Authors: Helen Hoang
“Oh, no, no,” Cô Nga interrupted. “He’s not picky. He’s
. And stubborn. He thinks he doesn’t want a family. He needs a girl who is more stubborn. You’d have to make him change his mind.”
“How would I—”
, you know. You dress up, take care of him, cook the things he likes, do the things he likes ...”
Mỹ couldn’t help grimacing, and Cô Nga surprised her by laughing.
is why I like you. You can’t help but be yourself. What do you think? I could give you a summer in America to see if you two fit. If you don’t, no problem, you go home. At the very least, you’ll go to all our family weddings and have some food and fun. How’s that?”
“ I— I— I ...” She didn’t know what to say. It was too much to take in.
“One more thing.” Cô Nga’s gaze turned measuring, and there was a heavy pause before she said, “He doesn’t want children. But I am determined to have grandchildren. If you manage to get pregnant, I know he’ll do the right thing and marry you, regardless of how you get along. I’ll even give you money. Twenty thousand American dollars. Will you do this for me?”
The breath seeped from Mỹ’s lungs, and her skin went cold. Cô Nga wanted her to steal a baby from her son and force him into marriage. Disappointment and futility crushed her. For a moment, she’d thought this lady saw something special in her, but Cô Nga had judged her based on things she couldn’t control, just like the girls in the skimpy dresses had.
“The other girls all said no, didn’t they? You thought I’d say yes because ...” She indicated her uniform with an open palm.
Cô Nga said nothing, her gaze steady.
Mỹ pushed up from the sofa, went to collect her bucket of cleaning supplies, opened the door, and paused in the doorway. With her eyes trained straight ahead, she said, “My answer is no.”
She didn’t have money, connections, or skills, but she could still be as hardheaded and foolish as she wanted. She hoped her refusal stung. Without a backward glance, she left.
hat evening, after the hour-long walk home— the same one she did twice a day every day— Mỹ tiptoed into their one-room house and collapsed onto the section of floor mat where she slept at night. She needed to get ready for bed, but first, she wanted to do nothing for a few moments. Just nothing. Nothing was such a luxury.
Her pocket buzzed, ruining her nothing. With a frustrated sigh, she dug her phone out of her pocket.
Unfamiliar phone number.
She debated not answering it, but something had her hitting the talk button and pressing the phone to her ear. “Hello?”
“Mỹ, is this you?”
Mỹ puzzled over the voice. It was slightly familiar, but she couldn’t place it. “Yes. Who’s this?”
“It’s me, Cô Nga. No, don’t hang up,” the lady added quickly. “I got your number from the hotel supervisor. I wanted to talk to you.”
Her fingers tightened on the phone, and she sat upright. “I don’t have anything left to say.”
“You won’t change your mind?”
She resisted the urge to throw her phone at the wall. “No.”
“Good,” Cô Nga said.
Frowning, Mỹ lowered her phone and stared at it. What did she mean
She returned the phone to her ear in time to hear Cô Nga say, “It was a test. I don’t want you to trick my son into having a baby, but I needed to know what kind of person you are.”
“So that means ...?”
“That means you’re the one I want, Mỹ. Come to America to see my son. I’ll give you the entire summer to win him and go to his cousins’ weddings. You’ll need the time. It’ll be work to figure him out, but it’ll be worth it. He’s good stuff. If anyone can do it, I think it’s you. If you want to. Do you?”
Her head began spinning. “I don’t know. I need to think.”
“Then think and call me back. But don’t take too long. I need to arrange your visa and plane ticket,” Cô Nga said. “I’ll be waiting to hear from you.” With that, the call disconnected.
A lamp on the other side of the room clicked on, illuminating the tight, cluttered space with soft, golden light. Clothes and kitchen paraphernalia hung from the walls, covering every square centimeter of crumbling brick not taken up by the old electric stove, tiny refrigerator, and miniature TV they used to watch kung fu sagas and bootleg American films. The center floor space was occupied by the sleeping bodies of her daughter, Ngọc Anh, and her grandma. Her mom lay between Grandma and the stove, her hand on the lamp’s switch. A fan blew humid air at them on the highest setting.
