THE WRITERS POST
VOLUME 7 NUMBER 1
NGUYEN HUU TRI
Translated by the author
It’s really an unusual day today! I could hardly get up this morning. Daddy isn’t home; otherwise, his sonorous voice would bellow out: “Why is Linda still in bed at this time?” Momma came in my room to get me ready for school. I kept on trying for a day off from school, “I’m not able to get up, don’t you see, Mom.” She was grumbling with her everlasting refrain “school is for your own good and no one will benefit from it but yourself, you know.” She then went to the kitchen to fix lunch to bring along to her office. I know she doesn’t really mean what she says, and I know deep in her heart she is ready to sacrifice for her band of urchins. My younger brothers and sisters have gone to school, so the house is frighteningly deserted. When I first came to America I was afraid of staying home by myself, but now I’m getting used to it. I rolled up the blinds to look outside. It is winter in North America and it was completely dark out there. Even the sun was tired and overslept. Suddenly I became homesick for those gleaming sunrays of morning in my homeland. Luckily, on this lonely morning I will eventually meet my friend the sun. But sorry my dear friend Sun, I don’t have much time for you. It’s already 7:05 and I have to call my lady manager at Safeway to ask for this afternoon off. It’s really a terrible thing to go through. We high school students only work part-time, but she raises all kinds of objection whenever we need to have some time off. Under her power to decide on their life and death, the full-timers surely can’t stand her finding fault with their work. It is said that many employees are discontented because of her deep-rooted discrimination. She gives the white people more workdays while it is almost impossible for the black and the yellow to get more hours. I fall somewhere in the middle of these groups. She knows I am an Amerasian and it seems she doesn’t know how to treat me properly. She follows a middle-of-the-road policy, so she can be nice to me one day and mean on the next. We students often do not come to work until after school in the afternoon. However, she insists that we call her as early as seven o’clock in the morning so “I have enough time to schedule people, you know.” How stately she sounds! She is so “rude” every time we ask to have time off that we feel like we have just committed a very serious crime. I have become used to her behavior and just ignore her lack of courtesy. Frankly speaking, she is oftentimes pretty nice and at those moments I just feel sorry for her. It is said that she dropped out of high school and only became a “manager” at this supermarket after having worked there many decades. It seems that she hasn’t been able to wipe out that inferiority complex of being a dropout. As a result, she is unreasonably strict and fastidious. Once my dad told us the life stories of prominent “high school dropouts” like Bob Hope, John Major and Peter Jennings. He said Mr. Hope dropped out of high school but then became a billionaire; Mr. Major did not finish high school either but was a prime minister of the United Kingdom; and Mr. Jennings of the ABC television network never got a high school diploma but is now making millions of dollars a year. And that richest-man-in-the-world Bill Gates never had a college degree to his name. I grew up in Vietnam and never knew such stories; I used to believe that regarding intelligence, we are at the top of humankind, as some people have claimed! I then used those success stories to encourage my manager that one day she will catch up with those people who have been in similar situations. Besides, there is a glimmer of prestige in the title of “manager”, so why should she complain? My boss laughed satisfyingly, overjoyed at listening to me. In a short instant of her life, she completely forgot reality. I suddenly felt it was cruel of me to praise her insincerely. My dad always said that Americans live more for the future. I’ve been here only two years, so I don’t really know if this is true. I personally am not used to this way of life because I unwittingly live too much with my past. My childhood in my beloved Vietnam is still very much on my mind. Those are happy and miserable days in the existence of a young “dust of life” (1). Those are days that have left many ineffaceable memories of my childhood. I live more with them than with reality even though my youth is passing rapidly and my life is not really peaceful…
