what to tell your gradeschool bully after the 20yr reunion

Dear Tim Timinsky*,

So great to see you at the 20-year High School reunion! What a blast. I wasn't thrilled with the pasta buffet, but otherwise, I had ball.

That night, I realized that time does heal, and I've totally forgiven you for calling me China Woman in fifth grade, thereby establishing my permanent nickname, C.W., all the way through high school. Let bygones be bygones, right??? We were just a buncha kids. Life's too darn short to keep a grudge.

Anyhoo, so sorry to see that early male pattern baldness runs in your mother's family. I mean, wow. I barely recognized you! The one earring is a good call--draws the eye away from the trouble spots. And that extra 100 pounds you were griping about? Don't worry, hardly noticeable, especially when you stood behind the bar and played Tom Cruise in "Cocktail." That was funny. I'm sure you won't turn out like your brother Jed. Ran into him at Walgreen's--I see he's using a walker to support his weight gain. (I assume the oxygen tube was for something else?)

So cool of your probation officer to let you stay out past your curfew for the karaoke contest. (BTW, I believe you when you say you'd just "borrowed" your neighbor's car and drove to Juarez. The courts need to start acknowledging the gray areas between "borrow" and "steal" re: cars and oxycontin prescriptions.) I'm sure I'm not alone in saying that I appreciate the 600 hours of community service you've been doing. Route 20's median has never looked better.

Couldn't believe my ears when you said Shelly ran off like that on Xmas day '03. What a witch! You were THE quintessential high school sweethearts. So romantic how you proposed to her in 12th grade when she got pregnant. NOT cool of her to show up to the reunion with Danny Robeson--and with their new twins!  OMG, weren't you and Danny best friends in high school? Oh well, times change, right? I mean, who knows what might happen!? Maybe you and I will even become friends! How freakin' nuts would that be?

Well, gotta run--I've got yoga class and then I'm meeting my writing group for dim sum in Chinatown. Hope your mom's basement has finally aired out and that your gun collection wasn't too damaged by that little fire after all. Here's to an awesome 25th in 2014!!

Your friend,
April "C.W." Heck : )

*all names and some details have been changed on this blog site


romance + rejection--meet marty

summer lovin': let's recast Sandy as a skinny
Asian American nerd with an overbite, and see what happens.
Summer, 1989
Cedar Point Amusement Park, Sandusky, OH

The miserable summer after high school graduation--the summer of Chaz, my first kiss--my best friend calls to tell me I can get a job with her, living and working at Cedar Point Amusement Park. She's working at the Chuck Wagon in Frontiertown, and it's totally awesome. The only catch: my job is in the "Restroom Hosting Division." Potty Patrol. 

Potty Patrol, where the retarded and underaged employees work. But I'm willing to scrub toilets all summer if it means leaving home.

Cedar Point: 364 acres of rollercoasters, french fries, and farmer-tans on a little finger of land jabbing into Lake Erie. Rednecks from Indiana to Pennsylvania save their nickels  to visit the park. And 4,000 college students arrive on Memorial Day to work, party, and get laid all summer long.

For the first time, I'm not the only ethnically challenged person around: among the hordes of my horny coworkers there are blacks and Latinos, plus gays and straights, class presidents and class clowns. There a few kids dressed in all black who seem especially welcoming to me.

We work six days a week and drink seven. We swill rum and Cokes in our dorm rooms, on bunk beds under Echo and the Bunnymen posters; we sit on the shore with six-packs and listen to Depeche Mode tapes. Seagulls mew. Waves tumble and splash the distance from Canada. We question authority and mourn the lack of meaning in our lives. For the first time, I think I'll fit in someday.

One night, wobbly on gin and lemonade, I'm wandering by the boys' dormitory and a guy's leaning by the door and says, Hi there. He's wearing short OP shorts and a polo with the collar up. He's older and taller and tanner, and we go walking to the beach. His name's Marty and Marty magically produces a blanket from the thin damp air. (These events make sense using drunk-logic, when everything's fast-forward, close-up, then lost like film loops on the editing floor.)  We're sandwiched together under the midwestern summer stars, the air thick with sweat, dew, pinewood, diesel. I love you, he says.

