By Mai Linh Spencer
Minh and his daughter held hands as they waited, Annie hopping lightly from one foot to the other. “HAVE A HAPPY 5TH BIRTHDAY TOMMY!” commanded a banner draped over the doorway. A woman opened the door, but was talking to someone inside so that she faced away from them. She had one hand on the knob; the other arm balanced a baby on her hip. As he waited for her to turn, Minh saw his mistake. The slender American woman was wearing jeans and a black tank top; behind her careened several young children in tee-shirts and shorts. In contrast, Minh wore a jacket and tie. After much hesitation, he had dressed Annie in something his mother had sent last Christmas:a shiny pink dress covered with a layer of white lace. The material had felt surprisingly stiff as he pulled it over Annie's head. She had bounced around so excitedly that Minh could barely zip up the back. Although she was only four, Annie had had to show him how to bunch up her tights before pulling them on so that they did not run. When Minh had finally buckled on her party shoes, he and Annie had stood at the mirror and agreed that she was a beautiful princess. Now, waiting for the woman to pay attention to them, Annie instead looked like a jittery cake decoration.
Finally the woman turned to them. Her smile took in Minh, then Annie, then Minh again, as if she were not sure whom to greet and how.
Minh held out his hand. “Hello, I'm Minh Tran. I am Annie's father.”
“Sure. I'm so glad you could make it. I'm Deborah. Come on in.” The woman took Minh's hand and looked him in the eye, still smiling.
Minh felt an urge to apologize. For wearing the wrong clothes, for forgetting to bring a birthday present (there was a pile of brightly wrapped packages on the hall table), for not being Kathleen. He had just met this woman, Deborah, and already he had failed her in a million ways. “I'm sorry,” he began, hesitating before entering. “Kathleen, she couldn't made it today.” But Deborah was not listening; she was trotting ahead to intercede in a fight between two boys over a fire engine. “No worries!” she called over her shoulder.
It was June and the morning sun had heated the plastic tablecloth, softening rings of dried soy sauce and jam. Minh's pajamas warmed as he sat with his back to the light. A part of him had not been surprised to find his wife's note on the kitchen table. Indeed, his five years with Kathleen had a more unexpected quality than her sudden departure. He read and reread her words, not because he couldn't accept their meaning. Rather, he did so to accelerate a familiar feeling that was settling on his neck and shoulders. Each time he read the note – I'm sorry, Minh . . . – it was as if he became more himself, less a person he had tried to be for the past five years. It was a comfortable, oozing sensation.
Resting his head in his hands, he formed a clear image of himself, a middle-aged Vietnamese man alone in his Mt. Pleasant apartment, growing old with no one to talk to but the Columbian guy who owned the corner liquor store. He would keep his job, of course, and start mailing checks to his mother again. Maybe send some money back to the relatives still in Viet Nam. He would eat dinner in front of the TV every night and fall asleep on the couch, his slippered feet propped on the coffee table. This image became so real that Minh had already decided to remain in his pajamas the rest of the day, when Annie padded into the room, her huge brown eyes blinking.
“Where's Mommy? What's for breakfast?” she asked.
Joy left Minh speechless. Kathleen had not taken their daughter; his life was not over. He grabbed Annie and pulled her to his chest, kissing her hair again and again.
“Mommy's not here right now,” he said after a moment, unsure how to proceed. “I don't know where did she went. I don't know when will she come back.” Even as he spoke, he could hear his English escaping his grasp. “Now, Annie and Ba stay together, take care of each others, OK?” He hated his own inarticulateness, but Annie looked at him and nodded.
“You understand?” he asked, then corrected himself. “Do you understand? Now I gonna help you get dress. We discuss about this later.”
They had met in transit. Kathleen had boarded the 16th Street bus at Florida and pushed her way through the rush-hour crowd to Minh, who was standing at the back. Minh, accustomed to being invisible in public, was surprised when this young woman turned to smile at him, her arm dangling from the handrail.
“I've seen you on this bus before,” she said brightly and leaned a little toward him. They were exactly the same height, he noticed, as he glanced at her. “Do you work downtown?”
“Yes.” In America, sane people did not talk to strangers on the bus and he suspected the worst:harassment or some sort of solicitation. Ten years of tiny humiliations had put him on his guard, even from pretty women in floral print blouses and pearly nail polish. Kathleen told him later that she had known from his dark brown eyes and smooth, square face that he was “one of the few decent men in DC.” But at the time, Minh had no idea he was being picked up.
“Oh yeah? Where?” She would not be deterred.
“I work at the library,” he admitted cautiously. He was a reshelver and spent his days pushing metal carts of books through the dim aisles, slipping volumes into their proper slot, according to their assigned number. Though his job was monotonous, he enjoyed being surrounded by the dusty works of great intellects. In Saigon, he had been a professor of literature.
