Frito Pie and Other Toxins

Frito Pie and Other Toxins by Danny Thanh Nguyen

David and I met on, a once-popular men’s chatroom, before agreeing to meet in person. Our first encounter took place in an independent bookshop. Whenever I tell the story of our budding romance, my friends ask if we met up to cruise a seedy adult bookstore, its darkened backroom filled with coin-operated video booths. But in actuality, the setting was a significantly less sexy Classical Literature aisle.

I was browsing the bookshelves when David approached me, pretending to be an employee by asking, “Is there anything I can help you find today, cutie?” I waved his compliment away with my hand, looking at the floor. When I glanced up he said, “You look even better in person than you do in your profile.”

He mentioned that his car was parked around the corner; would I care to join him for lunch, his treat? It was three o’clock in the afternoon.

No one had ever called me cute before, unless it was in reference to my gnomish stature. I was an awkward teenager who had grown into an awkward adult, accustomed to self-consciously fixing my gaze to the ground whenever talking to someone, even if they were standing right in front of me. The shyness stemmed from a fear of bringing attention to my face: the worn lines of my furrowed eyebrows, the acne scars and asymmetrical moles that dotted my face like a Jackson Pollack painting.

The only gay men who gave me the time of day were usually white guys who were my father’s age and embarrassed me with their fetish for Asians. Rice queens, they’re called in gay lingo. Once, a rice queen hit on me at a bar with a pickup line of “You know, I love smooth little Asian boys,” punctuated by a wink. I was numb to his pedophilic tone, having heard similar come-ons countless times before, but I replied: “I’m really hairy for an Asian guy. I can actually braid my ass shut with the fur I got down there.”

David laughed when I told him this story, coughing out iced tea through his nose. We were now sitting at the counter of one of his favorite diners in the city, connecting over our respective encounters with overzealous rice queens. Both our parents were immigrants from Vietnam. I had just begun training to be a teacher and he was a nontraditional student who had recently re-enrolled in college after a seven-year break.

“So,” David said. “Are you really that hairy?” He eyed me up and down; the flirtation made me giddy.

David was finishing school while serving tables at a restaurant that was known for its ginger-cake and pumpkin ice cream dessert. Inspired by his Buddhist roommate, David had been a vegetarian for the past several years. “Don’t worry,” David said as we scanned our menus. “I won’t be offended if you order something that has meat in it. Just don’t kiss me right afterwards,” he said.

What fascinated me immediately about David was his past life as a Texan. His family was one of the only Asian American families in their town, which sounded like a strange Twilight Zone alternate universe to me. I grew up around Mexican and Southeast Asian immigrants, families that looked not unlike mine; we were just part of the Bay Area ecosystem. Who were these mythical white people with their big hair and abundance of sports jerseys that David spoke of? I had never been to Texas, but thought of it as exotic due to its notorious hellfire heat and the fact that the state had executed more than thirty times the number of death-row inmates compared to my native California.

David only confirmed that his home state was a place of pain when talking about his emotionally abusive parents. How he ran away from his suburb of Dallas as a teenager, making his way west to San Francisco. As he continued, I imagined David hitchhiking from halfway across the country with only a duffel bag strapped across his shoulder. Like a dusty scene from a cowboy movie, frontier music whistled in the background as this rugged teenage lone star struck out on his own. It all made him seem daring and independent and mysterious and hot.

“You’re a vegetarian from beef-eating Texas and you don’t have a southern accent?” I asked. He forked an onion ring and some French fries—the two items that comprised his meal. The paper doily on his plate was clear with grease. “Well parn’er,” he said, inflecting a twang, “I can speak with one if you wan’.”

I had always loved the southern accent. On the right man, it increased his handsomeness factor by tenfold and, at the very least, made him sound kind. But mostly, I dreamt of being with a man with a southern drawl because I would always feel smarter and therefore superior to him.

After our meal, David drove me back to the bookstore. “Would you like to get together again?” he asked. I reached over and placed my hand over his on the gearshift, smiling while able to look him directly in the eyes for the first time.


