This is Chinese Eggplant, Zach thought, shaped more like a banana than an egg. Purple, like the American eggplant, but tastes better.
“The flavor is more concentrated,” said Zach’s mother, as if reading Zach’s mind. “That’s why it’s better.”
Zach picked up the knife and made an incision down the center of the Chinese eggplant, but not slicing it in two.
“You know how to cut it?” asked Zach’s mother. “How to cut it my way?”
“I’m just guessing.”
“Pretty good,” said Zach’s mother. “Now cut this way.” Zach cut this way. “That way,” she said. Zach cut that way. “Here,” she said. Zach cut there. “No,” she said, “here.” Zach cut here. “And then,” she said. Chop! “What are you doing, Zach?”
“I just felt like doing that,” he said, tossing the bisected eggplant into the pile of the ready-to-cook. His mother liked to keep the eggplant together, cutting it in a complex zig-zag pattern that made it easier to cook while preserving its moisture. It was his mother’s vegetable origami and the sweetish sauce she concocted that that made her eggplant dish Zach’s favorite. She cooked the dish for big banquets and get-togethers because everybody liked it. Or maybe, Zach thought, she cooked it just because he liked it.
She dropped the eggplants into the oil, and the oil raged. Sizzle is not strong enough a word to describe the crash of sound, and crash is too mechanical, as some sort of alchemy seemed to be involved, Zach thought. Cooking was never this loud on television. It was never this loud on the Zenith, Zach thought.
Mother and son sat down simultaneously at the dinner table, and they ate. The red moon was round and peered in through the picture window of the dining room.
“Zach, give me some eggplant,” said his mother.
Zach’s chopsticks picked up an eggplant and put it in his mother’s bowl. He picked up another eggplant and put it into his mother’s bowl. There was now eggplant hanging out of her bowl, but Zach, by habit, never gave his fellow eater only one piece of food. It was something he learned from his parents. Of course, Zach’s mother could have gotten the eggplant on her own, as she was in fact much more skilled with chopsticks than Zach. But she wanted Zach to give her some eggplant like a son gives her mother some eggplant.
Delicious it was, the eggplant, steeped in garlic and sugar. Dark was its skin, like the night sky into which the moon emerged. The eggplant’s yellow insides were full of tiny seeds.
Zach’s father tonight was at the weekly mah-jongg and poker battle. He would come home fifty dollars richer, happily collected from his Hong Kong friends. Sometimes on these nights, Zach’s mother liked to make bittermelon, which Zach’s father had planted in the back yard for Zach’s mother’s eating pleasure. Zach’s father did not like bittermelon. The bittermelon’s difficult flavor, however, was growing on his son.
“Why don’t you go to the Sadie Hawkins dance?” said Zach’s mother.
Zach closed his eyes. Zach stuffed his mouth full of rice and eggplant. His mother waited until he could speak again before she spoke. “Get a girl to go with you to the Sadie Hawkins dance. You never go to any of the high school dances.”
Zach wanted to close his eyes again, but he had already done so once. Too much disrespect was not good. “Mom,” he said, laying his chopsticks down diagonally across his bowl, “Sadie Hawkins is where the girl asks the boy to the dance.”
His mother stared at him for a few chews. She looked at him as if all this were new to an immigrant woman. “I know that,” she said. “Get a girl to ask you to the dance. You can do it.”
“I’m fifteen already, Mom,” said Zach. “You can quit saying, ‘You can do it.’”
“You can do it,” said Zach’s mother, “and when the girl asks you, then you’ll know that she really really likes you. Because she’s asking you. You’re not asking her. She’s taking the initiative to ask you. Because she really really likes you.”
“Mom, how in heck am I supposed to get a girl to ask me out? She has to like me first.”
“Yes. She will like you. That’s why she’s asking you out.”
“Mom, I can’t make a girl like me.”
“Yes, you can do it. Just be yourself. You’re my son. You are a good boy.”
“A good boy?” Zach stuffed his mouth full of white rice. He drank some plain milk. Zach wanted to tell his mother that being “good” was bad. But she would not accept that. A world without perversity was exciting to her.
“You are a good boy. Be yourself. Girls will like it. Your father is a good man, and I like him!” “Good grief,” said Zach.
“You can teach her Chinese. Teach her how to use chopsticks.”
Zach closed his eyes and swallowed hard. A big ball of rice and Chinese eggplant was inching its way down his throat.
“If you try hard enough, you will succeed.”
