by Khôi Nguyên Trinh
I never remember that you’re sixty-three years old
until you cry, tears leaking like our kitchen sink does
no matter how you adjust the faucet. Some days,
we can pretend it’s the soap opera that you’re watching,
that the blind mother working for her daughter’s future
is all that this is about. On those days,
I let you tell me about the side characters
until your voice steadies.
You tell me their story is boring,
that you skip through it.
The wet tracks on your face shine
from the tv screen, but your sniffling stops.
We can pretend that it’s okay.
If I leave, it’s to make your apple tea,
always with the promise that I will return.
Other days, your tears sound like “mẹ,” sound like “mệt,” like
“Ngày đó, không một thứ gì là của má.”
In these moments, I know that I have failed you,
that English has failed me.
Shiny gold medals don’t matter if I can’t melt them
into dangly gold earrings.
Scholarships don’t matter if all your friends worth telling
live halfway across the world.
And all that reading old white men has taught me
is that the best way to love someone is to write them.
So I do. I stop trying to talk to you and write
about how I love you, how you love me.
I stitch blooming red orchids for your eyes
and douse you in homemade fish sauce until the smell lingers
in the paper, despite the fact it’s been twenty-four years
since you’ve last sat with your parents,
layering anchovies and sea salt in clay pots.
When these motifs become stale,
I twist your mouth until English falls out of it,
call it a dedication to my mom. I’m sorry I have killed you.
I cannot drag your body across the page and call it poetry,
so I offer mine.
Má ơi, con hứa to abandon returning,
to always be a hummed tune, a ladle of broth, a crochet stitch away from you.
Con hứa that there will be no first and last suppers,
that our meals will blur until we cannot see the end or beginning.
Con hứa that Hương and I will stay pressed against your side for so long,
we grow into the dangly gold earrings you borrowed for your wedding.
And I promise that this time, we’ll be yours to keep.