Stalemate

Monday

My fingertips hurt again.

The quad is too noisy to be distracting; a chaos of first trimester stress. No internet for the loop of email, Hulu, Twitter. No service for texts from Mom. Just me and the music, pen trembling on the page. Focus abandons my brain, collecting instead like wax under my nails. The flesh is raw there, flaking from exposure. I always cut my nails behind the flesh. It makes it hard to play the cello. It makes it hard to do anything, really.

I suck my smarting thumb, the pen growing warm where my breath condenses. I wonder how long I’ve been on this bench, staring at this empty page of bars. I think of updating my status—writing a song is hard, sad face.

How do they do it? Not just Puccini and Vivaldi and Brahms. Everyone but me just sits down and—does stuff. For no reason at all. That’s the problem, I realize: no one’s told me to do it.

But Mom will be happy. I click my pen twice, motivated. A vision materializes of me knocking on my mother’s office door, dragging in my cello case after the melodic Come in. Mom will sit back, closing the laptop with her special smile, the one that says, “What will I do with you?”

Mom’s always laughing at me. I’m not sure why—I’m never joking.

Mom’s always laughing at me. I’m not sure why—I’m never joking. When I was five, I learned the knock-knock joke about the orange, only I’d always forget and say apple, not realizing until it was too late and the punch line was ruined. But Mom just laughed, just like she did when I peed my dress in kindergarten, or broke my sixth grade science fair volcano, or spilled punch on my prom date. After awhile I laughed with her, surprised by the tears threatening to fall every time she grinned.

I give up my thoughts to the quad, half-made melodies fading to mute. Students dot the lawn. A dingy white Frisbee turns in the grass, near a ditch, over and over in the autumn wind. Then two voices stand out. A girl who I can see, and a guy who I can’t. My breath catches when I see her, and I fall into the routine. It’s not normal, I tell myself. It’s weird, stupid. I do it anyway.

A dark brown jaw. A curved, glossy lip. A white tennis dress stopping crisply at her knees, where strong calves end in platform running shoes, purple laces. I stow each item away in my head for later, like circling must-haves in Vogue, compiling a recipe. It’s a survival thing. There’s something I was born without; the secret organ that tells you what blow stands for, or where to get tattoos, or how to play That’s What She Said. I’m like a laptop without spell check—I have to look up the rules. I edit myself.

So this doesn’t count as eavesdropping, I think, as the guy and girl grow louder. This is homework. And I’m not a creeper, right? It’s okay for me to listen.

Profanity pours from his mouth. I imagine a hard, flat chest and a sneer, the only possible container for that low voice.

“Am I making you uncomfortable, Anna?” he says now. “Well, maybe next time you’ll think twice before screwing with my life. Because there’s sure as hell more where this came from.”

The girl laughs. It’s a familiar sound, one I’ve heard ringing out from a crowded table, or passing in a gang of body spritz and acronyms. I try to describe it, to remember, to imitate later, but adjectives fade in my mind, and absently I touch my throat, wondering.

“Babe,” says Anna. “That the best you can do?”

“You should know it isn’t.”

“Good,” Anna replies. “I was about to be disappointed.” She leans to kiss the man’s cheek. He calls her an inhuman name; she laughs again. The branches rustle as he emerges from the tree’s shadow. Anna transfixes me, a deadly smile splitting her smooth dark face.

Anna takes out a cigarette, lighting up. She gazes across the quad, spewing like a feline dragon. I notice her hands are shaking. A gust of autumn rushes into my eyes, drying my contacts. When I’ve blinked the pain away, Anna’s eyes rest on mine.

“Li Hua, are you hiding from me?”

I jump. Jun Leong stands above me. Sheets of music flutter to the grass as I stand. “Of course not,” I stammer. “I was waiting for you.”

Actually, I was doing both. I hated the idea of being in Jun’s line of sight, even though I knew he was coming.

Jun bends down to collect the pages. I tumble off the bench. “Oh—it’s okay; I got it,” I say. The collar of my polka-dot sweater droops, revealing a bra strap. I hug the papers, covering up. “Oops,” I say. “My bad. Oh, god. I’m like, all red now. Sorry.”

