The Bad Project

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Chapter 17. Marianne Mulls Over Sex Bad/Marianne

Marianne sat on her bed finishing her morning journal writing. Her journal was the size of a checkbook and covered to simulate an old and valuable book, with dark brown edges and gold scrolls around a tan center on the front cover. She rhythmically smoothed the purple silk coverlet with her left hand while she was writing. She wrote slowly, feeling the weight of her thoughts. I am more afraid of trying sex than any other Bad, probably because it involves another person. I doubt it will change me, but I don’t know how his feelings will be changed.

She reflected that lots of novels involve things that go wrong after sex. Virginia Woolf was involved in relationships with both women and men, but Marianne had never really had any. In her family, there was no room for anything but family and studying, pretty much. Woolf was married and went around with the Bloomsbury group, a set of promiscuous people, she even had sex with at least one woman. Marianne knew she had no idea who was promiscuous and who was not. She didn’t want to have barriers, she wanted to be free. But she’d been raised to abhor the idea of being a slut. She knew she couldn’t approach people for the Sex Bad who would look down on her for wanting sex. Crystal can’t talk about sex. I think it must be related to her secrets from the past. Marianne hoped her father didn’t…she didn’t even want to think the rest of that thought, let alone write it in her journal. She told herself that was a “magic thought”: if she didn’t write it down, it wouldn’t be true. Remember Joan Didion’s book on the Year of Magical Thinking, she wrote.

Marianne closed her journal and slipped it into her book bag. Now that she was writing about the Sex Bad, she didn’t want to leave it in her room. Years of practice at home had made her very aware of its location and safety from prying eyes. She never wanted Crystal to see what she had written about her, not that she thought Crystal would snoop. But if Crystal accidentally knocked the book on the floor and it opened to something about why she wouldn’t discuss sex, probably she’d never speak to Marianne again. If she made Crystal angry, would she report to the deans about the Bad Project so far? Marianne didn’t think she would. But she might if her feelings were badly hurt.

She got up, slung her book bag over her left shoulder, and walked towards religious studies class. When she got there, she sat down, got out her class notebook, and prepared to listen. The professor was droning on about the varieties of Hinduism and their locales, and he had already posted his notes and maps on the class web site. Marianne lost interest, and spent most of the class thinking about the Sex Bad.

There must be a high risk of bad consequences from sex, she mused. Otherwise there wouldn’t be so much literature about how sexual relationships had gone wrong. She had an idea what the sex-related problems were. Maybe she could avoid them? Pregnancy. Her friend Lily Ahn had dropped out of high school, pregnant. She didn’t know what had happened to Lily because she never returned.

Pregnancy looked like the path to enslavement for women. If she had a baby, she didn’t see how she could become a writer. She didn’t think she could make herself have an abortion though. Marianne shifted in her chair and wrote down “…India 80.4% Hindu, 13.4% Muslim, 138mil” in her notebook. She had been shown a film on Gandhi in high school and she was surprised that there were still so many Muslims in India, after Pakistan had separated from India to provide a homeland for Muslims. But her surprise was muted by a general level of somnolence in the classroom.

She went back to thinking about the Sex Bad. How could she avoid pregnancy? She could get her partner to use a condom. She recalled the embarrassing sex education presentation during orientation where the professor had said he was a big penis and put a fake condom on himself. Where did people get condoms? She didn’t know, and she couldn’t ask Crystal. She’d have to explore around in the village and try to find some. But what if the man didn’t want to use a condom? What if sex happened when neither of them had one? She pushed a strand of hair behind her left ear.

An image of her stomach, bloated into the size of a basketball, came into her mind. No, she must have the courage to insist. But she was full of doubt. Nothing had prepared her to confront someone and discuss a difficult issue. Her strategy had been to bend and slip through the cracks. Would she let sex happen without a condom if the conversation was hard? She hoped not. Better not to dwell on that scenario. She took another few notes, glanced around to see James pass a note to Susan and Sarah massaging the back of Charles’ neck. No one was paying attention.

What was another problem she needed to think through about sex? In a sexual relationship, one person might fell in love when the other one didn’t. Whatever the plans were, it seemed like some people were alienated by sex and others were enslaved by it. How to predict that? If she had sex with someone experienced like Liu, that should help avoid having her partner susceptible. At least that was the way it seemed to work in novels.

