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Out There

I’m nine and hidden behind a bowl cut. It’s the hottest summer we’ve had in Oxford for as long as I can remember, a heat filled with thick, dripping afternoons and the rattle of a million cicadas. I’m not one for sunscreen, which is why my skin is yellow-brown and feels like pebbles to the touch. I spend a lot of time outside chasing everything that comes my way: the twins from the apartment building next door, lightning bugs at night, a white rabbit with red eyes. I am a terrible mixture of bug spray and rancid tennis shoes.

This summer is special and infinitely better than all summers before it. That’s because our apartment complex just got a new play-scape. You’re probably picturing a nice, cookie-cutter apartment community with gates—but that’s not what it is at all. In reality, our “complex” is just a cluster of old apartment buildings for international student housing on the University of Mississippi campus. These five shabby brick buildings are an ugly sight next to the creamy white fraternities just down the street. I like to spy on the boys who live there—men in my mind. I memorize and crave the things they have: Pastel shorts, thick leather belts, bold voices that twang and rumble. They’re not afraid to laugh out loud and bare their teeth. I admire their careless freedom and the foreign colors on their bodies. I admire their broad shoulders. They’re always so brave, these Americans.

Our apartment complex is filled with a bunch international kids like me. There’s Gabby and Charlie, twin Filipino girls three years younger than me. Their dad is white and divorced, so he lets us watch movies like Dracula, Titanic and Worms whenever I go over to play. There’s also Ping Ping, an older Chinese girl who wears pigtails all the time. She is the leader of our “group” and likes to make me cry. Mary, another Chinese girl with big teeth and even bigger glasses, who obsesses over a thriller series about a cat detective. Henoc, an African boy my parents don’t trust, and Jay Dogan, a blond boy with an angelic face and icy eyes. He wears a bracelet with beads that spell out “WWJD” and sometimes tries to choke me for fun. There’s John Song, a Chinese boy who just moved in a few months ago. I made him show me his penis once, and laughed wildly while he cried. Finally, there’s my best friend Kelly Lin, a Chinese girl like me who lives in the apartment unit diagonally below ours.  Her mom, like mine, is a graduate student in computer science at Ole Miss.

It’s peaceful, our happy lives as children of immigrants. We know that we are “WaiGuoRen” (outsiders) here, but this temporary home feels real. The world is at our doorsteps, just outside our frayed screen doors. We are a community of plastic plates, secondhand furniture, and rubber-banded coupons for Dominos’ “Buy 1 Get 1 Free” deals. We are the children of a blistering hope and sacrifice—and we don’t even know it.

Our parents disappear into the big university buildings during the day and leave us without babysitters (mainly because they can’t afford them). So we create our own version of Oxford, one where our morals are dictated by the rules of Freeze Tag and Hide and Seek. We cup dragonflies and grasshoppers in our hands, sometimes squashing them without meaning to when we’re too excited. We luxuriate on swing sets and smack on honeysuckles. We nap on beds of yellow pine needles and earthworms, and climb the flowering magnolia trees when we want to feel big.

We are salty and sticky. The world is marvelous.

We are, all of us, so very happy. We are, I think, American.

* * *

Kelly Lin is my age. She has big, droopy eyes with long lashes, and her cheeks bulge out like she’s always got grapes in her mouth.  Kelly is also very smart—much smarter than me. She’s the first in our class to memorize all the multiplication tables (which is why she can get away with always being the Banker whenever we play Monopoly).

I’m different, and I like keeping it that way. I’m always the Prince when we play Princesses, the boy dog, husband, or boyfriend when we play house. I make ugly faces at skirts, dresses and ridiculous hair ties. My body is a tangled landscape of scrapes and bruises; proud badges of whatever war I had been fighting in the deep trenches of our backyard. Our friends call me “the freak,” but I don’t mind—at least I’m not soft and girly.

Kelly is, though. She’s pristine, and she’s also good at things like handwriting, cursive, and art. Stuff the parents and teachers talk about and compliment. She wears dresses with ruffles on the sleeves and bows at the waist. Instead of the typical Asian bowl cut, she wears her hair in a sleek ponytail. It shoots down the back of her head like a black waterfall.

Kelly is also fat. So whenever my mom or our teachers praise her neat handwriting or nice, unbitten fingernails, I think of her bulbous cheeks, her fleshy forearms, and her tender legs. At least I’m better than her in one sacred, important way: at least I’m not fat. So what if Kelly gets better grades than me? I can run faster, climb higher, and slip through holly bushes without getting my skin caught on the pointy ends. Kelly always comes out with tiny red stitching down the chubby blocks of her arms. How embarrassing for her.

