Fiction

Hold On, Sour Grape

There was no such thing as failure—only starting over a million times and then some.

On the day that we moved out, our landlord was watching us from his window (he lived on the third floor, right above us) the whole time, and I stuck my middle finger up at him and yelled out, “Have some compassion, you shriveled-up cock. Haven’t you ever known someone who’s died?” while my parents were securing our two mattresses to the top of our maroon Oldsmobile.

“Leave that old rat alone,” my mom told me, patting down my hair and pulling my fingers out of their clenched positions.

“I hate him.”

“Us too, my sour apple. Us too. But what’s done is done, sourheart. Don’t you see? Everything happens for a reason. Everything happens for a good reason and we have to be patient if we want to find out what that good reason is. Do you see?”

I saw. I didn’t know how my parents felt about moving so often. Sometimes we lived in four or five places in the span of a few months. Our possessions were whatever we could fit into our car or strap onto the top of it, but all the same, I couldn’t help feeling a surge of excitement every time we left a place—like it was the first day of school, and there was still a chance for me not to be so much of a fuckup, and that chance only existed in the window of time between when I sat down at my new desk for the first time and when my teacher introduced herself and gave out the first homework of the year. It was like that every time we loaded up our car and started driving to the next place, and the next place, and the next place, and the next place, and in a way it wasn’t so bad, it just meant there was no such thing as failure, only starting over a million times and then some.

***

There was one year, the year when I had to repeat second grade because I hadn’t done any assignments and failed all of my tests because the most effort I ever put forth was toward drawing trees that looked like broccoli on all of my exams, when we lived in Williamsburg, and it was a good year because my dad found a room with a shared kitchen and a private bathroom for $200 a month, and in that room, I slept between my parents every night and woke up with long scratch marks all up and down my legs and arms because I was born itchy as all hell, and I would die itchy as all hell, unless a crafty genius somewhere decided to invent a miracle drug that would save me from this long and itchy life.

The worst of it was when I was six and we lived in Washington Heights in a shared room that was all mattress and no floor, and my skin itched like there were little tiny ants carrying sticks of fire and doing somersaults and cartwheels all over my skin. My skin burned in that cramped room with four mattresses all pushed up against each other for the seven people who lived there: my mom and dad and me; my mom’s friend, Liu Yiming, who was a painter by day and a Chinese delivery guy by night, and his wife, Youshuang, who once made an avant-garde film about “poetic fascism”; and my dad’s friend Chiuxi, who was an ESL schoolteacher taking night classes in business management, and his wife, Chou Qihui, who came from a family of diplomats and ambassadors and translators who turned up their noses at the thought of their daughter being married to a mere mercenary. That was when my skin itched the most, and my parents and I wondered if it was because we were sleeping seven to a room that should have had two, and whenever I scratched or whined or made an annoying sound like “Ahhhgrrrrrrrrraaaaaaaad, I hate itchiiiiiiiiiiiiing,” the daughter of diplomats and the avant-garde filmmaker and the painter would shout at me and my parents, “Haven’t you learned to control her yet?” and it put pressure my parents, who had no choice at the time but to live like that, and on me, who had no choice but to be so itchy that I had to cry out in the middle of the night.

We moved from Washington Heights to an even crummier room in Chinatown that we shared with another family to an even even-crummier apartment in Lefrak City that belonged to my mom’s friend, where we stayed on the floor for only 10 days before we were found out by the Public Housing Authority, which severed my mom’s friendship with her friend, who hadn’t really wanted us to stay with her in the first place. After Lefrak City, we moved to an OK floor in my mom’s cousin’s friend’s sister’s apartment in Ocean Hill that would have been perfect except that we weren’t welcome there at all, and they charged us twice the cost of a shitty motel just to stay there for three weeks. Then we tried to live in my mom’s cousin’s house while my mom’s cousin was in Wenzhou visiting relatives, which was all right except that it was right next to the Cypress Hills cemetery, which spooked my mom and me, and then finally at the end of second grade, right after I found I was being left back, my dad found a really nice room for rent in Williamsburg.

