Leonard Lopate Essay Contest

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Let me tell you about my heartbreak as a Shanghainese quarter-blood at age twelve in 1975. It was different from your average American girl’s. I knew little about the birds and the bees and never wondered about where the over 800 million navy blue-clad fellow citizens had come from. Never heard of Woodstock; nor a bar of the music played there. Never knew about the Pill. Never realized pot was a recreational drug and not a container for collecting human feces where indoor plumbing was scarce. Never been told our city’s bygone glories. Never watched Shanghai Express. Never seen Marlene Dietrich. No Greta Garbo. No Joe DiMaggio. No Marilyn Monroe. No McDonald’s Happy Meal. No Madonna’s Papa Don’t Preach soundtracks. Nowhere. Nothing. China the country sealed off as good old Cathay ought to be. All imperialists and revisionist poisons were banned: English, French, Spanish, Yiddish, Swedish, Finnish, Esperanto -- everything. I, and my generation of young successors of the Chinese revolution, did not share the rest of the contemporary world’s collective retinas. My heartbreak was different. I was lucky to be in the junior swim team run by the School District Sports Authority. Like the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc, China had a state-sponsored system to cultivate future Olympic medallists. Three times a week, after school, we received training at no cost to our parents. That made us special. Our goals in training were clear: to excel on the team so that we could get to the next level. Competition was fierce and the attrition rate high. Only the crEme-de-la crEme could join the district, municipal, provincial, and eventually, the National Team. Most girls like me had not yet heard of menstruation. On the team, boys wore as uniforms navy blue trunks with a white string. Girls wore red suits with elastic bands sewn from inside such that they became virtual blobs of cloth bubbles. This design was intended to conceal the natural curves of the female body just in case the boys were distracted. We girls, having matured earlier, had a nickname for what was tucked inside a boy’s shorts: xiao maqie -- little sparrow. Xiao maqie would become wugui dou -- turtle’s head, when they reached young-adult size, complete with a thicker, extendable neck. But even we girls weren’t aware of this process yet. My breasts, periodically sore and itchy, were protruding against the swimsuit bubbles. To conceal my nervousness, I pretended to keep my vision steady and straight. My peripheral vision told me that Coach Lai liked my focused attention. Thanks to the ingenious design of the female swimsuit, nobody could notice my awkward bosom. I was always the first to be dropped into the water. Coach Lai would push me before going for the tallest boy half a head shorter than me. One, two, three! he would clap his oar- like hands, which were toughened by years of pushing water and pumping iron. Jump! Now! While coaches generally did not raise an eyebrow when they heard kids sneeze, Coach Lai would occasionally hand me a beach towel after training and say curtly, Don’t catch cold! Despite my size, I wasn’t the fastest on our team. Coach Lai once patted me through the towel he had placed on me and said, You don’t have to feel awkward for being big and tall. A good swimmer needs a well-rounded physique for buoyancy. These words convinced me that I had a fighting chance. I was so moved I had an urge to tell him that my well-rounded physique was due to my partial Russian stock. But of course I didn’t dare to do so. As much as I admired him, he was the all- powerful coach who held the key to my future. Coach Lai wore a crew cut all year round, so closely cropped that the contour of his skull in between the dark and spiky hairs was clearly visible. In a sport where the reduction of water resistance was critical, the completely shaved watermelon haircut was not uncommon among male athletes. It was atypical that Coach Lai had chosen to retain this style after leaving active competition. The 1970’s witnessed the arrival of the form fitting, skin swimsuit showcased by the East German Women’s Olympic Team. Although deemed rather scandalous at the outset even by the Western media, the record speeds the body-hugging design had helped to generate silenced all critics. Naturally, nobody living in China could have heard about such decadent things. As far as our authorities were concerned, the East Germans were out and out bourgeoisie and ideological lackeys for the Soviet Revisionists, hence their practices totally dismissible. Coach Lai’s skin suit was his torso itself. With his hollowed chins and gleaming teeth, he looked especially handsome when he smiled, something he rarely did. I regarded him as very focused. It was his routine to swim a 10, 000-meter medley after finishing training us, three times a week. During the political instruction