Can You Teach Me How To Dance Real Slow?

At fifteen, Danny was a Flushing boy from a house that spoke Taiwanese and a Taiwanese dialect of Mandarin. In June, he was sent to a seven-week camp called the Center for Talented Youth at a Queens campus of Columbia University. His cardiologist father had registered him for an accelerated course in biology. The camp was established for the students to have a taste of the college life and offered college-level courses in the sciences and humanities. His parents thought he could study for longer hours without the distraction of a commute.

The students were divided between the dorms based on age and subject of study. There were 8 p.m. curfews and boundaries and self-locking mechanisms on the outer doors of the dorms. Girls and boys were only to mingle in classes and supervised functions like the weekend dances. They couldn’t be idle while the others read the biology textbooks and reworked the exercises. There was a rumor that the biology professor was ranking the students. After classes, Danny couldn’t rid the acidic smell of rubbing alcohol and other agents of preservation from his clothes and hair. In the university library, he glimpsed the expressway between the huddled low-rises and discerned the ghostly headlights coalescing and dispersing as they floated toward the city.

It was Danny’s first time away from home. He missed his mother and he was guilty that he didn’t miss his father enough. He phoned them nightly. The first few days, he couldn’t stomach the homesickness and suffered a number of vomiting spells. But afterwards, he was too preoccupied with camp to confront such feelings. He wanted to convey that he was a learned person. He quickly judged the others when they handed off answers during the weekly exams. Under his arm, he carried about Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise. His father’s opinion was that such novels made him idealistic.

A few days into the classes, there was talk in the dorms about a boy named Harry. Seventeen, college at sixteen, on a fast track toward a guaranteed seat at medical school, Harry was a prodigy. He was taking the course as a refresher before Biology 101. Occasionally, he corrected the teacher assistants. On campus, he walked with a thin, stern-looking girl. He smuggled alcohol and cigarettes into Danny’s hall. He knew how to disable the locks. For his academic standing, he was accorded certain privileges—he lived in a single with the official university students. On Friday nights, Harry and a couple of older boys from the camp ran to a railway on the western border of campus. The university was a stop on a line that connected Penn Station and towns in Long Island. They drank and smoked and threw coins at the rears of the citybound trains. They dared each other to cross the tracks while the bells clanged, the divider arm swung, and the trains huffed.
 

After two weeks at the camp, Harry began to show a strange interest in Danny’s studying. One afternoon, he sat for an hour after class and explained to him the theories of evolution. Afterwards, Danny met Harry’s girlfriend, Christie, for the first time when she visited the biology building.

“Hey man,” said Harry, with his arm around the thin, stern-looking girl. “I want you to meet Christie.”

“Hi Christie,” said Danny, as he shyly waved at her. “Harry tells me you always study together.”

“Danny’s worried about class,” Harry said, grinning.

“Don’t worry,” Christie said. “Harry showed me how to study.”

“I’ll show you what I did every step of the way and why,” said Harry. “That’s the best advice you can ever get.”

“Yeah, thanks man,” said Danny.

“We should chill outside of school though. Do you know Xiang Hot Pot on 39th Avenue?”

“Yeah, I’ve been with my parents.”

“We should all go together.”

“Oh, my Dad doesn’t want me leaving campus.”

“Come on, it’ll just be for a dinner.”

“Isn’t it far from here?”

“We’ll all take the bus. Me and Christie will make sure you’re home safe,” he said, and didn’t let Danny answer before he strode off with Christie.

A few days later, Harry invited Danny to his dorm after class. Harry lived in the Cobb building at the westernmost part of campus. To reach him, he had to tread along a muddy path for half a mile. He passed by the evolutionary biology building with its glass front. In the dim blue light, the shadows flickered on the walls like fish in water. He listened to the cars shooting across the expressway. He passed a university girls’ bungalow with its sounds of silvery laughter. Before Cobb, he walked by a defunct building set to be demolished for a new faculty residence.

