View Full Version : Young Love in the Time of SARS

10th July 10, 05:36 AM
Young love is the most acute pain of all. Like a white hot ember, like a needle prick, it’s a sensation that comes and goes in a heartbeat, but like the rest of the burns and blemishes of youth, you bear the scars forever. Young love is seeing Claudia con Trang for the first time. Her beauty explodes into you. She blows up your world, there’s a flash and your heart melts. A half-second later you hear the KA-POW. Finally, you smell the accelerant and nitroglycerin. What does burning cordite smell like? Jasmine and honey suckle.

It was the year of our lord 2001. I can see myself, pimpled, lean and awkward in Mrs. Sauk’s biology class.

I was sitting in the back row of room 201D minutes before the first class of spring semester. In walked Claudia. There was no music, there were no clamshells or cherubs. There was her. Nothing but her and her raven black, silken hair. Nothing but litheness and radiance and soft features marbled from the exotic stones of a land long ago and far away. Nothing but long legs that stretched from her plaid skirt down to forever. That’s my happy thought, seeing her for the first time. I’m in that moment forever. I’m 17 and getting the shit kicked out me by gangbangers and I’m seeing Claudia Con Trang walk into that dingy little science lab. I’m losing my virginity in my spartan dorm room and Claudia is smiling meekly at her new classmates. I’m eulogizing my father and the sheen of a beautiful Vietnamese girl’s hair is catching my eye. I’m always seeing Claudia Con Trang walk into that room, always, and for that I am thankful to God.

I wish that was my only happy thought, I wish it was my sole Claudia moment. If only Claudia remained a lofty waif I could never look in the eye, much less muster the courage to say hello to. Instead, she became one of the best friends I ever had.

It was a friendship that would have never happened, if it weren’t for Mrs. Sauk. To keep us from cloistering ourselves off to better ignore what she tried to teach us, Mrs. Sauk had us sit alphabetically. Claudia was the last of the T’s and I’m the first of the V’s. There were no U’s at Mary Hankins High. It was a match made in heaven.

We shared one of those big, black topped lab tables. You know the types? With the Bunsen burner couplings and the electrical outlets? Several future Rhodes scholars carved the name of their paramour’s into the table’s thick, plywood veneer. For the uninitiated, this was before the internet as you know it today. In that now, if you wanted to annoy a group of people with your problems, you couldn’t post them in a status update, you had to carve them out letter by letter. Claudia set her things down next to me. She seemed sheepish. I looked up at her from where I was sitting. I noticed she had perfect skin. I’d never seen a teenager with perfect skin before. “Hey,” I said. She gave me an awkward smile.

I leaned over, “What kind of flower is on your face?” She looked at me quizzically. “Tulips,” I replied. She erupted in dainty guffaws. The entire class looked back at us. She reddened and sat close beside me and grabbed my arm to sturdy herself. And that was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

A month passed, and we had a small project due. It was about photosynthesis and the Kreb cycle, chlorophyll, borophyll, that sort of shit. I threw something together the night before. Claudia threw something together that morning. I thought Asian kids were supposed to be good students? “Hey dumbass,” I said to her, “your stupid shit is falling off your poster.” She flipped me off, her tan, slender digit raised alone and defiant.

“Do you have any glue you can use?” I asked her, trying to be helpful.

She screamed in frustration.

“Claudia,” I asked, “are you having a special moment?”

She glared at me and said, “I didn’t use glue you faggot, that wouldn’t help.”

I was taken aback. I didn’t see any tape or tack, but I did see a filmy residue where her diagram of a leaf had fallen from her pink poster paper. “Why Claudia,” I say, making no effort to hold back my amusement, “whatever did you use?

She looked at me and smiled that sheepish grin, that beautiful little mix of apology and challenge. “Rice,” she said and looked away. Now, Claudia knew what I found out later, that rice is commonly used as an adhesive in several Vietnamese recipes and ceremonies. It’s applications in the construction of school dioramas are limited at best however.

“Rice?” I asked, incredulous, my mouth agape.

She noded her head. My mouth closed and a broad smile crept across my lips.

“Rice glue,” I say. She muffled a tiny sob. I’m not sure if it was because she knew she was going to get a shitty grade on her project or because she knew she had just gotten her new nickname.