Despite having no prior teaching experience, I had somehow tricked a local nonprofit organization into hiring me as a teacher. I landed the job because I spoke like a presidential candidate during my interviews, repeatedly emphasizing that I was interested in effecting positive impact on today’s youth because they were our future. In the end, it seemed that a simple willingness to work in socio-economically disadvantaged settings was half of the qualification.

At Health Initiatives for Youth, our mission was to “provide health education and advocacy to young people from disenfranchised communities.” We cited disparities—such as substance abuse, HIV infections, poverty, teen pregnancy, and mental health issues—amongst the Bay Area’s youth populations as motivation for our services.

I was one of several Youth Educators, as we were officially titled, who would be contracted to neighborhood community centers, juvenile halls, and dilapidated public high schools to run workshops and classes. The prospect of becoming one of those fabled “cool teachers” excited me. I had grown up watching Stand and Deliver, Lean on Me, and Dangerous Minds—movie dramas about well-meaning, well-to-do adults that enter schools to inspire jail-bound teens to live up to their potentials. But it wasn’t the messianic teacher clichés from these films that I identified with; it was the students. I had attended public schools where we were banned from wearing solid red or blue clothing due to their affiliations with local gangs. In order to maintain public funding, kids from neighboring communities had to be bussed in daily. And once, in middle school, a group of boys locked the vice principal in a restroom, cornered him in a stall, and beat him until he went permanently deaf in one ear.

The prospect of returning to this environment reminded me of the scrawny, awkward, queer teenager I once was—how he navigated that jungle of adolescence, the kind of protection and mentorship he craved from his teachers. So this new job, as a homecoming, felt empowering.

My mother, on the other hand, did not share my enthusiasm when I told her the news. “They’ll kill my baby boy!” she cried over the phone. My mother never held confidence in anything, let alone humanity. My parents were war refugees from Vietnam. I grew up in a working-class immigrant family whose first American home was in a rough Los Angeles neighborhood. After my mother was run over and injured by an indifferent bus driver, my parents moved our family north to San Jose when housing was still cheap. That was when my mother discovered crime TV. America’s Most Wanted, Unsolved Mysteries, Rescue 9-1-1: these shows conveyed to my mother that the United States was just as dangerous, if not worse, than her native Vietnam. Our neighbors were clearly child molesters; the stranger at the mall parking lot was surely carrying a knife; teenagers with driver permits naturally turned into roving gangs of arsonists.

“Kids these days,” she said, “anything will set them off. They don’t respect teachers like they do in Vietnam. If you look at them the wrong way, if they don’t like the way you talk—they’ll shoot you!”

I tried reassuring her by invoking my own street smarts and how I got through my teenage years relatively unscathed. But all she could see was the image of me at the head of a classroom, pressed against the chalkboard, encircled by a pack of foaming wolves waiting to tear me apart. To her, my setting foot back in the ghetto was like unraveling everything my parents had worked for. And she disapproved of the new job, just as she disapproved of the facial piercings I sported up and down my ear, on my lip, and through my tongue.

The nonprofit I worked for, on the other hand, celebrated my style. “We like our teachers to reflect the diversity of the youth we service,” my executive director said during orientation. Sharon was a thin short-haired lesbian, handing out photocopied pages around the conference table. We were reviewing case studies filled with charts and graphs about how young people learn more from other youth than adults in positions of authority. “If they hear information from their peers about sex, drugs, whatever—even if it’s inaccurate—it’s more likely to stick. Which is where you hip instructors come in to feed them the facts.” She pointed around the room at the new hires, all of whom, with the exception of me, sported visible tattoos on their arms and necks.

Our office was located in the downtown Financial District, in a richly lit high-rise that mostly housed law firms. I would enter the building wearing torn jeans and green-dyed hair, inviting stares from lawyers in three-piece suits—who would eye me with suspicion, as if I threatened to steal their divorce settlement clients. My coworkers elicited similar responses, considering that they dressed even more fresh from the ‘hood. Because, to work for a service-based nonprofit in San Francisco meant that you were most likely very liberal. It was also a plus if you came from a minority group of some sort, as it inherently gave you a “unique perspective.”

