In the year of the ox, my poem went moderately viral in some small but enthusiastic circles, the way a poem sometimes does. I wrote it after reading the news report about the old Vietnamese woman stabbed to death outside her home in Dorchester, which is where I was at the time, visiting Leah. These visits almost always involved her putting on a harness and me skipping dinner, so I was spent. When she went to clean up and get back to her paper on sexual dimorphism in Trinidadian guppies, I began drafting the poem.
The speaker was me, but barely — he could have been a cousin or something, a foreigner who shared my hair texture and general nose shape but lived a more exciting version of my life in a more expensive city. At the beginning of the poem, he is in a cab, coming home from the airport after visiting his mother in California. On his phone he reads a news report about an old Vietnamese woman stabbed to death outside her home in Dorchester, one in a string of recent attacks marking an uptick in anti-Asian hate crimes, and, stunned, outraged, he begins to imagine the life this woman might have lived: an untroubled childhood in Saigon; a marriage to a high school sweetheart; three tall, well-adjusted children; and, soon enough, a street of bombed-out buildings, a long and arduous voyage in a small fishing boat, a stint in a Malaysian refugee camp, and an eventual relocation to Boston, where she finds work as a house cleaner, where her children grow up and leave, where her husband passes quietly in the night, where she spends her days watching dubbed Korean dramas and strolling around her neighborhood, imagining another neighborhood in another country.
The speaker of my poem sees in this old woman his mother. The knife, the blood, the news. He imagines his mother at the grocery store, confronted by a man with wild eyes. He makes a decision then. He tells the cab driver to take him somewhere else. He goes to the old woman’s house in Dorchester. To where she was killed. He sees a flock of pigeons on the sidewalk outside and tosses them crackers, watches them eat. When they fly off, he imagines them flying all the way across the ocean to Vietnam. The sun is sinking now. It swallows the birds. The speaker, with his luggage in tow, walks the full five miles back to his apartment.
This was the poem I wrote at Leah’s place. Even then, before the poem was published, before it was widely shared by online literary types and blown up by the Chinese American congresswoman who retweeted it in May along with the appropriate hashtags, I knew that the best response to a horrific act of violence was not this poem. I told myself that I had to put my feelings into words, that this was how I dealt, how I coped and mourned. And it was. But there was also a thrill in writing about something so recent and terrible, a thrill, too, in connecting it to the various swirling traumas of my own life, however tenuous the connections. Even before I had a full draft on the page, I imagined people encountering my poem on a pristine website, sharing screenshots of it, chittering away in various comments sections, making careful conjectures about the relationship between the speaker and the poet. I wanted the noise. It was ugly of me to want it so badly, but I did.
At work, people demanded my thoughts on things. They were angry and sad about the old woman murdered in Dorchester, and so my poem became a professional whetstone, grinding me into myself but sharper. I was asked many times if I was okay. I was given opportunities to demonstrate my resilience. The day the poem was published, my job was to create social media graphics that would make people sign up for a six-week lyric essay workshop for eight hundred dollars. I was good at my job. It was a job anyone could become good at given enough time and Adderall. I answered to three different directors, toothy Gen Xers with pristine opinions on politics and literature.
Erica, our development director, told me my poem was brave and gut-wrenching and necessary. She asked me if my parents were alright, and I told her they were. Matt, our programs director, asked me if I was going to the protest at the Garden that weekend, because he knew the organizers and could get me up there to read my poem if I was interested. I told him I would think about it, and he said, please do, take all the time and space you need right now. Kelly, our executive director, who had published a book of his own poems nearly a decade ago through a small but well-respected press, told me he would put me in touch with his editor there.
“It’s easy to forget that everyone here is an artist, too,” Kelly said, “that we all have our own individual practices. You get caught up and you forget.”
“I know what you mean,” I said, though I didn’t. Everyone at work, from the directors to the assistants to the interns, was constantly sharing their writing online. It was unavoidable.
“Whenever something like this happens,” Kelly said, “and I read something so incisive and painful by a writer in the community, especially one as young as you, it just reminds me. It reminds me why I do this work.” He said the words young and community like they were serious illnesses.
