September Lit: "the ear of the sky" by Kimarlee Nguyen

September 9, 2014

Image by plochingen via Flickr

 Kimarlee Nguyen's short story, the ear of the sky, is the story of a young Cambodian refugee surviving in America. It is suffused with silence, snow, and melancholy, offering a glimpse into the inner world of a woman who doesn't allow herself to voice her complicated dreams out loud.

--Karissa Chen, Fiction & Poetry Editor 


the ear of the sky

I wake up to snow. I know this before I even open my eyes. There’s hissing from the heater but still, the wind finds its way in from the corners of the window. When I sit up, he’s already awake and sitting on the far edge of my bed. His broad shoulders cast a shadow on the empty wall.

Across the room, on the bed closest to the door, Theda hugs herself into a tightly wound ball underneath her red blanket. When Theda is like that, curling her five foot body in on itself, it’s easy to imagine her young, like someone’s daughter but her long hair is streaked through with white.

Over the heater and the uneven toll of his breathing, she mutters mantras. When I first came here, I thought no one would keep up the old words, not after all that happened. But Theda did and still does to this day. Underneath the blanket, bouncing off the window, her words crawl up my arm and circle his bowed head. She speaks in Pali, the old language. I can’t follow along, but the words bring with them the heat of summer, the smell of incense and the saffron robes the monks wore, all gathered in a line.

He sniffles once, twice; I think he’s crying and I am momentarily touched. His back is laced with red pimples, the only part of his body that’s marked in any way. Even the back of his hands and legs are hairless, smoother than smooth, and when he turns to look at me, the corners of his blue eyes are tinged red.

His voice is lower than any other man’s voice I’ve ever heard and it sends shivers up my body. Over Theda’s words and the heater that’s now spurting water, he takes a handful of my hair and says, Better hurry up before you’re late for work.

He tugs at the ends and smiles, his teeth too large and too yellow and too crowded together in his mouth. He knows me well enough by now not to lift the bed sheet until I can pull my sarong straight on my hips and fix my shirt. Even though it’s still the half-dark before a proper sunrise, even though Theda faces the opposite wall, I’m still embarrassed.

When he reaches for me, I smell the soap on his hands. A year now and his hands never smell like anything else. He places a heavy hand on the back of my neck and pulls me to him. His mouth’s quick and hungry to bite my own. I try to relax into it, the way all the women do on the lakorns Theda and I watch while eating dinner, but I’m unbending, my back a straight line even as he runs his hands up my shirt to touch my breasts. He pulls lightly on my nipples and smiles down into my face. When he finally lets me go and gets up from the bed, the fitted sheet lifts up from the corners and spring back to the center of the mattress. He stumbles a bit in the darkness. I can feel the cold ripple and bend around his bare shoulders.

As I watch him dress, I swing my feet over the side of the bed to the floor, my feet stinging the moment I hit the cold wood. He pulls on his jeans first, one leg at a time and I can see that overnight, the denim grew stiff with cold. I’m shaking with nothing on but my sarong and an old, long-sleeved T-shirt of his that he playfully gave me the first night we slept together.

He said, Over here, it’s how we men show that we like you. He laughed but I was shivering back then and that was when he climbed all over me, putting his lips to my neck, my breasts, my hips. I was shivering then and I’m shivering now.

You have to tell the landlord to turn on the heat, he says.

He pulls on a button-down shirt stained with coffee and then a fleece sweater. It’s the law, he adds as he gets up, looking for his shoes. He always sleeps with his socks on, spends the whole night running his feet up and down my legs until I start to get itchy but even then, I don’t move. I stay lying on my back and staring at the ceiling, only wrapping my hands around him when he nudges me in his sleep.

Now he’s awake and unfolding, taller than me, than Theda, so tall his head almost hits the dangling light bulb. He picks up his jacket, pockets heavy with unknown things, and the chair topples over. He tries to catch it before it crashes to the floor but he moves too slow and the sound echoes violently around the room. Theda can’t help it; she flinches and the red blanket slips off her head. Her hair falls across the bed, long and thick, a liquid silk against the old brown sheets. I watch his eyes travel the length of her spilled hair all the way to the top of her head.

