Authors: Helen Hoang
“Aren’t you going to eat?” he asked.
“I already ate.”
So ... she was just going to watch him eat, then? And people called
He had a spoonful of chewy noodles and savory soup. It was saltier than normal since she’d added more fish sauce, but it was good. He wasn’t in the habit of having soup for breakfast, though. When he glanced at her, she pursed her lips and pointedly eyed one of the slices of mango.
Fucking hell. He wasn’t a two-year-old. Why was this happening to him? Heaving a beleaguered breath, he picked up the mango and took a large bite.
Extreme sourness exploded in his mouth, and he cringed as a hard shudder worked through his body.
She burst out laughing, and he stared at her in horror.
How was this funny? He couldn’t stop shuddering as he struggled to swallow the mouthful of pure citric acid. Shit, his eyes were watering.
She schooled her features and said, “Sorry. It’s a little sour.”
Fuck yeah, it was sour.
Without saying a word, he gulped from his coffee mug, shuddered again, and had another gulp of coffee.
This was his life now. His life was hell.
“Sorry, I like sour,” she said with an apologetic wince. “It’s good with salt and chili pepper.”
He held out his half-eaten mango slice. “You
She plucked it from his fingers and bit into it with complete disregard for germ transference. Didn’t she care about bacteria or getting sick? She might as well have kissed him— a thoroughly disturbing thought. Smiling with the green mango caught between her white teeth, she said, “Too delicious.”
He blinked and finished his noodles and soup. With that level of acid tolerance, her insides were probably corrosive enough to digest an entire seal pup. Nature was terrifying sometimes.
She helped him eat the rest of his fruit. No way he was touching any more of it. After they cleaned up, she raced to her room and came back thirty seconds later in a white T-shirt and black pants, hair up in a ponytail.
After he drove past the adult school and pulled into the parking space in front of his mom’s restaurant, he refrained from drumming his fingers on the steering wheel as Esme gathered up her things, unbuckled her seat belt, and slowly climbed out of the car. As soon as she shut the door, he put the gear in reverse. Finally, he could
But she walked around to his side and motioned for him to open the window, which he did, even though he didn’t want to.
What now, what now, what now?
Meeting his eyes, she said, “Thank you for driving me. And about the looking ...” Her lips curved into a smile that was almost shy. “You can look at me however long you like. I don’t mind it. Good-bye, Anh Khải.”
She turned around and strode toward the restaurant’s front door, ponytail bobbing with each step. He was free, but he let the car idle there. He was still sleep deprived, still completely off routine and irritated as hell, his head still hurt, and his balls were still blue.
But something inside of him loosened, and he didn’t mind so much the way she said his name now. He waited until the restaurant door shut behind her before driving away.
ere, here,” Cô Nga said the second Esme walked in the door, waving her over to the booth where she was filling pepper shakers. “Come sit and tell me everything.”
Esme slid into the red leather booth and cast a quick glance around the restaurant, taking in the orange walls, the red booths, the black tables, the large fish tank in back, and the familiar scents of cooking food. Surprisingly, aside from the booths, the restaurant wasn’t that different from one you’d find back in Việt Nam. She felt like she’d come home.
Here, the smell of fish sauce was welcome. She brought a handful of her hair to her nose and inhaled, but she detected nothing. She’d washed last night. She was clean. But an uncomfortable embarrassment lingered as she remembered the way he’d opened all the windows and the door to air out a smell she didn’t notice.
Cô Nga looked up from her pepper shaker. “How are things going?”
Esme shrugged and smiled. “It’s too early to say.”
“He’s being difficult?” Cô Nga asked. “Do I need to talk to him? He promised he’d treat you like a fiancée.”
Esme shook her head quickly. “No, he’s been good. We ate together this morning and ...” She considered telling Cô Nga her son had abandoned her at his house all day yesterday, but she didn’t have the heart.
Cô Nga raised her eyebrows. “ And ... what else?”
“Nothing else.” Esme took the large pepper container from Cô Nga and continued filling pepper shakers where Cô Nga had left off.
After a while, Cô Nga said, “There’s a secret for dealing with my Khải.”
“He doesn’t talk a lot and is really smart, so people think he’s complicated, but in truth, he’s simple. If you want something from him, all you have to do is tell him.”
“Just tell him?” Esme couldn’t keep the skepticism from her voice.
“Yes, just tell him. If he’s being too quiet, tell him you want him to talk to you. If you’re bored at home, tell him you want to go somewhere with him. Never assume he knows what you want. Because he doesn’t. You
to tell him, but once you do, nine times out of ten, he’ll listen. He doesn’t look like it most of the time, but he cares about people. Even you.”
Esme considered the serious expression on the lady’s face. Cô Nga believed what she was saying. “I ... Yes, Cô.”
Cô Nga smiled and squeezed Esme’s arm. “Now let me show you around, so you can get to work.”
y the time the busy lunch hour was over, she was fighting tears. She didn’t mind heavy lifting or staying on her feet— she was as strong as a water buffalo— but she’d forgotten that waitressing required talking. Oftentimes, in English. That was another thing she did about as well as a water buffalo. People had given her impatient looks as she forced herself to speak, a customer had yelled at her, another had openly mocked her, and she wanted to lock herself in the bathroom and hide for the rest of the week.
She stacked dirty dishes in the roller bin. Wiped, wiped, wiped the table. Moved on to the next. Tried to empty her mind and focus on the work.
Until she remembered she’d messed up this table’s order. She’d run to the grocery store down the road to get them grapes, only to learn they’d said
, which was
. What an embarrassing mistake. Who ordered grapes at a nice restaurant like this? She should have used her head. Her eyes watered, and she blinked furiously.
