I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Right after I shot out of my mother’s womb, Somaly latched on to my body with such spite, no wonder I still dream that I am, and will never stop being, her. That’s what the Mas and Gongs have told me at least, that I was a sickly baby, so thin my bones poked through sparse layers of fat. Then, as a toddler, I burned through pounds of food and never gained weight. Whenever I had three plates of rice or more, I was summoning Somaly, chanting secrets known exclusively by the dead.
The ritual required plain rice. Adding a drop of anything ruined the grains’ white purity, scared her off from this world. Rice was sacred, after all, the only food Somaly stomached following the brutal murder of her father, Battambang’s very own Rice Factory King. The leaders of the concentration camp slit her father’s liver right from the gut, only days before the fall of Pol Pot, and then feasted on it for good luck. They believed it was steeped with the flavor of his lost fortune, that if they drowned their rice with his bile, stained every speck reddish brown—the color of blood mixing with earth—they might survive the Vietnamese invasion. This was how the Mas and Gongs have explained Somaly’s aversion for tainted rice. Not that her father wasn’t doomed from the start, according to Somaly, as only I know, having carried her spirit all these years.
Maybe this is why I am the only nurse in the Alzheimer’s and dementia unit who doesn’t refer to our patients’ recreational hour as “herding the dying cows” or “midafternoon of the walking dead” or “playtime for the rusty shit machines.” Because, unlike Nurse Anna or Nurse Kelly or even Nurse Jenny, my friend, I know something about disorientation. I understand how it feels to live with a past that defies logic.
Room 39 unleashes a stream of shit right as I’m carrying her to the bathroom. She’s screaming about her late husband, dead now over a decade, how she needs to crush gout medicine into his scrambled eggs. “Do you want Mike’s feet to get swollen?” Room 39 cries in my arms, the shit seeping through her nightgown and onto my scrubs. So there’s diarrhea on me, but I try not to hold it against her. His gout must’ve been real intense if he couldn’t wait a moment longer, not even for his wife to squat on the toilet.
“Someone should pull the plug on Room 39,” Jenny says to me in the staff locker room.
“That’s dark,” I say, wearing only my bra and underwear. Our thirty-minute break is almost over and I’m still washing my scrubs, rubbing a Tide to Go pen into the brown stains. It’s the fifth one I’ve uncapped in the past month. “That would put us out of our jobs, you know. I’m not trying to work at McDonald’s.”
“Which is the only reason I am not—at this very moment—smothering my patients in their sleep,” Jenny says with a smirk. We’re both young, just out of nursing school, and the kind of idiots who agree to work in the Alzheimer’s and dementia unit, with the worst patients of Saint Joseph’s Elderly Care, the ones whose minds are mushed into pulp.
Jenny’s always talking about leaving this dump, moving up the ranks of nursedom, and working at Kaiser Permanente, a nurse’s dream job, apparently. Kaiser’s on the nice side of town, where the sidewalk trees are pruned by the city and decorated during Christmas, where you can buy something to eat that doesn’t involve a drive-through.
“Whew, that smells nasty,” Jenny continues. “Is she on Exelon? I swear it makes their shit smell worse, you know? Like they’re shitting after eating a pile of their own shit.”
“It’s fine,” I say. “No difference between this and changing a baby’s diaper.”
“Baby shit’s pure, Serey,” she says, nasally, pinching her nose shut. “It’s, like, digested mashed-up carrots and breast milk. What we clean up is all jacked up with drugs. Like mutant shit, you know? Chemically enhanced.”
“Like the X-Men of shit,” I respond.
“X-Men of shit is too generous,” Jenny now says, her words echoey. “Our patients are, straight up, sacks of rotten meat.”
I try rubbing harder and harder. “That’s pretty harsh.”
“You go into room twenty-nine and tell me something isn’t rotting. I’ll trade room twenty-nine for room thirty any day.”
“You told me to take rooms thirty to thirty-five,” I snap, recalling Jenny’s spiel about the extra shifts being my chance to impress management.
Jenny sighs and crosses her arms. “Serey, it’s just so unfair. None of my patients have rooms with windows.”
“Goddamn it,” I say, and throw my scrubs into the sink. “The stains won’t come out.”
“Use my extra pair,” Jenny says. “Don’t fret.”
“Thanks.” I close my eyes and lean against the lockers. I am already exhausted, but I have another four-hour shift.
Before I can even rest my feet, I’m back in the hallway, rushing because the time has come to change Room 34’s sheets. It’s time to bathe her and administer the medication prescribed by her doctor. Which, I suspect, only makes the chemistry of her brain even murkier. I care more about this assignment because Room 34 is Ma Eng, my dead grandmother’s second cousin. Though she has a warped sense of our relationship, and not just because of her dementia. Of course, the dementia doesn’t help.
