Open Arms

I lay wide awake in bed for a long time. I imagine the expression “in the heat of the night” typically describes a fiery tryst between two impassioned lovers. Of course, teenage boys can create sufficient friction all on their own to take the phrase to another level. However, each night there is another kind of heat that keeps me from falling asleep right away.

The Arizona heat is such that it pervades every corner of a house well into the night. People frequently remark that the Arizona heat is a “dry heat,” as if describing it in this manner will make you feel instantly cooler. However, this is like trying to console Anne Boleyn’s mother that at least poor Anne had a “clean beheading.” Sure, it beats a messy, painful one, but in the end, the mother is missing her daughter while the daughter is missing her head. No matter whether it is dry or humid heat, even the nights can be insufferable in Arizona.

Of course, one proof there may be a benign God is air conditioning. However, in the Lin household, air conditioning is not a God-given right. Dad came over to the US with about $236 in one pocket and a Chinese-American dictionary in the other. Both were stolen from him within a week of his arrival. He and Mom parlayed this fairly dire situation into a comfortable middle-class life for the family through frugality and hard work.

In fact, we probably could be living an upper-middle-class or even a middling upper-class-type life with all the money they have socked away. But Asian immigrants are nothing if not thrifty, which has led to such interesting phenomena as:

  • Each piece in our impressively large collection of silverware bearing the faint engraving of “Nanking” on the handle, each one meticulously procured by Dad over the two years he worked at Nanking Chinese Restaurant,
  • Stacks of napkins from McDonald’s, Taco Bell, and Carl’s Jr. overflowing out of our kitchen drawers,
  • Couches and dining chairs remaining in the original plastic protective wrap to keep them pristine for the decades they are to be used by the generations yet to come,
  • Sleeping on the floor, which we did until I was eleven. Thank God for plush carpeting.

All these quirks, I don’t mind so much. The one thing I do object to and what keeps me up each night is the sparing use of air conditioning. Dad sets it to turn on at 88 degrees in the summer, while correspondingly setting the heater to kick in at something like 52 degrees in the winter, leaving a thirty-six-degree delta. So we all spend the summer months at home dressed like Brazilians partying on the beaches of Rio and December through February layered up like Eskimos besieged by the endless night of winter.

So I devote many a night to tossing and turning, waiting and praying for the air con to kick in so I can fall asleep. However, when the temperature adjustment is set as high as it is in our house, the a/c might blow for about eight minutes and then flip right back off again. If I don’t fall asleep during that precious eight-minute window, I’m screwed for the ensuing twenty waiting for the next blast of cool air.

Of late, I lay awake for yet another reason. I dreamily replay over and over again my time at MORP with Lesley. How her eyes sparkled with joy, how her smile illuminated the entire gym. How she laughed freely and embraced the world without any sense of constraint. I guess life is so much easier when you are a gorgeous girl with an intellect and sense of humor to match. You don’t have to worry about how you stand or sit, what you say or do, or with whom you hang out. Because no matter what, from any angle and under any sort of lighting, you’re going to look stunning.

On the other hand, life is not nearly as pleasant for an ABC boy in Arizona. For most of my life, I have been mocked for a “ching-chong” accent I do not have, for strange customs I have never practiced, and for slanted eyes and a flat face that I had never possessed beyond my first two months on earth. To go from this ignoble nobody to someone suddenly dancing and exchanging witticisms with a creature of such unparalleled beauty, wit, and grace––well, it’s a little much for my adolescent mind to make sense of it all.

Over and over, I try to figure out how this could be. How it came to be that the first girl willing to introduce me to her foxy friends, to compliment me on my dancing, knowledge, and even looks, and to laugh at all my jokes, turns out to be the girl of my dreams? Why is she not embarrassed to be seen chatting with me in the hallways or dancing with me in the gym while everyone watches? Is she not aware that I play Dungeons & Dragons? That I airband to “Jessie’s Girl” and sing Air Supply songs with my buddy, Jeff? Or that the highlight of my week is watching The Love Boat on Saturday night with my parents and Mei-mei? And that my annoying little sister is, in fact, my best friend?

How is Lesley inured to all this?

