Thursday, July 26, 2012

Stupid Girl

Every good story has a city. 

Not just any city. I mean a big, cosmopolitan, sack of scum and profligacy. These fascinating city centers teeming with social conflict tell the human story. From Babylon to Tenochtitlan, from Rome to Xi'an, from Delhi to New York, and from Buenos Aires to Great Zimbabwe. Archeologists dig up the temples and theaters whose ghosts whisper some of the delicious secrets of those ancient civilizations, and we get to compare their life with ours. 

When this city gets dug up, I wonder what they will say about our culture. When they walk into the Wall Street Mecca, when they find the big Yankee Colosseum, when they dust off the stages where the thespians performed in Broadway, and when they uncover the hundreds of temples in 5th Avenue where virgins kneel in prayer. 

Other generations dropped everything they owned to follow Buddha or Jesus. Many sacrificed their life in blood to preserve honor and defend their homeland. My generation just follows the yellow brick road. 

"What do you think about this one?" My friend Jiayi holds up a chique purple dress. Shaken from my stupor, I nod with approval, smiling faintly. She whirls around with the dress held closely to her chest, saying, "I can just imagine George in the office. He won't be able to look away. I'm going to the fitting room. Are you ready?"

"Yes, I found what I was looking for. If you wear the dress with a classy pair of pumps I'm sure you'll brighten up his Monday," I say, following her through the store.  

George is her new crush. I've been hearing her talk about him all day. He works in a different company in the same building, he has a great ass, and apparently he loves all her favorite bands. We have spent the entire morning shopping, and it seems that it was ages ago that I stuffed a croissant in my mouth as we left the hotel. My stomach started grumbling as soon as we entered my favorite store, one of those magic places that has everything a girl needs at a decent price. 

We get lost in the labyrinth of clothing racks and are forced to ask an attendant to point out the direction of the dressing room. When she does, the sign magically appears in big letters at the back of the huge, well-lit room. We embarrassingly thank her and walk away. 

"No wonder I couldn't find it, I got too distracted by the poster." I say grumpily as we walk. "Have you ever seen such a perfect nose?" 

Jiayi looks at the immense picture of a model in her underwear, and then back at me with a expression of total understanding. "Yeah, now that I think about it, I was totally confused by her... nose. There is no way anyone can pay attention to the sign for the dressing room when such a perfect nose is in full display. Do you think it's real?"

"I don't think she could get such a natural nose with plastic surgery. It's either real, or the most expensive nose in the world."

We finally make it to the line for the fitting room and stare up at the smiling goddess, in awe of her superiority. 

Jiayi enters the fitting room first and I stand in line for a while longer. I look at a group of teens talking loudly. I see myself reflected in the eyes of the quietest girl. She's self-consciously enfolding a strand of her hair around her index finger while she twirls it round and round. She has an empty smile because she's not really listening to her friend's story. She's probably thinking about how much better her friend looks, wondering if she should re-touch her makeup. Once in a while she steals a glance at a cute attendant, as if she's praying for him to walk by her and get intoxicated with a wisp of her perfume. If she's lucky, he'll fall in love then and there; but there are so many pretty girls around that she nervously wonders if he will ever look her way. When he finally does pass her by she gets really tense and her finger stops. She looks longingly in his direction getting high off of a happily ever after that will never happen, while he walks past, unaware of her existence. 

Stupid girl...

My enjoyment of the little love story is interrupted by a shrill scream coming from the inside of a fitting room. An attractive older woman is whispering compliments through the key hole, but the girl inside keeps protesting. When her mother finally does cajole her into getting out and showing off the dress, she does so with a scowl on her face. I walk past them to try on my clothes when my turn comes and I can hear the girl telling her mother that she's too fat for the dress and that her boobs are too small. Her mom attempts to reassure her in a small voice that they still have time to grow. I can tell that she's lying though, not just by her guilty tone, but because when I saw her before it was evident from her perfect cleavage that she got breast implants. How do you tell your daughter that even after you found your prince, you had to get out an insurance for that happily ever after? 

Stupid girl...

I examine my face in the mirror. I have one of those faces that could be considered both ugly and beautiful, depending on my facial expression. If people are looking at me it is not because of my face, but because of the fury of hair on top of it. I love my afro. It grows out of my head in curly rivulets, expanding sideways and downward. It doesn't go out in a 320 degrees of groovy frizz like those women had back in the sixties. It's less poofy and has defined ringlets. 

