My father’s death was what Mr. Vu would call an untimely death. If, at some point during the uneventful fifty years of his life, my father had ever ventured a wild guess at the manner of his death, he would have conjectured a death by diabetes, kidney failure, or an equivalent of “dying of old age”. He did not expect to be surprised; he believed that death would come at the end of life, after he finished his doctor degree ten years into marriage, after he took mom to Venice, after he pulled out the trash and took our clothes off the drying rack and removed the Christmas wreath from our front door. That was what he thought, but he was wrong because death did not wait until the end of anything. Death banged the door open, grabbed his collar and squeezed his heart in Death’s iron fist, and in a minute he was out of breath. When Romeo looks at Juliet on her deathbed he exclaims: “Death lies on her like an untimely frost/ Upon the sweetest flower of all the field”. When my father lay contorted on the floor he did look quite stiff, as if frosted in that moment of pain and utter bewilderment, even though his bereft features were anything but blossoming flowers.
My father was never a good-looking man. He was short and heavy, his face singularly flat except for his gargantuan nose. It doesn’t matter that he wasn’t handsome anyhow, in Vietnam it is more desirable to have “a kind and virtuous complexion”. Whether a person has such complexion is to be determined by respectable elders, who would remark that big noses belong to honest men, full cheeks indicate integrity, wide smiles were sign of cordiality and kindness. Regardless of the validity of these “indicators”, I know that my father was a good man. He was a good man when he asked mother to marry him for the fourth time, because every time she rejected him he knew she made a mistake. He was a good man when he sold his business to buy us a house when I was born, when mom told him to go to hell and he replied he loved her. He was a brilliant cook with a keen sense of smell: his gigantic nose could pick up the scent of jasmine tea a meter away from a tea bag. He opened the windows every morning, and for the rest of the day the house smelled of fresh warm breeze. We were struggling, me and mother, but he never did.
I was fine after his death. I had not been fine for a long time, but by the time I was sixteen I thought I was doing just fine. I had friends who I smiled at every ten seconds walking down the hallway. I was the life of every party. At the peak of my stardom, I thought every guy on the planet was in love with me. I earned good grades and was even the president of my class. It bothered me that some of my As were out of teachers’ pity for my family situation, but overall I felt great going to school. A day after my sixteenth birthday, I received an excellence award for my “outstanding performance in literature” (which I doubted) and Mr. Vu asked me if my mother was going to be at the ceremony. I said no, almost too fast; I knew he noticed but let it pass. He probably knew what my mother was like after all. It seemed to me that everyone did.
It was just the way mom would say no, without a pause and without an explanation. She was hard to live with, especially after dad died. She was hot-tempered, disorganized, and extremely blunt. She dyed her hair red but never fixed her black roots. When I was sixteen she began putting on makeup, and so her wrinkled skin was replaced by thick layers of a cakey yellowish liquid.
The men in our neighborhood thought my mother was hot. I didn’t like that they said it when I was there. We were at a street market and I was already insulted by the stench of raw fish and fermented shrimps, but then the butcher told my mom “You’re looking fine today Kieu” and I lost it. I stormed out of the place and to the street and finally back home because I didn’t have anywhere to go. I didn’t see mom until the next day, lying sound asleep on the living room couch in yesterday’s clothes, her lipstick smeared on her cheek as if she had stayed up all night and the night before.
The 5th of every month was when my tuition was due. It had been a week since then and she hadn’t left the money on my table. Every afternoon when I came back from school she was not there. I was to casually mention it to her this evening when I saw her lying on the couch (slowly becoming her couch), her slim figure curled into a ball, her face buried in her thin arms, her knees pressed against her sagging breasts. The house reeked of alcohol and burned food from the microwave. I already walked past her, but she heard my footsteps and looked up.
“Take the money on the table.”
Her mascara was smeared all over her cheeks, dark rings of dissolved pigments surrounded her eyes. There were specks of glitter on her wet cheekbone, a brilliant, dazzling red on her lips. I took the money, which was also wet. Seeing my mom crying into her knees, I wanted to leave desperately. I wanted to leave her in whatever mess she was in, whatever mess that made her the public figure everyone talked about, whatever mess that made her even closer to my friend’s dad than to me. I wanted to ignore her like I always had, but her gaze pulled me back and somehow I suddenly realized I couldn’t let go, not like this, not now. This woman is my mother, I told myself. I could feel my body heating up in her scorching gaze at my turned back, and it was just like the old days when I fell asleep in her arms, her affectionate fingers caressing my back. When I turned to face her I only saw a blank, desolate stare. My voice cracked.
“Why are you crying now?”
I expected no answer. She gave no answer. In fact, instead of just staying silent she said something other than an answer, which was worse.
“None of your business.”
As soon as she said it I could tell she was sorry. The word “sorry” was on the tip of her tongue and she inhaled deeply as the s-sound lingered on her trembling lips. She sucked it back in as her voice began to shake.
