Craig wasn’t in Hong Kong six months when he phoned to tell his parents he’d gotten engaged. He’d met Linh on a week’s vacation in Vietnam, and they’d had a whirlwind courtship—he’d gone back to visit her, and she to stay with him in Hong Kong, and then, before anyone knew anything about anything, he was phoning to tell them all to book tickets for a summer wedding in Hoi An. In Hoi An! With a giddiness that seemed on the verge of outright mania, he explained how Linh’s family had consulted a monk of some kind to select the most auspicious date for the ceremony, according to their lunar calendar.
Helen was in a fog for weeks after hearing the news. She would find herself standing before the open refrigerator, or in the middle of the guest bedroom, with no idea what she had been looking for. Unable to sleep, she would watch infomercials into the early hours of morning—and it was in this half-dreaming state that the memories assaulted her, as if her mind had decided to review its entire inventory of Craig experiences, in order to determine exactly where things had gone wrong, and how they might be righted again. She saw Craig as a newborn, just home from the hospital—a mewing, pink-skinned bundle—and that brief period of closeness they’d shared, before Charles went back to work and her two older sons once again demanded her attention. Craig as a child, begging her to let him play ice hockey (such a violent sport, and so expensive); and later, when he wanted to go on an overnight trip with his high school friends, a group of ne’er-do-wells; and later still, when he decided he would take a year off before college. Each time Helen and Charles had talked him out of his foolishness, and steered him back onto the proper path—but this situation with Linh was something else entirely.
Craig had always been energetic, adventurous, a bit reckless—her favorite son, really, though she’d of course never admit this to anyone. She wondered if she might be partly to blame for the way things were unfolding now: she had endeavored, after all, to inspire in her sons a curiosity about the world, had once claimed the adage “Give them roots, then give them wings,” as her child-rearing philosophy. When Craig announced as an eight-year-old that he wanted to be “an explorer” when he grew up, she had encouraged him in this—suggesting actual professions that might fall under the shadow of that adorably broad umbrella (ship’s captain? Cartographer? Astronaut!).
When the time came, even upon boarding the plane for Saigon, Helen couldn’t quite believe what was happening—that she was traveling to the opposite side of the world to see her youngest son marry a woman whose English, by Craig’s own admission, was “not so hot.” He had laughed when he said it—not so hot—and added quickly that Linh was learning. Did you hear that, Charles? Helen asked, after hanging up the phone: she’s learning.
Charles was, as usual, no help. Ever agreeable, mild-mannered and weak-willed, after frowning in solidarity with Helen at the outset and trying once, at her insistence, to talk their son out of his haste, he was now trying to “get on board,” as he liked to say. Excited to visit an unfamiliar country—as if that’s all this was, a vacation. Helen reminded Charles that the unfamiliar country he was so excited to visit had not long ago been a place where only soldiers would have dared venture—and most had gone reluctantly, and plenty never came back. Or else they came back damaged; her own brother, Harry, was a prime example. Though he’d always been a bit odd, Harry was never the same after the war. Couldn’t hold down a job, or a wife, for that matter. Charles was already married to pregnant Helen and in law school at the time of the draft, thus ineligible. He shrugged now at her reminder of the horrors of war, saying with his infuriatingly unflappable good nature, “Times change.”
Indeed, Helen thought, and stared for a moment at his bland, smiling face. Even after four decades of marriage, she still had instances like this of surprised revelation: the realization that this was her husband, that this was her life. For the rest of the flight she stayed determinedly in her fog, sleep-mask pressed to her eyes during the food service, then movies one after another on her private screen as the passengers around her slept—all romantic comedies set in familiar, domestic locales—until at last she and Charles arrived at the miserable, dingy little airport at Danang. Danang—the word itself was unpleasant, making Helen think of a masticating mouth, or a quick series of explosions.
The driver Craig had hired to bring them south was waiting outside Arrivals with their name scrawled across a piece of cardboard. He seemed almost aggressively unfriendly, offering just a brief nod of acknowledgement before striding off, without any offer to assist them with their luggage. Worse still, he seemed half-determined to lose them—weaving through the crowd as she and Charles struggled to keep up, dragging their wheeled duffels, clutching occasionally at the money belts tucked under their jeans to make sure they were still there.
When she emerged through the sliding doors to the parking lot, the air hit Helen in a hot blast of diesel fumes and cigarette smoke. Charles and the driver were already tromping across the cracked asphalt as she lagged behind, already breathless, catching just a glimpse of the concrete city in the smog ahead, when a man stepped from the crowd and blocked her path. Meeting his gaze, Helen gasped. His face was like a leather mask, with two pink-rimmed eyes, a toothless mouth, and a gaping hole where his nose should have been. He made a sound like a rusted door being forced open, and extended a gnarled hand. Then Charles was at her side again, leading her away, arm draped around her shoulders, as the driver scolded the beggar in words she couldn’t understand. When Helen glanced back, the man had disappeared into the crowd.
“What happened to him?” she asked, once they were seated in the car with the doors locked. “Did you see his face?”