segment of our training, the coach would sometimes tell us stories. We heard that some of his old training buddies had gone on to the National Team, becoming the very few Chinese who had opportunities to travel abroad to compete. They were expected to bring honor and glory to our motherland, but few made it to the winner’s rostrum. I turned twelve on May 15th, 1976. In those days a child’s birthday was rarely marked with anything special, and an adult’s was hardly noted at all. Birthday parties as a practice was condemned as bourgeois. The few determined to go against the tide would have been thwarted by the challenge to bake a cake due to the rationing of flour, eggs, and sugar and the lack of an oven. I had after school swimming training, as usual, with me standing in the front of the girl’s line in the two-row formation. After leading through warming up on- land, Coach Lai blew his whistle and called out, Attention! His dark brows were knotted like two forceful Chinese calligraphy strokes, making him appear more stern than normal. There was a tug in me when his eyes failed to sweep across me as they always did. Clearing his throat, he began, Today, we’ll streamline to make our team leaner, stronger, and better. Streamline usually referred to our bodies achieving maximum propulsion and minimum resistance. But from the ominous way he said it, I realize it was a code word for member elimination. At the end of the silent yet splattering upheavals, Coach Lai pronounced the death sentences for some. I breathed a sigh of relief as my name was not called, thinking superstitiously that my birthday had brought me luck. After the session ended, draped a beach towel over me and whispered, Wait for me outside where I parked my bicycle. My heart jolted as my cheeks burned, hit by a giddy feeling. When I walked out, Coach Lai was standing like a bronze pagoda next to his bicycle beaming at me, his teeth shined. I gave him a puzzled look, then a silly smile in return. Hop on! he ordered. Hesitating but a second, I eased myself onto the metal rack above the back wheel, side-saddling. The Shanghai-made 28 began to roll. Hold on to my waist! came another command. Steadying myself with my arms around him, I became aware of my heartbeat as if I had just finished swimming a thousand meters. This was the very first physical contact I had experienced with a man. Where are we going? I asked in a trembling voice, my mouth pressed against his broad back. It’s your birthday. I’ve got something to show you. How do you know it’s my birthday today? All the team’s personal dossiers were reviewed recently for streamlining, so I know. What are you going to show me? I couldn’t help but ask, hoping that it would be a present. I had never received anything for my birthday. Imagine if I got one from Coach Lai, of all people! Don’t make me turn my head now. You’ll find out soon enough. With that, he reverted back to his typical serious mode and pedaled on. I clutched onto him, anticipation building inside of me. About half an hour later, we arrived at an old single story house in Hongkou District in the northern part of the city. Coach Lai parked his vehicle against the front wall and chained both wheels with rusty padlocks. The exterior of the house had many exposed bricks and moss had grown in the cracks. Who else live here? Other unmarried male coaches. I realized that this was the staff residence assigned by the School District Sports Authority. You share? I asked nervously, not being familiar with this part of town or its architectural style. In contrast to where I lived, this was the former Japanese occupied area where the European influences were limited. Of course. But don’t worry. They’re all out now, and I’ve got my own coffin’ space. Before I could ask about it, the coach eased himself through the front door. I followed, but immediately bumped into a wooden shelf filled with mud stained rubber rain boots, umbrellas with bent spines, and nylon string-knitted net bags with used brown wrapping papers. Watch out! he cautioned. I looked down and saw a mousetrap fully engaged, with a section of darkened fried dough resting on its hook. A gray piece of hairy stuff once extended from a rat’s rear end graced the baseboard. I let out a cry. Don’t scream. Just come in, he said curtly, offering a hand, which I took. Why do you put a shelf in there? I asked accusingly. Can’t move it. It’s fixed to the wall. It was meant for storing shoes the Japanese would remove before entering the house. Japanese habit. Coach Lai’s room was at the very front, about the size of two shower stalls at our swimming pool. The first thing I noticed there was another fixed wooden shelf. Piles of gym clothes were heaped on it in disarray. A pillow without its case and a soiled army green comforter lay inside as well. So this is the ? Yeah. The Japanese used to tuck away their comforters here during the day and sleep on the tatami at night. We all