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Authors: Thanhha Lai

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BOOK: Listen, Slowly
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I love how polite people are here, but honestly I have no idea if they mean what they say or are just being superagreeable. I think Ông’s brother was sincere, but even if he thinks we’re back to snatch up his house, he still would be Mr. Nice Guy. That’s one thing I get about Út: when grumpy, she shows it, like I would.

Bà and I are sharing the only other bedroom, near the entrance. The room has a full bed with a mattress that actually bounces. The mattress looks brand-new, like Ông’s brother got it just for Bà. More than ever, I love being her granddaughter. Last night, we immediately crawled under the mosquito net and Bà fell asleep. I, however, had a mission. The mosquitoes hunted me into the net. Fat and slow from all my blood, they banged against the net trying to escape. So I smooshed them, splattering red all over my palms, flattening black bodies with broken wings. It was so satisfying. Smack, blood. Smack, blood.

We’re under the mosquito net again, getting ready for a nap. After being force-fed at breakfast and lunch today, we’re tired. I was made to eat so much sticky rice and mung beans, my belly feels like it’s packed with bricks. I’m still burping, trying to digest it all.

The net is supposed to be used only at night but I wouldn’t let Bà roll ours up. Mosquitoes hunt from dusk to dawn, but I bet there are some who stretch the hours. I feel safer inside the net, lying here and scratching like I have fleas. Bà has already told me scratching only makes it worse. If I ignore the itches, according to her, soon my blood will no longer react to the poison. This mind-over-matter thing has never worked for me.

I’ve thought about playing up the mosquito angle, maybe scratch myself bloody, moan a lot, shake like I have malaria. That might get me airlifted to Laguna. But doctors back home would run tests and figure out I faked the whole thing and Mom would ship me right back, probably for the entire summer. So I’ve got to suck it up and wait for the detective to bring the guard. Then Bà can ask all her questions. Tears. Acceptance. Incense. Home. Not much else can happen.

Bà pulls out her Tiger Balm. Bad, bad sign. How could I have forgotten about her cure-all weapon? I stop scratching and forbid myself to touch even one pink bump, but it’s too late. Bà is twisting open the shiny metal lid and reaching out for me. Why did I have to call attention to myself? She holds up my right arm and meticulously rubs the ointment on each pink dot. You know what a minty, burning, menthol-y goo does to mosquito bites? It makes them itch even more! But I can’t reason with Bà about Tiger Balm, which she has anointed with the power to blast away headaches, backaches, joint aches, stomachaches, nausea, seasickness, carsickness, burns, bites, gas, congestion . . . just to name a few.

Now Bà wants my other arm. Noooo. I quickly stick my finger into the jar, scoop out a pungent glob and pretend to rub it on my bites. I’m actually massaging it on the flat skin surrounding the bumps. Even so, it burns. Bà waits for me to assault my calves and ankles and feet and neck and face. My eyes have turned into waterfalls. Tiger Balm is no joke. Finally, Bà closes the lid.

“Guess what once floated on that wall?”
Bà asks. I always understand whatever Bà says because she uses only the words she has taught me.

Through stinging eyes, I kinda see that on the wall used to be a mural, made of blue tiles. Most have fallen off, leaving pockmarks on the dingy wall. Everything in the house is cracked and gray. Outside, the year
is carved into the wood above the doorway. Bà said Ông was born that year and, to celebrate, his father designed a house inspired by his travels: one story, tile roof, brick walls, windows facing every direction, rooms that extend out instead of up, and a garden that claimed much more land than the house itself.

I suddenly remember the word for blue,

“Yes. Remember our stories about the goddess in a blue robe that drifts like tea vapors? Remnants of her gown still remain.”

I do remember, smiling big to show Bà. Twice a day I used to hear long stories, one at nap time and one before bed. Then I went to kindergarten and stopped listening.

