by Amai Tonken (甘い とんけん)
illustrated by Amai Tonken (甘い とんけん)
“Yo, check this out.” With a click, Oliver navigated to Youtube and flipped his laptop around on the carpet to show Nan. There were a few videos already up on the Youtube account he’d set up under the alias “lockdaboat” and he’d picked a good one. A sick beat started up on the black screen, courtesy of Nosaj Thing. Fade in, some foundation moves to warm up–
Nan glanced up from the iPhone permanently fused to his hand. “Oh, that’s cool,” he said distractedly.
–a pretty sweet variation on the scooby walk if he did say so himself, wait for it, wait for it, and then the tiny Oliver on the screen tossed his untied sneaker behind his back with a kick, kneeled, and caught it between his legs. Aw, yeah. It had taken him weeks to learn that move, but it still had only 459 views. Nan wasn’t even paying attenion, tapping away one-fingered at his iPhone.
“The fuck, come on, man,” Oliver said, and paused the video.
Nan gave a guilty start, then hunched in his shoulders. “Sorry, sorry, I’m done,” was all he said in reply, and pocketed the iPhone. They watched the rest of the video in silence; when it ended, Oliver shut the lid of the laptop, fuming.
“So, hey,” Nan said, after a minute, “look at you, popping and locking in your bedroom in Thousand Oaks.” He bumped his shoulder lightly against Oliver’s.
“Just locking, not popping. Go back to Stanford, asshole,” Oliver said, half a joke but not really, and shoved Nan’s shoulder so hard he had to clutch his mug of Milkis to keep it from sloshing over.
“It’s just Palo Alto in the off-season.” Nan laughed in that nervous, self-effacing way he did in high school whenever anyone pushed him, and sucked a drop of Milkis off his knuckle. At that moment, his phone dinged–a new text message.
“Heard back from your girlfriend?” Oliver craned to catch a glimpse, but Nan moved the phone so he couldn’t see it. “Hey, c’mon, you don’t have to lie about it to me. Is she ugly or something?”
“There’s no girlfriend, I’m telling you,” Nan said, and put his phone back in his pocket. “Anyway, I just came by to drop something off.” He unfolded his legs and extracted a stack of paperback books from his backpack, dropping them on the carpet with a whump. “I got a bunch of Ralph Snyder books for you at the Friends of the Library sale back in Palo Alto.”
“Ralph Snyder?” Oliver looked over at the stack of paperbacks and his eyes made sense of the midlister-style covers, all lurid ancient China fantasies rendered in willowy brush strokes. “Oh, fuck no. No, man, what the hell?”
“What? I thought you’d like them,” Nan said.
“Shit, man,” Oliver said. A white guy dressed in an old-fashioned Chinese getup glared up at him from the topmost cover, an Asian beauty sprawled across his chest. He split the pages. Thomas clutched at the moon goddess’s insubstantial form. “Her almond-shaped eyes fluttered closed, dewed with unshed tears,” he read out loud from the page. “Celestial Jade Dragon–the fuck is this.”
“Two dollars for the whole lot.” The corner of Nan’s mouth ticked up in the beginning of a smile. “Happy birthday.”
He tossed the book at Nan’s head; Nan finally bust out laughing. “Shut the fuck up,” Oliver said. “My birthday isn’t till November, and this doesn’t get you out of giving me a real gift.”
Nan giggled some more. Unexpectedly, he reached into his jacket pocket and got out a cigarette. “Hey, can I–?”
They had to sneak past Oliver’s mom (busy watching a Mandarin drama with the family dog, Fortune, esconced on her lap) to get to the back yard where they could sit on the faded backyard swing, sides pressed comfortably against each other, while Nan lit up. Their feet swung out in counterpoint to each other. The whole of suburban Southern California stretched out before them, parceled into housing developments. The few green hills that had been wrangled into existence were laced with irrigation tubes. Cars wound their way idly through the curving roads. Home sweet fucking home–he’d be bored to death by the end of the year.
Nan leaned forward, squinting out at the sun, cigarette in hand. He’d cut his hair in some kind of hipster shag and gotten contacts to replace his dorky glasses. Oliver kinda wanted to ask him about Stanford, but he kinda didn’t. That’s a new habit, your mom must be shitting herself, how’s the dorms, who’d you get for a roommate instead of me, isn’t Thousand Oaks shit, you bored yet–but he didn’t think he could take it.
“Do you want one? I have another pack in my jacket.”
“Naw, man, it’s bad for my lungs. If I’m gonna dance, I gotta be, like, you know,” Oliver said. He kicked Nan’s foot.
Nan ground out the cigarette with the toe of his shoe. His pocket started ringing; he reached in and thumbed his iPhone on. “Yeah, hi, how’s Palo Alto in the summer?” he said into his phone, in an unrecognizable voice–deeper, sarcastic, a little mischievous. He gave Oliver a quick, distracted sideways glance, then got up and took the call around the side of the house, so that Oliver could only hear the faintest murmurs of sound carried over to him on the wind, snatches of “miss you” and “see you in September,” and “Stanford,” followed by an unfamiliar laugh.
Something ugly started itching in Oliver’s diaphragm, right under his ribs. He got up and bounced on the balls of his feet. When Nan got back from his call, Oliver would show him the new moves he’d learned, even better than the ones he had on YouTube.
Oliver was rewatching a Hilty & Bosch video while lying in bed, ankle propped up on his knee, laptop on his stomach, when the door flew open. “You can’t stay here all time,” his dad said from the lit doorway.
“No one’s gonna hire a high school dropout, like you said, many times,” Oliver mumbled, turning the volume up on his laptop. The modern-day GoGo brothers, Rei and Yuu, moved so funky–man, he’d love to have one of the original generation as his dad instead of a guy who could barely speak English, much less dance.
His dad strode over and grabbed the laptop, banging the lid shut and yanking out the power cord. He ignored Oliver’s yell of indignation. “McDonald’s do not need high school certificate,” he said, voice rising. “Mama is ashamed to you.”
“You could’ve broken it,” Oliver yelped, jumping up from the bed and making a grab for the laptop.
“You don’t get job, I break it,” his dad bellowed, red-faced now, gesturing violently with the laptop in his hand. “You buy your own laptop!”
Out in the hallway, his mom’s high, agitated voice was on the phone to someone. His dad wound up the power cord around his fist in jerky movements, the lines of his face set in an angry mask. “You need to learn how to be responsibility. No more computer, no more TV, no more phone–” He snatched up Oliver’s phone while Oliver was still scrabbling for it. “No more until you get job,” he finished, voice rising over Oliver’s protests.
On the weekend, when his dad knocked on the door to his room, Oliver was going over advanced isolation in the mirror. “Fuck off,” he called out, but his phone and laptop were still locked up in his dad’s trunk. He’d heard it ringing in there before his dad went to work in the morning. Probably Nan wanting to hang out.
“I found job for you,” his dad said. “You can have your phone back when we get to there.”
From the back seat, the freeway ran together into a hot, bright blur, all clusters of boxy beige buildings and backlit shopping plaza signs for Red Lobster and nail salons. “So what’s the job then?” Oliver mumbled–not like he cared. It was all the same.
His dad finally spoke, glancing over his shoulder for traffic as he exited. “I saw, eh, the book on your desk. I said, I know that Mr. Snyder!” Oh, yeah. The stack of Ralph Snyder books Nan had given him had mouldered on his desk for a couple weeks, trapped under a pile of dirty dishes. “That Mr. Snyder is my client. He said, he want someone to be his personal assistant. I said, my son looking for work–”
Realization cracked him over the head like a two-by-four. “Oh, fuck no!” Oliver kicked the back of the driver’s seat.
His dad made an illegal left turn into a gated housing complex, right on the tail of another car. Someone honked behind them. “He is a very good writer,” his dad continued. “Big house, make lot of money.”
“I hate that asshole,” Oliver muttered. “What’s a white guy like that have to say about China?” He slid down the seat and glared outside the window at the rows of large, beige houses, every fourth the same, all with the same sycamore trees in the yard.
“China have a lot of things to teaching people. Like hard work,” was all his dad said as he turned the car into a cul-de-sac. A lot of their conversations ended up like this, with his dad not even remotely getting the gist of what he was saying.
Ralph Snyder lived in a three-story Spanish-style house in Agoura Hills about twice as big as Oliver’s parents’. They rang the doorbell three times and waited outside on the yellowing lawn, shaded only by a parched-looking sycamore tree. After about ten minutes and several rings of the doorbell, his dad started banging on the door; Oliver peeled away and loped around the side of the house.
He got out his phone, newly liberated from his dad’s trunk, and texted Nan: dad got me a job w ralph snyder. wtf!! Sent. Then he looked around. The gate on the side was open. He could make out a dessicated garden on the other side that was part of the back yard. There was a middle-aged, gaunt man crouching in the middle of the garden, staring at him.
“Zao shang hao, ah–” the man called out, squinting at Oliver. With his big ears and narrow nose, he kinda looked like Prince Charles crossed with a stick insect. He got up, took off his grubby gardening gloves, and reached out a hand. “Ni shi… Oliver?”
He even pronounced “Oliver” the way a Chinese person would: “uoh-leevah”. “Uh, I don’t speak Chinese,” Oliver said, and stuck his hands in his pockets. He shuffled into the backyard, though, and let the gate swing shut behind him.
“Oh, sorry,” the man said. “I always speak Chinese with your dad.” Oliver’s lip curled, almost involuntarily. The guy put his outstretched hand away after a moment. “So I understand that you’re looking for work?” he continued, and cleared his throat. “As my personal assistant? I can pay you $10 an hour. It might not sound substantial, but it’s under the table, so you won’t be taxed for it.”
Oliver raised one shoulder.
After a beat, the man got down on his knees to wash his hands under the faucet sticking out from the side of the house. He peered up at Oliver, at a temporary height disadvantage.
“So,” he said. “Your dad says you like to be called Olly.”
Wiping his hands dry on an honest-to-god handkerchief, the guy straightened to his full length–he was taller than even Nan, and very thin, stretched out like someone had put him in a taffy machine and left it to work for an hour. “Well, I’m Ralph Snyder, as you’ve probably figured out. You can call me Ralph, anyway.” It was the quintessential nasal white guy name, the way he said it: Ra-owh-lph, Sny-ider. Raahowwh-lph. Snyiyiyider.
His dad came around the corner at that moment, sweaty and red-faced. He clapped a hand on Oliver’s back. “Oliver! Have you say hello to Mr. Snyder?”
“Hello, Ralph,” Oliver said.
His dad pressed his shoulder in warning, but Ralph gave a high, dry laugh and folded his stick-insect arms. “No, no, it’s fine! I asked him to call me Ralph.”
Ralph made them all take off their shoes before coming in but didn’t give them slippers to wear. As it turned out, the inside of his house was some kind of Asian antiques fever dream: porcelain Ming vases everywhere, lacquered wooden chests, bamboo chairs, woven carpets, wall scrolls, screens. It was like China exploded in here, but without all the brightly colored plastic tubs, the knock-off Mickey Mouse tablecloths, all the promotional bank calendars with dancing cartoon mice.
