“It is only in adventure that some people succeed in knowing themselves – in finding themselves.”
– André Gide (1947)
CHAPTER 1: Wootton
Busted, she thinks, as trouble arrives with a tap tap tap.
“Ruth, I can never tell if you’re late for your last class or early for your next one?” says the Principal as he approaches holding his T-handle cane, tilting his head to the side as he does when he’s not so much wondering at all.
“Dr. Coles, question.” The sophomore shakes her textbook at chest height. “Why’s it called History? Is it because the stories are about men?” She cracks it and points to a random page. “And manifest destiny?”
“Go on,” he says, repressing a smile. “Hey. Your hair–red now?” Ruth shrugs. She constantly changes her exterior to distract others from aiming their prosecutorial zeal at her interior.
It’s 11 am at Thomas S. Wootton High School in Rockville, Maryland on Valentine’s Day, and Ruth had way overslept. She’s at her locker, not far from History. An irredeemable minute remains before the bell rings, signaling students of the period change. The corridors are otherwise empty, and Dr. Coles lurches away unevenly, dragging his withered leg, seeking more teen-sized puzzles to solve.
Ruth is an inch past five feet, with a ponytail, hazel eyes, and freckles on her cheeks. Dangling from her neck is the only jewelry she owns, a chain with an ivory dolphin figurine hanging from it. With jeans and a t-shirt featuring the OutKast logo, she wears scuffed combat boots that add another two inches to her height. A transfer student in her first month at the school, she’s a mystery. Coles cuts her a break; his heart swells for new kids who find themselves one of 1,800 students on a mega-campus push-pinned into the suburban sprawl outside Washington, D.C.
She whirls the dial and pulls it open, looping her black winter coat with its twice-patched sleeve on the hook inside. At the bottom is a clutter of classroom work that remains unstarted or unfinished. She stores her beat-up backpack, and saunters off to appraise days past.
History, she thinks, could be the school subject most shot through with hubris. Science changes, with inventions. In Math, some nerd’s always cooking up a new theorem, or disproving an old one. PE–they create fresh games yearly, like Pickle Ball, all the rage at Wootton. And English–there are loads of books published annually, even if the old fogie teachers insist on browbeating everyone with the tired classics.
Everyone figures that History–arrogant, prideful History–is immutable, unchangeable. It has no need to throw anything on in the mornings but a comfy sweatsuit and holey slippers. Folks believe it can’t be altered and they dare anyone to try.
But they’re wrong.
* * *
Cho’s face is careworn at fourteen years of age. His clothes are too big and his body’s too small for a hostile America. He knows every inch of the ground in his neighborhood. Looking forward is not in his repertoire.
He lives in the Chinatown area of San Francisco and helps his father, Sun, who had managed the Tung Wah Dispensary after immigrating, until it fried in a fire caused by The Great 1906 San Francisco Earthquake. The doctor intends to rebuild what was the major healthcare destination for Asian refugees in The City by the Bay, and for now he offers house calls to patients in need.
Father and son were born in Fujian, a southeastern Chinese province famous for its mountains and coastal cities, and emigrated to America when Cho was a baby. The elder speaks passable English. The younger is bilingual and serves as translator in the rare case of a non-Chinese patient.
The boy would never miss a trip to see any patient, because their home is stuffed with nine extended family members in 1,200 square feet. Today is frustratingly free of the sick and dying, leaving a slender slice of quietude ready to be claimed.
Young Cho’s one book is titled A Course of Pure Mathematics, the classic text in introductory mathematical analysis. Written by GH Hardy, the temblor gave Cho this weighty tome, as if to make amends for eradicating his father’s place of employment.
The San Francisco Public Library was consumed in flames in 1906; eighty percent of the volumes it housed were singed or water damaged. They weren’t tossed out till a decade later, in 1916, upon the new building’s christening.
Being Chinese, Cho couldn’t attend the library grand opening. He did scoot around to the loading dock during the ribbon-cutting to discover barrels filled with charred and mildewing, but readable, hardcover books, and he hugs a dozen in his skinny arms.
