Therapy is about living in multiple time points at once…….

“Why do you think he avoided you as time went on?” Blue asked.

I cringed. Wasn’t it obvious? The Carpenter had turned away in the park when he thought I didn’t see; he didn’t tell me that he was coming to Manhattan to visit someone else until after he had returned home. He wanted our conversations to be long, but limited their number. Over time, he was discovering who I really was, that I was toxic to him.

“No. He avoided you because it was painful, for him.”

That couldn’t have been it. He regretted starting something, and wanted to take it back.

“That doesn’t explain the flirting long after you were an adult.”

I let my hand rest on my head where it hurt.

“He gave you some things that you desperately needed, and triggered other things that you did not need, things that were not good for you. If you ask for what you need from the right people, you won’t have to give the store away. Give what’s precious to people who can give it back.”

I was alone that Friday night after the boys were tucked in, while David’s plane was zooming toward Egypt. Six days he would be gone. Who could I ask for what I needed? Who would give back anything precious? Could I hold it together for six more days and long winter nights? I don’t think so, I told my in-laws. I don’t think this façade for the kids will last. In the time it took me to hang up and redial to leave a message on Blue’s voice mail, David’s stepmother had called back, to say that she would be flying down from Massachusetts the next day to spend a few days. I cried from relief and exhaustion. I stayed up late to keep crying, to get a jump start on the grief, the re-grieving. I fell asleep to the silent recitation of what Blue had said.

The next morning the boys took turns running in to find me in the guest bedroom. I answered their questions and acknowledged their snippets of conversation in between listening to Blue when he returned my call.

“I’m impressed that his stepmother is coming,” he said, “I’m impressed that you were able to express your needs in such a way that she offered to come.”

Mama, what’s this map doing on this shoebox? Alexander asked in my right ear. I don’t know. That’s just the style of the brand. I liked the design so I thought we should keep it. What’s J-41?  he pressed. Those are coordinates.

“I’m impressed that you called me,” Blue continued in my left ear. I had never done that before, despite the many times he had urged me to. Yes, I acknowledged, that had been terrifying to do.

“Do you see how this works?” he asked rhetorically. “The more you reach out, the deeper those bonds become, the richer the relationships become, and the easier it is to ask for what you need.”

Someone will be there, he promised.

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This is how a childhood ends.….


“Hi Mai, it’s Leila.”

I was pleasantly surprised. Ten years from high school and someone had tracked me down.

“Hi, how are you? Are you in New York?”

“Well, yes I am, but I’m actually calling about something else. The plane, the flight that crashed off Long Island…..” The Carpenter and his wife were on it, on their way to visit their daughter in Paris. I had watched the coverage on TV, feeling small on the planet surface as that much destruction took place over the city.

I checked the clock. Enough time to alert David. Then I squirmed into my sneakers and scrubs, slung the stethoscope and fanny pack over my shoulder and ran to the subway station. Only ten days into my second year of residency and I felt old. I explained to my intern why someone else would be taking back-up call for me the week of memorial services.

The first gathering was at the last school he taught at. His high school students sat on one side of the library, and we faced them on the other. I met his daughters and his niece. There was a second service three days later with 600 people at the Quaker meeting house. A writer of short stories read a poem that his kids had chosen. I had met her at their house the year before when David and I came to help Carpenter fix the futon frame he had made for us as a wedding present. Continue reading

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In mid-April of my first year with Blue, I went to spend the afternoon at Michael’s apartment. From the Metro stop, I turned down side streets canopied with the chartreuse of early Ginkgo leaves, past the power restaurants that ring K Street. What time will you be there? I had asked him. All day, he replied. Outside the lobby, I glanced furtively left and right before going in, and waited for an empty elevator.

He had replaced his door since I was last there. The new one was four feet wide, brushed steel, with a central panel where an 18 inch wheel lock balanced on a giant gear. Three deadbolts, each one inch thick, cinched the opening edge. There was no viewer, but as I approached, I heard the gears crank as the wheel lock slowly turned. With all his weight on a right shoulder, he pushed it open just enough for me to squeeze in.

We laid out a picnic supper on the floor. Outside, spring day temperatures had dropped and I savored the sting of the room’s warmth on my cheeks. He had made something sweet, chewy flatbread, and something spicy. We washed it down with cold wine, and then opened old photo albums. There were fewer pictures of Rich and the family than I remembered, and shadows where the remaining pictures had been rearranged to make the gaps less obvious. I opened my mouth to ask about it, but for some reason couldn’t remember any of their names, and so didn’t. Michael seemed unbothered.

