It’s funny: life seems to cradle its inhabitants to the very precipice of ‘goodbye’ without allowing them to cry. Its counterpart, time, will methodically crawl closer to the dreaded moment—’goodbye’—but it lacks the power and decency to inform humans of what is to come. These humans will remain wondering if the feelings they feel are truly what ‘goodbye’ ought to feel like. They question if the faint tinges of sadness—whatever frail flakes of humanity they allow themselves to feel—will be the length of their woe. They question if their eyes—longsufferers of a dry spell—will continue crusty, free from a bath. But with steaming anticipation—before continuing on for the remainder of its terribly long, eventful life—time reaches ‘goodbye’. And with reeling, combustible force, the moment arrives with triumph.
We forgot about heartstrings until they are wrenched painfully. We forgot that drought of the eyes is always temporary; none are capable of keeping the brawniest tears at bay. No, they gleefully squirm out of our eyes like newborn tadpoles, thirsting for air after a lifetime of suffocation. And the moment’s magical punchline is a mysterious weight that chains itself to the throat, heart and stomach, and plummets deep into a realm we forgot existed: ‘goodbye.’ Those faint tinges, the mild dryness of mouth or questionable thoughts—all of that isn’t what ‘goodbye’ actually feels like. Diều đó thật buồn cười.
What is humorous to some can be painful awakening to others. Danh considered a few of these odd realities while gripping her tightly. It’s funny: they roared in argument last night over conflicting futures, their taxi remained ghost-quiet as it whisked through crisp airport roads, and they rushed to get her checked in and prepared to fly—all the while avoiding the unavoidable: goodbye. In its usual, calculated fashion, time collapsed tiredly into ‘goodbye’ and droves of emotion overtook Danh. Of course, she was sad too—but not as sad as he. And he knew, which only served to darken his melancholy. He buried his wet face in the hood of her jacket and shook quietly as she whispered sweet things into his ear—like caramel. And with a mouth stuffed full of faux fur, he murmured in muffled promise: “I’ll miss you.”
“We can do this,” she breathed.
“I can’t. I know we–but I can’t.”
“We have to.” Danh raised his face, eyes reddened with retreating water, and smiled hopefully. It was frail hope, he knew. There is life, there is time, and there is a third: chance. But Danh was of the breed that chance always seemed to despise—it’s a racist bastard, chance. Her eyes twinkled back before she lifted her bag and walked to the escalator. Ending sniffles, an irritable eye-rub and a few sharp sighs later, Danh knew it was time to leave. He took the long bus route home and watched glimpses of the sunrise betwixt thick, lethargic clouds that yawned across the expanse.
It’s funny; by which criteria do we select which shreds of our colorful, complex humanity to deem non-negotiable? When the boat people arrived, pale with portruding ribs on the muddy shores of Camp Pendleton, they brought with them a treasure trove of non-negotiable humanity. They unveiled gems: non-negotiables that soak and permeate water to evoke ancient flavor, that are ground and burned into penetrating aromas, that are draped over her shoulders with insurmountable allure. When we gather, we decide which threads on our collective tapestry are non-negotiable. It is like constructing a vehicle of sorts—one that is often defined as culture. It is simple like boiled beef and complex like conflict communication; it is intrinsic like privelege and marginal like preference.
“Bánh Xèo! Cơm Tấm Sườn Nướng! Rau Muồng Xào Tỏi!” Steel clanged against cast iron and smoke selfishly crowded the kitchen space; the sweet scent of scallions and stronger smells of salted fish socialized near the ceiling. Burbling oil rustled between bouts of the cooks’ incessant squealing and the noisy dancing of boiling water. Danh had hardly stepped into the kitchen before an apron was thrust in his face and he was told to start working. The air tasted busy.
“Danh, Hien and Huynh are working double-time! Vội, vội, get on the next order!”
Sorrow is so palpable and smoky that you can actually taste it—it’s funny. Danh resolutely gulped it deep into his throat, tied his apron and grabbed the scribbled order on the steel counter.
