It occurred to me that I’d become too comfortable with breaking and entering.
Back from field training, I’d leapt onto the windowsill in a single bound, no awkward scrambling, as though onto a pommel horse, despite my combat boots and my Kevlar. I crouched, resting my hands lightly on the frame. My ponytail bobbed and then went still. In perfect balance, I could have carried a stack of books on my head, a debutante but for the stench of dirt and sweat.
I tiptoed in the dark until realizing my roommates were out. As I set down my ruck, an RA in the lounge shouted an invitation to join a group headed to Flicks. A door slammed, and a basketball thudded down the hallway. From the floor above, reggae blasted, competing with the howl of a blow-dryer. No sign of the dorm settling down Sunday night, not with the last of the weekend to enjoy.
Too tired to shower, I collapsed onto the futon for a nap before my all-nighter. A sudden, strange lull descended, so complete it seemed like I was in one of those sensory deprivation chambers that drive test subjects insane. I couldn’t shake the feeling that everyone in the world had disappeared. “Hello?” I called out. “Hello, hello.” No one answered, and I fired up Julia’s laptop to fill the void with light and noise.
We met fall quarter, after I studied her for a half hour while she sunbathed. Her body long and lean in a black sports bra and board shorts, on the lawn outside her dorm, the new one with spacious lounges and nooks for studying, and where I wanted to live most. Julia seemed like the kind of girl who adopted wounded birds and stray puppies, willing to help a newcomer in need.
I told her I had nowhere to stay because of a mix-up in Housing. Officials said they might find something within a week or two, but until then I’d be sleeping in the 24-hour room at the library. What a way to start freshman year! Julia, a sophomore, invited me to crash in the room she shared with her best friend. One night turned into a week, another and another and then we were at the end of the quarter, Dead Week, finals, and saying our good-byes for the holidays. Without their knowledge, my roommates had aided and abetted me. My classmates considered me no different than them, these student body presidents, valedictorians, salutatorians, National Merit Scholars, Model U.N. reps, Academic Decathletes, All-State swimmers and wrestlers, and other shining exemplars of America’s youth.
* * * *
The rejection from Admissions was a mistake. That’s what I told myself after I clicked on the link and logged onto the portal last spring. Stanford had denied another Elaine Park, another in Irvine who’d also applied. I waited for a phone call of apology, along with an e-mail with the correct link.
I hadn’t meant to lie, not at first, but when Jack Min donned his Stanford sweatshirt after receiving his acceptance (a senior tradition) – I yanked my Cardinal red hoodie out of my locker. When my AP English teacher, Ms. Banks, stopped to congratulate me, I couldn’t bring myself to say, not yet. She’d worked with me on a dozen revisions of my college essay and written a generous letter of rec, and I didn’t want to disappoint her.
Another week passed, and I posed with Jack for the school paper. A banner year for the church our families both attended, and for Sparta High, with two students in a single class admitted to Stanford. When I showed my parents the article as proof of my acceptance, Appa held the newspaper with his fingertips, as if it were bridal lace he was preserving on a special order. He reeked of chemicals from the cleaners, the stink of exhaustion and servility.
“Assiduous.” His praise for my hard work. My vocab drills, which began nightly when I was in kindergarten, had fallen to him. For years, he’d been reading the dictionary for self-improvement, and the words we’d studied together coded what otherwise might remain unsaid.
“Sagacity.” I thanked my father for his wisdom.
In June, with graduation approaching, I politely alerted Admissions of its error.
“You haven’t received any notification?” the woman asked on the other end of the line.
“A rejection. For another Elaine Park.” Only then did I realize how ridiculous I sounded. Could I appeal the decision, or get on the wait list, I asked.
No, she gently said. She explained that those chosen off the wait-list had been notified two weeks ago, and wished me the best of luck.
All those hours, all that money. The after-school academic cram programs. The cost kept us from moving out of our tiny two-bedroom apartment, whose only amenity was its location in a desirable school district and the stagnant pool where my neighbor taught me to swim. Other sacrifices: Appa put off visiting the doctor until his colds turned into bronchitis and then pneumonia. Umma’s eyes going bad, squinting at the alterations she did for extra cash at the dry cleaners where they both worked.
Stanford was the only school to which I’d applied, the only school my parents imagined me attending. Other Korean families aimed for Hah-bah-duh, Harvard, or Yae-il, Yale, but we wanted Suh-ten-por-duh, Ivy of the West. On our sole family vacation, before my junior year, we piled into the car and drove to Stanford and back in a single day, a seven-hour trip each way – enough time to eat our gimbap rolls in the parking lot, snap photos of Hoover Tower, buy a sweatshirt, and pick up a course catalogue and a copy of the Stanford Daily, all of which I studied as closely as an archeologist trying to crack ancient runes. I was supposed to become a doctor, and buy my parents a sedan and a house in a gated community. A doctor had a title, respect, and would never be brushed off like them, never berated by customers, and never snubbed by salesclerks. My sister, who sulked the entire ride to campus, wasn’t to be counted on. Five years younger than me, a chola in the making, with Cleopatra eyeliner and teased bangs, she’d turned rebellious in junior high. She could take care of herself, and I’d take care of our parents.
