In The Reeducation of Cherry Truong, Cherry Truong’s parents have exiled her wayward older brother from their Southern California home, sending him to Vietnam to live with distant relatives. Determined to bring him back, 21-year-old Cherry travels to their homeland and finds herself on a journey to uncover her family’s decades-old secrets—hidden loves, desperate choices, and lives ripped apart by the march of war and currents of history.
Find out more about Aimee Phan and The Reeducation of Cherry Truong in an accompanying piece in ALIST Magazine, “How to Write Debut Novel, in 15 ‘Steps'”
Little Saigon, California, 1980
Until they moved to America, Sanh never realized how rarely he spent time alone with his son. Someone was always around who wanted to hold or tend to Lum: his mother, one of his sisters-in-law. So on their first flight out of Malaysia, Sanh was surprised when Tuyet plopped the child into his lap and excused herself. Sanh had held Lum before, but usually when the boy was asleep and pliable. On the hot and stuffy airplane, Lum squirmed in Sanh’s stiff arms, pulling away and kicking. Lifting his head up, he released a frustrated wail, red-faced, eyes dripping with tears.
Tuyet returned from the lavatory scowling, and scooped the child up from Sanh’s feeble grasp. “I could hear him from the back of the plane,” she hissed. “Can’t you settle your own son?” And then, as if to prove the point, she rocked him against her chest until Lum fell asleep. “When the second child comes, I’m going to need your help. You can’t rely on your family doing everything for you anymore.”
Sanh tried. During their month-long orientation at Camp Pendleton, he and Tuyet took turns watching Lum while they attended English language classes and applied for jobs and housing assistance. But again, Vietnamese refugees surrounded them in the camp, only too happy to hold or feed Lum whenever Sanh felt tired.
The refugee services found them a one-bedroom apartment in the small town of Tustin. Sanh was astonished by how empty the place felt, even with the several “Welcome to Your First Home” boxes–blankets, pillows, toilet paper, some mismatched cookware and silverware, bowls and plates–and quiet. While Sanh inflated the air mattress in the bedroom, a volunteer from the Vietnamese Catholic Charity Center arrived with two bags of groceries. Sanh paused, lingering by the bedroom door as the woman offered to have the charity truck bring over some donated second-hand furniture.
“No, thank you,” Tuyet said. “I’m not Catholic.” Finally apart from her religious in-laws, she said this with relish, no longer having to pretend as she had when Sanh’s parents insisted Lum be baptized.
“You don’t need to be Catholic,” the volunteer said.
“We don’t intend to convert to Catholicism, so don’t expect that either. Thank you for the food, but you don’t need to come again.”
As Sanh walked out to the living room, Tuyet closed the front door.
“She was trying to be nice,” he said.
“I’m tired of handouts,” she said. “It’s demeaning.”
Living on their own, without parents, Sanh finally understood how crucial practicality was in a wife and mother. Husbands and fathers were supposed to be the stubborn, unyielding ones. Yet in America, Tuyet revealed herself to be just as obstinate and proud as his father. When Tuyet and Lum fell asleep after a lunch of bologna sandwiches and sweetened rice milk, Sanh found the address for the Catholic charity on a flyer in one of the grocery bags and after consulting a map, made the a twenty-minute walk.
The volunteer he spoke with was kind and she arranged to have the charity truck drop off a used sofa and dining room set the next day when Sanh knew Tuyet would be away for a sewing class at the refugee resource center. He would tell her they were from another assistance agency.
“Do you have a job yet?” the volunteer asked. Noticing Sanh’s embarrassment, she continued, “because we have some open positions. Would you like to apply? It would help us out tremendously. If we don’t fill these jobs, they won’t continue to offer them to us.”
“I had some interviews at the resource center,” Sanh said hesitantly. “But I haven’t heard anything yet.”
“What did you do in Vietnam?” the volunteer said, sorting through a folder.
