"IT'S BOGUS that the score's tied. I thought the Knicks would steamroll through the Clippers for sure." It was Thursday night, and M.J. was trying to shout above the din at the local sports bar, Ship of Fools.
"I don't know how you spend all day watching this stuff." Lin took a sip of her Carlo Rossi. "It's just a bunch of sweaty guys trying to get a ball into a basket. What's so exciting about that?"
M.J. chuckled as she watched Lin make her patented ew-cheap-wine face. Lin's taste certainly hadn't changed much since their first day of freshman year in college. She had sighed as she watched her childhood friend show up at the dorm with her twelve-piece, matching Louis Vuitton luggage. With her porcelain skin, silky black hair, and perfectly accessorized wardrobe, Lin was the epitome of sophistication and chic. Next to her, M.J. always felt like a pre-fairy godmother Cinderella, especially with her no-nonsense ponytail and no-name jeans. While she would occasionally make a halfhearted foray into the world of makeup, M.J. always ended up looking like a character fresh out of a Judy Collins song. Somewhere between Lin's amethyst purple cell phone and M.J.'s tennis rackets, however, the two had managed to find common ground.
Lin got up. "I need to see if they have anything better thancooking wine in this place." She wrinkled her nose. "Do you want anything?"
M.J. nodded. "Another Amstel Light would be great, thanks."
She took a look at her watch as Lin stepped away to order their drinks. The Heat-Rockets game was coming up soon on TNT, and she wanted to make sure she didn't miss the big showdown between Yao Ming and Shaquille O'Neal. Just as she gulped down the rest of her beer, the Knight Rider ring tone on her cell phone started playing.
"Hello?" M.J. said, putting down her glass.
"Hey, it's Ming. What's happening? What are you up to tonight?"
Ming Chan was a sportswriter with the Big Apple Times, as well as the son of a family friend of the Wyns. After meeting at several Lunar New Year parties and spending considerable time together covering games on the road, Ming and M.J. had become good friends. Picturing his round, boyish face and stocky, solid build, she couldn't help smiling.
M.J. cranked up the volume on her phone. "Hey, Ming, I'm good. Actually watching the Knicks game right now at Ship of Fools. You?"
"I'm just finishing up a story--calling to see if you wanted to hang with May and me. But it's Thursday night, so I'm guessing you're out with someone named Harry or William or Prescott."
M.J. rolled her eyes. Growing up in the predominantly Caucasian neighborhood of Riverdale up in the Bronx, she had inevitably dated some of her Abercrombie & Fitch-type classmates.
"You're such a moron, Ming. FYI, I'm not here with any white boys, just Lin. When will you stop with your stupid comments?"
"Whatever," he said, "you're always complaining to me about how you never meet the right guy."
M.J. sighed. "I don't have time for this. I don't know how May puts up with your bullshit."
Ming was undeterred. "That's because May knows about relationships--Asian relationships, that is."
She slapped her hand down on the table. "Ming!"
"Fine, fine. Just don't come crawling to me when your mom flips out the day you head to the altar. I can just imagine how upset she'll be when she sees that her new son-in-law is a white dude."
"Good-bye, Ming," M.J. said curtly. "I'll ring you later. Hopefully, we can do dinner next week."
As she flipped her phone closed, Lin came back with their drinks.
"Who was that on the phone?" she asked.
"Just Ming," M.J. muttered. "I told him to leave me alone."
"Oh, is he ragging on you about your boyfriends again? How are Ming and May, by the way? Still planning the traditional Asian wedding with the red qipao?"
"Yup." She nodded. "The two of them are so much in love that I sometimes can't stand hanging out with them. They even take me to Chinatown to scope out Asian men."
"Sounds like something my family would do." Lin rolled her eyes.
M.J. laughed at the thought of Lin's mother, Kim--she could picture her shaking her finger at them and saying, "You marry good Chinese man, you not have these problems."
Lin sipped her drink. "I guess Ming and May don't understand about your thing for preppy types."
M.J. shrugged and took a swig of her Amstel Light. "Yeah, whatever. Let's get back to the game." That was when she caught sight of a made-up blond woman batting her eyelashes at the seven guys milling around her.
"Ugh, J ... do we really have to sit through another two hours of this?" Lin moaned at the television. "I don't know how you ever got into this basketball thing."
"Oh, come on, Lin, you know I've been a Michael Jordan fan since I was eight." M.J. had had her life mapped out the moment she watched the Chicago Bulls win their first NBA title in 1991. Her birthday was the day after, and when she blew out her eleven birthday candles, she closed her eyes and made a wish that she would one day become the first female Asian sportscaster on ESPN.
"Oh, and guess what? I'm meeting with the sports director of PlayBall Network next week to show him my demo reel."
