Abbigail N. Rosewood writes in order to make sense of the world and in hope to connect with others just as lost as she is on the human journey. Her works have previously been published at BlazeVox, The Missing Slate, Greenhills Literary Lantern, The Bad Version, Pens On Fire, The Rusty Nail and forthcoming at Thoughtsmith. She studies Creative Writing at Southern Oregon University and works as an editorial assistant at The Missing Slate. She can be reached at www.abbigailnrosewood.com.
The Ones We Keep
Right after the constructors finished adding a second floor to the brick house, Tai confessed his affair to Ngoc. It was more of a declaration, touched with a little pride and some courage from a man who was prepared to leave his family. His destruction was implacable and he anticipated tears. Surely Ngoc would not have expected it. She was the more attractive one of them, and much younger. On their honeymoon bed, Tai had asked her for a secret, one she never told anybody before. And Ngoc, hands patting her flat and defined stomach, spoke in speedy, slurred words like water spilling from the mouth of a baby when it first learned to swallow. ‘Since I was young, I always made sure that I was better—prettier, younger—than the man I date so he would always feel lucky to have me. That way I won’t be the one afraid to lose him.’
The house was filled with commotion. Downstairs, the TV was on, Tai’s mother chatted with her sister in a hushed and self-important voice that old ladies sometimes do, somebody was in the kitchen, too. Ngoc could hear the sound of a blade hacking at the cutting board rhythmically. For nine years, she shared this space with Tai’s mother, his brother, his sister-in-law, his brother’s children. Now that her own child was at that age of unfathomable mood swings which were at once serious and shallow, they have decided to build an upstairs so the family could have its first glimpse of privacy, even though the ceiling was thin and everything that was said on the second floor can still be heard downstairs.
‘After all these years they finally let us have this extra space. You think they will let you leave?’ Ngoc smirked. She wasn’t afraid, in fact, she felt the strength of the time they had already spent together pushing at the tip of her finger. She stabbed the needle forward then backward on Tai’s pants with the impatience of one who was all too familiar with the tear.
Tai wasn’t much for words. In these verbal games, his wife always gained grounds no matter how twisted her reasoning. Already he felt the irrelevance of his admission to adultery. Kim, his mistress, was twenty-six, not that much younger than Ngoc. She wasn’t exciting, or had an unquenchable sex drive like he had heard of some his coworkers’ mistresses. But she was willing. Willing to wear the new dress he bought her even though it wasn’t her color. Willing to sit on his Moped as he drove aimlessly through the city, the fish market or the tourist shopping center. Her willingness to get lost, perhaps, was why he liked her. Ngoc always knew where she wanted to go and the route to get there. Her efficiency impressed Tai and reduced him little by little from her world.
On a Tuesday four months ago, he had skipped tennis to be in Kim’s bed. He’d reasoned that it was the right thing to do after having exhausted the amount of coffee, fruit juices, and cocktails they had ordered together. She had sat with legs slightly parted, encouraged him to talk about everything and nothing. She seemed to want so little from him, which inspired in him a magnificent generosity, to give her everything he possibly could. Still, he wasn’t leaving his family for love; he knew that much.
‘Why the threats? If you mean to keep Phuong from me, you can’t, she is my child, too.’ Tai suddenly felt the need to be either frank or cruel. He wanted to jolt Ngoc out of her constant self-composed calm.
‘I’m not keeping anyone from you. You are the one. Remember that.’ Ngoc tried to keep from trembling. In her head, she had already started to plan. The kind of job she would need to support herself. Serving homemade coffee to construction workers brought in some extra vacation money, but it wasn’t enough to live by. What would she do? There was no way she would continue staying here in Tai’s mother house, where he might show up with his—. She felt her head spin and could not focus on her husband’s words. His throaty voice sounded like scolding, as if this culmination of their marriage was somehow her fault. The heat in the room was becoming unbearable and the odor of burnt meat rising from the kitchen made her nauseous. She needed something to lighten the situation, to regain her apparent loss of voice in the matter.
