Photograph by Bahman Farzad.
by Vilaska Nguyen
It was seven in the evening and I was surprised to see my wife Minh awake and sitting upright. The blinds to the hospital room were wide open and the winter sunset behind the silhouette of downtown San Francisco made everything blood orange. Our tiny ceramic Christmas tree alternated between red and blue from the sill. It was enshrined with holiday cards from friends and family. A breeze entered through the open window displacing the normally stagnant air. The tranquility was overwhelming.
Minh half smiled and patted her bedside. Even in all this wreckage, the loss of her long thick black hair and a quarter of her weight, she still looked beautiful. She radiated so much hope with the crinkle of her nose. I washed my hands in the adjacent bathroom, returned to the bed and sat down careful not to disturb the delicate web of plastic tubes and metal wires.
The funeral planning brochure was resting on Minh’s lap. She noticed I saw it and lightly squeezed my hand. The last time I saw this brochure was Sunday, our one-year anniversary. Our argument resurfaced in my mind. I didn’t want to spend our time as if she was already dead, I explained. She could only say she needed the comfort of preparation. The idea of my loneliness and handling the funeral arrangements without her was more painful than the thought of dying. The argument ended with Minh coughing up blood. There were still dark freckles all over the brochure’s stark white cover.
I sighed and tried to delay the inevitable. “Did you eat?”
She just shook her head. Minh hadn’t said a word since I arrived. This was a bad sign. When Minh was extremely weak and exhausted, she avoided words to preserve energy. Talking came from absolute necessity, which I knew was hard for an over-achieving litigation partner who was known for talking and walking over anyone in her path.
“You want me to get some soup or juice?”
I started to stand when Minh touched my forearm and shook her head no.
“Are you cold? You want me to shut the window?”
She indifferently waved in my direction. I sat down again and ignored the brochure.
“You know, the Sherwin trial got postponed for six months? The defense claimed they needed more time to investigate the toxicology reports on our water contamination findings.” My voice trailed off. I might as was well have been talking to the wall because when I turned to Minh, she shot me a sideways look reminding me that I was violating my own policy. She was right, as usual. I was talking about work on our personal time. Things were unraveling. “Sorry,” I replied.
Minh gave my tie a light tug which was my cue. I stood up, hung my suit jacket on the wall and undid my tie, draping it over my jacket. Minh smiled with approval. I returned to the bed with my sleeves rolled up. Minh rubbed her stomach and pointed at me.
“No, I’m good. I got some coffee and a snack on the way out.”
Minh furrowed her eyebrows with skepticism.
“It was big snack, one giant banana, like a giant gorilla dick.”
Minh laughed and broke into a violent cough that set off the monitors. All the machines in the room shrieked. Within seconds, two nurses were at her side and I was relegated to the wall watching with dismay. I saw the blood trickle down Minh’s neck and held my breath. Nausea wasn’t my entitled right. I focused on the darkness beyond the window pane and counted down my nerves like fence-hopping sheep. The sun was already gone. The moon was also missing.
“Dat? Excuse me, Dat!” I perked up when I realized a nurse had been calling me.
“Damn, I’m sorry. Yeah?”
“I need you to step out for a few minutes, okay? We need to reinsert some tubes and space is really tight.”
“No problem. I’ll just be in the lobby.” By lobby, I meant the waiting room, but such clarification was trivial and unnecessary. No one was really paying attention to me.
“Thank you,” the nurses said in near unison. I gingerly maneuvered around the women and saw Minh’s booklet on the floor. I picked it up and walked out. A nurse whispered to Minh, “Stay with me, honey. Stay with me.”
The waiting room was furnished with two moderate yet comfortable couches and a flat-screen television mounted on the opposite wall. An old white guy wearing sunglasses was slumped down on a couch with a re-run of the Giants game blaring loudly. I sat down and studied his motionless body. He abruptly rolled in my direction and I cursed in surprise. Embarrassed, I flipped through Minh’s booklet.
“You shouldn’t stare. It’s rude,” the old man said mockingly. “Get comfortable, we’re making a comeback.” He pointed at the television with a crooked finger. He had to be joking. This was the replay of the World Series.
The game just cut to commercial. “What’s the score?” I asked.
