Read I'm the One That I Want Online

Authors: Margaret Cho

Tags: #Humor, #General, #Biography & Autobiography, #Entertainment & Performing Arts, #Topic, #Relationships

I'm the One That I Want (4 page)

BOOK: I'm the One That I Want
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A camp counselor, one of the older Korean girls in Jolie’s class, came down to the dock. “Just row it. Just hold the oar. No! Just— come on! Other people want to use the boat, too. Come on. Don’t be so selfish. Just row back here. Come on!”

“Yeah, MORON. Do what she says. Come on. MORON! MORON MORON MORON MORON MORON!!!!!!!!!!”

I was not going to cry. I was too old for that. I was not going to give them the satisfaction. My face was red, and my eye still burned from the pine cone. My arms were killing me from rowing. Finally, with a pull on the oars that took all of my strength, the boat banged on the dock.

Carl jumped in the boat and tried to push me in the water, but I was fast and ran back to the girl’s cabin.

The cabin was quiet. Everybody was off doing something fun, enjoying the time away from home with friends, getting tan, doing arts and crafts, playing volleyball, going to second base in the bushes. It made the silence unbearable.

I thought I would sleep for a while to make the time go faster. I just wanted to go home. Why did I come? What had I been thinking? That suddenly, when we were all away from home, I would be friends with everyone? But then, it had been only a few weeks ago that I was at Lotte and Connie’s house, making plans about coming to the church camp, picking out boys we liked, wishing Connie’s sty would go away before the big weekend. Was I losing my mind? What could I have done? Carl and Mike and Jaclyn and Eugene always hated me, but how could they so quickly infect everyone else with that feeling? Hate was contagious, I guess. I was coming down with it, too. I hated myself and sat down on my cowboy sleeping bag.

It made a crunching sound. I looked inside the bag. It was filled with dry leaves, pine cones, sticks and dirt—even dog shit! I heard laughter coming from outside the cabin. I recognized it. It was Lotte and Connie. I couldn’t take it anymore and I started to cry. I was a million miles from home, everybody wanted me to leave, and I had just gotten here. Filling up my stained old sleeping bag was so mean, and obviously just the beginning. What else would I have to endure for the next three days?

I went outside to shake out the bag. The girls were gone. I emptied it as well as I could, but it still smelled of eucalyptus and shit. I wanted to wash it, but figured it would be even worse wet. I took it back inside and sat with my head down on the bottom bunk.

Another girl and a boy came into the cabin. A waiflike girl named May Cha stood there with her brother Johnno, a fat kid who had allergies. The area from the bottom of Johnno’s nose to the top of his lip was always red and flaking off. He also had dandruff, so when he moved, it was like he was snowing.

May spoke first. “Moron, we don’t want you in our cabin. You have to move. We took a vote and everybody voted to have you out.”

“Where am I supposed to go?”

“I don’t know. Maybe you should go find a big tree and sleep under it. I don’t care. You just can’t sleep here.”

“Did you fill up my sleeping bag with leaves?”

“No. I didn’t do that. I just organized the vote to have you kicked out of the cabin. I wouldn’t do something like that.”

I tried to think of the worst thing I could say. I knew that May wasn’t responsible for the bag, but she was a dick all the same. I searched my pre-teen mind for possibilities. “Go climb a rock!” No, too
Yosemite
. “Sit on it.” No, too
Happy Days
. Um, um. Ah yes! I have it.

“YOUR MOTHER!!!!!”

“My what?”

“YOUR MOTHER!!!!”

Johnno, who had been silent until then, exploded.

“Take that back, you bitch. What about my mother?!”

In my distress, I had forgotten that they were brother and sister, and in saying something about her mother, I was implicating him as well.

The force of his rage was truly terrifying. He got all flaky on me. It was like an avalanche. His thick glasses steamed up so fast I was sure he couldn’t see me at all. It seemed somebody had said “Your mother” to him before, and he just wasn’t going to take it anymore.