A little before ten o’clock, I went to laze on the bed and was not awake to see him turn out the lights. I went in to see Blue the next morning.

“Mai, I never told you that you have to put Michael in a vault and lock him away.” Continue reading

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When I was six, I had no grandfathers. Life had sprung from my beaming father and his older sisters on the one hand, and my mother and her siblings on the other. Ba Ngoai was the parthenogenic source of it all. I marveled at the power of her small, round belly.

When I was nine and we were settled in our row house in Mt. Airy, my mother set up our ban cung, the ancestor worship table I did not remember having in Saigon, though we must have had one. On it she placed framed, black and white photos of two men, one with a small face and dark, liquid eyes, in a mandarin robe and headdress; the other with a strong jaw and clear eyes, in a Western suit and tie. On days when we paid homage to them, I could feel faint rustlings around the frames ever so slightly upsetting the spiral of incense smoke rising between me and them. But there were no words, and no one else seemed to notice.

When we gathered with my mother’s siblings and my cousins once or twice each year for reunions, we children would line up at bedtime, lying sardine style on cool bed sheets spread over someone’s living room carpet, and fall asleep to the quacking of the elders’ chatter over mahjong and late night snacks in the next room.  They gossiped about this person or that person, told stories and clucked their tongues about how hard life used to be and how far it seemed ago. Once in a while, and only if my grandmother was not in the room, the chatter fell on someone they had lost and whom they variably called Ong or Chu. I could feel them reaching for him, something kind, something flawed. A ghost hovered over the table, and the voices hushed.

But lacking mass, the ghost never rooted me. I floated like that, without ground, wondering with increasing alarm as the years passed how it was that I ended up in this family. Continue reading

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Thay Giao

The first thing I knew about my father was that he was a teacher. He was a teacher in Saigon, a teacher within less than a year of arriving in Philadelphia, a teacher until he retired eleven years ago, before his last grandchild was born. In a photograph from the early 1980’s, he stands in front of the blackboard in a powder blue suit with wide lapels, black hair slicked back from his bald spot, eyes and face wide open, gesturing with his left hand to the intensely orange persimmon held up in his right hand. It was a class of English as a second language (ESL), because that is what he spent most of his time teaching, and because it’s the type of class where you are most likely to need to demonstrate with a fruit so strange to native English speakers and so familiar to his Asian students.

In America, teacher minds children while the parents work. In Philadelphia’s majority-black public school system, Teacher was expected to get herds of thirty or more through the day, lurching in as orderly a manner as possible from one forty-five minute period to the next. Teacher was not expected to be particularly cheerful or to perform outside the confines of his or her daytime duties, but was expected to join the union and live by its rules and hierarchy. In this way, Teacher could hope to earn a generous salary and pension, as well as other small perks, some official and some less so, such as bends around rules so that one’s daughter could attend a magnet school outside of her neighborhood.

In Vietnam, parents carefully hand children over to Thay giao or Co giao. Each Thay has a nuanced reputation – for the rigor of his or her exercises, demeanor, area of expertise, philosophy of life. This one might be a traditionalist. That one may have written his own text book. Thay could never survive on salary alone, so parents pay extra to make sure that their children get just the Thay that they need. They teach their children to shower respectful adoration on Thay, to bow upon coming and going, to send long, regular letters after graduation. On Teacher’s Day each spring, the country stops for a convulsive rite — children carry impossibly large bouquets of flowers to their favorite Thay’s houses, until the foyers of those homes are buried under a floral carpet and muggy with the scent of lilies and mums; grown men and women drive on motorbikes for tens or scores of miles to other cities if necessary to visit a former Thay; they plan large parties at dusk in beer gardens to fete Thay. Some Thay will receive much more attention than others. Each year, a hundred or more people die from traffic accidents on their way to visit Thay. Continue reading

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Ba Ngoai

I was eleven before I knew her real name – Le Thi Canh. We called her Ba ngoai – Ba for female of the grandparents’ generation, and ngoai of the maternal line, the ‘outside family’ that has to earn acceptance by the ‘inside,’ noi, village of the father. I was twenty-two before I knew much else about her.

