My girlfriend spoke Japanese better than her younger siblings. By the end I could distinguish three distinct styles: She spoke formally to her grandparents, casually to her mother, and lastly my favorite -which she would occasionally exercise with her immediate family- an over-the-top mock formal which sounded like a severely feminine Japanese stewardess doing the seat-belt routine.
She always told me to make outlines. I told her it doesn’t work like that, I couldn’t explain.
The movie theater had 18 screens and a giant lobby to accommodate enormous weekend crowds. On a Friday night there’d be eight employees selling tickets- four behind the glass on the left and four on the right. Two wound-up lines of people taking up most of the floor left a path in the middle to go through to the greeter, who stood near the back, facing the entry.
But this was a weeknight and the basketball court-sized lobby was empty. I ripped a total of two tickets during my first hour at the greeter’s podium, and that was it. Nicole Kidman With Brown Hair sat alone behind the box office glass on my left. The second box office, across the lobby to my right was dark and empty. Suddenly, I heard a squeel from the intercom. There were no customers, but I quickly dismissed what I’d heard and figured it was an accident. I was thinking typical thoughts of how I never had a chance with a girl like her during my two-hour tour at the greeter’s stand. I shouldn’t've even been thinking about it because she was a 17-year-old senior in high school and she’d come in with her boyfriend before. I was a chubby jr. college student. Box office employees had a bit of seniority. They were trusted workers who typically worked at least a year before transitioning to box office, where they generally stayed. They seemed to have actual relationships with the General Manager. Her office was behind them. They didn’t have as much fun as ushers, who basically walked around lazily for eight hours, sweeping popcorn under the seats.
An usher’s only real struggle was greeting, and making attempts to avoid it. A greeter would jealously watch the mob of free ushers emerge from the 1-9 side as they walked past, gracefully scooping up stray kernels of popcorn without assistance from the broom. These one-handed flourishes seemed to taunt the greeter. as they moved across to theatres 10-18. Most new employees began by working concessions, which was behind the greeter’s podium, where was just enough space for dozens of sprawling families to order nachos and 52 ounce drinks. Concessions was a nightmare. My tenure behind concessions was mercifully short because the woman who got me the job went to high school with my pal Tyson, and I think she understood my embarrassment selling popcorn and drinks to people I knew from high school, which I was four years removed from. Teenage girls had it the worst, they really had to claw their way out of concessions.
So I was at the podium, thinking about how I didn’t have a chance in hell, cursing my life. Kidman was a senior in High school. I was a Jr. college student. But I heard that megaphone squeal out of the box office a second time.
“Yeah, you, COME OVER HERE.”
I awkwardly walked over to the box office and she slipped me a napkin that said:
I think you’re cool.
We should hang out!
When I came home from my mission over a year earlier, I gained about 15 pounds in a month. I didn’t have a job and I kept myself busy playing Tony Hawk Pro Skater 4. 11-year-old little brother Nick turned me onto it. I remember the astonishment on his face when he saw me still playing in the living room at 7:30 am during his morning routine. I just gave him a guilty smile and wondered aloud if I was permanently damaging my thumbs.
I made a couple of attempts to lose the weight and failed. I once put on my archless skater shoes and ran about two blocks before turning around, defeated.
“Didn’t make it very far didya?”
So Kidman told me I was cool. I went home that night and put on my new running shoes and ran down to the park. In tenth grade, a kid from church convinced me to join the wrestling team. He was big on running stairs. The first time up he’d touch every single stair, which he said was good for quickness. On the even intervals, he’d skip a stair with each stride. That was good for -I don’t know- strength. The park had a decent stairway that ascended from the parking lot to the field above. It was about twenty stairs. Every single, every other, every single, every other. I began that night.
A couple of months later and fifteen pounds lighter I checked the usher schedule, which listed the times that movies ended, and told my friend Shannon that next up was theater drei followed by theater elf.
