At eight she was only a child when she came to Virginia from Vietnam. The year she turned seventeen Kim Ly met Annabella, a classmate of mixed racial parentage. She had brown skin and fuzzy black hair from her African American blood. Though her mother was Vietnamese, Annabella’s face had no Asian features. Her broad shoulders were particularly brawny when she
wore a close-fitting shirt, and she loved tight shirts. She was taller than most girls in the class. In skirts with knee-high white stockings, her long legs loped in happy strides.
Kim Ly didn’t talk much to her until one afternoon when they happened to leave the classroom together. Books in arms, she glanced at Annabella and saw a picture of a white horse on the front of her notebook, inserted between the cover and a plastic wrapping. The horse was galloping along a stream, his mane swept back.
“He’s beautiful,” Kim Ly said.
“She.” Annabella pointed between its hind legs.
“Oh.” Kim Ly laughed.
“You like horses?”
“Yes, but I’ve never ridden one.”
“She’s my horse.” Annabella handed Kim Ly the notebook. “She’s very beautiful.”
“Where is she?”
“At our country place.”
For a moment Kim Ly envied Annabella. The white horse’s splendor made her catch her breath. She handed the notebook back to Annabella.
“I can teach you to ride,” Annabella said. “Come out.”
“Why?” Annabella put her hand on Kim Ly’s shoulder and brushed back Kim Ly’s hair.
“I don’t have a car.”
“I’ll give you a ride. Just tell me where you live.”
They walked again, side by side. Annabella’s arm brushed hers.
“You drive?” Kim Ly said. “I’m impressed.”
“I’m seventeen, Kim Ly. Age of consensual sex.”
Her laugh made Kim Ly giggle. Then she, too, laughed, loud and free.
One Sunday morning they drove to the ranch in Annabella’s Volkswagen. Between the front seats and behind the gearshift was a lunch basket wrapped with a tartan cloth. Her arm resting on the window ledge, Annabella drove with one hand. Her yellow tank top gleamed against her brown skin, and Kim Ly noticed she didn’t shave her underarms.
“You’re Vietnamese, right?” Annabella asked.
“Yes.” The breeze was warm on Kim Ly’s chest, where the top button of her cotton shirt wasunfastened.
“Tell me about yourself,” Annabella said.
“What do you want to know?”
“Just tell me. Or you want me to tell you about me?”
Before she spoke again, Annabella peered into the rearview mirror and quickly moved into the opposite lane and overtook the car in front. The Volkswagen roared as she sped off. “My
father was a sergeant major in the U.S. Army,” she said. “He was discharged after he lost a leg, courtesy of a Viet Cong booby trap. But he brought me back home with him.”
Kim Ly looked back at Annabella. “You ever lived in Vietnam?”
“Of course not. Well, as an infant, yes, but I grew up in Virginia. He raised me here when he came back and entered business. He owns a cement factory.”
“So he took you from your mother?”
“She didn’t want to come to America with him.”
“How old were you then?”
“Do you wish you had stayed with her?”
“Why would I? I’m fortunate that he got me out.”
Kim Ly leaned back from the full sun on the windshield. America too offered her opportunities she wouldn’t have in a country ravaged by the war now long over. Kim Ly shifted her face from the sun. “Were they married?”
“My parents?” Annabella laughed. “No. C’mon. When you’re a black, native girls run away from you. My father said they called them ‘Mỹ Đen.’” She glanced at Kim Ly. “You know about
this, don’t you?”
“How did they meet?”
“During a search-and-destroy operation. In a hamlet in Vietnam. He raped her.”
Kim Ly drew a sharp breath. “And then what?”
“He came back and asked her to marry him.”
“So there was romance.”
“You’re funny. Except they didn’t marry.” Seeing Kim Ly’s pensive look, Annabella put her hand on Kim Ly’s thigh. “What are you thinking?”
Kim Ly shrugged and crossed her legs. “And you didn’t miss your mother at all? I mean for not having a family together?”
“I never had it. What am I supposed to miss?”
They drove onto a graveled path up to a white worm fence. Beyond the enclosure a herd of horses, all chestnut, grazed near a red-roofed barn. Among them was a white horse. Kim Ly
shaded her eyes against the sun. “Are those your horses?”
“I wish.” Annabella got out of the car and strode toward the stable. “They belong to the man who owns the place next to ours. He takes care of my horse for me.”
