By Lauren Lee
It’s been years since the last time I saw Jack. I’d never thought that I would ever hear his voice on the radio. I guess his dream came true.
“I’m working the night shift, Mama!” I scream over to my mother sitting in her wheelchair watching reruns of Chinese soap operas as I grab my keys and walk out the door.
I feel a sense of ease as I get into the car. I have already gotten Mama’s teeth brushed and her diaper changed. The night shifts are hard because there is always so much to do to get Mama ready for bedtime but I need the extra tips from the bustling late-night bar. It feels odd for me to work in a place that sells the very substance that is killing my Mama, but in this small town, my options are scarce. To pass time, I turn on the radio for some background noise. I turn the FM dial, moving through hip hop, classic, rock until I hear a voice. It’s a voice I know. It takes me a moment, but then I place it. Jason Miller.
Of course, the lights were off. At Clarington High, the library was almost always empty. Even the librarians couldn’t care to show up. “You can check out the books yourself if you want, but make sure you lock up when you’re done,” I read the note Nick left at the table. He was probably the worst librarian I had ever met. He was never actually in the library on most days but to be honest, I didn’t blame him. Nobody at that school could give a damn about their studies. I was probably the only one that walked through the library door during the seven-hour school day. My presence was never enough to give Nick a reason to show up.
I sat down on one of the tables at the far right corner of the room. It was the only table that didn’t have penises etched into the wood and had the only seat that wasn’t wobbly. Just like every other day, I scratched through my homework as fast as I could. I had to get home before 6:00 PM to make dinner for me and Mama.
“Hey! You in the back, why aren’t you laughing,” a voice shouted at me across the library.
Our resident class clown, Jason Miller, stood up from his seat at the front of the library and walked towards me.
“Howdy, partner!” he said as he lifted his cap slightly off his head.
“I’m not your partner,” I said without lifting an eye from my paper.
The floor let out a long screech as he dragged the chair out next to me and sat down. Jason was probably the last person I’d expect to see in the library. His being there made me think he was giving up his dream of becoming a successful comedian turned actor and starting to pick up a pen for the first time in his life but he was just writing new jokes for next week. I took this as a cue for me to pack my bags and go home before he tried them on me.
But Jason was in the library the next day. Even from the back of the library, I could hear him loudly practicing his punch lines.
“Can you shut up?” I yelled over to him.
“Hey, you in the back,” he sat down next to me, “am I disturbing your studying?”
“Well, what do you think? Stop disturbing people that actually have things to do,” I replied.
“We should study together. You can help me with my jokes,” he suggested, “ I really feel like I’m getting somewhere with these.”
The last thing I wanted to do was help him come up with more jokes to disrupt our classes with, but his mumbles grew louder and louder. Unable to focus on my AP Calculus homework, I rolled my eyes and helped him write corny jokes.
“What do you think about: ‘I’ve failed math so many times that I can’t even count?” I suggested. I was proud of that one but of course, I had never failed math.
I helped him because after all, he was like me. We both wanted to leave this town.
Since the day we met in October, we began searching for each other in the library every day after school. We talked about things that nobody in Clarington would muse over. Like me, he was stuck in a ditch without a grappling hook. We were isolated from the rest of the town for pursuing more than just inheriting our parent’s professions and no one could pull us up.
“I want to go to L.A. after I graduate. There was a guy at Carol’s Theater that saw me perform the other night. He really thinks I have something,” He’d tell me, “I’m going to prove to my mom that I can get somewhere doing this. I don’t need to study and I don’t need her help.”
I told him I wanted to go to New York University and that Papa was in the city working in Wells Fargo right across from Hudson Yards. Papa had sent me postcards every month from New York City. The photos of the Brooklyn Bridge felt more like home than Clarington. The hive of multiculturalism was a home for everyone, especially for Asians like me. Papa had told me that in one day, he could travel to China without even leaving Manhattan. I wanted to do that too.
Talking to Jason felt like someone was finally pulling me out of the ditch I was trapped in. When I lost myself in our conversations, I felt for a moment that this enormous room with its tower of books was ours. It was surprising how much I grew accustomed to his presence. I found myself missing him when he was absent.
I always knew in the back of my mind that we were not the same. I loathed how ungrateful he was about the support his parents gave to him. How he threw it away to pursue his seemingly impossible dream of making it big in Hollywood. Other than his silly aspirations, he didn’t have a concern in the world. I never once saw him pull out his books to study in those many days I spent with him in the library.
