When there are only two Asians, instead of uniting, one may try to take the other out so that the meager power meted out to minorities will not be shared; so that one will not be mistaken as like the other.
—Cathy Park Hong, Minor Feelings
The night he met Pele, Sam took a walk. He hated to be home alone when his father worked late—hated the watery lamplight, the hollow boom of the TV, which made The Waltons sound as if they lived at the bottom of a well. He moved purposefully, hands in his pockets, though he was pointed nowhere in particular: past the tiny Capes identical to his own, whose missing shingles gave them a leprous appearance; around the familiar turnoff to Town Beach; down the length of Commercial Avenue, Sanderling’s central artery, humming with white tourists on a summer evening. The out-of-towners were tanned and easy and made him self-conscious about the way his ankles showed under the hem of his pants. Connecticuters with pressed shirts and soft leather dock shoes. New Jersey sightseers slick with baby oil. Lavishly maned New Yorkers, most of whom, he’d heard his father say, were psychologists from the Upper West Side, and Bostoners dressed for the country club, gleaming with sunburn and self-satisfaction. They commanded the sidewalk with their large broods and paper bags of taffy, their expectation of amusement, and when a sharp-jawed woman jostled him with her straw bag, he made himself small in a doorway. Moneyed nasal tones scraped his ears as she passed. For a moment, he considered going home. Instead he veered into a harborside neighborhood.
Dusk was falling. The wind picked up, and somewhere, someone fried garlic and sausages. High-pitched calls filled the air—“Timmy!” “Mary!” “Johnny!”—mothers’ voices finding their children like arrows. He slowed his steps. He knew better than to strain his ears, but he couldn’t help it. No one ever called for Sam. To be unsought and unnamed as the darkness erased his body made him feel like a memory of himself, a ghost. In the lumberyard, some other middle-school boys were gathered around an object. “Grab it!” one of them yelled, “Don’t let it get away!” A boy with yellow hair swung a stick in his hand. Sam darted onto a side street and heard the yowl of an animal, followed by feral laughter. He caught his breath under a tree. Robby Martin and his crew threw rocks at stray cats and pulled their eyelids aslant whenever they saw him. That they did not notice him made him wonder if he had, in fact, disappeared.
He climbed a winding road.
Light did not illuminate. Light didn’t show you what was there. It wrapped the world in color and shape, like a skin. But when the sun slipped below the horizon, the skin peeled away. Outlines dissolved. Then the truth of things appeared: Blood, bone. Heart. His true self, beneath the black hair and sharp-cut eyes no one ever bothered to look past. In the twilight dark, he exhaled, like an oversized man loosening his belt. It was a funny thing. The more people stared at him, the more invisible he was; only now, when no one could see him, was he fully present.
Stone pillars. Fluttering white oaks. Brick walks and iron streetlamps, tall bellflower arches that made him feel like a mouse in a garden. This was Ransom Hill, a neighborhood of lofty Victorians set on a bluff overlooking the harbor. Sea captains and merchants once lived here; now it was weekenders and prominent townspeople like the mayor and his father’s boss, Wes McCreary, owner of the Sanderling Hotel and Resort. The old Carter place was his favorite. Round tower with porthole windows, four chimneys, a veranda bathed in white hydrangeas. For the past year, a for rent sign had hung in the window. He bent down to scratch his ankle. He imagined himself at the top of the tower, scanning the horizon as he captained his ship through open waters, the sky above him, the world at his feet. Or on the porch swing, reading Robinson Crusoe or an issue of Boy’s Life, nodding off in the breeze while an unseen mother baked a cake in the kitchen. Drowsing to the whirr of beaters, the hum of a soft voice, the steady lapping of waves against the shore.
The voice seemed to come from nowhere. He took a step backward and squinted. There was a boy slouched on the steps of the front porch, elbows on his knees, white teeth flashing against pecan-brown skin. The for rent sign in the window was gone.
The boy repeated, “Hey, man.” He cracked his knuckles one by one. “What’s happening?”
There was no one else on the sidewalk. Up and down Old Colony Road windows glowed, everyone inside eating dinner or drawing baths or chuckling in front of the TV. The kid must be talking to him. But he had never seen this boy before—had never seen anyone like him, at least, not in Sanderling. He looked to be the same age, thirteen, though it was hard to tell under the flickering porch light. He wore his slick black hair in a ponytail like some kind of hippie, or a girl, and when he straightened, the yellow bubble letters on his T-shirt became visible: liberation to all. Most astonishing was the fact that he was Oriental. Oriental, like him.
