To understand the gravity of loss, I had to look backwards in time.
My grandmother’s gaze: Mona Lisa eyes that followed me wayward, brows arching like the tails of shooting stars. Hiền, rất thương các con. I only know Bà ngoại in grayscale: black áo dài with white lotuses. Still water and bloom.
Her photograph hangs across the width of eight motherless children, a reproduction multiplying the likelihood of remembrance, distributing the weight.
For the cây hoàng mai, timing is everything. You prune the branches so that they burst into song:
Phương Liên Nguyễn
Phương Lan Nguyễn
Phương Lê Nguyễn
Phương Loan Nguyễn
Phương Linh Nguyễn
Phương Mai Nguyễn
Bà ngoại passed away shortly after bearing her last, after the tree Ông found on New Year’s Day, yellow silk pooled at its trunk, arms craning, crooked and threadbare.
The pieces: little blossoms I chase across asphalt and collect over the years at our dinner table. The force of my palm creases them brown. I walk to the park, and a row of naked branches whisper the things we have in common, like living between lies, unfinished houses, the imminence of death. All of a sudden I am not words impressed on a surface in an orderly manner, but a body in space, coherent, carried over time: Body Body Body.
You ought to clear death from your home, advises a woman from church. Yes, I cling to my shoulders a cloak heavy with rain. I fear shedding will lose the song.
For a memory to be lost from point A to point B: one end is unable to hear the other end shouting I’m here! Ready to receive! and the breath dissipates between cliffsides, a pebble ribboning down the gape.
As a translator for the French colonial government, then for the Democratic Republic of Vietnam:
Living while others ate the unthinkable, waiting for power to topple in their favor, Ông rested his fingers, intertwined around a state of perpetual hunger. Gaunt for his stature, he slipped easily between opposing futures, reiterating promises he couldn’t stand behind. Publicly, he constructed a Yes while maintaining a distance, how skin protects the vitals. How he did this without bursting, I can’t say.
A re-education—not to downplay the thing, but to consider a metaphor:
I observe my surroundings and what will need to change about my appearances, to seek a center of power. The appeal of rarified air, a culturing. Different from assimilation in that the body does not aim to disappear. Adapting and being mistaken for, but not losing yourself in the house house house.
I imagine belonging to a nation once, nation once meaning ethnos: a multitude, a common ancestry, grounded in the land. Now, a problem of translation untethers the body, rivering black sands toward respective centers, a fictive place. Nation, still, what one dies for, the basis for kinship, a consolation for the body adrift.
Upon arrival we were met with get get come on now be ready with your identity, be ready. A demand for order, to fit into a structure, shoving piles of Costco sweatshirts into tight quarters. No patience, no luxury of time to waddle around in bricks and warble, tongues lazing about.
Understand, we had to fit multiple construction projects into a single timeline while abiding by the ordinances: the permission of two stories, not rising above the power lines, contained within the trees, and preferably out of sight.
Hence delinquents. Hence always, already late to reestablishing a home, a name for ourselves. Hence pitter patter sense made of our sudden appearance by expedited conversion. Hence English-speaking, upstanding citizens.
The instinct was to get ahead, escape atmospheric pressure, achieve weightlessness:
While a college student studying communications, my mother raises her hand to speak, and a classmate snickers. She raises her hand, the classmate snickers. The rhythm repeats all semester. My mother doubles down, earns top marks, cao hơn người mỹ!
She tells me this as I’m belly-flopped on a hotel bed in Fullerton, California, tired from rehearsing lines for a speech competition. If I want to win, which I do, I nên cố gắng đi! We practice and practice, words like pebbles I roll over in my mouth and smooth into stone.
The next day, I repeat. Words like silk, my tongue bleeds. I win first place.
Thinking destiny, freedom: a rarified, otherworldly place. An out-of-body experience. As far away from the dirt as possible, sky-high hyphen to heaven.
The effect of weightlessness, or a life without gravity: the heart atrophies. The pressure of blood against atmospheric pressure meant to keep the body intact. Not enough oxygen to the brain and the astronaut can’t think, grows faint and dizzy.
In my first English class at Yale, I plagiarize an essay about home. Houses, actually, identical ones appearing on every corner of my neighborhood. I understood these constructions ominous, a topography of sameness, the content, copy pasted: house house house house house.
Running up against a deadline, my face blank before the need to impress on a surface, I see no window of failure to slip through.
For the hearing, I wear a costume intended for a particular role, to present the content of my character, an honest mistake, first place.
Professor was an old man with a thick gray beard, gentle eyes, and bushy eyebrows that surprised when he discovered the copy. My face fell: selected parts, a failure of form. He believed the house house house not an accurate expression of my content, rather a lapse in judgment under pressure. That is, my inability to ( my own words ) in high altitude.
Gasping for air, clicking and clicking, accumulating, hoops to jump through, mountains to scale, a narrow path, a shortness of breath.
We stayed in line, hands at our sides, any misstep and BOOM.
The bank teller sits opposite my father, wilting his pride. Suggests a closer reading of the terms.
In a rudimentary English class, we sit at the feet of well-meaning. We are out of order, prior states of innocence impossible to recover.
EYES NOSE MOUTH
we look to a body
EYES NOSE MOUTH
we become part of a country
Through the screen door I watch my mother take a match to my journal. Silver jelly rolls. I HATE MOMMY. I HATE MOMMY. All Vietnamese text. She squats over the tin can, and with a pair of tongs sparing not a single character waits for each edge to curl to ash. ↬
On visits home from the place of polish, I twist my parents’ arms and convolute them mute.
The things we repeat.
Not my daughter, my mother can only describe what she sees. The form in which I appear unrecognizable to the point of abrasion. Ngứa mắt. Perhaps a problem of context: either angry or at home but not both. In three mile loops I seek air that will take the edge off, I leave house, leave city, leave body.
