the potato. My dad sure loved to eat. He was a big man, over 300 pounds, even though he was only five foot ten in his stocking feet.

After he died, I found out that he had a Twitter account. I was afraid to look at it, because of the pornography and all. But when I was finally brave enough to peek, I discovered it was a diary of a man who was just waiting for his meals to arrive.

waiting for my wife to come home so we can eat supper

I’m supposed to be in bed but I’m making breakfast coffee

breakfast turned out pretty good especially the coffee tee hee

just killing time till lunch

I’ve Had Lunch Now I’m Waiting For Supper

two hours till supper, yeah

I seem to be a little one-sided all i do is wait for meals.

I have to wear a gown in the hospital room when I watch my father die because they are afraid of us contracting MRSA, which my mother will contract anyway, despite the gown. They won’t let us stay in the room when they take all the tubes out, but by the time we finally see him, he’s breathing heavily and I think my dad is going to be dead in a few minutes. My mother is holding my father’s hand. It’s bruised and mottled from all the needle jabs, and it’s swollen and disfigured. She’s crying, and I feel guilty for feeling so sad for myself. My mother has been married to the same man for forty-four years and now he’s dying. I think about how my grandparents, his parents, were married for forty-four years when my grandfather died.

My mother lost her own father when she was nineteen years old. I’ve had my dad for forty-three years. I’m being such a baby about this whole thing.

My dad was forty-three when his dad died, too. My grandpa died quietly, just pulled over in his car at the side of the road after a chemo treatment, had a heart attack, and died. I never saw my dad cry over him.

My brother is with us in the hospital room, too. His name is John, my father’s middle name, the name my father uses instead of his actual first name. My brother is forty and when he was younger, his high forehead reminded me a little of Leonardo DiCaprio, but now he’s gained weight too, and he looks like a younger version of Dad. He smokes like a chimney but tries to deny it to my mother. I worry about my brother constantly. I think about his two little girls, and hope that he can stop chain smoking before he keels over.

My husband, my brother’s wife, and my dad’s five grandchildren are all in the waiting room. I am in my dad’s room for a long time with the hospital chaplain, a cloyingly sweet woman who keeps prattling on about how great it will be when my dad meets God. How great it will be for my grandmother, because she’s missed him so much in Heaven, all these years without her only child. I don’t believe in God, but I say nothing because it’s not the time. The chaplain offers my mother one of the prayer blankets crocheted by the Mennonite ladies who volunteer at the hospital. Mom has her choice of colors, so she picks the combination she thinks Dad would like the best, a brown and blue number that reminds me of our den circa 1981.

Mom puts the prayer blanket on Dad to keep him warm. She keeps fussing with it. It’s the four of us: Dad, Mom, me, and John, just like when I was a kid. I think of all the trips we took together to Disney World and bowling conventions and a cabin in Wisconsin, and I’m in disbelief that this visit to a crappy hospital room in Ephrata, Pennsylvania, is the last trip we’ll ever take together. It’s the worst trip of my life.

We’ve been watching my father die for over two hours. His breathing is becoming slower, but he is still breathing. Mom, John, and I are frozen in our places around the hospital bed. My husband comes into the room.

“The kids are hungry, and I have to go soon,” he says. “Maybe we should go get dinner.”

I look at him like he’s grown another head. “What if he dies while we’re eating?”

I imagine him saying the words, “Then he dies while we’re eating,” but what he really says is, “Everyone is hungry. It’d be good for you to take a break, too.”

I look at my mother. She looks exhausted. “Maybe we should,” she agrees.

We go to a diner down the street from the hospital. The entire time we’re there, I’m convinced he’s going to die before we get back. I’m a fucking wreck. It takes every bit of strength that I can summon to keep from running back to the hospital. I order a sandwich that I can barely eat. 

When we return to the room, he’s breathing more slowly still, but he’s still breathing. I feel as though I’ve dodged a bullet.

The night nurse is a woman named May. She looks a lot like a friend of mine, and I immediately feel comforted by her. She even sounds like my friend, and as she talks to me, it’s familiar and soothing. It’s clear that my father is not going easily. Although his breathing is still slowing, somehow it feels like he’ll never stop breathing. I think he’s being stubborn. The nurses on the afternoon shift said it could happen quickly. It’s been hours, though. My husband already left with my oldest to go home so he could get back to work on a deadline, and my other two kids are in the waiting room with their cousins and aunt. My brother is taking us to my mom’s house, and he has to go soon. I have kids to think of. They can’t hang out in the hospital all night.

I’m realizing my dad’s going to die alone.

I think about asking to stay, but that’s selfish. I can’t stay and send my mom home with my kids. She says she wants to go home, anyway. She’s never looked older in her life.

I can’t bear this. I want to stay. I look at my dad, his big chest slowly rising and falling underneath the prayer blanket. I want to hide in the broom closet and have everyone leave, then sit here all night with my daddy.

