It was an arrangement the other seamstresses frowned upon: Elaine and her aunt, Paula, tenanting the loft above the tailor’s shop. Paula was not even discreet about it: she left their straw mats plainly laid out among the naked discarded mannequins, the bolts of rosy silk the local girls liked for their wedding gowns, the creamy white the French girls liked for theirs. Decent people must have assumed Paula paid the rent in favors; the tailor was known to be unscrupulous, his shop was a front, and he was always eyeing the women who stood outside the cafes in their useless high-heeled shoes; any smart girl who worked his sewing machines washed her pay with hot water and strung the coins to dry when she got home. Even Elaine, watching the beautiful Paula smooth her dress around her hips and loosen her black hair before going out for the evening, had her suspicions. But the colonial facade overlooking the street would never tell what affairs took place inside. Besides, since a bomb had exploded in the French cafe on the corner, the talk among seamstresses was of nothing but the war.
In the rear of the loft was a room Elaine was forbidden to enter. A basket on the floor held her mother’s things: a rosary, Elaine’s birth certificate, which she could not read, slinky western dresses she could almost fill, colorful French and American magazines, and a mirror which often enticed her to sneak into the room to study her round-eyed face, a pleasure whose shamefulness she did not understand. Adding to the clutter, Paula stored her sewing materials in the room, and she had cut up the magazines and pinned movie stars to the walls to hide places where the plaster had cracked from the bomb. In fact, the entire building had been rattled. Windowframes had
slipped out of true, panes were stuck open, there was a slant to the floor: an orange had rolled against the wall and shriveled, though it just as easily might have rolled out the door and never come back.
The girls downstairs pestered Elaine about not having a proper shrine to her mother. No burner for incense, no silver tray for afterlife money, not even a picture of her mother’s lovely face. Paula was always saying that Elaine’s mother had been as pretty as Lauren Bacall. Elaine, who did not know who Lauren Bacall was, would have liked to have seen a photograph for herself, but Paula insisted the rosary was superior magic, and there would be no shrine.
Behind the shop, a brick wall hemmed a yard, and in this circumscribed world Elaine liked to play games too young for a fourteen year old girl. Crickets perched in the wild grass, and Elaine caught them in her cupped hands. Sometimes she found two crickets mating. Elaine tipped her head closer to study them, her long black hair falling forward around her face, her light-skinned face, her too-light skin. Decent people frowned on that as well.
At night, while Paula was sleeping off secrets in soft whimpering dreams, Elaine would rise, the floorboards sighing under her feet, and she would sneak into the back room. She gazed at the city. Was there a place for her? Yes, she imagined, there was. She saw, beyond the palm trees in the backyard, a colonial mansion whose sparkling electric light drew moths to its windowscreens and whose gardens were home to bats growing fat on the moths. The mansion had a generator that clattered and spat exhaust. Because of the generator’s noise, or maybe because of the thud of distant bombs, or the ratatattat of soldiers guarding the city gates, Elaine could never sleep, and she was always drawn to the window. Paula had pinned a sheet of silk across the window as a mosquito screen. Elaine would lift the silk and attend the mansion’s sparkle and clatter every night, and she imagined children inside, blonde children in sailor suits, but she could never see them because of the moths clouding the mansion’s windows, feeling for a way to the light. Then she felt Paula’s hands on her shoulders, Paula leading her back to her mat, Paula’s warm body nestling against hers, Paula singing a French song in her ear. One time Elaine turned, her cheek brushing Paula’s, and she asked Paula what the song meant. Paula said she wasn’t sure, but she thought it was a love song, and all French love songs were about saying goodbye.
Elaine remembered nothing about her mother, but she remembered everything about Paula, every bath, every meal, every touch since coming into Paula’s care, as though for every moment with Paula she had coined a special word. On Elaine’s thirteenth birthday, Paula had taken Elaine to the village where Elaine’s mother and Paula had been raised and to which Paula still sent money from sewing. After stepping off the bus into the rain, they walked barefoot through a row of arbors, and the rain drizzled through gaps in the vines. Wet in their ao dais, they held palm leaves over their heads. When her elders refused to see Elaine and she overheard them calling her a mongrel dog, she ran through the arbors and across the road, the downpour hammering her back, and she waited alone for a bus home, conjugating French verbs under her breath. Paula did not emerge from the arbors, and the chill on Elaine’s skin as she rode home alone was agony. Bad weather persisted into the night. Back at the shop, rain streamed through the jammed windows, and Elaine awoke on her mat, crying, scratching her skin. Suddenly Paula was beside her mat, and Elaine felt herself pulled to Paula’s chest. The rain dripped on the windowsills. Paula rocked her, sang French songs, and described all the places she and Elaine would go. Like Parisian ladies, they would walk down the sidewalks of Hanoi unescorted and smile at men who followed their silky shapes with light brown hungry eyes. She told a love story about a French man and a pretty local seamstress who let out his suits because he was so fat and rich. He was a good man, a gentle man, and he gave her dresses and a camera and a bicycle and money. Paula kissed Elaine, and Elaine understood that someone who loved you would lie, and Elaine, loving back, would willingly listen.
