Dreamy and Content

I write to understand a narrative that stopped making sense after my mother lost her memory. A rumination on remembering and a retaliation against bodies of difference fading into the invisible, I find inspiration in Viet Thanh Nguyen, a fellow Vietnamese-American writer, when he asks, “How do you separate your presence from so many absences?” My presence lives in my words. I rely on present insight to break apart past complications, a “double-take” on the indelible moments that expand under the interrogation of my imagination.

The mother I imagined laughed easily and often. She trilled to music in the kitchen; delighted in People magazines stolen from the dentist’s office; ate cake for breakfast; wore pajamas mid-day; nuzzled fresh-cut flowers from the garden. She slept soundly each night. Her skin glowed. She was dreamy and content.

My logic was entirely selfish: if my mother enjoyed her life then I could enjoy mine, without her sadness encroaching on my good time. I was attending a small liberal arts college then. I was twenty-one, wore dark framed glasses with plastic non-prescription lenses and no make-up or jewelry, preferring a Casio digital watch on my right wrist, identical to the one my father once wore as a soldier in the South Vietnamese army. My clothing consisted of what I could find at garage sales and thrift stores: oversized men’s t-shirts advertising local businesses, elastic-band polyester pants, sneakers and athletic socks. I very much dressed like a Little League coach or a dad given a second chance at life after a heart attack. I was embarrassed by overt displays of vanity, believing it reflected a frivolous mind, even though I spent much of my time engrossed in frivolities. Crushes, parties, gossip, jokes.

My mother in real life lived in my childhood home with my father, across the river on the west side of town, around the bend from a row of sunken retirement homes that my father feared would be his future. “Which one of you will take care of me when I’m old?” he used to say to us four kids at dinner. I was pining for my exit, even then. Our silence made him laugh in response, mouth opened wide, his gold filling flashing beneath broken specks of food.

Ours was a modest split-level house, built during a small-town construction boom in the ’80s, painted tawny with dark brown trim, colors that stood out against the dingy grays and blues of our white neighbors. My father chose the colors, painted it himself the summer I turned nine—with the aid of my fourteen-year-old brother’s forced labor—and we kids hated it. It looks like actual shit, we said, but the color remained as each of us flew the coop—I was the last—leaving my parents alone together for the first time in their thirty-year-long unhappy marriage.

A musty odor of tiger balm and mothballs settled inside the house. The dining room table was cluttered with Vietnamese and English newspapers, folded tissues, napkins, battered spiral notebooks, orange pill bottles, empty plastic containers. Toothpicks. There was a dusty jar of dried sour plums—a candy I only ever associated with Asian seniors in sweater vests, sucking them to pass the time, deliberate and painstaking and seemingly unaware of their tortoise-like transformation.

Grime had collected on the bottles stacked along the periphery of the kitchen counter. On my last visit home, I tried wiping it away with a wet dish sponge but couldn’t. It turned gluey instead, moving like an amoeba from one side to the next, congealed and impossible to extract, forcing me to give up on tidying their mess.

My mother was forgetting, according to my father. I was assembling a late lunch of fiber-twig cereal and milk in my kitchen at school when he called and berated me over the phone.

“You’re not here! You’re not seeing what she’s like every day. She can’t remember anything. She doesn’t even know how to pick out clothes to wear in the morning! Dù mẹ. All you care about is yourself. You have no idea what’s happening at home.” When he got worked up, he stretched his words for emphasis, set them at a higher pitch, producing something both operatic and shrill. 

I had it too. At middle school slumber parties, before the pizza arrived, parents would turn their attention to me. “Please,” they said smiling, still feeling affectionate. “Do you think you could keep your voice under control tonight?” I nodded. Yes. Of course.

But unsupervised, under the influence of Sprite and Skittles, I spun across the basement floor. I got wound up and couldn’t make my way back down. Howling, pink, febrile, loud. The next morning, parents gripped their coffee mugs for support and refused to look at me. One mom threatened to get me a t-shirt the next time I entered her home. “It’s going to have three words across the front,” she said, pointing to her freckled, peach-colored chest. “Here Comes Trouble.”

“Ba. You stress Ma out,” I said back on the phone in Vietnamese. I could hear Dan Rather’s milky voice amplified in the background. My fiber twigs shriveled inside their bowl.

