Pinching Jenny Finley’s Fat Ass: A Memory

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There were a lot of people in my high school who didn’t like me, but of all of them, Jenny Finley might’ve despised me the most.

“Why are you looking at me like that?” she’d say, sheer hatred beaming from her eyes.

“I’m not looking at you,” I’d respond, confused because I really wasn’t looking at her. As an adolescent and as horny as I was, somehow Jenny Finley didn’t do it for me. She always looked angry and she had brown hair that seemed like a wig, or like it had been blow dried at extreme heat for months. More importantly, even more than that hair, she was mean.

“Oh God,” she said. “The way you look.  He’s such a pervert.  What’s wrong with him?  He’s disgusting.”

I would try to explain myself.  “Well, I-”

“Don’t even talk to me!” she’d yell and her friends would laugh.  “You hear how he’s trying to talk to me?  And why is your face like that?  Why don’t you fix it?  Go see a dermatologist or something.”

What Jenny would, on occasion (frequent occasion), refer to was what my dermatologist described as “cystic acne” or “acne vulgaris.”  My sister referred to it differently, saying “it looks like you have a marble growing out of your nose.”  To my peers, my face was a “mine field.”  I wasn’t sure how it had happened.  Sometime around the 6th or 7th grade my face just exploded like a bag of potato chips ripped open too quickly.  Enormous pimples developed on my nose and all over my chin.  From there it spread, moving across my face’s landscape like an army, taking over the land and claiming it for country “Whitehead.”  I couldn’t even look at myself in the mirror.  At night, my mother would wash my face with a warm washcloth and then put Oxy on me.

Oxy, though, was no match for what I had going on.  At school the kids were brutal, though undeniably creative.  Once after Biology class, they gathered around me in the cafeteria. “Look at that thing behind his ear,” someone said, referring to huge zit that had somehow chosen to pitch its tent behind my right ear.  “Look at the size of it…I think he’s budding.”

“He is!” somebody else shouted out.  “He’s budding!  That pimple’s gonna pop off and turn into another him!”

“It’s not acne!  It’s asexual reproduction!”

Leaving the cafeteria, I took my hand and squeezed my earlobe as hard as I could.  I felt the thing rupture, sending thin watery blood all over my fingers.  This is how my pimples were – they didn’t pop like normal zits.  Hence, I didn’t squeeze them very often.  I wanted clear skin, yes, but I didn’t want to bleed to death.

One of my good friends was a guy named George, who had enormous glasses and a pin head and yet was still somehow higher on the nerd totem pole than I was.  Although he was my friend, he had a fondness for hurting me, literally. For fun, he’d take the palm of his hand and push it against my face.  I would feel the sting of my acne being pressed into my skull. It was like having a face full of canker sours. “Shit!” I’d yell.  “Stop it!” I learned quickly that, in high school, there is no phrase more ineffective than “stop it.”  For all the good it did, I might as well have demanded “do it again!”

George would only press harder.  About halfway through the school year, he told me he wanted to make a bet. What provoked him was my assertion that I would be able to clear my skin up by the end of the school year.  George didn’t know that I had a new dermatologist, and that he had just prescribed me Accutane, which I viewed as some sort of miracle cure. I’d heard whispers in the past about Accutane. My former dermatologist had debated it. “We could go Accutane,” he would say, “but…well…let’s not go that extreme. Maybe some good antibiotics would be a safer option.”

It was like Truman trying to decide whether or not to drop the bomb. Accutane was the be-all-end-all, fury-and-rage, nuclear detonator of acne medications. Now, thanks to my daring new doc, I had that weapon at my disposal. I didn’t think my acne would stand a chance, and thus I engaged with George in discussions involving a bet.

“I bet you that your face isn’t clear at the end of the school year,” he said. “I bet it looks exactly the same.”

“Fine,” I said. “Bring it. What are we betting?”

George was clever. He wasn’t interested in monetary things; he was more focused on humiliation. “If your face doesn’t clear up by the end of the year, you have to go up behind Jenny Finley and pinch her butt.”

“Done!” I proclaimed. I don’t even remember what he was supposed to do if I won. It didn’t matter. We shook hands, and with that the bet was placed.