She certainly didn’t plan to fall in love with him. But what if she did? Would she sacrifice her whole future for some man? Surely her values would keep her from doing that. But she had read that passion could over-ride life-long good values. She had just started learning what she valued. Were her plans and dreams strong enough to resist passion if she met it head-on? Would she throw away all she cared about once she experienced sex? Marianne drew a wilted flower in the margin of her notebook. She thought she would be like that flower if her project to try sex went wrong. The thought of not being a virgin was exciting and depressing at the same time. She hadn’t really escaped her upbringing. She’d feel guilt. But guilt was one of those themes in writing, and experiencing it could be helpful to her, she hoped. Marianne wrote, “Sri Lanka, 50% Buddhist” in her notebook.

“Buddha was the ‘Awakened One,’ remember, not really a ‘god’ so some scholars don’t refer to Buddhism as a religion, but it…” How ironic that he mentioned “awakened” when the class was all sleeping. But the professor was speaking louder, responding to the dozing students. Sadly, the material wasn’t any more exciting.

Marianne just couldn’t pay attention, since she had already studied it. She wondered why professors wanted you to read the notes and readings in advance of their lecture. Didn’t they realize it took all the excitement out of the presentation? She didn’t mind the preparation in Philosophy so much, since the class was based on discussion rather than lecturing.

Marianne’s mind slipped back onto the Sex Bad. She didn’t want to get involved, especially in a committed relationship. There were years of freedom ahead for her, if she could stay out of her parents’ spotlight. Marriage looked very negative to her from seeing her mother’s and her married siblings’ situations. Hard to have a room of one’s own when you were married and expected to clean and cook. She could do those things, but she didn’t want to do them for a lord and master. That was how marriage looked to her. She yawned behind her hand. The girl to her left was whispering to the girl next to her about borrowing a book.

Who she’d choose for the Sex Bad was obviously important. She could imagine having sex with someone Chinese, but not with someone Caucasian. That was interesting. Why was that barrier there? She tried to imagine being romantically involved with a white man, someone like the faceless tall, blond man she dreamed about. She almost could do it, but he seemed unreal. Marianne decided she could predict what a Chinese man would do, but she didn’t know if a white man would act the same or feel the same.

Were Chinese men more programmed, less spontaneous? Maybe it was all part of the Model Minority idea. She needed to learn more about white men. She had written several stories about white women. Was it because being a woman overrode everything else? Or because she had a stereotypical view of how they were? So she decided to watch them. And she’d better watch people in cross-cultural relationships too. She drew a small bird under the flower.

Crystal didn’t puzzle her except for her secret, the ’when,” the root of her terrible nightmare. Marianne didn’t think she was like every black woman. The ones she had met here all seemed very individual. But she had written comfortably about particular black women. Black men were a complete enigma to her. Maybe she could watch Crystal’s friend Bronnie, the guy who talked with her at the computer center, at the party after Crystal’s gospel choir concert. Writers had to observe almost as much as scientists, she thought. She yawned again.

Suddenly a terrible scenario occurred to her. What if she had sex with someone who fell in love with her and she got pregnant? What would her parents do? What would people think of her? Would her partner demand that they get married? Would he get violent and slap her around the way her sister Lily’s Chinese pharmacist husband sometimes treated her? Would she fall down and have a miscarriage? She could even die from a miscarriage gone wrong, especially if she refused to go to the hospital. Her mouth turned down, her stomach churned, and her eyes lost their light as these miserable possibilities suddenly loomed.

The student to her right reached down for her book bag, and Marianne realized the class was over. The student asked, “Are you alright? You look pale.”

“I’m fine, just missed breakfast,” Marianne said in a thready voice, zipping her notebook into her bag. She walked out, feeling glad she hadn’t started on the Sex Bad yet, and wondering if she would ever have the courage to try it.

She caught up with Shaila and asked her how the nonfiction piece about India and Pakistan was coming along.

“Good, I have a complete first draft. If I just didn’t have so much work for my classes!”

Shaila said.

“I know what you mean. I’m glad you have a draft, though. We need it by Halloween,

so it can go in the next issue.”

“Should be no problem. I’m going to edit it this weekend and I should be able to give it to you next Monday or Tuesday.” Shaila hugged her books to her chest. Marianne wondered if she would say anything that later she would want to take back. The public nature of published writing was more and more of a concern to her. But if she asked about that, Shaila might withdraw her promise of an article, and Marianne needed it. Most of the submitted nonfiction read like (and probably consisted of) class papers; way too dry and academic to be published in a literary magazine. She did like the story Jim’s friend Libby Charles had written about her pregnancy and experiences with the baby during college. And she and Jim had several more pieces they thought would work.

She walked in the Computer Center, said hello to Bronnie, Crystal’s friend.

“Hey, Marianne, how’s it going?” he asked.

“Okay. Lots of work for bio. We’re doing those genomic plots this week.”