One slightly scorched book–A Course of Pure Mathematics–made it home, ambushed as he was by other immigrant boys. He held on to the one he most wanted and arrived at his family’s rental with it clutched against the torn shirt on his heaving chest.
Despite two burgeoning black eyes and a split lower lip, soon he’d be reviewing meticulous equations that make strict sense of a topsy-turvy world. He hid the book in the sole closet in the home, which stores all manner of his father’s medical gear, liquid (vials, test tubes) and solid (scissors, forceps).
Dr. Sun is a medical experimenter. Once he made a poultice of onion, mustard and honey for influenza victims to apply to ease their tired lungs–the honey meant it stuck to the chest even while the patient was up and about. And he’s known for removing lesions and tumors from the skin of the living with a delicate razor scraping process, having practiced on the dead.
On this Thursday afternoon, Cho reads in the closet, scratching words he doesn’t recognize with a stub of pencil on a scrap of newspaper. He’s lit a candle, and is settling into Chapter IX: THE LOGARITHMIC, EXPONENTIAL AND CIRCULAR FUNCTIONS OF A REAL VARIABLE when his father whistles.
The whistle causes an adrenaline spike. Cho’s father shouts “railroad accident” and “injured laborers” in his native tongue, trusting his son will spring into action. Cho kicks open the door, snuffs the candle and gathers bandages and linen pads. He prods his math book with his toe underneath a pile of brown belt tourniquets, of which he plucks three in the hope there will be bleeding in need of staunching.
The boy fills a cloth sack with marbles rattling at the bottom. Cho’s never played marbles, as much as he’s wanted to; he gives them out to sick kids. Outside, Dr. Sun is conversing with a stranger. As Cho emerges from the apartment, Sun states in his stilted Cantonese something to the effect of “I am wrong; our chance expired, son, these poor wretches have been irreversibly mauled by the ferocious equipment.”
The stranger departs, and the doctor readies his exquisite Meerschaum pipe, albino in color and made from a foamy clay called sepiolite. Lighting it, he paces on the street’s edge as he would upon gloomy news of this type.
Cho returns to the closet and shifts the kit into a neat pyramid on the floor. He’ll be idle until his father’s next appointment or emergency. He spies marbles that must have slipped from the sack, rolling into the corner, as orderly as a row of soldiers. He grasps at the runaways, yet gravity has its inevitable way. Each marble slides through a crevice and disappears without a goodbye, and he flexes an eyebrow in surprise.
In front of their apartment, shrouded in a haze of pipe smoke, Dr. Sun speaks: “Cho Lung Tho, we must depart to prepare the stiff bodies.” Sun is an amateur mortician, and Cho his key and faithful assistant.
Off go father and son, side by side, to dress the dead and bring balm to the brokenhearted.
* * *
Maybe the molecules in the air around Ali dance joyfully because of her radiant beauty? Who’s to say? Molecules can’t be seen by the naked eye. Ali can be seen by the naked eye, and the girls inevitably want to look like her; the boys irrevocably want to look at her.
It’s good to be Ali at Thomas S. Wootton High School in Rockville, Maryland, on Valentine’s Day in 1996, a year when Bill Clinton is President. In January the Dallas Cowboys won yet another Super Bowl and 31 inches of snow fell on the eastern corridor of the USA.
Thomas S. Wootton’s Student Government Association, aka the SGA, is powerful. Ali isn’t part of it; she’s not into clubs or sports. The SGA makes Valentine’s Day quite the rigmarole at Wootton, encouraging students to participate by selling cards to roses to chocolates, at prices ranging from $1 to $20. The SGA encourages students to give … and receive. The carton for like and love notes must be “sufficiently narrow to fit in front of your locker, jutting out no more than twelve (12) inches.”
Ali’s is made of sturdy fibreboard, two feet square. As the lunch bell rings, she approaches her locker, #436. She gives not a glance to her full Valentine’s receptacle, and ignores the crowd of students retrieving their food, checking themselves in the hall windows’ reflection, and contemplating their places in the rigid pecking order.
To her right is the new girl with her dyed red hair; Ali doesn’t offer a hello. Ali’s aware she’s been at the school for four weeks, but the new girl never says hi and Ali’s not a say hello first type of girl. Ali notices the redhead’s empty Valentine’s box.