It’s possible to travel through time, though only backwards, to places you’ve been before
The first time I try going back, the midnight concrete stuns my pajama shorts and I’m leaning against the marble of other people’s names, under the stark lonesome of night. I try the fetal position, the ache, a backwards swallow. Without proper insulation, my body tends toward the umbilical pull. The kitchen is quiet aftermath, and my mother pretends to be absorbed in the Korean drama. I brush my teeth, curl up against her to sleep.
Dinner table talk says good-good to all questions of how the day went. All days good, all days going well, all days bright and eager, the face violates the body. Expression its first obedience. To be seen good-good.
I smiled: I was afraid.
I smiled: I was disgusted.
My face fell
A divided personality, a basic lack of unity.
During a muteness I can only describe in synonyms (a catatonic state, a deep depression), my friend asks me to send her a poem. Anything, she says. I’ll read it all. I look back, and the language has no idea where it’s going. The tar of the night. The tar of the night.
The risks of travel are grouped into categories related to the stressors exerted on the traveler: isolation and confinement, hostile and closed environments, gravity fields, radiation, and distance from Earth. ↬
The sight of daughter, unable to speak, or speaking what mother did not want to hear—first lack of luster, then gibberish, sinister speech. Daughter turned ghost, heart to pieces. My mother can only describe what she sees: Ma!
What it was was a cloth in my throat, a helmet oppression, insisted by a fear of speaking, or rather, the mismatched word, or, needing to lie to keep dying. A resistance to admitting I made a mistake, how to say I’ve made a mistake with my life.
Perhaps the greatest concern: the inaccuracy of my body’s position, the wrong thing in the wrong place at the wrong time.
In one hand her mother’s photograph, in the other a newborn, herself, herself, pulling cotton from an empty sack, all my clothes sewn by hand. I came here with nothing, I came here with nothing. I was born a percussion of no choices. After two generations:
(I can’t look)
To summarize bad thoughts my friend, she said, get out of there—turns out I had to stay still in darkness, inside my most hated self, home, as it shouldn’t be. Because to remove the body again, even from a hostile place, required an escape velocity I could not achieve. The body disintegrates. What happened was I tried returning to my childhood home. An abrupt move across a country. Ballpoint grooving the same line back and forth, back and forth—
Two fists against my temples, my mind out of sync with my mind yelled across from somewhere back when. I started sentences. Out of touch, they said. Even now a tender pillow blushes inside my chest.
The order of events proceeds from here:
To be above family
To need to leave family
To believe a better family out there
To rat out family, call 911 on family
To seek adoption by a new family
To assume family, irrespective of time or place
To lose family so as to keep losing family
The atmospheric pressure of belonging to the shape of family, a hole articulated by jagged edges, required that I shatter to pieces, heart to pieces, nation to pieces. I stretched my body the length of the ocean, willing to be in two families at once, two families at war: it seemed that I would lose one or the other, I could not do this again.
To keep the grief world intact, death must remain at its core, all bodies revolving around this.
For a different ending, a world in which the foreigner does not need to start over, leave or die, I must position her within the gravitational pull of another body, some other center.
A body magnetically opposed to the gravity of loss. A stranger.
Surrender: to loosen my grip, fingers otherwise gnawing at the crumbled edge of a country falling apart. Leaving a fistful of dirt. The body departed.
The map directs me inside Miss Saigon, a restaurant on the corner of 6th and Mission. Here, heaven is a psychedelic dreamworld where the áo dài are dip-dyed and the cherry blossoms blink purple and green. I see in sound, I slurp pulsing bone broth beats. My interior cacophony harmonizes with this interior cacophony: shalom. As if to mock its own nostalgia, Miss Saigon hangs a Thomas Kinkade, the easy resolution of land seen from a dominant perspective, which bathes everything in saccharine dusk. Dusk: I’m running out of time.
12:28 a.m. Tuesday in Saigon, Vietnam, is
10:28 a.m. Monday in San Jose, California
The difference between a mother cradling her child and a mother in rage.
The duration of a flight that sends a man back to no country, no job, no house.
How long, Phạm Chí Cường is told, he must sit still, neither moving nor speaking.
To read a book, cover-to-cover.
Falling asleep, the end of a dream.
We set our eyes on the far country on the other side of the Pacific. Visions of the future, we predicted this: a land ravished, oceans teeming with untethered people.
Behind us, the Fall, before us, a unilateral vision rendering us backwards, perversions of time.
In which I remember a song from a photograph, Tết, 1992, a bowl cut, a lantern, a yellow medallioned áo dài. It goes something like:
tiểu bằng có cái trong long
dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun
tiểu bằng có cái trong long
tiểu bang the state
lòng heart, bosom
trống empty, vacant, void
trong lòng inside the heart
trống lòng internalize, indwelling
thiêu to burn, kindle, incinerate
thiêu bang burnt state
thiếu lacking, short, wanting
thiếu bang lack of state
thiếu bằng to lack evenly, as much as
thiếu bằng cô gái missing as much as the girl
thiếu bằng cô gái trong lòng missing as much as the girl empty
thiếu bang cô gái trống lòng lacking a state, the girl empty
A memory forward:
I would have to put my body in the same position, see if I could live. Between two lies, a vacuum of space, in place of my mother, the middle of nowhere, the end of a myth. The first thing to do is exhale.
There’s a boat, little people, everyone’s scared.
I go there, the scar between my ribs, a residue of having held breath over long distances.
History collapses me and I am: a golden ratio of time. Pent-up blooms bloodlet a thousand mothers through, chorus of wrung wrists, writhe and bile, a song to hold us daughters.
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