A month later our class took a field trip to the Mobile-Crenshaw Watershed Nature Preserve. After a long morning of playing biologist, we were all taking a break under the Preserve’s pavilion. I was sitting off by myself, eating the cold cuts my mother packed for me. I don’t remember what I was thinking. I know I was oblivious to the precious youth and innocence I was letting pass by. Oblivious to what life could offer. Claudia saved me from that that horrible oblivion.

“Vanny!” she cried in her high, melodious voice. “Don’t be such a loner, come eat with us!” She scooted down to make enough space for me. I sat beside her. She was the first person to reach out to me in a long time. Good deeds never go unpunished.

I fell in love with her then, I’m certain. Such kindnesses, for no reward other than to do it. It wasn’t a cheap kindness; she had to put up with me making fun of her lunch.

“Fucking Christ, Rice Glue! What is that shit, eel?” I asked her immediately after sitting down and prying my grubby hands into her thermos of soup. Everyone at the table looked at me with an expression of shock and horror. Everyone except Claudia. “No you stupid asshole!” she said and hit me on the arm. Her bony knuckles left tiny bruises. I mocked intense pain and rubbed my arm while shooting her an indolent glare. She smiled at me, and I couldn’t help but return it.

“Hey loser,” she said to me, “how do you work the pH reader, none of us can figure it out.” I remember bullshitting long enough such that everyone forgot what an asshole I was. Claudia was always helping me out like that. I was George to her Lenny. Only he had it much rougher; the rabbit I wanted to pet was her.

And our relationship continued like that for the rest of our adolescence. For years we exchanged good natured barbs and engaged in a loving interdependence. She’d teach me to be human, and I’d take care of the mental brute work she didn’t have the time or inclination for. We helped each other get along. It was hard for her, being simultaneously the most beautiful girl at school and one of the few colored faces. At first, it was hard on me being small and weak, then, after puberty and weightlifting, I found being strong, belligerent and outnumbered even more difficult. We grew up though, and with adultecense came a reprieve from the trifling problems we faced. It was that seventeenth year, that first grown season, when Claudia blossomed into full, beautiful womanhood. I had become something different as well. Rebellious, aloof, pockmarked and cocksure. Claudia was a young woman. I was a fucking prick. And she still took care of me, often despite myself and at her own peril. She also broke my heart, but that’s the course of things.

Along with everything else she taught me, Claudia taught me one of the most important lessons a man can learn: love is a wonderful, exhilarating futility. It was late summer, as good a time as any to learn that lesson. School had just let in for our senior year. It was sweltering then, like it is on most summer days in South Alabama. I was lounging in another Biology class, this time it was an AP course that, to be frank, neither Claudia nor I had any business being in. I had my feet propped up on the desk, trying as hard as possible to look like I didn’t give a shit. What I in fact was doing was wondering why Claudia hadn’t come in yet. After all this time, she still sat by me, every class, every year, despite how brutal and heartless my jokes and pranks became.

But she hadn’t gotten in yet. The minutes ticked by, and with every moment I became less and less aware of how debonair I looked and more aware of how horrible getting through a day at that fucking school would be without Claudia. Finally, in she walked. It was like the first time I saw her, all those years ago. Except then, I was a child struck by raw, hormonal biology. This was worse.

I saw the woman I loved, the only woman I’ve ever truly loved, as perfect as she was ever going to be. Something was different about her that day. Something that made her more radiant. More striking. More whole. My heart raced to exhaustion and though I somehow managed to keep on a shit-eating smirk, every emotion I had drained out of me into the morning heat. She was the rising sun, orange and pure, after dark night. Snowfall through the bare and freezing limbs of barren oaks. She was everything wonderful and beautiful and special. But there was something else. It wasn’t the passage of time; I had already noticed time’s affect on Claudia. How it rounded her hips and back and bust. It was something missing, or, better yet, something filled.

Her face was flushed, and instead of sitting by me and listening to whatever dirty jokes I’d written the night before, she stopped and hunched over with some of her girlfriends. They chattered excitedly for several minutes. Eventually, she sat down at our desk.

“S’up, Rice Glue?” I asked her.

