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“Grandma, why do you have this silk dress?” Lucy holds up my aged Áo Dài that she found while searching through my drawer. Her eyes sparkle with innocent youth and curiosity. I guess the story of that dress finally found it way back into my heart.
If I'm not wrong, that time was somewhere during the 1960s. The rain was violently pounding on the door of our tiny fragile house on an early morning. The cool air breathed on my legs as it lurked inside our house. There I sat on the filthy wooden bed that we used as our only furniture in the house. Marched, marched, marched, a big family on ants were making their up on one of the dusty leg of the bed. I didn't bother or kill them; they're just like us, trying to survive in this world. Nothing inside our tummies yet that day, my parents were out making money from sweat and tears. In my arms, I was embracing my 10 months old brother, Huy; he was peacefully lost in his dreams. I gazed out our only window in the house, there were mold dots was growing on the window's frame, and I thought while staring up the sky, “Maybe it isn't that is falling, maybe it was tears, tears from god, isn't it?” But why would god cry anyways? He doesn't have time to do that, right?
“Hey Phương!” Trúc waved her hand into front my eyes. It took me while to yank myself out of the gazing of the rain.
“Oh sorry, what?” I finally looked at her.
“Do you think we'll be able to start Junior High?” she asked sitting next to me at the window.
“I don't know, Trúc. School is going to start in a week and they won't allow us to attend school unless we can afford Áo Dài as our uniform,” I sighed. During Elementary years, nobody was ever required to wear any uniforms, but now in Junior High it's different. I, myself had never dreamt of even wearing or owning an Áo Dài. I've seen a few rich women from my village in the dress though. Áo Dài is the Vietnamese traditional dress for women; it is always sew from silk. The Áo Dài looks like a tight long-sleeve shirt with a short collar that wraps around the neck and the dress ends at the feet. There are two splits on the dress, one on each side from waist to the end of the dress. You would wear long white or black silk pants underneath to cover up the bare skin revealing by the long splits on the side.
“I know that, but can you ask ba or má if they have enough money for our uniforms?” Trúc grabbed my hand but I quickly pulled it back.
“NO! I'd get a beating, and sis; you know very well that all of us don't even own a second outfit or enough food every night. So how in the world are we able to afford this? If má and ba could afford our uniforms, do you think we would be starving right now? Do you think they'd hide the money from us? How do you even sleep at night, sis?” I shot at her and Trúc put her head down. So there, we ceased our conversation because of my harsh response. To be frank, I felt really bad about what I'd said, I understood Trúc, and I knew she loved school. When we were little, Trúc looked forward to going to school every morning unlike me listening to the teachings all day didn't really help me, but Trúc was that person who had really taught me. She had patience for me, and was way smarter than me. She really made me learn to like school. Trúc was and is fraternal twin sister. My má told me that Trúc was born 2 minutes before me, so those 2 valuable minutes made her my older sister. There is no resembling of me in her or her in me even though we are fraternal twins. Trúc had long silky black hair that draped down her back like a never-ending waterfall, when the sun reflected on her hair; it looked like a beautiful full moon that lit up in the night sky. Her oval-shaped face was always delicate and clean like expensive porcelain while mine was dirty and blistered. Her long skinny fingers were smooth when mine was filthy and black from the coal. Well, her descriptions didn't mean that she was a snot whose sit around all day and force me to her chores. No, Trúc was beautiful inside and outside, when there were chores to do, she tried to put them all on her back. We went through almost everything together, but I had no idea how she always managed to look so gorgeous and clean. Oh, how I wished that we would get into school for Trúc's sake. Still, we sat in silence, rocking Huy gently back and forth in my embrace.
My parents came home in the late evening that day. Their clothes and faces were drenched in mud and rain from their jobs on the farm. Má was moaning as she makes her way to the bed, I looked at her feet. They were raw and mucky; the mud was dried on and clung onto her wound. Tears flooded my eyes before I knew it, so I took a deep breath, and looked at the leaking ceiling to hide them.
“Phương, get me my bag, it's next to the door,” má ordered softly. So I got off the bed and went for her bag. I watch má opening the bag; a smile was growing on her dirty face as she was untying the knots.
“Here! Take this and help me make rice porridge for tonight,” she handed me the bag. “Remember to put plenty of water since we have plenty of mouths but little rice.” From looking at the size of the rice bag, it was no bigger than one cup, but I know for sure that we won't starve tonight. So, I took the rice bag as if it was a bag full of rubies and diamonds.