It’s kind of odd! I’m writing my diary backward. When I was in Vietnam I had intended to write regularly in my diary once I got to the U.S. in order to record new experience in my life. I had not expected that there is so little time here. Today is Sunday but I am still sitting here writing about what happened Friday. Obviously, I am going against time. In a way I enjoy doing this, for it’s rare to have some free time to forget reality. Well, I’ll write down whatever I remember and all this is just for me, not for anyone else. In the morning I went to school “just like any other day.” We’re in the last year and quite close to graduation, so homework assignments are relatively light. We twelfth graders are actually busier with having our pictures taken for the yearbook, buying graduation rings and applying to college. The Vietnamese students are clearly divided into two groups. Those who came in 1975 were acting just like other Americans, whereas those who have been at this school only a few years were still quite desolate in a strange land. I met “young lad” Thuyet at lunch in the cafeteria. In fact, it wasn’t by chance at all because I knew he was looking for me. All my Vietnamese friends say he has a crush on me. I sometimes feel good knowing he likes me, but at other times he annoys me so much by his persistent pursuit since I don’t find him attractive at all. Worse yet, I go crazy because my sweetheart “God” Henry is jealous for ill-founded reasons. Actually, he is a lovable young man, but feelings aren’t like a computer to which you can install any program. He came to this country when he was very young, but his behavior is still quite “Vietnamese.” Somehow, there is one thing about him I can’t stand; he always uses the intimate term “ minh” to refer to himself when he talks with people. I really don’t know why I don’t like that address term. Thuyet looks quite bright and is the second best student in the whole school, just behind Cathy. He is planning to go to Harvard to become a doctor and will makes a lot of money some day. “Good luck” to you buddy, to “mình” (2), okay? As for me, there is no predestined union between Harvard and me, at least in this life! However, Cathy Tran is the one that is really unique! She is first laureate at our school and has been chosen to deliver the valedictory address at the commencement exercises. It is said that she was born on an American ship while her mother was fleeing the country in 1975. She grew up here, so she talks and acts just like other young Americans. As a result, the band of newly arriving Vietnamese don’t like her and whispers in each other’s ears that she is so stuck-up. I personally feel she is very lovable. Many times I just want so much to exchange my reddish brown hair for her shining black hair. As for her, she adores my ivory white complexion and natural sharp nose that doesn’t need plastic surgery. She has no idea that those things once brought me an afflicted life. Since I have no ill feeling toward her, we have become pretty good friends. At first, she plans to major in journalism to become a television announcer to beat those towering figures in the field, such as Barbara Walters, Diane Sawyer, and Connie Chung. But she later says it would be much better to hurl down a Mr. Iacocca who makes millions of dollars as the president of a car company. She says it’s not a matter of money; rather it is because she wants to prove how talented Vietnamese women are. She is so nice but those “monkeys” don’t like her, probably because of jealousy. Good luck in life, my buddy. Sometimes I think it’s kind of weird! In this country so many Vietnamese students, from elementary school to college, are outstanding in their studies and at the top of their classes. I wonder whether our ancestors were that good. Why did they leave the country in such a ragged condition and the people in such great suffering!
When I saw Cathy today, she said she would call tonight to ask me to a party. After school, Thuyet gave me a ride to Safeway. In the car, he again was grumbling in unfinished sentences and incomplete ideas. I thought to myself why such a smart person in school could be so “behind” in love. I still don’t understand exactly why I just can’t fall in love with him even though he has a nice character. Someone has said that the nature of love is illusion. Someone else even defines love as the rebellious heart of a true talent…They are really formidable statements to hear. Frankly speaking, young people like me just don’t understand what love is. Thuyet is in no way inferior to Henry, so why can’t I fall in love with him? Speaking of my “little God” Henry, I feel so unhappy and annoyed by our frequent arguments. He hasn’t called me the whole week, probably mad at me about something. He might have gone to California as he had planned to do the other day. “Thank God” today is TGIF day, so my manager brightens up and I feel less miserable in my life in exile. Thank you, “Mommy” America! Thanks to her pleasant behavior today, I feel time is flying by unlike on those dark days.