“You’re always screaming, telling her she’s doing something wrong. It’s not helpful. No one likes it.” I made my voice tidy and clinical, the opposite of his. I didn’t trust his assessment. Overzealous in pursuit of illness, my father was a chronic sufferer of made-up maladies. He was restless, agitated, and often impatient with my mother. If she was forgetting, I figured it was her attempt to ignore him. 

He cursed again, elongating the mother in motherfucker. “You think you know better than me? You read books. Go to college. You think you know? I’m telling you. Mày không biết!”

“You’re screaming again.”

Mày nghe đây.” His voice slowed, readying towards the crescendo I knew was coming. I was disowned. I no longer had family, a brother, sisters, mother, father. I was American-ruined. Shameful. Shallow. As good as dead. “You. Listen to me. I’m only going to say this once. You are not welcome in my home. Don’t ever come here. I will not let you in. Nghe không? Do you understand?” He was also prone to empty threats. 

“Yup. OK, Dad,” I knew he hated my mocking intonation, similar to what he encountered at his factory job, the grocery store, pharmacy, drive-thru windows. Secretly, I was thrilled. No more guilt, worry, shame about not going home because now I couldn’t. My father’s own words! He said what I’d been hoping for, ever since I’d started attending this school. I had an excuse now, My Dad said so—though, in truth, I knew his pronouncement carried little weight. I’d heard him make the same declaration to each of my siblings after a minor insult or infraction. A rite of passage in my family was rejection. It was simply my turn now. He hung up and the phone radiated heat against my ear.

I lived less than two miles from my parents in a rickety off-campus house rental shared with four friends, all seniors a year above me in school. My inclusion felt singular and precarious and I didn’t want to jinx it.

Despite my proximity, I mimicked the separation my friends from Brentwood, Evanston, and Buckhead, a rumored cattle ranch in Texas, had. I envied their cross-country cachet and pretended I could do the same.

I didn’t go home for dinner or laundry. I didn’t call. I didn’t have family vacation photos screen printed onto a homemade quilt like the one my first-year roommate slept under each night. I didn’t receive checks in the mail, nor any money for that matter, depending on future-debilitating loans for my school and living expenses.

I was a “townie” and a skillful deflector. My ploy was making fun of my classmates, many of whom were the children of wealth and privilege, like Sejal in her green Lexus, sedentary while skulking through campus, a grande dame with delicate ankles, refusing to tread the icy footpaths like the rest of us. There was blonde and belligerent “Scary Meg” who wore silk nighties and victimized unfamiliar faces at parties; got so aggressively close you could smell the astringent cocaine crackling off her skin. There were the dreadlocked white boys from Horace Mann and Fieldston. Truthfully, only two had dreads; one, in fact, was losing hair. But all spoke in an affected vernacular, punctuating their sentences with “yo, yo, yo” and “dawg.” They called weed ganja. They were Black appropriators with penthouse addresses in Chelsea and the Upper East Side. Dreadlocked or not, each felt alike in their offensiveness.

My housemate Lauren’s father was a medieval scholar and former MacArthur Fellow, or what I called a MacGenius. Her cupboard was located below mine in our shared kitchen and was always full. Towers of canned organic lentil soup and sustainably caught tuna. Expensive Swedish crackers. Meanwhile, I was a vegan out of necessity. My lunch remained mostly the same that year. Fiber twig cereal and soy milk. For an occasional splurge, I added carob chips and dried apricots into my bowl.

Lauren was fancy and pretty. She wore business-casual attire—wide-legged dress pants, heeled leather boots and soft knit sweaters. She had glossy brown hair that looked healthy and untangled. Tiny wisps danced along the crest of her forehead. When she got drunk, her cheeks became flushed and these hairs collapsed sideways across her unblemished skin.

We laughed alike, wide-mouthed and cavernous. In one of our first conversations, she told me I shared the same name as her younger sister, Katie. It wasn’t until we’d been living together for nearly a term that a mutual friend told me Katie was severely disabled and lived in a facility away from home. I recognized Lauren’s reluctance as something painful and private. We avoided asking personal questions of each other. We were respectful in this way.

On a snowy night in February, a month after my father’s phone call, my mother went missing. She’d driven in the car to see me, an afternoon together, just the two of us.

She’d called earlier in the day. “Is Katie home?” she said, her voice tentative. It was the first time she’d ever phoned me at school.

“Ma, it’s me,” I said.