“War,” Charles said, squinting out at the parking lot. “An accident, perhaps. They don’t have the same quality of medical care here, you know.” She shivered, and he took her hand—her would-be protector, embarrassed, she knew, at having failed already to shield her from such unpleasantness. She smiled to relieve his concern, squeezed his fingers, and pulled her hand away. Soon they were preoccupied with the newest phase of the journey: the driver hurtling down a narrow coastal highway, veering around slower-moving trucks and motorcycles on both the left and the right without ever once using a turn signal. Flags with the Communist hammer and sickle flashed past on every lamppost, and propaganda billboards depicted smiling families gathered together in the fields, harvesting crops. Occasionally the driver slammed on the brakes as groups of children, sometimes with goats or cows in tow, stepped out to cross the road. Then he sped on, past stretches of beachfront obscured behind high construction fences. The fences were plastered with advertisements for Coming Soon! Luxury Resorts, being built along what appeared to be the entire coastline. It was ugly, all of it, and as foreign as anything Helen had ever seen. It made the Russian black market she’d wandered once, in a surge of bravery while on a Baltic cruise ship’s excursion to St. Petersburg, feel as familiar as a trip to Wesley’s Grocer back in Lake Forest.
Her thoughts flitted to Tad Derringer, as they often would when she stumbled upon an article or television show about some far-off, exotic place, some oppressed foreign peoples. She would always pause to look more closely, as if she might spot him in the background of a photograph, administering vaccines or passing out supplies to earthquake survivors. They don’t have the same quality of medical care—hadn’t he said almost the same words to her, forty years ago? In that case, trying to convince her of the necessity of his mission, of his desire for her to join him.
It was early evening, the sky a deeper gray, when they arrived in Hoi An. They were still on the sidewalk outside the Long Life Hotel, gathering their belongings, when Craig pulled up on the back of a motorbike driven by what appeared to be a child. The driver wore a helmet with a shaded visor, but Craig was bareheaded; still, for a moment Helen didn’t recognize him—didn’t recognize her own son—overwhelmed as she was by the commotion around her, the jackhammer going across the street and Charles’s attempts to pay the driver, who for some reason kept waving his money away.
Craig climbed off the bike and strode up to greet them. He was tan, his hair longer than Helen had seen it in years. A scruffy blonde beard was beginning to spread across his face. She knew he was on summer break from teaching, but was still surprised at how disheveled he looked—like a vagabond. Like someone who spent his life riding motorbikes through strange cities, throwing caution to the wind.
“Mom, Dad,” he said. He leaned in first to kiss Helen, then to shake his father’s hand. “Welcome to Vietnam.” He turned toward his companion. “This is Linh.”
The motorbike driver pulled her helmet off; brown hair fell straight and limp past her shoulders. This was the fiancée, Helen realized. The future Mrs. Craig Wilson. She’d been imagining a girl resembling one of the hotel greeters—they stood in the entrance now, smiling demurely in their long-sleeved white silk dresses. Linh wore cutoff jeans and a cotton tee shirt. She was tiny, no breasts to speak of. If she were pregnant, as Helen had suspected, she wasn’t showing yet.
Linh smiled as she approached. Helen froze, but Charles stuck out a hand—good old Charles, dependably stiff—thus sparing them from any awkward hugs or bowing rituals. “Welcome to Hoi An,” Linh said, her voice high as a child’s, and took their hands in hers. “So nice to meet you.”
“How old is she, Craig?” Helen asked later, when they were alone in the hotel room together. She was standing before the mirror, trying unsuccessfully to conceal the circles under her eyes.
“Don’t worry, Mom,” Craig said. “She’s legal.” He was leaning back on his elbows on the bed. Charles, who was transferring his neatly rolled socks and undershirts from the suitcase to a dresser drawer, chuckled.
“What’s legal here?” Helen asked. “I have no idea. She looks so young.”
“She’s twenty-six,” Craig said, with the same air of detached serenity he’d affected since their initial meeting out on the curb. This annoyed her—it was unlike him. Craig had always been fidgety, excitable, and there was no way anyone could be so relaxed, mere days before his wedding. A wedding in an unfamiliar city, to boot. Surrounded by people he hardly knew. He’s in love, Charles would say, later, when she commented on this, and give one of his shrugs. But this wasn’t love, this hardness—that’s what it felt like, anyway: a wall their son had put up, keeping his true emotions, and the people who knew him best, at a safe distance. When she met his eyes—eyes that for years had sought only her attention, her approval—she met something impenetrable.
“She’ll be twenty-seven in November,” Craig added.
“Are you sure?” Helen took the dress she’d brought for the wedding—a sedate, plum-colored silk; she had no idea if it would be appropriate—and hung it in the armoire. As she did she heard Craig stand and walk to the balcony, which overlooked a small tropical garden and the hotel pool. A stone canal traversed the garden, and a rice paddy stretched beyond it, giving the illusion that they were somewhere far from the city—one of the reasons Craig had chosen this place for them, he said, out of countless options for accommodations. The Long Life Hotel wasn’t one of the fancy new resorts on the beach, but it was centrally located, and had a reputation for dependability. The sun had gone down now and the garden was torch-lit. Over the din of traffic drifting from the street-facing side, Helen heard faint jungle sounds—the whirring of insects, the calling of birds.