Before then she puttered around the edges of life. She never had a home of her own in America, instead rotating from one child’s house to another throughout the year, spending a few months each in Florida, Texas, Maryland, New Jersey, or Pennsylvania, so as not to wear out her welcome. Some houses she rarely went to. She was as ngoai as ngoai could be. Having few living expenses, she spent her Social Security checks on graduation and birthday gifts for grandchildren, took slow walks, or gardened. She nannied my younger cousins. She claimed to not speak English, but on most afternoons we could find her watching soaps, ankles crossed with her tiny round body barely denting the sofa, crocheting or knitting. She could tell the latest storyline from any of them, in Vietnamese. When she was in my mother’s house, she helped more with cooking than my mother sometimes wanted. She stood silent whenever my mother lit into me, but might say something quiet out of my hearing later, enough to calm the mother.

In my parents’ house like most Vietnamese homes, there is a quiet place called a ban cung. Sideboard, mantel, bedroom bureau; it doesn’t matter. It might be permanent or portable, the incense sprigs propped up in raw rice in a teacup base, banquet food piled on mismatched china, and photographs laid out when needed then put away. It is the ancestor worship table, the focus of offerings that descendants make to the wandering (and apparently starved) ghosts of forbearers on their death anniversaries. Told to pay my respects, with little of how explained to me, I stood at the alter three times a year, once for each grandparent lost, on the anniversary of their death, balancing incense between my hands, and helplessly turned my eyes downward.

Ba ngoai was my only living forbear, the one I didn’t have to conjure. She was the medium. She hung suspended in her own crevice, between joy and eviscerating grief, authority and impotence, the living and the dead.

You bring along the dead to start a life over, layered with the living to bind the two together. This is what my parents had packed in valises in early spring of 1975, long before they found a way to get us out of Saigon. For weeks the suitcases stood neatly in a row, then packed in the trunk of our red sedan, ready for any opportunity. Among a few changes of clothes, birth certificates, school diplomas, proof of employment, and dog tags on chains to later hang on each child engraved with their names and instructions for contacting Dan Ross should they get lost, were carefully wrapped photographs. There were color photographs of us children with scouting troops, in school uniforms, posed before scenic backgrounds at the zoo, by the water at a Dalat resort; of me and girl cousins in matching red Tet dresses with blue polka-dot chiffon pockets and cap sleeves one year, polyester Twiggy yellow pant suits with large white daisies another. Black and white photographs of my debonair parents – him walking a bicycle with hair slicked off a high forehead, a tilted Hollywood head shot of her in a Bouvier do, full lips and cheekbones, looking barely Asian and vaguely like pictures of Anne Frank. A separate pile of photographs of the dead – the paternal grandfather, ong noi, in mandarin headdress and black ao giai, a projection of Chuong’s face at forty with eyes dark and bottomless, the way of artists; the maternal grandfather, ong ngoai, in modern blazer and tie, a projection of my baby brother, Tuan’s, face at thirty, the film overexposed and the print faded so that his hair looked blond; a group of my father’s school friends; grandaunts whose names I didn’t know; and no photos of the paternal grandmother – ba noi, which made my father so sad that I was not allowed to ask about it.

My grandmother had no photographs on her table. She arranged its surface in her bedroom when she came, usually closer to the floor, with a bit of silk, incense, bronze boxes and Buddha statue, a small drum, and prayer books. She had remained Buddhist when my parents converted to Catholicism; this should have been a clue. An hour or more each day, she sat with small legs crossed to click-clack on the drum and chant in the bastardized Sanskrit passed down from Indian Buddhist missionaries to their Vietnamese converts. The transliteration has no meaning in Vietnamese; it’s pure gibberish. If prayer is contemplation, she could not have relied on the chants for content. I sat outside her bedroom door, secretly listening to the sedative, white noise that induced the trance state necessary for contemplation. They channeled, for her, all that she came from and had lost, right into the second story of my mother’s gray stone colonial. The syncopated rhythm of her nasal mutterings opened floodgates to an overwhelming grief that was as much mine as hers. We barely spoke during her visits, hobbled by our half languages.

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Character Refresh

I noticed that the playbill for this little drama was incomplete, so on the About the Characters page I’ve added links to the chapterlet postings where each character appears. I’ve also listed out additional characters you haven’t met yet, as a teaser for things to come….

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