The world began three times. We all know this story.
Anyone who lived by the ocean, who suffered the summer heat and who shivered in a winter that grew longer and longer with each passing year, knows this story. We were told the story in a mixture of words that fought and bickered with each other until finally settling into an uneasy truce. But we were never the storytellers; we weren’t old enough, we didn’t know the right words or why they matter. Instead, we would listen whenever Yeiy told it.
There used to be a lot of us who listened, gathered out back on the porch, sitting cross-legged and runny nosed in front of Yeiy who would only talk to us if dinner was all cooked and the adults were eating inside and the street wasn’t too loud from the yelling and shouting of the boys who wanted to be men and who walked everywhere with a gun or a knife in their back pockets.
At school, our teachers would ask us if we were scared living where we lived, and we could only say, it’s home. Back then, we didn’t know a lot, but we knew what was and what wasn’t a secret. We knew that when a teacher who was too old or too white or too much of both cornered us at recess and spoke to us in that special, slow voice, we were to shut up and not say anything, not a word about the house next to the wat where all the grown-ups went to play cards and where all the high school kids went to get weed. Not a word about the girls who got pregnant with married men who never came to visit their kids or the grown-ups who lied about their disability so they could spend all day out on the front stoops talking and trading stories about the war and what happened before the war in voices that we thought were the kind of voices people used when they were in love.
We couldn’t stand stories like that, but we loved to hear the story of how the world began three times, back before we were born and Yeiy were young and the grown-ups, even Ma and Ba, were just scared teenagers trying to make a new life and make everything okay though they were still scared, still sad, still sleeping only hours at a time because the nightmares were so long and so dark.
Yeiy had eyes that peered into us, taking out our truths and our lies and weighing each against the other with a shake or a nod of her head. She made us want to be better than what we were because that’s the type of person she was. Out of all the people who told the story, Yeiy told it best, and the best time of year to hear her tell it was a summer evening, after dinner dishes were cleared and the adults gathered, one by one, near the door of the back porch, mouthing out the story alongside Yeiy. Once the streetlamps went on, casting a hazy glow over our bare feet, Yeiy would lean back in her chair and nod at each of us before saying, this all happened before you were born, before your parents knew anything, before I was old. You know this story, we all do, but let me tell it again before I die.
This all happened before any one of you were born. The world began on a cold spring night when the ocean drew back its tide like fingers curling into a fist to gently beat against the shore. Over in Lynn, there was an emergency at the plastic manufacturing plant, and all the workers gathered in the parking lot to watch thick furls of charcoal grey smoke funnel from the smokestacks. One worker thought it was the end of the world and reached over to hold the hand of the woman he loved, not caring if anyone saw. The smoke from Lynn drifted over the runway outside Terminal A at Logan Airport, so much so that the pilot briefly considered sending out a distress signal. But with a shift of the wind, the smoke hurled itself towards the ocean instead, and the pilot landed the plane with ease.
Among its passengers were two teenagers from back there, who escaped before the war really began. All us who lived by the ocean, who lived or died by the sun and the snow, descended from these two, who shared just one suitcase between them: Akara with her long hair in a knot at the nape of her neck and fingernails bitten all the way down to the skin, and Rith with eyes the green of banyan leaves but cheeks scattered with pock mocks.
Their first steps onto American soil were timid ones, one foot after the other or, in Akara’s case, feet sinking into the same spots where Rith’s did. They would only describe the airport by the way it sounded, all words and beeping and the soft swish of shoes against thick carpet and the hum of the televisions all around. We are Akara and Rith’s children, we are their sisters and brothers, their family, and we too felt the sudden fear when the white lady with her blonde hair grabbed Akara’s arm and said, Now, you are safe.
Next to her was a tall man wearing a hat so low that it covered his eyes, but when he smiled, his teeth gleaned white. He was the type of guy who had a smile too big for his face.
Rith did not smile back; back there, over at the camps, his teeth rotted from the inside out until, with a flick of his tongue, he pried his top three teeth from his swollen gums to tumble to the ground. Rith wondered for a moment if he smelled, and his worry was the same worry we had when the teachers at school told us to pull up our shirts when they saw the long red marks on our backs. The teachers were too old or too white or too much of both to know what tiger striping was, how drawing a quarter that was dipped in tiger balm hard across your skin was a way to cure illnesses that ranged from a cold to a menstrual cramp.
When the too big of a smile man lowered his face to inspect Rith’s scarred hands, the jagged hem of the only pair of pants that were clean enough to wear onto the plane and then the too-thin soles of his flip-flops, Rith’s disgust was the same as our disgust when we read the letter sent from school, informing Ma and Ba that a child abuse case was pending and could they please come to the school to discuss further measures. In our childhood, there was no better feeling than to rip those letters to shreds and flush them down the toilet before Ma and Ba came home from work and before Yeiy with her truth-seeking eyes saw.
