i am writing you a letter from beyond the grave, and i am telling you everything you long to hear.
You asked me to write down all the things I never told you about living on your own. The combinations of cleaning supplies I always stopped you from pouring into the bath, the seasonings you never learned in full because I always only asked you to fetch the spices for me, never to pour. I will write these things for you, but I will tell you, too, that the point is not to memorize but to feel them, in the creases of your palms and in the weight of lifting each finger. This is something your grandmother taught me, not with words but with her body, the way it expanded and contracted in size depending on the others in the room. This is how you will learn
to live yourself.
It took until I was 16 to learn of my mother’s first love. Before that age I just assumed she was incapable. It wasn’t that she couldn’t love anyone; after all, she certainly loved my brother and me, brought us snacks after school and buckled us into our car seats even when we were old enough that it became embarrassing. New car seats, top of the line in safety, scrimped and saved for in our secondhand car with paint side-swiped off in an accident that didn’t happen with her babies in the backseat and so didn’t matter to my mother. That was the type of love I grew up on during the day. At night it was a different story; my father came home late and I learned the sound of his key in the latch like a skittish Pavlov’s dog. Over time, I intuited a similar reaction from my mother—the radio was turned down, pot lids hustled into the sink to seem like less of a mess—an intuition that excluded my mother, her back slightly stooped and her eyes squinted behind wire-framed reading glasses, from romance.
It wasn’t in cluelessness that I thought so, so few clues were there to be had—she didn’t keep souvenirs, no old hatbox filled with sepia photographs and love letters. There wasn’t room for any such thing in her bag the day she left Vietnam on a boat, crammed in with her six brothers. The story of that day I learned young, as it was it was lofted over me each time I wanted to leave grains of rice on my plate at dinner. I didn’t learn of the older story, that of this love, until I was learning to drive myself, scraping new dents into the car’s fender every time I jumped a curb. To her credit, my mother was very stoic in these situations, though I could see the way her grip on the door handle tightened with each turn.
When did you learn how to drive? I asked her once we’d settled onto a plane of flat road, thinking to distract.
My boyfriend taught me, she said. It was hard for me to get gas back then—my father was away at war—but he would sit in his car with me. I was much better at this than you were. Didn’t require so much patience.
I wanted to offer some sort of retort, insinuate something, but I felt too much as if I’d been transported into a fragile world. Not the Vietnam my mother usually talked about, which she did in terms of food and French at school and cousins, but one where concepts of Love and War, things I only knew through secondhand studies, loomed quotidianly. I was the same age as my mother must have been with this boy, but the journey I’d have to take to get there—where she had been—necessitated the crossing of far too many dimensions. I shifted my hands on the wheel.
You should move closer to the wheel, my mother chastised. Otherwise your arms will get stiff. She was in fact right about this; after every time we practiced driving I raced to the bathroom I shared with my brother, locked the door, and plunged my arms under warm water until the harshness of that remembered position faded away. But there was nothing that would have been more frivolous than to mention that weakness, and so I just grimaced and moved the seat back, listened to the clangs of the car, its constant threat to fall apart.
1. you can, in fact, hear from me. I am somewhere where such a thing as words still exist, where some kind of message, whether it be soundwave, binary code, or spirit, can depart.
2. I had feelings just like you did, when I was alive. the colors were the same then, too, nothing like your alternate imaginings, not the black and white of a war film nor the vivid color of a romantic comedy.
You should not fall in love. I see it in you already, the coming of the age when you will want to do so, the words that live like marbles in the space between your gums and cheeks, ready to roil and tumble out. I can feel it coming off of you, the way it did with me, the total absorption of yourself in the idea that you can save someone else, end their pain and your own as one. I want to tell you that that will never come true, because that is all I have tried to do for you and still you search for it. I have never met a woman for whom that search has come to an end in any way other than how mine did: with the sight of my home over the water and the truth that nothing
perfect can be known.
I had thought nothing of my mother’s love before Skyler. Skyler was this: boy, lacrosse player, very blonde, foreign power, sat in front of me in United States History. I thought myself lucky for the latter; in previous grades, he had gotten in trouble for teasing the girls sitting in front of him in class, in one instance going so far as to saw at a girl’s ponytail with a pocketknife he had snuck into the school. It is not clear to me now why I liked being an exception to this pattern of violence. Really, I should have seen the seat arrangement as both a gift and a warning from God, coaching me away from the fate I so desperately wanted.
My first date with Skyler was at a mall. I felt so fifteen that I could have exploded with it. We went to Auntie Anne’s and split not a pretzel, which I would’ve thought romantic, but a bag of “nuggets”. Afterwards he kissed me and it was salty and I did not care whether I was loved, whether love was at all in my future, because in that moment, I knew myself to be wanted.
That night I lay in bed for a long time without falling asleep. That’s another thing the movies never show you; the moments afterwards, when you’re dwelling on the exceptional thing that has happened to you, are what make up the bulk of any change in life. The actual hammer of it only takes a second. For instance, it was not that my mother had departed Vietnam, but that she landed in America after that, a place that could not help but remind her, unceasingly, that she was no longer at home.