He shakes his head. You okay over there?

His voice booms and his jacket crinkle itself to fit against his bent elbows. When Theda says nothing, he shakes his head again and smiles at me. His teeth look like something good to eat, corn maybe, sweet in my mouth. He pulls on his shoes without tying the laces and grabs his wallet, gloves and hat from my side of the dresser in one long gesture. I stand next to him, the cold wrapping around my legs underneath the sarong. I smell his soap scent that drifts from underneath his nails and the center of his palms.

He suddenly turns and pulls me to him. His beard scratches my face, opens up the small cut near my mouth. I take in his breath, his tongue flickers against the side of my cheek and then, he closes the door behind him. He stomps, heavy and slow, down the stairs and out the door.

Don’t, Theda says but I do it anyway. I watch him sweep snow off the windshield of his car, I know his jacket isn’t warm enough for the winter and he’s not really all that tall when standing in all that white. I watch him climb into the car and turn on the radio, probably to that station that plays all rock music, the same station we listened to the first time I took a ride with him and the drums and the guitars blasted through the one good speaker, shaking everything from my feet up to the middle of my legs.

He honks the car twice and waves. I don’t wave back but I watch him drive off, navigating the snow the way all Bostonians know how to and I keep watching even when the new snow covers all of his footsteps. I keep watching out the window even when the smell of him, the soap and the sweat, disappear. It’s still dark out and the bottom right corner of the window has a curl of ice.

When Theda starts to pray again, I say too loud, Not today, please.

She doesn’t say anything else and we stay that way, her; just a quiet curled ball on the bed and me, standing by the window. I watch the grey sky crack with the first weak peak of light and then, I turn to get ready for work.

 

I always forget how to speak when I get to work. At home or with him, I stumble my way through the words and their order. When we first came to this country, Theda and I couldn’t sleep. We both blamed it on the heat. But even after that first summer turned into our first Boston winter and the war back home was over, we still couldn’t sleep. So much on our minds.

We told each other it was too cold and on the longest nights when the dark was a thing we felt on our bodies and sat on our heads, Theda and I would lie on our backs wrapped in blankets and throw words into the air. The words would hang over our heads until one of us plucked a word from the air and tried to build something that we could say on the train to work or in line at the grocery store. We mimicked everything, the hard syllables of the men that worked the fruit and vegetable stalls down at Haymarket, the rolling sounds of the women that owned the houses Theda cleaned and the high-pitched teasing of the neighborhood kids.

One time, the sentence Theda said was, They love and grow together many days. She then translated, They will grow up and never leave and then they’ll marry each other and their children will play together.

I was quiet that night, thinking of him.

What about us?, I finally said, What would we be doing?

Nothing. We won’t even grow old. Nothing will happen to us.

She then said in English, You understand very much?

 

I usually forget how to speak on the walk to Wonderland Station. The train’s warm and I’m sweating through my too large jacket, my navy blue uniform shirt and the two sweaters I wear underneath. On the last patch of sidewalk before I enter Wonderland, I saw two pigeons frozen to the asphalt, their grey and green wings plastered together as if at any moment, they could fly away.

When the train doors groan open at Wood Island, I rise from my seat in the corner and think again about those birds. The ruffle on my jacket’s hood brushes up against my face as I walk into the snow and wind. Bits of ice shatter against my skin and words freeze and stick against my throat. I turn into the other silent me during the five block walk, head bowed against the still falling snow. By the time I walk into Sky Chief, the other me is wiping away the melting snow that drips from my eyebrows and feels the pricking of my arms and legs as they slowly begin to react to the warm kitchens.

A plane takes off from the airport next to us and the stacked dishes bounce uncontrollably for the few seconds it takes for the plane to fly on by. It‘s dangerous, I think as I run my tongue lightly over my cracking lips, to be so quiet. I think this same thought all the time but even when Mr. Hogan yells for me to start working, and Jim, the manager, winks at me and pats my butt as I walk by, the words won’t unfreeze themselves.

