Stillpoint Staff Series: “Gia Dinh” by Annie Ho

It had never occurred to Thuy that one day he would become a father, and a capable one at that. His own had abandoned his infant son and wife one breezy Mekong night in the summer of 1973. His mother, Lien, disappeared soon after. The village pitied the boy and equated it to bad fortune, and that perhaps this was his penance for his transgressions from past lives. The more pragmatic blamed it on postpartum depression, but as a young boy, Thuy knew he needed to look no further than the mildewed mirror in the bathhouse for the answer. He was the spitting image of his old man.

Thuy liked to wake up before the rest of his family, and in the quiet waxing glow of morning light in his kitchen, he would pull out his wallet, softened with time, and look at the one photograph he had left of his father. His father is young in the photograph. He is standing in front of a small cafe littered with tiny wooden stools. His shirt is unbuttoned down to his midriff and hangs off his wiry frame. In the picture, his hands hang casually next to his neatly-pressed black trousers, but he is laughing, head thrown slightly back. Thuy could easily have been mistaken for his father. Like a ritual, he would quickly fold the photograph along its deep creases and down the rest of his cà phê sữa đá, as if to wash away the familiar mysterious knot that would grow in his chest every time.

Thuy saw his father’s surprisingly soft features in the face of his own children, especially his eldest, Elena. Elena was asleep on the couch, and he pensively traced the familiar terrain of her face, knowing that this would be the only time such tenderness would be allowed by the 17-year-old. Puberty had left a changeling in place of his daughter. Her temper was all her mẹ, whose moods he knew all too well. What would she say to what he had to tell her? He knew that her rage would spill over him like the canh chua that was simmering on the stove. He stared down at a letter that he had received in the mail earlier that day. Somehow, she had found him, the “she” of a life that he thought had left behind.

Holding Uyen’s letter in his hand felt unreal. He never thought that he would hear from her again. He had cut all ties when he chose to leave the Thai refugee camp where they had shared a brief, if not wondrous, life together. There had been an opportunity for him to go to the United States, and despite all his pleading, all of the frantic and fervently whispered “em ơi”’s, Uyen refused to go. She was content with the life that she created for herself on the island. Thuy knew that these opportunities were often fleeting, so he said goodbye to her and left for his new life. He met his wife Chau at the phở” restaurant that they both worked out. An uncle had gotten him the job, and it was his uncle who also introduced him to Chau. Small and skinny lie cây tre, Chau was ten years his junior, but her serious demeanor and terseness reminded Thuy of the older women from his village. They were wed in a small church down the street from the restaurant six months after their first meeting. Elena came the next year, followed by their youngest, Ethan.

On his brief “boys’ nights,” when he and his friends drank rượu and ruminate on the past, he often referred to her, his “island wife.” Drunk and self-conscious he had bared too much of his lòng-something reserved for women- he’d clasp the nearest man to his right, and with a good shake, chuckle, “Chơi cho vui ma!” Yet, he thought of her often as he slept next to his wife Chau in their neat four-brick suburban home in the Atlanta suburbs. He imagined a dusky, miniature version of himself running around Long Xuyen and Uyen’s feathery hair wrapping around his arms as he held her in the warm Vietnamese afternoon. He could feel that thick, dark hair in his fingers as he stared hard at the photograph that had been carefully wrapped inside the letter. Her girlish handwriting had remained constant through the years. “I hope you haven’t forgotten about me.” She had finally been granted a visa and in a matter of weeks, she would be mere states away from him. She wanted to see him. She wanted to see if they could somehow rebuild that life that they had shared so many years ago.

Thuy was not a believer in fate; he scoffed at the women who went to xem bói and learn their futures from older spinsters who claimed to be tuned into the invisible lines of fate. Yet, he couldn’t shake his heavy uneasiness, as if his own fate line was being tugged and that pull would not cease, would not go unnoticed.

 

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Chau, if she had to boil her entire being down into a single essence, a single word, would describe herself best as pragmatic. The middle child and only daughter in her family, she bore all of the responsibility and none of the visibility. She lived and breathed only the things that she knew best: her job as a masseuse in a white-owned business away from the many Chinese massage parlors that dotted Atlanta’s strip malls, and her family. She went to work early in the morning, and came home just in time to eat the last bits of dinner-whatever dish Thuy cooked earlier that day, after leaving his 9-to-5 as a dental hygienist- ladled on top of the crispy rice left at the bottom of their rice cooker. Chau loved her children. She also loved her husband, and at night, in their vast king-sized bed, Chau would reach across the bed for her husband, fingers lightly grazing the sheets until they almost reached the outline of his still supine form. Like a nightly ritual, her tired fingers would trace his skin and stop. Chau never did more than this- too tired from work, she would then pull the blanket up to her chin and turn on her side and wait for sleep to take her.

Chau came home after work and the house smelled like canh chua, her favorite. She smiled to herself as she slipped off her shoes, because she knew how much Thuy hated the smell of fish sauce in the house, how the sweet and sour broth coated the inside of his mouth for hours. The table was set when she walked in and Elena and Ethan had already started eating.

“Ba dau roi?” she asked Elena, who had her chopsticks in her right hand and phone in her left.

“I don’t know. He said he had to run an errand. He left like an hour ago.”

Chau thought that was strange; Thuy didn’t like running errands late at night, and if he ever needed to leave before she was home, he would send her a brief text with his destination. “Grocer strore.” “Elena friend house.” She moved to get a glass of water from the fridge and saw the photograph on the counter, wrinkled, as if it had been folded and unfolded by sweaty hands repeatedly. A letter that bore handwriting she did not recognize and a note written on torn notebook paper in Thuy’s childish scrawl laid next to it. She knew even before she read his note that he was gone. He had always promised her that he had forgotten his life on the island, but some nights, she could sense that he was not there with her. Chau stood silent and furious, reading his note first, and then the letter.

Chau, in all her pragmatism, swallowed the silent fury that grew in her chest. Was it because she was not affectionate enough? Was it because she worked too often? Was too silent? Or was it because Thuy had never really loved her, that he had left his heart the same day that he left the island all those years ago? The questions ate at her lòng. She waited until the kids finished their dinner and moved upstairs the their bedrooms, the bedrooms that she and Thuy had so lovingly and painstakingly renovated and painted. She ran her hand along the smooth cabinets and counter, labors of love, promises of a comfortable and happy life. Chau never asked, she never wanted. Her job was to give and to support and she did all that with love. Hunched over the pile of dirty dishes, Chau wondered when was the last time she had done something for herself, or just because she wanted to.

 

Later, in that vast king-sized bed, Chau stretched her limbs out to the vast corners. She breathed in, and did something that she had never allowed herself to do- she cried. All the hurt in her lòng, all the longing, spilled out of her eyes, into her mouth, down her chest, drenching her workshirt and then her bedsheets. And just when that hurt seemed almost too much, when it seemed like her lòng was about to burst from everything she had kept inside throughout the years, the bedroom door creaked open. A ray of light from the hall meandered in, illuminating a triangle of carpet that pointed towards the bed. As if following that compass, Thuy walked in, smelling like thuốc lá and night air. Lifting the covers, he gingerly climbed onto the bed. Thuy said nothing, eyes staring straight into the dark, hands probing his temples and thinning hair. The moon through the blinds created a map of striations on his tired face. He looked over and stared at his wife, and for the second time that night, Chau allowed herself to do something she never did- she reached across the bed with both hands, hands first tracing Thuy’s still body, then pulling him into her body.

 

*This piece started out as a short response to a prompt in one of my creative writing classes. This is its most recent fleshed-out iteration.

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