Authors: Helen Hoang
Great, she was falling under Michael’s spell even though he was getting married within the hour. Damn Michael and his cursed good looks.
“Happy to meet
. Stella is a lucky woman,” Esme said, beaming her fantastic Esmeness at him and speaking English to everyone but Khai.
Michael tried to smile but it turned into a gulp for air as he shook out his hands and squared his shoulders. “Thanks for saying that. I’ve never been this nervous. I’m so lost over her if she doesn’t show up, I’m going to ...” His words trailed off as he focused on a group of silhouettes in the distance, and his face went lovesick. He squeezed Khai’s shoulder without looking at him. “You guys have a seat. It’s starting.”
Everyone hurried to sit, and the talking settled down. Esme practically vibrated with excitement. “Is Stella really pretty? Your cousin is so ...” A dreamy look took over her face, and Khai was certain she’d say
. What she said instead was worse. “He’s so
Love. Khai’s guts tied themselves in a big knot, and he forcibly reminded himself he was doing the right thing. She wanted a green card. He could get her one. This marriage would benefit both of them— for three years.
A guitar started playing a cover of a pop song, and Khai watched the ceremony with careful attention. If all went well, he’d be doing this soon. The wedding party walked down the aisle in pairs comprised of Michael’s sisters, Quan, and a bunch of Michael’s friends. Stella appeared in a gauzy white gown, which Michael had to have designed. When her dad gave her a teary smile, she smiled back and kissed his temple before taking his arm and heading toward the altar, where Michael waited, watching her with that lovesick look from before multiplied by a thousand. His eyes were even reddened like he was on the verge of tears. As Stella crossed the sand, her gaze never wavered from him. Whatever Michael felt for her, she reciprocated fully.
Girl loves boy loves girl.
As the two lovers exchanged vows and kissed, the sun dove into the horizon, and the sky blazed over the ocean. It was a magical moment. The camera flashed numerous times, a dozen cell phones glowed, no babies cried. The people in their small crowd wiped at their tears, Esme included, and Khai felt like an impostor at life.
Until Esme squeezed his hand to get his attention, pressed a surprise kiss to his lips, and then smiled at him. If they weren’t in public, he would have yanked her close and kissed her until she melted. He knew how to do that now. As it was, he simply devoured her with his eyes, wanting her with the full force of his out-of-control addiction, but judging from the way her pupils dilated, she didn’t mind.
He was leaning toward her to kiss her despite everything when everyone stood up to watch as Michael and Stella strode past. Staff from the nearby hotel guided them to a garden for a relaxed cocktail hour. He and Esme shared a Sex on the Beach while everyone ate hors d’oeuvres and chitchatted. She had absolutely no alcohol tolerance, and after only a few sips she was leaning into him and giving him the look that experience had taught him meant
take me to bed and have your way with me
. That look was one of the best things in the whole fucking world.
He was determined to have it for the next three years.
After cocktails, their party went to an outdoor seating area beneath a tent composed of wooden beams, white semitransparent fabric, and golden Christmas lights. As the Asian fusion dinner and speeches carried on, he rehearsed his proposal in his head. The logic was sound and sure to appeal to her. She was going to say yes. It wouldn’t make sense not to.
When everyone was finishing their cake and mint chocolate chip ice cream, Khai grabbed Esme’s hand. “Walk with me?”
She ate one last bite of cake, pulled the tines of the fork from between her luscious lips, and set the utensil on her plate. “Okay.”
They left the tent and strolled along the beach at a comfortable pace, their hands clasped tight and their feet sinking into the sand. The moon was nearly full and cast a silvery light upon the water, and the air smelled of salt and sea and kelp. Once they were a suitable distance away, he slowed to a stop.
It was time. Fuck, he was quaking inside. He’d never asked a girl out. He’d never wanted to. And now he was proposing.
“Do you hear it?” Esme asked.
He perked his ears, and then he heard it. Soft guitar strains flowed on the breeze, coming from the tent. He recognized it as Debussy’s “Clair de Lune.” “They’re dancing.”