"No way--that's great! I'm sure you're totally going to dazzle him." Lin looked up at the monitor. "You know, maybe if you were announcing these games, I'd be more interested in watching."
M.J. laughed as she glanced back over in the direction of the blond chick, who was making overly enthusiastic cheers every time the Knicks scored a point. It was scenarios like these she couldn't stand. "Looks like that girl's pretending to like sports to get those dudes to like her, and they're eating it all up. Every last one of them."
"Well, not everyone knows sports." Lin turned around to see what was going on. "Look at me--I only know money."
"Yeah, but at least you don't pretend. Some girls just put on this act so they can get a guy. But you know what bothers me most?" M.J. leaned forward. "Men say they like girls who like sports. That's a lie. What they really like are women who prance around in cute little tennis skirts and cheer."
Lin chuckled. "You're probably right. That girl seems pretty clueless."
M.J. finished her third Amstel Light and shoved aside the bowl of peanuts she'd been munching on. Feeling a buzz, she nodded at Lin and started walking toward the guys. Looking like she'd seen this scenario before, Lin trailed after her friend.
"What are you doing, J?" Lin hissed.
"I'm going to prove to you I'm right. Get ready to be entertained," M.J. whispered. She marched up to one of the guys--a typical corporate type--and tapped him on the shoulder. "Excuse me, hi!" M.J. batted her eyelashes. "Do you know how many points Jamaal Winston scored tonight?"
The wannabe Brooks Brothers model in the oxford shirt smiled. "He scored seventeen. Are you a Knicks fan?"
"Of course I am. I've been a fan all my life. My favorite player on the team is Patrick Ewing," she chirped.
The guy laughed as his buddies all turned to check the girlsout. Meanwhile, the blonde tossed her hair and pranced away in a huff.
"Umm ... Patrick Ewing retired." He raised an eyebrow. "He doesn't play for the Knicks anymore."
M.J. clapped a hand to her mouth. "Oops. I didn't know that. He's great, though."
"Yes, he is." One of the other guys smirked. "So, what's your name?
"Well, I'm M.J., and this is my friend, Lin." She smiled. "What about you boys?"
The wannabe Brooks Brothers model nodded toward his friends. "I'm Dan, and these are my buddies, John, Damon, Keith, Lucas, Gil, and Jeremy."
M.J. grinned as she exchanged greetings with the group. She lived for moments like this. There was nothing sweeter to her than toying with a bunch of Neanderthals.
"Nice to meet you all," she said as Lin just smiled.
"Did anyone ever tell you that you look like Lucy Liu?" Damon leered at M.J.
"She gets that sometimes," Lin piped up. "She could be a Charlie's Angel."
M.J. just smiled. "I can definitely kick some ass--when the situation calls for it. So ... Dan, what other teams do you like?"
"Well, I was a big Bulls fan back in the days of Jordan and Pippen."
"Really? Me, too! I know everything about them."
This was really too easy. Anyone who knew M.J. knew better than to get her started on the Chicago Bulls and Michael Jordan. After all, it had to be fate that she had the same initials as Michael Jordan, right?
"Everything?" Dan chuckled. "You're funny."
"What do you mean?" M.J. opened her eyes wide.
"Well, it's just a bold statement, that's all."
M.J.'s innocent smile turned sly. "You don't believe me, do you?"
"Well ..." He shrugged. "You did think Ewing still played for the Knicks."
"Try me. Just one question. Loser buys the other a beer. In fact," M.J. paused, "I'll buy all your buddies a round of beer if I'm wrong."
That was enough to make all of Dan's friends turn and cheer him on.
"Sounds good to me." He grinned. "Here's a teaser. Who scored the game-winning shot in the last game of the Bulls' fifth championship title?"
M.J. scratched her head very slowly. "Uh-oh." Then she turned and winked at Lin, who laughed.
"I'm sorry," Dan smirked, "but I guess you owe me and my buddies a round of Bass."
She flashed him her biggest smile. "Not so fast. I believe that the individual you're talking about was a Second Team All-American senior at Arizona in 1988 by the name of Steve Kerr. The current TNT analyst scored with .2 seconds left in the game with an assist by Michael Jeffrey Jordan to lift the Bulls to a 1997 title."
The guys' jaws dropped.
M.J. smiled. "That would be a round of beer for me and my friend, I believe. But since I can't bear being around people who don't know sports, I think I'm gonna pass."
She glanced over at Lin and signaled her to go.
"She's a sportswriter," Lin called out as she ran off with M.J., leaving the boys shaking their heads behind them.
"Told you I'm right." M.J. grinned. "Now do you believe that men don't really like women who know sports?"
Lin just laughed.