Danny’s father had warned him that young boys held mistaken assumptions regarding the trustworthiness of people. For instance, one couldn’t be too sensitive with others. Sensitive types were taken advantage of by people who were to be distrusted until proven otherwise. Danny knew early on he showed himself to be a sensitive type. A few months ago, when a friend didn’t return a book he had borrowed, Danny cared more for whether he would offend his friend than losing what he owned. “What about the money I spent buying it for you?” his father had scolded him. He wondered whether Harry’s invitation was a scheme dreamed up by the older boy to punish him for not accepting his invitation to hotpot. But aside from their initial conversations, Danny had only seen Harry talk to his girlfriend and the older boys. There was nothing Danny could point to that was explicitly deceitful.

Harry’s living room was sparely furnished with worn biology textbooks and a few suitcases along one of the walls. He and Christie were spread languorously on the sofa. They waved amiably at Danny when he paused to remove his sneakers. They were one of those couples marked by a mutual desire to show their agreeableness.

“Hey, man. Good of you to make the trip to see us. How’s life?” Harry asked.

Danny’s features were very straightforward. His front teeth were so long they were visible at rest. From his father he inherited a large face and a downward-sloping nose. His voice was pure and high-pitched. “I’m doing okay,” he said.

“What are you thinking?” Harry asked before the silence could become noticeable.

Danny was surprised by the directness of the question. He wanted to give the impression of seriousness. “I’m worried about falling behind in class.”

“There’s no point in worrying.”

“What do you mean?”

“Worrying doesn’t do anything. If you’re falling behind, you have to change something about how you’re studying.”

“That’s hard to do though.”

Harry nodded profusely at Danny’s reply. “I know. But it’s the only way to get better. You have to study smart and not just hard. You need to understand concepts and not just memorize facts.”

“I’ll try.”

“You can look at my notes to see how I do it,” Harry said, as he retrieved a USB drive from a drawer and handed it to Danny.

“Thanks, man.”

“See, Christie,” Harry said, laughing and turning towards his girlfriend. “So proper.”

“Don’t make fun of him,” said Christie.

“Who are you friends with?” asked Harry, looking at Danny.

“Um,” Danny paused to consider the question. “Sometimes I study with Henry from class.”

“You don’t have to be awkward with us, Danny,” Christie said, good-naturedly. “Just be yourself.”

Danny felt both of them were so inviting and so certain of everything he couldn’t resist a bit of disclosure. “I don’t hang out with friends that often.”

“That’s okay, man. The last three years, alone time has allowed me to grow so much,” said Harry. He had a disarming way of carrying on conversation, as if Danny’s interests precisely aligned with his. “I’m so much smarter now. I do everything on my own. I rarely chill with anyone except for Christie. Because it’s just me entertaining them.”

Christie shook her head in a chiding manner. “Around Harry, you’ve got to learn to be thick-skinned,” she said.

“I don’t mind,” said Danny.

“I’m glad you came by. It was a good talk today,” said Harry.

Over the next weeks, Danny began to frequent the older boy’s dorm. When his roommates asked about Danny, Harry explained he was tutoring a student who required individual attention. Harry was seventeen, but Danny felt he had already experienced everything there was to life. Harry told stories of his early youth on the streets in east Toronto. Danny learned Harry was the oldest, the only boy among four children. Even physically, Harry had been precocious. At eleven, he was already short-necked and muscular in the upper back and the upper arms. Such hints of aggressiveness were subdued by the paunchiness when he turned the thick upper body, the genial round face and wide bridge of his nose, and the acne on his hairline that reminded Danny he had only recently departed adolescence.

Harry described to Danny how his Chinese mother berated him for not reading more often. She was hardly literate herself. She was a single mother and reminded Harry she had martyred herself for his education. But she kept her boy streetwise. He had a firmer grasp of English. She took Harry on weekends to the market to keep the grocers honest. He swiped strawberries by the handful. Harry explained he was compensating for all the times his mother had been swindled. In high school, he was a scholarship student and maintained high marks. On the side, he tutored syndromic children with cognitive disabilities. Harry told Danny how after school, he joined his mother at her laundromat and ironed and folded the shirts. In his stories, Harry was a model student and a filial son. Danny saw a more successful version of himself in these attributes.

