This is in Ohio. We were eleven, twelve years old, and the teacher asked us to name the number of siblings we had. “One,” most said, or, “Two.” “Zero,” a few said. I said, “One.” Vu said, “Nine.”
I burst out laughing because I’d been over to Vu’s house a lot, had read comic books on his bed and kicked the soccer ball in his backyard, and had even eaten his mom’s grilled cheese sandwiches. I’d never once seen the rustle of a brother-like or sister-like figment, ever, and so thought he was mocking the teacher. But Mrs. Clyde just moved on and no one added anything else, and Vu didn’t make any adjustments to his claim.
When I asked him about this later, he just shrugged and said it was true, though he added, “Three are half.” I didn’t know how to pursue it and so let it drop and almost forgot about it entirely, except once in a while it would occur to me again and I would stop suddenly in the middle of something and say to myself, “Vu has nine invisible siblings.” And I did this years and years later, long after Vu had died, and even then I’d find myself out of nowhere thinking, “Somewhere in the world are Vu’s nine siblings, and I’ll never know them.”
(After doing it for some time, for years and decades, the habit of protest becomes something else, something apart from, almost irrelevant to, one’s initial desires. It becomes, to say it simply, a way of life. Or, to be more accurate if less simple: one’s initial ambitions regress into merely a way of living. Especially this is true if one is clever enough or lucky enough or cowardly enough—let’s just say lucky . . . Especially when one is lucky enough not to have been crushed. And—this is the important qualifier—it must also be said that the methods of protest one has chosen, if one after a time is not crushed, that these methods of protest must have been entirely pathetic.)
I met Vu in a dream. Or rather I met him during a time of my life so separated from what happened before and later that I think of it as a dream. Most people must feel that childhood is that way, scenes that are familiar but irretrievable, a hazy dream—but I think those years in Ohio are for me a bit further removed than is typical. I’ll try to explain.
My father was trained as an engineer, but he worked sporadically. He had a thin skin, was a binge drinker, and had a bad temper—a result of which was that he kept getting fired. And so the family kept moving. My memory of childhood therefore, before landing in that small town where I met Vu, is less a blur than a handful of orphaned film clips, too short and too few in number to add up to much. I remember only strange bits: the taste of dark chocolate in a neighbor’s Oldsmobile, pink lotion on a girl’s sunburn, a teacher’s stare marked with hatred, a cut to my finger with my mother’s razor. Bits with no story to them but my name.
And then at fifteen we moved again, to Chicago, and those small-town years got overwhelmed and momentarily erased by the seizures of adolescence and an immediate addiction to the convulsions of a city. And so, in this analysis, there is this bubble. An in-between time, eleven to fifteen, when I’m not quite a child and yet not an adult, where I now think, despite my feelings then of slow death through intricate paroxysms of boredom, I was nonetheless safe. And I knew I was safe, deep in my heart (perhaps crucially because I knew I didn’t matter, because we were invisible, insignificant outsiders).
And my focus during this time of boyhood was Vu, whom I worshipped in a way I think not uncommon in boys of that age. I obsessed without acknowledging it but nonetheless with an open and even heady kind of love.
He introduced me to comic books. This, not incidentally, was also an introduction to sex and therefore adulthood, because we would gaze intensely at these idealized images, these cartoons of adult men and women in various forms of wish fulfillment or wish embroidering, in swift balletic action that echoed and manifested and were the seeds of our own desires.
Here is one lesson that Vu taught me. It maybe doesn’t seem on the surface to be about comic books, but it is. At least if reading comic books was a sort of hedonistic, perhaps onanistic, act of defiance—and if one believes that such pursuits are coterminous with living. I’d gotten permission to spend the night at Vu’s house. We would watch TV and read comic books and listen to music and talk. His mom ordered us a pizza but other than that we didn’t see her. His father was never at home, and his mom kept to her room, so we had the run of their large and, from my point of view, deliciously shabby home. My own home, thanks to the rule of my father, in addition to the compulsions of my mother, was unforgiving in its order and cleanliness. It gleamed and was breathless and without beauty. So I first was shocked and then bewitched by the mess at the Nguyen home. (And shamefully misread its untidiness as entirely debauched, so once flung my pizza crust at the TV, which, to my confusion, appalled and enraged Vu.)
