THE WAY YOU MAKE ME FEEL
“Told in terse and direct language, this story draws a number of surprising portraits of people who are too often represented as limited stereotypes. That said, the story achieves the larger goal of speaking to our ability to endure, and our need to cross cultural boundaries to grow and thrive.”
— Jeffery Renard Allen, prose judge
When people ask if it was love at first sight, I tend to lie and say yes. The truth is, it was more dread.
Justine turned up the radio, her bedroom thick with the July heat and Michael Jackson’s voice. It was the sultry murmur-turned-moan intro of “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough.” He had died not more than 10 days before. Ever since, you couldn’t go too long without hearing his voice. I couldn’t help but feel like I had come down to Philly from New York not to celebrate the 4th but really just to celebrate him.
Justine carried lateness with aplomb. “Can you text him that we’ll be down in five.” She nodded to her phone and kept applying her mascara to the rhythm of Michael’s mamase mamasa mamakusas. I fretted over things like lateness, worrying even now if I was letting down this stranger I was about to text—Justine’s friend who was our ride to a 4th of July barbeque.
“Sorry, what’s his name again?” I asked.
“We’ll be right down, Quincy”— I paused my typing. “This is Nina,” I added.
As we came down, I spotted a man sitting on her apartment complex stoop, a handsome man whom I looked up and down.
“Hi Quincy!” I said.
“No, Nina,” Justine corrected.
She pointed to a man who was tall and gangly and hurriedly moving around a car hoisting stacks of papers into the trunk. He opened doors for both of us but then rushed passed so quickly, I barely got to see him.
As I settled in, I looked at a sticker pasted on the rear window next to me. “Brown,” I said. The school I lasted at for a year before I was shuttled out for a nervous breakdown. I never knew how much to reveal about that story to anyone or even how to acknowledge that period in my life. But Justine, who knew me well and was a good, loving friend, did know.
“Quincy went there. You guys have a lot in common,” she said.
I was somewhere in Taos, New Mexico when I began to crack. My boyfriend and I got stranded on a road trip. Our car had broken down again and we had been hitching. This wasn’t usual for us. We were always on the road. I would come from Providence to where he went to school in St. Louis, Wash U, and we’d go from there. Our adventures more often came from our car breaking down than from getting anywhere we intended to. These were the stories I carried back to friends at Brown.
The breakfast line we stumbled upon was supposed to be for homeless people, but all I could see were hippies, well-kept white hippies. I saw one hippie of color, a heavy-set young black boy who was talking about how he was “tripping-face” the night before. A group of people milled around him, other hippie kids. He didn’t seem to be talking to any one person in particular and no on in particular seemed to be listening to him. I knew “tripping face” meant it was a good night but I just felt sad. I wasn’t sure why. I thought he might have been sad. I had nothing to go on but a feeling.
I wanted to hear more what this guy was saying but I didn’t draw myself further into the fold of the conversation. I always let Waspy Lion be our in to this world—that was the nickname my boyfriend gave himself for his blue eyes and shaggy blonde hair. We once passed a restaurant named “The Waspy Lion” on the road in Colorado and it stuck. He devised an accompanying impression; he would smooth out and pop the collar to the flannel shirt he always wore, making it look more polished than grungy-prep, and then emit a dull, monotone “rawr.”
Sure enough, some of the people Waspy befriended at the breakfast invited us to the nearby “hippie house.”
“The guy who lives there is a 100 year-old hippie!” said a young man to us while waving us in the direction everyone would be heading.
I wasn’t excited. I didn’t want to meet the 100-year old hippie. A new thought kept cropping up in my head: “Would I ever have gotten an invite if I was on my own?” I was bothered by this new thought. I couldn’t name why. I wanted to swat the thought away.
We lost the pack of hippies but kept walking in the direction that the young man pointed. Once we found the hippie house—a modest white wood shuttered home, I wasn’t in a better mood. Just a few yards away from it, I stopped walking. I plopped down in the field near the house, covered my face with my hands and began to cry. Waspy sat down next to me and pulled me close.
“I don’t fit in anywhere,” I said.
“Me either,” he whispered.
He gripped me tighter, my body bound up in his flannel.
“Do you have enough room back there?” Quincy asked as he pulled out.
I was surrounded by stacks of photocopies, student papers and books. A teacher’s car, I thought.
“Yes,” I said.
