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Authors: Kim Thuy

Mãn (14 page)

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for telling them constantly, “I love you,” with hearts drawn, moulded, written on almond
, marshmallows, jujubes or
mousse au chocolat
. My children copied him, spontaneously signing their drawings and cards with hearts, while none of the letters I'd written to Maman contained the three words “I miss you” or mentioned that I suffered from her absence. I had described to her the staggering number of shampoo brands in just one store because I hoped to pour water over her soapy hair again while she bent her head over the aluminum basin that we used for washing clothes.

I had sent her a map of the Metro, explaining the speed of a train plunging into the dark tunnels as precisely as a bullet down the length of the barrel because I preferred the slowness of our train, so slow that we could nearly touch the lives of people who lived near the tracks. The passengers complained at the narrowness of the berths, even in first class, because there were six of us in each compartment. The last berths were attached some thirty centimetres from the ceiling, barely enough room to slip inside. Once, a fat woman had settled in above us, her stomach nearly touching the ceiling. I was terribly afraid that the Formica sheet would break and the woman would land on us, sleeping just underneath. My anxiety soon faded because I was happy to be curled up against Maman. With my nose pressed against the wall, my back covered by her warmth, my head against her
heart, I slept the sweetest and deepest of sleeps. Maman thought I must lack air in that limited space, yet I'd never been so alive as during those rare journeys by train, when she protected me against passengers with roaming hands, where she offered me lightness, where she had reduced life and the entire world to a single bubble.

I no longer witnessed, in the window of the house our train nearly touched, the father who threw an iron at his daughter's face because she had on too much makeup. I was no longer listening to the conversation of the two men next to me, reminiscing about their student years in the former Czechoslovakia, how they'd made money clandestinely selling goods that had been rationed. I had stopped counting the cockroaches that zoomed over the walls or wondering if the pink polyester satin pillow, edged with a lot of gathered, dusty flounces, provided by the train, had assembled the entire population of lice in the country. Enclosed in here, I could rest, let myself go and relinquish the millions of details in the world around me. I dismissed everything, knew nothing as soon as I was lying spoon-fashion with Maman.



, I had that same impression of exclusion, where the things around me disappeared and the space between us contained my whole life. I had read in a book a client left behind that
, to look, means
, to be considerate, to have
for someone. During the Middle Ages, to describe a state of war or conflict, it was said of enemies: “ ‘Neither one has
for the other.' For centuries the word has contained respect, of course, but also concern, worries for the other.” My husband didn't have to offer me either
because he didn't need to be anxious on my behalf. Since he often described me to his friends as a woman who would survive as easily in the desert as in Antarctica, he could go on walking and moving away from me without realizing that I was a block behind him, because a strap on my sandal had broken. Since I'd been lucky enough to be chosen by him, by his family, I was the one who should be concerned about him, not the reverse. In any case, I was already seeing to all the details, from the most trivial to the most obvious, from slippers pointing in the right direction by the bed to birthday presents for his family, from the pope's nose of the chicken set aside in his bowl to parents' meetings at the school. I anticipated, I foresaw, I prepared, my hands as invisible as Eleanor Roosevelt's, who filled her husband's fountain pen every morning before putting it back in his jacket pocket.

Đức Mẹ

Blessed Virgin

our regulars, a paramedic and former priest, also concerned himself with the details of the daily life of his Vietnamese wife, Lan, but always in a festive way. He would lift her in his arms with the light movement and the supple body of a dancer. He had seen her at the same time on the same Metro platform for four days before he approached her, smiling. In front of his big blue-green eyes, she had frozen like a deer in the headlights. She was one of those women Mother Nature had neglected or who, on the contrary, had been created to confirm the existence of sublimated love. Lan had always behaved as if she were invisible, to avoid intrusive eyes. She carried an umbrella in her purse to hide from the sun, snow, rain and people, and indoors she would disappear behind an open book.

