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Excerpt

Things We Lost To The Water

Eric Nguyen

May 6, 2021 
The following is excerpted from Eric Nguyen's debut novel, Things We Lost to the Water, about an immigrant Vietnamese family who settles in New Orleans and struggles to remain connected to one another as their lives are inextricably reshaped. Nguyen has been awarded fellowships from Lambda Literary, Voices of Our Nation Arts (VONA), and the Tin House Writers Workshop. He is the editor in chief of diaCRITICS.org and lives in Washington, DC.

They were the only two Vietnamese working in the Coke factory in Gert Town and, because of that, were drawn together magnetically, inseparable because of circumstance.

Kim-Anh was a spritely twenty-one-year-old with fair skin and a boisterous laugh who had no business being in America, let alone New Orleans. She had left Vietnam on—of all things—a cruise ship.

“I was told we were going to Úc,” she told Hương. “Turns out it was Hồng Kông. Turns out my parents were right. Saigon was going to fall any day and I left just in time. And I was only sixteen! Imagine, a girl so young on a cruise ship without even an older brother to protect her!”

In Vietnam, Kim-Anh would have a husband by now, and a child, too. The girl had neither of those. She shared a house in Metairie with an American man who was much older than she was.

“He has so much money!” Kim-Anh always said. “I don’t have to work. That’s the truth. I just work because I get so bored at home.”

It was an absurd claim. The other factory workers called her Princess.

It was the second Friday of the month as they stood in line waiting for their paychecks when Kim-Anh paused whatever she was talking about—Hương had stopped paying attention—and exclaimed, “Have you ever been to Madame Beaumont?”

Hương said no.

“The American and I are going tonight,” Kim-Anh went on.

“The men who go there buy me drinks on Fridays.” She giggled. “Ladies’ night,” she said in English.

“I have children,” Hương said. She had nearly said responsibilities but caught herself before telling Kim-Anh she had to pick them up from their babysitter. “It’s not that I don’t want to go, but I’d have to pay Bà Giang more and this paycheck’s already going to rent.”

“What you need, chị Hương, is an American,” Kim-Anh told her. “When I came here, I was lost, confused. Then you know what happened?” She smiled excitedly, silently begging Hương to ask what happened. “I met the American! Americans are so wonderful,” Kim-Anh blurted out. “They’re ugly, but they have money, which is all that matters sometimes, though sometimes it doesn’t at all.”

When they walked outside, the sunlight struck Hương’s eyes. She squinted at the factory gates. The sound of idling cars and radios filled the air. A lone cloud floated in the sky, a perfect white against blue.

Kim-Anh opened her purse and drew out a clutch wallet decorated in fleurs-de-lis. “Chị Hương, I’ll pay your babysitter overtime. You’ve been here for so long, and you never have any fun. You work too hard!” She handed Hương two bills. Two twenties. The man on them, someone told her, was named Andrew Jackson. His face looked strong and determined. On his head, white and wavy hair grew thick as grass.

“I can’t. I shouldn’t.” Hương tried to hand the money back, but Kim-Anh stuck a cigarette in her mouth. She lit it up and waved Hương away.

They were the only two Vietnamese working in the Coke factory in Gert Town and, because of that, were drawn together magnetically, inseparable because of circumstance.

“You’re young, too, chị Hương,” Kim-Anh said, smoke blowing out of her delicate lips. “Enjoy yourself a bit. You deserve it. You’ve worked so hard. I know that. Everyone knows that. Look at those bags under your eyes. There’s a cream I got at D. H. Holmes for that, you know.”

Hương touched the space under her eyes.

After a few more casual puffs, Kim-Anh’s eyes brightened and she rounded her lips. When she couldn’t make any smoke rings, she clasped her hands together and laughed at the fun of failing.

Hương looked down at Andrew Jackson in her hands.

“Ông già Mỹ and I will pick you up later tonight. We’ll head out around eight.” She spoke with confidence, a quality Hương always envied.

“But—” Hương said.

Kim-Anh giggled and waved to a car. The American waited for her. “I won’t take no for an answer, sister,” she said. “I am not that kind of lady,” she added in English.

