Breakfast With the Nguyens

Silence enters through the back door –
Unannounced –
And sits down at dinner.
It is an inconspicuous guest,
Though we cannot ignore its arrival.
It waits until the food is out and then
Begins to feast,
Not on our plates
But on us.
Snakelike, it slithers around us in a feigned embrace
And then constricts our throats,
Stealing our voices.
Our eyelids drop
Until our downcast eyes can only stare deep into our hollow bowls,
Forcing us to look emptiness straight in the face.
Reminding us that we consume
To fill that emptiness.

Morning in the Nguyen household. The clock ticks to calibrate the dawn in lazy seconds. Today is a gray day. There are dirty plates in the sink. There is a bowl of ca kho voi com or catfish with rice covered with saran wrap – leftovers from a dinner nobody finished. There is a scent of eucalyptus oil – a Vietnamese cure-all – imprinted deep in all the furniture. The couch’s cushions have been worn down by sleepless hours passed while flipping channels. The latest Nguoi-Viet Magazine can be seen on the ground, exposing a slender cover girl wearing a traditional ao dai dress who is wearing too much makeup, flashing a glossy smile.

The centerpiece of the family room is a baby grand piano, on which a new layer of dust has settled. A bust of Frederic Chopin sits on top overseeing the space. Old music books are arranged neatly in a rack placed to the side. The pages have gotten stuck together from staying unturned for so long. To separate them now would ruin the print altogether. Silence and dust fill the gaps where music used to live.

Dad avoids his own eyes in the mirror as he combs his hair. By now, most of it has thinned and turned gray through middle age. Still, he combs what is left deliberately, not pausing even once to lament it. No use in it anyway. With sleep still in his eyes, he splashes water on his face, pats it dry, and walks off while starting on his tie. He is on the go. Whether it was getting to work or fleeing his home country as a war refugee, he had always been light on his feet.

Mom sits up in the guest room. She hasn’t slept in the same bed with her husband for years, a symptom of her own quiet rebellion. Sitting on the edge of her bed, she massages her right elbow rhythmically with her eyes still closed, listening to Dad’s movements in the other room. By now she has his routine memorized like a play she’s watched a million times. She sits and waits for her cue to enter the charade.

Dad eats breakfast alone, standing. Cold cereal again. His tie is slung over his shoulder to keep it out of the way. He stares at a nonspecific point in the kitchen tile and notices that his right toe is protruding out of a hole in his sock.

Mom walks in, cloaking herself with an old robe. She doesn’t look at him.

He does not acknowledge her but engulfs another spoonful to occupy his mind as she walks by.
From the fridge, she takes out some Tupperware and packs it into a lunch box. She leaves it by him, then starts on the dishes in the sink. There are only a few in the sink now that the kids were no longer living at home. She was still not used to the change.

Neither one looks at the other.

Clank. Clank. Swish. The dishes rub in dissonance against each other as they are rinsed, prompting an uncomfortable symphony that contrasts the silence. She scrubs with intensity and control, letting her mind slip somewhere in between the sponge and grease.

He chews more slowly now. With longer intervals in between spoonfuls, he realizes – when he finished his breakfast, he would have to walk the bowl over to the sink. He would have to face her not facing him. It was an ongoing rejection. The kind no husband should feel. The kind no man wants to feel.

She shifts her weight subtly from one leg to the other. The last thing she wants to do is to give off any impression that she feels the need to adjust anything about her behavior. Even her posture.

Then, the dishes were done. The cereal bowl was empty.

A fly buzzed somewhere.

A pregnant pause stands between them as they both realize they’ve exhausted their ruse.

Instantaneously they move – he toward the sink and she to the dishtowel hanging from the fridge. Avoiding each other had become a reflex.

He washes the bowl himself, shakes off the excess moisture, sets the bowl on the rack, and grabs his keys, desperately seeking an exit from the thick moment.

As he approaches the front door, he thinks then about how long it had been since he had touched her. He exhales abruptly to purge his lungs of any trace of her scent. What had happened? He had worked two jobs for over ten years, helped her open her business, slept on the couch, fixed the cars, painted the walls, buried deceased pets, provided a safe home, supported the kids. What was he doing wrong? What did she want?