“No way! I'm at Bank of America. That's, like, only four or five blocks from you.”
“Yes.” He stole a look at her, half-hiding his face behind his own upraised arm. She could be no more than 30, fifteen years younger than he. Her eyes were a gray-brown and her sandy hair looked cleaner than any he had ever seen. When the bus lurched forward, and she was thrown even closer to him, he could smell her shampoo, a sweet, herbal scent. She did not seem insane.
“I'm Kathleen,” the young woman said, as if announcing that Minh had won a prize.
“It is nice to meet you, Kathleen,” Minh replied. He could not help sounding like a student on the first day of ESL class. “My name is Minh.”
“Minh,” she repeated. “Nice name. Mini-Minh. Thin Minh.” And, indeed, he felt small and slight in the presence of this ebullient woman. “I'll get off at your stop and walk with you,” she said cheerfully, and what was Minh to say?
She had left a week ago, and now it was Saturday again. Each morning Annie had woken calling for her mother, had run to the kitchen only to find Minh apologetically shaking his head. He waited for Kathleen to call and explain herself to her daughter. He delayed calling his own mother in Richmond to confess that the American wife she had told him not to marry had lived up to her expectations. And each night, he watched his daughter sleep, feeling both tender and desperate.
Today Annie arrived at the breakfast table asking, “What day is it?” When Minh told her, she announced happily, “It's Tommy's birthday party. Mommy's taking me.”
Minh knew nothing about a party. He had only a vague picture of Tommy, a fat boy in Annie's class. “I don't think so Mommy can make it,” he said. Each day he edged Annie closer to the knowledge that her mother had left for good.
“Yes, she will. She said.” Annie looked at her father; he felt her reproach.
“I know, but Mommy's not here. I don't know if she come back in time,” Minh said weakly.
“But she promised. They're going to have a piñata!” Annie wailed, leaning back in the vinyl chair to face the ceiling. Thin arms crossed, she tucked each hand into the opposite sleeve of her tee-shirt. Her legs swung in frustration. Minh had never heard of a piñata but did not want to appear more helpless than he already did. “She promised,” Annie repeated, her voice breaking.
Minh watched his daughter's delicate chin tremble. It was pointed, like Kathleen's. Her dark brown hair hung down the back of the chair, straight and fine. He had washed it the night before and it shimmered in the morning light. Annie was crying quietly now, her head still tilted back, and he could see the tears run down her temple into her ear.
“Ba gonna take you,” said Minh, standing and lifting Annie out of the chair into his arms.
Kathleen had been in constant motion. Their dates were a whirlwind of movement:she would pick Minh up in her car and they would rush from dinner to a movie, then back to his apartment. There she paced around picking up his belongings – a photograph of his grandmother, a canister of coffee, an English dictionary – then pulled him to his bed. Even after making love, she would spring up to get a glass of water or open the single window. Minh felt like a man holding the string of a large and beautiful kite, one that tugged on him, sending him running in different directions in an effort not to lose it.
“Dammit,” Kathleen yelled from the bathroom one morning, and Minh learned that she was pregnant. Minh suggested tentatively that they marry, and after a few days Kathleen agreed, joking that she was “finally marrying up.” For a moment Minh had the impression that he had secured the kite to a more stable object than himself. Perhaps now it would not dart about in such a frenzy.
Minh rented them an English basement not far from where he was living on what Kathleen called “Refugee Row.” Kathleen, who was being evicted from her efficiency, moved her belongings into the apartment in a single afternoon. Despite their marriage, she would still not be tied down. She quit her job at the bank, gave birth to Annie and, after nursing her at home for two months, declared it was time for her to return to “the real world.” She put Annie on formula, and within a week found a receptionist job. She hired the Salvadoran woman upstairs to take care of Annie. Minh would come home to find his family in the woman's apartment, Kathleen drinking a beer and laughing at the TV, while the old woman – off the clock – continued to play with Annie. When their daughter turned three, Kathleen told Minh that Annie needed more structure and enrolled her in Montessori preschool. Minh was grateful that Kathleen always seemed to know what was required.
Minh approached a stocky man sitting in an armchair with a large red and blue object in his lap. A broomstick with a string attached to one end leaned against the man's leg. The man's thin blond hair was combed over a scalp so pink and vulnerable Minh felt embarrassed looking at it. “Hello,” Minh said uncertainly.
“Hiya.” The man looked up and held out a hand. “I'm Mark, Tommy's dad.” The object on his lap was a figure of Spiderman. Mark bent over again, trying to thread wire through two holes pierced in Spiderman's back. Minh could not imagine what kind of toy this was. Instead of his usual sleek costume, this Spiderman was covered with curly red and blue tissue paper. The head was much too large for the body, the limbs rigid – nothing like the lithe figure Minh knew from TV. “Good to see another guy here,” the man said without looking up. “Wife sick?”
