Certainly the people (t)here

Photo: © Stefan Hengst. All rights reserved.

Ho Chi Minh City Airport is a roiling miasma of sweat and disorder. Tammy feels heavy under the weight of so many eyes. Can they read her foreign passport in the sway of her hips? When the customs officer asks her where she’s going she only smiles a reply. He tells her, “Have nice trip.”

A coterie of women brandish bottles of water at her in the departure plaza, muddled always with buses, taxis, other people. “Tam! Over here,” they shout through the crowd. She pushes her way to them. Sweat drips down her spine despite the desperate air-conditioning in the airport and the shade outside. The scent of rotting fruit wafts in from the pastel-shaded city behind them.

Her five aunts, her mother’s sisters, crowd around her. Aunt Four pulls Tammy into a crushing hug as soon as she’s within reach. Somebody grabs her arm, another pulls a sunhat over her head. She’s shuttled into the rental van. Beside her, Aunt Four pulls at a strand of her hair.

“You’ve got so many gray hairs,” she muses. “You must be working too hard.”

Aunt Four tries to dig around her scalp, uprooting more strands. It’s just genetic, Tammy wants to say, I can’t help it. The city’s trees of tangled electric wire ripple into uncrowned dirt roads and shipping container villages as the countryside nears.

~

The first night she cannot sleep. The air buzzes. Cicadas, the beep of a motorcycle horn over the bridge. She’s reminded of Grandmother’s, when mosquitoes bit her so badly she couldn’t walk for two days. The eggs festered in the stagnant water near that house on the swamp. Her aunts said her foreign-water flesh smelled more fragrant than their sun-worn skin.

Tammy was given the only room with air-conditioning in Quyên’s home. The plastic appliance breathes over her. Grandmother’s house didn’t have one.

When Tammy startles awake the clock’s blank face reflects her own. Quyên’s toddler drives into her door, whining in his plastic Jeep. She lets him in and he throws himself onto the bed. His mother runs in after him, laughing.

“He likes the cold air.” Quyên explains, after she has grabbed him up and pushed his car out with her pale calloused feet. “But it makes him sick, so we don’t let him sleep in here.”

Tammy points at the dead clock.

“Power outage. The air-conditioning is gone, so you have no excuse to stay in. Get ready, we’re going to my store then visiting some aunties.”

Tammy armors herself in sunscreen and Quyên straps her son to the basket attached to the motorcycle’s handlebars. The wheels bounce under Tammy’s weight.

~

Nobody will give her a plate to ferry into the living room. When Tammy asks her aunt what she can do to help she’s exiled with a laugh. “No no no, go sit! Let us do it!”

Aunt Four uses charred chopsticks to flip a tilapia. The kitchen swarms with women. Some crouch on the tile, leafing bundles of coriander and basil. They drop greens into red and yellow plastic baskets while the wilted bits flutter beneath their feet. When the dogs try to creep inside the house somebody shoos them away with a slippered foot. Aunts, cousins and wives nudge Tammy as they pass her in the narrow entryway. They’re holding plates stacked high with roasted pork and rice noodles, basil and nước mắm, bowls of bone broth. Their eyes wrinkle at the edges when they look up at her. She flashes a close-lipped smile back.

Tammy trudges through a bead curtain to join the men on the patio. Between sips of Tiger beer her uncles look at her and then to the framed photograph on the wall just inside, taken the last time she’d been in this house. She had blinked when the shutter flashed, unkempt at eleven. They’d been sent other photos too: a theater performance in the eighth, birthdays here and there, high school graduation, convocation. Her wedding. Their brows furrow as they try to find the glossy girl of the pictures in Tammy’s round edges and blunt hair. They could ask. Instead they smoke, turning to watch the children weave between rows of potted mandarin trees in the courtyard.

“Tam, you drink beer?” Uncle Ten asks, reaching towards her, seaglass bottle in hand.

She takes his offering even though it tastes like a loaf of bread fished from the rainwater pots behind the house. He makes a toast to her.

“To your marriage and your happiness.”

~

One of Tammy’s nieces won’t leave her side. Her name is Ngọc; she’s Uncle Ten’s only child. She drags Tammy off the patio to show her the hand-me-downs Tammy’s mother had sent her. Ngọc pulls a Pikachu with only half a tail off the bed she shares with her parents in this home that was her grandmother’s. Then, books that she can’t read but which she’s taking extra English classes to learn, and the pink Gameboy that is the pride of her collection. After Ngọc is done, she lifts up her arms expectantly. With some struggle, Tammy manages to pick her up and spin her.

