Authors: Helen Hoang
“Thanks.” He didn’t generally like flashy things, but he loved to drive. His car was by far the most self-indulgent thing he owned. Too bad about all the bird shit on the windshield.
She took a deep breath. “I know you don’t want to marry me.”
“That’s right.” He saw no reason why he should lie.
Silence hung in the air as she worried her bottom lip, and his muscles tightened unpleasantly.
“Are you going to cry?” he asked. “There are tissues in the center console.” Should he get them out for her? He didn’t know what else to do. Pat her on the arm maybe.
She shook her head before she lifted her chin and met his gaze. “Your mom wants me to change your mind.”
“You can’t change my mind.”
“Do you have ...” She glanced to the side as she searched for words. “A perfect woman in your mind? What is she like?”
“She leaves me alone.” He already had a mom, a sister, and a bazillion aunts and girl cousins to send him on senseless errands, harass him about his clothing choices, and tell him to cut his hair. He didn’t need any more women in his life.
“You don’t want that,” she said with a decisive shake of her head. “I’ll help you be happy. You’ll see.”
He stiffened. “I don’t need that kind of help.” Her suggestion was galling in unprecedented ways. If she was going to spend the summer pushing him to dance and sing, he was probably going to have some manner of an epic mental breakdown. Happiness, like grief, was not in his personal emotional card deck. But minor emotions like irritation and frustration were. He was feeling those in healthy measure right this moment.
A skeptical look crossed her face. “Happy people don’t wear all black.”
His clothes again. He tightened his fingers on the steering wheel. “I disagree.” Black was perfectly acceptable at weddings, and those were happy events. For other people, anyway. He’d rather have a prostate exam. Physicians only tortured you for a few seconds, whereas weddings went on for hours and hours.
Her lips thinned, and a tense moment stretched out before she asked, “What work do you do? Do you like it?”
“It’s complicated to explain, but yes, I like it.”
Her lips moved quietly for a moment, and he was fairly certain she was testing out the feel of the word
. But then she glanced about the car, took in his black suit and shirt again, and gave him a funny look. Her lips curved ever so slightly. “Are you a spy like James Bond?”
He blinked several times. “No.”
“No, I’m not an assassin.” What was wrong with her?
“Too bad.” But she didn’t
disappointed, not with that smile on her face. What weird things were going on in her brain?
Shaking his head, he said, “You’re stranger than I am.”
She confused him even more by hugging her arms to her chest and laughing down at her lap. It was a pretty sound, musical in a way. When she crossed her legs, his eyes were drawn helplessly to her thighs. Her skirt slid up, revealing another inch of flawless skin.
Rule Number Six, Rule Number Six, Rule Number Six.
He wrenched his eyes away and stared blindly at the dashboard. “I was an accounting major in school, but I’m more of a tax specialist now. My friend and I started an accounting software company. He’s in charge of the programming, and I handle the accounting, which means I need to stay up-to-date on generally accepted accounting principles and tax law as set forth in the Internal Revenue Code. Lately, we’ve added transfer pricing analysis to our software package, so I’ve had to get particularly familiar with section 482 of the IRC. It’s very interesting figuring out how to test if business transactions are at ‘arm’s length’ when you have large multinational corporations. Sometimes, they’ll create tax shelters in low-tax jurisdictions in, say, the Bahamas, so you have to—”
He forced himself to stop midsentence. People got bored when he talked about work. He even bored other accounting people from time to time. The intricacies and elegance of accounting principles and tax law weren’t for everyone. He had no idea why.
“Accounting,” she said slowly, this time in English.
“Not exactly, but I do have a CPA license. I’m certified to provide tax documentation for public companies in the United States.”
He took a surprised breath. She was an accountant? That was unexpectedly wonderful.
The hem of her dress became very interesting to her, and she fiddled with a loose thread as she said in Vietnamese, “In Việt Nam. Not here. It’s probably really different.”
“I bet it’s different. I don’t have any experience with Vietnamese tax regulation. It’s probably fascinating. Do they expense bribery as a cost of doing business? Is it tax deductible?” It would be entertaining to see bribery as a line item on an income statement. This was why he liked accounting so much. It wasn’t just numbers on paper. If you knew how to look at them, the numbers meant something and reflected culture and values.
She hugged herself like she was cold, saying nothing.
Had he accidentally insulted her? He replayed his comments in his head, trying to pinpoint the offensive thing, but it was no use. After an awkward pause, he asked, “Can we go now? I don’t enjoy chitchat like this.” And clearly, he was bad at it.
“Yes, let’s go. Thank you, Anh.” Sinking back against her seat, she stared out the side window.
He pulled out of the spot, paid for parking, and exited the garage. At first, his muscles tensed in anticipation of more probing questions, but as he left the airport and merged onto the freeway, she was blessedly quiet. Unlike his mom and sister, who could maintain one-sided conversations for hours.
Maybe she’d fallen asleep, but every time he glanced her way, he found her watching the landscape beside the freeway, which consisted of squat office buildings, scraggly grass, and the occasional bunch of eucalyptus or pine. Not very glamorous. Well, at least to him it wasn’t. He couldn’t imagine what it might look like from her eyes.
“ Uni-vers-ity Av,” she said out of the blue. She straightened in her seat and torqued her body so she could see the exit he’d just passed. “Is that where Cal Berkeley is?”
“No, that’s where Stanford is.”
“Oh.” She turned back around and slumped in her seat.
“Berkeley is an hour north of here. That’s where I went for undergrad and grad school.”
“Really?” The enthusiasm in her voice caught him by surprise. A lot of people around here weren’t impressed unless you’d gone to Stanford or an Ivy League school.
