She called you and said she was tired, that she couldn’t sleep the night before because of con ma, a ghost. You weren’t listening; you didn’t ask. But she answered anyway. He’d come for her at the Devil’s hour, dressed in all white. His smile a crescent moon at dawn, he’d knelt at the foot of her bed, eyes like two black bubbles. She’d laid awake, frozen. Come morning, she’d looked and saw that her husband had gone, as if he’d fizzled out into nothing but dust and slow, amber-tinted light.
You didn’t believe her.
Lifting your glasses, you rubbed the side of your nose with two fingers. The voice of your grandmother, your bà ngoại, was small, soft. Swiveling between the textbook and the solutions manual, you scowled in frustration. You breathed in: black coffee and cheap erasers. And you breathed out, swearing under your breath that next semester, you’d start studying sooner, much sooner. You turned off speakerphone, clamping the iPhone between your shoulder and ear. You were busy, and you said so—twice. Loudly and firmly, as if she was a slow-learning dog. She spoke in broken, faltering English.
She said, “My grandson is a hard worker.”
She said, “I’m proud of you.”
She said, “I love you.”
You hung up. In that moment, you had no way of knowing what your face looked like (blank, with eyes like iced-over rocks). You had no way of knowing that the following night, while you wrote your organic chemistry midterm, grandma would take grandpa’s hand, the two of them disintegrating into nothing but dust and moonlight.
In the summers between grades four, five, and six, your grandmother cooked you lunch every day. When you saw her at the door in the morning, snug in a dotted cardigan, you struggled not to smile. A white plastic bag, stuffed with sweet buns and coloured sticky rice, always hung from one wrist.
The day before grade four started, she’d held your hand and the both of you ran—giggling—through a thunderstorm, from No Frills to your house across the street, white plastic bags stretched over the tops of your heads. The world was a dark and soggy place, an anonymous jungle of dripping power lines and shiny rooftops. A world without any framework or handholds. But as long as bà ngoại held your hand, you thought, you would know where to run.
The summer between grades five and six, you grew almost a foot taller. You were eating bánh xèo on a quiet August afternoon when you heard them outside your front door—those boys from school who would kick the back of your chair and flick elastic bands at your bare arms and legs. Boys who would yank the skin around their blue and green eyes, spitting the word chink in your face.
Your fingers sticky with fish sauce, you scrambled out the door to see them wheeling away your bike. Before you could take off running with clenched fists, bà ngoại yanked you back by the elbow. Tottering onto your front lawn, she screamed at the boys in Vietnamese, her little, wrinkled face turning red. Furious, she flapped a dirty rag at them until they dropped the bike on the sidewalk and sprinted away, wide-eyed.
The next summer, you told your mom you were old enough to stay home alone, that you could eat whatever was in the fridge. You were embarrassed by bà ngoại—by her broken English and blackened teeth. By then, you were more than two heads taller than her. Having stumbled upon new friendships and new, mesmerizing ambitions, the world had unfolded into someplace effervescent and white—someplace comfortable, where you no longer needed to hold anybody’s hand.
In front of the apartment building were huge, old willow trees, their leaves drooping, almost touching the ground, as if they were people lost in thought.
Inside the apartment, the smell was nothing you could’ve imagined: a sickly sweet, like cantaloupe rotting under the afternoon sun. Even with her body gone, the smell still sank into your hair, your clothes. Your throat was plugged. Outside, though the chintz curtains, you saw a flock of pigeons nosedive behind the willows. The engine of a motorcycle in the parking lot out front filled the small apartment with the moaning of a torture machine. Behind you, your mom was folding the one, tattered winter jacket your grandma had ever owned, the jacket she bought at a Sears outlet mall when she’d first immigrated to Canada.
You stacked her books into a cardboard box. Thumbing through the pages of a notebook, you saw that she’d written the days of the week in English, over and over again, in stiff, slanted letters. She’d penned the names of furniture, of animals and countries. You ran your fingers over the popped-out curlicues on the backs of the lined pages. You bit your lip until you tasted pennies, squeezing your eyes shut.
In another, slimmer notebook, you skimmed through the phone numbers and addresses of her family doctor, dentist, hairstylist, and a few names you didn’t recognize. An unopened pack of gel pens, with Dollarama’s green and yellow sticker still on it, was hidden beneath a thick Vietnamese-to-English dictionary.
Next to the phone on the kitchen table was a spiral-bound notepad with a holographic kitten on the cover. You took it and sat down on a chair she’d lined with a sheet of plastic. Each page in the notebook had a tiny paw in the upper right corner, with a page number in its center.
Bà ngoại had written on the front page, “My name is Linh. How are you? I am well.”
Your mom was taking silverware out of the kitchen drawers. The clink of forks and knives sounded like faraway, heavenly bells. You flipped to the last page with words on it.
She’d written, “My grandson is a hard worker.”
She’d written, “I’m proud of him.”
She’d written, “I love him.”
Carolyn Chung is a nineteen-year-old living in Toronto. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in FreeFall and tenderness, yea.