Think of him, think of his soap hands and sweaty forehead against mine, whispering about a new house, a new car, a new everything and I make it to the women’s locker room. Pam, who is nice, and her sister Suzette, who is not, are already there, clocking in and talking to each other in loud voices over the steam and hiss of the radiators and exhaust pipes.

Nary?

Pam stops to look at me, her red-tinged eyes running over me, top of my head to the soles of my worn-out Reeboks, You okay, hun?

She speaks slower than slow but it’s enough for me to adorn myself with her words. I string them into a necklace I wear with the word Okay above where my heart should be.

One word unfreezes itself from my throat and slips out of my mouth. Yes, I say, yes. The S circles around and around the locker room. I start blushing but Pam nods again, shaking her blonde hair into her face.

You look so tired, hun.

Yes, and then I manage to say, Okay.

Good, she turns to her sister who mimics a gagging motion as if I can’t see over Pam’s puff of hair. They walk out together. Alone in the locker room with my jacket in my hands, I repeat, Okay. Okay. Okay.

Her words weigh against my skin but I don’t stop saying Okay underneath my breath. I say okay, okay as I load up the plastic crates with dirty cups and forks with half-eaten bites of food and drag them, two at a time to the washing machine. Okay, I say as the dishwasher pulses to life, spitting up water and steam into the already bustling kitchen. The dishwasher I use is leaking water. It’s been like that for the past three months but I don’t like going to Jim in his small office way in the back, next to the loading docks where no one else can see. On the radio, someone is saying that the weather is going to get a lot worse before it gets better.

Work is hard but easy. I scrape off bits of food and throw away used teabags, dislodge napkins from the inside of tall glass cups and load everything up to take to the dishwasher. Five hours into my shift, my lower back is throbbing and my eyes sting from the chemical steam but I keep working through my lunch, muttering Okay, okay, okay.

When another plane takes off, the whole building shakes; my teeth do too. Jim breathes down my neck when he tells me about my new shift.

You’re working night starting next week, sweetie. He has dirt under his nails and takes a long time to say each word, his breath like a finger crawling down my spine.          

With me, he adds and then smiles.

Okay.

When he turns to leave, I let go of the fork I’m holding behind my back. It falls back on the crate of dirty dishes, a crash that makes me flinch. No one else hears a thing. The dishwashers leak steam and smoke into the kitchens and the pipes gurgle water out and in.

 

He’s a friend of Jim’s and tonight while eating dinner, he asks if Jim is taking care of me. We’re sitting on my bed and Theda is downstairs, still cooking. Before, when all of this started, I was nervous about feeding him, scared about how he’d look at the salor with fish heads and pineapple or the curry with chicken feet, but he’ll eat anything. I like eating dinner with him like this, side by side, because when I sit next to him with my bare feet against his jeans, I don’t have to look at his face. I know though that he’s always trying to look at mine.

I struggle to lift my eyes from the bowl on my lap and he repeats again, Jim? You know Jim? Big belly guy?

Nodding, I get up and reach for his plate. He ate everything except the bamboo shoots and the watercress but he moves the bowl out of my reach. This close and I see the gold in his eyes.

Nary?

His questions are always demanding something. This time, I open my mouth and say quickly, Yeah, know him.

And?

I don’t work hard when Jim there.

He gleams as if this is his doing and puts the bowl on top of mine. The spoons rattle against each other.

Told you, I’ll look out for you.

I nod and he says, while watching the middle of my face, Come back, real quick.

He’s hungry again and I can’t help but smile while running downstairs to the kitchen where Theda and the other women sit on the floor, near the oven. All four burners are turned on high to keep the air warm and they’re talking in that way that sounds like arguing, the way Ma used to talk to her sisters. One of the older women jabs Theda in the stomach as I walk over to the sink.

Everyone’s watching, I feel eyes following me but only Theda speaks, So, Nary when you moving to his place?

I shake my head and the end of my braid dips into the sink. My shoulders become rigid and my back a straight line.

Soon, I say and it takes just a second until all the women start laughing at me.

I finish washing the plates and dry my hands on the side of my sarong. I ladle two bowls of the babor sakor that he likes so much and while passing Theda, I look long and hard at her face, not even flinching when my eyes travel to the scar running across her forehead. She is shaking her head but refuses to say another word to me.