At the same time, Harry made it clear to Danny he wasn’t afraid of indulging in the sordid life. His friends back in Toronto were swindlers and cheats. Hallucinogenics, or their raw materials, were obtainable. In his basement, Harry and his friends mixed chemicals and sold them at high prices.

“The pills don’t take you out of reality,” Harry said during one of Danny’s visits. “But you feel good. You get tingly all over. You can see things with your eyes closed. You hear better. And the best part is you don’t doubt yourself and you can think clearer than ever.”

“Are there any adverse effects?” Danny asked.

“Not as long as you take them with people you trust,” Harry said.

“What if you want to take them alone? To figure things out.”

“They’re not meant for that. You share them with the few solid friends you have.”

Harry explained the pills had been popular among the university students who desired an acceleration of their relationships into profound connection. Some of the buyers were careless and were reported to the police by the university. Harry and his friends anticipated a crackdown. He had all of the buyers intimidated. Eventually, he left for New York by virtue of his school performance before they could give up his name.

Danny sometimes wondered whether there was invention on Harry’s part. But he couldn’t accuse him of fabrication. He didn’t want to risk Harry’s outrage. Plus, Harry was always convincing him he presented the authoritative version of events for his own good, for his own education’s sake. One afternoon at his dorm, Harry told Danny about the time he lost a friend over the pills.

“Anyone can be your best friend,” Harry said. “But you can lose them just as fast too. Like my friend, Shawn.”

“That’s so depressing,” said Danny.

“The problems started with his girlfriend. She would call me to put up his TV stand, move things to his house, watch his dog. Then when I wanted to chill with him, he’d say, only if you come over to my place and only if you bring drugs.”

“Oh, that’s not right.”

“Every conversation was Harry, do you have Adderall? Do you have this, do you have that?”

“Damn, man. I remember you saying how you don’t have an addictive personality. I guess Shawn did. I think I have one too.”

“No, man. I don’t think you do. Addictive personality is when something takes over your life and controls it. Like when drugs control your life.”

Harry always corrected mistaken notions Danny held about himself. In his stories, Harry was always blameless. Or when he was culpable, it was a matter of having overestimated someone’s trustworthiness. Of course, Danny understood this was often the case with narratives unraveled by proud men. He could see both Harry and his father sizing up their younger selves: prideful but not wrathful men, only indulging in aggressiveness when pinioned by some insufferable form of injustice.

On weekdays, after class, between the hours of four and six, Danny and Harry roamed the Flushing streets. That summer, the days were lead-colored skies and intermittent rains. Danny and Harry walked through the nearby park amidst the pick-up games, the exultations and obscenities, the imperturbable grandmasters, the gaunt men perched over the tables of clicking mahjong tiles. Danny had Harry keep to the more remote streets because Danny’s father occasionally left the practice to pick up prescriptions. Through the phone, Danny was to report to his father at six.

“What are you doing? Where are you?” his father asked one night.

“I’m heading back to the dorm,” Danny replied, even though he was out in downtown Flushing.

“If it’s too noisy there, you can come back home to study.”

“I go to the library when it gets too loud.”

“Are you eating well? I can drop off some of your Mom’s noodles.”

“It’s okay.”

“What does that mean? Do you want us to bring you dinner or not?” his father asked, impatiently.

“I don’t need.”

“Don’t forget to wait for us near the parking lot when we visit to help carry all the things we bought for you.”

“Alright, Ba-ba.”

Any foreign noise through the receiver could make his father suspicious. Harry knew a way to cup the phone to minimize the transmitted sound. Harry believed it was foolish to be overly reverent of the law. He called Danny the professor and teased him for reading ahead in the biology textbook and phoning his father every night. He taught Danny how to jump the turnstile at the subway while the ticketing officer attended to someone and how to pocket today’s buns and leave aside the ones the baker’s wife had reheated from yesterday and dusted with a pinch of salt for today’s customers. Danny couldn’t believe the sheer recklessness of it all. But he counted on Harry’s cleverness to bear him through any situation.

