Monday 18 October 2021

Paper Boats


by Marlis Broadhead

Vietnamese Egg Coffee -- Whisk one egg yolk with two teaspoons of sweetened condensed milk until frothy. Whisk in a tablespoon of brewed Vietnamese coffee. Pour the mixture on top of the rest of your brewed cup of Vietnamese coffee and enjoy.


Today ghost hands still push along the shore

my paper boat the shape of dreams

which never went under

in the flood that frightened me away.


                            —Bienvenido N. Santos, Distances, In Time




In his room in the small clapboard house he shares with Binh Nguyen and his nephew, Thanh, An Lau lies sunk in dreams as the lightning-scarred sky rumbles above him like a beast mired in nightmares of its own.  


Once again, An is a boy, naked between the billowing clothes his mother has hung out to dry.  "The air in the provinces is always sweeter," she told him after his soldier father was killed and they left Saigon to join his aged uncle's family, "for see," she had said, "how the clothes smell of lime and coming rain," though there had been no clouds in the sky.  


In this dream, he plays where the winds nudge the moist fabrics to caress him, like pale lovers whispering against his brown skin.  His back arches like a dancer's as he offers his genitals to the moist licks and sweeps of the clothes billowing around him—until their edges are caught by a shear of wind that pops and claps the towels and shirts.  


Their corners lash at him like stingers before tangling around his legs as he twists and flails to be free.  Then carried on invisible wings to the top of a mast, he is caught fast in ropes and tattered sail-cloth.  Tangled there, he rocks back and forth across the earth's curvature like a human metronome ticking out the final moments of lives being bled out on the deck below. His sister's sleek black hair rides the wind up to him like a supplication, caressing his feet as the sea rises up to claim her.


When An finally struggles out of the dream, his bed is soaked with sweat and semen.  He rolls to the other side and lies shivering, even though the room is simmering in the close air of the Kansas summer night and he is burning up.  It wasn't like that, he whispers into the ears of the night, puzzled and a little frightened that his dreams are always wrong.  It wasn't like that at all.


He sits up, his back cooling as air touches the moisture there, and pulls on a pair of boxer shorts.  On his way to the bathroom he reaches out for the plastic crucifix the ladies of St. Paul's give each of the refugees when they arrive in Wichita.  Leaning his head against the wall, he turns his face and lets his lips rest briefly on Jesus' thin, gold legs and crossed feet.  It is the first kiss he's given in a long time.  He tries to remember when the last one was, far back before coming here to a second life, before the long wait in the camps in Thailand, the boat trip that cost everything but his life, even the two weeks in hiding as he waited for word that there would be an attempt, a fishing boat waiting to the south of Da Nang.  


There had been hurried partings the last trip to his village of Phnom Ky, where he had found only a young nephew and his dead sister’s friends who were caring for him.  Long before that, after one of the raids on their village, his lips had caressed his young wife's hands—one side of her face missing from the screaming metal chips that killed and maimed his people that afternoon.  A chunk of flesh had been torn from his own right arm that day and planted in the smoking underbrush.  He tries but cannot go any farther back this night—back to when air carried the rich smell of growing vegetation and smoke of wood fires, to a night when he'd had no way of knowing that was the moment of his last good kiss.


There is no sound from the room where Thanh and Binh are sleeping.  An tiptoes down the hall to the bathroom, closing the door before running his hand along the wall for the light switch.  He relieves himself, noticing that the toilet needs to be cleaned.  It is Binh's week, always bad news for An, because Binh is young and careless, while An is a tidy man, a man who prizes cleanliness and order.  


He would love to take a shower now, let the cool water flush the pungent smells of the restless night, fear even, from him, but he cannot risk waking the others.  They too have their night agonies—suffered in different ways, to differing degrees.  Not any one of his countrymen he's met since fleeing Vietnam has escaped unmarked, able to look ahead only, sleeping like babies through quiet dreams.  On the worst days, he thinks to himself that even their graves will be places of unrest.


An soaks a washcloth in cold water from the tap, feeling guilty as always in this new country at letting the water run freely down into the pipes.  Then he presses it to his face, breathing in, sighing audibly as he wipes the cloth over his neck and chest, up into his arm pits and around his ribs.  He rinses the cloth and fills it again, washes his buttocks and inner thighs, wraps his genitals, then drops the cloth into the plastic basket and stands there a moment longer, his shorts still down around his knees, while the night air cools his damp skin.


