Chapter 1: Dry Toast CHAPTER 1 DRY TOAST
My mom believes in magic penises.
Because at the moment she was saying for the umpteenth time, “If you had been a boy, things would be different.” The problem wasn’t my genitals—it was my mother’s outdated belief that boys were better. Plus, it wasn’t my fault Dad’s X sperm had been faster than the Y.
She waved the crumpled note in my face. It was only a sliver, a tiny corner of the whole with five measly words scrawled in my friend Brenda’s loopy handwriting, but it was enough to cause all this.
“I’ll ask one more time—what were you doing on the baseball field?”
Brenda was the one who’d rounded second base, and I was the one getting in trouble? It was so backward I wanted to laugh. But I didn’t. I just stood there, my MO to the point where I often wondered if this next time would be the one to turn me into Buddha, bird poo on my head and everything.
“So disrespectful!” my mother huffed. What would she have done if I’d laughed? “If you had grown up in Taiwan, you wouldn’t be so mù wú zun zhang. And you would know what that phrase means.”
Well, if you had grown up here, maybe your lifelong dream wouldn’t have been to grow a penis inside you.
Again, instead of voicing my thoughts, I stood there. Stared. Just like I had done yesterday when Mrs. Finch had asked if I was related to P. F. Chang, just like I’d done a week ago when Ava had told me I should wear eyeliner to “fix” my eyes, just like, just like, just like always.
“Baseball is too expensive a sport, all that equipment,” my mother uncharacteristically continued. “And it’s dangerous, and it doesn’t stand out on college applications.…”
Since she’d given me a rare peek inside her head, I returned the favor. “Don’t worry, Muqin, I’ve kept it to first base so far.”
“First base, second base, it doesn’t matter! No more baseball field, okay?”
My father walked in, not looking at either of us, not caring what was going on—aka his MO.
Since I knew his presence would hollow my mother into a shell, I escaped our duplex in silence, wishing, for once, that my mother would mutter “mù wú zun zhang” again under her breath, just so that someone would be saying something. Neither of my parents said good-bye, and I was guilty of the same because apple, tree, and all that.
I spent the rest of my free first period walking to my high school, located in the center of town in the sad triangle of “happening” places: the elementary school/middle school/high school, a tiny mom-and-pop grocery store, and a deli/hardware store.
When I arrived in our peeling, pubescent-boy-scented hallways, my friends ran up to me, more excited than anyone in Plainhart, Indiana, ever should be.
“No running, girls!” Mr. Andrews, the social studies teacher, yelled at us. “Hey, Allie,” he added, turning to me so he was walking backward. “You’ll love class today. We’re discussing North Korea, and I can’t wait to hear what you have to say!” He followed that doozy with sad, finger-pointing-guns, which was inappropriate on so many levels. I managed a straight-lined, half-assed smile and didn’t bother to remind him I was Chinese.
As soon as he turned his attention to his next victim, Ava, Kyle, and Brenda fully encircled me.
“God!” Kyle exclaimed. “Took you long enough to get here.”
“Have you seen him yet?” asked blond, perfect, white-as-a-bao Ava as she grabbed my arm, which meant that whatever it was, it was big enough to make her break my no-touching rule.
I shook her off. “Who?”
“Okay, she hasn’t seen,” Kyle said in the bossy tone she’d developed to survive being a girl with a mostly boys’ name.
Since they were being so annoyingly cryptic and the only way to spill the gossip beans was to pretend I didn’t care, I walked to my locker and started making myself a PB&J for lunch later. I actually hated peanut butter, but better eating that than hearing yet again how my congee looked like bleached vomit.
“Allie, pay attention! This is going to blow your mind!” Brenda said, which made me pause, because the excitement was so out of character for her.
I stared at White, Whitey, and Whiterson, holding my face steady even though I wanted to scream at them to freaking say it already.
But before they could, I saw him. I froze, a deer staring into the Asian headlight of the new student. It was almost as if there were a spotlight from God shining on him to tell me, Ta-da! Finally, another person in this school who looks like you!
I found myself taking in his clean-cut khakis, the guai olive zip-up sweater, his tidy, close-cropped hair. His eyes met mine, but as the whispers around us grew, we both looked away.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw him disappear through the BC Calc classroom door, the same door I’d be slouching through in a moment.
Kyle grabbed my arm and shook it. “Allie, you two should totally become a thing—you go so well together!”
I wanted nothing more than to disappear, but to defuse the situation, I made a joke. “Why? Is it because”—I fake gasped—“we’re both… nerds?” I gestured toward BC Calc.
Brenda started shaking her head, and I knew she was getting ready to say the obvious—No, because you’re both Asian—but luckily, Ava cut her off by squealing, “And he’s hot!”
That got my attention. “Hot like sriracha or hot like Szechuan food?” They stared at me. Oops. Slip-up. I was off my game suddenly. “I mean, hot like Noah Centineo or hot like Fight Club Brad Pitt?”
“Noah Centineo,” Brenda and Kyle said just as Ava said, “Brad Pitt.”
We all turned to stare at the odd one out as dictated by high school rules. Ava shrugged. “I saw him smoking just now. That’s more Brad than Noah.”
He smokes? Part of me was turned on, and the other part was just like Gross and What’s wrong with him?
“You all know what’s number one on my dream-guy list,” I said to the nosy trio. Two words: not Chinese. (Yes, I realized the new kid might be another East Asian ethnicity, but my friends didn’t know the difference and I wanted to shut this down.)