Every morning, before the machines downstairs hummed with wide-skirted dresses and men’s linen coats cut loosely for the humid air, Paula and Elaine rifled through the tailor’s desk, stuffed coins in their pockets, and hurried to the backyard, where Paula kept her bicycle. They wanted to be first to the bakeries where the men had worked all night because the curfew had stranded them away from home. Elaine sat on the fender and gripped Paula’s waist as they wove and wobbled around delivery vans and tricycle carts. They steered clear of the young tan soldiers searching for men and women on their lists, but Paula flirted with the French commanders; she waved and blew kisses and spoke words Elaine had never heard before. Paula pointed out American spies in white shirts (you could tell by their bristled military haircuts). The Frenchmen in the cafes were already stirring brandy into their coffee, and they hung their arms around their local girlfriends, whose eyes jealously followed Paula as she guided the bicycle along. Now and then, a man would call out Paula’s name, and Paula would flip back her hair and smile at him over her shoulder before turning away. On the trip home, Elaine carried warm rolls against her chest and followed Paula on foot as she pushed the meandering bike through the swelling crowds. Paula’s shiny black hair slid down her back and gathered between her shoulder blades. Elaine followed the smell of her perfume. She admired Paula’s slender calves, the muscles flexing beneath her brown skin as she lifted her heels out of her sandals and walked lightly on the balls of her feet. Elaine dwelled on these details to block out the jeers. Older folk spat at her feet. Children pointed at her big nose and her freckled cheeks. The teasing was easier to bear when she thought of beautiful Paula, when she recited French verbs for “to hide,” “to run away,” “to make yourself into someone new.” She hung her head to hide her face, her long hair mercifully sheltering her skin.
In the evening, while the other seamstresses hurried back to their mothers and fathers and narrow mats to dream small dreams, Paula and Elaine would go upstairs, cook tea and rice on a burner, join their mats together, and Paula would tell stories about Elaine’s mother, how pretty she was, how much she loved Elaine, how at night she had rubbed dark cinnamon on Elaine’s skin and held Elaine to her chest. Nothing about Elaine’s father. There was the birth certificate. Elaine had touched it so many times it had turned yellow and limp as a bamboo leaf. She could not read it. Paula had never offered, and Elaine understood that although Paula knew the French names for stars in the sky, she could not read the words either. “You are definitely a French girl,” Paula would say. “Look at the wave in your hair. You need to speak French every day, so you build up an accent. I am sure you could pass!” Later in the evening, Paula would put on dresses she was sewing for clients, useless French women who could not sew for themselves, and Elaine, sitting on the mat and singing songs she didn’t understand, found herself thinking a childish thought, that if she wished hard enough, she could become just like Paula, the perfect dark-skinned girl dancing around her. The hem of a red silk skirt brushed her face. Paula would leave with the dress, not be back till morning.
You squeezed an egg too hard in your palm, it only grew into a rock.
One night was oddly cold, and Paula did not go out. Sleep lured her attention away. Elaine tip-toed into the back room to look for her mother’s mirror. Paula’s sewing case was open, and her supplies messed the floor: a bolt of linen, dress patterns, a measuring tape, tin boxes of pins and needles and buttons, spools of red and green and blue, and her shiny nickel shears. An envelope of money. Elaine kneeled on the floor and examined a spool of yellow, twirling the silk around her finger. In the bottom of the case, she found a photo of a fat western man and a local girl wearing a loose dress. The bulge in her tummy was unmistakable. Sliding over the girl’s shoulder: that long black silky hair. The man’s fingers on her hair.
The creaking of the floor must have awakened Paula, for suddenly she was behind Elaine, her hands on Elaine’s small shoulders, guiding her back to her mat. Elaine hid the photo against her belly.
“You’re not supposed to go in there,” Paula said. “You know you’re not supposed to go in there.”
“I’m sorry,” Elaine said.
“I don’t believe you.” Elaine’s face was turned to hide her tears, and she shunned the brush of Paula’s hand, but too late: she drifted to sleep, helpless and ashamed, as Paula stroked her brow with her palm.
In the morning, Elaine awoke to Paula kneeling beside her, making tea, dunking leaves into a glass of water and stirring them with her finger. Elaine turned her body away, peeled the photograph from her belly, and studied it. Pretty girl. Fat man.