Kelly’s fatness becomes a real problem one night when we’re goofing off in the bathroom. Mom is at one of her night seminars and dad is staying late at work. This leaves Kelly and me on our own—something we’re gleefully used to by now.

We play with Barbies as usual, one of my favorite games. I had acquired quite a collection over the years: Cynthia the dirty plastic blond with no bangs (I accidentally cut them off), Mulan the Asian Barbie with flat feet and two wigs, Ashley the All-American with big breasts and a colorful dress, and Ken the token male—victim to all my sexual exploration. Poor Ken, with his comically enhanced abs and muted man parts.

I bring my newest addition and current favorite out to show Kelly: Serena the Ballet Barbie. She isn’t like the other Barbies I’ve encountered—her socketed shoulders, elbows, wrists, hips, knees, and feet rotate in every direction, making her one of the most fun to play with. Her hair is an elaborate bun that resembles icing on a cake, and she wears painted pointe shoes instead of the usual rubbery tiptoe feet.

Most of all, I like her hands. They’re effervescent and lovely, exactly the way a real ballerina’s hands would be. Her delicate fingers fan out like a bird taking flight. And despite my determination to look the part of a tomboy, I secretly want to be like her hands.

Kelly likes her too, I can tell. She cradles Serena in her lap and bends her limbs every way, ooh-ing and ah-ing every time the doll hits a new position. Serena looks at home with Kelly, as if she belongs to her and not me.

“I’m bored. Let’s play Hot Lava Monster.” I yank Serena out of her hands. I feel strangely jealous, and I don’t know why.

The rules of Hot Lava Monster are simple: the floor is covered in lava. If you touch it, you’ll die. So we take our game to the bathroom. I climb on top of the sink and step onto the little wooden stool mom keeps next to the toilet seat. Kelly crouches on the toilet seat.

“Look what I can do!” I leap from the stool to the bathtub, wrapping my hands around the shower rod before my feet touch the bathtub edge. I dangle off the rod in glee.

“Let me try,” Kelly says.

I laugh meanly. “No, we’ll be too heavy!”

It’s too late. She propels towards me, and miraculously, she makes it. We hang in the air for a second as her triumphant breaths fill the room.

Then CRACK! The shower rod snaps in two, and we’re crashing to the floor. My hands slap the cold tile floor—not hot lava—as we land in a cacophony of limbs and girlish screams.

Mom is furious when she gets home.

“Goodnight, Kelly,” she says through tight lips, schoolbag still on her shoulder. Kelly obeys, flashing me an apologetic glance as red unfurls across her soft cheeks.

Mom waits until the sound of Kelly’s quick footsteps disappears. The air is brittle between us. Then she lays me facedown on the bed and uses the belt until our neighbors tap on the wall. As the leather thwacks against me, all I can think about is Kelly’s heavy breathing on that shower rod. I see her fat, useless body, and I hate her. She must have felt so triumphant for such a fat little girl! Every time I cry out, I feel my rage harden. I hate her!

We also go on a lot of adventures, like stealing into the backyards of campus buildings and ravaging their honeysuckle bushes. We lap at the thin fibers for a sweetness we can almost taste, and leave behind a crime scene of wrinkled petals and naked shrubs.

When the honeysuckles wilt and the groundkeepers complain, Kelly and I find a pipe spanning the deep ravine behind our elementary school. It reminds us of a black snake with a rusted bronze underbelly and sooty scales. One heroic weekend in July, we sit on top of the pipe and scoot our way across with our hands and bony butts. We emerge from the woods with dark palms and smeared shorts, crowns of sweat adorning our foreheads. Our friends are jealous and our parents are too exasperated to hit us. We don’t care, because we sat on top of a pipe and called it ours.

It’s a friendship you can’t expect to explain. It’s our lives, bound by Oxford and the things we did out there.

* * *

We’re all taking piano lessons by the end of summer. The virus starts with Ping Ping. Her mom tells the others that Ping Ping is learning to play more advanced pieces than most girls her age. Soon, Mary is enrolled in a summer music camp with piano concentration. She doesn’t come out to play with us anymore, instead buried in sheet music and her cat books. Gabby and Charlie’s dad gets them an electric piano as a sort-of joke.

Kelly and I end up with the same private teacher: Mrs. Wang, a tight-lipped piano professor at the Ole Miss School of Music. She teaches in her spare time and charges $40 an hour. I don’t know how my parents afford it—and they never let me forget that they can’t.

All I know is that it’s unfair. We’ve been transformed from a raucous bouquet of wildlings to obedient little pianists glued to wooden benches. All of a sudden, posture is important. Our moms cluck their tongues to a set tempo—our own bizarre human metronomes—and dream of the grand pianos they’ll buy when they have bigger apartments and more money.