Perhaps this is some cruel cosmic joke that all of America is in on. Surely, at some point, she will start to laugh at me and chant the classic “Chinese Japanese (while pulling her eyes up and then down into narrow slits), dirty knees (pointing at her knees), look at these (touching her breath-taking breasts)” ditty that so many white grammar school kids seem to know intuitively. Then after the laughter has died down and her dagger has struck my heart, she points to a hidden camera that has captured the frivolity for everyone’s bemusement and yells, “You’re on Candid Camera!” while she plunges the knife to its hilt.

Or is there something different about me these days? Have I transformed dramatically in some material way? Is she the first to see that the butterfly is no longer the chrysalis?

True, I have made some changes in my life. For one, I began to care about my dress. Since the sixth grade, I had been teased incessantly for wearing clothes with no brands and without regard to size as we only bought things on clearance. Until recently, I frequently wore “flood pants” that exposed my socks, T-shirts from Taiwan with anomalies such as a print of Captain America but with “Superman” captioned underneath, and jogging shorts two sizes too loose or too tight that left too little to the imagination either way.

Things started to change on this front when I implored Mom to buy me a couple of Ocean Pacific T-shirts from Miller’s Outpost in the eighth grade. When she saw the $10.99 price tag, she almost vomited on the shirt. So we compromised and bought two Lightning Bolt (a copycat brand of OP that isn’t too bad on the high school chic scale) and two Adidas T-shirts instead for a total of $38.73. She mentioned something about us having to eat ramen for the rest of the month. However, I think deep down inside, she sensed my angst and was quietly happy to alleviate a dash of it.

Next, to paraphrase the luscious Olivia Newton-John, I got physical. Inspired by Don’s vivid voyages on the sexual high seas, I, too, started to work out. Lacking the money to buy equipment, I resorted to doing two hundred sit-ups, twenty pull-ups, and one hundred push-ups (varying between traditional push-ups, wide-grip push-ups, diamond push-ups, staggered push-ups, clap—aka Rocky—push-ups, Superman push-ups, push-ups with Mei-mei on my back) each evening. Tired of the other kids calling me Bruce or Jackie and singing “Kung Fu Fighting” like it’s my theme song every time I appeared, I decided I might as well learn martial arts.

I began to take lessons in jiu-jitsu with a friend from Germany named Dieter. I did not take the classes to learn discipline, instill self-confidence, or attain mental acuity. Nor did I practice it to foster qi, seek strength through serenity, or wander the earth righting the wrongs of the West like Kwai Chang Caine. I simply desired the ability to go full Fists of Fury and kick the living fuck out of the next guy who calls me a chink or slant-eyes.

Funny thing, while I never told anyone that I’m learning jiu-jitsu, much to my severe disappointment, fewer and fewer people challenged me to fight after I started getting good at it. Perhaps I began to exude the aura of a badass subconsciously. Possibly would-be harassers sensed this and steered clear. Maybe Lesley felt it and drew near.

With Jenny, I had loved the girl despite not knowing the first thing about her. With Stephanie, I had run before she could get to know (or devour) me. I never learned whether either was smart, kind-hearted, passionate, or joyous.

This time, I am getting to know the girl, and I love every little thing I learn about her. This time, I will evolve quickly from tadpole to frog. I just need to win her heart tomorrow in PE class. Then I can steal that kiss that turns me into the prince I know I’m meant to be.

However, I don’t have much time to ponder all this as the air con suddenly flips back on. This is my nightly bat signal, and I need to focus on drifting off to sleep quickly.

*****

“Okay, boys and girls, let’s all get in those lines like we’ve been doing all week so we can pair off quickly!”

It’s Coach Freely, our PE teacher. He’s the type of teacher so vanilla in color and personality that you would forget he had ever existed unless you happen to be writing a high school memoir. He tries valiantly to corral all the boys to one side of the gym and all the girls to the other.

PE classes are typically separated by gender for a good reason. Attempting to instruct one gender on myriad physical exertions is challenging enough. Trying to do so with guys rippling in torn muscle shirts, girls undulating in halter tops and micro-shorts, and everyone heavily breathing in the heady scent of teen estrus in full flower? I conjecture Tom Cruise would later face missions less impossible.

Nevertheless, somewhat miraculously, we all get into the prescribed two lines largely on our own. This week’s sport has been ballroom dancing. Despite the initial scoffing, and contrary to everyone’s original expectation, we discover that we actually enjoy it. Earlier in the week, we have already picked up the foxtrot, the cha-cha, the mamba, the samba, and the tango. Coach Freely announces we will be learning the waltz today.