Kyle cleared her throat. “I hate to say it, Allie, but maybe you should forget that list. I know Jimminy Bob sucks”—Jimminy Bob was our code name for everyone we hated, and we always knew from context which Jimminy it was, in this case my mother—“but you’re allowed to date Chinese guys!” More like only allowed to date Chinese guys (hence my aversion—I took every opportunity to stick it to my muqin), but my friends were privileged enough not to understand the difference.
Ava leaned toward me. “Think about it, Allie. You’d finally have a hot boyfriend, who’s also smart—well, I mean, I assume he is. And he’d probably understand you more than the rest of us do. That sounds like a dream guy to me.”
As I went back to my half-built PB&J, I turned their words over in my head, but only for a second, because I refused to fulfill this Podunk town’s stereotype. The only two Asians getting together—I could taste some bile just thinking about everyone saying, Of course, of course, that makes sense; they belong together. And besides, if my last interaction with another Asian had proved anything, it was that no one understood me, regardless of race.
I broke the end slice of bread into four pieces and rapid-chucked them at each girl, emphasizing a word per hit. “Not. Interested. At. All.” Kyle got the extra hit, to the boob.
I made my way to BC Calc, and, of course, as soon as I entered, whispers of “meet-cute” and “so perfect” and “both Asian” filled the small, suffocating room. My fists clenched to keep from hurling chalkboard erasers at every last one of them. I tried to purposely ignore the giant not-yellow-but-also-not-white spotlight as I walked past, my head in the air, but then—I couldn’t help it—I scanned his notebooks, textbooks, papers for his name, and finally, on the corner of the class schedule in front of him, there it was: Chase Yu.
Possibly Chinese, maybe Korean?
“Oooh, checking out the new Asian meat?” someone called to me from the back of the room.
Womp womp. Mission to blend in and be as dry as white toast: failed by my own doing for the first time in years.
I ignored them and slunk into my seat, hunching in the hopes of shrinking the massive bull’s-eye on my back. Who knows what Chase did in response, because I was already tuned the F out.
“Settle down, settle down,” Mr. Robinson said as he entered, shuffling papers.
But he stopped in his tracks when he saw Chase, apparently also a deer in the Asian headlight. “Oh boy, now there’s two of you?” he said, looking from Chase to me. “The rest of the class better watch out for you guys ruining the curve.”
Surprise, surprise: Racist Robinson strikes again. Seriously, there wasn’t much that could make me hate math, but Mr. Robinson was up there. I folded in on myself even more, keeping my head down as I waited for the naked-in-school dream-turned-reality to pass.
But Chase shot up out of his seat. “Well, by that logic you, Mr. Robinson, must love Dave Matthews, and you probably have a Chinese tattoo on your butt that you think says ‘strength’ but actually says ‘butthole.’?”
Hole-y crap. Chase wouldn’t last two days here, not when he was being Taiwanese pineapple cake with red New Year’s streamers—the opposite of white toast.
Robinson gaped at Chase, then shook off the shock and said with a laugh, “Aren’t you Asians supposed to kowtow, especially to authority?” He waved a hand in my direction. “This one certainly does.”
Chase looked at me, and even though my blood was hotter than Szechuan food, I gazed out the window. He grabbed his books and stalked out of the room, slamming the door behind him just as Mr. Robinson yelled, “Hey! You better be on your way to the counselor’s office!”
A muffled “fuck you!” drifted past the closed door.
Who was this clean-cut bad boy?
I laid my head on my folded arms. I knew—knew—there had to be a better place than this, where shit like this didn’t happen every day. I didn’t even know what my inner voice sounded like anymore. (Maybe deep and a bit gruff from constant annoyance?)
When the bell rang, I trudged out of the room, and in the hallway, his back against a locker, was Chase.
Pleeease don’t be waiting for me.…
“Why didn’t you say anything?” he asked as he fell in step with me. “Didn’t it bother you?”
I shrugged. “Easier to let it go.”
“Doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying. I couldn’t not say something.”
I shrugged again.
He shook his head at me in disbelief. “Bú xiàng huà,” he muttered, so quietly I may not have heard, but I’d been holding my breath.
The Mandarin threw me. Like, threw me across the room and knocked the wind out. I hated that this was the first time I was hearing Mandarin in these desolate hallways, and even more, hated that it created a bond between us. And by hated, I mean I was 100 percent drawn to him. I could practically hear my mother laughing her head off at me. I’m always right, Ali. This is why you need to be with a Chinese boy.
“Hope you grow some balls someday, Allie,” Chase said as he started to walk away.
My fingernails dug into my palms. I fucking had (proverbial) balls. I also had a brain, which was why I hadn’t said anything. That was the way to get out of here unscathed… right? Regardless, I was sick of people accusing me of not having male genitalia. I preferred my vagina, thank you very much, not that anyone in my life cared to ask.
I don’t know why—maybe it was because my blood was past boiling—but I called after him, “It’s Ali, jackass.” And for the first time, my name rolled off my tongue the way it was supposed to: Ah-lee, after the mountain in Taiwan, my mother’s favorite place in the world. I’d never said it that way before, with beauty. With meaning. With pride. It had always been Allie, the dry-toast way, at first because it was easier, and then for survival.
Chase turned back to me. “That’s a start.”
A smile lifted the corner of his lip. It made me want to smile too, but I shrugged instead. He chuckled with a shake of his head before jogging down the hallway.
“Hey, wait!” I yelled after him. “How’d you know my name?” When he didn’t respond, I embarrassingly yelled, “Chase?”
Which, since I technically shouldn’t have known his name yet either, was the opposite of dry toast.