His dad made small talk in Chinese, and Ralph replied, slowly. Ralph’s accent wasn’t that good, Oliver thought, with resentment. It still had the toneless nasality of English to it–even Oliver could tell, and his vocabulary was mostly limited to “hello” and “eat” and “toilet.”
While his dad was distracted, he wandered further into the house, through the cluttered living room, around the spacious kitchen, up the carpeted stairs, through the hallway–whoa, back up. The hallway was full of leering ceramic faces. There was some Charlie-Chaplin-looking mask of a dude with a white patch over his nose right over Oliver’s head.
“What the hell?” he said, out loud, and advanced with some caution. The faces were weirdly out of place in what was otherwise a normal Southern Californian home, like a hundred evil eyes lining the wall. He took a pic with his phone. Nan would get a kick out of this. True homes of the rich and mediocre.
A flash of yellow pulled his attention to a half-open door, and he creaked it open cautiously. It appeared to be a spare, neat bedroom. The walls were bare except for the space at the head of a king-size four-poster bed all covered in blue silk brocade. The canopy cascaded down the wall, and he caught a flash of yellow again. It winked at him, half-hidden in the billowy fabric of the canopy like someone’s guilty secret. Oliver shuffled around for a better look.
It was a clay face painted in yellow, like one of the ones outside in the hallway, marked with wiggly black lines and patches of white. It creeped him out as it rotated in his view. There were patterns drawn all over the forehead that made it look like a split flower, or a moth. The vividness of the yellow was startling; the eyes, disturbing.
“It’s not authentic,” a flat, nasal voice said, from the doorway. Busted. The back of his neck prickled in embarrassment, but Oliver didn’t turn around. “It’s a poor reproduction of Jin Jia’s face makeup–Jin Jia being a patron of the literary arts in a Peking Opera play–”
“Uh, I was just looking for the bathroom,” Oliver said.
“I acquired it in my travels of China,” Ralph added, and angled his body towards the door in a clear invitation for Oliver to get the hell out, which he did.
Downstairs, Ralph showed him to a computer setup with a double monitor and a swanky leather office chair. “I’d like you to type up this typewritten page–they’re just my notes, but be careful to enter everything exactly as it appears on the page,” he said, leaning over Oliver’s shoulder to point at the pages, way too close. His breath smelled like stale coffee and old man. “Got it, Olly? Olly, right?”
“Oliver,” said Oliver. He sat down and twirled in the chair. Whee.
“Make yourself at home. I usually work upstairs on my typewriter,” Ralph called, already spidering up the stairs two at a time.
By the time his dad came and picked him up later that afternoon, he’d typed in a bunch of gibberish about brothels, acrobatics, and sexuality in imperial China. Ralph handed him $40 in two faded twenties at the door and told him to come back Wednesday.
“Good job,” his dad said, clapping him on the shoulder.
His mom was in the back seat with Fortune in her lap; the passenger seat in the front was full of plastic bags from 99 Ranch. He pushed his backpack in first as a buffer, but Fortune barked at him anyway. His mom shushed her with an indulgent murmur. Fortune was convinced she was a rung up on the family ladder than Oliver, and his mom hardly indicated otherwise.
As they pulled out of the driveway, his mom said, “Tch, that Ralph is a lao wai.” Oliver shoved his hands in his pockets and pretended not to hear her, sliding down the car seat. “How he can speak Chinese and you not do it?”
“Whatever,” he mumbled and put his earbuds in.
“Nan speaks Chinese too,” she continued, but he turned up the volume on his iPod.
“Let’s go out,” Oliver said, flicking through the wad of bills in his hand. It was hard to flick through a wad of bills impressively when said wad contained two twenties, but he’d folded them up so it was as thick as four. He felt like he put up a good show, anyway.
“Go out where?” Nan said to his phone. “It’s Thousand Oaks.” His eyes eerily reflected the pale glow of the iPhone screen, which lit his face like a Halloween mask.
“I know this place where there are usually a couple hot girls. Hey, I’ll be your wingman,” Oliver said. “I’ll show you how it’s done.”
Nan made that nervous, self-deprecating laugh again, like someone was going to hit him. “Um. Can’t I be your wingman instead? I’m not–”
“It’s cool, it’s cool. You go on.” Oliver was feeling generous, something that he rarely got to feel anymore now that Nan had gone off to Stanford. It was, in his mind, sort of a feudal thing, like noblesse oblige, initiating him into the ways of picking up girls at bars. “Hey, ma,” he called up the stairs. “I’m going over to Nan’s house! We’ll be back late!”
But the bar turned out to be mostly populated by thirty-year-olds in button-down shirts and too much makeup, with a low hum of sedate conversation under the ’90s pop blaring from the speakers. Oliver’s neck prickled with embarrassment. Maybe Nan had seen cooler in Palo Alto, but he shrugged away the thought–as if squeaky-clean, painfully shy Nan would go to bars.
“Hey, Nan.” Oliver nudged him in the side. “Check it out, isn’t that Yi Ting? What’s she doing here?”
Yi Ting Dong, who unfortunately got nicknamed “Eating” Dong in middle school, was standing by the bar. She had gotten hot in the intervening years. Her boobs pushed out the front of her tank top, stretching out the stripes, and she was wearing some kind of short glittery skirt with a sequined lipstick mark on the side. She had been Nan’s de facto “girlfriend” in sixth grade before they got split up into different classes.
“A couple of tequila shots for the lovely ladies there,” Oliver told the bartender, who was talking to someone else and barely gave him a glance.
“Hey, I can get it,” Nan said, and got out his wallet.
“Naw, man.” He smacked his hand away. “That’s weird. I got it.” How could he let Nan get it? Too weird to contemplate: Nan used to follow him around, a year younger, half a foot shorter, always getting bullied–well, until his growth spurt hit at 16 and he shot up ten or eleven inches over the course of two years. He was still getting used to looking up at Nan, not down.
He handed the bartender one bill out of his wad. Yi Ting was standing with a short-haired Latina girl at the bar, kinda looking in their direction, her eyebrows furrowed a little. Maybe she remembered them. Her friend grinned at Nan.
“Okay, fine, you be the wingman,” Oliver said in a low voice to Nan. “Introduce me, or reintroduce me if she remembers me, whatever.”
“Sure.” Nan’s smile wobbled and threatened to fall off his face. He rocked forward on the balls of his feet, towards the girls. “Hey, um–” he started, and cleared his throat. “My friend wants to know if you–”
But: “Sorry, I have a boyfriend,” she said, without a trace of recognition, and flicked her layered hair over her shoulder. Nan turned around and shrugged helplessly with one shoulder.
Outside the club, Oliver gave a vicious kick to a blue plastic recycling can. The parking lot was full of cars, rows and rows of them dark and empty under the orange blare of the streetlights. He could still hear the beat of the music inside. Some 90’s crap.
Nan came out after a few minutes. He was just a faint shape against the brick of the bar’s outer walls, but Oliver saw the gleam of his eyes under the orange lights. He whirled around and kicked the can again, then a third time. “You probably still have a chance with her friend,” he said, even though it pissed him off.
“She’s not my type,” Nan said. He fished in his pocket for a cigarette and fumbled the lighter three times before he got it to light.
“Oh, right, you don’t care. You got that girlfriend up at Stanford you’re always calling,” Oliver sneered. He scraped his shoe along the sidewalk.
Nan shrugged around his cigarette, eyebrows raised as if to say, ‘What can you do?’ He cupped his hand around the tiny flame, and the glow picked out highlights on his skin–high forehead, broad cheeks, flat nose.
“Gimme one of those,” Oliver said. He flapped his shirt; his back was sweaty. “C’mon, man,” when Nan didn’t move.
Nan hesitated. “Didn’t you say you don’t like them? Bad for your lungs?”
“Come on,” Oliver heard himself whining, “are you fucking kidding me?”
“All right, all right, give me a moment,” Nan said meekly. He fished around in his jacket pocket for his pack and came up with… his phone, lit with an incoming message. “Wait, give me a sec to reply to this,” he said and tapped the phone.
The sound of clacking heels. A high, clear voice from behind them spoke: “No, no, it’s like dating my little brother, you know? Asian guys aren’t even a little bit masculine.” A laugh. “And the, you know. Kinda small down there.”
Oliver froze, half-crouched behind the plastic recycling bin. His heart seemed to pound very loud and fast in his chest, slamming against his ribs. Nan’s eyes rounded, and he ducked down behind the recycling bin as well.
They waited in animal silence for a time that seemed like it could stretch to an hour. The eucalyptus trees waved huge and dark before them, armfuls of leaves rippling in the faint light.
Her friend said something else in a teasing voice, then, “I thought that tall one was kinda cute, but okay.” They both laughed and clacked away to their car.
“What the fuck,” Oliver muttered after a moment, and kicked the blue recycling bin so hard it fell over. Shit. That was a stupid move. His foot throbbed, pain radiating from his toes. Ow, shit. It wasn’t fucking fair. His hands stung, faintly; his nails had pressed eight dents into the meat of his palms.
“Hey, Oliver,” Nan said, with a note of concern. He put his phone in his pocket and his hand on Oliver’s shoulder. He reeked of cigarettes. “Let’s go home.”
Ralph’s house smelled funny, a certain fusty scent rising up from all the vases and cabinets. It had taken him a few weeks to pinpoint what it reminded him of: when Oliver’s mom took him to Shanghai when he was thirteen, he’d discovered that China had a smell–a mixture of toilet water, rotting fruit, herbal medicine, and dry rice, with the occasional whiff of hua lu shui. That smell hung over everything in Ralph’s house like a fine gauze, at once nostalgic and irritating.
Ralph came back downstairs with a bowl of lychee, which he set on the side of the desk. Oliver never ate the stuff in case he got a nosebleed, and anyway, it pissed him off.
“Olly, do you read or write Chinese?” Ralph said, leaning over him.
“Ah, too bad.” He didn’t elaborate. He stood there watching Oliver with a vague smile, holding a lychee in one hand, other arm crossed over his chest. “You strike me as a smart kid–how’d you end up dropping out of high school?”
“That’s personal,” Oliver said, glaring at the keyboard.
“Have you thought about getting your G.E.D.?” Ralph added. Oliver just stared mutely at the screen, until, eventually, Ralph spidered back upstairs.
Oliver finished transcribing the notes from the first book, and dawdled at the desk for an hour, not wanting to deal with Ralph again. But he was out of lychee (which, as it turned out, did not give him a nosebleed–that was an urban legend) and the internet was down, so he couldn’t even watch Youtube.
Finally, he decided to go upstairs in hopes of another bowl of lychee, or maybe some rambutan this time. There were five doors in the hallway, but there was always a Beijing Opera buzzing behind the door of Ralph’s study if he was in there, typing. Oliver listened through the door for a few moments at the wail and screech, then pushed in.
Ralph had put on a pair of bug-eyed glasses. He was peering at the TV screen while tapping away at the typewriter set up on a portable desk he’d propped up on his recliner. A man on the screen was exclaiming something in a high-pitched, sing-songy feminine voice. “Ah, Olly. Are you done? If you could fold the laundry, please,” he said. “Or–wait,” he muttered. “Wait. Stand over there, by the TV.”