May comes into the room. “You should go home,” she says.

“What if he dies?”

“I’ll call you. Don’t worry. I’ll take good care of him. He won’t be alone.”

I take a deep breath. Without me is alone, but nonetheless, I have to go. Everyone is waiting for me in the lobby. I give May my cell phone number and ask her to call me if he passes away. I think that maybe he won’t leave that night, maybe he’ll wait for me to come back, but another part of me thinks that maybe this is one thing he has to do on his own. He’s waiting for me to leave before he can die, so I have no choice but to let him go.

I sleep in the room that I slept in as a teenager, my cell phone under my pillow. I have my son and daughter in bed with me, and it’s a tight squeeze. I wake up every now and then, and I’m not sure I was ever asleep. I feel a vibration under my pillow and my heart stops. I look at the phone number on the display. It’s the hospital. It’s 2 a.m.

“It’s May. Your father passed about a half an hour ago.”

This is the spot where I get hung up writing. I have trouble getting through. I can jump past it, though, to the kids I taught, to de-porning my dad’s computer, to the life I have now, so similar yet so different, almost nine years on. I return over and over to this piece of writing, yet I can’t write about this moment. It’s as if there are literally no words for the moment when I find out that I am fatherless.

Without my father, there is a man-sized hole. I see something silly on TV, and I think about how much he’d like that. I hear 10cc or George Harrison songs and I think about the mixtapes he made for me when I was a little girl. I look at my husband and my own children, and I think I will never let any of you die.

But of course, that’s unreasonable. We will all die. We will have heart attacks and strokes and freak accidents. We will twitch uncontrollably in our own hospital beds. We will pass silently in the night. We will all struggle with our lives in our own particular ways, and when we die, there will be another struggle, or not.

This is the bitch about getting older, of course. The funerals, the way you miss people, the longing and regret. I’ll take every gray hair and wrinkle I can get, but spare my people, please.

But of course, no one will be spared. The sun will blaze and the earth will continue to move on its axis, and we will all have our endings, noticed and unnoticed. If I think about it too much, it makes me want to curl into a fetal position and stay in bed all day, but I wake up every morning, put on my clothes, brew a cup of coffee, and do all the things we do while we are still here to do them. I wash clothes, I buy groceries, I write. I talk to my mom on the phone. I take pictures of things and people and cats that I love and post them on Instagram. I bemoan my addiction to social media by posting about it on social media. I read a book to feel better, or worse. I hug my children when they cry. I split a bottle of wine with my husband and continue to be amazed that we’ve been on this ride so long together. I crawl into bed and appreciate the small things, the smooth feeling of sheets on my body, the way I fit into the crook of my husband’s arm, the small noises that he makes when he is dreaming.

This is all there is: the little moments, the sadness, the happiness, the unbearable feeling of pain when a loved one dies, the hole that remains.

This is all that matters.

Apple Pie by Lizzie Lawson

The church kitchen. I’m at the rolling table surrounded by Catholic women my grandmother’s age. They peel and mix and roll and crimp. I flatten greasy dough into circles and throw them over open pies heaped with spiced apples and thick pats of butter. “Sometimes it feels good just to sit,” a tall woman says, slumping her shoulders forward. “To do nothing but just sit.” Clip-on earrings poke out of hairnets. I try to keep up with their hands. My mother rushes after beeping timers, opening ovens, flooding the kitchen with heat. “Can you believe the deacon asked me to be in charge of all this?” my mother asks as she passes by. She ticks through all the details—the supplies, the cleaning, the volunteers called in advance. “I felt bad saying no, but at least I run the nut sale.” A pink-sweatered lady whisks away my topped pies, and empty pans appear in their place. Every year, people complain the pies sell out too fast. The chatty woman next to me asks what grade I’m in. “Oh no,” I say. “I’m a working woman now.” I’m twenty-three, and I just started a corporate job that, I think, sounds impressive. I inhale the smell of buttery dough and resist the urge to eat some. “She’s also newly married,” my mother cuts in, and everyone turns to look at me, mouths open in excitement, as I shrink back. I answer their questions about the ceremony and the priest and my husband’s graduate studies in as few words as possible, staring down at my rolling pin until finally I’m left alone. I’m twenty-three, and I don’t know what it means for me to be married. I saw a Catholic blog post about how boring life could be as a wife and mother with nothing but domestic chores to look forward to. “But it’s good,” the blogger wrote. “Boring makes us holy.” I brush floury crumbs into a clump at the edge of my area. I feel fragile in this church. I spent every Sunday of my childhood in the front row, hands folded, faced forward, listening to the priest who sighed when I said my confessions and always found something to criticize when I did the readings. I struggle and sweat over my next piece of dough, and a white-haired lady touches my elbow. She shows me a better way to hold the rolling pin. That’s much easier. “It’s hot in here,” says a woman with strawberry earrings. “Better stay away from me then!” the white-haired lady responds, a finger to her chin. They laugh, and I feel myself smile. The women talk about casserole recipes and their mothers and how anti-Catholic the world is becoming. I think about how easily this could be my life. I could raise children, organize fundraisers, grow old with family and faith, and be satisfied in the knowledge that I am doing everything exactly as I am supposed to. Or I could do something else, build a life that’s unknowable and selfish and full of secret plans and leave my hometown and not care about the important things until I’ve disgraced my family and it’s too late. I take my time rolling, really try to get it right. “You know, they use real lard in this dough,” the tall woman says to no one in particular. “No vegetable shortening, this is real pig’s fat.” My mother grabs a rolling pin, saying she’s got three minutes to spare. She forces a too-small, too-thick piece of dough into a tin and asks me about my husband. “What do you do while he is busy studying?” she asks. “Whatever I want,” I snap. I sneak a bite of raw dough, and the grains of sugar crunch and melt on my tongue.

