LIFE is full of stories.
Sometimes I write them down.
Fourteen Feet of Fear
By Nicha Jaroensuk
Driving a car is a dangerous, scary task. There’s a joke, “What’s the scariest thing behind the wheel? An Asian girl with a cellphone.” Everyone who’s ever been in my car would tell you, I don’t even need a cellphone to prove that that’s not a joke.
Yet, here I am, standing beside this fourteen-feet U-Haul I’m driving from Chicago to New York City on my own. I don’t know much about cars, let alone a U-Haul truck. I don’t know much about driving on the left side of the road, let alone trying to navigate it in a car the size of half a boat ( okay, a small boat but from where I’m standing, it might as well be a yacht.) In fact, my US driving license is only a week old. I drowned myself in embarrassment during the parallel parking portion specifically for this life-changing trip.
As I say farewell to my college roommate, I feel a little melancholic, not because we are parting ways but because I might very well die from a tragic U-Haul accident. Anyway, it’s too late now, everything is packed and ready to go (down with me). I’ve made myself a bunch of mixed CDs for the trip, filled with music that will make me think I’m the best damn driver the world has ever seen. I also have this thing called a TomTom navigator which was said to be a loyal travel companion. After all, ending up in Memphis instead of New York City would be a perplexing how-the-hell-did-that-happen moment I couldn’t afford to have.
What lies ahead is an Interstate called I-90E, which will take me through Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and eventually to The Big Apple - my new home. Four states with the unknown in every corner and one night in every serial killer’s wet dream, also known as Motel Six - The United States of America, here I come. Drivers on the right side of the road, you’ve been warned.
Indiana and Ohio are no different from one another, the roads, even though they seem endless, they are as straight as Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Parched yellow cornfields and clear sky for miles, if I make it through another hour without any hiccups, I will pat myself on the back and supersize my meal at Wendy’s.
Before I could even say “Supersize, please”, I’m low on gas and there it is - a hiccup. I grew up in Bangkok, which means a gas station staff has always filled up the tank. I’ve never touched a nozzle in my entire life and the gas dispensing machine (I think that’s what it’s called), how does it even work? I circle around the U-Haul to find that hole for the nozzle - the first challenge, conquered.
Five minutes of looking at my dumb face through an out-of-body experience later, I remind myself I’m a college graduate and there’s no way I will lose to a dial pad and a credit card slot on a gas dispensing machine. I bravely punch in the dollar amount and swipe my credit card, a rumbling sound runs through the nozzle. I may not be patting myself on the back right now but I’ve definitely earned my rights to supersize at Wendy’s.
Pennsylvania is a state full of screams. While the greenery is amazingly lush, the twists and turns are going to be the end of me, possibly literally. Pennsylvania is where I experience the power of inertia, nevermind the sharp turns and the scary watch-out-for-falling-rocks roadsigns, trying to keep the wheels straight with all my might as another truck passes by is enough to keep me horrified throughout the entire state.
After a major betrayal from my TomTom navigator, I’m now stuck in the last situation on Earth I expected to be in - driving a U-Haul in the middle of busy Times Square. I’ve been scared before, but never quite like this. I hide as the surrounding drivers look inside my vehicle. This is one of those situations I truly understand that classic line in war movies - “We are never going to make it out alive” I’m definitely not doing a good job debunking the stereotype of Asian girl drivers - the shame is all mine.
Fear can lead to many things, if you’re lucky, it will lead you to a pleasant surprise…at yourself. Standing in front of my new apartment in Brooklyn in one piece, I feel nothing but surprise and, actually, a bit proud. Driving is a dangerous, scary task but what’s even more dangerous is never conquering something scary. What I’ve picked up from this monumental road trip is the knowledge that as long as your hands are firmly on the wheel and your eyes are always on where you are going, a fulfilling surprise could be waiting at the destination.
The Loser Manifesto
By Nicha Jaroensuk
I am a bona fide natural born loser. The life of a runner-up is the only life I know how to live. I don’t believe in talent because I was born with none. I don’t believe in luck because I’ve never been graced with its presence. Drawing competitions: lost. Swimming competitions: last. Singing competitions: lack of a Mariah Carey living in my larynx.
It’s safe to say I know a thing or two about fiddling with the giants - the greats, the talented, the winners. The view most familiar to me is looking up at the Number One with blood, sweat and tears seeped in my eyes like a cruel joke. Welcome to the life of a perpetual loser.