*

On the bus ride home, Hương reminded herself she wasn’t old. Twenty-seven wasn’t old. She was nearly Kim-Anh’s age. And she had missed out on so much. When she was younger, she’d heard of tango lounges in Saigon, but she never visited. She became a wife. Then a mother. When the Americans came to Saigon, the city was a place no self-respecting woman would find herself going to day or night. And when the Americans left—that was another story.

The war made her miss her youth. She owed this to herself.

At Bà Giang’s, the kids sat in front of the TV watching puppets, except Thanh’s son. They were both strange, sad people, that mother and that son. No one knew where the father was, but everyone said—Bà Giang said—Thanh came to New Orleans to find him. Thanh let herself in behind Hương. Hương didn’t even have to look behind her; she knew the peanut-oil smell of the fast-food restaurant where Thanh worked. While Hương talked to Bà Giang, Thanh went to the bedroom and knocked on the door. Of course her son was hiding! He was always doing that.

“I’m going out tonight,” Hương said to Bà Giang.

“So you’ve met a man!” Bà Giang replied.

“No, no!” Hương laughed. “There’s no other man for me, Bà Giang. Kim-Anh is taking me out to see this place. Madame something or other. I won’t be long. I can’t imagine staying out all night.”

Hương gave Bà Giang one of the two twenties and went to her sons. Bình was sitting with the other kids watching TV. Tuấn was in the love seat by himself with one of Bà Giang’s sets of playing cards. They were facing down. After a few seconds, her son picked one up, then another. Unsatisfied, he returned both cards.

“Tuấn,” Hương called. She sat behind him and watched his game. “What about that one? I remember seeing a queen there.”

“No,” he said. “Can’t be.” He picked it up anyway. Four of diamonds. “Told you.”

She rubbed his hair and leaned down to kiss him. “Mẹ will be out late tonight.”

From across the room, Bình saw her and ran toward his mother. He tripped on the way and stayed where he fell, having decided staying on the floor was easier than getting up. She lifted him and patted his head. “Be vâng lời for Bà Giang, okay?”

“Dạ,” he said with a nod.

When she set him down, he followed her to the door. She picked him up and set him back on the sofa. But this time, as she left, he burst into tears. She held him and cradled him.

“Be good for Mom,” she said. “Be good for Bà Giang. Why are you always crying?”

Bà Giang ran to him then and took the two-year-old in her arms. “Mommy’s coming back,” she cooed. “Is that what you’re afraid of? Don’t be afraid. Don’t cry. Mommy’s coming back.” Then to Hương, “Have fun tonight. Have a drink. You deserve it!”

Bình cried even louder. Hương was about to grab him but stopped herself. Yes, she told herself, she deserved it.

“Goodbye,” she called out as she left. Thanh and her son followed after.

*

She settled on a modest dress, a teal piece with a fabric belt. Before New Orleans, she wore mostly black and white polyesters—simple clothes that were also lightweight, because Vietnam was hot and there was a war and you dressed for practicality. But in New Orleans, the weather was not as hot, and everything was colorful already. She thought of the houses in the Marginy, the cars that passed by as she rode the bus, the flowers in the parks, soda bottle labels. She told Công about the colors of New Orleans, how it shook her awake and made her feel alive, how she had grown fond of the place because of the colors.

On the bus ride home, Hương reminded herself she wasn’t old. Twenty-seven wasn’t old.

“You would like it here,” she often found herself repeating, “when you come here.”

All in all, she sent dozens of tape messages to Công and several short letters. They all went unanswered. Some were returned with a rude stamp—return to sender—next to the postmark. Others came back damaged, packages ripped apart, as if inspected. (By whom, she would wonder.) She kept everything that came back. Yet she still hoped some of the messages found their way to Công. She could hope.

She could hope for a hundred years. She could hope for a thousand years. She imagined her body made of hope, made for hope. Until the day his first letter came.

It came in a thin aerogramme tucked in between a Kmart circular and a magazine of coupons. It said “Trần Văn Công” and had the address of their Saigon home. Her heart stopped. Then it quickened wildly. The letter fell from her hands and she went to get a glass of water. The image of their old house flashed in her mind. It was saved, was her immediate thought. Perhaps everything was fine now. Perhaps they would even move back. (She immediately admitted to herself that it was a silly thought.)