“Cam on, má!” I nearly shouted. Running to the cement stove and quickly lighting up the twigs made my mouth water like a hungry dog.
“Má, do we have enough money for two Áo Dài?” I stirred the porridge. When I finally realized the words that had just came out of my mouth, I quickly squatted, and covered protected my body with my hands incase má was going to smack me.
But all she did was let out a big sigh that could've blown the fire in the stove away and sat up.
“Phương, listen, I've been trying my best to put you and your sister in school. Right now, I only have enough money for one Áo Dài,” má replied. “I just need a little bit more time for the other Áo Dài.” I wanted to hug her so bad but cooking the porridge is preventing me to.
“Má, it's really okay, one uniform is enough, I don't have to go to school,” I tried to put on a tough voice and held in my tears. “In fact, I don't even like school, it's so boring. All the teachers ever do is talk, hit, talk, slap, hit, and talk! I'd rather spent my time working.”
But the truth was I liked school, I wanted to finish my fragile education, but I didn't want to see my parents overwork everyday. So now má finally grew angry; she shot up on her feet and limped over to the stove.
“YOU! LISTEN TO ME, AND LISTEN WELL. YOU AND TRÚC WILL GO TO SCHOOL TOGETHER, EVEN IF I HAVE TO SELL MYSELF; I WILL GET YOU BOTH INTO SCHOOL. UNDERSTAND? DON'T EVER LET THE THOUGHT OF NO SCHOOL CROSSING YOUR MIND EVER AGAIN!” má pointed her blistered finger at my face; I could see the tears boiling in her eyes. This was the first time I've seen her so furious, I quietly put my head down.
“Con xin lỗi, I understand,” I whispered silently. Suddenly, má pulled me into her embrace and held me tight. She wrapped her soiled arms around me and buried her tearful face into my hair.
“Con xin lỗi, con xin lỗi,” I kept repeating while she held me. “I'm sorry, con xin lỗi, con xin lỗi.” Now I finally realized that our education was very important to má.
The sound of Huy's wailing snatched me out of my sleep.
“Trời ơi! HUY! What's wrong, baby? Má is here, why are you so hot? God, SOMEONE WAKEUP!! WAKEUP!!” má screamed in my ears while pounding her fist on the bed. I wasn't going to wait for the third “wake up”, so ba and I sat up in unison. I had to rub my eyes a couple of times to realized that má 's hair was a disaster because I thought I was seeing things. The crying of my brother hadn't stopped, yet mom was in the same rhythm though. They sucked for air at the same time. Má 's arms were wrapping all over Huy so I couldn't see his conditions.
“What's wrong with Huy?” ba asked.
“He-Huy-Huy is-iss, he's very hot,” má tried to catch her breath. Ba placed his palm on Huy's sweaty forehead.
“Come one; let's get Huy to the doctor right now. Trúc! Get up this instant! Help your má,” ba ordered while rushing around the house. Yet, she was still deep asleep; I had no choice but to shoved her violently at the shoulder. She sat up right away. Then the gasp from má got all of our attention.
“Oh god, the money, we don't have the money,”
“Who cares, just tell the doctor we'll pay him later,” ba quickly replied.
“No! Má!! Remember the money for our uniforms? USE IT! Pay the doctor with that,” my awesome idea came up.
“Are you crazy? NO WAY! That's the money for you and Trúc. Huy is not touching that money,” má killed my suggestion with an icy glare. I looked at Trúc, her eyes were jumping around.
“Má! Phương is right. Use our Áo Dài's money, please. This is an emergency, Huy might die, and you don't know that. Please má,” Trúc sank down on the floor with her hands gripped tightly má's leg begging. Má looked away.
So we ran into the pitched black never-ending painting. I was holding onto Trúc's hand, we were following Huy's head, he was crying on while lying on ba's back. When we finally arrived out the doctor's place, I noticed that my feet were bleeding from stepping on rocks because I couldn't see. The adrenaline I had in me and my love for my brother erased the pain I had from feet.
“Trúc and Phương stay out here,” ba told us as the three of them entered the doctor's house. I took one last glimpse at Huy, be strong, little brother.
Trúc and I planted our butts on the steps outside the door of the doctor's place. Out of all the sudden, Trúc started crying; but yet she still looked so beautiful.
“It's going to be okay, Huy will be fine, I know it,” I ran my finger down her midnight hair. She attacked me with her arms wrapping so tightly around me, I guess you could call that a hug. My right shoulder tingled when her teardrop fell on it. There we sat under the moon in the same position until ba came out.
“It's getting dark, you guys should go home now, alright?” ba sighed. Trúc rubbed her eyes, and looked at me, who was also confused.