Little fish have to keep moving all the time. The big ones never stop picking on them. The world is full of natural-born losers like myself - I am certain of it. That’s why I’m not here to complain, I’m here to share my thoughts on how not to be swallowed up by the big fish, on being one of the Number Twos.
Through this struggle, we’ve learned the basic difference between the Number One and Number Two of the world. The Number One attitude is “Don’t do the wrong thing. Don’t make mistakes and you’ll be ok” while the Number Two attitude is “Do the right thing. Look for new ways. Try harder.” That’s right, the Number Twos all have one thing in common - we try harder. When you are not the biggest, you have to. Or else.
This is No. 2ism. It’s not a mindset, it’s a way of living, the way to stay alive. It’s not being gifted but possessing the gift of fiery passion, of grit, of a pair of balls. To keep shooting for the stars only to always break your legs falling flat on the ground takes great courage. But because we try harder, we will get back up, no matter what.
No. 2ism is knowing what’s too expensive in life. We can’t afford to sleep in until eleven. We can’t afford to be a couch potato. We can’t afford to not show up. We can’t afford to take our eyes off the prize. And we sure as hell can’t afford complacency.
No. 2ism doesn’t believe in talent or that greatness is gifted to the chosen few or exists as a rare strand of DNA, greatness exists in those who are trying to find it, to work hard for it, to give it everything they’ve got.
This isn’t an underdog story. Being an underdog means you’ve managed to win. Being a Number Two means you might never do. And to me, that’s a blessing in its own right. By having self-worth that lives beyond a gold medal means you’ve won one of life’s greatest trophies: grit.
Grit sounds like a lot of work - and it is, but on the other hand, it can take you on a fulfilling expedition of knowing yourself, pushing yourself and most importantly, being able to never let failures stop you and that’s the gold we should all want to strike.
No. 2ism, it works. Try harder. And you’ll find being Number Two is the luck you’ve been gifted.
The Number Twos of the world, arise!
The Difference One Letter Makes
By Nicha Jaroensuk
“Isn’t it going to really hurt after? Out in this cold?” I asked the jaded tattoo artist as I looked outside the window of this Brooklyn tattoo parlor, snow sprinkling down like icing on a cake. “The cold won’t really make a difference”, he replied, I can tell he can’t wait to get my very first tattoo (his 8th that day) over with.
The tattoo artist, without looking at me, grabbed my wrist and switched on the tattoo machine. The buzzing sound traveled through my body like electricity, I gazed at the needle moving at the speed of a thousand lightning bolts while the pulse inside my wrist rings like an alarm clock.
This may be my very first tattoo, but it’s not the first time something’s got etched on me forever.
“Are you going to hurt me, leave me out in the cold?” I asked Christopher, a best friend who’s about to give me my first kiss. Beyond being a strangely vulnerable 15-year-old, I was also a young girl in love. Both of us stood still as rocks in the school hallway after swimming practice, hand-in-hand, sealed with a kiss, he promised his love was true. As his lips touched mine for the very first time, the buzzing sound traveled through my body like electricity. “This is going to make all the difference”, I thought to myself, imagining a future filled with adventures while standing in a quiet empty hallway - with love right in front of me.
Love, like a thread, etches - stitches to the skin, sometimes to the bones. As fast as lighting, you can see, not just feel, how your every action, your every thought, is stitched in its color. It can either send you off into a sweet slumber or imprison you inside nights of cold sweats and monsters, not under the bed, but inside your head. It takes you places, insane, insatiable and all the way back. I am certain I have held love, it lived in the pulse you can touch on my wrist. I remember it felt like a kiss, like being etched - like a needle piercing through my skin.
I would have died for Christopher, would have resurrected and lived for him all over again too if that’s what he wanted. Months, years, decades, I was stitched up as his living rag doll. It came as no surprise that I’m here in this Brooklyn tattoo parlor at 25, a decade after my first kiss, watching the tattoo artist imprint each affirming letter onto my wrist, one by one, L-O-V…
“E..Emergency room!? Where is it? Can someone help me? Please!”, screamed the 20-year-old me. “I’m looking for Christopher Cleary, he was just brought in…” I asked the nurses or whoever that were around to witness the painful desperation - my worst nightmare, the one I’ve never dreamt of.
Welcome to the wrong side of love.
