Your Old Bedroom, Yorba Linda, CA – 1989
You sleep with a nightlight that casts the shadows of your Lego castles on the walls. Beneath the battlements, snug as a bug in bed, you ask your mother to lower her long neck so that her black hair tickles your cheeks. Some nights, her hair smells like pawis and sun; other nights, after she showers, like chamomile and honey. The curtain of black hair transports you to a private world where, looking up, you see only your mother’s darkened, smiling face.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – 1989
Donatello is your favorite because of his purple bandana and because he prefers tinkering with machines to fighting. The other turtles, “cool but rude” (give me a break) and “party dude” (lightweight) don’t appeal to you. You wake up at six every Saturday to sit in front of the upstairs TV and watch Donatello’s enormous coffee maker explode.
Little Friends Preschool, Yorba Linda, CA – 1990
There’s a picture of you and Shawn holding hands in the schoolyard. You’re wearing the dinosaur necklaces you painted in class. Yours is a purple Brontosaurus. His, a red Tyrannosaurus rex. Shawn’s blonde head is turned, telling you something that your mother, at the camera, can’t hear. What was he saying? You don’t remember much about him, but until high school, you rejected the idea that Shawn could also be spelled S-e-a-n.
Kalen’s Living Room, Yorba Linda, CA – 1991
A Chinese girl with a side ponytail invites you over for a play date. She has the Pretty Pretty Princess game your sister won’t let you play. Your pawn circles the board, and you lift purple earrings, necklaces, and bracelets from the mirrored jewelry box. Bedecked in plastic finery, you feel as fierce as your favorite Disney characters: Maleficent, Ursula, the Evil Queen. “You don’t want that one,” Kalen says when you don the black ring. “That one’s deadly.” While she pours apple juice in the kitchen, you slip her black and purple rings into your pocket.
En Route to Angel Stadium, Anaheim, CA – 1992
In the back seat, you lick your fingers and torpedo them into Eric’s crotch. His Little League uniform, like yours, is rough and starched. His mother turns around. “Boys, stop that!” What team were you on? Was it the Angels? In the outfield, you blow dandelions, gaze at the sky.
D-Village Restroom, Fairmont Elementary School, Yorba Linda, CA – 1992
Blonde-haired Mike Antonelli steps away from the urinal. His jeans sag so low that you can see his plaid cotton boxers, his pale freckled stomach, and his outie belly button.
Eric’s Kitchen, Yorba Linda, CA – 1994
Eric is good at baseball and being one of the guys. He bumps chests, spits in his hand before a shake. But when you’re alone together, he only agrees. He agrees to watch 3 Ninjas and weave placemats out of reeds, agrees to buttered tortillas for snack. He shudders as he spreads the butter. A chemical imbalance, your teacher has told the class. The tic makes him self-conscious. At first, you worry: Eric shakes so often at home. Then, you realize: he doesn’t hide his tic from you.
Your Parents’ Bedroom, Yorba Linda, CA – 1994
Your father closes every door when he showers: the bedroom door and the shower door and the door that separates the bedroom from the bathroom. Here you kneel, knees pressed into the thick, off-white carpet, face pressed to the yellow sliver of light between the hinges. You wait for the shower’s drone and booming Bocelli before tiptoeing into the bedroom. Then, if the bathroom door hasn’t latched (it rarely does), you inch it open. Slowly, slowly, slowly the image resolves: your father’s tanned body turning under the water, your father’s black groin blurred by the fogged glass. It’s like those empty afternoons you tried on his briefs, savoring the feel of each foreign fabric, maneuvering your little dick through their flies. Or smelled the sweaty pouches in the hamper, picking out the black, wiry hairs woven into the cotton. You kneel at the door, your small, hairless body in awe of your father’s.
American Taekwondo Association, Yorba Linda, CA – 1995
Your nose bleeds before the match, or it bleeds because you’ve forgotten to block your face. You corkscrew toilet paper up your nostril. Mr. Kim sanitizes the mat. Mr. Brandon follows you into the bathroom. “Poor Mr. Steven. Are you okay?” His eyes squint behind wire-rimmed glasses, and as he bends down to your level, you smell the gel in his slicked-back hair. “There, there.” He pets your head.
The Peninsula Hotel, Manila, Philippines – 1995
You beg your father to buy you an issue of Tiger Beat with Mark-Paul Gosselaar on the cover. Behind the platinum blonde bangs, his seraphic face looks troubled. The headline reads, “I don’t have a girlfriend because…”
American Taekwondo Association, Yorba Linda, CA – 1995
Mr. Timothy rolls at your feet. Your roundhouse kicks always land in his groin.