“Who was that?” her mom whispered.
,” Mỹ said, barely believing her own words. “She wants me to come to America and marry her son.”
Her mom propped herself up on an elbow, and her hair fell in a silken curtain over her shoulder. Bedtime was the only time she let her hair loose, and it made her look ten years younger. “Is he older than your grandpa? Does he look like a skunk? What’s wrong with him?”
At that moment, Mỹ’s phone buzzed with a message from Cô Nga.
To help you think.
Another buzz, and the photograph of Khải covered the screen— the same one from before. She handed her phone to her mom wordlessly.
is him?” her mom asked with wide eyes.
“His name is Diệp Khải.”
Her mom stared at the picture for the longest time, quiet save for the soft sighing of her breathing. Finally, she handed the phone back. “You have no choice. You have to do it.”
“But he doesn’t want to get married. I’m supposed to chase him and change his mind. I don’t know how to—”
“Just do it. Do whatever you have to. It’s
, Mỹ. You have to do it for this one.” Her mom reached over Grandma’s thin sleeping form and pulled Ngọc Anh’s thin blanket up to her throat. “If I had the opportunity, I would have done the same for you. For her future. She doesn’t fit in here. And she needs a dad.”
Mỹ clenched her teeth as childhood memories tried to spill from the corner of her mind where she trapped them. She could still hear the children singing
Mixed girl with the twelve buttholes
at her as she walked home from school. Her childhood had been difficult, but it had prepared her for life. She was stronger now, tougher. “I didn’t have a dad.”
Her mom’s eyes hardened. “And look where that’s gotten you.”
Mỹ looked down at her girl. “It also got me her.” She regretted being with her daughter’s heartless father, but she’d never regretted her baby. Not even for a second.
She brushed the damp baby hairs away from her girl’s temple, and that enormous love expanded in her heart. Gazing at her daughter’s face was like looking in a mirror that reflected a time twenty years past. Her girl looked exactly like Mỹ used to. They had the same eyebrows, cheekbones, nose, and skin tone. Even the shape of their lips was the same. But Ngọc Anh was far, far sweeter than Mỹ had ever been. She would do anything for this little one.
Except give her up.
Once Ngọc Anh’s father had married, his wife had discovered she couldn’t have babies, and they’d offered to raise Ngọc Anh as their own. Again, Mỹ had turned down an offer everyone expected her to accept. They’d called her selfish. His family could give Ngọc Anh all the
But what about love? Love mattered, and no one could love her baby like Mỹ could. No one. She felt it in her heart.
Still, from time to time, she worried she’d done the wrong thing.
“If you don’t like him,” her mom said, “you can divorce him after you get your green card and marry someone else.”
“I can’t marry him just for a green card.” He was a person, not a stack of paper, and if he decided to marry her, it would be because she’d succeeded in seducing him, because he cared about her. She couldn’t use someone that way. That would make her just as bad as Ngọc Anh’s dad.
Her mom nodded like she could hear the thoughts in Mỹ’s head. “What happens if you go and you can’t change his mind?”
“I come back at the end of the summer.”
A disgusted sound came from the back of her mom’s throat. “I can’t believe you need to think about this. You have nothing to lose.”
As Mỹ looked at the black screen on her phone, a thought occurred to her. “Cô Nga said he doesn’t want a family. I have Ngọc Anh.”
Her mom rolled her eyes. “What young man wants a family? If he loves you, he’ll love Ngọc Anh.”
“It doesn’t work that way, and you know it. If a man knows you have a baby, most of the time he’s not interested.” And if he was interested, all he wanted was sex.
“Then don’t tell him right away. Give him time to fall for you, and tell him later,” her mom said.
