The alarm on her phone buzzed, letting her know it was now 2:45PM and her break was officially over. Tanya Nguyen sighed and shut her worn copy of 1001 Nights.
"Of course, just when I get to the good part. Now I know how that king feels," she said to the bright blue cover. It did not matter that she had read the book at least a dozen times before, each time she picked it up she would get lost in the world of powerful jinn, jealous sultans, and enchanted statues her imagination created. She loved all of the characters, but her favorite was Scheherazade, the clever queen who escaped her death by weaving elaborate tales night after night.
Tanya- who was always in the habit of being gentle with books- carefully tucked her novel into her backpack, tied on the crisp white apron that served as her work uniform, and emerged from the break-room into the bustling floor of China Garden Express.
Tanya scanned the room anxiously for a moment, making sure she did not see anyone familiar in her section. The knot in her stomach began to ease when she realized he was not there.
She got back to work: taking orders, delivering them to the cook staff in broken Chinglish, running food back to the customers. She hadn't been working for more than a half hour before her words and motions grew mechanical and her eyes adopted a faraway look.
That childhood skill of being able to forge and populate whole universes of impossibility never left Tanya, despite her being twenty-three.
One moment she would be talking to a customer, assuring them that the peanut sauce on the pad thai was, in fact, made from real peanuts and therefore not advisable for someone with an allergy-and the next moment her thoughts would be eons away from the cramped, poorly lit Chinese restaurant on Avenue A.
"Aiyah! Tanya, wake up girl! Get these wantons to Table Four!" her boss, Mr. Xiang shouted at her, thrusting a plate into her hands.
"Sorry, Mr. Xiang. Won't happen again," she said, giving him an apologetic smile, as she usually did when he admonished her.
"Don't be sorry, just stay awake! Get your feet out of the clouds!"
She turned away from him and began walking to Table Four. Get your feet out of the clouds, she smiled. He always said that to her whenever he could see her getting swept away by the current of her imagination. It was the trail of bread crumbs that never failed to lead her back to reality. Mr. Xiang was a short man with dark skin and wispy silver hair that was as fine a thread. He had been running his restaurant in the East Village for 20 years and has been yelling at Tanya for four of them. But all that time, she never had the heart to tell him that the expression he was looking for was Get your head out of the clouds.
"Well, it's about damn time! The service here is terrible!" declared the sole occupant of Table Four.
Tanya looked up from the plate of fried dumplings in surprise when she realized who she was serving. It was a young woman in her early twenties with skin the color of beach sand and striking dark eyes. She was stylishly dressed, wearing skinny jeans, a beige tunic top over a dark brown turtle-neck, and a peach-colored hijab.
"Oh! Hi, Rani!" Tanya greeted her friend cheerfully.
"Don't 'hi, Rani!' me! I've been waiting here, patiently might I add, for four whole minutes. You just lost your tip, by the way."
Tanya laughed and set the dish down in front of her. She had met Rani in her women's studies class last year when they were assigned a group project, which she and Rani wound up doing despite having two more partners. Rani was pre-law and aspired to become a human rights lawyer so that she could "lock up some evil ullu bastards and make the whole damn world a better place."
Since the restaurant was mostly empty and the dinner crowd wouldn't be there for another hour or so, Tanya decided to steal a few moments to sit down and chat with her friend. It was then that the door swung open and admitted a tall, mocha-skinned man with short, spikey black hair. He strolled in, took his usual seat in Tanya's section, and proceeded to place a couple of hefty-looking textbooks on to the table. Tanya notices that he did not bother glancing at a menu, she guessed he had been here so many times that he knew it more or less by heart.
Rani followed her friend's gaze-or rather, stare- to the man a few tables away.
"Is that the guy you've been telling me about? Bahut sahi! He's like a brown Jake Gyllenhaal! Only his nose is kinda big though…"
"Rani!" Tanya hissed, terrified that he might overhear their conversation.