“I worked in the foreign ministry,” Sanh said, sitting up. “Press relations. I can speak and translate in three other languages.”
“You can speak English fluently?” The volunteer jotted a note on the yellow pad in front of her. “Would you be interested in working at a school?”
Saigon, Vietnam, 1974
He never expected more out of his job than what he received. Sanh edited and translated press releases for the Foreign Ministry, enjoying a decent salary, regular hours, and enough responsibility that it didn’t appear he had avoided enlistment. Even so, Sanh worked diligently. He took his assignments seriously, translating the ministry’s announcements into English, French and Spanish, often staying behind at the office when his co-workers had left for a drink at one of the hotel bars.
He’d received a promotion, of sorts, an assistant to help with fact checking. Though she wore too much makeup and her perfume irritated his sinuses, especially on humid days, Tuyet performed capably. Every morning, he could expect to find the assignment sheets and contact lists collated on his desk. Though she couldn’t help with the translations, she showed an eagerness to acquire a working knowledge of the languages, taking home English or French dictionaries when she left the office.
A naval officer who picked her up every afternoon at four o’clock. Tuyet made sure to have her work finished by the time her boyfriend arrived because he did not like to wait. One time, Tuyet was on another floor, gathering a needed signature, and the officer stood by her desk in his stark white uniform. The officer refused the seat Sanh offered, barely looking at him.
“He’s a jerk,” his colleague Cung said, after the pair had left one afternoon. “You should ask her to work late one night. Steal her away.” He grinned when Sanh frowned at him. “How else are you going to get a wife? We worry about you, Sanh.”
He did not feel sure he loved Tuyet until the day her mother arrived, interrupting their morning debriefing to yank her out of his office. Until that moment, it never occurred to Sanh that she had a family, someone who could push her around. She had always seemed so independent, opinionated, unafraid to disagree with him or his colleagues during staff meetings. Sanh understood how Tuyet’s mother, an older, haughtier version of Tuyet, wearing a torquoise blue ao dai and large sunglasses, could make a person cower.
When Tuyet returned, her eyes were swollen. She asked if she could speak to Sanh privately. He invited her into his office, closing the door. Her mother was trying to marry her off to some seventy-year-old American officer who leered at her and her sisters like they were prostitutes.
“He is a terrible man,” Tuyet said, “but he doesn’t compare to my mother.” According to Tuyet, her mother ran an opium den, working primarily with Americans. Tuyet’s oldest brother Thang ran most of the operations, but her mother made all the decisions. With the Communists looming, she wanted to sell her daughter to one of her former clients to get out of Vietnam.
“She kicked me out of our home,” Tuyet said. “I either marry this man or I have nowhere else to go.”
“What about your boyfriend?” Sanh asked.
“Thao?” she said, looking surprised. “He’s only a friend. His wife and I were classmates in primary school.” Tuyet wiped her eyes, looking slightly embarrassed. Sanh wasn’t sure what he was supposed to do. Walk around his desk and hold her hand? It seemed inappropriate, though he longed to comfort her.
“Do you live with your family?” Tuyet asked.
“Yes,” he said.
“But you’re not married. You don’t have a girlfriend or fiancée.”
Her eyes lifted, so beautiful, intelligent, admiring. They met his. “Do you want to marry me?”
The elementary school did not need to fill a teaching position, the vice-principal explained. Teachers in America needed certification. Sanh would require several years of schooling for that. When Sanh explained he’d earned his university diploma with honors in Vietnam, the vice-principal, Mr. Gaines, a normally unamused man, smiled.
“This is an interview for a custodial position,” he reminded Sanh. “Carlos can train you. He is excellent with new hires.”