The Mas and Gongs in my neighborhood think of me as Somaly’s reincarnation. When I was born, Ma Eng saw in my infant face her dead niece, Somaly, and with the amniotic fluid still coating my skin, my Pous and Mings all agreed with her, after which the monks, too, agreed, so unceasing was Ma Eng’s vision. The neighborhood threw a celebration to honor Somaly’s spirit, her peaceful transition back into life. It was supposed to end at that, with a blessing from the monks. Her reincarnation was thought of as a good omen for my future. Never was I supposed to live as her, and it came as a familiar shock when Ma Eng was first admitted here, a year ago, and started calling me Somaly.
I knock on the door of Room 34 and hesitate the required beat—a courtesy enforced by management, despite our patients never being lucid enough to recognize a knock— before walking in to find Ma Eng sleeping, and also sleep-chanting in Khmer. She jolts when I wake her up, then takes me in with her sunken eyes. Her pupils are dilated and darting, searching for something she can recognize.
You’ve gotten fat, Somaly, she says to me in Khmer. I look down at my body to realize that Jenny’s scrubs are several sizes too big. Then Ma Eng pinches my ear, almost twisting it off. She has a surprising amount of strength for a woman with osteoporosis.
You’re not stealing food from the Communists, are you? You’ll get us killed!
Ming, I need to give you a bath, I say through the pain, stumbling over my Khmer words, remembering to call her Ming. Whenever I assert that I am not her niece, Somaly, that I am actually just myself, Serey, that she is my Ma and I am her grandniece, whom she has known for twenty-three years, the entirety of my current life, Ma Eng gets mad and slaps me across the face. She tells me to stop being childish, even when I concede that I am merely a reincarnation. For a while now, I have played along with her delusions. And I’m not stealing food, I add, prying her fingers off my ear.
Yes, if they’re going to execute me, she says,
I will at least be clean. The Communists shot your father with dirt still on his face. It must have been humiliating for him.
No one’s going to execute you, I say.
After I help her out of the bed, we walk over to her private bathroom. My back slouched over, I am supporting her with my arms wrapped around her waist. She is heavy and light, obese and emaciated, that elderly mix of mature flesh, weakened organs, and brittle bones, which I have always found awkward to hold up. Imagine carrying a hot air balloon as it’s deflating, is how
I describe it.
Last month, Ma Eng smacked Nurse Anna right in the face, and continued to smack her all over, forcing Nurse Anna into a crouched position on the floor. Nurse Anna was already pissed at Ma Eng for being a difficult patient, and only got more pissed when I translated the Khmer that she wailed and wailed during the beatdown. Short and squat, she repeated, short and squat. Nurse Anna kept sounding off about Room 34 having assaulted her. Management didn’t want the union to intervene, so they transferred Nurse Anna to a corridor placement far away from Ma Eng. They also reduced her workload, and then asked me to cover the rooms unassigned from Nurse Anna’s work reduction, including all aspects of Room 34’s caretaking—the morning, afternoon, and evening shifts. Previously I was responsible for Ma Eng only in the mornings, but management could no longer risk assigning a non-Khmer-speaking nurse to Room 34. I would have these extra duties, they told me, until they hired another Cambodian nurse part time. I asked them if they wanted referrals to Cambodian nurses I knew. They told me they would reach out when the funds became available.
Ma Eng’s fat slips right over her bones after I undress her in the shower. I finally ask her who is short and squat in her life. The whore who killed our family, she says, and as I wash Ma Eng’s sagging breasts, something clicks in my head.
I remember sitting in a living room surrounded by parents and grandparents. I was dressed in an oversize T-shirt, pajama pants decorated with monkeys, and a golden chain attached to a jade pendant. The grandparents had fed me plate after plate of white rice.
Tell us something about Somaly, they chanted, drunk off Heinekens, as my stomach expanded with rice, making me sluggish and faint. Finally, as I dozed off, my mouth started moving, hissing words that never, really, belonged to me. A Ma heard slut.
Someone else heard whore. A Gong grabbed me and sat me on his knee.
It all makes sense, he said, patting me on the head. You did good, oun. He turned to the crowd. He said that he now knew why Somaly’s spirit was so restless inside my body; she sought revenge on her father’s mistress. Before the Khmer Rouge took over, Somaly’s mother, Ma Sor, he explained, had refused to let her husband’s whore flee with the family. But Gong Sor, that hopeless old dog, he just couldn’t leave his mistress behind. So no one fled and everyone suffered! A real tragedy.