When I got home, everybody was wearing a melancholy face as if someone had died. Well, someone did pass away! When Daddy got home from work, he got a phone call from my uncle out there in Iowa saying Grandma was dead. Without any apparent reason, tears overflow from my eyes uncontrollably. It’s kind of absurd. I have been here only a few years and have met Grandma only a few times, so we don’t really have a near and dear relationship. Daddy wasn’t crying but he looked so gloomy. Perhaps he was sad and repented of not being near Grandma during her last minutes in life. But then, he quickly consoled himself with a typical American conclusion that she had found “eternal peace.” I thought to myself that she is down there as immobile as a hoe handle, then what would it be if it were not “the sleep that knows no breaking?” However, I dared not share that thought with Daddy.
The news about Grandma’s death brought to me testiness instead of suffering the entire evening. For unknown reasons, Momma turned to me and wagged her finger angrily at me: “Now, can you see? You never listened to me. When she was alive, I told you so many times to call and talk to her. You are the oldest and the biggest in the flock, but you didn’t set an example for your younger siblings. In the end, no one took pains to do that. Now she has stopped breathing, you can’t talk to her even if you guys wanted to. I couldn’t stand any longer and started to talk back: “Grandma wasn’t close to me at all; I didn’t grow up with her. I didn’t know what to talk about whenever I called her. I know how to behave with grandparents. I always write and send presents to Grandma back home, don’t you see? But I grew up with Grandma for a dozen years after you came here with Daddy. Even though I am far away from her, I feel closer to her, can’t you see?” Having said all that, I felt so sorry for talking back to Momma. I had been away from Momma for more than a decade, and now living beside her, I love her very much. I think she also loves me. Momma kept quiet for a while, but after dinner she started grumbling again, saying that we were a bunch of ungrateful urchins. Now it was my turn to be silent because I thought only God could erase that rooted idea in her head. Also after dinner, Daddy packed to fly to Iowa for Grandma’s funeral. Momma asked to go along to show her duty as a daughter-in-law. Daddy explained apologetically that it was not a matter of the cost of a plane ticket; rather it would not be easy for Momma to get leave since she had just changed job. She would be in trouble if she lost her new job. Finally, Momma agreed and didn’t say another word. I suddenly realized that in this country human feelings only occupy a very narrow spot. It was almost ten o’clock when Momma took Daddy to the airport for the last flight to Iowa. Daddy asked my little brother John to accompany Momma for fear she might get lost since she rarely goes to the airport and is not familiar with the area. What a close call for me! If Daddy had chosen me to go along, I certainly could not have stood the stuffy atmosphere on the trip back home, being alone in the car with Mom. I had just finished taking a shower when, as she had promised, Cathy called to ask me to go to the party with her tomorrow night. I told her about Grandma’s death in Iowa. She automatically said “I am sorry to hear that” but I believe she is sincere in sharing the sadness with me. Now that the party was out of question, I got one thing done. In fact, all afternoon I had wanted to call and tell Cathy I would not go. I would not enjoy it at all without Henry coming with me. But I decided not to call him even though “my dear lover” had disappeared somewhere in this world for the whole week. In the picture of him at my bedside he is giving me a very caddish smile! I was so pissed off that I turned over the photo. Just before that I was staring at his face and told him in a choking voice: “Don’t you dare to think you’re so good, Okay! Here’s the phone; ring it! I’ll break up right away, I’ll get rid of our love as if there were nothing between us.” Obviously, I didn’t actually say those words. I was not that crazy to rave to myself, but I know my heart and my mind were saying those things. I lay there and fell asleep, waiting for a phone call from Henry.
