Wan, bowl; Jen, real; her name was, literally, a bowl of the real thing. From the first day of junior high school she sat in the last row. A hundred and sixty five centimeters; tall enough to be a model in Taiwan; at thirteen she was the size of an adult, the rest of the girls in our class diminutive dwarfs beside her.
Older boyfriends and Step Big Brothers, bracelets, rings-Wan Jen was the princess and beauty of our junior high school class, wet dream in school uniform. She had a shapely body, bright watermelon seed-shaped face lit up by attractive, confident eyes above a neat little nose and full lips. Her physiognomy bespoke fortune: the upper lip stood for how much love one gave while the lower represented how much affection one received; Wan Jen’s ample upper lip sat like the upper part of Dali’s sofa on the thinner bottom of Dali’s sofa. Bundles of peach blossom luck; romantic charm.
Wan Jen was indeed a bowl of the real thing, a real woman, glamorous even in our dingy winter khaki uniform. We didn’t know much about her family background, but guessed she must have been well off, maybe even having a powerful, influential father. Too bad she was a gangster girl, or a girl who liked to hang out with gangsters. But then many of us were.
Several gatherings somewhat like a teenage version of Kid’s Court took place in our class every year. The Jury or Judges were a bunch of male and female gangster kids, many generations of Big Brothers and Sisters, some on special invitation from outside of school, graduates or dropouts. The crowd put a nervous boy or girl on trial for something he or she had said or done that conveyed an inappropriate attitude or was unfriendly and unrespectful towards one of the members of the jury or the Little Brothers and Sisters and Friends of the bullies who comprised the jury.
Today Wen Chiafun was on trial.
Crime: last Wednesday afternoon, she had made our class Arts Manager, Mun Jieh, cry. Chiafun was never very popular due to her mean personality, but this time she was in serious trouble. She had barbarously torn down Mun Jieh’s poster and decorations for the classroom, saying:
– These things are just monstrously ugly; have you got any aesthetic sense?
Our poor Arts Manager had worked all night on the poster and paper cutouts stringed around the bulletin board, so when Chiafun took them down and pretended to toss them in the trash can, Mun Jieh began to cry.
In the teen court of our classroom, I sat quietly in a corner next to Mei Su, my best friend, who was affiliated with many of the gangsters sitting in a circle on people’s desks looking sideways at Wen Chiafun. You had to be someone or someone who knew someone to even be present. Tattletales weren’t allowed. Tattletales were lynched. So in fact, everyone present at the court was on the gangster kids’ side; this realization rather alarmed me. These people seemed to want blood…
– Well now…
An enormous female bully with cropped hair and multiple piercings on her left ear, Queen B, slapped her powerful palm on the desk in front of her and turned to look directly at Chiafun, disdainfully, as if she were a small ant:
– Aiy, I heard you made our little friend Mun Jieh cry some time last week, Miss Wen.
Chiafun was silent.
– You want to tell me what happened, huh?
– I removed her poster-temporarily.
– Removed? I heard you tore it down! Calling it names!
– It was only a joke, I didn’t mean anything by it…
– A joke eh? Who do you think you are? Are you the Art Manager? What kind of thing are you?
– She’s the Gardening Manager of our class.
It was our class beauty’s turn to speak, with a smirk on her face, crossing and recrossing her legs and straightening her uniform dress now that she felt everyone’s attention on her. Oh Wan Jen.
– So you’re a gardener! And you’re trying to be a manager! Tsk tsk…
A circle of heads were shaking or laughing at Wen Chiafun, making sucking noises after the queen bully girl; tsk tsks filled the class-courtroom.
– So what do you all think? Should we flatten her?
The way Queen B said the word flatten always gave me an image of road kill, or a bad Taiwanese television show I saw once where a teenage couple kidnapped a classmate they disliked and rode a bicycle over her breasts many times, as torture.
– Yes, give it to her! Grandmother of a chicken, can’t learn to mind her own business.
– I don’t know-
Now all eyes were on Tong, our prettiest-of-all class gangster, who leaned back and forth on the two back legs of his chair as he spoke. He pushed his hair, which shined with hair gel, out of his right eye and it bounced back in a charming way.
– I think we could just give her a warning. We just beat someone up two weeks ago. Besides, she’s a girl. We don’t have to be over-harsh.
– No gender matters will get in my way of punishing this over-proud dumpling.
Queen B, who had carried out most of the interrogation so far and was displeased with Miss Wen’s unremorseful attitude, wasn’t ready to soften yet. She rubbed her palms against one another, then formed a ball with her fingertips the way villains did in movies.
– I won’t do it again, I didn’t mean to. It was a bad joke was all it was…
Chiafun said in a hoarse voice. She may have been a bitch, but tears could make even a monster worthy of sympathy. Rivers of tears streamed down her chubby, freckled cheeks.
– Have you learned a lesson, you Grandma Chicken?
One of Queen B’s sisters asked.
– Remember everything today. Know that you could have seen black in the girl’s room on this floor just down the hall, and woken up in a pool of red. You’re lucky that we let you go with a verbal warning this time. Don’t ever touch anybody’s artwork again. We’ll do something really, really bad to you, believe me.
The Garden Manager, eyes fixed on her shoelaces, let the tears roll into her mouth, slightly agape, as was her habit. She couldn’t refrain from sniffling and breathing hard and as soon as the Queen B the huge yelled,
– Court is dismissed!
Chiafun, fist in her mouth, immediately ran out the door, down the hall, to the girl’s bathroom.
– Hey, she walked right into our territory, the lion’s mouth. Should I go after her and teach her a lesson anyways?
One of the female bullies made to pick up a broom and go after Wen Chiafun.