“Yeah, I guess Crystal will be over doing that too,” Bronnie said, brightening up.

“She’s going to do it after lunch,” Marianne said.

“Good, I’ll still be on duty. Ate real early before I came over here so I could make a lotta money,” he said, with a wink.

Marianne wondered what he was thinking. At first, she had avoided Bronnie because of the time he had seen her drunk, but he never mentioned it and she had gradually gotten over being self-conscious. Now she thought about Bronnie and Crystal. Crystal seemed impervious to men, maybe because of her bad secret. Bronnie and Crystal would make a nice couple. Who would be a nice couple with her? Not Liu. Someone more like Dr. Sandstrom, she thought. But then, she had to stop plotting and work on her bio homework. It was very hard, and it took over her whole attention for an hour, and then she had to rush to get to lunch before it closed.

Marianne shifted her backpack on her thin shoulders. She waited with other mentors until the auditorium was unlocked for the PenGirl workshop. It was a bright Thursday afternoon, almost hot, and she felt a trickle of sweat run down through her thick hair onto the back of her neck. Her lips felt parched; she set down the backpack and got out her lip gloss and a small mirror. As soon as she had smoothed gloss on, the door opened and Marianne grabbed her pack to surge in with all the other mentors. Crystal could not come today because of a lab practicum in biology. Marianne had thought about canceling too. She should be studying for the biology test on Friday. But she thought about how Katie’s face shone with enthusiasm when she saw Marianne, and how much she enjoyed reading Katie’s writing. So she came anyway.

Katie jumped up and down to see over the taller girls. Marianne spotted her and headed in her direction. Once they had talked a minute, they sat down to wait for the first prompt. They waved to Toni, Crystal’s mentee, who was working with another mentor today.

“Sign in sheets are coming around, make sure you sign one before you leave today,” said Chloe, the workshop leader. “We will post the first prompt in about five minutes, once everyone is seated.” The room quieted as all the pairs found places to sit.

Chloe turned on her computer projector and showed a PowerPoint slide with this prompt, which she read aloud to the group, “What were the most delicious things you ever ate? When and where did you eat them?” She added, “Use sensory details when you write about these experiences, or choose just one to write about.”

“What do you think?” Marianne asked. “Should we make a list or start right in?”

“They usually give us about 15 minutes, so do you want to make a list first?” Katie said. Marianne agreed, and they both bent over their lists. Marianne tried to pick something that reflected her Chinese heritage, because she knew Katie would choose Chinese food. But it was hard for her. She loved to help Katie enjoy writing, but she knew Katie worried about her perspective on China. Was she really that negative about her Chinese heritage? No time to think it over now, but that deserved some thought when she did have time. She began to write.

After five minutes, Katie looked up.

“Time to share?” Katie said.

“Yep. Go first?” Marianne said.

Katie nodded, and read softly, “Jellyfish appetizer at my sister Koe Jui’s wedding. Steam fish at my cousin Hong Bo’s restaurant. Lion’s head family dinner at my grandma’s.”

“Yum, it all sounds good. Lion’s head isn’t really lion, is it?”

“No, kind of meat ball.”

“I think I remember it. Okay, here’s mine. Fried peanuts when I was really hungry at my grandparents’ in Shanghai. Spicy Fried Chicken at KFC. Jicama.”

“You must be from California,” Katie laughed. “But no pizza. Chinese!”

“I like pizza, just not more than anything else.”

“I don’t. Cheese taste too funny. Kind of spoiled.”

“No, pizza cheese is not old and smelly.”

“We’d better pick one and write fast,” Katie said. They both bent over their notebooks. Marianne wrote about the day she and Crystal had gone to the get-acquainted meeting for their entry of the residence hall, how crispy the jicama had been, fresh and juicy, but how tense she had been because Mandy would not call on Crystal.

The two exchanged notebooks after the writing period. Katie had described steaming cabbage and laying it out on the platter, to represent the mane, patting the big meatball together and steaming it, adding it to the middle of the platter for the lion head. She enjoyed working with her grandma. Marianne’s mouth watered as she imagined the juicy meatball with a faint soy sauce and onion flavor. I guess I like Chinese food. I just like other food too. And yes, I am defensive about it.

“I really like your piece. I can almost taste that lion’s head,” she said. “You write very well, Katie!”

Katie beamed. “I’m glad you like. I like jicama too, but no smell. Just taste wet and crispy, right?”

