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Authors: Kim Thuy

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chuối

banana

THAT WAS HOW I LEARNED
from my mother that of the dozens of kinds of bananas sold at the market, only the
chuối xiêm
could be flattened without being crushed and frozen without turning black. When I first came to Montreal, I prepared it as a treat for my husband, who hadn't eaten it for twenty years. I wanted him to taste once again the typical marriage of peanuts and coconut, two ingredients that in south Vietnam are served as much at dessert as at breakfast. I hoped to be able to serve and be a companion to my husband without disturbing anything, a little like flavours that are hardly noticed because they are ever-present.

chồng

husband

MAMAN ENTRUSTED ME TO
this man out of motherly love, just as the nun, my second mother, had given me to her, thinking about my future. Because Maman was preparing for her death, knowing that one day she would no longer be around, she sought a husband for me who would have the qualities of a father. One of her friends, acting as matchmaker, brought him to visit us one afternoon. Maman asked me to serve the tea, that was all. I did not look at the face of the man even when I set the cup in front of him. My gaze wasn't required, it was only his that mattered.

thuyền nhân

boat people

HE HAD COME FROM FAR AWAY
and didn't have much time. Several families were waiting to introduce him to their daughters. He was from Saigon but had left Vietnam at twenty, as one of the boat people. He had spent several years in a refugee camp in Thailand before coming to Montreal, where he'd found work but not exactly a home. He was one of those who had lived too long in Vietnam to become Canadian. And conversely, who have lived too long in Canada to be Vietnamese again.

văn hóa

culture

WHEN HE GOT UP
from our table, his steps to the door were uncertain, like those of a man lost between two worlds. He no longer knew if he was supposed to cross the threshold before or after a woman. He no longer knew if his words should be those of the matchmaker or his own. His flubs when he spoke to Maman stunned us all. He called her, at random, Big Sister (
Chị
), Aunt (
Cô
) and Great-Aunt (
Bác
). No one held it against him that he came from elsewhere, from a place where personal pronouns exist so that they can remain impersonal. In the absence of those pronouns, the Vietnamese language imposes a relationship from the very first contact: the younger of the two interlocutors must respect and obey the elder, and conversely, the elder must give advice and protection to the younger. If someone were to listen to a conversation between them, he would be able to guess that, for example, the younger one is the nephew of one of his mother's older brothers. Similarly, if the conversation were taking place between two people with no family ties, it would be possible as well to determine whether the elder is younger than the parents of the other. In the case of my future husband, he might have partially expressed his interest in me if he'd called Maman
Bác
, because Great-Aunt would have elevated Maman to the rank of his parents and would have implied her position of mother-in-law. But uncertainty had mixed him up.

quạt máy

fan

TO OUR AMAZEMENT
, he came back the following day with offerings: a fan, a box of maple cookies and a bottle of shampoo. This time, I was obliged to sit between Maman and the matchmaker, across from the man and his parents, who were making a display on the table of photos that showed him at the wheel of his car, standing in front of some tulips, and in his restaurant holding two big bowls with his thumb nearly touching the scalding broth. Lots of photos of him, always alone.

hoa phượng

poinciana

MAMAN AGREED TO A
third visit two days later. He asked for some time alone with me. In Vietnam, cafés with their chairs facing the street, like in France, were intended for men. Girls without makeup or false eyelashes didn't drink coffee, at least not in public. We could have had smoothies with soursop, sapodilla or papaya at the place next door, but that patch of garden with its blue plastic stools seemed reserved for the veiled smiles of schoolgirls and the timid touches of young lovers' hands. Whereas we were merely future spouses. Of the whole neighbourhood, all that was left to us was the pink granite bench in front of the row of apartments for the teachers, including ours, in the schoolyard, under the poinciana tree heavy with flowers but with branches as delicate and graceful as a ballerina's arms. Bright red petals covered the whole bench until he cleared part of it so he could sit down. I remained standing to look at him and regretted that he couldn't see himself surrounded by all those flowers. At that precise moment, I knew that I would always remain standing, that he would never think of making room for me beside him because that was the sort of man he was, alone and lonely.

con sóc

squirrel

I OFFERED HIM THE
glass of lemonade with salt lime that my mother had prepared for him. He reminded me of those brown limes marinated in salt, warmed in the sun and altered completely by time, for his eyes were not old but aged, almost blurred, faded.

“Have you ever seen a squirrel?”

“Just in books.”

“I'm leaving tomorrow.”

Silence.

“I'll send you the papers.”

Silence.

“We'll have children.”

“Yes.”

He gave me his address and phone number on a sheet of paper folded in two. He left, walking slowly and unobtrusively like the soldier who had given Maman this poem, also written on a page folded in two:

Anh tặng em

Cuộc đời anh không sống

Giấc mơ anh chỉ mơ

Một tâm hồn để trống

Những đêm trắng mong chờ

Anh tặng em

Bài thơ anh không viết

Nỗi đau anh đi tìm

Màu mây anh chưa biết

Tha thiết của lặng im

I offer you

The life I have not lived

The dream I can but dream

A soul I've left empty

During sleepless nights

As I go to you I hold as an offering

The poem I have not written

The ache towards which I strain

The colour of the cloud I haven't known

The longings of silence.

áo dài

BOOK: Mãn
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