Eric Nguyen, The Husband Returns

The first morning Bác Bùi woke up with the lights on, she was sure there was an electrical problem, a faulty wire, or a power source malfunction. She told the grounds supervisor so over the phone: how she opened one eye and noticed the light burning, and then she opened the other eye and shut them both because it was so bright.

It was impossible, the superintendent told her. “These buildings are not old. But you Viet Congs can’t fix anything yourselves!” He didn’t even pronounce it correctly.

Bác Bùi stammered, “In Vietnam, we would cut your tongue out for saying something like that to a lady.” It was a lie: Người Việt weren’t savages. Not like the Americans, not like the French. Người Việt were, in general, calm and rational to a fault. Their ideals made communism triumph because, in theory, it was a good idea. Liberty, equality, fraternity. What promises. Bác Bùi continued, “We would boil your tongue and feed it to the dogs!”

“You would eat the dogs! Ma’am, you’re so fat you probably ate all the dogs in New Orleans,” the superintendent shot back. “I’m not fixing your lights. They ain’t broken.” He slammed the phone down. Americans were like that—irrational, easily angered, known to have fits of passion.

 

Nothing was wrong with the lights again until the next week, a Sunday night. This time, not only did the lights spontaneously turn on, so did the appliances. The blender spun, the oven alarm signaled, the rice cooker hissed.

Bác Bùi ran to the kitchen—pausing at the refrigerator to catch her breath—and unplugged all she could before she realized there was someone on her couch.

“Ai đó?” she asked, then again in English—who’s there? As a precaution, she grabbed a dirty saucepan from the sink. The metal was thin but, with enough force, she was sure, it would be a suitable weapon.

“Are you making chuối chiên?” the figure said. It was a man’s voice, warm and familiar. “How I miss your chuối chiên! I really miss anything fried these days.” He laughed.

Bác Bùi reached for her eyeglasses hanging around her neck, and when the man came into focus, she couldn’t believe what she saw. “Thiep!” she cried.

It was an impossibility seeing her husband, long dead but miraculously here.

“Is that really you, Thiep? My, you’ve gotten old!” Bác Bùi inspected Thiep for a minute, standing across from him to get a good look. He had less hair and what was left reminded her of old yarn. The wrinkles on his face were dignified, the slouch in his back, slovenly. He had shrunken. There used to be more of him.

He laughed, his voice larger and grander than she remembered, booming, echoing, and bright. “It’s me, Thiep. I told you I wouldn’t leave you.”

Bác Bùi crossed the room and embraced him. He was all bones, or mostly bones. He hugged her back and compared to him, she felt bulbous. As she leaned into him, she felt her shirt lift up and expose the paleness of her belly. She was never a small woman, but now she felt big and ridiculous. She reached down and pulled the hem of her t-shirt down, though the gesture was mostly useless. When Thiep opened his mouth to speak, she interrupted.

“You must be hungry,” she said.

 

Bác Bùi made Thiep fried bananas, though the bananas were slightly old and overripe. Using his hands, he ate them as they sat in front of the TV. On the screen, a woman held up a container. She opened it and closed it, then repeated the motion.

“No one smiles that much over Tupperware,” Bác Bùi told Thiep, resting her head on his shoulder. “It’s a scam, too, you know. They ask for three payments of 19.95, but all you get is one set. Can you believe that? And besides you can get the same thing at Woolworths for half that price.”

She waited for him to respond. She remembered one of the things he liked most about her was her eye for a good bargain. He liked that she was a practical woman. They had met in their early thirties. Thiep told her he was tired of the typical Saigonese girls, who, he said, were superficial and dumb; they wore the latest fashion trends, but their minds were nothing like what a modern woman’s ought to be. Now, it bothered her that he said nothing about her banter. He sat there chewing, slowly. She watched dutifully, like a wife caring for her sick husband. Perhaps he was sick, she thought. Maybe his throat hurt. She felt stupid, then, for not making soup. “Would you like tea, Thiep?” she asked. He shook his head with his eyes on the bowl of fried bananas and continued eating.

It was only after he finished them that he looked up and let out a slow breath of air.

Tea it must be then, Bác Bùi thought. She felt proud, a wife knowing her husband’s thoughts. She began to stand up, but his voice stopped her.

“Why did you let them bury me so deep?” he asked suddenly. She reached for him but he gently pushed her away. “It took two days to claw myself out.”