Annabella fetched the saddle from the barn, then led her horse into the enclosure. The grass smelled sweetly dry and warm. “We’ll ride together,” Annabella said. “See if you can handle
Kim Ly mounted the white horse with a firm push in the back from Annabella who swung up behind her and took the reins. “Put your feet in the stirrups,” Annabella said, “and hold onto the pommel.” With a nudge of her heel she turned the horse and put it into a trot.
Kim Ly felt Annabella’s arms around her. Sinewy, shiny with sweat. The breeze was warm. The heat smelled like rusty iron. The horse broke into a gallop and Kim Ly leaned back, feeling
Annabella’s chest and collarbones against the nape of her neck.
“Give me the reins,” Kim Ly said. She took the reins and gave them a tug. Galloping, the horse bounced them and the white fence flew past. The sun was hot in her face and Annabella’s
hands gripped her by the hips.
“If you want to slow her down,” Annabella said loudly, “tighten the reins. Bring your legs against her sides.”
“I want to go faster.”
“So do I.” Annabella heeled the horse and it galloped. Kim Ly held onto the reins, watching the rippling, silky mane. The mare snorted. Her hide smelled wet and strong.
“Bend!” Annabella shouted, and Kim Ly ducked. “No! Like this.” Annabella pressed against
Kim Ly’s abdomen, pushed on her back halfway down. “Like when you ride a bike against the wind.”
The breeze was warm in Kim Ly’s face. She felt Annabella clinging to her. She could smell the horse and felt an exhilaration that made her want to shout. They slowed as the horse frothed
and sweat beaded on her neck.
“Halt!” Kim Ly shouted and pulled on the reins. The horse reared, then settled down. They dismounted, laughing. Annabella patted the horse.
Under a wild plum they sat. The horse watched them over the fence, kicked out a hind leg, and walked in circle a few times and then stood. “I’m hungry. Are you?” Annabella lifted the
cloth that covered the basket. Inside were canapés arranged on a plate and two bottles of water. Kim Ly took a bite of a canapé. The topping was rich with paté. “You made this?”
“These little things? Our maid did. She’s a lot more patient than me.” Annabella wiped her brow with her forearm. “I sweat a lot.”
Sweat stains on her chest revealed her skin under her tank top. Kim Ly averted her eyes.
“What did you have? Paté?” Annabella asked. “You like salmon?”
“Is it good?”
“Here, try.” Annabella picked a canapé with salmon and lifted it to Kim Ly’s lips. Kim Ly took a bite. “Good?”
“Delicious.” Kim Ly drank from the bottle. They ate the salmon canapés. Annabella wiped the corners of her mouth with her thumb and forefinger. “What’s your father’s business?”
“He was a North Vietnamese soldier.” Then hesitantly Kim Ly said she was living with her Vietnamese parents through adoption.
“What happened to your father?”
“My real father?”
“He’s dead.” Kim Ly saw questions in Annabella’s eyes, and before the girl asked, she told
Annabella that her mother couldn’t make ends meet. “We were poor,” she said tonelessly. “You couldn’t imagine the poverty in South Vietnam, Annabella.”
“Do you want to go back and live with your mom?” Annabella asked as she lay down on her back. “The war is over now.”
That thought had occurred to Kim Ly, and in her letters home she asked if the country was stable enough for her to return. Her mother wrote back, asking why she wanted to come home.
To be together again, Kim Ly answered.
She told Annabella her mother asked her to stay in America for a better life. “We are an independent nation,” her mother wrote, “but we are not modern. Everything is still backward, and at night the oxcarts still come through to collect feces barrels.”
Annabella cushioned her head on her arms and gazed at the sky. Kim Ly lay down, keeping a space between them, hands folded behind her neck. Through narrowed eyes, she saw patches of blue sky among elliptical leaves pale on the undersides.
“What does your mom look like?”
Kim Ly closed her eyes. How could she describe her mother? She pictured her face always solemn, a mouth seldom smiling. “She’s petite,” Kim Ly said, touching her pendant.
“How did your parents meet? I mean your mom and your real dad.”
Kim Ly recalled the story her mother shared with her. “My mother’s father was a village teacher, and my father was one of his students before he became a Viet Cong.”
“Now, that’s romance. Right?”
She did not see her mother ever having had romance in her life. Still Kim Ly nodded, then said yes.