Accutane pills were larger than other pills I’d taken. They were big and yellow. Each packet had a picture of a pregnant woman crossed out in red, like what a cigarette would be inside for a “No Smoking” sign. Every time I’d pop a pill, the large yellow bullet would come bursting through the pregnant woman as though she’d just given birth to an acne medication. This alarming warning was because Accutane was known to cause birth defects. It also had a whole litany of other side effects. Depression, dry eyes, bad night vision, arthritis, nausea, cancer, death, dislike of jazz music – you name it, I’m sure Accutane caused it in somebody. I didn’t care though, because as much as I’d hear about the adverse effects, nobody ever said  it wouldn’t work.

School carried on the rest of the year as badly as it had ever been. No girls would talk to me, which greatly impaired my chances of scoring a date. My grades were awful. At home, acne commercials would come on the television, with pictures of people who looked like they’d broken out in hives or had been given a rash by Satan.

“See,” my father would say, “you shouldn’t worry about your skin so much. You’re way better than those people.”

“I don’t want to be in the same conversation as those people!” I’d yell, because I was a hysterical and moody teenager. “That would be like going up to a chubby guy and pointing at a whale and saying, ‘Oh, you’re way thinner than that thing.’”

Then, of course, there was Jenny Finley, who I couldn’t avoid due to our English teacher’s seating chart. She continued to tear me apart at every opportunity, as viciously as anybody ever had. She bothered me more than the others because she wasn’t funny and was more to the point. Instead of making some kind of clever analogy (like how one boy told me it looked like a girl ‘just had her period’ on my face – witty!), Jenny Finley would bombard me with short declarative statements. “You’re creepy and disgusting,” she’d say, or, “I can’t even look at your face. It’s painful to have you sitting in front of me.”

The end of the year was fast approaching, and when I saw myself in the mirror, it was clear that I was going to lose the bet. What the hell, Accutane? It hadn’t made me better. It didn’t make my skin smooth like a baby’s, unless the baby we’re referring to has chicken pox. I would go on to take Accutane for awhile longer, but the miracle would never come. Years later, in 2009, Accutane would be pulled off the market entirely, after a bunch of people sued the pharmaceutical company, claiming that Accutane had given them bowel disease. They won millions of dollars and, just like that, Accutane was gone.

On one of the last days of school, George wanted to cash out our bet. “There’s Jenny Finley over there,” he said. “You know what you have to do.”

I looked at her ass. It was fat and filled her jeans like polyester in a teddy bear. I imagined taking a knife and cutting her butt and pulling out white, fluffy polyester as though I was emptying out a stuffed animal. “What are you doing?” George asked impatiently. “Go and pinch her ass!”

Apart from the simple fact that she would likely have killed me if I went through with it, there was something greater and more important at play. Everything that she said, that I was a creep and a pervert and a disgusting human being…the only comfort I had was in telling myself that she wasn’t right. Jenny Finley was mean, but she was also wrong. I looked at her from across the hallway, standing with her prissy group of friends. There was no way I was going to justify her bullshit by touching her inappropriately. I hated her too much to do that.

“I’m not fucking doing it,” I told George.

“You lost the bet! You have to!”

“Well, it’s not happening. You can go fuck yourself.”

The school year ended a few days later. I passed most classes with Ds. George whined endlessly about how I didn’t hold my end of the bargain. With the coming of the summer, Jenny Finley disappeared from my life, just like Accutane would later vanish. We didn’t have any classes together the next year, and after that was graduation, and with that done, we were free to become strangers. People would like each other more, I think, if they really got to ignore each other better.

*

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So-Mi the Seaweed Girl

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There was no way I could call the girl I had met over the weekend without asking my Korean co-teacher, Hye Jeong, for help.  And because Hye Jeong is extremely inquisitive, I had to explain the entire situation to her.

“You see Hye Jeong,” I said, “when the girl put her number into my phone, she wrote her name in Korean.  I have no idea what it says.  So I need you to tell me what this girl’s name is.”