“What are you saying? Where's Huy?” we questioned ba at the same time.
Ba slowly rubbed his head and replied, “The doctor said that we made it in time, or Huy would've been a goner. Huy had a high fever; it's common for his age. Anyways, it's getting late, head home and sleep. The rest of us will come back later, and don't wait for us.” Ba turned his back to us and walked back into the house. Trúc and I were so relieve to hear that, her sadness from a few seconds ago snapped back into a smile.
“Come one, little sister, you heard ba,” Trúc stood up and held out her hand like I was her Cinderella.
I still remember that painful night; it was almost a week since what happened to Huy. Má and ba came home at the usual time, Huy was fine, and the thought of ever attending Junior High left our minds since the incident. Trúc and I were waiting for má to us the rice to cook for dinner. Rice, which was má's pay for everyday. We waited for má to make a move, my tummy growled like it wanted to eat itself. Maybe she forgot to give us the rice, and then Huy started to cry because he was so hungry. Trúc looked at ba; he looked away with his head shaking.
“The farm owners ran out of rice today. Trúc, I think we have a little rice left in the pot. Why don't you and Phương go make rice porridge,” ba finally broke the silence. The rice that was left in the pot was no bigger than Huy's fists; it was also dirty from the cobwebs. But I washed it out, so it was all good. Trúc poured a lot of water that was a hundred times the size of the rice. Má was still sitting on the bed with Huy, her face expressions seemed so familiar, there I knew it, she was extremely hungry.
“Má, ba, eat,” I carried the five tiny bowls of thin rice porridge to the bed. It tasted like hot water, there was nothing in it except a lot of water and bit of rice, not to mention cobwebs. Then má shot ba a look with her head us pointed at us kids. I didn't understand what she was signaling ba. They pushed their uneaten bowls toward us.
“Here girls, take this, ba and I are not hungry, we already had dinner on the farm,” má told us. LIE! I could see that she and ba were so hungry, oh the sacrifices of a mother and a father. Trúc, Huy, and I were also really hungry that night.
“Má, ba, stop lying, you know you're starving,” Trúc slurped the hot water.
“No, you guys have to eat this, I've already told you, we aren't hungry. Now eat it or no food at all until we die.” ba got really mad. So this was how my má and ba were, even if they were starving to death, but then seeing us kids with our tummies full and satisfied, the joy of only that fed their hollowed stomachs. Trúc didn't eat the soup, I didn't eat it, and so we fed it to Huy. Little babies usually don't eat a lot, but our brother did, I mean look at our situation.
That same night was the night before school started. I lied on the wooden bed with Trúc, we were adoring the magnificent moonlit in the sky outside our window. Huy and ba were dead asleep; they were the only people who slept the most in the family. Then I heard something was clattering in the back, so I turned around.
“Girls, come over here, I have something for you,” má stepped out of the shadow standing next to the family's only drawer/closet, I nudge Trúc, and we went over to má. The closet was dusty from not enough caring, it was not higher than má. It had pearls engraved on the sides and dragons engraved on the front, the sides of it curved perfectly. Ba brought this home from the mayor's house when the American planes bombed it.
Má took out something that I had never seen in our house before. It was a white Áo Dài, the color of it was dirty, I'm sure that Áo Dài was once white. The dress was simple; it wasn't shiny like how expensive silk looks like, and there were no signs of beauty in it. Má held the dress up with tears in her eyes.
“This was my wedding gift from your father and his family, they saved up a lot money for this thing at the time,” má's voice trembled. “But this is going to be your ticket to school and it is my very last solution.” Má was still gripping hard on the dress and crying. I looked at Trúc; we knew that it was best not to argue with má.
As má cut her dress to make two Áo Dài, she shot out a painful wail as if she was slicing off her own flesh. That dress was a part of her; it stored her love, memories and life. We stayed up the whole entire night to watch má sewn our uniforms. Seeing má like this made my insides hurt, we made her destroyed her only treasure, what else are we going to hurt má next? In the end, her dress was only able to make one uniform, so Trúc had school in the morning and I had it in the afternoon, we were sharing the uniform.
The first day of school finally arrived; I was still half-sleeping when Trúc was putting dress, tired from the lacked of sleep last night. Even though the dress was simple, Trúc looked so elegant in it. The way hair long hair is on the dress, such contrast in color. The sleeves length was uneven because má sewn it in the dark. But we weren't complaining.
“We'll trade clothes when I get back alright, sis?” Trúc patted my sleepy head and headed for the door. That was the last tine she talked to me, I regretted for not saying goodbye at the time.
