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boba liberal romantic tragedy
“But what we do now — Korean barbecue and the boba shop and fish sauce shots — is that so different? Do you like performing this idea of homeland?”
Emily Zheng knew that she met the love of her life as soon as it happened, on a Thursday afternoon, right outside the campus boba shop.
The boba (or bubble tea, depending on your political persuasion), was truthfully just okay here, but it was the only shop that existed within fifteen miles of school, so everyone Emily had ever met over the past three years usually congregated at this spot. She was opening the door when he walked out and ran right into her, nearly spilling his taro milk tea with pearls all over her backpack.
He apologized profusely, and she acted somewhat annoyed, though secretly, she didn’t mind all that much. He wasn’t the kind of person who she’d mind bumping into. He had a beachy, Abercrombie & Fitch greeter air of handsomeness, with blue eyes and soft, curly hair. But Emily knew that acting annoyed and then forgiving him later would be a much cooler move than immediately not minding, so that’s what she did. He asked for her number on the spot.
“Andrew Holm,” she recited, eyes tracing over the new contact in her phone.
It was easy to fall in love with someone as charming as Andrew Holm. As they flirted through the basics — he studied art history, she was in marketing, he hung out at the off-campus wine bar with graduate students, she drank bottom-shelf vodka in literally anyone’s apartment — Emily couldn’t help but feel it blooming inside of her, threatening to consume her. She knew this feeling; she had seen this mysterious force take hold of other girls for much lesser men, reduced to fighting for their lives in group chats and frontrunning a photo reveal of him with a harried he looks better in real life. But this was different. Andrew was different. He carried himself in the way only a white man could. She could compare his nose bridge to the slope of a Hollywood star’s, corroborate his eyes to the stuff of epic romances. And nothing made her more sure that this is where her life was meant to lead her.
“So I’ll text you,” he said, a boyish smile unfurling as he pocketed his phone. He had a chip in his incisor.
And then they parted ways. Andrew turned and walked back towards campus. Emily felt the air return to her lungs, as if they had just been inside a vacuum, completely and totally alone.
Only they were not, for Emily was never truly alone. Through the smudged glass of the campus boba shop, twenty members of the Asian American Student Association watched Emily Zheng fall in love. Clumped around squat white tables littered with plastic straw wrappers, everyone — Emily’s best friend, Soyeon, the Asian fraternity brothers, engineering majors in the back, the sophomores waiting for their press-ons to dry — openly stared as that junior Emily swooned in front of some guy right outside the boba shop. Twenty heads of varying states of chemically-induced follicle decay clustered behind the window, and immediately after Andrew left, the name “Andrew Holm” was entered into five different Instagram search bars, the sound of acrylic on screens bouncing like popcorn all over the room. And as Emily walked in and sat down with Soyeon, she could still feel twenty pairs of eyes trained on her.
“What was that?” Soyeon demanded.
“I don’t know,” Emily looked down, her ears reddening.
It’s important to note that was also not AASA’s first time witnessing a boba shop meet-cute. There was the time Achara Photthong and Daniel Khang got the same order, one right after the other, and ended up dating for three years. Of course, everyone was also there when Hannah Joo showed up to Peter Nguyen’s study session; after graduation, they moved into a cozy studio apartment in San Francisco together. But on one point, the twenty witnesses could agree with Emily — this encounter was certainly different from the rest, because Andrew Holm was a little different.
Within the half hour, a trio of the sophomores descended on Emily and Soyeon to emphasize this point, bearing grim frowns and an air of fizzing anticipation.
“We looked him up, Emily,” Manami, a round-faced sophomore with heavy eyeliner, announced as she bravely thrusted her phone towards Soyeon. “It’s bad.”
Soyeon peered at the screenshots. “He posted a photo studying abroad in Shanghai?” she gasped.
“And I heard from Lily Cheung that he dated two Asian girls,” Manami added, leaning in. “You know, because Lily’s studying art history too, so she sees him in class.”