To be free, she thinks to herself, would be impossible now. She stands in the very center of the kitchen, leaning forward on the kitchen island with both palms pressed on the ledge. Now, there was family to take care of – the kids, her mother. Who has room for frivolous pursuits? Time, she had in surplus. Energy, however, ran low in supply. She had stopped trying to explain herself to him. He never understood. Through the years, she had learned to seal herself off. For bricks, she used work, the kids. For mortar, she used excuses.

If she couldn’t escape, she could at least pretend in her self-imposed emotional isolation that she had.

She notices the lunch box.

“Anh,” she calls out, only half wanting to get his attention. The sound of her own voice startles her. The inside of her mouth still tasted like morning.

He stops with one foot out the door.

She walks toward him but stops just far enough away so that he’d have to come to her. She dangles his lunch at arm’s length, as far away from her own body as she can, with her head turned sideways.

He goes back for his lunch without looking her in the eyes, turns, and walks out to the car.

The SUV starts with a deep roar that echoes throughout suburbia. The engine’s vibration upsets the dew that had settled on the car windshield overnight. In the rearview mirror, he sees as he drives away that she had waited for him to get to the corner before closing the front door. Even if she were never to say it again, he knew then that she cared.

===============================================

First stab at “fiction.” I place it within quotations because what is fiction anyway but reality with the dull parts cut out?

Would love any form of feedback possible! If possible, leave comments regarding the following:

1. Perspective – Who do you feel the narrator is? Not much is revealed in detail about the narrator, but through his/her commentary, you learn more about the characters. What relationship/attitude do you think the narrator has toward the two main characters?

2. Dialogue – There wasn’t much, but did the format of the description of the characters’ actions work? Should it be more specific, more general?

3, Setting – I’d like to get your impressions on what you think the setting is. What kind of house does it seem like the two characters live in? What kind of neighborhood? What time frame?

4. Characterization – How did you feel the characters were best developed? Was there anything missing? What holes were not filled?

5. Passages you found interesting – Which phrases, sentences, passages stood out to you most and why?

Any questions for me?

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The Wheels on the Bus Make Life Profound

Some of my life’s most profound lessons have unfolded themselves while in transit. Perhaps it’s the idea of being in transition from one place to another that elicits a wisdom only travelers cultivate. Then, the need to share the ripened wisdom with those within your parameter.
For example, the summer after tenth grade, on the way from Cordoba to Madrid, Spain, I met an older man with whom I spoke for two hours straight. This was the first time I had ever spoken to someone in a language I didn’t grow up speaking – without consulting a dictionary. The two-hour conversation proved to be such a milestone for me that I decided to enter college two years later as a Spanish major. I learned then that while there are many barriers to communication – linguistic, cultural, or personal in nature – enthusiasm, earnst, and humility are understood without ever saying a word. I took an important lesson with me that day.
This time was no exception.

If you’ve ever ridden the Chinatown bus from D.C. to New York, you know that the boarding “process” is a fight for your life. Neither your seat nor your life are guaranteed by the time you make it on to the bus. Despite the fact that you have pre-purchased a ticket online. The bus is usually overcrowded, poorly ventilated, and if you’re traveling in the fall, wet from the rain that hitchhikes on people’s shoes from puddle to bus. With my fortune and agility, I score a seat by the window and get settled into my cramped environment. It smells like wet felt. The person in front of me has graciously reclined their seat all the way back. And there is a complimentary plastic trash bag imprinted with a smiley face hanging on each seat which reads, “Have a nice day!” Oh, Chinatown. You’ve always had a knack for irony.

Azam, a man in his mid-forties, stumbles down the aisle holding nothing but a small duffel bag with his belongings. Gasping for air, he plops down into the seat next to me. I like his thin wire glasses and convivial smile, but I don’t say anything. City life has hardened my initial native Californian sunny disposition. The driver angrily yells at all the passengers in Mandarin, and before the unexplained guilt of being yelled at (even in a language we don’t understand) sets into its passengers, the bus begins to move.

