all strings attached
“Stay here, I’ll get the car.” Huy zipped up his black puffer coat and hurried away, following the crowd of families piling out the church doors at the end of the building. As Ha stared down the center aisle of the church, past the heavy-set, fading, burgundy wood doors and all the dark-haired and occasionally hat-covered heads of the people leaving, she saw snow swirling through the dark sky lit up by streetlamps and the light spilling through the doors.
Ha shuffled out of the pew, clutching her puffer coat tightly around herself. It was her first Christmas Eve without her daughters, Lena and Vivian, waiting with her for the car and joking about how she had an uncanny sense to shepherd them out the doors just as their dad pulled up to the front steps. It was her first Christmas where she didn’t know what to do with herself and the space she took up since she was no longer a mother, just a woman standing alone. Many parents in the church community told her that her daughters were growing up or making the most of it and escaping the Minnesota winter, but Ha knew they were avoiding the chill of the house.
She walked towards the altar. The red brick walls, the arches that separated the center pews from the side pews, the way the overhead lights began to flicker off, signaling a closing. People were still catching up about work, children, successes and failures alike, wishing each other “chúc mừng giáng sinh,” others handing over money as a last-minute gift for the holidays to distant family members. Here most everyone knew each other since it was still a budding community of recent Vietnamese immigrants and first generation Vietnamese American children. With the precarious state of settling into a new country, finding a community that could connect you to a new job or tell you where to settle was the key to survival.
One of the last times Huy and Ha spoke to each other seriously was in July—their argument caused the house to fall into disarray, noted in their eerie hallways, untouched common rooms, and ghost-like children. Ha remembered the times she, her husband, and her daughters would participate in this speed-run of making the rounds to everybody they knew. The noise mingled with her memories, she wished for silence, she loved the clamor.
Ha stopped at the foot of the altar.
She turned her head and forced a smile on her face. She searched for a way to escape the conversation with the old family friend nudging her way through the crowd. But her feet remained planted where she had stopped, allowing Cô Linh to pull Ha into a chilling hug. Her thin arms wrapped around Ha’s plumpness, and every second in the hug felt like a deep aching cut instead of comfort. She only let go when Ha finally managed to lean into the sharpness, returning the hug.
“Where’s Huy?” Cô Linh asked. “Where are the girls?”
Cô Linh’s niceties were her way of teasing out the subtleties of the silent shit-show playing out between Ha and Huy. It didn’t matter that they showed up to weekly Sunday mass together, everybody knew they weren’t speaking to each other, and all that was left to figure out was why. Ha couldn’t just leave. She owed Cô Linh and her husband a debt when she moved here in her early twenties. That kind of favor was not easily forgotten.
“Huy’s getting the car,” Ha said. “Lena’s spending Christmas with her boyfriend’s family in Florida, and Vivian, well, you know how she is.”
Their abandonment of her still made Ha want to cry. Lena’s permission-asking to go away for the holidays, using the reason that her boyfriend had spent Thanksgiving with their family versus Vivian’s point-blank “I don’t want to be there!” sat at the back of Ha’s mind. She couldn’t very well say any of this without hearing rumors about her parenting style making its way around the community next.
Cô Linh said, “That one was always a handful. Girls like her think they can do anything. She’s just going to get into trouble.”
Ha looked at her feet. Lena used to cling to her coat, while Vivan ran wild.
“It must be hard,” Cô said, her eyes wide, full of pity and faux understanding,
“being alone this winter.”
The expression made Ha freeze in memory—finding messages to a faceless, Vietnamese woman on her husband’s cell phone, the way she stayed up until she could call her sister back in Vietnam to ask for advice, the way nobody picked up, and when they did they told her to just let it go. When she confronted Huy about his behavior, screaming, “They are my life. You are my life. You guys are all I have.” Her words falling to the ground between them like dust, disappearing into nothingness even though it was a collection of everything she had lived, heard, spoken. She begged him to think of their life together. He asked what life? She begged him to think of their daughters. He asked where were they? She mentioned his reputation. It made him shut up. The night ended with him leaving and her crying until she passed out against the wall of the staircase.
Ha looked past Cô Linh, unfocusing her gaze to stop the onset of tears. A part of her wanted to scream “What do you know? You don’t have any kids!” but she closed her eyes, then felt a faint and familiar pull towards the door. Huy was arriving.
“I have to go,” Ha said. “Huy is waiting.”
Cô squeezed Ha’s shoulder before she left, “Come over for dinner some time. Let the girls know they are welcome anytime they’re back.”
Ha said, “Thank you. Chao Cô.”
At the altar of the run-down church, the world before her seemed vast and endless, a sea of people in her way. She could not easily part her way through even though she zeroed in on the door at the end of the aisle. Every which way, someone she knew would stop to say hello, wish her a merry Christmas, ask about her daughters, and even more asked about Huy. The reminders of her broken life and the columns of the church collapsed around her, trapping her. When Ha burst out of the doors, she steadied herself against one of the frozen, black iron railings. She held her breath to slow her chaotic heart. While the panic from being in the social eyes subsided, a phantom pull emerged in Ha’s body from the inside out. The augury forced her to crouch down to keep from falling.
Her vision went black, a sudden rush of blood to her head made her feel as though she would lose consciousness. Her body felt a free-falling sensation, the one she often felt when her body fell asleep faster than her mind, but she couldn’t jerk awake.
