When he finds her, he didn’t expect it to be like this. He didn’t think he’d find his Kim, on her knees, scrubbing clothes with water so grey-brown it’s a miracle anything is going to be cleaned.
“Come with me,” he says, half-expecting her to screech and shriek and refuse to go like a mad-woman, like the last time he saw her. But she only looks at him with dull, dead eyes, cheeks hollowed by hunger, and nods.
He didn’t expect it to be that easy, and part of him is wishing for the gap-toothed girl filled up with dreams that she used to be, for the girl teetering on the edge of beautiful who’d work like there was no tomorrow in the fields and then sit around his family’s fire with his brothers and sisters and tell stories late into the deep, star-scattered night. He knows it’s not going to happen, though, that they can never, ever go back. The war has changed everyone.
She goes with him to Hanoi, sitting and staring out of the window of the car that purrs gently beneath them. He keeps his distance, and for that, she’s grateful.
The house in Hanoi is the sort of delightful that she used to dream about as a child, all white terrace and arching columns like the long, graceful necks of swans. She stands in the hallway, staring, feeling the dirt under her fingernails and the stares of the five servants gathered on the sweeping staircase. Thuy really has risen in the world, she thinks.
He appears, then, almost silently at her elbow. “Come, I’ll show you around.” His tone is cordial, polite, but she knows that he’s been irritated by her silence during their journey north, by the way she refuses to look him in the eyes.
There’s seven bedrooms – ours, he says, several for any children, some for entertaining important guests who sometimes drop by, bathrooms to match – a bathroom, an actual real room for the purpose of taking baths, just like the ones Chris told her about…no, no, no. A formal dining room and a sitting room on the first floor, the kitchens downstairs for which they have a cook, though Kim is very welcome to make use of if she feels like it.
Thuy leaves her in the largest bedroom, the one that will be theirs the minute they get married, and she sinks down onto the floor, burying her face in the fabric of her borrowed dress and crying for a life she lost long ago.
The wedding ceremony is quiet and private, the incense, the ancestral blessing, and the wedding song, and Kim has to bite down hard on her rouged lips to keep from crying at the memory of Chris’ hand in hers, of the happy bewilderment in his eyes as the girls, her sudden, new-found friends sang, and the way he kissed her, as though she was the most precious thing in seven continents and seven seas.
It’s not blue eyes that meet hers through the haze of smoke, but dark. She thinks about what would happen if Chris burst in now, the way Thuy had after her first wedding ceremony, but stops the thought before it can get any more hopeful. That will never happen. Chris is in America. Chris has forgotten about her. It’s time she should forget about him.
(But she knows that’s never going to happen. She will carry him with her for the rest of her days.)
That night, when she and Thuy retire to their bedroom after eating dinner and talking to their select guests, she’s braced herself for the worst, tensed her muscles and chewed the inside of her mouth raw, but it’s not as bad as she fears. He’s not gentle, but he’s not cruel either and afterwards, when he winds his arms around her waist and buries his face in her hair, she finds herself settling against him, relaxing, comforted by another warm presence in the bed next to her.
Slowly, she learns how to come back to life, how to wake up and greet Thuy in the mornings with a smile, how to chatter frivolously with the wives of other important officials about silks and servants and children, how to be Thuy’s confidante when he returns home angry about a decision that didn’t go his way, how to order a household, to be a beloved presence on the streets as the young, beautiful wife of an influential man who always has coins in her pocket and a listening ear.
But that’s all she is. Some nights, when Thuy is asleep, she still lies there and feels empty, cold, broken because although this should have meant all of her silly childhood fancies coming true, all she can think about sometimes is Chris, and what if he’s still in America waiting for her, what about, what about...mustn’t think about that Kim, you can’t.
She doesn’t think she’ll ever feel full again.
“I’m to go to Ho Chi Minh City,” Thuy says one evening, when the sky is turning dark and birds chatter restlessly in the trees. She looks up from the book she’s been reading.
“Any particular reason?”
“Getting rid of more Bui Doi,” he says, somehow managing to make those last two words sound like they are the very scum of the earth.
Kim feels her heart stop in her chest. “What?”
He gives her an exasperated look. “The children our women bore the American scum. Surely I’ve told you about them before?”