The head custodian was a chubby Guatemalan with a laugh that carried across the schoolyard. He offered to share his sandwich and fruit when he realized Sanh hadn’t brought a lunch. He was delighted Sanh spoke fluent Spanish and teased his accent, promising to correct his European pronunciations. Carlos had arrived in the States twelve years earlier and had four children of his own, but they did not attend this school. “Not the same district,” he said. “Besides, I wouldn’t want my kids to see how these children act. Very spoiled. No manners.”
During the seven-hour school session, Sanh covered the lower division east wing, mopping and stocking bathrooms and tidying hallways and corridors. After the three o’clock school bell, he was permitted to enter the classrooms, where he emptied the metal trash cans, gathered crumpled paper and stray pencils from the coat closets and pried off fresh chewing gum from underneath the desks. While restocking the boys’ bathroom, he smelled something rank, approached the fourth stall, and saw someone had missed the toilet while defecating. Glad that Carlos and the other custodians were cleaning the other wings, Sanh tensed his fingers around the stall door, slamming his forehead into it so he would not cry.
When he arrived home, Tuyet was annoyed that he’d forgotten to pick up a package of vermicelli noodles at the Chinese grocery store near the school. “I guess we’ll just eat rice again tonight,” she said, throwing open the kitchen cabinets, searching for the rice cooker, “even though it took me hours to make the broth. But who cares what I do all day?”
Sitting on the floor, Sanh watched as Lum turned the pages of his coloring book, pointing to the green and blue crayon markings on a pair of skunks. When his son tried to put an orange crayon into his mouth, Sanh gently pulled it away from his face and back toward the coloring book. He tried not to take Tuyet’s mood personally. All day, she’d been trying to sew a bag of blouses, some work she picked up from Mrs. Nguyen, another refugee who lived down the hall who convinced her it was easy money. Having never sewn much before, Tuyet had already ruined the stitching in two blouses, which would be deducted from her pay.
“I don’t think I should stay at the school,” Sanh said. “I think I can find something better.”
“It’s a starter job,” Tuyet said, measuring rice into the cooker. “After a few months, you can ask for a promotion to teach in the classroom.”
“It doesn’t work that way,” Sanh said. “Carlos has been there for almost five years and he still cleans toilets.”
“Carlos doesn’t have a college degree like you do,” Tuyet said. “We need to be patient. You prove yourself, they’ll reward you. Did you go to the refugee center to ask about the sponsorship forms?”
“When was I going to do that?”
“You know we have to file those papers soon. I wrote to my mother weeks ago.”
“I’ll go tomorrow,” he promised, closing his eyes, suddenly aware of his aching shoulders and calves. He leaned forward, trying to stretch his cramped spine.
She didn’t answer him. Silence gave way to the sound of the simmering soup pot, the water faucet turning on and off, and the occasional padding of Tuyet’s slippers on the linoleum kitchen floor. Sanh extended his legs in the living room, watching as Lum tried again to eat his crayon.
“No,” Sanh firmly said, pulling the crayon away from his son’s face.
“Carrot,” Lum said in English, pointing again to his coloring book, where an upright bunny was munching on the vegetable.
“Yes,” Sanh replied in English. “Carrot, here. But this is a crayon. You can’t eat a crayon.”
Only four years old and Lum’s English was catching up with his Vietnamese. His son had been attending English courses at the refugee resource center for the past month, and Sanh found his pronunciation so articulate, so precocious, he wanted to call his mother in France. Maybe Lum would take after his father and find languages more addictive than science or mathematics. But Sanh could only call France on Sundays, and even then he only had ten minutes. Overwhelmed with how much he needed to say, he often said very little, hoping, praying that his silence could somehow express how much he missed them.
That night, his family did their best to help Tuyet feel comfortable. At dinner, his mother asked about Tuyet’s favorite dish, and promised to pick up the ingredients from the market the next morning. Trinh and Ngoan offered some of their clothing to Tuyet until she could arrange for her belongings to arrive. Even Sanh’s father deigned a polite smile and occasional nod when they spoke of their plans for a quiet, simple wedding ceremony.
