Chapter 1 - How I Found Out
My name is Joseph Huo, and I go to Piotr High School. You might have heard of us. We’re mentioned every other day in the New York Times, usually next to the words prestigious, exclusive, ambitious. We’re known for our Nobel Prize winners, our neurosurgeons, our Wall Street bankers. They talk about our worth ethic, our self-sacrifice, our test scores. The reason they write about us and not about Dalton uptown is that we’re poor. We are a school of immigrants who got in through an entrance exam who are all now happily, quietly, and obediently on our way to middle-class jobs.
What they don’t mention is the story of Ivy Leigh and Karl Klein, who died in a suicide/car accident in late September. The paper ran a postage-stamp-sized story on page 67 about Ivy Wang and how the pressure of applying to Ivy Leagues was simply too much for her. There were some hints that bad parental practices were behind it. Her parents named her Ivy Leigh, for God’s sake, and she went to Piotr High School - a place that was notorious on every elite high school list for being a pressure cooker for competition. The story wrote itself.
The story ran, students whispered, we had some wellness meetings, and then it was forgotten. On to the next exam, the next college application cycle, the next AP class - that was the way it was at Piotr High. There was no time to think about anything else except the steps of the Kreb’s Cycle or finding the volume of a circle using Integrals.
On that particular morning, during which I heard the news that Ivy and Karl were dead; I remembered coming out of subway station at Chamber Street dressed in my best Alexander McQueen knock-off coat with the gold embroidery on the shoulders. Even though it was late-September, it was too hot to wear a wool coat. Global warming, you know.
“You look ultra-flaming,” Albert from AP Biology told me as he came and hugged me, tightly. Albert was a big hugger; he was socially awkward like that. We were friends not because we both had trouble fitting in but because we always scored at the top of the class in Biology. In Piotr, when you scored the elusive 99.5% in Biology, you were the one beating up the jocks on our non-existent football team. “What is this? Is it Dior Homme again?”
“No, McQueen circa mid-2000s. You know, Alexander McQueen, like the Met Exhibit. God, you’re so dense. No wonder I scored .3% higher than you.” I saw Albert wince a little as I mentioned the fact that I scored higher than him. Him making fun of my gold threads didn’t hurt because in Piotr no one cared about what you were wearing or who you were sleeping with. They just cared about that elusive 99 that opens the golden door to the Ivy Leagues.
“I’m sure the question I missed in AP Bio was about a dead, gay, fashion designer,” Albert said with a roll of his eyes. He punched me in the shoulder. “You look great in it! Like, really metro! You could be in that movie, American Psycho.”
“Thanks. I knew you would like it. It was such a pain in the ass to get my mom to give me 20 dollars to order it off Taobao.”
As I was leaving the house that morning, my dad muttered that back in his day, when a man has this much gold, he’s out looking for a girlfriend to give it to. My dad was vice-chairman of surgery at the trauma hospital uptown, and he was coming in from an overnight call. Otherwise, we seldom saw each other in the morning, or at night.
That morning, he looked especially grumpy. He still had flecks of blood on his socks and over the top of his sneakers as he walked up to the door. It must have been a busy night for trauma if the vice-chair had personally worked until morning instead of letting his underlings take care of it.
“Bad night?” My mom had asked he walked in.
“Couple of hard cases, mostly hard discussing the outcome with the families,” he muttered as he walked by me with a curt nod. “Motor vehicle accidents are the worst. Days like these, I’m happy you’re not going into medicine, kid.”
I remembered how annoyed I was with him for saying that. He always backhanded compliments like that to remind me my brother was their favorite child.
I was dragged back into the present by a pat on the back by Albert.
“Your parents are the best. My mom is still beating me with a feather duster because I got a 99.2% She’s always like: ’Why can’t you be more like Joey? He’s so dreamy with those big shoulders. He’s a shuai-ge’.” Albert said, raising his voice and batting his eyes at me alluringly. It was hilarious because Albert was fit, like Liam Hemsworth fit. He just had the personality of a pocket-protector wearing dweeb.