She waited until after dinner to open it. In the dim light of her room—she had only a floor lamp with a weak bulb—she peeled back the flap. She did it carefully, afraid one slight clumsy move might rip apart the thin paper, leaving the message unintelligible.

She saw the letter in her drawer as she grabbed her earrings. Kim-Anh rang the doorbell.

“Are you ready, chị Hương?” Kim-Anh asked. She stepped inside and looked around. When her eyes settled on Hương, she grabbed the fabric of the dress, handling it with a surprising roughness. “You’re not wearing that, are you, chị Hương?” Kim-Anh announced.

“What do you mean?”

Kim-Anh, for her part, wore a flowing pink lace shirt with a matching skirt. “We’re going to the Quarter. You can’t wear this. You can’t.” Kim-Anh held the fabric higher and shook it to emphasize her meaning. “Maybe something shorter? This makes you look like a mom.”

“What am I supposed to look like?” Hương asked.

“How long have you been in this country?”

“Long enough.”

“Things are different here.”

“I know that.”

A car horn sounded and Kim-Anh glanced down at her watch. “No time,” she said. “This will have to do.” She walked down the stairs. Hương followed after.

She settled on a modest dress, a teal piece with a fabric belt.

Kim-Anh’s American was not an unattractive man. He almost looked like Andrew Jackson—a strong face, wrinkles of wisdom, and rich white hair, which, from the backseat, looked like soft white fire.

“You’re as pretty as Kim,” he said as they drove toward downtown.

“Kim-Anh,” Kim-Anh corrected him.

“Kimmie. My Kimmie,” he replied. He reached over and rubbed her hand.

“Keem-On,” she said, slower this time as she pulled away her arm.

“Kim-Anh,” he repeated.

“I told her to change, but we running out of time,” Kim-Anh said.

“No, she looks all right,” he said. “She looks pretty. What’s your name again?” He looked at Hương in the rearview mirror. His eyes were pale gray and kind.

“My name Hương,” she answered.

At one point, they drove on an overpass looking out over the city. How different it all looked at night, how it felt—at least from the car—less messy. She imagined putting the city into neatly labeled boxes. In here would be the Business District. There, Mid-City. In a tiny box the French Quarter could fit, while Gentilly would need a big one.

Because of traffic, they slowed down to a creep. Kim-Anh fanned herself with her hands.

“Hot,” Kim-Anh said.

Already, Kim-Anh must have forgotten the heat of Vietnam and those blistering days when you couldn’t even touch the ground with your bare feet. Back then, Hương and Công didn’t have cars, they had bicycles. On hotter days, he didn’t want her to work hard pedaling, so he told her to climb on his seat and he would stand and pedal them instead. Everyone did that in those days, but riding down the avenue she felt self-conscious. Together they would ride to their favorite little bakery, where they served bánh cam and, according to Công, the best salted lemonade in all of South Vietnam. Her favorite memories were of Công and her there, eating and laughing, the world fading away from around them, the only world that mattered the one they made.

Those memories felt haunted now. In her mind, they appeared smoke-smudged, and, watching, she felt uncomfortable, as if she were an intruder—these weren’t her memories, they were another woman’s, from a different time and a different place.

In the Quarter, the American drove in circles to find parking. At one point he found a parking spot between two cars, but his was too large to fit. “It’s the problem with a car like this on nights like these,” the American said. “You know what I mean?”

“I take bus every day,” Hương said.

“A beauty like you doesn’t belong on a bus,” the American said. Then, as if remembering, “Kim said you were married.”

“Kim-Anh,” Kim-Anh said.

“Kimmie.”

Kim-Anh’s American was not an unattractive man.

“My husband,” Hương said. “He coming soon. Really soon.” She said the same thing at work when the other ladies saw her simple gold band. What else was she supposed to say? If she told the truth, she would have been embarrassed. They knew she had been waiting a long time. What could she tell them now? The letter Công sent said this much: that he could not follow after her. She had to go on without him. Please don’t try to contact him again. Please have forgiveness.

The letter was very unlike Công. Even the handwriting was sloppier. Almost every night, she looked at it again before going to bed, convincing herself at times that this was a prank—a cruel prank from someone in Vietnam or even someone in Versailles. She’d eye the people outside. How could people be so mean? She felt like a schoolgirl again, and the other students were laughing at her, pointing and laughing. She wrote back: “What do you mean?”