Everyone murmured their condolences to Emily, who, unsure of how to react to this news, focused on puncturing a hole in the top of her honey oolong, thirty percent sugar, with grass jelly.
“Okay, but it’s not even just that it was two Asian girls,” another interjected darkly. “I see him around here a lot, getting boba. He gets taro and he’s got the Hokusai wave phone case. That’s fucking weird.”
The others murmured in agreement. “If it was strawberry, then whatever, he just doesn’t know what he’s doing,” Manami whispered. Her eyes were wide, so that the eyeliner drew two perfect circles on her face. “But taro is just sinister.”
Emily nodded listlessly, but didn’t know what to say. For the issue was that she was so certain he was The One. The Only One. There are no other moments in a young woman’s life that can match this level of starry-eyed passion, particularly for a young woman who happily survived adolescence via romantic comedies and couples’ vloggers and fanfiction about getting trapped in hotel rooms with boy bands. The feeling had tethered itself deep into Emily’s heart, replaying the scene over and over — the scent of sugar and taro as they collided, the touch of his fingers as she handed over her phone. So while Soyeon, Manami, and the sophomore charites attempted to broker the extent of Andrew Holm’s red flags, Emily looked down, and saw that he had already texted her.
In spite of it all, she smiled.
Soyeon watched her, brows furrowed, and took a long sip out of her straw.
AASA’s fall mixer was always hosted on a Thursday night, because white fraternities held their parties on Fridays and Saturdays. Even if it came from someone who looked just like you, the invitation to drink beer in a sticky, horny house is still far more enticing to the freshly minted 18-year-old than going to a stranger’s apartment. By the time Emily and Soyeon finished their homework in the boba shop, they had just two hours to return to Soyeon’s apartment, change into those lacy black bralettes they’d bought off Facebook, and take three shots of peach soju each. It was still warm enough that they didn’t need coats, so they ditched their backpacks at Soyeon’s and headed off to the party, wearing nothing but black leggings and those skimpy bralettes, reeking of vanilla body spray.
They arrived an hour before the official party started, but it turns out the pregame had already devolved into chaos by the time they arrived. Alex Cho, the baby-faced AASA president, greeted Emily and Soyeon at the door of his apartment with an air of tired defeat, like a single father ushering unexpected guests into his crayon-decorated living room. It was debauchery to the highest degree; Pepcid wrappers were strewn across the kitchen counter like confetti, and a malignant pile of dirty Nike sneakers were pushed together at the door. Someone’s homemade remix of an Illenium track rattled the walls as all twenty people from the boba shop, plus an additional fifteen AASA members, took their first fish sauce shots of the school year, shrieking and laughing as the briny liquid hit their throats. Every inch of the apartment was covered in cognac bottles and thin, white lines of coke, cut with the precision of a dining hall card.
“Grab a drink,” Alex instructed, sweeping an armful of wrappers from the countertop and into the trash. “And talk to some freshmen tonight before they black out, please. Wholesome stuff. Classes and shit.”
Emily picked up one of the half-emptied Hennessy bottles and automatically took a swig. Mistake. Someone had poured their fish sauce into it, and apparently put out their cigarette in it after. A bitter, grainy sludge coated the inside of her throat. She gagged and set the bottle back down.
“Soyeon! Come here,” Lily Cheung called over to them from the kitchen. She was standing amidst a group of fraternity brothers. “We’re playing stack cup!”
Lily Cheung had joined AASA the same year as Soyeon and Emily. A willowy girl with a permanent smattering of blush across her nose, Lily was something of an anomaly — always amidst a group of clean-shaven boys at a party, laughing at their jokes or playing some form of game (Valorant and drinking alike). You’d never spot Lily by herself, taking out the trash or watching a YouTube video in the dining hall. She seemed to perpetually exist in the silhouettes of a crowd, yet Emily knew that she was always alone. She could feel it in the way the guys spoke about her, or the way the girls rolled their eyes at her aggressively pink outfits, or the way Alex never asked her to connect with the newcomers the way he requested everyone else to.