I throw the green coat on the floor to get a full view. My body is not that bad. I can never manage to get abs, but I have a good figure. I could be described as thin ever since I lost the extra thickness around my thighs and waist. I discovered that a small waist can make up for small cup size. It's still a work in progress, I guess. I used to wish I had bigger boobs with even more angst than the girl next door but I got over that. I learned to love my butt instead, which is one of my favorite parts about my body.

I take off my skirt and halter top and look at the trail of scars that run along the side of my hips and part of my butt cheeks. It's like I had to claw my way out of childhood. I usually pretend my stretch marks don't exist, but every now and then their sight sneaks up on me and it's like someone emptied a bucket of disillusionment on my head. Now my skin is covered in sticky insecurity and I'm sure everyone around can smell my ugliness. Why do I have to be beautiful, anyway?  Maybe I'll resign myself to being forever ugly and alone. Being a woman is complicated. 

Stupid girl...

I put on my new outfit: a pair of high-rise jean shorts and a tucked-in Rolling Stones t-shirt. Then I pick out the negative thoughts in the air and stuff them in my pocket. Confidence is sexy, and sexy is rock n' roll. I mess up my afro a bit and work my outfit like I'm Yoko Ono. 

My favorite Yoko song is one of the weirdest pieces of music in the world. She just screams hysterically "Whyyyyy," while images of Reagan and some dudes holding guns flash in the background.  I have no idea why I like it, but it's just great. I shake my body and whisper the song with flailing arms, not caring that I'm making weird noises. 

"Alice is that you?" Jiayi asks through the thin wall. "Are you killing someone in there?"

"Sorry. I was channeling my inner Yoko Ono." I say, knowing she wouldn't understand. 

"Come out. What do you think of my outfit?" She says, and we both get out at the same time and pose in an exaggerated manner. 

"I love it, it's very Audrey Hepburn, but in color." I whisper an accent- not sure which. I'm terrible at making accents. 

"Was that supposed to be a British accent?" She smiles and says, "I approve of the jean shorts, though. They make your butt look amazing."

"Brilliant!" I say cheerfully, not caring how it sounds. 

When we finish shopping we head back to the hotel to change for brunch and put away our shopping bags. On the way Jiayi and me look at the parade of tourists and New Yorkers, picking out which is which. 

We see a girl that could be described as a tall, skinny, latte. 
"New Yorker," says Jiayi. 

Then we see an older woman with her daughters, all of them in jeans. They have more shopping bags than fingers in their hands. "Tourists," I say. 

A really handsome, sweaty, muscular man in his thirties jogs past us in a pair of white shorts. We look at each other and mouth, "New Yorker."

Then a heavy-set man passes by, wearing a Yankees hat. We just bob our heads to the side, because it's obvious. Then an older couple holding hands walks by. "Tourists," I declare. 

"How come?" asks Jiayi. 

"Well, I don't believe you can find your true love in New York and live with him here for the rest of you life. Is that sad?"

"Yes, but I guess it's also realistic." 

Then we see her. Talking on the phone while she walks in our direction, moving like someone who's got no time to lose. Despite the fact that it's summertime she's dressed all in black except for a delicate white blouse. No tacky brand signs on her expensive purse. No heavy use of jewelry or make up. Just stilettos and bright red lipstick. With one hand she hangs up the phone and dials another number, and with her free, manicured hand she hails a taxi. She checks the time on her pretty watch with a leather strap and a cab magically stops for her before a second ticks by. Her face turns into an enchanting smile as she says into the phone, "I'll be there right away, honey."

We stare open-mouthed as the woman who has it all disappears inside the cab. "The New Yorker," I whisper. Jiayi nods. "When do you think we'll become real women like her?"

"When we make mistakes, lots of mistakes, until we either learn from them or get tired of making them. Then we just... Grow up." 

"That sounds difficult," Jiayi says pensively. 

We've all got something we're looking for in the Emerald City. I don't think we really know what it is at first. That's why we have to run around a little bit on the way there, making fools of ourselves as we bounce on the yellow bricks of our ideals. 

