“You’re an insolent child, coming here after this much time has passed. But I forgive you because this isn’t easy. And here you are.”
Nam bowed his head. His tense shoulders loosened. “What is the baby’s name?”
“An.” She beamed.
“I like it. Simple and universal. Anyone could pronounce it.”
“Yes, he certainly won’t need to change it to an English or French name. It would suffice.”
Two years passed. Now, Nam never neglected a single weekend of visiting Lan and baby An. At first, she was cautious about Nam’s presence, hushing the baby’s nascent questions and growing attachment to the only man in their life. But as she watched the boy hunched over his homework at the kitchen table like her children had once done, she felt her heart contract painfully.
“Why don’t you go out with your friends? Live your life. Youth does not last forever,” she told him.
“I like being here. It feels natural to me.” He smiled the smile of a child who has lost his innocence and is pleased with it.
“I just don’t want you to feel obligated,” She offered.
“I give myself the obligations. I know I don’t have to. But that’s why it feels even better to do what is right, knowing in my heart it is and without being told.”
“You have become a bright young man. Nhan would be pleased.”
Being in a foreign land, Nathalie missed her mother more than her own son. She remembered baby An as she would a younger brother. But she never told anybody about her life back home. There would be too much to explain from her past, and too much they would assume. It was also the first time she heard her English name uttered by strangers as if it encompassed the whole of her identity. She liked being free that way, like a newborn, with nothing attached to the name Nathalie.
That was until she met Quang. Part Chinese, he was tall, wide-framed, and had slanted eyes that looked cold and intelligent. His parents had purposefully chosen a name that sounded both Chinese and Vietnamese. With a slight accent, he insisted on calling Nathalie by her Vietnamese name. And just like that her whole life spilled out in front of her. She spoke without restraint and collapsed into Quang as if he were the carrier of her secrets, as if he were responsible for them as much as she.
“All the beautiful people have a past.” He pulled her head closer to his broad chest.
The wedding news echoed over the phone. Lan received the words with quiet, resigned anger, like hot coal still burning but not enough for flames. Nathalie explained that it would be best for everyone if Lan and the baby moved to Singapore. “He’s kind enough to offer to adopt An,” she said. But Lan did not feel that it was kindness; it was coercion, a clever cloy to uproot Nathalie’s past, the only thing that wasn’t under Quang’s thumb. Of course a baby implied that there was a father too, that Nathalie wasn’t alone. “He would own you. It is a charity. Nothing would be ours. Do you want to be a charity?” Nathalie wept. Lan tried to understand her daughter’s slurred words but the line had gone blank. Nathalie had hung up.
The worst thing was that none of the other children thought it was a bad idea. She had immediately telephoned Cory, Amy, and Nathan on the same day and gotten voicemail for all three. She spoke into the vacant recorder, persuading them that if she left, they would no longer have a home to return to. When they called her back, it was to express how wonderful it would be for her to be looked after, to finally enjoy her life and not have to bend her back under the scorching sun. Nathan was the only one to show any sign of regret. The more she tried to convince them that she loved her work, that she didn’t know any other life, the more she felt the aching in her back. Her hand trembled to hold the receiver in place. She hung up and wept silently, letting her tears traverse the many wrinkles on her face, not bothering to wipe them away.
She understood that she was the only one to fight and protect this home, this pocket filled with memories of her children and her husband, opening and closing the door each day. Her husband had fixed the hinges right before he’d fallen ill. After the bamboo creaked for the thousandth time, he took a half-breath and never exhaled again, leaving Lan unable to sooth Nathalie’s sharp cries. She was only a little girl then.
How tired she was. She would not fix the fractures in the cement wall that had started as a single fissure and now branched into a spidery pattern over the entire house. She would not ask her neighbor to weave her a new roof of banana leaves, because fresh ones would attract more bugs, which were worse than the dry, crumbling roof.
She was lifted and scattered into the air like the million seeds of dandelion. When she looked back, the banana tree had diminished into a single dot, but she could still see Nam underneath a leaf’s shadow, his boyish face contorted in pain and accusation. He waved his arms violently, mouthing something she could only guess to be “Don’t let my son forget me.” But even with his youthful strength, he couldn’t change the course of the wind.
Nathalie and Quang picked her and An up from the airport and apologized for taking so long—a full fifteen minutes to get there. Quang said “Burlington square. Bencolin Street” to the taxi driver. He nodded and declared “Okay la!” with enthusiasm then drove without a word for the rest of the trip. The building was a high-rise, with green tinted glass window all the way to the top.
Lan nervously stepped inside the elevator, which took them to the fifteenth floor. She was glad to see the house was small like back home, except divided into three separate bedrooms with a shared area of the living room and kitchen. Out the window, houses and buildings toppled over each other in want of space. “Like weeds in a field,” she murmured.
Quang showed her to the bedroom and excitedly informed her that he had removed the mattress and replaced it with a straw mat.
“Nhan told me that the mattress would hurt your back,” he said.
“Thank you,” said Lan. She sat down on the mat, felt the familiar hard pack of straw beneath her.
An squirmed in Nathalie’s arms. She let him down to the ground.
“How big he’s gotten,” she said. An took tentative steps toward the bed. He crawled into his grandmother’s lap and lay his head against her shoulder. Lan felt his breath on her neck and began to sway him to sleep, singing long, yearning notes. Nathalie sat beside her mother and hummed softly to her song. Together, the sounds of their voices draped the whole room with memory and carried them away.
An fell asleep instantly.