Fiction / September 2014 (Issue 25)

And in Your Eyes, it Looks Like …

by Kimarlee Nguyen

for Kosal Kheiv

You are thinking to yourself that once this is all over, you will never wear beige again. For fourteen years of your life, the same colour, all the time, except for those six months where you were free and the world was technicoloured, and you wore every colour you could think of.

But now, here you are sitting in a waiting room, in the second busiest airport in the nation, and, though you can hear the people passing by, pressing against the window, walking by the door, you can't see them. In the waiting room, it's just you, in your beige jumpsuit, and an officer who introduced himself as Martinez. Unlike other officers, Martinez shook your hand and asked your name. You think to yourself that maybe he sees you, like really sees you, past the jumpsuit, the government-issued shoes and the sleeve of tattoos all up and down your arm.

He is waiting and looking at the clock. You think you should be doing the same. The seconds that pass by in this room weigh a pound each. The time in there is cutting off your breath. You can hear, from behind the door, someone yelling, the electric hum of machines whirring and, overhead, the dull roar of airplanes landing and taking off.

You are waiting. You place your hand on the tabletop, make a fist, imagine that someone is holding onto you. You imagine Ma.

When the corrections officer finally lets Ma walk into the visiting room, you have already bitten off all your cuticles, and now, you resort to picking the space between your fingertips and nail with the edge of your bottom teeth. You are so cold, even though the government keeps this place regulated at an even sixty-five degrees, that you are shaking from the feet on up. You have a terrible pain in your stomach, something like hunger but reaching deeper into you, maybe to your bones even, and when Ma sits down in the plastic chair across the table from you, you want to reach up and touch her cheek, right underneath her eyes. You know that is where her skin is the softest and the youngest, not worn down from the years and years working as a dishwasher down at the airport. Ma's right leg's swollen again; you can see this even though she is quick to move her legs under the table where she thinks you can't see.

You want to tell her that it should have been your leg turning into an elephant, that if you could, you would give up your right leg and your left too and both arms, your tongue, your eyes, if it means that Ma can walk straight and true the way Ba said she used to walk, before the war and the Killing Fields and the camps.

Ma's lips tremble and even in the glow of the shitty florescent lights, you see that she's wearing the pendant with your name on it, right near her heart. It's enough for you to lift one hand from your lap and place it on the table, palm up. The officers that walk around the edges of the visiting room remind you that you can't get up to touch her. The old you, the one that anger made, would've said something like, The fuck you think Imma do? but anger has left you a long time ago, probably during one of those long nights that bled into morning.

Ma says, Son, you'll always be my son. And she says it in her beautiful Khmer, perfect and true. She reaches to place her hand in yours. She is warm and she smells like lemons, the first of spring even in a concrete room hidden from the sun and sky.

The you that you were when they first brought you here was so broken that there were pieces of glass all inside of you. Some of the shards broke through the skin of your hands, so sharp no one wanted to hold you but Ma did and she still does, even right now, taking your hand in hers and saying louder, this time in her perfectly broken English, Nothing changes, everything can't.

You are nodding because if you did speak, the words would not be enough. You have spent the last month thinking about what you would say to her, to Ba, to everybody. Ever since that day when the officers dragged you to court for the first time and the judge with those piercing eyes tore a hole inside of you with a sentence you didn't deserve. Ma and Ba who were sitting in the front row both screamed and started crying.

Ever since that day, you have tried different words for your family. Lying in your cot, listening to your cellmate snoring, you closed your eyes and practised every Sorry, it's gonna be OK, I know Um Prak will take care of everything, Ma, this isn't your fault, Ba, please, please, please that rose to your lips but staring at Ma now, your words run dry.

Ma holds your hand and from her fingers, the warmth trickles down your arm and across your chest. You know you will carry her everywhere you go, but when Ma lowers her head to cry, you start shaking again. The visiting room is a concrete room with no windows, only one door with two officers flanking either side, and they're watching you and all the other men around you, sitting in plastic chairs and breaking into their families' hands. Since they brought you here, all bloody and broken, you thought this place was big enough for your future, but now, listening to Ma cry, you know this place is not big enough to contain the sounds of her choked breaths and her smell, the smell of lemons and the first of spring.