Paula sighed and spoke. “You might as well know. I had you when I was fifteen. Your pretty mother did not die, you see, because she is still here.”
“Why did you lie to me?”
“You and I both know that decent people call such a woman a whore, yet the sister of such a woman is a pitiable saint. At night people turn away a whore; a saint gets a floor to sleep on.”
“What was his name?
“He’s still around. I suppose you could try to meet him.” Paula was rubbing tea on the dry skin of her elbow.
“I never thought of it before. Of course you should try. What harm could come of it?” She sucked on a tea leaf. The tea ran down her chin. “His name is Cecile Laurent. Listen, I’ll sew you a dress like a lovely French girl. You can use my bicycle. I’ll fix your hair like a lady’s.”
“You can come too.”
“No I can’t.”
“Because you don’t still love him?”
Paula lifted the photograph from Elaine’s fingers and held it close to her face. Elaine’s view was blocked. Wet brown spots of tea from Paula’s fingertips soaked into the paper. “Yes, that’s it exactly.”
How many heartbeats did Elaine count, those days when she could think of nothing but her father? His name, Cecile Laurent, hummed in her head as she fumbled at her machine and sewed daydreamy lines into dresses and hats. When she was not working, she studied Paula’s ladylike attentions to herself before the mirror. The crickets that chirped in the grass behind the shop were an amusement that did not interest her anymore. Even the war, the growing disfigurements on buildings, on hands and legs and faces, were unwelcome details to a flowering imagination that, before, had been bland and vacant as the white space around a child’s sketch. She blotted the war out. She told Paula she wanted to look up her father as soon as possible. Could Paula describe his address, could Paula loan her the bicycle, could Paula sew her a dress and fix her hair? The city was sick with war, laid up, shut down, tossing and turning at night. The ground rumbled with distant mortars. Even Paula, too, had become sick and weary, and she slept in a new position, lying on her side and curled into a ball. Elaine drilled herself in French until it became innate enough for dreaming. Cecile was a trader. He was a soldier. A doctor. He would put her on a boat…
One morning, Elaine cuddled against Paula, her familiar shape now strange to touch, to contemplate—this was her mother! Elaine reminded Paula of her promise: the man’s address, the bike, the dress. She prodded Paula’s spine. “Tell me!”
Paula, keeping the sheet wrapped around her back, raised herself as slowly as an ox, and twisted her long straight hair in a simple ponytail. She shuffled to the bathroom and vomited. Elaine did not see her face.
Elaine wandered to the back room, squatted on the floor, and rummaged unhappily through things. The curtain bulged with a swollen wind. A narrow-waisted silk dress that had belonged to her mother—to Paula— lay in a wrinkled heap, as though she had dropped it to her ankles and stepped out of it to take a bath. Elaine put it on and studied her reflection; she couldn’t decide whether the girl she saw in the mirror was pretty. She picked up the birth certificate. The handwriting was clerical and precise.
Elaine traced the perfect loops with her fingernail, the way she thought was correct, though she was not sure. She did not even know which letters were her name. Not really.
“I’ve a lot to worry about.” Paula came in to place pins across Elaine’s collarbone, down her back, around her waist. Elaine watched her suspiciously: how could Paula’s worries be worse that the anxiety twisting her own gut? How could anything be more important than this? Paula’s hands shook a little. “All I can promise is that I’ll try.”
Paula put on a loose ao dai, then slid into the bathroom and wretched again. She had to leave on an errand, she said, and she was late, but she would be home in time.
By dinnertime, Paula had not returned with the bicycle. The street was crowded with people from the villages, eager for home, not wanting to press the curfew. Since Paula had been ill and moving slowly, Elaine wanted to be fair before succumbing to impatience. She made herself busy. She picked up Paula’s silk dress with the narrow waist. She fit her arms into it, slid it over her hips, felt a curve around her bones that was new. She watched out for the pins. She brushed out her hair. She found Paula’s red lipstick, and daubed its stickiness to her lips. She tried resting her hands on her hips as she had seen Paula do. She imagined this was what French girls practiced when people weren’t watching, so to look beautiful when people were.
When Elaine came downstairs wearing the dress and lipstick, the other girls were wrapping up for the evening. The tailor was handing out dull dirty coins. He looked at Elaine and shook his head. “Not you too, little dog.” Before Elaine knew what was happening, he put his hands on her waist and kissed her. His breath was like fish. One of the girls said, “Look, when she kisses, her big nose gets in the way. That should be worth a discount.” Her face flush with shame, Elaine ran to the backyard and stared at the grass, listened for the crickets, heard only the clatter from the mansion on the other side of the wall. She did not know what to do, what to make of herself. In the slippery narrow dress she did not know where to put her hands. She ran upstairs and sobbed.