While the women helped clean up dinner, Sanh joined his father in the alley for a cigarette. The scent of fresh magnolia flowers from his mother’s window box mingled with rotting garbage in the dumpster.
“This should be a relief to your mother,” his father said. “Those matchmakers had branded you an eternal bachelor.”
Sanh ignored the insinuation. His parents had hired two matchmakers, both family friends. But after four awkward dinners, with four different, but equally shallow girls who expected Sanh to look and act like his older brothers, Sanh declared that he’d tired of matchmaking.
“She’s smarter than anyone you could have found for me,” Sanh retorted.
“I don’t doubt that,” Hung said. “She is very, very smart.”
Sanh glared at him. “What is that supposed to mean?”
Hung exhaled a long drag and cocked his head. “She’s not in love with you.” He said it with such cheerfulness, such a lack of surprise, that Sanh had to look away.
“You don’t know her,” Sanh said. “You haven’t even spoken to her.”
“Am I wrong?” Hung asked. “You know I’m not. Why not admit it to your father, if no one else?”
He knew his father was goading him into an argument. It was something he often did, and Sanh fell for it almost every time. Unlike Yen, who enjoyed debating and never took it personally, or Phung, whom their father usually avoided, Hung’s deliberate remarks often burrowed into Sanh’s memory, keeping him awake and brooding long after everyone in the house had fallen asleep.
“Are you going to oppose the marriage?” Sanh asked.
“When this could be your only shot?” Hung smiled. “No. This is your choice. Perhaps you will surprise me.”
There were times Sanh didn’t mind the job, especially when he, Carlos, and the other custodians sat on the basketball courts and shared a cigarette, or when he had a few minutes during the classroom sweeps to peruse the books that Lum and his younger sibling would read and learn from one day. During their weekly call from France, Sanh’s father had requested that if the second child was a boy, his name be Etienne. As for a girl, his research continued. Sanh suspected his father chose the name to remind him they should be in France. Thoughts of the new baby lifted Sanh’s spirits.
He dreaded lunch duty most. Sanh found the students’ young, petulant voices grating, their slang and garbling of their birth language offensive. It frustrated him that some children would mock his accent when walking past him, believing their English to be superior. He hoped to teach Lum and his younger sibling to articulate, to take pride in every word they spoke. The earlier lunch hour for the lower division grades was not as irritating as the later hour with the older children, who were noisier, rowdier and deliberately messier.
As Sanh tied up two garbage bags, he saw Carlos on the other side of the cafeteria leaning over to pick up a milk carton from the floor. But before he straightened up, a crumpled lunch sack sailed across the room, bouncing off Carlos’ hip. When Carlos looked up, trying to determine where the bag came from, only titters came from a table full of fifth-graders. Carlos resumed picking up the stray trash, but Sanh was watching. Only a few seconds later, a boy stood at the table, a bag in his hands, his forearms creating a graceful arc, similar, Sanh recognized, to throwing a basketball. When the boy released the sack into the air, which brushed past Carlos’ elbow, Sanh had already crossed the cafeteria.
He hadn’t really thought about what he would do or say after reaching the snickering boys, but he did feel immense satisfaction watching their faces tense in terror as he grabbed the back of the boy’s shirt.
“What is wrong with you?” Sanh screamed, refusing to let go of the boy’s shirt collar as he attempted to squirm out of his grip. “Do you treat your brother this way? Your father?”
Carlos would later tell him that the other boys and girls yelled at Sanh to let go, that their cries had alerted the teacher chaperones on duty, who should have been watching the brats in the first place. But what surprised Sanh was that his attempts to talk to the boy had not even been understood, that of all the languages Sanh could speak, the one he chose was Vietnamese. Gibberish to these American school kids. Ching chong crazy talk.