– I think enough is enough. Really.
Everyone in the classroom seemed relieved that the whole affair was over with no serious disturbances or any school officials or teachers walking in on us. No beatings up turned out to be necessary, either, and a sense of relief always followed that, at least for people like Mei Su and I.
– All right-let’s party!
Wan Jen sashayed over to the door and picked up two big pizza boxes that had been sitting there the whole time. She wiggled her behind as she walked over with the pizzas, singing come and get it while her audience giggled, whistled, hooted, and clapped. Soon all the big bullies and little bullies and observers like me had forgotten about the Chiafun court gathering just a few minutes ago, everyone shoving a big lukewarm triangle of cheese pizza into their mouth. Before opening a two liter bottle of soda, Wan Jen shook it between her arms, letting her well-formed breasts bob with it, which brought on more whistling and clamor, then opening it, she let it foam and spill all over her shirt, which dampened and became see-through. She turned the bottle on the crowd and there was much screaming and yelping all around.
Ten minutes later Wan Jen, Mei Su and I were in the girl’s bathroom, helping Wan Jen rinse out her top and wipe the stickiness from her skirt. When we walked in Chiafun was still squatting in a corner of the tiled floor, holding her stomach.
– Are you sick?
I asked her. She shook her head.
– Oh she’ll be okay right away. She knows we meant no harm. And we let her off the hook, didn’t we?
Saying this, Wan Jen unbuttoned her shirt and smiled at the girl that had been tried in gangster court and almost flattened not too long ago. Chiafun shrank into the bathroom corner, which was incredibly filthy, but she didn’t seem to notice. She was shaking with sobs again, burying her head into her knees. Mei Su and I looked at each other but decided not to bother her. We had been present-what made us different from the other gangsters to her? We had been witnesses to her humiliation and abuse; we hadn’t spoken out or helped her. We had silently allowed.
Meanwhile, Wan Jen showed far more concern about her soda-splashed shirt:
– Look at this, we’ll have to wash the whole thing! It’ll take the whole siesta hour to dry, even in the sun!
A few weeks later, Wan Jen invited Mei Su and I to visit at her house. We imagined it’d be something grand and fancy-nobody had ever been to her home before. We started walking at five o’clock, directly after class, going in an entirely different direction from where Mei Su and I had ever been. What an excitement! To be the first ones invited to our class beauty, no, class celebrity’s house! We were grinning and light-hearted, and looking forward to a special experience.
Strangely, the buildings alongside the paths we took became slummier and slummier. Grass grew longer, and more bricks were exposed from the cement covering of decrepit old houses. Shantis built prior to the Japanese occupation showed the crooked bars bending out of wood and cement; even the pieces of broken glass cemented on outer walls to prevent burglers had become dull and mostly fallen off. The place smelled wrong, like dampness and mold and grease.
– We’re almost there.
We passed a hard-faced old woman with her shoulder-length grey hair loose and covering her shoulders. She was boiling some water in a big wok over a rectangular oil can.
– Hi grandma, these are my friends.
The old woman looked at us for a few seconds and without acknowledging our polite nods and greetings, went back to poking the flammables in her can. As we walked away, I seemed to hear the old woman cussing something to no one in particular, making sparks with her rod. I had never heard of a household that didn’t even own a stove and had to cook their food outdoors from an oil can. Was this a bizarre dream, or is this really where Wan Jen comes from?
The house we approached, which belonged to Wan Jen’s father, looked like it had been split in half and the other half had run away. The shabby two story building began at the left from an exposed brick wall and ended abruptly with another wall which met the tip of a slanted roof. Too ignorant to comprehend squalor, Mei Su and I praised her home for its uniqueness.
– What a adorable house! Such a nice shape to it.
– Yes, it must have been so difficult to design and build!
The first floor inside was full of junk, barely allowing walking space on the floor. A tiny black and white television was blaring the Taiwan News in Taiwanese instead of Mandarin. I stopped to try to make out a few words. Wan Jen turned it off and led us upstairs.
– That’s my dad’s bedroom, and this is mine.
– What about your mom?
– My mom disappeared. Her sister sleeps in there with my dad now.
We followed our hostess into her room, determined to compliment more and ask less from now on. Her bedroom was a triangle with a missing wall where the slanted ceiling met the floor in a tangle of cobwebs. I secretly wondered how Wan Jen had grown so tall in a room with so low and oppressive a ceiling. By now Mei Su and I were feeling differently about our hostess, after we had seen her home.
There’s a Chinese phrase praising lilies: growing out of the mud but untainted on its own accord; that seemed the right words to describe our lovely friend Wan Jen.
Months passed; one morning Wan Jen came to class with a black eye.
– What bastard did that to you, I’ll teach him a lesson! Tong offered gallantly, rubbing his left fist with right palm in fierce seriousness. Other gangster boys grunted in agreement, supporting the cause of bashing in the head of the bastard who hit Wan Jen.
– Don’t bother. It was my dad.
– Your dad?
– We were celebrating his birthday at a restaurant yesterday and he got really drunk. He was still angry that I had come home late the night before…and he called me a slut…in front of everyone in the restaurant.
Slowly and surprisingly, Wan Jen was choking on her words. Nobody had ever seen her cry before. She was the perfect one on a pedestal, glamorous, tall, smiling, leading an immaculately sparkling life of sheer happiness.
– He hit me and threatened that if I ever came home late again he would get a bunch of his coworkers from the construction site to come and, and…gang-rape me…
– My aunt kept egging him on too; she hates me. The class was silent as she sobbed. All afternoon girls handed her tissues and boys patted her lightly on the back. It was the first time we saw Wan Jen as the thirteen-year-old girl she was, like any of us.