Johnno lunged at me and grabbed my forearms. I grabbed his in return, and we pushed each other from one side of the cabin to the other. He wasn’t very strong, but he was plugged into the same kind of adrenaline that mothers use to lift cars when their children are in peril. I was so surprised that I was fighting a boy that I had trouble getting my footing. He pushed me backward into my still crunchy, cracklin’-leaves sleeping bag, and I dug my nails into his arms and pushed him up against the log wall. It must have looked like we were dancing.

Johnno’s nose was running and he was crying hot, angry tears out the sides of his thick glasses. It moistened all the white patches on his upper lip so it looked like he was melting. We were getting tired of pushing each other back and forth.

He let go of my arms, and I let go of his.

“Just get out of here, MORON!”

“Yeah, get out! Get out, MORON!”

“You MORON!!! We don’t want you here infecting our cabin. GET OUT GET OUT GET OUT GET OUT!!!!!”

Then, inexplicably, they both left.

I took my sleeping bag to the back of the cabin and shook it out again. Leaves and twigs and dry dog turds and acorns still stuck to the flannel inside and had to be picked out by hand. I would be finding burrs embedded in my skin for days.

As I emptied the bag, I could hear the sounds of summer off in the distance. That Chicago song again, girls screaming, water splashing, intermittent outbursts of the 2-4-6-8 variety—all of it for me was the music of exclusion, the sorry soundtrack of the outcast, reminding me of all the things I was not doing, was not allowed to do, would never be a part of.

The next few days were relatively uneventful. It seems likely a talk was given, the counselors or ministers devising some intervention on my behalf. The name-calling and the shouting and the flying pine cones ceased. All that remained was a sort of silence, a wide berth. Everywhere I went for the next three days, a great deal of space was made around me. It was as if I had an infectious disease. No one would share a table or a bench with me. Not at mealtimes, not at campfires, not at the talent show that I was not allowed to participate in. In the crowded lodge, with kids crammed into every nook and cranny all over the floor, practically hanging from the rafters, I sat with an entire bench to myself. I stayed in the girl’s cabin, but all the campers around me had moved their things and were sleeping on exercise mats and chairs pushed together to avoid the five bunks that surrounded mine. I got a top bunk, which I was happy about, but slept with one eye open for three days, fearing attack and ready to fight to the death.

My cootie quarantine was actually more painful than the outright battles. Everybody around me was experiencing the exhilaration of being away from home and around other kids and swinging from ropes and forging friendships that would last a lifetime, while I sat inside, alone in the shadowy cabins, and made God’s Eyes out of yarn and chopsticks.

I got home, and my mother was cold and my dad was gone. She never explained where he was; she just stayed in their bedroom with the door shut.

I vowed never to return to that church, and Sunday mornings there would be a near riot with my mother begging, pleading, threatening, denying, bargaining, then finally accepting that I wasn’t going with her. There was no way I was going to face those horrible kids again. I’d had enough. I was hated, so I had to hate.

My mother lied about me week after week. I think she went as far as to tell people that I was in boarding school. (“She write me every day!”) The abject horror at my refusal to attend church combined with my father’s absence made her go insane. She went on a crash diet and got down to 114 pounds and then got a perm to celebrate.

Daddy came home eventually, like he always did, but he was different. He was mean, cold, confusing. He kept a suitcase packed with Gold Toe socks and underwear, ready and waiting at the bottom of the stairs.

May Cha told my mother to tell me that she was sorry about how they had all treated me at camp. She hoped that I would come back someday. She said she wanted to apologize in person. I don’t know why, but that embarrassed me tremendously and made me hate the kids even more.

I did agree to go to a church function when I was around seventeen. I wore a flowery dress of my mother’s and dyed my hair back to black from the sick pink-orange it had been. My mother was so happy she nearly cried and kept her arm around me the entire time, partly out of love but also to keep me from running away. Lotte and Connie were there, and when they saw me, their faces got red with joy, and I wanted to punch in their hot smiles from the side.

Lotte said, “Oh my God, MORON’S here!” I sat by my parents, seething inside. Went home later. Never let it go.

I went on with the rest of my life. I made some good friends in high school, and it constantly surprised me that I was never betrayed in the same way again. Yet, I didn’t let myself get as close to my friends as I would have liked.