God, Zach thought, that is so corny! It belongs on a poster of a koala bear or something. Somewhere there existed a big Chinese world where all that corny stuff really worked. There was the big round moon out there, and it was the same moon as here, but it was bigger, rounder, more red, and the Chinese poets loved to write about it. Under that moon, his mother had learned some corny things in a corny Chinese world where things worked like they’re supposed to, where she fell in love with a “good boy” precisely because he was good, just plain good, not because he was whatever, or something like that. Zach looked up at the moon above him, the one directly above his head, a 75-watt light bulb in a steel chandelier. What would he watch on the Zenith tonight? Zach’s mother placed two eggplants into his rice bowl. Zach was already full, but he could not say no.
Zach liked to stare at Brittanya. Brittanya was beautiful and blonde, and fifteen, like Zach. Well-accomplished, versatile, and happy, she was. She worked hard on the dance team and danced on the front row. She was on student council and supported the administration’s rule against punk hair cuts that might distract from learning. She wore her hair today in a complicated bun which Zach now studied diligently as he sat behind her in Algebra II class. Her blonde hair was clean, so clean, but not antiseptic or sterile. She was perfect. She didn’t spit things out at the dinner table. There was nothing to spit out at the clean, blonde American dinner table, after all. She was not like him, and Zach liked that.
The Algebra II teacher was named Mr. Colts, and he was at this moment consumed by his own lecture on solving multiple equations. Zach too was consumed, by Brittanya’s bra strap. He realized this after he had already pulled it two inches from her back. She had small breasts that Zach imagined as round white ping pong balls, and Zach now hoped that they were so small that they would not notice the pulling back of her padded cups.
Zach did not want to let go of her bra strap. He felt his heart trembling and stretching out toward the bra strap. He imagined his heart using blood to blast its way out of his chest and then bouncing its way across his desk and down the back of Brittanya’s sweater. His heart then snuggled itself between the bra strap and the hollow between her shoulder blades. There it pulsated, punching her chest forth with each beat, her breasts jiggling in rhythm.
Brittanya turned her head and looked at Zach in her peripheral vision. To her, he was “Long Duk Dong,” the goofy Japanese character in the teen movie Sixteen Candles. She had even called him Long Duk Dong a couple of times, accidentally of course. Somewhere inside Zach, he thought it more useful to want her rather than hate her, as she was part of a cool, non-corny world. Zach let the bra strap snap like a whip on the back of a slave.
Brittanya looked Zach in the eye. She faked a lip-smile. The rest of the class stared at Zach, and Mr. Colts stopped his lecture. “You be trippin’, Zach,” said a girl named Brandi. “You be trippin,” she repeated, prompting Mr. Colts to continue speaking on simultaneous equations. Brandi flicked Zach in the back with her finger. She was sixteen, and drove a car. She was black and she was pretty—not in the same way that Brittanya was pretty, but pretty anyhow. “Most girls are pretty,” Zach repeated his own axiom quietly, “but that fact does not make them any less pretty.”
At the age of thirteen, when the Zenith was first saved from the garage sale and placed in his room, Zach began referring to the machine as simply “Zenith,” as if it were a living entity. In the living room was a Sony, the only Japanese-made product in their entire family. That night, Zach sat in front of Zenith, on his bed, with his bag of Oreo cookies beside him and his Algebra II homework in front of him. He was watching a law firm comedy called “Haley’s Firm.” As Zach slid another Oreo into his mouth, his fifth since dinner, the Chinese American female lawyer named Lo—the dragonlady-bitch with a heart of gold—was working on a case with the new black lawyer, Chauncy. Of course, they would soon make love.
In the living room, Zach’s parents watched the same show on the Sony. Zach’s mother usually loved watching Haley’s Firm. She saw progress for Chinese Americans in the fact that Lo, with her white boyfriend, was a regular on the show. “Look at this show,” said Zach’s father. “I can understand that in the past, Chinese women in TV and movies had to be the lovers of white men, but I always thought that after the white man had been satisfied, it would be the Asian man’s turn. But I guess it’s the black guys now who get to be with the Chinese girls. Last week that Chinese girl on that doctor show had a black-Chinese baby.”
“There are no Chinese men on the show for her to sleep around with,” retorted Zach’s mother.
“Zach—” his father sputtered out. “Can you tell him to come out? I want to talk to him.”
“You want to talk to him about the show?”
“I just want to talk to him. Get him out here. He watches too much TV.” The father shook his head.