Ralph dug a hand through his hair distractedly. “It’s perfect. You’re perfect, the exact model of what I need. I have an idea. Let me make you up as a hua dan for the illustrator so he knows exactly what I want.”
Oliver stared at him. “What’s a hua dan? Makeup? Is this going to be some gay shit?”
“It’s a type of Peking Opera performer,” Ralph said quickly. “Along with the painted faces and the clowns.”
“Ohh. Like that yellow face in your room? Sweeeet,” he said, and rubbed his hands together. “I’d be down with that. Yeah, hit me.”
Ralph disappeared, scuttling around the open door. Oliver could hear his footsteps climbing the muffled carpet of the stairs.
“Hwa-yaaaa,” he said, and struck a Hong Kong action movie pose in the mirror. Wouldn’t it be cool if he turned up to a locking battle in face paint? Or it might get him some more views on YouTube. Maybe even go viral. A million–no, a hundred million views! He imagined himself at a YouTube Awards Ceremony–thank you, thank you, no, I am just that awesome.
“Close your eyes,” Ralph murmured, suddenly behind him, and wrapped a towel around his head.
Even with his eyes shut, Oliver could hear the glass clinking around. Kind of a dumb request, he thought, but it was easy work, and he was paid well enough to pick up dry cleaning and buy plane tickets and fold laundry and sit still and let some old guy put makeup on his face. He fidgeted a bit, but kept his eyes closed.
“Sit down in this chair. Did you like the Jin Jia mask, then? The one in the bedroom, I mean?” Ralph asked.
“It’s okay. It’s creepy, I dunno.” Oliver shrugged a little, trying not to move his face. “Kinda badass though. Looks like Darth Maul,” he added. “Except yellower.”
“The yellow is an integral part of the face. You may not be aware, but the colors on Peking Opera faces have particular meanings,” Ralph’s voice said, dry and academic. The cool wet tip of the brush swiped over his eyelid. “Red is always associated with bravery and loyalty. Purple is that with an extra aura of sophistication, black indicates soundness and integrity, blue and green can be brave but sometimes misguided, and white is associated with treachery and deceit. Yellow is a little more ambiguous, however. Depending on who you ask, yellow can represent either valor or brutality.”
It galled him that Ralph thought he was stupid or something, like he didn’t know anything about Beijing Opera. His grandma in China was always watching the stuff, though he never paid much attention to the screen. Too screechy. It hurt his ears. Admittedly, he didn’t know that about the colors, though. Score another point for Ralph in the contest to be the best Asian in this room (a contest Oliver would’ve forfeited anyhow).
“For example,” Ralph droned, “yellow is used in the makeup of the character Jin Jia, who is highly regarded as one of the patron saints of Chinese literature, but it’s also commonly used for brigands, thieves, ruthless generals. The characterization of yellow in Peking opera is quite ambiguous, and depends entirely on the context of the specific character–”
Oliver leaned back in the chair. It reminded him of the way that everyone in high school had liked filling out personality quizzes to determine if they were more like Harry Potter or Ron Weasley. Who would have what face? Would Andy Oppenheimer have a blue face? Mr. Costello would have a white face for sure, that lying sack of shit.
The painting went fast, with Ralph talking at him. The brush strokes didn’t feel complex enough to be the wiggly little lines on the yellow face’s forehead, though.
“Stay still for a moment, keep your eyes closed, and let me take some photographs,” Ralph said. “No, keep your eyes closed.” Some shuffling sounds, a few clicks and whirrs. “All right, I’m going to touch up your jaw–”
Whatever the paint was, it dried kinda flaky and brittle on his skin. His nose itched. The brush dabbed at his chin, and he squinted one eye open, just to take a peek in the mirror.
“What the fuck! I look like a girl,” he burst out, jerking away from the brush. “You made me look like a fucking girl!”
His eyes were sharply outlined in black and red, like eyeliner; his skin had been whitened and his cheeks were a gradation of pink all the way down from his eyebrows to his jaw. His lips were bright, bright red.
Ralph’s eyes widened behind his bug-eyed glasses. “It’s not exactly–” he said quickly, and cleared his throat. “I mean, yes, the dan were female characters–wait, wait, hear me out,” he raised his voice to be heard over Oliver, “but strictly speaking, strictly speaking, this makeup is applicable to the young male characters as well, especially the ones who sing in a high voice, since it was considered desirable in an aristocratic young man to be somewhat effeminate–” Ralph’s throat bobbed up and down in rapid succession as he spoke.
“The fuck, man,” Oliver said, clawing the pancaked paint–makeup–from his jaw until it came off crumbly and white under his fingernails. “What the fuck were you thinking?”
“Er, I have all the photos I need,” Ralph said. He looked nervous. “You can wash it off now.”
There was a moment where he could’ve quit, thrown down the towel around his head, wiped off his face on it, gone down the hallway of creepy leering faces, down the stairs, through the living room, put on his shoes, out to the car–and driven away, to the freeway, past Westlake Village, back home. Instead, he froze in place, and the moment passed.
Suddenly it seemed weird, like he was making a big deal out of nothing. Was it really much weirder than the other things he’d been asked to do–scrubbing down the kitchen counters, folding Ralph’s underwear, taking nonsensical dictation from Ralph on brothels in imperial China? The money was good, and the work was easy–the very definition of a cushy job.
The silence stretched. “Yeah, yeah, whatever,” Oliver said finally, hunching his shoulders.
He wiped off the makeup with a wad of wet toilet paper, then the towel, while Ralph left to upload the photos into his computer. The red eyeshadow stuff wouldn’t come off easily, and it looked like he still had faint black smudges of eyeliner on the inside rims of his eyes.
The bathroom rang silent and empty. He stared at himself. His face in the mirror naturally relaxed into an inscrutable frown. It didn’t look like his face, or what he thought of as his face–his narrow eyes and flat nose looked alien to him. He scrubbed until his skin was mottled red. Ralph stood in the doorway for a few minutes, watching him, then closed the door.
Nan’s iPhone hadn’t gone off for hours, even though he checked it every five or ten minutes.
“–Crazy motherfucker,” Oliver finished. “Probably into some nasty shit or something. Anyway, check this out. My new routine, I’m gonna put this up on Youtube next–” He dropped his stereo on the patio table; Nan gave a little start and looked up from his phone.
Bullion came on slow, but the track built and built. It felt good to stretch and show off, but the choreography felt a little stale, just the same moves as always. He was kinda rusty besides, since all he wanted to do when he got home from Ralph’s was watch shit on YouTube.
“Oh, Oliver love to do that dancing,” his mom commented from behind him. He jerked to a standstill. “Oliver, why don’t you learn something like medicine? Nan is learning medicine.” She set a plate of Vons store brand chocolate cake down on the table; then a phone started ringing inside the house, and she left to answer it.
“I wish she’d leave me the hell alone!” Oliver burst out as soon as the glass sliding door closed. “God–” He kicked one of the patio chairs.
Nan curled his legs under him on the other patio chair. He drew one plate of chocolate cake towards him and kinda frowned at it. “Yeah, your mom wants me to convince you to go to community college.”
“It’s like her expectations keep dropping–” It was an old joke. Originally Oliver’s mom wanted him to go to Stanford or Harvard and study to become a doctor, like Nan was doing now.
“Have you thought about getting your G.E.D.?”
“Fuck off anyway. You don’t need to get on my back either.” Oliver waved him away. “When you leaving for S.F.? You going to see your girlfriend?”
“Tomorrow,” Nan muttered. He fingered the rim of the plate. “Not a girlfriend.”
“Bullshit,” Oliver sang. “I smell bullshit.”
“I’m not flying up to see my girlfriend, I’m–” and then Nan ran out of steam. He slumped in his chair. “I’m kinda thirsty. Do you have any Milkis left?”
“We’re all out. Our next grocery trip to L.A. is Saturday.”
“I’ll just go get some water, then?” Nan said. “I forgot how hot it gets down here.” Fanning himself, he took his jacket off before he went around the side of the house.
Nan’s jacket lay abandoned on the patio table, next to his uneaten slice of cake. The corner of the iPhone peeked temptingly out from the pocket.
Oliver slid it out of the pocket and tapped into the list of recent messages. Shit, had he really sent Nan all those weird, pointless texts? It was practically a column of gray on the left side, hardly any green on the right; he sent Nan probably four texts for every one he got back.
Some chick “Leigh” was at the top of the list of recent text messages, right after Oliver. Everyone else was a guy or Nan’s mom or Oliver himself. After a slightly guilty pause, he tapped the conversation. Jackpot–it was all a bunch of gooey lovey-dovey bullshit, all miss u :( from Nan’s side.
How did painfully shy, dorky Nan get a girlfriend before he did? Was she hot? Was it because he was taller than Oliver? Nan wasn’t so cool, definitely not cooler than Oliver. He felt a gnawing, frantic feeling in the pit of his stomach, and scrolled up until he found a tiny picture this “Leigh” chick had sent Nan, which he tapped to expand.
Then he must’ve blacked out for a few seconds or something.
When he came to, the screen still showed a dark, blurry picture of a pale, beaky-faced guy in a bathroom mirror, camera angled to show off his flat stomach, a trail of pale blond hair leading down into–into–it was cut off by a tiled counter.
Maybe Nan hadn’t been lying about not having a girlfriend after all. The side gate clanged shut; he quickly turned the phone off and shoved it back in Nan’s jacket. Probably just a fluke, maybe it was a joke or something.
Shit, he hadn’t backed out of the message screen before he turned off the phone. Shit, shit. The phone rang, and Nan practically ran the last couple feet to answer it, face suddenly animated: “Yeah, hey, hi! My plane’s leaving tomorrow–uh-huh, uh-huh, yeah–yeah, I am so excited to see you–”
“Hey, do you have Angry Birds on your phone?” Oliver asked casually when Nan hung up, and made a grab for the iPhone. Nan’s brow furrowed, but he let him have it. It took only a second for Oliver to erase the evidence, and then he gave it back, all smiles.
It was 3 AM, and his dad yelled through the door for him to go to sleep already, so Oliver burrowed under a blanket tent with his laptop and put a pillow over the opening to seal off the light. It was steaming hot under the covers, but not too bad if he flapped the blankets every so often.
He was scrolling through casual encounters on Craigslist for Ventura County, idly jerking off and/or quietly snickering (though more snickering than jerking off, usually), when he saw an ad titled “looking for my Asian muse – m4m – 52”.
Something about it tugged at him–wasn’t Ralph 52? No way. No fucking way. But he’d entered the dude’s date of birth a billion times for plane tickets and shit. The “Asian muse” bullshit sounded familiar too. In the story in Ralph’s head, he was probably some kind of slinky Asian boy shaking his ass seductively at him or something–Ralph’s words, not his–like Ping Shu from Emblem of Jade, one of the books in the stack Nan had given him. He’d only read the blurb on the back, since it sounded like a pretty shit book.
He clicked the CL ad out of morbid curiosity and scrolled down through an elaborate fantasy nearly a page long. It began:
Highly educated, homeowner, vegetarian, 6’4, brown/blue, drug and disease free. I am looking for a gentle, good-natured submissive Asian boy. I would prefer you to be under 25 and under 5’5.