“I mean it, Vincent. Thank you for your voice.” When Kelly placed his hand on my shoulder, my shoulder became slightly damp. He had chosen to intercept me just outside the men’s room, which had no working paper-towel dispensers.
“Wow,” I said. “Thank you, Kelly. Just thank you.”
I didn’t know what else to say, so I pulled him into a hug, which seemed to surprise him. Kelly was a thin, bird-like man, but the muscles on his back were very firm. I wondered who he went home to. He never spoke much about home. At times, he seemed to me like a video game NPC, hard-coded with a dialogue tree, limited to a few encouraging comments and several dozen phrases about broadening the city’s literary landscape.
“You know,” Kelly added, “Matt was worried about putting out our solidarity statement this week, but when I read your poem, I knew we were in good hands.” He gave me a look that said, I value you for reasons I cannot say out loud, and I returned him one that said, let’s keep this arrangement going. In the bathroom, I crushed and inhaled a 10 mg Adderall. My phone seized up with notifications, most of them about my poem, and also a text from Leah, nestled between other messages on my lock screen.
Show me you’re thinking of me
She always texted in short commands like this. It was a great power of hers. Her economy of language drove me into brick walls again and again. I calculated the risk of taking semi-nude photos in the bathroom mirror. It didn’t take long.
Afterwards, I finished my draft of our organization’s statement of support for the Asian American community in the wake of the killing in Dorchester and forwarded it to Kelly and Matt. They liked what I’d done, but told me to mention South Asians, West Asians, and Pacific Islanders, who were almost always marginalized in statements by literary organizations. We could be better than that.
From Friday night to Sunday morning, Leah made me wear a collar and sleep at the foot of her bed. I wasn’t allowed to want anything. All the wanting at her place was to be done by her. When I arrived after work, having taken a 30 mg Adderall and a half-tab of acid, I found her on the couch working on her paper. A Japanese animated movie ran in the background, something about a man with a sword and a pet crow. She wore a purple robe and didn’t look up or greet me. Leah gave me nothing.
For a moment, I wanted her to get up off the couch and hit me, hard. I thought about telling her this, but then I gave up that want. I did what a therapist once told me to do with intrusive thoughts — take the thought, place it on a leaf, and allow it to drift down the river of my mind — which seemed like a poorly translated version of some Zen Buddhist practice. As corny as it was, I did it all the time, even though I wasn’t sure how compatible Zen Buddhism was with the arrangement Leah and I had. I spent my weekends cooking her meals and doing her laundry while she attended to her research. Leah wrote about the sex lives of captive-bred guppies and killifish. She called me in every hour or so to dig through the notes she kept in the filing cabinet beneath her desk, sometimes ordering me to get down there myself and kneel under her. Once in a while, when I was organizing her notes, she would knock everything out of my hands and make me clean it up. She didn’t do this as often as I would have liked, but that too was part of the game.
At first, I was concerned about how good it felt to be a thing Leah kept. We tried for a while to do it without the collar, without the cooking and the kneeling beneath the desk, to see if there might be another way. We tried it during the week too. Once, I even fastened the collar around her neck, the restraints around her little wrists. None of it worked. The alternatives made us stupid and violent and awful, both to one another and to ourselves, and so we resigned ourselves to the weekend, the only life it made sense for us to share.
That Friday night, I took my place at Leah’s feet the way I always did. She looped the collar around me, fixing it tight with a small silver ring. She told me I was hers. When she came, the muscles in her legs clenching around my throat, hard and rhythmless, I felt my spine buzzing, a warmth seeping in, possibly the Adderall or the acid, but also, possibly, love. I felt my hair very acutely then, wound tight in her fingers. I was beneath her, always beneath her. She drew me in and came again. When the movie ended, we sat there, together and not together, the orchestral score fading into the low tumble of the dishwasher.
“I read your poem today,” Leah said, finally. “I liked it, but it was hard to read.”
I was still nestled in her lap, so I couldn’t tell what her face was saying. Her voice was a plain, cold metal that never softened for me.