Eventually, they found parking near Lafayette Square, seven blocks from Madame Beaumont. Kim-Anh took off her shoes and walked barefoot. After two blocks, Kim-Anh stopped. Hương stopped, too, but the American continued, not noticing.

“I can’t walk for so long,” Kim-Anh yelled after him.

The American came back. “You’re a strong girl,” he said. He rolled his tongue against the inside of his cheek and pressed his lips together like he was going to say something else but stopped himself. “Both of you are strong girls. All you’ve been through, the boat, the sea—”

“Cruise ship,” Kim-Anh said.

“Yeah, that’s right,” he said. “A cruise ship. Of course. A cruise ship.”

Kim-Anh rubbed her right foot and continued walking.

“Kimmie,” the American called after her. He took off. “Kim-Anh.”

Madame Beaumont sat on the corner of Chartres and Conti. Loud music played from outside speakers, and gaudy Halloween decorations spilled out from its doors: a plastic skeleton sitting on a rocking chair and holding a glass beer bottle; a table with unlit tea candles; a stained wooden board with old-fashioned letters printed on it. Kim-Anh shook the skeleton’s empty hand.

“Every day is Halloween!” she sang. She tried to pull the bottle away from the skeleton’s grip. When it didn’t budge, she moved toward the neon lights inside, giggling all the while.

The girl was wilder outside of work. Hương wanted to say it aloud, but the American went after Kim-Anh and she followed him into the bar, where Kim-Anh was already sitting on a stool. The dance floor lay bare and the lights spun, illuminating graffiti here and there on the walls and the floor. The American massaged Kim-Anh’s shoulder and pointed to a booth in the corner. She pulled away and waved at the bartender. He put down his rag and she talked into his ear as if she already knew him.

“Over there,” said the American, leading Hương to the booth. “What do you want? How about a Coke with rum? My treat.”

“I don’t like Coke anymore,” she said. “What they have?”

“They have everything. It’s America. We have everything.”

“Something sweet,” Hương said. “No beer.”

“I know just the thing,” he said. “You stay here.”

A glittery silver ball hung over the center of the dance floor, where Kim-Anh now danced alone with a beer bottle in hand. The song changed to something faster, but the lights spun around at the same pace. Kim-Anh flailed her arms and closed her eyes.

Was this what she and Công missed during the war years? If so, Hương wasn’t very much impressed. Within minutes she felt bored and wanted to go home. She thought about the laundry she would have to do tomorrow and the trouble of going all the way to the Laundromat and sitting and waiting. She thought about what she should pick up from the grocery store. Would the bag of rice she had now last another week? She wondered about her boys. Her mind drifted to Bình crying. She’d felt terrible when Bà Giangswept in and he calmed down. As his mother, she should have comforted him, perhaps even stayed home. At times like this she wished Công were there. Parenting was hard enough; parenting alone and in a different country was something else altogether.

The letter was very unlike Công. Even the handwriting was sloppier.

The American came back and handed Hương a tall glass of what looked like milk.

“What it is?” she asked.

“Piña colada,” the American said. “Tropical. Thought it’d remind you of Vietnam.” He sat down next to Hương. “It has several entire servings of fruit, believe it or not.” He picked up the glass and pointed at it as he talked. “It has pineapple. It has coconut. It has rum, which is sugar, which comes from a plant, which should count for something.”

Hương laughed. “You are funny man, Mister . . .”

“Just call me Frank.”

“Mr. Frank, you are so funny!”

“No, just Frank.

“Mr. Frank.”

“Anyway, you’ll like it. Drink up.” They knocked together their drinks, and Hương sipped from her straw as Frank drank from his bottle.

“She’s beautiful, isn’t she?” the American said as he watched Kim-Anh dance.

“Very,” Hương replied.

Men were beginning to join Kim-Anh. She danced with several, never staying with just one. One minute she’s dancing with a man with a goatee, and the next the man is shorter and wearing glasses. It was then that Hương saw how the bar was full of white men and how the few women there were like her, if not Vietnamese then at least Asian. The men were different from the type of men Công would have acquainted himself with, the women different from those Hương would have known. It seemed as if they were a different species of human altogether, living different kinds of lives she couldn’t imagine.

