The Choke Artist: Confessions of a Chronic Underachieverby David Yoo
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In this brutally honest collection of often cringe-inducing episodes, David Yoo perfectly captures the cycle of failure and fear from childhood through adulthood. Whether he's wearing four layers of clothing to artificially beef up his slim frame, routinely testing highlighters against his forearm to see if he indeed has yellow skin, or preemptively sabotaging promising relationships to avoid being compared to former boyfriends, Yoo celebrates and skewers the insecurities of anxious people everywhere.
I loved this book and couldn't put it down! It's raw, startling, laugh-out-loud funny-and ultimately about the irrepressible human spirit.Amy Chua, Yale Law Professor and author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother"
An admitted rug-humping, shrimpy, underachieving choke artist, David Yoo confesses his deepest darkest, hilariously unattractive and sadly relatable truths. And in turn, sets us all free."Hilary Winston, author of My Boyfriend Wrote a Book About Me and writer for Community and Happy Endings"
Reading THE CHOKE ARTIST is like watching someone get kicked in the nuts-in a good way. Yoo makes us laugh and wince and relive the horrific, hilarious agony of being young."Annie Choi, author of Happy Birthday or Whatever
[Starred review] Yoo (Stop Me If You've Heard This One Before) is a gifted YA novelist and comic writer who, by his own recollection, has spent his entire life purposefully underachieving in important moments. From struggles with popularity in kindergarten, to the delicate social battles of high school, to the development of his writing career, Yoo has repeatedly self-sabotaged while on the cusp of potential success. But just as readers are ready to dismiss him as a perennial screw-up, he deftly brings his experiences back to the rawness of his family struggles and he articulates that rarest of memoir experiences: a truly poignant, unexpected epiphany. Yoo shares his stories with candor, and the range of topics-sexuality, work, sibling rivalry, body image issues, and ethnic identity-means readers will never get bored. The essays are well-paced, the delivery is always punchy, and Yoo makes for a sympathetic protagonist. Though at times the themes feel repetitive, it is really more that (like all things in life) his issues overlap. In exorcising these demons, Yoo has crafted a fantastic memoir that will have readers laughing throughout.Publisher's Weekly
Yoo, author of two successful young-adult novels, now proves himself adept, as well, at the autobiographical essay, as this collection of 10 such pieces amply demonstrates. Set mainly during his college years at Skidmore and the 20 years that follow, the essays offer a self-image as a diffident, self-deprecating, well, choke artist, who is positively gifted at snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Yoo is what he wryly calls "that rarity, the underachieving Asian-American" (he's Korean). This manifests itself in various ways: getting bad grades in school, choosing to lose at tennis while appearing to be trying to win, being the last to learn the truth about his preternaturally cheerful college roommate, etc. The book takes on a poignant air when he writes about his failed relationship with his father and concludes with the most interesting essay in the book, about the frustrations of trying to become a writer while working-almost permanently-as a temp! Sometimes a bit slow, this crossover title nevertheless succeeds in its portrait of the author as a young (choke) artist.
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The Choke ArtistConfessions of a Chronic Underachiever
By Yoo, David
Grand Central PublishingCopyright © 2012 Yoo, David
All right reserved.
Gangs of New England
I FORMED MY FIRST posse junior year of high school. There were three of us: me, my best friend, Jay, and his best friend, Chris. What initially brought us together was our mutual love of rap music. That, and we were three of the bigger losers at Avon High. Previously, I’d been a member of the elite soccer crew. It was the main sport in school—the football team sucked, and at one point the varsity soccer team was ranked second in the country, according to the USA Today national rankings. Just being on the team carried serious social cachet, but I didn’t get along with the coach at all, and startlingly soon after quitting I had a major falling-out with my friends and found myself temporarily sitting by myself at lunch. I needed new compadres, fast, and the only two guys in school who weren’t part of an established clique already were Jay and Chris.
They hung out by themselves because they didn’t play sports, and on top of that, they were from the poor part of town. Or relatively poor, at least. Avon was absurdly wealthy, so to clarify: by “poor” I mean “squarely ensconced in the middle class.” But within the utterly unrealistic microcosm of society that was Avon, they were the closest thing to burnouts at our school. While most guys were working up a sweat playing sports or freely making out with one another in the privacy of drama rehearsal, these two still rode Mongoose dirt bikes with plastic fluorescent green pegs on both sides of their back tires, practicing bunny hops and rail slides outside Chucky’s food store on West Avon Road after school. Suffice it to say, socially this was a giant step down for me, but I desperately needed a new crew, and they were my only viable option.
I was stunned when I found out they listened to rap music, too. I’d tagged them as typical skate punks, whereas it made perfect sense that I would get obsessed with rap, since I was the closest thing to a black kid in town. Well, there actually was one real black kid in my grade, but definitely anytime he was out sick from school I was easily the next best thing, simply due to the fact that—as an Asian kid—I was pretty much the only other male student of color within town limits. Although now I can see how he might have secretly resented it, back then I was always deeply jealous of the fact that everyone assumed the black kid was tough just for being black, while my skin tone suggested to everyone that I was a bookish nerd destined to one day steal engineering jobs from them before getting selected as an alternate for the Olympic table tennis team. Nobody would believe that I was in reality a C student and an utter nightmare for my parents at home, and this glaring oversight distressed me to no end.
I’d gotten introduced to rap freshman year by Trent, a junior on the JV soccer team. On weekends he’d pick me up in his dad’s Buick Regal and speed around town blasting his homemade “Best of Rap” mix tapes, and over a semester I received a thorough and surprisingly nuanced schooling in rap music, not just learning to appreciate Big Daddy Kane’s “Raw” and Kool Moe Dee’s “Let’s Go,” but also developing a certain measure of respect for the few female rappers at the time—MC Lyte, Silk Tymes Leather, and the Cookie Crew; we’d nod our heads to Salt-N-Pepa’s “Let the Rhythm Run” as we barreled up and down Route 44 on sunny afternoons. On the rare occasion when we’d get tired of listening to rap, Trent would replay the opening seven seconds of Winger’s “Seventeen” at full blast for literally several hours straight.
Every day after school and on weekends throughout the fall of junior year, Jay, Chris, and I would fanatically listen to rap and compose original rap songs. We transcribed all of our favorites by Run-DMC, Ice-T, and the like into a five-subject notebook and then we’d take turns reciting “Rock Box” and “Colors” and “Express Yourself” back to one another. Since I was the ringleader (because I was the only member who could sort of beat-box), I got to come up with the name for our little posse: D-Lite. The “D” stood for Dave, and the “Lite” was a reference to how all three of us were really skinny. I was positioning us to be the answer to the Fat Boys; at one point I sincerely believed we were destined to take over the world—all we needed was a great demo tape. We kept the name until the actual group Deee-Lite came out at the end of the school year and we were forced to immediately drop it. Shoving a frightened frosh guy against the lockers and informing him, “Yo, you just got marked by D-Lite, homeslice,” didn’t carry any menace to it anymore because merely saying our posse name now conjured up the dance club hit “Groove Is in the Heart.”
Chris was psyched we had to ditch the name D-Lite, because he hated it from day one. He was way into gangsta rap, and constantly wore paisley doo-rags that matched his Gap turtlenecks, and over Christmas break he armed himself with a bunch of replica BB gun pistols he bought at Service Merchandise. I’ll give him his props—Chris was easily the closest thing to a legitimate thug in our hometown, but that wasn’t saying much, given Avon’s aforementioned standing as an affluent, lily-white suburb nestled in the financially fertile Farmington Valley of Connecticut. He memorized every line of every song in N.W.A’s Straight Outta Compton and, in retrospect, was part of the very first generation of suburban white boys who listened to gangsta rap and felt comfortable pretending they were black because there weren’t any real black kids around.
He got horrible grades and was one of maybe three students in shop class. While at first I was admittedly a little embarrassed to be associated with him, I soon found that his failure in school and general outsiderness were precisely what made me feel like I could relate to him in a way I never quite could to my rich soccer buds. In high school even the slightest difference is ridiculously escalated in the eyes of the general populace, and at first I wasn’t immune to thinking he was a social leper simply due to the road he lived on, but as we got to know each other I grew to appreciate the fact that, personality-wise, at least the guy had a pulse. And there was a bonus perk to his loserdom as well—his relatively impoverished upbringing offered a sense of legitimacy to our posse; I may have been the de facto closest thing to a black guy in town, but he was by far the closest thing to poor.