I thought about the fact that even though I had now kissed someone, I could not think of a time that I had actually witnessed a kiss happen, except in the movies or on television, and even then, only when I managed to get the money to see a movie with a friend of mine. It was as if romance had been anesthetized out of our house. I let my arms spread out until they reached either side of my twin-sized bed. Not room enough for another, I knew.
Things with Skyler did not last for long after that. He was not the type of boy who tended to stay in one place for very long, and he was certainly not the type of boy to be ashamed of his tendencies. This was something that I envied in him, though I wasn’t able to identify the emotion until many years later. Maybe part of the reason I liked him so much in the first place was how easy it was for him, two weeks after we kissed in full view of the Macy’s parking lot, to not turn around in his chair in history class, not even once. To let go of something with such little effort that I questioned if he’d held it in the first place.
3. it is possible to receive the love you believe you deserve. it is possible to
receive the love you deserve.
But you should learn to watch others. There came a time in my life, as there will be in yours, when I looked in the mirror and saw past myself. I do suspect that it had something to do with your father sleeping in the background, the mound of his body beneath the blanket like roadkill under snow. If he were to read this he would tell me that that’s not a fair metaphor to make, that I know nothing about roadkill, I who passed her drivers exam after practicing not the American rules of the road but rather the phrases I would need to say aloud with a scant enough accent to persuade the examiner that I was someone who belonged here in the first place. I would not, could not, be like your father, a man who had known all his life guns, strength, and the need to
make smaller things curl at his feet
The second time I heard of my mother’s first love was after a party. I had never been to a party before, and even once I was there—there being the backyard of some kid from the debate team—I was not sure that the occasion properly qualified as a such; our team was emaciated and so there were only about ten people present, eating soggy lime Tostitos and drinking from unmarked bottles that a stepmom had kindly left out for us. I felt like a waste, and it did not take more than a drink for me to wander away from the group and to the part of the backyard where grass turned to dirt. Convincing myself I was buzzed, I began a contemplation about everyone who had preceded me in this family—eons of Vietnamese women with the same nose as I, just pointy enough to be unusual for a Southeast Asian girl, the same slightly gapped teeth. Would they judge me or celebrate? Later that night when one of the other boys from the debate team came up behind me and maybe drunkenly, maybe not, let his hand slip down from my shoulder and into the neckline of my low-cut but too-loose t-shirt, I wondered if they had had to deal with this too.
I almost asked my mother about it on the way home. I had had to call her to pick me up, which embarrassed and ashamed me until the designated driver asked me for a ride and I started the recitation in my head of a thousand health-class mantras.
I used to act like this at your age, she said as soon as we had dropped Sara off and were merging onto the freeway to get back to our house. My boyfriend used to bring me liquor.
Oh really? I said, feigning the same calm tone that she was using, though my heart was beating quickly. It wasn’t so much that I wanted gossip. What was done was done, surely; even then, I didn’t have any rom-com fantasies of reuniting my mother with her long-lost love in a Saigon street-side café or anything like that. I knew that people like us didn’t get those moments, that kind of cinematic brilliance. I just wanted to know my mother a little better.
Yes, she said. Like he had the car, he could afford the alcohol. Not that he ever drove and drunk, she said, letting the chastising lighten the moment.
But our exit was in three and I knew that if I didn’t ask then, in the sanctity of our loneliness and the wash of the streetlights, I might never know. I spent hours with my mother every day back then, me at the dining table in a chair whose legs never all touched the floor at the same time, she in the kitchen chopping onions, me feeling terrible because I wasn’t helping, both of us waiting for my brother or father to lumber into the room and demand something greater from both of us, but I never really talked to her. I don’t know why it is so much harder to exchange these words with the people you know best. What happened after that? I asked.
She shrugged. We left and I never saw him again.
Didn’t you try?
She shook her head. Some things you just have to accept.
There were dishes piled by the sink when we got home, and all I wanted to do was go to bed. But I slipped my sleeves up my arms and stared out the window: no view except for myself, and no warmth except for the burn of the water. I wished I could have been dizzy on my feet, laughing and hysterical like the other kids a million miles away in the debate boy’s backyard, but I was as myself as I always was, sober, sobering.
4. I am more than a character in a war film—I could have been a character in a romance, in a comedy, in any genre you could imagine.
5. This is something still possible for you to learn.
I promise, though; your father will never read this, and neither will your brother, who sleeps in his room now though I know you have already risen. So he will never know the surety I felt, holding my belly, knowing the life inside would be another daughter. Oh, the curse unbroken, and by the sister among six brothers, always mopping the floor in the aftermath of a wave I would never understand. If only there had been some story to read, some fate perceptible before it crashed over me. But I love your brother and my disappointment is mine to hold.
My mother never dreamed about the war. None of the sort you see in movies, where the character gasps awake and clutches the sweaty sheets. I don’t think she would have allowed herself something that expressive, especially not in a bed she shared.