‘I’ll help you pack,’ she said.
She didn’t mean it, of course, but sometimes she had released words just for their effect. Calculated syllables that made her own heart throb, and somehow when she felt its spasm, she knew she had done something right. Mostly she knew he had felt it, too.
She left the room, leaving the pair of pants without pulling the last thread, letting the needle hang from the rip. The sun was cooking them both. Beads of sweat glowed from his forehead. Perhaps he would understand the message she was trying to leave. She was proud of the steadiness of her own voice. In these moments, she knew what they needed weren’t the explicit and honest communication that happy couples claimed to have. Symbols alone could bolster her strength and give her the vague assurance of direction. No matter which path they found in this marriage, she would get there first and wait for him. She wouldn’t be caught surprised. Not again.
The first thing Ngoc did was weigh herself on their rusty scale in the bathroom. She hadn’t stepped on it in a long time, hadn’t cared to know. Somehow, she was absolutely certain that Kim, the one Tai hoped to run away with, was thinner than her. Ngoc felt no hostility toward the girl. After all weren’t these kind of things as common as soup and salads? She and Tai had discussed the adultery of their friends, relatives. Laying with their damp backs and staring at the mosquitoes swirling above them, they had gossiped about everyone’s affairs but their own. Tai had aggressively defended the wives whose husband strayed, while she found more faults with the women for not knowing how to keep their family together. She wouldn’t cry and act so pathetic as those women did. If tears indicated that somebody had lost, as long as she didn’t cry, there was no victory for anyone.
On the sink, behind the faucet was a tube of lipstick. The cap was as tarnished as the scale. She twisted it open and sniffed the stale, concentrated scent of vanilla. Somebody had told her once that the shape of the lipstick revealed something about the woman. The tip could either be round or pointy. She had always thought that the pointy tip meant a promiscuous woman. Hers was round. Suddenly, she felt an urge to shave it off, to give it the edge it never had. She could have been that kind of woman.
Han, Tai’s mother called her for help from the front yard. The old lady was always sweeping even when there were no leaves on the ground. Ngoc was used to seeing her with the broom in her hand, as if it were an extension of her arm and she would be incomplete without it. ‘Ngoc! Are you ever going to wash the dogs? They stink like tunnel rats,’ the old lady shouted. ‘Which dog?’ Ngoc silently resented, ‘There are at least ten of them.’ In this heat, the fleas multiplied layer by layer on the already malnourished canines. For hours, they sat chewing at themselves until their fur was sticky, their raw skin red and exposed. Ngoc felt sorry for them and the showers that cooled down the dogs temporarily, didn’t help. Yet the old lady kept letting them breed. Litter after litter, the little ones barely opened their eyes before they were already lunged into the misery of the world.
‘Where are you going?’ The old lady asked as Ngoc appeared from the staircase. Her tone was accusatory but Ngoc knew it stemmed from her fear of being forgotten, of aging into invisibility. Despite her constant irascible demands, Ngoc felt an irrational love for the old lady. Perhaps it was because Ngoc knew that only she alone could concoct the perfect beef stew for Tai’s mother, or slaughter the hen in the meticulous manner that the old lady wanted—with a sharp cut at the neck that allowed bright red drops of blood to drip into a clean, white bowl.
They needed each other in this way, in a busy and discriminating manner that let them receive and reciprocate blame—Han disparaging Ngoc for not being worthy of her son (Because she was from a provincial town and because her father worked in a factory that produced fish sauce. “Even his money doesn’t smell good,” Han would say), and Ngoc incriminating the old lady as the reason for Tai’s refusal to buy a house for his wife and kid, lest Han should be too weak and lonely to manage on her own.
‘Your mother is not weak. She’s stronger than me.’ Ngoc would say to him.
‘Still she can’t be alone,’ Tai would reply.
‘She’s not alone. Your brother—his wife, kids. There are four other people here to keep her company!’
‘You think I’m that selfish? Forcing my younger brother to take care of her by himself?’