"Why don't you ask him out?"
"What? No! I can't do that!"
"Why not? You said he comes here practically every day and sits in your section and always tries to talk to you. Clearly he likes you. The food here's not that good."
"My... parents wouldn't like it," she said, vaguely.
"Why? Because he's not Viet? Come on, it's the 21st century, I'm sure they'll come around if you explain— "
"No, I mean…" she broke off. She couldn't explain her parents to Rani. She wouldn't understand. "I just…I really don't want to break their rules."
"Tanya Nguyen, you are twenty-three years old. You are old enough to make your own decisions about who you date. Look, I get that you want to be a good daughter and all, that's cool, I respect that. It's just that everybody at some point is going to disagree with their parents over something, and as an adult you have to decide to do what is best for you. What if this guy is your soul mate or something? Or even if he isn't, what happens if the right guy comes along and mommy and daddy still don't approve?"
Tanya was silent for a moment. What Rani said made sense, it made a lot of sense. And he really did seem to like her, and she really liked him. But she couldn't disobey her parents. Not again. The last time she did—no, it wasn't going to be like last time. That could not happen twice. Maybe she could convince them it was a good idea, and then she wouldn't be disobeying anyone. Her head was spinning, she couldn't deal with this now, she excused herself and said she had to go back to work.
At the end of her shift, she went back to clean Rani's table only to find a note saying: Congrats! You have a hot date tomorrow night with brown Jake Gyllenhaal! (No need to thank me, just make me your maid-of-honor at your wedding and name your first-born after me.) He'll meet you at Il Sogno at 8pm tomorrow. Have fun! Mace him if he touches you! Xxoxx Rani
That night, after getting home from her classes, Tanya's parents greeted her from their usual spots at the kitchen table, right where she had left them that morning. Her parents could not leave the house much anymore, and on the rare occasions that they did, Tanya had to take them and translate what they wanted into English. But they did not seem to mind staying at home, so they spent nearly all of their days resting in their small rent-controlled apartment on the fringes of Chinatown while Tanya went to school and worked. The Nguyen family had a very specific nightly ritual, established back when Tanya was a girl and they all lived in Vietnam. At 9:00 every night, the family gathers at the table for dinner, though Tanya does the cooking now instead of her mother. Then, she makes and drinks green tea with her mother before reading a chapter of her father's favorite book out loud to him. There has not been a deviation from this routine for as long as Tanya can remember. When registering for classes at her college, she always chose early sections, and was careful to never make plans with Rani or her classmates that ran later than 8:45. When she was younger and her aunt and uncle lived with them, her relatives often used to try to bribe her to leave the house around this time with ice cream or other treats, but Tanya always opted to stay inside with her parents.
That night progresses like every other- that is, until it was time for bed. She finished her nightly reading with her father and carefully placed the book beside her on the sofa. Then, she told them about Javier. She told them all she knew about him: he moved to U.S. from San Juan when he was four, his parents and two younger sisters still lived in Jersey, he was a third-year medical student and was hoping to go into pediatrics, he was the first one in his family to attend college and he had received full scholarship when he was an undergrad, his dachshund was named Pico, and that his favorite food in the world was his mother's arroz con dulce. She also told them that she would like their permission to go out with him tomorrow evening.
Tanya's parents were silent for a long time.
"Lánh," Tanya heard her mother address her with her Vietnamese name. "Lánh, you are asking to go out late into the night with some strange boy to do who knows what—'
"It's not late, it'd be at seven and I know him. I know he's not bad intentioned, or else I would not have agreed to—"
"So, you have already said 'yes' without our permission," her father chimed in. "You have already decided to disobey us, and as a courtesy you are letting us know."
"No! It's not like that at all! Ba, let me explain."
"Lánh," her mother spoke with a quiet authority that stopped Tanya from trying to argue further. "Do you not remember what happened when you did not listen to us last time?"
