After Pho

by 

Lara JK Wilson

 

                                      

Wednesday at 5:00, every week, the mother and daughter come in with white smiles.  I sit them near the fish tank or banyan tree picture.  You can see that they hope I say, The usual?, but I never do.  It is American, Great-uncle told me.  He says, Make every time customers’ first eating here.  Recommend pork ban cuon when fish isn’t fresh enough for ca-kho-to.  Keep water glass full.  Do not draw attention, he says, do not embarrass with friendliness.  Avoid looking at eyes or spots you missed on table.   Wash that next time.

They never try specials, even shrimp fantasy, not too hot.  Always summer rolls, one order for each, and they finish.  The mother eats lemongrass chicken, no onion, the daughter noodle soup without a side plate of bean sprout, basil, lime (if Dinh-Boa brings it anyway, the mother adds it to her dish).  I watch them talk and laugh and touch, like friends.  Though it is the early time of my shift, and quiet, I am sorry to see them.  Yet sorrier when they leave.  I will not do these things with my baby when she’s a girl of eight or nine years.  My daughter may never understand this affection, as I never did.  It is a custom with customers, I have learned.

 

~~~

 

            Last year, I borrowed my cousin’s bicycle on Mondays off and rode from Cambridge to Arlington.  Through spring and summer I crossed Mass Ave at the white church and entered the biking trail.  When fall leaves stirred their magic and the baby stretched my waist wide, I felt small, a beetle riding through pumpkin gardens, the air crisp like lettuce.  Grandma Liar tried to discourage me from these outings.  She said it was bad luck to travel beside vibrant colors while pregnant.  My baby would have a fiery temper, she insisted, would over-spice food and develop ulcers.  As I grew more pregnant, even her reasonable superstitions, the ones that were not seasonal or coincidental, began to annoy me.  Don’t cook with oil; it will splatter on your belly and give the baby birth-marks, she’d bark in the kitchen.  Changing my sheets after one of her sweaty naps, she said, Tell your husband to let you on top so the baby has a smooth brow.  I asked my mother to stop bringing Grandma Liar to my apartment with the sauce vats, but my mother is loyal and often pretends not to hear.

The first Monday of this new spring, I slip a slice of ginger into my pocket and ride as far as Lexington.  I park the bike in the metal stand beside a coffee shop.  Inside, steam screams out of a coffee maker much larger than at the restaurant.  There is no condensed milk, but fine, there is no money in my pocket.  I ask for hot water.  No one looks at my mug with floating ginger, or watches me sip.  The thought that I could rest on the shelf of packaged coffee comforts me.  In this place, I feel safe to imagine anything: that my mother will speak to me, that Grandma will tell the truth, that I will leave the restaurant and stay with my baby until she is too old to want me.   I do this all spring, summer, fall.  Rain, wind, no matter.

On my last trip before snow, the coffee shop windows are a fog of steam.  Beside me a small child sits then stands at the round table.  She offers me her half-eaten bagel.  The mother smiles an apology as I take back my extended hand.  At this moment of shame, I find the flap of skin on my neck, soft as a crumb of tofu.

 

~~~

 

On Wednesday, the mother and daughter arrive in heavy wool coats.  After ordering, they lean close to whisper in the almost empty space.  Did they see Dinh-Boa picking his nose beside the register?  Have they noticed my torn pocket, the brown stain that will not disappear from my sleeve?  Their eyes stick together like rice. If I remembered the long English word Great-uncle told me, conspiratorially, I’d apply it now.  When I forget his words he says I’m well-named, Ngu, which means stupid, chosen only to ward off evil spirits.  Although she was alone with my birth, my mother was faithful to Grandma Liar when naming me. 

I serve the mother and daughter, but before they drop chopsticks for forks, both let out a big laugh, AI- HEH-YA!  At the ice machine, I put a cube on my tofu crumb.  What is it about them that makes my skin weep?  Does an evil spirit suspect envy?  No.  I cannot envy what I don’t know.  In honesty, they make me see who I am.  Not to them, to me.  A waitress who married a man with three jobs and lives in a basement below my family where I search for coins in hall coats with hope to buy my little girl pink clothes at Marshall’s that say Princess, or Barbie. 