That’s nonsense, Ma Eng said, before asserting that the spirit of her niece, Somaly, wanted simply to be reunited with her daughter, Maly. She walked up to the Gong and picked me up. Now let this child go to sleep, Ma Eng said, handing me over to my mother, unaware of the nightmares that would plague my night.
Now it’s time to wash Ma Eng’s private parts. Following our patient protocols, I announce to her the next area my hand is headed. Jenny never thoroughly cleans her patients’ genitalia, I know, almost to spite Nurse Anna’s purism. “It’s not like they’re having sex,” she jokes. I’m hardly the best nurse, but I work hard for Ma Eng. Inside room 34, I switch into overdrive, working with meticulous focus, even when I swear my limbs are getting pulled down extra hard by gravity.
Dragging my washcloth down her stomach, I wince at the idea that Ma Eng might think I’m attacking her. But, of course, she wouldn’t, would she?—because I’m Somaly. My hand reaches its destination. Ma Eng stares right into my face. If a Communist touches you here, she says gravely, don’t fight. Fighting him off would be choosing death. Afterward, when I am spraying her with the showerhead, I wish I could say that Ma Eng hasn’t told me this already, so many times over.
Mom’s sleeping on the couch, to the dinging and wooping of Family Feud, when I finally get home. On the kitchen table, some stir-fried tofu has congealed in a plastic bowl—probably left there for my dinner—but I dish out only cold rice so Mom can have tofu for tomorrow’s lunch, so we can spend a little less on groceries, so Dad won’t need yet another graveyard shift. Mom thinks I’m saving for my own house, where I’d raise the ten grandchildren she expects to pop out of me. She doesn’t know I never want kids, that I put away most of my paychecks. Dementia runs on both sides of our family, Mom suffers from carpal tunnel because of her Amazon packaging center job, and Dad has diabetes. I refuse to watch their minds and bodies deteriorate into nothing. Mom would hate to know I intend to stick her in a nursing home, especially after hearing my stories about work, how nurses pin patients down, shove pills into their mouths, and then massage their gullets like ducks for the table. But that’s why I save money. It’ll be nice, her and Dad’s place. All the rooms will have windows and the staff will actually care about their patients. They will give my parents proper baths.
Sitting at the kitchen table, I stare at my plate of plain rice. Since becoming Ma Eng’s full-time nurse, I’ve had nightmares of Somaly, nightmares I haven’t experienced since I was a kid. Most mornings I now wake up gasping for air. I know these nightmares aren’t real, that they’re only dreams, that they aren’t based on fact or anyone’s actual life. Still, I feel as though I’m being drowned by the past, by Somaly’s memories, her torrent of unresolved emotions, which burrow deeper inside my body with my every restless night.
The dreams are horrible—Somaly working in the rice fields, pregnant and starving, her unborn child already lacking the nourishment it’ll need; Somaly’s water breaking in the darkest hour of the night and Ma Eng covering her mouth so the screams of labor won’t carry over to the ears of the Khmer Rouge soldiers, then Somaly muffling her newborn’s mouth so that nobody will catch the crying, cooing into its ears, Sorry, sorry, sorry. Some dreams I’m Somaly, and pregnant with her daughter, Maly, my cousin and Ma Eng’s other grandniece. It never makes sense, as Maly wasn’t born until the late eighties. But the dreams strike me like real life, as I desperately try to protect the hungry fetus kicking the walls of my womb, this baby abandoned with me, this doomed daughter whose weight feels both too heavy to easily bear and too light to be any kind of healthy, or secure, or whole. I suffer the consequences of the indispensable rage that Somaly harbored toward her then husband—who actually did flee the country without his wife, even as she was pregnant with what would’ve been Maly’s older sibling, had Somaly not miscarried. This rage surges through my veins, fueling my will to survive my hellish and haunted subconscious, and then, when I am awake and working, it continues to flare up in me, inducing migraines that color my sight with resentment. I don’t blame Ma Eng for the return of these dreams, but I can’t possibly endure them for much longer.
In other dreams, I’m watching Somaly as if I’m her reflection. On rare occasions—when I eat too much rice, maybe—Somaly and I will have a conversation at her old apartment on Greensboro Way, over a dinner of, yes, heaps of white rice. Usually these occasions involve Somaly telling my future, as if reading from a fortune cookie. But one dream, in particular, stays with me.
The dream unfolds: Somaly and I are sitting at a dinner table. She wears a white sampot covered in jewels perfectly matching her necklace. She’s almost akin to an apsara in a painting—aggressively elegant, like at any second, she’ll bend her hands backward to her wrists, and sway. I watch her raise the rice to her mouth, grain by grain, pinching each speck between her index finger and thumb. After a while, she stops and studies me, without focusing her eyes, as though I were a large expanse of nothing. My daughter, she finally says, will inherit the golden chain hugging my neck. I don’t say it’s the same necklace I wore as a kid, the one I was given to celebrate our connection.