I start heading upstairs and that’s when I hear another woman speak up.

That one, she says. That one lives on dreams.

 

When he is done, he rolls onto his back and gently pats my flat stomach. I’m shivering in the cold and he puts his head on my too small breasts. He takes my right nipple into his mouth and kisses it, licks it over and over. He’s breathing too hard against my skin; his breath makes me shake even more.

It’s snowing again, he whispers, thinking Theda’s asleep. I know better. She’s always awake when he sleeps over and doesn’t uncurl herself until he leaves.

He continues on, So much snow and the whole city’s going to be buried.

His voice is warm and in the darkness, I reach out to grab a fistful of his hair. It’s thick hair that smells good, leaving the smell of ripe fruit on my fingers even after I let him go. From downstairs, someone plays another cassette tape, all of them sad love songs that say nothing ever changes, nothing ever stays the same.

I try to sleep but instead, I am breathing him in. I try saying his name, Henry. The letters stick themselves against my tongue. No name, better to just listen to him sleep and the wind against the window

 

He’s clumsy again when he leaves the apartment, crashing and stomping in the half light. I’m watching him out the window when Theda chirps up, What’s it like?

It takes me a minute to realize what she means and then I say, Remember before Phnom Penh fell, how the news from the border sounded like it was so far away?

She nods.

And then the news crept closer and closer to the capital but we didn’t care?

Her eyes grow big and I look at her.

Just that waiting and the knowing and the news everywhere saying it’s coming, closer and closer.

I turn to my bed and snap the sheets back into order, wiping crumbs and pubic hair onto the floor. I say, Well, that’s how it’s like.

It isn’t until I change back into my work clothes that Theda lifts her head off from the pillow and says, But when it finally did happen, it was even worse, didn’t it?

Yeah, I know.

In her voice is every lonely night I’ve ever spent, staring at empty walls and the spaces between fingers. She says, But he’s different. He’s going to change everything.

There is a car with tires that are frozen to the ground. My breath against the window draws up fog that I destroy with the tip of my left index finger.

I tell her, Yeah, I know, and we listen to the radiator hiss and stutter all around us.

 

On the train ride to the airport, I stare out the window as it passes by the empty beach. The waves are angry, pushing up almost to the low concrete wall that separates the sidewalk from the sand. The beach is covered in snow, the kind of snow I like best, the kind that gets everyone bundled up real tight into themselves. I stare off into the line where the snow meets the grey ocean. I think about how two years ago, Henry was visiting his friend Jim at work when the welfare lady brought me in for an interview.

He wore a white shirt then, the color of new snow.

The train pulls into Wood Island Station and the words stick themselves so quickly to my throat that I start coughing. I don’t stop coughing the whole day, trying to shake them out.

I cough alone at a corner table where I sit by myself in a corner table, unwrapping a plate of food Theda packed for me.

The weeks before Theda came to the house were lonely, the type of loneliness that required you to pick apart your heart every day and then reassemble it by yourself at night. No one wanted to room with me since I was the youngest; I counted the cockroaches to fall asleep. When Theda first came, I didn’t speak to her until we were alone in our room and she sat down on her bed, a few feet from mine. She sort of unhinged herself and unscrewed her tight lipped smile. She didn’t cry, not then, not now, but that was the closest I’ve ever seen her.

I spend my lunch hour picking over the cold rice and congealed pieces of ginger chicken. A new girl plops down on the seat next to me. I barely look up when Jim says too loud, Nary, help her out, okay? She’s like you.

Across the table is an impossibly young girl with the type of eyes I used to have before everything happened, before the capital city fell. Her hair is puffed, a nest that settles on the back of her head. She is slender like my aunt, the dancer, and she has a barbed wire scar like Theda’s against her left cheek.

She says, Bong, hello. I am Chan.

Even in the cafeteria with everyone watching and the kitchens and the machines hissing out smoke and shooting out streams of hot water, Chan lowers her head and bows to me in proper greeting. I try to smile back but a cough comes out instead and Chan is instantly by my side, reaching for my hand.