Josh’s Twelfth Birthday Party, Yorba Linda, CA – 1996
In a Jacuzzi surrounded by the most popular boys in your class, you dare Clint Arnett to take off his trunks and hold them up for everyone to see. The boys crow when he does it. Your crotches cook in the turbulent water.
Your Sister’s Bedroom, Yorba Linda, CA – 1996
Behind the pink, canopied bed, you and Michael Miyamoto flip through The Joy of Sex. “That’s what mine looks like,” Moto says, pointing to the figure labeled the tumescent penis. The figure labeled male-female intercourse disturbs you. This can’t be right, you think. Your mother, your sister, your teachers, Kalen: they would never let themselves be dick-stabbed.
Swimming Test, Sixth Grade Camp, Lake Arrowhead, CA – 1997
Brown hair, thick, and darker when wet, forms a cross on his chest. “You’ve hiked those trunks pretty high, bud,” he says. The female counselors laugh.
New York-New York Hotel and Casino, Las Vegas, NV – 1997
Your best friend Charlie Chen grabs you by the arms and shakes you until your head rolls back. You shake him. He shakes you. You shake him.
Mr. Gebler’s Language Arts Class, Bernardo Yorba Middle School, Yorba Linda, CA – 1997
Alphabetical order blesses you with a seat in the back row, beside Nick Thompson. You exchange yearbook photos: he has a middle part with bangs that curl inwards, and he buttons his collared shirt to the top button. He spells false f-a-l-c-e. He spells liar l-a-i-r.
Sleepover at Your House, Yorba Linda, CA – 1997
Moto claims his nipples get hard when he rubs them. He lifts his shirt to prove it. You remove one cotton moisturizing glove to test the nipple’s firmness. His nipple-skin feels silky and warm, and you stroke it with your greasy finger to see if it will harden. “You guys!” Charlie Chen hides in his sleeping bag. “What are you doing?” he giggles.
Multicultural Night, Bernardo Yorba Middle School, Yorba Linda, CA – 1997
You decide to no longer be friends with Eric. He’s boring and awkward; he never says anything interesting. Eric’s mother tells your mother that he cries every night because you won’t talk to him. You’re touched by this, but also resilient and stubborn. You’ve been friends since second grade; the years weigh on you, an unwelcome responsibility.
America Online Message Board – 1997
You email a flight attendant who writes erotic stories. He tells you that after reading your email, he unleashed his raging hard-on at an airport urinal. He cools, however, when you describe yourself as a 5’8” lingerie model. 5’8” is a good height, you heard somewhere. “Are you playing games with me?” he asks. You respond with outrage at the accusation. “As long as you’re not some hairy, overweight dude,” he says.
Bernardo Yorba Middle School, Yorba Linda, CA – 1998
Eric and his new, weasel-faced sidekick back you up against a cinderblock wall. “Whatcha reading, Steve?” He crushes a sycamore pod underfoot.
Dawson’s Creek – 1998
“How often do you walk your dog, huh?” Joey demands. “What time of day? How many times a week?” Dawson sighs, won’t look at her. You would do the same if someone asked. Dawson says goodnight, but as Joey tearfully unties her rowboat, he shouts from his bedroom window, “Usually in the morning, with Katie Couric!” You can’t think of a more intimate secret.
Mr. Weidler’s Shop Class, Bernardo Yorba Middle School, Yorba Linda, CA – 1998
At the end of the year, you send a candygram to your shop TA. You want to be his friend. You wait for him to call. You rehearse the conversation, the times when you’re free. You wait.
Passing Period, Bernardo Yorba Middle School, Yorba Linda, CA – 1999
You time your walk to sixth period so that you can open the door of the 600 Building for Quentin Fischl. A few days later, there he is, holding the door open for you.
Ms. Porter’s Leadership Class, Bernardo Yorba Middle School, Yorba Linda, CA – 1999
For his birthday, you bring Clint Arnett a lunch bag filled with red-and-blue sour gummy worms because he said he liked the red-and-blue. You double-bag the worms and write his name on the front with your mother’s blue calligraphy pen, just like she does for you.
The Marine Room, La Jolla, CA – 1999
“Boy, he’s thirsty!” the waiter tells your father as he refills your water glass for the tenth time.
America Online – 1999
Quent do u do it?
You what if i said yes?
Quent i wouldn’t think any less of u at all
Quent it’s only human
You then I do
You and you?
Quent hehe… yeah
Yorba Linda Boulevard, Yorba Linda, CA – 1999
Kalen is sick, so you walk to her house in Eastlake Village to deliver pho. Her mother answers the door. This is what you imagine a boyfriend would do: deliver pho, charm the mother. You always thought you’d end up with Kalen, even when you left her at Sadie’s to dance the last slow dance with Jessi Nichols. “What wholesome young people you are!” said an elderly couple at Olive Garden. “You don’t see many like that anymore.”