Rith’s heart was a bird that wanted to fly away from the too loud, too many mouths talking all at once hub of an airport terminal, but when Akara reached out for him, the world quieted down enough for him to mumble softly to her in words that the white lady and her too big smiling husband could not understand.
It’s okay, Rith said, it’s okay and when Akara nodded back, he said, I’m here.
On the drive to the white lady’s house, there was a handprint of space between Rith and Akara. They both knew what a car was, though only Akara has been in one before the war started, and up front the man with the hat started to tell a long story about the Korean War. Rith was starting to have a headache from all the words that he didn’t understand grinding up against his ear. Akara nodded every time the white lady’s eyes met Akara’s own in the rearview mirror.
The woman had lips the color of blood, and she was saying, you’ll like it here, I promise.
At that moment, Akara did not know what the woman was saying, but she nodded anyway because the way the woman spoke, it was as if she was Akara’s mother. It’s the same kind of voice you use on children when you wanted them to believe you, even if it was a lie.
When the car switched lanes and turned onto a clear mile of road, adorned on one side by a long expanse of sand and the scent of the ocean, Akara grabbed Rith’s hand excitedly. They were driving with the windows rolled down, and suddenly the smell of salt and the crash of waves filled the car like another living thing. Looking back through the rearview mirror at their excitement, the white lady smiled so hard, the corners of her cheeks rose to meet the corner of her eyes.
Beautiful place, not as nice as the city, but this view, am I right?
And because Akara and Rith was too busy drinking in the ocean, the man with his too big smile answered instead. Of course, honey. The man in the hat nodded along, and these two will love living by the beach—it’ll remind them of Vietnam.
The white lady smiled at her husband and replied, they’re so lucky, and they don’t even know it yet.
Akara nodded again just because she knew she should, and Rith kept both of his hands, now clenched into fists, on his lap.
Whenever they were asked about that first day, Akara only replied that if she knew how, she would have said thank you. You live through what we lived through, Akara was fond of saying each time we asked her what it was like, you say thank you even to the person who killed your family and made you work the fields.
Why? we asked and Akara would stop stirring the pot of salor for just a minute to turn to us and say, Because you are alive and because you can.
We nodded along as if we understood.
We didn’t and we still don’t.
Their first night together, the white lady insisted that Rith sleep on the couch and Akara on the floor of their bedroom. Her husband with a quick wink and a tip of his hat, said he was going to sleep at his brother’s, that he couldn’t handle two beautiful women in his bedroom.
She never knew how Rith slept through that first night, but after what felt like a lifetime, Akara got up and walked outside wearing nothing but one of the white lady’s too big nightgowns. In her bare feet, she ran down the length of the back porch and down the back staircase. She stopped at the edge of the driveway, right before the backyard started, and took a deep breath. The one thing she couldn’t understand was the silence like a drum, a vacuum around her that took away even the sound of her falling on the grass and her long sigh.
They were not far from the ocean, and she smelled the salt in air. She closed her eyes and thought about her mother, who didn’t make it out of the camp, and then she thought about her sister, who did.
How long, she thought, how long.
They found her early the next morning, after an hour of frantic searching with Rith unclutching and clutching his hands into tight fists against his sides. They found her asleep in the grass, her knees curled into her chest and the scent of rain in her hair though the lawn was dry and the air, too.
The world began a second time a year after Rith and Akara got off the plane and into the car of a white lady with lips the color of blood and her husband who wore his hat so low, they never knew what color his eyes were. And though the white lady and her too big smiling husband was the reason how Rith and Akara left before the war really began, they also knew they couldn’t live in that house by the ocean for too long.
And so, even though they knew they shouldn’t, Rith and Akara moved in together, and their fate became so hopelessly intertwined within the first few nights together, alone, in a tiny three room apartment above a corner store owned by Pakistanis. If they had the word for it, they would have called it love, but instead they referred to it as veasna, a fate good and bad that can’t be escaped. After that first night, alone together, Rith fell asleep first, holding onto her hand. What existed between them was so tender and real that Akara couldn’t sleep just in case it broke during the night and left them both alone and useless.
The world began for a second time on a day that began how it always did a year after Rith and Akara left the airplane, leaving behind the war and the camps and a white lady with lips the color of blood wanted them to say thank you, thank you even though Akara didn’t know how to say it in English and Rith was too busy trying to swallow his sad anger.
After a breakfast of rice and eggs with soy sauce, Rith took Akara’s hand in between the both of his and said, like he always did, see you soon. Akara nodded, her long hair, like always, in a twist at the back of her neck.
