When she opened her door the lived-in smell burst out like gases from a can: fish sauce and charred meat, mildew and a stronger concentration of the musk he had noticed when he got close enough to her body.
John Dô got laid when he was fifteen. It was a summer day on Carson Beach, during the hottest summer anyone in Boston could remember, and he took a bet.
“A hundred bucks says you can’t get your dick wet today,” said Phu, whose dad spent most of his time at the pai gau tables under Chinatown.
“Deal,” said John Dô.
There weren’t many people on Carson Beach at noon on a Tuesday. Even fewer girls. But there was one, reading a book, in a hot-pink one-piece.
She made John think of his little sister’s Asian Malibu Kira, Barbie’s Oriental Friend. Once he’d peeled open the Velcro back of her swimsuit to see her nippleless breasts. It was only after his come dripped onto the doll’s flat stomach that he felt shame. Now, when he watched his sister play with her Barbies, arousal and discomfort bubbled in his lower gut. He felt the same cocktail when he looked at the woman on the beach.
“Go for it, man,” said Phu.
John stood up. Every step seemed to pull him deeper into the sand.
She only looked up when his shadow passed over her paperback. Up close, she looked older. Not exactly a girl. The black makeup around her eyes had flaked away in places and settled on her cheeks like sunspots.
“Can I sit here?” he said, gesturing to the space beside her.
“Are you trying to pick me up or something?” she asked.
“Uh.” John’s first instinct was to deny it. Then he remembered the bet. “Yeah.”
“How old are you?”
“Eighteen,” John said in the deepest voice he could manage.
Her eyes scanned his hairless face, the folds where his wet swim trunks clung to his skin.
“Okay,” she said at last. “Let’s go.”
They rode the Red Line to her place. At Ashmont they got off the train to wait for the streetcar to Mattapan. They stood silently on the platform, one foot apart. John hadn’t waited on this platform since he was six years old. By the time he realized that they were retracing the path to the projects, they were already there.
Her place was familiar enough that he felt like he could find his way to her room without her help. When she opened her door the lived-in smell burst out like gases from a can: fish sauce and charred meat, mildew and a stronger concentration of the musk he had noticed when he got close enough to her body.
After closing the door behind her, the woman finally started to play the role that he had imagined for her. She turned around and smiled, scanned his face from his forehead to his lips, held her gaze there. The half second of eye contact was enough to send the blood back into John’s penis. He leaned in and kissed her—his first kiss.
The woman’s bed was sedimented with layers of bolsters, throws, tassels; the decorative buttons on her duvet pressed into his back when she straddled him. This was uncomfortable, but it didn’t last long. None of it lasted long.
John awoke to the morning sounds of clattering pans and sizzling oil. He stretched out as long as he could and opened his eyes. There was a child staring at him, leaning close. It was a soft, claylike face, the kind that could belong to a kindergartener. John’s eyes couldn’t lock into focus. When he looked directly at any one of the boy’s features, the details seemed to fade, like stars in a city sky.
“Get out of there, Bao,” the woman’s voice called from the other room. The boy scurried away.
John remembered where he was. The light was lower now, the gauzy curtains closed, and it took some effort for him to find his clothes on the floor. While he was stepping into his shorts, the woman looked into the room. He covered himself, but she didn’t seem to notice his nakedness.
“Bạn có đói không?” the woman asked.
“Dạ,” said John, before he could check himself. He didn’t want to expend the energy required to have a whole conversation in Vietnamese.
But the woman continued in English when they sat down at the table. “So you’re Vietnamese,” she said, handing him a plate. “What’s your Vietnamese name?”
“Don’t have one. My mom said John’s her dad’s name.”
“That’s supposed to be my dad’s name, too. But I guess all the white guys are johns over there.” She mashed at her rice. “So your mom’s on the Amerasian Act too?”
John hated getting into this. “I don’t know,” he said.
Suddenly the kid reappeared. John didn’t know where he could have been hiding in the one-bedroom unit; maybe behind one of the stacks of boxes. The woman pushed a small bowl and spoon towards him. He ate with one hand while clutching a G.I. Joe in the other.
The woman got up to wash dishes, leaving John alone with the boy. He felt a tenderness towards him. Maybe John would become a presence in this one-bedroom unit. He could use the bet money from Phu to take the boy to a game at Fenway Park.
“Hey,” John said to the boy. “Do you like baseball?”
The boy looked up from his doll. “You fucked my mom,” he said, his voice ageless and accentless, his face smooth and raceless. “Fuck you.”
John stood up and left.
When he got back to his house his friends were all on the stoop. “Yo, it’s John!” Phu called. Suddenly the boys were whooping and cheering like he was the hero at the end of his movie.
“How was it, man?” said Phu. His wallet was already out.
The inside of John’s head felt as dry as if someone had split it open and laid out the halves in the sun. He tried to recall the sensation of the woman’s vagina closing around his penis but could only remember the boy and his placeless face.
“Got my dick wet,” said John, grinning. The boys ruffled his hair and patted his back and followed him into the apartment where his mother, sensing a beginning, had prepared a special meal.