Brett Lamonica had long feathered hair like Bon Jovi. He was three years older than me and his black denim jacket smelled like baby powder and Lucky Strikes. I used to see him smoking with the other metal kids off school grounds, spitting brown tobacco flakes off his tongue.
He wasn’t the first person to call me a Chink and far from the last, but he was definitely the only one who’d made it matter. It might have been the way he smiled, like he wanted me to think he was joking, even though he wasn’t. He’d put his arm around me when he said it, pulling me into a headlock, or he’d slap me on the back like it was supposed to be good-natured. But he wasn’t fooling anyone—not even himself. I’d once asked him to stop, and then he asked me what I was going to do about it, and that was the last time I asked him to stop.
I used to see him after school, bent over the boy’s room sink, making sure all the eyeliner was gone before he went home. He’d clench his eyes shut and scrub pink powdered soap into his eyelids. It looked so painful, the way he’d squint at the mirror, his bangs sticking to his cheeks.
* * * *
He once came over with his dad so he could apologize for squeezing a ketchup bottle down my shirt. He said he was sorry and then went home, and his dad and my dad smoked on the porch. I don’t know what they talked about, but I do remember getting hassled for making another boy’s father feel sorry for me. A couple days later, I was enrolled in Taekwondo, where a stocky, middle-aged man yelled at me in Korean and told my dad how sensitive I was. Other than that, nothing much changed. Brett kept hooking his arm around my shoulder, and the little fourth-graders never tired of snickering at my pathetic front kicks.
* * * *
Brett was the lead singer of Vendetta, a hair metal band he’d formed with these guys who were always telling him to lay off of me. I’d once heard them perform “When the Children Cry” in his garage. It was one of two times I’d ever thought about fighting back, about rising from the bicycle seat and pumping the pedals harder and harder as I barreled toward his bewildered bandmates, about leaping off the bike, crashing into him as my ten-speed crashed into one of the amps. But instead, we locked eyes as he held the mic against his lips and sang about a world healed by tears, and I rode away.
Looking back, Vendetta was a pretty good name for a band.
The only other time I thought about fighting back was when he crimped his hair. The only reason I didn’t was because he’d changed it back to normal the next day—at least that’s what I told myself. He also had a fat lip, which at the time looked really funny. I remember laughing at how dumb he looked, his eyes bloodshot from the pink soap, the water sliding off his overhanging bottom lip like some kind of drooling idiot.
* * * *
Sometimes, you realize your hands aren’t clean and you tell yourself it makes you sick, but that thing you’re feeling isn’t anything like sickness. It’s something else you can’t name, even though not naming it means you’re either stupid or cruel. And then you shrug and tell yourself there’s nothing else to really say about it, but you know that’s a lie.
* * * *
Brett graduated and I didn’t see him again until my senior year, a couple months after he’d been kicked out of the Navy. He asked if my parents were home, and I told him they weren’t. Then he told me he was here to fix the sink, and I told him I knew that.
So you’re working for your dad now? I asked. He didn’t say anything.
We walked into the kitchen so I could show him what needed work. You look different, he said. I told him I’d been working out, and he gave me a weird look because how else do you respond to that? He crawled under the kitchen sink and I went back to the living room to unpause Road Rash 2.
He finished up and I gave him the money my mom had left. I stood on the porch and watched him walk to the van.
Remember when you crimped your hair? I said.
He stopped, and chuckled, asked why the hell I’d bring that up, so I told him he looked like a fag. He took a breath and shook his head.
Yeah man, he smiled. My dad said the same thing.
He slammed the door and turned the ignition. Guns N’ Roses was in the tape deck. We locked eyes as he backed out of the driveway, and I wanted him to call me a Chink again, just one last time, like maybe he’d be the only person I’d make an exception for.
Jeff Chon’s most recent work has appeared in Juked, The North American Review, and The Portland Review. His novel, Hashtag Good Guy with a Gun, is forthcoming from Sagging Meniscus Press in May 2021.