“The description of the murder?” I asked.
“The stuff about your mom.”
Parents were the currency of our early days, before Leah and I had our arrangement in the city, before we even really knew each other. We met at a small college in Iowa, a place where students were constantly picketing the dining hall to protest the administration’s unethical factory farming contracts. The first thing I learned about Leah was that her parents were from the same city in Vietnam as mine. We had shown up to the Asian American Association’s first meeting of the year, and the leaders, a Korean senior and a half-Korean junior, encouraged us to tell stories about our families, in order to give us a handy set of shared, vaguely Asian experiences about which to commiserate.
After this meeting, Leah and I went to a coffee shop in town, where we learned several other things about our respective parents. Leah’s lived in Albuquerque, worked at a Johnson & Johnson factory, went to church every Sunday, and sent her money in the mail, which she always sent back. My mother lived in San Diego, worked at a telecommunications company, practiced various forms of energy healing, and sent me emails I never replied to about my brother and his recent teaching accomplishments at a middle school named after a civil rights leader. For the next few months, Leah and I fulfilled the greatest wishes of our college’s Asian American Association. I told her my mother used to hit me with a wooden spoon, and she said, mine too, and when she told me that kids at school used to make fun of her for the lunches her dad packed her, which always seemed to include a healthy dose of fish sauce, I said, same here. We’re the same, I said.
It went like this for weeks, and then, one night, in the aftermath of a dorm party, when Leah and I were the only ones left in the fourth floor kitchen, sitting in desk chairs and smoking someone else’s American Spirits, I told her the only thing she didn’t yet know about my mother.
When I was finished, I found that she was staring at me, at my mouth, as if the answer she was looking for was behind my teeth. She flicked the remains of her cigarette out the window, the red dot sailing into the gravel like a live shell.
“Vincent,” Leah said. “This might not matter, but I don’t think I could ever lie to you.”
“Okay,” I said.
She told me to open my mouth. I did. She told me to look at her. I did. When she pressed two fingers against my tongue, pushing them down my throat, I tasted salt and ash and something I couldn’t place. With her other hand, she took my head and brought me down.
This was when it began, not quite the way it was now, in Dorchester, on the carpet beneath the couch after a week at work, but something like it.
“It just felt strange to me,” Leah said. “In the poem, you talk about your mom like she’s someone you have this whole relationship with. Like, you visit her in the poem. You fly to California to go see her. I didn’t get that.”
“I guess the speaker is me in the future, maybe. Someone I could be one day.”
“Do you really see that for yourself?”
“I think I might.”
“Even after what she did.”
“And when you heard about the murder, you thought of her?”
I didn’t know what to say. I did think of her, because I wrote the poem, but I never called her or emailed her, never asked about whether or not she had heard the news. We hadn’t spoken in months. It was too hard to love her and know her at the same time. I could only love her without knowing her, or know her without loving — never both at once.
“I don’t want you to think I didn’t like the poem,” Leah said. “I like it. It was just hard to read, knowing what I know.”
“I get that,” I said. “You know me too well.”
“Maybe,” she said. “I just don’t always feel like your poems come from a good place. Wherever they come from feels a little uncertain to me, a little painful and scary.”
“It’s not you,” I said. “It’s not in your control.”
“I don’t know,” she said, and pulled me down again, this time by the ring of my collar. There was so much warmth at the center of her, I wanted to cry.
Leah was right. She always was. My poems came from a scary and uncertain place, and this was because they came easy to me. This was the most shameful part. It was easy for me to write in an angry way, using a large and prophetic voice I did not entirely believe in to describe the hurts I had accrued, to write the word body and mean a thousand imagined bodies, bruised and bleeding, to write the word war and mean some argument I had with my mother once over dinner. I wrote like this all the time. I wrote this poem about the woman in Dorchester in one sitting.