Homesick Island by Bea Chang

Beacon Street Prize Winner, Nonfiction, 2021

The last passenger towed his suitcase out of the airport, the wheels scraping the island’s midnight quiet. As the door sighed shut behind him, I caught a taste of the air, thick with humidity, from the acres of volcanic mountains and merciless jungles just beyond the city. The arrival hall, drab and lemon-colored, sat uncannily silent, deserted. My backpack lay on the rubber belt, alone, the machine long turned off.

I was stuck two, maybe three, feet behind a line I couldn’t see, on Indonesian land but not officially in Indonesia yet. Before me, a barrel-chested immigration officer was perched high in a wooden box, flipping through my passport. I had run out of pages for a visa. I rubbed my palms against my pants. I was sure he would let me in because I was American. But, I thought, maybe not—because I was Asian too.


By the fifteenth cenutry, Chinese merchants and sailors had settled in Borneo, Cambodia, Java, and Champa (southern and central coast of modern Vietnam). Because of friendly diplomatic relations, the Chinese—if we were to think of Chinese as a monolithic ethnic group, of course, which it is not—also immigrated to the Malacca Sultanate, as well as the Ryuku Kingdom (present-day Japan). Two hundred years before the Europeans took to the seas, the Ming Dynasty’s maritime expeditions reached as far as Africa. DNA tests confirmed in 2002 that a woman on Lamu Island, off the coast of Kenya, was of Chinese descent. Some tribes north of Cape Town claimed to be progenies of Chinese sailors as well; their physical appearance is similar to Chinese, with pale skin and a Mandarin-sounding tonal language. These people call themselves Awatwa, or “abandoned people.”


I knew nothing about Singapore when I arrived at twenty-two, just two weeks out of college; I knew even less about who I was. Along with fifteen young Americans—all of them white, or passable for white—I was contracted as an international fellow to teach in Singapore’s neighborhood schools. Young and new to a fast-paced, dazzling city, the fellows and I spent our nights in open-air hawker centers, a raucous affair of knives chopping the bones of Hainanese chickens, lips suckling the juicy meat of roasted ducks, and char kway teow sizzling in ancient woks. Once, centuries ago, Singapore had been a swamp-filled jungle with a few hundred tribesmen in the backwaters of the Malacca Sultanate, then the Johor Sultanate. But when Sir Stamford Raffles established the isle as a free trading port for the British Empire, the Bugis, Chinese, Malay, Indian, and Arab traders came to settle. Even today, among Singapore’s credit- card-thin skyscrapers and world-class malls, the city-state, situated at the tail of the Malaysian peninsula, tasted of distant homes.

At dinner, we traded stories of our adventures in the classroom. My Maryland friend said that a student had asked him whether he had to shoot his way out of his apartment each morning in the United States. My New Jersey friend laughed at how a boy had asked to trade his brown eyes for her blue ones. “An eye for an eye!” She slapped her thigh, cracking up.

That was, at any rate, the story I brought home at the end of the year, the one I knew how to talk about. For a long time, I did not admit that, at first, I could not understand my students’ fitful accents, nor did I know what to do when the boys broke out in a fight. I did not mention the Malay-Chinese race riots I learned about, nor the dead-eyed Indonesian, Filipino, and Burmese women I saw sitting on display in maid agencies. Or that, on my first day in the classroom, a Malay boy with a wild overbite ran up to me, his spit spraying: “Cher! If you’re American, why your eye not blue?”

I tried to explain that I was born in Taiwan and raised in the United States. But the forty-some-odd children in gray uniforms persisted: Why your hair not gold? They wanted to know. Why your skin not white? Miss! They were screaming. You American or not lah

For years, I hardly understood what to make of it. But the deep cut of disappointment in the children’s eyes stuck to me long after I left: The American teacher they had been promised did not turn out to be quite American enough.


It is said that the Chinese coolie emigration began after slavery was abolished throughout the British colonies. Facing a shortage of manpower, European merchants replaced African slaves with indentured laborers from China and India. The British Empire was responsible for much of the diaspora, sending them to Fiji, Australia, Malaysia, Burma, and Singapore. 