She had felt this way many times before. Huy almost died a year after they met, she still remembered the sickness she felt all day leading up to his and his sister’s motorcycle accident in the monsoon that swept away his sister’s first baby. It was the same sudden illness she felt when she attended a work training to get better at her computer skills, and Vivian broke her arm at school while challenging a boy at the rock-climbing wall or when Lena drove home during a snowstorm and got a concussion when her car skid on ice.
Meeting Huy had changed the trajectory of her life, the tendrils of him threaded through her, and it made her know love for the first time. She knew it was love because she felt the same threads of life for her daughters. Their lives were tied to hers, and they couldn’t just be untangled so easily.
Through her mental pain, she heard sirens swell through the howling winds. Her own helplessness ricocheted through her body, and she failed to move fast enough to help. Vivian’s fraught words from their last conversation over the phone—accusing her of being an obsessive, emotionally manipulative, control freak of a mother. Those big confusing words. All because Ha wanted her daughters home? Why did nobody understand why she was so desperate to keep them close to her?
But it wasn’t as if her watchful eyes or knowing feelings could prevent life from happening.
“Ha?” Cô Linh’s voice broke into Ha’s consciousness. Ha felt a hand on her head.
“What’s wrong? Why are you on the ground?”
The ambulance turned the corner. Everybody stilled. Their eyes followed the flashing lights. Cars tried to pull off to the side of the snow-crushed road, but it was an unnervingly slow process as the ambulance weaved through the narrow, busy street.
“I need to find Huy.”
“What? What’s wrong?”
She kicked off her worn kitten heels to stop herself from sliding on the black ice beneath the snow, and trekked out in the stocking-clad feet, following the ambulance.
Cô called after Ha but nobody else paid them any mind.
The adrenaline subsided, and Ha slipped, falling face first into the snow. She pushed herself up, leaning on her elbows, before getting onto her hands and knees. The ambulance stopped a few blocks down. The sirens shut off; the lights continued to flash.
Cars slowly drove around the incident. Ha let her eyes adjust to the contrasting dark world and bright ambulance lights, and she made out the bright gold of her husband’s Honda Civic.
Her body and mind snapped like threads pulled past their limit. A sudden clarity came over her and nothing felt worse. Ha couldn’t hear herself as she began to crawl towards the scene, her body shaking from the cold and the emptiness.
Someone grabbed her roughly by the shoulder, and then squished her face in their cold hands. Ha blinked as Cô Linh became clear in her eyes. Cô Linh’s stern expression frightened Ha as she said, “Get yourself together. You are no use to anyone like this.”
Cô Linh’s words reminded Ha of the way her own mom acted—how her own mom let her go, let her leave the country without so much as a tear running down her cheek. Ha always wondered how her mom let her go so easily, never calling Ha unless called upon, never asking about Ha’s life even when she shared. Ha wanted to show her daughters she loved them, but whether parents were callously uncaring or overbearingly loving, parenthood ended in loneliness.
Cô Linh stood up, “I will find my husband, and he will figure out what’s going on.
Come on. Come back.”
Inside the church, at the steps of the altar, Cô Linh rubbed Ha’s feet with a towel from the priest’s house. Ha stared at her soaked feet and the methodical scrunching of the towel around her socks. Cô Linh’s lips moved but the words did not register to Ha.
Her purse vibrated, and she knew it was her cell phone, but no calls mattered right now. The lines, the threads, the phantom sixth sense she had for her husband and children had gone cold, leaving an unfamiliar desertedness in her chest.
Cô opened Ha’s purse, dug around for her cell phone, and handed it to Ha. Vivian had sent a text message: Merry Christmas Ma. Lena’s name appeared above Vivian’s message in the form of a missed call sent to voicemail with no messages left.
In the corner of her eyes, Ha saw the Christmas lights on one of the trees set up in the church, and it brought her back to Vivian’s first Christmas. The Christmas lights flashing from color to color in a beautiful and obnoxious display. But all Ha could really focus on was Vivian swaddled in her arms, her black hair plastered to her forehead, her little eyes still squeezed shut. Ha looked up from her place on the couch and saw Huy kneeling and Lena standing by the fireplace. The red brick before them glowed warm in the yellowy overhead lights. Huy tended to the fire, warning Lena to stay back with a laugh as she stared at the embers. She called out about the smoke, and Huy pretended the fire had crackled out and caught onto her. Lena screamed and Huy scooped her up into his arms. He carried Lena over to Ha and Vivian and sat on the arm of the chair.
Lena tumbled onto the couch between Ha and Huy. Huy held Ha by her shoulders, leaned down, and pressed a kiss to her forehead. The moment replayed itself in her head over and over. Her babies. Her husband. Her life.
“It was a Region’s Hospital ambulance,” Cô Linh’s husband said. “We should go there and try to get information from the front desk. Two cars were totaled and a few other damaged, lots of people injured. The road is very small.”
“Huy’s for sure.”
Cô pushed Ha’s heels towards her, “Put them on.”
She would not leave her family, her home, her life like this. She slipped on one shoe at a time. She picked up all the little things in her life, and she would love them, even if the world forced her to let go first. She would do it alone because she had to, she had to survive this.
When she stood up, Cô Linh held her by the shoulders, searching for her gaze until they made eye contact. Then Cô Linh pulled Ha into a bone-crushing hug and said into her ear, “Be strong, Ha. For Huy, for your girls, but mostly for you. Be strong for you.”
Anna Chu is an assistant, editor, and writer currently working on her novel. She has published her short stories in online journals, and her work has primarily focused on Asian American voices. Follow her @achu_172.