Jay was the best break-dancer of the trio, so we nicknamed him Jo-Jo Dancer, which he obviously hated. He could do all the old-school break-dancing moves (which at the time I suppose were relatively new school) to perfection. Jay was a true disciple of MC Hammer long before the rapper became a preacher. He temporarily felt unmoored the night he finally saw Hammer in concert at the Hartford Civic Center; Vanilla Ice had opened up the show, and it turned out he was an even better dancer. Once I got to know Jay, I was surprised to find that not only was he a really nice guy, but he actually got really good grades, too. Way better than mine, at least. He was truly the one guy out of the three of us who deserved better, which I secretly reasoned made him the most likely to get shot in a drive-by someday.
At D-Lite’s creative peak junior year, I’d sit in my dad’s La-Z-Boy on a Friday night and beat-box while Chris stood on the sofa angrily rapping my lyrics as Jay vigorously did the worm back and forth across the living room floor. We probably could have won the Avon High talent show that year if we’d had the collective nuts to perform our material in public.
Given my undeserved tag as a typical brainy Asian nerd, I was known (among the posse members, at least) as the cerebral one, not only because I was mistakenly presumed to be a genius, but also because I’d discovered A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul and I worshipped KRS-One’s skills as a word wordsmith. I spent hours and hours every night writing my own raps instead of doing my homework, a fitting transition from my extended phase of penning dirty limericks for my own “private” entertainment. Most of my raps started with the phrase, “My name is D-Smoov and I gots a story to tell…” I used a lot of tennis metaphors in my unique brand of depressingly realistic, cautionary suburban tales about topics ranging from getting unfairly profiled as a bad element by mall security and acquiring “the food poisoning” from sampling orange chicken at the food court, to the nearly indescribable heartache of losing yet another brother… to private school.
When I look back on us now, I realize we were probably considered jokes at school, but we each had our reasons for wanting to be gangstas, especially me. Pretty much the second my family moved back to the States from Seoul, Korea, in the summer before third grade, I immediately started developing what would eventually, by the time I reached high school, turn into a full-blown, deep-seated ambivalence toward my ethnicity. This was due to the simple fact that in Avon I was the token Asian guy, and basically my entire adolescence was spent trying to not be seen as different.
BACK WHEN I WAS IN elementary school, anytime friends were due to visit I’d desperately try to remove all traces of my family’s heritage inside our house, figuring it was obvious enough that we were Asian, why shove it in their faces like that? Mom was perpetually at her wit’s end trying to get me to clean my room, but the prospect of having a sleepover would bring out the Mary Poppins in me, as I’d secretly cart all of the ancient family heirlooms down into the basement. I’d pull together the fancy rice-paper wall in my dad’s office and stuff it in the closet and take down any framed pictures of us in traditional Korean hanbok outfits, sliding them under the sofa in the living room. The ring of the doorbell was downright Pavlovian, as I’d race to the kitchen to abscond with the big jar of kimchi from the fridge into the bathroom and then methodically stuff cold handfuls down the toilet, in a panic shoving a phallic hunk of moo kimchi down the front of my tighty-whities as I frantically flushed the cabbagey toilet with my free hand.
Going anywhere public with my friends was an exercise in subterfuge, as I tried to be invisible (unwittingly trying to be a ninja), hoping no kids from other towns would realize an Asian kid was in their vicinity and hurl slurs in my direction and embarrass me in front of my friends. But they always saw me, and I always cringed, praying to God that my friends hadn’t heard boys from other towns calling me a squinty-eyed gook or something, and eventually I stopped going to the mall with my friends completely.
To make matters worse, I had the added misfortune of starting high school in the late 1980s in New England, which in hindsight has to be considered the worst time in history to be an Asian-American boy growing up in a white-bread town like the one I grew up in, because people seemed to have only two Asian guys in their lives: me, and Long Duk Dong from Sixteen Candles. To be perfectly fair, especially cultured people were also familiar with the Japanese guy in Revenge of the Nerds, along with the kid who played Data in The Goonies. Anytime a stranger saw me at McDonald’s or the library or wherever, I was fairly certain a gong was going off in his head.
I just didn’t see myself as a typical Asian kid. I was aware, of course, that I looked blatantly Korean, but I didn’t believe—despite all indications to the contrary—that I looked quite as Asian as other blatantly Asian kids, and it actually confused me in history class when I read in a sorely outdated textbook a reference to Asian people having yellow skin. While I may have been deluded in how people saw me, surely I wasn’t color-blind, too? I was suddenly mortified that I would one day wake up with yellow skin, so I started regularly conducting a homemade test whenever the thought came to me, where I drew a line on my forearm with a yellow highlighter—the rationale being that if one day I couldn’t see the line, then the prophecy had come true. Self-loathing Native American kids probably had it much worse than me—if they wanted to do the test they’d have to scribble red marker all over their arms.
If my appearance was undoubtedly Asian and there was nothing short of fairly radical plastic surgery that I could do about it, my only choice was to try to hide it physically, as if with the right hairstyle or accoutrement I could trick people into temporarily forgetting that I was Asian. I hated that my physical appearance immediately allowed people to interpret me from a distance, and the main, telltale sign that I was Asian was, of course, my slanted eyes. Naturally I became obsessed with finding the perfect pair of sunglasses to hide them.
I didn’t quite go so far as to beg my parents for prescription sunglasses for my hereditarily crappy eyesight, having witnessed the guys on my youth travel soccer team years earlier taunting “the blind kid” who played fullback for Tobacco Valley, but it was a moot point anyway, because I soon realized that sunglasses only solved part of the problem. Never mind the fact that to hide any proof of my slitty eyes I’d have to wear incredibly dark sunglasses, the kind you can’t quite see out of, no pair of sunglasses hid my really high eyebrows. Since Asians lack the upper eyelid fold, my eyebrows were set higher than those of my white classmates, and I wasted my allowance every month trying to buy bigger and bigger sunglasses. I prayed for the day big goofy sunglasses, the cheap plastic kind babies are forced to wear at state fairs in the summer, would come into fashion so I could hide my weird, gravity-defying eyebrows.
The compromise was to wear a white baseball cap really low, like a recently furloughed Beetle Bailey (or, more aptly, Corporal Yo). By curving the brim in a plastic cup every night and pulling it down low enough, I felt that my eyes seemed somewhat hidden, or at least shadowed to plausible deniability, while my embarrassing eyebrows were completely concealed under the brim and, to boot, my glaringly black hair was mostly covered as well. My hair was flat and black, but in certain light I swore you could see red highlights, which I made a point of showing to people whenever the opportunity arose, as if it would suggest to them that I was a quarter Irish. The only negative side effect to wearing my white baseball cap so low was that I had to tip my head back just to see, and as a result I perpetually had a crick in my neck.
Unfortunately, even with the hat on I still felt glaringly Asian-looking. The fact was, everything about me, physically, appalled me. Even the mole on my right cheek seemed kind of “foreign” to me, and one afternoon I actually cut it off with a fingernail clipper. The pain was excruciating. I examined the leathery fleck of brown skin on the pad of my index finger for a minute before surreptitiously flushing it down the toilet. In the mirror I stared at the thin trail of blood on my cheek and deemed it simply the price you pay for fitting in. Alas, the mole miraculously grew back a few weeks later, a message that I refused to interpret.
My greatest aspiration was not to become a pro athlete or a doctor or a rock star, but simply to have dull brown hair and dangerously fair skin. Looking Asian, I reasoned, was a physical handicap that hurt my chances of becoming popular in the same way other people’s physical handicaps killed their chances of climbing the social ladder. My Asian face was no different from the girl with the gigantic purple splotch on her forehead, or obese kids, or the freckly redhead back when I was at Avon Middle School who was mercilessly tortured for vaguely resembling Eric Stoltz. But no matter what I did to hide my Korean face, everyone still saw me as the token Asian guy, and by the time junior year started, I realized I had to find other ways to change how people saw me. Which is to say that if I couldn’t be seen as white, no matter what lengths I went to, then being black was the next-best thing, and therefore descending into thug life was a natural fit.
