Fiction / February 2010 (Issue 10)

Love Story

by Kimarlee Nguyen

If you listened to your brother and stayed away, then our stories would be different and I would collapse with the effort of keeping it all to myself. But you always thought your brother didn't know anything and we met after the lunch dishes were cleared and the sun was at its highest. I arranged to meet you at the start of the wall that Kep was famous for, the one that reached to the sea. You wore a sarong your mother made you wear to wat that day and you kept wearing it because it was so beautiful and beautiful things that belonged to you and you alone were few and far in-between. The sun baked the bricks until walking was too painful and you cried out that your bare feet were starting to bleed but I knew then, like I always did, that you were lying. Out on the wall, we sat and you swung your legs to kick water into the air. The spray of water and the sunlight created the illusion of safety because when everything glimmers, it's hard to see anything else. When I think about youth, I picture you sitting there, the skin of your ankles brilliantly white against the hem of your pomegranate sarong.

That day, the seagulls were screaming in the sky as they hovered over an exposed fishing net. The boat was a little farther away, too far for us to see if it was your uncle fishing for that night's dinner or one of the town boys with their greasy hands and open mouths. At the edge of the wall, there was a statue of a deva, one hand curled around her ear as if waiting for the sea to speak. You touched the deva's inner foot, your hands seemed to illuminate like the limestone. I sat so close to you, I could smell the coconut you ate with lunch that day.

You and I, on the edge of the seawall and I wanted to tremble in the radiance of the sun at its highest point in the sky. I would have said nothing and basked in the glory but you turned to me and told me to tell. So I did and I gave you the words for you to carry. I saw your lips reciting bits of it and how the story trembled in your mouth, the words too terrible for anyone. I thought I had made a mistake, I wanted to take each word back but then you did a very brave thing. You reached in to adjust each word, the sharp bitter ones and the sad, all jumbled together, until they fit in the curve of your cheek. And then you smiled to tell me that it was okay, but I knew better because a smile like that was the heat of the bricks against our feet as we stood and walked back to shore. A smile like that tugged and tugged at me so much so that when you went ahead of me, I didn't bother to run to catch up. I watched the sway of your braid, the steps you took and how your shoulders bent forward as if you were a bird pecking at the sand.

The next day, your brother was found, killed in a ditch three miles out of town, and all the women of Kep were evacuated before the Khmer Rouge came with their guns and labor camps. Driving away from town, all you could think about was how yesterday, I had let you walk home alone. That's what you were thinking as you held your crying mother. All the women were crying then, gathered like cattle in the back of an American truck, except for you.

The story I told you was so sharp that you could not cry, you kept your back perfectly straight so the words you carried in your mouth would not prick your tongue and that was when everyone saw you for the woman that you are.

I stayed behind and I walked through the streets of the town center. At each house, now empty of mothers and of love, I stopped to throw open the doors and windows—letting in the brilliant sky, letting in the sun to make up for the empty space inside. Together, your father and I, we hung up the sarongs you washed to dry in the midday sun. I leaned against the south wall of your house and watched the horizon. I could smell the napalm even though the sea remained calm, nothing stirred except the cotton sarongs in the breeze and your father weeping openly into his hands.

They brought you to a strange place where the grey buildings were too tall for you to feel safe. The city was not like Kep, you stared up and up at hundreds and hundreds of windows and thought that this was where you were going to die. Your mother adjusted the collar of her new American coat and said that it suited her much better. You weren't sure. Your feet seemed too large in the shoes the nice church ladies gave you when you first arrived. They cut your hair off but you saved the braid and hid it in the very back of the suitcase you and your mother shared. It was so cold where they brought you, and you said it was better I didn't come with you. You always knew how much I hated the monsoon season and the rain that fell for weeks and weeks.

You weren't used to light hair back then. The first time a church lady talked to you, it wasn't the words out of her mouth that confused you but the sprouts of yellow hair that did. That color was the color of my sampot the day you and I danced during the dry season, right before New Year. You were Mekhala, the goddess of rain and I was a giant trying to steal what was rightfully yours. We danced for rain and we danced for the New Year, free of war and free of blood. You let me hold your hand that night, a brief warmth in my own palm before you ran off. At home, I laid in bed and thought of you.