The mother walked to Zach’s door and listened. Inside Zach’s room, Zenith was showing Lo and Chauncy kissing. Next to Zach’s lap lay his Algebra II homework, which was done and finished, and in the margin of his homework paper was a sketch of Brittanya with both her hands open. “Zach, Baba wants to talk to you,” his mother told him.
Zach walked into the living room and noticed that the television was off. “What do you think of that show, Zach?” asked his father. “That show, Haley’s Firm.” “It’s okay,” said Zach.
“I want you to watch more Chinese films, Zach. Why don’t you watch some Bruce Lee movies, and other films where we are the heroes. I don’t want you to learn from the Americans.” All Zach could see in his head was Long Duk Dong, upside down, hanging from a bunk bed and smiling at Molly Ringwald and asking her in his freakish way, “Whot’s happening, hawt stuff?” Zach looked at his father, whose frown made Zach turn his face toward the floor. “Do you know who Long Duk Dong is?” asked Zach.
“No,” his father said. “Who is Long Duk Dong?” “Who is Long Duk Dong?” asked Zach’s mother.
“You’ve never heard of him?” asked Zach.
“Should we know him? Have we met him?” asked
“I don’t know,” said Zach. “It’s not important.” “Who is he?” asked Zach’s mother.
“Nobody all that important. Don’t worry about him,” said Zach, as he walked back to his room. He looked at the television screen and turned up the volume.
Zach and Brandi stood before the rotating blackboard in Coach Griese’s classroom. They were alone, it was lunchtime, and the room was warm and dark. Brandi’s skin was the color of coffee with cream, and it seemed just right, as she stood before a chalk-written lecture on Cleopatra. Zach searched for something to say, something to do. “Thank you for trading some of your Frito pie for some of my homemade cookies,” he said. “Um, is there anything I can do for you?”
“Do for me?” repeated Brandi.
Zach suddenly did “the wave”—a breakdance move that looks like a wave going from the fingertips through the shoulders and through the fingertips of the other hand. Zach had learned this rudimentary move by watching the films Breakin’ and Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo.
“Why are you doing the wave?” asked Brandi.
“I mean,” Zach continued, “like is there anything you need done, like anything, like a chore, or like something you have to do, or anything that comes to mind that you wish you didn’t have to do, or maybe it’s something like only I can do for you.”
“Do you own a gun?” asked Brandi.
Zach looked around the classroom. “Are you serious?” “Yes,” she said, smiling.
Zach tried to breath calmly. To look cool, he did “the wave” again.
“I need to blast somebody,” she said.
“Yeah,” Zach said, trying to be sincerely cool, “That’s cool. That’s cool.”
She said nothing.
“Real cool,” he said. “Real cool.” He did a wave and ended it with a flourish and a finger pointing at Brandi. “Quite cool.” “So you’re going to do it for me?” she asked.
Zach glanced down at Brandi’s breasts, cleavage bulging from the V-neck of her sweater. Had they grown? Brandi grabbed her breasts, cupping them with U’s formed by her thumbs and forefingers. “They’re bigger than usual,” said Brandi, “they get big in the off-season, cause I’m not running and jumping all the time.” Brandi was a long-jumper; her coach was Coach Griese. Brandi sniffled.
“What kind of guys do you like?” Zach blurted out.
“What kind of guys do I like?” repeated Brandi. “What do you mean?” Brandi put her hand on Zach’s shoulder, trying to keep her balance. Her eyes were closed.
Zach didn’t understand what was going on. Was she okay? Was she crying? He couldn’t see her eyes with her head bowed. He felt like he should hold her, embrace her, make her feel okay and all right just like he saw it done on Zenith. Like the good guys always do in the movies. But his hands were paralyzed. Zach had never done anything of the sort. Could he muster the bravery? “Never mind what I said,” Zach said. “Please don’t … I don’t want … I want you to be the opposite … of tears.”
“I’m okay, Zach,” said Brandi, taking her hand off of Zach’s shoulder. She wiped her cheeks and smiled. “To answer your question, what kind of guys do I like? Hmmm. I like bad guys.”
Zach repeated the words in his head. “Bad guys.” I’m not bad, thought Zach. That’s cool.
“Zach, you be trippin’,” said Brandi. “What kind of guys do you think I like?”
“I don’t know,” said Zach.
“I like good guys. I like nice guys. I like guys who’ll do me right.” Brandi bent her knees so that she could lay her head on Zach’s chest. She wrapped her arms around his waist. Good guys? Good guys? How? How could his mother have been so right? Zach placed his hand on Brandi’s back, comforting her.