One day, waiting aside the campus gates on the corner of Kissena Boulevard and 41st Avenue, Harry boasted to Danny he would remain virginal until the proper girl justified his giving it away. Danny didn’t know whether he needed a girl or not himself. He had loved girls the way young boys do, heedlessly and passionately, prizing prettiness over everything else. Timid in lewd matters, he couldn’t lie about his inexperience.

“None?” Harry asked.

“Yeah,” Danny admitted.

“Because everyone sees you as a kid.”

“I don’t think that’s true.”

“It is. You were so awkward with Christie that time I gave you my notes. You just didn’t see it.”

“Really?”

“Yes, you were.”

Danny felt his chest tighten. “Was Christie annoyed?”

“She wasn’t annoyed. Don’t worry.”

“I didn’t mean to be awkward.”

He couldn’t interrupt when Harry started up on his paternal mode of instruction. “Being successful at small talk is a lot more than good grades. It’s not something Asian parents teach their kids. It’s about making good quick decisions. Does that make sense?”

“Yeah, true. But I don’t know what I should be doing differently.”

“You have to pick it up yourself. When you don’t have to ask me what you should be doing differently, then I’ll see your growth.”

Danny started skipping class to spend time with Harry. One afternoon, he carried Harry’s cabinet from the curb to Cobb. In his own dorm, he stored Christie’s clothes in suitcases. Harry’s excuse was her parents had cut her off for standing by him. Danny couldn’t help himself. He saw Harry as a mentor for the practical things in life. He gave Harry his loyalty. Harry demanded no less, and Danny gave all his trust to anyone he considered a friend.
 

In the height of summer, at the camp’s midway point, the air quivering with heat, Danny met his parents at the campus gates for parent visiting day. He thought it would have been awkward and overly demonstrative to hug his parents. At the latticework, a few students had gathered to wait for their parents. Even on this brief holiday, most of the students, stupefied by the heat and routine, had remained in the dorms. The grey skies were littered with drifts of industrial smoke. When he met his parents, Danny began to feel the symptoms of homesickness from the first few days, except without any pining for home and only the dilations and contractions of the stomach, as if it were alternately torn and stitched from within.

On the quad, his mother tried to illuminate positive aspects of the campus for her husband’s consideration. But he was in one of his irritable moods. They could be provoked by the tone of Danny’s greeting or his distaste for something at dinner. Danny could only suffer such moods in silence or risk being included in the judgment. His father became keen on others’ faults and articulated them for his own satisfaction. He liked to predict which among Danny’s friends would end up in ruin. Danny trailed his parents as his father began to criticize the lack of insulation against the noise from the streets, the disrepair of the buildings, and the indecency of the college girls.

When they visited his dorm room, his father noticed Christie’s suitcases and said, “Whose things are those?”

“A friend’s,” Danny replied.

His father began probing through the luggage. “These are girl things.”

“His girlfriend’s.”

“You’re letting them use the dorm I paid for as storage?”

“His girlfriend lost her place. They evicted her.”

“And what does that have to do with you? What have they done for you?”

“They’re good to me.”

“We’re not good to you? You always get taken advantage of and you don’t even know it.”

As Danny moved the suitcases into the hallway, he wondered what his father would think of Harry. That he was dishonest, that Harry was after something from him and he was expendable after his friend had wrung from him whatever he desired. And he would not hesitate to remind him boys from broken homes were inevitably defective.
 

When they arrived back at the entrance, Danny’s symptoms became intolerable. In the campus store, immediately left of the entrance gates, Danny was too embarrassed to ask for the bathroom without buying anything. His father became agitated. “Can’t you ask for yourself?” he shouted at his son. His mother intervened and asked the college student where she might find the bathroom. His father waited outside in grim silence. His skin was pulled very tight, as if a result of overexposure to the unremitting equatorial sun. With his face lowered, he read the apocalyptic headlines of the Taiwanese World JournalChina to deploy medium-range missiles, Taiwan has three infections of new type of pneumonia. His father had overdressed and sweat began to swim into obvious places—the back of his collar, the seat of his trousers. He straightened his collar and concentrated on looking dignified. There were signs of effortful self-regulation: a tremor in the hands, an opening and closing of his square jaw as if to reposition an unhinged joint, and a protruded lower lip masking clenched teeth underneath. Twenty minutes elapsed. A few students jostled each other at the gates. They didn’t escape his disapproving eye. He calculated he only had a half-hour with his son until the end of the visiting period.