Once the last customer left, she’d eat those grapes and laugh about all of this instead.
Dirty dishes in the bin. Wipe, wipe, wipe the table. Move on to—
She forgot to watch where she was going, and her hip knocked a chair over. With her stinky luck, the last customer’s things had been on it, and now papers were spilled all over the floor.
“Sorry, so sorry,” she said quickly and got down on her hands and knees. But once she was down there, the task seemed overwhelming. Papers were all over the place, under tables and chairs. It was too much. Her hip throbbed, and her head ached, and she wanted to scream, but she couldn’t breathe—
“Enough, don’t worry about them,” a voice said in cultured Vietnamese.
Before she knew it, the papers were all gathered up, and she was sitting at a table, a vague memory in her mind of steady hands guiding her to the seat and a cup of tea in her hands.
“Drink it slowly,” the lady customer said as she sat down across from her and watched her with kind eyes.
Esme took a sip, finding the jasmine tea lukewarm, grainy, and bitter, as it was the dregs of the pot. It still helped to calm her, though. She swiped at her face with the back of a hand, expecting to feel the wetness of tears, but there was nothing but her own overwarm skin. The lady had caught her before she could break.
“I eat here regularly, and I never saw you before today. It’s probably your first day,” the customer said. From the looks of her, she was twenty years or so older than Esme. With the lightweight scarf around her neck, sunglasses on her head, and fashionable sundress, the lady exuded sophistication, though maybe not wealth.
Esme nodded, feeling numb.
“You just crossed, didn’t you?”
There was no need to clarify what she’d crossed or where she’d been before. Esme simply nodded again. With how the lunch hour had gone, it had to be painfully obvious that she was new to the country.
The lady reached across the table and squeezed Esme’s hand. “It gets better over time. I was a lot like you when I first came.”
Esme almost told her that she was only guaranteed to be here for one summer, but she thought better of it. She didn’t want to explain things and change this woman’s kindness to judgment. And what kind of impression was she making, sitting and drinking tea when she was on the job? She got to her feet, and as she continued wiping tables where she’d left off before, she said, “Thank you, Cô. I’m sorry about the papers.”
“My name is Quyền, but call me Miss Q. That’s what my students call me.”
“You’re a teacher?”
Miss Q held up the papers she’d gathered off the floor. “That’s right. This is my students’ homework.” Then her face brightened, and she said, “You could join my class. I teach English in the evenings. The summer session just started.”
Esme sucked in a surprised breath, and her towel froze in mid-swipe. Her first reaction was excitement. She would love to go to school again, and it would be so nice not to be embarrassed when she spoke to customers, and—
No, she told herself firmly. Evenings weren’t for school. They were for seducing Khải. Besides, it was better to save the money for Jade. That was why she was here, after all. For Jade (and her dad). Not Esme. She couldn’t justify it if it was just to make herself happy.
“I don’t need it,” she said finally. “I can manage like this.”
A polite smile touched Miss Q’s lips before she put a ten-dollar bill on the table, packed up her things, and got up. “ Good-bye, then. If you change your mind, the adult school is just across the street there.” She pointed out the window at the squat white building on the other side of the busy street and left.
Almost wistfully, Esme watched her dodge her way across the street without using the crosswalk. She didn’t notice the stray sheet of paper on the far side of the room until the lady disappeared into the school.
Esme went to pick up the paper and found it covered with a handwritten essay by a person named Angelika K. She started reading, and kept reading, and stood there like a statue until she’d finished the whole thing. Then she stared out the window at the school.
Was Angelika K. going to school to benefit others? Or was she going just because she wanted to?
ver the following week, a new routine developed for Khai. In the mornings, they had breakfast. Khai ate whatever Esme forced on him, and she gleefully gorged herself on tropical fruit. They went to work, and he picked her up around six in the evening. That was the busiest time at the restaurant, but his mom insisted she had things covered. Khai suspected she just wanted him and Esme to have dinner together.
It wasn’t candlelit romance or anything, so he didn’t know why his mom bothered. Most of the time, they heated up containers from the fridge and ate like scavengers. Other times, Esme cooked, and he had to turn on the exhaust hood and open all the windows to vent the smell. While they ate, Esme made strange comments about work, current events, and whatever random things were going on in her head, and he tried to ignore her, mostly unsuccessfully. After dinner, he exercised and watched TV on low volume while he worked on his laptop. She used the time to torment him in new and creative ways.
On Tuesday, Khai found his socks rolled up the long way and stacked in his drawer like cigars. On Wednesday, she blasted Viet pop on her phone while she color coded the foodstuffs in his pantry, making it impossible for him to concentrate on the TV or anything, really. On Thursday, she wiped down the baseboards, wearing that oversized T-shirt, no bra, and a pair of his boxers. They were his underwear, for fuck’s sake, not shorts, and they didn’t even fit her. She rolled the waist down so many times she might as well have walked around in her panties.
By Friday, he was having fantasies of cramming her on the next plane back to Vietnam. He couldn’t find anything in his house, he wasn’t sleeping, and he was so sexually frustrated his molars hurt. He would seriously consider bribing her to leave if it weren’t for his mom and her threats. No way was he doing this a second time.
Late Friday night, he was in bed, staring at the darkened ceiling and imagining Esme waving happily at him from the curb at the airport as he accelerated away, when the door to the bathroom, which connected their rooms, jerked open. The soft glow from the bathroom’s night-light spread into his room, casting a dim light on Esme’s tear-strewn face as she stumbled onto the foot of his bed.