jokingly call it the coffin and I sleep there. I gaped at the tiny straw- matted floor space and nodded absent-mindedly. A faded blue plastic sheet served as the curtain to a wood-framed window, which wouldn’t fully close. A mound of envelope-sized papers sat in a corner. A wooden stool and a child-size bamboo chair constituted all the furniture. As I stood wringing my hands, Coach Lai switched on the single light bulb hanging down from the low ceiling, fifteen watts dim. Don’t stand there like a candle, the Coach said, smiling, his second smile in one afternoon, I noted. I sat down on the bamboo chair. He squatted in front of me, one knee on the tatami. I’ve got something very important to tell you first, he began, his voice ever so resonant. But please do not cry. I assure you it will be all right. Can you promise that? Yes, I said, my hands clasped tighter. Good. Now, I didn’t announce this in front of everybody, but today is your last official training session with the team as well I knew it! I knew it! I shouted, tears welling up. A few drops rolled down my cheeks. I’m all right, Coach, I murmured, sniffing. Yes, you should be. You understand that leaving the team doesn’t mean you can’t bring glory and honor to our motherland in the future. You can still achieve that by focusing on your academic studies. Always keep in mind Chairman Mao’s teachings: Study well, and make progress everyday’, and you can become a revolutionary successor whether or not you’re a swimming athlete. I bit my lip and said, I’ll try my best. He lifted my chin to face his gaze and said, There’s the good girl I know you are. Here, let me show the thing. He fumbled around in his trousers pockets as I waited anxiously. Ah, here it is. I caught a glimpse of something green before he tucked it down under one of his thumbs, leaving all eight other fingers stretched out, palms down. If you guess correctly which thumb I’ve got it under, I’ll show it to you. I stared at his hands, transfixed. This was a pair belonging to a grown young man: big, firm, blue veins popping, very much in use. The nails were so closely clipped that their white tip sections were nonexistent. In yet another effort at water resistance reduction, swimmers often wore their fingernails short. No dirt can accumulate under those nails buried inside the flesh. Right one. You’re right! he chuckled, un-clutching to reveal a rectangular packet of five thin sticks with white paper sleeves, two of them empty. See? These are the only three left -- American kouxiang tang that my former teammates brought back from abroad! Ah, genuine American mouth fragrance candy ! What an extremely precious commodity! This for my birthday? You bet! Would you like to share one with me? I bounced up on my tiptoes. Of course! Thank you! He took out one slice and let me hold one end of it. My hand shaking slightly, I fixated my eyes on the wrapper bearing the letters WRIGLEY’S SPEARMINT CHEWING GUM . The word SPEARMINT was italicized and distinctively printed across a forest green arrow pointing towards a little tree with three branches. So on that day, my twelfth birthday, I had the privilege for the first time of touching something made in the U.S. This was the time before Wrigley’s Double Mint, Double Pleasure came into being, before the green-on-white wrapper was changed to mint green, before I knew that three quarters of the population of Singapore were ethnic Chinese and that chewing gum would be banned there. Of course neither Coach Lai nor I could understand what the label said. I could not yet distinguish the shapes of the 26 English letters I studied in secret if they were taken out of the A to Z order. To me, the letters flanking the arrow and those above it were merely a symbol of quality and a world of possibilities beyond my wildest imagination. Coach Lai gave the stick a little tug and I let go of my end of it. Happy birthday to you, and let’s haafu haafu this, he said, using a Shanghainese pidgin. I watched him do it intently as his flesh-tipped index finger cautiously edged the foil-covered stick out of the wrapper. Next, he opened the saw-toothed silver paper, broke the human flesh-colored piece into two halves, handed me one, and put the other into his own mouth. Lastly, he folded the foil along its creases and slid it back into the wrapper, inching along in the direction of the arrow, deliberately, precisely, one millimeter at a time until it was all the way, and snugly, in. Seeing that I still had my half in hand, he said, Open your mouth wide and let me feed you. As I savored the half stick he’d placed on my tongue, we exchanged a look and I broke out laughing. Xia xia nong, thank you, thank you so much, Coach! It is delicious! But he didn’t smile this time as I had grown to expect that afternoon. He just chewed and studied me. I sensed the rhythm of his breathing in and out and visualized that pair of arms spearheading in water, his body defying its resistance. I