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Chasing Light



          We had a deck in the backyard made of wood. Long, thin planks lay parallel like popsicle sticks and stretched over the bright lawn like the deck of a ship. In summer, Mai and I would jump rope barefoot on the deck, tip toeing lightly and squealing with delighted pain as the balls of our feet touched the wood, which drank the sun and stored the heat in its wrinkles. As the sun melted behind the hills, the deck would cool, and we, fatigued and sweaty from swinging and skipping rope, would lie in the growing sliver of shade cast by the edge of the roof of our house, listening to the hushed buzzing, the noisy friction of wings against wings, the creaking of unseen creatures clicking into the darkening dusk that settled on our corner of the world like paint sliding down the surface of the sky.


          At night we sprawled ourselves out on the deck like rag dolls, lying on our backs and looking up into the glow of the paper lanterns dangling above us from wires strung across poles, winged creatures fluttering in swarms toward their radiance. We could lie there for hours, watching the moths spastically orbit the little lamps, chasing light like dreams. We pressed our bare, thin arms against the cooled wood, hoping for an occasional breeze.


          The spectacle of the moths dancing about the lanterns; the silver pinpricks of stars splashed across the sky; the weighty heat of the air pressing against the cold, dark wood; these were our refuges in the summer, that broken season when our parents would change, smiles deteriorating into hollow glances, solid postures collapsing into faces, wet, resting in hands. Mai and I couldn’t be in that house where Ma would lock herself up in their bedroom all day and Dad would join her as soon as he returned home from work, where the air itself became heavier with the shared memory of an absent daughter, where the wallpaper began to smell of the dust left on the furniture as Ma stopped maintaining the house. The backyard was our escape.


          Splinters were a part of every summer, and so were moths, and light, and heat, and quietness, dashed by the throaty mating calls of crickets. Ma’s tightened throat and Dad’s preoccupied gaze rendered Mai and me as invisible as the ghosts that haunted us. Locked bedroom doors and the sounds of distorted crying from their room above us, which I later suspected was not crying but secret, loving moans, and which I now know was both. That was my coming-of-age, I guess. Realizing my parents were not just my mom and dad but individuals who had their own childhoods, too, and their own preoccupations. Discovering that they did not just create me one predestined night but that they still had sex, and cried, like kids. Once when I was eleven my friend Byrd told me what an aphrodisiac was—like strawberries and clams, he said. And summer, and grief, I said.



          My birth was a byproduct of Van’s death and marked the beginning of my family’s calling it such, calling it her death. Until I slithered from my mother’s womb and into the shadow of Van’s absence, my family had been referring to the incident, on the rare occasions they mentioned it at all, as her “vanishing.” “Because that’s what it was,” Mai told me when I was six. “She went into the sea and vanished.”


           This is my imagined truth: The night after, my parents sat in silence on the opposite sides of their hotel room. Ma sat atop a wooden window seat, forehead pressed against the cool glass, eyes on the moonlit sand outside. The cold glass numbed her face, and my mother could only sit there, fighting an urge to close her hand into a fist and thrust it into the glass and beyond. She imagined the shards that would cascade back toward her, drenching her skin in its own redness. Dad sat on the edge of the bed, facing the opposite wall, holding the edge of the unfamiliar, sterile blanket and trying his hardest to tear it. And then, with a cosmic simultaneity, they turned around, met each other’s eyes, and rushed at each other, and my dad, transferring his burgeoning pain from the blanket to my mother’s clothing, rent apart my mother’s shirt at the buttons, tore down her jeans, cast them violently aside. With an unprecedented urgency my mom clenched her fingers into a fist and pounded with all her strength—not the cool window but my dad’s back, reaching around his torso as it lay atop her and punching his smooth, pale back with such force that its sound echoed somewhere deep inside her chest. Entangled in one another’s arms and in their own snot and tears and sweat, my parents pushed, pressed, wailed. It was their way, and it would be until old age, peaking in summers, the anniversary of Van’s vanishing.