“You don’t remember her name?” Hye Jeong asked.  I responded by making a drinking motion with my hand.  “Oh,” she said, “you were very drunk.”  I nodded.  Thankfully, Hye Jeong didn’t have any more questions.  She looked at the name entered into my phone.

“Her name is So-Mi,” she said.  Then, because she’s nosey, Hye Jeong added, “You will tell me tomorrow if you have date.”

Calling a girl for the first time is always nerve-wracking.  It’s even worse, though, when the girl is Korean and doesn’t speak much English.  Normally, I would ask a girl out in a roundabout sort of way, making small talk and stalling, poking around the question until I had a fair idea of what the girl’s answer would likely be.  But with a language barrier, there’s none of that.  There’s no banter, no warm-up jokes to build character.  There’s just the question, plain and simple.

I called So-Mi around eight at night, not expecting the conversation to turn out at all like it did.

“Hello?” she said, after about 10 seconds of silence.

“Hi, So-Mi.  This is Bill.  We met at Who’s Bar Saturday night.”

“Oh!  So sleepy!”

“Sleepy?  Okay.  Do you want me to call back some other time?”

“No no.  Oh, headache!  So sleepy!”

“Really, I could call back later.”

“It’s okay.  I’m sorry.”

“Okay, I’ll make it quick then.  What are you doing Thursday?”

“Thursday very busy.  No no.  Very busy.”

“Oh, that’s too bad.  Can I see you next week?”

“Next week very busy.  We will go out next year.”

“I’m sorry?  Next year?  What do you mean?”

“Next year.  We will go out 2011.”

“That’s four months away, So-Mi.  How about Saturday?”

“Very very busy!  We will go out January, 2011.”

“You’re not free anytime before that?”

“Headache!  I call you then.  Next year.  Bye bye.”

With that, we hung up.  It wasn’t exactly what I’d hoped for.  Looking on the bright side, though, I did have a date.

As it would turn out, So-Mi didn’t call me in 2011, but in November instead.  “It’s party night,” she said, and we agreed to meet each other out at the same bar where we’d met the first time.  It had been a long time, and I was worried that I wouldn’t recognize her (especially since I didn’t really remember what she looked like to begin with).  Luckily, though, when I arrived at Who’s Bar, So-Mi was the only one there.

“Hey, So-Mi!” I said, although my facial expression surely wasn’t as enthusiastic.  She was quite chubby, with enormous glasses and a gigantic green knit hat on her head.  “It’s pretty warm in here,” I told her.  “Don’t you think you can take the hat off?”

“Oh no,” she said.  “It is my style.  It is like college student.”

So-Mi didn’t go to college, but instead worked at Home Plus, which is kind of like the Korean equivalent of Target.  She wanted to go to a university, though, to study cooking.  We got drinks, and she slammed hers down before I’d taken two sips of mine.  With her hands free, she began eating the rectangular squares of dried seaweed that the bar had set out.

“Boy,” I commented, watching her shove fistfuls of seaweed into her face, “you really like that seaweed.”

“I am very funny,” So-Mi said, smiling.  Then she began taking little bits of the seaweed and sticking them to her face.  “Ha ha ha!  So funny!” 

She put spit on her cheeks and stuck more bits of seaweed on.  “Yeah,” I said, “that’s really hilarious.”

After we’d removed the seaweed off of her, we tried to have a conversation but it just wasn’t going very well.  So-Mi put her head down on the bar after every sentence.  “Oh, headache!  So drunk!”

In horror, I realized that a friend of mine had come to the bar to watch the football match.  I slipped away from So-Mi, who was alternatively putting her head down on the bar and whacking back more seaweed, and went over to my friend.  I hesitantly admitted that, yes, I was with the girl at the bar and, yes, I would eventually have to go back to her.

But when I turned my attention back to the bar, So-Mi had somehow vanished.  She was gone without a trace.  That wasn’t really a bad thing, so I sat with my friend and drank.  Two hours later, So-Mi suddenly re-appeared.

“Where did you go?” I asked.

“Hi!  It’s party night!”  She had no explanation whatsoever for where she had been, nor did she seem aware at all that she hadn’t been at Who’s Bar.