“Your dad was a Viet Cong,” Annabella said. “Wouldn’t your mom hate the Americans?”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Because your mom didn’t tell you?”
“She did.” Kim Ly sighed, “but I’m not in a mood to talk about it.”
Kim Ly shut her eyes.
“Pretty gem.” Annabella’s voice came from above.
Kim Ly opened her eyes and met Annabella’s gaze a hand-span from her face, her eyes very black, wet-looking.
“Looks exotic,” Annabella said and touched the pendant on Kim Ly’s chest. “I have a jade Buddha, but I’ve never worn it.”
“Why not?” Kim Ly stared into Annabella’s eyes.
“I don’t know.”
“It doesn’t look nice on you, or you don’t like jade?” Kim Ly narrowed her eyes to examine Annabella’s chest. “I think your skin looks nicer with gold. Don’t you think?”
Annabella shrugged. “It wasn’t bought for me. It’s one of those things my dad got hold of during his years in Vietnam. He called it his loot.” Her hand remained on the bare skin below
Kim Ly’s throat. “This looks lovely on you,” she said, peering into Kim Ly’s eyes. Annabella’s dark pupils were still, her lips slightly parted. “I want to kiss you.”
Kim Ly pushed up on her elbows. Annabella moved with her and sat with one leg stretched.
“I’m not what you think I am,” Kim Ly said.
Annabella tucked in her lower lip. “Okay,” she said. “You don’t mind what I said, no?”
“Good. Let’s ride.”
She was eight when she came to America.
The day she met her adoptive father the second time in Vietnam, Kim Ly didn’t remember him. Thin and his hair completely gray, he wore wire-rimmed glasses, and his teeth were
streaked with rust-colored cigarette stains. A Vietnamese expatriate living most of his life in America, Jack Lê’s eyes smiled as he hugged her, swinging her around. “Boy, oh boy, how you’ve grown!” She warmed to him. He put her down, unwrapped a chocolate bar and gave it to her. “You’ll love American chocolate, my dear,” he said. “I have a sweet tooth myself.”
They arrived at the airport in Virginia at dusk. The terminals were bright with neon lights. Voices called greetings, suitcases clattered. Outside the gate a young man waited as people
streamed by. Jack called out. “André!”
André hugged him. “So nice to see you back, Ba,” he said, tossing back his long hair, then stooped to shake hands with Kim Ly. “You must be Kim Ly.”
Timid, she nodded. The long locks of his hair hung to his shoulders like a mane. The young man jiggled keys in his left hand. “You drive, André,” Jack said to his son. “I’m too tired.”
Kim Ly crossed her arms on her chest, watching houses and store signs and yellow streetlights. When the road was dark, everyone silent, she leaned her head against the window, looking at André’s profile. Though she had only met him, she liked him.
They made it home in a heavy rain. The Lê’s townhouse had a door painted dark green with cement steps leading up to a narrow porch. Downstairs a living room connected to a dining room and a kitchen; upstairs were three bedrooms. They put Kim Ly’s suitcase in a bedroom overlooking the street. Marie, her adoptive mother, stood at the window, gazing at a red brick
duplex across the street.
“André lives here too?” Kim Ly asked.
“He used to. He lives in Pittsburg now, dear,” Marie said, closing the curtains.
Rain rattled the window glass; the street blurred. Downstairs the lights were bright, and the cooking smells made Kim Ly feel at home. At supper with the Lês, she ate slowly, tasting the
pike quenelles in the mushroom sauce.
“Your mother is a good cook,” Jack said. “She’d lived half of her life in France.”
The baguettes were crispy. Jack ate half a loaf. They passed around a saucer of rich smelling butter. After supper Marie made coffee, and they chatted in the living room until Marie took Kim Ly upstairs, made her brush her teeth and put her to bed.
“We’ll go shop for winter clothes tomorrow,” Marie said, pulling the covers up to Kim Ly’s chest.
Kim Ly tugged at her sleeve. “Aren’t you going to bed?”
“Soon, dear.” Marie turned off the light.
In the murmur of rain Kim Ly slept, then woke. The room was dark; rain tapped on the windowpanes. She heard Jack and Marie talk about buying her winter clothes—coats, scarves,
gloves—the pattering rain imprinting her sleep with rapid-fire notes. “Mẹ ơi!” she sobbed. The room seemed big, swaying.