A deity must have been watching over us then, because not only was it the best room we’d ever lived in, but the landlord also threw in a free microwave and a queen-size bed that had bedbugs we were responsible for getting rid of if we wanted it (of course we did). On the day we moved in, my mom declared as we walked into our shared kitchen, “We need to buy a toy for our little sour grape. I say a stuffed teddy bear that’s taller than me.”

“And I say we fill this half of the freezer with vanilla-bean ice cream,” my dad said.

“Both,” I cried out. We ended up getting one carton of vanilla-bean ice cream and a teddy bear that came up to my knees when I placed him on the ground.

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14 Comments

  • doikoon February 28th, 2014 3:13 PM

    When I saw that Jenny wrote this I gripped my school laptop my eyes went wide, and I swear I didn’t breathe for I like twenty seconds.

  • Hallie I February 28th, 2014 3:52 PM

    i mostly like this story, but i don’t really feel great about the cheap objectification of the latina women in Christina’s neighborhood- she came to admire them because of the deep-v of their asses??? i expected more from rookie and i’m not sure what purpose that was supposed to serve other than to compare “Those Women” with her milky white skinny mother (who i realize is also a woc).

    • Maryse89 February 28th, 2014 7:55 PM

      I think you have to consider that the perspective of the story is that of a little girl who has probably absorbed a lot of the ugly stereotypes surrounding her as she’s grown up (as most of us do to an extent when we’re kids…)

      I think the views of the author and the character are clearly separate in this case

  • ahowl February 28th, 2014 4:24 PM

    I’ve never posted anything on Rookie before but this resonated with me so much that I can’t passively consume it like everything else. This reminds me so much of my childhood, but you write about it in a way that’s never pitiful. Feeling alienated, sour, deviant in a my parents are trying to make rent every month while you’re preoccupied with going snowboarding over the break, not nice but not evil, full of misplaced pride and anger. As an immigrant child growing up in North America, you’ve validated all of these things that I thought I alone had to bear the weight. Jenny, you’re my hero.

    Just, thank you.

  • Jesss February 28th, 2014 5:07 PM

    Jenny I really love your writing! This was amazing, like, really amazing.

  • izzywayout February 28th, 2014 5:55 PM

    whenever i see a piece of fiction written by jenny, i know it’s going to become one of my favorites, and this was no exception. you are brilliant.

  • dumbpling February 28th, 2014 9:32 PM

    i havent even read past the first page but i was just so excited when i saw the name jenny at the top of the page. this sounds a bit strange, but i have seen so many connections to my own life in previous pieces that i almost feel like i know you, and everything you write just really resonates with me and its all so beautiful and relatable.

  • DianeK February 28th, 2014 11:07 PM

    You’ve managed to make a superficially depressing narrative into a very human, life-affirming story. Although this piece made me cry, I felt uplifted. It was cathartic.

    The ending was absolutely brilliant. Xie xie ni for transferring these undescribable, nuanced feelings into a story that feels so familiar.

  • eza_236 February 28th, 2014 11:08 PM

    This is unbelievably beautiful, it paints a picture of a place and time I’ve never known, but at the same time feel like it was my life she was describing.

  • marysilverbells March 1st, 2014 8:00 AM

    so beautiful

  • mangointhesky March 1st, 2014 12:46 PM

    This was such a good story!

    http://theconfettireport.blogspot.com

  • teafandoms March 1st, 2014 8:37 PM

    This really was superb, good job Jenny!

  • llamalina March 2nd, 2014 3:30 AM

    Jenny, you are, without a doubt, one of my favorite writers- not just on Rookie but in general. Your pieces resonate so soundly with me as an Asian-American teenage girl. This story was no exception and I found myself seeing parts of the hardships in my own childhood. It’s amazing how much I can relate to your writing, and how beautifully you can word the simplicity of a child’s perspective and the complexities of Christina’s situation. You’re an incredible writer and I will always look forward to reading anything from you.

    http://llamalina.blogspot.com

  • fluorescentyesterday March 2nd, 2014 9:39 PM

    I will never tire of Jenny’s work, and this piece was just too good.