With a broken-down oven, in a hotel kitchen, on an uninhabited island
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My psychiatrist, the wrinkly Dr. Kim, fiddles with the graying strands that cover his shiny dome and repeats the same questions as usual:
“Why don’t you try at school, Tim?”
“How does it make you feel when the other kids call you ‘Creepy’?”
Since I wear only black and still talk to my dead best friend, Harry Chang, I think the nickname is pretty accurate, but I don’t say so. I’ve been seeing Dr. Kim since Harry became the fifth kid at Silicon Valley’s swanky Sunnyside High to jump in front of a train in the last five years. This session, my eighth, isn’t going any better than the previous seven.
“Do you blame yourself for what happened to Harry?”
I get uncomfortable every time Dr. Kim asks this. The day before he killed himself, Harry asked me, “Don’t you ever get tired of being last?” We were walking home from school after he’d failed Basic Algebra for a second time, and he was looking defeated. I didn’t try to comfort him.
Failure was part of our daily routine. Instead of studying we spent most of our time playing guitar together. We both loved classic rock: Pink Floyd, the Who, Queen. We were two of the lowest-ranked Korean students at Northern California’s most stuck-up high school. The Gotta-Get-into-Stanford Asians, who popped Ritalin to help them study and had taken SAT-preparation classes since the fifth grade, snidely joked that we’d be delivering Amazon packages after graduation. Harry had it worse than I did because he was fat. The Glamorous-Designer-Label Asians stuffed fast-food coupons into his locker.
It’s obvious to me now that he was ready to give up, just like those four other kids at our school.
“Can you get a nicer sofa?” I ask Dr. Kim. “Maybe a leather one like psychiatrists on TV have? This piece of shit is uncomfortable.”
Dr. Kim sends me out into the musty waiting room and asks to speak to my mom alone.
“Twenty-two minutes. A new record,” I whisper to Harry.
Impressive, he says.
Sometimes I can hear Harry’s voice in my head. Waiting by a fish tank that’s green with algae, I pull my shaggy bangs over my eyes and cringe as I listen to my mom’s sobs through Dr. Kim’s office door.
When she comes out, she slaps my arm with her tiny hand and says, “What am I going to do with you?” Then she stops in the bathroom to fix her mascara.
At the San Francisco station we wait in silence for the Caltrain to Sunnyside. When it arrives, we take the seats in the back, and I pass the time by looking over Harry’s Facebook memorial page on my phone. After his suicide the various tribes at school predictably turned Harry into a bullshit hashtag: #WeAreHarryChang. The Glam Asians posted old yearbook pictures of him with comments like “We’ll never forget.” The Gotta-Get-into-Stanford Asians all talked of volunteering at various mental-health nonprofits. Even the Range Rover whites, who I thought were too busy with lacrosse and podcasts to even know who Harry was, posted: “#WeAreHarryChang.” Social Media Commandment Number 1: Act like you give a shit about something if everyone else does.
I didn’t post anything. I was pissed that the same kids who’d made Harry and me miserable were suddenly acting like they cared. I felt like I owed it to Harry to write, “Fuck you all,” but I chickened out. I didn’t want to draw attention to myself without Harry there to have my back.
I got needled daily by the cool kids, who talked loud enough that I could hear about how my dad was from a poor part of Korea — a classless rice farmer who put on a suit and got lucky in America — and I was just his trashy spawn. I had tried to ignore the tribes as much as I could, but Harry had fearlessly responded to every “fucktard” or “useless shitsack” hurled at us. I didn’t get why he fought back, since it typically led to his becoming the target of a social-media pile-on, or a literal pile-on. Once, a Glam Asian burned my arm with a cigarette and tried to pretend it was an accident. Harry got in his face. “Real funny,” he said, grabbing his crotch. “Your sister likes getting poked by something bigger.” Harry ended up curled like a pill bug on the ground while three Glam Asians kicked him.
As the train slows down approaching Sunnyside, I look out the window for the spot where Harry jumped to his death. It’s marked by a tree still pinned with a few tattered ribbons and plastic flowers in Harry’s honor. “You fat fuck,” I whisper. “Who am I supposed to jam with now?”
Checking Facebook again, I find that our former friend Faith has become the target of an online hate campaign led by the Fembots. That’s what Harry used to call the Glam Asian girls who slathered on makeup like it was war paint. When they called him fat, he’d respond, “You’re just jealous ’cause I eat.”
Dozens of Fembots have posted pictures of Faith photoshopped to exaggerate minor flaws. In one, all the zits on her forehead are circled in red: “Easy on the Cheetos, bitch. #FaithIsARagingSlut.”