The girls waded over the kitchen, where everyone was beginning to congregate around the dining room table, set to play with a kaleidoscope of half-filled plastic cups in the middle. Soyeon took the ball, bounced it towards the center, and the game began. Like children on a merry-go-round, they pointed and laughed in glee, urging others to drink or groaning in feigned dismay when the plastic fell into liquid with a satisfying thwack. The machinations of aiming and throwing the ball are less important than learning the dance of jeering you drink, nah he missed, that’s cap, miming some kind of fantasy of sophistication. Emily could feel her face begin to warm as the center chimney of cups grew precariously high, containing scraps of compiled shots from other cups, waiting for the final moment to find its loser.
“This hurts more than watching Emily with that white man,” one senior in a black hoodie who, despite the copious intake of Pepcid, was bright red, groaned.
“Shut up,” Emily threw the ball towards the center. It sailed past the table and clattered on the floor. She took a shot and stacked her cup, passing it to her left.
“Like you don’t date white girls,” Soyeon added loyally.
“Nani the fuck,” he said. “Bro, nah, if I were an Asian girl, I wouldn’t date a white guy for a million dollars.”
“Not if my mom’s life depended on it,” another agreed.
“That makes literally no sense.”
“I’m just saying what everyone's thinking. I’d rather be broke or dead,” the senior shrugged and tilted his cup towards his mouth. “Than the white man’s whore.”
There were no more cups left, and freshmen had begun to trickle in, looking eagerly around the decrepit apartment. Emily took the ball in her tacky fingers, bounced it high in the air. It missed the center cup.
Onlookers erupted into cheers. The tower was passed to Emily, the night’s consummate loser.
“Nah, you saw that? The universe has spoken,” the senior looked around the room triumphantly, as though motioning for applause. Everyone broke out in appropriately raucous laughter. The cocktail of fish sauce, Hennessy, soju and cigarette ash was curdling somewhere in Emily’s intestines. She looked at Soyeon, who was determinedly examining the wooden edge of the table.
As praise rained down on the boys for their universally-approved words of wisdom, Lily Cheung caught Emily’s eye and motioned towards the door. Emily gratefully followed her away from the table and out of the apartment. They each slipped on a pair of white sneakers from the pile (Emily’s a size too big) and walked downstairs to the street, which was eerily quiet, lit up in polka dots of yellow by the campus-ordained streetlights. Under the awning of the building, Lily pulled out a vape from her pocket and took a long pull. Smoke billowed up into the night.
“Sorry they were such dicks to you,” Lily offered her a drag. The flavor was taro ice. Emily took it.
“It’s fine.” She kicked a stone, but the borrowed shoes were too big, so the shoe went sailing instead. She bit her lip. “You know him, right? Andrew?”
“He’s in some of my classes,” Lily said. “He’s nice. It’s a small major, so there tends to be a lot of overlap. But I don’t know him super well or anything.”
It struck Emily that she’d never spoken to Lily about her life before. “Why art history? I always thought it was like, a major for white people,” she admitted.
“I mean, it is mostly white people,” Lily shrugged. “But I’m good at it.”
“Nah, they don’t. My mom was actually an export model in the nineties, so. I know some people in AASA make jokes about how I’m doing, like, a useless colonizer major.”
“People always talk shit,” Emily said. “It doesn’t mean anything.”
“I don’t know. They probably believe it. Sometimes I think we inherited the pain from the homeland and found new ways to inflict it.”
“What do you mean?”
Lily paused, exhaling a plume of taro.
“Growing up I always thought my family was doing a performance to be here, taking on jobs to get by and learning to like cheese and shit,” she said. “But then we were born into limbo, and obsess over this idea of a homeland, because the generational trauma is like, rooted to this idea of a place. But what we do now — Korean barbecue and the boba shop and fish sauce shots — is that so different? Do you like performing this idea of homeland?”
Emily laughed hesitantly, not sure what the right answer was. She handed the vape back to Lily.