My officemate was a Palestinian American activist who was galvanized by anti-Muslim backlash after 9/11, and my supervisor was a Filipino skinhead who was a living legend in the underground hip-hop community. Raquel was our director of programs, a paraplegic vegan who worshipped Mother Gaia. Body modifications were not uncommon and the most ink-branded of us was a fellow new hire named Aaron—a Chicano former teenage gang member who had twice been incarcerated. As if that weren’t enough street-cred, Aaron was also a transgender man who had been locked up in women’s juvenile hall.

The Rainbow Tribe, we affectionately called ourselves.

From the head of Finance and HR, to the Managers, to the handful of Youth Educators: the all-staff photo that hung at our office entrance dared its viewer to point out a single demographic that was not accounted for. We prided ourselves on this and our mutual love of critically analyzing society. We spent our lunches in the break room talking at length about how the system had failed schools that did not have enough money to provide current history textbooks, but could afford the metal detectors and Kevlar-vested security guards that greeted students every morning. The disproportionate number of poor people and people of color being recruited by the U.S. Armed Forces was called into question, and everything bad about the country was blamed on The Man. Even my Caucasian coworkers denounced cultural appropriation from white America, and together we agreed that silky blond hair being forced by its wearer into unnatural Rastafarian dreadlocks looked like dingleberries on a stray dog.


David took classes during the day and waited tables in the evenings. He lived in the gay neighborhood of the Castro, which made it safe for us to walk around the area while holding hands without fear. By this point in our relationship, I was practically living with him, using my own apartment as a glorified storage unit.

On the nights David worked, I would wait up for him while studying workshop curriculum. I had been attending professional development trainings on sex positivity frameworks, anti-oppression theory, and cognitive behavior therapy methodology. I absorbed so much jargon that my brain throbbed and I felt punch drunk from how profound it made me feel.

David would come home and collapse onto his bed after a lengthy closing shift. Often he would be too exhausted to move, but on the occasions when he found the energy, he’d cuddle up next to me to inspire a romantic mood while I leafed through sexual health guides filled photos of oozing herpes sores. He also served as my drill partner: the sounding board onto which I repeated facts aloud, in order to commit them to memory.

“Did you know that marijuana can be considered psychologically addictive, but not physically addictive?” I said. “Your body can’t develop a physical dependency on weed like with crack or heroin.”

It was one o’clock in the morning. I was sitting on his kitchen counter with a workbook on substance use in my lap. David rifled through his cabinets in search of a late night snack.

“Also, marijuana smoke burns seven times hotter than tobacco. It’s actually rather unhealthy to smoke weed from a pipe or joint because the unfiltered smoke just burns up your throat. A bong can reduce harm done to the body because the water helps cool off the smoke and catches some of the ash.”

My voice grew higher with each new factoid, making me sound like a drug-dealing scientist.

“If you tell kids this, aren’t you just promoting reckless behavior?” David asked.

“Well, no,” I started. I was now in my element, explaining the principles of harm reduction I had recently learned. How the scare tactics and “Just Say No” culture that started in the Reagan era had failed to affect the HIV and addiction rates in America. How public shaming and abstinence-only education only drove people to be less honest about the kind of sex or drugs they were doing. How the Netherlands had pioneered harm reduction in the 80s through needle exchange programs, which proved to be a successful public health strategy.

“You sound like a public service announcement,” David said.

He filled a bowl with potato chips and nacho cheese Doritos, and carried the little slice of sodium-loaded carbohydrate bliss back into his room. He was constantly snacking—at home and in the car, his fingers sticky with crumbs. Though he found what I was talking about interesting, David had no use for harm reduction tips on drugs. He was the most sober person I had ever met, having never smoked a cigarette or weed, having no interest in party drugs like ecstasy or cocaine. Hell, he didn’t even drink alcohol, which was convenient because he was my perpetual designated driver.

As our relationship developed, I noticed that David’s addictions stayed within a different realm of substance abuse: food. Sitting in front of the flickering television screen, he called out answers to a game show with a mouthful of chips. His shoulders hunched forward, his spine invisible in the mass of his back, his thighs thick and meaty and straining against the fabric of his pants.

