At fourteen, I was the taciturn girl who sat at the front of the classroom and spoke only when she had the answers to questions, which was—admittedly—all the time, but I rarely talked on any other occasion. Most shy girls were considered sweet, but not me: I glowered too much. Dur- ing lunch, I would claim the entire bench under the shadi- est tree, spreading out my backpack and my books. There, I hunched over books like Wuthering Heights, books I didn’t understand but liked because they gave me an air of angst and erudition. I was trying to make myself smarter, more worldly than those other Asian kids in San Marino, because in the ultimate pubescent cliché, I thought I was different.
Oftentimes, I wasn’t reading but staring at my classmates, pretending not to envy the ease with which they interact- ed. In particular, I watched the girls. It would be a couple more years until boys registered as anything other than loud, sweaty annoyances. But with the girls, I could see in the gentle swell of their chests and their giggling everything I failed to become.
PE was the worst and not just because as I trailed the other girls as they ran around the track I couldn’t help but think of the pounding in my chest as some physical reminder of my own inadequacy.
Brianna was in my eighth grade PE class.
She was one the fast girls, the long-legged ones that sailed around the track in their chipper little groups, dark hair pulled back into a ponytail and whipping around behind. Out of her friends, I knew she was the leader because of the way they all turned and listened when she talked during those unproductive breaks when the whole class would just sit on the bleachers.
My family and Brianna’s family were part of the same temple in Little Tokyo. We’d met each other at the temple preschool with a flock of other Japanese-American kids, and we spent our earliest years making ojuzu beads and giggling through sermons about the internment and the three lonely hells. That rolled over into us being part of the same temple basketball team and Girl Scout Troupe. Even though I don’t remember us talking that much, we were bound by that un- comfortable tie of having witnessed the other grow up. We saw each other all the time until sixth grade. Then my dad had his midlife crisis and converted to Christianity. The one concession my mom had earned was that I’d be able to at- tend temple camp in June, which was the only time I saw Brianna or any of the temple kids.
We were doing the mile run. Brianna and her friends, of course, finished first, and I barely finished at all. Ashamed of my slow time and the stitch in my side, I wait- ed for everyone to finish changing before slumping into the locker room. As I peeled off my t-shirt, I heard this stifled sob. Then someone crashed into the lockers towards the end of my row.
It was Brianna. She was crying, and I watched her cry, transfixed, until my arm twitched and I accidentally slammed it into the locker behind me.
She looked up and saw me staring at her. For a moment,
she froze, her hair hanging limply in front of her face. Then she straightened up and wiped her eyes.
“Hey Jen. Why are you still here?” I should have tried to comfort her, or at least give her a hug, but I just stood there, a few feet away. “Are you okay?”
Brianna stared at me with one eyebrow raised. “Yeah.” Her voice flat—was it sarcasm? “I’m fine.”
It occurred to me then that I had not put my shirt back on and that I was standing before Brianna in a sports bra with my stomach hanging over my shorts. I needed to distract her, so I blurted this out: “Have you ever read Rubyfruit Jungle?” It was what I’d been reading last week, to be edgy.
“Rubyfruit Jungle. It’s a book.”
“Well, yeah, I guessed that. And no, I haven’t read it.”
“Oh, okay. It’s a book about lesbians.”
There was a long silence in which Brianna bit her lips and looked like she was trying not to judge me. “Oh.” It was my habit when I was feeling nervous to give people reading suggestions. “I mean, it’s a really good book. You should read it.”
We just stood there, and I felt my cheeks burning. “Well,” said Brianna, her lips now puckered, more out of bafflement than any sort of hostility, I think, “You’re okay then?”
“Yeah,” I said. Wasn’t it her who was upset in the first place?
There was a long pause in which we both stared at our elbows. Then she said, “I guess I’ll see you at camp then.” It was January.
“Yeah,” I said again and thought I should say more, but she had already turned to leave.
I didn’t see Brianna again until June. We never talked at school anyway, but especially after that, I did my best to avoid her, turning corners when I spotted her in the distance, leaving school by the back gate.
That June, we all met up at the temple parking lot. Brianna and I said hello like nothing had happened. There wasn’t much chance to be awkward, though, because before we could say anything else, Mika and Tiff had jumped on us.
“Brianna!” they squealed. “Jen!” They had gotten taller since the year before. They also wore thick black eyeliner and Mika seemed a lot bustier, though that might have been the bra padding.
“We haven’t seen you in forever, Jen!” Mika shrieked, pull- ing me into a hug.
We got in a van, driven by Ms. Linda, one of the reverend’s middle daughters. Mika and I sat in the back while Tiff draped herself over one of the middle seats to talk to us. Brianna sat in the seat next to Tiff, angled so that she could see us but not looking at us face on and commenting only enough to keep from looking antisocial. My contributions to the conversation were similar, not because I wasn’t interested, but because I didn’t have anything to share.
Mika and Tiff talked about how boys annoyed them, how they thought Tyler liked Mika but no! no! no! she didn’t like him back, and how Brianna and Keith had kissed last February at the Bruins dance (“God, Jen, where have you been?” Mika squealed. “You’ve been missing everything.” I looked at Brianna, but she had turned to stare out the window). The five boys with whom we had all the temple events sat in a van driven by Mr. Bryan, Ms. Linda’s boy- friend, and I know now they were talking about us.
“It’s, like, I don’t think Tyler’s a gentleman,” said Mika, after we’d teased her for a while. “I don’t know, he’s so wild, and, like, really gangster.”
“Oh, come on.” We were all middle class from the various suburbs—San Marino, Hacienda Heights, Gardena. “What’s he going to do—stab you with his protractor?”
For a moment, Mika looked taken aback but then she shook her head, smiling. “Oh, Jen, you don’t get these things.”
As always, I had the urge to say something back to her.
I rolled my eyes at Mika. “You need to get out of suburbia.”
“And you’re not suburban?” Brianna looked stern, almost accusatory, and I shrank back from her gaze, not sure if I was intimidated or miffed, or miffed because I was intimidated.
The other two girls eyed us nervously until Tiff looked back at Mika and said loudly, “I don’t know. I think Tyler could be really sweet. You just have to get him to be less gangster.” Pursing my lips, I turned away from Brianna. Mika was nodding her head vigorously. “Oh, yeah, definitely. He should just ask me out.”
Brianna shook her head; whether at me or at Mika, I wasn’t sure. Then we went back to talking about everyone else’s boy problems. Sometimes, I would glance at Brianna. She was purposefully not looking at me.