Memoir: Draft 1.6
by Agnes Tran
The first lie I remember telling happened in the bathroom of my childhood home, the bathroom that I would later find out was inhabited by the spirit of the previous owner. Blood spilled down the length of my leg in red ribbons, pooling into a puddle at my ankle on the broken bathroom tiles. In a spur-of-the-moment desire to cross the threshold into adulthood, I took my mom’s 99 Cents Store plastic pink razor and tried shaving my hairless leg. It ran across my skin cleanly for a few good glides, until a long gash also ran down the entire length of my calf.
From the view of the fluorescent light bulb on the ceiling, I watched an unproportionately tall five-year-old with waist-length black hair prop her leg up on the counter. I watched her, with fingers that seemed too clumsy, wad up a whole roll of toilet paper, douse it in the sink and clean her bloodied leg. I watched the girl, with an expression too calm, dispose of the bloodied toilet paper and wash her hands.
When the blood stopped gushing, I limped out of the restroom, made sure to wipe down the crime scene and flick off the lights.
When my mom saw the slash in my skin, I told her that I had tripped and fell onto the razor.
The second lie I remember telling feels so real that I’m not sure if it’s a lie or a misremembered memory.
My grandma’s face only comes to memory in three instances. The first is with the smell of bún, when the aroma is so rich and overwhelming that you’re hugged from all sides by her spirit in the form of dark broth and steam. The second is when I pass my reflection in the right angle, at the right speed, when my face looks less like my own and more like grandma’s. The third is almost every day when I pass my family altar and see her framed picture, when her face, my face, stares back at me through dusted glass, as if that were the only thing that separated us.
My dad tells me stories of my grandma that I can’t possibly remember but can see so clearly. She had an eccentric penchant for chihuahuas and card games. She had cravings for a specific seafood noodle booth in the heart of Saigon. She had a love for learning that broke her father’s expectations of the traditional Vietnamese woman.
All I remember about my grandmother are her large, square glasses.
She passed away when I was six after a stroke. I stood by her hospital bed with my brother and my younger cousins, the adults standing behind us like gates.
“Đi chào,” my mom murmured into my ear. Here my memory fails me.
In Vietnamese, the word for greetings and farewells is the same. Chào. Did my mom tell me to go say hello or goodbye to my grandmother?
I walked slowly to the bed, releasing my brother from the crook of my arm. My uncle, who we would never talk to again after her funeral, was grumbling in the background. For some reason, my memory of the hospital was warm. The room was bathed in a warm yellow, the same warm yellow I would see Saigon enveloped in thirteen years later. I don’t remember the smell of antiseptics, but I’m sure it was probably there.
My dad told me to hold my grandma’s hand. Her large, square glasses were off and she was asleep. A heavy jade bracelet circled her thin wrist like a cuff. Thirteen years after this day, I would return to Vietnam and my grandmother’s oldest daughter would bless me with cẩm ngọc -- jade, my namesake.
“Bà Nội cho Cô Hai mười ba năm trước,” my aunt would tell me when I was nineteen. “Nó rộng quá. Cô Hai giữ nó ở đây mười ba năm rồi.” Your grandmother gave this to me thirteen years ago. It doesn’t fit anyone so I’ve been keeping it in my dresser for thirteen years.
Thirteen years after this day in the yellow hospital room, my aunt and my mother would pull the jade band over my own hands. They would soap my left hand, squeeze my hand down until my thumb pressed against the middle of all my other fingers, and gently, but steadily, drag the spine of the stone across my skin. It would hurt, but the hands of two strong women and the weight of a stone that’s slept in the shadows for thirteen years would make it bearable. It would fit perfectly.
“Lên nước,” my aunt and mother would tell me. The water rises. The phrase referred to when jade changes color if it matched with its wearer. Thirteen years after my grandmother’s jade is buried with her, I would inspect my own and see the gloss of the stone change greens. Half of the jade was an ink green, a shade that Westerners valued in their jade. The other half was a foggy white, a shade that Vietnamese valued in their jade. I guess it was fitting for a Việt Kiều -- Vietnamese American.
Jade bands are a lifelong commitment. There’s no way to slip it off your wrist unless you break bone or jade. They’re said to only break to protect you from bad luck. My aunts have stories of their jade shattering in accidents or falls that left them unhurt, minus a small scar from where the jade broke. But I guess jade can’t protect you from the lulls of time, and I hope my grandmother’s jade is still serving her well in her next life.
But thirteen years before I would make my vow to my own jade, I would hold my grandmother’s hand and see my reflection in the foggy water of her jade. Her hand was as cold as the jade bracelet around her bony wrist and the pale green of her veins looked like the stone rivers that cut through the bone of the jade. That was the last time I can clearly remember seeing her.