It’s been in my family for generations, she explains. Maly’s grandfather refused to let the Communists take his wealth. And that’s why he died. Because everyone knew the Rice Factory King buried things. My father wanted too much. He wanted his wife and his mistress, his wealth. He died because he wanted, wanted, wanted.
Let this chain remind Maly of that.
I wake up right as Somaly removes the necklace and hands it over to me. In every reoccurring version of this same dream, I never find out what Somaly says next.
From the other room, I hear the opening credits to Deal or No Deal. I splash soy sauce onto my rice, as I’m too exhausted for dreams of Somaly. I know it won’t work, but it’s worth a try.
Sometimes in the morning, Ma Eng remembers that Somaly is dead. The sight of me shocks her into tears. She starts praying for me to bless her and her grandnephews and grandnieces, of whom I am one. Then she asks what I—or rather the ghost of Somaly—want from the living world, why I’ve appeared before her mortal eyes. In these moments, I see my resemblance to Somaly, to that woman in the few surviving photos. My reflection, in the wardrobe’s mirror, zeroes in on my cheekbones, my dark hair both wavy and straight, how my eyebrows settle into an expression of blankness. Whenever Ma Eng sees me as dead, a ghost, I plead for her to take her medication without a fight. By the time the afternoon comes, Ma Eng will have reverted to hallucinations of war and genocide. Communists lurk behind the curtain. The plants by the window sprawl into “rice fields.” Ma Eng waters those plants like she’ll get beaten to death if she doesn’t.
This morning, I don’t know which I’d prefer—for Ma Eng to think I am Somaly as living or dead. A woman enslaved by Communists or a ghost haunting her Ming. But when I get to work, it doesn’t matter. Right after I knock on Room 34’s door, a man’s voice answers, “Come in, goddamn it. Come in!”
I rush into the room to find Ma Eng’s grandnephew, Ves, struggling to pull her up by the wrists, up from the floor. “Hurry and help me!” he shouts.
“Stop,” I say, “you’ll yank her arm from its socket!” Crouching, I grab on to Ma Eng, wrapping around her waist, and lift her to the bed, where she coils instantly into a fetal position. She doesn’t look good. Her eyelids flutter. Her mouth stretches wider and wider, sounding out only silence.
“I glanced at my texts for a second and she fell to the ground,” Ves says, pacing back and forth, hands on his head. Ignoring him, I raise Ma Eng’s nightgown to examine the damage. I gently prod her flesh, and her entire body spasms. The wrinkles on her face become the ripples of agony, the echoes of her silent screaming. A pang of relief digs into my gut—uncontrollable and selfish and rotten—and I have to lean against the bed frame, my face nearly touching Ma Eng’s. The thought of her dying spins violently in my head.
“What should we do?’’ Ves asks.
“We need to call 911,” I say, then whisper, Ming, I’m sorry. I find myself rubbing Ma Eng’s monkish buzzed head, which gives her the appearance of a giant ancient baby.
Ma Eng spends the following week in the hospital. Family members grace room 34 with belated senses of respect and pity: other Mas and Gongs who also barely recognize their own family; estranged Mings and Pous trying to recover their karma; annoyed teenagers who couldn’t care less about their zombie of a Ma. They bring new blankets and pillows and packaged desserts Ma Eng shouldn’t be eating. On the coffee table next to the window, they set up framed photos of her deceased husband and children who never made it to America. They burn incense to rid the premises of evil spirits. All this because the hospital doctors have informed us that Ma Eng’s too old and broken to be cleared for an operation. Her hip has already been replaced, and new prosthetic implants won’t fix much of anything. Ma Eng is returning to Saint Joseph’s, to live out her last remaining days.
All week my nightmares as Somaly stay unbearable. Every night, I flee through the mine-encrusted forest. We are traveling as a group, a family, but half of us are dead. I clutch an infant Maly. My grip bruises her flesh and she cries and yells, but there’s no other way to lock her in my arms as I am running as fast as I can to reach a border, any border, where we think we will find safety, where we will soon find only Thai soldiers at the Thai borders, with their rifles aimed at us, their voices screaming in a language not our own, which maybe Ma Eng understands because Ma Eng is also screaming, for us to stop, to turn back, to give up, as there’s no hope, and yet I swear I see hope, so I keep running, Somaly keeps running, Maly pressed up against our chest, right up until we reach a bullet that was fired. And finally I am dead, so I wake up and go to work.