I have a fantasy of taking your clothes off, dressing you back up in just an apron, lifting the skirt, and sucking you off–
Oliver grimaced and scrolled down, the hairs on his neck prickling.
At the bottom, there were a couple of jpgs of a familiar set of stick-insect limbs and an unfamiliar dick standing straight up, like a naked molerat in a nest of straw. A naked molerat that belonged to Ralph. Ralph, whose naked molerat and nakeder fantasies he had now seen. He could feel the eyes bugging out of his head at the thought. Maybe it wasn’t Ralph (yeah, right), but who else was that tall and skinny, 52, with a weird, creepy hard-on for Asians?
He bust out laughing, a little hysterical–it set off Fortune, who started barking outside his room like crazy. His dad banged on the wall.
It sounded like Ralph had put an ad out for Nan, actually, except Nan was too tall. But he’d always been kinda soft and shy, like the guys Ralph wrote about in his books–at least, he had been in high school. Oliver had always thought him the classic Asian son, mild-mannered, deferential, polite to elders, but maybe it was just a part of being gay? Was he gay? His mind ran around the idea for a bit, then gave up.
Still, the ad pretty much confirmed everything he’d guessed about Ralph, anyway. It was getting hot under the blankets, and the laptop was starting to make a sad wheezing sound, so Oliver turned it off and put it on the floor, then stretched out on the bed to sleep.
The next morning, he was shaving off some of the patchy little hairs on his chin when the landline rang. The landline never rang anymore except for telemarketers and political survey bullshit, so he let it go to voicemail. Bunch of assholes.
The phone beeped. “Oliver, pick up the phone. Oliver, come on!”
He hastily wiped off his chin and ran to the phone. He picked up the receiver–how all did this shit work again? Did he have to press a button? “Nan? Yo, Nan, I found all this fucked-up shit Ralph posted on Craigslist–”
“My–I got dumped,” Nan said, interrupting. He breathed into the phone for a few seconds, two bursts of static. “Um, I’m on a payphone at the airport right now. My phone’s out of batteries. I’ll be at your place in an hour.”
The doorbell rang an hour and a half later, setting Fortune off barking like crazy upstairs–Nan stood outside the door, buried in a hoodie, hands in his pockets. His eyes were red and puffy, stupidly vulnerable.
“Hey, man.” Oliver kinda stuck his hand out, like, what was he even gonna do? Shake hands? Not like Nan was a stranger. Pat Nan on the back? Too weird. He withdrew his hand. “I thought you said you didn’t have a girlfriend,” he said instead. It was supposed to come out teasing, but Nan’s face went gray, like he was just a pencil sketch of his usual self. He didn’t respond, just sat down untidily on the gaudy couch next to the door like he forgot how to use his legs. His hands were trembling where they were clamped together.
“Who is it?” his mom called from upstairs.
“Nan!” Oliver bellowed. “It’s Nan! Jeez, leave us alone!”
His mom popped up on the landing. “Nan! Olly said you are in San Francisco. Are you hungry?” she called down.
“It’s fine, Mrs. Song,” Nan said, with an alarming wobble in his voice. “I had breakfast at the airport.”
“Olly,” his mom said sharply. “Watermelon in garage, ok?”
There were three huge watermelons in the garage. He took one to the kitchen, chopped it in half with a butcher knife, dawdling a little so Nan could pull himself together, and got a couple of clean bowls out of the dishwasher. His mom was in the living room talking to Nan, who handed her the ugliest San Francisco bobblehead he’d ever seen.
“Tch, aiya,” his mom said, taking the gift. She didn’t even bother pretending to refuse it, maybe because the bobblehead was so crappy she couldn’t imagine anyone else would want it. “You are a good boy. Why Oliver can’t be like you?”
They went out to the patio. Nan lit a cigarette with shaky hands.
“Don’t you want anything to eat?” Oliver said, feeling kinda stupid standing in the back yard with two full bowls of watermelon, one in each hand. Nan shook his head, so he put the bowls on the patio table.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” Nan said.
“That’s cool, it’s cool,” Oliver said. He was intensely aware of his hands, and how they hovered awkwardly. He clapped Nan’s back and drew him into a half-hug, looping an arm around his shoulders. Shit, was that too gay? Too weird? Did Nan know he knew? Was he even sure he knew anything? He let go. “Hey, I got an idea.”
He snuck back inside and to the pantry, where he got out his dad’s bottle of cheap Shiraz (the one that had been earmarked for regifting). It clinked with the others as it came out, and he froze, but his mom didn’t turn around from her K-drama, and Fortune didn’t give him away for once.
Nan was slumped in the patio chair. “I can’t go home,” he said. He let out a breath and covered his face. “My mom’ll kill me.”
“Your mom’s called the house like five hundred times last week,” Oliver said. “She’s probably just relieved you’re alive. Hey, let’s get drunk,” he said, and gingerly patted Nan’s back again. Nan had taken off his jacket at some point, and his back was damp and sweaty. It was just like old times, Nan running to him whenever he got a boo boo, but somehow the noblesse oblige wasn’t as satisfying as he thought it’d be.
Ralph came down in the latter half of 10 o’clock with an armload of library books. “These,” he said, opening one and putting it on the table next to the monitor, “I need you to scan every page with the corner dogeared, and then–do you know how to create a bibliography?”
“I’m not an idiot,” Oliver said. Just because he didn’t go to Stanford didn’t mean he was incapable of putting together a bibliography–they taught that shit in middle school.
“What are you looking at?” Ralph said, peering at the screen. “Is this what you do instead of working?”
“Why, you wanna see?” Oliver said, and turned around in his office chair so he faced the screen. “Here, check it out.” He loaded up one of Hilty & Bosch next and clicked to the good part, where they were executing a flurry of seriously hardcore steps in perfect sync, bodies geometric and precise. Man, he dreamed about that kind of precision.
Ralph watched the video in thoughtful silence. “It doesn’t even look like real dance,” he commented. “Just–random movement.”
‘What the hell do you know?’ Oliver thought, but didn’t say. Still, the little synchronized figures of Hilty & Bosch on the screen wobbled and blurred. They got silly, inconsequential, somehow.
By the time the video ended, Ralph had wandered off to the kitchen to peel a tangerine. “All this hip-hop dancing stuff,” he said, waving negligently, “doesn’t really seem… Asian. You know. Why not something more classic, more true to your roots?”
“Man, whatever,” Oliver said, and closed the window, feeling his face burn.
Ralph came back downstairs a couple hours later with a folder marked “The Painted Face” in Sharpie. “Ah, when you’re done with that, I’ll need you to type these up–oh, and read it first. Tell me what you think,” he said, and handed Oliver a sheaf of typewriter paper covered in half-faded ink. “I’d love to know your honest opinion.”
Oliver didn’t really want to read it, but it was a job. And he was a fast reader; whatever you could say about his intellect since he dropped out of high school, at least there was that thousand words a minute. The Painted Face turned out to be about a white guy who traveled to China (typical for Ralph) and became one of Beijing Opera’s finest stars in only a year; in the second half, he met a gentle, good-natured, submissive young man in one of the xianggong brothels (who was 19, relatively short, and most suspiciously of all, had a mole on his cheek right where Oliver did) and trained him up to be a fine leading lady–all overlaid with an oily sheen of thinly-veiled homoerotic tension. He burned through the whole thing in two hours, then slapped it down on the desk, pissed the hell off. Not that anything Ralph did didn’t piss him off, but this was something special.
He burst into Ralph’s study. “Man, this is just–” Oliver struggled for words. “It’s offensive! Dude, it’s offensive.”
“What’s wrong with it?” Ralph peered over the rims of his glasses. The TV was blaring Beijing Opera as usual; he turned down the volume with a flick of his remote. “It’s historically accurate,” Ralph continued. “The brothels were real places where male actors who could play female roles in Peking Opera were discovered, and it’s not unimaginable that–”
“That’s fucking creepy,” Oliver said. It was like all of Ralph’s pathetic fantasies, vividly detailed in that CL ad, come true. “Besides, why don’t you ever write books with Asian heroes? Why do they always gotta be white?”
“Why is it ‘creepy’? I have many close friends in China, and they were never offended by my books,” Ralph said, bewildered, eyebrows furrowing. Oliver figured the Chinese-Chinese had weirdly bad taste when it came to this stuff–his cousin Cong-Cong in China had loved The Last Samurai–but he just glared at Ralph, who paused, cleared his throat, and continued on a different tack, “As to your second question, readers will be taken to a world of exotic arts that they aren’t familiar with, so they have to come through the eyes of a stranger to that world–”
“Who are those readers?” Oliver said. Not him, at any rate.
“Look, you don’t understand,” Ralph said heatedly. He stood up halfway from his recliner, hands clenched on the armrests. “If you can get past the chip on your shoulder, you’ll see it has a very practical purpose, and historically it’s not too much of a stretch besides.”
Chip on his shoulder? Chip on his shoulder? Oliver found himself standing up; the office chair jerked around wildly and banged the metal of its backrest against the desk. The clang seemed loud in the ringing silence of the house. Ralph stared up at him, lips in a thin line.
“Know what, this is bullshit. It’s not my problem anymore,” Oliver said. “Find a new assistant–I’m out.”
Nan was still face-down on his bed when he got back home. He hadn’t moved and he hadn’t called his mom either, Oliver was sure of it.
For dinner, Oliver’s dad had invited over a young Indian couple who worked for him; his mom made braised oxtail and mortifying conversation about how much she loved curry and how Indians were so hard-working. They capped the evening by subjecting the poor couple to karaoke, even though all they had was dusty old Chinese pop from the 90’s.
“Nan!” he hissed. Nan poked his messy head out of the pillows. His eyes were kinda red, whether from staying up all night or crying, Oliver wasn’t sure he wanted to know. “C’mon man, let’s go down to L.A. I wanna hit up the locking workshop at this place I read about online.”
They snuck out the patio door to the strains of his dad’s off-key warbling. It sounded like karaoke would go well into the night. Poor souls. He mentally saluted them. His mom’s battered Civic was parked outside the garage, which was lucky–he wasn’t sure if the karaoke would cover up the sound of the garage door’s opening.
They were halfway down the 101-S heading towards L.A. when the traffic started slowing to a halt; he didn’t even notice at first, he was so wrapped up in his dramatic recounting of his resignation. At first he’d thought, vaguely, that it might’ve been sexual harassment, but could you even get sexually harassed if you were a guy? He edged around the thought and got to what he was really pissed about: “–That fucking creep, and then he fucking told me I have a chip on my shoulder–” He almost rearended the car ahead of them.
“Why do you have such a chip on your shoulder?” Nan scowled out the window at the traffic. “You hardly ever do anything but complain about Ralph being some kind of Asian fetishist.”
It stung to hear that from Nan, of all people. “What, I shouldn’t upset poor little Ralph Snyder by telling the truth?” Oliver thumped his chest. “I’m upset too! How’d you deal with Ralph leering at you, putting makeup on your face, huh? That motherfucker thinks I’m some kind of pansy-ass or something–”
Nan looked away. “I’m just saying, what are you going to do? That was a seriously cushy position.”
