She saw her father at Smith’s. By accident. She was paying the heat bill. After paying the heat bill, she deposited some of the money he had given her for rent. As she walked out of Aisle 6 near the cereal, she saw him. His eyes were looking up, searching for something. But she saw him. She decided that when he turned his gaze towards Captain Crunch he couldn’t possibly see her. Walking past him quietly, she snuck out of his view. Her father was wearing a black sweater and black jogging pants. He looked scrawny and not like her father. Whenever she saw her father, her heart ached. Especially from a distance, from a place where he couldn’t reciprocate her gaze.
Her father had suffered extensively during his sixty years of existence. Since arriving in the States in his thirties, he had worked for the poultry factory for nearly thirty years, and when he retired he was penniless, not from gambling, but from poor money management. After all, her father never had a high school education. He dropped out of school when he was 15 to join the Army, fighting against the communists and Viet Cong. When the war ended, no one wanted to hire him, especially those from the North, moving South after the evasion. He was a white sheet of paper that no one wanted. So her father worked for a truck company that transported fruits and vegetables from the highlands of Vietnam into the cities. He transported goods from Ha Giang, Lao Cai, Quang Ninh, and even from Dalat. He transported Japanese plums, Asian pears, etc. Domestic market was his expertise.
For three weeks now, she hadn’t spoken to him. Despite sharing the same bedroom and same bed, she hadn’t technically spoken to him. She had purposefully been avoiding him. She hid under the bedsheets in the late morning, concealing her face beneath a mask of fabric. Sometimes the fabric clung to her nose and for moments she felt suffocated as if a cat had been sitting on her face and inhaling all her human breath. She had been concealing her face from him because she has gotten fat from eating too much cereal and pomelo. She had been eating too many fruits. When others asked her if her father worked for the university, she said that he worked in poultry. But they had a way of mishearing her.
‘So he worked in poetry. What’s that like?’
‘They spend a lot of time decapitating heads and cutting thighs off sestinas,’ she wanted to retort. But she said nothing. It was not her duty.
Her father’s fingers didn’t work properly most of the time. He experienced phantom pain and his severe carpal tunnel syndrome sometimes made it hard for him to hold a knife to cut a papaya. Papayas, by nature, are soft and delicate and require little strength to incise, but her father struggled at the kitchen counter. Sometimes she grabbed the fruit and knife from him and began to attack it gently.
She thought that after working on an assembly line, slaughtering 140 chickens per minute with his co-workers, he would have grown tired of eating chicken, but chicken was her father’s favourite meat. It was a white meat that was easy for his body to digest. He didn’t enjoy beef very much because his weak teeth found it hard to chew, and pork had a bloody smell that made him think of the North and of his sister who had breastfed him. His mother gave birth to thirteen children. He was the youngest and when her nipples grew pruney, his sister took over the breastfeeding. Sucking on his sister’s teats was not meant to be a part of his life’s journey but when he came out into the world as the thirteenth child, it had to be. His family couldn’t afford formula.
‘I don’t want you to fry fish in the kitchen. Take it outside,’ he told her a month ago, when she was still speaking to him. ‘I don’t want my girlfriend to leave me because we smell too fishy.’
‘She doesn’t care,’ she told him.
‘I don’t want her to tell me that whenever she visits our place, she is visiting a fish market.’
‘She won’t leave you because of the smell.’
‘If we emit less odour, our lovers stay with us for longer.’
‘What about Napoleon?’
‘What about him?’
‘He didn’t want Josephine to bathe for days before his arrival.’
‘Smelling fishy and being acidic are two different things. Maybe Napoleon didn’t eat enough navel oranges when he fought in battles and needed it from her when he returned home.’
‘What is the point of having love if you can’t be yourself with that person?’
‘Smell you can change, but not personalities.’
‘Does she love you, Dad?’
‘She loves me a lot.’
‘How does she show it?’
‘I told her that her regular visits with the Botox doctor hurt my feelings and she stopped going.’
‘Really? It hurt your feelings?’
‘Well, yeah. After her Botox visits, her face always looked like the flappy, slimy insides of chicken wings. I told her that I’ve had to deal with that for thirty years and don’t know if I can take another thirty.’
‘She stopped going just like that?’
‘I told her that I love phở gà and ox tail soup very much and so for the past six weeks, we have been to Viet Noodle Bar, Plumeria, and District One. We stopped eating so much of what she liked.’
‘What does she like to eat?’
‘Italian food like pappardelle.’
‘Yeah. I told her Italian food makes her fat and Viet food doesn’t.’
‘I don’t think it’s wise to tell a girl that she’s fat.’
‘She lost 10 pounds since being with me.’
‘Is she happy with that?’
‘I don’t know. She is really open about talking. She says, “Don’t wait to tell me what’s wrong with our relationship. Tell it to me now and we deal with it.”’
‘So you tell her what’s wrong with her and not the relationship.’
‘Well, she doesn’t think acceptance makes a long-lasting relationship. Communication does. There are certain things I can’t accept about her. It’s just not fair.’
‘What are they?’
‘She eats so fast.’
‘Is it her fault?’
‘She can’t help who she has become.’
‘From eating too fast?’
Her father’s girlfriend was bisexual. Her father feared that she would be interested in his daughter, so now they avoided spending time with her. When his girlfriend gave his daughter a red dress, her father thought she was hitting on his daughter. He grew jealous and afraid of losing her. When his girlfriend invited them to dine together at The Black Sheep, run by Vietnamese executive chef Jamie Tran, her father became livid. He thought that his girlfriend wanted to court his daughter too. Meanwhile, his daughter sat alone in the kitchen, eating non-fishy meals and fighting back tears. Outside of her father’s social circle, she had no social life. Her father’s friends and lovers were her friends. She didn’t know how to make her own friends.
So when she saw her father at Smith’s, she pretended that it wasn’t him. She felt his low self-esteem under the low, bright light of Smith’s. During their long marriage before the divorce, her mother would remind him that he was a useless, penniless, namby-pamby man. Each time he tried to be intimate with her, she could hear through the thin wall of their adjacent bedrooms her mother asking him, ‘Are you useless?’
He would reply candidly, ‘I am useless.’
‘What is the size of your penis, useless man?’ she asked him.
‘What kind of a man did I marry?’
‘And what else?’
‘A useless coward.’
‘A useless coward with a tiny penis.’
‘See how fast you’re learning?’
His daughter wasn’t the type to see a glass as half-full or half-empty. She had a practical way of viewing the world.
When she sat alone eating by herself for weeks and months, her father not allowing her to join in his dining experiences with his girlfriend, she thought, ‘Does my father ever pity me or even love me?’ She didn’t want him to feel guilty for his happiness, but could he be truly happy if she wasn’t?
As time passed, it dawned on her that her father was capable of enjoying happiness without her. In fact, he enjoyed his happiness more when she wasn’t a part of it.
Meanwhile the father thought: his girlfriend was amazing at giving fellatio. He’d had to force his ex-wife to do it, but his girlfriend begged for it. So tossing his daughter aside was something he had to do. His happiness over her happiness. Life made him choose. So he chose. But could his daughter blame him? He had slaughtered so many chickens for his family. For thirty years, all he knew was chickens. It wasn’t selfish now, was it, his wanting something for himself? If his girlfriend were to involve his daughter in their plans, he got the feeling that she would get into his daughter too. His daughter wasn’t pretty but she was endowed with charisma. And charisma is a superior asset than beauty. Beauty ages, but charisma is timeless. Beauty is subjective, but charisma is universal. Beauty is temporary, but charisma lives on. He feared that his girlfriend would choose charisma over him. He wasn’t a handsome man, but he had a smile and a warmness that drew others to him. It was the primary reason why his girlfriend learned how to say ‘I love you’ in Vietnamese.
It would be five more months before the lunar moon showed her face. What would he do between now and then, when his daughter had slowly become engorged like an overripe persimmon? He had come into the world to slaughter chickens for thirty years, to fight the Viet Cong for five years, to be a lame, penniless Việt Kiều, and to date this white woman whose teats were bigger than two pomelos.
And his daughter was a fish sitting on a cutting board, waiting for salt to be rubbed onto her. Her fins were long and whiskery. He held the cleaver tightly in his right hand. He and his girlfriend must have known that her head tasted the most delicious. They must have known. Why else would they lay her on the cutting board?
ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR
Vi Khi Nao is the author of Sheep Machine (Black Sun Lit, 2018) and Umbilical Hospital (Press 1913, 2017), the short story collection, A Brief Alphabet of Torture, which won FC2’s Ronald Sukenick Innovative Fiction Prize in 2016, the novel, Fish in Exile (Coffee House Press, 2016), and the poetry collection, The Old Philosopher, which won the Nightboat Books Prize for Poetry in 2014. Her work includes poetry, fiction, film and cross-genre collaboration. Her stories, poems, and drawings have appeared in NOON, Ploughshares, Black Warrior Review and BOMB, among others. She holds an MFA in fiction from Brown University, where she received the John Hawkes and Feldman Prizes in fiction and the Kim Ann Arkstark Memorial Award in poetry.