“I should go find Soyeon,” she said. “Thanks, Lily. Really.”
Lily smiled sadly at Emily. “Sure. See you later.”
Even though Emily’s cheeks were still warm, and the room had become packed with even more people by the time she stepped back into the party, the apartment felt colder now as she traced her steps back to the Pepcid counters, back to the fish sauce shots, back to the stack cup table, where the seniors had enticed the freshman into a game. She walked to the pile of white sneakers, and saw Soyeon’s pair (size 6, scuffed at the toe, blue pen mark on one lace) was missing. Maybe she’d left. Emily found her own pair and opened the front door once more.
A strange scene. The back of Soyeon’s head, waiting for the elevator. As Emily was about to call out, the doors opened, to reveal inside, Alex and Lily, fused at the lips, pawing at each other in the lift, apparently oblivious to their unwilling voyeur, who was oblivious to her unwilling voyeur. Soyeon turned right, and headed down the stairs. Alex and Emily locked eyes. The elevator doors closed.
Andrew took Emily to the campus art museum for their first date. There was an ongoing special exhibition and he wanted to check it out, he’d texted her with a little starry-eyed emoji. Maybe they could get boba after, lol? Emily had never had a proper first date before, one in broad daylight and involving money. A museum date felt especially grown, like they were love interests in a K-drama. In her nervous anticipation, Emily laid out a white sweater, skirt, and tights the night before, and spent twenty minutes before bed researching art history talking points.
On the day of the date, Emily showed up exactly on time, but Andrew was already waiting at the foot of the entrance steps, in a rumpled navy button-down and khaki trousers. He’d brushed all his hair forward, so that instead of falling in different directions, all the curls fanned outward on his forehead, creating a visor. When he saw her, he straightened up and ruffled his hair, watching her make her way towards him. It sent a rush of ego through her, to watch him watch her with the same fluttering anxiety.
“I like your outfit,” he’d said, and pulled her into a hug, as if they were already together, not in the awkward splashes of a first date. His arms were warm and smelled faintly of body spray.
The compliment was reassuring. Emily smoothed down the front of her skirt, and he took her hand, leading her inside. Her heart jumped, whether from panic or excitement, she wasn’t sure.
Inside, the museum was small, with arching windows that washed warm sunlight across white marbled floors. It was fairly empty. The only other people they could see was a gaggle of four teenage girls in the main room. They were taking Instagram photos in a garden of abstract statues. One would pose, repeating little stop-motion movements to capture a candid sense of movement, while the others directed their hand placements and facial expressions. Each time, whenever they felt they’d struck gold, the group would all shriek and pile together to review their handiwork, becoming one giggly flock of crop tops and white sneakers. Andrew squeezed Emily’s hand and motioned towards them.
“White people are so embarrassing,” he whispered, rolling his eyes, as though they were sharing an inside joke. It wasn’t technically untrue, Emily thought, as they walked past them. As they crossed paths, the girls looked up and goggled at them. One followed Emily with her eyes a beat too long. Another Instagram vista, perhaps.
Since a third of the museum had been commandeered by the teenagers, they spent most of their time shuffling through the marble floors of the back room, where paintings of lovely things hung on gilded walls, still-life oil brushstrokes of fruits in silver bowls and portraits of pale Victorian women. The floors were inlaid with carvings and the large windows let in long panels of light, but the only detail Emily was truly aware of was the sensation of his hand (warm) against hers (clammy).
She noticed whenever she made an observation he disagreed with, he would push his shoulders back and puff his chest out, awakened by their teasing conflict. Sometimes he would start an opinion like “some people think this” — a theoretical prompt, waiting for her to pick it apart and provide witty counterarguments until she “won” him over. Emily had to admit, she liked it too. She felt smarter when she voiced her opinion against his devil’s advocate interpretation, even if she had no idea what she was talking about. It felt nice to win. And every time he conceded, it felt like a small, freeing victory.