How stupid am I to believe him? Remember, until then I know only three things about boys:

1. Blow jobs do not involve actually blowing (like hair dryers)
2. It supposedly tastes like salty mayonnaise.
3. Chad likes Jenny and not me.

I won't know the cardinal rule about dating until I'm about, oh, 38: sex equals love.

I've read Thomas Hardy and aced geometry. I can swim 50 yards in 30 seconds. But no book smarts, no athletic skill has prepared me for boys. A film strip in 8th grade about zits, fallopian tubes, and rubbers did not prepare a girl for anything but the art of passing notes in the dark.

hold me now: there are phases in life when music
saves you. 
For a week I don't hear a word from Marty. Then I remember that he works the birthday-game booth, handling giant 12-sided dice and half-dead prize goldfish. One day after potty patrol (and washing my hands) I visit/stalk him. His coworker has flowing red mermaid hair and grapefruit sized boobs. She looks--as most girls do--light-years more sophisticated and knowing than I am. They trade sly looks--was that an eye roll?--as Marty mutters hello. People gather around the booth and take turns throwing the dice across casino-green felt. Marty won't look at me as calls out the winners: February. July. December.

April doesn't turn up. April goes home. April builds her alcohol tolerance and tape collection and leaves that fall for college.


fearless or reckless, continued

Summer, 1994
MFA Program at UNC Greensboro

Albuquerque isn't a pretty town: its outskirts are suburban sprawl--strip malls and gas stations, fast food and titty bars. Happy Hour Special! Eat a 72oz steak for free! I’m embarrassed pulling into the KOA campsite, paying the ranger $15 knowing that I have no tent, no stove, no friend, no frisky labrador nosing around campfires like the other campers. I must look insane.

It’s stunning how lonely one becomes in three days. In my mind I’ve been gone for weeks. Without the warmth of familiar contact, I feel like part of me is vanishing, my skin’s becoming transparent. I call up my younger sister Julie, a freshman at our shared college alma mater in Ohio. Since our dad died four years ago--suddenly, of a cerebral aneurysm--we’ve become close. She’s my ally in the resistance against our grief, our halved set of parents, the conflicting messages of approval and abandonment they've given us. She’s my sole source of unconditional love.

As I feed quarters into the campground's one payphone, Julie’s worried but supportive. She will wire $100 via Western Union and we vow not to tell our mom about my whereabouts—a promise kept for over ten years, until the truth seems too distant to hurt her. If I have any inkling of turning around, it’s because of my sister. A responsibility I feel in my bones, but can't speak with my tongue.

The next morning, I buy a cup of coffee and a pack of $1.99 Basics and study the atlas. The Grand Canyon is reachable in a day. I commit a portion of my new $100 to the trek and a night at a Flagstaff hotel.

What can I tell you about seeing the Grand Canyon alone? I sit on its edge and look and look. Silence is painted upon the chasm of red and purple rock. That far-off air is infused with palpable stillness, historical, hazy, thousands of years old. The air there is not the air I breathe. The canyon isn't real--not in the way that oceans or the Rocky Mountains, which I've seen, are real. Perhaps it’s the foreignness, the inability of photographs to contain and express true heights and depths. The inability of any medium to prepare viewers for the canyon's alien compositions.

I long for an epiphany, for the cliffs to reveal their secret hushed blues. I want to tell you something magical. I want to tell you one day that the place changed me forever.

But the moment extended is a little like New Year’s Eve. Too much anticipation and fantasy has preceded it and the actual moment can only fall flat. I smoke a cigarette. A couple in identical sweatshirts pass by and complain about the smell. What is it about tourists in matching outfits? My butt's getting tired sitting on a rock. I know I’m supposed to ride a donkey or sail in a hot air balloon or embark on an eighteen-mile hike surviving on granola and juniper berries, but I’ve driven all day. I’m exhausted by all of this, by dazzling scenery and excitement, by cigarettes and loneliness.   

