Oct/Nov 2014  •   Spotlight

Maybe I Should Call This Fiction

by Soma Mei Sheng Frazier

Tapestry artwork by Susan Klebanoff

Tapestry artwork by Susan Klebanoff

Maybe I should put on the red dress. Or the soft black slacks hugging my ass, paired with a sheer silk blouse. Who am I fooling? I don't have a sheer silk blouse. Maybe I should fly my Chinese colors—red, orange, purple, yellow, whatever, in bright floral patterns—rather than mixing and matching in a way synonymous with classic American style.

Maybe I should tell the story of falling up the concrete stairs outside our two-bedroom apartment when I was young; describe the unit's cheap interior, and how our cabinets were stocked with Doritos instead of oatmeal. Tang in the fridge, instead of real juice.

Conversely, I might recall the splendor of the elite private school I attended: its gothic chapel with a 1928 Cram and Ferguson addition, and how I stood in the pew licking my lips slowly enough to give Jason Shelton a hard-on underneath the largest Aeolian Skinner pipe organ in the tri-state area.

Maybe I should recount the time my ex-girlfriend Brianna and I were followed for a quarter-mile or so down a rural road in Bronxville, New York, where we were taking an early evening stroll. Before pelting us with 32-oz cherry Icees making me cuss and Brianna gasp (perhaps not at the cold, but the tragic loss of two 32-oz Icees), then peeling away, the white guys in the car shouted Ugly nigger! Dirty Puerto Rican, oblivious to my actual ethnicity. Ha! Joke's on you, white guys in the car.

Maybe I should put on the "boyfriend jeans." These are jeans made for women, but designed to look like borrowed men's jeans. Or I could borrow one of the elegant velvet jackets my mother paired with frowsy wool skirts, clogs, and other odd American items in an ill-fated effort to look less Chinese. Except none of them would fit me. My mother, already short, has shrunk further with age. Apparently in some states, people under 4'10" can request handicapped placards from the DMV. But in other states, being short isn't a disability.

Maybe I should tell you about the black students I've taught here in Oakland: how an extremely skilled debate team champion pulled a gun out of his waistband during a field trip, saying, I'm so sorry Ms. Frazier. I forgot to ask how you felt about firearms. Or I could deconstruct the white students. Last week, they spent half an hour arguing over neologisms—whether it's valid to make up one's own words—while I sat silently at the head of the table. Of course it's fucking valid. How do you think language was created?

Maybe there's no need to explain. You understand what I felt when the debate champion pulled his gun out (an intense fear for him) because you understand the intersections of race, history, oppression, and poverty. Or maybe you expected I would fear for my own life instead? Maybe you think all these black kids in Oakland are dying from gun violence because they're inherently violent and criminal. Well, it's one or the other, isn't it?

Maybe I should put my hair in a ponytail. With, like, a poof in the front? I don't know what it's officially called—the poof—but I do know some women actually insert a little piece of foam underneath their hair to form it. Maybe I should do this, and maybe I should also get breast implants, cadaver skin to plump up my lips and surgery to shorten my pinky toes so I can wear slim stilettos. Then, when my daughter asks why we look so different from each other, I'll tell her it's because I didn't like the way I looked back when I looked like her. Or maybe I'll say Because you're black, and I'm not. Clearly I wouldn't say Because I'm half-white, and you're not, because white is the norm and therefore needn't be remarked on. And I've said enough about Chineseness already!

Should I try and analyze why it is I'm so fucking angry when I write—being a generally peaceable person? Oh. Now I remember. It's because I'm a generally peaceable person. When I'm not writing, I lie my ass off. See? Like many other Asian-Caucasian mixes, I've got no ass at all. No, no. I get what you're saying. Of course I didn't mean it that way.

Maybe if I actually had zero ass, my father wouldn't have raped me! Should I describe the way he made me hold a mirror to my private parts when I was young and "home-schooled?" The way that Planned Parenthood clinician pulled me aside to talk about internal scarring? Or how valuable I think Planned Parenthood is, although sadly they can only hold onto medical records for seven years? Damn. Too late to put pops away.

No, no, that's too much. I've told men about those things before, and they've backed slowly toward the door. In the metaphorical sense, of course. And when I've told women about it, they've rocked me in their arms. In the come-here-and-I'll-genuinely-rock-you-in-my-arms sense. Obviously, after that embarrassing moment, I've dumped them. So then, what if I just describe the frantic thrashing of the sapling outside the café where I sat writing earlier today? It could be a symbol.

The entire western wall was a window, and inside the café there was low, soothing music—while outside, a storm was fucking everything up. Making people run to their cars. It was hard for me to fathom how a barely-there pane of glass could render such lovely music mute out there, and such a feisty storm nonexistent in here. What kind of tree is that? I thought, sipping my frappuccino. The city bans poplars due to their shallow root systems, but I'm pretty sure it's a tulip poplar. Wait. Maybe it was more of a magnolia?

Anyway it was a tree getting thrashed by a storm. The newscasters sometimes talk about how America is destroying its wildernesses, but I'd rather that than the other way around. Have you seen Naked and Afraid? It's a show that drops people out in harsh landscapes, naked. And afraid. The things white folks come up with, ha!

Maybe I shouldn't have written that. But hopefully it's okay, seeing as how I'm half white? Also, I'm not someone who supports fracking or environmental violations or what have you.

Okay. I should just wear some yoga pants, probably, with a big tee shirt and basketball shoes. Agh! Unlike my mom, I was born here, but I still don't know how to fit in at an important and possibly life-changing event. I don't know what to wear with my elegant velvet jackets. Who am I fooling? I don't have elegant velvet jackets.