“I couldn’t talk to you anymore.”
I was sure there was something rotting away in the house. It turned out there were a bunch of dead lizards in the garden. It was strange we even had lizards at all, but that is always the case for pests: you never see them, but once you do you see them dead with their legs to the sky. The next morning I spent extra time spraying liters of perfume to not smell like rotten reptiles at school.
I was thankful for that extra time, for during Health class Tri kept staring at me. He was not that handsome, but he was popular, and thus would make a nice addition to my glorious dating history. He sat three seats to my left and was immediately struck by my sensational olfactory performance—in fact, the whole class was. He glanced at my direction for a fleeting three seconds; I stared back and winked.
I seized the opportunity during the fifteen-minute break to talk to him. He was genuinely nice and had an earthy sense of humor, not to mention the charming smile I fell for in the first place. By the fourteenth minute, I was sure he was going to ask me out. Of course, I knew my friend Linh liked him a lot and they were about to get official, but no matter. They weren’t married, were they? It all boils down to who he wants to associate himself with. Who would you? I was popular, pretty, smart. Linh was nobody.
Tri was the perfect guy. He knew just what I wanted to hear, and never ever asked about my family. After a few dates Linh “wanted to talk”, quite unsurprisingly.
“Why are you doing this? We are friends, aren’t we? You KNOW I like him. And he likes ME.”
“Linh, cut this. I can like him too, can’t I?”
“Friends don’t do this to one another.”
“There’s nothing wrong. We literally haven’t talked for months.”
She shook her head with such vehement force her scalp began to show. What little hair. How plain her face was. I wanted to say something soothing out of pity, but apparently, it came out wrong because she later slapped me.
“Look at you (crying and all). Find yourself another boy (who likes you for who you are).”
Upon later reflection, I figured she must have understood it like this:
“Look at you (bald and all). Find yourself another boy (who is just as ugly and couldn’t dream of other girls).”
And she slapped me. As if it wasn’t bad enough, she added:
“You slut. You are just like your mother.”
I jumped on her and grabbed her hair. When she screamed I slapped her cheek by cheek. Left, right, left, right. I yanked off her hair chunks at a time, the soft little filaments tangled in my fists. We rolled on the floor full of parched leaves, birds’ shit, dirty footprints, and frightened lizards, tied up in the mess we made. There was blood coming out of our noses, a brilliant scarlet, sticky, foul-smelling, spilling into our mouths. Yet we fought on with all of our beings, all of our tissue and nerves, our heart and mind; we poured every droplet of our blood into this fight, as if fighting was everything we knew and everything we believed in, as if wishing the other dead was the only way for both of us to live.
At some point during our endless struggle, I realized what I was fighting for, and following her last blow dropped down on my knee. “Enough”, I said. “I need to leave”.
Walking home all bloody and bruised, I repeated to myself, I am not like my mother. I could not be anything like her. She was the last thing I ever wanted to be. And I thought of my house, stale with alcohol and sweat; no sugar and no salt, just canned food; no laughter and no talk, just a sour, bitter silence that suffocated what was left of love. A house that was no longer a house, a mother who forgot she had a daughter and a life to live. Enough. Nothing left was worth fighting for.
I crawled under my bed and pulled out my little suitcase, crisscrossed with dried spider webs. Jeans, leggings, hoodies, underwear. I wondered what would have become of those dead lizards. If I was not going to bury them somewhere, no one would. Socks, slippers, all the candies I could find. Mom certainly would not touch them lizards; she would rather die. I certainly did not want more dead things and dead people. Novels, old newspapers with puzzles, pens, paper. A good old framed photo of dad at his worst angle. Brain Bee gold medals. Three years’ worth of diary in a stack of paper smelling of wood and dust and the wind. The cactus tree on my windowsill whose life had just begun. I touched the wall and it came flaking off, pieces of white plaster powdered my skin. In the left corner was my teddy bear with its neck tilted, half-patched smile like an open wound.
Toothbrush, toothpaste, dirty towels. The bathroom smelled like the wind. The floor was pearl white with blue tiles, the light blinding over my head. Before I knew it I was shredding my clothes, the coldness of the floor eating away my bare flesh. I realized I used to sleep like this. Once in a while, after a hot shower, I would feel a fog coming all over me, and my whole body went limp. Daddy would find me, carry me to my room, and kiss me on the forehead before laying me down. Sometimes I fell asleep in the bathtub too, when I was alone, my feet dangling over the edge. Mom used to bathe with me, our thick bodies cramped in this narrow bathtub. She said my body was hers—my thick thighs, flat breasts, drooping shoulders, stubby neck. I pinched at my thighs and thought, One day I’ll make it mine. Whatever the hell that means.
I carried the suitcase downstairs in my arms instead of dragging it behind me, pretending it was light and little. It sickened me to think I was leaving. My stomach growled, a wave of nausea surged up my throat, and suddenly it was like standing beside daddy’s coffin three years ago, my feet on the elevated platform of the living, my head spinning, my soul I couldn’t find. I licked the tears on my lips; it tasted like giving up.