Back in the heat, Danny was red-faced and sullen. He felt cold at the temples, hot in the cheeks, and couldn’t shake off the dizziness.

“Can I go back to the dorm?” he pleaded with his parents. He counted on his parents’ sympathy. Danny read hurt in his mother’s face. His father, who looked everyone over for insinuations of disrespect, immediately took this for lack of gratitude.

“So you want us to leave?” his father demanded. “Is that it?”

“No, that’s not it. I’m not feeling so well,” said Danny.

“Don’t give me that excuse. I don’t buy it. I’ve never taken a sick day in my life.”

His mother became conscious of where they were. “Ba-ba, people are watching.”

He raised his voice. “I don’t care! Let them watch. What have I told you about interrupting me when I’m disciplining our child?” He turned toward Danny and said, “And you still haven’t apologized.”

“I’m sorry,” said Danny.

“Why did I have to ask you? You’ve probably just been screwing around the last few weeks, haven’t you?” Motioning swiftly toward the gates, he cried, “Where do you need to go? To that friend of yours?”

Danny glimpsed the boys at the gates. They had angled their heads so they could discreetly remain in earshot. He began to stammer.

His father recognized this as his son’s admission of guilt. “Bring your friend out now. I want to speak to him.”

Ba-ba, he’s not here,” said Danny. He looked around to make certain Harry was nowhere nearby.

“Let him talk to his friend himself,” his mother protested.

“His friends are more important to him than we are,” his father said. “He wants us to go.”

“That’s not true,” Danny insisted.

His father marched off toward the parking lot but his mother stayed briefly to plead with Danny. There was contempt in her voice, as if she had grown tired of chastising him for the same behavior. “Can’t you just be a little more considerate of your father?” she asked.

That night, in Cobb, Danny visited Harry and told him he couldn’t keep Christie’s things anymore. They sat together on the couch, while Harry leaned towards Danny, who rested his head in his hands.

“What happened?” Harry asked.

“My Dad saw the suitcases,” said Danny.

“Listen,” said Harry. “There are things you shouldn’t tell your Dad. To protect yourself. And to protect him. You want him exploding into anger all the time?”

“I don’t tell him everything.”

“You do. I’m a true friend to you. And your parents want me away.”

“I know.”

“You’re an intellectual like me. And one day, when it’s too late, you’ll realize that I’m smarter than your Dad.”

Danny disliked this. It was baseless and presumptuous. But he had been careless with the suitcases and couldn’t speak back. Back in his dorm room, Danny thought of his father’s anger and his fantastic displays.

A few years before he was born, upon their arrival in America, his mother and father were destitute save for a loan from Danny’s grandfather and the promise from an uncle they hadn’t really known. His father described those years as a form of indentured servitude. In his uncle’s house, the rented basement was damp with a corner boiler room. In the winter nights, he heard the steam clapping against the metal pipes. It was a forlorn promise: there was no warmth except when he put his hands to the ceiling boards. He slept when he could in a cot without sheets. To achieve equivalent status as a cardiologist in America, his father had to redo anything non-transferable. He was back in school during the mornings and afternoons, an unpaid apprentice to an elderly cardiologist on the weekends, and then a cashier for indeterminate hours at night in his uncle’s shop. For two years, the couple lived in the dank basement, both listening to the plangent noises of the boiler room. The chords recalled to their tired, addled minds the peals singing the arrival of the subway trains back in Taipei.