“Shut the door, Craig,” she said. “Bugs will come in.”
He obeyed with a small sigh of resignation, and after a moment asked, in a newly chipper voice: “So, are we ready? We should head out. You’re going to love the Lotus, I think—the food is really amazing.”
Helen had confirmed in her guidebook Craig’s claims that Linh’s family’s restaurant, The Blooming Lotus, was indeed considered one of the best places to eat in Hoi An. In addition to the restaurant, they ran a celebrated cooking school—where Craig and Linh had first met, in fact, on a half-day course in traditional Vietnamese cuisine. She had been surprised to learn Craig would do such a thing—take a cooking course, while on vacation. He’d never had any interest in cooking, nor even a particularly adventurous palate. Mr. Burger’n’Fries, she used to call him, for what he’d claimed was his favorite meal, though now he insisted I must have been nine when I said that, Mom. As it turned out he’d been traveling with friends from Hong Kong, British ex-pats who were into that sort of thing, and had gone along for the novelty of it, and for lack of anything else to do; he’d gotten a nasty sunburn on China Beach the day before. All these twists conspired, as Craig told it, to lead him to Linh’s arms: that day she was filling in for her aunt, the head cooking instructor. He had bungled his banh ceo; she had come to his workstation to help. He found her cute, with an odd and “feisty” sense of humor, but it was when she took the special paring knife and showed him how to slice a green papaya into meticulous thin strips that he was smitten. “The way to a man’s heart,” he said now, with a short laugh.
Helen smiled at the story, though she didn’t find it heartening, or even particularly amusing. She sensed Craig was already formulating a mythology—the shared story of his life with Linh.
“Will I be cold?” she asked. They stood waiting for her, husband and son, as she draped a gray pashmina over her shoulders. It seemed crucial to make the right impression tonight, to move forward with confidence, but everything felt off-kilter. Her dress was wrinkled despite her best efforts with the travel iron, and it had a faint-but-visible stain down the front; her face looked washed-out and haggard, no matter how much makeup she applied.
Craig approached and took her gently by the upper arms. “You’ll be fine, Mom.” He was reassuring her, she knew, about more than just the evening temperature. Their eyes met, and for a moment she glimpsed the real him—the boy she knew. Then he turned, and they headed out into the evening together.
The streets were abuzz with cars and motorbikes, all the shops still open. Every one was a tailor, it seemed. The sidewalks were lined with mannequins showcasing the latest designs, and floor-to-ceiling shelves inside the open storefronts were lined with bolts of cloth in every color. “There are hundreds of tailors here,” Craig said. “It’s a big tourist draw. People will come to have entire wardrobes made, each season.”
As they passed, young women called from doorways: “Please, madame! You come my shop! You come have look!”
“What’s a ‘boyfriend blazer’?” Charles asked, pointing to an advertisement on a sandwich board.
“Have you had any clothes made, Craig?” Helen asked.
“Just my wedding suit,” he replied. “I got a great deal from one of Linh’s family friends—better than the tourist price, though that’s still pretty cheap, considering. If either of you want to have anything made, let us know.”
Helen noted his use of the word: us. They stood waiting now at an intersection, motorbikes zipping around them in all directions. “Craig,” she said, hopping back as one whipped close to the curb. “Please tell me you wear a helmet when you ride that thing.”
“We were just borrowing it,” he said. “It was only two blocks.” He was staying in an apartment nearby, he said, owned by Linh’s family; apparently it wasn’t proper for the betrothed to reside together before the wedding. Helen wondered, before she could stifle the thought, if Craig and Linh had even slept together yet.
“It’s just amazing,” she said, “how reckless everything seems here! I don’t want you to get killed.”
The light changed and his hand brushed against her back, guiding her across. “What’s amazing,” he said, looking at Charles, “is that I’ve managed to survive eight months in Asia without her! Can you believe it?”
“Barely,” Helen said. She smiled with them, though the remark stung. “Just barely. I can see I got here just in time.”
He seems happy, Charles said as they settled into bed that night.
The room was stifling but quiet, at least, situated as they were at the rear of the hotel. Too tired to reply, Helen rolled onto her side, away from him, and within minutes Charles was snoring. She flipped her pillow to the cool side and lay for a while staring into the darkness. At dinner Craig had seemed like an actor—and so confident in his role. Joking and laughing with Linh’s family, and with the friends of his who had arrived already, the wealthy ones who could afford such an extravagant journey for such a hastily planned, ill-fated affair. There were no familiar faces for Helen or Charles, yet; their oldest son, William, would arrive in two days. Their second-oldest, Patrick, had a baby on the way, and was unable to attend.
The beggar from the airport appeared in Helen’s mind again—that awful, gaping crevasse where his nose should have been. Incredible—that you could lose such an intrinsic part of yourself, and go on living; be the same person inside, but look so different as to be unrecognizable from who you were before. Perhaps he had been tortured, she thought; his nose cut off as punishment for something.