She tried to remember his burial, but nothing came to mind; it was so long ago.

“Graves are supposed to be deep. To protect you.”

“Two meters is all you needed.” He shook his head. “But they buried me deeper—”

She tried to remember the details of the funeral. What was the funeral like? What did she wear? Who was there? Who was the priest? Was Thiep’s sister there? Of course, Thiep’s sister was there. She accused Bác Bùi of being after Thiep’s wealth and never missed a chance to be cruel. She loved her brother but hated his choice of a wife and never approved of their marriage. “I guess you finally got your way,” she might have said to Bác Bùi. Or, “Thiep wasn’t actually rich but I am. You should have married me!” Or, “Thiep’s not really dead. He’s in Geneva with a Swiss mistress. A Swiss mistress!”

Bác Bùi realized all of these possibilities derived from soap operas she watched during the day, but they were so vivid, she mistook them for genuine memories. She massaged Thiep’s knee and looked into his eyes. They were beautiful eyes, soft and brown. Love and safety lived in those eyes, even now.

“The ceremony was lovely,” she told him finally. “It was the best funeral in the war years.” She couldn’t remember anything while looking into his eyes, which now seemed sad and disappointed. Yet she was sure it had been a lovely ceremony.

“Wine?” she asked, remembering Thiep’s fondness for French wines. She had a bottle somewhere. “You must miss wine.”

“Yes,” he said, “wine.”

Under the sink, she searched her bottles of liquor until she found a bottle of wine with a long neck of dark glass. “Nineteen-seventy-five,” she read aloud. “The year I came here. The girl at the store said it was a good year.”

She walked back to the sofa. The TV was turned off and Thiep was nowhere to be found. She sat the bottle down and rubbed her eyes.

“Thiep?” she called out, “Thiep?” She reached for his seat on the couch and felt the groove from his weight. “Thiep?”

 

“Thiep came back last night,” Bác Bùi told Hương.

Hương was a younger woman and could have easily been Bác Bùi’s daughter. Unlike the others in Versailles, Louisiana, Hương came from Mỹ Tho. She arrived later than everyone else, and when she settled in, people left her alone. We are from Saigon, they murmured, what do we have in common with a girl from a small southern village? They spoke about her country accent and how unsophisticated it was. In Vietnam they would have nothing to say to her. Bác Bùi thought it was funny how they spoke like Saigonese while living in a government housing complex, each of them with poorly paid jobs in factories or in the backs of kitchens. Despite the neighborhood chatter, Bác Bùi had made an effort to be kind to Hương, and they became fast friends.

Hương dropped her cup of tea. For nearly a minute, she looked back and forth from the spilled tea to Bác Bùi, before grabbing a towel and crouching on the floor to wipe up the mess. “You must mean your dream,” Hương said with a slight smile. “You saw Thiep in your dream.” She looked up at Bác Bùi in disbelief.

“The lights were on again,” Bác Bùi explained, quietly.

Hương stood up and dropped the wet towel on the table.

“He died,” Hương told her. “That’s what you told me. He died a long time ago before you came here.”

“Listen,” Bác Bùi said, “listen. I woke up because I heard a buzzing sound. But it wasn’t just the lights this time. This time, everything was on—the blender, the oven, the rice cooker. I was surprised the telephone wasn’t ringing. The TV was on too, and there he was, watching it.”

“Bác Bùi,” Hương sat down and placed her hand on top of her friend’s. “It must have been a dream,” she repeated.

Bác Bùi thought Hương would’ve been a good daughter to a senile woman. For a moment, she imagined Hương staying the night in her apartment to prove to Bác Bùi that she was right––that there was nothing out of the ordinary, that Thiep never visited. That the electricity was merely faulty. That the superintendent was really not doing his job.

But Bác Bùi remembered cooking Thiep fried bananas. She saw him eating with her own eyes, and saw his dish sitting in the sink. “It wasn’t a dream,” Bác Bùi told Hương with conviction. “Thiep was there. In the flesh. I touched him.”

“I used to dream about Cong sometimes, too,” Hương sighed, dropping Bác Bùi’s hand. “Sometimes, those dreams felt real. I would wake up believing it actually happened. I’d have to stop and think about it, how it didn’t make any sense––”

“I went to get him a glass of wine,” Bác Bùi stood. “But when I came back, he was gone. He just disappeared.”