She smiled, looped her arms around his neck, and started to sway back and forth. “We are, too.”
“You are. I don’t know how.”
“You just move like this,” she said with a laugh.
He felt distinctly absurd, but he followed along and moved with her. And then somehow he stopped feeling absurd. It was just the two of them here, just the moon, just the ocean and the sand and music and two hearts beating.
And she was smiling.
He crushed his lips to that smile, stealing it, and when his tongue swept into her mouth, the tastes of fruit, vanilla, and champagne made his head spin. He’d never have cake again and not think of her, never drink champagne and not think of her. Every success of his life would taste like Esme. He couldn’t help running his hands over her body, trying to find a way to all his favorite places, but this sack of a dress made it almost impossible.
When he made a frustrated sound, she laughed, kissed him one last time, and pulled away, wiping at the lipstick on his mouth. “We need to talk.”
“You’re right.” He took a deep breath to clear the lust from his mind and gathered her hands in his. The sooner he proposed, the sooner he’d be done, and the closer he’d be to marrying her.
He hesitated, surprised by the trembling of her hands. Unlike him, she really did shake when she was nervous, and he brushed his thumbs over her knuckles, hoping to soothe her. “You can go first if you want.”
With a lift of her chin, she said, “Okay, me first.”
She licked her lips and adjusted her hands so she could hold him as he held her. Several times, she started to speak but stopped before any words came out.
“Do you want me to go first, then?” he asked.
“No, I can.” She sucked in another breath and chewed on her bottom lip before she said, “When I first came here, I had reasons to marry you. Lots of reasons. And I got close to you for those reasons. But then ...” Her eyes met his. “Then I got to know you.” Her fingers tightened around his. “And I got close because I
to be close. A lot of times, I forget my reasons. Because I’m happy. With you.
make me happy.”
Khai’s chest filled, and his heart raced, and he couldn’t help smiling. There were an infinite number of reasons to exist on this earth, but that seemed the most important of them all— making Esme happy.
“I’m glad,” he said.
“Maybe it’s too fast, maybe it’s not smart, but ...” She smiled slowly, her eyes soft and liquid in the moonlight, and said in clear English, “I love you.”
His lungs stopped breathing. His heart stopped beating.
Esme loved him.
Warmth bubbled over him in overwhelming waves. What had he done that she loved him? He’d do it a million more times. He brought her hands to his mouth and breathed a kiss to her knuckles. He couldn’t speak, had no clue what to say.
Looking beautiful beyond compare with the moon and the stars and the water behind her, a teasing smile curved over her mouth, and she asked, “Do you love me? Maybe just a little?”
He went cold.
Not that question. Why had she asked
He could give her every
she wanted, a green card, real diamonds, his body, but love?
Stone hearts didn’t love.
He didn’t want to answer the question. All of him rebelled against it.
But he made himself admit the truth. “I don’t.”
She blinked and shook her head before she smiled again. “You love me
than a little.”
“No, Esme.” He stepped back and let go of her. “I’m sorry ... but I don’t love you a lot or a little. I don’t love you at all.”
Her face went slack, her eyes wide, watery. “Not at all?” she whispered.
“I don’t love you.” His entire being hurt like it was imploding. “I never will.”
“This isn’t funny,” she said.
“I’m not joking. I’m completely serious.”
She didn’t say a single word. She just stared at him as fat tears spilled down her face. He wanted to take his words back. He wanted to erase her sadness. He’d do almost anything to make her smile again.
But he couldn’t lie about this. She’s asked him the question, and she deserved to know the answer.
don’t love you. I never will.
Esme’s heart broke apart, and the jagged pieces stabbed at her from the inside. At the same time, shame doused her; heavy, suffocating shame. She knew why he couldn’t love her. She could go to school, change her clothes, and change her speech, but she could never change where she’d come from. The bottom of the bottom. So poor she couldn’t afford to finish high school, so different even other poor people looked down on her, so low she couldn’t climb free, not in Việt Nam. With all he’d done for her, she’d thought he saw beyond the things she couldn’t change and valued her for who she was inside. But he didn’t. According to his words, he never would.
