The apple cider spilt over Michael’s only white shirt is already turning an undeniably distasteful shade reminiscent of old petroleum. Remarkably, the ping-pong ball Sean had attempted to direct towards him is perfectly lodged inside his plastic cup. Less remarkably, his hand still tingles from the sudden, forceful impact of that ball. He wonders, briefly, if this means he’s lost the game, even though they’re still five serves away from the match point.
“Don’t just stand there, Michael,” his mother snaps. “Ai ya, go clean up.”
“My fault, Mrs. Yang,” Sean pipes up cheerfully. “Got too excited—I’ll help him clean it off.”
Predictably, his mother’s face softens. Facing Sean’s parents, she carefully intones, “See? Sean good boy. When I ask Michael to help, only whine, whine, complain.” Even more predictably, she turns to smile widely at Sean’s mother. “But Sean help.”
“Not true. See, you say because Sean not your boy. Too much strange thoughts. Never think of future. Michael choose college already. Sean still don’t know,” Sean’s mother says, shaking her head. The instinctive straightening of her back, though, reveals her pride.
Sean rolls his eyes and plasters on a wide smile. “Come on, dude. That’s gonna stain permanently if we don’t get it out soon.”
Michael tries to ignore Sean’s hand on his back as he’s guided to the bathroom, but Sean’s touch is impossibly delicate yet firm—and when that hand slips down half an inch to Michael’s waist, his heart begins to beat out of his chest.
He wonders if Sean knows, then. If Sean knows about how Michael had sat down with his mother a month ago to broach the subject of dating. About how his mother had first been indignant, wondering how he’d withheld the presence of a girlfriend before he quickly assured her there was none. About how she’d then been excited beyond belief, rattling off the numbers of Chinese girls whose mothers she knew through WeChat. About how he’d had to reveal, painfully, that the last time he was attracted to a girl was in the third grade. About how his mother had been perplexed until he finally stuttered out that damning three-letter word. About her tears, about her refusal to tell his father, about her continued efforts to match him with “good, smart Chinese girls.”
When Sean’s hand caresses his shoulder, though, Michael’s certain he has no idea. Sean’s free with hugs, with ruffles to his hair, but he wouldn’t be so free with those affectionate gestures if he knew how Michael could feel about them. (How he does feel about them.)
The thud of the bathroom door behind them turns his attention back to the stain. Sean screws open the faucet, the water crescendoing to a pounding drumbeat on the cracked porcelain sink. Michael squirts some soap into his palm and starts rubbing the stain, Sean watching over his shoulder with a furrowed brow. Finally, Sean sighs.
“You’re doing it wrong, dude,” he says patronizingly. “Do you need me to show you how to get it out?”
Michael’s sure he could remove the stain, yet he lets Sean reach over his shoulder, take hold of his shirt, and start scrubbing the folds of the fabric. His dark eyes, narrowed in concentration, are half-covered by his long eyelashes, reminiscent of a blackbird’s delicate feathers.
“So, have you seen Lisa’s new hair yet?” Sean asks casually.
“Um—” Michael wracks his brain for a Lisa. He must look thoroughly confused, because Sean lets out another sigh.
“Hot pink-haired girl with the glittery skirt? Used to have glasses? Lisa Hwang?”
“Wait. That was Lisa?” He remembers the girl with bubblegum hair sitting on the basement stairs, chatting into an iPhone. He also remembers Mrs. Hwang’s daughter, a shy girl who’d spent more time picking her nails than making eye contact. When she committed to Cornell the year before, her mother showered her with praise until Lisa’s face turned so red that it looked like she, not her mother, had been the one downing glasses of plum wine.
“Ithaca’s been good for her,” Sean remarks.
“She’s changed a lot.”
“Well, that’s what college is supposed to do, right? She looks—well, chiller, you know? Happier. And seeing Lisa—it got me thinking about stuff.”
“Future stuff. Like, um. I’m thinking of turning down Berkeley.”