“I’m living with my parents. I don’t need a fucking job,” Oliver said. The setting sun glanced off the cars and right into his eyes. Why was the sun still up? It was fucking 8 o’clock.
“You hate it here,” Nan said, with certainty. He seemed to be about to say something else, lips parted, eyes darting to the side. “Don’t you want your own place? You want to dance, go pro, right?”
‘It didn’t even look like real dance,’ Oliver thought. “You saw my last video, right? 500 views now. Can’t go pro on that, can’t go pro without some fresh moves.” He blew out a breath. “I’m better off working at McDonald’s. Ralph’s was cushy though,” he said, a little regretfully, thinking of the wad that had grown to become an actual wad of cash.
“But, complications, right?” Nan seemed like he was caught up in his own head as he turned his bloodshot stare out the side window, at the lines of cars unmoving on the freeway. “Like, it’s like Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, right? It’s fucked up, but it’s pretty. It’s pretty, but it’s fucked up.”
“Man, what? It didn’t have to be a racist piece of shit,” Oliver said. Nan had made him watch it, and he was really getting into it when Mickey Rooney came into the picture. He inched the car forward. “It’s like somebody baked the world’s most delicious chocolate cake but then they shat all over it instead of frosting. It looks like chocolate if you don’t know any better, but it’s shit.”
“Or like T.S. Eliot, or Mary Poppins,” Nan continued, still on his own train of thought.
“Mary Poppins? The nanny? With the penguins? Damn.”
Nan winced. “There’s some anti-Semitic scenes in there. I don’t know. I guess there isn’t any reason for them to be there.” He shook his head and drummed his fingers against the side door.
“You could scrape that shit off the cake,” Oliver said magnanimously. “But that’s still nasty.” The line of cars moved forward again, but sluggish. The sun flashed low in their field of vision, touching the tops of the trees and illuminating them in sherbet pinks and oranges. He turned the music up–Madlib, just instrumental tonight–and lightly tapped his toe on the gas pedal in time so the car inched forward in stops and starts.
“Are you trying to look gangsta or something? Your goods are hanging out.” Nan reached out and flicked the band of his boxers.
“Thanks, mom.” Oliver stared out at the cars and the dipping sun. It didn’t look good. “What time is it?”
Nan checked his phone. “Um, 9:02.”
“Oh shit, that late? Fucking–we missed it,” Oliver groaned, and banged his fist on the steering wheel. The horn blared. “We came all this way and we missed the fucking workshop!”
“Sorry, man.” Nan met his eyes, blank and unreadable, then got out his phone. “Well, since we’re down here–” He checked Google Maps. “There’s this place on WeHo? And I’ve got those fake IDs I used to use up in Palo Alto.” He looked over at Oliver with a questioning little smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes. “Sound okay?”
It was a little early for going to WeHo, but all that meant was that the line outside wasn’t too long. Nan disappeared as soon as they got past the bouncer, with a vague wave that could’ve meant “going for drinks” or “bathroom” or “see ya.” Oliver spent the next hour and a half pushing through hostile girls in their leopard print bras, bros in white T-shirts stretched over their gym-grown muscles, a sheer mass of people dancing jerky and uninspired. It was like moving underwater, the slow throb of the music like hearing his own breathing in his head. The scene passed in a blur before him–the music had a nice beat, and maybe he would’ve liked it on another night, but where the fuck was Nan? And then he found him, red-faced, animated, and drunk, leaning on some white guy in a polo shirt.
“That’s my friend! He’s a dancer,” Nan yelled drunkenly at the guy over the music. The guy nodded vaguely. His hand was proprietary on Nan’s back. “Come on, Oliver,” Nan shouted, stumbling a little. “Show us your moves!”
“Naw, man,” Oliver said. An ugly feeling wound its way into his gut. “C’mon, we should get you home.”
“Aw, going home already? C’mon, the night’s just getting started,” the other guy said, grinning. He leaned into Nan, who whooped and raised one arm; his bright green drink sloshed over his hand. His thumb was now stroking the back of Nan’s neck.
“Nan,” Oliver said, and jerked his head towards the exit. “The fuck is wrong with you, come on, let’s go.”
Nan straightened and sucked the drink from the back of his hand. “What’s wrong with you? There’s nothing wrong with me. Fuck off.”
“Ooh, Nan said a bad word,” Oliver said nastily. “Let’s fucking go already. Your mom’s called me sixteen times tonight. She wants to know where you are.”
“Oh shit,” Nan groaned. He staggered and set his drink down on one of the little tables. “Okay, okay, let’s go. She already knows I’m back?”
“Aw, you have to leave so soon?” the guy said. Oliver flicked him off and grabbed Nan by the shoulder, hustling him out. They had to shove through the vaguely dancing crowd, Oliver taking the brunt of it, but then they were out in the cold, heavy night-time air of L.A. again.
They stumbled out to the car, parked haphazardly on some side street. Nan’s weight was collapsed against his side, heavy and sullen. Oliver slung his long arm over his own shoulder. “You’re out of control,” he said. Nan’s hair was all stuck in clumps to his sweaty forehead.
“Hey, Olly,” he said, and stopped by the back door. He turned and put his hand on Oliver’s cheek, and suddenly it was like Oliver’s cheek was a lightning rod. The touch jittered along his skin.
“What the fuck, man?” Oliver’s heart beat hard in his throat. “What?” he tried again.
“Haha, nothing.” Nan stared beyond Oliver’s face for a moment, as if his eyes were trying to focus on something, then dropped a little more weight on his shoulder. “Olly, Olly, Olly.”
Oliver’s cell phone had been in the car the whole time, but as predicted, there were nearly thirty missed calls from Nan’s mom. He showed Nan the text he’d gotten from his mom, tell nan he is big trouble–the last in a string of increasingly frantic text messages and voicemails. But they both reeked of liquor; the smell was all over their clothes. Nan plucked his shirt and groaned. “Oh god, I can’t let my mom see me like this. She’ll flip. Can I crash with you one more night? And, uh,” he wrinkled his nose, “can I borrow a shirt?”
The rest of Oliver’s house had gone to bed, probably thinking Oliver was already asleep, so they’d had to sneak up the stairs to Oliver’s room with as little muffled snickering as possible. It had been a long drive back up to T.O., so the first thing they did was collapse half-jumping on the bed, getting bits of down everywhere.
Nan curled his arms around his head, and gave out a couple of extravagant fake snores. “Naw, I don’t believe you. You make weird noises when you’re actually asleep,” Oliver said. He slapped the meat of Nan’s shoulder.
“Do not.” Nan’s eyes were still closed, but the corner of his mouth ticked up.
“Like this,” and Oliver made the breathy honking sound that sometimes came out of Nan’s mouth. “C’mon, who’s got years of sleepovers to back this up?”
“Liar.” Nan propped himself up on his elbows. His gray T-shirt was twisted tight around his arms and chest, and rode up a little at the bottom so there was a strip of pale skin between the hem and his jeans. “Hey, I scored some free pot from that guy,” he said and tried to reach into his pockets, wriggling around to get at the ones in the back.
What the hell had happened to the shy, quiet kid who’d asked Oliver (the three-time flunkee!) how to pronounce yue liang in Pin Yin class? Nan rolled a joint with surprisingly quick fingers and lit it with a flick of his lighter, then sat up to type out some stuff on Oliver’s open laptop. Tinny music came out the speakers. “That’s from my music blog,” he said, taking a long drag, and stretched out his gangly legs on Oliver’s sheets.
“You got a music blog? Sure, man.” But all of this sounded nothing like the unassuming Nan that Oliver knew, even if he had played the piano for ten years.
The Nan that Oliver didn’t know propped up some pillows around the headrest and lay back, stretching out his long legs until they extended half a foot past Oliver’s. The desk lamp cast his features into severe, alien relief. After a moment, he spoke: “You know, I was supposed to stay in the Bay Area this summer. I was going to get an apartment with–with my friend Leigh.”
“Why’d you come back then?” Oliver asked the ceiling, hoping that he didn’t sound like he cared about the answer.
“I don’t know,” Nan replied, slowly. “This weed is kinda shit–” He made a face and passed Oliver the joint. Not wanting to look like the total rookie loser in this room, he took a hit and held his breath for a couple seconds. Then, coughing a little, he passed the joint back to Nan. “Man, I just don’t get why you worked for that guy Ralph for so long if you knew he was a creep,” Nan said up to the ceiling. The ceiling had no reply for him, and neither did Oliver.
They traded the joint back and forth; Oliver didn’t cough as much the next few times. In the awkward position he was settled in, the seam of his jeans was digging into his balls. He idly reached down and adjusted himself. When he looked up, Nan was staring at him. He squirmed. “What?” he demanded.
“Hey,” Nan said slowly. His face was unaccountably drawn and pale. “Are you under the impression, uh, all gay people are, um. Um. Like Ralph? Well. Okay, I’m going to say this now, because I won’t say it otherwise.” He took a deep breath, exhaled, took another. Eyes closed, he said quickly, all in one shotgun blast of words: “I’m gay. There. I said it.”
Oliver looked over at Nan’s tense profile. “Oh.” He looked back up at the ceiling. “You know, I have this theory,” he said contemplatively.
“Uh-huh.” Nan’s voice came out edged.
“I read somewhere this thing that being gay is a Western invention, like an idea virus or something, and since there aren’t any gays in China, it has to do with how we’re seen in this country–”
“Oh my god!” Nan huffed a high, disbelieving laugh. He rolled over on the mattress until Oliver could count the knobs in his spine, high on his neck. One, two, three. “There are plenty of gay men in China. Do you seriously believe that line of bull the Chinese government feeds out about there being no gay men in China? Are you a moron?”
“Fuck you, Mr. Stanford Douchebag. I’m not a moron,” Oliver said, and sat up. His head spun, so he lay back down again. “Whatever, China’s bullshit anyway.”
“Besides, what about George Takei? Well, he’s Japanese, but okay.” Nan had his stubborn face on. He’d rolled back over and climbed up on his elbows; the joint had been forgotten somewhere. “Or… you might not have been interested in reading it, but my classical Chinese lit class has a whole section on queer literature–”
“You gonna make a move on me or something?” His mouth felt like it was moving in space. He remembered, a sudden crisp sense memory, Nan in the T.O. High parking lot one weekend afternoon, one hand on his arm, eyes eerily fixed on his–Rhythm Heritage on the stereo and the moment strung out tense like a spool of wire.
“Your virtue is totally safe with me,” Nan said. He picked his fingernails. It was an old nervous habit he hadn’t done for years. “I’m not into Asian guys anyways. So you’re safe.”
“Why, you think I’m not masculine? You think I’m like a girl or something?” Oliver blurted out.
“Are you an idiot?” Nan wrapped his arms around his knees.
Oliver could feel the motion of it against his leg, itchy and intense. He shoved Nan’s arm away. “Fucking hell, man.” Damn, his head was starting to feel like it was about to float off, and the soft pale glow of his desk lamp looked evil, insidious, somehow. He felt some words tumbling out of him, each consonant reckless. “You’re like a total stranger. I don’t know who the hell you are.”
The light went out of Nan’s face. “What is your deal,” he said, dully. “I just.” He got up slowly and dusted off his thighs, rolled the hem of his T-shirt back down. Then he didn’t even look back–he just stepped out the door and was gone.
