Beginnings: New York
BY OCEAN VUONG
It’s raining in Brooklyn. I’m lying in bed. Lightning. The silhouette of an oak tree flashes outside my window, its bare, twisted branches rinsed with rainwater. Like the other thunderous nights, I am waiting for her to cry, for her voice to leap through the hallway and into my room. By the third thunderclap, I hear it: a sharp wail I can feel vibrating through the springs in my bed. I bury my face into the blanket and curl into myself, hoping she will calm and return to sleep, as she sometimes does on calmer nights. But within minutes, my bedroom door bursts open and the silhouette of a small woman collapses onto the hardwood, screaming and writhing beside my bed. I leap from the mattress and gather her frail body into my arms. I stroke her back, my fingers frantically rubbing the length of her arm, trying to coax her back to the present, to herself. I’m not dreaming. The woman is eighty-four years old and suffers from severe dementia. Her name is Grazina Bartkus and she is my landlady—sort of.
I take care of Grazina in lieu of paying rent. It’s the only way I manage to live and write in New York City on my own. Like some young writers, I came to the city hoping to better inform my art. But, more practically, I came to the city to go to school. My single mother, an immigrant from Vietnam and living in a housing project in Hartford, Connecticut, couldn’t afford to pay for my education—let alone support my vague ambition to become a writer.
I am able to attend university only because of a generous scholarship from Brooklyn College. Unfortunately, the scholarship doesn’t come with an apartment to accommodate living in one of the most expensive cites in the world. When I first arrived in New York City in the fall of 2008, I had exactly $564.00 in my checking account and a backpack jammed-full of handwritten poems. Other than a few distant acquaintances, I knew almost no one. However, through the generosity of a few kind people I did know, I managed to set up an intricate couch-surfing map that stretched across three boroughs and even Long Island. Each week, I would end up sleeping on three different couches, with the occasional corner of a kitchen or hallway thrown in. I showered wherever and whenever I could, including in a few YMCA centers throughout the boroughs.
On some nights, when I wasn’t so lucky, I would end up in Penn Station, a major underground railroad station on 34th Street and 8th Avenue in Manhattan, right beneath Madison Square Garden. There I would hole up for the night and do my homework or (try) to write poems, often side-by-side with the regulars: homeless men and women who stay at the station for months, even years at a time.
By February 2009, Penn Station would become my permanent residence for three very long weeks. I knew it was coming; I knew I couldn’t keep crashing on couches and not pay anyone for it. This was before I had Facebook or any other social media outlets, not to mention an iPhone, so reaching out to strangers or even other writers was quite difficult. I had also published absolutely nothing and apparently people are a lot more trusting when they at least know you “through your work.” Needless to say, I wasn’t exactly surprised when, on a grey winter afternoon, I entered Penn Station with no plans on where I was going to stay that night. I carried all my possessions in a nylon sac of clothes and a backpack full of books and an old laptop, a gift my father gave me two years after he was released from prison, when he could finally afford one. It was early February and already one of the dreariest and coldest I could remember. It was impossible to walk four blocks without my fingers growing numb and my cheeks stinging and reddened from the wind. I started to wonder how anyone, not to mention the chronically homeless, could survive a single night on the streets without freezing to death. I soon found out.
On the first night of my stint in Penn, I left Brooklyn College at 5:00 in the evening after my last class and took the 2 train up to 34th Street/Penn Station. Upon entering the station I saw them almost immediately: rows and rows of amorphous shapes lining the halls of the old station, their clothes soaked with rain and filthy to the point of rendering their original colors unrecognizable—everything was the shade of soot or ash or shadows. You would think the city had been burning for months and these people, slumped and crumbled in corners, were its refugees. It was hard to believe that actual human bodies, that actual warm flesh pulsed inside those thick layers of fabric, plastic, and dirt. Even when the station cleared around 8:30 p.m., the corridors were still lit with the shades of their jackets, blankets, and carts. As the night wore on, more and more people came in to escape the brutal cold. I remember watching in muted disbelief as an obese and limping woman, around fifty years old, pushed a shopping cart full of plastic bags into the station; the entire right side of her hair lifted upwards, frozen in a black flap above her head. The icy peak dipped slowly toward her forehead before eventually flattening into a wet slab across her face as she hobbled through the corridor, dodging business-clad commuters rushing to their trains. All this as tinny Chopin blared through the speakers above us.