All week I think about Ma Eng dying. I think about joking with my coworkers and being myself, nothing more. I think about returning home from work at a reasonable time, for once, and seeing Dad before he leaves for his own shifts. I wonder how it’ll feel to be rid of Somaly, to have complete ownership of my life, to move through the world without half my energy drained by memories not even mine, and then I fall asleep. I dream as Somaly dying, Somaly being ripped away from her infant.
All week I anticipate the inevitable—a confrontation with Maly, who will visit Ma Eng on her deathbed. Maly, the newborn in my nightmares. Maly, who has resented me since I was a kid, into and past her thirties. She has never understood that I have no desire to embody her mother’s legacy, that I’d do anything to stop dreaming as Somaly.
Two days before Ma Eng’s return, I have the same dream of Somaly and her necklace, except this time I wake up screaming. The parts I don’t remember must truly be scary. It’s a couple of hours before I need to start my day, so I decide to make breakfast, which I don’t usually have time for. While I’m stirring instant oatmeal in a pot, Mom enters the kitchen and startles when she sees me.
“Don’t do that to me!” she yells, sinking into a chair at the table.
“Want some?” I point at the pot, then at the coffee maker.
“I’m too tired to eat, it’ll make me nauseous.” She props her chin on her hand, as though her head will roll off her shoulders without the extra support. So I pour a cup of coffee and hand it to her. “Every night,” she says, her eyes struggling to stay open, “your Ba wakes me up when he gets home. He’s so inconsiderate, he can’t open the door without banging around. Every night at four—bang, bang, bang.”
“Mai, you should eat,” I say, taking a seat with my bowl. I spoon out some oatmeal and wave it in her face. She laughs, batting my hand away, before I find myself asking, “Do we have jewelry from the old days?”
She motions for me to wait, leaves the room, and returns with a small wooden box. Then she pours the contents onto the table—stones, earrings, tiny Buddhas, dust now flying everywhere—and suddenly I see it: Somaly’s necklace. Picking it up, I feel its weight in my left hand. I use my right to drag the chain against the skin of my palm. It’s thinner than in my dreams, less substantial. Slowly I fasten the chain around my neck, with hesitation, with unease.
“Ma Eng gave that to you when all those croaks thought you were some walking ghost.” The tone of Mom’s voice is the verbal equivalent of an eye roll. “But it still looks nice on you,” she adds, and sips her coffee.
All day at work, I wonder if Maly thinks she deserves this necklace over me. That it’s yet another thing, in the aftermath of her mother’s suicide, ripped from her grasp. Is that the reason she started to hate me? Why she refused my existence the second I stopped crawling, once I was big enough to walk on my own? Maybe if I return this necklace to its rightful heir, I start to believe, my nightmares will cease and I’ll be able to rest.
The morning Ma Eng comes back to Saint Joseph’s, she embraces me for a long time as I am trying to change her nightgown. A bruise has settled across her left hip and reaches and fades onto her lower back. The green and purple colors eat away at her flesh, and as we hug, I keep my hands hovering over her body. I can almost feel the radiating heat of her pain. We rock back and forth, because Ma Eng can’t stay upright without doing so.
I had a chance to escape, she whispers into my ear, but I couldn’t leave you with the Communists.
I love you, I say, wondering if she’ll recognize it—Somaly’s necklace dangling over my scrubs.
When I finally dress Ma Eng and place her on the bed, I hear screaming outside in the hall. Ma Eng whacks me on the head. Shut that girl up before someone worse notices her. I step out of room 34 and see Maly a couple of doors down, a baby propped on her hip, a kid holding on to her legs. She’s yelling at Jenny, who beams a look of complete indifference.
“There’s a margin of risk and error that accompanies elderly care,” Jenny says flatly, reciting a line from the clipboard hanging in our staff locker room. “There’s nothing else to say. You have our deepest gratitude for choosing our facilities.”
“Everyone here’s fucking horrible at their jobs!” Maly screams. “She’s about to die!” The baby on her hip starts crying. “Look what you’ve done,” Maly hisses through her teeth, before walking off to soothe her kid, down the hall to where I’m standing.
Dread floods my body, and I bolt back into room 34. The last thing I want is to feel the frustration, the frivolous torment, of being around a person who can’t see past her own suffering. Ma Eng’s already asleep on the bed, and I realize how stupid it is to hide in this room, but it’s too late. Maly walks in with her baby. I haven’t seen her in years, and I remember what I’ve heard—that she moved to the next town over, after she divorced her first husband and remarried.
She looks the same, despite the faint wrinkles around her mouth and eyes. Her cheekbones jut out, and I almost think they might cut her baby. She stares at me as though demons are squatting on my face. I try to meet her gaze, but I can only look at her forehead, which is shiny, broad, and wrinkle-free, despite the violent contortions of her eyebrows.
