Nicer Shoes

I stand in the food line with a round plastic container. My sister too, with her own round plastic container. When we get to the front of the line, we tell the people with the big ladles that we would like six servings please because there are six of us.

We do this three times a day. Breakfast. Lunch. Dinner. Or maybe it was just two meals — three just seems too many now. Maybe our containers weren’t plastic. Nor were they round. But I remember well the part about standing in line. I’m grateful for this food, however it tastes, however bland, however not-enough. This food will nourish me while I’m here.

It’s quite rare — and I don’t remember who gives us the money — that my sister and I get to buy a gorgeous bunch of plump longans from a girl who sells them outside our perimeter. We exchange goods through the iron bars. Mostly I remember watching other kids eating them — but I don’t stare, of course. I know shame already.

In the evenings I ask my sister to sing for me. I ask her to sing my favorite Vietnamese song that means “Mother’s Heart.” It’s like a lullaby. We rarely talk about missing home. What’s the point. I cry a lot, I suppose. I’m sure my sister tries to be strong in front of me so I never see her cry.

I pass the time in the afternoons by watching this woman crochet. She crochets a wide floppy brim hat that has bunches of grapes all around. The grapes would be one color, the rest another. I memorize her steps so when I go to America I can make the exact hat should I have money to buy some yarn and a crochet hook.

We wash ourselves by scooping water out of a long rectangular cement basin. Everybody brings their own scooping bowl and soap. The men just wear shorts and reach inside to scrub their whatever. The women wear sarongs. There’s a very beautiful woman here at the camp. It’s always more crowded at the basin whenever she’s there. I know so because that’s when I’m there too. I try to copy whatever she does, but only from the corner of my eye.

She washes her long hair first. But I’m more interested in how she washes her breasts while keeping the sarong up. She holds the corner of her sarong in her mouth, her right hand reaches inside to soap up, then she pours water over herself with her left hand. I can tell that her right hand is now farther down her sarong — she must be washing her… I can’t look, not even from the corner of my eye. But my sarong drops and bunches up at my ankles. I have no breasts to hold up this stupid piece of fabric. I feel foolish to even wear a sarong to the basin. All the other kids just come here naked.

Each family gets a small section of floor space. My sister and I are here with our three brothers and my oldest brother’s wife. I don’t remember interacting much with my brothers or sister-in-law. Like we have nothing to say to each other. I don’t remember the nights. I don’t remember falling asleep and waking up.

Three months have passed. Seems more like three years. Like any other evening — sometime after dinner — a man’s voice comes over the loudspeaker. I no longer tune in. But a name immediately stabs at my ears. Our ears. I look at my sister-in-law, our eyes wide in disbelief. Our family’s name has been called. We get to leave this refugee camp soon.


My sister’s son, Allen, told me that his mom recently bursted into tears and couldn’t stop crying while eating beets and peas at Sweet Tomatoes (aka Souplantation — she comes here 5 times a week because she can’t cook and is a health nut). I asked her more about it.

Me: Why the hell did you do that for?

Sis: I just thought about everything that you had gone through, and I lost it. I wept. I remember crying that hard only one other time.

M: Jesus. At a goddamn restaurant no less?

S: Yeah. You’ve gone through a lot.

M: We both did.

I go into my closet and see the stacks of shoe boxes on the floor. I mostly like wearing boots and have more than a few. Maybe if my sister saw how I spoil myself with footwear, then she wouldn’t cry her head off in a restaurant feeling sorry for me. Some days the food line seems like a century ago, but I’m reminded of it when grace happens. I have nicer shoes now.

I crocheted the hat from memory, turned out exactly as I’d wanted. Red yarn for the grapes and white yarn for the rest. Grapes were still a foreign fruit to me, so why not red. I liked the contrast. I forget now where I’d placed it.

This entry was posted in Shallow Thoughts and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

*
*