And in the mornings, when Vu woke up, instead of going directly to the bathroom or kitchen to do the various rituals required to begin the day, he would lazily pick through his comics and read one in bed. That was the revelation: that he could do this, that he was allowed to do it, that he had even conceived of it. It had, in other words, never occurred to me at the age of fourteen that the lounging, pajama-related activity one did in the evenings, after one’s so-called homework and chores were done, could be done first thing in the morning, at the very start of the day, or really—and the extrapolation was immediately clear—one could do it whenever one wanted!
I was made suddenly to realize—Vu and his home taught this to me—that we were more animal than routine.
(However, there is a sliver of protest still possible, which you may rightfully accuse of being worse, a reactionary or collaborative tactic, but which nonetheless is a method I have come to subscribe to and furthermore think is the only possible defiance left outside of the terminal possibilities of suicide, the morally corrupting option of guerrilla warfare, or the subtly but fundamentally distinct choice of utter acquiescence. This alone-possible and admittedly vaporous defiance is merely to live and accept one’s culpability but to try without going into heroics to participate minimally, as a parasite does, getting one’s needs and not much more, not often much more. One tries then to touch only lightly the general degradation but also to become no longer concerned with it. One becomes accepting of powerlessness, is rendered complacent and mute, but tries nonetheless to signal to other like-minded parasites, not in order to gather and foment rebellion, which would be too grandiose a goal, but simply so as to provide reflection, the mirage or actuality of company, that is, simply to make known one’s kind’s existence as a remaining possibility. In the end this contemptible character I’ve sketched, the artist, is all that remains of the initial quest for purity.)
Later— and we discussed it only once, at night during a sleepover at my house, so perhaps we could allocate the confession to the subset of perhaps-a-dream—Vu told me a little more. In 1975, Vu’s father, who was a respected scientist and who had ties to colleagues in the United States, was being persecuted by the Communists, and the entire family, in a moment of desperation and chaos and some subterfuge, had been airlifted out of Vietnam. It may have been true that Vu wasn’t even his father’s son but that of a killed relative. I don’t think even Vu knew the entire story or the truth about his origins.
My parents were from South Korea. We were the only Asian boys in our grade (and except for Julie Chen, we were the only Asian kids in the entire county), and this fact, along with a few others, brought us together. We bonded particularly over comic books, and our favorite was an “adult” title called MunQu, which the doughy proprietor of the mildewy comic-book store sold us with an attitude of acknowledged but silent conspiracy. It was less pornographic than “underground” in genre, meaning that what we delighted in, perhaps as much as the sighting of the occasional nipple, were its wise-ass swipes at Reagan (which we understood less as political satire than as savage pokes at our elders’ puritanism and hypocrisy) and its seemingly mature take on recreational drug use. Its titular hero was a lanky, stoner chipmunk with bizarre martial arts skills coupled with troublesome anger management problems who mostly seemed to get into political squabbles with his unreasonably drawn girlfriend, a dark-haired skip tracer named Lana.
“Vu, you realize this’s a bestiality book.”
“Don’t get your fingermits on it.”
“Maybe more like mixed-race though.”
“No poop, Perlock.”
“You’re saying its enlightened bestiality will make it worth something.”
“Fool, my one through ten are bagged for a reason.”
We were such outcasts that our isolation hardly pained us, as we could barely conceive of the alternative. We journeyed through junior high on an entirely separate path from the others. Almost everyone in this small town seemed to think this was for the best, but we did eventually find a group of others, those who had been shunned for their fatness or queerness or intelligence or non-Christian-ness, or some combination thereof—a familiar drama of Nerddom and xenophobia played out in small towns across the Midwest and South. The pariah status and bigotry seemed so inevitable and immutable a condition that we didn’t think to complain— with one exception, for me, and that complaint had to do with girls. That—privately, because I couldn’t admit this even to Vu—was the one glaring glandular issue for which our ostracism did acquire a clear, sharp, gut-thrust injury, which seemed to have no cure and so left me cursing gods, crazed, horny, malevolent.
“Man, I can’t wait to get out of this shithole,” we both said, which, while true, was only one side of an eventually revealed paradox. Childhood was hell but also paradise. In retrospect it was safe because we had survived it. And so in it we were not yet destroyed or scarred or proven failures or dumb or worn-out or brokenhearted. And furthermore, the warmth of brotherhood never as cozy and pure as when the enemy surrounds, we felt happy while thinking we were suicidal. At least that was my case. Vu just got more and more angry.