“What kind of girls do you like, Zach?” asked Brandi. Zach stood stiffly and smelled Brandi’s straightened hair.
At dinner Zach didn’t say anything. But his mother could tell that he was excited about something. She knew that the mission had been accomplished, and she gave him extra portions of food because she knew tonight that he would eat as much as she gave. Later that night, she sat in front of the Sony with her husband as Zach did his homework in his room, in front of Zenith. She said to her husband that a girl had asked Zach to Sadie Hawkins. His father asked to be reminded about the particulars of this dance. Zach’s mother explained that the girl was supposed to ask the guy, and that a girl had asked Zach. His father asked his mother to bring Zach out, saying that he wanted to talk to him about this. Zach’s father was excited. He knew that it was not easy for Zach to ask girls out, or to even talk to them, and now his father was happy. But his wife told him that their son had not yet announced that he was going, and they had better not bring it up until he tells them. Hearing this, Zach waited a few minutes and then closed the door to his room. He was happy that they knew.
He was just as good as any of them kids.
Zach’s father stood before Zach’s bedroom door, listening. Zach was playing his rap music much too loud. Just a year ago, his father would have thrown open the door and yelled at him to have some respect for the rest of the family. But in the last few months, his father had begun to stand at Zach’s door and listen to the lyrics of Zach’s rap music. The songs reminded Zach’s father of the rhythmic recitation of old Chinese poetry, except that almost all of them had something to do with murder, adultery, sex organs, humiliating others, and aggrandizing the self. “Hey! Zach!” his father knocked on the door hard. “What?” answered Zach, as he turned down the music. While “popping” his movements—a breakdance style—Zach opened the door and waved hello to his father. His father watched as Zach did a weird thing where his leg went limp and he used his hands to swing it around like a lasso. His father had no clue how to respond to this. “Turn off the music and put the bones back into your leg,” said his father. “That’s too modern for me.”
“Sorry,” Zach turned the music off and looked down at his feet. His second toes were longer than his first toes.
“What is your music saying, Zach?” asked his father. “All they talk about is bad stuff. Being a bad boy. What about being a man?”
Zach sat down. Knowing his father, this could go on deep into the night.
“Your music is about a stupid toughness, Zach. A useless kind of being cool.” His father said the word with a sneer. “Maybe it’s not good for you to go to this Sadie
Zach took a deep breath. His father never surprised him.
“What does it mean to be a man? Do you know what is real toughness?” Zach’s father stepped into the doorway of Zach’s room. He looked down at his hands all of a sudden. “A real man supports his family, during war, during revolution, during immigration to a new world.”
All I want is to kiss a girl! A pretty girl! What is a kiss? Nothing that bad, nothing bloody, nothing mean. Zach stood up. He looked his father in the eyes. He stared and he glared. This is it. The final showdown.
Zach’s father looked down at the floor. “Whatever you do in your life. Family, honor. That’s what guides you. You will be strong, tough, proud. You will live a meaningful life.” “Yes, sir,” said Zach.
Zach’s mother walked up and stood behind Zach’s father. “Don’t get involved in any silly business, Zach. That’s all your father is saying. Be a man. Be a good Chinese man. Not an American wussy.”
Every time Zach and Brandi took to the dance floor, a white or black student chimed in, “Go, Long Duk Dong, go!” or some such. Brandi would tell them to go choke on an egg. The prying eyes of the other students gave Zach a good excuse to not draw Brandi close. Sometimes, the slick fabric of her dress would slide across Zach’s shirt, and Zach would want to put his hands on the small of her back, but he kept playing the good guy, the good boy, just like the world wanted him to.
During “99 Red Balloons,” however, Zach became antsy and broke out into his own spastic style of breakdancing. Students laughed, especially the other breakdancers of the school. They couldn’t figure out, though, whether they were laughing at Zach’s style or the fact that he was a Chinese breakdancer. Then they decided that he was both weird and kind of good, and they joined him. Soon, several boys and girls began breakdancing, and within sixty seconds, the breakdancers had taken over the entire dance floor. The popular white kids, like Brittanya, suddenly stood on the sidelines, and the teachers quickly rushed to the DJ to ask him to stop the music.
“I want to go home,” said Brandi to Zach. She grabbed his hand and pulled him out of the old gym.
Zach stood naked in Brandi’s room. His shoes were under the bed. His shirt was on the bed. And his pants and underwear were on the floor next to his feet. All he had wanted was a kiss. How did this happen? “Why are you just standing there?” asked Brandi. “Are you scared of me? You didn’t think I’d be black all over, did you?”