broke the awkwardness and said, Now I know why your teeth are so white. It’s the American kouxiang tang. He shook his head. Nothing to do with it. This is the only packet I was given. My teeth are white because I don’t smoke like some of them do. What made you not pick it up, then? Revolutionary self-discipline, I suppose. An athlete shouldn’t drink or smoke. Then, he stooped down and said playfully, Let’s see whose teeth are whiter. Yours or mine. I displayed an exaggerated grin. He loomed over me, closer and closer, his sweet and tart breaths blowing on me. The pair of hands he used to slide the gum stick in and out of the wrapper was now burning on my cheeks. Nong zen piaoliang ah!, You are truly gorgeous! I nearly bit his lip in instinctive resistance. But the next second saw us intertwined like a dragon and a phoenix in heat, engaged in an effort to knead the two halves of the gum back into one. He cupped my breasts as if grasping on to a kickboard, admiring them uncontrollably. So fair, so full already! He began to breathe the way he usually did immediately after a few thousand meters of non-stop lap swimming. Ngo yao nong! Coach Lai panted these three syllables out as he lifted me onto the coffin’, bellowing again, Ngo yao nong! , I want you! Kneeling on the lump of clothes, he peeled off my pants and parted my legs. His hands felt fizzy but familiar, for this was not the first time they were on my thighs. Showing me the angles of a precisely executed breaststroke with a frog-like kick had required the Coach to thus direct me many times by the poolside with my stomach on a bench. Several other female teammates were coached that way as well. The Coach called this an on-land simulation . But this time he separated me at the crotch, his hand massaged my peach fuzz, and chanted Relax, relax It’s O.K. Then, without warning, he thrust his index and middle fingers inside of me and started to churn. As I cried out in a confused excitement, he pulled them out and dropped off his pants. His appendage, forever covered by his swim trunks, was now a fully extended wugui dou. Spitting the piece of gum into his hand and flattening it with his palms, Coach Lai capped it on the head of his turtle’s neck, lubricated me with his saliva, and inched into me the way he had just pushed the piece of foil paper into its wrapper. I shut my eyes, sensing his manhood reaching every cell of my body ... Coach Lai retrieved the piece of the Wrigley’s with the same fingers, by now coated with a paste the texture of egg whites, with streaks of blood swirling around it. As I stared at him in a daze, he propped me up next to him and put his arm around me like a coach often would after a race. I’ve fantasized about you without a swim suit for who knows how many times. How can you be so perfectly developed without even starting your period yet? Period? I repeated, turning scarlet to the tips of my ears. He gave my cheek a quick pinch and said teasingly, Don’t be shy, big beautiful baby girl! I know yours hasn’t started as I don’t have your Menstruation Record Card. I was just extra careful. He glanced at our piece of gum, now discarded at the edge of the tatami. My head began to reel. What Menstruation Record Card? No girls on your team have had their onset yet, so you don’t know about it. You see, we revolutionary physical educators are very concerned about the healthy growth pattern of all our junior athletes. The card system is in place to track and monitor your monthly cycles so that your potential can be maximized. Here, I’ll show you one. He leafed through the pile of dusty papers on the tatami and pulled out a card. It was covered with pre-printed grids. Crosses were marked on various spots indicating the duration and blood flow quantity as well as physical reactions and training schedule. I looked away and covered my face with my palms. Oh, isn’t it terrible of me to do this with you , I began, almost sobbing. You’ll think so low of me ... The Coach pulled me into his bosom. In an unprecedented soft voice, he said, Don’t be silly. I’ll never think of you that way. You’ll have your period very soon, I’m sure of that. You’re a real beautiful woman to me already. Do you know that?" I jerked my head up and down nodding. Meeting his gaze, I gathered all my courage and said, Yes, I do. You know I I develop faster because I’m not a hundred percent Chinese ... I’m one quarter He displayed the most charming smile I had ever seen, interrupting. Yes, I knew that. That’s why you’re so special to me, silly girl. You knew I was part Russian? I glared at him. Is that in my dossier too? Yes. Every important fact should be in our personal file as a rule, Coach Lai replied calmly. But I didn’t need that to figured this out. I knew from the day you joined the team. I’ve seen too many girls not to know better. You’ve been good to me only because of this? I questioned, feeling betrayed. No. Of course not. I But I was not going to let