The daughter eating pho would not wear these.  Her clothes are sky colors, morning blue or sunset orange, and have fancies on them.  Ribbon, buttons that hold nothing.  The mother’s clothes are dark.  They wear leather shoes, no sneakers.  Their hair falls evenly against their shoulders in two shades of gold, one real, the other close to this.  Grandma Liar would call the mother’s hair tainted.  If she knew, she would scold me louder than Great-uncle for lightly brushing two fingers over the daughter’s shoulder to feel her soft sweater.

 

~~~

 

The tofu crumb is dark and swollen.  Tuesday I will see a doctor.  I will not serve restaurant lunch, or make pho at home to share with my baby.  For the first time since she was born and I bled inside, I will be a patient.  My heart becomes a swift river in my ears.

 

~~~

 

            I return from the doctor in Chinatown with a bandage on my neck.  Below this white square, the tofu is gone (the needle pinched, the cutting did not).  I have also returned with two bags for Grandma Liar: one green herbs, the other heavy with tamarind, romdehng, ma’am, and artichoke for tea.  Again I tell her they never have fried crickets, no matter where I look.  She shrugs and shows me her red stained teeth while I change shoes for slippers.  In the kitchen, Grandma Liar spits her betel nut into the trash.  When I set the bags on the counter, the neighbors’ little children leave my mother’s television show to pull at my pants, asking for treats.  They give up when I pick up my baby.  Her neck smells like a gentle day.  I shake my nose there to tickle, breathe her scent and laughter until my ribs gives a little crack.

            What they say?  My mother’s voice is hollow, as if blown through bamboo.

            Biopsy, I answer, not bothering to explain. You’re young, the doctor told me, don’t worry.  Instead of saying this, I think of something my mother said when she was doing pedicures all day: Customers don’t respect age.  Even then she looked like a grandmother and never bothered with flattery.  Maybe she would learn if she worked in the restaurant instead of watching babies and television.  But she pulls out her eyelashes when strangers come near.

            I’ll know in eight days, I tell her.

            My mother chews her tangled gray hair and returns to her show.  She has loaned me the seventy-five dollars for the office visit and plans to stay downstairs until my husband comes home at 3:00 a.m. so he can pay her back.

            Grandma Liar shuffles in biting the end of a scallion.  Soon we do nuoc mam for Great-uncle, she says. Go upstairs.  Get my fish paste.

            My baby pokes at the gauze and giggles.  I sing softly, Grandma has rotten fish upstairs, fish upstairs, fish upstairs.  She wiggles to get down and crawl to my mother, who fakes sleep.

 

~~~

 

            At the restaurant, hot oil smoke from frying spring rolls has just reached the ceiling.  I am early.  Great-uncle regards the patch on my neck, says people will still eat food I carry.  I help Nguyen Anh and Dinh-Boa finish the tables then sit to drink tea with Great-uncle.  Over his head, in the photo, children cross a skeleton bridge above a stream.  White and black spirits compete for the watery surface.  You like my pictures, Great-uncle says, not altering sounds to make it a question.  Our country, he tells me, is neither proud nor ungrateful.  Part of you belongs there. 

            Such statements anger me.  Great-uncle went over twice before renovating the restaurant and refused to take anyone.  Pinched my arm when I asked him, just as he did my whole twelfth year until I left school to work for him.  I’m paying for your marriage to Tran Van Hai, he said when I turned eighteen.  Ask him to take you.  But I never did.  Hai could barely afford our single bus trip to New York after the wedding.  We ate mostly rice and rode a ferris wheel in a toy store, coming back the same day because Hai’s friend had six relatives sleeping on the floor.  It was the most time I spent with my husband.  Great-uncle introduced me to Hai three weeks before we married, and in the years since, I have seen him only a number of hours each season, not many more after the baby was born.  All I know of Hai is cigarettes – full ashtrays, empty packs crushed, the smell of his pillow.  He has no family, no stories to tell.  He works so much and rests so little that his hands shake even while he snores.  There is a pressure he can’t let free that turns him into a sealed rice pot. 

            After our wedding the uncles gave responsibility of us to Hai.  My father had died on the boat over, and Great-uncle was tired of being the head of two households.  His other brother, Uncle Giang, had bought our house, but because of the lost leg couldn’t keep his jobs.  He became what Great-uncle calls a recluse and Grandma Liar calls crazy.  My husband once went to the third floor to see Uncle Giang, when the tax went higher on the house.  Hai came back down with a broken cheek.  The crutch is metal now, he said. 

            Each week, I give Hai all my tips but three dollars for the baby.  I never ask for more than he leaves on the counter. 

 

