Author’s Note: The following story includes instances of self-harm, physical violence, and abuse.
That was the year everyone was referencing George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. How many times did I hear, “1984 is ‘48 backwards, the year he wrote the book.” All you had to say was Big Brother, thoughtcrime, or doublethink and we were all in on the same joke. It was the first time in my life that I didn’t have to hide that I was a reader, a lover of books. At age thirteen, I kept plenty of other secrets.
Our teacher, Mrs. H, somewhere between middle and old age, we couldn’t tell the difference, had clearly been waiting a long time for this day: to teach Nineteen Eighty-Four in 1984.
She sashayed between the desks and pulled paperbacks from her tote bag, each battered reprint wearing a different cover. She raised each book over her head, pausing dramatically in front of each student before dropping it on their desk, unaware of how her arm vibrated and shook beneath the cap sleeves of her polyester blend blouse. Flarm. We delighted ourselves with our inventions, our insults for what terrified us. Mrs. H’s theatrics were inefficient, but we encouraged our teachers to go off on tangents and tell stories, to fill our minutes together with anything other than the lesson plan.
When she was finished, Mrs. H stood in a shaft of sunlight by the window. Her blue eyes shimmered; she was almost beautiful. Mrs. H wanted us to remember this day. “Nineteen Eighty-Four in 1984,” she said. “Sometimes you just have to take a moment and breathe it all in. Sometimes you have to tell yourself to look around and remember all this.” She looked into each of our eyes for an uncomfortably long time. Some of us started to giggle. “Here we are. 1984.”
My copy shouted 1984 in a bright orange font shadowed in purple. The top right corner of the white cover, front and back, had teeth marks. Human. What kind of person bites a paperback book? I traced the indentations, incisors and molars.
Remember this day? Please. This town had not been particularly kind or open-minded to us, the only Asian immigrant family living within its borders. They wouldn’t even fix their faces to hide their obvious preference for good, white immigrants. As soon as I crossed the stage to receive my diploma, I would forget them all, every one of those pleasant racists who insisted they didn’t see color.
Maybe Mrs. H cursed us, though, as she stood in that slice of sunlight because as hard as I’ve tried to forget it, I remember 1984. It tastes of metal.
In 1984, we girls wore fluorescents from socks to lips to hairbows. Every morning before the bell rang, we girls skated figure eights through the halls, making our own sound, swoosh, swoosh, hundreds of flats sweeping the fresh floors with our soles. Our teachers were always coming out from their classrooms with papers in their hands to bark, “Pick your feet up, girls. Walk for God’s sake.”
But if I’m honest, the reason I remember 1984 is because of Agatha. And of course, the Choking Game. Only we girls participated, and we knew to keep our mouths shut if we wanted to continue playing. Come to think of it, after a childhood of hopscotch and jump rope and four square, this was our last organized game. In high school, the only games we played were on each other, not with each other. Stealing each other’s boyfriends; making drama between two best friends; accusing someone of doing something that we ourselves had done. We only stopped because we had no choice. After, we could barely look each other in the eye again.
At thirteen, we needed our game. Upon reaching middle school, suddenly, we became bad at all the things we used to be good at: math, pinning a formaldehyde frog to a tray and finding its parts with the scalpel, looking people in the eye, sports, running for class office, doing anything better than the boys.
But we were masters of keeping each other’s secrets. We plucked them like wildflowers from the dark pastures of our lives, creating exquisite bouquets that we held for each other, bridesmaids at the weddings to our shame. Jill threw up after every meal; Kate scratched the skin under her clothes with the needle she taped behind her full-length mirror; Linda’s backpack was full of things she’d lifted from Bradlees and Zayre. I covered the old and new bruises that my parents would give me with belts, slippers, rulers, magazines, and their closed fists.
So when we girls found the Choking Game, we finally had a secret that we could all share.
Doreen started it in the girl’s locker room after gym class. She wanted to show us something cool that we had never seen before. I volunteered to go first, even though I had no idea what it was. Doreen was pretty and popular and everyone trusted popular girls. The others crowded around the wooden benches and metal lockers.