IT WAS IN THE spring of junior year when our shit got dark. It was inevitable that our posse would take a turn down this cul-de-sac… we saw the movies Boyz n the Hood and New Jack City, and Jay and I finally became enthralled with the gangsta rap that Chris had always been privy to, symbolized by the act of Jay taking down his Kid ’n Play poster and replacing it with an EPMD poster. Having bought into the gangsta aesthetic as well, I went out and purchased a replica 9 millimeter air gun at Service Merchandise along with a year’s supply of CO2 cartridges and mastered shooting Coke cans in my backyard after school using a sideways grip. I started wearing my Ellesse tennis warm-ups, including the shiny, crinkle-nylon sweatpants, to school every day, and I ransacked my mom’s jewelry box for thick gold chains; she didn’t have any, so one day I wore my grandmother’s emerald brooch to school. Let’s just say it did not have the desired effect.
As a result of our descent into pseudothuggery, Chris grabbed the reins of leadership from me. That year we spent our weekends tooling around in his dad’s somewhat pimpish navy-blue Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera and blaring Public Enemy out the sorely inadequate back speakers, giving ourselves temporary tinnitus every night. I wouldn’t classify the car stereo as a boomin’ system, since it was all tweeter, but if you listened to “Terminator X” long enough it could sometimes make your nose start hemorrhaging. Chris wore out his dad’s set of all-weather tires riding the gas and brakes simultaneously to simulate hydraulic shocks as he manually made the car rise and pitch forward like some drunken metal beast whenever we rolled through the McDonald’s parking lot on Route 44. He taught Jay and me how to drive like gangstas—just push the seat all the way back, lean your head against the window, cock your baseball cap sideways, and fist the wheel with your right elbow locked, supporting your chin with your left hand as you occasionally nod along to the beat with your lips pursed.
We acted tough and within town lines felt like authentic gangbangers—one night we tormented a Westminster prep school alum in a hunter-green Volvo 740 wagon who had made the unfortunate error of flashing us for not having our headlights on, which we’d intentionally killed, of course, as we came from the opposite direction. Chris slammed on the brakes and clipped the curb as we spun around and proceeded to redline it after her. We alternated between tailing her and swerving alongside her and leaning on the horn all the way down Arch Road. At a stop sign, Jay lobbed a medium-sized McDonald’s strawberry shake like a grenade and it splattered all over her back window, covering up her older siblings’ liberal arts college stickers. She was so terrified she peeled out into oncoming traffic and nearly got totaled.
A few minutes later we stopped at a red light and realized the car next to us was the same woman in the Volvo. She was glaring at us, realizing we were just obnoxious, pimply high school dicks. I rolled down the window. “Sorry about that, ma’am, our bad,” I said sheepishly. She shot me the bird, and when the light turned green we sat there for several seconds and let her take off first.
“That was wick wick wack,” Jay said, adding, “And I don’t mean that in a good way.”
We went to one and only one rap concert, and it turned out to be the beginning of the end of our posse. On a Friday night in April we drove to the Springfield Civic Center to see my hero, KRS-One. It was our pilgrimage to Mecca and fall from innocence all wrapped up in one. The whole ride up we cheerfully talked about how we were finally going to be surrounded by people more like us, fellow rap lovers, and we cheerfully shouted along to “Ya Slippin’ ” and “Part Time Suckers” and “9 Millimeter Goes Bang.” We were all wearing Gap paisley doo-rags at this point, not just Chris, and we completed the ensemble with baggy plaid button-downs with only the top button buttoned over plain white tees. Chris even wore a hairnet under his doo-rag under his sideways baseball cap, and understandably he was sweating profusely beneath all that headgear.
When we got to the arena and parked in the underground lot we saw that everyone was black, which was initially absolutely terrifying, as we’d spent the previous sixteen years of our lives only seeing this many black people on TV when they showed the crowd in old footage of MLK speeches. As our nerves began to settle, however, we increasingly felt like we blended in rather nicely with our outfits, but then I realized everyone was staring at us. I wished we’d at least worn the same color doo-rags, but it didn’t matter, because we weren’t even wearing them right in the first place—we looked more like pirates than genuine hoods. I got the distinct impression that everyone might collectively jump us at any moment, and I could tell Jay felt the palpable air of impending menace, too, but Chris was thoroughly oblivious; he had a glint in his eye that I hadn’t seen all year. “This is seriously dope,” he whispered to us as we joined the throng of black teens heading into the concert hall.
There were a half dozen opening acts, including flash-in-the-pan duo Das EFX, who were kind of cheesy, but finally KRS-One came on, just him and a DJ, and it was better than I ever could have imagined. Only I couldn’t relax and fully enjoy it, not only because there were state troopers lining the balcony with their 12-gauges silhouetted just like in The Blues Brothers (or maybe my memory’s merged the concert with that scene from the movie), but because two other things happened: One, we got seats on the floor and stood on metal folding chairs like everyone else and midway during the show the giant yellow spotlights shined down on just the three of us and KRS-One pointed and shouted, “Let me get a shout-out for the three white boys in the audience!” and everyone laughed at us without smiling, and it was incredibly humiliating (which felt weird for me, given the fact that in any other scenario I would have loved to have been mistaken for a white guy), and Jay leaned over and whispered in my ear, “We are so going to die,” and I squeezed his right arm and whimpered back, “I know!” And two, toward the end of the show, a menacing six-foot-seven guy (who seemed even taller because of his full Afro, which had like three hair picks embedded in it, like ticks) wearing army fatigues and ominously purple-stained shitkickers got friendly with Chris and offered to share a spliff with him. Chris had never smoked pot before, but he saw this as an initiation into blackdom and leapt at the opportunity. Jay and I encouraged him because we were certain it was a test, and if Chris refused surely it would mean our asses. He ferociously smoked half the spliff, which in hindsight I’m fairly certain was laced with angel dust, and he got so messed up that Jo-Jo Dancer had to sit in the backseat and hold Chris’s head in his lap and gently stroke the slick hair behind his ears and softly serenade “Mind Playing Tricks on Me” by the Geto Boys to him the entire drive back.
AS I’D NOTED EARLIER, in order to achieve my reverse version of MLK’s dream, I had to work overtime to hide all evidence of my heritage, which only made me hate my older sister, Liz, even more than I already did. Not only did she look way more Asian than me (or so I thought at the time), which simultaneously made me feel better about myself and frustrated to no end by my association with her, but she’d also immediately pursued becoming the very definition of a “model minority” once we’d moved back to the States. Basically she studied her tail off and practiced the violin six hours a day because she didn’t really have any friends at school, and to excel at everything else was her only form of revenge on the rejecting masses.
I felt it was such a selfish drive to succeed on her part, giving no consideration to the fact that she was paving the way for me to be unfairly typecast in high school. The good thing about realizing she was the typical model minority was that I finally found something I could be better at than her, for once. If I wasn’t going to be as successful in tennis as she was with the violin, if I wasn’t going to be Ivy League bound like her, I could at least carve out my own identity by being the first Yoo to actually be popular in high school. Therefore, in response to the existence of my sister, and to the subtle but persistent racism consisting of muttered slurs and slanty-eyed faces, I focused on my social life, and by the time I was sixteen I’d fully transformed into a hyperaggressive, obnoxiously outspoken screwup.
For the record, I call the racism I experienced subtle because whenever I mention it, I always end up feeling like a poseur—I was never hosed by the police or forced to ride in the back of the bus or anything like that. Actually, I was forced to ride in the front of the bus, which when you’re a teen boy is the equivalent of a Rosa Parks scenario, for I would have killed to hang out with the popular kids in the back. At any rate, I desperately tried to change people’s visual perception of me. The one convenient thing about my self-loathing was that it fit perfectly with my embracing of the recent epiphany that I was physically incapable of succeeding under the considerable shadow of my overachieving older sister, which made busting stereotypes about being an academic genius a cakewalk.
Liz was in her senior year at Yale by the time I’d started junior year of high school, and rather than serve as an inspiration for me (as my parents had hoped), I instead saw her as a complete failure—precisely what I didn’t want to turn into: the cliché successful Asian teen with no social life to speak of. My goal back in high school was to be the polar opposite of my sister, which meant that I made a concerted effort to not study, to not excel at anything, and I took a weird pride in molding myself into that rarity: the underachieving Asian-American teenager.