My experience with Lotte and Connie taught me to keep people at a distance, and not to worry about what they thought of me. In a sense, it gave me some of the impetus I needed to go out into the world and follow my dreams. It seemed like the worst was over. I could get on with the business of enjoying my life, living it as fully as possible. No matter where I was, I could be happy, since I was no longer stuck at that summer camp, sitting on a log by myself, wishing I had a pair of cutoffs and some friends. Loneliness became familiar and easy. I played “Chopsticks” alone on the piano, and learned to love every solitary note.

Not too long ago, Ronny came to a show of mine at the Punchline in San Francisco. She came backstage after the show with a group of her friends. She was thrilled to see me and wanted to talk about the days when we had known each other growing up. “Hi—remember me?” I took one look at her and said, “No, I don’t. I have no idea who you are.” Then I walked away.

My brother remained friendly with Lotte and Connie for years afterward. It makes me feel betrayed that he is close to them, but at least it gives me an opportunity to find out how they are doing. In some way, I suppose I miss them, because I can’t seem to let go of their memory. I wish our friendship could have been allowed to grow and change and carry on into adulthood. They were horrible to me, but kids are like that sometimes. I want to forgive and be loving and try to see it from their point of view. My brother says that even now they always ask how I’m doing, and are genuinely happy when he tells them, “She’s just fine . . .”

I turned my Korean name, Moran, into one of my most lasting and memorable routines. I portray my mother screaming it through a set of French doors. “MORAN!!!!!!” Why would you name your daughter that? It’s like calling your firstborn “Asshill.” Now, people call it out to me at shows—“MORAN MORAN MORAN!!!”—and it feels like love.

The cowboy sleeping bag sits in a closet at my parents’ house. After 20 years and a lifetime of use, it still smells faintly of sap.

4

 

POLK STREET

 

About the time I was recovering from Lotte and Connie’s betrayal, my parents sold the snack bar to my uncle and bought a bookstore called Paperback Traffic. It was in the heart of Polk Street, which in the late ’70s was the Promised Land for homosexual men from all over the world. I didn’t understand it at first. I thought that men and women were together and that was it.

When I called my brother a fag, I didn’t know what the word meant. My mother would panic and yell, “That is because she is a lesbian! Now you are even!” Men wanting each other seemed like a mistake. The young boys buying makeup at the Walgreen’s on Polk and California were surely buying it for their girlfriends. Weren’t they?

Once, walking down the street, I saw a bunch of tough-looking guys dressed in leather chaps and hanging all over the parking meters. I was scared to walk by them because they looked like dangerous criminals, but when I did, they just smiled at me. One of them said, “I like your purse,” and pointed to my Hello Kitty bag. I smiled back, swinging the bag in a “Yeah, isn’t it great?” fashion, and then I noticed one of them had a pierced nipple! I was so shocked that I could not stop thinking about it for days and days. At school, I would sit at my desk and wonder how he got jewelry there. I thought maybe he had some crazy accident that left him with a hole in his nipple and he decided to be a good sport about it and put a ring in there. Then, I worried and worried that he was going to get it caught on something.

My parents let me run around by myself all the time, and I would walk up and down the street and see those leather-chap guys hiding in doorways and alleys, often one standing against the wall and one kneeling down in front. I thought, “That is so nice. They are fixing each other’s zippers.”

My mother’s explanation of homosexuality was equal parts clear and cryptic. “Sometimes, there is a man and a woman and they like to kiss. But, gay, is man like to kiss the man.” I still didn’t get it. Were they waiting for the right women to come along? Were they just practicing until they got married? Where were the girls?

I finally got it when I was looking at
Meatmen
, a graphic porno novel that we sold at the store. I stared at page after page of muscled jocks sucking each other off—and I finally got it. These
were
the girls.

When I really understood that I was surrounded by homosexual men, the first thing I felt was
safe
. I felt calm and protected and thrilled at the voyeuristic possibilities all at the same time. I knew I’d be okay. My body had started to develop earlier than other girls my age, and I had been the object of keen interest of many of my father’s friends and a male relative, and I had already received countless touches that felt rude and invasive. I was wary of men, especially older ones, and did my best to stay away from their leering glances, grabby hands and personal questions.

BOOK: I'm the One That I Want
2.71Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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