I let Doreen lead me to the wall as if we were slow dancing. Her face was so close to mine that I could smell her cinnamon apple gum, and I resisted the urge to stick my finger in her mouth and strum the tiny purple rubber bands stretched between her braces’ brackets. Would purple rubber make a purple sound? I curled my fingers into fists. On A, C, and E days, Doreen and I shared a desk, where she sat during third period and I sat in fourth, and one time I found a piece of her cinnamon gum stuck under the desk, still wet and warm, and felt close to her. I scraped her gum from the desk and held a piece of her inside my mouth, chewing and imagining myself turn into Doreen the way Midas turned his wife into gold. If I chewed enough gum, could I transform into a real American girl? Back then, I still believed in wishes and miracles. Back then, my deepest desire was whiteness. I was so close to this superpower all the time; I thought my proximity would shed its power onto me. But I could never get close enough. I was always looking through a foggy window, always removed from whiteness even if I could see it.
Doreen’s cool fingers circled my neck and she pressed me against the tile wall of the locker room, her knees in my thighs to keep me still. In the locker room mirrors, I caught a glimpse of myself. I was the center, for once, and all these white girls were trying to see me.
“Stand up straight?” Doreen asked. We girls all talked like Doreen now, every statement and command, a question. “My friend’s cousin in Toronto told her how to do this? It’s, like, magic?” “Breathe fast like this.” Doreen demonstrated; she huffed like a pregnant woman giving birth. Her thumb searched for the right spot on my neck. She pushed against me and her voice lowered to ask an actual question. “What are you again? Like Chinese or Japanese?”
There were no other Asians at JFK Middle unless you counted the afternoon janitor. His left hand was missing two fingers and his face was always flushed red. “Be nice to him,” adults told us. “He’s your future husband,” the girls told me. Everyone knew about the flask he hid in his cart, but he was a quiet, peaceful drunk, always smiling, and besides, it was rumored that he lost his entire family during a war in Cambodia, Vietnam, or was it Laos? Who could bother to know the difference?
Even though she was taller than me by a head, I was close enough to see that Doreen’s green eyes were flecked with brown flower petals. Doreen’s face was screwed up like she was thinking too hard, remembering something, and I wanted to tell her that she was putting too much pressure on my neck, but suddenly, I was not attached to my body anymore. I couldn’t control my thoughts. I was the lead actor in the play, and at the same time, the audience. I felt released, as if I was a paper doll and Doreen had snipped the last bit that was tethering me to the sheet of paper. I felt ecstatic, the way I did after laughing so hard that I thought I’d split in two. Since moving from Manila, I never laughed that way. Until this moment, I had never felt comfortable enough to let go in front of white people.
I woke up on the locker room floor and my first thought was a rebuttal: I don’t have dirty knees. My mouth tasted like new pennies. I wiped my lip and found blood on my hand.
The girls were clapping, and I found myself clapping, too, as if I was connected to the girls with an invisible string, miming whatever they did. Doreen was trying to ask a question, but couldn’t push the words out of her mouth, she was laughing so hard. “What crazy thing did you say,” she asked, “about your knees?”
I sat up and leaned against the wall, dizzy, and still not quite in control of my mouth. The sentences spilled out quickly as if someone else was speaking the words. “I’m not Chinese or Japanese and I don’t have dirty knees. I don’t eat dogs. Or cats. I’m so, so bad at math,” I said. The glass shield between my thoughts and my voice shattered. Everyone was quiet and focused on me for once, listening. “I took a rocket to the sun. But it burned me. To a crisp.” I kept going, every unfiltered thought spilling out of me, until I had nothing left to say.
Everyone was quiet, but once Doreen broke the silence to laugh, we girls knew how to interpret the moment. We kept saying, “Oh my God,” until our voices slushed together into “Omigod.” I laughed at them laughing at me and felt closer to them than I did to my family. For once, I felt that I belonged.
“Who’s next?” Doreen asked.