In the New World, Asian coolies worked in the plantations, under similar substandard conditions. Under their contracts, the coolies were to become free men after six to eight years of labor, but often their servitude was extended for years. It should be noted that the Asian human cargo was brought to American shores in the exact same slave ships that had once chained and shipped Africans across the Atlantic Passage.


I came, at one time, from a small place in the mountains on the Pacific island Portuguese explorers had called Ilha Formosa. My father’s father could trace our lineage on the island to his great-grandparents, but he could not be sure when we migrated, exactly, from mainland China. My mother’s father, on the other hand, had arrived at the tail end of the Chinese Civil War in the 1950s along with two million Nationalist soldiers feeling Mao Zedong’s bloody Communist revolution. As a child in Taiwan, I didn’t care; I ran up beside the trickling waterfall across the street from our house and scooped up cups full of tadpoles from the pond. “Make sure you let them go back,” my mother always said.

The first time I was made to think about the color of my skin was within two months of our moving to the United States for my father’s job. I was ten. We lived, back then, in a cul-de-sac in the dry desert of southern California. I had dialed onto the Internet and was talking to a stranger in an AOL chat room when he asked, “What color are you?”

I ran downstairs, my bare feet on the carpet, and asked my mother. “Uh,” she hesitated. She was stirring hot-and-sour soup in a pot. “Yellow,” she said. I remember looking at my skin. It didn’t look yellow.

The stranger in the chat room replied, “What’s that? Are you Black or white?”


During the first modern contact in Asia, Western explorers and missionaries almost always regarded East Asians as white. On a number of occasions, they even recorded that East Asians were “as white as we were.” However, as the Chinese and the Japanese, in particular, resisted participation in European systems, their skin color began to “darken” in published texts. In the tenth edition of Carl Linnaeus’ taxonomy, published in 1758, the Swedish botanist and physician, in separating homo sapiens into four continental classifications, described East Asians as luridus, meaning “lurid,” “sallow,” or “pale yellow.” By the nineteenth century, the term “yellow” had taken hold of Western imagination and all the peoples of the East had been lumped together into an explicit racial category. Later that century, this classification would give rise to the term, “Yellow Peril,” a racist ideology that people of East Asian descent were an existential threat to the Western world.


My father’s new job moved us out of the relative diversity of Los Angeles County to a quaint New Jersey suburb with pastoral roads curving through rolling hills and wooded parks. On the first day of high school, my mother and I stood at the bus stop, on a bed of brown and red fallen leaves, with a hazel-eyed, pimpled boy. He was thoroughly ironed for the first day of school, dressed in khaki pants and a checkered button-down. Beside his nearly six-foot frame and broad, ice-hockey shoulders, my mother was petite. She greeted him, tilting her head up. “How are you doing this morning?”

I thought I saw him wince at each of her faintly mispronounced words. His eyes moved slowly toward me, like summer clouds against the marble sky, and came to a stop at my mother. Politely, he tried to grin. But, just then, two girls—one with blonde hair and another with brunette curls—started toward us, laughing. All of a sudden, the boy drew back and fixed his glance elsewhere. As the girls hopped right past me and my mother, giggling and wrapping their arms around the boy, something in their whiteness and self-assurance made me feel as if everything about me was terribly wrong, undeniably out of place: my mother, my black hair, my flip-flops. 

I couldn’t have told you back then where my paranoia had come from, and I am not certain that I know for sure now either. As a child, I must have picked up on the patronizing tone with which Americans said, Taiwan? You mean Thailand? Many times, friends and strangers alike had, with laughter, asked: Do you eat pigeon meat? What about monkey brains? Do you bind your feet? Most of the time, it had seemed mundane, a shared wisecrack, perhaps. Yet, over time, the small slights and the mocking tone must have accumulated without my knowing, taught me shame—racism, even—against my own people. By the time I parachuted into a white high school in New Jersey, it fed a constant panic that I would always be exotic and strange and backward, and that I would never truly belong.

Back then, before social media, all I knew about the wider world came from my textbooks, the evening news, and Hollywood films. At the same time that I was detecting societal cues that I was different, I was being taught that racism did not exist in the United States, not anymore, and certainly not against Asians. Instead, along with my white classmates, I learned about the immigrants that came in through Ellis Island, about the beauty of the American melting pot, and the eventual triumph of our civil rights battle. So I drew my own conclusions: If what I was experiencing was not racial bias, then there must be something inherently flawed, second-class, with who I was. 