          What they made was as much rage as love, harsh, nauseating rage against the ocean, the stupidly helpless police, and themselves. They sought solace in one another’s hardness, their solid flesh, and the pressure they could exert on one another. I’ve heard it said that tragedies such as ours rip marriages apart, that in the gasping what now that follows, in which each lover becomes a mirror of the other’s guilt, there is nothing left to do but to carefully cut out the everything that connects them to your gone daughter. But for my parents it was this desperate love or nothing; this or the hollow oblivion of divorce. Disoriented and alone, they collapsed into each other just to stay upright, and somehow their deepest grief reared its seething head in this way, this way that was always so loud and so secret all at once.


          I was the child, literally, of this carnal mourning. My conception could have only been a surprise to my parents, not because they were forty and forty-three at the time but because the idea of having another child to replace their lost one was impossible. To move forward with one’s life, to bring life into a household of death, was to abandon your little girl’s body in the sand.


          But of course no one in my family had ever seen Van’s body in the sand. She left behind no such trace when she vanished, at least not in the immediate aftermath, except for little sandal-prints leading toward the sea. At night the wind swept over them gently, filling the slipper-shaped grooves so that by sunrise it seemed they were never there at all.



          As a kid I learned all the immutable facts that all kids learned, and more. Sharing is caring, smoking is nasty, dogs say woof and pigs say oink, the Pilgrims and Squanto started Thanksgiving, and once you had a sister called Van. She died, but she is always with us. Ma, Dad, and Mai had all endured a paralyzing loss, whereas I had inherited it like a piece of family lore. I will pass it on, too, telling my children in the future of their late Aunt Van, or Dì Van, as one would say in my mother’s language. Mai will do the same, but her stories will be different—quieter, somehow, and harder to reel out of her. As she wrote to me once in a letter from college, “We grew up in different worlds, Lan. I grew up in a world where Van was always there, and you grew up in a world where she was gone.”


          She was using the term “grew up” loosely, as she was only five, almost six, when Van disappeared, and seven when I was born. She tells me her memories of Van have faded into a cloudy collage of little fingers, interlocked, of games of princess-and-prince in which Mai was invariably told to play prince, of swimming together in light blue pools while wearing bright orange inflatable floaties. But even of these snippets of memory, she is unsure which are truly hers and which have just been gleaned from the fuzzy reels of old home videos captured with the shaky, amateur hand of our Dad before the day a deeper shakiness took him over completely. I often wonder what it must have been like to be Mai at age five, learning about mortality alongside other lessons of reading two-syllable words and telling time.


          The winter I was twelve, Mai came home for Christmas after her first semester at college, wildly in love. Not with a boy or a girl but with a history, a polluted one of war and beauty and uprisings and imperialism and peace. She was in love with Vietnam. That Christmas season, while Ma cooked dinner, Mai would sit on the kitchen counter pressing Ma for more stories of the war, asking her to teach her more Vietnamese words, planning her summer trip “back” to Vietnam, and seizing any opportunity to roll her eyes and complain bitterly of communism. At the dinner table, she praised our mother’s cooking more than usual and complained about how impossible it was to find Vietnamese food in her college town and how the spicy, fruit-laden flavors of Vietnam trumped the bland, fattening American food served in her cafeteria.


          Bewildered, I asked her one night why she was suddenly obsessed with Vietnam. She replied, “Because we live in a culturally imperialist, white-normative country where the pressure to assimilate is a system of oppression, and I’m tired of it.” I shrugged and walked away. For me, Vietnam had always existed in my periphery, especially because we were mixed with Chinese on my dad’s side. Yet I spent my twelfth Christmas listening to her rapid talk of tracing her roots and of self-definition. She was chasing our family’s ghosts, taking our mother’s, grandparents’, and ancestors’ truths as her own, searching for her history. She still is.


          Mai digs through what is left of our mother’s photographs, letters, and journals, hops planes to Saigon, studies Vietnamese, searches to fill the gaping hole that stands between her and truth. Me, I unearth old, unlabeled VHS tapes, sit in the dark and watch the past unfold itself again and again, archive decades-old photographs. My favorite video clip is a mere eight seconds of Van and Mai sitting in the back row of a car, Mai asleep on Van’s lap, Van’s steady hand patting down her smooth black hair. Van whispers to me the way Vietnam does to Mai, our imagined memories of them pulling our hearts like ocean water to the moon, or moths to light.



