“Singapore doesn’t really get cold, though. The weather there is like ours.”
“It’s all cold to me. It’s all far and cold.” She cut the last thread and tied it.
The truth was she had pictured the three of them, sitting on the front porch, content to be exactly where they were. But only she and the baby were happy. Every time she looked, Nathalie would have her chin resting on her hand, her gaze never touching her surroundings, always immeasurable, always at a distance Lan felt she could not reach. “Where are you? You’re already gone.” Even with the baby, nothing had changed. And so she filled in the information noiselessly and sent it away. Just a piece of paper with some official-sounding words on it. Yet she couldn’t help but feel as if she was sending her last child to war. Nathalie would be safe; she wouldn’t get shot or blown up. The uncertainty wasn’t life or death, but whether she would return.
A month after Nathalie left, Lan heard rapping at the door. Baby An was crawling on the kitchen floor, putting anything he could find in his mouth. The boy was at the door clutching a plastic bag filled with oranges. His white shirt was well worn but the collar was crisp as if it had been ironed only a few minutes earlier. He wore the same uniform-blue khaki pants that all her children had worn in school. At the sign of a stranger, baby An sat up and stared curiously. He then clapped his hands together and giggled. The boy looked at the baby and his whole face flushed.
“I’m Nam.” he said, “I’m a friend of Nhan’s. I just wanted to give you this.” He raised the bag of oranges.
“Come in, Nam.” She addressed him sternly and tried to smile at the same time. He was already nervous. She told him to sit and he obeyed at once, stiffly.
“Relax, Nam,” she said. He stared at her silently. Baby An had crawled under the table over to his legs. She bent down, about to pick up the baby, but stopped herself and waited. She would determine right then and there everything about Nam. He was waiting for her to speak, to ask questions. She said nothing.
When her stomach had first started to swell again, Lan hadn’t told her husband. After the first three and getting twenty stitches when Amy was born, she’d thought perhaps the universe should spare her. She had gone to see Miss Peach without a specific intention, treading the boundaries of her choices. The house was murky and damp. Miss Peach was stirring a combination of herbs at the stove. The smoke rose from the clay pot and hung in a cloud above them, its bitter, fruity smell filling Lan’s nostrils. She felt sleepy. Miss Peach asked Lan what she wanted, but she could only shake her head. “Well they all only want one thing when they show up here.” Miss Peach curled her mouth in contempt. The reddish mole above her upper lip was laughing. She laid Lan face down on the bed. Lan was surprised by the gentleness of her touch. “Don’t be scared,” Miss Peach breathed. Lan found the motion soothing. Miss Peach held the sharp ends over the candle flame, then pushed them, one after another, into the layers of skin on Lan’s back. After all the needles were inserted and removed, Miss Peach gave Lan a lump of fine black powder, twisted inside a piece of plastic. At home, on her own bed, Lan bit through the plastic and the powder streamed rapidly down her throat.
Lan woke up with her stomach contracting painfully. Her husband was shaking her shoulders “Lan, wake up, wake up. Tell me what’s wrong.” She bent over the side of the bed and vomited cloudy fluid that was neither food nor water. “I’m sorry. I didn’t want to be pregnant again.” She looked up at her husband’s face. His eyes were sallow and humiliated, ashamed of her, for her. “I forgive you,” he blinked. When her stomach had continued to expand, Lan had gone back to Miss Peach. She’d studied Lan up and down, her face puckered and amused. “Well that’s God’s plan, not mine.”
“Can I hold him?” Nam asked tentatively.
“I never got to say goodbye to Nhan.” He picked up the baby by the armpits. With confidence, he held An under the arms and bounced him up and down. Baby An’s mouth opened into a little “o” and he reached for Nam’s face.
“I think she didn’t want to see me.”
“She had a lot on her mind.”
“I always knew she was meant to do many things.”
“You think so?” she asked. Nathalie wanted to be as good as her siblings. But did she particularly want anything else? For herself?
“She told me once—when her brother sent you five hundred francs, you had left the envelope on the kitchen table for a month. She said the foreign currency was precious to you because her brother had sent it. It showed how great he was. It showed he could give back to his family.”
Lan remembered that day. She had been waiting for Cory’s letter. But instead the mailman had handed her a red package. She’d ripped it open, and inside was another red envelope with the golden letters Happy New Year in three languages, French, Chinese, and Vietnamese.
Just the week before, she too had sent him a red envelope. She didn’t know what five hundred thousand dong would amount to in euros but it was all she could scrape together. She accompanied it with a letter saying she hoped he could buy something nice. She sent the same amount to Amy. Nathalie and Nathan got fifty thousand dong each, enough for a textbook and perhaps a new shirt.
She counted the colorful, foreign bills. Nathalie said that was enough to buy a new calf, or groceries for many years. Lan couldn’t believe it. She wrung her hands together and wept. Her eyes would stay red for the whole day. Nathalie thought she was overcome with happiness. The girl kept looking at her mother and smiling. But Lan was more confused. She had never possessed such a large sum of money. Before, she used to sit and dream about how Cory spent his days, what he picked out from the market, how he may eat with a book open in front of him. But she couldn’t imagine anymore. She couldn’t know or understand what life was like for him. They were in separate worlds.
“Is there anything I can do for you, Nam?” she finally asked the boy.
“No—I wanted to see how you were doing. The baby—”
His eyes lit up as if he had not expected the confirmation this early on. He swallowed. “Can I come see you both, sometimes? I want to marry Nhan one day—I will be able to lift such a burden from you. I don’t mean that you don’t love the baby, just that it wasn’t your responsibility. It is mine. I’m so grateful—I will figure something out, I promise. I won’t dare to ask for Nhan until then. I won’t bring the subject up again, only, I only wanted for you to know— My intentions—” He stumbled. She studied his youthful face. His cheeks still roundandfull,his lashes long and batting—a dreamer, she thought. His voice was cracking, the rhythm went up and down, sometimes low and raspy, others high and singsong, out of control. He was only a child, barely transitioning into manhood.