You’re sitting at the kerb tearing at the shoelaces in your running shoes, your fingers knotting and pulling hard and sharp at the double knots you always make.
You get up the minute the car pulls up and I press the garage door opener. The door’s barely open and you’re already through it. I get out of the car to follow you into the house then turn back to unleash poor Bigboy, who’s whining up an opera after running himself tight around the tree you’ve tied him to.
“You said you’d take Bigboy for a walk and I should go get dinner,” I blurt out.
“I said I’d take Bigboy FIRST! You were to go when I came back!”
“I’m sorry,” I say to your back as you stomp into the kitchen.
You turn around and glare at me across the kitchen island.
“SORRY!?! I’ve been sitting out there with this damned animal howling at every passing dog for the last hour, all the white Mỹ in the neighbourhood looking at me like I’m a dog torturer.”
You slam the tall glass you’ve been drinking from onto the counter tiles. Water jerks out, splashing your hand. You look at your hand. I look at your hand. The hard brown fingers circling the tumbler are shaking like a volcano waiting to spill. They’re so tight around the clear green glass I’m sure you’ll crack it to pieces and cut yourself.
“How can I be married to such a STUPID woman! For ten damn years!!!!”
You jump over the island, spilling water every which way, and loom over me. I don’t move. I’m mesmerized how mad you are. How crazed with anger.
“Ten years.” You open your mouth and show me your teeth. You lift your hand up high over your head then drop it like a hammer, opening you fingers as you do. The glass flies out and shatters itself all around me.
“Happy anniversary,” you say and walk out of the house, slamming the door shut.
It’s quiet. Even Bigboy’s stopped whimpering.
I go to the pantry and take out the vacuum cleaner to suck away the whole damned incident. I know I’m never going to talk about this again and that tomorrow I’ll tell everyone what a wonderful anniversary we had. There’s no point asking for an apology because I’ll never forgive you. I can never forgive him. I tell myself I’m not some Vietnamese woman you married from a farm. I am a daughter of a better age, a feminist from a striving first world city twenty hours away, a place where women have rights.
I clench my fist on the kitchen counter and hit a tiny shard of glass I missed. A coral red drop of blood forms on the side of my hand and falls on the clear hard crystal, a perfect rose. I pick up the shard and lick it clean slowly, carefully so I don’t cut myself.
I swallow my anger. Allow the little piece of glass to settle into my guts, to allow it to cut me, to remind me of my grievances. When you come back from the car carrying the take-out boxes I bought in the neighbourhood cơm chỉ I’m already clammed shut. Why waste more words on swine? Silent against your remorse I pile the already cold food onto a plastic plate and go to turn on the television. When I speak of this again it will be for the world to hear.
Revenge takes a long time to plot. I already have the beginning. But the rest must be sequenced. There must be a hole in the middle where the hero (or villain) must die (metaphorically at least) and then be reborn (or fail). In my book (for this is the form my revenge will take) the hero will fail. He’ll remain trapped in a spiritual deadness from which there’s no escape. His wife will leave him. And he’ll regret it, regret it until he dies. Coward that you are, despite all your bravado, you won’t die. Not easily at least, not the way people with more strength can, by simply walking off a balcony or downing a hundred sleeping pills.
Revenge takes words, then sentences, then paragraphs. They become chapters, a history of your metamorphoses into monster-hood. A litany of the abuses you suffered at the hands of the Communists, the Nationalists; the abuses you committed against me, against other women, other men.
It takes years, another ten. Bigboy is dead and we’ve left that night and our tract house in Orange County far behind by the time I’m done. We’ve moved across the ocean, from there – where it’s sunny but cool, where it never rains and the air’s so hungry for water our sweat doesn’t linger on skin; to here – an enveloping ninety-nine percent humidity, calf-high mud in the streets whenever it’s high tide and a water system that carries fungi through the shower to grow between our toes. We’re back where you started, a stone’s throw from where you were born.
In ten years I’ve learnt to fight back with my hands and knees, my feet and fists; and afterwards with silences as long and thick as the Great Wall of China. You don’t go crazy now. Not often. Only when I provoke.
I’m in front of a flickering screen in the study in our villa in the middle of a swamp across the river from Ho Chi Minh City’s District 1.
“What are you doing?” you ask me as I tie up the loose ends of my revenge.
“I’m putting the finishing touches to your life story,” I tell you.
“Oh,” you say. You’re too proud to ask what’s gone into it this grand opus you’ve seen me working on for a decade. You go to bed.
I continue my proofreading as the insects kamikaze in through the window to fry themselves on the fluorescent tube above my head. Somewhere out there, across the puddles brought by the rising night tide a rich woman is wailing about lost love – another of those karaoke parties the privileged functionaries living in this neighbourhood are so fond of.