~~~

 

            The doctor wants another appointment.  My mother doesn’t have seventy-five dollars again.  She is sleeping more in the day, I see this on Tuesdays and do not want to leave my baby.  I beg the nurse to tell me on the phone.  The doctor calls back and says a word I don’t know, melanoma.  He coughs and says one I do: spread. 

~~~

 

            I named my baby An Luu for her sweet face and long fingers.  Peaceful willow.  I imagine resting in her shade one day.  After she was born and the bleeding stopped, I had two nights alone with her in the hospital, singing her asleep on my chest, our hearts together.  Great-uncle sent a taxi to take me home.  My mother unwrapped An Luu to check everything, then handed her back.  A girl, she said.  Moments later, Grandma Liar descended.  Trom via, trom via, she spat at the baby, her red spittle making An Luu cry.  Why does Grandma do that?  I asked my mother.  To scare off evil spirits, she explained, but I knew that.  I meant, why does she insist with everyone?  Grandma Liar rubbed Tiger Balm on my baby’s soft spot and stomach.  An Luu, I told her.  She scowled my mother’s back.  Too soon for names, she hissed before shuffling away.

 

~~~

 

            I wake long before dawn on Monday.  As I crouch near the window to put on my clothes, I see my husband cross the street and walk to the bus stop.  A whisper of smoke follows him.  My baby will sleep for three more hours.  I tie a brown wrap on my head and take my cousin’s bike.

            Is it the new knowledge of my body that makes riding so hard?  By the time I reach the white church, I have to wait for my breath to return.  The shirt I chose is from the Salvation Army store; the first owner’s sweat rises from my coat.  Above it the air is sharp.  We are about to fall into winter.  I ride fast through North Cambridge, knowing I must get back before An Luu wakes.  There are only runners on the path.  My bike clicks by them with my breathing.  Long dry grasses turn away in my breeze.

            At 5:30 a.m., the coffee shop is not the same.  People rush in and out, a blur of ties and scarves and fancy heel shoes.  I’m the only one on a chair.  The place is faster, cold with the door opening and closing.  I have forgotten my ginger.  The hot water tastes fine until it cools.  This happens too quickly. 

            I’m about to leave when a woman in a red ski jacket enters.  She rubs her hands, says to me, It’s so chilly today!  I know her face, pointed chin and straight teeth and even yellow hair.  The mother from the restaurant.  She does not look my way another time.  I put my mug in the gray plastic box, get a napkin to wipe my nose, go slowly to my bike.  The mother comes out with a paper cup and walks to a silver car parked on the street.  There is so much traffic it is easy to follow her.  She turns at the light, again after a row of brick buildings.  Houses with many windows throw long shadows.  I count four golden strips on the bottom of doors.  The silver car picks up speed until a stop, takes two quick turns, and pulls into a driveway.  The mother’s home is like the house for dolls I want to give to An Luu.  Pale blue, on one side a round tower with a pointed roof.  The mother bends to pick up a newspaper before going inside the smaller door.  I ride up and down the street, notice bushes turning from green to red, swings behind garages.  After a row of pine trees, the neighbors have a shed for wood.  I hide my bike there.  It is easy to creep to the mother’s backyard.  Her grass, still green, is like sponge.  A flat stone floor leads to glass doors.  I fit behind a bush in a pot.  On the wood around the door, a brass bar to ward off spirits reminds me to breathe.  Inside, the mother stands at a round table.  She cuts pictures, glues them on a big yellow cardboard.  Happy Birthday Sarah, is written on top.  The mother sips her coffee, leans closer to one of the pictures, runs a finger down it.  Her face softens before she leaves the room.

            My body feels full as I ride home, though I haven’t eaten anything.  There is no need to stop at the white church, but I do after the next block.  A steel vat with one dent sits on a trash pile.  I can knock it round for Grandma Liar.  Behind the dark plastic bags is a gift for me and my baby, a plastic bike chair.  The vat rides home in it.  Grandma Liar will tell me the spirits have sent me good fortune because I thought of her first.

            My baby is just waking up when I go into the apartment, as if she knows what I have seen and wants to hear the story.  I tell her while I change her diaper and pull on her soft green pants.  My cheeks are warmed by her grabbing hands.  Peaceful willow, I sing into her dark eyes.  Soon you will ride with me.