“I have known Ông since the beginning of memories, matched as one from his seventh year, my fifth. Marriage to be delayed until he had studied in France, I in Japan. Yet war reached us. We were joined at eighteen, sixteen. Too soon. The day of our wedding a snake line of people arrived at our door. They bore drums and flags and silver gift trays covered in red velvet. The first two days proved simple to hide from him, so many relatives, so many ceremonies. But the third day, four men with muscles like twisted laundry carried me in a palanquin to his parents’ door. As taught, I took steps light as a crane’s into the house, bowed before the ancestral altar. While everyone prayed, I retreated inside the first room with a door

“This one. The bridal chamber. In pink silk a bed floated, from above a blue goddess gazed. I pushed an armoire against the door and sat on the floor counting the thumps from my heart. Out there they pleaded, then threatened, then my father thundered. Yet, I sat. The season was spring. Peach petals drifted outside the open window. I jumped up. Too late. Ông was perched on the windowsill, having climbed the peach tree. I pushed him back and slammed the bamboo shutters. His shape showed through, even the hint of curls by his ears. His voice seeped through too. Ah, that voice. In such a voice, sharp tones shattered and landed in drops of bells. He talked until the sun shriveled to an orange-yellow seed. He talked until I released the shutters

“For years now, I’ve counted the hours I had lost, that day and days after, when I was reading or visiting relatives or daydreaming, hours I could have been beside him. For years, I’ve counted the hours ever after as I wait for some part of him to return to me. I’m no dreamer. Raising seven children during war has a way of slapping reality into one’s fate. And yet, against reason, I continue to wait.”

“Ông sống?”
Ông alive? I suck in a huge breath, willing this to be the right moment to ask. I softly squeeze Bà’s hand to mean I’ve been thinking about this for some time.

Bà understands; she always has. I don’t know how, but Bà has always known how I feel at any given moment, especially when I’m sad, especially when I’m in need of a quartered lemon drop.

“I do not live on butterfly wings, my child. His chances of remaining among us rank as likely as finding an ebony orchid. Yet I hold on to hope because I have been unable to imagine his ending. If intact, he would have returned to this room. We promised should life separate us, we would rejoin under the blue goddess. He never returned to us, but he never truly departed. I came here knowing I will unlikely be granted him in person, but perhaps I will be allowed to reclaim something of his, anything at all. The guard knows how Ông spent his days, what he ate, what he wore, what he said, the weight in his eyes, the shade of his skin, the whistle of his breaths. I need to absorb every morsel deemed knowable, then I have vowed to release the heaviness of longing.”

Bà lets go of my hand and turns from me. Time to let her rest.

My body loosens and expands, remembering how it used to make room for her words to wiggle deep into the tiny crevices alongside my bones, muscles, and joints. Becoming a part of me. I’ve always been able to imagine her as a rich girl who grew up in wartime and ended up raising seven children alone. She always says,
“Cờ đến tay, phải phất.”
Flag in hand, you must wave it. It wasn’t about being brave or extraordinary so much as inhaling all the way to her core and accepting her responsibilities.

But I have never understood how she got through her loss. How do you know someone almost since birth, then one day you know absolutely nothing more about him at all? Ông Bà made plans, she told me, plans of how to educate their children, how to care for their parents, how to wait for peace, how to behave in old age. They did not plan on being apart after he was thirty-seven and she thirty-five. I used to think that was old, but that was much younger than Mom and Dad now.

Bà has fallen asleep. Her snores will deepen. I roll toward her and inhale Tiger Balm mixed with BenGay, all the way down to my toes. The most tingly, comforting scent there is.


hear whistling—the kind humans make when trying to sound like a bird. I crawl out of the net, then jiggle to make it hard for rebellious, day-hunter mosquitoes to stab my exposed skin. Mom packed for me, all capris, as I was too busy seething. I can just hear her reasoning: skirts too impractical, shorts too revealing, pants too hot, so let’s do capris. Mosquitoes all over Vietnam cheered.

Thinking of Mom, I run to my luggage, yank free the velcroed pocket, and unzip it to find a palm-sized something inside bubble wrap. Rip . . . revealing a cell phone and a charger. I take a deep breath and stare. This must be what it felt like to find gold. I actually kiss the cell. I should have known Mom would find a way to circumvent Dad’s ban on anything electronic, as not to show off. But I need this. Why did I not find it immediately after talking to Mom yesterday morning? Because life in Vietnam is one body-crushing, must-do, crowd-throbbing, mind-heavy event after another. It takes all my energy just to react.

I zoom around trying to find an outlet. Nothing. Can life be this cruel? Control, I tell myself, control. I will find a way to charge the phone, then I’m practically back in Laguna.