M.J. OFTEN wished she felt half as confident about life as she did about sports. After all, life would be so much easier if nerve came in a nice prepackaged can. Brides would stroll down the aisle with nary a worry. Serena Williams would never miss a forehand. And come Monday morning, M.J. would not be sweating her first big one-on-one interview with New York Knicks guard, Jamaal Winston.
Sporting Adidas shell tops, hip-hugger jeans, a blue button-down blouse, and a black blazer, M.J. walked through the press room at Madison Square Garden with her Sporting Life magazine credentials. Ah, Madison Square Garden--in M.J.'s mind, there was no question that this was the greatest arena in the world. Every time she set foot in those hallowed halls, it felt like the first time. The great domed ceiling, the seemingly endless tiers of seats, the rafters drenched with championship banners and all the attendant history ... it was a heady feeling that she never tired of.
Before she got to the interview, though, she had to hang out in a raucous pressroom filled with smoke and testosterone. Most of the other reporters were twice her age, but they all had one thing in common--they were glaring daggers at M.J.
At twenty-six, M.J. was still considered an outsider, a newbie in the world of sports. In an industry dominated by fifty-year-old men, no woman was really taken seriously, and this was even more true for a young Asian-American female.
"So you'll never guess who I ran into last week!" Ming plopped down next to M.J. on one of the benches. As the Knicks beat writer for the Big Apple Times, Ming practically lived in the Garden.
"Who?" M.J. asked. "Chow Yun Fat?"
"Shut up, you dork." Ming laughed. "I saw Susan Huang at my uncle's dinner party last week, and she asked about you."
"Susan from our Chinese school classes?" M.J. yelped. "She hated me! She was such a teacher's pet. She even told on me once when she saw me playing Game Boy in class. As punishment, I had to write my name in Chinese on the board a thousand times."
"Yup." He nodded. "I mentioned that we see each other at games a lot, and she told me to say hi to you when I saw you at practice."
Chinese school was just one of the many parent-induced burdens that M.J. had been subjected to during her childhood. It was the most tedious thing to her--she still remembered how jealous she'd been when the kids next door got to play hopscotch on Sunday mornings while she would trudge by them, mushroom-cut head bowed, carrying her Pochacco bookbag and ink brush set to Chinese school.
"Ugh." M.J. made a face. "Susan's one of those girls that I'd be happy to forget. She was always so full of herself, not to mention the biggest tattletale in the world."
"Don't worry, darling." Ming grinned gleefully. "I got her back for you. I told her that not only were you doing great but that you were the president of the Chinese School Scholarship Foundation and that you were teaching Chinese reading and writing to kids. That just killed her."
M.J. cracked up. "Thanks! I bet she flipped when she heard that. Her dream, even when she was twelve, was to be head of that foundation."
Ming started laughing, too, then stopped as a shadow fell over them.
"M.J.? Is that really you?" a voice called out from behind her.
She turned around. Her face lit up when she saw who it was. "Kevin? What are you doing here? How the hell are you?" She broke into a grin as the newcomer reached over to give her a hug.
Beside her, Ming was craning his neck in curiosity.
"I'm good. I write for Dunk magazine now, which is why I'm here. But look at you--you look great!" Kevin exclaimed as he gave her a once-over.
"Don't sound so surprised," she teased. "You're not looking so bad yourself."
Kevin laughed modestly.
That laugh wasn't new to M.J. She'd heard it so many times--the pseudo-humble chuckle with the underlying "Yeah, I know I'm hot" tone.
"There it is. The 'let me be a stud but play dumb' act. Some things never change," she said lightly.
Trying to look as composed as she sounded, M.J. took a quick sip from her water bottle. She still couldn't believe it. Talk about a blast from the past. She hadn't seen Kevin Taylor since high school. With his chestnut hair, olive skin, green eyes, and formidable forehand, Kevin had been the school's premier tennis player--and premier catch. They had been hitting partners who had shared the same aspiring sportswriting dreams, as well as most of their free time during senior year. In fact, she really was once head over heels for him, and he ... well, M.J. never was quite sure exactly how Kevin felt.
Meanwhile, Ming was giving Kevin a disapproving look. He'd clearly made up his mind within minutes of seeing M.J. chatting with him.
"Ming, this is Kevin," she said finally, caving in to the inevitable. "He went to high school with me. Kevin, this is my friend Ming."
"How are you?" Kevin extended his hand.
"Good, what's up?" Ming forced a smile. "So, you and M.J. are old high school pals, huh?"
"Yeah." Kevin looked M.J. in the eye with a glimmer of mischief. "She was quite a tennis player back in high school. Not only was she a great hitting partner, but she always kept up with my strokes."
Ming raised his eyebrows. Catching his reaction, M.J. knew that it was time to break this little party up. Three was definitely a crowd here.