At some point Helen fell asleep, and woke later from a dream in which she was standing with Craig in a cramped, steamy kitchen, watching as Linh hack-hack-hacked at vegetables with a machete. Upon waking, it took a moment to remember where she was. Then she lay blinking in the dim light that came through the sheer gauze curtains. Charles slept beside her, not snoring anymore. The bedside radio glowed five o’clock. Too early to rise—but she was wide awake now, even after the exhaustion of their recent journey. She thought of Tad again. He’d described a grueling journey, the only way to get to his assigned outpost. Of course you can do it, he’d said, when she expressed doubt. We can do it together. The foolishness of youth. She rose now and went to the balcony, where she stood in her bare feet, overlooking the shadowed garden—the glassy pool, the thatch-roofed bar where breakfast would be served in a couple of hours. The rice paddy beyond was an almost iridescent green under the gray sky. The stones of the garden wall were marked here and there with the character for “long life”—the hotel stationery explained this: a Vietnamese blessing for you, it said. It occurred to Helen now that whether or not this was a blessing depended largely upon the life being lived.
Sensing movement, she glanced down at the canal and spotted a rat ambling along the shadows at the water’s edge. With a shudder she returned to the bedroom, lying down beside Charles to wait for him and the rest of the world to awaken.
Later that morning they went sightseeing. Once past the clutch of tailors and aggressive street vendors clogging the avenues around their hotel, they found the historic city center to be surprisingly lovely—a World Heritage Site renowned for its architecture. With Craig and Linh as guides, Helen and Charles toured a pagoda, a historic assembly hall, and an authentically restored nineteenth-century merchant’s house.
By ten-thirty the sun was already blazing. Helen felt light-headed and jittery from the lack of sleep, and the sugary iced coffee she’d sucked down at breakfast. She pressed on, swallowing her discomfort, following Craig and Linh through a maze of cobblestone alleys. The parade of oddities that passed before her only added to her woozy, dream-like state: tiny women in conical hats with baskets of fruit balanced on poles across their shoulders; men squatting amicably beside the river, sharing cigarettes; long, thin wooden boats gliding across the brown water. And such heat! She wanted to ask Craig why he’d chosen to have his wedding in July, of all months, and it occurred to her that perhaps it was this hot here, year-round.
What she knew: Craig was in la-la land. Stuck in a fever-dream, fueled perhaps by this relentless heat, by these exotic surroundings—the big-horned water buffalo, the glimmering rice fields, the diminutive girl who’d smiled at him one day and cast her spell of enchantment over him like a net.
In the pagoda’s interior garden she slumped onto a bench in the shade, fanning herself with a museum brochure. She’d had diarrhea after breakfast, and would have blamed her meal at the Blooming Lotus if she hadn’t been having bowel issues for months already, prior to the trip. Stress, Dr. Najarian told her: you’re wound too tight. She’d laughed at his suggestion she try yoga, but had attempted the relaxation breathing exercises he’d given her, accompanied by a “Soothing Sounds of Nature” CD, bought on impulse at the supermarket checkout. The sounds of nature seemed to consist primarily of wind chimes and a trickling stream—which, rather than soothing her, made her have to pee. “They should re-name that CD ‘Nature Calls,’” Charles said. She squinted now at the temple roof, which curled up at the ends in delicate, looping tendrils. All the homes in this section of the city had roofs constructed with yin-yang tiles, her son had explained: every tile alternating, the first convex, the next concave. The things he knew! She wondered if all this new knowledge would begin to erode and eventually replace that of his previous life—the memories they’d made together, a once-familiar world that would gradually become less familiar to him.
When it was time for lunch, Linh excused herself to attend to wedding preparations, and Craig took them to a small open-fronted café on the river that was said to serve the best cao lau. He explained that the dish contained noodles made with water from a particular local well, and was said to be impossible to replicate anywhere else in the world.
As they sat waiting for these magical noodles to arrive, he gave an overview of what would be expected of them in the coming days: ceremonies and processions in which the bride would be presented to the groom’s family; symbolic gifts of things like nuts and cake and lacquered boxes covered in red cloth. Red was important, Craig said: it was a lucky color. The number of gifts was important, too—four or six or eight, never seven or nine. Those were unlucky numbers.
“My God,” Helen said. “Sounds like a lot to remember. Can you get us a cheat sheet or something?”
Craig’s glance was sharp for an instant—then he softened. “Just giving you some background about Linh’s traditions,” he said. “I thought you might be interested.” His chopsticks pinched a sprig of basil and some mint leaves. A rice pancake was fanned like an open flower on the plate below him. “All of the details are taken care of,” he said. He took a bite, and added through a full mouth, “Just follow along.”
“What about your traditions. Craig?” Helen asked. She sipped her tea. Hot tea, on such a sweltering day—but Craig kept insisting that warm liquids had benefits, that properties in chrysanthemum could actually help cool her down.
“My traditions?” He dipped his rolled-up pancake into a bowl of watery sauce. “Like what?”
“You have traditions, too, don’t you? Things that are important to you, that you’d like to include?”
Craig wiped his mouth with a napkin. “You mean, as in western wedding traditions?”
“Nothing I’m particularly attached to.”
“Not a minister? A Christian prayer?”
“I haven’t been to church in years, Mom.”
Helen hadn’t been in months, herself. Still she felt earnest in replying, “Well. That’s a shame.”
Craig gave a small smile and looked at his plate. “Since you asked: it’s not important to me to have a Christian church wedding. It’s not something I’ve ever envisioned for myself.”