The world has never stopped as abruptly as that night in June. Christopher has taken my breath away, for the very last time. I gasped for air and stood in a cold room, still as a rock, with love right in front of me. He’s draped over with a white sheet and his cold, lifeless hand was held by another woman. It’s his mother, whose soul is now so shredded there’s no amount of thread that could sew her back together. I found it to be both tragic and comedic because I, too, was ripped apart beyond stitching but I also felt etched with pain so deep it felt like a thousand volts of lighting, electricity running through my bones.
“Almost there.” Said the tattoo artist who’s snapped me back to another cold room in the heart of Brooklyn. I looked down at my wrist, L-O-V-E. “Just one more letter, then we are done.”, he said, a silent sigh. I watched him carry on, one last letter, L-O-V-E-D.
“It’s just one letter, but it makes all the difference, doesn’t it?” I said to the tattoo artist as I looked out the window preparing to walk outside. The snow has finally stopped but the cold? That seems like it would linger forever.
A Mouthful of America
By Nicha Jaroensuk
The year was 1977 and it was the perfect winter for a lot of firsts.
Walking off his first airplane, he was a hopeful man of twenty-five. Snugged in his oversized coat and hand-me-down cowboy boots, he thought he was ready for Chicago winter. He was wrong. On the other side of the runway was the warmth of a woman who had been waiting for him with fiery anticipation. Nine months they’d been apart, he’d been writing her four letters a week and her heart had been inked by every curve of his handwriting.
Quickly pacing to the arrival hall, as his eyes zeroed in on her, but he’s lost in a sea of people in hers. It was impossible for her to recognize him at first glance, the oversized coat and cowboy boots had replaced the Bob Dylan t-shirt and the ripped bellbottoms she’d always known. As he emerged, their first embrace marked the day he left the Bangkok summers behind to brave the Midwestern winters and dedicated his life to being captivated by the delicate scent of his girlfriend’s hair.
She took his hand and together they got into a taxi. As he looked out the foggy taxi window, he felt an indescribable excitement in the pit of his stomach.
Having been an avid admirer of the American culture, especially its music, thinking back to that day, he swore he heard music in his ears…
“Let us be lovers, we'll marry our fortunes together…And we walked off to look for America…” The familiar sound of Simon and Garfunkel’s America rang softly in his ears. He would always remember that the lush sky of the Windy City was a sight for sore eyes that day, its pinkish hue laid against the buildings that were being lit up one tiny square at a time.
“Hungry? I know a great place”, his girlfriend asked.
He nodded, she swiftly told the driver to stop two blocks up. As they approached their destination, he saw two big yellow arches standing proudly in the middle of the tallest rows of buildings he had ever seen. He tried to capture the white letters against a red background but couldn’t.
As they entered the restaurant, his girlfriend told him to sit on a cold plastic chair. He looked around the restaurant. It felt as foreign to him as the country he just landed in. He looked up at the prices from afar. His hefty twenty-seven dollars suddenly reduced in size, for the land of the free, everything felt so expensive, out of reach.
A few moments later, he came to realize his first meal in this foreign land turned out to be the most foreign thing he’d ever seen.
The crinkly paper wrapper said “cheeseburger”. This was something unheard of. It took him a minute to unwrap. It looked simple, he investigated. Two pieces of bread, a slice of yellow, splats of red and a thin veil of beef, that’s it.
“You should take a bite before it bites you.” His girlfriend chuckled sweetly.
He stared at her cupping both hands around the “cheeseburger” and took a bite, he felt safe enough to do the same. Suddenly, as the flavors melted in his mouth, it was the taste of the unknown. It was greasy but savory, diverse but felt like a single punch, foreign but welcoming.
To him, this was the first taste of his unknown future. To him, this was his first mouthful of America.
With this cheeseburger, for a moment in this crowded restaurant, he felt he was part of America - a part of the country he came looking for. He felt the warm welcome from this very first meal. Food can sometimes be powerful like that. He gazed ahead, at the cheeseburger, at his beloved, he saw his future orchestrated by the warmest American folk song he’d been listening to all his life so much so the cold outside the window didn’t matter.
“So tomorrow morning at the gas station. Two dollars an hour. Under the table, ok? We aren’t exactly legal here” His girlfriend muttered, breaking his delicious silence.
And just like that, the warm bubble burst. Suddenly, another song traveled through his ears as he looked outside at the cold, grey sky of Chicago. As fast as the lush pink sky had disappeared, the welcoming arms of America turned into nerve-wracking restraints and a hopeful song from the taxi became…
“ I am just a poor boy, though my story's seldom told. I have squandered my resistance for a pocketful of mumbles. Such are promises, all lies and jests…”