Mr. Big Stuff
When my school tried to put me in classes designed for kids with "special needs," my mother went to war for me. She insisted that the school give me a battery of tests, as well as an IQ test, to see if I were indeed intellectually deficient. She won.
I was eleven years old and until then, I had stayed at home with Auntie, who was a former nun and my caretaker at the time. She was also my teacher for several years. Auntie followed a curriculum that was sent to her monthly by the school board, so I wouldn't be left behind by the other kids. I couldn't go to school because I still had problems going outside and communicating my thoughts out loud. Whenever I became frustrated, I shut down vocally and reverted to American Sign Language to convey my thoughts. Or I hid in closets. On really bad days, I had tantrums and destroyed everything on hand.
The tests revealed that my reading and comprehension were past college level and that my IQ was higher than 150. I wasn't retarded, my mom told them. My brain just worked differently. The public school system didn't quite know what to do with me, so Mother researched a few schools until she came across a private school willing to take me on as a scholarship student and even offered me tutoring and counseling because they were fascinated with my brain.
But my fear of going outside was really bad at the time, so Mother agreed I could be home-schooled for a few more years.
I don't know where I'd be right now if it weren't for my mother.
In my senior year of high school, I applied to only three schools: UC Berkeley, Stanford, and UC Santa Cruz. The last one I chose because Auntie moved to Half-Moon Bay after she got married and that was only a little bit away from Santa Cruz. I wanted to be close to Auntie again. She was the only person besides Mother who treated me like I was normal and not some kind of weirdo Doogie Howser freak.
I was admitted into Stanford due to my 4.3 GPA and 1560 SAT as well as minority status and "disability." Luckily, I didn't have to live in the dorms because Mother instead got me an apartment with Sister in Palo Alto. She was worried about how I would deal with living with a bunch of strangers and having to share communal bathrooms. She even made sure that Sister and I had our own bathrooms because she knows I don't like to share mine. All of my life, I had always lived with Mother, Auntie, and Sister, so it was strange to just be living with Sister, but everything turned out all right. Sister left me alone for the most part and let me live my life.
I also adjusted fairly well in my three quarters of college, even though I kept mostly to myself and didn't really have any friends. Mother drove down from San Ramon every Friday afternoon to visit me and Sister and that was the extent of my social interaction. She would do our laundry, clean our apartment, and take us grocery-shopping. Sister was not attending Stanford, but a school nearby called Cal-State Hayward. She wouldn't have liked Stanford, anyway, she said because it was probably full of pretentious, socially maladjusted, blowhard nerds. She was studying to be a nurse, which was what Auntie ended up doing for a living after she got married and left us.
At university, I had a hard time finding a subject to focus on. I was good at everything, so I wasn't failing my classes, but the joy of learning was no longer there. I put myself on auto-pilot and attended school, day in and out, doing well on my tests and acing my papers, so on the surface, nothing was wrong. But I was not connecting with anything.
The one thing that still got me going was Shakespeare. By the time I was sixteen, I had read everything written by the man I could get my hands on and was hungry for more. I read endless analysis of his work and took all the classes I could that were Shakespeare based. I even auditioned for several Shakespearean plays even though I was told several times that I had the vocal intonation of a robot and the charm of an old-fashioned toaster.
When an exchange program for a whole year with Oxford came about, I jumped on it. I had never been so excited about anything in my life. I had never been excited about anything. But now I knew this exhilaration and feeling of hope and sense that everything would turn out all right, if I could just achieve this one thing. My world had always been black or white. It was either this or that. Two plus two is four. But now I had this urge to go out and explore because something out there is waiting for me and all I had to do was go out and chase it.
I applied for the study-abroad program without telling my family because I saw no sense in informing them of it until it was a tangible thing. I had to write a few essays, provide some letters of recommendation from my professors and therapists, and pass a couple of interviews, but after a couple of hairy months, I received my answer. I was going to Oxford.
Mother was despondent and Auntie was just as pitiful at begging me not to go. Sister didn't think it was a good idea because she refused to believe I could take care of myself on my own, let alone in a country that's 5,600 mi. or 8,600 km away. It was only my uncle who thought I'd do all right. Uncle Ray, who married Auntie, is a Filipino-American who specialized in taekwondo, judo, and Muay Thai. He even had a really popular studio in Santa Cruz. He taught Sister and me martial arts every summer since I was ten until Sister started thinking it was super-lame and left me to continue the training on my own. My Uncle Ray was secretly pleased about this because he said my sister didn't take the classes seriously, anyway. If I weren't so averse to touching strangers, I could probably take down three adult males on my own.