Today it was Momma’s turn to work on the weekend. Last night, after dropping Dad off at the airport, Momma came home and stayed up late, doing trifling chores. In the morning she looked exhausted, making me feel uneasy for not helping her. Mom always loves and takes care of others without worrying about herself. Her lofty and altruistic virtues often cause sufferings for herself. Momma asked me to start the car while she was getting ready to go to work. I was eager to do that, not sluggishly as I usually do at other times. My little brothers and sisters had brought their blankets and pillows to the family room to watch cartoons on television. They love these films so much that they wouldn’t budge even if the whole world collapsed. Momma hurried to work after telling us a few things to be done in the day. I usually joined my brothers and sisters to watch the cartoons, but today I had no heart to sit still. I’m so mad at Henry! I went to my room, locked the door to think about what to do. Henry is an Amerasian like me and recently come to America. But he is a boy, so he has changed too quickly! I don’t know what has got into him lately; he kept asking for sex and isn’t as romantic as he used to be. I’ve refused so many times, telling him that if he can’t wait, then we’ll stop talking about love. A friend of mine who just got married said that while they were dating for several years, she had her boyfriend wait. I think there isn’t anything wrong about that. I told Henry about my friend’s story, but he insisted that if we wanted to save our love, if we wanted to “save our relationship” (unnecessarily using English!), the only way is to sleep with each other. He argues that sex is an important part of love. Good God! What a weird argument! I know I am still very “Vietnamese,” so I am committed to my “No Sex” policy until we officially become husband and wife. Partly because of this, we have recently pecked at each other bitterly. One time, Henry became so angry he threatened to break up if I did not concede. I said I thought you loved me, but the matter of the fact is that you only want my body, isn’t this true? He said that sex must go together with love just like its shadow. I do not agree. I personally think serious love should not be camouflaged by sexual desire. Moreover, I want Henry to respect me. Henry considers my thinking old-fashioned. In this situation, I feel rather worried because I really love him. I may lose him, especially while those little brats, both American and Vietnamese, often make passes him even in front of me. Today I already miss Henry so much! Why are you so cruel, sweetheart, by not calling me? Why are you angry with me so long, or are you planning to leave me for good? I thought if Henry called at this moment, I would apologize to him. But I decided not to call him first. I picked up the receiver a few times but then put it back down. It was almost noontime, but there were no phone calls for me!
I was so disheartened but I didn’t have anyone to whom I could pour out my heart. I was just lying there, paying no attention to time flying by. I fell asleep when I did not know. Suddenly, the phone rang, and I was the first one to answer. But I became more disappointed because it wasn’t Henry on the other end. It was Momma calling to tell me to prepare the meat so she could cook dinner when she got home. I was mumbling…yes…yes, but actually my soul was all the way up there among the clouds…wandering in search of Henry…Henry, the betrayer! After dinner I pretended to have a headache and went to my room. I locked the door tightly and let loneliness gnaw my heart. I did not tell confidences to anyone since not a soul would understand me! I tossed about sleeplessly all through the night...I finally couldn’t take it any longer and again fell asleep, completely forgetting my Henry, who was like a bird flying here and there in the big sky of this impure world...
Daddy isn’t home today, so there are some changes in our going to church in the morning. Momma told my brother John to drive all of us, but I pretended to have a stomachache, making a wry face. Momma probably believed it was that monthly incident, so she allowed me to stay home. The fact of the matter was that I just wanted to be home alone to wait for Henry’s call. I was quite sure that he would call me…because it was ripe time. I intended to take advantage of everyone’s absence to lash out at Henry if he ever called. If breaking up is what you want …go ahead…if you want to leave me, then show your guts and speak out and don’t just behave in such a familiar way…My mind is so little, but why are there so many thoughts invading it at that moment? Why didn’t Momma and my younger siblings pay any attention while I felt like I’m sitting on fire? In this very house everyone moves about and encounters each other every minute, but no one pays any heed, let alone strangers out there…up in heaven and down on earth…how do they know I am so saddened!
Momma let me stay home, but she told me to get ready to go shopping with her in the afternoon. She needed to get a wedding gift for a friend’s daughter and she wanted me to come along. Good heavens! Why couldn’t she understand that I was utterly uninterested in this shopping activity? Didn’t she notice that I was so upset and confused? Henry, don’t you know you’re the culprit that has caused all this mess? Honey, I’m so right and blameless, being mad at you, aren’t I?