 

~~~

 

            On Wednesday, it snows.  The wound in my neck hides beneath a band-aid.  If I press it, flames burn my ears.  During the morning I help my baby learn to walk and pretend nothing is there.  But at the restaurant, the wound beats against a vein.  I think of An Luu’s legs when they kicked inside me.

            The mother wears the red ski jacket.  Her daughter’s is purple.  They look like pillows with legs.  As I take them to a table, the mother trips and grabs my arm.  Pain cuts into my neck.  I bite my tongue to swallow the scream in my throat.  The mother tells me she’s sorry many times.  She blames her new boots.  I want to nod but this hurts.  The daughter’s cheeks are very pink.  Mom, she says, dragging the word as I walk away for the water glasses, Mah-hom.  After I take the order, summer rolls, lemongrass chicken, pho no herbs, the mother touches my sleeve.  She asks my name, her words open and round like an invitation to a festival.  Tra Thanh Ha, I say.  It’s the first time I am like my grandmother, and I regret the lie as soon as I enter the kitchen for their rolls. 

            After I seat two men, the mother and daughter go to the bathroom together.  A person is inside so they wait in the hall.  While I refill the water pitcher, the mother says, Dad and I love that about you.  She kisses the daughter’s brow.  The girl sees my eyes and tries the doorknob, but it’s still locked.

 

~~~

 

            Grandma has me on the bedroom floor while she does kooi`kchall to rub bad wind from my body.  Her herbs boil on my stove.  She dips a coin in her jar of Monkey Holding a Peach and presses it near the scar and down my arm, always in the same direction.  I won’t let her see beneath the band-aid or put root paste on the wound.  The doctor wants me to have chemicals and says the state will pay.  The state! my mother screamed when I told her.  She slept in my closet until Hai carried her upstairs.  Now Grandma Liar gives her a special tea so she can watch the babies.  It makes her eyes skip.

              I roll on my side so the coin touches my back.  An Luu is in the doorway.  She takes two steps, falls, then crawls onto my head, puts her rattle against my ear.  Grandma Liar shoes her away. 

            Leave your mother.  The crackle in her voice makes me sit up. 

            Stop, I say, not wanting her to talk to my baby this way. 

            Not finished.  She points to the floor.  Back down. 

            Your herbs will be ruined, I tell her, taking An Luu on my lap.   

            Grandma Liar squints at me. 

            You can’t stop what is bad in you by spoiling the child, she says.  This is because you worked too soon after she came, during d’sai kchey.  Your new blood was tainted.

            That was Great-uncle’s choice, I tell her, not mine.  I kneel to help An Luu step, thinking that nothing I did made me choose this.  It chose me.

            After An Luu stumbles out the door to my mother, Grandma Liar wipes the coin against her breastbone and wraps it in paper then silk.  Your uncle tells no truth, she says.  He chose for you, your place, your country.  Her language grows more brittle.  We are from the border.  A river.  Water belonging to one side, then the other.  Phumi, Ap, Phumi, Ap, back and forth with fighting.  We lived the Mekong – around, on, under – but a heart belongs to one place.  The food they cook at the restaurant tells you that.  Cha dum in banana leaves, coconut milk – Tza!  That’s your Great-uncle.  Somlah machoo, the soup I make for him to sell, it’s not Viet, it’s my own trick.  Your favorite was also my father’s, Khar saiko kroeung.  Upstairs my rotten fish you hate makes prahok, not the second-press nuoc mam in the restaurant bottles.

            I want to tell Grandma Liar that we serve all foods at the restaurant, Cambodian, Vietnamese, Korean, the Thai curries she hates.  Because we are American, I want to say.  But this will make her more bitter.  In my country, she says, I was an orphan selling mango on a ferry.  Taken below with men if I sold nothing.  Bring back one coin, no beatings.  Nice ferry shirt clean, no beatings.  Show no tears, no beatings.  What do you know of Khmer?  Ask your mother.  Ask her why her own mother, my sister, sent her away before they shot.  That’s right, I’m no Grandma.  I’m Great-aunt to you.  Don’t shake your tongue with those big eyes.  My sister was brave, not cruel.  Cruel is how your mother stayed alive in the fields.  Ask her.  Say to her, Rouge?  Pol Pot?  Ask her about the kruu khmer who taught me to make medicine that kept her alive so she could take you to the boat.  That saved Uncle Giang’s other leg after the landmine that killed your father. 