She didn’t know what else to say and instead, dragged a chair by the front window where she spent all day sitting in front of. She would sit and wait for Rith to come back home, she would sit and wait for the sun to grow bright and then dim, wait for the two hours where they were both home before she had to get ready and wait for the truck to come pick her up so she could work at the big warehouse downtown, spending the night watching security monitors all by herself. Akara would try to convince herself she wasn’t scared by reliving those two hours over and over in her head: the dinner Rith would eat so fast that sometimes he choked, the hand holding underneath the table, the slow walk to the bed, his sudden hands clutching at her shoulders, the quick nap in his arms after.
But on the day where the world began a second time, there was a knock on the front door. It was the kind that rang throughout the apartment, a knock of demanding and of warning. By the time Akara managed to get up, the knocking was loud enough to rattle the windows and shake the glasses on the already set kitchen table.
She had to count to three, press a hand against her heart to still it and fix the hem of her hand-me-down buttoned shirt before she could open the door. In front of her stood her landlord, a former cop. He never had to tell her he was one; she just knew by the way he held his hand against his waist, the curt nod of his head and the quick, but knowing, glance around the apartment. She was thankful it wasn’t the man who wore the hat so low that she could never read his eyes, just dropping by for his “just because” visits when his wife was away.
Her landlord instead had eyes of the brightest blue, and she saw the ocean in them as he said to her, There’s a new family moving upstairs. Can you come with me, to translate?
Akara looked at him, titling her head. Translate what? she thought, how do you translate money and what’s it like not to have enough? But she nodded and said, nice and easy like Americans do, Of course, mister. No worry.
She was so used to thinking in one language and speaking in another, so used to feeling like only Rith knew what she meant, so used to nodding along and staying quiet that it never occurred to her to ask her landlord, Translate for who?
The first thing that came to Akara was the smell of salor machu, the sugar smell of pineapple steeping into a turmeric broth. The second thing that came to Akara was the slow steady pound of mortar against pestle, the thump thump thump as steady as the landlord’s footsteps behind her. The apartment was the same size but there was no chair by the window. Instead, all the chairs were pushed up against a table where three children sat, the youngest as dark as Rith while the other two had the same honeyed skin as Akara.
The children nodded at her, as if they knew Akara intimately, and one girl called out, Ming, are you hungry? Without realizing it, Akara was drawn to the table where there was a tin bowl full of bok l’hong next to a steaming pot of rice and bottles of fish sauce, cap opened and crusted over, and chili sauce. She wanted to bury her nose in the good smell of green papaya, could taste the salt of the fish sauce with each deep inhale, and in the back of her mind, in a part that she didn’t realize existed, she thought of her mother.
Her mother made the best bok l’hong in the city, and together they would wake up at dawn to toast the peanuts, shred the papaya through the box grater, gather the dried shrimp, and mash and toss it all together. Akara’s job was to package the bok l’hong in clear plastic bags and securely tie the top with a rubber band, and within the first real hour of the day, with the sun already sending rays of light to warm the streets and the bare feet of the children walking to school and the street vendors already setting shop, Akara and her mother would have already walked down the whole length of the main street, crying out for everyone to come and buy.
The sudden silence of the children’s happy chatter and their sudden, almost-against-their will glance towards the kitchen door made Akara turn her glance back to the here and now—the apartment and its current occupants.
A middle-aged woman, the age Akara’s mother would have been if she survived the labor camp, limped her way over the threshold of the kitchen to enter the dining room. Akara had to bite back her lip and lower her glance before the woman paused before her.
And the woman spoke in the same formal tone with the same proper words of an elder addressing a child.
We’re all coming. Akara saw, in the lower corner of the woman’s eyes, tears that built slowly with each word.
The woman nodded and continued, Those who can anyway.
Between them, the slightest bit of hope, like the scattering of searchlights from American airplanes, like the reflection of sunlight on puddles of napalm and sewer water, hung suspended. The woman had eyes like Akara’s mother, eyes that saw too much before her time. Akara began to wept, first silently, inside a bit of heart she thought died a long time ago, and then with real tears, loud and angry.
When we were little, we all used to stare when we saw people hugging. Our people just don’t do that—instead a playful kick to the shins or a quick pinch to the arm—was how we learned what affection between a parent and a child was. But the woman gathered Akara in her arms anyway, and in this gesture that was at once so foreign and so warm, Akara closed her eyes and thought of her mother, of her cousin, of her grade school teacher.
It’s okay, the woman was muttering as her children looked on, unabashedly staring and trying to understand why their mother was suddenly hugging a stranger. But I’m not, Akara wanted to say as she leaned into the woman’s arms, tears flowing fast, I’ve lived your story, I did.