The uncle was a divorcé. In the early mornings, Danny’s mother tended to the uncle’s fitful daughter. His father predicted the daughter would amount to nothing. Later on, when the uncle asked for a loan to save the house from foreclosure, Danny’s father lent the money. But he couldn’t forgive the uncle after he never received any payment in return. He made certain the daughter was rejected from a local hospital residency when the uncle asked for an exercise of his influence. He didn’t care she had been mothered by his wife for two years. He believed people got what they deserved and if they didn’t, he would do whatever in his power to put things right.
 

That Friday, during the final weekly dance, with only a week of classes remaining, Harry approached Danny, while the younger boy swayed self-consciously beneath the trees. Golden spangles glistened above. The administration had strung white Christmas lights across the branches. A number of them sagged from disuse and the denseness of the air. A few of the older girls had wrapped them about their necks like diamonds. Twinkling, they embraced each other and twirled near the wooden stage and from afar, they appeared like a whirligig of lights. It was almost eight, when the party would dissolve. The speakers on the stage played songs of heartbreak and thwarted reunion and farewell. Harry had appeared out of the dark from the direction of Cobb.

“Are you alright, man?” Harry asked.

“Yeah,” said Danny.

“You look down.”

“I’m good.”

“What about her?” Harry had pointed to a girl nearby who seemed disengaged from the others. The necklaces of light illuminated her face. She was dressed simply in a white slip and the delicateness of her features was undeniable. Her ponytail bobbed to the rhythm of the music. Her arms were crossed in a condescending way. She expressed an air of imperturbability, as if she had grown fatigued by entreaties from dozens of other boys.

“Um. She’s pretty.”

“Go on then.”

“No, I know her already. It won’t work.”

“You asked me how to not be awkward? Watch this.”

He managed it all so artfully. He darted into the crowd and began to mimic their bouncing. He subtly eyed the girl until she acknowledged him with a focused stare. He moved toward her, holding and letting go of strangers as he walked. He and the girl started to dance. Harry raised a single hand and waved in a long dramatic arc, as if in farewell to someone on a diminishing shore. At first, Danny was fearful no one would follow and Harry would appear foolish. But the girl gave him a shy, incredulous look. Giggling, in gorgeous imitation, she raised both her arms and flapped them slowly from side to side. Everyone else suddenly became conscious of them and raised their arms. And it didn’t matter whether Danny joined in the waving because everyone had trained their gazes on Harry and were awaiting the moves to the next dance. The speakers started to play “American Pie.” Don McLean sang plaintively, “Can music save your mortal soul? And can you teach me how to dance real slow?” The song was also a farewell and everything seemed destined for his friend’s triumph.

After he had escorted the girl back to the bungalow, Harry returned to Danny, who had waited for him beneath the trees. Danny blinked away the spangles in his eyes. The music had died.

“How’d you like that?” Harry said.

“What’d you say to her?” Danny asked.

“You know, I had these conversations years earlier than you did. They’re so juvenile.”

However much Danny tried to beat it down, he felt a start of jealousy for how easily Harry had handled everything. He would have been so clumsy had he approached the girl. “All you do is annoy me, Harry. You say things just to annoy me.”

“Annoy? I’m trying to help you and you think I’m annoying you? Christie says I have no right to speak about this, but I’m going to say it because your parents are hurting you and they don’t realize it.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t apologize. It doesn’t mean anything. Just don’t do it. When you apologize, you admit you’ve done something wrong. Your Dad is in la la land. He has no idea he has suppressed your growth. As a man, he speaks for you. He acts for you. Overshadows you.”

Danny knew the natural response should have been defensiveness. But he felt the older boy promised some otherwise inaccessible form of knowledge. He had always accepted whatever his father said was for his own protection. Now he felt to release himself of Harry would have been to smother a guiding light and return to wandering the dark in his father’s shadow. He was filled with bitterness for Harry but he desperately wanted to hear all he had to say.

“Why do you care so much about what your dad thinks? Christie’s parents hate me by default. If you’re a friend to someone, you force everything and everyone around you to stand by your decision. You need growth as a person. And the only way you can achieve that is to get away from your dad.”