My decision to turn my back on my heritage, therefore, was a calculated choice. In the school cafeteria, I started to sit far from the handful of Asians in our town. I stopped telling people my birth name. I made excuses for not visiting Taiwan, and I spent six of my formative years between high school and college cut off from contact with my grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins. I became a shrewd observer of what was acceptable to bring to school for lunch (sandwiches and chips) and how to bring it (brown paper bags). I taped and rewatched hours of Friends episodes to imitate the drawl of Chandler’s sarcastic jokes. I learned to speak up, loudly, even if I had nothing to say, and I found myself gaining traction in the white world. I was the starting point guard on our state-ranked basketball team by my sophomore season, and I had a wonderful group of honor student friends cheering me on from the bleachers. I had erased myself and built it again, stick by stick, from scratch.


The Chinese Exclusion Act, passed by the Congress in 1882, prohibited any further immigration from China and forbade the Chinese already residing in the United States from becoming citizens. It was the first American federal legislation that targeted a group of people based on race, banning them from entering the home of the free. “If we continue to permit the introduction of this strange people,” Senator John Franklin Miller, a Republican from California, said, “with their peculiar civilization. . . , what is to be the effect upon the American people and the Anglo-Saxon civilization?” It was government-mandated racism, and it was the foundation for the racialization of Asian immigrants as inassimilable “aliens.” The act was not repealed until 1943.


“It’s funny, isn’t it?” My Singaporean friend said, her voice braided with a British cadence from her time in England, as gentle as the warm, lapping waves before us. We were on a resort isle off the main island, one degree north of the equator. I was lying on my towel in the sun, while she, my advisor from the Ministry of Education, sat under the shade of her umbrella. “Westerners want to be dark. Asians want to be white.”

I asked, “What am I?”

“Right now,” she said, eyeing my bikini in the blazing light, “you’re a Westerner.”

My body felt like it was broiling in an oven, my skin minutes away from being blackened and crispy like my mother’s pork belly. I was eyeing my friend’s umbrella like a salvation, but something tied to my identity as an American woman, a Jersey girl, didn’t let me move. Instead, I said, “I think it’s hilarious that they sell whitening cream here.”

My friend retorted, “Ha, they sell tanning oil in the United States, don’t they?” She turned to look at me and, smiling, said, “People always want what they don’t have.”

I think I came to Singapore at a time when I really needed to be here. I didn’t expect it, but right away, Singapore embraced me with its orderly and multi-cultured heart. Here was an immaculate city with an urban core of sleek, elegant skyscrapers and designer hotels and a durian-shaped opera house, headed unabashedly for the future; yet, it remained an island of migrants and émigrés, built to be a little piece of everyone’s home. Here was my Taiwanese childhood of bubble teas and pork chop rice, and here was my young adulthood of Beatle cover bands and fast cash and Western bars. In Singapore, I heard traces of my grandmother’s Hokkien dialect. I found the Creole language of my father’s speech, that verbal salad of Mandarin and English tossed into something wholly different, strange and beautiful. Here was a city where the majority of the population looked like me, where everyone came from somewhere else, and my race was no longer noticed. In Singapore, I recognized that everyday actions like going to the grocery store and waiting for the bus were easier, more comfortable than they had ever been in the United States. Here, I was relieved from the decade-long effort of trying to blend in with white America. At last, I felt like I could be me, whoever that was. 

In addition to my newfound freedom, that whole year, I enjoyed a blind, giddy happiness in large part because I found a community to which I belonged in an integral and essential way. I spent long, exhausting hours at school alongside ardent and hilarious teachers, and we went out for dinner in Kampong Glam, Little India, or Chinatown. Afterward, I met up with my advisor and her friends—all of us of Han Chinese descent—for drinks under the filtered lights at Clarke Quay. We would always hover, at least for a little while, on Elgin Bridge, staring at the river where Malaya’s tin and rubber were once processed and shipped out by the British East India Company. I leaned my head on my advisor’s shoulder as constellations of city lights sparkled on the water, rolling with the tides, dragon-dancing, it seemed, with old-world wealth and the newly rich, a spectacular proof that Asia could be dignified and deserving of respect from the West.

“Where have you been?” The West Virginia fellow with narrow eyes and wire frame glasses asked in the hawker center as I sat down. In those days, my American friends rarely saw me. “You know, they say you’ve found a group of friends here because you’re Asian.”

“Well, I hope it’s more than that,” I muttered, offended. I nodded at his sweat-stained shirt and basketball shorts, asking, “Did you guys play squash today?”

“Yep. And worked out a bit. You ever run on the track?”

Lightly, I scoffed. I had just gotten off the bus after a twelve-hour day at school. Returning to his original comment, I said, “But you guys have it much easier at school. I swear the teachers forget I’m American.” 

He held his chopsticks in midair, his index finger and thumb crisscrossed awkwardly. The sweet aroma of coconut milk curled from his nasi lemak. He asked, “You think you having more work has anything to do with race?”

“Don’t you?”

The West Virginia fellow hesitated. He had a reticence about him; a quiet, modest man who, back home, would have been considered average. But in Singapore, he held himself with a princely disposition. He shrugged, saying he didn’t know. But I suspected that, in some ways, he did. In the decade or so since our time in Singapore, he never made it home for good. He dated Asian women and picked up the kind of odd jobs expatriates could find with ease in Southeast Asia: writer, teacher, journalist, and translator. It wasn’t that he liked Asia per se, I thought, it was because he liked who he was in Asia.