Ming was one of her closest friends, and she knew that he wanted the best for her. Still, sometimes he protected her toomuch. Her entire life, all the Asian men she knew had told her what to do. Her father was in the military and he lived to lecture M.J. on the dos and don'ts of life. Ditto for her male cousins and other assorted relatives. M.J. hated it all.
"You know, Ming," she said as casually as she could, "I ran into one of the PR guys before and they mentioned your name. You might want to check to see if they needed you for something."
Ming was no dummy. "All right," he said, "I guess I should. It was nice meeting you, Kevin. I'll catch you later."
As Ming strolled off, M.J. breathed a deep sigh of relief. Now that Ming was taken care of, she could finally concentrate on Kevin ... and that was when she felt a tap on her shoulder.
"M.J.!" a voice called out.
"Jagger?" She whirled around. With her mouth open, M.J. exclaimed, "What are you doing here?"
"Did you think just because you cool Sporting Life people could do a cover on Jamaal Winston that other sportswriters couldn't?" Jagger Quinn responded in his typical smart-alecky manner.
Beside her, M.J. could tell that Kevin was staring at Jagger like he was some strange alien insect. And why wouldn't he be? In his cargo pants, Vans, and bright blue T-shirt with the words DONUTS GOOD on it, he cut quite the contrasting figure from Kevin. Jagger was a producer for RealSports, a cable sports network in the same building as Sporting Life. Since he was not only friendly with a number of her colleagues but was also a frequent guest columnist for Sporting Life, he could routinely be found strolling around the offices chatting up the employees there--especially M.J. Scruffy and spiky-haired, Jagger looked like a skater boy in an Avril Lavigne video, so much so that she had nicknamed him "Ratboy" for his grungy attire.
"So," Jagger swiveled toward Kevin with interest, "who do we have here?"
"Ummm ... Jagger, this is Kevin. We went to high school together. He writes for Dunk magazine." M.J. cleared her throat. "Kevin, this is my friend ... I mean Jagger. He's the producing guru for RealSports."
"Aww, M.J." Jagger flashed an amused smile. "You're too kind, calling me a guru."
As M.J. made a face, he turned toward Kevin. "So, man, how's it shakin'?"
Kevin looked a little confused. "Um, it's shaking fine ... ."
"So you knew M.J. back in high school, huh?" Jagger shot her a mischievous look. "Bet you've got lots of good stories ... ."
M.J. cringed. Was it a full moon out? Crazy enough that she had run into Kevin here, but to throw Ming and Jagger in the mix, too? Ming had his own set of problems with his instant disapproval for all things Caucasian. But here was Jagger, looking at Kevin in that he's-a-wanker way. And Kevin--well, he was probably wondering what she was doing hanging out with someone who looked like he lived out of the Salvation Army.
M.J. took a deep breath. She had to put an end to this before Jagger said anything embarrassing--now.
"So, Jagger, don't you have to check in and see when they're letting the writers into the locker room?" she said quickly.
Jagger shot M.J. an I'm-onto-you look, but he obediently turned and shook Kevin's hand politely.
"Bye!" She waved, trying to hide her relief. Jagger just shook his head as he left.
M.J. exhaled and turned back to Kevin, all smiles. "So who are you here to interview?" he asked.
"Jamaal Winston. Sporting Life is doing a cover story on him and his chump change contract. You?"
"We're doing an Isaac Thomas story. Typical that Dunk magazine would do something like that. Still dreaming of interviewing his Airness one day, though."
"That makes two of us." M.J. smiled. "At least you're doing a real story and not some crazy pretend-sports piece. Some guy in our office is doing an article about this new dating service called sportsdating.com, where fans can all come together and find their soul mates while rooting for the same teams."
"Hmm ... sounds interesting," Kevin said. "I guess you never know what people will think of next."
"I know." M.J. shook her head. "Um, listen, I have to get going. Jamaal's waiting for me in there. It was great to see you, though!"
Kevin rifled through his bag. "I'm glad I bumped into you. Here's my card. Maybe we can catch up some time."
"Okay, here's mine." Her hand touched his for a brief instant. "We'll definitely have to catch up soon."
AS SHE entered the long gray concrete hallway to the Knicks locker room, M.J. was besieged by a torrent of emotions. Her heart was pounding a mile a minute, her head was a jumble of racing thoughts, and her stomach was all twisted up into knots. She couldn't believe the timing--wasn't it just like fate to drop Kevin back into her life five minutes before her first locker room interview? After all, what were the odds of seeing Kevin Taylor again? It had been almost ten years since she'd last laid eyes on him. He was the first boy she'd kissed, the first boy she'd shared her dreams and hopes with, the first boy she'd ever fallen in love with. Just seeing him now for a few fleeting minutes was enough to bring all the old emotions back.