The very marrow in Tanya's bones seemed to freeze at that comment. She could not speak as the memories flashed before her eyes. She started to shake in her seat.
"Do you not remember what your disobedience cost me and your father?"
"Me, please don't. Please. No. I just want… I just want this once to-"
"I know what it is you want. And you know where your father and I stand on the matter. But you are a grown woman now and you can choose. Just remember what happened last time."
And remember she did. She went to bed that night at 11:00, as she usually did, but did not fall asleep until well after three. The night was agonizing. Rani's advice and her mother's warning tumbled over each other repeatedly in Tanya's mind for hours. The dull cacophony of street sounds that usually lulled her to sleep only added to the noise in her head, she felt as if she were moments from insanity. Sleep did come eventually, but it was not as merciful as she hoped it would be.
She is young, six years old. She's in Vietnam again, in her small, thatched house about 10 miles outside of Ho Chi Minh City. It's a warm, beautiful night. All of the stars, and even the border of the Milky Way are visible. It had rained all day, so she had not been able to play outside. She had been so bored. Now would be the perfect time to play, but her parents were very strict about staying inside at night with the blinds and windows closed and being perfectly silent. She had already broken one rule by opening the window. But what else could she do? She couldn't sleep.
"It wouldn't be so bad to play outside for a little while," she thinks to herself. Besides, as long as she stayed quiet, who would know? So, Lánh quietly crept out of her window and took off into the woods surrounding her village. There, she spends all of the day's excess energy running and jumping and tumbling and make-believing under the bejeweled night sky. It isn't long before she accidentally falls asleep outside.
She does not wake up until well after sunrise the next day. She realized how late she had overslept, she immediately races back to her cottage with the slim hope of getting into bed before her mother came to wake her up.
She arrives in front of her cottage to see all of her neighbors standing outside talking in soft voices with worried faces. Her aunt and uncle were even there, and they lived about a mile away. Her uncle was clearly the only thing keeping her aunt from collapsing, and even he didn't seem too steady on his feet.
She approaches her relatives hesitantly, fearing that the reason her whole village was gathered because they think she is missing. She knows from experience that the longer she waits to reappear, the worse her punishment will be.
"Good morning, Aunty and Uncle," she says softly, hoping her tone would convey enough meekness and repentance to make them consider a lighter sentence.
Her aunt shrieked at the sound of her voice and stared at her like she was a ghost. Her uncle even staggered back a few steps.
"Lánh!" her aunt gasped and held her arms out to the child. "Lánh, come here so I can know it is really you and not some wicked spirit that has come to break my heart twice in one day."
Lánh blinks at her aunt in confusion but obeys nonetheless. This was not the homecoming she had expected. Her aunt crushes her to her chest and begins sobbing into Lánh's long black hair. Lánh is really scared now.
"Aunty, why are you crying? Why is everyone here? I didn't mean to run away, really. I just wanted to go out and play in the trees. I promise I'll never do it again. Please don't be angry."
Her aunt pulls away from her and stares at her face, as if she cannot understand her words.
"Please tell Ba and Me not to be angry. I will go tell them that I did not run away, I just wanted to play outside and—" Lánh starts running off into the house before her aunt could snatch her back.
"Lánh!" her uncle shouts after her. But it's too late.
She has made it to the threshold of the house and seen everything.
The flies surrounding them.
And the red. The red was everywhere. On the walls, on the kitchen table where they had eaten dinner last night.
Tanya bolted upright in bed and just managed to withhold a scream. Her heart felt as if it were about to burst through her chest. She felt her face with a shaking hand and realized she had been crying.
"It was just a dream. Everything's fine now," she whispered out loud to herself.
"Ba? Me?" she called for her parents like she did when she was little. She was answered with silence.