A tall boy with a five o’clock shadow at the water fountain, a senior no doubt, goggles the new girl. “Carpenter, what’s goin’ on!” he shouts. He struts toward her and leans close, all two hundred and thirty pounds of him.
“What have you heard about me so far?” the boy asks, and she doesn’t make eye contact. He slaps her door shut; she quickly moves her fingers to keep them uncrunched. “Hey–I’m talking to you,” he says with a glance at his buddies hovering at the water fountain; they guffaw into their hands. He pats her on the head, then ruffles her hair. “Might wanna wash it,” he says, wiping his hand theatrically on his pants leg while booting her card-less carton down the hall.
He sashays over to his acolytes and pantomimes high fives. “She digs me,” he says. Then much louder: “That dog’s got flies,” and he claws a lunch bag out of the hand of a kid walking by. The kid begins to protest, then thinks better of it. The tall boy pulls a box of HoHos out of the bag, and says one word to his buddies: “Score!”
Ali swans past the girl with red hair, then hits the brakes. “Carpenter’s your last name?” asks Ali. She’s eleven inches taller than the red-headed girl, whose hands are mid-tremor. “You know Ben?”
“No, no. He likes to say I’m flat as a board,” she answers. “I have three classes with that idiot. I’m Ruth,” and she offers her right hand, then pulls it back. Ali ping-pongs, in visual analysis mode: Ben, then Ruth; back to Ben. “Explain?” Ali asks.
Ruth worries Ali’s checking her chest and cuts her eyes there as her cheeks flush to scarlet. “Doesn’t matter,” she stammers, jiggling her locker handle. She twirls the dial. “He hates me because I wouldn’t let him cheat off me on a math test, by the way.”
Ruth says this in effect to no one, as Ali is gone; with a few swings of her long legs she approaches Ben, who ogles her. “New talent?” he asks jokingly. No one at the school doesn’t know Ali. “Where from?” he asks, to the complete delight of his sidekicks, who hoot with laughter, spraying bits of HoHos from their mouths.
Ali tucks a stray blonde curl behind her ear as Ruth observes, hand idle on the dial. Ali slides nearer to Ben, who is fully six foot four; the hall becomes quiet. Ruth imagines they’re a secret couple, the most attractive ever at Thomas S. Wootton High School. Ali cants her mouth toward Ben’s mouth. Imagining a kiss is imminent, repugnance washes over Ruth. “Ben,” she hears Ali whisper. He dips his chin an uncertain inch.
Ali propels her knee like a hammer from hell, connecting to Ben’s crotch with a force lifting him off the floor, and he folds to form an inverted L, his torso level with his knees. “Ben, Dover,” answers Ali. “It’s in Delaware.” She whips her knee a second time, making a minuscule adjustment as it lands, such that her strike is tangibly to the side of his aquiline nose, so as to not drive it deep into his skull. He crashes to the ground as if his limbs are a box of hangers, holding his groin and head.
Grabbing her lunch and coat, Ruth escapes. Blood is pouring from Ben’s nose; Ali floats away. The high school sophomore heads to the football field, to her habitual solo lunchtime site on the bleachers, where she wrenches her uncut bologna sandwich in two, and chews.
“Join me?” Ten rows higher on the bleachers, at the tip-top, is Ali. Ruth gathers her lunch and approaches, sitting on a bleacher row one below Ali, who pats a spot next to her. “Can’t be easy transferring mid-year to a school like Wootton,” she says. Ali is coatless.
Ruth maneuvers higher so they’re side by side. “Yep,” is all Ruth says, and tries to think of a question not so mundane like “are you a cheerleader?”or “do you have an after school job?” She lifts the bread on her sandwich. As usual, no mustard.
“Have things worked out like you’d hoped? Would you say?” Ali asks without preamble, her mouth full of her turkey croissant sandwich.
“No,” says Ruth, setting her sandwich down. “You?”
“I guess,” Ali says, chewing. She swallows. “Looking like I do–” and she’s interrupted by a fire engine screaming by. “It’s no picnic,” Ali continues. She starts on an apple, and Ruth notices that her teeth are as straight and white as you’d see in a fashion magazine.