But she didn't have time to analyze Kevin Taylor right then and there. A moment later, she walked into the Knicks locker room and found a room full of naked NBA players. It was M.J.'s first time in an NBA locker room, and while she had been ready for the whooping and the hollering, the steam from the showers and the smell of sweat, she was most certainly not ready for the wall of naked muscular flesh. While most of the players wore itty-bitty towels, the others looked like they were auditioning for The Full Monty. Trying her hardest to maintain her composure, she finally spotted Jamaal Winston waiting by his locker for her.
M.J. was fully prepared to do the story on number 20 of the Knicks, but as she approached, her knuckles went white from holding her tape recorder too tightly. Feeling her fingers shake, she could just imagine the headline--FEMALE REPORTER DROPS RECORDER, FINDS KNICKS PLAYER'S JEWELS.
With an effort, she snapped out of her reverie.
"Hey, Jamaal." She smiled as she shook his hand. "What's up? Ready to talk some ball?"
"Sure thing," he said warmly. For such a tall, massively sculpted man with a smooth-shaven head, Jamaal had a surprisingly soft voice.
"So, you're going to be in your first All-Star game next week," M.J. began. "Are you looking forward to it?"
"You bet." Jamaal beamed. "I've been dreaming about this all my life. Now that it's finally here, I almost can't believe it's happening."
"What are you looking forward to the most?" M.J. asked.
Jamaal rubbed his chin. "Hmm. That's a tough question. I would have to say ... watching Beyoncé boogie at the halftime show."
M.J. chuckled. "Right on. So, switching gears a little, any vacations planned?"
"Well, every summer, my buddies and I take this fishing trip to Alaska. Even though it's a long ways off, I can't wait. We had such a blast last summer."
"Really?" M.J. said. "What happened?"
"It was absolutely amazing," he began. "We caught all these huge fish. Plus, it was so beautiful that I could have just stared at the mountains the whole time." He smiled at the memory. "In fact, everything was pretty much perfect until I fell in the lake one day trying to hold on to this king salmon I was reeling in. It took three of my buddies to pull me out of the water, but it was all worth it because I had that damn fish--even though I had to stuff it into my pants to hold on to it!"
M.J. and Jamaal both howled, catching the attention of the other media and personnel in the locker room.
"Wow!" she exclaimed. "So you and the salmon got to know each other pretty well, huh?"
Jamaal laughed. "You can say that, all right."
"I hear you." M.J. chuckled. "So are you glad to be back on the hardwood?"
"Hey--" He shook his head. "--after handling that fish, I'm pretty sure I'm not going to be making turnovers anytime soon!"
M.J. and Jamaal broke out into laughter again. A moment later, one of the Knicks' spokesmen came over.
"Excuse me, I'm Roy Davidson with the Knicks." The balding, middle-aged man looked at M.J. pointedly. "May I speak to you for a second?"
"Sure." She got up, confused. She quickly thanked Jamaal for his time and followed Roy to a corner of the locker room.
"Um, it's nice to meet you. I'm M. J. Wyn, by the way," she said, still trying to figure out what was going on. "What's--?"
"What publication are you from?" he asked sternly.
"I'm from Sporting Life," she answered, still puzzled. "Is there a problem?"
"Can I see some ID, please?" he demanded.
M.J. was stunned. Did this guy think she was impersonating a journalist just to talk to an NBA player? Glaring at him, she whipped out her driver's license.
"This is fine, Ms. Wyn--" Roy glanced at her license. "--but in the future, I'd appreciate it if you could act more appropriate."
"Excuse me?" Her jaw dropped.
"You heard me." He handed her back the license. "These interviews are strictly for business. We don't want people to think these are flirt sessions with NBA players."
M.J. couldn't believe her ears. If she were in a bar instead of the Knicks locker room, she would have slapped this dude right across the face.
"First of all," she said as calmly as possible, "Mr. Winston and I were not flirting. We were having a conversation, which is what reporters are supposed to do with their interviewees. There was absolutely nothing inappropriate about our interview."
"Ms. Wyn," Roy said dismissively, "there's no need for explanations. I'm just trying to help you out, kid. Flirting isn't the best way to get into this gig."
M.J. knew she had to walk away from this conversation before she lost her cool.
"Thank you for such inspiring words," she managed despite the lump in her throat. "Now, if you don't mind, I have to get back to work."
As she stormed off, her face flushed and her head pounding, M.J. couldn't help but think that if she were a man, this incident with Roy the asshole would never have happened. The worst thing was that it had completely marred a great interview with Jamaal.
Holding back tears, she strode out of the locker room. Which was when, of course, she ran into Jagger.