The next time I saw her was a lie, hidden somewhere in the fog of a child’s grief and Target’s clothing aisles. It was within the 49 days after her death, when her spirit was probably wandering after the trail of the incense smoke we lit for her every seventh day.
After a trip to Target with my mom, I found myself in tears, as distressed as a six year old could be. I sobbed, with tears running down my cheeks and snot dripping from my nose. Even now I don’t remember what spurred this sudden combustion of tears. After a period of heavy, chest-heaving sobbing and my mom asking me why I was crying, I felt frustration bubble from the inside of my gut. A frustration too big for my six year old, gangly frame to handle.
“I saw Bà Nội today,” I said between gasps as I dry-heaved for air. My mom gave me a hard look, unconvinced and unsympathetic. To my own surprise, I continued with my story, spinning it with an extra flare. “I saw her today at Target. Mama, she was looking at me. She was standing between the clothing aisle and moved her jade hand to tell me to go with her. ”
The third lie I remember telling was not so much of a lie as it was an omission of the truth, an un-truth, but it sat in my gut wrong in the same way a lie would have. When I was about 9, plus or minus 2 years, my mom pulled me aside in the master bedroom. She told me not to tell my dad that she had sold her wedding ring.
We all slept in the same room, with my parent’s queen-sized, yellowed mattress pushed against my twin-sized mattress to make a twin-queen-sized bed. There was inevitably a gap between this makeshift bed, but my mom always made sure to stuff a few old pillows in it so that I could cleanly roll over to her in my sleep. For what we lacked in space, I counterintuitively made up with elephant plushies that lined the head of my bed.
“Cẩm Ngọc,” she began, her tone hushed and gentle in a way that was unlike her. A twinge of distress tugged at my stomach -- a premature regret for whatever I had done to get my mom to speak to me like this. My mother is a very practical woman. Even as a child, my mother spoke to me like I was an adult. When I was in first grade, she sat me down to talk about the of apologies and honor. I had told a classmate who had wronged me somehow -- something insignificant along the lines of taking my Doritos -- that I wasn’t interested in attending her birthday party or becoming her friend. My mom made me return and apologize to the girl for the harshness of my words, but not the feeling of my words. My mother has never made me apologize for my honesty. Years later, because of my absurd dedication to honesty and big mouth, I would go through this apology process again and again.
“You like to paint more than draw, right?”
Bizarre. Confused, I nodded slowly.
“Don’t tell your dad,” my mom said. I don’t know why I remember it in English when we mostly spoke Vietnamese at home. “But I sold my wedding ring.”
A feeling of dread spread through my gangly, nine-year-old frame. My parents were going to divorce! I didn’t really know what the word meant, just that the D-word was an unspoken word that I heard one of my classmates talk about. From what I gathered, it meant that my classmate’s parents argued a lot, but that my classmate got to celebrate Christmas and her birthday twice. Before I could digest my feeling of dread, it was quickly diluted with confusion.
“So don’t worry about painting or drawing, okay? Just do whichever one you like more,” my mom continued. “We have money for the art classes.”
My brother and I took one hour art lessons a week at a local studio. My brother excelled at cartoons and pastels. On the other hand, I liked to paint. I wasn’t any good at it -- would even go as far as to say that my artistic eye was blind -- but I liked the feeling of thick oil paints against canvas, liked how the textures looked if I put my nose close to the canvas, liked the smell of acrylics. The only thing about painting that I didn’t like was how the canvas would cost an extra $10 on top of the lesson’s tuitions.
“But the ring,” I began. In my memory, the ring was thick and embezzled with glinting stones. My mom rarely wore it because she used her hands too much throughout her workday.
“I can always get it back but you can’t always develop a passion.”
A decade later, my mom still tells me it’s okay and not to worry about money as long as I live an honest and honorable life. She’s told me this since I was young. I guess that’s the source of the uneasy squirm I feel in my gut when I tell a lie or tell any shaded version of the truth, like someone’s grabbed a fistful of my organs and twisted.
I still haven’t told my dad. I wonder if he ever found out. I wonder if my mom ever got her ring back. I wonder if my mom’s ring was worth it -- I haven’t picked up a paintbrush since those classes ended and I’m still a shit artist. A decade later, my tuition is in the seventy thousands, many more times the $10 canvas I had been so worried about as a 9 year old. A decade later and sometimes I can still feel the ghost of my mom’s ring around my finger and the weight of my jade band tighten and become heavy until I can barely lift my hand to write. Sometimes it doesn’t feel like it’s around my finger but around my neck, tightening, tightening, tightening until I can’t breath and I’m almost swallowed up by the cold metal of the band. But every time I feel the numbness of the ring grow colder against my skin, the veins of my jade feels warmer, as if it were just pulled on by strong and honest hands of the women in my family.