“Oh, you took German in High School? My friend-”
Yeah my girlfriend- she took German in high school. Japanese wasn’t available, but she probably wouldn’t've taken it if it were.
We all went to get fastfood on a ‘Theatre break.” A theatre break is when there are like 45 minutes with no theatre to clean. We’d just bullshit in the break room or find somewhere to hide. -This was the only one of my 20+ jobs where I never looked at my watch- So Shannon and I snagged my girlfriend from concessions. I made a joke at the drive-thru that she laughed at. That’s when I knew I liked her. But she had a high school boyfriend. But maybe she was gonna break up with him because she was going away to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. I called her at noon on a Friday in June and asked her if she wanted to go out the next night. She said she couldn’t go out on Saturday because it was Shannon’s birthday.
It had turned into the exact same all-or-nothing Loyd Dobler situation In the 1989 film Say Anything. Lloyd asks Diane Court out on Saturday. She has plans. Then he asks about Friday, the current day. She hesitates for a painful second and says “why not?” And you know, a whirlwind romance ensues.
“Well, what are you doing tonight? Wanna go to a Padres game?”
I had about 20 dollars to my name and I wasn’t about to ask my mom for money, so I went up to Nick’s room. I knew he had a coffee mug on his dresser where he kept lots of change and I was pretty sure there were a couple of bills inside.
“NICK, I’m going out with a girl, can you help me out?”
He jumped over and immediately dumped it out on the surface of the dresser. In recent weeks he’d been asking me why I didn’t have a girlfriend when the brothers Tyson and Quinn were bringing girls around. He pulled out some crumpled bills, and much to my good fortune that little bastard had two ones and three fucking twenties. He didn’t hesitate to give it all to me. He asked me if I needed the quarters. I told him “nah” and promised I’d pay him back.
I tried to conceal my anxiety as I struggled to find a parking space downtown. She was totally cool. After finally parking in a garage ten blocks from the stadium, I began looking for a scalper. She was totally cool. Across the street from the stadium, I found an overweight middle-aged man in a Yankees jacket and paid him 40 bucks for two seats. He told me we were getting a decent deal and that the girl I was with was pretty. With a stutter I told him that I knew. He told me that all he wanted me to do now was tell the guy who would take our tickets that he, the scalper, needed a pastrami on rye. I deadpanned “Whatever you want dude.” So we walked across the street and up to the gate. I told the young ticket guy that the Yankees fan over there needed a pastrami on rye. The ticket taker -a little confused and annoyed- looked at the scalper, I looked at the scalper and the scalper began laughing his Brooklyn ass off like he’d never seen anything funnier in his life. I wasn’t laughing. My girlfriend was hanging on to my arm. Jesus, she was totally cool.
I freaked out about eating my nachos for fear of looking like a stupid pig. I ate them slowly and methodically, careful not to spill cheese all over myself or have it crusted somewhere on my face. I gave up during the fifth inning and slid them under my seat. I’m ordinarily a damn good eater.
On the Big screen she saw the handsome outfielder, Xavier Nady.
“Ooooooh, who’s that?”
“That’s Xavier Nady. Kinda sucks” I muttered.
“Ohhhh it’s OK, I like you Aaron.” She smiled and squeezed my arm.
Shit, she thought I said it sucks that she thinks he’s cute. “No no, HE kind of sucks.”
After the game we went back to the theater and watched How To Lose A Guy In Ten Days after hours with like the whole crew. I dropped her off. She told me later she was surprised by the door-opening and all that old-fashioned stuff. I didn’t kiss her that night.
I kissed her two nights later. I took her to Tyson And Quinn’s (parent’s) house, where my article in Palomar college’s The Telescope was taped to the refrigerator by Tyson. Tyson had blacked out the first part of the article’s title- Palomar College can be more than just-, leaving the title the author had intended which was simply High School With Cigarettes.