“You know what I could really go for?” he asked. “Hush puppies.”

“You mean the shoe brand?”

“No! You know, those deep fried cornmeal balls.”

I had never heard of hush puppies in my life. “You mean like… savory donuts or something?” I said.

His father was a gambler who, throughout David’s childhood, took the family on road trips between Texas and Louisiana so he could play baccarat in Shreveport. According to David, Southern highways and strip malls were emporiums of fried dough products and all their subspecies. Hoecakes. Cornmeal hush puppies. Beignets dusted with powdered sugar. Fish batter crumbs skimmed from the surface of the fryer at a Long John Silver’s.

A constant in our relationship was a shared love for television and the act of eating. The ways flavors mashed under our teeth and spread across our tongues, the fulfilling feeling of fullness in the stomach—the whole process is perhaps the most pleasurable human sensation I can think of, akin to sex. When there was nothing on TV, we defaulted to the Food Network. Our favorite programs were cooking shows hosted by women who made dishes, then forked pieces of their creations into their mouths and feigned orgasms. Mmmm, they moaned. Mmmm, David and I sighed back.

But no matter how much I ate, I remained rail thin, as if my metabolism was an army of tapeworms that had seized control of my insides. My diet consisted of lots of raw vegetables, a value instilled by my mother. I also only ate until I was 80% full, an Okinawan practice that I had picked up while studying in Japan as a foreign exchange student.

David, however, was from Texas. His palate had been conditioned to crave the heavy and greasy, preferably served with a side of BBQ sauce. He was perhaps the only vegetarian in the world who was at risk of constipation because anything remotely green had to be breaded and thrown in a rolling vat of oil before it went on his plate.

“You’ve never had Frito Pie?!” he asked. Our conversation had moved onto childhood lunches. Because my family was poor, my mother sent me to school with Tupperwares of white rice and pickled vegetables. David’s school lunches involved a cafeteria waiting line where the food was dropped onto his tray with an ice cream scoop. Spaghetti and meatballs, tater tot casseroles, mashed potatoes and gravy—it was all served with an ice cream scoop.

“Frito Pie Day was the best because they’d give us a small bag of Fritos that was cut open, and we’d pile on chili, shredded cheese, sour cream.”

The idea of these perverted nachos mesmerized me. I stared at David, my eyes wide in terror. “You could throw on some shredded iceberg lettuce for extra crunch if you wanted. Then dig in with a fork.”

I imagined him as a nine-year-old, sitting in a cafeteria full of chubby fifth graders. Before each of them was a smothered pile of the curly toenail-looking corn chips. They were all wearing uniforms and singing the anthem Deep in the Heart of Texas while chowing on their Frito Pies.

As I lay awake that night, I tried coming up with harm reduction tips for unhealthy eating habits. David held me in bed, spooning me from behind. I couldn’t fall asleep because his snoring was so loud and my spine was forced into an aching exaggerated arch from his stomach. Beneath his shirt, on both sides of his belly button, were squiggling lines of stretch marks flowing down like a waterfall. I reached behind me and traced their lines to feel the indentation where the original surface skin ended and the silky underscar began.


To groom our classroom management skills, my fellow health educators and I had to take turns conducting teaching simulations in front of one another, both as participants and as instructors. As participants in these mock workshops, we played the roles of “challenging high school students.” We each pulled archetypes printed on cards from a hat—archetypes with names such as Violent Vanessa, Lewd Louis, Recluse Reina, and Antagonistic Anthony. Donning these characters, our goal was to give the instructors a hard time with their lessons, distracting them by living up to our namesake. Antagonistic Anthony wanted to disagree with anything the teacher had to say: How would you know this? Are we supposed to take your word for it, Ms. Know-It-All? Lewd Louis turned anything mundane into an excuse for sexual innuendos: There’s more white stuff where that piece of chalk came from. And Violent Vanessa was constantly threatening to beat the shit out of meek Recluse Reina after school. As instructors, we had to figure out ways of correcting and working through these personalities.