I am furious. I don’t want to go to the music school every day and practice for an hour. I don’t want to see Mrs. Wang and suffer her criticisms about my sloppy, erratic playing. I want to be outside climbing trees and riding my bike. I want to live a life I am convinced I deserve—full of mud and laughter and mosquito bites.

Mom and I fight more than ever. I tell her I hate her, hate piano, hate Mrs. Wang. I drag my feet out of the apartment every time we leave to go practice.

“Why do I have to do something I hate?” It has become my shrieking mantra. Our arguments fill the apartment. I’m crying every day.

“Ingrate! Do you know what that means? It means you don’t appreciate anything I do for you. You don’t appreciate how much I’m spending for you to learn piano. I go to class every day and take you to practice. Think how hard that is for me! You should be thankful. I am doing this for your future.”

Those words I hate: “your future.” I shoot my tongue out in contempt, and mom slaps me every time.

My body is a tangled landscape of bruises—not from being outside, but from the belt. Mom uses the end with the clasp almost every night now. At school, a teacher pulls me into a supply closet and asks if I got the bruises from playing outside or being disobedient at home.

“It’s because I was bad to my mom,” I whisper, ashamed. That night during dinner, we get a call from the school. They tell my mom that there are other ways to discipline a child.

“We should just run away,” I say to Kelly. “We should just smash all the pianos in the school and run away, and we’ll never have to play them again.”

She laughs and shrugs. I turn away, angry and disappointed by her unenthusiastic response.

The truth is that Kelly is getting better than me every day. I first notice this when she makes a funny movement with her body as she plays Chopin. Her body dips down and towards the piano, then pulls away lightly as if afraid of disturbing something sacred.

The action is sensual, intimate. It’s something I had only seen the advanced students do. Mrs. Wang nods in appreciation.

“Why did you do that?” I ask afterwards.

She smiles, folding her hands in her lap. “I don’t know. It just felt right.”

“Well it looked stupid.” Her smile disappears.

When Kelly plays, her fingers caress each key, as if she’s tucking it back into its crib. Her hands look like my Ballet Barbie’s hands. When I play, my fingers splay across, wild and desperate. I look like I’m grasping for something I can never reach. My sonatas are spastic, hers tender and romantic.

“Why can’t you play like her?” Mom asks.

“Just do what Kelly does,” Mrs. Wang says.

Kelly starts parting her hair down the middle like all the other older piano students. The part looks like a white worm glistening on top of her head. She says it looks good against her black hair. I think it just makes her face fatter.

It’s with a screeching devastation that I finally admit to myself the truth: Kelly is better than me at piano. Even worse, she loves piano. I feel betrayed—weren’t we compatriots in our misery? Weren’t we supposed to hate piano together, the same way we loved or hated most things? Of all the bumps in our friendship, it’s this great, irretrievable divide that hurts me most.

She has betrayed me! I write in my diary. She has betrayed our friendship.

* * *

Mom graduates in June 2000 with a PhD in Education. I attend the ceremony in a horrid dress given to me by her favorite professor. My bowl cut clashes magnificently with the round white collar and flower pockets.

I watch as my mom walks across the stage beaming. There are cookies afterwards.

That same summer, my dad gets a job offer in Austin. He moves out there first to set up our apartment—a real apartment in a real apartment complex—while mom and I stay behind to finish out the summer in Oxford.

Most of my friends have moved away by now. It’s just the way things seem to go in this shell of a complex—our halfway home between China and America. Ping Ping is in Pennsylvania, Mary is back in China, and Gabby and Charlie are living with their mom in Denver. Even John Song and his family have relocated to a mystical place called Canada.

“When you leave,” Kelly says, “I’ll be the only one left. Everyone else is gone.”

“You’ll probably move soon!” We both know this isn’t true. Kelly’s mom is dating an American who works in the IT department at the university.

I don’t even fully comprehend what it means to be leaving Kelly behind. It feels temporary, like I’ll see her again soon and for the rest of my life. We’ll buy houses next to each other when we’re “grown up” and still climb trees every day between our jobs and families. How crazy to think that we’ll have jobs and families.

My life in Oxford is packed into boxes by the time summer ends. Our apartment is empty. I tie a ribbon to the tree outside my window for the next person to find—maybe it’ll be another Chinese girl like me. With a day before the move, my mom relieves me of cleaning duties so I can grab a final whiff of Oxford.