"M.J." Jagger looked at her with concern. "How did it go? Why do you look like you're going to cry?"
"I don't want to talk about it," she snapped, the humiliation threatening to engulf her. The last person she wanted to see right now was someone of the male persuasion. "It's nothing."
"Are you sure?" He frowned. "You don't look so good."
Suddenly Kevin walked up behind the both of them. "Hey, guys," he said brightly, "how's everything going?"
"Fine." She forced a smile. "How about you?"
"Good," Kevin replied. "My interview was great. Isaac Thomas and I really hit it off. In fact, he was telling me that he golfs at my country club."
Jagger narrowed his eyes. "That's awesome, man, but I don't think M.J. wants to hear about your interview right now."
Her eyes widened. How could Jagger do this to her? There was no need for him to open his big mouth and tell the world that she had just been totally humiliated her first time out with a player. Especially in front of Kevin.
"What happened?" Kevin asked.
"Oh, nothing." M.J. tried to shake it off.
Looking at Kevin, she could tell he was relieved. She knew he hated dealing with other people's problems. Kevin's attention usually waned when it came to other people. Somehow, though, M.J. could never bring herself to hold that against him. Kevin had a way of making her forgive his worst flaws--just looking into his green eyes was always enough to make her forget his latest transgression.
"Oh, okay." Kevin shrugged. "Well, anyway, I gotta run, but M.J., let's try to keep in touch."
M.J. pasted on a smile, determined not to let him see how upset she was. "Of course. Bye!" She gave him a hug and a kiss good-bye and watched as he strolled off. Then, she immediately whirled around and confronted Jagger.
"Why did you do that?" she demanded furiously. It was bad enough she'd been humiliated by Roy in front of an entire locker room. Now she'd just been embarrassed again in front of the one guy she wanted to impress. "It's not your place to be all up in my business then try to spread it to the world."
"Look," Jagger retorted, "I just thought you deserved a little support. If you don't want my help, forget it."
He stalked off angrily, but not before she'd seen the hurt in his eyes.
HOURS LATER, as she was speeding down south on I-95, M.J. wondered why she'd had to be such a bitch to Jagger. Really, what did he do that was so wrong other than be in the absolutely wrong place at the wrong time? He couldn't help it that he'd walked in on her once-unimaginable reunion with the one man who could make her resolve weaken--the one man who never failed to turn her into a shaky-kneed schoolgirl.
M.J. and Kevin were seventeen when they started dating the summer before their senior year. He'd invited her to his family's country club for the summer so that they could both work on their tennis game. The Taylors were exactly as M.J. expected them to be: Kevin's father, Edward, was CEO of a JPMorgan branch while his wife, Meredith, was the perfect manicured hostess and mother. Kevin's brother was a star quarterback at Stanford. And his little sister, Amanda, was a precocious ten-year-old, perpetually decked out in cute little frilly dresses and blond pigtails.
Sitting at the club's Fourth of July party, M.J. had looked at the Taylor family with envy. They were beautiful in their designer outfits and expensive white-shoe accessories, playing tennis in themorning and having tea and cocktails in the afternoon. Most important, they were a family with no troubles or problems. M.J. had never seen any of them raise their voices or show even the slightest hint of discontent. So different from her own family ...
Now that Kevin had reentered her life, M.J. wasn't sure what she'd expected; after all, just because they exchanged cards didn't mean that he was interested in rekindling anything. For all she knew, Kevin could be married, engaged, dating, or simply not interested. And M.J. herself wasn't sure how she felt about him; it wasn't easy reconciling her hurt back when he dumped her with the fluttery feeling in her stomach when she saw him that morning. In the end, though, she couldn't help wondering why he would suggest getting together if there wasn't some interest there. Which was why, as she drove to her PlayBall interview, it was all she could do to concentrate on the task at hand instead of the memory of Kevin's voice.
BECOMING AN on-air sportscaster had been M.J.'s own Holy Grail for as long as she could recall. She still remembered prancing around her bedroom doing her best Al Michaels/Miracle on Ice impersonation with her hairbrush. But having arrived at PlayBall's cavernous gray steel-and-concrete offices, she couldn't help feeling a twinge of doubt about her long-cherished aspirations ever coming true.
"It's very nice to meet you." M.J. beamed at Ben Fowler, the PlayBall sports director, as he ushered her to a seat in his office. Having changed into an understated black pin-striped suit, M.J. was ready to work her charm.
"So, tell me about your reel before I watch it," he began. A grizzled man in his fifties, Ben Fowler was a classic sports guy in his beat-up sweater and coffee-stained tie.
"Well, I did a few features," she explained. "One of them focuseson an upcoming high school player, Karim Livingston from Brooklyn, who's being touted as the next big NYC point guard. I also have a hockey and a tennis piece."
