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The letter from Rhode Island School of Design comes Thursday.
In the moment it most likely arrives at my house in all its power to alter the course of my entire life, I'm sitting next to Harry in the Journalism Lab, trying to fake my way through the graphic Regina asked me to illustrate for Helen Yee's op-ed. I'm not checking my email, and in fact I've logged out of my account, partly because based on my obsessive stalking of old College Board forums I'm not expecting the decision just yet, but also partly because I know I'll never feel ready to find out and I can't risk getting that email at school in front of everyone.
When I get home that afternoon my dad is back from work early. He doesn't even let me get onto the property line before he's waving the letter in my face. My chest goes so tight it feels like my rib cage split right down the middle, my exposed heart pounding in open air. "That's from —?" I start to say, and then can't say it aloud.
"Yes, yes. It's finally here from RISD." He and my mom both pronounce it like four separate letters, R.I.S.D., instead of ris-dee. He's beaming. "Open it, Daniel, what does it say?"
"Okay. Um." I take a deep breath, try to calm my thudding heart. "Okay. Let's go inside first."
"It's the same outside or inside."
Except that inside we don't risk the neighbors getting a live-action shot of my every dream disintegrating. "Well —"
"Open it. Why wait?"
I applied for early decision two months and four days ago, and I've never been one of those people who can just put something so life-altering out of my mind. It's stupid how you can wait for something with every part of you, your every atom aligned toward that one moment, and then when it gets there you want more time. It's just that — if I didn't get in, I don't want to know it yet. I want the safety of hope just a little while longer.
"Here." He grabs it from me. "I'll open for you."
"Wait, Ba, I —"
He's too fast for me, though. My parents are convinced I'll get in. The day I turned in the portfolio my dad brought home sparkling cider and three mismatched champagne flutes he bought that day at Goodwill, and I haven't let myself imagine what it will do to them if I didn't make it. He's already got the letter out, is already reading it. "Dear Daniel —"
Then he flings the letter to the grass. I've lost all vision. The world is a blur. His arms stutter toward me. Finally, I bring myself to look at his face.
He's laughing. Oh, God. My heart swells, shoving my lungs against my rib cage and ratcheting my pulse so high I'm dizzy. I did it. All this time, and I did it. It's real.
He reaches out and pats me awkwardly on the shoulder, and then — he can't contain himself — crushes me in a hug before stepping back, embarrassed, smoothing his shirt. His eyes have reddened.
"Congratulations, Daniel," he says, fighting to keep his voice steady. "Everything is going to be all right for you now."
It's real. I did it. I can picture it: my whole life radiating like a sunbeam out from this one point.
I got a scholarship beyond what I let myself hope for, so even if my parents can't pay a dime, I'm going. Inside, I text Harry a picture of the letter. He doesn't answer right away, and even though I know it's because he's in SAT tutoring, there's an empty space inside my excitement and relief that's waiting for him. A few minutes later — he must be hiding his phone from his tutor — his messages come flooding in:
Holy shit Cheng!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
You did it!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
I effing told you
Man you were so worried, but I told you Okay draw me something and sign and date it, gonna make hella money off that someday when you're famous Yo actually draw me like ten things, 10x the $$$$$$$$$$$$
That empty space fills, spills over. I can't keep the smile off my face.
Maybe I will draw him something. There's a pull of momentum that's carried over from opening the letter. I pull out a sketchbook, a pen. Maybe muscle memory will take over and I won't have to overthink anything. I slide the pen against the page, let a tiny stream of ink spill out.
And then: nothing. Nothing comes.
Mostly, I draw portraits. From a distance, if you hold them at arm's length or tack them up on a wall, they look like fairly standard realistic renderings, but up close the forms dissolve and you see that what you thought was wavy hair or an earlobe is really a tangle of small vignettes that make up the person's life — a crumpled sheet of homework, say, a discarded candy wrapper, a plate of cupcakes that spell out PROM ? I've always liked objects left behind.
But this is what's been haunting me the past two months: I can't draw anymore. At first I thought maybe it was that I was afraid of drawing something better than what I turned in for my applications, which would make me hate myself for doing early decision. But then it lasted, and keeps lasting, and I'm worried now that the truth is that something's empty at the core of me. That whatever well you're supposed to draw from to put anything worthwhile into the world — mine's run dry.
Once, a few years after we moved here, my dad came home with a new pack of sidewalk chalk for me. It was one of the really good packs, with twenty-four colors and sharp ends, and right away I had the idea that I'd make a gallery out of the sidewalk in front of the house. I'd use the lines in the sidewalk as frames.
I spent hours out there. I was working on a picture of my old best friend Ethan's dog, Trophy, when a man walking down the sidewalk stopped and loomed over me.
