Authors: Margaret Cho
Tags: #Humor, #General, #Biography & Autobiography, #Entertainment & Performing Arts, #Topic, #Relationships
At fifteen, I was expelled from my high school for having a 0.6 GPA (all F’s and an Incomplete). I’d been attending Lowell, a “special” school for kids with above-average intelligence, and there was little space in the classes for deadbeats like me. I preferred spending my days cutting with the bad kids, drinking and smoking pot, kicking back in unoccupied houses while their parents were at work. I liked it even more than my classmates, and I never rotated out of the “Cutting Club” to catch up on homework and missed tests. I just let myself flunk out. It actually required some effort on my part to accomplish this. I achieved entire semesters of nonattendance, while still keeping up this elaborate day-in-day-out-riding-the-bus-with-a-backpack scholastic ruse. Eventually it caught up with me, and I was expelled, which was totally unacceptable for a nice Korean girl like myself. My parents were so ashamed that they practically disowned me. My entire life, they put so much importance on education, always telling me that they had sacrificed their lives so that I could go to a good school, and here I was throwing it all away.
They had a right to be angry, I suppose, but their views were pretty extreme. Another Korean kid who went to my school stabbed somebody at the 7-Eleven and went to prison. My father defended him saying, “At least he had good grades.” What is that? I guess there’s lots of time to study in jail.
I guess I was lucky that I disappointed my parents so young that they didn’t expect anything from me after that. It was a kind of freedom that really propelled me into the life I have now. I didn’t have to impress anyone. I didn’t have to go to a good school. I had nothing left to do but pursue my dreams. In a sense, I had nowhere else to go.
The dean let me finish the semester and then I had the summer to decide what to do next.
Getting expelled from Lowell was certainly a blessing, although it didn’t feel like it at the time. Underneath all the feelings of failure, I was secretly relieved. I didn’t fit into the scene there. Katherine, my former best friend, told everyone I was a lesbian, and when I got upset about it, the girls smoking cloves in the “Pit” told me my reaction was proof that I was indeed a homosexual. The boys made me feel invisible, and the girls were mean and shallow. Cutting class and buying 151 Bacardi and squatting at someone’s house while their parents were at work was getting old. It was time for a change.
The summer after I was expelled, the university near my house offered a summer stock theater program for high school kids. It offered college credit, which satisfied my parents, who were shell-shocked from my scholastic demise. Don, the horrible redhead preppy boy who I had an inexplicable crush on, berated me for my decision.
“Why would you want to get college credit now? College is supposed to be the best time of your life. You want it to last forever.” That comment stung, as secretly I knew that I would never really go to college, that my grades were so terrible that I would never go past a JC. The university doors would remain forever closed to me, except for here, in the theater department, where there were no embarrassing inquiries about grades or test scores.
Performing, which was such a secret wish, the truest desire of my heart, was what I was forced to choose when the dreams of my parents were turning into nightmares. In the beginning, I disappointed everyone, except myself. The theater department at San Francisco State smelled of industrial-strength cleanser and cigarette smoke. The scent made me feel giddy and free, like a woman in the making.
At first, I was not well liked in the company. I started a week later than everyone else because of some scheduling error, and because I didn’t feel welcomed by the suburban rich kid baby fags and drama queen fat girls, I skipped quite a few days on my own. I was not the biggest outcast, however. A guy named Rudy, who had twisted one of his testicles in a fantastic masturbation accident, held that distinction.
I befriended a young punk rock girl named Claudia, who had a BASH (Bay Area Skin Head) girl haircut, slightly reminiscent of a Franciscan monk, and we sat on the grass in the quad and talked about Siouxie and the Banshees.
A beautiful girl named Lauren with red Madeline Kahn hair and a penchant for calling people who annoyed her “clits” was the informal leader of the pack. She mesmerized me with her ivory skin and stick-like arms and legs. Lauren would lean her enormous carrot-topped head back and swoon like a girl in a Maxfield Parrish painting, and in her I found an entirely different kind of role model. The girls I had crushes on before Lauren were conventionally pretty and had the kind of power over men that I hoped one day I would wield. But Lauren had power over women too. Not only that, Lauren had power, purely in and of herself. It was like she didn’t need anyone, she seemed entirely self-sufficient, which wasn’t exactly true. She did need an audience.
