Authors: Helen Hoang
Now they were settling onto the couch at his place. She had studying to do, and his work was seemingly endless. She’d highlighted a few textbook pages before she made the poor choice of glancing up at him. He was wearing his reading glasses again, dressed in formfitting black as usual, and brooding over his computer screen like he was masterminding an elite sniper attack. A peek at his computer, however, revealed spreadsheets instead of battle blueprints.
It was sexy anyway. And she couldn’t prevent herself from setting her homework aside and cozying up next to him. He didn’t seem to notice at first, and she kissed the strong cords in his neck and his jaw.
“Khải,” she whispered. “How about—”
His lips met hers, and the rest of the words didn’t matter. Like always, he kissed her with his entire attention and intensity, and it wasn’t long before she displaced his computer and took up the space on his lap— her plan from the beginning.
They bumped his glasses askew, and he grabbed them like he was going to remove them.
“No,” she said quickly and repositioned them for him. “I like them.”
He sent her a puzzled look. “My reading glasses? You want me to wear them ... now?”
She bit her lip as she grinned. “They’re sexy.”
“Reading glasses?” He shook his head as he chuckled, but he kept them on. “What else is sexy?”
“You. Naked.” She grabbed the hem of his shirt and pulled upward, but then her phone rang and buzzed.
It was the cute little song that played every time she got a call from her mom’s cell phone. She’d chosen it because she’d thought Jade would like it.
Khải reached for her purse, which she’d left on his side of the couch, and thoughts fired through her mind faster than lightning: He knew where she kept her phone. He was going to get it for her. He was going to see the picture of Esme and Jade on the screen. He was going to
She dove for her bag, but instead of intercepting him, she toppled off the couch and almost cracked her head on the coffee table.
“Are you okay?” Strong hands pulled her upright and smoothed over her head just to make sure.
Her phone continued ringing. “I’m fine. I just— the caller— maybe it’s Phil Jackson.” She winced. It wasn’t Phil Jackson.
Khải picked up her bag, and when he started to unzip the outer pocket where she kept her phone, she snatched it out of his hands.
“I’ll get it,” she said in an overly bright voice, but when she finally retrieved the phone, it had stopped ringing.
Guilt niggled at her belly. Judging by the number of rings, it had probably been Jade.
“Are you going to call back?” Khải asked, looking at her phone curiously.
She bit her lip. “Um, maybe later. I—”
The phone starting ringing again. Same ringtone. Her mouth went dry, and sweat beaded upon her brow. She clutched the phone to her chest.
She should tell him. Right now. Things were going well. Maybe he’d take the news in stride.
“It’s my mom,” she heard herself say through the pounding of her heart.
“You should answer. I don’t mind.”
But did he?
What if it was too soon? What if she ruined everything?
“I’ll talk in the other room, so you can work,” she said, losing all courage at the last second. She ran to her room, shut the door, and hurried to answer the phone. “Hello?”
Jade’s unmistakable child’s voice came across the line, and Esme’s guilt worsened. What kind of mother kept her child a secret? She wasn’t ashamed of her girl, but having a child when she was so young didn’t look good. She already had so many drawbacks. How could she add another?
“Hi, my girl.”
“I called you because I miss you,” Jade said.
Esme’s throat ached, and her eyes pricked. “I miss you, too.”
“That’s all I wanted to say. Ngoại said not to waste the phone minutes. Oh, and if they have horse toys there, you can get me one if you want. I love you too much. Bye.”
After the call disconnected, a sound that was half laugh and half sob coughed from her lips, and she buried her face in her hands. She had to tell Khải.
But not yet.
n Monday, Esme was sitting in a booth after the lunch rush deliberating between two toy stores on her phone— one was a forty-five-minute walk away and the other was a half-hour walk away followed by a half-hour bus ride— when Cô Nga marched in from the kitchens.
“Here, what are you doing all by yourself?” Cô Nga asked.
Esme scrambled to turn her phone off and hid it under her thigh for good measure before covering up with a smile. “Lunch.” She wished she’d told Cô Nga about Jade in the very beginning.
Cô Nga eyed the plate of eggrolls on the table. “Eggrolls again? Five days in a row already. You’re going to clog your heart to death.”