him finish. My fists landed on his chest like heavy raindrops. The Coach stood stationary, letting me hit him as though he were a punching bag. When I finally stopped, he drew me to him and put my head against his neck, cooing, Now that you’ve done beating me up, it’s my turn. The stubble of his beard caused a rippling itch in me. Lifting me by my buttocks in a fling, he carried me to a bare wall, turning off the sole light as we passed its string. What do you say we celebrate your birthday some more? he whispered in my ear. With my arms locked around his neck and legs around his waist, he pinned me onto that Japanese construction which -- it appeared to me -- did not wobble so much as pulsate. There, we celebrated and celebrated, with him wishing me many happy returns of the day. I would now periodically go to the pool and wait for Coach Lai to finish working. Then we would go utilize the coffin at his place, where he kept meticulous records on my cycles. As he had predicted, I had my menstrual onset shortly after turning 12. Everything will be all right with you from now on, the Coach had reassured me in his sonorous voice, placing his firm hands on either side of my shoulders Trust me! This went on for months. So imagine my surprise when one afternoon, after the bus ride to the pool, I found him not at work. In his place was a wall-eyed, muscular young woman who shouted, Hey! Training is in session. Don’t stand around here! Having always stood by the poolside a few feet from where Coach Lai would be, I didn’t know where else to wait, and worse, what had happened to the Coach. My heart missing a beat, I dragged my feet into the women’s changing room. Ah! Coach Lai’s former trainee girl’s here! the cleaning auntie greeted me. You must be here for his Xi tang! Come over to my locker. I still have a few packages to give out for him. Xi tang -- Happiness Sweets, were customarily given out by newly-weds to friends and colleagues to celebrate their union. A tug in my chest stung me. Coach Lai got married? I asked accusingly. You didn’t know? Oh, yes! He sure met his match. He showed me her photo before going up North to join her. And that girl is as pretty as she is athletic. Up North? Where? I blurted out. Beijing. Took the train to last week. Don’t feel bad, for he left in a hurry. Says to give these joyous candies out for old friends who may stop by the pool. Says she’d just retired from the National Swimming Team and got her coaching position. So they’re yuanyang yi dui, a true pair of loving Mandarin ducks, meant to be together. Here, have a package of their joyous sweets he left with me. As she thrust me the package, I felt a weakness in the knees. Throat tightening, I turned without a word and dashed out, sensing tears rolling down my cheeks. It all made sense now! I remembered Coach Lai’s former female teammate who had brought the Wrigley’s chewing gum for him from abroad. My tongue had suddenly turned into a parched barren field. A piece of gum would have helped to alleviate the drought, perhaps the very first piece of Wrigley’s chewing gum that Coach Lai’s mouth and mine had shared, the very sticky, gluey substance our privates had shared when his turtle’s head stuck its pulsing neck into my peach-fuzzy opening ... As though my hands were no longer a part of my body, I tore open the red package embossed with the golden Double Happiness character. Eight pieces of fruit drops in cellophane wrappers scattered. There was no Wrigley’s chewing gum. No note. No contact information. Everything’s over! One by one, I kicked all eight pieces of the candy into the opening of the closest street gutter, aiming at the middle as if shooting a soccer goal, imaging the grates to be the gate leading to the Realm of Yin, to Hell. Then, I simply stood and stared, transfixed. Some time later, I heard myself sob, right there in the middle of the street. I sniffed uncontrollably until my tears were drained and eyes swollen. On the public bus back, a middle aged man said caringly, Pretty girl, you need eye drops to prevent infection. People pee in that big pool, you know. I nodded in appreciation, Yes, I know. I also knew that somebody had pissed from a once gum-wrapped dick into the core of my heart. I got off the bus one stop earlier and headed straight to the open stall vegetable market where I picked up a cucumber with the prickliest pimples and the most protruding veins. At home, I would break it up, BREAK IT UP , until it became a mash of seeds and pulping flesh. I would dump it on the existing human manure in our apartment building’s communal ladies room (we lacked indoor plumbing) , where it belonged. In time -- during the few scheduled periods where the water tank was released but not before additional waste was piled on it ““- it would be flushed down to the sewage system. Perhaps then my broken Shanghainese quarter- blood preteen heart, and hymen, would be on its long way to healing.

© Vivian Yang