“Thank you, no.” Minh addressed the pink scalp. “She is busy.”
This statement hung in the air. Minh thought of an expression he had learned ten years ago from his Catholic aid worker:there's no time like the present. This chipper phrase had launched him into ESL classes, a job washing dishes, and an apartment of his own. There's no time like the present to offer yourself up to God, she had even said. Minh amended his explanation. “My wife and I, we are separated this week ago.”
“Oh, I'm sorry to hear that.” He had the man's full attention now.
“Thank you. I think that I am in custody of our daughter from now on.” Minh gestured toward Annie, darting about the room in her frilly dress. “That one,” he said, as if to prove that he was at least capable of identifying her in a crowd.
Deborah approached the men. “Piñata ready, boys?” She put a hand on her husband's shoulder, and surveyed the rest of the room. Minh moved closer to Mark, to give the impression that he had been assisting in the Spiderman project.
“There's no place to attach the damn thing,” Mark complained. “You'd think they could put a hook on here somewhere.”
“Just tie the string around its neck,” Deborah said. “The kids are getting antsy.” She winked at Minh before striding off to pick up a pile of paper plates that had slid to the floor.
“There we go,” Mark said after a moment. He stood up, Spiderman now hanging securely from the broomstick. “Where would I be without that woman?”
Mark was right to ask. It was Kathleen who had forced Minh to learn to drive, to get his citizenship, to ask the library for a promotion. She taught him to wear tennis shoes on the weekends, to spray Lysol after eating fish sauce, to make small talk with cashiers and bus drivers. Without her, would he still be parting his hair just above his right ear? Would he still be afraid to ask the waitress for a doggie bag?
Maybe he should ask his mother to move in. She could watch Annie and cook for them. He would give her his room and sleep on the couch. He would rise every morning, fold the sheets and put them in the closet before Annie woke up. He could have pho for breakfast. She would cook every night, keeping up a steady stream of complaints and gossip as pork simmered and rice steamed. The apartment would smell of food even when she wasn't cooking. His mother would complain that Minh spoiled Annie. She would tell him his job did not pay enough, that his brother-in-law could get him work at the post office. She would remind him that if he had married a Vietnamese, Annie would still have a mother and he would still have a wife. Minh would smile at his daughter through the barrage of his mother's criticism. He would be like a stranger in his own home.
“Time for the piñata!” Deborah called from the middle of the living room. Beside her, Mark held the broomstick aloft. Spiderman dangled, his over-sized head balancing his lower body. Against a wall, Minh waited to see what would happen.
The mothers forced the children into a line with Tommy at the head. Tommy carried an alarmingly large wooden sword. He swung it around a few times, yelling, “Yah! Yah!” Then, to Minh's surprise, Tommy raised the sword over his head and struck Spiderman right on the skull. The piñata swayed crazily and Mark, steadying the broomstick, called out, “Good one, son!” Tommy brought the sword up and swung again, but this time it glanced off the side of Spiderman's head, where his ear should have been. “Use it like a baseball bat,” encouraged Mark. Tommy instead tried to spear the piñata, but it just spun away.
“Next turn,” called Deborah, pushing a tiny boy forward. Tommy reluctantly handed over the sword and the smaller boy took his three swings, missing the piñata twice, then striking it weakly on a leg. More children followed, each approaching the figure with a mixture of anticipation and fear.
Minh watched, fascinated. He felt mildly protective of Spiderman, whose cartoons he had watched when he first arrived in America. He was surprised that, after all his hard work, Mark was encouraging the children to destroy the effigy.
It was Annie's turn. By now, the piñata was dented in several places, though its surface was intact. Annie took the wooden sword from Deborah with both hands. It was nearly as tall as she. She adjusted her grip and planted her feet, white patent leather shoes a shoulder-width apart. She looked somberly at the piñata and raised the sword over her right shoulder where it brushed the white lace. Her left foot came off the floor as she shifted all her weight to her right. Then, her eye still on the piñata, Annie stepped into her swing, led with her shoulders, and pulled her arms around her body in a single untwisting motion. SMACK! Spiderman's torso opened up, releasing a glittery spray. Before anyone could react, Annie drew back the sword and – smack! – struck the piñata again. Its head flew off; to Minh's astonishment, candy spewed from Spiderman's neck and fell to the ground.
Minh could not take his eyes off his daughter. The other children dove forward to fill their pockets; Tommy's father was shaking the piñata remains over their heads, releasing more shiny candy. Lowering the sword, Annie smiled at her father above the scrambling mass. Then she bent down to collect what was hers.
Walking home, Minh and his daughter could not stop talking about the party: the chocolate cake; Tommy's cute baby brother; the treasures she had delivered from Spiderman's broken body. Annie bounced and tugged at Minh's hand like a child's balloon. He felt buoyed by her success. He would not let go.