Mỹ shook her head. “That feels wrong.”
“If he tells you he loves you but backs out of marriage because you have a daughter, you don’t want him anyway. But this woman knows her son, and she
you. You have to try. At the very least, you get a whole summer in America. Do you know how lucky you are? Don’t you want to see America? Where in America is it?”
“She said California, but I don’t think I can stand being away that long.” Mỹ brushed her fingers across her daughter’s baby-soft cheek. She’d never been away from home longer than a day. What if Ngọc Anh thought she’d abandoned her?
Her mom’s forehead creased with thought, and she got up to dig through a pile of boxes kept in the corner. They were her mom’s personal things, and no one was allowed to open them. Growing up, Mỹ used to snoop through them when no one was looking, especially the bottom one. When her mom opened that box specifically and rustled through its contents, Mỹ’s heart started sprinting.
“That’s where your dad is from. Here, look.” Her mom handed her a yellowed photo of a man with his arm thrown around her shoulders. Mỹ had spent countless hours peering at this photo, holding it close, looking at it upside down, squinting, anything to confirm the man’s eyes were green and he was, in fact, her father, but nothing worked. The picture had been taken from too far away. His eyes could be any color. They appeared brown, if she was being honest with herself.
The lettering on his shirt, however, was easy to read. It clearly said
“Is that what ‘Cal’ stands for?” she asked. “California?”
Her mom nodded. “I looked it up. It’s a famous university. Maybe when you’re there, you can go see it. Maybe ... you can try to find him.”
Mỹ’s heart jumped so hard her fingers tingled. “Are you finally going to tell me his name?” she asked, her voice whisper thin. All she knew was “Phil.” That was the name her grandma whispered with hate when she and Mỹ were alone.
A bitter smile touched her mom’s lips. “He said his full name was ugly. All anyone ever called him was Phil. I think his surname started with an
Mỹ’s hopes shattered before they’d fully formed. “It’s impossible, then.”
Her mom’s expression went determined. “You don’t know until you try. Maybe if they use the expensive computers, they can make a list for you. If you work hard, there’s a chance.”
Mỹ gazed at the picture of her dad, feeling the yearning in her chest grow bigger with every second. Did he live in California? How would he react if he opened his door ... and saw her? Would he accuse her of coming to ask for money?
Or would he be happy to find a daughter he’d never known he had?
She opened up the picture of Khải on her phone and held the two photos side by side on her lap. What had Cô Nga seen in her that she thought Mỹ was a good match for her son? Would her son see it, too? And would he accept her daughter? Would her own father accept his daughter?
Either way, her mom was right. She wouldn’t know until she tried. On both accounts.
Mỹ typed out a text message to Cô Nga and hit send.
Yes, I want to try.
“I’m going to do it,” she told her mom. She tried to sound confident, but she was quaking inside. What had she just agreed to?
“I knew you would, and I’m glad. We’ll take good care of Ngọc Anh while you’re gone. Now, go to sleep. You still have to work tomorrow.” The light clicked off. But after the room went dark, her mom said, “You should know with just one summer, you don’t have time to do things the traditional way. You have to play to win, even if you’re not sure you want him. As long as he’s not evil, love can grow. And remember, good girls don’t get the man. You need to be bad, Mỹ.”
Mỹ swallowed. She had a good idea what “bad” meant, and she was surprised her mom dared to suggest it with her grandma in the room.
s Khai’s running shoes hit the cracked concrete of the driveway leading to his Sunnyvale fixer-upper, which he never got around to fixing up, the timer on his watch beeped. Exactly fifteen minutes.
There was nothing as satisfying as perfect increments of time. Except for hitting whole dollar amounts when filling up at the gas station. Or when the restaurant bill was a prime number or a segment of the Fibonacci sequence or just all eights. Eight was such an elegant number. If he added a minute to his run, he could set a checkpoint in the middle. Wouldn’t that be entertaining?