This essay was almost accepted but finally turned down by the Vox personal essays section on the Metropolis magazine, for being a story from the distant past. I seem to be doing a lot of reminiscing these days:
Few memories really stand out in my mind from before the age of eight. This one, however, will surely make it with me into old age because of its competitive standing in “the most embarrasing moment” feature on memory lane.
As a kid I used to go to Holy Redeemer, the only Chinese Catholic elementary school in the city, right on the edge of Chinatown at 10th and Vine. Back then it was just one humble building connected to a church, with a small rusty playground and a parish house. All the children who went there were kids of Chinese immigrants living in the vicinity.
My sister was already in 8th grade when I started school. She was the one who helped to initiate me into the world of phonics, cut-out paper coins, and nuns. She was the one who protected me from her older classmates, whose sage worldliness translated into picking on me. She was also the person whoinformed me that the robed priest who walked around the hallways was, in fact, not Jesus. I was quite the four-eyed, short, bowl-haired, and timid first-grader back in those days, and rather than speaking I would just glare up through my Coke-bottle glasses. It was a little rough-going those first few weeks of school.
It was afternoon on that fateful day. We had just finished lunch, came back from recess, and were in the middle of religion class with Ms. Gladsky. At some point during the class, I started having urges to use the ladies’ room badly. I shyly went up to the front of the classroom to ask the teacher amidst a flourish of group activities if I could please use the bathroom. She firmly responded no, saying something to the effect that I should’ve gone during lunch time. So I dejectedly went back to my seat, too afraid to put up a fight, and sat down squirming. I held it in for the rest of the class.
Then, it was time for Chinese class with Ms. Leung. She was our stern, sometimes scary, yet lovable Chinese teacher who came in weekly in an attempt to salvage our mother language. Some days, she’d come in cracking jokes that made us fall out of our seats laughing; other days she’d drag boys around by their ties if they weren’t reciting sentences loud enough. That day, like any other, she was down to business. As she came into the room, the hustle and bustle of the class died down, and we stood up in silence immediately to greet her and say our afternoon prayers (in Chinese, of course).
And there I was, doing the pee dance in the middle of the prayer while everyone else was reciting Our Father or Hail Mary in drone monotonous first-grade voices. It was one of the longest prayers ever. And then…as I was struggling with all my might and saying my own personal prayers so that the universal forces would help me hold it in, pee started to trickle from under my plaid skirt, onto the tiled floor, between my new leather loafers. My face scorched and turned red, and the more I tried to stop the flow, the more it came. I even tried making the puddle less noticeable with my shoes by inconspicuously stomping on it. Not so inconspicuous, as it turned out.
At the very end of the prayer, Ms. Leung finally noticed the large puddle underneath where I was standing and was a bit confused at first (“What’s that?!”). I was mortified, and stood stock-still. I guess the puddle was self-explanatory. Then finally, emergency action was taken. There were shouts of “Get Maggie here!” throughout the hallways, so I guess someone had to storm into the 8th grade classroom to deliver the awful message: “Your sister just peed her pants.”
My spanking-new checkered school jumper, to be more precise. Then the flourish of paper towels and wet napkins and mops. I seem to remember just staring goggle-eyed and quiet at everything, yet again reverting to my habit of not talking. I’m sure my sister came and accompanied me to the bathroom. After all, what are older sisters for but to help alleviate such situations? I don’t even remember if she laughed at me…I’m sure there was raucous laughter somewhere in that 8th grade classroom.
I always wondered how I lived that down, being the extremely shy kid that I was. Now as a more outgoing yet nostalgiac adult I keep these shared childhood memories with my sister like keeping gold. We collect and trade them like stickers. She doesn’t quite remember this one however, as I’m sure it’s not on her radar of important and/or traumatic moments. Although an old teacher from the school reassured me that I managed to live it down because it happened all the time, as common as rain. I guess in the end it’s always a story worth telling down the line, during those awkward reunions and grade school barbecues.
Middlebury College, Vermont — in the summer it becomes a campus for the ten language immersion schools
I’m breaking the rules writing in English. This “No English” rule is pretty effective — I’m even dreaming about having to say things in Spanish. Classes are mentally invigorating yet physically tiring. I went to bed yesterday at 10:00 — I just couldn’t even start to read Borges. And after the first half of the football game today, I crashed and took a glorious nap. Once in a while you take these naps that completely clear your head and you wake up not wanting to sleep more. And when you wake up the world is still sunny, pre-sundown, warm, green.
Through the barred window,
the wilted flags unsure of which
way to lean.
Weeks so volatile,
not knowing sometimes
where reason is kept, the border
of concrete of things:
Everyday art is an interpretation
of gestures, lines, appetites.
These days somebody else
lives in you.