After the white guys in the car drove away, my girlfriend and I went home and undressed and lay on our cheap air mattress and licked one another's tears, and then fast forward we moved back to Oakland, California, fast forward she received something spurious in the mail, fast forward she kept asking me to hit her so finally I did and our dog was so upset he ran in a circle around us and shat on the floor, fast forward we broke up, fast forward became friends—the type of very close friends who talk rarely because talk is irrelevant, but yesterday we did speak, and she told me if I intended to publish this story, I should remove every instance of the word white because the publishing industry is very white.

So maybe I can explain the race thing as follows: no, it's not like I'm black or Native American or even the type of Asian American that negates racial privilege or anything, but I grew up fat and mixed-race in rural New Hampshire where my not so affectionate nicknames were Chunk and Chink. Also, as you may have discerned from the news, Oakland is a war zone, and it's hard to live for decades in a war zone and avoid writing about the war. Especially when your husband is a black man and you have a little daughter who, no, you did not adopt. And okay. I get it: it's not fair to drop that kind of bomb about my father, Floyd, either, and then just let it sit there ticking. But most bombs don't really tick. Do they? (Maybe you know.)

Last week, I wrote a story about a gang rape set at the elite private school where I gave Jason Shelton a raging boner underneath the largest Aeolian Skinner pipe organ in the tri-state area. (No, he's not really named Jason. Nor is my ex-girlfriend named Brianna or my father Floyd, but the names are very close.) Actually, it was a story about a young woman coming to grips with her parents' relationship as she considers her own engagement to a kind and generous guy named Jack. (The guy in the story is really named Jack.) But my mom only read up to the gang rape scene. Then she set the manuscript down on her office desk and phoned me. Did you send this story out yet? she asked. If not, I think you should remove the school's name. You could get sued, she advised.

I don't think I can get sued, I said. Because it's fiction.

Sometimes people disguise reality as fiction, she said.

Well, if it's reality then I won't get sued, either, right?

I could hear her chewing her cud. Or maybe it was peppermint gum; she likely still favors peppermint gum over cud. The other reason you should change the name, she added, is that kind of thing doesn't happen at the school.

What? I said. After some small talk, we hung up. Then I sent her the Clery Act-mandated public log of crimes recently reported on the campus of the high school in question. The rapes averaged about four per month. The next day, she called again.

At first we didn't talk about the gang rape story, which was really a story about what's-her-name and Jack. But then, very casually, my mom said, The reason I think you should change the gang rape scene in your latest story is that the dialogue isn't realistic. How can I trust this ever really happened?

It was at that moment I understood she wasn't talking about my story. She was talking about my father. Actually, we never talk about my father. And in the larger sense, she was in fact talking about my story. So maybe I got all that backward?

Oh! You know about the Clery Act? No, they haven't extended it to apply to secondary schools participating in federal financial aid. The rape in the story wasn't really set at the school I attended at all. I feel like even more of a traitor telling you this, but in fact it was set at the cushy private college where my mother works. But—look—I've omitted the names of both schools from this piece, at my mother's advice. (No, I haven't really asked my mother for advice about this piece. What do you think I am, suicidal? Don't answer that!)

Anyway I don't have much to say about the school with the pipe organ, as we could only afford to enroll me in a six-week summer program. Beyond that, I attended—and graduated from—a low-ranked public school whose wayward students may or may not have set another low-ranked public school on fire.

In conclusion, my husband and I now live in a very nice house, with oatmeal in the cabinets and real juice in the fridge. And as for falling up the stairs, our daughter has only done so on cushioned Berber carpet. But I did write a long and rambling bit about the concrete stair incident:

I died as a toddler, at the bottom of a community swimming pool in Amarillo, Texas. The water was cold and soft. I saw limbs and bodies gliding by and, sinking, tried to copy their movements. I remember being surprised when that didn't work. Taking my first breath underwater was tough, but after that it got easier, like stealing, surviving, betrayal, and other things that should remain difficult but become easy once you've done them enough. The floor of the pool was prickly as a cat's tongue, and I grew heavier and dimmer there while my lungs filled. It would've been the last growing I did, but a skilled teenage lifeguard saw me. I guess by now he's a grandfather, but once he was an angel of mine, and who knows how many others'—all before turning nineteen.

Afterward I was returned, dry, clean, alive, by the aunt who had misplaced me, to my father's arms (another soft suffocation I would narrowly survive), and she said, I'm sorry for the pain I've caused you, Floyd.

My father, selfless martyr, corrected, Caused her, not me, but as he would turn out to be in so many irreversible ways, he was wrong. Dying was not painful. The pain came later, after I'd died, when I punched my girlfriend in the gut; aborted the first baby; felt the pulp of my family slide through my hands; attempted clumsy teenage suicide but only succeeded in shattering both knees; was the fat kid; asked my mom what Chink Chink Chink meant and read her face; went falling up our concrete stairs, knocking out two baby teeth; ran my finger down the business end of a butcher knife—and my eyes flew open, and I saw my angel's focused grace—his blond, wet hair, his steady gaze—as he pushed the water up and out. Yes, how it hurt coming back to life.

See? I told you it was long and rambling!

Maybe I should go with the red dress after all. I've got a great ass, and the dress shows it off. Maybe I should describe the enormous, flying cockroach I encountered in Tokyo once. Maybe I should be more whimsical in print, dress, and comportment. Wait. Am I deciding what to write, here, what to wear, or what to talk about once I get there? And I haven't even stated where it is I'm going. I'm sorry. Leave it to me to confuse things so terribly. Maybe I should wear the tuxedo pants with white shoes. After all, it's still four days to Labor Day.