            Grandma Liar takes a dark nut from her pocket and puts it into her mouth.  Tch-tch, we all suffer, we all suffer, she says.  Dark spit stains the corners of her lips.  Ask your Great-uncle why he made us Veit on papers, to bring us here.  Remind him that your mother wanted your changed name to be Nguye^t.  Moon.  But he always called you Ngu. Ngu. Grandma Liar pronounces it two ways, one meaning written language, the other, to sleep.  When she stands I hear herbs hissing on the stove, imagine water jumping from the great vat.  Her voice bubbles toward me as she leaves.  

            Your birth name was Cambodian.  Chanmony.  Moonlight shining like diamond.  Go.  Ask.

 

~~~

 

            The bike needs a new chain, my cousin tells me.  I give him some of An Luu’s dollars.  It takes two weeks to fix.  In this time, snow melts, streets dry, my baby walks.  The new chain is much easier to peddle, a good thing because the chair with my baby is not easy to balance.   To practice, I ride home with melons and bottles of oil.  When this is easy, I take An Luu on the bike every moment I have.  She wears two hats and a red bowl with a strap, a helmet I made myself.  We cross the river, go to Chinatown, Haymarket, the Public Garden.  One morning we pass the tied up swan boats and I stop.  She bounces and swings her feet, her body saying she wants to walk. Closed, I tell her.  Pocket, I say, turning one inside out with my other hand gripping the metal bar, my legs tight on the bike.  Empty.  I point and tell her English words: boat, swan, bird, tree.  She hasn’t spoken, just bababa in her crib, and I hope to give An Luu my language before she accepts what my mother might offer.  She looks up and I see that the tree we are under is a willow with no leaves.  I rest my fingers on hers.  In spring this will be you, I say.  This is you.  An Luu.  Peaceful willow.  She kicks at my back as if to say, Go!

            The sun rises swiftly on Monday.  I decide to ride my baby to the coffee shop.   We stop five times so I can catch breath.  Sky, I say, dog, grass, pond.  My legs feel burned, then beaten.  An Luu’s cheeks are the color of her bowl helmet, and this helps me pedal.  I can hardly carry her into the coffee shop.  Good luck, the highchair is near a table.  I get hot water in a mug, a paper cup with a lid and straw that I have seen the other mothers give their babies.  An Luu eats rice crackers while I make our tea.  Cup, I say.  Tea, lady, milk, steam.  Her little hands clap on the table.  Rice crackers tick onto the floor and the woman beside me frowns.  As I squat to pick them up, An Luu puts her mouth against the band-aid on my neck.  Ma, she says.  Ma, Ma.  Her first word: Ma.  It means something in all the languages she hears – horse, rice seedling, ghost – but I believe she is speaking English.  To me.  Ma.

 

~~~

 

            Uncle Giang’s old wooden crutch is broken into pieces.  They rest on newspapers I can’t read.  The notches he once cut every day make the wood look like the dried jaw of a sea creature.  He’s propped on the bed sliding beads on an abacus.  His metal crutch sends sun in my eye.  It is a warning, I think, making me no longer want to ask.  But he motions to me, murmuring my name.

            His two rooms are neat, a surprise, but then not because there is nothing in them.  A table, a bed, a chair, the scent of jasmine incense.  Grandma Liar curses him as a failed Buddhist because of the television in his small kitchen.  What? he says.  A string of spit falls on his knee.  Uncle, I say, I brought you pho bo.  He rolls his hand and I carry it over, my eyes on the worn floor as I put the bowl on his table.  I’m about to turn but he holds my wrist.  You are not well, he says.  His hand flaps around my shoulders.  It makes me nervous and I ask him, Why did you notch the old crutch?  He hugs himself then reaches toward me.  My past, he tells me as his finger pulls down the soft skin below my eye.  Yours is not far off.  He takes something from his pocket and hands it to me.  Remind the spirits I’m here, he says.  In the hall I unfold five twenty dollar bills.