Kelly and I end up sitting under the magnolia tree we climbed so many times before in the last five years. The flowers are open, dappling the canopy around us with spots of white and pink. We hadn’t really talked about me leaving other than by making vague allusions to call each other a lot. It was still a future forever away, and we were too invincible to be touched by it.

“Texas is so hot. You’ll be hot all the time. You’ll be darker than you are now.”

“Whatever,” I say. “I like being dark.”

“Are you gonna keep playing piano?”

“I guess. My dad already found a teacher in Austin. I wish they’d just let me quit.” I pause, watching her reaction. “What about you?”

“Yeah,” she says softly. “Mrs. Wang wants me to do the Solo Contest next year.”

“That sucks.”

“Not really.”

A breeze sneaks through, and we watch the waxy leaves twitch around us.

“Remember that time you tried to climb this tree with skates on?”

I start laughing. “That was awesome!”

“You almost died, it was so scary.”

“Whatever, at least I did it. And I didn’t die.”

We wile away the day recounting these small moments of our lives, at the time so unimportant, now the most vital things in the world. As the sun dips below the horizon and darkness crowds our little cavern inside the magnolia tree, Kelly asks what I want to do in my final hours in Oxford.

“We can do anything you want,” she says with an annoying benevolence. “It’s your last day, so you get to choose.”

I think of all the things we’ve done—from the pipe, to climbing every tree in Oxford, to playing chase with Gabby and Charlie by the Law School, to scaring the stray dogs. There were memories everywhere, memories I didn’t want to alter by recreating them now. For once, I didn’t feel like adventure. I only felt like being outside, being home.

“Let’s just bike around.”

We grab our bikes. Mine is a used Huffy from one of the older girls on the school bus. Kelly’s is a purple bike with streamers at the handles. It’s barely been touched.

“I haven’t ridden it in forever,” she says. “Can we practice a little before we go too far?”

She’s never been too good at riding. It was one of the things I could boast about without being wrong. I feel a little bad about choosing something she can’t keep up with. But this is my last night, and she asked me what I wanted to do.

Still, I try to be nice. I take her to an empty parking lot with neat concrete. There’s enough room to ride around and make mistakes.

“It’s okay—just remember to keep pedaling no matter what.”

She nods, anxious.  “I just don’t want to hurt my hands if I fall.”

“You won’t fall.”

She clambers onto the bike, looking awkward and wrong. Cruel satisfaction bubbles in me at the sight of Kelly teetering on her tiptoes, hands clenched around the white rubber handlebars. The streamers are a comical addition.

“Ready? Follow me.”

She pedals forward and falls. I swallow my laughter and brake to a halt.

“Wow, you’re really bad at this. Maybe we should just practice here tonight.”

We try again—she pedals a few more times before falling. I can’t help but feel magnificent as I make extravagant, lazy circles around her on my bike.

Kelly gets comfortable eventually. I bike to the end of the lot and wait for her to come to me. She’s slow at first, but finally stops jerking the handlebars and barrels towards me, falling only at the end when she tries to brake. Now she’s starting to look like a real rider.

“You can’t freak out at the end.”

“Yeah, I know. I just panic when I think about stopping. Thanks.” She inspects a fresh scrape on her knee before straightening up. “We should go home. I don’t want our moms to get mad.”

But I don’t want to go back. The lot, Kelly, our bikes—it’s enough for me to piece together and finally realize that this is my last night in Oxford. My life here is ending, and I don’t know where it’s going. I feel huge and sad.

“Let’s ride a little more. Come on!”

This is how I want to remember Oxford. This is how I want to remember us.

I don’t let myself see the hesitation on her face before whizzing away again on my bike, standing over my seat taller than ever. It’s way later than we’re normally allowed out. The dusk blends sky and pavement, and I can no longer distinguish between the two.  I cleave the heavy air as I ride through the night and feel it zipping back up behind me. A quick, shuddering stop at the end of the lot, and then I whizz past Kelly again, who’s trying to keep up, who flies past me with a pleading face. She’ll catch up.

Kelly is shouting something, but I am flying and even my sharp gasps, so close to my body, are lost in the torrent of wind and wave. I can feel everything, I am a hollow drum made with human skin and everything outside me beats against me. Pedal faster. I shudder and quake and woof at the sky. This is my Chopin Sonata. This is my orchestra. For every beautiful melody Kelly plays, so can I. I command the clicks of my bike into a string section, the staccato of gravel beneath me into percussion. And I bring with me the wind. I too can dip like Kelly dips, I can sweep and billow and feel something no one else can hear.  See me conduct the most beautiful symphony with my frantic legs and wild, laughing mouth.

