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If you thought of life as a series of nostalgic images arranged in a slo-mo montage, you’d miss a lot of the tedious bits. In between the fuzzy images of blowing out birthday candles and first kisses would be a whole lot of sitting on your sofa watching TV. Or doing homework. Or learning how to create the perfect beach wave for your hair with a flatiron.
Or in my case, overseeing yet another school event. Like the fall carnival.
Add to that, some vomit.
I gingerly tapped Andy Mason’s back as he hurled into a recycling bin. This was definitely one of those poignant scenes that would not make it into my life montage.
“All good?” I asked the six-feet-four tennis team captain as he straightened up. He wiped his mouth gingerly and nodded.
“Thanks, Des,” he said sheepishly.
“No problem, but maybe don’t go on the Brain Melter three times in a row?”
It was a Saturday night in late November and the Monte Vista High School fall carnival was in full swing on our campus—a sprawling state-of-the-art modern architectural wonder built on an Orange County seaside bluff.
Andy staggered off, passing by my best friend, Fiona Mendoza. She steered clear of him, wrinkling her nose. “A barfer?” she asked, wearing slouchy sweatpants, a crisp men’s shirt, hiking sandals, and a lightning-bolt-patterned scarf. Her heavily lined amber eyes were staring at me, blinking slowly and deliberately. She would have looked like a Mexican American Disney princess if it weren’t for the fact that she dressed like a hobo with a mean makeup collection.
“It’s always the huge guys that have delicate little stomachs,” I said.
“Lucky you.” She winked.
I snorted. “Yeah, you love huge guys.” Fiona, in fact, loved tiny girls.
My snort morphed into a hacking cough, and I bent over from the sheer force of it. When I straightened up Fiona was holding a thermos. “Your dad asked me to bring this to you,” she said.
There were two cold-and-flu pills taped to the lid and I smiled when I saw the Post-it attached. My dad’s scrawled handwriting read: Eat a lot even if you feel like shitty! There were black smudges on everything, the signature of a car mechanic.
I opened the thermos and the aroma of salty seaweed soup wafted out. “Mm, thanks Fi.”
“You’re welcome but why the hell are you here? Don’t you have, like, the black lung?” she asked as we walked over to a bench and sat down.
“Because, hello, I’m in charge of it. Also, black lung is now commonly known as pneumonia. So no, I don’t have that.”
“You’re in charge of everything. No offense, Desi, but this is just the lame-ass school carnival.” Fiona draped herself across the bench. “Couldn’t some underling in the student government have handled this?”
“Who? My hapless veep, Jordan?” Jordan was my vice president and was voted in primarily because of his hair. “He would have shown up tomorrow. No way. I didn’t spend weeks planning this so that someone could mess up the Monte Vista carnival rep.”
Fiona stared at me, letting the dorkiness of that statement settle between us. When I had been duly punished, she spoke. “Des, you need to chill. It’s senior year, calm down already.” Fiona’s entire body punctuated that point—sitting cross-legged on the bench, one arm propped up on the armrest, her chin resting on it.
I took a sip of my soup before responding. “Have I been accepted into Stanford yet?”
Fiona straightened up then, pointing a long, glittery fingernail at me. “No! No. Once you turn that application in, I don’t want to hear that word for the rest of the year.” She paused dramatically. “Actually, never again for my entire life.”
“Well, too bad!” I popped the pills into my mouth and downed some water.
She stared at me again, her gaze unnerving and a little scary. “Des, you’re like a sure thing. If a nerd-Mother-Teresa-Miss-Teen-America like you doesn’t get into that school, who will?”
I coughed again, a phlegmy rattle that harkened the end of days. Fiona visibly recoiled from me.
I pounded my chest before speaking. “Do you know how many kids look just like me on paper? A 4.25 GPA, student body president, varsity sports, perfect SAT score, one billion hours of community service?”
Fiona’s expression slackened at this familiar refrain. “Well, isn’t that why you requested an interview?” Her voice was on the edge of boredom as she eyed a group of girls walking by us. My best friend since second grade, Fiona had had the Desi Lee Stanford dream ballad memorized since I started belting it at the age of ten.
“Yeah, but the interview’s in February, a month after I turn in my application. It’s making me nervous now that the early action application deadline’s actually passed,” I muttered.
“Des, we’ve talked about this a million times. You wanted to do regular decision, better odds and all that?”