That was how the conversation went. When Ngoc had the energy, she would add ‘He doesn’t take care of her. I do,’ but for the past few years, she’d only sighed and gone to join Han in front of the TV.
Now as she looked in the old lady’s questioning eyes, she recognized that imminent sense of departure, of knowing Han would soon be gone and the frame of her standing there now still, was somehow irrelevant. For the first time, Ngoc understood for she felt it in herself, too.
In the temple’s courtyard, men in long sleeved shirts and women in high collared dresses gathered around the bird cages. While the city’s population proliferated with colorful tourists and their overweight backpacks, the temple remained for the most part unchanged. There were but a few foreigners with their canon T3is strapped to their necks, kneeling at the marble staircase in an attempt to capture the seventeen animal statues on each step of the stairs, before a monk pointed the sign prohibiting photography out to them. A short, thin man of around five foot and a dark chestnut complexion was buying fifteen birds, possibly because that was how long somebody he knew had been gone. It was a common practice, the people bought birds to release them because one must do something good in the sanctum of God.
Ngoc watched the birds fly away with glee. Their dull, brown wings were little specks of dirt amidst the white clouds. The onlookers were disappointed, as if they expected something not quite so understated, as if they thought the brown creatures would suddenly explode with colors once they were free.
‘It wouldn’t be long until those birds were captured again, to be sold here.’ Ngoc said to the man.
‘I know,’ he nodded.
‘So why do you buy them?’
‘Because freedom isn’t free, even just for a little while,’ he smirked and then started to laugh. His light and complacent laughter startled Ngoc. ‘I’m just joking,’ he said. ‘I don’t know why I do it. I come here to place incense for my daughter and buy some birds. At first I thought I did it for her, that she would have liked seeing some dozen birds flying off at once, but then I realized I didn’t know anything about her. I didn’t find out about her existence until—‘ He stopped to check if Ngoc was still listening then resumed. ‘Well let’s just say I only got to know my daughter here, at this temple. And releasing the birds just makes me feel a little less heavy on my feet. After all, isn’t that where the spirits go? Up? Being light would help don’t you think?’
Ngoc didn’t come here to pray to the dead, but to see the living. There was a boy from her childhood who had loved her, perhaps the only one beside Tai. Long was an orphan and grew up in the monastery. His fate was sealed even before they met. Not that he didn’t have a choice, but that he wouldn’t survive anywhere else being raised by the elder monks who had taught him how to pray well and read scriptures, but not to barter, lie, or pretend his heart wasn’t broken.
In her early twenties, Ngoc didn’t feel too bad tantalizing Long. Everyone needed a source of unconditional love without having to return it. Perhaps that was what she was for Tai, and then her daughter Phuong when she was born. Ngoc paid fifty thousand dong for some dragon fruits, mangos, and oranges from a trembling old lady. ‘I could do that, sell fruit. Mourners are generous people,’ she thought, ‘I will leave Phuong with Tai’s mother until I save up enough to bring her with me.’ She continued to walk past the pond leading to the columbarium.
At the bottom the stairs, Ngoc could see Long on the balcony. He was talking to an elder monk with exaggerated hand gestures. They were both laughing as if they had just heard a dirty joke. From here, neither of them looked like they belonged in a monastery. She waved to Long before walking up the steps but his eyes were squeezed together, still laughing mildly, and didn’t see her.
‘Hey there,’ Ngoc smiled with some difficulty. She suddenly felt fraudulent, like she didn’t have the right to be there.
‘Hey!’ Long turned and hurried toward her. His overt enthusiasm startled Ngoc, who expected a shy youth and not a man so unruffled by her presence.
‘So good to see you,’ he said, ‘Are you here to visit your father-in-law? Funny, I just cleaned his urn and was thinking about you.’ He lifted the bangs from his eyes and looked at Ngoc for the first time.
‘I brought some fruits—’ Ngoc managed softly.