I spied one of my favorite books amid the stacks, Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior. I had been introduced to the book a year ago, while teaching a class on fairy tale writing at The Asian American Writers’ Workshop. It was a youth workshop for young Asian American girls called “UnFairy Tales.” A friend recommended we read Kingston’s Fa Mulan chapter. I felt hesitant to admit to her I didn’t know the book and really only knew the story from Disney.
I remember being overwhelmed by the book when first I opened it. I couldn’t follow what was going on exactly and was panicked to teach that chapter. But I instantly loved it. I loved the poetry, the mixing of fantasy and reality. I loved how familiar the story was, even when I found it inscrutable, more familiar to me than anything I had read in a long time. And I loved how the young Asian American women in UnFairy felt the same way. What was Quincy doing with it? I thought. Who is door-opening-for-women, up-on-his-Asian-American-literature man?
I wanted answers. But Quincy and Justine were in the throes of discussion. Justine’s “what’s new” turning into a catch up about the masters’ program where they met. So-and-so had a new book, a kid, a new job.
“I haven’t seen them since we were at the wedding and that guy’s hand caught on fire from the table candles,” I heard at one point.
I wanted to know what happened then but was reluctant to ask. Instead, I tried to think of ways of entering their conversation by way of bringing up The Woman Warrior.
But before I could mention any book, I heard a “congrats” from the front. Justine was congratulating Quincy on the publication of his own book of poetry.
“Congrats!” I chimed in quickly too.
Justine passed the book back to me. The T-Bone Series. I flipped to the first poem, “T-Bone and Zeus.”
“Zeus will go ‘cross the world for a good martini” it began, going on to tell a story of nights the narrator, T-Bone, spends clubbing with the Greek god. “Zeus and I at this Goth club/What’s a black man suppose to do at a Goth club?”
I found myself laughing. Against all odds it felt like. Even as I felt the gnaw of my anxieties, a little laugh escaped.
That laugh was enough to make me look up, to lean a bit forward out of the comfort of the back seat and try to get a better look at Quincy. The most I could see of him was his hair. His dreadlocks were so long and thick, it seemed as if a helmet of hair was driving us. I could see that he’d had them for a while. Each dread seemed to have earned its position, like the one at the peak of his forehead, which insisted on sticking up even when Quincy tried to flick it down. There was fray too, especially at the top of his head, a tangle of frizz where most of the locks seemed to have lost their hold.
This man is a little bit sad, too, I thought. Dread meeting dread it felt like, though I couldn’t be sure. I began to think about his poem and wondered if Quincy was more like Zeus or the friend, T-Bone. The one who feels invincible or the one who needs convincing.
“Jerry Garcia saw a bunch of women at the same time, why should it be any different for you?” Lewis said.
Lewis was my closest friend at Brown. We’d known each other long before. We had gone to both grade and high school together. There, we helped each other get through, sharing notes and homework and the like. But his group of too-cool record store boys seemed to keep a wide berth from my pack of hippie-cheerleader queen bees. We got closer after both landing at Brown and ended up doing a campus radio show together where we played, among many things, a lot of Grateful Dead.
His aligning my infidelities with Jerry’s worked for a few weeks. I managed to get myself to classes, most times without breaking down in tears halfway through. I saw friends but didn’t stress myself with going out and socializing. When I stayed in, I painted with my roommate’s fingerpaints. I tried to be cute and normal but I felt anything but cute and normal. I could barely concentrate. Every thought, every decision, even if just to dip my finger in the paint, was a flame.
One day, I called my older sister crying. After talking to me for a few minutes, she had to go to back to her job. “Don’t do anything rash, ok?” she said. A few minutes later, I took a bunch of pills and downed a handle of Vodka. My father called me, probably tipped off by my sister, and when he realized I wasn’t making proper words, he dialed 911.
I vaguely remember being carried out on a stretcher. I remember more of waking up in the school infirmary with my mother sitting at my right, a hair brush in her hand; Lewis, sitting at my left, his head in his hands.
For most of our ride to the barbeque, we were turning around. It felt less like movement forward and more like an undoing of a knot. Traffic cops waved us in one direction and then another.
What would be a 15-minute ride out to suburbs was turning into an hour and change.
Philly, because of the annual big 4th of July concert, was a mess of detour signs and orange traffic cones, a maze designed to make Ben Franklin Parkway into a public square and the Museum of Art’s “Rocky” steps a concert stage.
The detours didn’t seem to get Quincy down. He seemed happy to be stuck in the car with us, listening to the R&B coming from the stations Justine was charging herself with navigating or the beats from old school boom boxes wafting in along with charcoal and meat smoke from grill-fests outside.
“It’s live, live, all the way live.”
