A short story by Nguyễn Thị Phương Trâm
(In loving memory of my little friend Maria T, February 2017)
The light bounced leisurely on soft waves across the surface of Botany bay. My eighteen-month-old is on all fours, mesmerized by a shiny blade of grass by the bank. Happiness tipped over with the sharp kicks from my unborn son on my battered bladder, I’m suddenly wishful of the adult nappies I’m so abhorrent of…
His eyes glossed over white, icy, opaque, a stranger, the father of my thirteen-year-old daughter. I had begged him- please forget her, I forgive you. He just laughed, the light never reaching his eyes- she, to you is the mother of my child. I had loved him, the love of my life. He had picked me to dance, me the awkward skinny girl, amidst all those tall pretty ones.
Come Lizy daddy should be home soon, you’re sister will be screaming murder for dinner- The seventeen-year-old with an appetite of a whale, and a temper to match her father. I’ve never forgotten that first dance; I’d thought it was a mistake. My heart pounded through the rib cage, my head spinning, faint. Luckily, he held me firm on square shoulders. My mother was even more smitten than I was. They were soul mates.
Lizy strapped into her three-speed stroller, equipped with insulating bottle holders, and five positional modes, missing are GPS and autopilot. The price of a second-hand car, this stroller is unlike the one I’d attained thirteen years ago, a hand-me-down from a fifth cousin of a friend of mine, it had that tendency to flip backward incurring possible cranial injury. Mama mama please, I want to swim duckies- Lizy is always fascinated with nature. Lizy has her pappa’s aristocratic nose, and is pale like his white English heritage. I had once considered such a nose, replacing the flat, wide, perky Asian nostrils -Yes Lizy, we will definitely make a date with the ducks next time.
I don’t remember much of my father, but my mother had made many of those impossible promises. My mother, a lost vibrant lonely soul, was burdened with never being able to find love. Her passion was in the cards, Jack of Spade and the King of Heart. My mother is Anh’s spiritual surrogate mother, in the history of the world the most enthusiastic bà ngoại. My mother was both ba and má to Anh, while Tuấn was selling furniture and I’d juggled two dental surgeries. I don’t mind being the eldest, the responsibilities. Both my sisters had studied hard, Annie now a pharmacist, Rose a business analyst, plus both had never considered joining a gang nor ever into drugs. They’ve grown into tall pretty confident girls, the kind I’d admired.
Lizy, what shall mama make for din din tonight? Spaghetti, Spam fried rice- waddling through my third trimester, all I’m perpetually yearning for is an endless nap- a nap Lizy? Papa can call for pizza. I would sneak into bed nightly, next to the tiny frame. Anh, curled up in a ball sucking her callous right thumb; for this earthly angel, I’d never missed daylight. Tuân kissed me before he left, or did he? I vaguely remember whispers and shuffling of shoes. Tuấn shares my mother’s love affair, for him it was the Queen of Clubs.
Falling in love is a thick fog appearing overnight, one would stumble into it knowingly, but totally blind, unaware of that head-on collision! Mai’s love for Anh’s ba will always be a mystery to me. My sister never saw Tuan’s hands in both her pocket and my mother’s pocket conclusively. Tuan was clever, witty, charming, and from a wonderful family. There were moments toward the end I believed, she did just that, married him for his family. I was born after Saigon fell, she was five when my auntie smuggled her on the boat ending up in Songkhla Refugee Camp. Mai was a stranger when we saw each other after fifteen years. My mother wept, Rose hung onto my mother’s left trouser leg like a Koala on speed.
Propped up amidst crisp white pillows Mai’s withered form was yellow and shrivelled. Mai’s eyes glowed, rosary beads in between thumb and fingers, lips in rhythmic adoration to Mother Mary. My faith failed as I watched her. There were drugs that could have saved her, but no divine intervention, what hope?
I was above the South China Sea when they had covered her face with crisp white linen at St. Vincent’s. I was heading for Hanoi to finalize my divorce. My husband of eleven years felt it was time I devoted my life to his family’s business, while he may devote more of his valuable time to an eighteen-year-old cabaret singer at our local club. It’s true; I have forgotten what I looked like in the mirror so confirmed by my mother-in-law. We never had children, an infinite blessing. It is an ugly world.
Nguyễn Thị Phương Trâm, the blogger, poet, and translator, was born in 1971 in Phu Nhuan, Saigon, Vietnam. The pharmacist currently lives and works in Western Sydney, Australia.