In America, the vice-principal said, adults could not touch students in a threatening manner, even for disciplinary purposes. It was against the law. Because Sanh was a new refugee, because of all the hardships he and his family had endured from the war and relocation, because he clearly did not understand the rules of his new country, the school would release him from his duties quietly, without alerting the school board. They would talk to the boy’s parents and hopefully persuade them to understand. Carlos gave him a ride home after he cleaned out his personal locker and surrendered his school keys and identification card.
“My brother works for the water company,” Carlos said. “I’ll ask him if he knows of any work.” He patted Sanh’s arm, and Sanh regretted no longer having work hours to spend with his new friend.
When he stepped into the apartment four hours early, he braced himself for Tuyet to bark at him. Instead, he found the apartment empty, a basket of clean laundry in the middle of the living room. Sanh checked the calendar. Lum’s language pre-school and Tuyet’s sewing class did not meet today. He looked inside the refrigerator: plenty of food.
Sanh sat in the living room and turned on the television, waiting, and taking down the 800 numbers of the technical college commercials that flashed across the screen. When Tuyet walked in two hours later, holding Lum’s hand, a man was with them, walking closely behind.
“You remember Thao,” Tuyet said, a hand on her hip, sighing irritably, maybe from the heat, or the pregnancy. Four weeks from full term, Tuyet grew weary walking anywhere with her large belly and swollen feet. “He gave us a ride to the grocery store.”
Lum reached his arms for Sanh, who obligingly picked him up. Lum’s hands felt sticky and he smelled like cherries.
The former naval officer remained as unfriendly as Sanh remembered. He’d recently arrived in the States. His wife and two daughters still lived in Vietnam. When Tuyet asked him to stay for dinner, he declined, saying he needed to go back to his sister’s apartment. They lived in Westminster, north of Tustin, where he said other refugees had been placed. After Thao left, Sanh wanted to know how they had run into each other again, but before he could ask, she interrogated him first.
She could have taken it worse. No screaming or tearing off to the bedroom. No angry outburst, which made him feel even more terrible. Instead, she sank into the crooked dining room chair, the one Sanh had promised to fix days ago. Tuyet put a hand on the package of diapers she purchased that afternoon. Should she return these?
“No,” Sanh said, letting a squirming Lum down to patter to the television. He walked over to sit next to his wife. “We need the diapers.”
“What about my mother? What about sponsoring my family? You promised we’d take care of them now, Sanh.”
His wife did not cry easily. She hadn’t cried when they reunited after his two years in the reeducation prison, or on their boat to Malaysia when they lost direction for three days and believed they’d starve to death. The only time he remembered his wife breaking down happened the day before their escape from Saigon, when they learned Sanh’s father could not buy enough seats to bring Tuyet’s mother and siblings with them. She couldn’t bring herself to tell her mother in person, even when Sanh offered to go with her. The same despondent expression colored her face now. She wiped her nose on her blouse sleeve while one of Lum’s cartoon characters happily sang from the living room.
“I’m going to the refugee resource center tomorrow,” Sanh said. “And Carlos said his brother may know of something. I’ll find another job. We also have my mother’s jewelry. We could try to sell the pieces if we really need money.”
“I wish my mother was here,” Tuyet said, her lower lip jutting out.
“What would she know that we don’t? This country will be new to her too.”
She shook her head, half-smiling in that secretive manner of hers. “You don’t know. My mother knows how to find money.”
“I can take care of us,” he said. “I will.”
Sanh and Tuyet’s two-month wedding anniversary marked the start of monsoon season. And the Communists infiltrating the south. As high-ranking government officials fled for Thailand or Taiwan, Sanh spent his last days at the ministry with his co-workers shredding documents. Phung returned home with dispiriting reports of South Vietnamese soldiers dropping their weapons and fleeing. Refugees from the countryside already blotted the streets, setting up tents and camps on every available meter of sidewalk. Sanh’s mother and the servants stockpiled water and rice. No one knew how long the electricity and water would stay on after the Communists entered the city.
