Authors: Helen Hoang
He’d been hoping for that all week, but now that it might have happened, he wasn’t as glad as he’d thought he’d be. But why would she want to stay after last night? He’d made his cousin cry at her own wedding, and then he’d frightened Esme when she’d tried to hold his hand. He’d clearly demonstrated why he should be alone.
A heavy sigh gusted from his lungs, and he went back inside and checked her room. She wasn’t there, but her suitcase was. His stomach relaxed, and he cursed himself every way he knew how. Why the fuck was he relieved she hadn’t gone yet?
Shit, he must be getting used to her. He didn’t
to get used to her.
He shoved his feet into his shoes and walked out onto the front porch to look for her. It was warm and sunny, but too early in the day to be humid. Those birds were tweeting, probably laughing because they’d left something new for him on his windshield. The lawn was only partially cleared, but it was already a great improvement. He grimaced. Ruthie had to be ecstatic.
Pink and peach begonias bloomed from neat bushes in the manicured lawn across the street. Ruthie gave those to the neighbors sometimes. He’d seen her do it. None for him, but that was fine. He didn’t want her damned begonias.
No Esme in sight. He stepped down from the porch to see if she was hidden between his house and the neighbor’s, and that was when he saw it.
The garage door was open.
A sick sensation surged through him, shortening his breath and making his palms sweat.
was the garage door open?
He ran into the empty musty space, and reality hit him like a punch to the gut.
It was gone.
And Esme was gone.
When he did the math, a horrible certainty dawned upon him.
Esme was going to die.
sme loved the Asian grocery store 99 Ranch. It was like they’d scooped up a bit of home and planted it on the other side of the ocean. The workers were all Chinese, but the food items were familiar. She knew this fishy smell. She was excited to eat the spicy tamarind candy she’d found in the checkout aisle. At the cash register, the process was quick and painless. She handed the cashier a twenty, and he gave her the change without saying a single thing. No translation needed. Everyone belonged here.
She carried her plastic grocery bags outside and admired the blue motorcycle parked close to the store’s front doors. She’d squealed with joy when she’d found it earlier today. All last week, she’d passed by that door in Khải’s kitchen without checking what was on the other side. She’d been too busy cleaning and plotting ways to get into Khải’s heart and pants.
This morning, she’d turned the door handle by accident when she mistook it for the pantry door and come up short when it was locked. After unbolting it, she’d flipped the light on and discovered a spacious garage empty of anything save a tarp-covered
in the middle. From the size and shape of it, she’d suspected it was a motorcycle, and when she lifted the tarp, she hadn’t been disappointed.
Because she didn’t like having to beg rides off people anytime she wanted to go somewhere, she’d stayed at home, but she didn’t like being trapped and abandoned whenever Khải needed to go somewhere without her. There was a local bus system, but that was intimidating and likely to be slow with the different bus routes and connections. A motorcycle, on the other hand, could take her anywhere she wanted directly.
It didn’t matter that it was a little scratched and banged up. When she’d turned the keys sitting conveniently in the ignition, it’d started right up. She’d hurried to grab her purse and shut the door, and then she’d headed out as possibilities raced in her mind, ways she could surprise Khải and make him addicted to her. The first thing to occur to her had been food. She could make him something fresh and nutritious like swim bladder soup.
Feeling hopeful and cautiously happy, she packed her purse and newly purchased groceries— including the swim bladders of twenty fish— onto the back of the motorcycle, pulled on the helmet, and headed out. There was something special in the air as she drove home. The houses and shops looked prettier, and the grass greener.
When she turned onto Central Expressway and headed west, soaring pines hugged either side of the street and occupied the center divide, which separated the traffic into coming and going lanes. Funny how the trees were so tall but they made her feel bigger— inside, where it counted. She smiled as she passed exit after exit. She’d be home soon, and then she’d make Khải lunch. After that, she was going to finish clearing his front yard. Now that she had a motorcycle, she could go to the store and get things like grass seed and fresh flowers. She could make his yard really nice.
When Khải’s exit approached, she turned on her right blinker, but before she could switch lanes, a silver car coming from the other direction skidded to a halt on the shoulder. Tires squealed and smoke rose off the blacktop. It looked alarmingly like Khải’s car, and when the door opened, a man shot out who couldn’t be anyone but Khải himself.
Over the roar of the motorcycle engine, she heard him shout,
“Stop. Get off. Get off right now.”
Her heart jumped into her throat, and her mouth went cotton dry. Was it the police? What kind of trouble could she be in? She slowed down and pulled over next to the center divide like he’d done.
He sprinted toward her.
“Get off the bike. Hurry.”
As soon as he came close enough for her to register the terror on his usually calm face, she started shaking. There had to be something wrong with the motorcycle. Was it going to explode?
She worked at the kickstand with a trembling foot, but before she’d managed to prop the bike up, Khải grabbed her by her upper arms and manually lifted her off the seat. The motorcycle crashed to its side, sending her things all over the rocks and scraggly grass.
His hair stood up in wild patches, and his face was a mask of fury. She’d never imagined he could be this angry. Without pausing to take breaths, he said, “Why did you take the bike why did you ride it I never said you could ride it.”
Her shaking worsened to the point where she couldn’t move. “S-sorry. I just went—”
He steered her across the grass toward his car. “Let’s go.”
“But I bought food. It fell all over. And the motorcycle. Someone will take it. I’ll bring it back—”
“Stay. Away. From. It,” he bit out.