She slept again and woke to a sudden emptiness. The rain had stopped, and only the wind rattled the panes. Voices still droned from downstairs. Sitting up, she cried. A dark figure came in, stirring the air as it sat down beside her.
“It’s okay.” André patted her head. “Everything will be all right.” The sleeve of his coarse woolen sweater brushed her face. It smelled like old clothes left long in a drawer.
“When . . . can I see Mother again?”
“When the time is right.” His Vietnamese had a faint accent.
“Will she stay with us?”
“Of course. Now go back to sleep.”
She raised her head from the pillow. “Stay with me?”
“Sure,” he mumbled, “sure.” He let her hold his hand, and the emptiness slowly went away.
In those days Kim Ly wrote home every other week. Her neat cursive Vietnamese handwriting impressed Marie. She examined Kim Ly’s hands. “You have the markings of an artist, Kim Ly.” She counted ten perfectly formed whorls on her Kim Ly’s fingertips. “No
wonder your handwriting is beautiful.”
Kim Ly read from the letter she just wrote home.
In it, she answered her mother’s questions about what she ate for breakfast, lunch and dinner. “Marie made me a glass of hand-squeezed orange juice every morning and I have to eat an apple before I go to school.” She said she liked the fluffy croissants with confiture at breakfast and sometimes just a slice of baguette with salted butter. Just yesterday, she told her mother, Jack and Marie took her to town to shop for clothes. The autumn weather was brisk. Their old Volvo died, and Jack had to ask a neighbor to help jump his own car. The engine sputtered, then caught.
They walked the wide, clean streets outside the Mall. Back home streets were narrow, smelly, black with sewage running down the gutters. Her adoptive parents were surprised to see that she could walk all morning.
After dark all was quiet. Marie said the town didn’t have much of a nightlife. That night Kim Ly slept soundly for the first time.
The letters from home came once a month, one sheet each time, different ink from letter to letter. “I buy ink pellets, whatever the store has that day, when I need to write you,” her mother wrote. Kim Ly saved all the letters her mother wrote and the stamps that bore either a zebra bullhead shark or a Bengal tiger. She studied the colors and the tiny notched edges, imagining their journeys from her mother’s house to a local post office, then on a plane to America, then
from city to city until they reached her.
One day Jack carried a tray full of mail into the kitchen. She stopped him just before he bagged them up for trash. She got the stamps off his mail by soaking them in a pail of water. One
afternoon when Jack came back from work, he gave her a wine-red velvet album. “If you want to collect stamps,” he said, “here’s a place to store them.” Inside each sheet was lined with
horizontal plastic strips, and he showed her how to pick the stamps up with a pair of tweezers.
She would sit and pore over the stamp album, losing herself in pictures and colors that bore the names of countries from all over the world. Names unknown to her revealed themselves
when she looked them up in Jack’s huge dictionary with colored maps and the names of everything God put on earth.
After two years, Kim Ly wrote her mother that she had made friends with someone who shared her interest in collecting stamps. “Remember I told you about André? He came back to
stay with his parents for the time being. The print shop where he worked was closed, and he was out of a job. I haven’t seen him since we met.”
One morning it had freezing rain and the schools opened late. Marie stood shivering in her wrinkled pajamas in the doorway after Jack left. “Cold this morning,” she said, clutching an old
yellow shawl beneath her chin. “You have two more hours before you go to school. Sleep if you’re still sleepy.”
The house smelled of brewed coffee and old furniture. Marie went upstairs and Kim Ly dozed off on the robin’s-egg-blue sofa. She woke to the sound of footsteps on the stairs. André,
wearing jeans and a blue work shirt, stood on the stairway leaning over the brown wooden handrail. He nodded and said, “Hello, Kim Ly.”
“Hello.” She rubbed her eyes.
He came down and stood over her. “Still sleepy?” he smiled, combing back his long locks over his brow. “You’re a big girl now, Kim Ly.” He walked into the kitchen and came back moments later, cupping his hands around a coffee mug, thin steam curling around his bony
cheeks. Through the tall maroon shelves displaying books and antiques, Kim Ly watched him sit at the table near the dining-room window. The morning light glinted on the bridge of his nose.
“Have you had breakfast, Kim Ly?”
“Yes.” Kim Ly walked over and leaned against the table, across from him.
“What did you have?” He put butter and jam on a piece of bread.
“A croissant.” She paused. “And a cold apple.”