THE NIGHT OF THE KRS-One concert was a turning point for our little posse, not only because Chris almost died, but because we each came away from it realizing in varying degrees that something major was missing from our “gangsta” lives. Despite how obsessed I was with rap music, I realized that night, standing among a couple thousand black guys listening to KRS-One, that the music meant something more to them. All three of us had no choice but to reluctantly admit to ourselves that there was a major element of make-believe we had to employ in order to make the music and lifestyle even remotely viable for us. I for one felt like a total sham and cringed for the next few weeks listening to my favorite album, P.E.’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, even in the privacy of my official Wimbledon-wallpapered bedroom with deluxe Sony headphones on. Going to the concert only accentuated to me and Jay the fact that we were just a couple of spoiled suburban boys from Avon, feeling badass listening to music that didn’t really belong to us.
Chris felt things had changed the night of the KRS-One concert, too, but came to an entirely different conclusion. While he still believed that we belonged to the gangsta regime, the problem in his opinion was that we were merely stifled by our surroundings. He was convinced there was only one thing missing from our lives as gangstas: we had no real enemy.
He showed up to school the first day of senior year wearing camouflage pants, a black T-shirt, and a cheap gold chain he’d likely picked up on sale at the now-defunct Caldor. For the remainder of high school he became increasingly militant—it’s like he’d transformed into Professor Griff after he got kicked out of P.E. for making anti-Semitic remarks. Chris sometimes referred to himself not only in the third person—one time he even waxed poetic about being a “foot soldier” (surely my squishy memory’s to blame for recalling the term being pronounced “soul jah”)—but unfortunately for him he had no real beef with the usual suspects: his enemy wasn’t the man or the government or the poh-leese or white people in general (although if he were to have really thought about it he would have tried to get us to start a war with our own classmates), and while he would never openly admit it, it was obvious that he was desperate to find anyone or anything to really stand up against. There were no rival gangs in our leafy area, and the guys from neighboring Simsbury High that we ran into at McDonald’s on the weekends were to a man really sweet, even the shaved-headed wrestlers who resembled from a distance a feral pack of Hare Krishnas. This frustrated him to no end, but after months of searching, he finally found who our rival gang would be:
For years there had been rumors that a rec center for teens would be built in the front lot of Sycamore Park, but they chose instead to construct a fancy senior center to accommodate the overpopulation of senior citizens in town. It was a place for the elderly from the Brightview Center and the Avon Convalescent Home to mingle, watch TV, and play bingo and shuffleboard indoors during the winter. While kids our age were maybe mildly annoyed that there wasn’t going to be a youth rec center (to finally replace the short-lived Paragon back when we were in elementary school), the news set Chris off by far the most, because this meant that our posse had to suffer the indignity of, even as high school seniors, still being stuck loitering at West Avon Congregational Church on Saturday nights, hanging out with the Safe Rides nerds. Safe Rides was the church-run project where a group of high schoolers voluntarily spent their nights on the weekends giving inebriated high schoolers lifts home after parties to help combat drunk driving. We’d sit around with them, mooching slices of pizza and drinking warm Diet Pepsi out of Styrofoam cups, waiting for a call to come through so we could finally find out where the goddamned party was, but usually we’d roll up just as the rager was getting broken up. Chris was livid that we were going to remain stuck in this social purgatory and translated his fury into hating the elderly people at the senior center.
He’d often channel Larry Fishburne in Boyz n the Hood when complaining about the situation. Jay and I would nod appreciatively at his deep musings and ignore the fact that he nakedly cribbed wide swatches of Furious Styles’s speech midway through the movie. A typical spiel would sound something like this: It’s like we live in a retirement community down in Florida or some shit. Old people get catered to in this town. Seriously, Dave, why is it that there’s a convalescent home on every corner here in Avon? Why? I’ll tell you why. They want us to kill ourselves. You go out to Redding, Fairfield, Greenwich, you don’t see that shit. The best way to destroy a teenager is to take away their ability to just chill. Who is it that’s gettin’ pulled over on these streets every night just for wearin’ a white baseball cap? Y’all. Yeah. Young brothers like yourselves. You have to think, young brother, about your future…
Chris desperately tried to model the posse formerly known as D-Lite after P.E.’s militant S1Ws, but Jay and I weren’t biting, mainly because we refused to don camouflage pants to school. It was a halfhearted attempt anyway—even Chris must have realized that trying to start a war with the elderly was kind of preposterous. The notion that we were frauds nodding our heads to the muffled bass of N.W.A’s “Alwayz into Somethin’ ” pumping out the cracked windows of his dad’s Cutlass Ciera finally started to seep into the back of his mind, and our posse continued to grimly hang out together merely as a formality. Every afternoon and on weekends we parked in front of the shiny new senior center by ourselves and dutifully (for Chris’s sake) glared at the incontinent old folks sitting in wheelchairs out front. Chris would throw desperate, dizzying combinations of gang signs he’d picked up by laboriously pausing and scrutinizing every scene from the movie Menace II Society on his VCR. Jay and I had secretly adopted a bunker mentality with regard to the abysmal last semester of school, and we both quietly pined for the fall, when we’d finally escape Avon for good, but of course we kept this fact from Chris.
THAT FALL WE RECEIVED OUR docile rankings at school, and I was shocked at my low placement. I’d gotten bad grades but had always taken phase-seven honors classes across the board and figured that would count for something, but it didn’t. I felt depressed about my crappy academic standing, yet at the same time only more frustrated than ever that everyone still assumed I was an academic genius because I was Asian. Despite the fact that many of the stereotypes about being Asian that my sister unwittingly upheld as a model minority were kind of positive, they seemed anything but to me as a teen. So I ramped up my efforts to come off as utterly lobotomized to my peers. If someone innocently asked me for help with a math problem during trig class, I’d play dumb or intentionally add up the numbers wrong. That they still asked me for help a week later served as incontrovertible proof that these stereotypes were forever etched into their brains. Essentially I had the same mindset as the newly minted pretty girls freshman year, those formerly reasonably intelligent females who happen to blossom physically during the summer after middle school and start acting incredibly ditzy because they think it makes them more attractive (it does, sadly).
My parents were aghast at my crappy report cards, and for the bulk of my adolescence the only phrase they ever said to me in Korean was “Aigu jugeta.” In Korean, aigu means “Oh God” and jugeta means “You’re killing me.” They started taking me to the Korean church in West Hartford midway through high school as a form of therapy via osmosis, the theory being that, by surrounding me with clichéd successful Asian kids for an hour every Sunday, these Korean teens’ immigrant work ethic and submissively obedient nature would magically rub off on me. This was the only time I ever found myself in a room full of other Asian teenagers, and each time I was freshly stunned and, frankly, deeply disappointed that they weren’t weirded out or jealous of the fact that I looked completely different from them.
One Sunday at the Korean church I actually asked the Korean kids, as politely as possible, if they could tell that I looked less Asian than them, and they kindly explained to me that I was a “Twinkie”: white on the inside, yellow on the outside. I’d never heard the term before, and it immediately made perfect sense. It was intended to be derogatory, but it actually opened my eyes (no pun intended) just to hear the definition. The more I thought about it, the more accurate the tag seemed: I was a Twinkie, and goddamned proud of it. That day I started realizing just how deep-seated my self-hatred and desire not to be Asian really were; it wasn’t normal to have an incomprehensible hatred of pandas, Laundromats, and anything silk.
This revelation didn’t change my modus operandi in the slightest, however, and I continued defining myself by proudly being the polar opposite of all the traditional Asian stereotypes, to the dismay of my parents and teachers. It was frustrating to intentionally make myself the black sheep of the family, but I felt I had no choice in the matter. This strategy was painfully misguided, to say the least, and as a teenager I was one of those kids who was basically caught between two cultures no matter what I did to try to remedy the situation—I was overtly Asian to my classmates and strangers at the mall and not nearly Asian enough to my parents and the members of the Korean church.
IN THE WINTER OF senior year the posse went into a transitional phase, or, more aptly, on life support. Jay realized one afternoon (in the grassy field at Sycamore Park) that the jiggy bastard could actually run like a deer, and he immediately hung up his metaphorical dancing shoes with plans to join the track team in the spring. As for me, I temporarily stopped listening to rap altogether and received a delayed introduction to Led Zeppelin and Rush, transforming overnight into yet another manic, air-drumming Neil Peart wannabe.