I was sitting outside waiting for Trúc to come home and give me the dress later that afternoon when I heard explosions and someone screaming.
“SCHOOL GOT BOMBED!! THE SCHOOL GOT BOMBED!! FIND YOUR KIDS, THE AMERICANS CAME!” That made my heart leaped a mile; we lived in a small village in Hanoi [North of Vietnam aka capital] that only had one school. No, this cannot be happening. I got up on my bare-feet and ran off with tears exploding in the eyes to our school. As I got closer, smokes surrounded me, as if they were mocking me. When I finally got to school, all that was left was bricks and fire. The sounds of fire cracklings and the mothers bawling filled our village. I looked and looked around, in the school's yard lied at least 50 bodies of students lying own the ground lined up in rows with bamboo mats covering each body waiting for the identifications. I cupped my hands over my mouth; just pretend it's a bad dream, Phương. Like lighting, I sped to where the bodies where lined up, mothers of the students were crying and holding onto their kids' bodies. Without thinking of sinning, I quickly yanked every single bamboo mat off students' bodies. I hoping that Trúc's wasn't one of them, as soon as I prayed, there she was, the last body. I let out a shriek, there was blood soaked in her hair and a blood stains on our Áo Dài, yet she looked so gorgeous. Her eyes were shut tightly; I took her into my arms.
“Trúc ơi, Trúc ơi, WAKE UP! It's alright now, I'm here. WAKE UP! You can have the Áo Dài, okay? WAKE UP! STUPID! WAKE UP! WHY AREN'T YOU ANSWERING ME? DON'T LEAVE ME! YOU STUPID, WAKE UP! STOP SLEEPING, THAT'S MY JOB! WAKE UP, PLEASE!” I shook her body furiously with my never-ending tears, no response.
She was gone, my sister was gone, part of me died that day. Turning around, glaring at our broken school that I never had the chance to attend 7 grade.
“I HATE YOU!!!!” I cursed under my breath still weeping. So mad, that I gathered up a pile of rocks, and started throwing them at the school like a mental person. It hurt, my heart hurt, it felt like someone have just decided to have myheart for dinner. I dropped my body on the ground, violently squishing and pounding the dirt my hand. After wiping my tears and hand on my shirt, I put Trúc on my back and carried her home. Her arms dropped instantly as I wrapped them around my neck.
“Come one sis, stop playing, you love piggy-back-ride, hold me tight okay, never let go,” I tried to trick myself. I let her head rest on my shoulder and I cried all the way home.
My parents were devastated when they heard the news. We held onto her dead body and grieved for three days. Má told me that Trúc would've want me to take her Áo Dài off and keep it. There were blood stains and holes in the front stomach of the dress, I wept while taking the Áo Dài off Trúc, she didn't resists, but she just lied there in her peaceful state. Since we were so poor that couldn't afford a piece if land to bury her. Therefore, we had to let her go, being a part of the Mekong River. I helped my ba built the boat that we would place her in; I decorated it with Trúc's favorite flower, Mai. She left us, joining the Mekong River that will carry her up to heaven. Huy was too little to understand, he was still smiling. I remember Má was crying so bad and didn't want to let go of Trúc's body that day she sent her away, I didn't want to let her go either, nobody wanted to.
“We'll meet again, sis,” my whisper became the wind as we watched the Mekong River carried her away.
The Vietnam War finally ended in 1975, almost ten years after Trúc's death. I was 23 years old at the time and Huy was 11 years old. The school in our village was rebuilt the year after the bomb incident, therfore I finished my education; I'm sure it was one of Trúc's wishes. There were still days that I'd wake up thinking that Trúc and I were going to school together. I wasn't used to the fact that she was really gone even thought it had been ten years.
Má and ba aged quickly as times came and left. I really thought that when the war ended everything would be so much better, like North of Vietnam would stopped getting bombed by the Americans or at least less Vietnamese would die, but the aftermath was a disaster. There was nothing to eat, it was worse than when the war was going on. The Vietnamese government stated in order to protect our country, we can only eat what we grow; you can't sell or buy goods in the market. But we didn't have any crop, so we had to either starve to death or steal.
It wasn't until a year later when I started hearing talks and whisperings from my parents and the neighbors about America. They also mentioned that America was heaven, and you'd have freedom there.
“A-má-re-ka,” Huy trying to pronounced it. “That's our destination, Phương.” So we made our plan.