After she finished, I told her what Matt had said to me that morning at work, that I had a chance to read my poem at the protest on Saturday. She drew my chin up then, allowing me to meet her eyes, which were brown and murky and vaguely demanding. I almost cried again, looking at her. On my cocktail of prescriptions and supplements, I had many moments like this, when I stared at Leah in the warm aftermath of her pleasure and thought about what it would take for me to cry, physiologically speaking. Maybe if I was stabbed. Or if she was. I couldn’t be sure.
“Maybe I’ll join you,” Leah said. “I’ll see if I can finish my edits early.”
The organizers set up their banners and speakers in the center of the pavilion, which overlooked the watery part of the Garden, the geese and turtles. The turnout was good — a few hundred people bundled up in hats and masks and scarves, most of them college students from the city’s several dozen schools. They had painted their signs with slogans like Stop Asian Hate and Protect Our Elders, things we all believed in, because what else could we believe? We all wanted to keep Asians from being spat on and old people from being stabbed. The energy was palpable, electric. People were hurt. They were angry. There were names on some of the signs, Chinese names and Vietnamese names and Korean names, the names of everyone who had been attacked or killed in the past few months.
“You’re on deck,” Matt said. “How are you feeling?”
“I’m alright,” I said. “It’s cold out.”
“It is,” Matt agreed, “but people came out anyway. That says a lot. I mean, this is big, Vincent. You sharing your words with these people. It’s big what you’re doing.”
We were all gathered on the marble steps together, me, Matt, the other organizers in their orange vests, and a few women in glittering dresses, Vietnamese women who must have been very cold. I was glad Leah wasn’t there. She got nervous in large crowds.
Once, when we were at a theater in Des Moines, an alarm went off and Leah pulled me to the floor, convinced that there was a shooter in the building. She began texting a long and frantic message, I assumed to her parents, the glow of the phone illuminating fear on her face. I had never seen her like that. An usher came in seconds later, announcing that it was a faulty fire alarm, but the whole episode left her shaken. When we got back to our dorm, Leah put the collar on me and had me hold her in bed, the shades drawn, the white noise machine whirring like a swarm of gentle insects. I felt, for the first time, like a comfort, a small thing you touch when you don’t know what else to do with your hands, when you have nothing to hold but must hold something. It was better, today, for her to be home.
The current speaker was a Vietnamese girl, a high schooler wearing a green ao dai. “We stand with all marginalized communities,” she said. “We have to protect each other,” she said. The people shouted and chanted with her. There were so many mouths opening and closing. It felt like a concert. I was impressed with her, this girl with her anger and her resolve, how young she sounded. Her voice was shaky but bright. What she said, she meant. It couldn’t be faked.
“What happened in Dorchester,” the girl said, “could have happened to any of us in this country. It might still. Any of us who look like this might one day be the targets of ugly, horrific, racist violence. We all know it. This pain is so big.” Her voice shook again. This girl, this girl. People cheered her on when she faltered.
“At the end of the day,” she continued, “as deeply as I feel this pain, it is not mine. This pain we feel today, it belongs to the victim and her family. It is their pain, and so it is their words we need to listen to. I am honored to invite to the stage Jasmine Nguyen, eldest daughter of Mai Nguyen.”
The crowd simmered down to a hiss, then erupted. The middle-aged woman next to me stepped forward. I recognized her then. Everyone’s face was a reflection of their mother’s. I should have known. She had been crying this whole time, and still I hadn’t connected this hurting woman to the woman in the video we all saw. I felt my stomach tighten like a coil. I thought of my own mother for the first time since I had spoken to Leah. I thought of the photo of her and my father and brother in front of the plane, dressed like they were going to church, when really they were uprooting their small lives and planting them elsewhere.
All my life, my mother had called us refugees, had told me and my brother tales of our escape: the boats, the guns, the dogs. The stories changed a little with each telling, but I learned to love the modulation, the shakiness of her voice, the guns becoming rockets, the dogs becoming sharks or Thai pirates. These stories were meant to teach me and my brother things like, hard work pays off, or, do not trust the communists and their allies, but all I heard was, you, too, might be a series of stories. In my college essays, I cited my mother as the reason I hoped to become a writer — to honor the stories of her life and thread them into my own.