Rocket attacks, so terrifying on the first night, quickly integrated into the city chorus of thunder from the monsoon season. Abiding by the 24-hour curfew, the family remained inside, Hung compulsively locking and relocking all their doors and windows. The children stayed upstairs with their grandmother.
As Phung was adjusting the radio to listen for news reports, a bullet shattered the kitchen window, spraying glass across the wooden dining table and floor. Trinh and Ngoan screamed, running up the stairs to the children. After waiting a few minutes to make sure no additional gunshots followed, Sanh crept into the kitchen, and peered out the window. The alley was empty, but a few other windows down the street had been blown out as well.
Phung had promised to deliver a message to a fellow officer’s family, and Sanh agreed to go to Tuyet’s family’s home to make sure everyone was safe. Hoa didn’t want them to leave, but Phung was determined to honor his friend’s last request. Tuyet gave Sanh a small envelope to give to her mother. “This goes only to her,” she said. “Don’t let anyone else in the family take it from you.”
Sanh and Phung accessed alleys to cross the city. Phung led, compulsively changing their route according to the changes in the steady thumping of gunshots and mortar fire. So distracted by the chaos around them–like the small boy rooting through the purse of a mangled bargirl on the sidewalk–Sanh probably would have walked right into a sniper’s line of fire.
Many of the house numbers had been hidden or destroyed, but finally Sanh found the Vos’ address. Though the exterior had been vandalized with spray paint and the garden was littered with trash, its former grandeur was evident. While Phung walked across the street, trying to find his friend’s house, Sanh walked up the broken brick path to his wife’s former home.
After he knocked on the front door several times, a faint voice inside asked who he was.
“I’m Sanh Truong,” he said. “Tuyet’s husband.”
The door cracked opened. A tall, thin man with a mustache and longish hair peered out. From Tuyet’s photographs, Sanh recognized Thang, Tuyet’s older brother, the one who ran the family drug business. The man looked him up and down. “So you’re the fool,” he said.
“Your brother-in-law,” Sanh said.
The man shrugged. Such a casual gesture, yet it made Sanh want to strike him in the face.
“Tuyet wanted to make sure you were all right,” Sanh said, suddenly incensed that he wasted all this time battling the crowds across the city, risking injury, for this ingrate.
“Oh, you can tell dear sister we are doing just fine,” Thang said. “She shouldn’t concern herself with us any more.”
“I’ll let her know,” Sanh said. As he angrily turned to leave, he remembered Tuyet’s letter in his pocket. When he looked back at the door, he saw that Thang was still watching him, an unsettling smirk on his face, until an M-16 spraying bullets nearby startled both of them. But when Sanh took a step toward the house, Thang shut the door. Sanh ran down the block and found Phung on the next street.
A few blocks ahead, a crowd had swarmed and was looting a row of stores. A mother and daughter dragged a twin mattress down the street. As he followed Phung, Sanh tore open the envelope. Tuyet’s letter was short and barely legible, unlike the clean handwriting he remembered when she transcribed notes at the ministry.
Phung stopped in front of a deserted grocery store where a naked toddler wept beside a burning garbage can. Kneeling at the boy’s side, Phung asked where his family was, but the boy only continued to sob. Sanh held the letter up to his face.
Please accept my humblest apologies for my betrayal and deceit. I made a grave mistake marrying against your wishes. You are my first family, the only one I shall honor, and I will do anything I can to earn your forgiveness.
A teenage girl ran up to them, grabbing the hand of the little boy and dragging him away. Phung turned to Sanh, who threw the letter into the burning trashcan.
“What was that?” Phung asked as they ran down the street, avoiding a broken bicycle in the middle of the intersection.
“Nothing important,” Sanh said.