In the winter about six months before my family moved to Chicago something changed at Vu’s house, though I never fully understood what it was. I went over there one afternoon and discovered his home in even greater disarray than usual. Not abominable, but I did notice an extra layer of clutter and dirty dishes. At the same time the house seemed emptier. “Where’s your mom?” I’d asked. “Out,” he just said at first, but his mom never showed in the following days and eventually he admitted he was living alone.
“Where are they?”
“My dad took a job in L.A.”
“She went to help.”
And that vague justification might have been the truth, but the fact was Vu lived alone, pretending at school that this was not the case, and telling only me.
I tried immediately not to remember this admission so I wouldn’t feel guilty or have to think too hard on what it meant. And I was anyway distracted and excited because my father had recently announced we were going to move to Chicago at the end of the school year. Vu himself tried to shrug off his home situation, to make it seem a normal predicament, but even then I knew it bothered him. A fourteen-year-old boy is capable of taking care of himself, and what’s more wants to believe he can, but no matter how he approached the situation, Vu knew he had been abandoned. He responded by hardening. If this is the right way to say it, Vu started to become around that time too comfortable with his own loneliness. Already a self- sufficient person, I saw him develop a haughtiness, an imperiousness that added another layer to his untouchability so that, for instance, even teachers seemed reluctant to engage or call on him.
In class, Vu was constantly doodling comic book heroes. Simply by proximity, it seems, I began to follow suit, and though I was much less naturally talented, through hours and hours of practice I’d managed to become a decent drawer. We’d started making comics together, just strips or sight gags, but also not a few minibooks of simple adventure or sometimes wicked revenge fantasies. We never really discussed them, just did them, on silent afternoons or through the swapping of notebooks throughout the school day.
In Ohio, drawing was useful mostly as a way to kill time during those boring hours of invisibility. When I got to Chicago I was surprised and delighted to find it actually had some social cachet, and through it I discovered a group of friends. By the time high school was finishing I’d even found a girlfriend, a half-Taiwanese girl who played keyboards for a not-awful band. I drew all their concert posters. By which I mean I drew three flyers for one afternoon performance at a coffee house.
And when I got to Chicago, almost in a superstitious way, and also maybe in a cruel way that has to do with a past love, I never tried again to get in touch with Vu.
Two days before we were to leave for Chicago, I spent one last night at Vu’s house. It was the very beginning of summer vacation, and the week before, in the steamy last days of school, Vu had taken me aside to tell me he’d gotten us two tabs of acid. I wasn’t surprised he could get them—our town like many small towns was awash in drugs—but I was surprised he wanted to try it. We hadn’t even smoked cigarettes, let alone pot, and we hadn’t yet tried to drink from the unopened boxes of Johnnie Walker bottles I’d seen in his dad’s office. Maybe the comics could again be blamed. MunQu was penned, it was clear, by middle-aged hippies who often visited altered states and thought their access to these a natural right.
Taking drugs is a leap of faith—a secular, often doomed one: faith that it will be worth it, faith that you won’t die, that it will all be okay—which is a leap I made out of love. Vu lived alone and even I was leaving him. Why not drop acid together?
I was on his floor looking at a Chris Claremont X-Men. He was reading something too, a Philip K. Dick novel called Valis, which he’d wanted me to read but that I hadn’t gotten around to. My eyes were on the comic book, but I wasn’t really looking at it because I knew he had the LSD and that we were going to take it. But, for some reason when I’d come over, instead of getting straight to it, we’d gone about our normal business, eating chips and reading comics and listening to music. Then, as if some internal clock had said it was time, Vu closed his book, rummaged through his backpack, and took out an envelope.
He handed me a blotter of the drug, a small piece of paper with a picture of Felix the Cat on it. We each put a tab on our tongue and then, wordlessly, went back to our reading. Two hours later we were lying down in his carpeted living room looking up and talking excitedly about the morphing animations the drug was creating out of his stucco popcorn ceiling. He saw frothy tsunamis while I was seeing running Ku Klux Klansmen— both illusions we took, fortunately, not only as benign but hilarious. A little after midnight we gorged on cold pizza and soda pop and by dawn we were coming down.
I was smiling when I left in the late morning, even though I was very sad to go. He smiled too. It had been a smart way to say goodbye. The next few days I was a mess. Hungover in a fragile way, I was tearful and quiet, which I was grateful my parents attributed, perhaps in a way correctly, to the trauma of the move.