The First Part

Every time a month was about to end, I kinda got an inkling that something bad was about to happen. Or as my aunt had put it, “an ominous feeling that your number is up”. I’d get really insecure; and my whole system would spark a defense mechanism so sensitive I could burst into flames upon the slightest infraction. That, I was pretty sure, bore no chemical connections to my body and the moon, but it was frequent enough and annoying enough. Sometimes, it felt as if someone was trying to poke the end of my nerves with a blunt knife; as if I was made of shards of fiber-thin glass that shook to crumbles under the finest pressure.  Andrew casually jokes that I must be following the monsoon cycle of some tropical country in Asia, since I was born in a tropical country in Asia.

Three or two days later, I was returned to normalcy often exhausted and beaten.

When the mid-July sun was no longer blazing across our apartment complex and the sky turned grey and stormy at 3 PM in the afternoon, I knew my time was up. Today was approximately four weeks away from the last time that intense sense of anxiety had taken over me. On that day, I was sitting in an Asian bakery/ cafe shop when a rolling shiver thread through the bare of my back and into my spine.  I felt woozy and suddenly nervous about my Dad. I didn’t know he was going through a surgery at that very same day and thought I just wanted to hear his voice badly. I didn’t understand exactly where this boiling urgency had just come from, like I had to talk to him immediately.

I called. I messaged. I buzzed all the contacts within my family. Of course it was mid-night there and it took my Mom nine hours later to tell me that  the surgery had finished and he was o.k. The wait almost smothered me.

But I was still wondering what this omen meant for this time. I had been restless for one whole day and up until mid-night, thoughts were running wild in my head. I remembered Andrew’s hopeless look before he went to bed. “How about lying down?”- he said, looking as if he knew something was eating inside me. He stroke the soft hair on my forehead. “Don’t worry, I bolted the door, chained it and bolted the chain with the extra locks we bought.” He assured me.

“Did you draw down the curtains?”  I asked and he softly nodded. We always drew down the curtain upstairs and in case someone’d try to break in our apartment, we always turned on the light to make it look like we were awake. To always feel conscious, even if it was the sort of consciousness that blinded and numbed the brain. This was a strange place after all. A different culture. A different way of thinking.

While Andrew’s slow breath melted into the night, I felt the hours slipping away with my head deep in doubts and thoughts, trying to find something to be anxious about. I thought of getting out of this place, of the lease and of the grim-faced apartment lady who’d threatened me not to break it. “It’s probably that you didn’t lock your door. No we don’t call the lease off because of break-ins. Yes you’ll have to pay for penalty. Three month rents. It’s in your contract. I know people who just leave get their credit scores screwed. And I mean it!” I didn’t even try to stop her.  I thought of the mortgage and of the house we wanted to take and how my non-profit aspirations could live up to it. I knew of the many years I’d moved to live here and thrive here, my sole purpose should be stability and status and enjoyment of them both. And I felt bad I wasn’t spending time earning and enjoying them as much as I was “caring about the well-being of random people”.

I thought of that girl whom I interviewed and who soon would be my colleague. I thought about what it meant to her to be my colleague. Working for a job like this, it was hard enough to be qualified, much harder for the people who doubted they’ll ever be. The interview lasted for the standard an-hour-and-a-half but something about the glossy curl of her lips, the shadows of her eyes and the impatience beaming from behind them had me feel like I was filled with holes several days afterward. I knew she would be on my committee and I thought about how to communicate with her without feeling as if I was looking down a steep valley. Would she push me over the edge? What would I do?

I thought of my Dad and the nameless disease he’d lived with for the many years I’d been away. I spoke with him after his surgery. A day or two ago when a gunfire blasted through the complex. A loud bang flitted through the gap on my barely open windows. “Fireworks” I said. “It’s America’s Independence Day”. I could see his vague stare on the computer screen, wasn’t sure if he’d grasped my words. But I’d stopped expecting him to know what I meant behind them, and I’d stopped responding more than I should to a question he asked. It was like speaking with a person from the other end of a bridge while being handcuffed.  You had to read their blurry expressions. You had rather reached your voice over and be precise and clear with less words but it was tiring either ways.

Away from him, six years it had been since the day I’d asked whether I should be an architect or pursue banking. Many years it had been since I was small enough to ride around the city at the back of his cackling bicycle. “So small. When you were born you were so small I could fit you in the palms of my hands.” He would say as I was sitting across from him and my Mom in our tiny house west of the Saigon river. Six years old I was and never had I the slightest doubt about the golden sunshine trapped in shapeless patches on our front veranda. Even when there wasn’t a sound but the innocent smell of wax apples. When the flood season came, he’d wait for me at the school gate in an embarrassingly yellow raincoat. The monsoon rain was pouring down his face, dampened his darkened eyes. So many years it had been since then. So many mistakes it had been and I had never really come back.

——-

I gasped, realizing I’d slept for quite awhile. My heart was beating loud and fast. I glanced at the stairs leading to our second-floor bedroom and waited for a shadow to flit across the open at the stair top. Upon expanse of the side wall, the extended dark shades of the furniture danced like monstrous black fingers. I squinted and held my breath. Something had slid under the air and worn it like a cloak. Something made a sharp swish and soon vanished. I reached for the gun.

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