When I asked the admissions officer if I could send additional letters of rec, her tone turned icy. “We never reverse a decision officially rendered.” She hung up.
The problem, I came to understand, was that my story was too typical. My scores, my accomplishments, and my volunteer work were identical to hundreds, maybe thousands of other applicants, and Admissions had reached its quota of hard-luck, hard-working children of immigrants. I’d been too honest, straightforward where I should have embellished, ordinary where I should have been fanciful. My classmate Jack had launched his own startup, sending used cell phones to Africa. If only I’d been a homeless teen or knit socks and mittens for orphans in China. If only I’d had cancer.
I couldn’t tell my parents the truth, not after my pastor announced my Stanford acceptance at church. If my high school classmates found out, I’d become a joke. But if I spent time on the Farm, I’d discover the secret of how to talk, how to act, how to be. When I became a full-fledged student, no one had to know I had been anything but. I searched Facebook to see what incoming freshman said about forms, housing, tuition, and classes, and told my parents I’d been awarded a government scholarship, and a work-study job to cover the rest.
At the bus station, Umma pressed her papery cheek against mine, and gave me a sack of snacks, puffed rice and dried seaweed. My parents wanted to caravan with Jack’s family, but I told them not to waste a day’s pay by taking time off. My sister wished me luck, less surly upon realizing she’d get my room after I left. Appa handed me a prepaid cell phone and gruffly reminded me to call on Sundays.
“Cogent,” he said. Other words described me more aptly, that I didn’t dare say: legerdemain, reprobate.
* * * *
Early Monday morning, the room phone rang, Julia’s mother. I was typing notes for Hum Bio on her laptop, preparing for a test I’d never take. Not strange at all, considering there was a word for it – auditing – learning, but without credit.
Covering for Julia, I told Mrs. Ramirez she was at practice. She had probably spent the night at Scott’s, from the men’s crew team. They’d been hooking up, but he was also hanging out with other girls.
Scott. He couldn’t be trusted. Not after last night, when he’d come looking for Julia. It was late, late for her, usually asleep after dinner, on the water at first light for crew practice. I expected him to leave, but he’d sprawled onto the futon – my bed – and asked about my weekend.
“At the pool.” I’d learned how to turn my pants into a personal flotation device. Wriggling out, knotting each leg like a sausage, my fingers cramped and slippery. Jerking the pants overhead in a single motion, to fill the legs with air. How to swim on my side, raising my dummy rifle out of the water. The calm I felt, as splashes ricocheted around me. “Water combat training.”
“Bad ass,” he said.
He wasn’t making fun of me. He was checking me out, his eyes following the line of my legs, up to the powerful curve of my thighs in a pair of running shorts. My body had changed under PT, turned harder, stronger, faster, and the hours I used to devote to studying I now spent jogging on Campus Drive and lifting weights.
I blushed, trying to fasten the buttons of the shirt I’d tossed over my sport bra. Scott had
long eyelashes, so lush he could have been wearing mascara. The air between us had thickened. His deodorant had a woodsy, musky smell that made me think of plaid and lumberjacks. His phone had buzzed, a text from Julia. She was waiting for him at his place, he’d said, and loped off.
Although I’d dreamed I would find lifelong friends at Stanford, women who would be my bridesmaids and men to pal around with and maybe date, I remained apart as ever. Except for Julia. Because I was a cul-de-sac, not in her circle of jock friends, she trusted me with her secrets. Her fears about Scott, her complaints about our roommate Tina, so spoiled, so careless with her money.
I pushed Tina’s mess away from my corner. She’d begun encroaching, her text-books, her crumpled jeans, her energy bar wrappers, and hair-balls swirling like the Pacific garbage patch. Tina was Chinese-American, the daughter of immigrants too. From Grosse Pointe, she was used to being the only Asian and had run with a popular crowd in high school.
Before break, I told them that Housing found a spot for me. When the new quarter began, I said it fell through. A few times, I’d walked into the room and the conversation stopped, and I knew they’d been talking about me. Although it might seem strange that they never locked me out, they were too polite, too trusting of a fellow classmate in need.
My stomach growled. Security was lax on campus, but the dining hall at this hour wasn’t busy enough to sneak through the exit for breakfast. Freeloading didn’t seem like stealing, not exactly, with more than enough food and classroom seats to go around. I only took what would go to waste.
I dug through my ruck, searching for my ROTC assignment due that afternoon. Although the corps had been banned on campus during Vietnam War protests, Stanford students took classes and trained with battalions at other local colleges. I’d slipped through a loophole, easily able to sign up because of the informal communication between the schools about the program.