After practicing for a month, we moved onto the holistic health sections of our training. Aimee, our lead trainer, introduced us to the concept of body positivity, demonstrating an activity we could potentially use in the classroom. She was the agency’s self-proclaimed hippy, a white woman dressed in muslin pants, a head wrap, and beaded necklaces that hung past her waist. She spoke in a soothing liquidy voice, stalling between phrases as if in contemplation of her brilliance. “You generally want to make classes as… interactive as possible. Make sure you have a balance of… lecture and big group, as well as small group… activities. Find opportunities to get students to share their… discoveries with everyone.”

I remember thinking the spacey Zen that Aimee exuded felt appropriate for the bright sun that had finally broken through the days-upon-days of fog hanging over the city. I was looking out the conference room window, into the cuts of clear sky that peeked between the tall downtown buildings from our seventh story floor. Aimee had us close our eyes as she led us through a guided visualization exercise.

“Now, for ten minutes, take yourself back to… when you were a teenager. Think about the times you were made to feel… negative towards your or someone else’s body.”

Aimee’s type had always embarrassed me, the kind of people whose rain goddess demeanor suggested that they were on some powerful sedative. I started thinking back to my mother’s image of jaded, angry students—how would they react to me trying to talk to them the way Aimee spoke to us?

“Was it influenced by something like… a car commercial, or… a music video, or… a sports team?”

These would be hardened teens; they wouldn’t be interested in talking emotions, or being coaxed into reflecting upon their values. I’d stand before the classroom, impotent from their yawns and rolling eyes, desperately trying to push through this corny attempt at getting deep with them.

“Did someone close to you… ever put you down? Was this a parent… or a friend… or someone you trusted?”

Their scowls of resentment scared me, so I tried shoving the image out of my head. I focused on my breathing and wiped away the vision until my mind went blank.

“How did it… make you feel?”

I listened to Aimee. I took myself back.

It took full hold when I was a teenager—my self-consciousness, my vanity—when I had more than lower body hair and the moles on my face to worry about. In high school, I loathed myself so much that I kept a catalogue of things I wanted to change about my body. I had these short legs and was barely five feet tall. My acne was beyond severe; a mess of red bumps and volcano-like whiteheads crowded my face and chest and back and even the upper parts of my wimpy arms. Kids made fun of me. I was once told by a classmate that slapping my face would sound like twisting bubble wrap.

When drugstore creams failed, my mother marched me to the Vietnamese herbalist in search of alternative remedies. Like a witch out of Shakespeare, he sent us home with dried seahorses and tree barks to brew into a gut-twisting tonic, which also failed. Eventually we found a dermatologist who said I was an excellent candidate for Acutane—the most aggressive acne treatment available, given only to people with skin disorders bordering on leprosy. And for a whole year, I took daily doses of this medication that was so dangerous that its packaging featured silhouettes of pregnant women with Xs over them. The drug forced me to undergo monthly blood tests, gave me chronic nosebleeds, made me allergic to sunlight, and would, if I were with child, mutate my fetus.

After my acne cleared and my ego was left in shambles, I became addicted to controlling my physical appearance. I resented my oily skin so much that I began taking a minimum of two scalding showers a day. Because I could not fix my face, I spent too much time and money on my hair, regularly subjecting myself to scalp-burning procedures to have my mane chemically relaxed. It took me over half an hour to groom every morning, massaging expensive serums into my hair before blow-drying and flat-ironing it, then applying styling pastes to sculpt my head. It took even longer to get dressed because my mind would scream neurotic considerations in my ear: those layers don’t go together, why is there no pop of color? don’t forget to accessorize, that doesn’t work with your brown skin tone, don’t repeat an outfit from last week, your underwear isn’t even color coordinated!

I hated gyms—resented how they upheld heterosexual standards of masculinity, how mainstream gay culture adopted their ideals of male beauty—but I paid for a membership to work out at one anyways. I lifted weights, painfully tearing the muscles beneath my skin apart, staring at the mirror and pitying myself for being too weak-minded. I hated myself for not having a strong enough will to live and think above the influence of such body standards. But I hated myself even more for being skinny.