“No,” says Jun, staring at my shoulder. “I like that you blushed.”

I blink at the grass. “Okay.” I replace my collar and return to the bench. “So—you wanna start?” I ask.

I smell rubbing alcohol as he leans over me, thumbing through the concertos. His collar is starched, grazing his protruding jaw. He dresses, I think, like he’s forty instead of twenty.

“Sure.” Jun’s black comb-over glistens at the side part; I smell rubbing alcohol as he leans over me, thumbing through the concertos. His collar is starched, grazing his protruding jaw. He dresses, I think, like he’s forty instead of twenty. Maybe that’s why Mom likes him so much.

“I brought Bach,” I say. “And some theory. We could start with that.”

“Before I’ve heard you play?”

“We could do that. I can…I’ll just go grab my cello and—”

“You didn’t bring it?”

“Um, no. I thought—”

He snorts, wagging his lacquered head. “You thought you would have a cello lesson without a cello?”

“Stupid, right?” I laugh. “It’s just…you said to meet outside, and I thought, ‘Sun’s not good for cellos so I’ll just bring theory.’ I know; so dumb. But I’ll just…go grab my…” I begin stuffing the sheets into my backpack.

His tongue clicks. He places a hand on my shoulder, another smile setting like a chink in his jaw. “It’s clear you’re having an off day, Li Hua. Maybe we should wait until you’re more prepared.”

“No, I’m fine! My apartment’s like, right over there; I’ll just”—

“Li Hua.” That smile hasn’t budged. “Next time. Okay?”

I blink. “Okay. Um. You’re probably right.” I giggle. “Sorry again. It was really stupid.”

“Guess it’s just not your day.” He snorts again.

I chortle at myself.  “Nope. Nope, guess not.” Unbidden my eyes slip over to Anna. I imagine how me and Jun look, laughing together. Inside joke. Bench. Guy friend. I’ve stepped into someone else’s Facebook page, a teen flick, a Hollister ad. I laugh harder. I will play this part.

To my equal delight and horror, Jun brushes off the bench and sits down. “So, I’m acing your mom’s class.”

“Cool. I suck at economics.”

“It’s not for everyone,” Jun agrees. “Your mom’s obsessed with me.”

“I know.”

“Really?” He grins down at me. “She talks about me?”

“Yes.“

“What does she say?”

“Um—”Lie, says a small voice, buried somewhere beneath the music. “It’s actually really funny…” Lie. Li Hua. For god’s sake, lie. “She wants you to be my boyfriend.” The words spew out, revolting, and absolutely true.

He says, “So I gathered.” Jun picks at the lint on his pleated pants. “Professor Cheng’s been dropping hints forever. She practically begged me to tutor you.” He reaches over and begins on my sweater, pulling at balls on the sleeve until the material runs.

I squirm. “Jun—”

Anna rests a hand on the cedar, watching.

I grin at him, leaning closer. “Moms. Whadya do with them?”

“Hey, you should listen to Professor Cheng,” he says. “She wants what’s best for you.”

God, he sounds like my dad. And as a smirk crinkles his left eye, for a moment, he looks like him too. “I know,” I say.

“Have you ever dated anyone, Li Hua?”

“Yes.”

He frowns for the first time. “Your mom said you hadn’t.”

“She didn’t know.”

“You lied?”

“She never asked,” I say. “Have you?”

“Excuse me?”

“You know. Ever had a girlfriend.” His frown deepens. “Sorry,” I say. “Awkward. Guess that just slipped out.”

“Guess it did,” he says shortly.

“I’m always saying dumb things.”

“I have standards,” he says.

“Yeah,” I agree. “Yeah, totally. I didn’t”—

“It’s not like I’d just go and date anybody. Maybe I’m saving my self for the right girl.”

“Totally,” I say again.

By degrees, his brow melts back against his solid hairline, and the smile resumes its niche. He looks at me and says, “Maybe Professor Cheng knew what she was talking about.”

I wish for the slightest space between us. Wish I could move my arm without my collar dropping again, without the music falling, without grazing his jacket. I wish he would leave. Wish I would tell him to.

Instead I say, “Mom’s never wrong.”