Esme shrugged uncomfortably. Heart clogging was the whole point, though she hoped it didn’t kill her. If she could manage high cholesterol and chest pain, she might be able to meet Phil Jackson as a patient. That was far better than calling him and hanging up when the call went to voice mail.
“Well, you’re still young. You should eat all the bad stuff while you can,” Cô Nga said as she slid into the seat on the opposite side of the table. “Talk to me. How are you two? You seem happy to me.”
A smile spread helplessly across Esme’s lips. “I’ve never been this happy in my life. I hope I make Anh Khải—”
The bells jangled on the door, and Khải stepped inside, looking like he was about to rob the place in all his stealthy black clothes. Her heart jumped with giddiness, and she ran to him. He closed his arms around her immediately.
“Why are you here?” she asked. “Are you hungry? Thirsty? I can get you something.”
His response was a kiss that made her blood go warm and thick. “We had an off-site meeting today, and it finished early. I don’t need anything.”
“You come to see your woman, but not your mother. I see how it is,” Cô Nga said.
There was a bite to her voice, and both Esme and Khải shriveled inward. It was true. Khải disliked visiting his mom because she always sent him on errands. He’d come just for Esme.
Knowing not to surprise-touch him, she grabbed his sleeve and ran her fingers down to his palm, and he held her hand tight.
His mom sighed. “These two kids. Here, here, come sit.” She waved them toward the booth, and after they sat down, she pointed at Esme’s plate of eggrolls. “She’s been eating these all week. Do you have something to tell me?”
Khải considered the eggrolls, accompanying greens, and small cup of fish sauce with a blank stare. “She likes your eggrolls? They’re the best in town.”
“They’re the best in all of California,” Cô Nga corrected before she switched her attention to Esme. “This is how women eat when they’re pregnant. Do I have a grandbaby on the way?”
Esme’s jaw dropped as both mother and son turned to face her. Khải looked like he was about to have the heart attack Esme had been aiming for. “No, I’m not pregnant, I swear.”
“Are you sure?” Cô Nga asked with narrowed eyes. “You’re tired all the time.”
“I’m sure,” she said. She was tired because she stayed up all night studying. And fooling around with Khải.
Khải released a relieved breath, but an uncomfortable brew of emotions swarmed in Esme’s belly. She wasn’t pregnant, but there
Tell them now,
a voice commanded inside her head. Now was the perfect time.
“I don’t mean to pressure you, but the summer is almost over,” Cô Nga said as she focused on Khải and patiently folded her hands on the table. “It’s time for you two to start thinking about the future.”
Esme’s heart lurched about her chest as she watched the muscles in Khải’s jaw work.
What was he thinking? He couldn’t want her to leave. Not after this perfect month together. But did he want her badly enough to marry her?
“I still have that reception room reserved for August eighth. If she doesn’t marry you, she leaves on August ninth. What will it be? A wedding or a trip to the airport? Tell me your decision at your cousin Michael’s wedding this weekend, so I have time to arrange things,” Cô Nga said. “I’ll let you two kids talk, ha? Maybe go for a walk. It’s nice out, and there aren’t any customers right now.” His mom slid out of the booth and disappeared through the swaying double doors that led to the kitchens.
Before he could say anything, Esme got to her feet, untied the dark green apron from her waist, and picked up her phone. “I want to go outside.” Mostly, she wanted to delay this conversation. She was terrified of what he’d say.
Khải followed her out of the dark restaurant and into the sun, and she held her phone to her chest as she walked blindly down the sidewalk that bordered the busy street. The air smelled of exhaust and concrete, almost like home. Was she going back soon?
She hated this. She didn’t want her life— and her child’ s— to depend so much on someone else’s choices. For the thousandth time since she’d come here, she wished she really was Esme in Accounting, that classy woman who didn’t need anyone and had nothing to fear.
“Why are you walking so fast?” he asked.
She slowed down and sent him an apologetic look. “Sorry, Anh.”
He shoved his hands in his pockets as he walked, eyes on the passing traffic. “We’re supposed to be talking about the future.”
“We don’t have to.” She wasn’t ready for this conversation. She tightened her grip on her phone, but that didn’t stop her hands from shaking.