Chris, meanwhile, kept ranting and raving about the man every time we hung out and forced us to rewatch Menace II Society every weekend, which I hated, since I’d stopped watching movies with Asian people in them years earlier. The last time I’d voluntarily gone to see a movie featuring Asians was one traumatic night back in middle school when I naïvely agreed to go see Platoon with my glaringly Asian parents at Showcase Cinemas in East Hartford. Later I’d bemoan the fact that I hadn’t considered that the Vietcong were the enemy and the audience as a result would surely (in my mind, at least) hone in on the lone Asian family in the audience for looking so Vietcongy, once the violence picked up in earnest. It felt like watching a snuff film that I’d starred in; anytime a suicidal pack of V.C. would attack the U.S. soldiers I’d mentally plead with them, as if it would make a difference, “No, please don’t, just change directions, don’t do it!”
Time and time again the Vietcong attacked, and each time they did I prayed for a scene where a young Vietnamese boy, with my slim build and white baseball cap, would lead the remnants of the platoon off to safety, but no such redemption came, and I silently cursed my parents for tormenting me like this. The only movies they ever seemed to take me to were Vietnam War films. Had I learned nothing from going with them to see The Killing Fields at the movie theater in Bristol just a few years earlier? Instead of having a recovering alcoholic drummer come to our high school, I would have benefited greatly from an assembly given by an old white guy who talked about how his parents had made him attend a showing of Birth of a Nation at the Howard University campus theater back when he was a kid. At least I had the belated foresight to reject their offer to go see Full Metal Jacket when it came out in eighth grade, but that didn’t stop everyone else in my life from seeing it, and a week after the movie came out the stopper on the opposing soccer team mauled me on a 50-50 ball and then stood over my crumpled form and muttered, “Me love you long time.” Since I hadn’t seen the movie, I didn’t get the reference, a quote from a Vietnamese hooker, and at first I was utterly confused by the verbal affection tied to such physical abuse.
“Um, thanks?” I replied.
My anger at my parents for bringing me to these movies was confused by the fact that during the scene midway through Platoon where the, uh, platoon razes an innocent village and Tom Berenger coldly shoots an old Vietnamese lady point-blank in the face, I saw my mom visibly wince. I was using my peripheral vision at this point to look at her because others had noticed us and I didn’t want to draw further attention to myself by making even the slightest movement that would alert others to our coordinates. She began openly weeping, likely thinking about her own experiences from the Korean War as a child, and it was strange to feel so bad for her and at the same time desperately want her to shut the fuck up so the people around us would forget we were sitting among them and unwittingly pass up a golden opportunity to exact revenge, all for the bargain cost of a mere ticket and a Slushee. It was a confusing paradox for which I had no answer, but I knew the only solution was to never put myself in that situation again.
And now it felt like I was having my eyes pried open by Chris as he made us watch Menace II Society every weekend. The inciting event in the movie is when a fresh-off-the-boat Asian couple is gunned down by Larenz Tate in the beginning, and every time I had to witness the cold-blooded execution I cringed. To have an excuse to not look at the screen I feigned boredom or intently worked on a playlist in my notebook for my next rap mix tape, but this offered little solace, for as I’d mentioned earlier, by this point the white boy in the Asian me was crying out to get these chains taken off so I could nourish my preference for the high end—from classic rock to college bands my sister liked (the Pixies, Let’s Active, Oingo Boingo, even), and I now found most of the rap music I’d religiously listened to downright cheesy.
Had I really believed MC Shan’s “Jane, Stop This Crazy Thing,” qualified as good music? How could I have possibly thought Sir-Mix-a-Lot’s “Square Dance Rap” was cool, or that “The Devil Made Me Do It” by Paris was remotely tough? That I voluntarily put Monie Love tracks on my mixes was suddenly an embarrassment. It was corny to listen to Billy Squier’s “Big Beat,” but even more so to listen to rap songs that sampled it. To satiate my slavery to the low end I opted instead to tape Zep’s “The Rover” and “When the Levee Breaks,” and I even secretly rocked out to bad hair metal on occasion, like Slaughter’s “Eye to Eye” and the aforementioned first seven seconds of Winger’s “Seventeen.” Chris would have been appalled with me if he knew about my expanding musical palette, so I disguised these mixes by writing DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince on the sides, busting the glide as I hummed “Summertime” in his presence, knowing he’d never ask to listen along because he hated Will Smith. In private, Jay and I talked about how relieved we were that high school was almost over, making sure never to talk about escaping whenever Chris was around. I sincerely felt bad for the guy, and to his credit I believed fully that he had the misfortune of being a black man trapped in a skinny white boy’s body.
A WEEK BEFORE SENIOR YEAR ENDED Liz came home for a celebratory dinner at Ichiban—my parents’ favorite Japanese restaurant in Hartford—held in my honor for getting into college. At least that was the advertised reason for the shindig. Liz had just finished her first year in journalism school at Columbia, having gone directly after graduating cum laude from Yale. The most concise way I can describe Liz at the time is to note that she was one of those absurdly successful types who still felt, unconsciously, deeply insecure and unworthy despite their myriad successes, and as a result mentioned their esteemed alma maters in every other sentence, no matter how nakedly. My parents were the only people on the planet who didn’t seem to notice that it sounded desperate as hell.
“You know, Skidmore’s not far from Columbia; you could visit sometime if you want,” Liz offered. She didn’t mean it at all—this coming from the same person who hated me so much she routinely hung up if I answered the phone anytime she called my parents during the school year.
Mom and Dad beamed at her, as if she’d just offered to donate a lung to me just for the hell of it.
“That’s so generous of you,” Mom said.
“How’s that generous? I’d have to do all the traveling,” I said.
“It’s easy to take a bus into the city,” Liz said, adding more wasabi to her ceramic dipping bowl full of soy sauce. “I remember back when I was just starting out at Yale I used to think traveling to the city was such a huge deal, but it’s not really.”
“Oh, right, you went to Yale,” I said, pretending I’d forgotten.
“If you had studied harder you could have gone to Yale, too, and had an easier commute into the city to visit your sister,” Mom said. Ah, yes, the truth was finally revealing itself; her hour of reveling in my sister’s presence was disturbed, as she was forced to consider my comparatively paltry future. “You could have gone to an Ivy, too, but you refused to work hard.”
My face must have turned red, because my dad quickly said, “Skidmore’s a fine school; your mother and I just think you could have done so much better had you applied yourself. The point is you’re a bright boy, David, and we sincerely hope you find your footing in college.”
He smiled at me before turning his attention back to his shrimp tempura, and I was about to smile back because it seemed like an earnest attempt on his part to make me feel better, but then I remembered the fact that the back window of his Oldsmobile Toronado Trofeo was covered with Liz’s school stickers, while he’d stuck the Skidmore sticker I gave him on the side of his Mizuno golf bag.
“Maybe it’s a good sign that I did badly in high school—I mean, after all, Einstein flunked out when he was a kid,” I pointed out.
“You’re no Einstein,” Mom said.
“That’s what his mom said, too,” I retorted.
“Actually, I happened to talk about this with some friends at Columbia recently, and apparently that’s just a myth about Einstein. Truth is, he’d mastered advanced calculus by the age of fifteen,” Liz corrected me.
“I’m really going to miss these family dinners this fall,” I said wistfully, staring down at my cold cheeseburger.
TURN DOWN THE MUSIC!” an elderly man, sitting with some fellow dying buddies in front of the senior center, shouted at Jay, Chris, and me. It was the last day of high school, and while the rest of our peers were crying happily and taking impromptu group pictures in the hallways, we were instead ditching eighth-period study hall to get a forty-five-minute head start on hanging out in front of the senior center one last time, blasting the extra-low bass of DJ Magic Mike from Chris’s Cutlass Ciera, which now had a decent subwoofer installed in the trunk, since he’d been saving up his paychecks from working at an electronics store for almost a year. He’d also tinted the windows, in theory so we’d be able to roll by McDonald’s at night in anonymity, oblivious to the glaring fact that there weren’t any other old-ass Cutlass Cieras, tinted or un, within town limits.
Chris took two steps toward the ol’ dirty bastards.
“Yo, we got a problem here?” he shouted, mimicking Ice Cube in Boyz n the Hood by jamming one hand down the front of his pants to finger his Glock air pistol while extending his other arm out like some thuggy matador.
Jay and I had to hold him back.
“Easy, brother,” I whispered in his ear. “It ain’t worth it.”
“Not by a damn cent,” Jay reasoned.
