In Vietnam, the Mekong Delta was our backyard, its canals and tributaries spread throughout the southwestern tip of the country like capillaries. We called it the Nine Dragons, one of which wrapped its meandering yellow tail around our village and behind our hut. It thrashed and raged in the tempests of the wet season, and lay still beneath a cloudless sky during the dry season.
It was where my brothers learned to swim. I was too young, though my mother would occasionally dip me into the river water while sitting in a canoe as my brothers swam around naked nearby.
On days when the river came down from the sky, my father put out large terra-cotta vases to catch the streams of rainwater coming in through the gaps in our roof. When he ran out of vases, he used bowls and cups that inevitably overflowed.
“We slipped around the dirt floor of our hut a lot,” my mother said, during one of the stories she told us about our life in Vietnam, which she liked to recount as we cut fabrics and attached buckles to cummerbunds. She dipped and slid her hands through the air. There never seemed to be enough containers for all the drips, she recalled, but it was how things were. “Water was always everywhere. And we accepted it. We exalted it. We prayed to it.”
But no matter how much they prayed, the river couldn’t cure everything. Once, when he was four years old, Long became very sick, she told us, as we all listened with rapt attention. He had a distended belly and large liquid-filled boils spreading across his body. After the village doctors and the shamans had shaken their heads in surrender, my father waded into the river with Long in his arms, tears running down his face. “Please,” he had pleaded with the river. “Anything, anything. Please.” Long was unresponsive, breathing weakly.
It was my mother who forced her husband out of his despair. “You give up too soon,” she told him. “We have to go into the city. Now. Snap out of it.” So they carried Long into Cần Thơ, the largest city in the Mekong Delta, but still little more than a village. They had already spent most of their life savings on local doctors and medicines that didn’t work. But my mother was counting on compassion. Somewhere, she thought, someone would take pity on them.
In the emergency room of the general hospital of Cần Thơ, doctors poked and examined the little round mass that Long had become. By then the boils had reached his face, and his cheeks were swollen and shiny like glass bowls, my mother said, her hands cupping the air as though to hold Long’s ballooning face. But kind as they were, the doctors shook their heads and lowered their eyes.
“We have seen this before,” they said. “There is nothing we can do for him.”
The state of medicine in Vietnam in the late eighties was far behind the rest of the modern world, especially in the countryside. Village doctors reused gloves and needles for lack of equipment, and treatments for certain curable diseases had not yet arrived. Antibiotics were only just reaching the big cities, and one needed money to afford them.“Water was always everywhere. And we accepted it. We exalted it. We prayed to it.”
“I don’t remember much of what I thought when we walked out of that hospital,” my mother said. “I knew only that a wind was slowly and softly blowing out the flame of his life.”
A nurse walking past noticed my father’s grief-stricken face as he held Long in his arms, and inquired about the situation. “He’s dying,” my father said. My mother described her son’s symptoms—the speed with which the boils had appeared, his lack of appetite, his inability to pee—to the nurse.
The nurse looked down at Long and frowned. “What, this? This is nothing. Wait here.”
She disappeared into a room, leaving my parents to reconcile this “nothingness” with the imminent death of their son. When she emerged, the nurse had in her hands a slip of paper. “A new shipment of medicine just arrived from the West. Take this to the pharmacy and follow the entire course as indicated on the package. He should be fine.” My parents stared in disbelief. Was this a hoax? “Don’t waste time,” she warned them. “Listen, if this doesn’t work, I’ll tear up my nursing license.” They scrambled out of the hospital, prepared to be the punch line of a cruel joke.
Later, on the ferry going back home, after the first dose of medicine had been administered, Long woke up on my father’s lap. Two sleepy eyes looked up at my father’s haggard face. “I have to pee,” Long said. My father carried his son to the side of the ferry and held him up in triumph as Long shot out a long and steady stream of urine into the river. Days later, after Long had regained his strength and was looking healthy again, my parents returned to that hospital in Cần Thơ to thank the nurse who saved their son. But they couldn’t find her.
“We asked all around for her,” my mother told us. “She had written her name on the prescription she gave us, but no one in the hospital knew who she was. The receptionist even took out a directory of all the staff members. Her name wasn’t listed.”
“An angel,” my father said as he listened to the end of my mother’s story with tears filling his eyes. “An incarnation of Quan Âm Bồ Tát.”
When we came to New York City, my parents were struck by the dryness and gray of all the concrete. They pined for the Mekong, the artery of Vietnam, where they washed dishes and clothing and bathed their children, where townsfolk grew their vegetables by the riverbank, where fishermen slept in boats on the murky waters with their lines, awaiting the tug of sustenance, where the river god would answer their prayers.
Eventually, my parents found a way to return to the water.
In June 1994, they discovered Coney Island. I was four years old then, and my parents decided it was time for me to learn how to swim. We were going to have a family adventure. It would be the first time we had done anything like it since coming to America, the first time we took a break from making ties and cummerbunds to explore New York City.
“We can’t stay cooped up in here like this. We can’t work like dogs,” my father said in a moment of fearlessness and clarity. “We have to go outside. Go here and there. That’s the only way we’ll know the world!” He brought out a large subway map and put on the pair of reading glasses he’d bought from Rite Aid. He circled the 14th Street–Union Square stop, where we would need to get off the L train and switch over to the Q. Then he circled the last stop on the Q, a bunch of yellow and orange lines converging at the bottom of the map, punctuated by black and white dots.