Immediately, of course, Scott grabs Tim around the waist, starts to spin him around the gym floor, and dips him for an air smooch to the amusement of the entire class. It’s quite funny, but I can’t help but recall the two of them calling me homo and fag just a while ago at the MORP. I guess athletes are so masculine that their sexuality can never be called into question, even as they pat each other on the ass and take long hot showers together.

Every year, the school brings in two specially trained dance instructors to demonstrate the dance’s moves. This year’s couple is particularly impressive. The woman is finely built like a cougar, moving with a feline grace that makes her imminently watchable. Meanwhile, the man is slender, even a tad diminutive, but with a commanding presence that keeps our eyes glued on him as well.

Each day after we watch their lesson, the girls line up on one side and the boys on the other. Then both lines start moving towards Coach Freely in the middle, who then matches off each boy with a girl. Of course, after a day or two of getting stuck with someone less appealing, all the boys start to jockey for position in our line to better pair with the likes of Angie, Lesley, or one of the other coveted hotties.

However, the girls are hardly mannequins waiting to be selected, as they too jostle each other while attempting to line up with studs such as Scott or Don. Whether it is due to poor counting skills or girls and guys continually shifting positions in each line based on conflicting individual agendas, most still end up with someone other than their ideal.

Except for me. For once, my Asian math training and a rudimentary understanding of chaos theory come to my rescue socially. Scott makes a grievous miscalculation at the last second. Amidst all the bedlam, I get paired with the object of our affections. He glares at me with a fierceness that, if this were mid-seventeenth-century France, I would’ve had to challenge him to a duel to the death to save my honor.

“Oh, hey,” Lesley greets me, with a touch of surprise in her voice.

“Hey,” I respond. Of all the charming utterances I can say at this momentous juncture, this is the most debonair reply in my repertoire.

Journey’s “Open Arms,” a waltz as it were, begins to play, and I gently sweep Lesley into my arms in a passable version of the dance. As Mom always taught me to do, I had asked Coach Freely for the daily lesson plan for the upcoming week. Thus I have been practicing the steps each night alone in the dark of my room. I had also checked out a book at the local library to read up on the waltz.

“You’re quite good at this waltz thing,” she says, looking genuinely surprised and surprisingly genuine all at the same time.

“You think? I just sorta picked it up,” I say, in the most nonchalant manner I can muster while exhilaration and anxiety simultaneously electrify my entire being.

“See, told you you’re good at dancing.”

“Like a girl, you mean?”

“Yeah, yeah,” Lesley says while smiling. “You won’t ever let me off the hook for saying that, huh?”

“Nope, never. Do I still dance like one now?” I ask as I lead her around the gym floor, taking care to glide us in between the other couples who haphazardly twirl about to varying degrees of incompetence. Clearly, none of them have an Asian mom telling them to obtain the teacher’s lesson plan ahead of time.

“No, you’re dancing quite manly now, with all this leading you’re doing.”

“Thanks,” I say. So far, so good. Now to exhibit a touch of what I learned from the library. “Did you know that the waltz originated as a folk dance among the peasants of Austria? It was quite scandalous at first with all its whirling and twirling. Then it caught on with high society in Germany and Austria and spread like wildfire across all the courts of Europe.”

“Wow. How do you know all this?”

“I, uh, read.”

“Oh, that’s novel. Learn by reading. I should try it sometime. No wonder you’re so smart,” Lesley says and laughs as we glide around the gym.

I have always been quite fortunate. While the saying goes, “time flies when you’re having fun,” I have always been blessed with the opposite. Time tends to slow to a welcome crawl during the finest moments of my life. At this very instant, it is as if the whole world has stopped rotating on its axis. And the only things left spinning are my head, my heart, and our waltzing feet.

Richard C Lin and his family live in Shanghai and Portland, Oregon, where he focuses on writing, supporting his wife’s philanthropic efforts, and making sure their two teens and one toddler don’t sit on any of their nine hamsters. His stories have appeared or will soon appear in Sonora Review, The Dillydoun Review, The Write Launch, Potato Soup Journal, Prometheus Dreaming, and other literary journals. “Open Arms” is an excerpt from his book, Arizona Awakening, to be published in 2022.

Richard can be reached at richardclin@ucla.edu or via his author website at https://www.richard-c-lin-author.com.

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