I slid out of the way and watched as one by one, Doreen gave each girl a turn. We watched each other fall to the floor. Falling meant you were high. Doublethink. I looked at their faces for the exact moment each girl left their body; it was like watching them die, just a little bit.
We became addicted to our game, playing it every chance we got in the locker room, several times a week. We told ourselves that we were nothing like the zoofs, kids who used real drugs like pot or coke, even though Nancy Reagan told us all to “Just say no.” We were impressed when we heard that the zoofs wanted in on our game, but which one of us had talked? We weren’t going to play it with them; we didn’t want to be liable, but mostly, we didn’t want to turn into zoofs ourselves. Their drugginess might rub off onto us. “Did one of you tell the zoofs?” Doreen asked us. “Or was it Big Brother? Whoever is spying is lying.”
We were careful when we played our game. We had policies. Only Doreen put her hands on our necks. No one did it to Doreen. If you weren’t careful, you could die. Like actually die. Doreen said the game was so dangerous that the government stopped their warnings for fear that they would only introduce more children to the game.
The rule was never to play at home by yourself. We girls promised each other, but I was bored one afternoon. I breathed fast and shallow and pretended my hands were Doreen’s. She wasn’t so special. She wasn’t the only one with this power. I woke up face down on the basement floor, no idea how long I had been out, and my eye had just missed the sharp corner of the coffee table. I had escaped visible injury, or even death. In my head, I promised Doreen and the girls that I would never break our rule again.
The problem with being thirteen was the eternal now. What were consequences? What was death? What was forever?
Despite the dangers, or because of them, we girls played because we liked how we felt. It wasn’t about the high. We liked being together, as if we were reclaiming something that had been taken away from us. We were witches, all-powerful.
The Choking Game wasn’t like sports or Monopoly; no one won or lost. Until someone did.
We could have gone on without incident for months, but our one mistake was Agatha. The new girl. A few months before, she appeared in town from somewhere far away and rural, Western Mass or Tennessee, no one bothered to find out. Finally, there was someone stranger than me. Her skin was the shade of white idealized in literature, but in real life, Agatha looked freakish. She could not let sunshine touch her skin or it would burn and bubble. She was the tallest girl in our class and always seemed in danger of falling. She moved like a newborn giraffe, and if you walked too close to her, she startled, causing your hands to reach out to catch her. We girls resented her for this, how she forced you to take care of her.
Agatha, an only child, and her parents had suddenly come into a lot of money. Oil or computers, no one knew, but we felt entitled to their wealth and took our share every afternoon at Agatha’s house. None of us were even close to poor, but two or three of our houses could fit into Agatha’s one. And that doesn’t even count the land and the outbuildings behind her house. Or her mother’s horses, each of their care costing as much as a year of private college tuition. The only reason we girls pretended to like Agatha was because of her indoor pool and home theater and that entire room just for racing radio-controlled cars with her father. After swimming or racing cars, we’d always end up in our favorite spot, the basement rec room with the squishy couches and the mirrored wall and the giant TV playing MTV.
Agatha’s parents left us alone. At the top of the basement stairs, her mother left endless trays of hot pizza and warm melty cookies and freshly squeezed juices. And then she would disappear for the rest of the afternoon to be with her horses. You could tell that Agatha was jealous of the horses.
When Agatha’s mother first met me, she asked very slowly, enunciating every syllable in her twangy accent, “What kind of an Oriental are you?” I’d never seen Agatha turn so red. Even her neck blushed. Agatha grabbed her mother’s hand and pulled her out of the room. “I’ve never had one in my home before. Agatha, what’s so wrong about asking?” I heard her mother say, “They’re good people. Some. Your father fought in ‘Nam and your grandfather in Korea. That’s why I want to know which kind she is.” Even from another room, we could hear her mother scold, “Now Agatha, you know you’re not supposed to get so excited. The doctor said.”