Mother was lying on the couch smoking. She had lost so much weight her breasts shrunk almost half a cup size, but her legs were skinny and she was not hesitant to show them.
“Where are you going?”
I didn’t realize until then that it was New Year. It was the year of the snake.
“You’re not supposed to.” No one leaves their family during Tet, especially the first three days. No good daughter in a normal family would, unless she had a boyfriend and an attachment issue.
“Tri and I have plans.” Typically I would ignore her and head right out. Typically she wouldn’t care. But she looked at me real hard, bit her lips, and took a deep breath.
“You’re not going.”
She began giving stupid excuses: that we couldn’t afford the ticket, that it wasn’t right for a girl to go off alone with a guy she was not married to.
“Don’t talk to me about what’s right or wrong. You have no right to.”
My words darkened her eyes, and for a second I thought her whole body convulsed with the pain. I felt stabbed in the chest seeing her trembled. “I am your MOTHER”, she began to raise her voice. Within a minute she would erupt and start throwing things—it had always been like this. When my mother was angry she forgot we were poor and couldn’t afford new dishes. Let that anger live in her, and after some time she’d forget she was a mother.
“Start acting like one then.”
I hurt her again. I didn’t know why I kept hurting her but I couldn’t stop. I pictured myself and my mother in a cruel circle of cross-destruction that would send us right to hell. She covered her face and screamed. I freaked out. Her cries filled the room and her words were sharp and bitter. “I didn’t even want you”, she said. “Your dad did, but now the asshole is fucking dead and what am I supposed to do? Be a gentle and caring mother? Well, I can’t. I CAN’T. No, I am not acting like a fucking mother. Go ahead, give up on me. Walk straight out that door. Be whoever the hell you want to be”.
I knew she didn’t mean anything she said, but I didn’t want to give her a second chance.
“Is that what you want?”, I asked clenching my fists. “Sure I will, mom,” I said, gripping my suitcase. “I am giving up on you, the way you have given up on me.” As soon as I turned she grabbed my suitcase, her body shaking with anger, her eyes pleading.
Her voice was hoarse and dry, her eyes having drained all the water out of her body. “I will make rice cakes and braized pork”, she stuttered nervously, “for the New Year. We’ll clean the house. It will be like how your dad used to…”
“WHY ARE YOU TRYING NOW?”
Now is too late.
Words surged up my throat like a fountain of lava. “And don’t talk to me about dad. Dad is dead. This family is dead, rotten, buried in his grave.”
She slapped me. I wished she slapped me harder. I wished she slapped the ungrateful brat, the spoiled soul, the foul-mouthed, the shameless traitor out of me.
My whole body was heating up, my mind shut down, and in a minute I was throwing things and screaming the way mom would have done it, vomiting all the words I could mutter in between hysterical sobs. The performance she didn’t bother seeing, the microwaved dinners, parent conferences she’d never been to, garlic in my packed lunch, rat bites in my uniform, her toxic silence, my depression, my suicide attempts. Memory I didn’t know existed. My fears, my pain, all of my being—came pouring out in torrents of hiccups and stutters and unintelligible screeches.
I crashed to the ground and found myself in her arms. Her embrace was warm, but the hardness of her body frightened me. She was a skeleton, all bones and skin. Her knees were trembling, her fragile hands cold with fear and regret. She mumbled something indistinctly; I asked her what it was. “I’m sorry”, she repeated. It was the first time she ever said sorry. But it wasn’t right. She wasn’t the source of my pain. We were unhappy, but it was me who was in denial, me who stumbled and was lost. Her sobs came in short chunks in between heaving sounds as if she had trouble breathing. Her dress was patched and her earrings were gilded plastic. I thought about the money she cried on and the meals she skipped.
“How poor are we, mom?”
She let go of my shoulders.
“You’re ashamed of me, aren’t you?”
I didn’t answer her.
“I’m not a prostitute, Chi.”
The tip of her nose was a couple inches from mine. My mother has a crooked nose, high cheekbones, down slanted eyes. But at that moment, I thought she was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. Her affectionate eyes, the way her shiny black hair fell on her cheeks, her wild, bold smile, her thin, perky lips out of which echoed a boisterous laughter, startled me as if from first sight. Even the texture of her skin, smelling of goat milk and fresh linen, and the way it touched mine evoked a deep stir from beneath my naked skin, familiar and tender, intimate and pure. I looked down at her tight dress where her underbelly protruded and imagined a transparent cord that linked it to mine, that must have been there, made of her flesh and blood and the beginning of me. This woman is my mother, I told myself and meant it. My skin, my bones, my breath, my life—all of me was hers. My heart ached with love.
“No, you’re not”, I whispered. “You’re my mother.”
Image: Mutu, Wangechi. Ghost Children.