In Los Angeles, J—— took me to the women’s spa where we soaked all day in a mugwort bath & napped in a salt sauna & shared a tray of dumplings. Our driver took us down the scenic route past colorful fruit stands, fabric stores, nail salons, where I imagined becoming an aesthetician, designing underwear, living in a tiny studio apartment without furniture. It was the beginning of seeing myself vividly. But how would I come out to my parents as an aesthetician? That I cut my teeth on some sheer fabric? Is there an instrument you’ve always wanted to play?
THE COOK, THE PRIEST, THE EYE DOCTOR & HER LOVER
Women in Vietnam were permitted to own land 500 years before women in America could. My mother weighed 98 lbs when she arrived at the refugee camp. There’s a black & white photo of her with foam curlers in her hair. In a time & place without money, I wonder where she got those. Who took that photo of her? It was about a decade after Tippi Hedren brought her aesthetician to Hope Village teaching women the trade of nail art. My mother has always been practical. Her means of survival informed by scraping the dirt to uncover ______ in a single red peony. She is the moon on a future harvest where trees once appeared to bear no fruit. She kept going to the garden & tending to it, pruning & watering. I wonder often about the secrets she keeps & if they are burdens for her, or if her soul is as pure as she claims it is.
I’ll sit on the couch until my period bleeds through my pants to the cushion. The block of rose petals we wash our bodies with is becoming smaller. A sliver, our country. Our mouths gather in the crowd like fish bobbing for air. We, too, need to breathe & build an index of keys to survive by. Define survive. Now boys can decide if they are boys before they decide if they want to carry a knife & build a fort out of snow to sleep in. When I was in the other room my father told you that his father is going blind. When you tell me this at the restaurant, I love you more. I love him more. He never had another man to trust until now. Now he knows how it feels to find you.
SOAP FOR THE DOGS
My father made monthly visits to the Saigon Central Post Office where dozens of young wiry men like him stood around billowing in their idle smoke clouds & oversized white dress shirts, waiting in line for packages. It was his turn to go up to the counter, already knowing what was inside the box: a white envelope tucked in between cartons of cigarettes, a box of laundry drying sheets & a few bars of Camay soap (a brand which is now discontinued). I count on one hand stories like these. I prod for more, not understanding the pain he must feel in recalling these memories. Bars of soap were his idea of how America smelled. My version of the American smell is not too far off. Cheap hotels with ashtrays on the nightstand, white towels under the white light of the bathroom where I accidentally dropped my mother’s engagement ring down the drain. My father would save the little complimentary bars of soap & take them home. He called them soap for the dogs even though we never had dogs & he himself bathed with the soap.
Stacey Tran is a writer from Portland, OR. She curates Tender Table and her writing can be found in diaCRITICS, The Fanzine, Gramma, and The Volta. Wendy’s Subway released her first chapbook, Fake Haiku (February 2017). Her first full-length book, Soap for the Dogs, is forthcoming from Gramma (Spring 2018). www.staceytran.com