As soon as I knew it, we were packing our stuff at night, a poor stinking family that packed light; we didn't have anything to pack. The only belonging I had with me was the Áo Dài that belonged to Trúc and me. Ba and má were carrying big rusty containers of gasoline, I'm guessing it was for the boats; I held onto Huy's hand as we walked to the port joining with other boat people. There were a lot of people, about 40 people I think, most of them were people like my parents, and few kids.
“Here here, thanks for the gasoline,” the captain told my ba as he reached for our gasoline.
As I was go onto the boat with other people, I was pushed and landed on my knees. Somehow it didn't hurt though, well at least not as painful as when my sister died. So I got up and went over to join my family. When the boat's engines ignited and we started moving, a pain shot right through my heart, it finally hit me, I was leaving my country. I suddenly stood up while everyone was sitting, I looked at port, and tears washed down my face as we moved further and further away from Vietnam. It's my life that I'm leaving, my roots, my blood, and my sister.
“Goodbye, Viet Nam,” I whispered with tears as my voice blended into the night air. I had to say goodbye twice in those ten years, two painful goodbyes that wounded my heart. We all starved for a day after that, babies were crying from malnutrition, women were wailing, and coughing everywhere.
“Huy, Phương, just close your eyes and sleep, that'll help you forget about the hunger,” ba patted my head.
“Okay okay, I will,” I replied.
The boat arrived at Thailand's Refugee Camp two days after we left Vietnam. As I got off the boat with my family, I attacked the rotted apple that I saw lying on the ground. I bitted off a piece and handed the rest to my family. While eating that rotted piece, the first bite fell like heaven, I felt so guilty while eating it while others were starving. Thailand was humid as Vietnam, so we didn't need to get used to it. All pregnant women also gave births when they were staying at the camp. Also Thailand's soldiers supplied us food to cook, so I was very thankful for it and for the safety of my family.
“Listen, we have to leave again,” I heard má told ba one night.
We stayed at the camp for 3 days and had to say goodbye again to continued our journey to America. But this time we brought extra food; unfortunately the food supply lasted for only two days. Again, we starved for three days; images for people dying are still vivid in my memory. Our life and death journey to freedom took us ten days.
“Phương, Huy, wake up, we're here, you're going to miss it, we're finally here,” má shook me. It was the first time that I've heard joy in her voice since Trúc's death.
“Heaven? You say we're at heaven, are we going to meet Trúc? Is she here yet?” Huy asked as he tried to open his eyes. My insides sank, poor Huy, so innocent.
“No silly, your sister isn't here,” má replied, I knew she was trying to hold in her tears.
“But má, god said that everyone can go to heaven! And you told me that this was heaven!” Huy started to cried and punching má in the arm.
“MAYBE GOD LIED! Huy calm down, let's get off the boat first,” I shot at Huy; I didn't want má to remember the same pain from ten years ago.
We set our foot onto a place called San Francisco.
“Sen-fren-sic-co,” ba tried to say it. I remember there was a big sign that read, “WELCOME TO AMERICA!” Of course, I didn't understood English but I certainly knew what America meant. We didn’t have anywhere to stay so we stayed at an abandon Christiany church with the other boat people during the first few weeks, after that we joined a program that supported Vietnamese Immigrants. We struggled so much in during the first five years, finding jobs, learning English, and adapting to the new life here. If anyone tells me America is heaven again, I'd kill them. My parents finally found a job packaging food for a dairy company after years and years of looking through newspapers. Huy continued his high school studies, and I finished college with the money from the Vietnamese program that I had to pay if back later.
Whenever I felt sad or lonely, I took out Trúc's dress. While everything in my life had taken a crazy 180 degree turn, the dress was still the same; the blood and holes were still there. But I was so thankful that it was still with me during all these hectics. Having the dress with me was like having Trúc by my side, I'd talked to it, told it how my days went. That Áo Dài recharged my strength when I was weak, and it gave me hope when I was devastated, and I took really good care of it. No matter if we were poor, I'd sent it to the dry cleaning every week. I think there is no dress in the universe that could compare to Trúc's Áo Dài. The Áo Dài isn't pretty or expensive, but it holds my life, my memories, and my sister. The outside of that dress isn’t something that would seduce you, but the story behind that dress is what will hook on to you forever.
When I finally looked at Lucy, he eyes were sparkling with tears. She hugged me so tightly while holding the dress.
“So, this is why I have this dress,” I cried.
“It's beautiful, grandma,” Lucy said touching and observing the blood stains, I smiled. We'll meet again, sis, we will.
Gazing beyond the window, another day fills with sunshine in my world.