She didn’t notice the greeting at first, but then, flustered, turned to me and said, “Hey James, how are you?”

I was taken aback. Never, ever, had she called me by my first name. Her names for me ran the gamut from cock-sucker to red neck motherfucker, but never something as banal and somehow dismissive as a first name.

I was about to demand she explain what her deal was when class started up. I drifted off like I usually did and imagined race cars and naked ladies while Claudia took dutiful notes. After class, I forgot the mornings’ weirdness and busied myself with school work and day dreaming and trying to catch a glimpse down Gloria Hernandez’s shirt. When I got through the day, I walked out to my old truck and prepared myself mentally for a long shift at the grocery store where I bagged groceries. But as I walked to the truck, something kept rushing to the forefront of my mind. It was a nagging, bothersome thought, something tiny, but dark. Something inconspicuous but dreadful. Why had Claudia been so distant this morning? And why had she run off campus at the first opportunity instead of shooting the shit like she always did? What the hell was so exciting about her life that she couldn’t talk to me about?

It bothered me for the short ride over to the grocery store and all during that long and arduous day. Finally, while I was elbow deep in a toilet, scrubbing some asshole’s feculence from white porcelain, I understood what was so life changing and wonderful. I deduced what was so important to Claudia, but what she couldn’t have told me. My best friend, the love of my life, had lost her virginity to another man.

After that moment of realization, I went through varied emotions: denial, anger, sadness, and, despite how insane it seems, loss. Only now, only after years of tumultuous romance and pointless lovemaking do I realize how preposterous any of those emotions were. But try telling that to the 185 pound, 17 year old virgin metal-head in that Winn Dixie.

I was empty. I was heart-broken, betrayed. I finished my shift, got in my truck, and took the long, lonely drive back to my parent’s modest, tiny three bedroom house. When I got there, all the door and windows were locked and everyone was asleep. I went into my bedroom and, making sure not to cause enough racket to wake my sleeping father, I got the bottle of Jim Beam I’d been saving for a camping trip with my buddies. I took the bottle out to the back yard and drank and petted my old, scruffy chow chow Felix and wept. I wept and wept and wept until Felix had his fill of salty, pubescent angst. He still curled up beside me for as long as I stayed out there tough. I miss that dog.

After I had my cry and drank my fill, I wondered back into the house. I feel into a heap on my bed and passed into a fitful sleep. I dreamt that night. I dreamt of dark woods perfumed with the iron smell of blood and fear. In that dream, I heard rustlings in the black-green pine trees, like some burly creature, or some burly someone, was just a few paces away. I ran and ran through those woods. The faster I ran, the louder the rustling. The harder I pushed my body onward, the denser the forest became. Just when the darkness of the forest and the cacophonous fury of the dream-beast became ubiquitous and overbearing, I burst through the dense thicket and into a field of daffodils and dandelions. The silver moon was full, and a cool spring breeze blew the flowers to and fro, sending spindles of white seeds up into the heavens. The sky was a clear, dark not-quite-purple blue. I looked behind me. The forest was gone. In its stead the field continued on over the horizon. Somehow I knew that the field went on forever, and that forever was as long as I wanted.

When I turned around, I saw a slender figure sitting on a piece of driftwood in the middle of the meadow. I walked to it. I asked the figure, “How did this piece of driftwood get here, so suddenly and so far away from the Gulf?”

The dainty figure peered up at me and smiled, “It got here the same as you, Vanny. It barreled through the forest and fought and thrashed until it found where it belonged.” The figure moved over and I sat in the empty space.

We sat in silence for a while.

“Why are you crying, Vanny?” the figure finally asked me.

“I don’t know,” I said.

The figure put a slender, yellow finger on my cheek and wiped a tear drop away. She smiled at me.

“I love you, Claudia,” I told the splendid waif.

“I know you do, Jim, I know,” she said. It was her turn to cry. “I’ll always be here for you, no matter what happens.”

I held her then, and when her warm embraced emboldened me, I kissed her. She yielded to me and pulled me on top of her.

We untangled ourselves from our clothes and entangled ourselves in each other. She pulled me to her and, with bated breath, said, “Say my name.”

“Claudia,” I said with an embarrassed chuckle.