“Yes, wet and crispy. Good to eat if you want to stay slim,” Marianne said, laughing. Katie had been shy and resisted kidding around when they first met, but after a month of meetings, she was much more relaxed. Marianne thought she seemed more mature, less shy. She almost never covered her mouth when she was talking any more. And she even was willing to read her writing sometimes. She was really proud of the progress Katie had made, and looked forward to seeing her step forward even more during the rest of the semester.

The workshop leader asked for volunteers to read, and Marianne looked at Katie, but she shook her head. She seemed to like to read pieces about America, not China these days. Marianne hoped she was not ashamed to read about China. But I would be. I would want people to see me as American, not Chinese. Marianne shook her head and told herself to forget her own psyche and focus on her mentee. She would write about these thoughts in her journal later.

On the shuttle bus going back to campus, Marianne looked out at the Hollywood Hills and thought about how dry it was here, compared to the Bay Area. She knew it was the dry season, but it seemed to have parched the vegetation and the trees much more here than back at home. Golden California was more brown than gold here, she thought. As the bus turned up the canyon towards the college, she saw a bright blue bird fly across from a wire fence to a pine tree, one with brown needles in every bunch of needles she could see. The bird would find it hard to make a living when it was so dry. Rains wouldn’t be here until January, probably. But with so many lawn sprinklers running, at least the bird could get a drink.

She got off and went straight to the workroom of the literary magazine. She and Jim needed to go over the manuscripts they had tentatively selected and eliminate one of the five. She ran into Lindsay coming out. Lindsay called to her that she was counting on Marianne to come to the reading by Kerri Bethover, a poet speaking the next afternoon at 4 PM.

“I’ll be there, but I can’t bring cookies this time,” Marianne said.

“No problem. Bella’s making some. It’s hard to get anybody out for poets, but they inspire us when we do come to their readings,” Lindsay said, disappearing around a corner.

Jim was not there yet, so Marianne got the folder out of the file cabinet and sat down with it. They had blind reviewed each ms either of them liked, and these five were the result. Marianne thought they were all strong and wondered if Jim had picked the one he’d like to eliminate. The faculty advisor, Morgan Wing, had emphasized that these stylistic decisions were a major part of the learning experience of serving on the literary magazine, at the last meeting. Marianne wanted to be good at it, but she felt conflicted. Each piece had good and bad points. Oranges, apples, bananas, kiwis, not very comparable at all. Even though the reviews were blind, at this point in the process they had identified the authors.

Jim said, “Hi. Political Theory was giving back tests today, so I couldn’t leave early. Sorry.” He pulled out a chair and sat down next to Marianne.

“I am so confused about making this decision. I really like them all and they are so different,” Marianne said, smiling at her co-editor.

“I agree. Well, one way is to look at topic coverage. Are there two in the same area? Maybe then we could defer one until the next issue.” Jim paged through the pile of manuscripts.

“Won’t the spring issue be on a different topic?”

“No. The second one has an open topic, unless we change from what we’ve done in the past. I’ve seen people carry over things to the second issue before.”

“Won’t that make it harder to decide with all the new materials?”

“We don’t guarantee their work will be accepted; we can just ask if they’d like to have their piece considered for the second issue.”

“What about pressure? Do we get more manuscripts in second semester?”

“Last year, it was the other way. Probably because seniors got senioritis and didn’t submit in the spring.”

“Then I’m okay with possibly holding one over.”

The two discussed the five pieces they had and sorted them into categories: international relationships, romantic relationships, mother-child relationships, and patient-doctor relationships. They had two submissions in the patient-doctor group.

“I think,” Jim said, ’”that Suzanne Faber assigned her class to submit something to us. She teaches a seminar called ‘Heart of a Doctor.’”

“Nice. And two of them were very strong writers. So shall we try to pick just one?” The corners of Marianne’s mouth turned down and she stuck out her tongue. “I hate choosing.”

“Hey,” Jim said. “We are the choosers. It’s our job to do this.”

“I guess I identify with the writer and feel empathy for whoever gets turned down,” Marianne said.

“Well, suspend that. Now this one is about deciding for death with dignity at home versus the doctor’s recommendation for some really intrusive surgery, and I really like how Nancy Nakagawa described her grandmother’s situation. Old world and new world views in conflict, in here.”

“True that. I liked hers a lot. But Rick Sanchez wrote about when his elderly aunt was diagnosed with AIDS, how carefully the doctor planned telling her. It went so wrong, and I could really feel her embarrassment in all those attempts to keep her family from finding out. That was well written.”

“Yes, but I never got a sense of his aunt as a character before she got AIDS. She only came alive in the section after the diagnosis.”

“I agree. Nancy’s grandmother and the doctor who treated her were both real, rounded characters. Okay, let’s take that one and ask Rick if he’d like us to defer his.”

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