Backing away from him, she said, “I’m sorry to bother you. I’ll go.”
He shook his head, his expression focused yet unreadable. “You don’t bother me.”
A laugh bordering on hysterical escaped her lips. “I don’t understand.” She turned to run, but he stopped her with a firm grip on her arm.
“We’re not done yet.”
She dragged in a breath and braced herself for the worst, almost afraid to look at him for fear of what he’d say.
“We should get married.”
Her body sagged in confusion. “What?”
“I wouldn’t mind you staying with me long enough to get your naturalization papers. After that, we could have a quick divorce. That would work out for both of us, I think,” he said with a tight wrinkle of his lips. Maybe he meant it to be a smile.
She shook her head. She’d heard his words, but they didn’t make any sense. “Why marry me if you don’t love me?”
“I’ve gotten used to you being in my house and in my bed and—”
At the mention of his bed, fierce heat flooded her face, and she ducked her head.
He wanted more sex. Of course he did.
He’d been a virgin before this, and they were really good together. But she couldn’t do it when it was making love for her and just sex for him.
“No.” She brushed his hand off her arm and stepped back. “I can’t marry you.”
His forehead creased as he frowned. “I don’t understand why.”
“Because it will hurt too much.” Because she loved him. If it was just a cold arrangement between strangers, maybe she could have done it. This marriage could do so much for Jade. But not if it destroyed her mother first.
Khải was not the solution. She had to keep looking and find another way.
He looked down at the ground. “I’m sorry.”
Fresh hot tears cascaded down her face. She was sorry, too.
“Esme, don’t cry. I—”
Without a word, she turned and stumbled across the sand back toward the wedding reception. She had to get away from here, and in order to do that, she needed her phone and money. She barged into the romantic tent and held her arms close to her body as she rushed past the couples slowly swaying in the sandy dance area, feeling like a trespasser.
There her purse was, slung over the corner of her chair. She looped the knockoff over her shoulder and tried her best to avoid eye contact with anyone.
“Are you okay, Esme?” Vy asked. She paused in the middle of mixing sugar into a cup of tea. Her hair was perfect, her makeup perfect, her black dress perfect, because she’d been born into this.
Esme forced a bright smile and nodded. Khải entered the far side of the tent, scanning the crowd with a frown like he was looking for something. His gaze locked on her. She couldn’t hear what he said, but she knew it was her name.
He walked in her direction, and panic shot through her. She had to get away. All these people thought she’d reached above herself by chasing Khải. She didn’t want to be there when they learned Khải agreed with them.
She raced away from the table. And smacked into something firm. Looking up, she saw Quân’s face.
“Hey, going somewhere in a hurry?” he asked with his characteristic good cheer.
“Sorry, I—” She glanced over her shoulder and found Khải striding toward her with a determined gait.
“Please, let me go.
“What’s going on? Are you two fighting?” Quân asked.
Her vision went blurry as she shook her head. “Not fighting.” Khải was coming closer. She sidestepped Quân and hurried off. As she slipped outside, she saw Quân stop Khải, talking to him with a concerned look on his face.
She sprinted over a long stretch of sand, feeling the coarse grains rub her feet raw, and eventually found pavement. She didn’t know where she was going, but it was away and that was good enough for now.
Her phone rang and rang, but she ignored it and kept running blindly, from him and from this horrible shame. When she couldn’t stand the ringing anymore, she stopped, dug her phone out of her purse, and turned it off.
As she stood there, lungs burning, mouth dry, feet possibly bleeding, she realized she had no idea where she was. Somehow, she’d ended up on a quiet street lined with little beach homes and tall palm trees.
There was no Khải, no Cô Nga, no Mom, no Grandma, no Jade, no one. Just Esme.
And she had nowhere to go. There was a great big world all around, and none of it was hers.
Where did you go when you had nowhere?
hai wandered around the beach for what felt like hours, but he couldn’t find Esme. She’d vanished into the night.