In the kitchen, he pulls a can of Coke from the refrigerator, pausing in its cool vapor while he pulls the tab and lets the stinging foam run down his throat unchecked.  Then he takes a book from a shelf under the phone, spreads a thin cotton dish towel over the torn vinyl chair cushion, and sits down.  He begins reading in chapter four in the English for Speakers of Other Languages reader.  


His teacher doesn't know he has this book, that he sneaks it in and out of the Learning Center at the vocational school over the weekends.  It's one she herself held for him once, caressing the pages with her long, pale fingers to ease the book's newness, its resistance to lying open for him.  In his good dreams, the ones he controls—usually just before falling off to sleep or on weekends when the others go out, leaving him alone with his music—he has pulled those white fingers to his lips, run his tongue over them lightly.  


At the vocational center, he can actually taste her, the flavor of her hand cream and shampoo, even when she's several feet away.  This is because he has a nose like a dog, his older brother Lam used to tell him.  An could smell the lingering aroma of papaya on his brother's hands hours after the older boys would have devoured their ill-gotten goods, feeling it justified to steal from the stall-keepers in Saigon who were getting rich off the American soldiers.  


To An, America smells nothing like his own country.  There is so much concrete and steel spreading out across the land, and so many automobiles with their choke smoke.  The first indoctrination center he went to was in an old school administration building that smelled of aged wood and waxy buildup.  He had been afraid there because he knew no English—only "Where to find?" and "Tank you."   


When they were divided into groups, he thought that meant only some of them would be allowed to stay and study, to learn the language that would unlock the secrets of survival in such a huge land.  An worked hard, concentrating on the voices around him even when they sounded like no more than small hammers drumming on woods of differing hardness.  


Eventually, whole words began to emerge, then phrases.  He learned to read a little and scolded the older countrymen for talking in their own language while at the school.  An was one of the first of his group to be passed on to the vocational training center.  It was there he began to think that he might actually find a way to rebuild his life.  There was nothing of the old one to build on, everyone gone.  


Thanh told him once he was lucky to have no one left behind, no one to fear for, to feel guilty about having abandoned.  Thanh still has two sisters and an aunt living in the countryside, near what is left of their home.  Even if he earns enough money to get them out, there is no guarantee they will survive their escape.  So Thanh says An is lucky to be so completely alone.  Even his own company is like being with a ghost, An thinks, there is so much of him missing. 


He focuses on the pages of the book, whispers the words out loud, Mister Gomez comes home from work at six o'clock.  Mrs. Gomez is in the kitchen cooking rice and beans.  She smiles at her husband as he looks into each pot on the stove.  "Umm, smells good," he says.  "It will be ready soon," she says.  An is getting to know the Gomez family pretty well, especially likes the parts where they struggle with some problem, like leaky plumbing or their son's troubles with his studies.  Their normalcy seems almost exotic to An.  


He rests his forehead in the curve of his intertwined fingers and thinks of Miss Joy, her cool fingers and wide brown eyes, which sometimes snap with pleasure when one of her students makes or gets a joke in English.  The learning center—a small upstairs room once used for storage in the middle of the print shop—is a place of hope and smiles.  That is the unspoken rule of all who go there.  In that room, people from different countries but similar pasts come close to touching each other in their daily struggle to speak of the simplest things.  


It is just as well, An thinks, that he has not the words just yet to tell Miss Joy how he feels, how thoughts of her—of them together—fill the empty places all around him, inside him even.  The words that pour from her mouth—many of them still undecipherable to him—are like a stream of hope carrying him where he will go.  Added to his grief for what is already gone from his life is the new fear that something bad will happen to ruin this new life he longs to embrace.  


He looks at the new-words list at the back of the chapter, but is too tired to concentrate.  Leaning over the table, he cradles his head in his arms and drifts off to sleep as thin white fingers stroke his stubborn hair to one side, preparing his brow for a kiss.

About the author

A former creative writing instructor, Marlis Manley Broadhead has award-winning short stories and poems in literary magazines—including Kansas Quarterly, Crosscurrents, and Kansas Women Writers, and founded the annual Mendocino Coast Writer’s Conference. Her debut novel Trophy Girl launched September 30, 2021.



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