Son, who will feed my son? Who will make sure you sleep at night and wake up each morning?

She lowers her mouth to your hands. When she bows her head, you see the streaks of silver all over her short hair. When you were young, before she walked you to school, you would sit at the foot of the bed and watch her shake her hair loose from the braid she wore during work. You loved how curly her hair was, like the waves down at the beach. You watched her massage oil all the way to her scalp. She never trusted American brushes, instead running a double-sided wooden comb through her hair each morning after breakfast was done, but before she woke up your little sister. You think about the silence in the bedroom, how Ma always sat straight, shoulders forward and the sight of the red comb teeth poking through the heavy curtain of her black hair.

You want to ask if you're why she grew old, why she cut off her long hair, why her lips are always bitten through, why her eyes are tired, but instead, you lower your head because you cannot cry, not with everyone watching. She gets up from her chair, and you know all that she wants to do is wrap her arms around you. But the officers warn her, and instead, she says, Son, look at me.

You lift your head and her eyes; they hold you. Her eyes are telling you it'll be OK, and you believe her. She talks about the family, about who is pulling something over someone else, how your sister, even though she doesn't write back, reads everything you send her, how Ba is a regular down at the wat now.

And through her talk-story, you never stop looking into her eyes.

Through her talk-story, you hear her heartbeat, steady, steady through all the words.

Her heartbeat stays with you, even when visiting hours are over and all the plastic chairs are pushed underneath the plastic tables. You want to watch her walk out to see if Ba was waiting for her outside, but instead, they usher you to dinner. But what stays with you his her heartbeat.

Her heartbeat says your name, over and over again, and at night, you place it near your ear so you can sleep.

When Martinez tells you to get up, you don't fight. You know that there's no reason to, not when he's part of the ICE, and there's nothing else you can do but follow him as he guides you through the airport.

While you were sitting in the holding room, waiting for your flight, you remember how you wanted to put a face to the people's voices you heard through the door. You wanted to know if the girl who screamed was actually crying or just fooling around, if the little kids were having a fight, if the old man found his family. But now, there are too many eyes watching you, staring nervously at first at your handcuffs and then at your beige jumpsuit.

You think to yourself how the whole world could just be like the visiting room where you saw Ma and Ba and eventually, your little sister, from across a table, how you wondered how they can look so different each time and how you are still exactly the same. A woman with a stroller brushes against your left side, and when she apologizes, the kids by her side hide their faces in her sari. You want to tell the woman that Ma used to wear sarongs that was as brightly coloured too.

Martinez is calm, a seasoned vet, you know this by the way he tugs at your elbow and manoeuvres you through the biggest crowds. A fat woman in a red dress gawks after you, and you think to yourself that the first thing you're going to do is burn the shit out of your clothes.

You stand in line for the third security check of the day, and Martinez asks you if you're excited. You have to think about what he's actually asking you because you are in handcuffs and he is not. By the time you think of something to say, he is busy with a TSA officer, double-checking your paperwork.

You feel the heat of one hundred, two hundred eyes burning holes into the back of your neck. You lick your lips; the one thing it seems that Martinez is fond of asking you is if you're thirsty or not.

Here is something that doesn't change not even five years in with some of the meanest fuckers you've met; the sight of Ba scares the shit out of you, even though you are now a foot taller than he is and about a hundred pounds heavier. This is the first time he ever came to see you, and it's enough for your heart armour to crack. When Ba settles in the chair across the table, you are rubbing out the last of your tears from your eyes. He crosses his arms and pretends to look out a window that isn't there while you wipe at the snot running out of your nose. He shifts his eyes to look at the lights above your bowed head, hums along with the fluorescent bulbs as you try to breath normally again, a steady inhale, exhale though the inside of you is aching something terrible and all you want is Ma's hands holding you.

Between you and Ba are nights in front of the PlayStation, Battle Arena Toshiden and Rival Schools, and drinking beer during the summer, his hands on the back of your neck that time you got so sick everyone thought you were going to die; and later, Ba smoking cigarettes and watching you wash the car, Why you no clean faster? I'm working tomorrow!, his hand on your shoulder, steadying you, holding you up as you tried to walk.