I poked at my soup. “Yeah, I know.”
“So don’t sweat it, okay?” Fiona patted my arm.
After I finished my soup Fiona bailed to go find our friend Wes Mansour. I roamed the carnival again—making sure the boys’ junior varsity baseball team wasn’t giving away all the plushie prizes to cute girls and keeping people from rioting while in the never-ending line for the soft-serve ice cream truck. I was headed toward the restrooms when I ran into a few juniors whom I recognized—a well-groomed boyish bunch with impeccable T-shirts and expensive kicks.
“Hey, boss. How’s it going?” one of them asked me, all sparkly eyes and charm. The kind of guy born with a fedora jauntily perched on his head.
I felt their eyes on me and my cheeks flushed. “Um, good. Have fun!” I waved at them with awkward jazz hands before walking away. For God’s sake. Have fun! Who was I—their mom? I was mentally kicking myself when someone grabbed me from behind.
“Yeah, what’s up, boss?” The teasing voice was inches from my ear. Wes. Thick black hair set back into a kind of modern, perfectly mussed pompadour, the most immaculately smooth brown skin, and sleepy eyes always weighed down by his outrageous eyelashes. Girls loved him. Yes, my two best friends were these sexy people who reminded me of my own unsexiness on a daily basis.
I spun around and smacked his arm.
Wes clutched it and winced. “Use your words!” he barked. Fiona was behind him, holding a giant plastic bag full of pink cotton candy. I scowled at both of them but before I could respond, another coughing fit struck.
“Ew, Des,” Wes said, covering his nose with his T-shirt collar. “I’ve got a huge game next week and if I get sick, I’ll kill you.” Like me, Wes was also a nerd jock. His sport of choice was basketball, his science of choice physics, his geekery of choice comics and Settlers of Catan. He once held the number one ranking online for three months until he got beaten by an eight-year-old girl from Brazil.
“It’s good to get exposed to germs, you know,” I said, and cleared my throat violently. Both Wes and Fiona made faces.
“Spare us, Dr. Desi,” Wes grumbled.
“Oh, I’m just getting started. Shall I start my lecture on the future of fecal transplants?”
Wes closed his eyes dramatically. “I’d like to go one week without having to hear about the merits of freaking gut bacteria.”
I shrugged. “Fine. But you guys will all be thanking me later when I’m a doctor curing seasonal allergies with fecal transplants.”
“God!” Fiona tossed the rest of her cotton candy into a trash can.
I waited for more complaints but instead I got silence. And strange expressions. Fiona and Wes were looking behind me. I turned around and stared into a very large chest.
“What are fecal transplants?” a low voice asked.
I looked up. Oh, Lord.
Max Peralta. Six feet two inches of hot, hot … freshman. Then I heard snickering behind me. When Fi and Wes had found out that my first-week-of-school crush had turned out to be a ninth grader—well, it was the best day ever.
“Oh, uh nothing. Hey, hi!” I said, my voice already at a weird level of dog-hearing-only pitch. Desi, do NOT speak until you can freaking control your voice.
He smiled, teeth white against tan, sun-kissed skin. Howww in God’s name was this a freshman?
“Hey, so good job with the carnival, Desi.”
I blushed, deeply. “Thanks, Max.” All right, you’ve got this. Just keep your expression cool, relax your shoulders, keep your natural eager-beaver instinct in check!
He looked down at his feet for a second, then cocked his head up with a smile. Dang.
“Um, I was wondering … Are you busy after this?” he asked.
My voice caught in my throat. I cleared it. NO squeaky voice! “After … the carnival?”
“Yeah, do you have to, I don’t know, clean up or something?”
My ears started to burn, and I could feel the friend eyeballs on me. “Nope, no cleaning. I’m free.” Wait, was I encouraging this? He was cute, no doubt … but still a freshman.
It was like he read my mind. Keeping his eyes on mine, he asked, “I know you probably don’t date freshmen…?”
But he was right. He was a freshman. I was a senior. So I tried to muster a kind rejection. But instead, I felt a cough coming on. I put my hand to my chest and shut my mouth tight—no, this was NOT the time.
But there are just some things that have a force of their own.
So I coughed. Really hard.
And that phlegm that had been rattling in my chest all day?
Landed right on the front of his crisp, striped shirt.
Wanting to kill myself was too mild a description.