“Good to see another brother in this town,” the boy said. “It’s like Village of the Damned around here. You know what I mean, right?”
Sam didn’t, but he nodded. He had never seen another Asian person in Sanderling. It was strangely familiar and utterly shocking, like seeing yourself in a mirror and suddenly realizing that you were—all along—an alien.
“Name’s Pele Galang.”
“I’m from California. My father is working on a project at the Brixham Institute, so we’re renting this place for a year.”
“I didn’t really want to move. I mean, California, you know? The vibe is groovy, the girls are foxy, there’s sunshine every day. We’ve got cable cars, Disneyland. What does Massachusetts have going for it? Besides Pilgrims.”
No one had ever talked to Sam the way this boy did: with a worldliness that was almost boastful, and familiarity, as if they were the most intimate of friends. His lips moved into the shape of a smile.
Pele let out a short burst of air. “Damn, sorry about that. I guess I just insulted your home state. I’m such a dummy, always putting my foot in it.” He fidgeted nervously, cracked his knuckles again. “I’m sure there’re a lot of good things about this place. You can fill me in. Guys like us, we need to stick together.”
Sam steadied himself against the post of the picket fence. The wood was soft and spongy under his fingertips. Pele must have mistaken him for someone else, some other Oriental kid. But there were no other Orientals in town. He could hear the wind picking up, the roar of the surf an approaching army.
“What’s your name?” The kid was eager, too eager, to fill the silence. “You’re mixed, right? Half Chinese? I’m Filipino, I can always tell these things.”
Sam took one step backward, then another. He continued to smile. A subterranean seam quivered and cracked.
“Hey, I asked what’s your name?”
The ocean receded to a crystalline silence. Stars flared. Down the street, a screen door slammed, and the explosion of sound was enough to release Sam. He walked away. His breath came shivery and quick as he put distance between himself and Pele. Left, right, hands in his pockets. He would disappear in the darkness, fade out like the end of a song on a record. He would become invisible once again.
Pele’s voice echoed after him like a bell in the night: “Man, what is your problem?”
▴ ▴ ▴
For the rest of the summer, Sam thought about Pele’s question: What was his problem?
His sneakers had holes in the toes. His hair wouldn’t feather, the comb he kept in his back pocket useless. He was spindly and soft and, despite his best efforts, kept using words that made other kids stare, like perambulate and antediluvian. Then there was Robby Martin. He and his friends enjoyed reminding him that even though his father was white, he himself looked Asian and was therefore defective. Robby wasn’t physically imposing; he looked nothing like his stevedore father, who always won the strong-man contest at the Durham County Fair. Skinny and red-faced, he was a packet of skin stretched over bone, a scraped knuckle of a boy. It felt ridiculous for Sam to be afraid of someone whose ass he should, theoretically, have been able to kick.
His biggest problem—perhaps the only one that mattered—was the fact that, unless it was a question about homework, no girl would talk to him. Not even the drippy ones. A fight broke out in Science once because Mr. Gilchrist told the class to form boy-girl pairings and no one wanted to be his lab partner. The girls squealed and pushed each other trying to get away, until Mr. Gilchrist pointed to pert Lana Frame and said, “You. Sit next to Sam.” She sat with grim stillness, careful not to look at him or touch the instruments he touched, but her friends tormented her, chanting Lana and Sam, sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G and asking whether she played ping-pong with his ding-dong. He carried out the experiment—measuring the distilled water, heating the graduated cylinder over a Bunsen burner—and pretended not to hear the mocking laughter. But his cheeks burned hot, hotter than the clear blue flame in front of him.
He might be handsome one day but not now, not here, in this town. His eyes, heavy-lidded and overhung with thatched brows. His face, narrow, a landscape of angles and planes not yet weathered into mature form. If you’d asked his teachers to describe him, they would have said, Sam Everly? Never raises his hand but always knows the answer. Not what you’d call the athletic type. Can’t shoot a free throw to save his life but could probably list the entire Celtics championship roster. Doesn’t give anyone any trouble. An agreeable kid. Yes, Sam believed in being agreeable. Agreeability was what got him through daily life. Agreement meant sameness, and it was easy to be agreeable when you kept your difference to yourself.
