While waiting at the airport, my undocumented Mami would look for the camouflaged yellow of crocodile eyes. And when she finally spotted some — on the faces of patrolling white immigration officers and security guards — she would stand close to them and take out her tattered copy of The Wall Street Journal, flipping through the pages as though she understood every word. Mami was a woman of pretend. Growing up, I watched her mouth spin the lies and tricks that kept us safe in a white man’s world, learning to hold my breath whenever I saw her hold hers.
I didn’t always get it right, though. I wasn’t always as good at controlling my feelings as Mami was, and it frustrated me that I couldn’t be better. The first time someone called me a white boy simp, outing me to our entire sixth grade class, I punched him in the face. As I got older, I couldn’t tell which felt worse: admitting to myself that all my crushes had blonde hair and turquoise eyes or the thought of telling Mami that I dated more white men than I would read newspapers in front of. It didn’t seem to matter to me that these were the same boys who pestered me about my country of origin or used “deport” as a slang word, either. I stopped answering questions in math class because I thought they would like me better that way.
In the lonely attic of my mind, I waited and waited, not just to fall in love with someone who looked more like myself, but also for friends who could understand that I was hurting. For a sign that I wasn’t betraying Mami and for reassurance that I had a chance at a different kind of love story. Nothing happened. At home, I forced an awkward laugh whenever my cousin warned me that I was attracted to my own oppressor — and at school, I listened quietly as my Asian classmates tore down European beauty standards and homonormativity, wanting nothing more than to be able to do the same.
One day, as I found myself hurrying from a Chinese heritage club meeting at school to a community protest on diversifying New York’s magnet programs, I looked at the beckoning street lights ahead and asked myself: Am I really an activist?
The answer to that question came packaged in freckles, a yellow plaid shirt and mahogany shorts towering above me at the Young Adults corner of Barnes & Noble — a flickering shadow over the copy of Pride and Prejudice resting on my lap. Three years ago, during the summer of my sophomore year of high school, I met Owen. He asked if I knew any good coffee shops here in downtown Brooklyn, and I gave him my two favorites, thinking that he was just another stranger I would smile at once and never again.
The next time I saw Owen, he was shirtless and blowing a whistle at some kids who were tossing loose change into the water. The English accent and black nail polish gave him away. I told myself it was embarrassingly shallow to fall for another white guy that quickly, someone who probably didn’t even remember me, but I couldn’t help angling my good side towards the third lifeguard tower anyway. When his shift ended, I was giving piggyback rides to my younger cousins in four-foot-deep water, and Mami was sitting a few feet away in a neon bikini, asking me to get her lemonade. Not the view I wanted to be part of when I saw Owen jump into the pool and swim my way.
“A big swimmer?” he asked.
He laughed, then offered to take one of my cousins off my back. He waved to my mom and introduced himself as a classmate. The lie confused me at first, but I smiled at him when it hit me that I had been trembling the whole time.
As the summer unfolded, I came to the pool more often. Owen and I grew closer. I learned that he moved here from the U.K. last fall after his father convinced him that the U.S. had superior colleges, doctors and fast food. He learned that I was studying to be a surgeon, but that whenever I got tired of memorizing cell parts, I would write poems I never showed to anyone. We had both skipped the Pride Month Parade that year. He introduced me to Coldplay, I made him try oatmeal ice cream, we wore each other’s favorite Hawaiian shirts for fun — and on one date in Little Italy, Manhattan, I kissed his lips for the first time. Nearly as sweet as his touch was the July air around us, thick with the smell of donuts, cannabis and his sea salt cologne.
I used to think that dating a lifeguard would mean I’d finally learn how to swim, but all I learned was how to hold my breath forever. I was jealous of the time that slipped so effortlessly past our fingers. Sweaty afternoons falling asleep on his chest, singing Christmas songs in the blistering heat, looking at our baby photos together — I didn’t want to come up for air. All I knew was that Owen cared about me, and I found comfort in how unafraid he was to show it. In the stickers he put all over his face after I said that my acne made me feel insecure about going out — and in his winces as I slowly peeled them off his stubble. I liked the feeling of dissolving in his hugs that made me feel so protected and small at the same time. I waited for Saturday beach dates sitting atop his shoulders like a baby crocodile being carried into the water, my helpless eyes silently begging his wild, crocodilian ones for love.
The thought of giving up my vulnerable Asian body so easily disgusted me, but I couldn’t stop. I started to think about sex all the time. I told Mami that I was working later shifts and I chose to keep feeling powerless at the bottom of my imaginary little pool, skipping family reunions and dinners. Sometimes, as Owen and I made out on his couch, I would see another me in the corner, lips stitched and his face feverish from disappointment. I would see the calloused, bleeding fingers of my dead great grandfather as he hoisted steel as silent as himself, and I would see Mami in her 20s, dying her hair blond at the salon so that white ICE officers wouldn’t approach her for an ID. It was pitch black in Owen’s basement, but I saw color — his colors — perfectly.
One evening, a few days before the start of my junior year of high school, and his senior year, the guilt consumed the last of me. It didn’t help that no matter where I was, I’d always felt like a nobody; 15-year-old me dreaded the reality of returning to my life outside of this person who made me feel so guarded. There was still so much to figure out — Mami’s tumor treatment, junior year workload, my loneliness at school — and I didn’t want to picture how the few people who chose to stay in my life would react to Owen. Loving a white boy felt like coming out all over again. To my Asian bloodlines that called me a white man’s whore, to friends I didn’t have and to the side of myself that claimed I was an activist, even though all I ever wanted was to belong.