She met their parents too. When we walked out I had my hand on the small of her back and I told myself I was gonna kiss her that night, and it was going to be the first kiss that really mattered. We went back to my new apartment that I shared with four other movie theatre guys. One roommate was drunk on the couch. “Yoko Ono” he simply announced. We went to my room. We were there for maybe five seconds when I grabbed her head with both hands and kissed her. Then I shot over to the closet and grabbed a plastic bin that had Tony Gwynn’s rookie card and other personal stuff.
“Here’s a two dollar bill that was Tyler’s- my brother- this is my missionary name tag- oh, those marks on the back are from when a baby took it off me at church and chewed on it. That’s like tradition- I had more than one, but that’s like THE tag, you know, the first one they gave me- that’s not even Tony’s rookie card. It’s his second year card. See he’s already pretty chubby…”
I kissed her more.
I told her I loved her on the tenth day and she laughed at me. I dropped her off certain that I’d screwed it up and we were over. But somehow I saw her again the next day. And the next day.
On a Saturday evening I brought her up to my Dad’s house, a 45 minute drive to the high desert. Nobody was home so we went into the office as she checked her email. I heard the front door open and waited nervously before my Dad eventually popped his head and a single hand around his office door frame. With a nervous smile he muttered “Hello.” This behaviour was atypical of my dad.
I went to church during that first year home for some reason, even though I was mentally checked out, and writing The Big One in my head. The last day I really went to church, I’d been dating her for a couple of weeks. I thought I looked alright, in my favorite dress shirt, a Brooks Brothers steal I got at a thrift store. It was white with plum checkers. But I felt like a fucking idiot. Minutes before, I’d bumped into the bishop in the hall and he asked me if we could have a chat after the second hour. In the bathroom I looked in the mirror and asked myself what the fuck I was doing. Like I was in a movie or something.
In the bright, full, parking lot, I asked her what SHE was doing while I loosened my tie with my other hand. My tires chirped a little bit as one end of my tie was caught up in the wind and poking out of the sunroof.
At the door she beamed as she saw me in my church clothes and grabbed me by my plum collar. In slow motion she whispered-
That’s to illustrate how she made me feel.
With clenched toes, I sat at the foot of the bed as she read my first college essay. I was trying to get into one of the University of California Schools. 1000 of my words attempting to persuade a passing car to please not say “fuck you” to me and my missionary companion. My argument was that perhaps the passing car didn’t understand the pressure we were under.
“You ARE a writer she said.”
I saw my girlfriend almost every day that summer.
In late august I was in constant agony, waiting for her to tell me that she was going away to college and that she’d had a fun summer. When we were alone, she’d tell me she adored me, or tell me she really liked me. I’d just look at her, bottling my annoyance. As if her liberal use of like was intentional, to illustrate that it wasn’t the other one.
At a movie theatre party in late august we got into a little argument. It was our first. I was monitoring her drinking, she felt I was too nosy (To be fair, she got wasted after one beer. Wasted. She would get blotchy all over. There is a term called “asian glow”, but for my girlfriend drinking was like you or me walking into a bee’s nest.) We left the party early. I knew she was real mad when I asked her a pretty unmemorable question, to which she responded by asking me stoically if I wanted to get out “here.” “Here” was at the stop sign a quarter-mile down the hill from my mom’s house.
In front of my house she told me she thought I was too protective at that party. I told her I was sorry, but that she’s basically allergic to alcohol. She pukes after two shots. Allergic. Her mom even told her so.