          Like many little girls growing up in suburban America, Nancy Drew colored my world. The glossy, blonde girl-sleuth spoke to me particularly because my own life had always been defined by the mystery of the missing sister. Curiosity drove me—for other than the one time Mai had told me randomly, in the middle of the night, that until I was born Dad and Ma had called it a vanishing rather than a death, I knew no details.


“How did Van die?” I asked my mother once.


“She vanished.”


“How did she vanish?”


“She died.”


          The summer Benjamino Byrd introduced to me the concept of the aphrodisiac, he and I walked from his house to the public library. A talkative, wide-eyed boy with black-brown skin and a cloud of black hair, Byrd was my best friend for years. He was the only person who knew of my childhood search for the truth about Van, and he helped me loyally. We always worked together, or as Byrd always said, “We was in cahoots.” At the library, Byrd took hold of the first available computer and logged onto a newspaper database while I watched. In the search box: Vanessa Tran.




          And these were the phrases that inked themselves into my consciousness: “closing off the search area” and “negligence” and “investigating the possibility of foul play.”


          And this is what I learned: She was found months later washed up at a beach three miles south of the beach my family had been at that day. All the beaches were connected, of course, belonging to one long coast, and the tide did pull toward the south. But the appearance of her body at a different beach, so far from the one where she vanished, may have also pointed to foul play, one article informed me.


          I stopped reading then and shut down the computer. It was the solidness of the articles. The flesh. The finality. The image of her tissue—damaged, decayed, discovered, dissolved into dust. I had never thought of these things. My family had always used the word “vanished,” which led me to imagine her softly slipping into another dimension of the world. A part of me had secretly thought she might actually be alive and that maybe, in a strange, unconscious way, my parents had given birth to me so that I might conduct the search that they were too fatigued and hopeless to do.


          Byrd and I left the library and walked home in a fragile silence that part of me still hasn’t broken, a silence which is a sort of swallowing of ghosts. I understood my parents’ quietness now, and my sister’s. I stopped reading Nancy Drew, stopped fancying myself a dolled-up detective. I lay awake at night for two nights in a row and on the third, after Mai had nodded off to sleep, whispered to Van in the dark, imagining how she might have responded. I fell asleep dreaming of a dream, an old film reel replaying in my head of her and Mai spinning wildly on our deck.



          Every summer Mai and I go back to our old home to visit our parents during our breaks from teaching. It’s as if a tacit, innate calling pulls us toward home every year when the air gets thick with heat, and the sun doesn’t melt away until eight, and a quiet symphony of wings escalates in the bushes. My family revolves around the summer, the season of vanishing and making love, and we spend the other nine months waning away from summer or waxing toward it.


          Sometimes I awake in the night with the words “foul play” running across my lips and vague images of faceless, bearded men whom I regard with acidic hatred during the times I can’t convince myself it was the undertow that might have taken my sister. More gnawing than the nightmares are the mind games, the creeping illogic of my love for the big sister I never knew. The mind game starts out with my wondering if Van and I would have been playful together and then realizing once again that such a question makes no sense. Would I have been born if Van had not died? Do Van’s death and my birth have some sort of causal relationship? If one looks at the confounding metaphysics of the question, is it impossible for Van and me to exist together?


          Because these nightmares and mind games peak in the summers, like my parents’ wailing once did, I am grateful to be back home, sleeping in the same room as Mai. Somehow she always senses when I have these nightmares; perhaps they coincide with her own. When this happens, or when we simply can’t sleep, or when we simply do not want to, we climb out of bed and walk outside, hand in hand, onto our deck. There we sit in silence with my head resting on her shoulder and watch the moths flutter, fighting to touch, and yet never reaching, the light glowing behind the glass in the lanterns dangling above us.  ■

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