And when the woman let her go, after a moment’s awkward pause and a quick apology, Akara felt the ground under her giving way, a light-headed exhilaration of thought and acceptance before she suddenly crumpled to the ground, one hand still wrapped tightly around the woman’s hand.
That night, between the sheets and huddled against a sudden nighttime chill, Akara spoke in whispers to Rith all about what the woman said. She wanted to say her sister’s name, but it was the kind of hope that she knew would vanished if she gave it words. Rith held her hand and squeezed her fingers tightly as if to say, yes, he knew, yes, he understood.
They knew that the loneliness that stalked the peripherals of their happy life was going to die, and in its place were more apartments where the words were the same as the ones Rith and Akara whispered in each other’s ears, spoken by more families who crushed roasted peanuts into green papaya and lit incense for the proper, real New Year. And there would be children, children who ran and jumped all around, up and down the halls until the silence that almost consumed Akara’s life would disappear, leaving no trace it was ever there.
The world began a second time with a family that moved into an apartment above Akara’s. Afterwards, she no longer dragged her chair to the window. Instead, she spent the days with the woman upstairs and her children, preparing and cooking for the ones who continued to come, from the sea, suddenly appearing and taking up the space where the silence and the dark used to be.
And when she met them, at the break of dawn at the airport or over a dinner table, she said the same thing, every time.
Hello, Bong. It’s going to be okay.
The third time the world began was a few years later. It began the same way the first two times did. Low tide with the smell of the seaweed everywhere and the salt stinging Akara’s bare feet as she took an early morning walk. Her stomach was big, her lower back aching from the extra weight, but it was good to let her baby get used to the sound of the waves against the sand.
On the way back to the apartment, Akara passed the grocer’s stacked high with fish sauce bottles and tiger balm. She waved to the owner of the video store who was sweeping the sidewalk with an old wooden broom. From the propped open door, Akara could hear the click and whirl of the VCR recording dubbed lakorns onto tapes for rental. At the other corner store, she stopped to buy chicken legs, already planning out dinner: white rice, green mangoes shaved and tossed with chili and lime, and chicken stir fried with lemongrass. They were all the things her mother used to love eating.
Akara stopped to take one moment to stare at her apartment, at the children playing tag and chasing each other in front of the corner store. They stopped in the middle of running, a sudden freezing of limbs and breath, to wave to Akara.
It took her a while to climb up the stairs to her apartment. With each step, her flip flops creaked back in the still air. She was breathing heavily by the time she reached her front door.
Though the door was open, Akara knocked anyway.
The world owes us, Rith once told her, before they got married, before the baby came, before the whole street was filled with families and children who looked and spoke like they did. And everyone knows it.
Before, Akara didn’t know what Rith meant. But when she walked into her living room and saw the girl, now almost fully grown, with long hair to the small of her back, sitting on the couch, Akara could feel the world leaning in around her.
The girl got up, and Akara saw for the first time that in the years between them, she grew up to almost Akara’s height.
The world began a third time when Akara bit the back of her hand so hard, she felt blood inside her cheeks.
P’ohn srei. P’ohn srei. Akara cried.
And her sister held onto her hands and said, Yes. Yes. Yes.
We didn’t understand the how or the when.
We don’t understand hope, either, because by the time Akara’s baby came, the war and the camps and everything that happened there became like the streaks of salt left behind by the sea, reminders of a storm we only kind of witnessed.
But what we did understand, way down deep, past the parts of us filled with TV and video games, stupid school drama, and the teachers who never tried to get to know us, that Yeiy grew younger each time she told the story how the world began. At least, how the world began for us and everyone else living by the sea, in the shadows of the race track, in a part of town the tourists never visits. We would listen to this story, and we would look at Yeiy and our parents and know what they survived. We would be grateful and, most of all, humbled in their presence.
This was before everything changed.
This was before the story got old, before the words gave up trying to exist side by side and let English win, before the grown-ups were too tired to sit outside with us after dinner was done just so they too could listen, before Yeiy died and left behind a quiet kitchen, a crying sink, a stove that refused to work right.
This was before families fought over stupid things like money and pride, accents and embarrassment. This was before everyone who grew up and ran away from the little part of town by the sea in the shadows of the race track where tourists now visit to get their weed and dope. This was before the giggling, laughing girls with the soft eyes and long hair took walks with men into dark alleys and long car rides, forgetting their little sisters behind. This was before the street boys who thought they were men grew old and bitter and then sad from killing each other.
This was before we thought we were better than the story itself.
For just a few years, before everything changed and the story couldn’t save us anymore, before Yeiy died and left behind a hole that was too big to fix, we could close our eyes and feel, in every part of ourselves, how the world owes us and that one day, somehow, the world will pay us back and make everything okay.