After a second, she realized it was her phone. Someone was calling her. She glanced down at the screen.
Panic shocked through her, making her palms prick and her face go cold. “My dad.” She held her phone out to Khải.
He shook his head and widened his eyes. “Why are you giving it to me? Answer it. Hurry, before he hangs up.”
She reached a finger toward the answer button, but she couldn’t bring herself to hit it. “What if he’s mad at me for calling too much? What if he thinks I’m a scammer? He’ll say all I want is a green card and his money. It’s true, I want a different life, but I also—
Khải snatched the phone from her and hit the button himself, followed by the speaker button. Then he held the phone out for her to talk.
She covered her mouth. She couldn’t speak. She couldn’t even move. Sky and earth, what did she do now? Could she hang up? She wanted to hang up.
“Hello?” a voice said, deep, kind, nice.
“I’ve missed a few calls from this number. Is this about the package I keep missing delivery of? I’d really like to get my hands on it. The name’s Phil Jackson.”
Khải looked from her to the phone and back again, quietly telling her to talk.
“Hello?” her dad asked again. “Is this the courier service?”
Somehow, she found her voice and said in her best English, “H-hi. I am not the courier service.”
“Oh, okay. So ... why do you keep calling me?”
“I, um, I think ...” She gulped down a deep breath of air. “My name is Esmeralda, and I think you are my dad.”
There was a long pause before he said, “Wow. Let me sit down.” Another long pause. She imagined him walking across his office in the hospital and sitting at his desk. “Okay. Tell me everything. Start at the beginning, with your mom.”
“Trần Thúy Linh. You met her twenty-four years ago during a business trip, but you left before—”
“Wait, wait, hold on a second. Where was this business trip?”
An uneasy feeling shivered through her. “Việt Nam.”
He cleared his throat. “I feel bad saying this, but I’ve never been there. I think ...” He cleared his throat again. “You have the wrong person.”
Her heart fell. Her stomach fell. Everything fell, and her hopes shattered on the concrete sidewalk. “Oh.”
“I’m sure you’re absolutely lovely, and now that I’m somewhat over the shock, I would love to have another daughter. But I’m not your dad. I’m so sorry— what was your name again?”
“Esmeralda,” she replied.
“I’m so sorry, Esmeralda,” he said, sounding like he was giving one patient in a long line of patients bad news. “Can I help in any way?”
“No, thank— Wait, yes. He went to Cal Berkeley. Like you. Do you know a Phil who went to Việt Nam twenty-four years ago?”
“Oh, gosh.” The man— Phil— released a long breath. “I . . .
? But his name isn’t Phil, it’s
. So, no. I’m so sorry, Evange— Esmer— Esmeralda.”
“Thank you ... Phil. For your time,” she said.
“No problem. Good luck. Good-bye.”
The line went dead, and she stood there, watching as the cars zipped past and the traffic lights changed colors. Green, yellow, red, back to green.
Khải wrapped her in a tight hug, and she broke apart. She smothered her face against his chest, drenching his shirt with her tears, but he didn’t complain. He continued holding her for what felt like ages.
When she finally calmed down and pulled away, he brushed the wet hairs from her face. He didn’t have to say a single thing. She saw everything in his achingly sad eyes, and it comforted her more than words could have.
“I thought he was the one.” Her voice came out much smaller than she’d hoped.
“I had a feeling.” She placed her hand over her gut.
“Feelings can be very inaccurate. To get all the facts, I’d recommend going over the list again and calling each of them,” he said. “I can help if you want.”
With how much he hated phone calls, that seemed an enormous thing to offer, and she kissed him as her heart overflowed. “I’ll call them. Thank you.” A car turned into the parking lot and pulled into the spot right next to Khải’s Porsche— a customer. “I should go back. We can talk about that other thing ... later.”
He nodded. “Okay.”
They walked back to the restaurant hand in hand, and after a quick hug and kiss, she escaped inside.
would come all too soon, but she was glad it wasn’t now.
hai walked back to his car and got inside, but he didn’t start the engine. He couldn’t stop thinking about what she’d said.
He’ll say all I want is a green card and his money. It is true, I want a different life, but ...