What came first, the music or the misery?
– Nick Hornby, High Fidelity
Mixtape #2: Violent Femmes, “Kiss Off”
It wasn’t until nerd camp that I made my first Asian friends. We were public school students from North Jersey commuter suburbs at a boarding school in rural Sussex County, a two-week summer program for gifted students. I was 13 years old. In the mornings, I took a journalism class, writing obits from the week-old faxes sent by local nursing homes and mortuaries. I had a fascination with dates and death, couldn’t help but fill in the blanks between the spare facts on a hastily scrawled form: a woman born in 1892 in Brick, New Jersey had died earlier that month—July, 1990—in the same town. She’d stayed her whole life in the state; already, I knew I had to do anything but.
In the afternoons, we sketched on the top floor of a loft-like building with windows overlooking the quad. One earphone in my left ear, the other in my friend Michelle’s right, her Sony Walkman on the table between us, we drew dried wildflowers in a cracked glass vase, a faded catcher’s mitt and a yellowy baseball.
We’d sing along to the Violent Femmes, Michelle’s dubbed cassette of their first album. Before camp, I’d only known “Blister in the Sun,” but after three days of art class I could chant the count-up of “Kiss Off” with everyone else:
I take one one one cause you left me and
Two two two for my family and
Three three three for my heartache and
Four four four for my headaches and
Five five five for my lonely and
Six six six for my sorrow and
Seven seven for no tomorrow and
Eight eight I forget what eight was for and
Nine nine nine for a lost god and
Ten, ten, ten, ten, for everything, everything, everything, everything
In our hometowns we were invisible, or too visible, but here we were normal. Being Asian made you popular, even. Michelle’s older brother Charles, sixteen with a learner’s permit, borrowed his hall counselor’s car, me, Michelle, Betty, and Charles’s roommate Ken all crammed inside. We drove across the quad during a thunderstorm, chasing two white girls, the nerds of nerd camp, who played D&D and quoted Shakespeare in fake British accents. Betty mooed at them and yelled “Run, run” as the girls scuttered away. After a moment of guilt, I realized that it felt good to be the bully for once.
I wore paisley skirts, beaded necklaces, combat boots. In the stairwell between classes, Ken joked with me, stealing the floppy black beret I’d bought at a thrift store in the Village. He had Chess King clothes and his favorite band was Bell Biv DeVoe. He was cute, Chinese American, but I couldn’t imagine a boy actually liking me. No boy ever had, to my knowledge, and I’d already decided that no boy ever would. In my all-white hometown I was racial Kryptonite.
He asked me to go with him to the dance on the last night of camp. The request was passed down from Charles to Michelle to me. I didn’t know what it meant. He’d see me there? We’d go as friends?
The day before the dance, hanging out in the quad before dinner, I met John. He was older, 16, a former camp alumni who’d dropped by to see friends. Blue-eyed, with blonde curly hair, he had a cherub’s smile. He showed me his notebook of sketches with Cure lyrics scrawled across the front. “Cool,” I said.
John lived nearby and had hitchhiked over. Before he left, he said, “Maybe I’ll see you tomorrow.”
The night of the dance, I washed my hair with Salon Selectives and put on a red T-shirt dress that my mom had sewed. When my girlfriends and I arrived at the gym, I saw Ken with Charles and some other boys. Betty elbowed me. Ken walked over. “You look nice,” he said, bouncing his fingers off my arm. He was wearing a bolo tie, his hair spiked and gelled.
“So do you,” I said.
We sipped flat Coke out of paper cups and talked about how camp was ending. “Are you sad?” I asked. Michelle scrunched her face. Ken said, “A little.” I was sad, but I knew I’d see Michelle and Betty again, slumber parties all fall and winter, long talks on the phone at night. They were the friends I hadn’t realized I needed, and this would get me through the long days at school where the other kids made gong noises at me.
A slow song started, couples swaying in the darkness. I’d never slow-danced with a boy before, unless you counted the two minutes stiffly pacing in place to “Crazy For You” with a reverend’s son at a sixth-grade dance.
Ken stepped closer to me. My heart pounded. Then, before he could say anything, I saw John’s round face appearing through the shadows.
“Hey,” he said. “Want to dance?”
I shrugged. “Okay.” We stepped into the center of the gym. John steered me away to the other side of the room. I was terrified he’d kiss me; maybe I wanted him to.
We danced to another song, then another. Then I returned to my friends and asked Ken to dance. His hands were loose around my waist, and he was uncharacteristically quiet, not meeting my eyes. My friends watched us, whispering. Maybe they were whispering about how cute it was that we were dancing. Ken was just a friend. He couldn’t really like me like that.
Michelle and Betty went back to their rooms without saying good night. I stayed up, listening to the Femmes on my Walkman, whisper-singing the lyrics.
The next morning I hugged my friends goodbye and gave them my address and phone number. I looked for John, but I didn’t see him anywhere.
“Call me,” I told Michelle and Betty. “Come over soon.” I told Ken I’d write him letters. I’d write him two, but he would never write back.
The next day, back at home, I called Betty and Michelle. At Michelle’s house, Charles answered, and when I told him it was me he paused and then said Michelle wasn’t home. Betty said, “We’re having dinner right now,” even if it was four-thirty in the afternoon. I told her to call me back, but she didn’t, and neither did Michelle, even when I called them again, and again, and it would be years before I understood why.