Agatha apologized to me later and until I said, “Really, I don’t care,” about a hundred times, her face didn’t return to its normal color. She explained that they moved from a place where generations of their family had lived and everyone was the same, and I realized that Agatha meant “white.” She told me that the only Mexicans and Blacks that stepped foot into their town left after the workday. There were no “Orientals” except for that one Chinese family who owned a restaurant a good twenty miles out of town and made the best chicken fingers and crab Rangoons and they always ate there on holidays because every other restaurant was closed. Agatha’s mother was still adjusting to the big change and had never lived away from her people. I didn’t understand how our small town could be so different from theirs. Our town’s diversity was my family; one mixed race family with a white father and a Black mother; two sisters adopted from Korea into a white Christian family; and people who liked to talk about their immigrant ancestors coming to this country with nothing in their pockets, always from Italy or Ireland, sometimes Greece, who created jobs and spoke English with charming accents from the old country. “My parents aren’t racist,” Agatha explained. “They believe in live and let live. In separate, but equal.” I wanted to say, Doublethink.
I only knew Agatha’s father from the oil painting of him in the foyer, glaring sternly at all who dropped their backpacks and coats onto the floor. He never came home until after dinner, after we were long gone, but he left his cabinet of VHS tapes of R-rated movies unlocked. We even found an X-rated tape of an orgy mislabeled as “personal finance seminar.” At first, we watched silently, but after a few minutes, once our eyes adjusted to the grainy footage and we understood what we were seeing, we could not bear the starkness of those bodies with all their noises and fluids and hair, the reality of their genitals nothing like our fantasies, and despite the desire and heat building in our bodies, we screamed in unison, “Turn it off!” By then, we knew each other so well that we could finish each other’s sentences.
In 1984, we girls made many mistakes, but the biggest one was allowing Agatha to play our game. She was excused from gym on account of her condition, which none of us had asked her about, so Agatha did not know about our game until she caught us in her rec room.
We loved our afternoons at Agatha’s and didn’t want to make her mad. We felt so free there, but we weren’t good at including Agatha in our jokes and stories and at some point during our hangouts, we would notice that she had disappeared and none of us could tell you how long she’d been gone. Sometimes we would play our game, and after, Agatha would return to find us watching music videos, slumped in the couches like sleeping cats.
One afternoon, after Kristie fell, she pointed to the door and we saw Agatha watching us, her eyes wide and her mouth tight, looking at us as if we were having an orgy. She disappeared and we heard her stomp upstairs. We were scared to lose access to her house. It wasn’t fair; it belonged to us. That was my chair and my metal tumbler that I drank freshly squeezed lemonade from. We could not give this up.
Doreen followed Agatha to the second floor and then the third floor. Out of breath, she found Agatha sitting alone in the library pressed against the window. Was she looking for her mother’s horse? Would she tell on us? Doreen pleaded, “Come back downstairs? Please? Pretty, pretty please?”
We let Agatha watch as the rest of us took our turns. We didn’t think she’d want to try it. Her condition. But Agatha begged so much that she cried actual tears. Even though she was taller than Doreen, she seemed so small and terrified. “Are you sure? You don’t have to,” Doreen said.
Agatha said, “I want to be one of the girls.”
After, Agatha slid to the floor and her face and neck stayed bright red. We were worried. Doreen kicked her shoulder gently with her foot and then harder until finally Agatha woke up. She didn’t sit up, but stayed on the floor for many moments, blinking her eyes and opening and closing her mouth like a fish. Finally, she spoke. “I want to do it again.”
We girls looked at each other, unsure how to proceed. Usually we had a day or two in between turns. “My parents treat me like a sick girl,” Agatha said. “But I’m not. I’m just a regular girl like you.”
I spoke up. “Doreen, if that’s what she wants, we should give it to her.”
“Yeah, Doreen,” Agatha said. “Give me what I want.”
Doreen shrugged, “Fine. Whatever.”
Agatha wobbled back to the wall.