“But you did envision a tea ceremony?” she asked. At his last Thanksgiving at home, Craig had said he would probably never get married.
“If it’s important to Linh,” he said now, “I’m happy to do it. We’re embracing each other’s lives. This isn’t a competition.”
Above them a ceiling fan clacked in slow, useless revolutions, hardly stirring the heavy air. Above the ceiling fan, two geckos were frozen in an upside down standoff.
Helen sighed. “I just hope you’re thinking about what’s important to you, Craig. It takes two people to get married, you know.”
Craig looked at her now, resting his chopsticks against his bowl and leaning back from the table, crossing his arms over his chest. “Yes,” he said. “I’m aware of that.”
After lunch Helen lay on the hotel bed with a damp washcloth over her eyes. She’d soaked it too much and water dribbled from the edges, wetting the pillow beneath her head. The whine of the air conditioner was an added aggravation; at last she rose with a sigh to turn it off, glancing as she did out the window at Charles, who was slicing his slow and steady crawl strokes through the pool below.
“He loves her,” he had said, as they walked back to the hotel together.
Helen snorted at this. “You really believe that?”
“He says he does. I’m choosing to believe him.”
“You always believe him. Even when he lies right to your face.” This had happened only once, as far as Helen knew: when they confronted him about a silly high school prank—some minor act of vandalism—Craig had denied any involvement, then confessed to them a few days later with tears in his eyes. His involvement had been negligible, hardly worth punishment; the dishonesty was what had shamed him. They had raised him to be an upstanding boy, after all, in a family without secrets.
She collapsed on the bed again, stung by this latest offense. How callously Craig seemed to regard her; how easily he was able to renounce his upbringing, cast his family aside. She reminded herself now that she had other sons—but they lived far away, too. Not quite Asia, but William was in California, and Patrick in Connecticut; both closer to their respective in-laws than their biological parents. Each time, the wives had won. Helen couldn’t help but feel, in darker moments, that she’d failed her family in this way, failed to keep them together. Why else would they be so dispersed? No matter that they tried to reason with her, saying that it was normal to be so spread out nowadays—saying this was America; this was how people lived. She found little comfort in their explanations.
Give them roots, then give them wings: she had tried to adhere to this maxim, but hadn’t expected the emptiness she would feel when the time came to release her children into the world. Worse than emptiness: a slow-burning resentment—though toward what, or whom, she wasn’t certain. She’d always encouraged her sons to live their lives, have their own adventures, and pursue their own dreams—and had somehow lost track of her own in the process.
She could hardly remember the person she’d been before becoming a mother. It seemed wrong to want to be that person again, anyway—just a girl, herself. Newly eighteen, pedaling back from Ross Lake through the dusk, lightning bugs aglow all around her. Breathless, elated, the knowledge of Tad’s proposal a warm buzz inside her. She had a decision to make—a serious decision, one that could determine the direction of her life—but even knowing this, she felt light and beautiful and free. The evening breeze against her face; the lightning bugs; the memory of Tad’s lips, dry but soft against hers. Tad Derringer, an earnest young man on whom she’d had a mild crush as a child, had asked her to be his wife. It would be a short courtship, if she accepted: he was leaving soon for Africa for his Peace Corps assignment. He wanted her to go with him—to Africa! Daddy would be devastated. He liked Tad well enough, but still thought of Helen as a child, even though she was set to enroll in nursing school that fall. She had to think carefully, be smart about this. She didn’t know Tad very well. He seemed a good man, an honest man. Africa was so terribly far away.
This was the distant past, now, and Helen a grown woman—nearly an old one. She consoled herself, thinking she must have gleaned at least a bit of wisdom over the long years, and her wisdom told her that Craig was making a mistake. It was her duty as his mother to help him realize this, lest she fail the boy completely.
Later that day, they went to meet Linh’s relatives on a small delta island in the middle of the river. They rode a chugging boat across the flat expanse of water, past fishing boats and nets stretched on stilts above the water, their fine yellow mesh glinting and billowing in the sun. The boats they passed had eyes painted on their hulls—Craig said this was to make them look menacing, in order to scare away sea monsters, or perhaps to keep watch for coming storms. The ride across the river was soothing—the roar of the motor made conversation impossible, so they sat without speaking, staring at the passing shore. The afternoon was bright and hot, but a breeze lifted off the water. The motor’s steady throb reminded Helen of the sound of a hovering helicopter, an image she’d always associated with Vietnam—she pictured them now, rising above the palms on shore, rippling the grasses at the water’s edge. The fishermen, stooped in their little boats, looked just as they must have during the war, and probably centuries before that as well. Linh’s uncles had fought for the Viet Cong, Craig said over dinner the night before, but they didn’t mind that he was American. They had been through so many wars in this small country, he said, and were a wonderfully forward-thinking people. Very forgiving.
When they arrived at the island, there was no dock or sign of human habitation in sight. The boat plowed into an upraised bank to allow them to disembark. Helen followed Craig along a grassy ridge that dropped down on either side into shallow, symmetrical rectangular pools. A shrimp farm, he explained: shrimp breeding is one of the things they do here.
