I had been rereading The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides and Then We Came To The End by Joshua Ferris to get pumped before a graduate workshop deadline. At the time, I was reflecting on how I killed the majority of my twenties making self-destructive decisions, befriending people who didn’t really care about what happened to me, and trying to impress people who would never see or value the real me….I wanted to conjure what I had lost over the years: a sense of pride about who I am and where I come from.
The story is very much a valentine to Vallejo, a valentine to the people I grew up with at St. Basil School, and a valentine to my best friends who have stuck by my side through the years no matter what ….You could say it’s also a valentine to Brett Zaleskys everywhere – people who inspire you to do things you wouldn’t otherwise do, people who show up to watch you play and convince you of your strength and value when others want to insist that you are weak or that you don’t belong.Jenn Alandy Trahan, Contributor Note
The connection to the two works Trahan mentions above is obvious: she uses first person plural here, one of those unusual narrative voices I find myself so drawn to, yet often have trouble distinguishing from a singular observer-narrator. Somehow that wasn’t the case here. Maybe it was all those “we”s or maybe I’m just getting better at reading.
The story reads more like a memoir. It starts with a white boy and ends with a group of brown girls who follow him into basketball, with consequences straight out of that Nike “If You Let Me Play” ad.
It don’t matter if I can see the score anyway, I finna play my hardest regardless, Brent Zalesky said once, squinting his eyes in the sunlight. Brent Zalesky lived in the Crest. He didn’t flinch at the sound of gunshots, he received detentions weekly, and he ganked tapes and CDs from Wherehouse with the clunky security devices still attached. Brent Zalesky knew how to get them off, armed only with pliers and a Bic lighter. This was 1996, and he never got caught. He took music requests and we’d find surprises in our lockers at school. We loved him for this. We loved his buzzed blond hair, his stainless-steel chain necklace, his jawline, his position. Brent Zalesky played point guard. All the boys on the team respected him. They called him Z.
The girls’ parents aren’t anywhere near as impressed with Brent as the girls are. But the story isn’t about Brent; it’s about the effect he had on the narrative we, the Filipino girls at his school.
The girls are second-place in their families – “We weren’t worth much, not as much as sons” – and one paragraph sounds much like Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl” as mothers complain about every aspect of their daughters. But Brent starts dating Marorie, she tries out for basketball, her friends go with her, and that’s the story there.
On the court, we felt proud. During games, we took hits and threw elbows like champs. Who cared about girls from Napa who put their fingers in our faces and timed their pregame team chant with ours so you couldn’t hear our voices? Who cared that we would grow up to have all kinds of girls interrupt us, correct us, cut us, talk over us, throw shrimp cocktail at us? Could we blame them? We were brown like their nannies, brown like the big eyed dirty kids in those Save the Children commercials, brown like hotel housekeepers….We were brown like their daddies secretaries, brown like the women their daddies beat off to and sometimes left the family for, brown like me love you long time, brown like I need to apologize for offending you, Brown like may I take your plate, brown like you think I need your charity, and brown like how can I help you, sir? Back then, we helped ourselves. We dove out of bounds. We broke bones. We didn’t care about sweat-slicked ponytails. Didn’t care about the skinned knees or bruises or scars, didn’t bother with bandages in the mornings before school. We got hard. All the marks on our faces and bodies said, So what, I’m still here.
Brent Zalesky may have been the light, but it’s the girls who followed the path and found what had value for them. By the way, Jake Weber has an insightful view of Brent Zalesky as White Savior and the implications of that, something I hadn’t considered.
It’s the kind of story that’s called heartwarming and inspiring, and I have no doubt it was very much true for Trahan. I’m dubious about its applicability in general (sports are where I was regularly humiliated) but that doesn’t diminish its value.