She was still not happy with me. I began to wonder if this was it, in front of my mom’s house. She was going away to college. So I figured I’d give her the speech I was thinking about giving, even though I never convinced anybody of anything in my life. I told her that nobody was gonna freak out as much as me. Nobody was gonna sweat like I did. I disclosed my fear and disgust of 18-year-old freshman boys. I knew what they were; shirtless in gym shorts, as they rubbed their chests and adjusted their balls and stormed down dorm halls poking heads in and out of rooms as they referenced that hot asian chick. I told her it was difficult. When I first met her she had the high school boyfriend. The first time we did anything outside of work, I detailed my car, because I was gonna drive her to that party. Why? I don’t know. She had a boyfriend. I pointed out where the upholstery of my Reagan-era car was coming undone. It was the carpeted area that began at the bottom of the door and went underneath the pedals. When I drove us to that party I cleaned it out really good and used a bunch of fresh duct tape. She was going to California State Stupid Polytechnic University in San Luis Obispo Expialadosious, so like why would she date me, if she was going away? She broke up with the other guy because she was “going away.” Plus I just went to Jr. College… it was just always tough, her going away. And when I thought she’d break up with me because I told her I loved her early or when I died my hair blue -just- nobody was gonna freak out. Oh, yeah, plus I told her that I borrowed that money from Nick. So she asked me-
“You love me right?” She was waving her hand in front of her face.
More from the driver seat than my own, and with my face in her neck, I pointed out the lunacy in asking that question but of course then I answered it.
She left for Cal Poly a week after her friend Emily began school, so we got to go down to San Diego State and get a glimpse of the college life a week early. Emily told us about her roommate who seemed nice but might be a pathological liar. Emily had thought she heard the girl say that her dad was a Pediatrician but also she swore she later heard podiatrist. We went to a thing in a big room where condoms were passed out. The girl down the hall was really very sweet and they talked about nursing for like an hour the night they met. And of course a girl from their high school was on the floor below. I would kiss my girlfriend in the dorm room when they talked about that shit and the girls would pause and smile.
I started doing this thing where I’d go in for a kiss at normal speed, but suddenly I’d flare my nostrils and the speed I was closing in with would suddenly decrease. I would de-flare them and the speed would stay the same until I widened them again and the deceleration would recur. It was like a spaceship parking on the moon, with retro rockets firing in the opposite direction to facilitate a gentle landing. I used to do that in the mirror when I learned what retro rockets were when I was a chubby sixth grader. But I didn’t kiss the mirror, I swear. I’d just park my face on it.
When I drove down from Seattle to visit her at Cal Poly, I’d do the thing where I grab her face and kiss her.
She told me to get on my knees. So I did. Then she grabbed my head with a startling amount of force and said “This is what it’s like to be me, AaronChan.”
* * *
We broke up for good over Christmas break three years later. She was headed to Australia for her last semester of college. I was 26 and had just struggled through another semester of jr. college. We sat on the floor of her empty room. This was gonna be it. She told me I needed more confidence. She told me that she looked in the mirror almost everyday and tells herself that she’s pretty and smart. Through all the salt and snot, I burst out laughing. She was wearing these new tights and a big shirt. I was never gonna take those tights off. I told her that I was sorry, and I just didn’t know it was gonna take this much time. She told me to make an outline. I told her…that I didn’t even know… WHAT I wanted to say. I told her about how Nick was playing football now and how I push him so hard to exercise and run. He was a running back. I really wanted him to have a victory, you know? A triumph. So I told him to run stairs, like I’d been doing. The same stairs I began running when Nicole Kidman told me I was cool. He should alternate from running every-single to ever-other stair. I told her how I pushed him, but secretly I wondered if maybe it’s not in our DNA.
But I was at the gym the other day and this guy asked me to play one-on-one basketball. I hate basketball because it requires the most athleticism of the major sports and I felt I had none. So we began playing, and this guy played, you know, at least fairly regularly. He was a couple of inches shorter than me but had a muscular, athletic build. He had a decent shot. We went to the outdoor court on a uncharacteristically cold night in San Diego and I began playing basketball with this guy. I had the ball-handling skills of a toddler, and an archless shot. But I covered him. It was a low-scoring affair.
