I flourished early in life. Back in first grade, I was a nordic blonde with steely blue eyes. I wore an aviator jacket and I was unbelievably popular with the ladies. I remember standing in line waiting for the bell to ring while four or five girls fought to give me a backrub when Mrs. Baldwin wasn't watching. And it was no mean-looking harem: all of these girls were future Prom Queens and eventually, waitresses at Applebee's.
At no point in my life have I found girls gross. In the first grade, I did not see cooties as a pressing public health concern. Though I was deathly afraid of getting in trouble, I enjoyed being the object of affection, so long as that affection was stealthy and went no further than a gentle massage.
I was then, as I am now, sensitive to a fault and a complete pushover. The girls I attracted were uniformly sadistic, the kind of girl who would glue your index fingers together, pluck your armhair out one strand at a time to see how far she could go before you begged her to stop, who would bite the webbing between your thumb and forefinger to show her affection, who would color your hands with permanent marker because she knew she could get away with it. I was so obviously defenseless that girls took advantage of me every chance they got and somehow left me feeling guilty when the torture had finally ceased.
Then came puberty. My hair darkened and curled, so I took to plastering it down with gallons of hairspray. I sprouted a pair of buck teeth. A team of dentists strapped a football facemask around my neck: the chastity belt of the modern age. Aviator jackets no longer did the trick. There were several years where, frightened and confused by teenage fashion, I wavered from gangster to preppie to hipster and everywhere in between. Michael Cera was not yet a sex symbol, so high school chicks didn't even enjoy torturing me. They held all the cards; it was too easy. I was forced to turn inward and become an interesting person in the meantime.
Which was a cumulative process and an ongoing one. Hence I came to China.
Although I wrote about writer's block sometime last week, it has not yet arrived, and I find myself filling up notebook after notebook with writing, most of which will never see the light of the internet. This afternoon, in the lingering afterglow of last night's Halloween debauch, I stopped at the juice bar en route to the internet cafe, to buy a couple of cups of joe to fuel this afternoon's writing session.
"Do you have black coffee?" I asked.
"Two cups of black coffee, please." And for good measure: "No cream or sugar, please."
"Coming right up!"
Sure enough, I wound up with two cups of creamy nectar that was already attracting bees. I thanked the barista and turned to leave.
"Lao-wai!" - a little girl, about six or seven, pointing at me with a pair of chopsticks.
"Chinese person!" I said.
"I know you."
I searched my Chinese Rolodex but nothing turned up.
"Where do I know you from?" I asked.
"You came to my shishkebab restaurant! Don't you remember, laowai?"
Ah, yes. This was the little kid I argued with until 3 AM while a Chinese couple - her parents? - looked on and applauded.
"Yes, I remember," I said.
She followed me down the road and pelted me with questions.
"Sorry, little friend," I chuckled. "But I don't understand. I've got to go now."
I took my usual refuge in the far back of the internet cafe, pounded my first coffee, and cracked open my soy sauce splattered writing notebook. I set to work. Then I heard a little voice at the front desk.
"Where is that laowai?" she asked.
The owner led her to my computer and she took the seat next to me.
"What are you doing?" she asked.
"Stories," I said, for lack of a better word.
"Stories about China?"
I nodded. She stared at the screen. Then she reached over and hit Control-Alt-Delete.
"Hey, don't do that," I said.
"I want to use the computer."
"But I've got work to do!"
"I want to play games."
I shrugged and, turning away from her, lit a cigarette for the kid-repelling effect I hoped it might produce. She stole my lighter and pulled a gum wrapper out of her pocket. She lit the gum wrapper on fire.
"Stop it!" I said. "You'll get in trouble."
I blew out the gum wrapper. She picked it up and lit it on fire again. I blew it out. She picked it up a third time, but the lighter was out of fluid. She asked me for another lighter. I lied and told her I didn't have one.
I got up to ask the teenager at the front desk to log me in again. But by the time I'd returned to my computer, the girl was playing Maple Story.
"Hey, little friend," I said. "I've got work to do!"
"Me too," she said, extinguishing a purple monster with a rainbow gun.
"Where are your parents?"
"They're at work."
"Don't you have other friends to play with?"
"Yes. But they're stupid."
"I need to use the computer," I said. "I've got work to do."
"Work is stupid."
I walked back out to the juice bar and found the owner.
"Excuse me," I said, blushing with absurdity, "but that little girl of yours is bullying me."
"We don't know that little girl."
"She's not yours?"
"No, she's not ours."
"Whose is she?"
"Who knows? Is she bugging you?"
"Yes. She stole my computer and is setting things on fire."
"Kids," said the owner. "What can you do?"
I returned to my computer and loomed over the girl's shoulder for a minute or two. She was in a trance. I no longer existed. I gathered my coffees and cigarettes and went to the bathroom. I stood there looking in the mirror, pacing around and rubbing my forehead. Then I snuck out through the side door and went somewhere else. For all I know, my little friend is still playing Maple Story on my dime.
But she wasn't there when I went back to the internet cafe this evening to write about her. I sank into a zone and found myself, uncharacteristically, listening to Nine Inch Nails. I was putting the finishing touches on this post and scraping my brain for a conclusion that wasn't coming naturally. And then I nearly choked on my heart because someone ripped off my headphones and screamed in my ear. I turned and there she was. She sat on the arm of my chair. Then she produced a bag of hot meat from her pocket and rested it on the back of my hand. I recoiled and shouted, "Gross!" And she is still here, eating shishkebabs, twirling her scarf around her neck, reading this blog post as I draw it to a premature close because she is holding down Control-Alt and reaching for Delete.