Beside a picture of her in second grade, when she had a cheap home perm and wore glasses, it says, “Straight-outta-Stockton trash, get out of Sunnyside. #FaithIsARagingSlut.”
There’s a picture of her with her tall Glam Asian boyfriend from last year: “Sucked his dick on the second date. #FaithIsARagingSlut.”
She must have hooked up with the wrong guy — some Glam Asian boy with highlighted hair that another Fembot had dibs on — and now all those skinny piranhas are following Social Media Commandment Number 2: Pile on today’s loser. I can’t help but feel bad for Faith, even though she abandoned Harry and me in middle school.
Faith’s family moved to Sunnyside from Stockton when she was in second grade, and Harry’s mom invited them into our little Korean Christian circle, making Harry, Faith, and me a trio for a while. In the few hours on Saturdays when we didn’t have math tutoring or some other bullshit torture to prepare us for the next stage of our education, we played ping-pong in my playroom. Faith had the meanest serve Harry and I had ever seen. She could beat us at just about any game, from scooter races to Call of Duty on the PlayStation. Even though she was twiggy and didn’t look much like a girl, we both had crushes on her.
Harry’s was more severe than mine. Every time she said something nice in his direction — like when she’d complimented his mom-chosen preppy clothes — Harry’s hopes grew. In fifth grade he provided an acoustic-guitar accompaniment to our church youth group’s Christmas performance of “Joy to the World,” and afterward Faith slapped his back and said, “Good job.”
“You see that?” he said to me, glowing as he packed up his guitar. He seemed to think he could change the way she felt about him, like in some cheesy Hollywood movie, but even as a kid I knew that wouldn’t happen. Faith was already starting to look at some of the Glam Asian boys in a way she didn’t look at us.
When she hit puberty, she began wearing tight yoga pants and flaunting her model-perfect body in selfies. She stopped acknowledging Harry and me completely. It was like she was scared being a “loser” was a disease that might infect her if we got too close. Harry focused his angst on playing guitar, turning from church hymns to Led Zeppelin. I joined him on bass. Even when he was at his angriest, though, he never had a bad word to say about Faith. He seemed to have an endless supply of clever put-downs for the other members of her tribe, but not her.
If the Fembots follow their typical patterns, Faith will be toast for a while, but in a few days one of the Gotta-Get-into-Stanford Asian girls will report this shit-storm to the school administration so she can put “saved a girl from suicide” as an activity on her college applications. Then we’ll have a day of Why-Not-to-Jump-in-Front-of-a-Caltrain workshops, and perhaps in a week this will all mercifully end.
Tell all those anorexic Fembots to fuck off, I hear Harry say. I’m not sure what good that would do, though. It’s not like they’ll listen to Creepy.
By the time Harry died, Faith seemed to have forgotten about our friendship, but then, a few days after the funeral, I found an envelope in my locker. Inside was an old picture of the three of us with our arms around each other at Happy Hollow Park. We were eight and smiling, with dirt smeared all over our faces. Faith’s sundress was ripped because I’d accidentally tripped her while we were running away from a goat. That picture proves there’s still a part of her that the tribes haven’t gotten to yet. I wish there was something I could do for her.
When I get home from the train station, my dad is sitting in his recliner, waiting for an update. I look through some #FaithIsARagingSlut posts while he talks with my mom behind closed doors in our rarely used formal dining room. He emerges biting his lower lip to keep from yelling and tells me we need to talk in my room.
Here comes another performance review with the CEO, Harry says.
My dad is always trying to get me to fit in with our “community.” For example, he made me volunteer to set up coffee for the adults in the church gymnasium after the service every week. I had to listen to all the parishioners bragging about their ski vacations and their children’s report cards — and gossiping about the affairs or money problems of those who weren’t there: Mrs. Cho cheated with a white man. Dr. Park’s mortgage was underwater. Mr. Lim’s daughter was a lesbian. If they’d been drinking Red Bull instead of coffee, they’d have been just like the kids at school, standing around in circles, needling everyone.
My dad sits down at my desk while I crawl into bed. “So, therapy didn’t go well,” he says, like he’s talking to one of his junior engineers.
“I guess I’m still nuts,” I tell him, wanting to check my phone for more posts about Faith.
“How are you going to get better if you don’t talk to the doctor?”
“I don’t need to get better.” I just need to get far away from here.
“You’re failing nearly every subject. You don’t try. And you think things are going OK?”
“I excel at composting.” My Environmental Studies teacher gave me an award for “Best Composter.” My father gets really annoyed whenever I tout this achievement. I’m also pretty sick at bass guitar, but that ranks just above masturbation in his eyes.
“So you want to be a garbageman?” my dad says.
“I think they call them sanitation engineers now.”