Between you and Ba are scars, battles won and lost, nights stumbling home drunk and high, Ba using his sandals to beat your ass up and down the staircase, a knife against your throat, and Ba saying Over my dead body, you understand? You were too young to understand this is how Ba loved you, and you fought back, screaming and throwing things at the windows, the walls, and Ba screaming right back, You no son. You no son of mine!, and you remember how you wouldn't stop until Ma and your little sister started crying.

You have been away too long, and in that distance, you saw Ba for the man he really was. There's a saying that the yeiys at wat used to say, Boys learn from Ma what to fight for and Ba how to fight for it. You have been away too long, and you know that you should begin with an apology. Ba used to tell you that anger like yours will eat you up, but you would just call him a dumb motherfucker, take the car keys and what cash was in Ma's purse, and you would run into the nights, after your boys, who called themselves your family.

Instead, Ba tells you that your little sister is in the car with Ma, and you ask him, She's coming to see me?

Ba runs a hand through his hair, massages the corner of his eyes and readjusts his glasses. He says slowly, so you can understand what was between his words, You know how stubborn she is.

You can feel yourself growing in silence and the air between you two is thick. Ba watches as an officer walks by your table, his hands staring openly at the gun hoister against the officer's waist. Ba says, In the war, the Viet Cong will kill for guns like that.

You used to think tough, as in unbreakable, things though you knew inside of you was all blood and broken glass. But Ba was different. His tough is on a different level.

Ba clears his throat and says, Son, you are a buffalo boy. I think you know what that means.

You say, Tell me 'gain.

Ba leans back against the chair, and for a second, you are back home, at the kitchen table, while Ma washes the dishes and your little sister is in the next room, doing her homework. You can even smell the samlor machu Ma made, feel the heat of the oven and Ba's voice, low and steady, above it all.

Water buffalo will work until they die, just walking through the paddies and dragging the plows until their legs give out. Saw it happen all the time, specially before the war. Kamao in my village was not a buffalo boy; he used to beat and beat his buffalo until there was blood in the paddy and that's why rice from his farm was always red. The very best, the real, true buffalo boys are the ones who get on their feet and help drag the plow through the paddy. The best and true buffalo boys know when to stop. When to stop a buffalo from working. When to stop pretending that you are the master.

Ba presses his fingers against his lips, a habit leftover from his smoking days and says, The best buffalo boys know when to stop.

You know then that he knows how you got a black eye, why you spent a month in solitary, why there's a scar across your cheek.

You want to tell Ba thank you, that during nights when the cot is too hard and all you want is just a whiff of the night sky, you always think back to the knife against your throat and Ba's eyes just beyond the flash of metal and how you saw his love just like you see it now, but instead, Ba puts both of his elbows against the table and looks at you.

You still able to watch the playoffs in here?

When visiting hours are over, you stand up to give Ba a hug. In the middle of the hug, he places his left hand against the back of your neck. Ba's hand is cold and wrinkled, the hands of a buffalo boy, and when you are along again, all you can taste is grass.

You settle into the seat that Martinez tells you to sit in. You are sitting in the first row, directly behind the pilot cabin and next to the window. Martinez sits next to you and the third seat, closest to the aisle is empty and stays that way.

You are looking out the window, at the airport, and then you are scanning the row of low concrete buildings, looking for the place where Ma washes dishes for some fancy European airline.

You pretend not to hear the red-headed couple complaining to the stewardess about flying with an convict. You pretend not to understand the grasp of fear that almost every person gives upon entering the airplane, walking past your row. You pretend not to hear Martinez reassure, over and over again, that you will cause no harm. You pretend they, all of them, are talking about someone else. The red-headed couple does not want to sit in the row behind you. You want to lift up your hands and show your handcuffs as if to say What the fuck can I do? The red-headed girl is wearing a Batman T-shirt, and you want to say, nice shirt, but Martinez is looking at you and in that look, you understand.

You turn to look out the window. There is a woman wearing a navy-blue dishwasher uniform talking to the baggage guy. You pretend that it's Ma, and she's trying to tell you something important but with the hum of the airplane and the people in it, you can't hear her.