So they held hands, and laughed, and debated the hidden messages within each painting, each argument becoming increasingly more unserious than the last. When Andrew laughed, he laughed with his whole body, shoulders shaking and face lighting up in a boyish excitement. He grasped her hand with both of his when a joke was especially funny to him, and his irises shifted from hazel to blue-green as they walked under the dappled sunlight.
Emily imagined what this date would look like from Soyeon’s perspective. She wondered if Soyeon would find their banter charming, or unbearably pretentious. It was certainly not like any conversation she’d ever had, wholly intellectual and painstakingly searching for meaning. She wondered if Lily would consider this real, or a performance. She wondered what the seniors at stack cup would have had to say about this.
“Thanks for bringing me today,” she said suddenly. She looked up into Andrew’s eyes, willing herself to remember what she felt outside the boba shop, not the watchful faces in the window, but the feeling of his fingers against hers, the somersaults in her chest.
Andrew met her gaze steadily, unaware of the feeling clenching and unclenching itself in Emily’s chest, leaving punctures all over her heart. “Anytime,” he said. And then he leaned in.
Andrew Holm tasted like peppermint and mango Juul pod; he cupped her face with one hand and curled his other at the base of her spine, buoying her in place. This was not the frenetic kiss of an elevator hookup, this was slow and sure and a little terrifying. She felt the air evaporate from her lungs once more, reentering the vacuum, the only people in the world. She kissed him back, willing herself to be certain.
But of course, they were not alone, for Emily was never truly alone. When at last they broke apart, she became acutely aware that one of the crop-topped teenagers had broken off from the group, and was watching them from the doorway with a vague look of distaste. The teenager’s lips turned down somewhere between confusion and indignation as she unabashedly glared at the couple kissing in the painting room. So Emily locked eyes with her, staring back. Neither one turned away.
But then Andrew turned to see what Emily was gaping at. The girl blushed and turned around, disappearing when she met his gaze.
Andrew turned to Emily, bemused. “Well, that’s embarrassing.” He smiled and scratched the back of his neck. “I guess let’s go to the next room?”
She let him lead her beyond the room, but turned back to look. The girl was nowhere to be seen, but she swore she could hear laughter from the group in the other room.
The last room, the special exhibition room, was unlike the oil painting room, and something of a surprise to Emily. It was dark and carpeted and gave off an air of unkemptness; the walls were haphazardly painted in gray and emitted a faint scent of mildew.
All around this room were black and white photos of Chinese people. A naked man, covered in something wet, crawling with flies, staring off into the distance. A couple, mid-scream, dressed in the rags of what might have once been beautiful silk wedding garments. A white soldier and his young Asian bride, posing stoically for the camera.
Emily’s suddenly became very aware of her hand beneath Andrew’s, their palms slightly tacky with perspiration. The teenager’s watchful eyes seem to bore into the back of her skull.
Maybe everyone else was right, and she was wrong. Maybe it hadn’t mattered at all that they’d had that meet-cute outside the boba shop. Maybe he did that with every girl that walked in or out of there. Maybe he brought her here thinking he could intellectualize these people with her, and she was supposed to be able to intellectualize it too. Maybe she was overthinking it. She was probably overthinking it.
She tore her eyes away from the horrific paintings, and found herself looking at another surprise. Lily, at the very end of the special exhibition room. By herself. Like seeing a unicorn at the laundromat or your second-grade teacher bulking up on one dollar flip-flops at Old Navy, but no, it definitely was Lily. It hadn’t been that long since the AASA mixer (two, three days?) but there was something different about Lily all the same. Without her usual harem of men, she looked small and forlorn. Without her usual blush, she looked withdrawn and bloodless as she peered deeply into the photograph of the screaming couple, as though they were giving her answers to a personal question.
She turned, startled. “Emily. Hey.” Her eyes fell on Andrew.
“Hi, I’m Andrew.”
A slight crease appeared between Lily’s brows. “Yeah. We have like, two classes together.”
“This is Lily,” Emily proffered to him embarrassedly.