“Now think… outside yourself,” Aimee said.

I was resting my head on the cool conference table. My hands were squeezing the cushions of my swivel chair.

“How might you have… projected this hurt onto other people?… Have you ever felt compelled to… transfer your issues outwardly?”

David and I were becoming physically incongruent: me, the small skinny one; him, the taller, increasingly larger one. In bed, I could measure the escalation of his gravity as he sank me into the mattress, which made me conflate my discomfort with his size and my concerns for his health. We had passed the honeymoon phase of our relationship, so I was now more aware of things about David that disturbed me, namely his dietary practices. But I couldn’t bring myself to tell him. There are words to describe people who vocalize unhappiness toward another person’s weight: sizeist, oppressor, fatphobic. Asshole.

Just about every friend and colleague I had was a political activist, scrutinizing the world around us through socially conscious eyes. When they asked, “How are things with David?” I couldn’t even be honest with myself. The only people I had witnessed in similar situations were guests on trashy daytime talk shows. People who lured their partners in front of studio audiences to reveal secrets they’ve been hiding. The talk show host would introduce today’s guests, Sally and her husband Jacob. They’ve been married for thirteen years; they have three children. The host then cuts to a pre-taped footage of Jacob, mustached and mugging for the camera, brazenly confessing how he had been cheating on Sally with a thinner, prettier woman for the past year. The audience erupts into cheers and jeers, while Sally crumbles before them into a pile of wailing sobs.

To me, the most toxic aspect of that talk show scenario wasn’t the adultery. It was the fundamental act of making someone feel unattractive, inadequate—the lover you’re supposed to accept unconditionally. And realizing this made me angry with myself. I was a coward who didn’t want to personally tell David how I felt, but hoped someone else would do it for me.

“When you’re ready… you may open your eyes…” Aimee began the process of closing out our meditation. She counted us down from ten, reminding us to focus on our breathing.

“Now who wants to share… what they learned… from that experience?”

Again, my mother’s image of students gnashing their teeth at me bubbled up. Only now they weren’t all snickering and wishing me harm. Instead, the students were quietly sitting in their desks, glaring at me with intelligent eyes that could see right through my skin and my bones, piercing through my skull and into my mind, reading my thoughts.

What gives you the right? they spat. How dare you preach to us what you can’t even back up, fool?


I suggested that David and I have lunch in Japantown, which I chose because I was familiar with the food. I did not have the nerve to open up to David about how I felt, so I decided to start controlling what we ate. I wanted to subliminally hypnotize him by setting an example of ordering healthier foods when we went on dates.

“How about something not so heavy this time?” I asked. “I don’t want to feel all sluggish afterwards.”

We were in a restaurant that was known for its bentos. The walls around our booth were lacquered red and the people who ran the shop were actually Chinese. I pointed to an item on the menu and its photo: a dome of steamed rice and a side of grilled chicken accompanied by vegetables beautifully carved to look like blooming flowers. “Or how about this?” I gestured to a bowl of udon soup, which came with a salad. Hara hachi bu, I thought to myself. Eat until you’re 80% full.

“Ooooh, look at this!” David had found the baked rice and cheese gratin. The side of garlic bread sealed the deal. “I’m gonna ask for extra cheese,” he said.

In my head, I cursed the restaurant for offering this menu item, wondering what the hell had happened to the statistics of Asian people being lactose intolerant.

My grilled chicken bento came out before his order and I made a show of how yummy I thought it was. “So light,” I said, “Japanese food is really all about balance.” I lifted a nest of finely curled carrots with my chopsticks and held it up to his mouth, inviting him. He shook his head. His dish arrived, steaming with pools of oil on the melted white and yellow surface, and I had to fight the urge to reach across the table with my napkin to blot it.