You keep looking out the window until the stewardess announces that it's time to prepare for takeoff.

The first thing your little sister does is roll up her shirt sleeve and show you the Batman tattoo she got on her arm. You say, Holy shit, I'm gone for seven years and this is what you do? and she starts talking, fast. This was the way it always was between you two, her stories pouring out of her and you listening. You are trying to ignore the eyes that follow your sister as she sways in her chair. She is so pretty, always has been since she was a baby and was little and pink with hair that always smelled like milk and the soft rice smell of babor. Next to you, another inmate checks to make sure the officers are looking somewhere else, and then, he makes a kissing noise towards your sister.

When you came here after your year in jail, you had to be broken and they did, they broke you day and night until you couldn't sleep, couldn't eat without looking at every corner, under every chair and table, but when you hear that inmate blowing kisses as your sister talks, you want to shatter bones and break wood and crash against walls.

But an officer comes quickly and he says, Is there a problem? and your sister's eyes grow wide, and she says so fast with a pretty flick of her long hair, No, no problem at all. What her eyes are saying is, Please, brother, please, and for her, you unclench your fist, you relax your shoulders, you become human again. You unhinge your jaw. You let your feet rest on the floor.

She holds your hands together, covers them with her own, and you tell her she looks like Ma, the way Ma must have looked before her world broke. Your little sister says, You changed for the better in here. The moment her words leave her mouth, she tries desperately to reach out and take them back, but instead, you shake your head.

It's OK. I don't care.

Your sister nods. Your sister beings to talk-story the way Ma would have if she was here. She tells you that Um Prak and his wife are getting divorced, that one of your cousins is going to Harvard, the other one got a job at the DPS and the other is on patrol. Your sister tells you about Ba, how he lead the alms-giving during the New Year and that Ma is retiring early because her doctor told her to. You watch her talk, you listen to her stories, and you are thinking about that winter.

When she was only two and you were twelve, you used to take her out to play in the snow until you couldn't feel your feet and she, her fingers. One winter, it snowed so much that you sank all the way to your waist once you stepped out in the backyard. You yelled at her to stay inside, but then, in the same breath, told her to help you out. That was the way it was for you—getting in trouble, trying to stop others while at the same time, asking for help.

You don't think your sister remembers this; you don't ask her about it, and instead, hold her hands a bit tighter in your own.

I've been trying to be better ever since the day I came here, you say and she nods. She bites down on her bottom lip as you tell her, Make sure Ma eats, OK?

And because you cannot stand to look at her eyes, you are staring at her hands, and you hope that they stay soft forever. She is your little sister, and when you tell her, I'm going to be OK, she is already busy trying to wish it true.

On the plane ride back, all twenty-four hours and three layovers of it, you are reduced to seven words; LYNN RESIDENT CONVICTED OF ALLEGED MURDER CHARGE. You can think of no other explanation why no one speaks to you.

While flying over the US, you lose feeling of your legs. Martinez tells you it's because of the air pressure as he rolls a cigarette back and forth on top of his right leg. He is a smoker, you know the type, and his anxiousness for a cigarette is making you dizzy, and also, the sky, wide and big and too blue, right next to you as you bounce faster and faster on your toes. You are trying to shake feeling back into your body, you are shaking so hard, the chain between your handcuffs is shaking, too, but Martinez is telling you to calm the fuck down. He's tired and you want to say sorry.

You swear the Pacific Ocean wants you dead. The five hours it takes to cross the ocean are five hours of you trying to sleep. You are visited by shadows with big teeth, and they are trying to eat you from your feet on up. When you shake yourself awake, Martinez is asleep and murmurs a girl's name so lovingly that it brings your heart a full aching. This is no good; you can feel the aching in your bones and even in your teeth.

You turn to look out the window. There are no lights to tell you how far out you are, no lights begging you to come back home, and in the dark, you think to yourself, Why the fuck? Why?

You glance down at your chest. The words on it reads LYNN RESIDENT CONVICTED OF ALLEGED MURDER CHARGE.