She wondered what Kim-Anh was like before she left Vietnam. She had a slack Saigonese accent. She was a Buddhist, because she wore a bodhi seed bracelet, which she refused to take off even on the assembly line, hiding her hands in her pockets as they entered and exited the factory floor. Once she thought she had lost it in the machine and somehow (through her charm or wit, for Hương would give her that much—Kim-Anh was charming) got the operator to stop it. She frantically searched the conveyor belt and stuck her head in a compartment where the gears were hidden at the bottom of the vast machine. She eventually found her bracelet—fallen on the floor—but Hương could not forget the image of Kim-Anh squatting, her legs splayed apart, her back hunched so she could get her head inside. She looked froglike. It was so different from the confident yet delicate way she always held herself. How much had Kim-Anh changed since she’d left Vietnam and how much effort was it? Who was Kim-Anh, really?

“I saved her, you know,” the American said. He pressed the beer bottle to his lips. When he put the bottle back down, his hands wandered on the table and returned to the drink. “She was nothing, you know. Just some poor city girl. No mother, no father.”

He paused as if he had finished, and a silence sat clumsily between them.

“She must love you. She love you very much,” Hương said, not knowing what else to say, just wanting to say something, anything, so the air between them didn’t feel so heavy anymore.

He continued, “In Saigon, she worked at a bar where she had to dance with older men. She was so little, how could those men? Those men were disgusting. They touched her, gave her bruises. I’m not like those men.

“I saved her,” he repeated. “I told them she was my fiancée. That we were going to marry, but then I was forced to leave. I gave her money. She left by herself, you see. It wasn’t a cruise ship. Just a regular fishing boat. When she got to Hong Kong, she wrote to tell me she was safe. She said I wasn’t like any other man she’d met. I was different, she said, and she couldn’t wait to see me again. I asked my church to sponsor her. And that’s how she came over. I am not a bad man, you see. I go to church. I’m a good man. I saved her.”

Men were beginning to join Kim-Anh. She danced with several, never staying with just one.

“Which church?” Hương asked. Everyone in Versailles came through Saint Expeditus. She didn’t know any other church in the area that did the same.

“What?” He looked confused. He took another drink of his beer.

“Which church?” she asked again.

He paused and swirled his bottle around. “Church? St. Mary’s. In Metairie. You wouldn’t know it,” he said. “I’m not like the other men, Hương. You got to believe me. I saved her.” He wiped the sweat from his forehead, which shined even in the dim light, and folded the napkin until it was too thick to continue.

The song changed again and now Kim-Anh became more audacious. She held on to a man and swayed as he rested his hands on her hips. He was more handsome and better dressed than Frank. He wore a metal watch that reflected the disco lights. Frank wore no watch. When Hương compared Frank to this man, he looked pitiful and nervous. He was becoming even sweatier despite the air-conditioning.

He wiped his hands on his pants and stood up. “And this is how she treats me,” he said, more to himself than to anyone else.

When the man Kim-Anh danced with moved a hand away from her hips and latched on to her backside, Kim-Anh smiled and nodded. She seemed at ease, familiar with it all. Hương was sure Kim-Anh knew what song this was, the exact lyrics, and when it would end. Hương imagined her coming here every night after work—she knew the bartender by name, knew the happy-hour specials by heart. She had a calculating look in her eyes; Hương saw that now.

Frank grabbed Kim-Anh’s wrist, and Hương heard him say “No” to the other man as he pushed him on the shoulder.

“What you doing?” Kim-Anh shrieked. “Why you like this?” She pulled away. “Why you don’t go home?”

“We’re going home, Kimmie. Let’s go.” He tried to steady his voice but couldn’t. His fingers fidgeted.

Hương stayed in her seat. The next thing she knew, Kim-Anh raised her arm and slapped Frank’s cheek. A crowd formed around the couple. Hương stood up to see what was happening, though everyone was in the way.

Yet even with the loud music, she heard it all. Kim-Anh was shouting, “Go home, Frank. Go home!” When he didn’t answer, she continued, louder. “Poor man, go home! Go home, poor man!”

__________________________________

From Things We Lost To The Water, Copyright © 2021 by Eric Nguyen. Published by arrangement with Knopf, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.




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