“Nan?” he called after him, but any words of apology he might’ve said stuck to the roof of his mouth.
The floatiness had abruptly turned into nausea. He scrabbled for the laptop keyboard–somehow the music had been on this whole time, going through Nan’s mix, and the atonal whine of it was making his stomach churn. Shit, Oliver was the biggest fuckup in the whole world, and now Nan was going to go off to Stanford forever and be a doctor or whatever, and–shit, Nan. He groaned and clutched his head.
Through the window, he could make out the hazy outline of Nan walking away from him towards his car, the triangle of his back fading down the sidewalk into the distance.
Panic leapt alive into his throat and grabbed it from the inside. He banged open the window; Fortune started barking seconds later. “Nan. Nan!” he yelled, cupping his hands to get his voice to travel. Nan kept walking. Then, “Fine! Fuck you! Fuck you! I don’t care!”
Nan froze. His back was one straight line, tense as a violin string. Then he got in his car and left.
Ralph answered the door wearing one dish glove; his other hand held a kitchen towel. “Oh, Oliver–come in, come in. What brings you here?” He seemed surprised but not unhappy to see Oliver, and angled his body to let him through the door.
In fact, he was so unruffled about the way Oliver had quit that it made Oliver’s face heat up. He shifted uncomfortably and fiddled with the strap of his backpack. “I, uh, think I left something here.”
“Come in, come in. I was just doing dishes, but you’re welcome to look.” There was a huge pile of plates, plastic bowls, pots and saucepans in the sink. Oliver stared. It had only been a few days, tops. How did one person manage to make that much mess in a few days?
It wasn’t Oliver’s responsibility anymore, so he walked past the kitchen. When he got to the computer desk, he opened every drawer and looked under every sheet of typewriter paper, but it was an empty gesture–he hadn’t actually left anything behind. Still, he made a good show of it, opening books at random and lifting organizers, checking under the Exotic Dance Arts Of China desk calendar. Ralph hummed to himself in the kitchen, a tune he recognized from the shrieky music that always buzzed through the door of Ralph’s bedroom. “Soooo, how’s the book?” he said, opening a binder full of photocopied research.
Ralph cleared his throat. “I’m temporarily stuck. I’ve tried everything, the usual shenanigans for writer’s block, but nothing seems to work.” He scrubbed mightily at a pot, then stuck it, still full of suds, onto the dish rack. No wonder he needed a personal assistant–he was seriously shit at washing his own dishes.
“Oh. It happens, right?” Oliver tried. He opened another drawer. Nope, nothing there except a highlighter he’d used to mark up Ralph’s notes.
“I may need more inspiration–some more DVDs, maybe.” Ralph mused. He swiped a sponge ineffectually over a handful of spoons and picked up a wine goblet. “Have you ever watched a production of Peking Opera the whole way through? It’s quite something–”
“I’m just not into it,” was what he meant to say, but, “Do you want to suck my dick?” was what fell out of his mouth instead. Ralph dropped the wine goblet he was washing, and it fell with a shattering crack into the sink.
It was like a robot had taken over him; it was making him say, robotically, “I don’t wanna do any gay shit, but you can suck my dick if you want.”
Ralph didn’t answer him for a moment, just mechanically picked up another dish and washed it instead of cleaning up the glass. Then he turned, putting one hand on the counter; he looked staggered, but there was a gleam of something in his eyes. “That’s fine, that’s–okay,” he said, quickly. “Let me get a condom–never mind, I’m sure it’s fine. Shall we,” and he gestured vaguely, “go upstairs to the bedroom? These old knees can’t handle hard surfaces anymore.” He laughed feebly.
Oliver could hear the blood roaring in his ears. He took the stairs in twos and threes; Ralph followed at half the speed, even with his stick-like legs. In the bedroom, the blue-brocaded four-poster bed seemed larger than ever, and the room smaller, but he sat on the edge of the bed, testing its firmness, and propped himself up on his elbows. “Well?”
Ralph was kinda pitching a tent under the distorted line of his fly; the bulge pushed up against the fabric so that the placket over the zipper had splayed apart. Oliver stared at it from the corner of his eye. So this is what the creep got off on, huh? Ralph knelt forward and touched Oliver reverently, like he touched one of his blue-patterned porcelain vases.
He tried to imagine it was a girl doing this for him, but the brush of Ralph’s hands undoing his jeans was nowhere like a girl’s hands–they were huge and dry and loose-skinned, large-veined. He pulled the waistband down slow and drew Oliver’s soft dick out. Oliver couldn’t look anymore. He squeezed his eyes shut, heart beating fast against his ribs; at the first touch of Ralph’s hand, he made an involuntary whimper. If he liked it, if he actually liked it–but that didn’t bear thinking about, that everyone might’ve been right about him after all. It might’ve felt nice, to have anyone’s hand other than his on his dick, but this wasn’t about feeling nice, it was about–it was about–
“What’s wrong?” Ralph said.
He opened his eyes and stared blindly up at the canopy of the four-poster bed so he didn’t have to look at Ralph. The yellow face looked nearly monstrous from this angle, framed as it was in the soft blue folds of the canopy. The eyes stared out into nothing.
His phone rang out shrilly, once, twice, somewhere downstairs.
Three rings, then four. It just kept ringing and ringing and ringing, and it would keep ringing if she didn’t get a response. And then she’d probably call Nan.
“I’m just gonna turn it off,” Oliver said, and scrambled out of the bedroom, pulling his pants up as he went. He grabbed his phone out of his backpack and took his time typing a text back to his mom with shaking hands. Today wasn’t a day he was supposed to be at Ralph’s; she must’ve come back from work for lunch to find Oliver gone. He rolled it around in his hands for a moment, then stuffed the phone back in.
But when he got back into the bedroom, Ralph was sitting on the creased corner of the huge brocaded canopy bed that dwarfed even him. His gray head was bowed, his hands clasped between his knees. “I’m sorry, Oliver. I can’t go through with this. I don’t know what I was thinking,” was the first thing he said. “You’re obviously uncomfortable–”
“What, you don’t think I’m good enough for you, either?” Oliver’s voice went embarrassingly high on the last word, which was stupid; he was too old for his voice to crack.
“Of course I think you’re attractive,” Ralph continued, and buried his face in his hands. From this angle, Oliver could see the spot at the crown of his head where his hair was thinning. It shone pink through the hairs around it, and he thought, through the distant ringing in his ears, that he’d be like that too in thirty years. Then Ralph jerked his head back up. “You’re my muse, my inspiration, you must know. But you’re nineteen years old. I thought–I’d thought, but–” And with that, he sagged on the corner of the bed, face drawn. He knuckled his eyes, and then scrubbed his gray, stubbly cheeks with his palms. “Christ. I don’t mean to be patronizing, but I know what it’s like to be nineteen and confused, and you don’t know what it’s like to be fifty-two.”
“You don’t know a single fucking thing about me,” Oliver said. “Not a single, fucking–”
“I know you’re a smart kid,” Ralph cut in. “I don’t claim to know what you need, but I know I can’t–it was a–a–you’re younger than my daughter,” he moaned miserably. “Oh my god!”
The shock of Ralph has a daughter? was soon eclipsed by a greater shock when Ralph got out a checkbook from the desk by the window and wrote him a check. “Just take it,” Ralph said. His throat worked, a violent bob of his Adam’s apple. “I’ll give you a good reference if you want to get another job.” And then, eyes squinched shut, he added, “And don’t tell anyone, please. Please.”
“I don’t want anything from you,” Oliver snapped, and shoved Ralph with both hands, hard as he could. The check flew from Ralph’s hand; he folded up like a rag doll and fell against the post of the bed like a strong wind had blown him over, and landed in a heap.
The yellow face had trembled when Ralph crashed into the bed, and it hung teetering on the edge of whatever nail held it to the wall, then bounced off the bed and fell to the ground with a loud crack. Oliver stared at the squinty-eyed face in three pieces on the floor. One piece, upside-down, now looked more like it was frowning than leering.
Ralph glanced dazedly at the broken pieces of the mask. Without a word, he got up. Oliver heard his feet tromping down the stairs, and then back up. He came back into the room with a tube of Krazy Glue, and then he squatted down by the pieces and began to glue it back together.
Oliver stood frozen by the bed. He couldn’t make himself move.
“I didn’t realize I was gay until I was nearly thirty-five, after my daughter was born,” Ralph said suddenly, head down over the broken pieces. His bald spot bobbed up and down in Oliver’s vision. “But I loved China when I went there as a much younger man. I’d never felt comfortable here, where everyone seemed so normal except me–you see, there was no place for me here, but in China there was such a–a history. Everything was strange–but because it was strange, it was familiar. I can’t explain it, but it felt like a home–
“You might think of me as a complete villain,” he said wetly, rubbing his eyes with the heel of his hand. “But I’m not–I’m truly not. I’m just–but I’m not the villain you think I am–” He turned his face back down to the mask. He applied another drop of glue to the cracked edge of a piece and pieced the mask together slowly.
Oliver looked down at his bare feet, his ten toes. Not for all the pity in the world could he forgive Ralph–but with a sharp, poignant clarity, he thought that maybe he could know him. He could put on the fucked-up skin of Ralph Snyder and walk around in it, see his huge lovely fever dream of a house through the windows of his eyes, feeling the drafts of wind come in through all the places where the world had cut him up, even as he’d cut up Oliver too.
So down he went through the hallway of creepy leering faces, down the stairs, through the living room. He sat down and started putting on his shoes; Ralph appeared at the head of the stairs after a moment. “My friend, Nan,” Oliver burst out, and then stopped, jerking his shoelaces tight. “He told me–um, he–I don’t know, I guess–he’s–”
“Oh. I. I think I see,” Ralph said, slowly, as if he was feeling his way through the thicket of possible words. “You can call me if you want to talk about it, you know.”
Oliver shrugged. He probably wouldn’t. He grabbed his backpack and pushed open the door.
A week later, Ralph called him. He sounded kinda distracted, muttering something about how he was on a hot streak–he’d figured out how to finish the book–been writing nonstop for days–flash of inspiration. Something like that, and could he have Oliver’s address?
Oliver hadn’t told his parents he’d quit–man, he could feel the waves of their disapproval emanating from the future it was so strong–so he still took the car out when he was supposed to be working at Ralph’s. At first he drove down to the clubs in WeHo, where he strolled outside the concrete windowless buildings, all the brightly colored walls garish in the daylight. There was never anyone out waiting in line during the day, no throb of music, just the sound of cars along the street, some pigeons pecking the ground. L.A. seemed empty without anyone he wanted to get to know in it.
He did that three times before he got bored of driving two hours every day, so after that, he just hung out in Conejo Community Park communing with the piles of dog shit until it was time to go home. He’d gotten a cheap videocam from Best Buy and he could drive to any daytime locking workshops in L.A. he wanted under this guise of working–could afford any classes he wanted–but something had been carved out of him over the past few months. He was fresh out of juice; he just wanted to veg out in front of the TV.
“Olly, can you look upstair for DVD of My Lucky Star?” his mom said. “In the attic.”