 

~~~

 

            My breathing has changed, as if a flag flies in its way.  The scent of An Luu makes it easier.  I sleep with her.  We put our feet up to make the blankets a tent before I work.  Now that she walks, my mother wants to put my baby in the harness that Grandma Liar once tied to a chair, but I throw it away.  I buy no meat for a week and the money is enough for a used play pen from the neighbor and five plastic toys.  When snow powders the street, I show my baby how I make broth for phoPho, I say, the only food we make special, in bowls for each person.  Bowl, I tell An Luu, holding mine out.  Her fingers reach in and it smashes on the floor.   Ma!  I hold her and hum.  We both cry over the pieces.  Tears, I say.  Rain. 

 

~~~

 

            Early Saturday morning, I bike to the market for taro root and lemongrass.  The tires slip on ice and I fall twice, on a curb, a mailbox.  That afternoon a bruise spreads on my leg as I stand beside Grandma Liar in Great-Uncle’s sunny kitchen.  He has given me the day off to help Auntie prepare for my cousin’s birthday.  I had hoped to stay home to nap with An Luu for some hours, but my mother fell asleep with my baby so she wouldn’t have to talk to the family. 

            Grandma Liar again shows Auntie and me how to make fishcakes.  The counter holds four rows of disks that Auntie fries at her stove.  Above her, a great steel fan roars.  When Grandma Liar moves on to prepare the frog legs, Auntie hands me a bag of mango to chop for salad.  She tells me that she bought my cousin a new bike.  You may keep that old wreck, she says.  I am glad Grandma Liar hasn’t heard.  But of course Auntie wouldn’t let her.  Auntie doesn’t trust her.  My cousin was the first to add Liar to my grandmother’s name after Grandma told him that she brought our generations here, not Great-Uncle.  She claimed she had help from a soldier who’d walked from Prey Veng to Long Xuyen and taken shelter with my grandparents.  This soldier, Sergeant Bob, was soon found by his commander and forced to shoot my grandfather in the family hut on stilts.  Sergeant Bob felt so guilty, my cousin recounted, that he stole a bike and came back to take Grandma, my mother, and me to the sea.  We waited two days for a boat, eating spoiled mung beans and dried tarantulas under the dock.  I remembered nothing, was too small.  My mother slapped me when I asked about Sergeant Bob.  She said Grandma had one husband, met him buying fabric in Kampong Chhnang.  Back then Grandma had skin like creamy coffee, not a blemish, a trait she kept for herself.  After my mother said this she put her hands over her eyes and squeaked like a chipmunk until no sound came out.

            Auntie takes the bowl of mangoes I’ve peeled, holds my hands so they don’t drip and walks me to the sink.  She rubs them under the water.  Thank you, Auntie, I say when she hands me a towel.  And for the bike.  She smiles as she puts more fishcakes in the oil.  This is Auntie’s real face, something that warms me like swallowing chilies.  It is nice, she says, how easily you show gratitude.  My cousin comes in.  He is a monkey, dancing around us all, swinging his arms.  I roll my shoulders in, afraid he might grab me in play and touch my neck.  He picks a hot fishcake from the paper towel and drops it on the floor.  We laugh when he eats it.  Grandma Liar shakes a frog leg at him.  Don’t bring bad luck, she warns.

             Oooo, the evil frog leg, my cousin says, hiding behind me.  Will I turn into a tadpole?  He pulls his shirt from the back of his pants.  Oh no, look – a tail!  Auntie and I giggle.  My cousin gives my hair a quick yank then leaves, and I think about how there is a lightness with my father’s family that makes me unsure.  I never know what they truly think, if they like me or consider me a burden like Grandma Liar.  When I glance at Auntie her beaming face reminds me that my cousin fills her life, leaving no room for burden.

            On Sunday, before I work, we go to their party.  I sit on a stiff chair near my mother and Grandma Liar, holding An Luu.  She watches my cousin play tug-of-war as if it’s not the last day of his teenage years.  Great-uncle asks how I feel, then deals cards for Tien Len.  Auntie brings me juice.  An Luu only gets a pat on her head.  When I ask my mother what happened that keeps us sitting on the side, Grandma Liar tells me to accept my place because I can’t change it.  My mother eats from an abandoned plate and turns her chair to face the wall. 