They walked on, down a dirt lane through a thatch of jungle, past scavenging chickens and dogs dozing in the shade. They came upon a row of houses with tiny fenced yards—children ran to the back gates as they passed, crying out in English, “Hello! Hello!” A group of women sat huddled on the roadside, laying out reeds and slicing them into strips. Another thing they do, Craig said: make woven mats. Charles murmured interest, and they stopped for a while to watch. As they moved on again Helen lagged behind and found herself beside Linh. The girl smiled in her usual shy but playful way; she always looked as if she could barely contain some delicious secret. Helen had no way to make sense of this—of Linh’s seeming constant state of ecstatic happiness—no way to discern if it was the joy of a bride-to-be, or pride at showing them her homeland, or something else altogether. They walked on in silence, Helen stepping carefully over the reeds that had spilled out into the road.
Next they came to what Craig called a “monkey bridge”—a long, wobbling structure of lashed-together bamboo zigzagging over an inlet. Not a real monkey bridge, he clarified—that would be just two long horizontal poles: one pole to walk on, one foot in front of the other, the other pole to hold on to.
One foot in front of the other, Helen told herself. She was sweating, beginning to chafe, already hungry—it was going to be a long afternoon. She thought with a nostalgic throb of the house in Lake Forest—the home she and Charles had made together, its brick veranda and the rose-covered trellis that she’d put in expressly in the hopes that some future daughter-in-law might someday process beneath it. It would have been a lovely ceremony, there in the backyard under the live oak; she would have served finger sandwiches, iced tea and lemonade, mimosas. Alas, none of the women her sons had chosen wanted such an event. William’s wife, Sandy, was Catholic, and they’d had a Mass at St. Stephen’s with a reception afterwards at Marzetti’s Banquet Hall. Patrick and Lily were married at City Hall, and threw a party the following weekend on the roof deck of their Chicago condominium.
The group came now to a small, one-story house build of broad wooden slats. Inside was a single large room with a ladder leading to a loft. Three entrances in the front wall were open to the air—one door for women, Craig said, one for men, and one for what he called “spirit guests.” The space inside was spare, furnished only with a wooden table, some black and white portraits displayed beside incense in one corner (this was the ancestral shrine), a kitchen with sink and stove, and a boxy, old-fashioned television set. A calendar showing a fat, smiling baby was tacked to one wall. The bedrooms were in back, separated from the main room by a screen partition. Under a thatch overhang on the side of the house, some women were working at a loom, feeding it reeds as they cranked a wooden wheel. “It takes several hours to make one mat,” Craig said. “They sell them at the tourist market.”
Helen felt overcome with weariness then—not just from jetlag, but the unending newness of everything. Craig’s constant explanations, demonstrations. She had the sense she had to grasp everything at once, if she wanted to be included in the life he was embarking on, but there seemed an impossible amount to learn. She struggled to pay attention now as he introduced still more uncles, aunts, and cousins, watching in dazed wonder as he laughed with them, as comfortably as if he’d known them his entire life.
She thought of her own relatives, unable to take part in this far-flung celebration for various reasons: limited finances, used-up vacation days, fear of flying. To think of all of Linh’s people, gathered here in the same place: how many generations, living and working together in the same small village, or close by in Hoi An—she was jealous, she realized. Jealous! Of people who lived in this beastly climate, in a one-room house with an extra door built in for their spirit guests.
She needed air. She went to stand in the doorway—she wasn’t sure which one—but Craig followed, wanting to introduce her to yet another relative: this time a gray-haired, goateed uncle, one of the ones who fought for the VC. There, across the river—the man pointed, Linh translating as best she could; Helen understood only with Craig’s help—the Americans had occupied Hoi An, and the Vietnamese fighters crouched here, on the shore of this delta island, to shoot at them through the darkness. The man laughed as he said it—laughed as he spoke of shooting at American boys, at the memory of being called “Charlie.” He was a boy himself, then, only eighteen.
They had more coffee, the sugary spike of which bolstered her for yet another trek down yet another dirt road, this time to a brick-making factory. Of course: who wouldn’t want to hike in the baking sun through a bug-infested jungle to see a brick-making factory? It made as much sense as anything else. The so-called factory consisted of a sunbaked clearing with a two-story chimney at one end. Bricks were arranged in rows on plastic tarps along the ground, and smocked figures moved amidst the rows, hauling the bricks in wheelbarrows to and from the oven. “You’ll notice,” Craig said—Helen wouldn’t have—“They’re all women. This is considered women’s work.”
“Good grief,” Helen said.
“How about that,” Charles murmured. They stood watching the workers in their drudging march back and forth across the field. Their faces were like masks, hardened into the same grimace of resignation. The door of the oven opened periodically to reveal bright orange flames inside. All the while the sun kept beating down.
Helen thought of the single letter she’d received from Tad, in which he’d described the women in his village carrying water from the river in jugs on their heads. Her own head was throbbing now—the field a glare, hard to look at, even with her sun visor on. She fought to bring her attention back to Craig.
“There’s a real opening for more experiential travel,” he was saying to Charles—his words arrived at her ears and retreated again in waves. “We want to take people behind the scenes. I think we’re in a unique position to—”
“Sorry—what?” she said, stepping closer. “What are you talking about?”