Hương took Bác Bùi’s hand once more and massaged it gently. She forced a small smile. “Maybe you’ll dream of him again tonight.”

 

That night, Bác Bùi sat at the kitchen table, unable to sleep, eating burnt peanuts from a glass bowl in her lap. They were Thiep’s favorite snack back in Saigon. She remembered an ice cream shop on Lê Duẩn Street that served the nuts over French-style ice cream so rich and sweet, she could only order a small cup. Thiep loved the stuff. On Sundays, they routinely took a xích lô to the shop, sat outside, and people-watched.

Thiep interrupted her thoughts and whispered her first name.

“Giang,” he called to her. He wore an old business suit he used to wear often. She remembered the light blue of his blazer and the pink of his handkerchief.

“I didn’t sleep,” she told Thiep. “I was waiting for you. I even got your peanuts.”

He took the bowl and sat beside her.

“Where’s your hat?” she asked.

“I forgot it. This is what happens when you’re not around.” He smiled, taking a handful of peanut candies and examining them. “They look so red. Have they always been this red?” He picked up another handful.

“Everything here is more,” she told him. “There’s a market with aisles and aisles of food in cans, in jars, in boxes. There are more streets. Downtown, you can get lost if you don’t have a map. And I swear it rains more here though it’s impossible, isn’t it? Yet it seems so. America is just more.”

Thiep brought the bowl to his mouth and shook the last pieces into it. He took the handkerchief and wiped his mouth. “Do you have ice cream?” he asked.

Hungry. Of course he was hungry. After all those years under the earth, who wouldn’t be? He stood up and began walking around the kitchen, opening drawers and closing them after peeking inside.

“I wish you came during the day.” She looked up at the clock. Ten after ten. “Nothing’s open now. If you stay, tomorrow I can buy you ice cream. They come in tubs here. Big tubs!” She mimed the size with her hands. “Big tubs,” she repeated.

Thiep stood at the window, a finger poking through the blinds. Outside, a street lamp glowed. “Show me the city, Giang,” he said suddenly. “Show me.” He moved towards the door and opened it quickly, then walked down the steps.

Bác Bùi stared at him. She wanted to tell him she never went out at night. Even after all these years, America stilled scared her. Last month, a woman was mugged two blocks away. Yet here Thiep was, new to this country and fearless. He was unlike the calculating businessman she married and suddenly she was afraid of him.

“Coming?” he asked her from the bottom step, the street lamp illuminating his face. He smiled and she felt his warmth radiating. He would not harm her, she thought, he loves her and she loves him.

“I’ll get the keys,” she said. “Wait right here.”

She ran to her room to collect the keys, but when she came back out, the front door was closed and locked. She opened it and looked for Thiep outside. There was nothing to see. The street lamp had burned out and the full moon held its breath.

 

How was he getting in? The doors and windows remained locked. Was he getting through cracks in the walls? Cracks in the door? Was that how he’d gotten out of his casket? Were there cracks big enough to slip through? She paced, feeling the walls with her fingers.

Eventually, she found a hole behind the TV and inside, a baby mouse. She threw the mouse outside and reached in again and found a larger mouse chewing on a piece of drywall. She threw it outside. She reached in again slowly, certain she’d find more mice, but was surprised when she pulled out a book of matches bearing the Vietnamese flag. Not the new flag with its single lonely star, but the old one with three stripes on a yellow background.

In that moment, memories rushed into her consciousness like flood water. Things she hadn’t thought about in years; things she had tried to forget; things she thought hadn’t really happened.

Yet here it was, out in the open, seemingly written on the matchbook and then, for an instant, on the walls. After Saigon fell, what was a rich man like Thiep to do? The Communists aimed to create a new country. Every beginning requires destruction. They would take his land first, then his money, then perhaps his life. Burning the house before they could seize it was the best solution, Thiep thought. He wouldn’t give them the pleasure. Thiep had plans for escape, too. After he burned down the home he shared with Bác Bùi, he wanted to hop aboard a plane and move to another country. He spoke often of Australia. Australia was a pretty country, he’d heard. Bác Bùi packed one suitcase.

On the day he burned the house, Thiep laid hay and sticks throughout and struck a match. He and Bác Bùi ran out as the flames lit up.

