Kimarlee Nguyen


imgresThey wrote about it, like we knew they would, in the paper and by noon, after seven hours of tedious thank you for your concerns, no, we are not Christian, no, we don’t want to convert, yes, we know what this might lead to, Ma made the decision to keep the phone off the hook.

From across the table, Ma tilts her head towards me in a gesture I can only read as approvingly. In her learned from the grocery store clerks and devoted Disney watching English, she uses her pinkie nail to pick out a scrap of food from her front teeth and says, “Oh, college teach you speak good now.”

I take a long sip of coffee from Ba’s favorite mug; a hula dancer stretches her arms up to form a handle and her boobs are rubber and suspended from a wire so that with each slip, they bounce joyfully in the air. A few years back, Ma deemed the mug too sexual and threw it away and so Ba had to pay a coworker of his extra money to bring an exact replica from Hawaii.

The hula dancer had Ma’s thick black hair though Ma always braided hers each morning and chewed, like she does now, at the end while thinking.

Breakfast was of course, an embarrassment of riches; fish congee with chili and lime, sweet coconut dumplings in tapioca, fried noodles with shrimp cakes and plates of mango and lychee and all I wanted was just a egg’n’cheese on a sesame bagel. When I told Ma this, she looked up from the pot she was stirring and grunted out, “I no cook like college person!”

I lift the mug high enough that the hula dancers boobs were eye-level and tell Ma that eventually, they will start sending over television crews.

Ma scowls at me after I finish speaking, tossing the wet end of her braid over her shoulder. When she pushes herself up from the table, I follow the pattern of displaying peacocks along the hem of her sarong.

She says, loudly enough that Ba can hear from the living room, “Okay, no deal. TV man come or no come, no deal.”

I get up too, head over to where Ma stands, right at the threshold of the living room. From where we both stand, we can watch Ba’s sleeping face, the light filtering in from the crack of the curtains falling across his face in a jagged intimacy. He sleeps with his left side buried in the pillows.

Ma lets out the type of sigh I think all women who are in love make and I say to her, “From here, it’s like nothing’s wrong.”

She nods. “Yeah, yeah. Ba look good.”

And then Ba shifts his weight, tossing in his sleep. Ever since I could remember, Ba slept uneasy, just like me, moving from shoulder to shoulder, sometimes punching his pillow to a flat pancake, other times, sleepwalking to stand at the foot of my bed.

Ma looks on with tears shimmering in the corners of her eyes and I try to think of rainbows and sunshine and all the things happy and greeting card like but from where I stand, I can see strips of meat hanging from Ba’s left cheek, his collapsed ear folding into itself against the nap of his neck. But it’s his lips that do it – the thick flesh now a midnight black.

But what Ma wants me to look at instead is Ba’s hands, folded together on top of his chest.

“Dirt? You know?”

“Yeah, Ma.”

“Ba worked hard, you know, to come back.”

And Ma flashes a smile that is so bright, I too am momentarily blinded. “Now, we family again.”


Kimarlee Nguyen was born and raised in Revere, Massachusetts to a family of Khmer Rouge survivors. She received her B.A in English from Vassar College and is currently an M.F.A. candidate at Long Island University, Brooklyn Campus. She is also a full-time English teacher at The Brooklyn Latin School. Her fiction has previously appeared in Drunken Boat, Hyphen Magazine and Cha: An Asian Literary Journal.