“Katie –ah.” Her voice relaxed as she said my nickname, a Vietnamese rendition with a playful lilt at the end, softening the staccato break and striking a tender nerve inside me. “Your father’s at work. Can Ma come see you?” She said she missed me.

I suggested we meet on campus. She was unfamiliar with the layout; she’d been only a handful of times, but I insisted. I was afraid bringing her into my college home and introducing her to my older, sophisticated friends would ruin the idyll I’d created for myself at school, one I believed was pleasant because neither of my parents were in it.

I imagined her smile dissolving the moment she stepped through the front door, eyes scanning our screened front porch and seeing the empty liquor bottles and cigarette butts, realizing I’d been lying about school commitments that had kept me away. I’d been having fun all along.

I gave directions to the campus library instead.

The library was quiet, cerebral, and serious—everything I wanted my mother to believe I was. I told her I spent my afternoons here. It made the most sense to meet at this location. I told her where to park the car and repeated my directions a second time, asking if she understood, knowing how terrible her navigational skills were, how infrequently she left home. She loathed going to the grocery store alone and used to plead with me to accompany her each time.

“I understand,” she cooed over the phone.

I stood in the library foyer for twenty, thirty, forty-five minutes, examining each shrouded face that entered, checking my watch in between. I ran circles up and down the periodicals, the study rooms, creaky folio machines, and bathroom stalls. Back outside, I scoured the empty parking lots, winding footpaths running alongside and behind the buildings, past smoking silhouettes huddled around frozen picnic benches.

I went into the student center, craning my neck at the back of the greasy snack bar line. Then upstairs to the TV lounge where glassy-eyed students sprawled across sofas, watching reruns of The Simpsons. No one looked up when I entered the room.

Thinking she might have gotten her libraries confused, I raced the three blocks to the downtown public library next. It was dark and snowing. Sharp icy flakes pierced my cheeks, studding my shoulders and hair. My feet slipped on the frozen ground. I was talking to myself at this point, ranting, cursing, jacked on adrenaline, wind whipping, sweat dripping down my temples, the sides of my neck, into the slippery curve of my lower back.

Across the street from the library was The Tavern, the dark wooden restaurant where I’d imagined my mother and I would sit in a candlelit booth and share a brownie sundae. A brownie sundae? I figured if I could just get her alone, the mother I’d imagined would appear, laughing and bright, proof she wasn’t forgetting after all.

The spring of my senior year in high school, my mother’s face scowled with each faraway college acceptance letter that arrived in the mail. She worked the graveyard shift on an assembly line. The circles beneath her eyes were so hypnotically dark they made you sleepy just looking at them.

In Vietnam she’d been the valedictorian of her high school class. When she was twenty-four her father arranged her marriage to my father, another Vietnamese-born, ethnic Chinese kid like her, though he was a middle-school dropout with an erratic temper and steady gambling occupation.

She attempted suicide three months after her wedding. I never know how to frame this information. In the introduction? As an afterthought? Or does this lie at the heart of the story I’m trying to tell?

She never spoke of this and I was never meant to know. My older sister told me in high school, after being sworn to secrecy by a distant cousin. I’ll never know the intricacies of her pain that made her jump off the bridge, into the river below, before strangers scrambled to her rescue on the riverbank. Shame and secrecy have always loomed larger than truth in my family’s stories.

Sometimes I think her forgetting could have started on that bridge overlooking a river, in a previous life, in a previous country. This lonely memory became a long, slow-burning misery she thought she could contain, receding further and further until it no longer registered, until it became a pain so infinite she felt nothing but blank.

She was twenty-eight when my eldest sister was born. My brother was born two years later; another sister two years after that. A total of three children in the span of four years. Then the Fall of Saigon and the communist takeover. A late-night escape by boat. Refugee camp.

At thirty-five, she landed in our small, snow-dreary town in Minnesota. She got pregnant with me two months later. She had the nervous habit of scratching her calves, searching for an

elusive itch that seemed both everywhere and nowhere, aggravating both sides of her legs into piscine scaled patterns as if she was trying to claw out of her own skin.

She sang to herself while cooking dinner in the kitchen. The knife’s steady chop against the cutting board provided a synchronized beat. I’d be watching afterschool TV specials in the living room when her singing and chopping would suddenly stop. “Katie-ah!” She’d say, alarmed. I’d race over, worried, only to find her holding a snap pea, carrot, or jicama offering in her hand. “You won’t believe how sweet it is. Try.”