Jean-Pierre had noticed the French exercise book given to adult immigrants, which she was reading assiduously. He had greeted her with a word or two before he held out the restaurant's card with a handwritten hour and date. He had asked me to write on the back that I would be his interpreter. She had phoned me before the date of the appointment. She assumed it was a trap, but Jean-Pierre only wanted to tell her that she was as beautiful as the Blessed Virgin and that he would like to take care of her. At first, Jean-Pierre waited patiently for her at the entrance to the Metro, walking a few steps behind so he wouldn't scare her, and gradually he'd approached her to
relieve her of a bag weighed down with dictionaries. And then, one day, he had asked her to marry him, had sponsored her parents, her two brothers and her four sisters, had made a garden for her and reserved a wall for photos of her in winter, in love, in the family way … To us, he had presented her beauty like a French jeweller convincing his customers of the magnificence of an uncut diamond. Lan had never dreamed that a hand would caress her cheeks ravaged by adolescence—nor had she planned her departure from Nha Trang.

She had ended up by chance one night in the middle of a group disembarking silently and swiftly from a truck covered with canvas and now heading for a plank joining the shore to a boat. She had been taken there by the hasty movement of a hundred persons, with whom she had reached the shores of Indonesia and, some years later, the island of Montreal. Chance had given her a new beginning and a love that erased the grey of her teeth, damaged by tetracycline, and had softened her skeletal silhouette that her neighbours called “dried squid,” a delicacy sold on the beach whose flesh was flattened and hung by a thread in the sunlight like clothing on a rope, with no body. Jean-Pierre had discreetly wrapped that bony structure with his flesh by standing close to her, always. Whenever I saw Lan, during the first seconds, I was always surprised at the gap between her and my impression of her, that of a dazzling woman.



, my face may have given me away. Maman had grasped my feverishness at once, despite the flood of presents on the living room table: ribbons for my daughter's hair; a big book with photos of French army planes, a subject that fascinated my son; marrons glacés, a stupendous delight for my husband, who had discovered them when an aunt who lived in Niort brought some to his parents. For Maman I had some of the Seyès ruled notebooks like those she'd used as a child, on which the
s all stopped at the fourth horizontal line and the round of the
s was restricted to the first two. I'd bought ten, hoping she would write our story, hers and mine before she was mine, and that she would leave her words as a legacy for my children.

The night of my return, I fell asleep at the same time they did, before my husband, which allowed me to get up in the middle of the night and read and reread the dozen emails Luc had sent to describe Paris without me. He had followed my plane, kilometre by kilometre, hour by hour, cloud by cloud. I went and sat in the kitchen plunged in darkness, where Maman came and found me, not saying a word. She brought me tea and a box of tissues, and we stayed like that until sunrise, until the first rustlings of bedclothes.



followed my return, Luc constructed a new universe for me with words that were hardly ever spoken, such as “my angel,” which became exclusively mine. In my mind, I now heard only his voice, asking what was new every morning at 8:06, the hour when I started my day's work. At the same time, catering orders were multiplying, which justified my solitary nights in the kitchen cutting lengthwise fine slices of lotus root the size of a straw, and counting for Luc the number of holes in the young shoots. He would listen to me on the telephone as if he were attending a recital. I sometimes asked his opinion on the passages I chose to write on the back of menus for private evenings.

Once, for a fundraiser, I went back to an old Chinese lesson where the teacher had explained that the character for the verb “to love” incorporated three ideograms: a hand, a heart and a foot, because we must express our love while holding our heart in our hand as we walk to the beloved and make our offering. Julie had printed the explanation on long sheets of red paper that my children, Maman, and the daughters of Hồng and of Julie had sewn onto the bodies of hundreds of origami cranes. In the function room, birds suspended from the ceiling came down to the guests to deliver this message, which I had originally addressed to Luc. His crane was covered with words that I'd adopted as a second skin so I could identify the brand new feelings that were tormenting me. In reaction to
my half-avowed declaration, Luc had sent me an official invitation to a festival at which restaurant owners would entertain a foreign chef in their kitchens for a week. Clients would be offered three evenings when unfamiliar knowledge and expertise would be wed.

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