“I like to eat them cold.” Back home she had seen apples only in picture books.
He didn’t drink the coffee but wrapped his hands around the mug. His feet nudged a chair out at one end of the table. “Why don’t you sit down?”
She sat down on the gray vinyl-upholstered chair. Chewing slowly, André looked at her.
“Are you a fourth grader?”
“Do you speak good English now?”
She said yes with a nod, waiting to be asked more.
“Do you miss all your friends back home?”
She did, she said, but on reflection she realized she didn’t have many friends beyond her classmates. There hadn’t been much time for that. “I still see the pond by my old school in my
dreams,” she said. She told him about a dream in which she waded into the pond to pick bull nuts and saw the water teeming with snakes. She tossed a bag of bull nuts at them, but they kept
swimming toward her. She took off her pendant and threw it at the wriggling mass, and suddenly the water became as still as a mirror. Waking, she felt as if she had thrown away her whole past
with the pendant.
André looked absorbed. “My parents are busy people,” he said, capping the jar of confiture.
“If you can’t find friends your age to play with, you can always write to a pen pal. You know what that is?”
“You make friends with someone, usually from a different country, through writing letters.”
He sipped the coffee. “Would you like to do that?”
“How do I know if I’ll like the . . . friend?”
“Well, you pick someone you have something in common with.”
“Anything. Someone from your country. Someone your age or who likes to do what you do. Do you like to read?”
She remembered devouring Pinocchio in a Vietnamese translation. André asked why she liked the wooden boy. She said the wooden boy wanted to become a real boy by being good, and
that despite so much temptation around him, he still longed for what was right.
“Is that because you want to be good to everyone around you?”
“Yes.” She thought of what her mother had done for her.
André studied her, then complimented her on her hair. Marie had combed it back and tied it with a carnation-pink ribbon. “What else do you like to do besides read?”
“I collect stamps.”
“I do too.”
“Can I see them?”
He took her upstairs. His room was dim, the curtains drawn, the walls bare. In a corner an olive blanket draped a narrow bed without a pillow.
She shivered. “It’s colder here than downstairs.”
“I left the window open.” He flicked the desk lamp on. Kim Ly looked at a boy in a framed picture on the desk. In a black overcoat and a purple sweater, he leaned over the handrail of a footbridge. Wavy blond hair fell to his right shoulder, and his head was tilted as if he wanted to speak before the picture was taken.
“Who’s that boy?”
“My best friend.”
She looked at the boy again. “He’s nice.”
André said Alan was his childhood friend since elementary school, but after graduation he moved with his family to Canada. His father was a diplomat. “You know where Canada is?”
“Above the North America which is above South America.”
“I’m impressed.” André picked up a stack of mail tied by a rubber band and started going through it. She tried to make out the handwriting.
“From your best friend?”
“How did you know?” he said without looking up.
“It says Canada.”
With a smile, André looked at several letters. Then he took them to the bathroom where he soaked them under running water and started peeling the stamps off. Back in his room he opened a big round box lined with cotton and laid each individual stamp neatly on the cotton padding.
Then he brought out a white album and opened it. It was full of stamps.
“How long did it take to save those?”
“A long time.” He blew on his hands, then leaned forward across his desk, sniffing at a cluster of tiny yellow flowers arching from the neck of an old leather boot that stood against the wall.
“What kind of flowers are they?”
“Well, I don’t know. Some wildflowers I picked in the park.”
As he brought the flowers closer to her, his hand brushed her face.
“Your hand is cold.”
He blew on his hands again and grinned. “I’m sorry.”
Kim Ly removed her hands from her pants pockets and pressed them to his cheeks. They were bony and warm. André closed his eyes momentarily and then opened them slowly as if coming out of sleep. He looked at her tenderly. “We used to do that to each other when we were kids.”
“Do you talk much with Alan?”
André nodded yes and told her he wrote Alan many letters after they parted. “Who do you talk with about missing your home?”
Seeing her shiver, André closed the window and returned to writing letters inquiring about job openings. She stood by, watching him write in longhand, now and then sipping his coffee.
The room no longer felt chilly, and the aroma of coffee hung in the air. She stayed until it was time to go to school and kissed him goodbye on the cheek as she left. He blew her a kiss from the desk as she was going down the stairs.