“You’re smart. If you would just try, you might find you could do more. If not academics, what about sports? How about golf?”
My dad is an immigrant who built a multinational software company from nothing and lives in a mansion with a beautiful wife. His life is amazing in every category except one: his son. I feel bad about letting him down yet again, but all I can think about is Faith. I just want him to go away.
“I’d rather blow my gym teacher, Dad.”
He slams my door, and I turn to my phone to see if Faith is logged on anywhere. I don’t want her to end up like Harry, driven to suicide and then sham-mourned by the tribes.
I find her in Hangouts and send her a text: “Sorry they are doing this to you.”
As I wait for a response, I check to see how much worse the pile-on has gotten. The hashtag #FaithIsARagingSlut is actually trending. I see one post saying that Faith’s mom is “about to kill herself because her daughter is such a slut.” Another post has a photoshopped picture of Faith in a bathing suit with a baby bump.
A few minutes later, as I am still going through all the posts, I see a message from Faith: “Tim??? What do you want?”
“You still call me by my name,” I type.
“You could call me Creepy like everyone else but you didn’t.”
“I’ll block you.”
“Don’t let them get to you.”
I wait for a response, but after a few minutes she logs out.
At school on Monday morning I look for Faith. I have to be careful, though, because she’ll freak out if anyone sees the two of us talking. I wait as late as I can by her homeroom, but she never walks in. I wonder if she’s faking being sick.
I sit near the front in History, one of the few classes I have with Faith, who is in mostly AP classes. She’s not here either. A Glam Asian is giving a particularly impassioned PowerPoint presentation about his ancestors’ oppression during the Japanese occupation of Korea. His name is Sung Cho, and he’s a pretty boy with high cheekbones who excels at golf and volleyball despite the pain of his parents’ divorce, which is always the topic of his tear-jerking “Personal Journey” presentations in Rhetoric.
In the middle of Sung’s PowerPoint, Faith walks in expressionless, wearing baggy sweat pants. Everyone in the room stares, and I hear a few whispers.
“Nice outfit,” a Fembot says.
I hope Faith can make it through the day without getting utterly humiliated.
After a brief pause Sung continues his presentation. Following his last slide, titled “The Need for Self-Determination,” he asks, “Are there any questions?”
A smirking Glam Asian boy raises his hand and asks, “How do you think a guy could get through such oppressive times? Do you think it’s important to have faith?”
My stomach drops. I see where this is going. So does everyone else in the room, except our thirty-something instructor, who is sneaking looks into her purse as if we didn’t know her phone is in there.
Sung smirks back at the questioner. “Yes, of course. You must have faith. I know I do. I think we can all have faith if we try.”
I look over at Faith, who is failing in her attempt to show these remarks do not hurt her. A few of the other Glam Asians in the class snicker, causing our teacher to finally look up, clueless.
Do something, Harry says.
To the shock of everyone, including myself, I raise my hand. I haven’t spoken in class once this year, so all eyes, even the teacher’s, are on me.
“Yes, Creepy?” Sung says hesitantly.
“Is it true your mom fucked her German boss, and his dick was so good that she divorced your dad?” A tidbit I overheard in the church gymnasium.
The room erupts, and the teacher screams for me to go to the principal.
“You’re fucking dead, you scrawny little shit,” Sung says as I head out. “After school. Dead.”
Social Media Commandment Number 3: Forget yesterday’s loser when there’s a new loser. I can see the posts already: “Creepy fucks a dog.” “Creepy’s mom is a fat whore.” Whatever. I’ve heard their worst, and I can take it. Even if I don’t completely divert attention away from Faith, at least she’ll know someone has her back.
At the door I turn in her direction, and, though I know she would deny it, her eyes soften for a second. Then she quickly looks away. In a few days her status will rise again, and she’ll go back to avoiding me. That’s OK. I guess the worst thing she can imagine is people disliking her. The worst thing I can imagine is trying to impress these assholes for the rest of my life.
On my way to the principal’s office, I pass Harry’s old locker. The Grateful Dead and Queen stickers are gone, but I know which one it is. I used to meet him there every day after school so we could go jam. I tap the metal door. I miss him.
Social thuggery begins in the teen years, when its cruelty is due in part to the clumsy obviousness with which it is practiced, and can continue well into adulthood in the workplace and community. Social thugs are usually small-minded people whose greatest skill is in coercing others to join them. I like how, at the end of the short story “#WeAreHarryChang” [September 2016], the main character strikes back swiftly and soundly against a bully. I take great pleasure in doing the same to bullies I encounter in my work as a lawyer. I wasn’t surprised to see that the story’s author, Thomas Lee, is also a lawyer.