It was a rainy Sunday morning when my family took me to the San Francisco airport to send me off. Mother's older sister was there, too, mainly to tell her horror stories about Asian girls getting kidnapped and sold in sexual slavery or on the black market for internal organs. To comfort my mother, I tell her the unlikelihood of this happening, but I don't think it made her feel any better. I informed her that I was more likely to get hit by a car being driven by a drunk one-armed German tourist than kidnapped for illicit purposes. Sister practically shoved me into the narrow hallway toward the plane before Mother could freak out some more and change her mind.
Specifically for this trip, my psychiatrist prescribed me a particularly strong dose of a sedative that is supposed to knock me out for the duration of the journey. Mother and Auntie thought it would be best if I took it as soon as I reached my seat. I get very anxious during airplane flights and wouldn't have Mother or Sister to hold my hand and absolve me of all of my sins before I die. "Okay, DS, I forgive you for that one time you set my Maxine doll on fire."
The flight attendants have been apprised of my condition, so if I have a spaz attack, they'll know not to taze me and restrain me with zip ties until we land in England. They are, however, supposed to check on me once in a while to make sure I haven't choked on my own vomit or something or pissed myself in my sleep. Mother spilled some extra dough and got me a first class ticket so I wouldn't have to be so cramped in coach. On British Airways, the seats recline almost all the way back, so I could really get comfy if I wished to. I asked the flight attendant for an eye mask, which he thoughtfully provided for me. My headphones were around my neck, ready to be deployed as soon as I needed them.
I had no idea that the man who would change the course of my life was sitting just half a feet away. And that he was watching me the whole time. Of course I wouldn't know this until years later and wouldn't believe him until he describes my outfit of the day down to the color of my socks. Green. On Wednesdays, I wear green socks.
I am shaken awake when the plane lands in Heathrow. Since I have my eye mask still on, I do not see who it is. I allow myself only a moment of disorientation.
I've told the flight attendants ahead of time to let me know when the plane is almost empty because only then could I deplane. I couldn't risk being touched by a rash of people and smelling their miserable humanity. My seatmate, however, apparently stayed behind to make sure I am all right.
"Are you ill?" he asks in a deep, velvety, British accent.
His voice is so smooth that I can almost feel it like a finger stroking its way lightly down my spine. I tremble in spite of myself and refuse to take off my eye mask. I don't want to see what he looks like. "No. I'm fine. I'm probably just hungry because I missed lunch and dinner."
He chuckles softly. "Well, my beauty, you were asleep the whole time. Might I buy you a meal?"
I freeze in my seat. I've never been called a "beauty" by anyone. That is Sister's department. I'm used to people telling me what a genius or how weird they think I am, but no one really comments on my looks. Does not compute. I'm not sure how to process this data. "Um, no, thank you. I have a train to catch to... somewhere else. If you don't mind moving aside, I'd really like to get going now. I don't want to miss my ride."
"Will you at least remove your ridiculous mask? I should like to see what your eyes look like."
There is a cajoling tone to his voice, but I can tell that he is used to issuing commands and having them quickly obeyed. He is very arrogant and cocksure. "Excuse me, sir, but you are making me uncomfortable. I am not interested in your attentions. Please move on."
"Fascinating," he murmurs.
I feel the heat of his large, smooth palm as he cups the side of my face. Without thinking about it, I turn my head and press my lips to his skin. His fingers curl into the nape of my neck. He smells like bergamot and sandalwood. I shove his hand away from me. "Okay, go away now. You are disturbing my calm. I do not want to use force against you."
"The kitten has claws," he says with another chuckle. "Are you perhaps heading to Oxford? You look like a student. I can give you a lift."
"Uh, no." I'm not really comfortable with lying, but it seemed important at the moment not to let this slick stranger know where I'm going. "I'm going to...uh, Yorkshire." My eyelids and eyebrows, behind my mask, are starting to sweat.
"Well, I guess this is where we part, then," he replies, sounding truly regretful. "I wish you well in... Yorkshire. Farewell, my beauty."