She wrote to her mother that André found her two Canadian pen pals from Canada with the help of his friend Alan. The pen pals, both girls, wrote her in English. One girl’s father worked at
the State Department as a director of one of the Eastern European offices. The other girl’s father was a diplomat to East Germany. Their stories of receptions and Christmas and New Year’s parties piqued her imagination.
In the afternoons after school when André was home, he would take her to the park. In late winter the sky was pale, and the bare trees were quiet shades of black and gray. From a wooden bench they could see a red brick school on the hilltop, the only bright color among the brown and black and gray.
André said students would bring their lunch boxes down to the park. “Alan always picked this bench,” he said, “so the sun was at our back, not in our eyes. He’d always eat half his lunch, then go for his Oreo cookies. Just the cream. I’d eat his leftovers.” He looked intently at Kim Ly.
“Who do you love most in your life?”
“My mother,” Kim Ly said without hesitation.
“May God never take that love away,” he said softly, “because it’d leave an awful void inside you.”
She thought of the void she had felt all her life. But being with André, she thought only of the void she would feel losing his company.
She didn’t tell anyone, not even her mother, how much she wished that André would not find a job and stay in Virginia so she could be with him every day. Six months had passed since he
returned. About then autumn came and a new school year began. Chilly winds blew, bright yellow leaves fluttered. One afternoon when she came back from school, she saw Marie sitting in
the armchair, reading.
“Mom,” she said. “Is André upstairs?”
“He left, dear.”
“Would he be back soon?” She was thinking of going to the park.
“He left for Canada around noon.” Marie put back on her glasses and tilted her head to look at Kim Ly. “You look very nice, dear.”
Kim Ly knew she looked pretty in her pleated skirt, black patent shoes, and white stockings.
Yet something seized her throat. “He left just like that?”
“He left something for you. Wait here.” Marie went upstairs and came back with a parcel in brown paper. Inside was André’s stamp album.
“When will he be back?”
“Since he didn’t say, I guess it will be a long while.”
“I’ll be in the back. I want to look at his album.”
She closed the door and walked down the steps. From the sidewalk she looked up at André’s bedroom window. The curtains were parted, and the window glazed like a glass eye. She saw the ceiling with its white enamel light fixture, the bare whitewashed walls. She went down the cement steps to the back of the townhouses. On the windowsill of the Lês’ dining-room window, the geraniums were still fresh. She imagined herself standing behind the window, gazing out with André beside her.
Her letters home ceased to mention André. She wasn’t sure why. Weeks passed and still she heard nothing from him. She would open his stamp album and look at each stamp, studying the
name of the country that made her imagine places he might be. Perhaps she would travel to all of those places one day and maybe she could find André. Seven years passed. Then during her junior year in high school after she met Annabella, Marie died. With Jack, Kim Ly went to the funeral home where the body lay for viewing.
It was evening. Visitors drifted in and out. A corner shaded table lamp glowed over a blue armchair. On a rosewood table, clusters of purple and white lilacs leaned from a tall crystal vase, lending an atmosphere of tranquil fragrance. The coffin rested on a raised platform in the center of the room. Marie’s gray hair was combed neatly, the parting line sharp. Her lips were rouged, her cheeks lightly blushed. Kim Ly gazed at her as if from behind a one-way mirror. From here there’s only peace and eternity. She bent and kissed Marie on the brow. Its cold shocked her.
You and Papa brought me up with nothing but love. I miss you. Then she sat down on the sofa along the wall. Hands laced on her lap, she closed her eyes and said a silent prayer. Sometime in the evening the director came in with a large silver tray of sandwiches, cheese
and cupcakes. He brought coffee and offered Jack and Kim Ly each a cup, but only Jack accepted it. The vigil would be long.
Toward nine o’clock someone entered the room.
“André!” Jack held out his hand.
André hugged him, then turned and looked at Kim Ly. “How are you, Kim Ly?” He put his hands on her shoulders. “You look so beautiful I hardly recognize you.”
“I’m surprised to see you.” She met his gaze. His brown eyes were paler in the lights. A day old stubble darkened his jaw and upper lip. “How are you, André?” she asked in a strained voice.
“Good.” André turned back to his father. “I’m sorry I couldn’t be here sooner. The parish reached me while I was away on a business trip.”
“That’s good,” Jack said, “because I knew nothing about you coming up.”