“Why do I have to find it?” Oliver whined. He flopped his head over the edge of the couch and popped another sunflower kernel in his mouth. “I don’t even know what it looks like.”
“Because you are lazy bones,” she said, and whacked him on the leg with her book. An hour later, after one fight and two tantrums (one per mother and son), he found himself digging around in the attic for his mom’s DVDs. It was like looking for a drop of water in the ocean–there were boxes upon boxes of Korean dramas, Taiwanese dramas, Japanese dramas, all buried alongside unused Victorian-style fabric and tassels, the remains of a zip-up portable sauna, and several bags of chocolate beef jerky. Then, finally, behind a box full of his old homework assignments, report cards, and ripped-up binders, he finally came upon a dusty old DVD collection still boxed up from their last move, half of which were the Mandarin dramas his mom had asked for; the other half were recordings of Beijing Opera performances.
“What’s that?” his mom said when he brought his finds down. She snatched the DVDs out of his hand. “Oh. You like this Beijing Opera, Olly? Ha ha, your popo also like it.”
That weekend, he borrowed his mom’s portable DVD player (“I need this for something with Ralph, I’ll bring it back, I promise,” which was at least half true), slid in a recording of The Peony Pavilion, and set up on a wooden bench in Conejo Community Park, under one of the sycamore trees.
The LCD screen was hard to see in the bright sun, but as far as he could tell, there were just a bunch of brightly costumed figures, some with painted faces, some with the makeup Ralph had put on him the one time, wafting slowly around the stage striking weird poses. So this was Ralph’s idea of “real dance,” huh? He crouched on the park bench, arms on his knees, and watched it for a little while. The afternoon sun started to set around him, and the shadows lengthened and crawled over the screen of the DVD player. With the sound off, it was almost bearable.
The dance seemed stiff and unreal at first, but then it smoothed out, got peaceful, kinda slow. Eventually, it began to make sense.
Maybe Beijing Opera was a little like locking that had been slowed down 50x, cut and reshuffled. There was even comedy in it, in the large, broad movements, the characters they sketched out: indignant, clownish, funny. He could see real clearly the shadow of locking in the way they moved, like water flowing and freezing, flowing and refreezing–the neck isolations, the wrist twirls, the high-stepping, the exaggeration of the gestures and yet the precision. He could even draw a lineage from it, straight from Beijing Opera to Don Campbell in the ’70s.
It wasn’t anything like a pure pedigree–the black pioneers of locking, Campbell himself, The Lockers, original GoGo bros, Skeeter, Scoo-B-Doo, it’d be lying to say they belonged to him. Rhythm Heritage, James Brown, Parliament Funkadelic, Rick James, none of it was made with him in mind–none of it was made with Hilty & Bosch in mind, or Korea’s government-sanctioned b-boys, or the Vietnamese kid on Youtube with the crazy moves.
And yet. And yet.
And that was the complication, yeah? Wasn’t it the unlawful nature of dance that everything else fell away when you could begin to grasp the sheer physical joy of yourself?
One of Oliver’s new videos went big in a small way. It was up to 10,000 views and counting in only a few weeks. Amidst the comments saying it wasn’t “real” locking and that, strictly speaking, and that locking was restricted to the moves created by Campbell, Scoo-B-Doo and some others (depending on how much of a purist they were), one of his Youtube heroes popped up to compliment him: “fresh moves, man. keep up the good work.”
He wanted to share it with Nan, but there was only a week left before the end of summer. Nan had emailed him his flight itinerary months ago, so he knew Nan was headed back up next Sunday. They hadn’t seen each other since that night. Probably Nan’s mom disapproved of a fuckup dropout influence like Oliver, especially after that stunt Nan pulled, flying up to San Francisco with the last of his high school graduation money and then staying with Oliver when he got back. Or probably Oliver wasn’t good enough for Mr. Stanford Pre-Med Major Asshole anyway. He prodded at the idea like he’d tongue at a sore tooth, and felt only a dull ache under his breastbone.
Whatever, he didn’t care anyway. It wasn’t hard to imagine life without Nan. He’d been living it while Nan went off to Stanford to take his gay Chinese lit classes and his stupid pre-med classes.
It was already ten in the morning, and he was thinking of taking some sunblock to Conejo Community Park this time around; last time, he’d gotten a nasty sunburn and had to make up a lie about being needed in the garden.
“Are you go to work? Don’t forget your rice,” his mom called from her room.
He descended the staircase and put on his shoes. There was a package addressed to him that sat on top of the island counter like a little brown hat, listing to the left. He put it in his backpack, along with the Glad-wrapped tupperware of fried rice and a clean spoon. Unbidden, a memory of Nan at age twelve bubbled up: Nan red in the face with the effort of not crying, after his dad had moved permanently back to China, the time he ran away to Oliver’s house for a week. The way Nan smiled, first with one corner of his narrow mouth and then the other. Nan asleep in the passenger seat with his feet up on the dashboard, bent double like a diver.
Dully, he went out to the car; dully, he opened the driver side door and got in. The shitty San Francisco bobblehead Nan had brought back was stuck to the dashboard with super glue, probably by his mom. He dug his nails under the edge of it and yanked it off–it took some effort.
And then, with a sudden vicious strength, he threw it hard at his house. It hit the side with a faint crack and bounced off, falling somewhere in a patch of weeds. He thought helplessly of Nan smoking behind the bar, cigarette glow picking out the planes of his face. Nan in Chinese school, making paper airplanes out of their homework assignments. Nan at his car, stiff-backed.
He really couldn’t help it. An animal sob forced its way out of him. He dropped his head against the steering wheel, alternately heaving and gasping for breath.
And then he screamed, one long, loud sound of rage, and slammed his fists on the steering wheel. The sound reverberated so long and so loud the weeds outside would’ve trembled if they’d heard him, but instead the scream hung muffled inside the car. Nobody screamed back at him to keep it down. Nobody came out to ask him if he was all right, if someone was murdering him, or what the hell was his problem.
When he was hoarse from screaming, he turned on the engine, put the car in gear, and burned rubber out of the cul-de-sac. He got on the freeway, blind to all signs, and drove fast into wherever. Fillmore. Who fucking cared. The land spread out into agricultural oblivion before him.
He drove until the needle pointed at empty and the afternoon traffic started clogging up the roads. He stopped at a Chevron to fill up. While he was waiting for the gas glugging into his tank, he glared around at all of Southern California and the awful shit-brush hills glared back at him. It was all bullshit. The hard yellow sun got in his eyes somehow; they stung, too dry when he rubbed the heel of his palm over them.
Then he drove to Nan’s mom’s house.
Nan cracked the door slowly in response to the doorbell. His stupid hipster haircut was greasy and starting to get grown out. “Oh,” he said, and started to close the door, but Oliver stuck his foot in the gap.
“Where’s your mom?”
“What do you want?” Nan said dully. He jiggled the door, and it translated as a slight pressure against the side of his foot.
“Let me in,” Oliver said, and leaned on the door. His leg was jittering with nerves. He tried to still it. “C’mon, man. Hey, I tried it with Ralph,” he blurted out.
“What? Tried what?” Nan’s brow creased, faintly.
“Uh, I asked him for a blowjob.”
“Are you–? What–” Nan sputtered. He had a weird twisting expression on his face Oliver couldn’t read.
“C’mon, let me in, man–” Nan’s hold on the door had fallen slack with shock, and he tried to shoulder his way through the gap. “What the hell is wrong with you?” Nan snapped, and suddenly they were grappling for the door, pushing back and forth. Then, with a particularly hard shove, Oliver barrelled in, tackling Nan to the floor. They wrestled with each other, Oliver straining to roll them until he was on top, trying to get a good hold on Nan’s gangly arms, but then Nan flipped him to the ground on his back and shoved a knee into his solar plexus while holding down his wrists. Oliver gasped for air; that was a short-kid trick against opponents bigger and stronger than you that he’d had taught Nan years ago, not that Nan needed it anymore now that he was a little over six feet.
Nan stared down at him, wild-eyed, hair all sticking out. “Have you gone crazy? I swear to god, ever since I came back–you’re like a crazy person or something–”
“You’ve changed too, man,” Oliver said mulishly. He tested Nan’s grip, flexing against his hands.
“What is your problem?” Nan snapped. He dug his knee hard into Oliver’s ribs. “I can’t believe you. You’re always on my case these days because I’m not like, like–some pathetic kid who follows you around everywhere–”
With a savage twist of his knee Oliver squirmed from underneath and tripped Nan over his leg. Nan went down like a sack of clay, squalling bloody murder, and Oliver scrambled up to sit on his hips, one knee on his stomach, pinning him to the ground–the same move, now necessary. Blood roared through him, thrilling and heavy, pounding a beat in his head. Nan was half a foot taller, but still all arms and rubber; he used to try to curl into a defensive ball, like if nobody noticed him he wouldn’t ever get hurt.
But now Nan thrashed underneath him, his face flashing red and furious with every impression. Oliver’s jeans were hiked halfway down around his thighs, but he couldn’t afford to let go of Nan’s wrists long enough to pull them back up.
“Let me up,” Nan panted breathlessly. He snapped his hips up, trying to buck Oliver off. “Come on! Let me up!” A bloom of heat shivered through Oliver when he realized that Nan was half-hard, a bulge pressing against the inside of his thigh. Oliver could feel the heat of him through the threadbare cotton shorts, the fine hairs on Nan’s legs prickling against his shins.
Oliver made an inarticulate sound of frustration. The back of his nose burned. Why were they even fighting? This was Nan, the one who used to play piano for four hours a day, the one who got straight As and a perfect 2400, the one who’d learned to snipe at Oliver, the one who’d learned to roll a joint and carried fake IDs in his wallet.
“Come on, it’s not funny. Let me up,” Nan said dully and turned his face away. “Man, fuck you. I could’ve had an apartment in San Francisco for the summer. I could’ve stayed with my boyfriend, and then maybe–”
“So that guy–” The guy in the picture, that was definitely–
“Yeah, Leigh was my boyfriend, all right?” Nan looked back up at him, his mouth hard. “What’s Thousand Oaks got for me? Did you ever think of that? Why the hell should I ever come back here?”
“Then go back to Stanford already,” Oliver said, finally, even though the space beneath his chest hurt. “Who cares about you?”
Nan shifted under him. His bare thigh brushed ticklishly against the inside of Oliver’s knee, and Oliver twitched away from the sensation. A little shiver of–something–went up his spine. “Look, no–shit, Olly. I mean, I just wanted you to see,” Nan said, face caught halfway between a scowl and something sadder. He turned his face away. “I wanted you to see–”
The truth cracked open in Oliver’s mind like a rotten melon. He squeezed his eyes shut. “No, I got it,” he said. “I know.”
He realized he was still sitting on Nan, and tried to get off, but his ankle was caught under Nan’s foot, so he just fell harder on him. Nan made an ‘ooph’ sound, then laughed silently, open-mouthed; he felt the ribs underneath him shake. It cleared the weird expression from his face. Oliver took in the clean-laundry smell of Nan, the soft-hardness of his calves, his thigh, and shifted, experimentally.