I don't take off my mask until I hear him walk down the aisle of the plane and off onto the narrow corridor that would lead him to the terminal. I take a deep breath and sigh in relief when I don't see him.
"Excuse me, doll, but was that man bothering you?" asks the flight attendant with the name Sheila on her name tag. Behind her is a woman called Nancy.
But I see no concern or sympathy on their faces, only excitement, like they're about to release a high-pitched squeal. I instinctively back up. "As a matter of fact..."
I'm thankful for my long-sleeved shirt when Sheila suddenly grabs my arm. "Oh my goodness, you're so lucky. Do you have any idea who that was?"
Nancy shoves her co-worker's shoulder lightly, making her almost stumble into me. "Of course she doesn't. She's American, stupid. It's not like the man is bloody Prince Harry."
Sheila rolls her eyes. "I'm just saying, Nance, that if he had asked at all for my assistance during the night last night..."
My face must have shown an expression of disapproval for the two women look back at me with frowns and aren't as friendly anymore. "Sheila here will escort you to the hub where you can catch your train to Oxford. Aren't you a little old to be an Unaccompanied Minor?"
"Nancy, behave," says Sheila. "She's got a condition. She's not good with crowds and new surroundings by herself. She has something called the Arse-burger's disease."
The other flight attendant covers her mouth in horror, then looks back at me with syrupy concern. "Oh, you poor dear. Will you be needing the commode before Sheila escorts you to your train?"
I put away my headphones because the station agent told me they looked flashy and expensive and I wouldn't want to get robbed of them, would I? I miss the weight of them on my shoulders.
With my anxiety ramped up to near unmanageable levels, I take out the small packet of Lysol wipes from my Hello Kitty backpack and begin to clean up an area within my three-feet radius. I scrub the windows, the walls, the sills, and the seats. I use as many wipes as needed until everything within my immediate surroundings sparkled clean. I couldn't do anything about the offensive graffiti regarding some jerk's sexual prowess, but at least most of the gum and other sticky stuff on the wall were gone.
I remove my non-latex gloves and throw them inside the same bag I was using to collect the used Lysol wipes. Twenty-two minutes after I had boarded the train from Heathrow, I could finally sit down, satisfied that my area was sufficiently clean. The train conductor scanning tickets with her handheld machine inspected what I had done and gave me two thumbs up, plus a packet of Honey-roasted peanuts.
I'm hungry. There is another reason I slept through the meals on the plane. I don't trust regularly prepared food. When something is placed in front of me and I'm expected to eat it, I kind of freak out a little. From childhood, I've only ever eaten stuff prepared by my mother or auntie (and I have to watch them doing it). Otherwise, I can really only eat things that come from vacuum-sealed jars, most of it baby food, and I tend to hide that from people. Thankfully, I can also make do with meal replacement drinks.
I think about the four jars I have in my backpack: spinach-pear, apple-carrot, and two sweet potatoes with peas. I also have a couple of eight-ounce strawberry flavored protein drinks in there. They're two hundred and forty calories each, so I suppose they could sustain me until I can find edible food again. Drinking protein stuff is normal; eating out of a baby food jar with a tiny spoon? Not so much.
A friend of Sister once caught me eating baby spaghetti out of a jar and I had expected her to be disgusted, but she instead called me a genius. She proclaimed it was probably my secret for staying skinny and told everyone about my "baby food" diet. It created quite a craze for a while until Sister put a stop to it by confronting her friend. "Gemma, you're an idiot. D eats the way she does because she has severe OCD and thinks everything is contaminated with God knows what."
I'm going to miss Sister. She is really good at setting people straight when they have odd notions about me. And that's most of the time.
I finish drinking my protein shake as the train pulls up to the station. From here, I was directed to grab a cab to the university, then head for Flannery Hall where I will be staying in a single room for an entire year. It was a miracle, I was told, but our dean at Stanford pulled some major strings to make sure I would have my own room. Oxford, for its part, was quite accommodating especially once they learned of my "disability."
I am about to get into a cab hailed for me by the nice station master when I hear my name being called.
"Hey D! Miss D.S. is that you?" calls an English male voice that I don't recognize.
My body instinctively tightens and I wrap the straps of my backpack more securely around my arm so I could swing it with control if I had to.