He lived on a side street away from the harbor—just him and his father, since his mother died when he was still in diapers. She had met Finn Everly as a Chinese co-ed at Dorset University, falling for the soft-spoken blond boy who sat behind her in Composition 101. When they became engaged, her family disowned her. The couple eloped to Newport, then set up house in Sanderling where Finn had secured a job as an accountant for the big employer, Sanderling Hotel and Resort. Lila was gone by the time Sam turned three, after a car accident on her way home from the grocery store.
Everyone in Sanderling worked either on the water or in the tourist trade. The harbor thrummed with activity all day long: trawlers creaked into dock heavy with catch; tented stalls sold ferry tickets to Nantucket and booked sunset pleasure cruises; old timers squatted outside the harbormaster’s office, chewing tobacco and telling tales of kelpies and coal-black seas. In the shadow of the Sanderling Hotel and Resort, which loomed over the beach from its own pier, oystermen farmed their sandy beds as lumpish families spread themselves on towels, their palely soft bellies calling to mind the underside of a flounder. Not much changed from summer to summer, other than the weather. This was why the visitors came back every year. The country might be facing gasoline shortages, or discovering its president was a crook, but here in Sanderling, you could always count on the warm surf of the bay and a fresh lobster roll at Jack’s.
Finn was considered a devoted parent. The women in town sighed over the way he took notes at Back to School Night and clapped loudly at school concerts. He was the kind of man who wore his emotions without shame, who was as likely to cry at a movie like Butch Cassidy as he was to tell his son he loved him. “You’re lucky,” a teacher told Sam. “Not everyone has a father who cares.”
But the older he got, the more distracted his father became. He came home from work later, some nights telling Sam to fix himself a peanut butter sandwich for dinner. He peppered Sam with questions about school, and before he could finish answering, his father’s eyes dimmed and he began repeating his questions. The moment Sam paused, he grabbed a beer and escaped to his armchair, listening to records on the stereo, sometimes for hours, the mournful jangle of Hendrix or the Beatles filling the space where his son’s voice had been. In the morning, empty beer cans littered the floor.
Sam remembered the times his father took him to Boston. Special trips, like seeing the Ice Capades at the Boston Garden after Wes McCreary gave Finn a couple of extra tickets, or watching the Head of the Charles, a new regatta race on the Charles River. There was also a trip to Chinatown so he could “experience his heritage,” as Finn put it. He had been watching a show about the U.S. ping-pong team visiting China when he turned to Sam and said, “You should know something about your mother’s people. Where you come from.” That weekend they drove to Boston and walked up and down Chinatown’s narrow streets in the looming shadow of the Mass Pike, bought bamboo trinkets in souvenir shops, and ate chop suey at a lunch counter where lacquered whole ducks hung in the window. He had never seen so many Asian people before. Store clerks spoke to him in Chinese, which mortified him; he could only smile apologetically and shake his head. He felt like a tourist, as much a bumbling interloper as his blond-haired, blue-eyed father. “How’d you like it?” Finn asked after they returned home and were comfortably ensconced in front of the TV. Sam forced a smile and said, “I liked it.” His father beamed. “Yes. It’s good to experience your heritage.” He never again suggested they visit Chinatown, and Sam was glad.
In Language Arts, after reading Brave New World, he had to write a paragraph on whether he was happy or unhappy, and why. He knew he wasn’t unhappy—unhappy were the kids who had mothers that whipped them or fathers that never came home from crewing fishing boats, the ones who wore piss-smelling pants and ate raw hot dogs. Orphans, cancer patients, harelipped and clubfooted kids, starving kids in Red China. That wasn’t him. But happy? It wasn’t something he’d ever thought about. The bell had rung, and his paper remained blank.
▴ ▴ ▴
▴ ▴ ▴
August passed, business as usual. Sam slept late, watched a few hours of TV before pouring himself a bowl of cereal, ate candy for lunch. Afternoons, when he wasn’t watching The 4:30 Movie on ABC, he walked to the market to buy a grape soda or visited his secret hideout, a spot under the old pier at the beach. He used to have a bike, but it now rusted behind the garage, tires popped. Same old summer, he told himself, but his skin prickled, sensitive to the least vibration, the least shift in temperature, that might indicate the presence of that other Asian boy, Pele.