Up close, her eyes were wet with tears. “Chopping onions,” she insisted, looking sheepish. The sight always made me hesitate. Even when she was singing and meant to be happy, I couldn’t help but see her sadness.

I’m grateful to the strangers who saved her that day on the riverbank, even if it meant everything afterwards became an act of survival for her. Even if it meant forgetting became a way to survive too. A perverse preservation of sorts. Her memories too big, too saturated and bright. It made sense to finally let them go.

Attending college close to home felt like a small sacrifice to make, in light of everything. I was the child of refugee parents and fueled by guilt, living nearby only to never see them. Each time another classmate said, “I can’t believe you’re a townie,” I feigned nonchalance, grinning and proud and said, “No. Neither can I.”

The library’s public-use telephone hung on a wall behind the children’s librarian’s desk, next to a corkboard of flyaway photocopies, thumbtacked business cards, a handwritten note detailing the year, model, and dimensions of a John Deere tractor for sale.

I used this same phone as a kid when I needed to call home for a ride. I dialed my house number, remembering how the last four digits spelled the word JAIL. I’d made this discovery in middle school and yowled in reaction. “The universe knows!” I told my sisters, stunned.

My chest was tight and my body was damp. I knew what my father was going to say even before I told him. Why don’t you ever listen to me? You never do! Your mother can’t leave the house anymore. She gets lost. You always think you know!

Moments earlier, I repeated the frantic search I’d done inside the college library. Up and down stairs, through periodicals, aisle after aisle, stall after stall. I peered inside the mushroom-shaped reading nook meant for children and saw a young version of myself stretched across the seat, head propped against the faded corduroy cushions, pile of books towering at my side.

My mother never helped with homework. When I struggled with long division in fifth grade and then algebra in high school, she told me to consult my older siblings. “They know better than me,” she said, as if her knowledge was no match for theirs. The only advice she gave was to read. “Read everything. Read as much as you can.” Her face turned serious in these moments, unflinching in its authority.

I spent Saturdays and after-school hours holed inside this nook, doing as she said, reading, eventually gaining entrance into the nearby good college, and then later, absorbing too many American notions, perhaps, that dismissed women like my mother as passive and weak, her mind thwarted by old-world traditions.

I disagreed with her choices and wanted an alternate outcome for her, and by extension, for myself. I couldn’t see her quiet constraint as resiliency, hewing to a predictable order so I wouldn’t have to. I was too young and tried to forget her. Or, I tried to move on without her. Either way, the outcome was the same: she started to forget herself. The particulars of this timing will turn over in my mind for the rest of my years, I think. 

I hung up the phone, a weight lodged inside my stomach. I walked back home and borrowed my housemate Annie’s wheezing maroon Oldsmobile. I told her I needed it for a family emergency. She handed the keys without asking more. A pair of furry dice and the red, gold, and green flag of Rastafari hung from her rearview mirror.

I drove across the river, around the bend of sunken retirement homes, toward the dingy grey and blue split-level development on the west side of town where my childhood home stood. A police car was parked outside.

I walked through the front door as though my father had never said otherwise. He was irate, pacing the living room floor in front of the white lace curtains that looked like tied-up

brides in wedding dresses. Next to him was an armed and courteous cop, bushy moustache and yellow notepad in hand, just like in the movies.

Louise Whitte was seated on the sofa. My father had phoned her after he and I spoke. He called her Bà Louise, using a venerated Vietnamese title reserved for female elders, even though they were the same age. He regularly sought her counsel.

She was the president of the town’s Refugee Resettlement Committee, a blonde, buttery-voiced Lutheran church volunteer and my family’s American sponsor. She was divorced and lived alone. She’d been there to greet my family at the Minneapolis/St. Paul airport when they’d arrived from the refugee camp in Thailand. “I was the one signing the papers for every refugee we took,” she said proudly. “All 118 of them.”

She enjoyed relaying my family’s coming-to-America story back to us, conflating our arrival in September with another Chinese-Vietnamese refugee family’s in January, when the temperature was harrowingly cold and the children wore flip flops and shorts. We never corrected her. We knew it was a tale she took great pleasure in telling again and again and again.

On the night my mother went missing, I waited in the living room next to Louise. She told me I needed to face the facts. She called me kiddo.