Andrew’s laugh reverberated around the cold room. “Sorry, I’m so bad with names. Lily. I’ll remember from now on.”
But the mood had shifted from something romantic to something decidedly awkward now, and they padded from photograph to photograph with the newfound pace of teenagers being chaperoned by at the mall. Andrew attempted to keep their previous stream of jokes up, but Emily no longer felt in the mood to entertain the performance. She watched Lily through the corner of her eye, who seemed to be wilting as Andrew’s jokes cut through the empty air.
There were several photos of the flea-bitten man in the exhibition room, lined up in a row. From one angle, he looked totally bald, but from the side, you could see a sliver of a queue ponytail, undone and fraying like an old power cord.
“Maybe I should get one of those ponytails,” Andrew smiled, elbowing Emily slightly.
Lily’s frown deepened. “I think the ponytail was a symbol of power struggle,” she said slowly. “Like, people were forced to undo them when they were conquered by the Han Chinese. Right, Emily?”
Emily had no clue. “Yeah,” she said. “I think that’s right.”
“That sounds made up,” Andrew laughed.
Lily turned to Emily suddenly. “Have you talked to Alex lately?” she asked.
“Alex Cho? Not since the party,” Emily said, highly aware of Andrew’s presence next to hers.
Lily nodded, but didn’t elaborate. “Have you, um, heard anything about the mixer?”
“Oh, about that freshman who had to go to the hospital?”
“No. Not that. Never mind, then.”
Andrew’s eyes ping-ponged between Lily and Emily. Emily waited for Lily to say something, but she didn’t. So Emily didn’t, either. Andrew took Emily’s hand again, and the moment passed. Emily felt the air return to her lungs.
After the museum, Andrew walked Emily home, and kissed her again, right on her doorstep beneath a streetlamp, this time longer and lingering. He held her at her waist tightly, kissed her deeply, nearly lifting her from the ground. He didn’t mention Lily. She didn’t mention his idea for a queue ponytail. By the time she walked up to her apartment, he’d already texted her a goodnight text and another starry-eyed emoji. She read it five times over, washed off her makeup, and fell into a deep, exhausted sleep.
Three days went by after the museum date, and by then, Andrew and Emily had evolved from a lone meet-cute into a full blown thing, a budding new item, according to the words passed between underclassmen in any social event, enamored by the frothy delight of fresh gossip. They were the shiny new ambassadors of Loving v. Virginia, a win for the girls who had pictures of Tom Holland secretly taped to the insides of their rave bralette drawers. Apparently, the underclassmen told each other, he walked her to every class, texted her every morning, and even bought her a salad for lunch once when she told him she hadn’t eaten all day. Swoon.
Soyeon had nothing to add to the conversation, no matter how many times girls would ask for her comment on the story. She, for one, very much loved being part of the AASA social scene, and had no intentions of messing it up by whoring herself to the pasty-faced colonizer. She’d grown up in the suburbs outside Atlanta, and yearned for the sacrilegious nightlife that she saw on the Instagrams of Korean kids who grew up in the city proper. When she came to college, she had hoped to join an Asian sorority, but found out upon arriving that the organization had collapsed after one girl claimed she was assaulted at the sorority house. Bummer, Soyeon had thought to herself, though she wasn’t sure who she felt more sorry for.
But still, she felt yoked to Emily all the same, having joined AASA together and indebted by way of sheer amount of hours spent; time, rather than dogs, is actually man’s first best friend. So she sent the proper Memoji reactions when Emily sent her screenshots of their texts (exploding-faced dinosaur, starry-eyed unicorn), but couldn’t bring herself to add more. It was on the fourth day after their date, on a Tuesday, when she felt something finally had to be said.
They were studying in the boba shop for an organic chemistry exam when Emily looked up and realized something was different about the scene of people in front of her.
“Hey, where’s Lily?”
In fact, Emily realized she hadn’t seen Lily since her first date with Andrew. The image of her at the museum had not left her head, but she hadn’t found it in her to pick up the phone and text her.