“This is where we’re going tomorrow,” he told us. “We’re going to swim.”
The next morning my father woke us all up earlier than usual. My brothers play fought with each other. My mother got us ready. It didn’t matter that none of us had swimsuits; we all wore cotton shorts and my mother put on a pink tank top over her bra. My father pored over his map again and again to memorize the directions. Something was about to happen; I could feel it: a new adventure was waiting for us.
The ride to the last stop on the Q train was a long one. Before this, we had only ever ventured as far as Chinatown on the M train, back when the M train still stopped at Bowery. This time, it felt like we would be underground forever. But as we neared the end of the line, the crowd started to change. I looked around us and saw flocks of families and friends who had had the same idea we had—folks with beach bags and straw hats, flip-flops and sunglasses. A few people already had their bathing suits on, some skimpier than others. “Don’t look,” my mother commanded us. Anything that would remind us of our own bodies was taboo, an idea instilled in us early on. We obeyed and did not look, not because we understood why, but because we weren’t interested anyway. Not yet. Not at this age.
Now there was a palpable excitement in the air. People started talking loudly and laughing a lot, and a few kids danced around the subway poles with lollipops in their mouths. I was content to sit on my mother’s lap, enjoying the moment. Thinh, Phu, and Long were kneeling on the bench across from me, their backs turned, noses pressed to the dirty polycarbonate glass, watching as the world beyond moved past them like a roll of film unraveling.
Coney Island was a dream. Up until this point, we had only heard about it from Mr. and Mrs. Six, so we didn’t know what to expect. But seeing the Ferris wheel loom large on the horizon as we approached was the first time I remember ever experiencing a sense of sheer amazement. My brothers and I craned our necks to admire its size, tugging on our parents and pointing up to make sure they saw what we saw. “Look!” we said. “Yes, yes, we see it!” they said.
Though we couldn’t afford anything in Astroland, we walked through the park, where all the colors of a summer childhood existed, and we drank it in like some effervescent soft drink. The painted rides, the pink and blue cotton candy, its edges dark and crystalline where it had been licked, the buoyant balloons bumping against one another, the red- white-and-blue Firecracker Popsicles slow-dripping in the sultry heat, and the happy music blaring out from each of the different rides. But we had to move on. We were headed toward something even better than Astroland.
We followed the throng of beachgoers across the wooden boardwalk to the edge of the sand, where all of us except my mother took off our shirts. It was the first time I had ever seen the ocean, its limitlessness at once awe-inspiring and frightening. Barefoot and wearing nothing but a pair of red cotton shorts, I skittered across the sand with my brothers. My feet burned, pain giving way to exhilaration and the promise of cool water. Hundreds of people crowded the section of sand right at the water’s edge. We zigzagged around them until we found an opening where we could claim our own little plot of sand. As soon as we marked our territory with our towels, my brothers and I ran straight to the water, our parents trailing after us.
I watched as my brothers tentatively walked into the white froth of the waves, their faces lighting up as though seeing an old friend after a long period of absence. “So cold!” they shouted gleefully, splashing each other. After a few minutes of shivering discovery, Thinh was the first to dunk his body beneath the water, emerging seconds later, hair dripping and a big grin on his face, to let us know that it was safe.
“Don’t go far!” my father called out to them. “Stay between the lady right there on the right with the blue umbrella and that man over there with the green-and-yellow towel.” He was like a referee, blowing an imaginary whistle each time one of them ventured too deep into the water or stepped outside the boundaries he set. Every now and then he would stand waist deep in the water and stick his head under, then straighten back up and rub the water all over his body, as though showering in the sunlight with seawater as soap.
I stood by the ocean’s edge, digging my feet into the sand, instinctively aware of the dangers of the cold, murky water, which even a few feet from shore was so deep that I wouldn’t be able to stand with my head above it. I bent down and grabbed a handful of gray wet sand, kneading the strange stuff onto my body. My mother appeared at my side. “Đi đi con,” she said, coaxing me farther into the water. “Don’t be scared.” She crouched down, and when I climbed onto her back, she paddled out to my brothers, with me clinging desperately to her neck.
The water was calm and peaceful, with only small waves, and I soon relaxed into feeling safe and secure on my mother’s back. Looking around I saw other children playing nearby, and I wondered what their lives were like. Wondered if they were also done with their quota of ties and cummerbunds for the week and were taking a break at the beach like we were.
The air was cool, the sun suddenly hidden behind clouds. When a breeze blew by, I felt the hairs on my arm rise, goose bumps spreading across my body. Somehow, it was warmer to be in the water than outside of it, and my mother walked in deeper, taking me with her until I was fully immersed except for my head. We all stayed in the water until our lips turned blue. “Five more minutes,” Phu begged when my mother and father began reeling us in. But we were cold and we knew the journey home was long, so none of us protested further when our five minutes were up. We made the trek home in a blissful state of sun- and water-induced languor, having experienced for the first time in our lives an ocean, not knowing, as our parents did, the oceans we had already crossed to get there.
That night I went to bed feeling the ebb and flow of the waves around my body. I closed my eyes and imagined it all over again. My day at the beach.
Excerpted from House of Sticks by Ly Tran. Copyright © 2021 by Ly Tran with permission by Scribner, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.