‘Great! I will put them in the altar right now.’ He walked over the large golden plate in front of the Siddhartha statue, took away the desiccated oranges and replaced them with the new fruits, still green so they would last a while. ‘So how have you been? How is Tai?’
‘I came to see you, Long. Can we talk somewhere?’
He shrugged as if disappointed that this wasn’t just a friendly visit, but one with motivation. With eyes still tearing from the smoke of the incense, he nodded. ‘Sure, let’s go sit by the pond.’
An orange tabby peered up at them from the space between the walls. Ngoc folded her legs on the bench and sighed lengthily. ‘I wish we could have done this more often, you know, before I married.’
‘We did. We went to Turtle Lake and talked nearly every weekend.’
‘So you don’t regret anything?’ She asked.
‘Things turn out as they should. You’re happy, aren’t you?’
‘What if I had married you instead?’
Long laughed, incredulous. ‘You wouldn’t be very happy.’
‘I think we might have been. I think so.’ She was emphatic. The words floated above her. For a moment, she felt like a young girl again, with important choices to make.
‘I’m gay,’ he said somewhat reservedly, his voice tinged with a little self-doubt, but mostly deliverance.
The two words stunned her and Ngoc didn’t look at him, nor reply. She merely swallowed over and over again. The back of her neck burned. Though a minute earlier she was admiring the soft hue of pink on the lotus and its bright yellow filaments, now she no longer saw them.
‘I know what I said to you Ngoc—the promises I made.’ He looked up at the clear sky as if searching for answers, ‘There’s the person you love before you know who you are and then there’s—. Well that’s it.’
‘You asked me not to marry Tai.’ Ngoc said. She felt as if she had just opened a wrapped present to find nothing inside. The box would have held hope, if not, given her wonders and a passing smile when she had little left. No more.
‘I know’ he said like a mantra under his breath, ‘I know’.
The upstairs room looked unusually spacious even though much of Tai’s belongings still leaned neatly against the wall. Two folded stacks of clothes, one for jeans, one for t-shirts. Both Tai and Ngoc had quietly lapsed into a routine of coming home on separate days. All confessions induced change, yet neither could admit that they were removing bricks from the foundation of their marriage. Ngoc took a job as a cook for an elementary school in the city. She had rented a bed in a small apartment behind the market. The smell of livestock, rotten vegetables, and rain permeated the walls. At night, she curled up inside the mosquito’s net, slapping her hands together at the mosquitoes that landed outside of the net. Their blood left a dot of brown stain on the blue mesh. Ngoc was astonished at how naturally one life slipped from her and another began without pause. No intermission. No great epiphany. Her wrists were sore from the repeated motion of untying, washing, cutting bundles of vegetables, but she felt the same as always. Without the familiar salty smell of Tai next to her and his erratic gasps for breath during the middle of the night, she found it hard to sleep at first, but eventually thought the extra space comfortable. Her childhood recurred to her more frequently and vividly than her life with Tai. When she was not back at the two-storied house, she rarely thought of her daughter. The girl, like her father, was slipping into a dark room in Ngoc’s memory. She felt as if she were looking at them through a smudged window and the more she cleaned the glass, the more distorted the image became.
Ngoc stood at the door watching her daughter sleep. Phuong’s cheeks were round and full but the fat had begun to disappear and a square jaw line was barely visible. Hearing the floorboard creak, she opened her eyes and looked at Ngoc.
‘Sorry I woke you,’ Ngoc said.
‘I wasn’t sleeping.’ Like her father, Phuong hated to be caught sleeping during the middle of the day. ‘Will you be staying the night, mom?’ Her voice was sulky like a young child still, but there were dark half moons under her eyes and she looked much older.
‘No, I have to go back to the apartment. It takes too long to drive to my work from here.’
‘Can I come with you?’
‘There’s nowhere for you to sleep there. I share it with two other women.’ Ngoc spoke impatiently. She was angry at her daughter for her suffering. When you were unhappy, it was better to be callous than sentimental. Phuong’s question had made Ngoc want to weep.