            Weeks later, at their house for Tet, An Luu grabs Auntie’s red banner and gives it to me.  I try to do the Dragon Dance with her, but my body is too tired for a new year.  Instead we sit beside Grandma Liar and my mother in the red scarves I bought for them.  My mother picks apart Hoa Mai and lets the yellow blossoms fall by her feet.  Grandma Liar hisses at her, Stop, this will not bring good fortune.  I hold my baby’s hands to play Chu Cuoi.  She hums while I sing: White, magical moon, our arms form a circle, With a large banyan tree, they are straight as branches. And old Mr. Cuoi, Full of dreams.  We put our hands together and pretend to sleep on them.  Nigh, nigh, says An Luu.  I sit up.  Grandma, Mother, I say, did you hear?  Grandma Liar cups her hand to her ear and leans toward my baby.  Listen to me Chu Cuoi.  Her shoulders go up and she shakes her head.  Why are you staying on the moon forever?  Night, night, I say to An Luu, but she chews her red banner, clapping when my cousin comes by with a shiny gong.  Its noise makes my neck feel like the firecrackers outside have moved in.

 

~~~

 

            On Wednesday the mother and daughter come in with friends, another woman and a little boy, both pale with curled brown hair.  Our favorite waitress, the mother says when I give them water.  They order the same and something new: nem nuong for the children, who cut the meatballs before eating them, and bo la lot for the mothers.  The daughter opens a stuffed leaf with her fork and eats just the beef inside.  The little boy makes a face.  It’s good, the daughter says, like hamburger.  He sticks out his tongue and his mother scolds him.  I take a paper umbrella from the bar for him.  The daughter shows him how to twirl it in her palms.  She’s just like you, the pale woman says to the mother, so good with children.  They give me two tips in the black plastic folder.  The daughter leaves a drawing of the boy on her paper mat.  I hang it over An Luu’s crib.  Friend, I say.

 

~~~

           

            It is almost time for me to wash Grandma Liar’s feet for her New Year, Chaul Chnam Thmey, when I feel I can take An Luu on the bike.  With some of Uncle Giang’s money I have seen another doctor who told me that the chemicals may not reach all the places the tofu cells have found.  Don’t delay, he said, and I told him I understand.  He was satisfied, but what I meant was that my body is now like the banyan tree my mother once sang about.  Many trunks twisting over solid rock, impossible to tell which came first. 

            I do not tell Hai or my mother or Grandma Liar.  I tell my baby because to her they are just words.  For five days I don’t work and lock the door so I can say everything to her alone – stay in school, away from the restaurant, try new places nobody knows, find one that brings happiness.  I tell her that she will hear stories, that she will have to find her own truth.  I tell her that she has saved me from loneliness and so can save herself.  All this telling gives me the first thought.  More follow quickly as I move slowly.  I pack a plastic bag with her biggest clothes and extra shoes and warmest coat and five new toys.  I fill my pockets with all the money I saved for my baby and what’s left from Uncle Giang.  An Luu sees me moving like a butterfly and asks, Ma, bipe, bipe?   And so we ride.

            The sun is high and warm.  An Luu slaps her bowl helmet and I chant to her rhythm.  This-day-we-play-and-ride-away.  Long before the church, my heart feels a sharp knife.  I rest the bike on a lamppost, look at the sidewalk crack, take small bits of air until the pain lightens.  I stop at the church and four more times before we reach the coffee shop.  My clothes are wet.  I drink two glasses of cold water while waiting for An Luu’s tea.  Ma, she says, mik, cup, mik.  The milk spills when I pour it.  I smile as her finger spins it into circles on the table.  I peel dollars from my pocket and we share a roll with seeds.  It is hard to swallow.  An Luu finishes it and eats the square of butter, pleased with this new taste.

            Our bike seats are warm.  I wait at the crosswalk, pedal slowly then turn at the light and again after brick buildings.  Sun hitting the gold strips on the bottom of doors makes dull fireworks.  The mother’s car is in the driveway.  I put my bike in the neighbor’s wood shed.  Shhh, I tell An Luu as I carry her to the flat stones behind the house.  The plastic bag rubs my bruised leg.  Behind the bush in a pot, my baby sticks out her lips.  Her Shhh is wet.  The mother is in the kitchen.  I see her back and hear music, a flute, a guitar.  If I reach for the metal door handle, it will be cold.  It will be easy to open.  My baby will stand on the flat stones and watch me.  At the door she will hold her curiosity and wait for me to give her a word.  But I will say nothing.  It will be her choice. 

            Before I step forward, An Luu leans into me.  Her mouth is on my chin, her hand opens below it. 

            Ma, she says.  Rain.

 

 

published in the Chicago Tribune's Printers Row series

first runner up for the Nelson Algren Award