“Ninth inning, down a run, two outs, bases loaded.” He was wrong.
“Nice.” I politely feigned interest.
“Jim,” the old man extended a leathery hand down the couch. “Good to meet you.”
“I’m Dat. Nice to meet you.” Jim’s hand felt like moist beef jerky. I probably got the hand he was coughing in.
“Well Dat, I have a good feeling we’re going to win tonight.” Jim struggled to sit up and leaned forward at the couch’s edge.
“I’m glad you feel that way.” A loose paper fell to the floor. Picking it up, I saw that it was an itemized estimate sheet for funeral services and products. I examined the brochure’s cover, “Donnell and McGuire Mortuary.” I touched the raised dark bumps left by Minh’s coughing. I held my breath, which was becoming my frequent secret habit. When I was in kindergarten, my older sister told me if I held my breath, I could make our father live longer, maybe make him live forever. It was brilliant magic. My father died years beyond what the doctors diagnosed. Deep down, I still believe I made him live longer.
“Hey kid, you better watch this.”
I exhaled and saw the new relief pitcher on the mound. It only took one pitch to dash all of Jim’s hopes. I wondered why this particular game was being replayed. An opposing player caught an in-field popup, and just like that, the game was over. Jim angrily shut off the television and returned to his slumped position.
I turned my attention back to the itemized worksheet. Basic professional services of funeral director and staff: $3,595. Visitation and funeral ceremony: $3,000. Cremation Urn, Satin Gold: $695. Flower van and driver: $250. Utility vehicle and driver: $250. Scatter of cremated remains at sea: $995. Death certificate (times two): $40. I must’ve been visibly distraught at this point because Jim had a hand on my shoulder.
“It’s alright, kid.”
“It’s not alright. But that’s okay.” Things were far from okay.
Jim plopped down next to me. He smelled like a combination of Old Spice and Vicks. He peeked at the paper in my hand. He then opened an orange pill bottle produced from his pants pocket. He held a single pill in his open palm and said, “Don’t worry, they’re all mine. Take one, hell, take two.” He shook out another.
“What are these?”
“I just want to know.”
“Listen, kid. This is something that’s going to make things alright, maybe even bearable, just for a moment, just for a second in your life.”
I wasn’t thinking. I couldn’t think. I grabbed the pills and put them in my mouth. Jim offered me a thermos and I drowned the pills before I gagged on warm acerbic liquid. “What the hell is that?”
“It’s my special tea, kid.”
“You need to take some healthy chugs off that. Make sure you get the special out of it.”
I’ve come this far, I thought to myself. I downed the thermos until my eyes watered and my stomach burned.
“You’ll thank me in a couple minutes.” Jim laughed.
“Good thing we’re in a hospital. I might need a doctor.”
“They’ll probably give you more of this.” Jim’s hysterical laughter made me regret my decision. I should’ve forced myself to vomit and returned to Minh’s bedside at that moment.
“I’m sorry. I can tell you’re a serious kid. Look, I hate I have to call this dump of a hospital my home. I hate it more that they sent me to this floor. I know what it means, pamphlet time.” He pointed to the booklet in my hands.
“We didn’t get this pamphlet here.”
“That don’t matter.”
“It does to me.”
“Simple math, kid. You say too many of the wrong kind of goodbyes on this floor.”
“You know, this isn’t the best pep talk. Isn’t that what I should be getting right about now, a pep talk?”
A revelation came over Jim’s face. “Holy shit, what did you say your name was?”
“What’s your full name?”
“Dat Connor Tran.”
“Fucking shit, is your dad Tony Tran?”
“Yeah, that’s my dad.” This hippie’s precision was eerie.
“There was something in your face that rattled my memory banks. You are a splitting image of your father. He was a tall strapping buck like you. Did your dad ever tell you about Jim Higgins, his American friend back in Nam?”
“No, he never mentioned it.” Where the hell was this going?
“I know your dad. We were best friends back in Nam. He was working as a translator for the US military. I was stationed in Saigon when we met. Good man, your dad. Still is.”
“I don’t have many memories of him. He passed when I was a lot younger.”
“That’s what you think. He’s still around, Dat.”
I wanted to run. A feeling of fear hit me. “What do you mean?”