The waiting room at the refugee resource center was full of mostly Vietnamese men, a few with their children. Lum kept shaking his sandals off, dangling them from his toes, before flinging the shoes across the room, under the folding chairs onto the gummy, hair-infested floor. Though Sanh roughly scolded him each time, Lum considered it a game until his father finally forced the boy to sit in his lap, which didn’t please Lum at all. He whined for his mother, and elbowed his father in the chest.
“Where is his mother?” the man sitting next to him asked. He had on a baseball cap and a toothpick dangling from his teeth.
“Cosmetology seminar,” Sanh said. “It lasts all day.” It was the only reason he agreed to watch Lum, after a wall-bending screaming match with Tuyet. She had to take notes and practice hand massages and manicures, while Sanh only had to wait at the resource center, again, applying for jobs he’d never get, again. To stop the neighbors from stomping on their ceiling, Sanh finally relented.
“You’re kinder to your wife than I am,” the man said. “We have four kids and they go where she goes. Usually she leaves them at her sister’s.”
“We don’t have any family here yet,” Sanh said.
“Lucky you,” the man said.
He hadn’t mentioned anything to his parents about losing his job, only listened as they talked about Yen’s apartment in the Latin Quarter, the Chinatown district that had a decent amount of Vietnamese vegetables and groceries, how the kids could already speak conversational French to their parents. Though Lum’s articulation was impressive, he was lazy about practicing his vocabulary, in part because Tuyet continued to speak to him in Vietnamese.
Last week, Sanh had thought it made sense to apply only for jobs that required one bus route, no longer than a half hour. That way, he could stay closer to home in case Tuyet went into labor. But this morning, Sanh applied for every position posted on the job announcements boards along the hallway, from Fullerton to Laguna Beach, administrative, custodial, technical, manual. If he could get an interview, if he could only talk to someone, he could explain why he needed the job, why he would never mess up again.
“My wife is going to have our second child,” Sanh told the employment counselor, as he did every time. His eyes avoided the stacks of other applications on Mr. Stoops’ desk. “She is very worried about our finances.”
“There are many refugees looking for work,” Mr. Stoops said. “We have to be patient.”
“I don’t think my wife has any more patience,” Sanh admitted, remembering how Tuyet locked herself in the bathroom the night before. The fight began after Sanh decided he wouldn’t pawn his mother’s jewelry, arguing it was more important to preserve it for their children. Tuyet insulted the jewelry, calling it worthless anyway, throwing it in his face before retreating to the bathroom. Through the closed door, she threatened to leave him if he didn’t get a job in another week; she could find another man to take care of her and the children.
The counselor looked up from his paperwork, his deeply tanned face concerned. “Is there a domestic situation we need to discuss?” he asked.
“We have tempers,” Sanh admitted, his voice soft, though the counselor’s door was closed off from the waiting room. “Both of us. It can be stressful.”
On the floor, playing with one of the brochures from the waiting room, Lum looked at the counselor and back at Sanh. “Mama’s mad,” he said in Vietnamese.
“Yes,” Sanh agreed, “Mommy was mad last night.”
Sanh had pounded on the bathroom door, demanding she open it. Lum curled up on the air mattress in the bedroom, weeping that he needed to use the toilet, yet Tuyet had refused to listen to either of them.
“What are you going to do?” Tuyet’s voice had taunted him through the door. “Are you going to hit me? Are you finally going to act like a man?”
“Mr. Truong,” Mr. Stoops said, leaning his elbows on the desk. “Domestic violence is a serious offense in America. We do not hit our wives or children. It’s against the law.”
Sanh had taken the soiled bed sheets and Lum’s clothing to the laundry machine in the building’s basement; they only had the one set. When he returned to the apartment, Tuyet was telling Lum a bedtime story Ngoan used to recite to the children back in Vietnam. At the end of it, Tuyet glared at Sanh as if he were intruding.
“I’m not hitting my wife,” Sanh said, offended at the counselor’s suggestion.