That night, I check into a cheap motel room. For the first time I’m really afraid. The door, which opens into the parking lot, is made of thin plywood, easily kicked in. The knob has a simple lock that even I could jimmy with a credit card, if I'd had one. I get a 7-Up from the vending machine and come back to find Hustler in the musty nightstand drawer. The magazine scares me most. As if the owner has left his residue on the sheets and blankets. As if he is the same sort of man who might break down the door. The campgrounds are inexplicably less scary, my car resting in the open, among scorpions and coyotes and lightning bolts. Nature isn't sleazy or mean. 

I want to go home.

And fear did bring me me home. My real fragility and need for comfort were exposed under the wide desert sky, whether I sat on the edge of a canyon, a hotel bed, or some unmet  disaster. Running away had nothing to do with Nate, and everything to do with grief. A reason I couldn’t articulate to myself, the grief was so fresh. 

My dad’s parents, Geraldine and Parker Heck, had both died during my first year in graduate school. They were in their 80s and had been married for over 60 years. They had gardened and cooked and grayed together in a retirement community of their choice. Losing their son had sped up their deterioration, worn down their lifelong Christian faith to threadbare and breaking. Oh, the doctors called the last illnesses dementia in my grandpa and pneumonia in my grandma, but I saw (the way poets see) that they had died too soon of broken hearts. 

The late autumn night I learned that my grandma died, I ate mushrooms and drank Mad Dog 20/20 with my Chinese friend Jarhead. We ran through the college golf course where the hills were hillier and the greens were greener. We took turns watching each other gallop across the field and giggled at the distorted sense of near and far, large and small. The stars hung starrier in the sky, hammered sterling and drunk and glittering. I hardly knew Nate yet and I was already running away.      


fearless or reckless?

Steven Slater, JetBlue flight attendant,
curses passengers, jumps down
emergency chute, becomes folk hero.
Summer, 1994
MFA program at UNC Greensboro

As I sail my car over the border between Texas and New Mexico, the vista suddenly blossoms open, a burst of shimmering land, atmosphere, sky, each intensified and vivified by abundant oxygen and freedom.

A perfect 360 degrees of brown and sage desert wrinkles and flattens toward a clear horizon. No roof, no billboard, no smokestack, no fence. The only sign of humanity is the singular stripe of highway which arrows before me, beckons west. I realize have never seen the sky until now, I have never felt so small.

I turn up the radio: "Where the Streets Have No Name." If the landscape could make a sound it would be the cry of this guitar. If sound had a color it would be the color of this sky. If despair and joy could manifest into one tangible form, it would be the knot in my throat, wanting to fly out and burn and scorch into a black smudge under this piercing sun.

To arrive here from North Carolina on a whim, I've driven my '91 beige Ford Tempo, alone, for two and half days. Spent the first night in a rest stop, half drunk and dozing in the backseat. I reached Oklahoma on the second night. I rented a campsite and slept again in my car, a little comma sweating, twisting over seat belt buckles. Despite the 80 degree heat and humidity, I slept with the windows rolled up, afraid of mosquitos and vandals. 

I pull off the freeway and park in a rest area, which looks like a movie set from Star Wars. I've never been to the Southwest and everything is exotic, other-worldly. The picnic tables and benches are bright aluminum, with aluminum canopies reflecting the hot white sun. Each unit seems to be welded from a single piece of metal which might, in a strong wind, overturn and wheel through the desert like a tumbleweed. Everything man-made looks untethered and silly in this landscape, overwhelmed by proportion, easily smashed under weather's thumb.