As educators, we were told to practice patience. To recognize that knowledge growth and behavior change was a process that required incremental steps. According to a theory I had learned, David was in the Pre-Contemplation Stage. If I wanted to see him change, I had to coach him toward the Contemplation Stage, to simply think about his eating habits. But he wasn’t my student; he was my boyfriend. My boyfriend who was flagging down our waitress to order a sugary soda and an extra side of potato croquettes. Our love life was not a classroom and I was not patient. I wanted to fast-forward him to the Take Action Stage, pat myself on the back, and call it a day.

“So, what was it like living in Japan as an exchange student?” he asked.

“I lived with a host family,” I said. “They took care of me. Japanese people are usually very polite. They prefer indirect communication, so sometimes you have to read between the lines with them.”

David nodded, but he didn’t get it.

We walked around the mall passing shops that sold CDs and books, incense and curios. David ducked into a bakery to buy a loaf of bread that was advertised in the window as being laced with seven types of cheeses. He tried to reach over to hold my hand and I quickly pushed my palms into the front pockets of my jeans. He settled on looping his arm through mine, and I stiffened my arm. I was sulking, not smiling, not saying anything, believing I could punish David by withholding myself. But only I knew this. David thought I was being coy, that I was playing a silent game of hard-to-get and his job was to chase after me with affection.

The stationary store had a wide glass facade and bright overhead lighting to illuminate rows of tiny cellphone charms, colorful miniature pens, and notebooks with ocean wave cover art. Even the rows of Hello Kitty plush dolls seemed to glow heavenly.

“Isn’t this the anime character that you like?”

David thrust a stuffed oversized Totoro at me. The magical cartoon cat that stood on its hind legs, grey fur, pear-shaped and big-bellied, eyes large and round like an owl. How I adored Totoro. The stuffed toy was heavy and filled out my arms. I hugged him, cradled him back and forth. It made me think of David and his warmth when I awoke in the middle of the night to find myself holding him as he slept.

“Is that a smile I’m finally seeing,” David said. He smiled back, encouraging, making his eyes almost disappear. I resisted.

“Alright, let’s get some photo-stickers made,” he said. “I’ll pay.”

He led me into the arcade next door where dozens of large photo booths greeted us. Their exteriors displayed blown up Japanese schoolgirls beaming and excited cartoon animals holding up peace signs with their paws. I had introduced these pimped-up machines to David over a year ago, though we had never used them before.

He fed five dollars to a booth and we stepped inside, pulling the curtain closed. The machine lit up, the camera activated, and our image took over the flat touchscreen before us. I could hear David’s stomach growling, digesting, even over the loud singing that poured out of the speakers. He had to take my arms and drape them across his shoulders as he crouched in front of me for the first photo. The machine counted down: 3…2…1…Hai, cheese-zu!

He art directed the next pose, suggesting we look quizzically at one another while shrugging our shoulders, then the next pose and the one after that.

“Smile!” he said, tickling my sides.

My grin eventually emerged, naturally. How could it not with this goofball?

A grid of the ten photos took over the screen and a high-pitch voice instructed us to select our favorites, using the stylus on the side to photoshop our pictures. We scanned through menus of different filters and graphics. I stamped a pair of bunny ears to David’s head in one photo, and he drew a pair of neon pink devil horns on mine. We framed another photo with a sunny beach-themed border and airbrushed away our blemishes with the stylus, as if it were a magic wand.

“That’s my favorite,” David said. “That one’s adorable.” He was pointing to the picture of him kissing me on the cheek as I squinted one eye closed and stuck out my tongue. The stickers that finally printed did indeed turn out adorable. But when I first held them in my hands, I couldn’t focus on what he saw. The still shot showed him oblivious and happy with a chin that was lost in his thick neck. I was looking right at myself. Under my shirt and the hair on my head was my skin and my bones. Hidden beneath my skull was a brain that told me how I felt and how I shouldn’t feel. A brain that told me everything in that photo was wrong, was something I wished I could change.

Danny Thanh Nguyen’s short stories and personal essays have appeared in South Dakota Review, Entropy, Foglifter, New Delta Review, Gulf Coast, and other magazines. He received his MFA from Indiana University and is the editor of AS IS, an anthology of Vietnamese American art and literature. He is a Kundiman Fellow and a Lambda Literary Fellow. Find him @engrishlessons.