When she sets the girl down again, she sees one of her older cousins staring at her from the hallway. Hòng. Her husband sat on the patio with the other men. Tammy remembers his kind eyes and empty hands; no cigarettes, no beer. Hòng’s hand on the swell of her stomach tells Tammy she is pregnant, yet her cheeks dip into shallows. Caught gawking, she shuffles back into the kitchen. Tammy doesn’t try to follow.

The next night, Quyên launches into the story with a piece of tilapia sailing in her mouth.

“Hòng? She got married some months ago, but the groom’s family almost blocked it.”

Tammy fishes a cucumber out of the nước mắm before she asks, “Why?”

“Too poor, not pretty enough, I don’t know. The grandmother said they would call off the marriage if her baby is a girl. They still don’t know what it is.”

Ah, Tammy almost says. Now she can feel Hòng’s pain. It’s located in a familiar province, tucked inside her ribcage.

~

A drowned mosquito floats at the surface of a tub of water. Tammy takes care to splash it down the drain before she washes off a day spent on the back of a motorcycle. Quyên and her mother, Aunt Four, peel longan fruit in the living room. Sweetness floods the house.

In her cousin’s bathroom Tammy feels each scoop of water tugging waves of cold down her body. It carves ravines down her stomach, yawning half empty. Conversation carries over the partition wall on a nighttime breeze. She hears every whisper uttered in the living room between splashes of liquid on ceramic tile.

“Why do you think she came back alone?”

Because of course they would wonder.

“Trouble with her man?” “But she’s still wearing the ring.” “It’s been a few years, right? No children?”

Tammy nearly drops the plastic dipper. Her hand floats to the space beneath her belly button.

“What about Aunt Five? She should have come too, at least.” “You know how she is. Besides, Tam is grown now.”

~

Tammy had asked her mother to visit with her. She had said “No.” But, Tammy had argued, certainly you miss your home, certainly you want to see your sisters, certainly the people there will treat us well.

Her mother told her that they were only kind because they were special for the few weeks we were there, and for the conversion rate of the dollar. Of course they would cart Tammy around, let her take them out for dinner and bring her whatever and wherever she wanted. But hospitality fades as surely as visas expire.

“Don’t be so naive,” Her mother warned. “I know my family, I know what they want.”

Tammy stared into the deep lines beneath her mother’s eyes, wrinkled like the hundred dollar bills she sometimes stuffed into envelopes and sent to Grandmother. The suture of her mother’s lips wrapped around the red straw of an iced coffee. Light bounced against the smattering of rings on each of her fingers. Behind her, the television people continued to talk. Some girl in a dubbed drama confessed her love to a rich man.

Tammy booked her flight in her car, idling the worn Civic two streets down from her mother’s house. Around her, silence; the same houses stamped onto different lawns in earthtone palettes.

~

She’s late, but the aunts and uncles and cousins stand to greet her when she arrives. Ngọc gets out of her chair to sit beside her. They’re amazed when she reads parts of the menu and recites her order to a schoolboy waiter in stops and starts. Then, questions:

“Why did you cut your hair? It looks better long,” “Did you mother send anything over for us?”  “How do I beat this level in your game?” “You’re a bit heavier. I’m selling this tea that might help…” “Have you spoken to your cousin Bi yet?” “We should plan a trip to the temples in the North. We’ll ask Buddha about your future son!” “Where’s your husband?” “When are you bringing home a baby?”

When she can she answers, or else she smiles politely and sips her bitter coffee. She watches her family make jokes, gossip. Their laughter washes over her while a puddle forms beneath her glass.

On the way home she notices a wooden shack squatting across the road from the mansion. Carved wooden sticks surround it. She cannot see the people inside, but she can hear their banter, feel their lanterns light her skin.

~

Quyên brings her out for street food one night. Tammy doesn’t know what day of the week it is, but hundreds of people on motorcycles move past her in a rolling stream of lights and horns. They’re on an island in the middle of a traffic circle.

“I only wanted one, you know.” Quyên says, in between bites of deep-fried fish.

“One?” Tammy asks.

“Yeah, one kid. And he respected that.”

Tammy smiles. “Well, you own the store. Pay the bills, right?”

Quyên laughs, all teeth and air. “And he cooks, and he bathes our son, and he watches the store when I go out with you.”

“That’s rare.” Tammy says.

Quyên reaches across the table, places her manicured hand on Tammy’s arm.

“But we try every single day.”

And Tammy knows she had forgotten the ebbs and flows of care. She and Quyen get up to cross the street for sugarcane juice. Hand in hand, they step down the curb to cut across the road. Fruit shells crush beneath their feet. Motorists swerve around them. While Quyên leads her, Tammy watches the traffic.