Ma Eng rolls onto her broken hip, and the pain startles her awake. She groans loudly, Maly rushing to her side. Ma, are you okay? she asks in Khmer, then glares at me. “How did you let this happen?”
I want to explain that, until I’d heard her yelling, I was in the process of strapping Ma Eng onto the bed, but there’s no time for words. Quickly I rotate Ma Eng to her back, place pillows at her sides, and wrap the bed’s belt around her waist. Her groaning gets louder, so I decide to hook Ma Eng up to an IV of painkillers. I prepare the syringe to inject into her arm, while Maly stands over me, staring me down with a protective focus.
“What’re you doing to her?” Maly says. “It was under your watch she broke her hip, right?”
“Bong,” I begin, pausing to emphasize that I’m calling her Bong out of respect, “let me do my job.” Without waiting for a response, I wipe Ma Eng’s arm with a disinfectant wipe for the shot, and right as I’m piercing her skin with the needle, Maly’s other kid walks into the room.
“Gross!” she yells before asking, “What’s wrong with Ma?”
“Go outside and wait for mommy,” Maly says, masking her frustration with tenderness.
Maly and I wait in silence, on opposite sides of bed, as Ma Eng’s groaning diminishes into a whimpering. The air in the room swells with awkwardness. Once Ma Eng falls asleep, Maly bitterly says, “Can you leave me alone with my great-aunt?” and for a brief moment, I want to scream, I’m the one who takes care of her.
Outside room 34, I find Jenny and Maly’s kid in the small waiting area across the door. They are drawing colorful flowers on a bunch of the medical pamphlets.
“I’ve met you before,” Maly’s kid says, looking up at me, her tone rising into uncertainty, a question. “Everyone calls me Sammy. Don’t call me Sam.”
“Yeah? Well, I’m your Ming,” I say, kneeling down, already regretful that I’ve claimed that kinship. “Your drawings are pretty.”
“I know, I’m five,” she says rudely, and Jenny laughs.
“Maybe you should check on your mom,” I say.
Sammy considers this, then gathers her drawings. She doesn’t say goodbye before she goes into room 34.
Jenny and I retreat to the recreation room for coffee, because Jenny’s on “herding the dying cows” duty, and because I won’t risk another interaction with Maly. Sunlight glares off the tile floors in a distracting blaze. It’s almost like the view from the window doesn’t feature an overgrown patch of unincorporated land, which was, according to the rumors, where a local gang buried dead bodies for years. Rooms 39 through 43 are watching Jeopardy! on the TV, shouting all the wrong answers. Room 32, a Chinese man with huge bifocals, speed-walks across the room, back and forth, still training for a marathon he ran decades ago.
“It’s like, I get it,” Jenny says, a mug of black coffee in her hands. “Her relative’s dying. But she doesn’t have to be an asshole about it.” She looks past me while speaking, at Room 37 and Room 38 and their game of checkers. Room 37 throws tantrums when he loses, and also when he wins, and so, Jenny has to monitor him closely. “Aren’t you tired of people blaming us for their shitty decisions?” she continues. “We were not the ones who ditched their relatives.”
“I’m just worried about my great-aunt,” I say, and Somaly’s rage begins to bang on my skull.
Jenny turns to look at me. “Fuck, I forgot.”
“It’s fine. She’s old.” I focus on Room 32, on his endless training. “And Maly,” I add, “she has legitimate reasons.”
“Serey, be real.” Jenny places a hand on my shoulder, splashing coffee onto my scrubs. “It’s not okay to come in here screaming.”
“Yeah, I guess it isn’t,” I say, before I feel a total exhaustion, and just that.
The next week several visitors come to room 34, but Maly stays by Ma Eng’s side more than any of them. From the hallway, I hear Maly recite stories from her childhood. How Ma Eng got so mad at her for sneaking out at night. How Ma Eng hated her high school boyfriends, complained about them constantly, while still always cooking them elaborate meals to bring home. How grateful she feels that Ma Eng raised her when no one else would.
Every night this week I dream I die in Somaly’s body. My nightmares have rendered my sleep useless. My body aches, my shifts drag into endless tedium, my migraines pound at my head. I need the nightmares to stop, and I don’t know what to do, other than to give Somaly’s necklace to her daughter. This is what Somaly wants, I tell myself, almost delirious. Let Maly bear the burden of her mother.
Each day I start my shift with the intention of giving Maly the necklace. Each day I fail. When she addresses me, I can barely look her in the eyes. I don’t want to give Maly the satisfaction. Don’t want her to think I’m apologizing for my existence, that I’m submitting to her perspective, her conviction that I’ve wrongfully held on to the memory of her mother, that I’m an interloper of her inheritance. Out of spite, I find myself wanting to keep the necklace. And I know that, deep down, I don’t care to act this stubborn, as stubborn as Maly herself, but sometimes I can’t help it. Sometimes I wish I could refuse her version of our history the way she does mine, that this would be enough.