Once she got into the car, he yanked the seat belt over her and buckled it, giving it a hard tug to make sure it was tight.
She flinched when he slammed the door shut, and after he marched around and threw himself into his seat, she cleared her throat and said, “My handbag. My money. It’s over there, and I need—”
He leapt out of the car and crossed the divide to crouch beside the motorcycle, but instead of unfastening her purse from the rack, he pressed a fist to his forehead and stayed that way for several long moments. Cars sped by. One slowed down and then accelerated off. Another driver cranked his window down and asked if help was needed.
Khải shook his head and called out in a terse tone, “No, thank you.” As the car drove away, he reached over, twisted the key out of the motorcycle’s ignition, and pocketed it. Then he got her purse and returned to the car.
The drive back to his place took two minutes. Esme knew because she spent the entire time watching the clock and waiting for him to speak, but he never did. The garage was empty, but he parked along the curb as usual.
She followed him to the front door, unsure what to say or what to do. When he unlocked the door, she went inside and took her shoes off, expecting him to do the same, but he turned around without a word and started walking down the street. To get the motorcycle, she realized.
“Do you want me to come with you?” she asked.
No response. He simply continued walking, shoulders square and back straight, looking like an assassin out on his last mission.
She watched until he disappeared around the corner and then eased the door shut and sagged against it. Her heartbeat gradually slowed down, but her face remained hot with an intense mixture of embarrassment and confusion.
She shouldn’t have taken the motorcycle without asking. But he was so easy with the rest of his things she hadn’t thought it was a big deal.
was it a big deal? Why did he keep it in the garage without using it? There was enough room in there for both his motorcycle and his car. Why did he park outside?
Why had he been so angry?
No matter what it was, she had to make it up to him, and she could start doing that immediately. She slipped into the garage, grabbed the ladder she’d seen earlier, and carried it out to the front porch. There were so many leaves clogging the gutter she worried it might fall off and hit someone in the head. It also looked bad. After getting the ladder as stable as she could, she climbed up and tossed handfuls of leaves down to the ground. She’d cleared a good portion of the gutter when Khải walked the motorcycle up the driveway, returned it to the garage, and strode toward her.
Her plastic bags of groceries hung from his fingers by his side, but he let them plop to the ground as he stalked over and gripped the ladder, looking up at her with a deep frown on his face. “What are you doing?”
She tossed another handful of leaves down. “There are too many leaves in here.”
“Come down,” he said firmly. “It’s not safe.”
“But I’m not done. Wait a little—”
, Esme.” The words came out sharply, louder than she expected, and her foot slipped on the ladder.
She flailed about helplessly for a heart-stopping second but managed to get ahold of the gutter so she didn’t fall. With her face pressed to the grimy metal, she whispered thanks to sky and Buddha. That fall would have broken her butt.
“Please. Come down now,” he said in a hard monotone.
The instant her feet touched the ground, he turned the ladder on its side and carried it back into the garage.
She threw her hands up in the air and followed him. “Why are you doing this? I’m not done.” She still had a lot of gutter left to clean, and she hated leaving a job unfinished. Without thinking, she grabbed his shoulder and said, “Anh Khải, put it back—”
He whipped around instantly and wrapped an arm across his chest so he could rub at the shoulder she’d touched. “You have to
all of this.”
“I’ll finish later, then, but—”
“No, there won’t be any finishing. You. Have. To. Stop. Do you understand? You. Have. To. Stop.”
Her bottom lip trembled at his slow, exaggerated pronunciation. “You don’t need to speak like that. I understand you.”
He made a frustrated sound. “You don’t. You’ve been reorganizing my stuff in ridiculous ways, cutting down trees with a
, touching that motorcycle, touching
. It all has to stop. I can’t live this way.”
When his meaning sank in, Esme’s shoulders drooped. “Ridiculous?” she repeated in English. That didn’t sound good.
He clawed both hands through his hair.
She looked at the half-cleared lawn and wiped her dirty hands on her pants as her heart shrank and her face flamed.
If she were classier, she’d know what that meant. Now that she thought about it, it probably wasn’t very classy for her to do yard work or clean his house or any of this stuff. Esme in Accounting probably hired people to do this work. But the real Esme, the country girl Mỹ who always smelled like fish sauce, just wanted to be useful. She hadn’t thought about how it looked.
Had she been embarrassing him and herself all this time?
“I’ll stop,” she made herself say.
“Really?” he asked, sounding so hopeful it made her pride smart even more.
She nodded. “I promise I’ll stop now.” She would have shaken hands on it, but he’d included touching him in the list of things that had to stop. She wiped her palms on her pants again, but something told her the thing that disgusted him wasn’t something she could wash away.
Ridiculous: inviting derision or mockery; absurd
idiculous, a dry monkey’s ass. She’d show him how ridiculous she wasn’t.
On Monday, Esme began treating customer interactions at the restaurant like language practice. She
to improve, so she pushed herself to chat with the customers even though she felt like a water buffalo mooing from the fields. She asked about people’s days; she played with their cute kids, who reminded her of Jade; she recommended new dishes. It felt unnatural and awkward at first, but aside from the one stinky woman who rolled her eyes at her and mocked her behind her back, the customers didn’t seem to mind too much. After a while, it was kind of fun.
When she was cleaning tables after the lunch hour, she discovered that her “practice” had earned her bigger tips. Did that mean people
it when she spoke to them? That made her laugh a little. Maybe she was a charming water buffalo.