I explained to her that the sudden temperature drop combined with the extreme physical exertion had made it difficult for me to breathe. I thought I’d fully relinquished my asthma through years of running. But what occurred was an authentic, middle school era, chubby, snot-nosed attack. Hands on my hips, wheezing, with thoughts of impending heart failure, I’d line up in front of the arch, ready once again to cover him like glue. I couldn’t quit. He said I was fast.
“I’ll make an outline. You want me to make an outline?”
“You didn’t go to Cal Poly. You got in AaronChan, but you didn’t go because they didn’t require one of your ‘brilliant’ essays.”
“Cuz no one gave a shit, AmySan. I cared so much and where’s that essay that I wrote? Some electronic trash bin. C’mon babe, who else was writing that? When I was fifteen I got this special magazine thing, you know, How To Get Into College or whatever and I read an example of a good essay and it was about this young girl on vacation. She had a nice time with her family and I don’t know, they were hiking or something and she went off with this nice young boy. She had such a dandy of a time and she even kissed him at the end. And that was a great essay cuz she didn’t write about how she was gonna succeed or whatever, or about her grandmother’s death. She had a nice voice and she told a sweet little story where a cute young one-dimensional Mormon boy makes a cameo and kisses her.
“I just wanted my essays to be read, babe. I wanted feedback. I’d rather they tell me to give up the writing than nothing at all.”
“You want them to think you’re great and you want them to forgive your bad grades, because you think you’re owed, in ways nobody can quantify. You want the New York Times to love you. You know, I love you AaronChan.”
“Love, present tense.”
“You need to admit that you like some things about your old life.”
“Like your favorite scripture.”
“I don’t have one.”
“Yes you do Aaronchan. It’s Ether 12- something and it’s about weak things becoming strong. And you love that because you think you turned it around on The Church.”
“You hate to admit that you miss some things from that life, or that you learned anything. That’s why you can’t write anything. The same people you were supposed to go against, the family, Tyson and Quinn, they’re the one’s who love you the most and they’re the ones who keep you going. You love how your aunt told you that you’re not allowed to fail, when you lived with her before your mission. You use that as fuel- you think you turned that around on them too. But that’s who you are AaronChan. You put blankets on people when they sleep and you carried my little brother to his room when he was passed out drunk. You tell the CORNIEST jokes. You think you’re fueled by anger AaronChan, and you are, but do you think you could have done this on anger alone? You are Mormon AaronChan. No matter what you believe. Present tense.
“Why do you always need people to find you? Why do you need to write on a silly blog? I know, I know, you think you’re a punker. But I also know you want more people to hear you. You want to scream and cry out. You looooove that you first heard Arcade Fire when you were an hour outside Seattle, when you left me. Are you going to write about that AaronChan? Are you gonna tell them that you moved away from me? What was the name of the song? Rebellion. It makes you cry sometimes Aaron- how it went in and out of reception in the hills around Olympia.
“And you wish you could have Tyler but you know you can’t because you never talked to him about that stuff… and you just can’t. He’s not yours AaronChan and he’s not theirs either. You’re gonna have to learn to get along.
“Why do you always have to do it your way? Because you think people are going to find you, don’t you? You dare them to find the talent, right? Movie Reviews Of Movies I Haven’t Seen All The Way Through? Dawson’s Creek? Really AaronChan? Please. I don’t know how hard people look, they might be more relaxed than you. I know what you want to write about. You want to write about God and reason and existence and good and evil and hope and love and fear and everything else. And I don’t know if they know that.”
“I have to go. And you have to go to Boston and be a writer, like you always wanted to. And you can do it. And it’s OK that it’s going to take a while because you’re ambitious. And you have ADD.”
She picked up a pen that was lying on the floor before her. She slowly began to push it toward my face until she actually began putting the uncapped end into my nostril. I jerked my head back and swatted the pen away. For a moment, I held my hand up silently in defense. She frowned and exhaled. So I dropped my hand and let her go.