“It’s complicated,” he replied.

One night, our New York fellow with ice blue eyes exclaimed, “Everyone knew I was still drunk, you know, the students, the teachers, even the principal. But no one said anything.” We were sitting by the window in our three-bedroom apartment. Far below, vehicles swished by on the Anak Bukit Flyover, their amber taillights receding into the horizon. He continued, with a big belly laugh, “I felt like how the white men must have felt when we first came to Asia and the natives thought they were Gods.” 


In the mid-1800s, white gold diggers seized Chinese miners’ stakes by beating, burning, and shooting the Chinese. The Shasta Republic reported, “The murder of Chinamen is almost of daily occurrence.” 

Expelled from the prospect of gold, Chinese miners found work with the Central Pacific Railroad, contracted to build the difficult half of the railway from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific. In the 1860s, Chinese coolies made up about 90 percent of the company’s workforce, for backbreaking work and harsh mountain winters. However, the Chinese were paid sixty cents for every dollar paid to white workers, and when the workers went on strike, the superintendent cut off their food supply. After the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869, Chinese workers were barred from the celebrations. The speeches congratulated European immigrant workers for their labor and never mentioned the Chinese. Instead, the Chinese men were summarily fired and forced to walk the long distance back to San Francisco—forbidden to ride on the railroad they’d built.


Across the bridge, over Johor Strait, the shift from Singapore to Malaysia was sudden and intense. Hawkers milled around us on the broken pavement, offering platters of gum, cigarettes, and toothbrushes. “Money change?” A man asked, a wad of US dollars in one hand and Malaysian ringgits in the other. Across the road, a lone man carried a plastic bag, his head down, walking along the barren shoulders of the highway. 

Two white fellows and I rode the four-hour bus from the border city of Johor Bahru to the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur. As we shuffled into a yellow cab to head to our hostel, pedestrians in business suits and headscarves dashed through the squeak and sigh of traffic. Smoke rose from roadside grills, climbing the walls of half-finished high-rises. The city pulsed with grit and ambition; it knew it was at the cusp of a huge commercial change. In the distance, the Petronas Towers stood, their glass-and-steel exterior sparkling, their spires piercing the polluted, papery sky. 

Our driver was a middle-aged Indian-Malaysian man with a mustache and a kind grin. Beside him, a beaded necklace hung from the rearview mirror, swinging. He asked, “Where are you from?”

“America,” my New York friend answered.

My New Jersey friend added, “But we’re working in Singapore.”

“Ah, yes, Obama, isn’t it?” Someone honked; he blared his horn in response. “Incredible, isn’t it? A Black president in the United States. You know our government here is running by Malays, no? All Malays, everyone Malay. But now I think maybe, one day, we will be having an Indian prime minister too.” In a honeyed voice, he breathed out: “Ah, America.”

Before we could respond, he slammed on the brakes at a red light. I pushed against the back of the passenger seat. That was when he lifted his eyes in the rearview mirror, right at me.

“And you?” He asked. “Where are you from?”

“America,” I said.

I watched his eyes widen, the light in his walnut irises slip. He hesitated, staring with the smug, banal look of a man who held forth an authority over me. “No, really,” he said. “Where are you really from?”

The taxi spit and took off again. On either side of me, my friends inched away, sliding toward the windows. I had almost forgotten, as I did from time to time, that I didn’t look quite like them. As both of them fixed their stares outside, I was trying to remember if I knew whether their ancestors had come from Ireland or Germany or Poland, or if it mattered at all. “United States,” I said again.

“China? Korea?” 

“United States.”

“Japan? Hong Kong?” He glanced up again, “Vietnam?”

I knew, of course, what he wanted to hear, but to say that I came from Taiwan felt like a lie. “No,” I replied. I could hear the resentment rising in my throat, desperate to be heard. These days, I see my refusal to dignify this line of questioning as a small crusade, however ill-informed, to break down stereotypes of what an Asian woman can be and what an American can look like. But back then, I think it was a much simpler thing: It was an instinct. My defiance felt like the only thing that kept me intact, wholly myself, from others telling me who I was allowed to be. “I’m American,” I said again—mostly because it was true, but also because I felt entitled to the same adulation and underserved respect as my white friends. Because it gave me privilege and power.

All of a sudden, pulled to a stop in front of our hostel, he whipped himself around and brought his face two inches from mine. “So, Japan, right?” He smiled, and satisfied, he bowed, grinning, “Konichiwa.


On November 3, 1885, on a cold Northwest morning, several hundred men congregated in Tacoma, Washington, and marched along the waterfront to Chinese houses and storefronts, smashing doors and breaking windows. The mobs forced the Chinese residents to pack up their goods and head to the train station. Those who refused were threatened to be killed. The Sheriff’s deputies observed the proceedings but did not intervene. After the Chinese were expelled from the city, the men set the neighborhood aflame. 