"What is it you want, lad?" demands the station master, who seems determined to look after my best interest since "a wee little thing" like me shouldn't be wandering around train stations at this time of night.
"My name is X.L., sir. I come from the uni as part of the welcoming party. I'm afraid I'm rather late," he says apologetically. "I had to change a flat tyre on my way over here."
I poke my head out of the cab and study the owner of the voice. He looks to be my age, maybe a year older at twenty. He's tall and lean with short black hair and dark Asiatic eyes. If I have to guess, I would say he has one Asian parent and one white parent. I look over him from head to toe. I check out his shoes, his clothes, the state of his fingernails, and listen a bit more to his accent.
The station manager demands to see his ID and inspects it with a suspicious eye. "I don't know, lass. I'm reluctant to release you to this character. We know nothing about him."
The station manager himself is trustworthy. He's a grandfatherly type who has been married for many years to the same woman who packs him a tuna sandwich with extra mayo and a fruit cup for lunch. He likes his tea with lots of cream and sugar. I was able to discern all of this from the state of his clothing and the stains on it.
"It's all right, Mr. Johnson. He is who he says he is. He's a boarding school boy who grew up around these parts," I tell the old man. "A classic overachiever who volunteers for everything because he's constantly trying to prove what a stellar guy he is. My guess is he's a middle child in a family of academics. He's harmless."
"Umm, I'm standing right here," says X.L. "I can hear you."
"I know," I reply. "My voice is well-modulated and you're standing only approximately a meter from me, which is the proper distance one should yield to a person they just met as a matter of personal space."
The old station master chuckles. "You are a rare one, lass. I wish a lot more young ladies were as sensible as you." He turns toward the cab and struggles to get out my suitcase from the boot, but my new acquaintance X.L. hurries over to help.
"Blimey," he says with a scowl. "What have you got packed in here, bricks?"
I shrug. "Close. Books."
X.L. drives a Mini-Cooper, which is a little awkward, given his height. He must be at least six-two. He sticks my luggage in the boot of his car, while I turn to the station manager and tell him to cut down on his sodium because the yellowing of his eyes and the bloating in his cheeks are indications that he is consuming too much salt. He asks if I'm a medical student. I tell him I'm just a student of the world and he laughs.
Once inside the car, X.L. looks at me as though he were expecting me to say something, but instead I reach into my backpack for my mp3 player and Bose noise-cancelling headphones which I immediately put on to block him out. I don't really feel like talking. Putting on headphones is a really good way to tell people to buzz off.
Nothing calms me down more than music. I like the predictability of the lyrics, the melodies, and the beats, which is why I specifically like hip-hop and classic R&B. I also really enjoy doo-wop, girl groups from the 1960's, and the R&B boy groups of the early 90's. I especially like the sexually suggestive songs of the male balladeers even though I have no experience in that arena. One of my favorite songs of all time, in fact, is "Till the Cops Come Knockin'" by Maxwell.
That's a song about two people having such passionate, torrid sexual intercourse that the police becomes involved somehow and the couple doesn't stop having sex until the cops come knocking on their door. I've always theorized that the police were called because the man in the song locks up the woman in his room for days and her family filed a missing person's report.
How could two people have sex for days, anyway? Don't they need to shower, eat, and relieve themselves? Still, it is a premise that utterly fascinates me. I bet my psychiatrist could write a whole book just based on that alone.
Almost an hour later, the car pulls up in front of a hulking, five-level brick building. I was asleep for most of the drive, but awake for the last five minutes of it. I couldn't really see anything because it was so very dark and there were so many trees. In my headphones, Peabo Bryson is singing "Can you stop the rain?"
I step out of the car before X.L. can open the door for me, but I allow him to retrieve my giant luggage from the boot of his car. According to the email I received detailing my housing arrangements, I will be staying on the fifth floor. Oh man, there better be an elevator.
I pull down my headphones so they rest around my neck and look all the way up to the top of the building. Engraved above the main awning in gold calligraphy was "Flannery Hall." Ah, my home for an entire year.
"The fifth floor is fairly quiet," X.L. says. "That's where the solo rooms are and there's only fifteen of them. You're really lucky to get one. Usually the uni holds a lottery campuswide when a room becomes unexpectedly available during the school year."
I give him a sidelong glance. I know he's expecting me to ask him what happened to the room that it became unexpectedly available. "Are you going to tell me the previous occupant hanged herself in that room or something because of her crappy grades?"
