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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