Danny shut down all emotions when Harry was in these moods. He spent all his energy into impassivity but a few words from Harry’s mouth and he could be stunned into pangs of inadequacy. His self-belief, fortified in the days between confrontations, quickly crumbled when Harry uttered a single judgment. But wasn’t the smarting in his chest part of growth? Harry had taught him this much. To become enlightened, one had to confront one’s failings and suffer a bit of self-hatred. Harry took Danny’s expression for weariness and told him to meet the following night at his place, when everything would become clear.
 

The next night at nine, Christie answered when Danny knocked on Harry’s door. His friend was lying on the couch with his head towards the ceiling and his arms spread wide over the cushions.

“Hey, Danny. I heard you’ve been down lately,” she said.

“I got something that might cheer you up,” Harry called with excitement.

“What is it?” Danny asked, as he joined them on the couch.

“Take this. It’s like medicine,” said Harry.

“I shouldn’t, Harry.”

“Don’t worry. I’m with you. I’m on it too.”

“We don’t share this with anyone but you,” said Christie.

Harry turned on the radio and removed from his pocket loose powder contained in three plastic cylinders. They appeared like generic pills for headaches.

The music started to play. “Maybe next time, Harry,” said Danny.

“Come on, I got this one just for you,” said Harry, frowning.

“Alright,” said Danny, hesitating then reaching over towards Harry. “I’ll take one.”

“Good, man,” he said, grinning and nodding in approval. “Smile. They only take when you’re thinking happy thoughts.”

Danny swallowed one of the pills. His vision started to vary between lurid clarity and nothingness. There was lightness in his breast and a tingling in the inner thighs. He was filled with unbridled love for Harry and Christie. He felt they were the most generous and understanding people in the world. No one before them had fully apprehended his complexities. His mind was so lucid and worked at such a velocity he felt he could resolve all the problems in the universe. The connection between thoughts and their verbal expression became unobstructed. He felt as if he had mastered all of language and its infinite possibilities. He gripped his leg to restrain its trembling. Speaking became so effortless. And what he said seemed so brilliant and profound he wanted to mark everything down. Harry and Christie were laughing so hard at Danny their faces were wet. They had stood up while holding each other’s hand and slow danced to the music. It seemed to Danny like the purest expression of love he had ever witnessed. Through the radio, Don McLean was singing again: “Did you write the book of love, and do you have faith in God above, if the Bible tells you so?”

Then his mind flew towards his father and how the man worked backwards from cynicism, how he had cast his dissatisfaction on him, making him fretful about his progress in life. Suddenly the thoughts were dissolved by the sound of his panting, his legs shivering and stamping rapidly against the floor, and Harry’s shouting, “Will you stop it? You’re having a panic attack. You’re ruining it for all of us.”

And now he knew what a panic attack was: when the chest can’t recover in time to draw its next breath and pushes outward instead of in, when the hands coil inwards so tightly that they remain sore for days, and the helplessness feels interminable because only unconsciousness can rescue you.

The next day, Danny woke in his bed and decided to visit Harry’s dorm to apologize for his behavior. Ordinary life seemed colorless compared to the previous night. Harry’s door was left slightly open. Stepping into the foyer, he began to rehearse an apology subtle enough for Harry’s approval. He knew not to use the word “sorry,” but he was uncertain about the rest of it. That was when he heard the girl’s rapid exhalations and the boy clamped his hands to his ears. The moans remained audible through his small inadequate hands. He was certain they were too high-pitched to have been Christie’s. His limbs, infinitely dense, were tethered to the floor. Then all his senses suddenly flickered back to their normal acuteness and the pained cries still played in his mind as he hurried across the quad. He could do nothing but return to his dorm and phone his father. Because at the very least, his father would tell him he was a fool, nothing but a fool, and never pretend he was capable of anything but foolishness. It was all so disproportionate: he had poured out so much goodness and how meager had been the returns.

Darren Huang is a writer of fiction and criticism based in New York. His work has been published in The Kenyon Review, Harvard Review, Bookforum, A Gathering of the Tribes, Los Angeles Review of Books, and other publications. He is also an editor at Full Stop and a blog editor at Asymptote.

This entry was posted in Fiction and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.