At Piotr High School which was 70% Asian and 20% white, I was pretty much king because I was half Chinese through my father and a quarter Danish and a quarter Puerto Rican through my mother. On my college application, though, I was putting Native American because that’s what I get mistaken for the most. All the Asians assumed my flamboyant dressing habits were because I was half-white. The whites thought it was because I was half-Asian. I looked exotic enough to escape everyone’s judgment. Not that I cared, I was born to shine bright like a diamond.
“What are you doing over this weekend now that that exam is over?” I asked him. “Going to the gym?” Albert Lam liked to work out. He was always working on his abs. He was terrified of women. The only person he salivated over was the one looking back at him in the mirror.
“That and working on my early decision application to Yale. How about you?”
“My parents are out of town, so I’m going to get in some good, mind-numbing World of Warcraft.”
“Oh, I forgot, you’re a double legacy to Harvard, and your dad knows the dean.”
I was actually a double legacy and a sibling relation to Harvard. Both my mother and father went there, and my older brother is currently there studying premed.
“I don’t know. Maybe, I’ll just drop out of school and wash dishes while backpacking across Italy. My mom’s best friend has a villa in Tuscany. They have a small business making their own soap and cheese.”
“Wow, it’s exactly that kind of personal statement that gets you into Harvard, asshole,” Albeit said with a roll of his eyes. He was used to my humbragging. It was everywhere at Piotr. That’s the only thing anyone did when they opened their mouths - hum brag. It’s hard not to brag when you made it into Piotr High School.
I chuckled. Actually, I was planning on playing World of Warcraft with my friend Karl. He and I bumped into each other at Otakon in mid-August, and we’ve been inseparable since. During one of our raiding sessions, I ended up kissing him when we got our legendary purple gears. When you achieve something like that, it’s okay for two guys to kiss.
We kept it a secret, but even if everyone knew about it, I doubted anyone would care. At Piotr, a bigger scandal would be to be seen going to a college interview at the community college across the Lower East Side highway than two dudes sharing a wet one. The only problem was, Karl had a girlfriend - Ivy Leigh. But she never knew anything was up. She was too busy doing thousands of volunteer work at the soup kitchen to show HYP she was really dedicated to the indigent population in New York.
Over the past couple of days, I developed a habit of avoiding her brother, Noah, the swim team captain. He was the closest Piotr came to a star athlete. He hated me, not because his sister’s boyfriend was cheating on her with me, but because I was the editor-in-chief of the school newspaper - the Eavesdropper. I recently penned an article about their coach groping a freshman which got him fired right before their competition season started.
Noah hated me. He called me Literary Bobby Flay. I guess he was referencing the time Bobby Flay disrespectfully danced on a cutting board in Iron Chef and caused an international incident. Also, Bobby was a pretty big douchebag on his show. I guess that description fits me to a tee. I love stirring up things. Noah has been mockingly calling me “Iron Pen,” ever since.
I knew something was wrong when Noah approached me that morning and grabbed my hand. He looked flustered, his face red, his shirt collar had a ketchup stain on it. He smelled a bit musky, like an unwashed male. His hand was sweaty, gross, even for me who was used to holding hands with boys.
“Did your father say anything about Ivy?” Noah asked. “I know they couldn’t do anything for Klein, but my mom says they were still working on Ivy this morning.”
“M-my father doesn’t tell me about his cases,” I said as I slowly started to understand why my father showed up looking particularly weary and bloody the morning. “It’s a HIPAA violation.”
“Oh, shut up,” Noah said, running his red eyes. Then he turned and ran away. I swallowed and looked back at Albert, who was now standing in stunned silence. I slowly took in what he had told me — there nothing they could do for Karl. My father’s shoes had been covered with Karl’s blood. There was nothing left to do for him.
And that’s how I learned Karl Klein, the love of my life, was dead.