Unlike at Grand Central Station, where the police would corral the homeless into a small corner by the entrance, where it’s often not much warmer than the temperature outside, the guards at Penn did not seem to take the initiative to bother us. Maybe there were just too many people, maybe they were sympathetic—I don’t know, but I was glad because, suddenly, I had to count myself among the regular overnight inhabitants. But unlike most of the folks I shared the space with, I was still connected by a thin thread of societal norm and obligation: I was a full-time student at an accredited university. I had a schedule, I had classmates. I could walk on campus and suddenly be on equal and “normal” terms with my peers. I could be someone else. I could pretend I had a home to go to.
I spent most of my time in the two Starbucks cafes inside the station, working on my school assignments until it closed at 11:00 p.m. Then I would try to get comfortable in the waiting area where there were chairs. But sleeping was difficult. There was constant noise: a steady stream of Long Islanders coming home from bar-hopping, often intoxicated, hanging around, eating, drinking more alcohol, shouting, sometimes even fighting as the homeless looked on from the station’s shadows, unmoved. This cacophony would last anywhere from 12:00 a.m. to 3:30 a.m., when the last train would leave the station for the night. After that, the other regulars would stumble over to where I sat and try to settle in.
The homeless in New York City, contrary to popular assumption, are not all drug addicts or criminals. Many are sufferers of severe mental illness of whom their families have either abandoned or simply lost touch with. A few were still wearing their hospital or patient ID bracelets, tattered and tethered around their wrists. Some have been abused and taken advantage of, both sexually and financially. Some seem to have lost their “sanity” simply through the isolation of being on the streets for so long, marginalized to the extent of invisibility.
What I discovered, even during my brief three-week existence at Penn Station, was that, as a person living on the streets, you tend to disappear a lot easier, often right before the eyes of thousands of people. Your body, the space around your body, blurs into the landscape, you are seen less and less until you actually become the landscape. No one looks at you, even as you shout and beg, even as you scream for help. The psychological effect is startling mostly because it isn’t all external. You are an outsider not only because others deem you as such, but also because you start to see yourself as one. That’s the power of social isolation. Even during my brief stay, I watched from the pits of the social hierarchy as people came and went about their business, how they spoke on their phones with anticipation and excitement, their voices fluctuating in response to the moods and emotions of others, how they held each other, their faces lighting up as they made plans according to some promised order and future. I began to envy their concerns: taking the dog out, what to wear for the party, where to go for the holidays, and I started to see, through my own idleness and lack of destination, how utterly alone I really was, a pair of eyes watching hungrily from the dark of my hooded sweatshirt.
The only people that did see me were the other regulars, and they did not always have the friendliest intentions. I also learned to wear a perpetually disgruntled face, to furrow my brow with an expression of perpetual contempt, disgust, anger, or solemnity. The more crazy or sad I appeared, the less of a chance someone would bother me. Nonetheless, throughout all this, sleep was nothing short of a luxury. If I were lucky, I’d get four sporadic hours throughout the night. I ended up catching most of my shut-eye on a couch in the basement of the Brooklyn College library between classes.
Despite the obvious difficulties, not everything about being in Penn Station was miserable. One night I was writing in the waiting room when a very well-bearded man approached me. He stood in front of me for about two minutes, shifting from foot to foot. I didn’t look up. “What you writing,” he finally asked, his voice raspy and hoarse. It sounded more like a cough than a question. When I told him I was working on a poem, his hands leapt as if jolted awake. His face was dark and leathery as his eyes squinted out from a furrow of thick salt and peppered eyebrows. He was thin and a bit frail. I thought he must have been at least sixty-years old. He told me his name was Sage and that he wrote poems, too, except his poems “never end.”