When they took you away from me, I never danced again. The soldiers in the labor camp teased me for having such small ankles and then they whipped me with barbed wire until I couldn't walk. If I hadn't given you my story that day, it would have spilled out then, there was so much blood in my mouth. And still, the soldiers beat me until the wire broke and then they used their hands and feet.

I ate tree bark. I was always hungry, and at night, I placed a stone in my mouth to stop the gnawing in my stomach. Your father was whimpering like a child on the mat next to mine. If I could hate the Khmer Rouge for one thing and one thing only, it would be how Pol Pot and his men broke your father, who once stood so tall that all the boys in Kep thought they'd never reach his height. He reached over to hold my hand and asked me if Pol Pot was Cambodian, just like us and I said yes and together, we mourned the truth.

You would never know how many nights your father cried for you, though you held your mother in that cold apartment and she started to vomit in her despair. We are a generation that has seen too much, you and I, and your mother seemed so frail in your arms. You don't remember when her hair turned white or when her eyes became cloudy, as if losing her sight could make her forget.

But in the harsh city daylight, your mother gritted her teeth and pushed aside your hand when you tried to help her out of the subway car. It's fine, she said, it's fine.

We are a generation that was pushed and pushed until when given a chance to recover, we embrace everything, slowly at first and then with arms wide open. You did too, though you gritted your teeth and refused to at first. At school, you learned how to speak the church ladies' language but you never learned how to say words that start with z. There's no equivalent of that letter in Khmer. You learned to cook with ground tumeric instead of the fresh root and on the weekends, your mother took the train into Chinatown where she could get long grain rice and sacs of fish roe, which you loved to eat when fried with garlic.

For your nineteenth birthday, a white boy kissed you on your cheek and you didn't pull away because you've never been kissed like that before. Overt affection is not something Cambodian parents lavish on their children, and I never touched you except for that moment when you grabbed for my hand after we finished dancing. And your friends teased you so much that you didn't talk to me for three days, I remember I counted each one as if it lasted till eternity. Your mother made you wash your face when the white boy and his family left the apartment. They might have sponsored you and your mother over to America but that doesn't make you a whore, your mother said as she cleared the kitchen table and threw all the dirty plastic plates into one single shopping bag.

Don't be something you're not proud of, she said and you believed her. Before you went to bed, you wrote a letter to the American embassy, trying to write a letter with what little English you knew for the safe passage of your father to America. Because your mother always watched your face as you wrote, you couldn't write my name.

Sometimes, you forgot that you were carrying my story and when you laughed, a word or two fell out, shattering your smile and dropping to the floor with a sound like a bullet. It happened so often that you stopped talking altogether. My story sat in your mouth. You waited for the moment to tell it and in that way, it was like the first child you ever carried.

Because there were more children. Because you couldn't wait for me and because the American embassy returned your carefully penned letters unopened and unread. But you didn't marry that white boy who stole what was rightfully mine. No, you married the man your mother told you to and you learned how to carve happiness in places where there was nothing.

It was routine for the camps to transport new laborers every week as the Khmer Rouge prepared to mount an attack against warring Vietnam. I left the labor camp on the south edge of Battambang Province on the day of your birthday. I didn't know what had happened to your father but he watched from one of the outposts as a minor official led me away. I thought I heard your father cry out my name but when I turned, there was only smoke from the outpost and the glare of the sun, angry because there was no ocean to softly reflect its rays.

I thought we were going to the jungle, to cut wood for Pol Pot and his fires. What I heard first was the river, the sound of water against stone and though they broke my left wrist and blood from a gash on my temple clogged my ear, I lifted my head for the first time in weeks. You never learned to swim—your brother and I used to make fun of how often you sat on the edge of the shore, crying out for us to wait. We never did because we knew you would just stand there and let the tide run over your bare feet.

There was the smell of rotting tnaot and lifting my head high up, I could see the head of the palmyra tree against the too bright sky. The official told me to keep walking forward and slammed his fist against my face as if to punctuate his words. He called me comrade but when I fell to the ground, he stomped on my hand again and again until my skin peeled off. Get up, he said, get up, comrade.

I stumbled as I got up and stared into the river. So different from the sea, more movement and a set course I could follow. There was no brick wall that extended into the heart of the river, and no deva sat watching. Only wooden poles, half as tall as the palmyra tree, emerged from the river to break the surface. Like my fingers, twisted and cracked so that I was always reaching for the sky, the poles were unevenly spread throughout the water.

