“A Cumulus of Incense” by Jenny Thai

 

You remember soft crinkled smiles and gold crown and yellow teeth. The leathery cool touch of her hand. Speaking in the only dialect you know when everyone else switches back and forth in rapid Cantonese or Vietnamese, she was the first to welcome and the last to leave, her bed of thick gray hair, the soft worn slippers she wore, the jade bangle around her wrist. The tiny glasses that perched on her little nose. Once she towered over you but in the blink of an eye, you towered over her. And now. Now now now. Even the most naked, squalling babe will tower over her, under flower, under hill.

You are not a sociable person. The number of people you truly call family, you can count on a single hand, there is little precious room in your heart for anyone else. Your parents who had given up everything so you could live. Part of you feels resentful for having to go visit, it feels like a chore. A chore to awkwardly sit in a beautifully furnished living room like distant houseguests, the odd cousins, strays to dote upon. To call so and so Uncle and Aunt, who pinch your cheeks and pat you on the shoulder as if they’ve known you your whole life. How is school? Work hard and get a good job and treat your parents well. Every familiar line cuts you to pieces but you’ve become good at the pantomime. The back and forth tug of war of red envelopes of love and obligation pushed between parties plays like white noise.

A kind woman, your favorite Aunt, you decide, offers you a headband. Red for daughters, blue for sons. The strip of white flays across your forehead as you push your hair to tie it back. Your mother sobs, a sea’s worth to your brook. A stick of carmine stains your trembling fingers. The fragrance of charred sweetness tongues the air like flame.

For this grandmother, this grand lady you have barely known, you bow and bow and bow. You remember the last conversation. A sun-dappled room, full of prayer books and soft cushions, a cumulus of incense curls like a cat in your lap. The exact words exchanged, time rubbed and worn. You remember humoring her when she shows you her private prayer book collection for the fourth time. Her memory was already gone, full of black holes and broken time streams. To be honest, you’re impressed she even remembers your name at all. You, who are but a fleeting impression in her rich and busy life, full of grandchildren and great children, when you are but a doted goddaughter’s daughter.

She asks you about school. You tell her you are studying English, with that self-deprecating, self-punishing shame of someone who knows it is not the path of the Three. Half of her grandchildren are accountants. Math awakens a primal fear, science makes you nauseous. Maybe, you joke, you will become a writer. The kind doomed serving macchiatos and overpriced pastries with a starving look in the eye. Hunger flavors life stronger than any spice.

Instead, she takes her hand into yours, cradles it like a precious tea-cup. “We’ve never had a writer in the family.” And these three words, these last three words, they undo you.

 


Jenny Thai, MD’23, is a second year medical student who enjoys writing, cooking, and Studio Ghibli movies.

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