Justine and Quincy knew these songs more than I did. As we made our way, they swapped childhood stories over these songs and traded lyrics.
“Come along and ride on a fantastic voyage.”
I wouldn’t know what it would mean to listen to these songs as a kid. The soundtrack of my childhood was comprised of mostly Hindi film songs or classical ghazals and bajans. The only American music I can remember is Lipps Inc.’s “Funkytown”— I remember it always played at the New Years parties we’d attend at Indian banquet halls. I’d watch my aunties and uncles gyrate to the song and feel embarrassed on their behalf.
All of a sudden I felt like I would be found out. For what, I did not know, but if I didn’t participate in some way, I believed I would be.
“I used to think it was, ‘your blood is mine’ as a kid, not ‘your butt.’ I thought that was the scariest taunt ever, ” I heard Quincy say. “How are you going to take someone’s blood?”
I thought to myself then, quick, propose a car game.
“What Michael Jackson video would you be in?” I asked them.
They jumped in as if we had been deliberating on this the whole ride.
“No brainer. ‘Smooth Criminal,’ the greatest video of all time” Quincy said.
“‘Remember the Time,’ just like ‘Smooth Criminal,’ greatest video of all time but not as much work,” Justine said.
“What about you, Nina?” she asked.
I realized I did not have an answer in mind. “The Way You Make Me Feel,” I blurted and immediately felt self-conscious. I remembered that this was the one where Michael essentially chases a sexy girl around the car while she is all like no, no!
I could have picked “Thriller” and shared what I always thought of as my central Michael anecdote: I was a toddler when “Thriller” came out. My mother once told me that she would put the video on at my mealtimes. Apparently, it was the only thing that got me to sit down and properly eat. I don’t know why I didn’t share this. It is not only one of my favorite Michael stories but one of the few family anecdotes I felt I could comfortably deliver.
But Justine and Quincy were either very supportive or really just relishing any memory of Michael through and through. We only talked about how exciting it would be to be chased around a car by him.
The suicide attempt happened at the end of the school year. I was sent home for a week to recoup and then I finished up the term in what felt like an adrenaline push. I locked myself up in my room and wrote a few papers. Then, in what felt like a comedown from an adrenaline push, I completely fell apart.
I withdrew from the New York City apartment I was supposed to live in with friends from Brown.
I went back home to my parents. I barely got out of bed, though I barely slept.
When I did get out of bed, I fought with my parents. I wrote on the beam between my two bedroom windows “my moment.” I wrote this in black marker on a piece of medical tape. I thought that every other moment in my life was a performance for someone else. I spent June and July mostly just sitting there alone, quietly staring out this window and fuming.
One sunny August day, I stopped looking out the “my moment” window, went to my closet and pulled out a very beautiful dress, a dress my sister once let me borrow and had not yet asked for back. It was a long-sleeved dress made out of some soft cotton-mesh fabric with a ruffled v-neck and colored what I thought was a beautifully irreverent fuscia. I slipped it on, hopped in my car and started to drive. I drove and drove, not stopping for three days straight. I thought if I traveled far enough away from my family, I’ll be free to live life however I want, with whomever I want and I’d be happy.
Every street in Philly seemed to be filled up with people. People carrying coolers to parties. People playing music out of their cars. People walking on the sidewalks and on the street itself. Grills set up on patios and lawns and public greens. No one seemed to be too much in a hurry.
The pace of this city was so different from New York. In New York I found myself walking like I was weaving through a race, upset at the person walking slowly in front of me, passing them, only to say in my head, “finally, I can enjoy a nice slow walk.” But perhaps it was being in the backseat that made me feel this way. Neither driving or in shotgun, I was forced to kick back and take in the scene, whether it was my nature to or not.
A girl walked by who seemed to carry the July heat as nothing but one more pleat in a summer dress. Justine checked her out and Quincy made a show of not checking her out.
“Can’t even look, could be one of my students,” he said.
I wasn’t sure if he was eyeing the young woman along with Justine and just joking or if he was reserved or if he just didn’t care for her either way. None of that came through to the backseat. It was a deadzone back there.
All of a sudden I had the feeling that I should be making a party, a fun and lively back seat party, one that everyone wants to go to. Quick, how do you make a party with a Maxine Hong Kingston book? I thought to myself.
I watched the girl. I thought about how even she seemed less shy than me, and I felt frustrated by that feeling. I felt competitive without knowing what I was competing for exactly.