“We don’t barely know each other,” said Zach. “Maybe I shouldn’t know what color your butt is.”
“Okay. Forget it.” Brandi jumped out of her bed, grabbed Zach’s pants from off the floor and held them up before Zach.
“Put your legs in, pussy.”
Zach slipped his legs in one at a time. He stood there before Brandi, while she held up his pants, and he stared into her eyes. He wanted her to smile. “Smile,” he said. She stared at him calmly, looking for what it was that made Zach act so strangely. She liked him. He wanted her to smile, so he tried to kiss her, and their teeth bumped. Brandi tried another angle and successfully slipped her tongue into Zach’s mouth. “Oh!” Zach shouted out of shock. “Oh! Oh!” he shouted again to parody himself in an attempt at coolness. Zach looked around, then with nothing else coming to mind, he pushed her on the bed, jumped atop her and began biting her softly. After he had forgotten about everything about being a man or being a wuss or being Long Duk Dong or being cool or being silly or being Chinese or being bad or being good, after all that vanished from his mind, he asked, “Where do I put it?” Zach kissed Brandi on the cheek. “Um, it’s not obvious to me where the place is.”
Five minutes later, they lay side by side. “Would you kill for me?” asked Brandi.
“No,” said Zach. “Who do you want me to kill?”
“No one,” said Brandi. “I was just asking. I’m just playing with you. You know that, don’t you?”
Zach laughed. Of course he knew that, sort of. He looked at his body and her body. He looked at them laying together in the red moonlight. Haiku, he thought without composing one, haiku. “What does all this mean? We did it. It was really cool. But what does it mean?”
“Zach, you be tripping. You really do be tripping. It means we like each other. We couldn’t resist each other. Didn’t you like it?”
“Yeah. I liked it.”
“I liked it too. That’s what’s important.”
“I thought you liked good guys.”
“Yeah, I do. You’re good, Zach. You’re real good. Don’t you worry about that.”
“How am I good? What did I do that can be considered good?”
“You be asking too many questions, Zach.” Brandi ran her fingers through Zach’s hair. She seemed to like it a lot and kept calling it “black silk.” She gently pushed his head down onto her breasts. “It’s okay, Zach. It’ll all be all right.” She stroked his hair. “None of this means anything, Zach,” she said, “it’s all just a game, like that one you played with Brittanya’s bra strap. That was funny, Zach. You make me laugh. I have to tell you, you be trippin’ like a mug. It’s okay, Zach. You can suck on my nipple. I like that. I really like that. Damn, Zach. You’re good at that. Yeah, sweetie. You’re my baby.” She pressed her hand against the occipital ridge on the back of Zach’s skull, and he liked that a lot. “Call me momma,” said Brandi, “call me mommy. My baby’s good to me. Ain’t that right, baby?” Zach kissed her on the mouth to make her shut up. He was ready to do it again.
An hour later, they were both soundly asleep. The phone rang, and Brandi nudged Zach’s arm off of her. “Hello?” She talked for five minutes and then hung up. “Do you have a boyfriend?” asked Zach. “He doesn’t live in town,” she said. “Do you have a child?” “Yes,” she said, “he’s with his father tonight.” “Do you love your boyfriend?” asked Zach. “I have to,” she said, “He’s my baby’s daddy.” Brandi wiped a bit of drool off the side of her face.
“I want to thank you for a wonderful night, Brandi,” Zach said, studying the lines of her face. They were clean. They were good.
“You weren’t a virgin, were you, Zach? I hope I wasn’t your first. Was I?”
“You were my first, Brandi. It was an exquisite odyssey.”
“And now you’re a man,” Brandi said. “All because of me.” Brandi kissed Zach and smiled.
“Was it a good night?” asked Zach’s mother.
“What’s good?” asked Zach, half-asleep as he lay stiffly supine on his bed. “What’s ‘good’ mean? I forgot.”
“Good is good,” said Zach’s mother. “You cannot describe it.” Zach’s mother closed the door a little to keep the hall light off Zach’s eyes. She stood over the sleepy-eyed Zach. “I’ll use ‘good’ in a sentence,” she said. “Zach is a good boy. Just like I said he was. I’m glad you had a good time with Brandi. Did you kiss her goodnight?”
“Yes,” Zach said. “It was my first kiss. I’m a man now.”
Zach’s mother laughed and pulled the blanket further up over Zach’s chest.