Cơm tấm bì chả thịt nướng — 1 order, #9
This is a non-negotiable. For Danh, a glimpse of his wrinkly grandmother hunched over a hot stovetop. For his grandmother, a lifetime in gritty, bustling Danang. And for the customer? A formidable legacy, a bristling authenticity that cannot be bought with dollars. Maybe đồng.
It’s funny—disquieting emotions always seem most riveting to an individual’s homeostasis. Sorrow need only rumor a thought or two before its victim will let it rise, with thorns flaunted, from that deep place in his throat. Danh’s hands willfully thrust themselves into minced garlic, chopped onions, sesame oil and golden honey. She’s ended orientation week by now, she’s likely been too busy to respond. She probably developed some new friendships already though—it’s funny, she’s always been good at that sort of thing. A soft smile appeared as he mixed, tossing in pinches of five spice, sugar, pepper and fish sauce. One week—I wonder if she’s been thinking of me. I—I wonder, well, what if a week itself is too generous an assumption, if instead someone else occupies her mind? She’s hard to read, even thousands of miles away. Then the ribs—roaring red and drenched in orange juice.
Danh pressed them against the blackened grill, one by one. I am, I miss her. I miss the nights laying beside her, gently tickling the small of her back and sending her into a giggling fit. The red writhed in pain, seared with an amber carmelization as he flipped them. The fat, popping and sizzling, dispersed like shrapnel against the slicing flame. It speckled Danh’s shirt. Damn, I’m wearing her shirt too. He rolled the eggs in the pan as they fluffed up, fighting to escape the heat. I don’t blame her, I don’t think—what have I given her to remember me as? An emotional screw-up? A codependent mouthbreather? The eggs expanded like hot air balloons, puffing to warn of their underbelly’s death. Some tears dropped and sizzled on the pan as Danh stared at the egg. Life has that awful habit of cradling its participants to varying emotions, thoughts and experiences—without warning them to breathe. And when Danh cried, he breathed. He lived. Tears flew more readily. Of all times… I’m at work right now! Danh noticed Hien glancing at him concernedly while emptying a pot of hot water. Attempting a deep breath to suck back his tears, he inhaled smoke from some laughing spices nearby and begun a coughing fit. He even cried more from the smoke! That’s it, I’m finished. It’s finished.
Garnishing the plate, Danh walked it out while the few others fervently kept the kitchen operating like Atlas carrying the world. The gentle breeze of the window-side fan provided a welcome retreat from the kitchen. Danh glanced for #9. And seated on the worn window seat, with #9 brilliantly emblazoned on the white table piece before her, was his grandmother. She grinned, her cheeks crumpling warmly with the beauty of a thousand long, dark dimples.
“Bà nội, why are you here?”
“Bạn ăn, cháu trai,” she sternly stated, pushing the plate towards him. Danh looked over his shoulder, looked forward and sighed deeply. He gently lowered himself into the seat with fragility—like an elderly man who has lived through great pain. His eyes stared at the dish, tired. Cơm tấm bì chả thịt nướng was the thread his grandmother had chosen on the shores of Camp Pendleton to be non-negotiable. And it was a wise decision. As Danh’s eyes darted from rice, to egg, to ribs, to fish sauce, they began to moisten. The thread went beyond the restaurant menu and even deeper than his stomach. It was weaved with intention into his heart, his soul. Warm, salty tears began coating the steamy rice. He glanced up and met his grandmother’s eyes. She widened them, glossy and satinlike, and nodded down to the food. He remembered her hunched over the hot stove, murmuring about how he ought to eat more and study harder. He remembered visiting her in Little Saigon during vacation and happily scarfing down the dish every afternoon of the summer. He realized he was considered, valued and accepted every time she prepared this dish. No matter dirty knees from schoolyard roughhousing or fresh acne from midterm stress, her words to him were always the same: “Bạn ăn, cháu trai.” More than an emotional screw-up and codependent mouthbreather; Danh was loved.
Life, time and chance all can only go so far before love laughably demolishes them—it’s funny.
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