The wind seems to have lost ten degrees. Jun wears nothing but a crisp button-down. “Gosh. You must be freezing,” I say.

Jun snorts again, though I swear his teeth are chattering when he says, “I’m fine.”

Another gust steals a sheet of music, twirling it across the way and depositing it where Anna has just crushed another cigarette with her heel. I wonder if she’s ever stopped staring at us. She certainly doesn’t stop now, not when she kneels to retrieve the crinkled Bach or even when she crosses, laying it on my lap with two slender brown fingers.

“Thanks,” I say.

“No worries,” she says.

“Actually,” says Jun, “I should go.”

“Already?” Anna croons, not looking at him once. She winks at me. “Bye then.”

“Bye,” Jun muttered.

Anna’s eyes slide to his retreating back. Mechanically, she draws a lighter from her jacket and flicks it. It sputters. She swears, then laughs so suddenly that I jump.

“Got a light?”

“No,” I say. “Sorry.”

“Just ran out of juice.”

“That’s the worst.”

“You smoke?”

“No,” I admit.

“I don’t either. I mean—I don’t need to.” She pockets the lighter and rocks on her tennis shoes. “So. Leong. You guys dating?”

“What? Ha, no.”

“But he likes you.”

“No. I don’t know.”

“Hey, give yourself some credit,” says Anna, gently kicking my toe. She pauses. “Aren’t you in my history class? We should hang out. Study after class.”

“Yeah. That’d be great.”

“Facebook you.”

“Great,” I repeat. “Only, we’re not friends.” Anna works in my mother’s office. I’ve seen her, in parts, everyday for two years—a springy bun, a corner of stiletto, a pair of eyes peeking around the doorframe, glazing over me to ask Mom something.

“You’re kidding,” gasps Anna.

I blink. I don’t know how to kid.

“Well,” Anna says, producing a pearly white smart phone. “We’ll fix that right now.”

With a sigh the wind settles, leaves tumbling over the grass to stop at last, branches creaking to a halt. The moment is primed, a held breath. The battered disk sits in its ditch, fate sealed; imprisonment in a gust of wind; friendship with the click of a button.

Tuesday

Before I had a roommate the walls were bare. Now there are posters, clippings of things I knew Katrina liked, carefully pinned where I knew she’d see them.

My room is the color of baby powder and Dentyne. All my stuff is hidden away in drawers, so nothing weakens the effect of pale light on cinderblock. Before I had a roommate the walls were bare. Now there are posters, clippings of things I knew Katrina liked, carefully pinned where I knew she’d see them. A peace offering.

“Ohmigosh,” she said when she first moved in. “We are so soul sibs.”

I nodded, asking questions I already knew the answer to: Did she like Katy Perry; Was she Team Jacob; I hoped she liked How I Met Your Mother? Every affirmative was a green light, a major pitch ding, stacking until my score soared from rainbow to platinum and I’d won. For now.

Sometimes when she’s gone to class I take down the posters and press them in a pile, laying the big terry rug on top of them. I strip—underwear, everything—and stuff it in the closet. Then I stand in the echoing space, light and lines, unmasked, undressed, nothing and nobody. Happy.

Then I think, I must be crazy. And the posters go back up.

Now I’m sitting on my bed, MacBook sticking to my thighs. I click, and my name vanishes and reappears under the “Attending” column. The screen glare is terrible, so I can see my face reflected on the Facebook page, eyebrows sky high, lips sucked in like they always are when I’m excited. I fall with a pouf onto my fort of pillows.

“Okay,” I say. “So. Party. That’s cool.” The wind shakes the cedar at my window; branches rain catcalls on the casement.

“Ohmigosh,” I try again, giggling into the sheets, “I’m going to a party.”

The air conditioner groans at my lameness.

I scoot off my bed and sidle up to the door mirror, rocking non-existent hips and twirling my straight jet hair. “S’up bee-otch. Guess who’s invited to the hottest party on campus?” This time even I believe myself. I grin, ruining it.

The door bursts open, and I leap out of the way as Katrina bursts in, chattering on her cell.

“S’up b-babe,” I stutter, the rehearsed word dying on my lips. “Um, guess what?”