I felt a familiar paralysis set in and covered my mouth with my hands, staring at the glob on the navy and red stripes. Those stripes would be forever burned into my memory. Thick blue stripes with thin red ones in between. A pretty nice shirt, really.
“Ugh … is that?” I heard Max, but I still couldn’t bring myself to look at his face. Only saw him stretch his shirt out and make a disgusted sound.
Finally, I let out a feeble, “Sorry, I’m sick.”
“It’s … okay. Um, okay I’m just going to…” And then he scurried off into the crowd.
I threw the hood of my jacket over my head and turned to Fiona, screaming into her shoulder.
She petted my head awkwardly. “Wow, that was an epic flailure, even for you. I mean, wow,” she said. Wes was too busy laugh-crying to say anything.
Flailure. The clever word Wes had come up with for when I failed at flirting. Get it? Flirt + failure = flailure. Birthed during freshman year, when the shy and sweet Harry Chen, whom I had tutored in English exhaustively for a year because I was in love with him, confessed that he had a crush on our English teacher. Our male English teacher.
But even before that incident, I had always flailed. Every time I tried talking to a guy. Every time a guy talked to me or showed any inkling of interest. It always went wrong. It didn’t make sense; in all other parts of my life I was the Together Girl. Stanford-Bound Girl. It was the one thing that I couldn’t ever seem to get a handle on.
How utterly clichéd—excelling at all parts of life but love. Wah-wah.
I looked up at Fiona with bleary eyes. “Thanks. Always a beacon of comfort. Bosom buddy. Buddy ol’ pal. Pal gal. Gal … pal.”
Fiona shook her head grimly. If one was seeking comfort and a cozy embrace from a friend, Fiona Mendoza was not open for business. She was more of the slap-you-silly, back-to-reality type.
She shrugged. “At least he’s just a freshman.” The word freshman made me wail harder into her shoulder. I had let my crush on Max die a swift death when I found out he was in ninth grade, but he was still hot. A hot guy who had been about to ask me out.
My two best friends, for all their good intentions, could never understand why being in a relationship was almost mythical to me. These two came out of the womb with built-in fan clubs.
Wes held up his phone and took a photo of me.
“Give me that!” I screeched, snatching it out of his hands and swiftly deleting the picture.
He whined, “Come on, I’m just adding it to my Famous Desi Flail moments.”
“Do you want to die?” I threatened Wes with death on a daily basis.
My flailures had become so expected, so reliable, that I was even making a joke about them in my college application essay to Stanford. You know, to show actual human flaws. Because even flaws could be spun into something positive. I hoped that my winning combination of humility and humiliation would get me in. That, or my SAT score.
And for the most part, I could laugh about it. I had so much on my plate that it was probably for the best that boys didn’t take up my time, in addition to everything else. There were so many other things that I needed to focus my attention on.
Plus the idea of letting another human see your pores that up close was frightening to me.
* * *
The next week at school, I was on the soccer field battling it out against Eastridge Academy.
I loved soccer; it was like chess and a hundred-yard dash all mixed into one. On a good day, it was like I could see into the future: each pass part of a master plan that ended with a ball in the back of the net.
And today was one of those good days.
It was deep into injury time and we were tied 1–1. Now or never, Des. My teammate Leah Hill and I made split-second eye contact before she passed the ball to me. I leaped above the matching gleaming braids of Eastridge’s defense and powered the ball down into the corner of the net.
The whistle blew and I wheeled away to celebrate our win as the Eastridge players collapsed in a heap of tears and instant recriminations.
After a round of high fives, I said bye to my teammates and headed toward the parking lot.
“Rest up, Lee!” Coach Singh called to me as I reached my dad’s car. I waved limply in the direction of her voice because I was still battling that stupid cold. Now that the adrenaline rush of the game had subsided, I was exhausted.
A lumbering baby-blue American-auto masterpiece was waiting for me. Even though my dad was a mechanic who could fix up any classic car to perfection, he drove a very unsexy 1980 Buick LeSabre the size of a houseboat. I swore my dad’s eccentricities grew exponentially every year.
And yes, my father was picking me up from school. Last year, I had crashed my birthday present from my dad—a restored hunter-green Saab convertible which I’d had all of twenty minutes—into a street lamp ten feet away from our house. A rabbit had jumped out in front of me and instead of braking, my immediate reaction was to steer the car wildly away from it.