It had been the best date of her life. Well, technically, it was her only date thus far, but even if she had dated before she was sure that this would be by far the best one. First, he took her to a fancy Italian restaurant in SoHo, where the walls had been painted with detailed murals of the Tuscan countryside, and small marble statues of Roman gods and goddess adorned the tables. Then, they had gotten ice cream and crashed a jazz festival in Central Park for a few sets. It was better than anything she could have imagined.
The nightmare made her want to cancel, but Rani, in her infinite wisdom, had deliberately not given Tanya his telephone number, so there was no way she could cancel short of standing him up. She came home from work, showered away the aroma of Chinese food from her skin and hair, changed into a white dress that Rani assured her was "ass-tastic," and headed out the door, being sure to avoid the kitchen and the watchful eyes of her parents.
She stepped out her cab and all but floated up the two flights of stairs to her apartment. She felt ready to burst into song like a Disney princess, but her inability to remember the correct lyrics to any songs made her settle for humming.
She had finally reached her apartment and was about to open the door when she realized that the lock had been broken into and the door was already cracked. Panic suddenly surged through her veins. What if there was someone still in there? What about—
Her parents. Her parents were still inside. Tanya shoved open the door so that she could see the whole room as she went in. She grabbed an umbrella out of the coat rack to arm herself and slowly entered the apartment. She had clearly been victim to a break-in, only the thieves apparently thought she didn't have anything worth stealing and settled for trashing her apartment instead. Her textbooks were strewn across the room, with loose pages torn and scattered about. All of the contents of her drawers and her hamper had been tossed about onto the floor with a few select items unmentionables left hanging off of one of the lamps. Her t.v. had been completely smashed-in, and little shards of glass glittered up at her from the floor.
"Hello?" she called, trying to sound brave and menacing to anyone who might be listening. "If anyone is still dumb enough to be here, you should know I have a gun and I'm not afraid to use it. So you, uh, better show yourself now." There was no answer, so she advanced into the kitchen.
She saw her parents and immediately started screaming.
Her mother's shattered body lay in pieces across the kitchen table. Her father lay lifeless on the floor, his spine clearly broken and his insides scattered across the linoleum floor.
She collapsed into a heap on the floor. It had happened again. She had killed them with her disobedience.
"Tanya! Tanya!" a voice seemed to be calling her from faraway. She felt strong hands grasp her by her shoulders and try to pick her up. She was turned to face someone. It was Jim Larsson, he was a volunteer fire-fighter who lived down the hall.
"Tanya! What's wrong?" He asked.
She couldn't think to give a coherent answer. She shook away from him and tried to crawl over to them, but Jim caught her and held her fast. Tanya just kept screaming the names of her parents over and over, as if her words could undo her sin and bring them back to life.
Jim looked around, as if he could not see the cause of her hysterical sobbing.
"Tanya! I need you to tell me what's wrong so I can help you."
She scrabbled for words for him, in case there was any hope left for them. "There was-break-in and-My family! My family! Please help them, please! It's not too late. It can't be. Just please—"
He looked at her, completely bewildered. "Ok, I'll help you, but you have to tell me where they are first."
She gestured desperately towards the kitchen. How could he not see what she saw?
"In the kitchen?"
"Yes! Yes! Please go to them!" she begged.
He looked out to the kitchen and then caught her by the shoulders so she would look at him.
"Tanya, I need you to look at me. Tanya, there is no one in there."
"Tanya, you have to listen to me. I'm telling you your family is not in that kitchen. There's only a broken cup on the table and ripped-up book on the floor. Your parents are not here."
Hi everyone! Thank you so much for taking the time to read this story. I wrote this for my Creative Writing class last semester.
For those of you who were wondering, here is a quick glossary for the foreign words I used here: ullu= Hindi for "idiot" (literally means "stupid owl"), bahut sahi= Hindi for "very true" or "oh yeah!" Ba= Vietnamese for "father" Me= Vietnamese for "mother"
It was great fun to write and I hope you enjoyed reading. Any sort of criticism or feedback will be GREATLY appreciated. Thank you so much for reading!-Thurayyah