Once, in third grade, I waited for two hours for Mom to finish an email before telling her I’d skinned my knee on the play set.

She holds up a finger. I sit on her bed and fold my hands, an instinct. Once, in third grade, I waited for two hours for Mom to finish an email before telling her I’d skinned my knee on the play set. I’m still proud of that, no matter how angry she was to see blood pooling around her waiting room chair.

So I wait for Katrina.

She purrs goodbye and smacks kisses into the phone, one two three.  “Kay doll. Bye-ee.” She hangs up and flops down at last. “Alright, sweetie. Whatcha need?”

“Oh—well I don’t need anything, I just—”

The finger returns. She taps her lips. “Not another word. I got you covered.” She disembowels her backpack and produces a thin folder, headed with “Li Hua” in sparkly lettering. “I took double-notes in all the courses we have together. I’m sure you’re doing great and everything, but I thought you could use a teeny bit of help—don’t argue, sweetie! I didn’t mind at all. Really.”

I take the folder and try to look surprised. “Thanks Katrina.” I don’t take my own notes anymore. Katrina took that over so long ago, I’ve almost forgotten how. I’m not good enough of a liar to hide that. Katrina brightens a bit when she realizes my dependence. I guess she’s just an amazing friend.

She beams, pauses, and leans in to sniff my hair. For an absurd moment I am reminded of Jun, closing the space between us to pick at my sweater. “You’re using the shampoo I gave you,” she says, adding coyly, “I thought your hair looked shinier than usual.”

I give it a flip to demonstrate; she applauds and sits back. Mom has a special smile, but with Katrina it’s definitely a sigh. The kind of breath you take after spring cleaning a closet, or petting a dog, or donating to World Vision—that’s Katrina’s sigh for me. With a hazy, happy air she begins to sort her things.

“Kat?” I say.

“Mm.”

“I got invited to a party.”

She laughs—I’m not sure what’s funny—and smiles warmly down at me. “Whose?”

“Anna Albin’s. It’s on Friday.”

Katrina’s smile freezes. “What?”

“It was totally random. We were just talking, and the she added me on Facebook, and then—”I shrug.

Katrina resumes packing her things, then takes out her laptop, muttering, “Must be a public event.” She pulls up her home page and scrolls. “It’s not showing up.” Her voice is flat.

“I think it’s invite only.”

She shuts her laptop. “Anna Albin is throwing her Month Marker this Friday,” she says.

“Marker?” I echo.

“Yes, Ewok, that’s what they’re called,” she snaps, using that name. She and the other girls came up with it long ago. I don’t get it. It doesn’t sound anything like Li Hua, not really, and they’re not into Star Wars. But they laughed, and it stuck. Friends can do that.

Katrina knows I hate it.

“It’s the most exclusive event on campus, first Friday of every month. Royalty only.” She pauses. “And she invited you.”

I blink. “Yeah.”

It seems to sink in for her. “And that’s super,” she adds, voice bobbing like a buoy. She takes my hand in hers. “So. Who all is going?”

“Um…” I try to roll off the “Attending” column from memory. “Well, Anna, of course. And Scott Chevy, Parvati Brahmin. A bunch of other people. Jun Leong—”

“Really?”

“I know. Anna seemed to know him, though.”

“Weird. Who else?”

“Um—”Another name popped out from the list. “William Black.”

“What?” I stop. Katrina’s voice screeches in my ear. “He’s invited? I mean, he always goes, but I thought—I wonder—”Her eyes widen with epiphany.

I wait. As usual, Katrina remembers to catch me up, filling me in on whatever is obvious to the world. “Anna and Will hate each other,” she explains. “No one knows why. Some say they dated forever ago, but I think that’s crap. They’re at each other’s eyeballs every chance they get. The first Friday of every month, one of them throws a party. Then the other one crashes it with his or her crew. It’s like, tradition or something. But if he’s been invited all this time…” Katrina pauses. “This changes things,” she finishes. I nod gravely, matching her look.

“Maybe I’ll ask her about it tomorrow,” I say.

“What? No? You can’t just mention one to the other; that’s like starting World War 3.”

“You’ve tried?”