“Yeah, they have a good accounting program.” He continued driving, keeping his eyes on the road, but he could almost feel the weight of her gaze on his skin. Sending her a sideways glance, he asked, “What?”
“Are the students close there? They know each other?”
“Not really,” he said. “It’s a huge school. Each year, they admit more than ten thousand undergrads. Why do you ask?”
She shrugged and shook her head as she peered out the window.
He returned his attention to the early evening traffic, exited at Mathilda Avenue, and drove down streets lined with tall, leafy oaks, townhome complexes, apartment buildings, and strip malls.
Ten minutes later, he turned onto the side street that led to his two-bedroom fixer-upper with demolition potential. Compared to the other remodeled and newly built homes in the area, his was a bit of an eyesore, but he bet no one else had the finely aged shag carpet. He pulled up next to his section of curb, cranked the parking brake, and turned the engine off.
“This is it,” he said.
sme still couldn’t forgive herself for lying like that. Did she want to get struck by the heavens? Why had she done it?
She knew why. Because she was a janitor/maid, and he was so much better. She’d wanted to impress him, to show him she
worth his time. But now she had to pretend she worked in accounting, when she didn’t even know what it was, and continue to keep her baby a secret. She was a liar, and she was ashamed of herself.
If she were a good person, she’d confess right now, but this feeling of being his equal was too addicting. It didn’t even matter that it was fake. She liked it anyway. She was already pretending to be something she wasn’ t— a worldly sexy woman (though not very successfully, judging by her failed attempt at flirting earlier in the car). Why not go all the way and add smart and sophisticated to the list while she was at it?
When she died, demons were going to torment her for eternity instead of letting her reincarnate. Or worse, they’d let her reincarnate, but she’d be a catfish who lived under a river outhouse. It was only fair. That was what she got for wishing food poisoning on people.
Khải got out of the car, and she followed suit. The crunch of her shoes on rocks was unnaturally loud to her ears, and her head spun as she looked down at her feet. When was the last time she’d eaten? She was too tired to remember.
Working her jaw to wake herself up, she forced herself to take in the surrounding area. The houses were so plain compared to the mansions she’d imagined. And short— one level only, for most of them. The air. She filled her lungs. What was this smell?
After a moment, she realized it was the
of smell. She couldn’t smell garbage and rotting fruit. A haze of exhaust didn’t darken the sunset to tamarind-colored rust. She rubbed her jet-lagged eyes and admired a sky painted in bright hues of apricot and hyacinth.
What a difference an ocean made.
Homesickness hit her then, and she almost missed the pollution. Something familiar would have been nice as she stood there, on an unknown street, in an unknown city, in a world far away from everyone she loved. What time was it in Việt Nam? Was Ngọc Anh— no, it was
now—sleeping? Did she miss her momma? Her momma missed her.
If she were home, she’d lie down next to her, kiss her little hands, and press their foreheads together like she always did before she went to sleep.
She tripped and would have fallen if it weren’t for the mailbox, and Khải aimed a disapproving look at her shoes after he pulled her suitcase out of the trunk. “You’re better off walking barefoot than wearing those.”
“But they’re so useful. It’s like having a shoe
a knife.” She slipped both shoes off and made a stabbing motion with one of them.
He considered her for a serious moment, not laughing, not even smiling, and she pursed her lips and stared down at her bare toes. There she went, failing at flirting again. In her defense, it had been a long time since she’d dated a man, and she’d forgotten how.
As she gazed at her unattractive toes— she hated the unshapely hands and feet she’d inherited from her green-eyed dad; there was nothing elegant or appealing about them— she noticed the scary weeds choking Khải’s yard. “What if I step on all the thorns?” She sent him a smile that she hoped looked sexy. “Will you carry me?”
He brought her suitcase to the front door without looking at her. “Stay on the concrete, and you’ll be fine.”
Skipping after him, she said, “I can clean the yard for you. I’m good at it.”
He fished his keys out of his pocket and unlocked the door. “I like it the way it is.”
She glanced over her shoulder at the yard again to make sure she hadn’t imagined everything, and, nope, it was still a jungle of thorns, tangled vines, and dried-up bushes.
He’d been wrong earlier when he said Esme was the stranger of the two of them. He won that contest without even trying. He was easily the strangest person she’d ever met. She didn’t know him well yet, but she’d picked up on his strangeness right away. He didn’t look her in the eyes when he spoke, he wore all black, he liked this wasteland of a yard, and he said the oddest things. It gave her hope.
Odd was good. Odd was an opportunity.
Besides, she was odd, too. Just not as odd as he was.
“You’re very ... open-minded,” she hedged.
He looked at her like he thought she was crazy, and she mentally kicked herself.
“Why do you park on the street when you have that?” She pointed to his garage. Judging from the size of the door, he could fit two cars in there. It didn’t make sense that he parked his nice car on the street. Not unless he had three cars, which she doubted he could afford based on the state of his yard and house.
Instead of answering her question, he let them into the house. She wondered if he hadn’t heard or if he’d purposely ignored her, but she let it slide. The inside of his house was stranger than the outside, with thick carpet that looked more like grass than his lawn, exercise equipment all over the main room, and fixtures and blinds from a different era. After setting her shoes on the floor, she followed Khải down a narrow hall, and the soft carpet fibers hugged her bare feet with every step.
He set her suitcase in a small room that contained a desk, sofa, and closet. When she noticed the old wallpaper, tears stung her eyes. Teddy bears, beach balls, dolls, ballet slippers, and building blocks. This used to be a child’s room. She touched her fingertips to the ballet slippers. Jade would love this.
“This is your room,” he said. “You’ll have to make do with the couch.”