They can’t know that in the first world they so aspire to it’s not done to sing so late and so loudly. They’ve been aurally assaulted all their lives. Just like it was in the first days of liberation, propaganda-spewing loudspeakers wake our exclusive enclave before the roosters start crowing. Each progression to town in our air-conditioned cars is escorted by a cavalcade of honking. Screeching of cats penetrating each other and quarrelling bush crickets accompany our nights. What’s another tears-in-your-beer ballad thrown into the cacophony?
There’ll be a moment of silence though when my book comes out, a break in business as usual to pay respects to your reputation. It will all be gone, that image they have of you – a model of propriety like your mother before she went senile. They’ll finally see the demons lurking behind your considered opinions, your kind words offered with a soft voice.
I can’t wait. I close the file. I open Gmail. I type in my agent’s address. I type the title in the subject line – HEART BONES, THE WARS IN A LIFE. I type a little cover note. I send it.
The air-conditioner in the bedroom is on. I slide under the duvet. The sheets and duvet covers are Egyptian cotton, according to Phuong, my interior decorator. She’d gone to Singapore to buy the material, fifteen bolts of it, and then had it smuggled in through Cambodia. She knew what her customers liked, she boasted. She wasn’t just a rinky-dink Chinatown seamstress.
The sheets are cool from the air-conditioning. You’re already snoring. The street lights, seeping in from the sides of the Roman blinds Phuong didn’t get right after all turn your hair into transparent strands cut into three centimetre lengths. How you like your glass noodles prepared, so they’re easier to swallow.
I wonder how you’ll swallow the revelations in the novel when it’s launched.
We’re at a seminar room in one of those five star hotels in New York. Or is it San Francisco? when I begin to read the first chapter about how you let Bigboy wind himself around the lamp post, how the glass shatters all over the floor, you’re floating over the dessert spread, your fingers running lightly through the mini fruit tarts. As I sit down to let other people continue telling on you, I see you pick up an almond slice and crunch into it.
My new friend Luc reads from a chapter where you betray your buddies to court a Central Vietnamese princess, his delicious French accent making the act sound like a seduction. Jane, my New York agent, reveals your dastardly treatment of the American woman journalist in her no nonsense Colorado tones. Finally Mai, the street child at the coffee stall on our street corner, singsongs the paragraphs about you debauching the night away in an opium den as Saigon falls and your walk to the Presidential Palace with the invading troops the next morning.
The room is silent when Mai’s done. Then it explodes unexpectedly with loud clapping and cheers. I look up from my seat and see that everyone has turned around to applaud you.
You smile uncertainly. I see your thumb and index finger come together, snapping the cocktail stick you’re holding into two. You bob your head to acknowledge the goodwill directed your way then begin to back away into the silk lined walls of the room.
An old boyfriend, now a monk, jostles through the crowd and clambers up the stage to give me a hug. “One has only to read this to understand the depth of your relationship, how much you love him,” he whispers, making his final renunciation.
The audience steps over him to surround me and lift me off my feet. I feel myself pushed through the air, bounced along the top of their heads and shoulders towards where you are – at a chocolate fondue fountain.
You take my hand and bow to the room then lean over and look into my eyes. Suddenly, there’s nobody in the room but the two of us.
You offer me a marshmallow you’ve speared and dipped in chocolate. I bite through the glossy dark bitterness, into the soft pink interior. My teeth crack on something hard. I cough and spit it into your hand. You hold it up for me to see. It’s a pearl.
So, this is what the shard of glass I swallowed became after a lifetime of covering up.
“I won’t have it!”
I pluck the pearl from your fingers and put it back in my mouth, between my back teeth. Clamping down with all my strength I crush it to pieces.
I wake up choking. There’s a tooth in my hand, blood on the sheets. Your forearm has somehow fallen across my face. What were you dreaming when you brought that arm down too hard? Or was the tooth loosened last week when I pushed my knee into your groin and you slapped me?
I go to the bathroom to vomit up my anger, to wash away my tears.
It cannot be borne, how the heart cheats us of our free will, our liberty.
About Audrey: Audrey Chin wrestles with words as a writer at night after working with numbers as an investment strategist by day. She’s been a daughter-in-law of the Vietnamese diaspora for thirty years, first in the US and now shuttling between Singapore, Vietnam, and Melbourne. Her work has been published by Landmark Press and the SCWO in Singapore, and by The Rand Corporation in Santa Monica. Her second novel, Heart Bones, about the many facets of love and loyalty in a Vietnamese family, is looking for a US publisher. She’s working on her third novel, Pink, an examination of what happens in Singapore when boundaries are crossed, even inadvertently.