This is a reenactment of Nate played by an
actor, emblematic of 100 hopeless crushes.
I sit and eat a peanut butter sandwich and think about Nate. My beautiful, dark, doe-eyed roommate, the object of a terrible crush. The night I'd run away, Nate had disappeared into his room with his girlfriend, a gentle hippie named Josie. I was in the kitchen, cleaning up the remnants of a dinner party I'd thrown and which no one attended as promised--only Nate, stupid Josie, and our other roommate Jonathan.

I'd spent the whole day tidying our rented house, shopping, preparing an elaborate seven-layer lasagna that could feed the UNC basketball team. As I wrapped up the pitiful pounds of leftover lasagna and downed the remains of the cheap merlot, I thought of Nate screwing in the next room. I thought of each of my 11 friends who did not come to my party. I thought of the bleak, hollow summer spanning before me, the poems I wasn't writing, the lack of gravity under my feet. Filling up the days, completing another degree seemed tedious chores.

The thought of leaving was a match struck in the dark: sudden light, a whiff of sulphur and heat, a space instantly transformed. It was 3am, the house oblivious. I threw some clothes into a duffel bag and threw the bag into my car trunk. In five minutes I was on Route 40 West. I headed southwest by chance, simply because the nearest interstate traveled there.

At my shining Star Wars table I light up a cigarette.  I have no credit card, no phone. I have a car, an atlas, and $200 in my checking account. I'm 22 years old, and can start my life over--if, in fact, I'd ever started it at all.


rejection+romance: the first kiss

Ah, the first kiss.

Molly Ringwald & what's-his-name in "16 Candles." Molly Ringwald & Andrew McCartney in "Pretty in Pink." Eric Stoltz & Mary Stuart Masterson in "Some Kind of Wonderful" (she's hot, yeah?)

Dear God, please, please let my first kiss be like a kiss in a John Hughes movie.

I'm 16, a senior at Madison High School, Madison, Ohio. The Blue Streak is our mascot, Ronald Reagan our president, and nothing's changed since my chink-days on the playground. Sure, I'm taller, more active--cross country, swim team, marching band, French Club. I've graduated from spelling winner to highest levels of nerddom: a sculpture wins an art show; I'm badminton champ in P.E.; I hold third chair, clarinet, in band. I'm even salutatorian of my class of 300.

Still, nothing's changed. I'm one of two Asian-American kids in my class. Timmy Stanton is the other one. Timmy has a Korean dad who owns a Chinese restaurant. There's a rumor of a black child in the school district named Love Singleton, but I've never seen Love for myself. Timmy Stanton and I are pioneers in a sea of pink-white, all-American teens who dribble basketballs, dry-hump in back seats, and aspire for fall admission into OSU.

Prom season, who do people tell me should be my date? TIMMY STANTON. Fuck Timmy Stratton. His nose too wide and porous, his house smell of sweet and sour pork.

I want to go to prom with Matt Hudson or Steve Gibbons or Scottie Smith. I want to date the quarterback-types who date cheerleaders who give blowjobs under the stadium bleachers. I'd give a blowjob. I'd sneak under the bleachers and undo a varsity jacket and stone-washed Guess jeans. Tastes like salty mayonaise, I've heard one of the popular girls say.

No, no prom, for April, no kiss, no fairy godmother and bibbidi bobbidi pumpkin coaches--not until after graduation.

Summertime. Better late than never. His name is Chaz, and he isn't Chinese or Japanese or dirty knees. Chaz is blondish, shortish, popular-ish. Chaz is two grades below me and drives a AMC Pacer and hasn't heard yet that I'm a nerd. We hook up at a party. I'm drinking wine coolers through a straw, we're giggling, we're on the parents' bed. The kissing's juicy and rushed and uncoordinated--not that great and not that bad, like wine coolers.

Then--I don't know where I get the idea, from Judy Blume or salty mayo or natural mammalian lust--I move my hand below his belt. I've no idea what I'm doing ... and then... Chaz tells me to stop. Amateur that I am, even I know stopping's no good.