I defused the moment by reaching in through the open window and cranking the bass up. A moment later, Sen Dog muttered, “Let’s kick it, ese,” and Cypress Hill started pumping out the speakers. Jay started doing the Running Man in place, for the first time in months, and it made the rest of us feel nostalgic, and soon enough Chris and I started busting the Running Man, too. Chris kept throwing gang signs and occasionally shouted “Mark” at the perplexed elderly men as he pop-rocked with a deep grimace plastered to his face.
Jay turned to me.
“College is going to be awesome,” he said, punching me in the shoulder. “We won’t be driving around to empty cul-de-sacs every night. Clean slate. Things is going to be different in the fall.”
“Oh fer real, no doubt, no doubt,” I replied. “Tabula rasa, beeyotch.”
High school was finally, mercifully over. Jay would head south to Wake Forest University over Labor Day weekend that fall, while I’d start my freshman year at non–Ivy League Skidmore College in upstate New York. Chris would keep working at the electronics store, spend his weekends hanging out in cul-de-sacs with the next generation of high school kids, and despite continuing to reside in the same town as my parents, I’d never see him again. But for a moment that afternoon, we were all kind of in our own heads, thinking about the future, as we stood next to one another in a line vigorously busting the Running Man. Eventually, however, we all returned to earth, because a boomin’ system simply cannot be ignored forever, and the three of us abruptly stopped pop-rocking and instead just chanted along with the chorus:
We ain’t goin’ out like that… we ain’t goin’ out like that…
Chris was just mindlessly singing the lyrics, but Jay and I meant it.
THERE WAS ONLY ONE other guy at Skidmore College who hit the gym as often as I did freshman year, and his name was Elliot Twombley. By early October, Elliot was already semifamous in our year for being the guy who, during the freshman orientation canoe trip (which the student government types went on), not only intentionally peed in his wet suit to stay warm, but made the grave error of telling everyone in his canoe what he was up to at the moment, trying to convince them to join him in some sort of bonding freshman pee circle. Sadly, his dream was never realized, and instead he was immediately labeled “the Pisser,” a title that stuck with him until junior year, when one of the blond girls in the year above me inherited the moniker after it was rumored that she got drunk down in Scribner Village one weekend and—while sleepwalking completely nude—hoisted herself onto some guy’s CD tower and relieved herself all over it.
Elliot stood around five foot five. He was constantly sniffling and was widely considered the biggest joke in the gym. In addition to being a weakling, his daily uniform consisted of a ratty grey sweatshirt that poofed out because he tourniquetted a rawhide Everlast weightlifting belt over it, and he always wore the same pair of purple old-school Umbros that were so short you could see where his thigh hair stopped growing. Everyone in the gym would grimace at the blazingly white two-inch bar of virginal skin on the back of his thighs that should have been covered by any pair of shorts made after the late 1970s.
He lived a few rooms down from me and was always trying to hang out. He’d knock on my door at least a dozen times a day, and I’d always pretend I wasn’t in. This was due largely to the fact that one time at the beginning of the semester, Elliot—without asking for permission first, mind you—used a nickel as a pick to strum the Who’s “Pinball Wizard” on my acoustic guitar and immediately broke three strings, and I’d hated his guts ever since. If I’d been remotely self-aware at the time, I would have understood that I avoided him like the plague because we had more in common than I ever wanted to admit. Namely, that we were both scrawny freshmen who obsessively hit the gym every day for the same exact reason—that we were deeply humiliated by our famine-y physiques and desperate to transform ourselves into the “after” picture. Associating with him in any way somehow felt like it might injure my chances of ever succeeding.
BACK IN HIGH SCHOOL classmates would gape at my scrawny torso; I was so skinny that one time in gym class someone nicknamed me “Heartbeat” because he swore you could actually see the pulse on my bare chest. My wispiness was a huge source of frustration for me back in Avon. I had it hard enough barely treading water in a sea of white, and being so skinny certainly didn’t help my cause, for I emphatically if involuntarily supported the stereotypical visual portrait of the effete Asian nerd, and my classmates wholeheartedly believed that the portrayals of Asian males in raunchy 1980s comedies were historically and anatomically accurate.
Senior year I tried to get buff, and in the fall I pumped out countless push-ups and sit-ups, because I’d read in Sports Illustrated that NFL star Herschel Walker had never stepped inside a weight room his entire life; instead, he’d developed his jacked, Tony Atlas–like physique doing 1,500 push-ups and 2,500 sit-ups every day. I got stronger, but actually getting bigger eluded me. I was seventeen years old, but looked like I was nine. Frankly, I looked even worse than that. A student photographer for the yearbook was in my homeroom, and one morning he laid out all these candids he’d taken the first few weeks of school, and there was a shot of me during gym class running straight at the camera. I’d been picked for the “skins” side—my worst nightmare every day in gym—and given my unformed physique and the look of sheer terror on my face in the shot, plus the fact that it was taken in black and white, the resulting photo horrified me. I was shocked to learn that I looked exactly (at least from the waist up) like that nude little girl in the famous photo from the Vietnam War, where she’s running away from a napalm attack. Here was tangible evidence of the unclimbable mountain I faced, for obviously no high school girl, popular or un, when asked to describe the ideal guy would ever respond, “I dunno, I guess someone who looks like the nude little girl in that famous photo from the Vietnam War, where she’s running away from a napalm attack. Oh, and I like dimples.”
The one stereotype about Asians that I actually embraced (but that sadly nobody bought) in high school was the notion that I was a born martial arts master. Though I grimaced anytime I heard the sarcastic martial arts whine at the mall, I desperately wanted people to think I was downright dangerous to compensate for the fact that I looked anything but. I’d tell anyone who would listen that I was a third-degree black belt, that I could poke my index finger an inch deep into a two-by-four, and that when I lived in Korea I spent six months in the mountains near Pusan eating cold rice on a dirt floor and catching chunky flies with a pair of chopsticks in lieu of a more humane form of meat for protein—mashing together scenes from various Kung Fu Theater movies and The Karate Kid.
Anytime I met kids from other towns, I’d somehow work into the conversation that the government considered me a lethal weapon, and that if anyone challenged me to a fight I had to inform them of my status or else I could go to jail for assault with a deadly weapon, the deadly weapon being me. They’d eyeball me suspiciously for a few seconds before saying some variation of the following sentence:
“But you’re so fucking little.”
I kept dutifully cranking out set after set of push-ups after school, but it was pointless because I had an incredibly fast metabolism. The only person who seemed to appreciate that I was glaringly emaciated was this classmate of mine, who was intensely jealous of me because, as a member of the wrestling team, he was constantly struggling to suck weight in order to move down a weight class. Before and after lunch for a month he’d drag me down to the locker room so we could weigh ourselves, and the results always depressed the hell out of him until he couldn’t take it any longer and stopped talking to me altogether. It was a great situation for me while it lasted, because I got to eat two lunches, since all he had was an apple and drank a rave-death amount from the water fountain, and yet immediately after eating two slices of square pizza and double helpings of Tater Tots and juice boxes I’d have magically lost two pounds, while he somehow gained four. What we’d have given to trade places with each other.
“Maybe you should stop eating apples, too,” I suggested on what ended up being the last day we weighed ourselves together after lunch, and he glared at me. I added, “Um, I think your nose is bleeding.”
By the time I arrived on Skidmore’s campus freshman year my sole objective was to transform my body in the weight room. I was perpetually lost the first week of classes, and yet I didn’t even stress about meeting people or finding my bearings because I was obsessed with hitting the gym every day. The day after my first workout I couldn’t clap my hands, despite having benched just the bar with no weight piled on it. A few days later I noticed that I could lift more weight, and that there already was a slight crease in my sunken chest that suggested the forming of actual muscle, and I was instantly hooked.
ONE AFTERNOON TOWARD THE end of the fall semester, Elliot knocked on my door, and for some reason I decided to answer it and let him in. I don’t know why I had a change of heart at that moment. Maybe it was because, despite loathing the guy, I also got an ego boost from hanging out with him in short doses. It’s a sickening kind of satisfaction that I’ve always felt the need to quench to this very day. Around once a month, my insecurities and depression overwhelm me and the only cure is to go for a long walk and make small talk with hobos and adult grocery store cashiers to make me feel better about my life. It’s the very same principle that inspires my ultrasuccessful older sister, Liz, to cheerfully call me from L.A. once a month for an update on things.