Jason practically announced his ambition to become a comedian to the whole class in freshman year. Nobody ever laughed at his jokes. They laughed at him. I agreed that Jason never really had much talent in writing jokes, but I think that students at Clarington hated him more because he was brave enough to take up a challenge that others were too scared to do. It was unheard of in Clarington for students to leave town after graduation; it was a scary thing to want something more. I admired Jason’s foolish persistence.
In February, he had an opportunity to test his jokes on the whole school when he was chosen to speak for the morning announcement. Right after leaving the main office, he was ambushed by a group of assholes. They taped him to the bathroom wall, but no one noticed that he was gone. Jason stopped writing jokes for a week after that.
In June, Mary Ann strutted into the library with her beige Kate Spade purse. Much like Jason had when he first walked into the library, Mary Ann walked towards my seat, but this time Jason was sitting next to me.
“I love your belt, where’d you get it?” Mary Ann asked, but my pants were covered by the table.
Before I could answer, she cut me off, “I want to invite you to a study session at my house this week. It will be super fun!”
Mary Ann had let the whole class know that she was failing her senior English class. The last written assignment was the only thing that could save her from being unable to graduate. It would’ve been a tragedy if her father refused to buy the car she always wanted because she couldn’t graduate. Still, I thought it would be nice to have a friend to study with, so I accepted.
“Thank you, I really have to thank you so much. You really are my best friend,” she’d say to me every time she would see me out of her home after our study sessions. Mary Ann had a way of pulling people towards her. Sometimes, I really did feel like we were best friends. Though I knew she would never understand how Jason made me feel like he was pulling me out of my ditch, I felt a need to share with her the incomprehensible feelings I had when talking to Jason.
On the last day of the week, she decided to have a “girl break” from the usual studying and invited her other friends over. I was delighted to feel like I was part of a group. The sleepover went just like how I imagined it to be: we painted each other’s nails, layered on skincare treatments, and gossiped.
“What do you do with Jason in the library?” one of Mary Ann’s friends asked, “You seem really close to him.”
“I can’t believe you’re friends with him,” Mary Ann remarked. “Someone as smart as you shouldn’t waste your time with him. He’s such a clown.”
Mary Ann was right. The flush of hot blood reached my cheeks as I thought of how embarrassing it was that I was even friends with such a clown. I felt a hint of regret that I told Mary Ann about my relationship with Jason because it was clear that every girl in the room knew about it, but I regretted, even more, the feelings I felt for him. I resolved that I was not friends with Jason. I was better than him. I wanted them to know that, and I made sure of it.
In fact, the whole school knew it by the next day. Someone had recorded me at the sleepover.
“I see Jason at the library every day after school. He tests his half-baked jokes on me. I was so glad when he stopped writing jokes for a whole week in February,” I said, “Every time I hear one of his jokes, I want to tape his mouth shut.”
Jason stopped talking to me after that day but I didn’t care. I had gotten into New York University. The week before I was going to fly over to New York City to meet my Papa, my mother was admitted into the hospital for liver failure. My plane left for New York without me.
I had always thought I was nothing like the other kids at my school and I was right, but for the wrong reason. I thought that I was going to be the first to leave Clarington but it turned out that while other kids went on to community college, I stayed home to take care of Mama.
For the first few weeks after I heard Jason’s voice, it stuck in my mind. It was like an itch, reminding me that I wanted more than I needed more. The thought was constantly in my head. I continued with my routine. Taking care of Mama, going to work, and sleeping when I could. I came home one evening to find Mama unresponsive. She was reclined in her chair, in front of the TV, the opera singers still belting over her silence. I called an ambulance and the paramedics pronounced her dead on the scene. They could see my blank face. There was no shock. This had been coming for years. I quit my job. The next week, I caught a flight to New York with nothing but my passport. There was nothing left for me at Clarington.
I wrote the story based on an idea I had to a prompt my mentor found online about hearing someone’s voice on the radio. The characters were based on people in my life and they began to develop their own personalities, so much so that the story started to develop on its own.
Lauren Lee is a high school junior in Manhattan, New York. Based in Brooklyn, she is a writer who loves experimenting with new styles and genres; especially poetry and essay writing. She enjoys incorporating her own personal history and highlighting the experiences of other Asian Americans in her stories. Her pieces have been published in the Girls Write Now Anthology and the Stuyvesant Spectator. She has received Honorable Mention for poetry in 2021 in the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards. In her free time, she loves playing tennis, debating and baking.