‘I can sleep anywhere mom. All I need is a fan, and I can live anywhere—’
One evening Ngoc dropped Tai’s mother off at her singing class. Since Ngoc and Tai’s separation, the old lady had filled her day with classes, group meetings, community services. It was Saturday, Phuong would get out of school at three instead of five. Instead of rushing back to the city, Ngoc sat on a low stool on the front porch picking fleas off the emaciated canines. The mother had brown fur with mean streaks of yellow on her forehead. She truly looks like a rabid dog, Ngoc thought. Her breasts hung from her stomach, raw and bald from the suckling of her babies. Ngoc felt sorry for her. The little ones didn’t look like their mother—with fluffy, white coat. Only the runt had the recognizable spots of brown fur on his tail.
Tai pulled up to the front gate. His powder blue t-shirt matched the dress of his passenger, a girl with hair as straight as if each strand had been measured with a ruler. Ngoc could tell he was more agitated than surprised to see her; they were supposed to stay with the schedule until they figured out what to do next. It seemed to Ngoc her husband already had made up his mind. His pretense of indecision was supposed to spare her time, to give her a chance to become used to or perhaps even comforted by his absence.
‘We’re just here to check out the dogs. Kim might adopt one.’ Tai said.
‘I love dogs,’ the young girl smiled, eager to please the soon to be ex-wife. She reminded Ngoc of when Tai first brought her meet his mother. The girl was desperate for Ngoc’s permission. No doubt she had suffered the guilt of a home wrecker. Her friends had thought her profoundly stupid for throwing away her youth on a middle-aged man who was neither wealthy or handsome. The fact that he was married was not one of their concerns.
Even though their age wasn’t too far apart. The young girl’s face possessed that vacant beauty unlined by experience. Ngoc frowned a little and said more warmly than she intended.
‘Sure, take as many as you want.’
Around the pond the air smelled of moss and wet stones. The grey sky thundered but there was no rain. Inside the cage the puppies were hushed. The slight joggle of Ngoc’s walking swayed them to sleep. With both arms, Ngoc carried the cage pressed to her chest. Their distinct puppy scent was a mixture of mud, milk, and wild grass. Ngoc wanted to press her face onto their soft bodies. Tomorrow Kim would come back for the runt. Immediately she had picked him among his noisier, livelier siblings. Apparently a simple girl with a soft heart, she was attracted to his frailty. Ngoc almost laughed. She could picture the scene unfolding—Kim taking the puppy home, coddling him with boiled chicken and raw cod, letting him snuggle up in between her and Tai. Ngoc’s husband would indulge his girlfriend at first until he lost patience and tossed the dog off the bed. If the runt happened to whine, he might kick its rear to quiet it.
Once Ngoc put down the cage on a dry, flat rock, the puppies stirred. She lifted the top open and they directed their noses upward, their senses awakened to a clearer, thinner air. Ngoc took the runt out first. He would get his first swim before joining his new family tomorrow. Holding him in her left hand, Ngoc walked out toward the middle of the pond. Without hesitation, she put him down into the cool water. Ngoc had done this before. She liked to think of herself as a swimming coach, showing them one by one how to float and turn the water around them into a light substance that lifted their small skeletons rather than weigh them down. Her daughter, Phuong, too had learned to swim this way. Ngoc would hover her hands under Phuong’s stomach and thigh, pretending to give support while Phuong was buoyant on her own. In the same way with one hand under the puppy’s belly, Ngoc let the runt kick his legs, creating tiny whirlpools around his body.
With a deep breath, Ngoc pulled herself under the water. She pressed the runt against her breasts and felt his newborn claws dig into her skin. Ngoc held her breath without creating bubbles with her mouth. She blinked several times, trying to keep her vision steady but the water, a dark olive green began to turn black. Still with arms locked tightly around the runt, she remained submerged in water until he no longer struggled but laid limply, contentedly in the cradle of her arms. Ngoc felt her nose grow warm. Whether or not she had cried, she could not tell.