I was far more prone. Mine usually took a more conceptual tone, with the recurring impression being that I was left behind somewhere. Many train stations, though one time at a dock. It was a double exception: usually I was both forgotten and alone, but this place was crowded, the sky was inflamed and furious, and the sea was calling me over. I didn’t realize until years afterwards that I had inherited my mother’s nightmare, not until after I had begun thinking that more than a body could be hereditary.
Though she had managed to avoid any threats to her sedate manner by passing them along to me, there were times that I was afraid of my mother. They were not often, but they were usually just after she had been reminded of her own. I memorized the important dates throughout my childhood; my mother’s own birthday, as well as the day my grandmother died, and learned to stay away from her on them. I never knew what quite happened between them, and it was a frequent wish of mine that my grandmother had stayed around long enough for me to find out. I could only judge from my mother’s hurt, which, so often cloaked in her private domains, took those days as a chance to spill over.
And so my mother chose painful waking hours over nightmares, and so in the night she would not sleep. I would wake to the sound of her rearranging furniture, the groan of the couch as she slid it across the not-quite-hardwood floors. My brother and father both slept soundly, so the nighttimes felt like the domain of my mother and I.
I would always feel as if I should get up and help her. I used to, when I was younger. It would always happen in silence; she never asked me to do anything, but I would wordlessly transfer throw pillows or, on the nights when she was too tired for that, sit with her on the very sofa and watch game shows late into the early morning. Eventually, though, I grew too old for these things, turned over and fell back asleep. I always felt bad, as if I was resigning her to the same fate of abandonment I feared, but she gave me too much work during the day by then, a list of chores that I would gripe over, complaining that I felt like a second mother to my brother.
I felt bad about that, too, that there would be an extent of work that would be “too much” for me to do, even as my mother insisted that I not get a real job so that I could focus on my studies and on my college applications. I was lazy and ungrateful, these things I knew more than anything else, and I knew, too, that there would be no reward for enduring these things, because even any achievement I could manage would be overshadowed by the fact that I had not gone through very much suffering to get there. Above me would always be my mother, shouldering a burden too large for me even to see.
6. your mother is more than your mother.
7. and i didn’t mean to hit her. my hand just slipped. it was an isolated
instance of violence, and it disappeared from the minds of everyone involved immediately.
You should learn early on if your house is haunted. Americans have some odd idea about what constitutes one, but I watched a scary movie with your grandmother once before she left us and she was so unphased that I came to understand that their idea of a poltergeist, a brash malevolence ruining a veneer of decency, is not true. It is not that kind of violence that scares people like you and I. It is the kind that occupies our bodies, that stills our tongues under weight and plunges our hands into cold rivers to earn a cleanliness that will never stick. I have been haunted my whole life, since the first bullet ricocheted off the side of my house, since I saw someone drown from the water, since I learned some people never come back, since I needed a
ghost in the first place.
It surprised me that I did not dwell on pain the night before I was to leave home. My bags were packed and set by the doorway of my room, my bed stripped to all but a single pillow, my walls patterned with an odd sun-tan from their lack of posters. Before I went to sleep, pulled the comforter over me for the last time until Christmas because my family could not afford the airfare home for Thanksgiving, a fact I had already made my peace with, I walked around our home like I had never before been there. The display case of my grandmother’s glass figurines that was always full of blue light from the television; the drabness of the carpet in the hall and the stain that no amount of pouring fizzy cleaner over it would fix.
I had adapted into affection for this place only as my mother had taught me how to leave it: the past few months had been a constant lesson, more intensive than those of years prior, in how to keep house. Who knew how applicable these skills would be in other places; certainly, certain formulae, recipes, folding patterns were worth it, but there was knowledge that I possessed now that might be forever unable to regain use. I knew that the next day, when I pulled my carry-on with its broken wheel up three flights of stairs into my new dorm because the elevator would be filled with people who believed they deserved to be there more than I did, I would have to begin again, the rules of a new place etching over those of the past seventeen years, minimal sanding required.
The surprising thing was that I did not feel grief for any of that. Rather, I felt gratitude; my mother had undergone it on a scale many times over, and yet she had kept me from it until now, like covering a child’s eyes during a graphic movie scene or persisting in the delusion that pets go off to anywhere other than death. It was a kindness of innocence, and I knew then that I had forsaken something I would never be able to repay.
8. the loss is something we can get over. we can turn everyone in those
photographs, in that war, all the way back into amoebas of bleach.
9. we can return to our country. no, that’s not what you want to hear. we can
return to our home.
I wish I could fix it all for you. I wish I could have made a world that was not only real, but good for you to live in. I didn’t know it then, but I brought you to this country with me, and the way I did it should have meant that you never had to live the pain of the journey. Still, though, you are always searching. I could tell you to stop, but I know there is no point. No matter what I say, you will always feel something fast behind you, alluring like nothing but belonging ever is, and you will always feel the need to turn and see it. There is nothing that can be done.