You should take it easy, she says, you sound horrible.

I look her evenly in the eye and in English, say, Over here, no easy.

 

He is always busy on Wednesdays so I know not to expect him. It’s my only free day of the week. I stay in bed until afternoon, shivering and shaking my way through sleep. Theda only cleans three homes today and by evening, she’s back home, taking off her beige jumpsuit and shaking the snow from her hair. Theda decides not to play cards with the women downstairs and instead, we walk the icy two miles to the movie theater on Broadway. Theda pushes into my hand a five-dollar bill folded over and over again into a perfect diamond. I stumble only twice when I order us two Cokes and a big popcorn.

The movie theater is filled with people, mostly women and a spattering of men. Because they are all talking so loud, me and Theda do too. I brace my feet against the back of the chair in front of me and Theda folds her legs under her, like we were at wat or something and she says, You have to learn to trust him, Nary.

You know his wife works with me?

It’s okay, she says as she shovels another handful of popcorn down her mouth. Her lips glisten with butter.

A man like that will leave everything if he says he will. 

We sit through previews of movies for kids, one about a robot and a man falling in love and then one with a girl screaming and screaming as someone chases her in the dark. She wasn’t that good of an actress, I decide to myself. Real screaming doesn’t look that pretty.

It is only when the lights dim that I look at Theda and say, Everything leaves. Nothing is the same.

Stop watching the lakorns and listen to me. She licks her lips twice before saying, A man like that and a girl like you?

What’s wrong with me?

You know what I mean, we’re the ones everyone feels bad for. We’re the ones everyone complains about.

I shake my head lightly. The cold weather is giving me a headache that pulses irregularly between my eyes. I squint to read the title of the movie. There are no words in the title I don’t understand. I wonder if Theda knows all the words too.

Your new life, Nary, is right there! You just have to wait a little bit.

I say, Unless he’s lying to me. When I say it, it feels like I’m betraying myself.

She’s talking again because everyone around us still is.

You have to – she stops to delicately lick butter off her pinkie - get ready to move into his big house.

Sometimes, I think Theda wants it more than I do. She’s always been like that, trying to wish and will her way into reality even though she’s a tiny thing of a woman. She’s twisting and untwisting that long, white streaked hair now, then letting it fall back over her shoulders, over and over again as she keeps speaking.

You have to come back for me. Tell him to find me a husband, anyone, I don’t care!

She sits up straighter than I have ever seen her sit and pushes the rest of the popcorn into my hands.

Her eyes are fierce and stare into my own. She declares, I just want to be married already!

So then, go find one and leave me alone, I say.

Theda giggles and settles back into her seat, No place else for me to go. Stuck here with you.

I want to tell her how I’ve been packing and unpacking my suitcase for the past two years. I want to tell her how Henry drove me down his street once late at night, a street of big houses with trees in the front lawn. I want to tell her that my English is good because Henry can’t stop teaching me new words, especially when we’re exhausted and sweating and he whispers about the new house, the new car, the new everything. I want to tell her how I spent a weekend at his house when his wife was gone and that I would lay in their big bed and close my eyes, pretending that this was my life and not just a two-day trial period. I want to tell her that I started throwing up, quietly in the morning and that I offered alms to the monks for them to pray it true.

Instead, I tell her about Chan. Halfway through the movie, Theda shakes her head and whispers, That girl, she doesn’t have the surviving in her.

My hand hovers over Theda’s. I wonder if, in the filtered light and half dark of the theater, she can see me move my head to look at her. She has the smallest ears I have ever seen.

I lean back, let my hand fall back into the space between our seats.

That’s what they said about us, I say.

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Kimarlee Nguyen

Kimarlee Nguyen was born and raised in Revere, Massachusetts in a family of Khmer Rouge survivors. Her family’s traumatic but triumphant history, as well as her own experience of growing up in a traditional Cambodian household, has shaped the heart of her writing. Recently graduated from Vassar College with a B.A. in English, she is currently pursuing an M.F.A. at Long Island University, Brooklyn. Her fiction has previously appeared in Drunken Boat and Cha: An Asian Literary Journal.

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