It seemed the sky had stopped threatening to rain. The clouds moved aside, making way for the forceful flares of the sun. The pond was undisturbed, a rigid reflection of the sky. It held in its wet belly the same floating clouds, piercing rays of the sun. Another version of the heavens.
The other puppies too, left behind, wandered without purpose on the safe edge of the pond. One sat upright, peering at the far side of the water. His brothers and sisters heard him whimper and one by one they joined in his mourning.
The old lady was already home when Ngoc got there. Han sat alone on the ground in front of a bowl of steaming pumpkin soup.
‘You never came to get me so I had to take a cab. I don’t have that kind of money—’ Han was about to go on but Ngoc interrupted her.
‘I’m sorry. I meant to come get you.’
‘My son would always be on time. He wouldn’t let me wait.’ The old lady paused, as if suddenly she remembered something, ‘I don’t see the puppies. You didn’t sell them to the restaurants, did you? Those bastards, always stealing people’s dogs—’
‘No I left them at the pond. They won’t make it.’ Ngoc said.
A quick flash of sorrow showed on the old lady’s forehead. Her lips formed a tight line that seemed be frowning. But perhaps it was only age with its damage to facial expressions. ‘Oh—’ Han breathed. There was an almost imperceptible surprise in her voice.
‘I’m sorry,’ Ngoc repeated while standing there transfixed as if waiting for the call of a jury. She imagined being in the courtroom and signing the few last pieces of paper that were supposed to severe two people’s ties to each other forever and all she could mutter was those syllables. Not as an apology but more of an empty catchphrase one might be repeating in meditations, as an anchor to hold fast onto any remaining peace and numb out other thoughts.
‘It doesn’t matter that much. The bitch will be pregnant again soon.’ The old lady said matter-of-factly and slurped noisily on the soup bowl. She paused, looked inside the swirling surface of the bowl as the elders once did with the pattern of Pouchong leafs inside tea cups to predict the future. ‘The ones we keep end up dying anyway—,’ she nodded to herself, as if confirming with her memory of all the dogs they’d had.
Ngoc waited for Phuong to fall asleep before heading back to the city. Next door, the neighbor was burning a pile of garbage. The smoke colored the sky an ash grey. She could hear the motor on Tai’s Moped approaching and counted the seconds until the front door opened and a few seconds more when his footsteps hit the wooden stairs. The climb was slow and arduous. He had probably had a few drinks with his colleagues. Over the years, she’d accepted his alcohol intake as she’d accepted anything else—the dog getting pregnant while her last litter slowly died off, Phuong being bullied in class for wearing the same maroon uniform for three consecutive years. Ngoc had tried hard not to ask for more than she could have, to accept life’s little indifferences. She had been so willing to bend down and take the weight that she forgot to fall in love with what was around her. Here she was again supporting her husband’s flaccid body mass on her whole back and carried him to bed without questions or curiosity.
‘Hey wifey.’ Tai spoke childishly as Ngoc unbuttoned his shirt. He rolled over to let her pull the shirt off his back. ‘Do you still love me wifey?’ He said loudly in that jesting way of his, unconcerned with the silence of the household . Phuong stirred on the mattress against the opposite wall.
Ngoc felt a dull throb inside her chest. ‘If you can’t understand it without being told, then you can’t understand it being told,’ she recalled what Long had once said to her, except he was referring to an old religious pamphlet he’d found.
In the corner were the pants Ngoc had never finished mending. She picked them up and started to insert the needle back and forth. In between the steady and boisterous rhythm of Tai’s snores were Phuong’s softer, shorter breaths. Even as Ngoc focused on the stitches, she never took her eyes off them. The night rolled on like a music disc set on repeat.
Ngoc sat with her head against the wall. Unconsciously she measured her breathing to match with Tai’s so that it could not be heard. With her legs folded beneath her, the muscles ached but she did not budge, afraid the floor board would squeak and wake them up. Like a statue, she looked as if she had fallen asleep herself except with eyes wide open, dazed in a secret kind of love, the kind that only unraveled itself when nobody else was there to see.