I hitched a ride three times a week to ROTC with a pair of Stanford seniors, who’d both committed to serving eight years in the Army. Friendly but not looking to make another friend, not with graduation and a likely deployment to the Middle East looming. Still, I was grateful for the assignments in military history some treated as a joke, and grateful for the rank of cadet. Grateful for the ruck, and the Kevlar that gave me a look of purpose, compared to the Stanford students dressed in shorts and sandals all the time, like they were going to the beach. BDU – battle dress uniform. LBE – load bearing equipment, harness, canteen, first-aid kit, and ammo pouch. I was proud to speak the language of ROTC, proud I could navigate in the dark, armed with a map, compass, and a piece of paper. Finding the point, finding the code, finding the pirate’s buried treasure
Flipping open my binder, I found a flyer urging Stanford cadets to apply for the ROTC honor roll with the attached form and an unofficial transcript. A reminder I didn’t have grades, and wasn’t enrolled, a reminder I should give up and go home. Surviving day-to-day brought me no closer to becoming an official student. I imagined my father’s disappointment, my father’s words: ignominious, mendacious.
After re-applying, I was waiting for my acceptance from Stanford. Sometimes in lecture hall, biking through White Plaza, shuffling through the dining hall, and at my café job, I sank into the illusion that I belonged here. No different, common among the uncommon. My fingers moved over the keyboard, typing out my classes from first quarter and a grade for each. Three A-s, and a B+ and a B: I wasn’t greedy. If only I’d been given the chance, it would have been my transcript. If – no. The problem sets were impossible and I probably would have flunked out of pre-med. I hurled the binder across the room, hitting Julia’s dresser, knocking over a corkboard plastered with photos of her friends and family. Propping it up, I tried to straighten the crooked picture of us goofing around, wearing sunglasses and singing into hairbrushes.
Julia burst into the room, back from crew practice. With her broad teeth, broad smile, and glossy chestnut hair, she’d make a good show horse. She swept past me, grabbing her birth control pills. As she broke the foil and tipped one into her mouth, I shoved fallen photos under the futon with my foot. When she reached for her laptop, I slid it away, snapping the lid shut. She reached again.
“Sorry.” I didn’t hand it over. I said her mother called, hoping Julia might thank me for covering for her. She didn’t. She hovered as I restarted her laptop, its hard drive whirring and hanging.
“Never mind.” She grabbed her dining hall pass and left.
The day had barely begun, and I’d pissed off the one person who cared about me here. The laptop woke up, and the file popped open to my fantasy list of grades. If only those could be my marks. That’s when it hit me: an unofficial transcript was easy to fake, without requiring a watermark or school seal, Courier font in Microsoft Word. With it, I’d apply for the ROTC honor roll. I’d never become Dr. Park, but with a resume listing my honors and awards, I’d get an internship, and later on, a job to support my parents. Weren’t tech startups full of dropouts? I hit delete and dropped my A to a B+ in Hum Bio. It didn’t seem fair to give myself an F for a class I wasn’t enrolled in. I decided the grades should reflect my efforts and no one, knowing the lengths I’d gone to, could question mine.
* * * *
Over the next few weeks, my luck turned. With my faked transcript, I made the ROTC honor roll, received a ribbon for my uniform, and sent the newsletter listing my award to my parents. It wouldn’t be long until I received my acceptance from Admissions, I told myself. Scott was coming around more often, too. Flirting, when he brushed a leaf out of my hair or when he helped himself to dry cereal from a bowl in my lap. His casual touching, as if I were a prized possession. Nothing could happen between us, not if I wanted a roof over my head, and yet I found myself hoping that each knock at the door meant him.
When Julia tried to tell him she loved him, he’d acted weird and left in a hurry, she’d confided. Just before I left for weekend field training, I found the futon folded up into a couch, heaped with dirty laundry, sweat-stained athletic bras and balled-up panties, a move territorial as a dog pissing on a fire hydrant, potent as a radiation symbol not to touch. Julia stood in the doorway, Scott behind her. She drew herself up, and told me I had to be out by next Friday, when their families were visiting for Parents’ Weekend.
What if I spent those nights away and returned after the weekend? “From now on, I’ll stay out one night a week,” I pleaded. She bit her lip. “Two nights. Please. I’ll keep out of Tina’s way.”
Mentioning our roommate seemed to remind her of their arguments against me. Julia straightened. “It’s Housing’s responsibility. Not ours.”
I tried to catch Scott’s eye–she’d listen to him–but he was suddenly intent on his texts. Had I imagined his attraction? For him, a game, a reflex.
“I could pay.” I had a couple hundred dollars saved from my job at the café. Although their room and board had been covered at the beginning of the quarter, I could give them spending money.
“I have no choice,” she said.
“You have more choices than me.” I shouldered my ruck and left.
On the drive to field training, my head ached, tender as an overinflated balloon. I stumbled through the mission, to clear an abandoned house on the training course. First the squad leader forced us into a ditch. Soaked, our BDUs clung and chafed, then stiffened in the rising heat of the day.
“Cover me while I’m moving!”
“You got covered!”
“Moving!” I ran flat out for three seconds, my heart pounding in my ears. I cleared my head of everything but the task ahead, hurled myself into the dirt, into the rocks and burrs, a hard landing that stole my breath. When I swiveled my dummy rifle, scanning for enemies, Julia appeared beneath a tree. I aimed. I’d never felt so bright, like ten thousand flashbulbs going off, and then she vanished, quicker than I could have pulled a trigger.
From DECEIT AND OTHER POSSIBILITIES. Used with permission of Willow Books. Copyright © 2016 by Vanessa Hua.