“I was telling Dad,” Craig said, “about the company Linh and I are going to start here this fall.” Hoi An Bicycle Excursions, he said. They would take visitors on biking tours, away from the typical attractions. Eco-tourism, he called it. Up-and-coming.
Helen was stunned. After a pause, she managed to say, “You’re going to stay here, then? In Vietnam?” Her throat went dry on the last word.
Craig didn’t look at her—squinting instead at the workers trekking to and from the oven. “For the time being,” he said. “For the indefinite future. Yeah.”
Helen turned to the clearing, in need of something to focus on, to grab hold of—aware of the crucial nature of this moment, of the need to change it somehow, and the impossibility of doing so. She had assumed Craig would return to Hong Kong, and eventually the U.S, saddled with his foreign wife, who would have trouble assimilating and would make things generally unpleasant for him. She hadn’t allowed herself to think that he might choose to stay here, with Linh, and make his home in Vietnam. For the indefinite future.
Charles was saying something about investments now—he and Craig stood beside her but seemed far away, small and pale under the relentless brightness. She was pedaling home along the road from Ross Lake, thinking of Tad and what might lie ahead; she was approaching the house where she’d spent her life until that point—her parents’ house, a white bungalow with the small side porch and the ivy-covered lamppost out front. She stopped in the gravel driveway to compose herself, and looked at the house—every window lit, radio drifting from the kitchen where her mother would be fixing dinner. At that moment, though the possibility of going with him remained alive inside her still, like the last ember of a fire, she knew that she would turn Tad down. It was inconceivable, really—that her life could take such a drastic turn. There were other adventures in store for her, and in the future she would be ready for them.
She opened her mouth now, wanting to warn Craig and Charles—of what?—but no words would come. Just a rush of nausea, the sky bearing down on her—that blazing sun, the whole world tilting, everything upside down.
The next thing she knew, she was gazing at a smiling baby—the picture on the wall calendar, back in Linh’s family’s house. Helen struggled to sit upright, and realized as she did that the crotch of her shorts was wet—urine, or sweat? Her head throbbed. She leaned back with a groan and Charles and Craig appeared.
“Mom,” Craig said. “How are you feeling?”
“You fainted, Bells,” Charles said, before she could say anything. Hells Bells, a pet name he rarely used anymore. He crouched beside her—she was lying on a cot of some sort. Linh’s family members were assembled behind him, watching with stoic concern.
“Good grief,” Helen muttered. “I did?”
“Fell straight over,” Charles said. “Tim-ber!” He chuckled, but his eyes were pained. In all the years she had known him, he had never been able to conceal his emotions from her.
“I should have made you drink more water,” Craig said.
“How are we here?” Helen asked.
Craig and Charles exchanged glances. “Do you remember walking back with us?” Craig asked carefully.
“Oh, of course,” she lied. She remembered the brick-field; the workers; Craig’s revelation about bicycle tours. At this she closed her eyes again with a wince. She added now, to cover herself, “I mean, how are we here? In these strangers’ house, so far from home.”
For a moment no one said anything. Then Craig replied evenly, “They’re not strangers, Mom. They’re family. Drink.” He held a plastic bottle to her lips, and she obeyed; the water was citrusy, faintly medicinal. “Rest now,” he said. “Then we’ll head back and have a doctor look at you.”
Helen sighed. “That’s not necessary,” she said, but noted with a twinge of satisfaction that his detached serenity was gone. He looked stricken, uneasy—more like himself. “Really, I’m fine,” she said again—but even as she spoke she was realizing that this collapse, though embarrassing, could prove useful: it could buy her time. How sick was she? Too sick to attend the wedding? Perhaps the Big Day would have to be postponed…
Linh approached then from the far side of the room, and came to stand beside Craig, sliding her arm through his. They gazed down at Helen in mutual concern—their commingled love and pity, worry and grief, coming off in waves. Helen shut her eyes and rolled onto her side, away from them. “I’ll be all right,” she said again. “If I could just rest a little while.”
When they left her alone she opened her eyes and stared at the baby on the wall calendar. Through the gaps in the slats she could hear snatches of unintelligible conversation, and catch glimpses of the bright unyielding green of the world outside. She felt an inkling—just the faintest tingle—then, of something gone wrong inside her; a small, vile thing, just beginning to grow. She would look back on this day, at some point, as the beginning of the end: the knowledge passed through her like a shiver and was gone.
On the ferry back to Hoi An she was spent, subdued. The lights of town glowed from across the water as they rode past yet another rice paddy, and Helen half-listened as Craig explained to Charles about the workers pouring the bushels into the thresher, which would sort the bad grains from the good. Once the crop was harvested, they would scorch the earth to make it ready for re-planting.
A short while later he came to the bench where she sat and tried to engage her in conversation. His concern for her was obvious, but she couldn’t rouse herself to feign gladness. She feared that if she spoke too much she might break apart completely. “Tonight is Legendary Night,” Craig said, as she nodded. “The full moon. They’ll have games and music all along the river.” After a while he moved away again. She glanced back once and saw him standing on the far side of the ferry’s deck with his arms around Linh, chin resting atop her head.