There is not enough air to breathe, not enough sea to drown in, not enough words to say. You tighten first all the fingers in your left hand to a fist, and then, you do the same to your right. Two fists, fingers curled in tight as if to draw blood, the metal handcuffs between, and you are closing your eyes. You sleep, or try to anyway, listening to Martinez whisper his lover's name.

You try to say her name, but the words on your chest burns into you and you think, Yeah, OK. You know love like that don't sit right on your lips. You tell yourself that you are a dumb motherfucker, that you have already accepted the shape of your life and moved on. But, in the plane cabin, flying over an ocean that eats up all the lights, you wonder if Martinez's girl paints her nails a bright gold, no matter what time of year, if she kisses him, right behind the ear, in a spot she says no one else has touched before.

You reach up and you punch yourself, hard, to stop the remembering. To clear your head. You are not surprised to find blood from your handcuffs tearing at your skin, right between the eyes. You think, This is no good, no good at all, for anyone.

The first thing they tell you is, "Welcome home" and you look around trying to find Ma and Ba and your little sister. You are escorted to a bathroom half the size of your old cell, and you are left alone to change out of your jumpsuit and into civilian clothing. You wash your face three times, staring hard into the mirror each time. You have forgotten how thin your face is. Your wrists are fine, but you pretend there are thin red marks around them where the handcuffs used to be.

The last thing Martinez does for you is to wait with you while they check your papers, your visa. You want to stay thank you, but you can see it in his eyes that all he wants to do is turn around and head home. In the embassy room, there are only travel posters and a map of the country on the walls. The people behind the desk are quick to review your papers, tell you again, "Welcome home" and stamp your visa.

Martinez leaves you with one firm handshake and a hearty "good luck, pal." You believe in the sincerity of his words.

You don't know where to go now, and all the people behind the desk are already coughing into their hands and shifting papers. One of them tells someone else to get the next deportee in here to sign papers. You are pushed off to one side, and then to another and then politely asked if you had family that was coming to pick you up, and it is clear, right away, that they already don't know what to do with you.

Freedom is an unaccustomed weight on your shoulders, and as you walk out of the embassy, you tell yourself over and over again, The best and true buffalo boys know when to stop. The best and true buffalo boys know when to stop. The best and true buffalo boys know when to stop.

When you step out onto the main road of the capital city, you are already sweating right through your shirt. The sun is already in the sky, and the street hawkers are trying to wave you over to their stalls. Girls in sky blue pinafores walk to school, notebooks pressed against their chest and their eyes on the ground. An elderly woman carries a tin container on top of her head, and in that container, piled high, are mangosteens the colour of a bruise. Someone honks at you, and you jump to the side of the road as a scooter with three young men drives by, sending dust all over you. There is the crowing of chickens from the meat vendor, and the flies are everywhere. You smell the dirt and scent of unwashed bodies.

You sit down at a bench outside the embassy, holding onto the duffel bag with all your clothes in it. A pretty girl in a short red dress tries to get you to look at her; there's more girls lining up behind her in an alley. A group of tourists, so white against a sea of brown, smile at you and haltingly ask you if the bar in the alley has even younger girls. You tell them, That's fucking sick, what the fuck. The tourists hurry past you, clutching at their wallets and cameras.

A boy with only one leg and a hole in his head so big you can see bits of his brain bangs a tin cup against the ground and begs for money. A man Ba's age, steps around the begging boy, while talking into a cellphone like the one you had years ago. Another woman walks through, selling something small and fried from the tin bowl on top of her head. You are thinking maybe spiders or sparrows. Ma used to say that was what the Khmer Khrom people used to eat during the war when nothing else was around.

Ba said the city burned itself to the ground before the Viet Cong could take over, but staring all around, you see a row of hawkers, open-air restaurants selling bowls of nom banh chok and kdam chaa. You see school girls walking hand in hand across congested streets of motorcyclists, old Nissan cars and rickety autobuses. Another woman is selling coconuts to drink, and an old man is loudly denouncing last year's election. This is what grew from the ashes. You wish Ba was here to see it.

You reach inside yourself, take out your heart and hold it as you watch this new city wake up under the summer sun. You hold your heart because you do not know how to hold freedom. You lean forward, your eyes narrow, and you think about where you are going to sleep tonight.

Your heart beats, and with each beat, you hear:


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