Ruth rips the plastic off a sleeve of store bought cookies that bear a REDUCED FOR CLEARANCE sticker. “You’d rather be ugly?” Ruth asks, and instantly regrets it. She offers a cookie to Ali, who shakes her head no. “Also–um. Thanks for helping me–that guy and his gang of simpletons have been torturing me–daily.”
The stretch of silence is a desert, giving her time to reconnoiter Ali’s fingernails (manicured), her boots (expensive) and her hair (streaked blonde, by a professional). Ruth can’t abide another second. “Want to hangout after school one day? Like go to the mall?”
With a mighty heave, Ali sends the apple core onto the football field and collects her hair into a graceful updo with a scrunchy she fishes from her pocket. “They won’t attempt to breathe the air you breathe anymore,” Ali says, not answering the question. She gets up, reconsiders, and sits down. “I gotta go. AP English. Advanced Placement.” Ruth nods, and Ali stands and departs, flying down the bleacher steps at warp speed.
“AP Life,” Ruth says, to herself, and bites into her stale cookie.
* * *
The day of longing and lament called Valentine’s Day ends at Wootton High School upon the clatter of the 2:30 bell, after which Ali approaches #436. She’d lingered in her last class, AP Physics, reading ahead after all the other students and the teacher had departed.
The junior opens the door while holding a vinyl bag her salesman father had brought home from a recent pharmaceuticals trade show, emblazoned “Merck Makes Meds 1996.” She’s embarrassed at her haul when other students get a few pitiful cards. In addition to eleven assortments of chocolates, the six foot, amber brown-eyed, platinum blonde-haired Ali catalogs–
A napkin holder made of pine wood.
A chic sweater.
A sombrero, with an indecipherable message inscribed in cursive with purple thread.
An origami flower with a placard complete with misspelling: “Alley Be Mine.”
All of this plus the chocolates goes helter-skelter into the bag, except the sombrero Ali doesn’t want crushed. What remains, 200-ish cards, is light enough to carry. Ali seals the box by interleaving the flaps, wrangles her backpack over her shoulder and drops the pregnant vinyl bag on the floor of her locker; she’ll deal with it tomorrow.
She karate-kicks the door.
A second prior to the metallic bong: whoooooosh. It sounds like clothes in the hamper in her room at home, whereby they plunge three floors to the basement laundry via a square tube behind the wall. Hefting the ten score of unrequited sentiments, she speedwalks to the parking lot, where her car awaits. She’s as delighted as she allows herself to be.
* * *
Thursday, February 15th, the day after Valentine’s Day. The school clock reads 6:30 a.m.
First period is at 7 a.m. Ali habitually arrives early–if she showed up later the lobbies would be crowded with students, not a few of whom would want to talk with her, flirt with her, be her.
Advanced Placement Biology is first. There are nineteen seniors, and Ali as the lone junior. Ali gyrates the dial and swings the door. A smell hits her–not chocolate, as she might expect–mint. She rubs her nose, as if to correct it, and muscles three thick textbooks out of her backpack. She won’t need these till the end of the day, for AP Calculus, AP Japanese Language and Culture and AP World History; why lug ’em? Her History book is missing its cover, which correlates with her lack of love for the subject. She chucks them on the locker floor. Ali glimpses the books as they disappear. Gone.
Because there is no floor of her locker–only a gaping hole expelling an unambiguous whiff of mint. She kneels, and tries to figure out what happened. A puff of air causes a scarf hanging on a hook to wobble. She pulls it off and casts it on the floor.
“You get here early–to pray?” Ali rockets to her feet and slams her door shut. Ruth, wearing the same clothes as yesterday except a different t-shirt, one emblazoned with the Washington Redskins logo, strides up to her own locker and spins the dial. “I figured I’d be on time for once today,” she adds, with a glance at Ali’s brand new Air Jordan XIII sneakers.
“Yes,” Ali says, glancing both ways along the empty hall. Inside her locker she sees descending stone steps, and light pulses up from below.