Womanhood. Some girls become women. Others are chained to their eternal childhood, never fully blooming into an complete person. They never reach the moment when they stop chasing after who they're trying to be, and face who they really are. 

Huh, I wonder if I'm still a stupid girl. 

Friday, July 20, 2012

Meet Me at the Hyphen

I step into the entrance of the Waldorf Astoria and my lower lip jots out as I nod with approval at the swanky decorations. My eyes do a quick sweep of the place. The sunlight comes in through the opened curtains of red velvet that drop from the ceiling and bounces off of the chandelier dripping with gold to illuminate the intricate art deco mosaic on the polished floor. I am enchanted by the luxurious light and wonder in awe at how well my friend is doing for a twenty something businesswoman.

I follow people through a hall with glass showcases displaying white wedding cakes and pearls and enter what appears to be the real lobby. The golden ceiling reflects light like a big moon in the dark room. At the center a small replica of Lady Liberty stands proudly on top of an elegant clock. Small figures of bald eagles crouch at her feet with open wings. I walk towards the clock past a pudgy concierge that is standing by, raising his eyebrows at my vagrant getup. 

As I go around the clock I count eight faces staring out from beneath four lion heads, seven of men and one of a woman. I recognize Lincoln, Washington, Jackson, and Grant and assume the rest are other presidents, but I can't make out who the woman is. I ask the concierge and he tells me that the woman is queen Victoria, who gave the clock as a gift to the United States. Apparently she wasn't too happy that we decided to crown her beautiful English clock with a French statue. I chuckle to myself, wondering if Snow White was a thing back then. I think she got the last laugh. 

Suddenly, I am blinded by two small, feminine hands. 

"Long time no see, crazy one," a familiar voice whispers in my left ear.

"Jiayi!" I squeal as I turn around with a big smile to face her. We make that annoying high-pitched girlfriend yell that girls make when they haven't seen each other in a long time and then we hug. The concierge is now glaring. I would probably glare with him if I wasn't part of the ruckus, but at the moment I'm too caught up in behaving like a stereotypical girl to care what my depressed alter-ego would think. 

"I missed you," she says with a pout, breaking from the hug.

"Me too! It's been a year since we were together in Shanghai." We extend the random vocal just to show how much we mean it. We continue our high-frequency exchange, throwing all sorts of questions at each other, until we reach the elevator. I don't know what it is about elevators, maybe the enclosed space, but they automatically switch people into serious-mode. 

I ask her about her job, and she tells me solemnly, as if she's talking about someone dying, "My boss is an angel." Now that we're talking about professional subjects our voices become deep. Jiayi tells me a couple of stories just to prove how amazing he is. She talks about fancy dinners, business connections, and great life advice she receives on a daily basis.

As more people enter the elevator we start talking in loud whispers, pretending we're being polite- but not really caring. I interject her stories with variations of "What?" and "No way!" as she tells me about her amazing life in New York.

We finally reach her floor and I can almost feel the remaining people at the elevator sigh with relief as we exit. We walk down the hall and she unlocks the door to her room and I "Oohh" and "Ahhh" as I enter the fancy suite. She makes faces and pretends to be modest, but she's really proud of herself. She takes out some whiskey from the mini-bar and grabs a couple of glasses.

"So I see other things have changed too, huh? Now you're drinking like a grown-up." I say distractedly as I check out the room.

I hear the unmistakable sound of ice being dropped into a glass as she says, "Well, after I started hanging out with a crazy Latina in Shanghai things changed. It's probably after 6 o'clock back there anyway." We share a devilish smile as she hands me the drink. "Also, I found it is an excellent way to impress my boss and his business partners. It feels awkward to order a sugary drink when everyone else is ordering something manly."

"Cheers," we chime in unison and then take a sip. 

We hold our drinks as we stand by the huge window and stare out at the beautiful view of Manhattan.

"How in the world did you manage to get all this with an entry-level job in your first month in New York?"

"Connections, Alice. The city is heaven if you have them, hell if you don't."

"I heard even Marilyn Monroe had to move out because she couldn't afford this place."

"When was she born, like, the nineteenth century? No, girl, looks are not enough these days. Where did you get that from anyway?"

"Wikipedia of course, the only source of interesting conversations. I had an entertaining ride on the internet while I was on the way here. My smartphone somehow got a good signal while I was underground. There's many songs about this place. Apparently it was a big thing back in it's prime. With presidents and stars and whatnot walking around being fabulous. Oh and it was the first hotel to allow women in without an escort."

