I Need You
When I was 21 I followed my college writing teacher to China, where he was scheduled to take part in our college’s teacher exchange program with a Shanghai university. There was no corresponding student exchange program, but my teacher figured I and another guy who decided to tag along could figure something out once we got there. The other student, Jay, wasn’t interested in learning Chinese, so he got a job teaching English. I started taking Chinese classes with a bunch of Japanese guys and a droopy-mustached Hungarian. One evening Jay and I were eating noodles at one of the ephemeral food stands that periodically materialized and disappeared just outside the gates of the university. A Chinese woman walked over and asked if she could practice her English with us.
This was in September 1989, just a couple months after the Chinese government sent in the tanks to snuff out the Tiananmen Square protests in Beijing. Shanghai had had similar protests, which had come to a similar end. The mood among Chinese students during my time there seemed bleak and desperate. I need you to teach me English. I need you to help get me out of here.
The woman who spoke with Jay and I at the noodle stand didn’t seem to have the same aura of desperation as some other would-be English practitioners who’d accosted me. She was cheerful and quiet, only asking a couple questions before Jay commandeered the conversation, going off on one of his increasingly frequent impromptu civic lectures to Chinese people on What It Means to Be American. Afterward, Jay and I walked back to the dorm room we shared. We were both major league virgins, but I had at least a couple drunken breast-gropings listed among the otherwise blank sex stats on the back of my imaginary baseball card by then. Jay, a guy who back at our college in Vermont had spent most of days making sarcastic remarks in the campus computer lab and most of his nights playing Dungeons and Dragons, was likely even less experienced than me.
“Wow,” Jay said, eyes lit up behind his thick bifocals, his acned face flushed. “She was really something.”
Jay kept talking about her when we got back to our room, lying on his bed and staring starry-eyed up at the ceiling, his hands clasped behind his head. I kept my mouth shut. I’d liked her too. A lot. What was it about her that I liked? Well, maybe I can explain by way of something Larry Fine once said at the end of a Three Stooges episode, when the famed trio of bumbling sado-masochists was for some reason surrounded by adoring members of the fairer sex.
“You’re my type, baby,” Larry said up to his admirer. “A woman.”
So what did I like about her? She was a woman. Plus she was decent-looking and acknowledged my existence. And in China I was even lonelier than I’d been in America. Boom, boom, boom went my heart.
I guess we had some plan to meet up again, all three of us, but for some reason before that the woman, Li Hong, asked me to show her how to play guitar. We went into a park near the school and I strummed my cheap acoustic and sang “Blowin’ in the Wind,” for god’s sake. Then I went back to my room and wrote her a poem. The three of us met up a day or so later, as planned, and Jay again dominated the conversation, sweating nervously as he boomed explanations of such things as the lyrics of Bob Seger and how a bill becomes a law. But then at the end, as Jay and I were saying goodbye to her, I slipped my sappy ode into Li Hong’s hands. She was stunned. So was Jay.
Jay and I walked together back to our dorm. Jay was just kind of shaking his head and laughing bitterly through his nose. He couldn’t look at me, nor I at him.
“Sorry, man,” I mumbled.
Nobody, but nobody, can perform the crouching middle infielder baseball card pose like Denny Doyle. There have been many admirable practitioners of this imitation of ready, steady, utterly lifeless anticipation, many who have brought the necessary “good glove, no hit” standards to their rendition of the pose’s backstory, but Denny Doyle is the best there ever was, the best there ever will be. The 1977 card shown above is a perfect example, in that Doyle’s intense concentration on the task (or lack of a task) at hand has produced the impression that he has literally frozen into his crouch and will be forever unable to move. George Scott will have to be called to pick Denny Doyle up and carry him back to the clubhouse, then carry him back out to second base when the game is about to start.
Doyle lasted eight seasons in the majors, batting .250 with no power, no speed, and little ability to draw more than the occasional walk, in my mind the perfect record for the world’s greatest baseball card croucher. Even his name seems to contribute to the “unity of effect” (to use Poe’s term) for this particular art form. Denny Doyle. He sounds like the harmless, mild-mannered alter ego of a cut-rate superhero whose only power is the ability to turn into a statue.
Denny Doyle had his career year in 1975, when he helped the Red Sox get to the World Series by hitting .310 in 89 games after being traded to the club from the California Angels. Doyle only managed a .513 OPS in the 1975 World Series, but he did get a hit in every one of the seven games played, a perfect Denny Doyle performance in that it was both steady and of negligible worth.
In the ninth inning of Game Six of that classic series, Doyle was thrown out at home by George Foster after tagging up on a fly to foul territory in shallow left. Doyle claimed he’d heard the third base coach Don Zimmer saying “Go, go, go!” Zimmer’s alibi was that he was in fact shouting “No, no, no!”