The summer before I left for Iowa, I found a photo. My parents, together, young and fresh in their French pastels, standing on the tarmac with my brother, a fat baby in a stroller. They were surrounded by luggage, a dozen valises and trunks and leather suitcases. I was nowhere in the photo. The date scrawled on the back — March 19, 1984, nine years after the fall of Saigon, nine years after they had supposedly boarded the fishing boat at dawn, landing weeks later in the Philippines. There was no boat here. These were immigrants.
My stomach grew heavy then, my head warm and sweaty. I felt the lie in my body, the way I felt things like drugs and food and alcohol. I went to the bathroom and threw up. I thought about burning the house down, or grievously injuring myself and allowing my mother to find me bleeding in some corner.
I never confronted her about the photo. In Iowa, I answered her calls and emails less and less. I couldn’t stomach her voice, the kindness and worry. I didn’t want her lies to imprint on me, though I also figured that it might be genetic, that I had already inherited the liar’s gene, the sequence of DNA that would one day compel me to tell my children that I was an alchemist or a high-powered lawyer or a refugee.
This was what I told Leah on the fire escape all those years ago. I gave it to her in a tumbling stream of consciousness that must have seemed erratic and mostly drug-fueled, and by the time I was done, I saw the lines in her face had been smoothed away. It must have pleased her on some level. For me to have handed her, so quickly, this great lie of my mother’s, this heavy thing I carried with me all the time. It was then that I knew she wanted me. I had greased some secret machinery in her, whatever it was that allowed her to be who she was. When I told her my mother was a liar, I could feel it kicking to life.
Now, standing in the cold with the city’s hurt pooled beneath me, I felt the great lie once more. I felt it in my gut, my head, my feet. I looked at Matt, who looked at me. I looked back to the woman on stage, adjusting the mic, crying still.
I couldn’t read my poem for these people, for this woman whose mother had been murdered in Dorchester. It would cut me down, and even then, I would not be as low as she was, or any of the people here were, people who felt things with their hearts, who met violence with anger and sadness and one another, shivering on the lawn. I walked away, leaving Matt, leaving Jasmine, leaving the hum of the mic and the simmer of the crowd. I swallowed two Adderall and boarded the red line to Dorchester.
While I was assembling a banh mi for Leah, I heard squeaking from under the sink. Her kitchen had green tile and a mouse problem. I got down to find a mouse caught in one of the glue traps I had set out a week earlier. I drew the white sheet up, holding it to the light. The mouse’s legs were bent at strange and ugly angles. I hated these glue traps, but this, too, was part of our arrangement. I had to make the place homelike, which meant keeping undesired houseguests out. I was so many things, all of them Leah’s. It was a full life I lived.
“We could use regular traps,” I’d suggested. “The kind that snap down. We could try cheese and everything.”
“I’ll leave it to you,” Leah said. “Glue traps are easiest, but I don’t care, as long as I don’t have to see them. That’s all I want.”
I had decided to go with the glue traps. I’d read online that you could loosen mice from the traps by dousing them in cooking oil. But as I knelt there on the tile, I knew this one’s legs were too far gone. It would be cruel to release it like this, only for the ants to swarm and colonize its body in the dirt, hollowing it out over the course of a day or two. The thing squeaked at me as I walked it outside, struggling pointlessly in the glue. I laid the sheet on the ground, mouse-side down. It looked like a page torn from a small notebook, shivering, quickened by an animal wind.
I considered writing a poem about the mouse with the broken legs, how I would have to crush it underfoot to put it out of its misery. The poem would concern this and more. It would implicate me in acts of terrible violence. It would gesture towards Leah and Matt and my mother and Jasmine too, the old woman’s daughter in her white ao dai. I would write about what I knew, but I would write it all wrong. I would estrange the speaker from myself, giving him a mother who never left Vietnam, a partner who didn’t leash him to the bed, a sister rather than a brother. I would draw upon great hurts. There were so many ways to write the true thing, but I wouldn’t. I wanted the lie. I wanted what I wanted, and no amount of leaves and water could carry it away from me.
Steven Duong is a writer from San Diego living in Atlanta.