I reach the other end of the lot and wait for Kelly to join me. My heart is still beating wildly, even as the wind dies down and the crashing waves in my head settle. Nothing. She’s not there when I turn around.  I bike the length of the lot again, then once more, but see no sign of her.

“Kelly? Kelly!”

She must have gone home. She probably couldn’t stand not being able to do something better than me for once. Stupid, fat, Kelly.

Mom is standing in the kitchen with her arms crossed when I get home. I tell her what happened. She grabs my arms and digs her thumbs into the skin, wedging between muscle and bone.

“It’s Kelly’s fault!” I yelp over and over again. “She didn’t tell me she was leaving! I wouldn’t have stayed so late if I weren’t looking for her.”

Kelly!” Mom spits. She lets go and I see fear, not anger, on her face. “She didn’t come home. Her mother just called to ask where she is.”

Mom’s sandals slap against the pavement as we walk through the night back to the parking lot. I wince and grow more panicked with each slap—all I can think about is the whipping she’s promised me once this is over.

There’s no sight of Kelly when we reach the lot. I feel small next to my mom and her violent breaths. Under the sallow glow of the street lamps, the lot looks lifeless—surely it couldn’t be the same lot I was in moments earlier, the same lot where I felt so tremendous? How dumb and pathetic for me to think that I could ever be so grand.

“Where is she?” Mom’s voice is horrible, mean.

“I don’t know,” I whine. “It wasn’t my fault!”

But I do know. Of course I know. I know there’s a ditch on the far left side of the lot, obscured by a black thrust of bushes and shrubs. I know it’s full of stickers and holly bushes. Worst of all, I know that Kelly probably didn’t know.

Without a word to mom, I run through the darkness towards the ditch, already dreading the answer as I reach the bushes along the edge. I part them delicately, gasping as their tiny thorns greet me. Everything below is collapsed into a nest of branches and brambles. Then, in the thick black confusion of nature and night, I see a flash of white blurring into the impossible backdrop.

Thick, clumsy Kelly.

“Kelly!” My voice disappears beneath me. “Are you okay?”

It doesn’t matter if she responds, if she says she’s fine and perfect down at the bottom of the ditch. I know I have to get her.

Mom’s going to kill me.

Kelly is curled into a tight ball when I finally reach her. My legs burn from the descent and angry little burrs cling to my socks, but I focus on trying to pry her coiled limbs apart, willing her to be okay. If only she would be okay!

Stop pretending! I want to scream. This was your fault!

“I told you I wanted to go home.” Her voice prickles, and I feel it more than anything else so far.

All of a sudden, fear floods my body. It’s a long way to the bottom, and the fall could have been really bad. Where is her bike? Did she tumble down the ditch while still on it, or was she thrown off as she tried to stop? I can’t see her face in the dark, and somehow it scares me even more. In the horrified corners of my mind, I picture her plump, white flesh oozing beads of red. I imagine her limbs bent at odd angles like my Ballet Barbie, and shocking bits of bone peaking out.

I brush the hair from her face, or what I think is her face. It’s wet from sweat, and maybe tears. And maybe blood too. I feel sick and disgusting. I don’t want to see her face. I’m afraid to know what she looks like.

“I’m glad you’re leaving.”

I don’t see her lips form the words, but I hear them in the dark. They’re the only things here with me in the dark. Then I hear mom calling my name from what feels like another world.

“We’re down here!” I am a frightened little girl.

I don’t know how we got here. I grip Kelly’s hands, desperately willing her to squeeze back and forgive me. I can’t leave like this. She doesn’t return the pressure.

* * *

In the harsh light of our small kitchen, Mom dabs Neosporin and rubbing alcohol on Kelly’s face. It’s nothing like I feared, just a few tiny scrapes. Still, it all feels gruesome to me. I can’t look her in the eyes.

We leave for Austin the next day. Kelly’s mom tells me she’s still asleep when I stop by their apartment to say goodbye.

* * *

In the beginning, I write her letters from Austin about my cute neighbors and new dog. I ask if she has read Harry Potter. I apologize over and over again about what happened. I call her too like we promised, mostly to gossip about what our old friends are doing now. But over time, the calls stop, and I can’t remember the phone number I once knew by heart. My fingers forget what it feels like.

The last time I talk to her, she tells me her mom is pregnant and about to get married. “We’re moving to California,” she says, and for once, I’m happy for her. I want to ask if she likes the guy who is about to become her step-dad, but her mom yells that dinner is ready, and she has to hang up.

-Tinghui Zhang holds degrees in English and Plan II from UT Austin. Her writing has appeared in Revolution House and Hothouse Literary Journal. She lives, works, writes and eats in Austin, TX. Find her at devourings.wordpress.com.