André turned and went to the coffin and stood, shoulders square, head bent. Kim Ly noticed gray hair on his temples. Father André Lê. After some time he came back, got a cup of coffee and sat down beside her. He drank it black, sipping pensively. He turned and appraised her with his reflective gaze. “How’s school?”
“It’s all right. I like the study more than the school.”
Nodding, he said good friends were hard to find, but they would make school more enjoyable for someone of her nature. Though she agreed, she said nothing and watched him take a
sandwich from Jack, which he ate slowly, pausing now and then to sip his coffee. She remembered the young André, then pictured him in a black cassock, sitting on the other side of a confessional. What would she confess to him? An adolescent love for him? But that was
innocence, not sin. This she would keep to herself.
“We have a few Vietnamese in our parish,” André said between bites. “They came from North Vietnam. Devout Catholics. I wish I could speak their language better than I could speak
She offered to teach him, but she said he would be gone before she could. Her humor had him smiling.
Jack got up to rearrange the flowers. Kim Ly noticed a plant with long, spiny leaves in a corner. “What is that plant?” she asked him.
“It’s an orchid cactus. I brought it in from home.” Jack nodded toward the pot. “They should bloom any moment now.”
Shortly after that the blossoms came out, cream yellow and pink, one petal at a time. The corner of the room smelled sweet. They watched the petals spread, little by little, and André said,
“Amazing, only at night.”
“I saw them in Paris,” Jack said softly. “On our wedding day. Took our breath away the first time we watched them bloom.” He said the Vietnamese called it Quỳnh Hương, princess flower.
Kim Ly told him she loved the elegant scent that befit the name. They talked in low voices; the heavy scent of Quỳnh Hương slowly thinning out in the air. André drank several more cups
of coffee and went to the coffin again, where he stood in silence for some time, perhaps hoping in vain to recover the time lost between him and his mother.
Kim Ly imagined André in a black frock, preaching on public morality. When he returned she asked where he had been and what he had done since he left Virginia seven years before.
Sitting hunched, André talked about places he had visited: Europe, Spain, Africa.
“Why not Canada?” Kim Ly asked, imagining what had driven him to such an odyssey but not to the place where his best friend lived.
“I wasn’t drawn to it.” He rubbed his eyes.
He stopped rubbing his eyes.
“Why did you become a priest?”
“I couldn’t love. In the end I sought God’s help, and that was the salvation of me.”
“Have you ever fallen in love, André?”
“Once. He was my best friend.”
André smiled. “You remember him?”
The smile made her feel odd, yet his peaceful face brought back the affection that had frozen when he disappeared. “What happened between the two of you?”
“He got married, had children.”
“Why didn’t you fall in love again?”
“I couldn’t love anyone after that. But at the same time I couldn’t tell anyone about my homosexuality.” André folded his arms on his chest. “I started traveling around on my savings—I was out of a job then. I stopped by Origny, where Bishop Pièrre Pigneau de Bréhaine was born. Mother often talked about him. I visited his old house. It’s a museum now, and while I was in I touched his rosary and his old Bible. I had a revelation. I knew then that my soul would never be
That night Kim Ly couldn’t sleep. She thought about André’s truth, embracing his sexuality orientation with no denial before God. The human nakedness when faced with ridicule from others. Illegitimate children like Annabella and her sexual attraction to Kim Ly. She was sure of her own sexuality. Yet why did she always feel something missing from her life? What was missing, so that even in happy moments she felt so empty?
She lit a candle, placed it on the windowsill and went to bed. In the night a sound woke her. She pulled the curtains open and looked down on the narrow brick patio. A long-bodied, bushy tailed creature stood, throwing its head at the lighted window and barked. A fox. Maybe animals also gravitated to light. Moments later the fox turned and trotted off.
She couldn’t sleep any more, and dawn seemed an eternity in coming.
Author Khanh Ha is the author of Flesh and The Demon Who Peddled Longing. He is a seven-time Pushcart nominee, finalist for the Mary McCarthy Prize, Many Voices Project, Prairie Schooner Book Prize, a twice finalist of The William Faulker-Wisdom Creative Writing Award, the recipient of The Sand Hills Prize for Best Fiction, Greensboro Review’s Robert Watson Literary Prize in Fiction, The William Faulkner Literary Competition, and The Orison Anthology Award for Fiction. His new novel, Mrs. Rossi’s Dream, was named Best New Book by Booklist and a 2019 Foreword Reviews INDIES Silver Winner and Bronze Winner