“No. I mean, I haven’t really talked to either of them before, I just know. Everyone does,” she adds, then pauses. “What do you mean, ‘tomorrow?’”

“Oh. Anna and I are studying at the yogurt place,” I say. “Can I bring you anything?”

She looks away. “So whatchya wearing to the party, Ewok?”

“I don’t know. Ha, I haven’t really thought about it.”

“Oh honey,” she says, the words dripping off her lips. “Sweetie, the chicks at this thing don’t own socks without a designer label. You know I love you,” she says, and I nod. “But if you show up looking like you usually do…”

My heart sinks. “What?”

She squeezes my knee, with a pout that says I’m on your side. “They’ll laugh. I mean, unless you have a hot date.” Her eyes slide to mine. “Do you?”

I stare at her, incredulous. The closest guy friend I have is my cat on Petville. Katrina knows that more than anyone.

She squeezes again. I wilt. She’s right. I’ll show up and look like crap and Anna will regret inviting me. Or maybe it was all a joke in the first place. I’d show up and she’d laugh, then ignore me, shocked I dared showed my face.

Katrina’s well-trained ears hear all of this cross my mind. I can tell by the way she nods, affirming each silent fear. “Sweetie,” she says at last. “I could help you, you know.”

I look up, and see another folder with my name on it twinkling in her eye.

“Really?” I flute.

She smiles, the sigh, the one reserved for me, waiting on her lips. “Of course. I always do, don’t I?” she says.

I nod, and sigh with her. As she fills my ears with potential dresses and hairstyles, I silently thank the stars for Katrina: a friend who saves me from the unforgivable embarrassment of being myself.

Wednesday

The yogurt shop has marble floors and armless chairs, with just a scoop for your back. Glass whirligigs twinkle from the two-story ceiling, and Europop pumps from high-def flat screens set in every other wall. I’ve been here before with Katrina, but we never stayed. It’s a place you go in a group. Anna is comfortable with just me, though, and her type makes up the rules.

I’m nervous. The walk over from campus was okay. Mostly she asked random questions—how long had I known Jun, was I super close to my mother? She kept telling me to relax. So I apologized, but she then told me not to do that, either.

I half-wish she’d ditch me, just to get it over with.

I follow her to the back where the machines furl out along the walls, flocked with college students. I copy Anna when she gets a monster cup and fills it to the brim, only to be mortified when she offers to pay for me.

“No worries,” she insists when I protest. She hands her card to the cashier and winks at me. “It’s a date.” She asked me here on Facebook chat. It was just as random as everything else—the friending, the invite. I almost asked Katrina if it was weird. But I got the feeling Anna knew even more than Kat about rules like that, the pieces of my missing organ. I’d follow her lead.

We find a lime green table near a high-def screen, an empty area except for an older couple in the corner, bravely enduring the stimulation, and some guy a distance away, hunched over a black MacBook. As we sit, I realize I have nothing to say—nothing at all. She takes out her laptop; I produce Kat’s folder. We eat in silence at first, Anna distracted by something on her screen, typing, pausing to smile at me now and then. I look over Kat’s notes, marveling at my study partner. I haven’t forgotten to take inventory, to store my survival tools. Today Anna wears waxed skinny jeans and a billowing top, slipping to reveal a smooth brown collarbone. Her sandaled toes are painted deep purple. I scrunch my own toes inside my muggy Toms, wondering if my t-shirt has sprouted pit stains.

She’s stopped typing. “You okay, Li Hua?”

“Yeah, totally. How’s the history?”

“Dull as hell.” She grins, and I mirror her. The screen near flashes a series of women in tight chrome suits, climbing ladders in time to the music. The camera lingers on their features, a curved lip, an immaculate cheekbone. My eyes widen with envy.

Anna snorts. “Oh god, look at me,” she says. “Look how sexily I climb this ladder, guys.” She gives the model a lisp. I giggle. She continues, narrating everything the models do.

“Look how hot I am riding this car.”

“I am, like, so steamy shutting this door,” I join in.

“Running in place. Ohmigoshguys so sexy.”

Anna takes a big, slow bite of her yogurt. “Mmmm,” she groans, crossing her eyes.