Some afternoons Maly’s second husband will bring Sammy and their baby to visit Ma Eng. If Ves happens to be here, he’ll accompany them to get ice cream across the street. “I don’t know why Maly is so insistent on, like, having her kids witness Ma Eng’s death,” he says to me one day. “It’s depressing.”
“Guess she wants them to have a chance to know Ma Eng,” I say curtly, so strung out that Ves’s sudden interest in me seems normal. I am organizing a tray of pill cups for each patient in the wing. I squint at the tray and try to focus. For the sake of my own sanity, I need to maintain a firm grip on this corner of my world. I have no energy to spare if chaos were to erupt at work, like the time Nurse Kelly gave Room 32 the pills intended for Room 38. The entire staff had to chase Room 32 around the parking lot—his marathon training really has been working.
“Yeah, well, it’s a little late for that,” Ves says, biting into his dollar ice cream cone. “Now they’ll just remember Ma Eng as broken and dying.” He closes his eyes, cracks his neck, and takes a breath. Then he reenters Ma Eng’s room, where Maly and her family stand over Ma Eng, like they’re trying to calculate, from the steadiness of her breath, the exact time of her future death.
After the minor medical emergency that occurred when a Ming sneaked a Big Mac into room 34 and fed it to Ma Eng—who has lost the ability to digest solid food, despite Big Macs being her favorite American meal—Ma Eng ceased to retain consciousness, not even the deranged sort, except for when I give her a bath. The Big Mac, most likely, had nothing to do with the regressive turn of Ma Eng’s health, but Maly still yelled at the Ming for twenty minutes. Technically, according to management, I have no obligation to keep washing Room 34. She’s officially entered in the computer system as “dead,” as Nurse Anna likes to keep on top of our data entry. Still, I feel obligated to keep giving Ma Eng baths. It’s the only time I can spend with her without Maly breathing down my neck.
Today Ma Eng is calm, subdued, collapsed into the shower chair. I’m dying, she says, as I lather her hair with shampoo. Words escape me so I keep silent. I’m going to die in this hell, she continues. I check to see if she’s crying or expressing remorse, but her stony face seems carved into time, and I feel dumb for thinking that Ma Eng feels anything other than boundless detachment.
I rinse the soap out of Ma Eng’s hair, white suds trailing down her bruised back.
You’re going to survive this, I say. You’ll go to America and live another fifty years and only then will you die, surrounded by those who love you.
I want you to kill me, Ma Eng says. My kids are dead. I don’t need to live like this.
I’m not sure if she’s speaking in the past or the present. Underneath my scrubs, Somaly’s necklace feels cold against my bare chest.
Is there anything you want before you die? I ask.
I want to eat some of your father’s rice. I want to taste something pure.
Let’s get you some rice then.
I pat Ma Eng dry with a towel and dress her in a fresh nightgown, careful not to bring her any more pain. I figure that’s why she’s okay with death in the first place, to end the pain. Her arm around my shoulders, we slowly walk into the bedroom, where Maly and her daughter Sammy are waiting for us.
Now is the time, I think. Give Maly her mother’s necklace before Ma Eng willfully kills herself, before she refuses to breathe like Room 35 did last month. Do it before Maly has to face the death of another mother.
From the other side of the hospital bed, Maly helps me lay Ma Eng down. Her black sweater adds to the severity of her features. Behind her mother, Sammy is drawing on pieces of paper at the coffee table. She’s oblivious to the photographs of Ma Eng’s dead husband and children.
A boulder of guilt clogs my throat. Guilt for meeting Maly’s resentment with my own. Guilt for resisting the very thing that could help us both gain closure. I stare at Maly, our dying great-aunt stretched out between us. I can feel the pressure of tears swelling behind my eyes, but I am still too stubborn and proud to let go in front of Maly.
“What are you looking at?” Maly says to me, taking a step back from the bed. She places her hand on Sammy’s indifferent head.
I try to tell her about the necklace, but my throat is still blocked by my guilt, and I can only manage to say, “Do you want some rice?”
Maly responds with a skeptical look. She crosses her arms as if guarding herself from my foolishness.
“Ma Eng does,” I add. “White rice.”
Just then a loud dinging goes off from inside her purse. “I have to take this,” she says, checking her phone and then brushing past me. Behind her she slams the door, creating a slight draft through the room. It washes over me in a dull chill, our final chance of reconciliation disintegrating into the air.
Sammy replaces her mom at Ma Eng’s side, carrying a stack of drawings. “Ma, I made you these,” she says, and Ma Eng doesn’t respond. “Maaaaaaaa,” Sammy continues, yanking at the bedsheets.