Their house was a saltbox, small and sturdy. Its siding had weathered to smoky gray, and when a damp mist crept in from the harbor, it was nearly invisible, a smudge set among black oaks. It had been built in the 1700s, which meant his father had to duck through doorways, and if he dropped a marble, it would roll across the floor and disappear.
“Aren’t you scared to live in such an old house?” someone once asked him, “with all the people who died there?”
It made sense, given the age of his house, that former residents would have died there. His mother had died there. After the car accident, she collapsed in the kitchen, and he sometimes wondered if an echo of her remained, a place memory, reverberating inside the walls. But he never sensed her. When he entered, he breathed deeply the smell of old wood and dust and his father’s aftershave, as soothing as the smell of his own pillow. He’d hear the room sigh, as if it was breathing with him.
But the house seemed to have secrets. The cracked plaster walls resembled ancient maps. A horseshoe hung over the cellar door for no discernable reason, covered by so many layers of paint, it was more suggestion than object. Notches along the side of Sam’s closet measured an unnamed child’s height, and his windowsill bore carvings of five-pointed stars, as if someone once stood at the window and tried to capture the night sky. He wondered if it had been a boy like him, seeking signs of a different life, his real life, awaiting in the distance. When he traced the carvings with his finger, he thought he could feel the boy’s hand on his own, guiding his movements.
He could have called Scott or George, the math geeks he kept company with in school, but it was easier not to. He went to the town library instead. There, in the white-columned cottage, he looked for books he had heard were “dirty,” not smut like Harold Robbins but classic novels like Madame Bovary or Ulysses, whose staid covers offered plausible deniability should anyone see what he was reading. Even so, when he found Tropic of Cancer, he covered the spine as he carried it to the darkest corner of the stacks. The book tingled in his hands. That this yellowing bundle of pulp contained a glimpse of life’s biggest mystery—and had been there on a shelf, awaiting him—seemed miraculous.
I too love everything that flows: rivers, sewers, lava, semen, blood, bile, words, sentences. He hunched behind a book cart and breathlessly leafed the pages. Was this the good part? The print was so small, the text so dense.
A library clerk came down the aisle.
He snapped the book shut and pressed it against his shirt. Heat leapt into his face as he straightened and pretended to look for something on a shelf.
She passed him, the swish of her skirts a rebuke: shhh shhh, shhh shhh.
One line stayed with him, though he couldn’t have said why. You don’t think a pimp is inhuman, I hope? A pimp has his private grief and misery too, don’t you forget. He spent the next few days mouthing “a pimp has his private grief” in the mirror as he brushed his teeth.
The next time he walked through Ransom Hill, he stuck to the north side. He had thought about avoiding the neighborhood altogether, but this irked him. Sanderling was his town. He’d lived here his whole life. Some weird kid from California didn’t matter to him—he wasn’t about to change his routine on anyone’s account. He kept his head down so his black hair curtained his eyes; he half believed no one could tell he wasn’t white when his eyes were hidden.
The afternoon was sunny with a hint of coolness. The Victorian homes were vibrant, geraniums spilling from window boxes, beach towels dancing gaily on clotheslines. The McCreary house sat on the corner of Bay Street and Indian Head, a white Cadillac Fleetwood parked in the driveway next to a lawn statue of a Black boy holding a lantern. It was a big house for a childless couple, especially with Francine McCreary spending half the year in Florida. Next door, a raucous football game on the front lawn. The players seemed to belong to one clan, white-toothed and ruddy, noses covered in identical white smears. Sam slowed to watch. He couldn’t take his eyes from the family: the way they threw their arms around each other, the affectionate ribbing. “Better pick some daisies to put on your grave, Bozo, because we’re going to kill you!” one boy yelled to his brother, or possibly cousin. “Yeah, you and what army?” came the laughing response.
Sam decided to walk to the market for a soda.