After that, my dad was convinced that I couldn’t be trusted to have my own car, but he did let me drive his uncrushable boat short distances and I never asked him to replace the Saab. At the top of my life goals was to never worry my dad.
He was reading a newspaper in the driver’s seat when I walked up and heaved the car door open.
“Oh! There she is!” he said with a wide smile, folding the newspaper and tossing it on the dash. His smile lit up his broad, round face. Laugh lines crinkled the corners of his eyes and his tan skin. He still had a shock of thick black hair, his only vanity. My dad spent every morning carefully combing and fluffing that head of hair, only to pull on a grease-stained shirt and cargo shorts afterward.
“Hi, Appa.” I tossed my backpack and duffel into the backseat and then dropped into the passenger seat with a relieved groan, every part of me aching.
My dad’s rough palm was immediately on my forehead and he tsked disapprovingly. “Oh my gah. You have a fever!” Oh my gah killed me every time.
I leaned back and closed my eyes. “I’m fine, I just need some juk and a superhot shower.” Juk was Korean porridge, and my dad made a mean one, with mushrooms and shredded bits of salty seaweed.
“Ch, who you think you’re kidding? You shouldn’t go to school tomorrow. No homework tonight, only fun things,” my dad said as we drove home.
“No, no fun things!” I said with a laugh, only half joking. I had to drop off some of the senior class’s donated canned goods at a nearby church and finish up an AP English lit paper.
“Hey! If Appa says fun things, then only fun things!”
My dad always referred to himself in the third person, and it was always Appa, the Korean word for Dad. It would be embarrassing if it wasn’t, you know, endearing. My dad’s kinda bad English had the most perfect comedic touch, and sometimes I wondered if he wasn’t just faking it to crack me up. We spoke both Korean and English at home, more often than not a wonky fusion of my bad Korean and his bad English.
When we got home I took a quick shower, slathered lotion onto my tan face (Country skin, like me! my dad proudly claimed all the time), then ran downstairs to the pantry. I was counting the canned goods in the pile when I heard the familiar sound of Korean people yelling from the next room.
“APPA! In the name of all that is holy, turn the volume down!” I hollered. The volume went down a minuscule notch, and I dragged the box of cans into the living room, where my dad was sitting in his favorite recliner watching his beloved Korean dramas. Only the top of his head was visible above the worn-out forest-green upholstery.
He paused the show on a classic Korean drama moment: a hotheaded stud carrying a very drunk mousy girl home on his back.
“Haven’t you watched this one already?” I teased. Wait for it …
My dad straightened up and bellowed, “This is different one. They’re not all the same!”
I cackled. I loved making fun of my dad’s obsession with K dramas. He spent every single evening watching them, come rain or shine. (The only other TV love of his life was I Love Lucy. Yup, I was named after Desi Arnaz. Don’t ask.) Nothing got between my dad and his dramas.
One time I had called them Korean soap operas and my face almost melted off from his fury—“They are not the same as that junk!” I had to give him that much. For one thing, they were in a miniseries format, so they had a predetermined number of episodes rather than endless decades of the same couples dealing with evil twins and such. Also, unlike soaps, they were wildly varied in genre, like movies—romantic comedy, fantasy, suspense, or your classic romantic melodrama. And my dad loved every single one of them. I watched bits and pieces with him on occasion, but they were never really my thing.
I pointed at the screen. “Let me guess. That drunk girl is an orphan.”
My dad paused the TV and turned his nose up haughtily. “Not orphan. But very poor.”
“And that guy is the son of a department store CEO.”
“Ya yourself. Have fun. Can I borrow your car to drop off these cans?”
He looked at me with concern. “Are you sure you don’t want Appa to drive you? You’re sick.”
“I’m fine, the church is only five minutes away. Thank you, though.”
He got up and walked me to the door, handing me his keys. “Okay, but come right back. The juk will be ready and you need to rest.”
“Okay, Appa, see you in a bit.”
I pulled on my shoes and was loading the box of cans into the car when I heard my dad yell from the doorway, “Ya! Desi! Put on socks! You always get sick because you don’t wear socks!”
Oh my God, my dad and socks. Seriously. I hollered back, “It’s a common misconception that people get sick from being cold! Go back to your dramas!”
But I still ran inside and pulled on a pair before leaving the house again.
Text copyright © 2017 by Maurene Goo