Nan’s half-smile dropped off his face. His ears turned red. His hard-on pushed obscenely against the thin cotton of his shorts, pressing warm against Oliver’s shin, and he swallowed. “What are–”
Oliver ground his hips forward again, and Nan’s breathing got shaky after that. Rocking turned into wrestling, then back into rubbing against each other, and then Nan was clutching at his shoulders, eyes closed, breathing warm and loud in his ear–unexpectedly, that sent a sparkling shiver straight down his spine–and clawing his thigh, every scratch and scrape ratcheting up the hypersensitivity of his skin. Oliver was so hard it physically hurt, and he couldn’t stop the high whine in the back of his throat. Everything was too intense.
He leaned up and licked the jut of Nan’s jaw, bit his ear, licked into the shell of it, and Nan moaned, a startlingly loud noise, and Oliver mumbled against his mouth, “I’m just gonna–” He leaned forward and kissed the corner of Nan’s mouth, drew his hand lower, down the side of Nan’s neck.
Nan’s mouth was screwed up into a half-grimace and his eyes were closed. Oliver started to draw back, but Nan tugged Oliver’s hand back down to the waistband of his shorts. “C’mon, don’t wimp out now,” he breathed. Oliver hesitantly palmed the shape of him through his shorts, and Nan made a cut-off sound and bucked into his hand, winding one leg around Oliver’s knees. His own dick gave a throb of sympathy. “Come on, come on,” Nan whispered, “I’ll suck you off if you just–yeah, that–” and he felt like he was on fire or something, dick pushing insistently against the front of his own jeans.
He yanked open the button of Nan’s shorts, but just as he fumbled the zipper down, Nan gave a near-silent gasp, and a wet spot spread dark against the fabric. He stiffened and sagged against Oliver’s chest with a breathy noise.
Oliver braced himself against Nan’s hip, unbuttoning his own jeans hastily, short of breath and so close. Then Nan’s hand came skimming down his side, his waist; everywhere his fingers touched, lightning followed, zipping hot and electric to Oliver’s dick. Oliver bit his lip, heaving fast whooshing breaths through his nose. He felt himself shake; his dick leaped happily into Nan’s hand.
When he came after only a dozen too-fast strokes, eyes squeezed shut, knocked over with the rush of it, he thought numbly of Nan–Nan–Nan–and of how his eyes stung and his chest hurt like it was breaking apart.
As the last shock wrung itself out of his system, he met Nan’s wide eyes. They were the two of them in complete disgrace, half-off, half-on Nan’s mom’s staircase. “Uh.” His voice was rusty; he cleared his throat and tried again. “Shit, your mom’s really not home, is she?”
“She’s off at work.” Nan shoved himself off Oliver and stalked over to the laundry room, where he stripped off his stained shirt and shorts and threw them into the hamper. “Ugh,” he said, wrinkling his nose.
Oliver got an eyeful. He’d seen it in the locker room or when changing into their swimsuits, but never like this–the flat curve of his ass and the clean long planes of his back belonged to a Nan he didn’t know yet. Nan had a couple of faded stretch marks on his stomach and hips that he’d never noticed before, probably from shooting up too tall too fast. There was a little tremble in Oliver’s stomach, as if the world had just been ripped open by a seam and shaken down for its stuffing and he hadn’t quite noticed yet.
“Hey, you grounded? Did she smell the pot on you?” he asked, just to fill the silence.
“She smelled it on me, and then she found all my cigarettes and threw them away. Oh, and there was the small matter of running off to Palo Alto,” Nan said. He looked tired.
Oliver’s phone was ringing, faintly, in the living room, and when he went to get it, he found Ralph’s package still in his backpack. He opened it. Inside was the yellow face, wrapped in bubble wrap, along with a folder marked “The Painted Face.” The phone dinged again and blinked an indicator–five voicemail messages from his mom asking him where he was, which he tapped out a text in response to: “at nans.”
He took out the folder. The sheaf of pages inside were cheap photocopies of a bunch of typewriter pages–Ralph evidently hadn’t had the time to do more than clip them together, nor had he hired a new PA to type up the pages nicely. Apparently, the new protagonist of The Painted Face was now a Chinese peasant boy who spent the 200-something pages overcoming the many obstacles on the road to becoming a famous painted face wujing dancer in Beijing Opera. Weird. He flipped to the end of the manuscript. It had a happy ending, looked like.
It was still weird for a white guy to write all this shit about China, but–whatever, it wasn’t his problem anymore. And, gallingly, the revised copy of The Painted Face was a pretty okay read, much better than the last manuscript. Before he knew it, he was about twenty pages in and the peasant boy had fallen into the river fighting for his life with a demonic fox spirit, and Oliver’s calves were killing him because he was still apparently crouched in the living room.
Still reading, he dragged his backpack over to Nan’s bedroom, feet going on auto-pilot through the familiar maze of the house: around Nan’s old grand piano, which sat silent and covered in dust in the middle of the living room, past the pantry door, past the alcove, up the stairs, down the hallway, into Nan’s bedroom, around Nan’s bed.
Stupid, maybe, but Oliver couldn’t stop turning the pages. He stuck his finger in between two pages at the scene where the boy had infiltrated an established opera troupe as a mysterious, unknown painted face, then caught a flash of his name as he flipped to the back again. There–in the acknowledgments: “…and thanks to Oliver, who became a tremendous inspiration to me. My deepest admiration goes to him.”
“Olly? Wha’ you doing?” Nan asked sleepily, his arm thrown over the white sheets. He’d drooled on the pillow, a pale wet stain against the cotton.
Oliver climbed over him, pages in hand, and the bed sank beneath his weight. It was almost like they were twelve again, or eight; just the two of them playing Super Smash Bros on a bed with Charizard sheets, Nan’s shoulder warm against his. He sat with his back to the wall, legs hooked over the backs of Nan’s thighs. On a whim, he asked, “Hey, what happened to your old Pokémon sheets?”
“Are you kidding?” Nan grunted. “My mom threw them out ages ago.”
It was a little disappointing, but Oliver shrugged it off and turned the manuscript to where he’d left off, skimming the rest. When he got to the end, the story didn’t fold up neatly after all. Maybe Ralph was planning to turn it into a series, or maybe it just wasn’t done yet; either way, it wasn’t any of his business anymore. He shuffled the manuscript back together and stuck it back in his backpack, then cracked his neck. He hadn’t realized how tense he’d been. “Wait, I thought you said you weren’t into Asian guys,” he said to Nan.
“I don’t know. I think things are different when you know somebody–when you really know them,” came the muffled voice from the pillow. “I knew a guy who swore he was only into blond hipsters, and then he got hooked up to a forty-year-old producer. Serious.”
Oliver thought on that for a moment, but no particular insight came to mind. “Hey.” He nudged Nan. “Maybe you’d be a yellow face,” he said, and tucked his feet under the flesh of Nan’s warm thigh.
Nan rolled over on the bed and propped himself up on an elbow. He smiled mock-flirtatiously up from beneath his stubby little eyelashes. “That’s offensive. I’m already Asian.”
Oliver flicked his shoulder. “Naw, like,” he wracked his brain for the example Ralph had used, “Beijing Opera. Jia, that guy, Jin Jia. I bet you know about him. The patron saint of literature, man.”
“Actually, I do,” Nan said, and the corner of his mouth ticked up in the beginnings of a real smile. “Chinese Lit 279. We read about him in class. That was the same class with the gay classical Chinese lit I mentioned–”
“See, what’s what I’m talking about. I wanna be a red face,” Oliver said reflectively. “Except not like Darth Maul. Way cooler–”
“I can help you with that,” Nan breathed in his ear. He knuckled down the line of Oliver’s back. Oliver yelped, and they tussled some on the bed. Nan managed to yank his T-shirt off, and tried for his jeans next. “I watched all your videos, you know,” he said, panting, after he broke Oliver’s sorta-like-a-full-Nelson. He flopped back on the bed, ribs heaving, and threw his arm over his face. “On your Youtube account?” he added, narrow-eyed, when Oliver gave him a disbelieving look. “Lock da boat?”
“Oh yeah?” Oliver said warily.
The corner of Nan’s mouth ticked up. “Yeah. You’d love San Francisco. I bet the locking scene there’s pretty good.” He sketched out the nebulous shape of the locking scene with his hands.
“I only got two words for you: free rent.”
“C’mon, I know you hate this place. And I could come visit you. You know.” Nan ducked his head, uncharacteristically like the old Nan. “Think about it, ‘kay?”
All the room in the world for practice and nobody to complain about it, an easy ride into town for locking battles and workshops? Oliver mentally tallied up the money he’d made at Ralph’s, minus videocam and gas–it might be enough for deposit, two or three months’ rent. His calculations were interrupted when Nan dropped his head into the crook of Oliver’s neck and puffed out a warm breath of laughter against his collarbone. “Hey, you remember that time I filmed you in the parking lot?”
It was the first video on his Youtube account, just him going through the basic moves in T.O. High’s abandoned parking lot on the weekend, with his tiny stereo blaring Rhythm Heritage. He remembered, with a jolt, Nan’s hand on his arm and Oliver’s own prickling-hot awareness of him, the eerie look in Nan’s eyes. “Oh yeah,” he said. He nudged Nan’s shoulder. “I almost forgot you were there. Hey, you saw my new videos too, right? Pretty sweet, yeah?”
“Yeah. They’re cool. Let me try something, okay?” He grabbed Oliver’s head for a hesitant kiss. It was a clumsy press of lips to lips, and then they were mashing their mouths together awkwardly. Nan tasted like cigarettes and toothpaste.
He had aired out his bedroom but it still smelled a little like smoke. There was a picture on his bedroom wall that Oliver hadn’t really looked at since Nan put it up six years ago. Nan’s mom was in a pale pink beaded sweater, smiling at the camera with an arm around her son; his dad looked vaguely stoned in that way older Chinese men had. Nan sat between them with the bad perm he’d gotten when he was twelve.
He said a silent goodbye to that Nan, and the things they’d always known to be true. Goodbye to being a doctor, goodbye to being roommates at Stanford, goodbye to Nan’s Pokémon sheets.
Hello to life shitting all over you. Hello, assholes all around. But also: hello, locking. Hello, San Francisco. Hello, Nan–animated, confident, a little mean, a little mischievous.
“Hey, check out this fucked-up Beijing opera thing I got from Ralph.” Oliver reached down and fished the yellow face out of its bubble wrap in the front pocket of his backpack. When he turned it over in his hands, he was glad to see nothing had broken off. “Ooga-booga,” he said, and held up the mask to his face.
“Whoa,” Nan breathed, after a moment. “That is fucked up.”
It was dark under the mask; he could see Nan through the eye holes if he closed one eye and squinted, but not much else. His breath whooshed moist and warm against the clay and back into his face.
Nan took the mask gingerly from Oliver. “That is seriously fucked up,” he said, with a smile-grimace. He turned it around in his hands. “It’s kinda pretty though.”
The yellow painted face caught the light as it turned. The broad nose was chipped at the base of the bulb, but Oliver wasn’t sure if that was his fault or Ralph’s. Cracks ran through it, fracturing the glaze over one eye. Ralph hadn’t glued it up perfectly; a ragged gray scar bisected its cheek. It was kinda pretty, but fucked up. Fucked up, but still kinda pretty.