"Hey, it would have been nicer if they started giving them away for free to ladies in need."

"Ladies indeed," I say with a sneer, and we both giggle. "Oh man, you're too much fun. I feel like I'm back in Shanghai. It seems so far away and so much has happened. I'm a different person."

"Tell me about it. Graduating college is the best thing that happened to me since I broke up with my first boyfriend."

"Langston Hughes wrote a very pretty poem praising the hotel too. He was telling the poor people starving to death outside how nice it would be if they staid here." Jiayi rolled her eyes at me, probably crediting my comment to what she called Alice-behavior. She says that one of the weirdest things about me is my ability to switch from any topic into the most depressing subject imaginable. 

"Poo. Who cares about the poor people right now. I used to be poor."

"Jiayi, your parents used to be poor, you've never been poor in your life."

"My parents immigrated to this country and made it, with hard work, and I got here with hard work. My grandmother had to give up all her wealth when the communist came to power and had to live in a pig-sty with my grandfather. My mother deserves to be proud of me."

"I thought you got here with connections," I murmur as I raise my eyebrows, smiling. 

"And how do you think I got those? Of course, they are essential but they are not the only thing you need. Oh, no. I know why you're here now." She says as she holds her hand to her forehead. 

"No, don't worry," I say, amused. "I won't ask for any favors this time. I actually have no idea why I'm here." 

"Really, you just popped into Manhattan with no idea how you got here?"

"Of course not, I just-"

"Well, that wouldn't be too out of character. I don't know how you move so fast from one place to the next. It's like your GPS has ADD or something. Where did you come from this time, Brazil, Japan?" She says with a raised eyebrow, as if she's picturing me both with a kimono and a small bathing suit at the same time.  

"Home, actually. I was home before I came here."

"Well, they sure dress funny in Florida, Alice. What on Earth are you wearing? I've been meaning to ask you for the longest time but I was too exited to see you. And where is all your luggage?" She says while she lifts my sleeves up for examination, as if I'm hiding it tinside the coat. "What a horrible shade of green."

"Umm... I believe I borrowed my coat from a stranger last night, and then I have to pick up my luggage at the airport tomorrow because they misplaced it. It was a morning flight, so I figured I'd get some partying done in the meanwhile." I've gotten pretty good at telling lies lately, or maybe she got used to my Alice-behavior. In any case, I don't give her too much time to ponder. 

"So, while my luggage comes in, how about we go for some shopping?"

She instantly lights up with excitement. And while I enjoy watching how my trick got its intended effect, and hear her go on and on about 5th Avenue and Soho, my mind drifts off elsewhere. She's just the exact same friend I left back in Shanghai. That familiar feeling comes back. It's a recognition of somewhere I used to live in the past, combined with a surprised realization that I left. It culminates with the lingering sense that I'm still there but that I've been gone for so long that I forgot what it was really like. 

I try to hold my smile, but my mind has broken into forbidden territory. I hear a small, forgotten voice ask me a strange, forgotten question. 

Have you ever been in love with a shadow?

"No," I say out loud, without realizing it.

"Oh, but don't worry. It's on me then. We simply have to go eat some Dim Sum at this wonderful place in Chinatown. It'll be as if we never left!" I smile and nod, stupidly, like I have been for the last ten minutes without having listened to a word she said. Inside, I'm vigorously shaking my head. I don't want to go back there, I don't want to remember what it was like to feel that way. I want to forget I ever felt like every single fiber of my being was alive, because I don't feel that way anymore and I don't know if it will ever happen again. It wasn't real.

"Alice, stop nodding like an idiot. Do you want to go now?"

"Can I take a quick shower first? I promise I won't be long."

"Sure, girl, but don't take too long. Life is waiting for us out there."

I shut the door behind me and turn on the shower. As I take off my clothes and the hot mist gathers I try to look at the positive side. Sure, I have absolutely no control over my life, but at least I'm staying at a nice hotel today. Who knows where I would sleep if it weren't for my friends. 

I begin to relax as the hot water runs down my skin and washes off the hangover. 

Well, 'aint it swell doing swell with the swells in the swellest hotel of them all...