I made it as far as Chicago. There, I decided I would find the next flight out from O’Hare to Paris. I called my parents from a hotel room to tell them so. We didn’t fight. I hung up feeling if not peaceful, just a little bit more settled and excited about what lay ahead.
In the airport, I thought I looked great in my elegant but playful fuscia dress. Perfect for the start of my Parisian life. The red in the dress hid how my period bled through. I was lost in these thoughts when I felt a tap on my shoulder and I saw my father standing next to me. He promised me he’d get me a plane ticket if I just got in the car with him.
In the car, he turned on the radio and I recognized the voice of Jagjit Singh. Usually my dad loved to sing right alongside him, but he wasn’t singing now. Instead, he just tried to translate the ghazal, losing its beauty as it slipped into English and he broke down into tears as it did. I grew quiet then and remained so for the rest of the ride. It still took me sometime to register that we were going home.
The next day I got some kind of escape. I was checked into New York’s Payne Whitney clinic at Weill Cornell Hospital. In the waiting room hung pictures of famous depressed people— mostly distinguished white men and Virginia Woolf. My father tried to cut the tension by doing impressions of their serious faces, tilting down his head and furrowing his brow like Beethoven and then doing another and another.
I don’t remember laughing or not laughing. I don’t remember much. But I always think of the story my sister tells. As they waved us in, she and my mother came upon a man, maybe in his 30s, dressed neatly and having a conversation with a wall. At the sight of him, my sister felt like crying. But in that moment, my mom turned to her and said, “I like him.”
As soon as they left, I met my new dorm-mates: there was the woman who said if she was a psychiatrist, she’d just play “Eleanor Rigby” on repeat in her waiting room, an older man who walked around wearing headphones and holding a carton of Newports his kids dropped off, and another man who rode a stationary bike and didn’t do much else.
I mostly just looked out of the window, into New York City summer: a delivery truck’s ample double-park, taxi drivers honking with such ire, people walking, jostling one and another, everyone going somewhere even if it was nowhere, out of the office or back, to the FedEx on the corner, the ice cream truck— all that life moving along without missing a beat, not bed checks or stool softeners or outbursts or nurses rushing, more than anything else, that was the most humiliating and scary thing to me.
The sun seemed brighter and less cruel once out of the knot of the city and in this sleepy suburban landscape—an apartment complex of self-same beige apartments with matching mini-porches. We got to the barbeque very late. The grill was shut and the party seemed to have moved inside. The sun was dipping, you couldn’t really see any signs of the 4th of July.
In the distance stood several tall steel poles with blinking red lights—radio antenna towers. Something about them there, looming, read spooky to me. I felt as if there lay the third level beyond the city, when the curtain of everything drops.
As we got out and all did a stretch, I took Quincy in for the first time. He seemed to me an impossibly tall and thin blade of a man, with a narrow face on which delicate, sharp features had an almost exaggerated quality to them, all framed by his long, past the shoulder locks, old familiars to me now. They seemed like the largest part of him, as if they were what buoyed him here, prevented him and all his silly from floating up past those tall towers and into outer space. Maybe it made sense that I got to know them first.
My attention shifted as we neared the apartment door. I was nervous about the BBQ from the beginning. While the car offered distractions and excuses to not to have to socialize, like basically watching the road, there was no avoiding it at the party.
The crowd of people in there were laid back. I found myself unfettered of my New York defenses. And soon enough that unfettered-ess became a rabbit hole for me, I delved into discussing all matters of things I usually don’t pull out until the waters have been tested. Namely, I talked about my crush on Norm, the big fat white man on Cheers. We talked about that for a good long while. It seemed as if it was only me and Quincy in the room, he seemed as committed to the rabbit hole as I was. The anxieties that usually crept about me at the edges, the worry that anything I said was manic, depressed or irrational, were not gone but less on the watch.
We kept up this conversation even as we were walking out.
“You have funny taste,” Quincy said.
“I just know what I like,” I said. As I said this, I found myself looking him dead straight in the eyes. My directness took even me by surprise. It was as if I said it in spite of myself.
We continued walking for a quiet moment and then Quincy spoke up.
“You know, I think I could have a kid and do that whole sort of thing.” He said it like we had been talking about it all day, not strategizing over the best Michael Jackson videos. His saying this seemed so far away from how he had been. There was no Zeus or T-Bone or poet at all now, the words kind of tumbled out of him as if they were tripping over themselves in the process.
He didn’t plan to say this I could sense, just as much as I didn’t plan my hard eye contact. It was as if another part of him was speaking to another part of me, some daring part, picking up some signal only God and those radio antennas could know.