Mrs. Farrell’s Biology Class, Esperanza High School, Anaheim, CA – 1999
He holds a stethoscope to the combination lock someone has hung on your backpack. He tilts his head, listening for each tumbler to click into place.
Your Backyard, Yorba Linda, CA – 2000
You and Quent raid your house for things to burn. A WD-40 can becomes a flamethrower. A burning trash bag spews molten plastic that whizzes blue and smoking through the air. Lighter fluid spills from a melted Tupperware filled with popping paper caps. Quent whoops as tennis balls blacken and split, seams hissing. You lean back, try not to breathe. For your next trick, a hot air balloon, you duct tape a grocery bag to a Styrofoam block blazing with candles. Quent grabs your sleeve, about to ignite.
Esperanza High School, Anaheim, CA – 2000
Quent is impressed, and so is everyone else. Your AP Euro and Honors Language Arts classmates congratulate you. Chintan writes, “STEVEN – We heard about Jessi!” on the board. The boys in the locker room clap you on the back and cheer, “pimp house,” while they strip off their sweaty shirts. And your father tells you he’ll polish his red Porsche before the dance. You were surprised by your sweating palms, by your stutter on the phone when you asked her. You’ve never been fazed by pretty girls, but you hope she might change this for you, that you might soon love her as much as you love the celebrity of winning her.
America Online – 2000
Quent i wish i hadn’t told u about wankin
Quent made me do it more
Esperanza High School, Anaheim, CA – 2001
“This has got to stop,” Big Al’s boyfriend says when you come to school wearing identical charcoal hoodies from Abercrombie and Fitch.
Kalen’s Kitchen, Yorba Linda, CA – 2001
“You’re like my brother,” she tells you as you ice and sugar cookies. “I just feel comfortable with you.” She’s not sure what she’s getting at, and after a moment, she stops trying.
America Online – 2001
You how good friends do you think we are?
Quent scale of 1 to 10?
Quent 6.5 to 7
Quent how bout u
Your Bedroom, Yorba Linda, CA – 2001
On your sixteenth birthday, you receive a trial stick of Old Spice deodorant in the mail. You sleep with your arms over your head, savoring the smell.
SeanCody.com – 2001
Thank you, Dylan and Tim, sunburned Tobey, Abercrombie model Aaron, Clay with two Chinese characters tattooed on his chest. Thank you, Todd and smiling Billy and uncut Jake, whose shoulder tattoo grew from year to year. Thank you, Ethan, Curtis, Italian Mark (II). Jess came in two arcing streams; Calvin took them in the face. Thank you, Aidan, Pierce, sweet, eager Charley, Zeke. Monotone twins John and Jeff. Thank you, Ben, half-Asian Ken (III), silver-fox Daniel, power-bottom Jamie, Ashton the carnie with the forefinger tattoo, a mustache he held gleefully over his lip. Did they really live in the same world as you with your robe and soggy boxers? You fantasized about them because they were straight and shameless and because they asked nothing of you in return. You grew up with these men, and every night, you wiped their names from your search history.
Ms. Durnford’s Language Arts Class, Esperanza High School, Anaheim, CA – 2001
“I see him in the mirror,” the swimmer reads, “my better half, my mother’s half, a selfless half, a smarter half.” You didn’t know he was half Jewish. Quent says the swimmer is “obsessed” with not being smart. When you ask for him on the phone, his mother says, “Robert or Robbie?”
Mrs. Sprang’s AP Chemistry Class, Esperanza High School, Anaheim, CA – 2001
“Why did you put me in that story?” Quent asks. “Why do you always play the victim?” In his mind, there is a binary, and because you don’t act like a bro, he must treat you like a bitch.
America Online – 2001
Robbie wow big steve, I didn’t know you had a bad side
Robbie u start hanging out with me, I’ll corrupt you in a minute
Passing Period, Esperanza High School, Anaheim, CA – 2002
You see Quent from across the quad and feel him notice you, too. Digging your right hand from your jacket pocket, you raise it tentatively. You are only a few feet apart when he raises his hand, stretching his fingers to receive your greeting with a wide, goofy hello.
Steven Tagle is the recipient of a 2016 Asian American Writers’ Workshop Margins Fellowship, a 2016 Fulbright Fellowship to Greece, and a 2013 Soros Fellowship. A graduate of the UMass Amherst MFA Program, he has been published in Spork and The Rumpus. steventagle.com / @steventagle