I didn’t reveal any of this to Owen. Instead, in the middle of our walk through Central Park, I gave him a convenient excuse that I didn’t understand myself, saying that I needed some more alone time before I could be a good boyfriend. I didn’t want to lose him, but my anxiety wouldn’t let me keep him, so instead, I promised that we would see each other again soon. He said he’d wait for me. I reassured him that I’d make friends during the upcoming school year and tell him all about them the following summer — about the AP classes I’d fail and about my sleep-deprived mornings doing homework at the school tennis courts. He laughed. We rode the train to Brooklyn together, and then he dropped me off a block away from my apartment, where Mami couldn’t see.
He pressed his fingers up against my cheeks: “Hey. I hope you become a writer one day, if that’s still what makes you happy. I want you to be happy.”
“I want you to be happy, too.”
“All right, I love you, idiot. Good night.”
I smiled, saying nothing. He ruffled my hair before he left, reminding me of someone I had met before.
Life moved on. Good night texts and FaceTime calls turned into waiting for good night texts and wondering if I should call, which turned into new memories made with new people in new places. I finally made friends that year. The blissful and backbreaking tales of my junior and senior years, then the start of college, shoved the films from summer 2019 into the attic of my mind. It wasn’t that I forgot about Owen. I just got better at pretending that our story had already been fully written. I heaved a happy sigh whenever I saw his Instagrammed trips gone apple picking and surfing with friends, and I was happy for myself in a way that I had never felt before. I stood on a JENGA tower of dance rehearsals, 3 a.m. pizza runs and breathtaking college architecture, building it up, up, up until I couldn’t see the ground anymore. Somewhere out there, I knew he was doing the same.
I built and I built until I lost. Owen passed away from end-stage leukemia last December. I never saw him again.
When I found out, I was at my college dining hall with some friends, celebrating the end of our first semester. I had to reread the text from Owen’s friend several times to believe it. I didn’t cry, but my throat closed up as I lied and announced to everyone around me that I had just failed my chemistry final. The next thing I knew, I was lying alone on a cold, white-tiled bathroom floor, trying not to drown in the colors of this boy who I swore was just sitting next to me. I couldn’t breathe. I dialed his old number, waiting to hear the English-accented “hi” that I still remembered like my own name.
It all started to make sense. The move to NYC for its world-renowned doctors and the summer spent lifeguarding at a crowded pool — Owen knew that time was running out. He wanted to hold onto the edges of his world for just a little longer, and all along, my synthesia had been breaking down his body into a science, scavenging the pieces I wanted and discarding those I wasn’t comfortable with.
“I love people, Brian. I would love to have my own kids one day, even if I’m probably going to be the worst dad ever.” Today, his cheeky smile reverberates in my bedroom, full of virgin sheets of paper waiting for me to mark them with words I still have to say. I remember when he told me that the way we met was fate, and I believed him, only to realize that our fate was never meant for two kids to grow old and become fathers together. Now, as I walk through Central Park alone on Friday nights after work and revisit the pool where we met, I consider if I should give him a deferred apology.
I would be lying if I said that I finally understood how to separate expectation from feeling. I still fake a laugh when my friends call me a white boy simp. A part of me still longs for the day when Mami visits me at Yale and sees me surrounded by friends, an Asian girlfriend standing beside me as I wave a copy of my college newspaper as its incoming editor-in-chief. More than anything, I want the people in my life to think that I made it before letting them love me, and I guess that was what happened with Owen, too. Letting my heart sing its songs a cappella was never something I felt comfortable with.
Over all the instrumentals of broken promises and teenage lust, I forgot that he wasn’t a white boy, but just a boy — a messy-haired, kind, goofball of a boy who didn’t mind walking with me through high-end SoHo stores in old sandals to match mine. I lost my mind in the sound, pretending that I’d have all the time in the world to tell him that I really, really did love him back. It doesn’t matter how much I say that I love him today, though. It doesn’t matter how much I want him now, pretending that it’s August 2019 and I’m laying next to him in a quiet patch of oaks watching him struggle to peel tangerines. I chose not to care, and my most loving regret cannot change the fact that I once regretted to love him. He’s not coming back. Owen isn’t coming back. I’m powerless again, except this time, I’m by myself. I’m singing a solo, except the only person who would’ve stayed to listen has left. I head home.
If there’s one thing keeping me going, it’s knowing that when the traces of chlorine stop burning my chapped lips, I’ll be able to give Owen the apology he deserves. I’ll be able to write the part of our story where I finally understand that there is no form of activism more powerful, no greater security in my Asianness, than unapologetically choosing someone who made me feel chosen.
Until then, I hallucinate. I find myself slipping through anxious currents even when there is no water around, and I see crocodile eyes in places I’m not supposed to. On the faces of strangers whose names I want to know, in the windows of subway cars, in the corner of my room during those sleepless nights as I prepare my medical school applications. They’re not the same crocodile eyes that Mami saw at the airport twenty years ago. They’re Owen’s. As he emerges from the brackish waters, he looks so gorgeous — so untouchable — that for just a moment, I can only stand there, too relieved to say hi. His cheeks are pink from the December snow waltzing through the evening sky, his jacket’s missing a button and he looks so shy when he waves to me from beneath that giant Christmas tree. All around him, little boys and girls in reindeer hats are skating to the beat of a familiar song, and he helps one of them off the icy ground.
But when I remember to wave back, it’s too late. A sudden vortex of water drowns out all the holiday bright and forces us apart, pulling him upwards toward the surface and sinking me to the timeless depths below. Further down, down, down where the water’s chill feels like knives and the weight of my feelings hurts more than any creature that will ever swim my way. All I can do is hold my breath, watching the skyline above with yellow eyes as I try to remember the song of the crocodiles.
Mami, I’m finally doing it right.
Featured image by Ron X. Cheng