“I’m in,” Elliot said, handing me a piece of green paper. It was an acceptance letter for the New York State Natural Bodybuilding and Figure Championships.
I laughed out loud.
“Is this a joke?” I asked.
“Nope. I’m going to be competing in the one-hundred-fifteen-pound featherweight class. My physical trainer says I have a legitimate chance of placing, so long as I peak at the right time.”
“But you’re not even close to being a bodybuilder, Elliot,” I helpfully explained, unable to suppress a cruel smile as I put him in his place.
“I am too a bodybuilder, and so are you, Dave. Here, check this out.”
Elliot pulled off his T-shirt and shot me a traditional Hulk pose. He then undid his belt and peeled his jeans off. I gasped. He was suddenly standing in front of me wearing only a pair of powder-blue undies and white tube socks that had completely lost their elasticity at the ends, so they looked like cheap cotton boots.
“What the hell just happened?” I asked him.
Elliot ignored me, and instead pressed his hands against the back of his head and hunched over to make his abs flare out. I was embarrassed for him, but at the same time I couldn’t help but feel impressed. He was a bodybuilder, albeit on a tiny frame. He was like a really buff bird or something. Although his deltoids were the size of pomegranates, they were really defined, with severe striations when he flexed so they looked like those Nerf footballs whose pronounced grooves guarantee a perfect spiral every time.
His chest was tiny but well shaped, and when he did a Lee Haney lat spread it didn’t matter that his pectorals all but disappeared because a pair of little wings suddenly appeared under his armpits.
I started clapping really slowly.
“Mad props, Elliot. I admit it, I was wrong about you. If anyone doesn’t believe you’re a bodybuilder, I’ll totally back your shit up.”
“You know, Dave, you could do it, too, if you wanted.”
“Seriously. You have a way bigger chest than me; I’d kill for those pecs,” he said, staring at my chest.
I blushed. It was really nice of him.
“Thanks,” I said, casually grazing my right pec with the back of my hand.
While flexed, I had to admit: pretty hard.
“Here, Dave, let me show you a couple of basic bodybuilding poses; you probably have no idea what kind of potential you have,” he said, winking at me. “Now take your shirt off.”
This definitely seemed a little sketchy to me, but I didn’t feel threatened at all by him in this situation because he was so tiny. I was fairly confident that if he tried to get frisky I could literally pick him up and just throw him against the wall if necessary. Besides, he was always trying to flirt with adorable Lilly downstairs just like the rest of the guys in our hall, during every Wednesday-night study break when we’d invade the dank all-women’s floor and steal their pizzas. So I took a shallow breath and—in the privacy of my dorm room with another man, whose jeans were balled up on a corner of my bed—took my shirt off so he could examine my upper body.
I felt really self-conscious at first. I’d never been comfortable with any degree of public nudity. I never showered in the lockers in high school after soccer practice, and to this day I still get panic attacks the entire week leading up to my yearly physical because I’m horrified at the thought of getting an involuntary boner when the doctor checks me for a hernia. That freshman year of college I never did fully adjust to my roommate Jake walking back into the room after a shower without a towel anywhere in the vicinity. He was this hippieish prep school kid who liked to walk around the room for twenty minutes in the buck after a shower, air-drying as he rearranged little knickknacks on his shelves. He’d put on Phish’s Junta and start subtly dancing as he stood behind my chair watching me play Tetris, and I’d be able to plainly see it bobbing around in the reflection of my monitor, behind my left ear, and that was usually my cue to hit the student union, Case Center, for an orange Snapple that I didn’t even feel like drinking, or go out into the stairwell like a typical freshman dude to play the intro to Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” over and over on my guitar because of the “totally cathedral-like acoustics.”
Elliot taught me how to do the basic poses, and he gave me some pointers on how to shift gracefully from one position to another. It was a thrilling revelation. By putting my arms a certain way and flexing, I was bringing out muscles that I didn’t even realize I’d developed. Although I’d focused solely on working out my chest because I’d found that I had a knack for putting up impressive weight on the flat bench (at least in a Division III gym at a former all-women’s college), I was surprised to find that my back now had a discernible V shape to it. I hadn’t spent more time working on my lats because I wasn’t even aware I had them in the first place.
I’d never really flexed my muscles like this before. The only thing I could do was sort of bounce my pecs, like Chong Li in the Van Damme flick Bloodsport. He could violently shrug each individual pec, as if only one side of his rib cage was receiving an electric shock. I could make my pecs individually flicker, too, but it was subtle; if I didn’t tell you I was doing it you probably wouldn’t notice. I demonstrated this to Jake once and he laughed at me, because it looked like I was using telekinesis on myself. In order to do it, I needed to glare at one of my nipples and bare my teeth. One time I concentrated so hard I swear I pulled a muscle in my left eye—it felt sore just to blink it for a week.
Elliot smiled at me.
“You just need to spread the wealth and develop everything else,” he said. I nodded eagerly. “I mean, you have a thin waistline to begin with, so if you just added a couple of inches to your delts, for example, your back would end up looking twice as big. That would look sick, man.”
Was he being serious? Had I gotten buff without even realizing it? Despite my initial skepticism, I felt a discernible chill run up my spine, and by the time it reached my brainpan I was wild with joy. I couldn’t believe it; this was the first time I’d ever felt like I was kind of jacked—or, more specifically, honestly jacked.
IN THE WINTER OF senior year of high school I’d stumbled upon a radical solution to my lanky appearance. I was especially cold one morning, so I donned a few extra layers, and at school that day a girl in study hall actually remarked that I looked bigger. At first I was convinced she was being sarcastic, but when I got home and inspected myself in the mirror I realized I did look bigger. That it was just an illusion would have bummed out anyone else in my situation—there I was, futilely stuffing my face and religiously doing push-ups and yet utterly failing to alter my appearance in the slightest, but I was actually thrilled with the revelation. The way I saw it, I’d just discovered by accident the simplest solution to looking bigger.
I went to school the next morning wearing two T-shirts under my mock turtleneck. It made me feel solid. Encouraged, the morning after that I put on three T-shirts under my plaid button-down. I could barely button the top button (which was already the only one I used, anyway, in an effort to resemble Lou Diamond Phillips’s gangbanger in Stand and Deliver), but it worked out because nobody could see all the collars underneath. The following Monday I tucked four T-shirts under my plaid button-down. It gave me traps that didn’t actually exist in real life. My Q-tip–sized shoulders transformed into NBA grapefruit deltoids, and—best of all—I could tell that my classmates were subtly starting to regard me differently. It was respect. In fact, classmates even seemed to forget that I’d been scrawny all those years, the same strange amnesia I noticed when I showed up to eighth grade wearing contact lenses for the first time and nobody seemed to remember calling me “Four-Eyes” all through middle school.
Every night I’d rummage through my drawers for an hour, seeking out the perfect outfit for the next day. Typically I’d arrive at a stalemate, unable to decide on what to wear, so I’d lay out four different outfits on the floor. It looked like a flamboyantly gay rookie detective had naïvely taken the time to clothe the chalk outlines of dead people at a murder scene. I’d end up wearing all of them, and before I knew it, people’s perception of me had changed.
The four T-shirts under my wool roll-neck sweater may have been smushing my lungs together like a male girdle, but I figured it was a small price to pay; nobody called me “Heartbeat” anymore, I reminded myself. Even though the layers were creating a false visual impression of me, my brain experienced a placebo effect of sorts, reacting as if it were being flooded with testosterone from my legitimately gaining that amount of size, and I started feeling tougher as a result. I didn’t front in high school, though—instead I’d walk down my street after school and approach a group of elementary school kids. I’d lean into the biggest one, intentionally bump him in the shoulder, get all up in his grille and start poking him in the chest.
“What are you looking at, bitch?” I’d shout, ready to kick the living shit out of my eight-year-old neighbor whom I used to babysit back in middle school. Every time I tried to start a ruckus with the resident third graders on Anvil Drive, I’d get that sobering flash of recognition in my brain that I was turning into the soccer bully who used to pick on me freshman year, but I ignored the ramifications because it just felt so gratifying to mess with someone smaller than me. I didn’t lament the fact that in order to find someone technically smaller than me I had to pick on elementary school kids. “Seriously, homie, you know I’m loco, right?”
“Jared got R.C. Pro-Am yesterday,” the kid replied. “Do you wanna play?”
“Holy moly, why didn’t you say so?” I said, clapping my future bitch on the back as we headed inside to play Nintendo on a gigantic twenty-seven-inch TV.