I smiled and said hi (in Texas you're friendly like that, and for a while it stuck with me). He was in his sixties, probably, white with gray hair and a gray beard and walking with a cane.
"Crawling all over our sidewalks," he muttered. He jabbed his cane toward me and raised his voice. "You don't own this neighborhood. It's not yours to make a mess all over. That's the problem with you people. You think you can come in here and take over. You tell your parents we don't want you here. You go back where you came from."
The world closed around me. I went inside. I never saw him again.
I never told anyone about it (what would I say?), but for days after that I tried to draw him. I probably had some vague idea that I could turn him into some kind of caricature, just some old guy frothing at the mouth who didn't matter. Maybe you think if you can take something you're bothered by and make it your own somehow you sap it of its power. So I worked on that sneer on his face as he looked at me, those shoulders puffed up with his own rightness. I drew pages and pages of him, and I named him Mr. X.
But he'd already moved in. Now he leers at me from several places on my wall, which I've been drawing on with Sharpies since we moved in, and whispers all the uglier things inside my head. I don't know why I keep him around. I guess I think art should probe the things you're afraid of and the things you can't let go of, but maybe that's just because deep down I want to believe you can conquer them, which might not actually be true.
Anyway. Lately I'm a reverse Midas, everything I touch turning to crap, and so good old Mr. X has been louder lately: You're a fraud, you peaked, it's all downhill from here. The world doesn't need your art. Get a real job.
But now I have concrete proof I'm not a fraud, or at the very least I'm an extremely convincing one. Which should change everything, right? The fog should lift.
I just need to start producing again — prove getting in wasn't a fluke. Prove I do have the future I'm supposed to after all. Prove I deserve my future, at the very least. Not everyone gets one; I know that. It isn't something you can squander.
"Let's surprise her."
"Huh?" I look up. My dad's hovering in my doorway, joy radiating off him. He's changed into khakis and a collared shirt, his hair combed. I say, "Where are you going?"
"We'll go to dinner to celebrate when your mother gets home. We'll surprise her."
My dad has always loved surprises. Once, the summer I was eleven, he woke me up in the middle of the night and brought me, groggy, into the garage. On top of his car there was a telltale white paper sack, and he pointed to it.
"I went to Happy Donuts," he said. "A bribe for you for after."
"Um, for after —"
"Daniel." He looked very serious. "On Saturday is Robin Cheung's wedding."
My parents had been taking a ballroom dance class at the rec center for a few years; it was my mom's favorite hobby. (Weird, but: she also, every Summer Olympics, arranges her sleep schedule around the rhythmic gymnastics.) Their friends' son was getting married and my mom had at one point expressed a shy desire to show off the foxtrot they were learning at the wedding, but my dad, apparently, was having trouble with the moves.
"So fast," he complained. The naked light bulb swayed overhead, throwing his shadow self across the bare wooden walls. I was barefoot and in my pajamas. "The tango I can do, the cha-cha, but this one — too fast."
"Um, so you want me to —"
"I bought you donuts," he said quickly, seeing the look on my face. "What else do you want me to buy? I'll buy you new pens. Do you want new pens? I'll buy you whatever you want. And I won't tell your friends. I promise."
I am easily bought. I spent all night out there with him, my elbow resting on his and our hands interlaced as he led me around and around the concrete, his jaw tight with concentration. That weekend at the wedding — it was in the banquet hall at Dynasty, steamed bass and lobster noodles and pink neon uplights that made the lines of everyone's faces look dramatic and sharp — I could see him tapping his fingers impatiently all through the dinner, all through the toasts. When the music started, he leapt up and held out a hand to my mom. I watched them on the dance floor, holding my breath, waiting to see if he'd pull it off. He did. Afterward she was beaming and out of breath, and they went to the open bar and came back with Manhattans for them and a Coke for me and they excitedly recapped all their steps, complimenting each other on their technique and form. I won't lie: it was pretty damn cute. I want them to be that way — that sparkling, that effervescent — all the time.
"She will be so happy, Daniel," he says now. "Can you imagine?" He pats his pocket for his phone. "Should we video her when you tell her?"
"Um — no?"
"She might never be so happy again. Maybe we'll want it to look at later to remember."
"That's so fatalistic, Ba." I get up and follow him out to the living room. "You want me to cook something for dinner instead? I think there's pork chops in the freezer." The one thing I can make: turn on pan, drop meat, cook.
He brushes it away. "No, no, tonight we'll celebrate. When she gets home."
My mom takes care of twin six-year-olds and a four-year-old for a family named the Lis up in the hills vaguely by where Harry lives. We wait for her on the couch. Usually my dad watches mostly news, scanning the screen like he can ward off disaster by watching it happen to other people, but today Planet Earth is on instead.