We sat before her in rapture as she disclosed various secrets to us.
“I was in trouble, because I eat too much fruit and vegetable and not enough meat.”
“Last summer, the first time I had done the program, I stayed in the dorms. One night, a jealous and mean fat girl came into my room, and cut off my tail. I had this long, red tail that I had been growing for years. It went down the middle of my back. I woke up and it was next to my head on the pillow. I felt castrated.”
“I swing both ways. Yes, I am bisexual. I love men
Lauren took a special interest in Piero, a handsome Italian boy from Union City, who never spoke except to say that the ballerina girls who stayed in the dorms next to the theater girls were so young that it hurt to fuck them because they were too tight. He also told me that I should lose weight.
Lauren would straddle Piero on the hallway couches where we’d smoke during the break, and give him a hard-on that he would have to walk off outside before coming back into the Set Design class. I imagined losing tons of weight and coming back the next year, thin and hopefully white, to straddle Piero just like my heroine had done.
Fifteen years later, I was walking down dirty, crowded Nieu Voorburgwal in Amsterdam, and I heard a small voice call my name. It was Lauren. She was older, shier, still beautiful, but changed.
“When I was back in the States last year, I saw your picture on the cover of a magazine. I couldn’t believe it. You’ve done so well for yourself. Congratulations.”
She was so timid, so reserved. I wonder what had happened to make her that way. All the force of her being, all the titian red hair and passion, the art nouveau curves of her body, the careless decadence of her sexuality, everything had disappeared. She looked the same, but what I had come to think of as “her” was missing. We met for drinks that night on a floating bar on one of the canals. She brought her shy Dutch boyfriend, who loved Nico and silence. He seemed to tone down the now colorless Lauren even more. I felt hostile, getting drunk when I wanted to get stoned, being eaten alive by mosquitoes, being let down at every turn by my teenage role model, who had grown up disappointingly, living in a foreign country, getting bored among the boring.
Later, we ditched her boyfriend and perused the sex shops that lined the Red Light District. We discussed spanking and the importance of a steady hand and true conviction in a proper disciplinarian. We laughed a lot, and I saw the old Lauren come back, briefly, like a hot flash. Like lightning, but without the delayed assurance of thunder. Lauren had lost her thunder. I think I might have stolen it. It was unfair of me to think it was her fault. I just loved her so much from where I was standing. I took what she was and ran away, to reinvent myself in her image.
Years before, after the last party of the season, we all had stayed up at a professor’s house, not wanting the summer or our youth to end. Lauren held my hand as I made everyone cry with a manipulative speech about how I knew no one had liked me at the beginning of the program. We pledged that whenever we heard the song “This Must Be the Place” by the Talking Heads, we would think of that summer, when we were still young enough to dream of all that might be, and wise enough to know that we wouldn’t all make it. That night, Durant, a boxy, shorthaired fag-in-progress, refused to kiss me, even when I insisted that he do so, and he left without saying good-bye.
Claudia and I remained close and I visited her at the spare Redwood City apartment that she shared with her mother. Her mom had gone to England for the remainder of the summer, so I crashed there with Claudia and her best friend, Trace. It was a wonderful two weeks of tarot card reading, female bonding, past life regression, vegetarian cooking, Siouxie and the Banshees analyzing, and goddess worshiping. I’d never felt closer to anyone. I felt loved and accepted, just as myself. We laughed a lot. We didn’t even need drugs then. In fact, I don’t think we drank or did anything more potent than smoking Camel filters and talking about what we would do to Jim Morrison if he were still alive.
I felt safe with those girls. There was nothing that we couldn’t do, or talk about, or imagine together. I felt like I had friends who liked me for who I was, and I felt confident for the first time in my life. I found the courage to move on, to the new semester in a new school and to a new life.