She relayed a story she’d heard on the local news, just a few weeks earlier, about a man who went missing in the woods of Wisconsin. He had Alzheimer’s, “Just like your mom,” she said, too eagerly. “He stepped outside of his home and wandered away. He’s been missing ever since.” Her pastel blue eyeshadow looked chalky and overdone. “The police say they doubt he’s still alive. This is what I’m afraid happened to your mom, kiddo.”

She was telling the story a second time when my mother returned, alive and smiling and not missing somewhere in the woods of Wisconsin. I thought of the description I once read in a travel guide to Vietnam, inadvertently useful in understanding the foreign habits of my parents. A smile or laughter from a Vietnamese person may mean that they are feeling nervous or uncomfortable, and not necessarily happy.

“What’s all this?” she said, smiling. She looked at me, then my father, Louise, the mustached cop. A cacophony of voices. My father’s the loudest. The cop looked pinched and uncomfortable, yellow notebook frozen in his hand.

I can’t recall how she and I ended up in the dining room together. I think I was swift. I must have reached for her the moment she stepped inside. I saw the flicker of awareness settle across her face. Her smile vanish. I anticipated her embarrassment and wanted to lead her a safe distance away, one agonizing footstep after the other, everyone watching as we floated across the stained, carpeted floor.

         “Everything’s fine. What’s the big fuss?” she said between tears. Her velvet-rich voice shattered and cracked.

Our bodies leaned against each other, and in the next moment, she crumpled, falling to the floor, emptied and anguished. I sat on the ground next to her and clasped her hands in mine. They felt weightless.

“It’s OK, Ma. Don’t cry. Don’t cry. Please don’t be sad.” I tried to reassure her because I didn’t know what else to do, mimicking the same refrain she used on me when I was young and wounded. But she was crying tortured animal noises, and so was I, and there was Louise, our American sponsor watching from across the open expanse of the living and dining room, always watching, the armed and courteous cop, and my father, red-faced and irate, which meant everything was not OK, perhaps never was.

Her voice gurgled, submerged as if underwater. “I want to die. I’d rather go now than deal with this anymore.”

She seemed to diminish in size as she said this, transforming into a small child on the floor. I was twenty-one. She was fifty-six. She was born in the year of the dog. Her eyes begging in that moment. My mother was forgetting. She and I both understood the impossibility of her situation. But she still had enough clarity to know something was wrong. She wanted an alternate outcome for herself, and maybe by extension, for me.

“No, no, no,” is what I said, even though my resistance lacked conviction. I wasn’t so sure. I kept glancing at the cop’s gun. Given the circumstances, I couldn’t help myself.

Everyone disbanded afterwards, awkward in the way an audience is after an unsatisfying show. My father was uncharacteristically quiet, holding back, as he did, in the presence of white people. I barely paid attention. I don’t remember saying goodbye to my mother or anyone else. It still stuns me to think I left her. I was too shaken up to think clearly, drained of feeling, a pain I’ve now blocked from memory.

We never spoke of our conversation that night, of what she’d said to me. I hoped she forgot. I wanted to forget too, but I couldn’t. I can’t. Years passed and I became haunted by a future that didn’t include my mother in the way I thought it would.

I returned home to find Lauren working alone at the table, a freshly made gin and tonic next to her computer. I tried to play it cool at first, but I was too distraught. My shell cracked. Like my mother earlier, I fell to the floor and wept. She sat across from me, nodding and quiet and asking little. Her restraint came from a place of recognition. I understood then that she’d intuited all along what I’d been so desperate to hide. My worthless façade. All this time I thought I was being so strategic.

As it turned out, the mother I’d imagined came true. I’d created this memory of a thing as having already happened, and it eventually did, though not in the way I’d wanted; not when I was twenty-one and in my third year of college, but four years later, when my siblings and I lived together in a house without my father, in a quiet suburb outside San Francisco. My mother woke us up in the mornings, dancing to music in the kitchen, laughing, clapping, still in pajamas. Her skin did indeed glow. In fact, she appeared younger than ever. Her favorite spot was next to the magnolia tree that bloomed in our small backyard, each of us taking turns for the next fifteen years caring for our dreamy and content and sick mother.

Katie Quach is a writer living in Toronto. She is the recipient of Bellingham Review’s 2023 Tobias Wolff Award in Fiction, runner-up in Hunger Mountain Review’s Creative Nonfiction prize, and longlisted in CRAFT’s 2022 Creative Nonfiction Award. Other work has appeared in Catapult and Past Ten. Katie serves as a fiction editor at The Rumpus. She is at work on her first book.



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