I grab a blanket from the armchair and wrap myself in it like a burrito. It's been cold these days, and freezing, always freezing in the house, because my parents refuse to turn the heat on. I wear three layers to bed. Last year, when I drew a portrait of my mom, I made one of her eyes the thermostat, turned down all the way to fifty-five. I pull my blanket tighter and let myself imagine living in a (warm, heated) RISD dorm next year. Of all the people who applied, so many people who've probably been practicing their craft all their lives — they chose me.
My dad keeps glancing at the clock, and I can feel him getting restless as it traipses toward six-fifteen. It's a minor emergency to both my parents whenever the other is late getting home, and I know my dad will take his phone from his pocket and tap his fingers against it, ready to call to check on her, right at six-sixteen.
"They were doing roadwork on Rainbow," I say.
I motion toward his phone. "If she's late. That's probably why."
"Oh. Yes." But he doesn't look any more relaxed. Then, at six-fourteen, we hear the garage door open, and my dad jumps up, his face lighting up again. "Where's your letter?"
"It's on the table."
"Where's my phone?"
He's still patting the couch cushions looking for it when my mom comes in. He rises from the couch, smiling nervously, and then he whips out the phone to record. "Anna — Daniel has news for you."
"News? You have news?" My mom drops her purse and her bags of groceries from Marina. I watch the way their handles go flat, like a dog's ears when it's listening. "You got in?" She clutches my sleeve. "Did you get in? Did you —"
I flirt with the idea of pretending I didn't, of trying to make her think it was bad news, but in the end I can't hold back my grin. Her hands fly to her mouth, covering her smile, and her eyes fill with tears.
"He did it!" my dad yells from behind his phone like we're a hundred yards away, his voice bouncing back at us off the walls and hardwood floor. This video (which he'll watch on loop; I know him) is going to be all over the place, jiggling and blurred. He makes me show off the letter and hug my mom while he's filming. My mom cries.
We go to Santa Clara for Korean barbecue, and I drive, because for whatever reason they always have me drive when we're together. It's not far, fifteen minutes, but you always kind of feel it when you're leaving Cupertino, a bubble piercing. Cupertino's mostly residential neighborhoods and then strip malls with things like the kind of American-y diner that probably used to be big here back when it was all orchards and white people or the Asian restaurants/bakeries/ tutoring centers/passport services/et cetera. It's also its own world — land of overachieving kids of tech titans, of badminton clubs and test prep empires and restaurants jockeying for Yelp reviews and volunteer corps run by freshmen who both care about the world but also care about establishing a long-term commitment to a cause they can point to on their college apps. When we first moved here from Austin, I remember being weirded out by how Asian it was. And how everyone has money, too, but mostly in a more closet way than they do in Texas — here you can drop two million on a normal-looking three-bedroom house, so it's not something you necessarily notice right away the way you notice it when someone has a giant mansion on Lake Austin. (Harry's house is an exception — he has two sisters and both his grandfathers live with them, and all of them have their own bedroom and I think there are at least two other bedrooms no one's using.) I don't think anyone I know needs financial aid for college. I don't think anyone I know even needs loans.
It's packed inside the restaurant, but a table opens up just as we're coming in and my parents smile and smile like it's some kind of miracle. Already I'm sad for when the joy of this wears off, becomes everyday. It hasn't been like this with them in I don't even know how long.
The waitress comes and sets the laminated menus in front of us. My dad squares his shoulders and says, to my mom, "Now?" Over their menus, my parents exchange a long look. I say, "What?" They both ignore me. Then my mom gives a nearly imperceptible nod, and my dad says, "Daniel, we have something for you."
He pulls out a plastic Ranch 99 bag with something inside it. I saw him bring it in, but it didn't register at the time. He hands it to me across the table. "Open it."
"It's for good luck," my mom says. They've taped the bag shut. My family's not the wrapping-paper type.
Inside it's a sweatshirt, the expensive embroidered kind, that says RISD. They forgot to take the price tag off. It cost nearly seventy dollars.
"Try it on," my dad says, beaming, so I shove my seat back far enough that I can shrug into the sweatshirt. It has that new look, the creases still showing where it was folded, and it's at least two sizes too big — for whatever reason both my parents think bigger clothes are practical, maybe because you get more fabric for your money or something — and just enthusiastic enough to look dorky. That, or dickish, like I'm the kind of guy who's going to work it into conversation every chance he gets that I'm going to my first-choice art school. My dad says, "What do you think?"
They must have bought this when I applied, must have had it waiting all along. I feel my eyes filling.
Excerpted from "Picture Us In The Light"
Copyright © 2018 Kelly Loy Gilbert.
Excerpted by permission of Disney Book Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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