“What did he say?” Azam asks. It takes me a while to understand that he directed his inquiry at me.

“I have no idea. I’m not Chinese,” I told him, slightly irritated at his assumption.

“Oh, sorry. Looks like Chinese,” he smiled, gesturing a circle around my face with his index finger. I’m slightly more irked that he said that out loud instead of thinking it to himself, but I pretend to go to sleep. “Chinese people, some of the best people!” Seriously? I’m pretending to sleep and he’s still talking. He has absolutely no idea how to take a hint.

“Like I said, I’m not Chinese, but I’m sure there are a lot of nice people of all backgrounds,” I preached a little.

“You know, I think you are correct! Where are you from?”

Concluding that he meant to ask about my ethnicity, I replied, “I’m Vietnamese.”

“Oh! You speak Thai?”

“No, I speak Vietnamese.” I guess that wasn’t as self-explanatory as I thought.

“Oh, I speak Urdu. You borned here?”

“Yes, I was born here, but my parents are from Vietnam. They were immigrants.”

“I immigrant too! Born in Pakistan. I come here 16 years already,” he says with much gusto. He puts his hand over his heart and sits up straighter as he tells me this. I decide then that maybe I shouldn’t be so judgmental. He seems like a decent man. “I am Azam.”

“Lily.” I extend my hand to shake his.

“You have a pretty name. It means ‘flower,’ no?”

“Yes.”

“My name means ‘king.’ You are a flower and I am a king! Heh, heh, heh!” His chuckle is the lighthearted kind, the kind that shakes your shoulders up and down when it exits your body.

I want to laugh too, but I don’t know whether it would seem like I’m laughing at him instead of next to him. So I stay quiet. A silence sits between us for a while, but he doesn’t seem fazed. I can tell he’s the kind that is energized simply by being around others.

“You like people, don’t you?” I think aloud. I can feel myself becoming friendlier, less resistant to his company.

“Yes! Already you know me well! How do you know?”

“I had a feeling.”

“Yes, yes! Heh, heh, heh! Can you believe me? I learn English only from customers. I have the best job, dream job. Do you know what it is?”

“No, what is it?”

“Dunkin Donuts! The best job. I meet so many people every day and I learn from them different things.” He is beaming as he tells me this. Not everyone would boast about a job at Dunkin Donuts, but this guy would stand on at the top of the Empire State Building and scream it out loud if he could.

“That’s great! You speak English very well.”

“Thank you! You too! Heh, heh, heh!”

“Will you teach me some Urdu?”

“Okay, I will teach you to greeting. You must say, ‘Kya hal he.’ for ‘Hello.'”

“Keeya hal huh,” I struggle awkwardly with sounds I’ve never tried to produce before.

“Very good! You are good at learning language! You like it, no? Just like me. I love to learn language.”

“That’s a very good guess. I do enjoy learning languages a lot. I’m trying to learn as many as I can. French currently. Now I can practice Urdu thanks to you.”

“Wonderful! Wonderful! I am glad I meet you.”

He gives me a few more Urdu phrases to practice. Since I don’t have any paper with me to write on, I type it into my BlackBerry and save it there. We talk more about languages, Pakistan, Vietnam, and New York.

“There is place for everyone in New York,” he states with wisdom, as if the idea was purely an original one. I tell him that I agree. “I love to live in Manhattan. It’s best place!”

Another silence between us. I start to think we’ve exhausted our topics for conversation so I close my eyes. Django Reinhardt is playing on my iPod, and I start thinking about what I’m going to do in the city. Then, the bus swerves and the jolt wakes me up. The driver is honking and yelling in Mandarin. Azam notices I’m awake again.

“You know, Lily, I’m glad I meet you. Bus driver is terrible and weather is suck, but company is good. Sometime you meet people who think like you and you are lucky. You are lucky because you are not alone to love life.” Here I was simply expecting to get from D.C. to Manhattan alive, and I get a personal thesis as an added bonus. He continued, “To be human is a wonderful thing. You could be borned animal or plant, but you are human being. Human can feel, learn, and create. Human have built pyramid and created governments. Human can survive on their own. If you want to learn language, it is easy. Human can do much harder things.”