He looks at me in surprise. "Blimey, how do you know that? Did you read it in the papers or are you bloody Sherlock Holmes?"
I put my hand over my mouth to cover a yawn. "There are only so many tales that can be told mysteriously. I figured the student probably killed herself, got murdered, or ran away with a professor."
"Well, aren't you just a pocket full of joy," my school guide replies, seemingly unamused. "You must be tired from your trip. You should head on up to your unit, so you can get some rest. I'll pick you up with my fellow student adviser, Sarah, tomorrow. Eight am, bright and early. We'll take you to all of your classes."
It's almost ten in the evening, so there aren't really a lot of students hanging around anymore. We go inside and X.L. points out the common areas of the first floor. There are two large community rooms, he says, each one equipped with six sofas and four armchairs along with a seventy-five inch screen TV with satellite service and a large library of digital videos. If you don't feel like watching telly, there are pool and air hockey tables, as well as tables and chairs that come with their own lamps.
The first community room we pass has several students lounging on the sofa watching a rerun of Seinfeld, while a few more are hanging out at separate tables, each group playing a different tabletop game. I ask X.L. why the second community room is practically empty and he tells me, utterly without humor, that some students think it's haunted. I laugh, but he just shrugs.
He helps me take up my luggage to my floor and gives me his mobile number, letting me know he'll be picking me up at 7:30 in the morning. I look at the keys in my hand and match the number to the door. Five one three. Great.
The little unit is clean, maybe a ten by ten bedroom. I have a wide cabinet along the far wall with sliding doors, a twin-sized bed, a desk with a little chair, two windows above the desk, and a ceiling fan. I immediately wonder if the girl who lived in this room before me hanged herself from the fan.
I pull in my giant suitcase and check out the bathroom next door. There are four bathrooms on this floor and each one has four toilet stalls and three shower stalls. Unfortunately, there wasn't a room available that had an en-suite bathroom that didn't cost a ridiculous amount of money in rent.
Anticipating this, I packed four rubber shower slippers, which Mother got for a bargain in Chinatown last weekend. Mother also promised to send me my favorite brand of anti-bacterial wipes with my care package each month.
Once I'm secure in my room, I open my backpack and take out a jar of spinach-pear. I free my spoon from its plastic seal prison and begin to eat, while cracking open a well-worn copy of Richard III. I clean up after myself as soon as I finish my meal and get ready for bed. I get halfway through Richard before falling asleep.
True to his word, X.L. came to my door with a perky, blond-haired girl named Sarah who seems very nice. They gave me a quick tour, showing me two of the many libraries and a couple of the cafés. Then they brought me to my first class and left me with a map. They both wished me luck and said they'll come find me around lunchtime.
I enter the classroom and all heads immediately swivel toward me. I take a quick inventory of the people and realize I'm the only non-black or non-white person in the room. Huh. I park myself in an empty seat somewhere in the middle and pull out two packets of antibacterial wipes, so I can scrub the surface of my desk. I'm aware the students are watching me, but my OCD supersedes my self-consciousness. I stick the used wipes in a plastic bag to be disposed of later in my backpack. I know people are still looking at me, but I do my best to ignore them by staring at the white board ahead of me and slipping on my headphones.
From the corner of my eye, I see two girls face each other to clasp hands in high-fives and giggle. Some girls in front of me are whispering to each other and also giggling. One girl in the front row stares wide-eyed at something behind me as her mouth makes a perfect O. Everyone else seems curious, if not impressed.
Someone is coming.
The man approaching the front of the classroom is tall, slender, and wearing a high-quality three-piece suit. Sister watches a lot of fashion shows. The cut and tailoring identify it as a Huntsman, definitely Savile Row.
I've also studied James Bond movies for years. I know all about bespoke tailoring.
The newcomer is maybe a couple of years younger than thirty and has phenomenal posture. With broad shoulders, a narrow waist, and a graceful gait, he reminds me of one of those Armani male models on the runway during New York fashion week. He has short, dark auburn hair and wears round, silver-framed glasses. As soon as I see his face, my heart stops.
I slide my headphones down to my neck, but the mp3 player keeps going.
Gonna take you in the room, suga'
Lock you up and love for days
We're gonna be rockin' baby
'Til the cops come knockin'