I laugh, then straighten my face to copy her. “Mmm,” I say, snorting with my mouth full.

“Bet I can eat mine sexier than you.”

“Bet you can’t,” I say.

“You’re on.”

The next five minutes are wild and wrong and awkward, and my cheeks hurt from laughing at the end of them. I win, weirdly enough; right when I finish my largest, slowest bite, Anna’s eyes slip past me to something I can’t see. “Oh, you win, Li Hua,” she says then, light dancing in her black eyes. “Hands down.”

She returns to her typing. A little later a fresh gaggle of students bursts into the shop; I recognize some of Anna’s crew; beautiful faces from the “Attending” list. One of them flags Anna down, waving a smart phone. “Come see the new Ryan Gosling trailer. We’ve all seen it, like, eight times. So hot.”

Anna rolls her eyes, but gets up anyway. “Be right back?”

“Yeah, sure,” I say. An inside joke. I’d just spent the last five minutes making a private, quirky memory with Anna Albin. Nothing could dampen this high. Instinctively, I move to update my status. Chillin with @Anna Albin at fro-yo—best afternoon evar, I compose in my head, slipping over to sit at her laptop. I don’t have a smart phone, and I’m sure she won’t mind. I mean to bring up her browser, but her Skype comes up instead. I freeze. Before me, dotted with time stamps from the last twenty minutes, is a chat with William Black.

I shouldn’t be seeing this. None. Of. My. Business. But before I have the chance to register any of these thoughts, my eyes are scanning, devouring. A chat between Anna and William. This is the ultimate research, the mother transfusion to my missing organ.

2:36 PM W. Black: That. You want me to hook up with that.

2:37 PM A. Albin: Oh, come on. She’s adorable.

2:38 PM W. Black: She’s green. Revoltingly so.

2:39 PM A. Albin: You don’t know that.

2:41 PM W. Black: She’s here.

2:41 PM A. Albin: Yeah.

2:42 PM W. Black: What did you have to do to get that?

2:42 PM A. Albin: Ask.

2:44 PM W. Black: Exactly. I don’t want some googly-eyed kid making out with me just because I say please.

2:47 PM A. Albin: But you say it like no one else…

2:49 PM W. Black: You would know.

2:49 PM A. Albin: Don’t remind me.

2:51 PM W. Black: Didn’t hear any complaints back then.

2:53 PM A. Albin: Then you were deaf and stupid. And you haven’t distracted me. How do you know it wouldn’t be fun?

2:55 PM W. Black: For the millionth time: Too damn easy. Why do you want this so badly, anyway?

2:56 PM A. Albin: Look at her. She’s like a vanilla ice cream cone, no sprinkles. How can you resist?

2:56 PM W. Black: Easily.

2:57 PM A. Albin: How about now?

3:10 PM W. Black: You’re terrible.

3:11 PM A. Albin: You have to admit, she can work a spoon.

3:12 PM W. Black: That whole show was just for me, wasn’t it?

3:12 PM A. Albin: With a cherry on top.

3:13 PM W. Black: You still didn’t answer my first question. What’s in this for you?

3:17 PM A. Albin: Look, Will. You said I screwed you over. Fine. This is me being nice. If you don’t like it, we can go back to normal. But I wouldn’t pass this up if I were you. Believe me. I give very good presents.

3:18 PM W. Black: I know what you do with friends. No offense, babe, but I’d rather be your enemy.

 

The bass of techno fades against my hammering pulse. The old couple rises, throws away their cups, and disappears from the shop. A napkin beats across the shiny tiles, coasting in the gust from the door. And the words on the screen stare. I understand enough to know I should be doing something. Anything. An action other than sitting, arms out like a paper doll as Anna, William, Katrina, Jun, Mom all pin their smiles and sighs to me, make me over, serve me and suck me dry again, and again, and again.

I know.

But then again: what does Li Hua know?

I close the window. I bring up the browser. And I update my status:

Best day ever.

J. Ifueko is a freelancer from Portland, OR, completing her BA in English and Theatre at George Fox University. President of GFU’s English Honor Society chapter, she currently assists peers with fiction and nonfiction pieces. She is nearing completion of her debut YA novel.