Like every good Asian boy, Michael had dreamed of attending Harvard when he was eight. At fifteen, he’d discovered the weaknesses of Harvard’s engineering concentration and designated Berkeley as his new dream school. At seventeen-and-a-half, he’d clicked on the link to his application portal with trembling hands to find an acceptance letter from Berkeley and cried for the first time in two years.
“You’re turning down Berkeley,” he repeats slowly.
“Thinking of turning down Berkeley,” Sean corrects. He stiffens, leaning against the bathroom wall. “I wanna leave California, you know? And I have acceptances from East Coast schools that are just as good as Cal.”
“But you’re majoring in computer science,” Michael stares. And you wouldn’t leave me behind, would you?
Sean smiles carefully, bitterly, and Michael’s heart aches so much his left hand goes numb.
“Haven’t you ever dreamed about just getting out?”
And God, how he wishes he could say yes, yes, a thousand times. But then he would have to explain why someone like Michael, who learned the piano because his mother told him to and did research with a professor because his teacher wanted him to and joined the cross-country team because his father told him to and is majoring in electrical engineering because his classmates expected him to, has any wish, any ability to become independent. He would have to explain why he wants to leave the cage that was built by his own trembling hands.
He settles for a shrug, imitating Sean’s stiff stance. “But you’ll have to come back, won’t you? If you want to work for Facebook or something.”
“Well, Google has offices in New York,” Sean counters, letting go of Michael’s shirt. “Scrub a bit more. It’ll come out soon.”
“But why would you want to leave?” Michael presses again. “People used to say California’s streets were paved with gold for a reason.”
“They also used to say anyone could live the American dream if they tried hard enough, but your grandfather ended up scrubbing plates for twenty years anyway,” Sean replies grimly. “Michael—some of us want more, you know? It’s—like, if I were to stay here, I already know where I’d end up: in a nice polo shirt with a nice, expensive car and a membership to a nice, exclusive country club by my forties. But then I’d be like the passengers on the Titanic. Drifting along in the night, looking for some elusive miracle—something to wake up for—all while an iceberg looms in the distance. And I couldn’t stop myself from crashing into it, because I wouldn’t be steering the ship anymore. And I wouldn’t know where the iceberg is, because it’d be invisible in the dark. But it would still be there. But if I leave, maybe there’d be other paths open for me. And sometimes I guess I just think about doing something I actually want to do, you know? Being really, really happy.”
Yes, I do know, Michael wants to scream. But what does he have to scream about?
And the worst thing is, he sees it—everything—so clearly already, like he knows the choice Sean will make before he’s made it. Sean steering clear of that iceberg, leaving California with a smile and a heavy burden lifted off his shoulders. Sean, somewhere in New England, laughing wildly at a frat party, arms slung around two girls who look at him like he’s Adonis. Sean slow-dancing with a girl who’s everything Michael isn’t, everything Michael could never be, moving in sync with her like two figures in a music box. Sean working at Google and becoming the most innovative person in the room, in every room. Sean thriving, never having to settle for Friday nights at Chinese parties. Never having to settle for Michael.
“I guess,” Michael says, willing his voice not to waver, twisting the bottom of his shirt in a futile attempt to wring out the water. “Yeah, I guess I get it.” He forces himself to smile, hoping his eyes aren’t too red.
“I haven’t decided yet, anyway,” Sean sighs. “I might stay here, you know? We could be, like, the big guys at Berkeley and all. That’d be cool too, wouldn’t it?”
Michael nods, hoping Sean isn’t just saying that for Michael’s sake and really does think, somehow, that he’ll stay in California. The concerned look on Sean’s face, however, tells him it’s the former.
“Anyway, we should get out of here,” Sean says in a cheerier tone, motioning at the door. “I’ve got to win before I go, right?”
“Right,” Michael echoes. But Sean’s already stepped out of the bathroom, letting the door close behind him before Michael has a chance to leave.
Kathryn Zheng is a senior at Tenafly High School in New Jersey. Her writing has been recognized by the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards and the National Council of Teachers of English. Outside of writing, she enjoys learning languages (currently, her passions are Turkish and Spanish), immersing herself in the world of politics, and playing the ukulele.