That night there was a feast at The Blooming Lotus, to welcome the arriving wedding guests. The dinner was superb—platter after platter of exquisite, artistically arranged specialties. An impressive number of Craig’s friends had managed to make the journey, and he circulated among them now, beaming and shaking hands, freshly shaven and handsome in a blazer and white shirt. The blossom in his lapel matched the one in Linh’s hair.
Tomorrow would be a blur of preparation, ceremonies and processions and photographs, all of it leading up to the wedding itself. Helen was glad for the chance to sit quietly now, during the meal—everyone else distracted with rejoicing, her quietness noticed only by Charles, who was more attentive even than usual, refilling her drinks, making silly jokes about the guests they observed from their table of honor on an upraised platform.
Their eldest son, Will, though tired after two delayed flights and a fiasco with lost luggage, nevertheless presented himself in high spirits. He seemed to like Linh—after knowing her all of ten minutes—and gave a brief but touching toast, wishing the newlyweds health and happiness in their life together.
After dinner they wandered as a group to the river, where red lanterns hung over the dark water, and laughter echoed down the torch-lit streets. The temples and covered bridges of the Old City made odd, stark angles against the sky. Standing at the water’s edge, surrounded by the whoops of celebration, popping firecrackers, and the high-pitched warble of a nearby folk-singer, Helen thought it could be five hundred years ago, when Hoi An was the seafarers’ village known as Faifo—or twenty-five years ago, on a moonless night in which soldiers lay watching the river, waiting for the moment to attack. All of them—the seafarers and guerrillas and fishermen and American G.I.’s—all of them had been boys once, whose mothers had held them and loved them and eventually had to let them go.
She hadn’t loved Tad; she hadn’t known him well enough to love him. He had cried on the phone when she gave him her answer, and left without saying goodbye. And he was gone now, long gone—killed not in the war but by a parasite he caught in that African village, not long after his arrival. Suffered in a feverish haze for days before he succumbed, she would learn only later. She reminded herself now, as she had many times in the long years since: some life that would have been.
Along the riverfront artisans crouched on blankets, displaying their wares: lacquered bowls, alabaster chopstick sets, woven wall hangings. Other vendors sold sandwiches and sodas from wheeled carts. In a small plaza, street performers danced to a drumbeat, and a crowd stood gathered around a game in which blindfolded players attempted to smash a ceramic pot.
A woman in a rowboat pulled up at the water’s edge then and invited Helen for a ride. Everywhere, always, people were trying to sell her things. “Please, you come my shop! Please, you come, have look!” When she walked through the market, the cries followed her: “Madame, Madame, please! What are you looking for?” Exhausting, their endless entreaties; there was only so much she had to give.
But this woman used no words—she only smiled, beckoning to Helen, then extended her arm out toward the water. Helen glanced into the boat and saw a small child was sleeping in the prow. She smiled and shook her head, declining the offer, but the woman persisted, fixing her with an imploring gaze, gesturing out toward the water again. Charles asked permission to take the woman’s picture, then gave her some Vietnamese dong; the guidebook had advised him to do this when photographing locals going about their everyday activities.
Helen declined the offer once more—then watched as the woman pushed off from the wall with her paddle and slid away in search of another fare. They stood a moment together, Charles and Helen, Craig and Linh, watching her go.
Then Craig resumed the conversation he’d been having with Charles about the bicycle tours he and Linh were planning. They would take visitors off the beaten track, away from typical tourist destinations. Show them the real Vietnam. He had only begun to scratch the surface himself, he said. There was still so much to discover.
Out on the river, giant illuminated floats in the shapes of a dragon, a tiger, and a leaping fish were reflected on the dark water. Helen turned to look at Craig, who seemed lit from within himself, glowing with hope and wonder, Linh standing close in the crook of his arm. They had everything ahead of them.
She understood, then, that this was the final ceremony: her son would stay here, start a family in this place, and be far from her from this day forward. She would be part of his life, still—but just a small part. Even if things didn’t work out with Linh (and she hoped that they would, now; she hoped desperately that they would), the boy she had known was gone forever.
She turned back to the bridge, filled with an ache so strong it seemed to reach out into the night around her, blurring the lanterns on the river and their wobbling reflections into hazy, insubstantial orbs. She changed her mind, then—she wanted to accept the woman’s offer, to ride off down the dark river with her. Such a chance she might never have again. “Wait!” she called. It seemed the most important thing, to catch the woman and lure her back, climb into the boat beside her and see where they might go. Craig and Charles watched in amusement, thinking she was joking, as she stumbled toward the water again. “Wait!” she cried. “Wait!” But it was too late: the boat was already downstream, slipping steadily away from her. She could only stand and watch it go—watch it glide toward the opposite bank, mother paddling at stern, child curled sleeping on the bow. She stood there and watched until it had slipped into the shadows beneath the bridge, until it had vanished from her sight completely.
Meaghan Mulholland’s stories have appeared in Five Chapters, Playboy, and Post Road, among other publications. She is recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship to Italy, a MacDowell Colony Fellowship, and a scholarship to the Bread Loaf Writers Conference. Links and more information can be found at her website, meaghanmulholland.com.