“Money,” he cried suddenly. “Do you have the money for the plane?”

She opened the suitcase. The sun shined brightly that day. She had always wanted to ride a plane. She was forty-six then and had never flown. She saw the journey as an adventure with her favorite person, like in her books.

“It’s not here,” she said, realizing what it meant: their savings was gone. She searched again, this time throwing their belongings on the ground in haste. “It’s not here. It’s not—”

Thiep ran inside before she could stop him.

The flames grew larger, wilder. The neighbors came to the gate and mumbled to each other in horror.

“There’s nothing to see!” she shouted. “Go! Just go!”

Something fell, she heard it. A piece of wood, it must have been. Then another. Her knees became weak and she held onto the gate.

“Come out,” she whispered to Thiep, to herself. “Please come out.” A mantra, she thought: if I will it, so it will be.

 

“When were you going to come out?” she asked Thiep, holding the matchbook to his face when he reappeared in her apartment after some time. “Did you ever plan on coming out?”

“What do you mean?” he asked.

“Did you want to leave me? Is that why you never made it out of the fire?”

“Why didn’t you give me a funeral?” He sniffed, standing in front of the door and looking out the peephole. “Didn’t I deserve something? They buried me on the outskirts of the city, near a rice paddy. I didn’t even have a marker.”

“I could’ve died without you.”

“And I died without any dignity. All that work in this life, and that was all I got.”

“I’ve been so alone.”

“Buffalo shit. It was all dirt and buffalo shit.”

“You stayed in there, in our house, and left me all alone,” she cried.

“You left me in there and then left the country.” He was crying now, too.

A silence passed between them. She threw the matches down. He leaned against the door and slid down it until he was sitting.

 

Outside, the air felt wet and heavy. Versailles, Louisiana was still and quiet. Not a thing moved. Bác Bùi and Thiep shuffled along together. “You promised to show me around, Giang ôi,” Thiep said, taking her hand in his.

“I didn’t promise you anything.” She laughed. They laughed together, slowly becoming louder and more hysterical because it was all funny now—the fire; the escape; the fall of a country; the sixteen years apart and alone; Thiep’s escape from the grave; and Bác Bùi remembering, after all these years, Thiep’s hat and his burnt peanuts and his wine. It was all so hilarious that tears streamed down both of their faces.

“Come,” she said. “That’s Hương’s place,” Bác Bùi pointed as they passed it. “She’s like a daughter to me. I used to take care of her boys. They used to be so fat, with big chubby cheeks! Now they’re getting older and taller and not as cute.”

She pointed to another apartment. “That’s the family from Bến Tre. They have one son, who just moved to Boston for school. Everyone, it seems, has been moving. And I’m here all alone. These two are empty now. The families moved across the river. It’s like no one wants to stay here anymore. They all leave.”

“Everything’s temporary,” Thiep said. He put an arm around her, and as she felt the weight of it, she knew, beyond a doubt, that Thiep was here with her.

“I guess you’re right. Since the government pays for a lot of it, I guess it’s supposed to be temporary. But I’m trying to make a life here. I’ve been trying to make a life the last sixteen years, but I swear it still doesn’t feel like home.”

“Why not?”

“It’s just not home. This place is not a home. It’s where they keep us until we can go someplace else. But where can I go at my age? I’m nearly seventy.”

“I’m here now,” he said. “We’ll make a life together.”

She looked up and sensed they were back in Vietnam, on the bank of the Saigon River. They stood still and listened to the sound of the wildlife—frogs, crickets and birds. “It used to be beautiful, Thiep. But now, it’s dirty, you see?”

“It’s not too dirty.” Thiep shook his head. He bent down and pulled up another piece of the earth. “It’s not,” he said.

She looked at his hands. The brackish brown color she should have seen was gone. She saw straight through it, past the graininess of the dirt to the lines in his palms.

Thiep threw the earth into the air. Bác Bùi watched it fall down like sequins.

Thiep ran into the river.

“Thiep!” she called out. “What are you doing? Are you điên?”

“Maybe a little bit.” He let out a joyful, boyish shout.

“Is it cold?” She looked out at the water but couldn’t see him clearly anymore.

“A little bit. You’ll get used it, cưng ôi. Come!”

“What if I forgot how to swim?” she asked.

“Then I’ll teach you. Right now! Come cưng ôi, don’t be late!”

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