Chaz gets up and leaves the room.
What did I do next? Did I sit on the bed alone? wash my hand? get another cooler?  Half an hour later, I see Chaz through the cracked door of a bedroom and Chaz is making out with Jenny. Jenny from the cross country team. There's tongue action, there's hip action, there's swivel and thrust between jeans. Hands disappearing. My Chaz, my first kiss, my first went-down-there is now going down there with Jenny. 

I wander into the den where five kids are squeezed across a couch watching Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs on TV. Snow White--the adult version. Someone's found the porn tape in Jenny's dad's toolbox in the basement. Flickering hills of flesh on screen, entwined limbs and tongues and appendages I can't count, and suddenly I can't drink and watch at the same time, as if swallowing, as if tasting has become all wrong. 
I dreamed of being Molly Ringwald. But I could only hope to be as cool as her sidekick, Duckie. I could listen to Duckie's soundtrack, to the Smiths and New Order and Psychedelic Furs, I could sit in the rain alone by the graffiti.



Objectification as a group = rejection from the mainstream?
August 27. Evening. I'm born in a hospital in Tokyo, Japan, to a caucasian American father and Japanese mother. A six-pound bundle of flesh, blood, and tears, I am presented to Mr. David Edwin Heck and Mrs. Reiko Kuzume Heck.

We move to Yokosuka, home to an American Navy base when I'm one. and I attend kindergarten and first grade at a school there. The school yard stands on a cliff overlooking a rough blue ocean, its white-frothed waves as peaked as knives. At recess, the Japanese kids call me gaijin, the Japanese word for foreigner. It is not a nice word. Tears brim and cloud my eyes, I trip and fall onto my hands and knees on the dusty playground. More names and laughter sound from my small classmates. I ask my mother later at home to explain gaijin. Asking for translations becomes frequent--pinning down nuances, identifying linguistic tenors like derogatory and joking and kind.

When I'm seven, my father decides to relocate us to America. I'm overjoyed. Gaijin no more! I conclude--logically, I believe--that the word foreigner suggests the possibility of native. The foreigner who is alien in one land must come from somewhere, must have a homeland.

So I'm stunned when the kids at my new elementary school chant: Chinese, Japanese, dirty knees, look at these. When they say: Hey chink! hey gook! They say Pearl Harbor and shape their fingers into little guns pointed at me, the enemy. I say the words myself to prove my allegiance, I perform the crude gestures that accompany their rhymes. There are weeks, maybe months during which I don't understand the idea of sides, of enemy and ally, us and them, me and you.

I vow to dye my hair blond
and surgically alter my eyes.
Before this crucial transition, you could say that I had no notion of Other until my wordless, internalized notion of Self was shattered. These are days when my sense of identity is as dispersed as molecules of dust and light in a cloud, as vague, amorphous, darkening. If was capable of defining myself before being labeled, if I were sophisticated enough to possess the language of identity, I must have used words like fine or whole or good girl. I must have had a notion of myself as something native to its surroundings, a little animal curved into its nest, a builder of forts and igloos, a percher of tree limbs and laps. I deduce this by tracking the emotional terrain backwards in time: if I suddenly wasn't fine, at one time I must have felt fine--felt at peace, felt an instinctive belonging. Felt safe.

At my new American school I make A's while fantasizing about an island in between the U.S. and Japan, land of misfits, maybe Hawaii, maybe somewhere, land of half-and-half and quartered and pained. The worst part of school is at the end of the day. We're all lined up in the gym, organized into squiggly long queues according to bus routes. The giant, squealing room contains a dangerously low adult-to-child ratio--a free-for-all for calling names, making faces. I lower my head and stare down at my aluminum, square, Mork-and-Mindy lunchbox, at the dorky alien with his best friend. 

At home, my father tries to soothe me, "Asian women are beautiful. You're beautiful, and the other kids are just ignorant. They're jealous."  When I look in the mirror and see my small, slanted eyes, my crooked overbite, my bobbed hair which is neither black enough nor brown enough, not straight enough nor wavy enough for anyone's liking, I know someone is lying. Someone is not to be trusted. 

Me with my mother and father.