“Don’t pull,” I say calmly, though I feel like yelling at her. I want to tear her drawings into scraps and banish her from the room. Can’t you see Ma is suffering? I think of screaming, but instead I say, “Ma Eng needs to sleep.”
She ignores me, and keeps yanking the bedsheets, which leads to Ma Eng’s head slamming against Sammy’s. Startled, she takes a few steps back, but Ma Eng stays frozen, eyes still shut, as though she has just died. Her mouth is wide open, a black hole sucking all its surroundings into the afterlife. I check her pulse, and even though the doctors have never cared to be optimistic with their diagnoses, even though my nursing career and management work and work to desensitize my soul, even though I just suspected her of dying a moment before, I am shocked to feel nothing within Ma Eng’s wrist, only absence.
“She’s dead,” I whisper to myself, and the tears finally emerge and pour out of me. I feel endlessly sad, like a chunk of me has eroded away. I can barely breathe, I am crying so hard, but Sammy doesn’t even notice. “Ma,” I hear her saying, “this drawing is a dragon in her garden.”
I half expect Ma Eng to yell, Go back to work before the Communists come. Pretend the rice fields are your goddamn garden. But that’s not what happens, of course. Sammy and her stupid drawings have no effect on Ma Eng’s corpse. Now she’s showing Ma Eng a purple dragon eating a rainbow.
I shut my eyes, the darkness comforting in its blankness, and when I open them again, the sight of Somaly’s ghost appears before me. I’m not surprised to see her; I’ve lived with her so long. She stands behind Sammy, dressed the way she always does in my dreams, her dress a vision of white, pure white, and we lock eyes for what feels an eternity. Finally, she places her hand on Sammy’s shoulder.
Staring at Somaly, I find myself clutching the necklace in my hand, and I know what I need to do. Undoing its clasp at the back of my neck, I walk over to Sammy’s side of the bed and kneel down. “Let’s give Ma some space,” I say, as Somaly stares us down.
“But I have more drawings.” Sammy holds up a portrait of Ma Eng riding the purple dragon. She fires a stubborn look, but it dissolves as I dangle the gold chain in front of her face, the jade pendant twirling, a planet, an entire world of its own, rotating on its axis.
“I have something for you,” I say, and loop the chain around her neck. “It belonged to your other Ma.”
“Thank you,” she says, incredulous, before hugging me out of obligation.
Her hair sticking to my wet cheeks, I look out the window, straight through Somaly’s transparent figure, at the burial ground for all those gang victims. It seems fitting that no matter where I look, I am facing what the dead have touched. “If your mom asks,” I say, as she releases me from her embrace, “Ma Eng gave it to you.”
Then I grab Sammy’s shoulders and peer into her eyes. Maybe I am gripping her too hard, but I can’t stop, I am trying to see if she knows Ma Eng is dead, if she can sense Somaly’s ghost hovering above us, ready to inflict her with nightmares of our family’s past. She’s not fazed at all, and I wonder if she’s just that comfortable around death, whether the force of my grasp does nothing to her new flesh. Maybe the younger you are, the more dying seems unexceptional. What’s the difference between birth and death, anyway? Aren’t they just the opening and closing of worlds?
“It looks nice on you,” I say, pulling her into another hug.
Feeling the warmth of her little body, part of me wants to spare Sammy, to protect her from the history of her grandmother and her great-great aunt, from the ghosts of all our suffering. Part of me wants to throw the necklace into the Delta, let that heirloom be carried off by the murky, polluted water, right through California, through the Pacific, so that no one but me has to live this burden. Part of me wonders if the new generation should be allowed some freedom from the dreams of the dead. But I’m also tired and don’t see any other path. I need the dreams to stop. For once, I will preserve the self I want.
Anthony Veasna So (1992–2020) was a graduate of Stanford University and earned his MFA in fiction at Syracuse University. His writing appeared or is forthcoming in the New Yorker, the Paris Review, n+1, Granta, and ZYZZYVA. Born and raised in Stockton, California, he lived in San Francisco.
Originally published in
Our summer issue features interviews with Mel Kendrick, Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi, Kader Attia, Arthur Jafa and Dana Hoey, Quntos Kunquest, Katiana Rangel, and Anne Anlin Cheng; fiction by Jenzo DuQue, Dylan Landis, Anthony Veasna So, and Sophie Hoss; nonfiction by A.V. Marraccini; a comic by Ronald Wimberly; poetry by Arthur Solway, Rickey Laurentiis, and Alina Stefanescu; an essay and portfolio by Kalup Linzy; an archival interview with Suzan-Lori Parks; and more.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee