I am the hero in all my stories. Here is how they usually go: my parents were horrible, and I was flawless and I could never show my legs in the summer because I spent all winter carving them like Christmas ham. Then my parents divorce and I’m fine with it and my brother gets arrested. I emerge from it all, jaded yet joyful, and try to make something of myself. But this story is different; this story is true.
My mother says that maybe we will see each other in a few years. She lives in Honolulu now. The islands have asked mainlanders to stop visiting; they are short on water, patience, space. Even though I was never very keen on visiting her or talking to her at all while she was here, knowing that I cannot go to her makes me sad. I’m not stupid; I remember how last time went, but there is something about memories that makes everyone a little fuzzier: softer, circumscribed by childlike flyaways, static, warm and blended enough that you might think they can’t hurt you anymore. Those memories are incorrect, but they are comforting nonetheless.
In kindergarten, everyone’s parents brought beautiful Kroger-bought cupcakes in for their birthdays, enough for the whole class, the classroom aides, and the teacher. In stark, immigrant-approved contrast, my mother sent me to school on my fifth birthday with (several scoops short of) half a gallon of Breyer’s vanilla ice cream in my backpack for everyone to share. She told me to have my teacher put it in the freezer, which did not exist. I told my teacher nothing. That afternoon, a goopy puddle seeped through the fabric of my rolling backpack, and my teacher pulled me aside. She found the ice cream and asked, “Did you know this was in here?”
Everyone stares and whispers. My cheeks simmer red with embarrassment.
On the phone my mother says, Honey, you forget?
But I didn’t forget. Everyone would laugh if I showed up with this hideous vanilla ice cream and no cupcakes at all. No one brings ice cream. All the parents bring cupcakes from the grocery store with Disney princess rings stuck in the frosting. They take off from work to bring the cupcakes in just before snack time, and they call Mrs. Yanak by her first name—which only parents know—and they smile at everyone. Cupcakes, Phuong. Store-bought ones. Not Breyer’s Vanilla Bean, stuffed inside my rolling backpack, the seams of the container all melted and sticky. Don’t be a fucking idiot.
Before I started preschool, I went to daycare for four hours every weekday morning. My mother would pick me up in the early afternoon, and once we got home, she’d peel a tropical fruit for the two of us to share: papaya, mango, pineapple, Asian pears—delicacies my small town Kentucky peers had often never heard of. She’d palm the fruit, peel it, and cut off slices as she went, one for her, one for me, one for her, one for me, until all of it was gone. My mother did not believe in being wasteful; in the case of mangoes, she’d hand me the seed so I could rake off the remaining fleshy bits with my front teeth. When we were finished, we’d wash our hands and wipe our faces on kitchen towels before lying down on the couch for a nap. I didn’t bother using a blanket because my mother would envelop me with her tiny frame: her jade bracelet braced against my rib cage, Chanel No. 5 wafting from her neck, dusty sunshine sneaking in from the west window and settling on her weathered face, no one else in the home to make the floorboards creak us awake.
Some days, we wouldn’t unravel until she had to cook dinner.
I have never heard my mother say my name. My father named me, “Lydia,” after his great-grandmother. But my mother could never master that first syllable: “ly” like in lid, lick, lint, liver. From her lips, I’ve been called so many names that are almost mine that I’ve grown to answer to any of them: Leediah, Leeda, Reeda, Stupid, Evil, Monster, Liar, Traitor, nothing.
My mother was arrested once outside of a Walmart. To this day, she says it was because of me. It was a blistering south Virginia summer, and my mother was going to the store to have some photos developed. She left my brother and me in the car. My brother was almost four; I was under a year old. My mother parked in a space near the front door and told my brother she would be gone for less than an hour. She took her keys so the car would not get stolen. She told me not to cry.
Being an infant, I cried. An older woman saw my brother and me from the parking spot adjacent to ours and called the police. When my mother emerged from the automatic doors, she was arrested for child neglect.
My mother’s love is always coded. When we are young, she rarely ever kisses us. Instead, she rolls her lips inward, hiding them, places her peach fuzz Cupid’s bow on a cheek, and sniffs deeply before quickly pulling away. It’s like a kiss but with her nose. My dad calls it “snuffing.”
My mother bought me lots of books and insisted I read them alone. In grade school, someone from the library comes to my classroom to remind us of the joys of reading and sharing those pages with those we love; they say, “I have children, and I would be so proud if my kids asked to read with me.” I’m a kiss ass, so that night I ask my mother, and she looks offended. Go away! You think Mom have time?
Years later, as I apply to college, she says, Mom dare not talk to you when you young. Mom scare you sound like Mom.
I am thirteen. My mother and I are shopping together at Dillard’s in the Clarksville mall. She attempts to use an expired coupon on a designer pantsuit, and the sales associate says something like, “I’m sorry ma’am, this coupon is expired.”
What? What you talking?
“This coupon, it can’t be used anymore, it—”
No! No no, you send for me three day ago. Spiring?
The associate looks at me. My mother is lying, and she herself knows this because she found the coupon buried under a season’s worth of bills. I know that my mother is lying because the coupon and the bills had been sitting on top of the microwave in a small puddle of soy sauce, brown sodium crystals still stuck to the back. Instead of defending her or explaining it in some words she’d understand—things that good and loyal daughters do—I shrug. My mother looks at me with beady, helpless eyes. She does not know what “expired” means. The associate is talking too fast for her, and even though she came into this transaction looking to be sly, all she hears now is scary, meaningless sound. She thinks the associate is maliciously cheating her out of a deal, so she says, Leeda, fine someone ell, at a volume too high for department store comfort, and I say, “You’re a grown woman mom. Handle it yourself,” and walk away, because I am a literal piece of shit.
When I was seven, my half-sister told me that being bilingual enriched her life. She spent most of her childhood in Vietnam with my mother and my mother’s abusive first husband. She learned English right before moving to the states, where she and my mother would eventually move in with my mother’s abusive second husband, my father. I am fascinated hearing my mother and sister talk on the phone, shades of speech I couldn’t fathom, colors I couldn’t see. I ask my mother if she would teach me Vietnamese.
Too dumb. Que-Doan learn so easy. You never. She says, If you want learn, why you don’t?
Ever since I’ve had the choice, I’ve kept contact with my mother to a minimum. Silences and standard conversation between us were deceitful playgrounds, spaces for her mind to create conflict. Out from the quiet or the attempted small talk would erupt accusations. Even the most mundane pleasantries could quickly turn sour, from How are you? to something untraceable:
You do drugs
You ruin Mom day to hurt Mom
How you so stupid?
Your Papa still love Mom; he come back; you see.
You so ugly.
Your Papa leave because you.
Some day I leave you. You never see Mom again.
I move out at sixteen, and our phone calls often last less than a minute. I carve out anything unnecessary, let her know that I am alive, and rush to the conclusion before she can jump to one. She notices these slights. Sometimes she asks, You hate Mom?
But that feels like a lie. Sometimes, when I’m feeling brave, I tell her something truth-adjacent. “I can’t talk to you, Mom.” She cries. I hang up.
I graduate from a small high school; the ceremony takes place in a resonant, tiny local theater. The audience members have been asked to hold their applause, but during my wobbly walk to the front, my mother jumps to a stand—all 4’10” of her—snuffs in my direction, and claps, echoing tiny, resounding smacks of unbridled pride. In her defense, she does not know what “applause” means.
I lose my virginity two months before my nineteenth birthday, but it kind of just feels like a particularly painful Friday. Afterward, we lie in his tiny dorm bed, Comedy Central shining over us. He kisses me, and without thinking, I turn and snuff the side of his neck.
I freeze, feeling I’ve shared something sacred with someone who could not possibly appreciate it, like dropping a piece of Holy Communion on the old church floor.
Once the divorce is finalized in late August, my mother moves from our family home in Kentucky back to Hawaii to take care of her dying mother. They have not seen each other in eight years. For the last month, my aunts and my big sister have taken off work to dedicate themselves to a rotating 24 hour watch of my grandma, and they say that she often wakes from naps to ask, “Phuong? Phuong home?”
My mother wanted to make sure that the next time the question was posed, the answer would be yes. She drains her savings to visit her mother, but there are no cherished memories left to be made. My grandmother is buried deep in her dementia and can no longer recognize the people who love, bathe, and feed her. Still, she asks, “Phuong home?”
Over and over again, my mom reminds her, Yes Mom, Phuong here, knowing she will forget within minutes.
I call my mom once I’ve settled down at college to ask how things are going. She bawls. Mommy so late. Why mommy wait until she dying, why, why, why.
My grandmother dies in late September.
I do not want to be my mother. In spite of everything, I do not want her to be begging for me to come home until she dies. In January, I coordinate a surprise trip to the islands with my aunts. I dream about arriving at their apartment just before my mom gets home from her morning walk, sitting on the couch like nothing is out of place, and greeting her as she opens the door, “Hey, Mom, what do you want for breakfast?” I fund the trip with money I’ve stowed away for “a rainy day,” and maybe this is karma, but it surely becomes just that.
My mother is not excited, she is angry.
She says that she cannot spend time with me; she has plenty of things to do, an apartment to clean, groceries to buy. I only understand half of the scolding; my aunts translate the bits in Vietnamese. It strikes me as some cruel joke; I fly halfway around the world, and she cannot spare an hour for even a sit-down dinner with me. She tells me to spend time with my aunts. My aunts and I barely know each other, but they do their best to make up for my mother’s lashing out. We go to the mall, to the aquarium, to authentic Vietnamese restaurants. They tell me that she has good days and bad days, and I happen to visit on a week of bad ones.
Finally, the day before I fly back to Nashville, my mother agrees to go to the beach with me. She dresses for the outing in black slacks, a nice blouse, closed-toe heels. A city bus drops us off, and my mother says, Where we sit?
I spread a beach towel on an even plot of sand close to the sidewalk, because I know my mother does not want to get wet. She looks between the towel and me with a petrified disgust.
Sand?! We sit on sand?!
She is completely serious. I know I shouldn’t, but I start laughing: my mother agrees to go to the beach, then dresses in business professional attire and screams in terror at the sand. My uncle picks us up in his air-conditioned Prius; my mother does not speak to me for the rest of the day.
They take me to the airport on a Tuesday. I say my goodbyes to the few of my aunts who could fit in the car and lastly, to my mother. She cries. Mommy sorry, honey, mommy sorry. I feel somewhat hopeful, expecting to hear that she meant for us to spend so much more time together, that she realizes her irrationality, and so I hug her and ask, “For what?”
Mom no feed you enough.
The Saturday following my return from Honolulu, my mother calls, weeping. She says she does not know why she cannot be nice to me up close; she can only tell me how much she loves and misses me over the phone. She says she is too old to change. I tell her it is okay, even though it isn’t. She snuffs into the phone before hanging up.
Lydia Buzzard is a medical student, ongoing GameCube user, and former Google Glasshole raised in Western KY. Her work has appeared in Overheard Magazine, Rejection Letters, and Stanchion Zine. She resides in Portland, OR, with her dog and a sense of permanent, frosty dread. You can visit her on Twitter at @lydiabuzzard.