At the very last moment, I had an opportunity to audition for the School of the Arts. I originally had planned to attend Lincoln, the high school in my district, where I assumed I would spend my time in the hallways dogging people until I got stabbed. My blonde Communist friend, Alexi, another girl from the summer stock, went to SOTA, and suggested that I prepare a monologue and try my luck. I did a piece from Elizabeth Swados’
, and found a place in the Class of ’87.
Since I had a couple of friends at the school already, it wasn’t that scary to start over. Seeing the dancers walk around campus with their turned out feet and tights, it felt like I was in
We spent most of our days in movement and acting workshops, and then took the few required courses like math and English in the afternoon. I made friends quickly in the drama department, something I’d never really done before. I felt comfortable with all the freaks, the stoner girls and the fags-in-progress. I joined an improv group called Batwing Lubricant, and we scandalized the whole school with our sketches about the mean janitors. Being in front of an audience was a natural, easy thing. For the first time in my life, I knew exactly what I was doing.
DUNCAN AND BOB
With the friends I made at SOTA, the friends I had made at summer stock and the new laissez-faire attitude of my parents (“She couldn’t possibly do anything worse”), my social calendar started to heat up. I was feeling more and more like an adult every day, yet without any responsibilities. I loved my new school and kept up my grades there to stay eligible for the theater program.
Claudia had moved to England, and Trace and I started to hang out together in San Francisco. We went to Berkeley, going to huge parties at Barrington Hall, the run-down hippie residence on campus, the center of drug-trafficking and political activity. I assembled an odd collection of friends: Claudia’s brother Martin; AJ, an artsy dreamer boy from the summer stock program; Katya, a tall blonde hippie dream girl; Trace; and me, wearing all Trace’s tie-dyed skirts and scarves. And there was Duncan.
“Average is stupid,” he said. “Understand that and life becomes much easier for us.”
Duncan said “us” and it was special. That meant I counted among those he considered above average and it felt good to me. He was so skinny and so blonde, though he always wanted to be slate-gray, like some old woman. He finally found the perfect shade in the washed-out state of Manic Panic’s Purple Haze. We met at Barrington Hall in a haze of drugs and pot smoke. Over fettuccine with Grape-Nuts sprinkled on top, we talked like ’60s revolutionaries. It was Berkeley in the ’80s, which was a sad echo of past glory, but I reveled in his indoctrinating me with his ideology of superiority. I made him laugh when I said Jerry Garcia should launch his own line of skin-care and beauty products, and that with every $12.50 purchase of fragrances, you would get a free bong.
Staying up all night then was still such a thrill. Duncan was a drifter and a visionary, even though he could never really hold down a job or an apartment for very long. We all followed him with a devotion that was part worship, part codependence, part love, and part wonder that he could get away with it. He was older than me, and wiser by far. I realized the guys that I had known before were so fucked. Here was someone who was infinitely cooler than all of them and he wanted to be friends with me, simply because he liked to hear me talk. He was a walking miracle. We went along the same path for years, doing drugs with that same crowd, every day, and drinking whatever we could get our hands on. We took many spiritual journeys, all with Duncan as leader.
He preached the virtues of homemade beer, the cover of “Soul Kitchen” by X, and the sublime combination of coffee and pot. We eventually met his sister and brother, the beautiful Charity and the too-intelligent-to-be-sane Sean; and they were at once familiar and enigmatic, just like Duncan.
Duncan and I were never romantically involved, but we talked about having kids someday. We wanted a son, whom we would name Mordred. He’d have my black hair and Duncan’s blue eyes, his father’s wisdom of the ages and my love of punk rock.
Things started to change after a while. You can’t think drugs are going to keep their magic. Pretty soon, you sense that they are just chemicals, and the people around you are just as fucking lost as you are. After a few months of doing drugs casually with friends, I was on my way to a bad habit. I was only sixteen, but I felt old, and I needed crystal to keep the world sparkling.