Things were going great until the day I had the rare instance where I found myself shirtless in front of a mirror and was utterly mortified—I looked like I’d just busted out of a prison camp. I weighed myself in my parents’ bathroom and, sure enough, I’d lost seven pounds from constantly sweating under so many layers (though it was mostly water weight). And just like that, my days of wearing extra layers were officially over. I considered myself lucky—had a girl fallen for the padded me, she would’ve just been falling for the idea of someone else, anyway. Besides, the cold weather wasn’t going to last forever, and I couldn’t abruptly revert to wearing just one set of clothes like a normal human being come the spring; the change in my outward appearance would have been the equivalent of seeing a sheared sheep.
And what if I actually did start dating a girl and she wanted to hook up one night? “Let’s be crazy,” she’d say, and rip off her clothes, which was what I’d assumed girls did when they wanted to hook up with guys (I may have hated Long Duk Dong and the Japanese guy from Revenge of the Nerds, but I otherwise considered these movies totally accurate depictions of what hooking up was like). I’d follow suit, but because of all my layers she’d have to sit at the edge of the bed with her chin in her hands as I took upward of nine minutes peeling off layer after layer, like some sweaty Korean nesting doll, during which time her interest in hooking up would have quickly evaporated. My season of false comfort dissolved in an instant, and I was left feeling and looking even scrawnier than before.
AND NOW ELLIOT WAS telling me that I was kind of buff, and that I had the potential to be a legitimate bodybuilder? My mind raced at the possibilities. “I want to look cock diesel,” I pleaded. “Preferably before I go home for winter break.”
“Developing everything else will only help your bench press,” he replied.
I’d actually been wondering that; it’s as if Elliot was reading my mind.
“So, do you have to, like, do a program or dance or whatever?” I asked.
“I haven’t finished choreographing it, but I’ll show you my basic routine for the competition,” Elliot offered, and began rummaging through Jake’s CD book. He took out five discs and inserted them into the carousel, then pressed Shuffle. The opening riff of “Under the Bridge” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers started playing softly out the speakers. I sat down on Jake’s bed and watched Elliot perform. It was mesmerizing. He went through about a dozen different poses, and he’d segue into each new position kind of in time with the beat of the song. When the song ended, he immediately put his hands on his knees and started gasping huge lungfuls of air.
“So what needs work?” he asked between breaths.
“Not much, really,” I replied. “If anything, your calves could be bigger, and if you built up your pecs more it would only improve that most muscular pose. It looks like you’re almost disguising them by focusing on bringing out your lats.”
“See, Dave, you instinctively know what you’re talking about. You really should give bodybuilding a try.”
“No way, man,” I said, frowning. “All I have is my pecs.”
“That’s only because you’ve focused on that one body part all semester. If you’d made a concerted effort to make gains elsewhere and blasted your shoulders and your back and your arms like I did, you’d be where I am now, but even better,” he said. “Plus, you’re naturally tan.”
He had a point. It suddenly dawned on me that Elliot really was a nice guy. I felt guilty that I’d hated him so much all this time. Why? Because he sniffled constantly? Because he liked to read ElfQuest graphic novels in the lounge every night? Because he’d broken three strings on my crappy acoustic guitar that was perpetually out of tune anyway? Because he thought I was cool and wanted to hang out with me on a regular basis?
I sighed quietly.
“Here, I’ll sit, you try a routine, and I’ll critique you,” he offered.
“Um, okay,” I replied. I couldn’t believe I was agreeing to this. I was suddenly at the precipice, and it was simultaneously terrifying and oddly freeing. Looking back, I felt kind of like Elizabeth Berkley in the movie Showgirls when she decides to just go for it.
With the gentle sounds of Enya’s “Caribbean Blue” streaming out the speakers, I practiced some of the poses in time with the beat for a couple of minutes. Frankly, I had no idea what the hell I was doing, and at one point I lost my balance and had to desperately clutch the corner of my desk with both hands to keep from falling over, as if I were wearing high heels, but Elliot was really great about it; he never once stopped clapping and just kept encouraging me to continue.
For the big finale of my first-ever bodybuilding routine, I unfisted my hands that were pressed deep into my ribs and proceeded to segue from flexing my traps into a full biceps pose, and I swiveled my torso so Elliot could check me out from behind. As I turned toward the door it opened, and my friend Paul, along with Lilly from downstairs and her equally adorable roommate Rachel, walked into the room.
Seeing the shocked looks on their faces immediately gave me some perspective on the situation, as I realized what they were seeing. Me, standing there in just my boxers (because I’d taken my jeans off by this point, too) in a full biceps pose facing them with this involuntary but quickly receding shit-eating grin on my face, with Elliot in only his stretched-out white tube socks and powder-blue undies, sitting cross-legged on my bed behind me as the Pretenders’ “Brass in Pocket” started playing on the stereo. I stopped flexing so abruptly that it shocked the rest of my body and my chest actually hurt, as if I’d cracked a rib.
I couldn’t help it, but my immediate reaction was to reach for my shirt and frantically pull it over my head as fast as I could, and then fumble to put on my jeans, but then I had to stop midway, because I realized they were actually Elliot’s jeans, and at this point Paul was repeating, “Oh my God,” and Lilly and Rachel were clapping and squealing and Elliot was laughing along with them and seemed just tickled by the situation, having absolutely no idea what the hubbub was all about. All I could do was lament not having had the foresight to simply lock the door once the Pisser had initially taken his shirt off. In retrospect, we were busted, and frantically trying to put my clothes back on was only making things worse. The only thing more incriminating I could have done in that instant would have been to blurt out something like “It’s not what it looks like” or “No, we weren’t about to… make love.”
Humiliation aside, however, the fact remained—Elliot had opened my eyes to all that was possible with my physique. To see how his once spindly torso had radically transformed inspired me to do the same to my own body, and as I lay in bed that night—my chest still covered with a light sheen of sweat from an impromptu midnight solo flex-off in the privacy of the locked study room across the hall—Elliot’s voice repeatedly rang out to me in my head, and it made me smile in the dark:
“You could be so huge, Dave, if you just let me help you work out all your body parts.”
Bringing Down the Cult of Happy Jake
MY MASTER PLAN TO reinvent myself into a cool guy in college hit a snag the moment I stepped on campus freshman year when I met my new roommate, Jake. I didn’t trust him the second I met him. I wasn’t used to having a roommate, and this level of closeness with another person unnerved the hell out of me. But it was more than that. Maybe it was also because I assumed everyone else was just like me, and so I was afraid he was going to try to steal stuff from me whenever I went to the bathroom. In retrospect, my disgust with him was due to a combination of reasons, with the overriding factor being that he was one of those grating (at least to me) people who smile all the time. Smiley people, in my opinion, are not only deceptive, they’re downright evil. Smiling is their disguise.
In fact, I quickly convinced myself that Jake was not only inherently evil, but dangerously evil. I know that sounds melodramatic, but the way I saw it, Jake was like an older, hippie version of Macaulay Culkin in The Good Son (a decidedly underrated family drama), had the ending been different. It wasn’t unrealistic for me to picture Jake holding on to my shirtsleeves as I clung to him fifty feet above the ground and him asking me, “If I let you go, do you think you could fly?” By a couple of weeks into the fall semester, when people still didn’t really know one another, he’d already started forming around him what all dangerously evil people seem to have:
I probably should research this a little before espousing at length on the topic, but assuming that there are indeed good cults and bad cults, let me just add this caveat at the start that I don’t know anything about good cults, since bad cults get the bulk of the press. Furthermore, I’ll readily admit that it’s probably no coincidence that I’d read Helter Skelter that fall for the first time, but I wholeheartedly believed my theory that Jake was a burgeoning cult leader and that his soon-to-be-ATF’d headquarters was the third floor of our North Quad dorm.
Excerpted from The Choke Artist by Yoo, David Copyright © 2012 by Yoo, David. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
David Yoo is the author of two YA novels, Girls for Breakfast (Delacorte, 2005) and Stop Me If You've Heard This One Before (Hyperion, 2008). They have received numerous awards including NYPL Best Book Teen Age Selection and Chicago Public Library's "Best of the Best". His fiction and non-fiction have been published in various journals, he writes a monthly column called "The World According to Dave," for Koream Journal, the largest Asian American magazine in the U.S.
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