“He’s down in the basement playing poker. He’s a gambler, your father.”
“My father is not playing poker in the basement. My father is not alive.” I was speaking methodically slow to reign in my sanity.
“I’ll take you to him.”
“You’re going to kill me if I go to the basement with you. Go get my father if he’s downstairs. Bring him here.” I was drifting.
“I’ll be right back, Dat.”
I was suddenly alone. The room exponentially expanded with each throb of my brain. There was no place to sit. I was on an empty casino floor with one black-jack table directly in front of me. Three stools appeared around it. A pit boss gestured me to sit and I quietly obliged. Within moments, Jim reappeared with what appeared to be my father.
My father was a living image from the framed picture that sat on my fireplace mantle all through childhood. He was twenty-nine years old then, the same age I’m now. He was wearing an Adidas tennis outfit: shorts that crept up his thighs and a tight short-sleeve polo shirt. His hair was shaggy and he now had that same new immigrant smile he wore back then. The world was his oyster. He was impervious to the sub-zero Alaskan temperatures in that picture. Little did he know then that it wasn’t going to be bullets of war, two stints in the Communist reeducation camp or severe pneumonia at sea that would ultimately take his life; death would come a few years later in the form of an invisible incomprehensible enemy.
“Okay, one quick game and one quick drink then I’m outta here.” My dad sat down without acknowledging me. Jim shot me a wink and took a seat next to my dad.
“Hey guys.” I was unsure if I should address my dad directly.
“Tony, are you going to say hi to your son, Dat?”
“Sure. Hi Dat.” He kept his eyes down at the card table.
“Hey dad. How are you?”
“Waitress!” My dad snapped his fingers and we were suddenly alone at a table with two beers. “Thank god, that took long enough. What’s up, son?”
“A lot. A lot is going on.”
“Skip all the small talk. I know you’re having a hard time with Minh.”
“Yeah, a hard time. You saw that pamphlet?”
“Forget about the pamphlet for a second. I know what happened with you and Minh’s little sister Binh.”
I was blindsided, speechless. That was an accident that should’ve never happened. It was a fleeting moment that Binh pushed on me. It was only a kiss. Why did it have to mean so much? Jesus Christ, what did this have to do with anything? A month ago, I met Binh alone at my house so she could raid Minh’s closet. The whole experience of watching Binh unceremoniously gut her sister’s wardrobe infuriated me. I was under the impression she just needed a few outfits. It didn’t occur to me Binh had already left her sister for dead. She sensed my frustration and diffused it by kissing me. I admit I kissed her back for a very long time. We both stopped. She left the clothes and I returned them to their rightful place in Minh’s closet.
“I know about it, son. You have to be more forward thinking. This issue is blinding your judgment.”
“How so?” He was right though. I reflected on the crushing weight of this experience. “What should I do?”
“Do what’s right.”
“Tell Minh about it? Beg for forgiveness?”
“Dat, do you think that’s the right thing to do? Does Minh deserve that? Do you both deserve that?”
“I have no clue what the fuck I deserve. I don’t know what she needs either.”
“Okay. So does that mean I shouldn’t tell her?”
“Do you think you can live with that guilt?”
“What are you saying, dad? Fuck! Can I just talk to you about anything but this?”
My father’s attention was occupied by something behind me. I turned and saw Jim waiting by a door. My father stood up and downed the rest of his beer.
“You’re lucky to have such a perfect wife… minus the dying part. She’s so smart and successful; just like your ma. Are you going to finish that?” He picked up my beer.
“Go for it.”
He belched, slapped my back and shouted everything would be alright.
I sat at the table, alone, going over the details of the itemized estimate worksheet. I closed my eyes and started formulating the perfect obituary.
The next morning I woke up in the waiting room. The air was hot and uncomfortable. A kid’s cartoon was muted on the television and a mother and daughter were sitting on the other couch, respectfully giving me space. Nodding in their direction, I stood up with an excruciating headache. I gathered my stuff and walked into the hallway.
Nurses and doctors were engaged in their routine hustle and bustle. I watched a nurse leave Minh’s room. I approached and received a warm nod, which was a tremendous sign of relief. I thought about my father’s words and paused at the door. I held my breath, lightly knocked and reentered my life.