Weeks earlier, a rally in town had declared the Chinese as a menace to the community and a danger to the United States. Its keynote speaker was the mayor, Jacob Weisbach, himself an immigrant from Germany.


After my fellowship in Singapore ended, I wound up traveling all over Asia for the better part of a year. By then, I was moving around enough to realize that I could not outrun my race. Out in the Continent’s backwaters, I began to learn who I was; or, at the very least, who the world thought I was. In that gap between one and the other, I learned to negotiate my existence.

 In South Korea, I fended off the hard glares of Korean women who remembered Americans soldiers during the war when I drank with my white male friend. At a bus stop, a Dutch traveler asked whether I was on the peninsula looking for my birth parents. In Ulaabaantar, Mongolia, I endured the scowl of Mongol men who, I heard, beat up ethnic Han Chinese in the darkness of night, each punch echoing with ancient tribal brutality. At a night market in Laos, I haggled over twenty-five cents with a woman not much older than I was, her baby wrapped in a sarong at her chest; I could see my own reflection in her brown eyes, her face almost the same as mine, brimming with a stricken curiosity: Why you? Why not me? In hostels all over, I started to recognize that white backpackers could not tell whether or not I spoke English, and so I became practiced in icebreakers and formulated a courage to sit down with men and women I didn’t know. 

By the time I made it to China, I knew how to use my race to my own benefit. I skated past the park entrance and avoided ferry fees by claiming that I was a tour guide taking two Belgian backpackers on a hike along the storied Li River. I started to value my limited Mandarin as I was invited into a Naxi woman’s home, and, in exchange for translating signs for a hostel, I was allowed to stay in a private room for free. Among the white travelers I met, it was hilarious, and I was saving handfuls of cash each day. You’re so lucky, they claimed, and I laughed, remembering what my advisor had said: We all want what we cannot have. 

When I came back to Singapore for a few months, most of my new friends were expatriates from the United States, Germany, and Australia. They introduced me to a Singapore I had not known before, one of overprized Singapore Slings and outdoor concerts and American clubs. From them, I learned that I could negotiate higher salaries on account of my citizenship. For a number of odd jobs, I was paid nearly double what my Singaporean colleagues made. Most of the time, I felt ill at ease, unsettled with my unearned American status. But I knew now that the Chinese, too, have imprisoned a million ethnic Uighurs and Turkish minorities into concentration camps. The Japanese have ravaged and raped and massacred. Han Chinese have emigrated to the island of Taiwan and built factories and cities on aboriginal land, from which my family and I have reaped our privilege. 

I was walking along Orchard Road one afternoon when a joyful Malay, who had started a tutor agency, called me. I could hear the singsong in her voice as she offered me a gig to tutor two Thai girls. “They have a lot of money,” she said, giggling. “I think they’re related to the King of Thailand.”

“Why don’t you want it?” I asked. 

“You can make more money than me. You’re American!” She continued, “What a shame lah, you could charge even more if you were white. What a shame.”

I laughed. For a moment, both of us held our phones to our ears and we didn’t speak. I listened to her breath, this gentle woman in a hijab who had told me on multiple occasions that she was too scared to visit the United States. I knew she was right. But I wondered: Who, exactly, was supposed to feel that shame?


In 1982, Detroit was a city in crisis, with long lines snaking around unemployment offices, union halls, welfare offices, and soup kitchens. Twenty-seven-year-old Vincent Chin was having his all-American bachelor party at Fancy Pants, a raunchy striptease bar in Highland Park, when two white men became aggressive, calling him, “Chink,” “Nip,” “Fucker.” Outside, one man held Vincent down while the other swung a slugger baseball bat into Vincent’s skull. At the height of the Japanese motor innovation, the two men blamed Vincent, a Chinese American, for stealing their jobs, thinking he was Japanese. Two off-duty cops witnessed the attack. Four days later, Vincent died.

The two men pleaded guilty to manslaughter. Each received three years’ probation and $3,780 in fines to be paid over three years. The presiding judge, Judge Charles Kaufman, explained: “These aren’t the kind of men you send to jail.” They never served any time.

Vincent’s four hundred family and friends came for his wedding and went to his funeral.


I was still young when I left Asia for good, but I wasn’t the same. I went out to Seattle to pursue a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. Throughout my two-year residency, my professors persisted in asking me, “Why are your characters white? Where are all the Asian characters?” I was frustrated that I was singled out by the color of my skin, and that my colleagues did not have to contend with issues of race. But I recognize now that in the heart of those questions rang a truth about myself and my country: I knew how to be white in America, but because we didn’t talk about Asians in this nation, I had never figured out how to be Asian-American.