With that, he chuckled one last time and closed his eyes. We didn’t exchange any other words the rest of the way. To be human is a wonderful thing. I let that sit with me for a while. At a time when my mind is constantly reconciling the nexus of desire and capacity in my life, my life and Azam’s intersected to produce that salient moment. In that moment, I felt inspired to make my life – my human life – as extraordinary as I possibly can. I owed it to probability, or improbability, rather. That I was born into this life instead of any other is already a blessing, and since my time on this earth is limited, I’d best make good use of it.

When the bus arrived in New York, the weary travelers filed out of the bus with heavy feet into the Manhattan smokescreen. I turned around to say goodbye to Azam, but he was gone. I felt a sudden stab in my side because I regretted not being able to say thank you. All I knew of his whereabouts was that he worked at Dunkin Donuts.

Some people come into your life for a season, teach you something about yourself, then leave as quickly as they came. Even if that season is as short as a 4-hour bus ride, what you take away lasts much longer. Maybe one day we’ll meet again, but until then, I’ll continue to be grateful for my brief encounter. Now, I can’t help but smile fondly whenever I pass a Dunkin Donuts in the city, thinking that Azam the king might be chatting up a local customer and passing on his philosophy with a hearty chuckle.

Chase the Wanderlust: Autumn in New York


A good friend told me once that when you need to introduce a new hen into a coop, you can’t do it in broad daylight when the rest of the hens are watching. This is because the Old Hens have already established their pecking order. The introduction of the New Hen might disturb the flock as a result. So what you do is wait until nighttime when the Old Hens are sleeping, then sneak in the New Hen. When morning comes, the Old Hens don’t notice. They simply think the New Hen had been there the whole time. The funny part is, the New Hen doesn’t notice either. She also thinks she was there all along.

Similarly, I arrive in New York on a bus from D.C. late in the evening, camouflaged against other New Yorkers by my need to get somewhere and get there fast. The coop, so to speak, was my friend Nick’s apartment on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. We quickly drop off my stuff, go out for a bit, then come back where I crashed on the couch. When I wake up the next morning, I yawn away the remainder of my travel weariness and immediately feel at peace with my surroundings. It was as if I had been away visiting D.C. and finally came back to New York instead of the other way around.

Some places I’ll visit and know I’ll be back. New York is always one of them. Each time I have visited has been a unique experience. With the million people who live in Manhattan comes just as many perspectives from which to see the city. I feel fortunate to have a friend who has been lived there long enough to consider himself a local (and is nice enough to show me around), a break from the tourists’ typical regimen.

Why don’t you move there? I’ve entertained this thought, and it’s less a matter of whether or not, more a matter of when and under which circumstances. Do I want to work there? Or do I want to be a student there? Still open questions to be discussed and thought over. Until then, I will inhabit the idea.

Food

  1. Donut Plant – Creme brulee, pumpkin, Yankees (?), and tres leches donuts. Chai tea brewed in a pot by the cash register, scooped into your cup for you via ladle. Don’t ask how. Just try.
  2. Butter Lane – $3 cupcakes with amazing buttery frosting. Hot apple cider to accompany.
  3. King’s Feast – (Brooklyn, Polish district) Thanks for taking us here, Nick! Try the pyzy or anything else that has a name containing voiced consonants. This will not be hard. Accompany with one of their standard tall glasses of Zywiec beer.
  4. The Sixth Ward – (Lower East Side) BOTTOMLESS MIMOSAS. Irish brunch. Eggs benedict, home fries, salad, and sausages. DID I MENTION BOTTOMLESS MIMOSAS?

Brooklyn

First time in Brooklyn. Cheaper housing and quieter streets around Greenpointe. Rumor has it that hipsters live in the vicinity, though.

Halloween

It’s what you think it would be. Halloween in New York is like a 1990s, post-Wall Berlin street party. People drinking, laughing, taking pictures, dressed up in the most bizarre costumes – everything from naked to nun, angels to ghouls, Fidel to Marx. You name it, someone was dressed up as it.

Heading to Philly this weekend for a Zee Avi concert! Any suggestions on what to check out?

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