Soyeon finished the equation she was working on with one swift gel-penned line. “You didn’t hear? She was kicked out of AASA.”
“Yeah, she apparently went to the board after the fall mixer and said Alex Cho assaulted her.”
Emily gaped at Soyeon, who was nonchalantly reviewing her work. “Where did you hear that?”
“You’ve been so busy with your white boy. It was a big thing, like four days ago.”
Soyeon put down her pen and pulled her boba cup (mango pomelo with sago, half sugar, half ice) towards her.
“They kicked her out for that?”
“I mean, come on,” Soyeon said matter-of-factly, shaking her cup so that the sago bounced from one end to the other. “Everyone saw them hooking up at the mixer. You can’t make an accusation like that if people saw you.”
Emily remembered meeting Alex’s gaze as he disappeared behind the elevator. “But we didn’t see the whole thing. That’s not fair, right?”
“Don’t be stupid, Emily,” Soyeon snorted. “If Alex has to step down over something we have no evidence of, AASA could fall apart. Then what happens to us? And Lily should’ve known that it’ll make us look bad, too. Anyway, it’s Alex, who is a literal baby. And it’s Lily, which, not to be anti-feminist or anything, but you know. It’s Lily.”
“So we’re all just going to betray her, basically.”
“No offense, but I don’t think you really get to talk about race betrayal, Emily.”
Soyeon punctured her straw into the lid with one swift pop. Emily could feel hammering back in her chest. All at once, she stood up and stiffly collected her things, throwing her laptop and notebooks in her backpack and zipping it up as much as it would go. She slung the whole thing over her shoulder and snatched up a stray textbook before walking out of the shop, leaving Soyeon behind.
It was a rough storming off; Emily had to carry her unopened boba cup in one hand and the book in the other, so her backpack dug awkwardly into her shoulder as she slowed to a careful waddle once she was out of the shop’s sight. Halfway back to campus, she spotted a bench and sat down, dumping all her stuff next to her before she started to cry.
Sniffling, Emily pulled out her phone, searching for a friend or verification of the story or both. She scrolled past Lily’s number and hovered over her contact. What happened after those elevator doors closed? She shook her head and looked at the bottom of the screen. Andrew Holm, she read. Without thinking, she pressed his contact and sent him a text asking him if she could come over. Sure, he texted back immediately with an address. Everything OK?
Tears dripping on her lap, Emily punched a hole in her boba cup and took a long sip. It was watery. That made her want to kill herself on the spot.
It turns out Andrew lived on the outskirts of campus, in a cul-de-sac of dilapidated student houses where art majors and political science majors intersected. When Emily arrived, he greeted her at the front door and kissed her on the forehead.
He led her downstairs, opening a second door to a spacious sub-basement studio. It was cold and the half-windows cast an eerie light, but it was bare and tidy, with a twin XL bed and an electric guitar propped up in the corner. The furniture was placed bizarrely, with his small, plaid couch positioned in the middle of the room. A door near the front was cracked open, just enough to reveal a sliver of white bathroom tiles. At least the cleanliness was calming. In the back of her head, it dawned on Emily that this was her first time in his apartment.
“Sorry if this is weird, me coming over without warning,” she said, setting her backpack on the ground.
“I mean, it was going to happen at some point, right?” He led her to the couch.
To his credit, Andrew was a good listener. He made her a cup of tea and sat her on the couch as she recounted each detail, gasping at just the right parts and sputtering angrily at the things Soyeon said about Lily. She told him her fears of fighting with Soyeon, her worries about what others would say about her, how her life would be harder if she publicly sided with Lily. Andrew listened, his brow furrowed until it was nearly one straight, furry line.
“Why don’t you just leave?” he said suddenly.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, doesn’t this make all these people seem a little toxic?” Andrew seemed even more confused by Emily’s confusion. “You said it yourself, they punish people who come forward. Like, just cut them out. It’s not like you’d want to be around that kind of person anyway.”