Not long ago, in line at SeaTac Airport, a white man in a business suit stepped in front of me and slapped his briefcase on the security belt. “Sir,” a Latino TSA agent said, nodding at me. “She was ahead of you.”

The white man turned to look at me and flicked his wrist. “It’s fine,” he said, peeling off his shoes and tossing them into the plastic bin. Since I came back to the United States, I have started to recognize these slights as the hundreds of times that I have been made to feel invisible in my country. I could not know for certain, of course, that his dismissal was an act of bias, but that was part of the problem with being a marginalized citizen: It could be discrimination, conscious or not. Once you learn how white Americans view you, you can’t unlearn it. You can’t stop seeing it, not in the waiters who serve you after white guests, not in the security guard who didn’t think you could be the school’s basketball coach. Growing up in white suburbia, it felt as if the United States wanted me to assimilate, to become white; to a certain extent, I did, but I realize now that America has never stopped treating me as “yellow.”

I didn’t go looking for my roots in Asia; I didn’t know I had to. I went to Singapore, like most American graduates, to put off the real world. By cosmic chance, I ended up on an island at the edge of the Continent that was, like me, a merging place of the East and the West. I discovered in Asia that I enjoyed great privileges in life, and vast opportunities. I found out overseas that my past, who I am, was infinitely more complicated than I had ever considered it to be. I recognized that there was nothing straightforward about the question, “Where are you from?” Each time, I felt the forces of our human histories of migration, imperialism, and power collide. Yet, out of that mayhem, I was allowed to come into my own.

It has taken me nearly two decades to make sense of the dissonance I feel in the United States, and even longer to embrace both of my cultures and to appreciate that I am immeasurably richer for them. I rarely feel the need to hide half of myself anymore. These days, I talk to strangers and friends alike about the vibrant tapestry of Taiwanese foods and the rainbow-colored sea of my childhood. I took unabashed pride when Din Tai Fung and bubble tea shops swept through the nation and the world. Slowly, I am relearning the language of my birthplace, and, as such, have reignited a lasting relationship with my family in Taiwan. My ability to speak Mandarin helped me land a job at the University of Washington; and, after I quit, I stumbled upon a part-time gig to lead Taiwanese tour groups on hikes through America’s natural treasures. My clients became the first people outside of my family to call me—this adult version of me—by my birth name, and I let them. Every time “小悅” breathes through their lips, I feel as if a part of me is being resurrected. I feel a little more whole. 

The world has not changed much in the decade or so since I went to Singapore. Still, in Guatemala, when I stepped off the boat in a remote village, a boy asked if I was looking for a sushi restaurant. Our Ecuadorian guide in the Galapagos pestered me for eight straight days with questions about China, even though I insisted that I lived in California. Under the art nouveau architecture of Old Town Riga, a man spotted me from yards away and marched toward me, his finger pointing, shouting, “India! India!” Just this month, a white man in his twenties in a suburb of our liberal Seattle enclave voiced his astonishment that I spoke English so well. It does not enrage me any less than it did before. It terrifies me still that behind these seemingly innocuous jabs simmer a white superiority, a tribal rage that people who look like me are “inassimilable aliens,” that any day, it can erupt into violence against my body. It is devastating, of course, but at the very least I know now that there is nothing wrong with me, that bias against Asians dates back centuries, and I feel less alone.

I have gone back to Singapore three or four times since I left, and I always spend an evening alone walking the bank of the Singapore River. These days, I still think about catching the last train back to my friend’s flat. It was the month of Ramadan, and she was a Chinese-Singaporean who had married into the Muslim faith, so we sat on her couch, high above her city, and ate into the wee hours of the night. Out of the window, in the blue-lit skies, the city had a stagnant, restful quality. This was the Singapore I had always loved with my imperfect and hesitant lust, my city of midnight conversations and young love affairs, a homesick town full of Arab streets, Malay stalls, and Chinese settlements. Singapore was a sweep of lights miles above the island, a phosphorescent city of silver office towers rising majestically over the dark swallow of the Pacific Ocean. Here, in a city they had built out of a swamp, there was always a feeling of genuine possibility.


In Nadi, Fiji, my taxi driver had a different face, a different skin tone than I’d expected of people of Polynesian descent. I, too, couldn’t restrain myself from asking where he had come from and how. “India,” he said, smiling politely. “With the British Empire, centuries ago.” He glanced at me in the rearview mirror and asked, “You? Where you from?” 

“United States,” I answered. I braced myself for an interrogation. But he nodded and didn’t press on. So I rolled down the windows and squinted into the wind. As we skirted the coast of his island, the deep blue of the Pacific Ocean roaring and churning against its shores, I imagined his ancestors on a British merchant ship drifting away from their subcontinent. I thought about him, about my Singaporean friends, about my parents—all the people in the world who would never be home again. And I thought about a child in those distant mountains, running along a trickling waterfall and catching tadpoles in paper cups and letting them go, their obsidian bodies squirming—plop-plop-plop—splashing back into their pond.