“There are other ways to resolve disagreements,” Mr. Stoops said. “We have marriage counseling classes here twice a week. I can have the social worker call you and your wife tonight to talk about it.”
They had lain in bed last night looking at the popcorn ceiling instead of each other. When Lum began to snore softly, she said after the baby was born, she and the children were going to move out. Thao recently rented his own apartment, and it had an extra bedroom. One of her instructors at cosmetology school said she could work at her nail salon. Sanh could go to France, to live with the family he truly cared about. She’d find another father for the children.
“They’re my children,” Sanh said.
“You’re such a fool,” Tuyet said. “Have you ever looked at Lum?”
He drew a breath, digging his fingers into his thin pillow.
“You’re lying,” Sanh said. “You’ll say anything right now.” But after she fell asleep, Sanh examined Lum’s resting face, and thought of Thao. He recalled the man’s high forehead and lean body standing next to Lum’s own gangly figure, so different from Sanh’s compact stature. Lum was only a toddler, not fully formed. Still sleeping, Lum stretched his arms, patting Sanh’s chest, a familiar gesture that Sanh usually took to mean the boy was having a bad dream. Instead of comforting him, as he would have last night, Sanh softly pushed the boy’s shoulder and turned him to face his mother.
Mr. Stoops agreed to follow up on his job applications and promised to call within a week. After returning from the refugee resource center, Sanh prepared a lunch of instant ramen noodles with a raw egg mixed in. Lum complained of the orange and green flakes floating at the top of his Styrofoam cup.
“They’re vegetables,” Sanh said, between bites of noodles. “They’re good for you.”
“Mama always takes them out for me,” Lum said, sullenly poking at the cup with his chopsticks.
“Speak to me in English,” Sanh said. “You have to practice.”
“I want something else,” Lum said stubbornly in Vietnamese, slamming the cup on the dining room table. The Styrofoam cup cracked in his tiny grasp, and the noodles and broth broke through, gushing off the table and splattering the carpet.
Before Sanh could lunge for him, Lum scrambled out of his seat and ran for the bathroom, nearly falling as he turned the bedroom corner. Lum had already slammed and locked the door by the time Sanh caught up with him.
“Open this door,” Sanh screamed, pounding on the cheap wood with the palm of his hand. “Open it now!”
There was no answer on the other side, no taunting, no chiding, just short gasping breaths.
“I’m going to count to ten,” Sanh yelled, slamming the door again with his hand. It vibrated against the hinges. “And if you don’t unlock this door, I will kill you. Do you hear me? I will. I am your father!”
He had never said anything like that before. He’d never felt so angry, remembering how only twelve hours earlier, he had been yelling at the same door, at another family member who should have respected him. But once he spoke the words, he felt compelled to count, loudly, steadily, until he reached eight, and the doorknob turned, the door slowly swinging open.
Lum’s hooded eyes, eyes that belonged to Tuyet, were large and puffy, tears streaking his cheeks. His red and blue striped shirt and gray shorts were dark with soup stains. He crossed his arms in front of him, already bracing his small chest. It occurred to Sanh that he’d never seen his son cry so much until they moved to America.
When Sanh stepped through the door, the boy recoiled, covering his head and neck with his arms. Sanh wrapped his hands around Lum’s tense shoulders, turning the boy, and walked him out of the bathroom.
From under the kitchen sink, Sanh found several dish rags and the wastebasket, and brought them to the dining table. Together, they picked up the cold noodles from the table and floor, and sopped up as much broth from the carpet as they could. When Lum tried to dangle a dusty noodle into his mouth, Sanh pulled it away.
They pressed the rags into the carpet, using all their might. “Does it still smell?” Sanh asked, burying his nose in the carpet’s dark spots. Cocking his head to the side, he saw Lum’s face split into a joyful grin. He called his father a silly puppy. Sanh kissed the top of the boy’s head, trying to shut out the words he screamed only a few minutes earlier. Children. They forgave and forgot so easily.