“Your scarf,” Ruth says. Ali points.
“Stairs?” she asks. Ruth looks. She drops the scarf.
* * *
Father and son have spent the last many hours at a funeral home, embalming the bodies of four Chinese, fellow perpetual foreigners. The pair returns at midnight, to the heart of Chinatown. Not a lot of mail comes to the family address–if it did it would be labeled 436 Doric Alley (多里克·艾利). The doctor paces outside to soothe his jangled nerves, fiddling with his favorite pipe, one albino in color.
Once inside, Cho stealthily ignites his own pipe; one he’d swiped from his father’s collection. Recalling the disappearing marbles, Cho revisits his closet, first checking as always to see that his mathematics hardback remains undisturbed. A veritable shaft of light emanates from the fissure the orbs had discovered.
The heels of his fists make a hollow, drum-like sound on the plywood floor. He pounds harder. It cracks like ice on a frozen pond, and Cho plunges, with a last wisp of pipe smoke making a form of protest in the closet’s rank air.
The teen, with his fine features and black hair cut helmet-style, plummets through an unknowable space and lands on his hip with a jolt, softened by soggy earth and tulips, hundreds of them. Anyone who toils around funerals as much as Cho is familiar with flowers. Touching down with him in a scatterplot is detritus from 1917– chemical vials, cans of powder, bandages and gauze pads. And his book.
Leaping to his feet, Cho thumps out the glowing pipe ash and suffocates it with the facility of a veteran smoker. He darts into a collection of magenta bushes, crumples to the ground, and hides.
* * *
“Stairs? Yes. Definitely,” Ruth says. Ali kneels again. Riiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiing! The 6:40 a.m. school bell wails and the girls shudder; it will ring at 6:50 and then at 7, when all students should be in their classes, pens and pencils poised.
“I’m going down,” Ali says, reaching into Locker #436 to pull an armful of books from the top shelf plus her backpack. She scoops her scarf from the floor. She shoves everything into Ruth’s unready arms. “Hang on to this for me, Ruth,” Ali says.
Ruth is weighed down by the veritable library of textbooks. “I prefer Ruthie. And–should I? Do you want–?” Ruth stutters.
Ali is measuring the locker frame with her eyes. “Tight fit,” she says, while angling her hip in while twisting her torso. After cramming Ali’s stuff into her own locker, Ruth sees Ali’s halfway in. Sounds of kids talking and laughing can be heard.
“We’d best bring our packs,” Ali says, stooping to avoid the top shelf of her locker. Ruth rewinds, and returns shouldering both packs. “Let me get on the top step first,” Ali says. “To make sure it’s safe.”
“Gonna miss class,” Ruth says, noticing that Ali’s wearing the ring-spun Guess jeans called Premium Denim.
Ali wiggles and bends. Her head’s facing out; they’re eye to eye. “Better than going to the mall,” she says. “Can you push on my shoulder and then my hip?” Ruth pushes much harder than necessary.
Like a cork coming out of a bottle but in reverse, Ali’s through, and given her locker is floorless, she stands on the fragmentary ledge remaining on three sides. She fills up the space, and discerns her “Merck Makes Meds 1996” bag two feet below, clinging to a step. She shimmies onto it, kicking the Valentine gifts bag and her school books aside to make room to plant her Air Jordans on the pockmarked pearly stone. Each subsequent step broadens, and they proceed in a bowling alley straight shot down a long way.
Ali extends her hand; Ruth reciprocates. Ali speaks: “The packs.” Ruth passes them in. “And make sure the dial’s on my last number, nineteen. Gotta make sure we can return.” Ruth squints her eyes; her mouth forms an oval. “Ruthie?” Ali says.
Ali declines two more steps, and Ruth enters the locker as if it were built to fit her. She uses the three-sided floor ledge to transition to the top step. “Door,” Ali says, and Ruth reaches up, pinches the hind part of the lock apparatus between her fingers, and pulls it shut.
Ali shucks on her pack, and hands Ruth hers. “Could you grab a book for me to bring–from behind you?” Ali asks. Ruth scans the three tomes, chooses AP World History and passes it to Ali.
* * *