Commercial Avenue began at the highest point in town, just outside Ransom Hill, and ran all the way down to the harbor. Here, where Randalls Tower stood on a bluff facing Sanderling Bay, he liked to stop and scan the water for dorsals; dolphins visited the harbor waters, though whales were wary and stayed out deeper. Low crooked storefronts flanked the winding street, set with cobblestones that bumped against his thin flip-flops. At certain blocks, in between the close-set buildings, long narrow alleys led to the beach. That was Sam’s favorite thing about the downtown: walking along, lost in thought, he would stumble across a pure blue shaft of sea and sky, leakage from a celestial world.
It was the usual crowd today. Leather-skinned locals shopping for hardware, vacationers looking for suntan lotion and personalized key rings. He wondered if Pele ever visited the souvenir shops for a key ring. He was always able to find sam on the racks, but he’d never once seen a pele. The jingle of a bicycle bell, and he jumped out of the way as two girls pedaled by. He recognized them from his homeroom last year, giggly, lipsticked twins other boys liked to tease. He straightened his shirt. They didn’t look at him as they passed, ponytails swinging side to side.
The flags at Town Hall snapped stiffly in the wind: American flag, Massachusetts flag, and Sanderling flag, with its town seal that showed a Pilgrim shaking hands with an Indian. That Pele kid had some nerve. Where did he get off assuming Sam was his brother—a fellow Oriental, the kind of person who arrived on a boat and had to learn English? He was American, not Oriental. He was born here. That kid didn’t know the first thing about him. And what about Pele? He seemed to speak perfect English, but what kind of name was Pele? The only other Pele he’d heard of was the soccer player, whose face he’d seen on a poster in Brixham, but he was Black and from South America. Pele wasn’t an American name.
Sam thought back to that day in Chinatown, the dingy restaurant where he and his father ate lunch, the air heavy with the smell of mildew and chicken fat. He chewed his red-roasted pork and studied the Chinese people: toothless old men arguing with each other, grains of rice falling from their mouths; mothers with shiny faces and shrill voices, feeding their babies with chopsticks; the hooded-eyed waitress with a fuzzy black mole. She brought them forks without waiting to be asked. The few whites in the restaurant looked at him and Finn with curiosity, but the Chinese were suspicious, throwing narrow glances in their direction. The busboy said something to him in Chinese, and when he stared uncomprehendingly, looked disgusted. “You want hot tea?” he barked. Finn laughed. Sam had poked his chop suey and thought This? This was where he came from? He had nothing in common with those people. No, he wasn’t Chinese. He was American. He was as American as anyone else in Sanderling. So preoccupied was Sam, he distractedly followed a crowd into line in front of the Lighthouse Pub. He backed away and kept walking to the market.
“Look who’s here! Young Mr. Everly!” Mr. Graydon waved to him from the register. He was burly and cheerful, well-meaning in a way that made Sam uncomfortable. His right hand was missing its pinky. It didn’t seem to bother him; the Korean War had taken his finger, but it had given him an endless supply of stories, many of which made his customers bark with laughter or exclaim, “Graydon, you old dog!” Once, he regaled Sam and his father with a story about a Korean girl, a harvest festival, and a bottle of soju, which ended with a conspiratorial wink at Finn. “You know how it is with these Oriental girls, right?” he said, eyebrows raised in glee. Finn’s smile was strained. “Oh, sure,” he replied. He looked as though he wanted to be anywhere else at that moment. Sam had wondered what Mr. Graydon meant—wasn’t his mother one of those “Oriental girls”?—but his father’s closed expression stopped him from asking. He sensed that conversation would open a door Finn wasn’t ready to walk through.
He grabbed a can of grape soda and got in line to check out. He eyed the candy display at the register, next to a stack of newspapers with the headline judge orders boston school committee to obey integration plan. The teenage girl in front of him wore a bikini top and cutoff shorts. When Graydon rang up her Tab and pack of cigarettes, she laid a handful of coins on the counter.
“You’re a nickel short, miss. You’re going to have to put something back.”
“Come on, mister.” The girl lifted her sunglasses. She had a long face with small flat eyes. A gold cross dangled between her small breasts.
Sam cleared his throat. “Excuse me. I can give you a nickel.” He mashed his lips into the kind of smile that implied he had many, many nickels in his possession. He wished someone he knew could see him talking to this girl, this white girl, in a bikini. Maybe she would ask his name.
She picked up her purchases and walked out of the store.
The cash register dinged. Graydon said, “That girl didn’t even say thank you.”
Sam felt his cheeks grow hot.