One motorcycle holds a family of four on it, the youngest tucked in front of the father, with the mother standing off the seat and holding her husband’s shoulders so that her other son can sit. Behind them someone honks their rental Bentley.

~

Tammy stands before a massive Buddha. Her aunt is prostrating herself next to her, forehead pressed against the wooden floor. Rods of incense dip uselessly from Tammy’s hands, the smoke rising from them smarting her eyes. She stabs their stems into the offering bowl with a quick bow.

Aunt Four had arranged the whole trip to the northern temples. The transit had been five hours long. The family had whipped themselves into a frenzy over the trip. All Tammy contributed was the chartered van.

She wanders over a short bridge that looks over the temple garden, itself looked over by the temple’s monks. Her aunt joins her, offering up a persimmon.

“It can be hard to pray. Some people find it easier to bring offerings.”

Tammy closes her fist around the fruit. A man in dull blue robes sweeps the floor across from them. When he sees Tammy approach he spreads his hands to her. She lays the citrus on his palm, careful not to sweep her skin over his. The fruit disappears into one of his pockets. Tammy returns to the bridge and leans over the railing.

“When will you come back, I wonder?” Her aunt says.

Tammy’s eyes drift to the thin stream beneath the bridge. “I don’t know.”

Her aunt replies, “So then, why now?”

When Tammy doesn’t answer, her aunt begins.

“When I left my husband, I was not sad. Even now, when I see him with his new wife, I am not sad. The temple will take care of me in my age. You should allow this to pass.”

Her aunt places a sun-browned, calloused hand on her shoulder, plucks out a gray hair with her other. “Dwelling changes people.” A chuckle rises from her throat. “Changed your mother.”

They stand on the bridge together until Quyên comes calling, her son in her arms.

~

She spends a day with Bi, Uncle Eight’s son. When his motorcycle rolls into Quyên’s driveway, Tammy yells, “Hey pale boy!” and she feels thirteen again. His white skin and curling hair set him adrift against the rest of the family. He’s the only one who learned English and the only one who left, aside from Tammy’s mother.

He’s thinner than she remembers. The bone of his wrist peeks from underneath the thin jacket he wears. Even so, he speeds when he drives. “I picked up the habit in the city,” he explains, later, his fingernails tapping notes from a tall glass of coffee.

“Do you prefer there to here?

“I don’t belong here.”

“But your family is here. Isn’t that something?”

He sets his mouth in a line and Tammy sees a mirror in his face. Then he asks her, “What about your husband?”

She circles her thumb around the neck of her Heineken bottle, weighing her words.

“Families. Building a family. It’s been difficult.”

“Well, my ex-fiancé is getting married next week.” He says, as though their disappointments could collapse together, build a bridge over the Pacific ocean. He laughs when she drains half her bottle of Heineken in a single swig.

When he drives her back Tammy closes her eyes. She folds up the sharpness of the wind on her arms as if her skin could preserve air the way sun bakes into her neck.

~

She knows this place as Saigon, but it is Ho Chi Minh City on the maps, same as the portrait that hangs in every house. It is also called the city, the thành phố. The singular. The streets flow in concrete rivers, lined by globe topiaries and electrical wire. In the early hours of her departure she sees sprinklers activating to keep the avenues swathed in green. Tourist traps hang heavy with electric flowers and light-up signs, flashing by the night markets on each travel guide.

Their van slows at a four-lane intersection. Motorcyclists stream past, their faces covered by helmets and handkerchiefs. Tammy opens her window to see if she can be there with them. She sucks a mass of smog through her nostrils. Her eyes burn from the dust in the air, sharper than incense.

The van arrives at the airport with minutes to spare. Tammy steps out first. An uncle passes her luggage up to the front. Aunt Four, Aunt and Uncle Ten and Quyên follow her out. A second van pulls up behind them, spilling another set of relatives onto the pavement. Bi couldn’t be there.

Tammy watches her family blend into the crowd outside the airport. Other people with sun baked skin and smiles and bottles of water clamor in front of vans ready to take other relatives back through the city’s traffic-choked avenues and dangling wires, past the container homes at the province’s edges, parallel to the beaches in the west that she’s never seen and the temples in the north, which she has.

Her aunts and cousins cluster around her. She feels hands on her back, laughter rolling up their ribcages and farewells gathering in their throats.

Tammy closes her eyes. Breathes in. Her lungs fill with air that tastes of longan fruit, heavy with rainwater.

 

by Kathy Pham

 

Kathy Pham.jpgKathy Pham is a recent graduate of the University of Calgary’s creative writing and English department. She is currently at work on her first novel and is based in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Her fiction has previously been published in NōD Magazine.

 

 

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