Emily’s face burned with shame. “It’s not that simple,” she said.
Andrew scoffed. “Emily, it’s a club, not a cult. You’re not morally bound to it. You can choose to leave if they’re not serving you.”
She didn’t want to argue. She wouldn’t have even known where to begin. That feeling was creeping up from her heart to her throat, cutting her off at the windpipe, strangling her from behind. But she had no counterargument. “I guess that makes sense,” she said quietly.
He leaned in again to kiss her again, as if gifting her for her concession, but one soft kiss turned into two, quickly slipping away from the childish romance in the museum. It was feverish and greedy; he pushed his tongue into her mouth and pressed his entire weight against her, pushing her on her back as he lay on top of her. In total silence, Emily let him paw at her, barely daring to breathe as he rubbed his fingers in her hair, on her chest.
“Everything will be okay,” he said. He tugged her shirt over her head and threw it somewhere into the chasm of the apartment.
His hands on her bare skin was worse. So much worse. She was too aware of his hunger, the way he eagerly devoured her stillness. She imagined Soyeon watching her frozen body, curled beneath this handsome man who did not seem to care if she was breathing or not. Andrew felt different now; his body was more taut than soft, and he had closed his eyes to inhale her deeply, as though putting on a show.
“I want you to do something for me,” he whispered.
Revulsion shot through Emily, electrocuting every nerve in her body. Suddenly, she imagined the entirety of AASA opening the door to find her here, splayed out on this weirdly positioned couch in this underground apartment, a light shining on the center stage of this disturbing play. She felt the Asian fraternity brothers, engineering majors in the back, the sophomores waiting for their press-ons to dry watching her through smudged glass. She felt Soyeon, the museum teenager, and Alex as the elevator doors closed. Everybody had been right all along, and she was wrong. She hated herself so much she wanted to die right there, beneath this man she was so sure she loved.
“I need to use the bathroom,” she announced, pushing him off.
His bathroom was small and cramped and had another window, poking out to the ground above them. Emily locked the door behind her and began dry heaving over the sink. Bile was creeping up her throat, hot and sweet, the taste of the boba from earlier mixing with the flavor of her own vomit. A mantra pounded over and over in her mind, drilling into every orifice of her brain: I’d rather be broke or dead than the white man’s whore.
And she’d had the nerve to talk about race betrayal.
Her laptop was in the other room, but her phone was still in the pocket of her jeans. Without thinking, she opened up her text messages and typed in Lily’s number.
I’m so sorry, she wrote. She pressed send and leaned over the sink, retching.
After a few unsuccessful moments, when nothing willed itself out of her body, Emily leaned back, hands slippery against the cool ceramic of the sink. She fixed her gaze on things in the bathroom to calm down — the three colorful soaps in the shower caddy, the rolling cart next to the toilet filled with potpourri and plants.
I’d rather be broke or dead than the white man’s whore. I’d rather be broke or dead than the white man’s whore.
Going back into the room was not an option, but if Emily stood on the toilet, she could reach the window. Its old hinges creaked in protest, but with a bit of exertion, Emily managed to swing all the way open. Balancing one leg on the cart and one on the toilet seat, she jumped. Her hands clutched onto the soil outside, fingertips scrambling around clumps of grass to steady her. Emily squeezed half of her body out of the window, wriggling her legs to push herself forward. Dirt spilled inside her bra, her jeans, falling into her underwear.
Outside, she stood up, topless and barefoot, tears catching in her eyes. The air was cooling down quickly, and the streetlights lit up along the shabby little houses, a pointillism of yellow paint dotting an inky blue night. For a moment Emily paused, as though waiting.
Across the street, she saw a white boy and white girl kissing beneath a lamp. They looked so in love, like there was nowhere else they’d rather be. Emily looked at them, captivated. Suddenly, they turned towards her, startled. The boy wrapped his arm protectively around the girl and ushered her into the house. Emily averted her gaze and started walking away, back down the way she came.
This story is fiction.