“How’s your pop? Haven’t seen him in a while.”
“Okay, I guess. Working a lot.”
“Not many could do what your pop does. Saint Finneas, I call him, holy martyr of Sanderling Hotel, patron saint of everybody working for a pain-in-the-neck boss. Maybe they’ll have a ceremony for him in Rome. Well, hey—” Graydon’s voice rose in the air. “Glad to see you found a friend. Or is that a cousin? Long-lost brother?”
Sam shook his head, not understanding. Graydon gestured with his thumb. Pele stood behind him in line, holding a magazine and a pack of gum, eyes trained on a spot above Sam’s head.
Unbelievable. After looking out for him, being careful to stay off Old Colony Road, he had somehow let Pele creep up on him. The kid was like a sunburn. Had he seen what happened with the girl—the way she brushed him off like an insect? And if that wasn’t bad enough, here was Mr. Graydon thinking they were together and telling the world Sam needed friends. The last thing he wanted was for Pele to think they stood on the same rung of the social ladder.
“Sorry. We’re not related.” He smiled an apology, the way his father always did when people asked him if his son was adopted. The balls of his feet jerked with agitation, like a dog that, when its owner tugs one way, pulls only harder in the other direction. He left the store quickly.
Across the street, families returning from the beach marched wetly to the ice-cream store; one little girl, sucking her thumb, dragged her towel on the ground. Sam’s head buzzed, as if a swarm of insects had overlaid the world with a dull blur. He felt a strange weariness. For the first time in a long time, he was no longer tense. He didn’t have to watch for danger because he knew exactly where the danger was—it was behind him in Graydon’s Market, not ahead of him.
He opened his can of soda. In a nearby alley, a teenage boy thrust his hand deep into a girl’s jean shorts, rooting like a burrowing animal. It was the girl from the store. She looked not at him but through him, as if he was made of air.
His shortcut took him through the middle-school field, wild with pepperweed and oxtongue. As he climbed a fence, something sharp punctured his hand. Blood smeared onto the honeysuckle leaves wrapping the metal end of a chain link. He sucked his wound and imagined he was a cowboy who had been bitten by a rattlesnake, he needed to extract the venom before he succumbed to it. The sun threw murky shadows onto the ground. There was a strange relief in the spiky pain, the taste of iron in his mouth, for these things confirmed the existence of a body, his body, that it occupied earth the way other bodies did, the ache of it reminding him of where he began and where he ended.
▴ ▴ ▴
When had it begun, this feeling of being watched? It wasn’t anything in particular—a prickling of his skin, the sense of something heavy in the air. He stood at the stove, stirring a can of soup, and caught a movement at the window. He raised the sash and stuck his head outside.
“Hello? Who is it?”
A broken rake leaned against a garbage can full of rainwater. Cedar shakes pocked the ground where they had fallen. He heard only a swell of wind moving through the trees, a flurry of air, like the wake of someone who has left a room.
At night, lying in bed, he saw a flash dart across his ceiling, a nimble yolk of light. Someone outside with a flashlight, probably, or the headlamps of a passing car. Still, he got up to see. He pushed aside the curtains.
A face stared back at him. It was a boy—pale, amorphous, shimmering outline of a body.
He stumbled backward.
The ghost boy peered suspiciously at him. His eyes were wide and flat, two black pits that absorbed the light around them.
A ringing filled Sam’s ears, the clanging of an iron bell. He wanted to shout but he couldn’t breathe, his throat so tight he felt himself choking.
The face wavered.
He tipped his head to the side, and the face tilted. He covered his mouth, and the face’s mouth disappeared.
He exhaled. It was his own reflection, lit by the hall light behind him.
Outside, the street was clear. No people, no cars. Not even a cat. The only light came from their next-door neighbor’s window, through which he could faintly see the shape of Mr. Ruddy’s head in front of a glowing box. Nothing amiss, other than a water stain he never noticed before jagging damply from window to floor.
“You’re reading too much, watching too many vampire shows,” his father said as he sat in his easy chair reading the paper. “Only a couple more weeks until school starts. Be glad you’re getting a good education because there’re kids in Boston who won’t this year.”
Sam didn’t argue. Instead, when he was home alone and darkness began to fall, he checked that the doors were locked and went from window to window, pulling the curtains tightly shut.