It probably goes without saying that she and I never had a second date.  When people ask me about Korean girls, I usually end up telling them about my date with So-Mi the Seaweed Girl.  It may be mean.  Unfair to the poor thing.  But I imagine that somewhere So-Mi is sitting with a group of Koreans, and perhaps they’ll ask her if she’s ever had a date with a white guy.  And maybe she’ll shake her head in disapproval and tell them about the lousy guy she went out with once, who didn’t laugh at her humor, and who didn’t act in any way that made the slighest bit of sense.

*

The Place Where Elvis Stood

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On one of our first dates, two years before we married, Betty and I talked about the places we’d been.

“I’ve never been out of the country,” she said.  “I went to school in Ohio for a little bit.”

“I went to Florida once with my parents when I was a kid,” I said, thumbing through all of my life experiences.  “Oh, and I’ve been to Ohio too.  And I’ve driven through Pennsylvania.”

It was clear that neither of us had really been anywhere outside of New York state.  Pitifully clear.  Having read On the Road and The Sun Also Rises and a few Henry Miller books (like an English major is supposed to), I was ashamed.  Kerouac had Mexico, Hemingway Spain, Miller Paris, and we had…Ohio.  Betty and I continued to date.  Eventually we decided that it was necessary that the two of us embark on some form of journey, and one that didn’t involve flying because we were broke.  We would have to settle on a youthful exploration of our great big country.

We wanted someplace that would really symbolize America.  But not the faces-in-a-mountain, cracked bell, remember-the-Alamo America.  That was an America found in textbooks.  We didn’t want to go anywhere colonial, or, God forbid, anyplace with the world “fort” in its name.  No, we wanted an America found in novels, the Big America, with burgers and fries and people who sing on street corners.  An America alive, ready to be consumed, one full of pop culture and irony, almost a mockery of itself.  Betty and I were living in an age of sarcasm, after all.  We wanted to see an America we could be proud of and, simultaneously, laugh at.

So we chose to go to Graceland.  It seemed like a good decision.  Elvis had to be the perfect representation of America’s split personality.  He was larger than life, a superstar of stamps, collecting cars and planes and filling out every inch of his stars-and-stripes jumpsuit.  And at the same time, there was Elvis the country gent, with old-fashioned values, cherishing mom, loving his wife, singing songs to his daughter in their dream home.  As quickly as an inkjet cartridge can spit out a set of MapQuest directions, we were in my car and on the road.

We would go on to spend exactly one week in Memphis.  This was our grand voyage.  It turned out to be a pretty run down place, full of beat-up old cars and panhandlers.  We kept ourselves busy.  I remember looking out on the balcony where Martin Luther King was shot, eating at B.B. King’s restaurant, and seeing all things Elvis – the King of Rock and Roll. There are Kings everywhere you look in Memphis.  The place is full of ’em.

Then we went to Sun Studio.  In the basement, there was a tall microphone sitting on the floor by a huge picture of Elvis, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Johnny Cash.

“That microphone was used by Elvis himself,” the tour guide said.  “He made some of his earliest recordings in this very room.”  Betty had me go stand by it and she took a picture of me and the Elvis microphone.   In it, I look nervous, clutching the mic stand with my right hand with a forced smile on my face.

Betty and I held hands on our stroll through Graceland.  We saw Elvis’ gold records and later his grave.  She took pictures so we could remember it all.  Around that time, we realized that we were only half-interested; that we didn’t really like Elvis much to begin with.  We left Memphis unsure of why we’d gone there in the first place.  It was good, though, because we had a week in a strange place to spend together.  We had danced on Beale Street and made love in the Best Western Benchmark Hotel, right across the street from the Peabody where the ducks come out of an elevator in the morning and waddle around like ugly babies.

Betty framed the picture of me holding the Elvis microphone.  It was on the wall all through our marriage.  Now she’s in America and I’m in South Korea, and that time in Memphis has sunk deep into the past.  I can still see that one photograph, though, in my head when I think of it.  I wonder if Betty kept it or threw it away.  There I am, standing in the place where Elvis stood, back when I was young, waiting for my future, so very much in love.

*