“No, not my Christian name, my real name,” she said.

I had forgotten it, I had forgotten that Claudia wasn’t her real name. It was something sensuous and musical, but impossible for my thick, Anglo tongue to pronounce.

I kissed her again, and again, and again. That unending meadow reverberated our love, our passion, back into us, somehow making what was limitless and infinite even greater. At the height of it all, at the climax of that perfect, blissful, primal togetherness, she whispered her real name in my ear. What’s in a name? Its dulcet tone and meaning were beyond description. I’ve never experienced sex or highs or emotions like that feeling of perfect bliss and unity, waking or asleep. After we spent ourselves, we laid together in that field of white and yellow flowers until the silver-blue night of my dream gave way to dull, waking reality.

I checked my alarm. It was 4:05. It was one of the rare Saturdays I didn’t have to work. I spent the next 18 hours playing Knights of the Old Republic on my computer, waiting for night so I could return to my silver moon and my not-quite-purple blue night sky and my field of yellow and white flowers. I never dreamt of that place again, no matter how hard I tried.

I talked with Claudia less and less that year. Partly because my feelings for her were unrequited, but also because somehow, somehow I knew that she had given me more than any other woman could or would. I knew that I had taken enough from Claudia, and, even though I knew it hurt her to lose a friend, she had more to give to others. That night, before my dream, I promised myself, and my faithful companion Felix, that I’d never love another woman. Not that way, not that pure. Not with such a blind, burning naiveté and force. How could I ever love anyone like I love Claudia con Trang? Because I lied before about young love being a quick, painful thing. It lasts forever, or at least as long as life. I’m always with Claudia, I’m always seeing her, so young and sweet, walking into that old school room, I’m always marveling at her laugh, I’m always making love to her in that strange and eerie dream world.

It’s an unhealthy love, a creeper fantasy, but it’s love god damnit, and it doesn’t hurt anyone except me. I loved her. I love her. I’ll love her. I’ll love her until I die, and when I draw my last breath, the words on my lips will be: “Good-night Ms. con Trang, wherever you are.”

10th July 10, 09:06 AM
Beautiful. Now I miss Charlee.

10th July 10, 09:39 AM
My first love felt like that too. Had a friendship that lasted 10 years until it developed into something more. But by that time she was in need of a man and I was still very much a boy. She would often say things like "I don't know, Josh" and give me worried but eager looks as I expressed my feelings for her after her last breakup. She was the kind of girl that would always get into bad relationships and you wanted to fight for her so badly. Little did I know that she was also being courted by a doctor at the hospital she worked at at the same time I was trying to finally man up and get her attention.

But to a woman at that stage in life (she was 2 years older than me, we went to school together for a long time until she went away to college) I probably came across as a nothing to her. I ended up painting a portrait of her... at once knowing it could be my only shot to truly show how I felt about her and I also knew as I was completing the portrait that it truly wasn't meant to be. I poured so much of myself into that painting. Even though I did it years ago it's still some of the best work I have ever done.

When I handed it to her she wept bitterly. Because she knew that I loved her, she knew we could probably be happy together, but mostly because she had already made her choice. She still has the painting last time I talked with her. She is now happily married and has kids.

She taught me how to love though. And I've taken that experience and brought it with me and I've used it to truly show the love of my life (the most amazing woman I am with now, the most beautiful girl in the world) how I feel for her.

I sometimes think back to that first love (everyone does) and wonder how it would've gone if I had truly been a man. But I think that's what the whole experience was for. I'm one of those people that just has to learn the hard way I guess. But for the experience I am truly grateful.

10th July 10, 12:47 PM
The experience is worth it, resolve, that's a beautiful story. Just for the record, this is my only lovey, dovey, kissy, kissy story, the rest of them are about people dying and binge drinking and beating the shit out of each other, animals and inanimate objects.

10th July 10, 02:03 PM
You're going to get a second chance at Claudia about ten years from now when you stumble across each other on facebook, or at some reunion. She'll be a single mother with the first few wrinkles by then, maybe a little extra weight. You will find the sexual experience strangely unsatisfying, but you won't regret the closure.

Toby Christensen
10th July 10, 02:06 PM
Brilliant. Even a neurotic like me can appreciate it.