Once everybody was gone, the lonely and deserted atmosphere surrounded me. I wanted to watch the Chinese kung fu movies to kill time, but I had no stomach for it. To get rid of my sadness, I went to the living room and dreamily scanned some Vietnamese newspapers and magazines for trifles. There was a report on a scam over in California. I read it to see if there were any new tricks in the human killing for a spot in this precarious life. Line after line went through my mind and warm tears unexpectedly welled up in my eyes. This is Ly Dai Hien himself, I am sure. Whoever gave him that name was so right. His kind nature matches his name perfectly. He used to be one of us “dust of life” Amerasians in Ho Chi Minh City. When he learned that his mother was seriously ill, he went back to Long An to live near her. Later on, it was said he worked in the field as a farm hand. But the report said that a family “bought” him so they could come to the US under the Amerasian Program. They had promised to marry their daughter to him and of course he agreed to let them use his name. However, a few days after they got to California, they changed about and kicked him out of their house. At that moment, Hien was probably not good and gentle as Buddha any longer. He stabbed a dozen times and killed his innocent “fiancée”. So it hadn’t even been a week after he got to his “callous” father’s home country, Hien was locked up at spot hundreds of miles away from his motherland. He was eager to search for his father, but now man-made law has buried his future. Hien was on my mind endlessly and I wanted very much to know what he was thinking in that tight prison cell. I hope he had a tiny window so he could look at the stars up in the sky in order to keep his strong will, just like what other prisoners have done since time immemorial.
Of course, I have no way to set foot in that entirely strange world of his… Somehow after a while I turned around to look for the shadow of my hero Henry. Hien’s story did move me but in an instant it simply faded in my mind to make room for my own reality. In this common life, few people can share others’ private feelings…Then I idly wondered whether Henry is really free at this moment when he “ran away” to a boundless place, not surrounded by tight walls like Hien. As for me, I have already lost so much freedom. My body is moving here and there in this huge house but my soul appears forbiddingly bulky in a corner of the living room to wait…to wait for an individual who has heartlessly jilted me…I think waiting is synonymous to loss of freedom (I’m not sure I’m correct in thinking so?)
The rest of the day from late afternoon until evening was just routine and boring. I begged Momma and lied to her (I knew it was a sin but what else could I have done?) so she left me alone. I didn’t want to lose any more freedom if I were disturbed. At around four o’clock, a phone call startled me. My Goodness! It was Henry’s voice on the other end. He has been in California as I was guessing. He said he had called me a few times the other day and left a message with John. But I wasn’t sure if he was lying to please me, or if it was my irresponsible little brother that had put me in the afflicted situation over the last few days. Henry apologized and told me what has happened to Hien. He said he was too busy making arrangements with a few friends to look for an attorney for Hien. And he promised to come back to me in a few days.
I now still remember very clearly what I said to him: “Listen, Henry, don’t bother to come back. Linda already has someone else. You remember that guy Thuyet that followed me, don’t you? We’re now engaged. So, bye, buddy.”
I hung up and unplugged all the phones in the house. I jumped onto bed and lay there staring round-eyed at the spotlessly white ceiling, which looks like a white piece of paper without any ink marks. In fact, I never knew whether Henry had called back or not.
A few moments later, I turned to lie on my side, plunging my head in the pillow. It was so disheartening! I was racking my brains but still did not understand why I had uttered those words to my lover.
NGUYEN HUU TRI
Translated by Nguyen Huu Tri, from the Vietnamese version ‘Cuoi tuan cua NG...’, in the collection of story ‘An trua, nghe ke chuyen tinh’
published by Van in 1999 (CA: Van, 1999, pp 19-32)
Editorial note: Works published in this issue may be simultaneously published in the printed Wordbridge Magazine Issue 6 January 2005 (ISSN: 1540-1723).
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