I run outside and stop short. A pouting Út stands in the courtyard in yesterday’s crumpled pants and T-shirt. Three teenagers, all clutching sun-blocking umbrellas, surround her as if she might run off. I bet they had to pull her toward me the whole way. They wave, a skinny boy and two long-haired girls, all wearing long pants in this sticky heat. Of course they’re not scratching or jiggling. Út is, surprise surprise, cradling her pet. The others each hold a basket.

With his umbrella hand, the boy reaches out for one of the older girls’ baskets. She’s got to be Út’s sister, Lan. The same perfect oval face, same movie-star eyelashes, but Lan seems prettier because, let’s face it, a buzz cut takes down even the best of us. The boy looks straight at Lan and smiles, not just smiles, but beams the universal signal for “Interested.” She looks down, turns really pink, smiles at the ground. Even I’m not that bad in front of HIM. I catch her smile just in time to see a slight overbite.

Before Lan can give him her basket, the other girl jams her basket into his hand. The universal gesture for “You Better Not Be Interested in Her!” This girl looks right at him and wiggles her hips. She actually does that, bold and mocking—such a Montana-ish move. The boy swallows; the knot at his throat runs up and down. He decides to carry the umbrella and one basket on the left, and the other two baskets on the right. Poor guy, I can tell this triangle is nowhere near over.

The boy steps forward. “Good aft’noon, miss. My name is Minh. I would be honored to serve as your translator if you can forgive my incompetent English. I am studyin’ on scholarship and will return as a junior to a boardin’ high school near Houston. As you can witness, I am still in the learnin’ stage.”

My mouth falls open. I want to hug this knotty, sincere boy who’s wearing way cool John Lennon glasses. My personal translator! A Vietnamese who speaks superproper English with a Texas accent. You can’t make this up.

“Hey, I’m Mia, oops, I guess I’m Mai here. Thank you, thank you, there’s so much I want to say. First, please tell Út I’m so sorry.”

Bless him, he doesn’t ask about what but just does his job. Út answers by blowing air out her nose in a quick puff. What does that mean? She has yet to open her mouth. Bet you anything she hates her braces. Wearing them is a two-year torment, but I’m not about to walk around for the rest of my life with the top row parasailing over the bottom one. Might as well wear my braces loud and proud.

“Xin lỗi,”
I add for extra sorriness. Út nose-puffs again. I’m going to take that as forgiveness. Onward.

“Could you ask Út if that’s a frog or a toad?”

He asks. Then the longest answer in Vietnamese:
“Only a know-nothing can’t tell a frog from a toad! As misdirected as not knowing a horse from a mule. Tell her frogs belong to the family Ra-ni-dae and live in water; they lay eggs there in clusters, the tadpoles hatch, then turn into frogs with webbed feet. Toads belong to the family Bu-fo-ni-dae and live on land. They’re bumpy, cracked, scary. I found mine when he was just an egg that somehow broke from a cluster in Cô Hạnh’s pond. I’ve raised him myself.”

Translation: “Út thanks you for your inquiry and would like to inform you that she has a frog.”

What a pain that Út is! But I make myself smile and nod as if I didn’t understand every word the little snot said. We’re even in my eyes. I’m done being sorry. For now, I’ll keep my listening skills to myself.

I walk toward them and, with the biggest smile, accept the baskets of food.

I have to say Anh before Minh to show respect that he’s older. The Vietnamese are all about respect. Anh Minh, it turns out, matches Mom as a superplanner. Is this also a Vietnamese thing? All I did was show him the dead phone and he whipped into must-do mode. He says we can’t charge it at a more modern house because it’s rude to visit relatives during nap time. His group had meant to leave the baskets on the porch, but I was awake so they stayed. We can’t charge at his or the girls’ homes because if they go there, they might have to nap. Not to worry, he has other plans for my cell.

“Why aren’t you napping?” I ask.

“Between the ages of fifteen and fifty, some of us are too burdened with studyin’ or workin’ to be nappin’.”

I love that Texas accent rolling off his tongue. Come to think of it, all those between fifteen and fifty at mine and Bà’s welcoming party were girls and women. Anh Minh is the first boy I’ve seen.

“Where are all the boys and men?” I ask.

“At our shrimp camp.”

I’m imagining a summer sleepaway, where boys become men while hatching shrimps and learning the ecosystem of ocean life and mastering the fine points of canoeing and swimming and bonding.

BOOK: Listen, Slowly
11.14Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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