Either way, I blame Zimmer for the play, which could have easily cost the Red Sox the game (as it turned out, the game, frequently cited as the best ever played, would be won thanks to Dwight Evans’ defensive heroics and Carlton Fisk’s famed foul-pole homer). I have always blamed Zimmer on principle, because I do not like him, but on further inspection it seems there are some actual grounds for this blame. According to a 2005 article by Bruce Markusen, Zimmer had been involved in a similar miscommunication earlier in the series:
In the first inning of Game One, Dwight Evans believed he had heard Zimmer shout “Go!” when the coach had actually yelled “No!” on an infield hit by Fred Lynn. Evans rounded third and ran for home, only to be cut down by Dave Concepcion’s accurate throw to the plate.
This is infuriating to me. Don’t you think a third base coach, after being involved in one key World Series play that went awry via miscommunication, would do everything (or at least something) in his power to see that that same miscommunication was not made again? I mean, how fucking hard would it have been to come up with a word signaling to the baserunner not to run that doesn’t sound amid crowd noise exactly like a word signaling the baserunner to run? What, is third base coaching too demanding a job to allow for such an adjustment? And there seems to have been no owning up by Zimmer to being part of the problem, just an attempt to shuffle the blame off onto Doyle or else just mark it up as “one of those things.” But whatever. Don Zimmer didn’t earn his status as a New England pariah for nothing. A college friend of mine, who was from Maine, once told me that when he and his friends went swimming as kids in the late 1970s they used to run toward the water saying “Last one in is Don Zimmer!”
Right after Game Six, Zimmer continued auditioning for the managing job he would eventually earn in time to steer the 1978 Red Sox to one of the biggest collapses in baseball history. In an article by Jim Prime on The Baseball Biography Project, Zimmer nemesis Bill Lee explains:
We were leading 3-0 in Game Seven of the World Series. The Reds had a runner at first in the sixth inning. For some reason, Zimmer waves Denny Doyle a few feet away from second base, making a double play impossible. Sure enough, Johnny Bench hits the ball to Burleson at short and Doyle is out of position to make the pivot. The ball goes by Yastrzemski and Bench is safe at second. I lost it and threw the blooper. Two-run homer. Someone should have come out and calmed me down. No one did. The next inning I get a blister and walk the leadoff man and he scores the tying run. The rest is history, but it should never have reached that point.
My Chinese girlfriend and I were mashing our faces together while sitting on my dorm bed. It was a few weeks after I’d shoved my poem into her hands. To this point all Li Hong and I had done was kiss, and mostly we’d done that in various parks around town. In fact our first kiss had been at the foot of a giant statue of Chairman Mao. Now we were in a room, alone. My roommate Jay was out somewhere, maybe teaching his class or exploring the city on his bike. I figured I was probably expected to get a little more invasive in my pawings than I had been during our more public displays of affection beneath the blank bronze gaze of various heroes of Communism. So I grabbed clumsily at a couple previously ungrabbed spots. Li Hong didn’t stop me. In fact, she kind of gasped a little, her eyes closed.
“I need you,” she added.
I need you? I thought to myself. That’s kind of an alarming thing to say.
The funny thing is, we’d already said “I love you” at this point. Many times. That phrase was pretty cheaply flung around, the Chinese-English exchange rate on it for me about the same as the actual exchange rate, which allowed the two of us to dine at Shanghai’s finest restaurants practically every night for the approximate price of a Cumberland Farms burrito. I mean, rampant utterances of “I love you” were an integral part of our necessarily childish diction, Li Hong’s rudimentary English and my stunted emotional development coalescing into a shared language suitable for fairy tales. But I need you? That wasn’t suitable for fairy tales at all. That would rip a fairy tale apart at the seams.
I felt, hearing the whispered sentence, something like Denny Doyle must have felt when he saw that foul ball flutter down toward George Foster’s glove in the ninth inning of Game Six. The crowd screaming, the third base coach seeming to say “Go, go, go!”
Go, go, go? Are you serious? You mean now?
“I need you,” Li Hong said.
I’ve ranged around a lot in this long yarn, so maybe the best thing now is to just say it plainly: by the time I was a 21-year-old virgin sex scared the shit out of me. I had always thought it had been the thing I wanted most in the world, but I guess I wanted it abstractly. I wanted it to be some sort of magical gravel pit scenario in which I wasn’t myself and my partner wasn’t really anything more complicated than an exciting idea.
For the previous ten years I had pleaded in my mind, again and again, I need you, I need you, to everyone from Daisy Duke to my sweatsuit-wearing Dorothy-Hamill-haired 10th grade health teacher. Now someone was saying it to me. Someone real.
I made some mumbling excuse about how Jay was probably going to come bumbling through the door at any minute, so that cut short our grope session and saved me from having to respond immediately to Li Hong’s three-word whisper. But shortly thereafter we planned a trip to an island full of Buddhist temples off the coast of Shanghai. We’d be all alone there, no chance of Jay storming into the room while we were in the middle of something. Just the two of us. My stomach hurt in the days leading up to the trip, worse and worse the closer it got.
Go, go, go.
We arrived in the morning. During the day we visited a bunch of the temples. When the sun went down we went back to the hotel. All it took was a few seconds to undo 21 years of virginity. I had a walkman with me, plus a cassette of some benefit concert that included the song “Show Me” by the Pretenders. That’s what I remember most about that night, the solitary aftermath, listening by myself to Chrissy Hynde.
“Welcome to the human race,” she sang.