Ben nodded as he pushed the VHS tape into the VCR. As her montage began playing, she stared at him, trying to decipher his facial expressions. Three minutes later, she had her answer.
"Well," Ben swiveled around in his chair, "you've obviously got the look, but I'm sorry. I just don't think that these pieces have that extra special something we're looking for. They're generally good but a little ordinary, and unfortunately, that means we see a lot of pieces that come through here like that. We're hoping to find something with a fresh, unique voice."
M.J.'s heart sank. She'd been working on these feature packages for months now with a production crew. In a matter of minutes, Ben had ripped it apart. Somehow though, she managed to keep smiling.
"You may want to sit down and rethink your approach," he went on. "You need to think about what will set you apart from the crowd. Because right now, you're just vanilla, kind of boring, one of the herd."
"Thank you." She forced another smile. "I appreciate the feedback."
"Good luck to you, Miss Wyn." Ben shook her hand.
M.J. quickly dumped the tape into her bag and all but ran out of the office. She felt her eyes welling up as she rushed into the elevator. As the doors closed, she collapsed against the cool steel walls and wiped her tears away on her sleeve. So much for Auntie Lee's prophecy--she wasn't even going to get the chance to give up her dream. She couldn't believe how bad she felt--worse than being dumped by a boyfriend, worse than losing her favorite Michael Jordan highlight DVD, even worse than when all the girls laughed at her Mickey Mouse underwear in the locker room after gym class.
M.J. quickly grabbed her phone from her bag. She needed her girls.
A TYPICAL Friday night for M.J. consisted of beers, her girlfriends Alex and Lin, and some harmless flirting with boys. She had a particular affinity for mellow dives with jukebox music. This week, they all congregated at Buster's Garage in TriBeCa.
"And here's a toast, ladies." Lin raised her glass. "To a night of fun and to meeting gorgeous men."
M.J. and Alex raised their drinks. "Cheers."
As they clinked glasses, M.J. couldn't help but think back to that afternoon's PlayBall interview. "Vanilla, kind of boring, one of the herd." Just thinking about Ben's words now made her feel like banging her head against a wall. How could this have happened? She'd worked so hard on that tape, had sweated over shots, lost sleep over the scripts. The worst thing was that Ben's complaints weren't neat little technical things that could easily be fixed. How did you fix the fact that someone thought you were boring? Especially when M.J. thought she was the furthest thing from dull. It was all enough to make her want to storm back into Fowler's office, let out a primal, ear-piercing scream, and demand if he still thought she was "vanilla."
Stop it, she told herself. You're going to drive yourself insane.
She tried to concentrate on something frivolous. "So did you guys watch The Set-Up last night? Can you believe Bill dumped Dana for that Melissa chick?"
"I know--it was all everyone at the office could talk about," Lin exclaimed. "What I can't believe is how there are so many gorgeous women out there who are willing to jump through hoops to get this one guy. I've always wondered what would possess these women to do those shows."
"Well, not everyone gets to meet their boyfriend on the job," Alex drawled.
The girls oohed as Lin turned bright red. They all knew that Lin had a history of falling for her coworkers.
"Look, Alex," Lin retorted, "not all of us can be automatons at work. Some of us actually have feelings. Emotions. Needs."
M.J. gaped. Despite her petite stature and deceptively delicate features, Alex was a spitfire in sheep's clothing. Once angered, she was all flashing eyes and sharp wit, and M.J. had seen men twice her size cower under her fury. Fortunately, she herself rarely had occasion to clash with Alex, but she also knew better than to do so purposely. Lin knew better, too, but that didn't stop her from starting with their friend.
Alex scowled. "This is not about having 'emotions.' This is about being professional. You're a professional, and that means no flirting with your colleagues at work, no commenting on each other's posterior, and most definitely no playing footsie underneath the conference room table."
Uh-oh. M.J. bit her lip as Lin inhaled sharply. This was getting a little too testy. M.J. loved both her girls, but she also knew their faults. Lin was impetuous and careless. Alex, on the other hand, had never met an unpopular opinion she was afraid to voice. Bringing these two personalities together meant there would be the inevitable clash.
M.J. decided that it was time to intercede. "So, guess what? I ran into this guy Kevin I dated. Remember the tennis player I told you about? It was such a shock--not bad or even a big deal, just kind of crazy."
"You mean Kevin Taylor?" Alex asked. "The one you went out with in high school?"
"Yep." M.J. nodded. "I ran into him at MSG the other day. We exchanged cards."
"Look at your face, J," Lin teased. "You're glowing. You're really excited about him, huh?"
"It's not that I'm excited about him--it's just that it was a shock to see him again. I mean we had something once, but that was years ago." M.J. tried to play it down. "We were young then."