The offical said that I was here to work for Anka, that my contribution would bring Cambodia back to year zero and we all, comrades and Khmer Rouge alike, could be equal. He said, when you work, comrade, you work to better the people. I struggled to hear his words, my left ear only able to pick up the sounds of exploding bombs and the scatter of napalm. At the mouth of the river, there was a labor camp smaller than the one I left a few days ago and the official turned me over to another Khmer Rouge, this one husky and with a chest like a cave.

Comrade, another worker for the illustrious project to Anka's honor.

The words were bitter ones, full of spite and to this, the heavy set man spat on my face. Another cripple, he said, what use do I have for the likes of him?

I will tell you that no one spoke to me as I stood in line for evening babar. No one wanted to associate with a cripple, so I took my meals alone, eating more slowly than everybody else, holding the tin bowl to my mouth for longer periods of time. When the officers gave us water, cupped our hands together and received a ladle in our begging hands. I couldn't lift the wrist someone had cracked with the handle of a pickax, so what water was given to me streamed down my one good hand to form a puddle beneath my feet. If I had been able to cry, it would have been then, the silence around me so deep I could hear the river crashing against its own banks.

You were always wondering when it was going to end. Even in a new house, your stomach so big that you only wore sarongs and never jeans like your husband wanted, you waited. On the third floor of an apartment building, you could see the street below you, intersecting lines that you could trace with a finger. When your oldest daughter went to school, and the youngest one went to nap with your mother, you sat on a plastic chair in front of the biggest window. Leaning on a propped elbow, you watched the sky and you waited.

The window you spent part of each day looking out of was always dirty. No matter how hard you scrubbed at it with rags cut from an old kramah, the stain never went away. In time, you swore to both your husband and your mother that the stain was the color of blood, that it grew each day, first the size of your finger and then bigger and bigger until it was the length of your outstretched hand.

Whenever you thought about me, while walking to the Cambodian grocery store with your youngest daughter in your arms or drying clothes on a clothesline your husband rigged behind the house, you lowered your eyes. It was the closest to infidelity that you had ever come.

You were cooking dinner for your new family, your mother asleep in front a Khmer dubbed lakorn playing on TV. You finally learned how to make num p'chok, mincing the lemongrass so fine that it made a paste which you then dumped in a pot with a whole snakehead fish. Waiting for the broth to boil, you rinsed out bean sprouts and there was a light touch against your wrist. Because you were so strong, you did not scream, you did not throw the dripping sprouts over your head and call out for your mother. You were always brave. You looked up and there was nothing there but the folded plastic chair, carefully leaned against the front window and the TV with the lakorn blasting on high because your mother complained about losing her hearing.

You whispered my name then, the first time in years and when I did not reply, you turned back to the sink and finally noticed that the basin was overflowing with water. The bean sprouts, one by one, drifted over the edge of the counter and landed on your bare feet.

I am not a brave man. I only know how to carry the stones in my mouth that took place of all the things I should have said to you before the Khmer Rouge came. When one of the head officers of the labor camp realized that I could not help cut the wood needed to complete the bridge, he pulled me aside from the marching line.

There was a bird swimming on the river, the only thing that was moving in the midday sun. White feathers underneath a coat of black, I focused my eyes on the brilliance that the bird was unaware of even having. Because the river was so close, the grass under my feet was cold. In between my toes, I could feel each blade, damp with water. The officer told me not to look back, to keep walking. The bird never stirred, it didn't even seem to be swimming, and when the officer gestured for a guard to grab hold of a pickaxe, I stared at my hands. Even if we were to meet again, you wouldn't recognize me. The dancer was gone, replaced with this half of a man, one hand broken, one ear clogged with blood. I didn't have to pretend to be the raging giant; my eyes were almost swollen shut with the bruises around my face. I would dance for you on the edge of the river where the grass was cold and then we would fall asleep, cooling our burning bodies in the shade.

When the pickaxe ripped through my scalp and cracked open the back of my skull, the light seared into my eyes and I remembered that you hated tnaot, would not eat that fruit even when I climbed up the tallest palmyra near Kep to gather a bundle for you. The smell of the fruit you turned away from invaded every bit of me, the blood that clogged my left ear exploded to splatter the grass. When I fell, my body, carried by the wet grass and the mud, slid into the river where the bird continued to swim in concentric circles. The wooden poles that broke through the river's surface laced the water with tall shadows.

We were born near water, you and I, and to water, I returned.

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