Doreen pushed and pressed into her. She was doing it differently this time, harder and longer than usual. We didn’t even need to see Doreen’s face to know that she was pissed. Maybe she was mad at having to kiss up to Agatha and show her our game; maybe she was angry about something she had forgotten about until that very moment; or maybe Doreen was expressing what all of us had wanted to do to Agatha at one time or another, her weakness and wealth and misery tapped so hard into our rage that we wanted to squeeze our anger out of her.
Agatha, on the floor, blue not red.
She didn’t come back even though Doreen kicked her and rolled her and shook her. Kate had been working on her lifesaving badge for Girl Scouts before she quit, but she knew enough to start CPR. Agatha’s body started to convulse and seize and someone grabbed the nearest soft thing around, my copy of Nineteen Eighty-Four, and stuck it between Agatha’s teeth so she wouldn’t bite her tongue.
Sue called 911. Until that moment, all these actions were theoretical, things we had been taught to prepare for. In the moment, we responded to the emergency like the adults we were becoming. I ran, looking for Agatha’s mother. I was so anxious that I didn’t realize I was chewing on my sweater’s zipper and the metal teeth had cut into my mouth. At first, Agatha’s mother had thought that the emergency was about my bleeding lips. By the time I found her in the horse stables, sweeping, we could hear the sirens speeding closer towards us.
Once we were certain that Agatha would survive—although much impaired, as the choking had caused a stroke, which caused the rest of the dominoes to fall—everyone turned on me. We girls were summoned to a meeting at the hospital where Agatha was recovering. Our parents, the doctors, Agatha’s parents, and everyone’s lawyers gathered around a conference table. Everyone around that table was white. Even our lawyer. Our parents could have gone with a Filipino lawyer, a friend of a friend who offered a discount to kababayan, but they paid extra for the white lawyer. It was a waste of money. It was already decided. I was the bad one.
The girls said that I was the one who had encouraged Agatha to play. Doreen tried to warn her on account of her condition, but I had insisted. “You know how powerful peer pressure is?” Doreen said. “Poor Agatha wanted to be one of us.” I had wanted that, too, to be one of the girls; I didn’t know the glass between us could never be broken. Like Agatha, I was a loser. Across the table, Agatha’s mother was drilling me and my parents with her blue eyes and I wondered if I had proven her theory. Was I the wrong or right kind of “Oriental”? I spoke up. “But Doreen, whose hands did it?”
The adults excused us girls, and we learned later that they signed papers and cut checks. The girls went downstairs to the cafeteria. They didn’t ask me to join them. I found Agatha’s room, private of course, and sat by her bed. She was sleeping and hooked up to all kinds of intimidating machines. I made myself look at what I had done. As I watched Agatha’s chest go up and down to the beat of the machines, I suddenly had trouble finding my own breath. I put Agatha in this bed, but I wasn’t solely responsible.
What did my presence matter? She didn’t even know I was there. I stood up quietly so that the chair didn’t scrape the floor. I was shaking. I needed air, but the plate glass window had no opening. I pressed my face against the glass and imagined I could melt through it to the outside. I wiped the fog with my sleeve to study the view. It was after work and the riverside streets were mashed with cars. Joggers, walkers, and bikers exercised on the path beside the river, and on the water, people sailed and sculled. The sun glinted off the waves like shards of glass. None of those people knew or cared about what was happening in this hospital room. Would I be one of those people one day? Someone with a life? I could not imagine my future, but I had a feeling that Agatha would never leave it.
A memory appeared: my teacher, Mrs. H., standing by the classroom window after handing out Nineteen Eighty-Four in the long-anticipated year of 1984. Was it everything she hoped for? Would the student who next held my copy of the Orwell even notice that it was twice bitten? If I had learned anything from Mrs. H, it was that this was one of those indelible moments. Sometimes we need to stop everything and pay attention. Here we are right now. This is it. The eternal present. And yet everything can change in an instant. Isn’t it terrible and sad and frightening and awe-inspiring and ordinary and beautiful?
Grace Talusan is the author of the memoir, The Body Papers, winner of the Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing and a New York Times Editors’ Choice selection. She is the Fannie Hurst writer-in-residence at Brandeis University.