At nine o’clock, Paula trudged up the stairs. She lay on her side, clutching her belly the way a person might hold the shards of a clay pot that once cradled a flower in its soil.
Elaine asked about the bicycle.
“No, darling. The curfew.”
Paula winced and said she was very sorry she had not even started taking in the dress. She sighed. Elaine could wear the dress as is. She could borrow the bicycle. Paula stood and shuffled closer.
Elaine looked down as Paula tied back her hair with a red ribbon. Paula’s voice sounded weak and sad. She said she was not sure: maybe Cecile Campeau lived in the diplomatic compound. Take the birth certificate; it would get Elaine through the checkpoints. “Say your name is Elaine Laurent, and your mother was Pol. Show the paper, and please remember to speak grammatically. Now a kiss for Paula who hurts more than you should ever know!”
Elaine felt a metallic flavor on Paula’s lips. She hurried down the stairs. A warm rain had begun, and as Elaine pedaled the bicycle away, Paula’s dress stuck to her skin the way wet leaves stuck to a stony road.
The colonial neighborhood was abandoned. Many of the mansions had been toppled like toy blocks. As Elaine pushed the bicycle past the ruined homes of mill owners and merchants and diplomats who had fled with their children, she realized that she would never find the man she was seeking. She lifted her bicycle over a pile of stones that had been a wall, and into a mansion whose only protection from the rain was a skeleton of blackened rafters. She wheeled through a sitting room whose walls sagged with books grown fat in the rain. Bats stumbled room to room through transoms of shattered glass. Roots had taken hold in the walls, splitting them like melon rind. She took out her birth certificate. Now that the rain had smeared the ink to bleeding, now that the good French people had been chased away like magpies, Elaine saw that the names on the certificate wouldn’t mean anything anymore. She dropped the paper on a parquet floor whose pieces were as jumbled as bad teeth. The rain on her shoulders, the gray light through the rafters, reminded her of a simpler time.
Coasting home on the bicycle, Elaine came to a sentry erecting his nightly checkpoint. She stopped. The young man stepped into the road and straddled the front wheel of her bicycle. Elaine did not have her papers anymore, but she remembered a trick of Paula’s, and she tried to give the soldier a clumsy kiss. Her tongue entered his mouth, his tongue like a piece of fish in hers. She did not know where to place her hands, so she covered her chest to keep a barrier between herself and the man. She was surprised when he put his hand on her leg, and he unstuck her wet skirt from her skin. Beyond the sentry, the road to home looked pocked and dirty and far away. Just before the man tipped Elaine’s head back and moved his hand up her leg into a place she did not want it to go, she noticed, for the first time, the many store fronts broken, caved in, burned out, or looted beyond repair. When her head was tipped so far that all she could see were the wet stars above, she called herself a fool, which only made the soldier laugh in her ear.
When Elaine came home, she found Paula wrapped around herself tightly as a bat. Elaine huddled beside her and smoothed her mat of crisp black straw. The pattern of the straw pressed into her palms. The two of them slept an entire day.
By the afternoon, to get rid of the bad feelings bursting inside her, Elaine decided to tidy the back room. She sorted Paula’s fabrics and cleared a space on the floor. She was organizing Paula’s sewing kit when she heard voices from the front of the loft. One voice was Paula’s. The other voice, a man’s voice, was not local, not French: it was that slow American drawl. She heard Paula laugh her sweet way, her voice weak as rainwater, the man’s voice thick like a river. The man said goodbye in stilted French and left.
Elaine peeked from the doorway, her fingers tucking back her wings of hair. Paula turned. “Look! He brought me flowers.” She came in and kneeled on the floor in front of Elaine. “He’s taking us to dinner tomorrow night. Don’t you want to meet him?”
“I don’t know you. Everything’s wrong about you.”
“Little dog, I’m the kindest person you will ever meet.” Paula fixed Elaine’s hair. “Anyway, he drives an American motorcycle as big as a water buffalo, and there’s a sidecar, and he’s going to take us for a ride.”
Elaine knocked Paula’s hands away. She ran down the stairs to the back of the building. It was shaded here, and damp; tracing her hand on the bricks, she discovered how badly-cracked the building had become. In the yard, the crickets had climbed deep into cool untouchable places. What did Elaine feel? It dawned on her that Paula, in return for her kindness, had never asked for anything, and Elaine had never offered. Perhaps she had broken Paula’s heart. Paula must have known Elaine would never find her father—why had she sent her? It seemed cold-hearted. Yet it was Elaine who had insisted on going. Elaine felt so humiliated she wanted out of her skin, but that was not so easy as wriggling out of a dress. She ran into the grass that had grown so tall it brushed her curving thighs. She wished now to skip and to jump before the lengthening shadows crept over hers.