“What do you mean, getting rid of?”
“Depends. Shoot a few, send the rest off to farms to pay us back for all the hurts their fathers caused.”
A lump builds up in Kim’s throat, but she manages to force the words out. “What? Thuy, they’re children! They’re not to blame for what their fathers did!”
“Why are you taking their side?”
Kim looks away. She can barely breath, his words are ringing in her ears. “Kim?” he says. And then, “Is it something to do with that American jack that I found with you the first time?” His tone is ugly.
She can’t think of a reply. Suddenly, Thuy’s hands are gripping hers, his nails digging into the soft skin of the backs of her hands, and he’s forcing her to look at him, to see the fury rising to the surface of his eyes like a serpent.
“Yes,” she whispers, because what else can she do?
“I think it’s time you tell me the truth about that, wife.”
There’s a hopeless kind of anger curling in the pit of her stomach, running rampant through her veins. “I don’t have to tell you anything, husband!” she spits.
“I’m asking you, Kim, what happened?” His voice is dangerously soft.
She shakes her head. His nails scratch deeper into her hands, and she can feel the burn of tears behind her eyes. “You don’t know how it was, after my parents died! I was so scared, and you weren’t there, you’d gone and left for the other side, not caring if I was going to be killed or…or raped by the next soldiers that came by the village, and so I went, I walked to Saigon and tried to find my sister, but she wasn’t there but Chris was and he was so different to everyone else, he was sick of the war and so kind to me, and I just…I fell in love with him, he was going to take me away to America and away from all this fear!”
“And he abandoned you, Kim! You shouldn’t have believed him, you…did you let him…”
“Of course! We were married!”
He wrenches away, cursing, storms to the other side of the room. She curls deeper into her chair, dashing away the tears that trickle down her cheeks.
“And what else happened, before I found you?”
She’s crying, crying and crying and crying, then, wishing that he would stop shouting and hold her like he does sometimes in a rare moment of tenderness, feeling the memories that she’d so adeptly locked away somewhere deep inside of her come bubbling to the tip of her tongue. She takes in a ragged breath.
“I had a child. A son. Tam.” She says his name like a prayer.
“Where is he now?”
She pulls herself out of her chair. “He died, Thuy, that’s what I’ve been hiding from you. My baby died! Gods, I hope you’re happy now!”
And then she runs to their bedroom, locking the door behind her and weeping, curled up on the bed until her heart feels as though it’s been ripped into tiny little shreds and burned into ashes.
She doesn’t see Thuy in the morning, just drifts around the house like a ghost until Lien, a friend of a friend appears with flowers and the latest gossip. Kim can barely bring herself to care.
“What’s the matter, dear?” she asks, leaning over to clasp Kim’s cold hands.
“Are you fighting with your husband?”
“How did you guess?” Kim laughs bitterly.
“I was once newly married, too. You take a few years to settle into yourselves, don’t worry. He’ll forgive you soon enough.”
“That’s the thing, though,” Kim says, almost to herself. “I don’t think he will.”
Thuy returns after a week, walking in through the door to their room completely unannounced. Kim is perched on the edge of the bed, staring at her fingers, waiting for him to tell her about the divorce, to order her out onto the street, but all he does is stand there. She looks up. There’s a bloodstain on his collar and a wild, haunted look that doesn’t sit well on his face.
“Thuy?” she ventures.
“Don’t say anything,” he says sharply. Then, softer, “please. Just come here.”
She steps into his outstretched arms, feels him exhale as he rests his cheek on top of her head. There’s silence, but for the drumming of their hearts and the noises of people out in the street.
He starts to speak. “There were so many of them. All of these children, some so little, only two or three years old, all with no fathers and mothers who’d been taken away to re-education or shot, and Gods, Kim, I saw all of these dark eyes looking up at me as the soldiers carried out their orders and all I could think about was a little boy with your eyes and your smile, and I couldn’t stand it, I just couldn’t.”
“Did you make them stop?”
“As much as I could. I have to follow orders too. I’m sorry.”
“I forgive you.”
His arms tighten around her. She can barely move, can only feel the coarseness of his uniform scratching against her forehead, but it doesn’t stop her hearing the soft, “I forgive you, too.”