"So, are you going to meet up with him?" Alex asked.
"We'll see if he calls, but even if he doesn't, it's really not a big deal. I mean, it's not like I'm expecting anything." M.J. took a long swig of her beer.
M.J. KEPT telling herself she didn't care if Kevin never called her. After all, she'd survived all these years without him--why would she need him now? And yet, as Tuesday morning rolled around, she found herself spending an inordinate amount of time checking her messages ... .
Fortunately, she didn't have too much free time to dwell on Kevin. Determined not to let the PlayBall interview crush her, she peppered every contact she had at every broadcasting station she could find with her tape. Ben Fowler was an idiot, she told herself, and she was going to prove him wrong.
The first few days, M.J. floated along on her conviction that the phone would be ringing off the hook the minute people got a peek at her tape. A week later, her optimism began to flag as not a single call came through about her reel. By the end of the next week, disappointment started to sink in, dragging M.J. inexorably down from her cloud of hope.
And then the rejection letters came.
It was devastating to open her mailbox every night and see yet another thin white envelope lying there, mocking her. It got to the point where M.J. dreaded checking her mail. After all, every trip to the mailbox in her six-story East Village walk-up just brought yet another crushing let-down, another "Thank you, but we don't think this is right for our show." It took every bit of her innate optimism not to let the simmering bitterness within her well up and engulf her.
But, as the days went by and the rejection letters dribbled in, M.J. found herself doubting Auntie Lee's prophecy even more. It was all she could do to keep her head above water and ignore the vicious little voice that told her she just wasn't good enough--not for sportscasting or anything else.
BETWEEN KEVIN'Sreentry into her life, the disaster of the PlayBall interview, and the never-ending stream of rejection letters, M.J.'sonce orderly life had been thrown into turmoil. Which was why a nice, quiet meal with the family Wednesday night seemed like a welcome respite to M.J., who was all too happy to escape to her family's little brick row house in Flushing for their annual pre-spring feast.
According to Chinese tradition, a Thanksgiving-esque meal was cooked to celebrate every change of season. M.J.'s grandfather Kam could be counted on to whip up a mouthwatering, calorie-inducing, diet-busting meal come every one of these occasions. Salted chicken with lemon, dried shrimp with vermicelli, and sea cucumbers with mushrooms and scallions were omnipresent decorations on the Wyn family table during these meals. They would eat voraciously, while "catching up."
"Meilin," M.J.'s mother, Esther, said, calling her daughter by her Chinese name, "so can you go to your cousin's wedding banquet on Sunday night?"
"Oh, is it Sunday?" M.J. shook her head as she shoveled some bok choy onto her plate. "Sorry, I have a game to cover that night."
Esther frowned, looking none too pleased. "Again? You couldn't go to dim sum with the family last Sunday, and now you can't go to wedding banquet?"
"There's nothing I can do about it, Mom. It's work. You know that has to come first."
Her mother pursed her lips. M.J. knew that in any other situation, her mother would have badgered her into going. But work was the one area no Chinese parent would dare wage war over, and Esther was no exception.
"Fine," she grumbled. "So how is everything going? How is sending out tapes for TV job?"
"Okay." M.J. took a bite of her tofu delight. "I got a couple of rejections from a few small networks, but it's no big deal. I'm sure someone will think differently soon--no matter what that jerk at PlayBall says."
Esther gave M.J. a puzzled look. "What do you mean?"
"I met this sports director, and he said my tape was terrible andthat no one would ever like it." She sighed, her shoulders slumped. "I'm over it."
"Well, don't you think he is an expert? Maybe this is a sign that you should give up on this dream of yours. Sometimes you have to be realistic. Dreams don't always come true."
"Your mom is right," M.J.'s dad, Michael, interjected. "Maybe you should think about being a real estate broker or going into business like Lin."
M.J.'s nostrils began to flare. She hated it when her parents ganged up on her, and there was no worse topic than her career. "I don't want to start with you guys." Her voice rose. "I'm just here to enjoy a nice evening with Grandpa and everyone."
That was absolutely the wrong thing for M.J. to say. Her father, who had a notoriously quick temper, immediately launched into a familiar rant.
"Don't talk to us like that." Michael pointed his chopsticks at M.J. "We are your parents and love you very much. We just want to see you do well. We're not some stupid American family trying to tell their kids to reach for their dreams, and then when they are thirty, have no money and nothing to live for."
M.J. flinched. "Look, I know you're concerned about me, but I'm twenty-six and a big girl," she snapped, her appetite gone. "I know what I'm doing."
And with that, she stormed out of her parents' house.
CHINA DOLLS. Copyright © 2007 by Michelle Yu and Blossom Kan. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.