“What do you mean never end?” “They just don’t. I write and write and I can’t stop. It calms my nerves though—when I’m feeling blue I’ll just start writing. Fast-food bags, food wrappers. Man, I even write in the blank pages of books! See?” He took out a worn copy of a real-estate book and showed me his poems written in the blank pages and spaces. He opened the book to a section on tips for flipping your old house where he had scribbled an illegible scrawl that hugged the original text around the book’s yellowed margins. “See? I can be an author, too.” He grinned.
He sat down and we started to talk. He told me how he used to be married and even had three children he hadn’t seen in nearly fifteen years. He thought he had grandchildren but wasn’t sure. He was lugging around two large black garbage bags mostly filled with clothes, rags, and blankets. He put his head into one of them and gathered an armful of paper tattooed with what looked like hieroglyphics. Pen and pencil of all colors slashed and swirled throughout the pages.
“Here, look at this one. This one’s my best.” He held a crumpled greasy McDonald’s bag in his hands and carefully peels it apart like a historian would unravel an ancient text for the first time. From what was legible, they appeared to be prayer-like: a lot of “Dear Lord’s” and the constant anaphora of “mays”: “May the light shine in my heart again, may the wind find itself in my voice, may I never grow too old or lose my way etc…”
“Now it aint finished yet. I’m not done with it. I told you it aint never done.” He took it back and glanced suspiciously at me. He tied up his bag, rubbed his beard and looked at me sideways, his head cocked slightly back. “So what you writing, son? Go on, let me see. No, no—matter fact, read it to me. I like to hear. Seeing other people’s words gives me headaches.”
I read him one of my novice poems (a shabby imitation of Rimbaud or Lorca).
“Ha! Yous a romantic, huh? Okay. Okay. Go ahead, son. Write that love shit! We all need a little bit more love.” I nodded. Suddenly instilled with a sense of pride, he started, like an older mentor, to dish advice. As he spoke, he grew more and more excited and started to lean forward, his beard trembling around his lips. I could smell a combination of chocolate and orange juice on his breath. He kept telling me that I should write only to satisfy the soul, to “murder” demons with words. He spoke of healing the mind with the pen, that every stroke of ink should be “a dagger to the heart of evil.” It’s easy to brush him off, to assume he was crazy. But since I was utterly alone, I felt, oddly, very unsure of myself. I found what Sage said intriguing solely because he harbored such devout faith in it, and that alone gave it a surprising measure of credibility. There was no one to turn to and say “ Can you believe this guy?” and get a reaffirming shrug or nod or eye roll. I found myself losing the ability to measure normalcy against the rest of the world. We were surrounded by the drone of hundreds of people and yet I found ourselves enclosed inside a sort of booth, occupied by me and Sage. What was sane or insane suddenly had no bearing. It just didn’t matter anymore.
He rambled on for a good half hour while I nodded and “uh huhed” throughout. Then, as if from some sort of distant memory, there was music. Just like that. Not the light and bland train lobby instrumentals—it was real music, it was Motown. If I wasn’t crazy before, I thought, I must certainly have been then. Because I grew up in a black neighborhood, Motown holds a special place in my body. Marvin Gaye, Luther VanDross, and Sam Cooke were the first to bless my little immigrant ears as I shook and shimmed through my first Thanksgiving at the home of my black neighbors back in Hartford. Motown, in its essence, was also the Vietnamese folk song. The Vietnamese folk song was the first song I ever heard. From my mother’s vocal chords, it reverberated down into her womb and literally hummed inside my body. Like much of Soul and Motown, the folk song consists of a sort of wailing, an elongated and mournful cry even before the lyrics can make sense of anything. The pain and sorrow from generations or warfare and lost could be understood, even felt, in a single note. And I think when I heard Clarence Carter cry out for the first time from my friend’s mother’s stereo, my body knew it, it knew to the bone. To me, it was Vietnamese, it was hurt hammered into song, and it was glorious.
I stopped and listened. The voice was clear, pristine as it echoed through the corridors. “Sage, you hear that? What is that?” “Oh, that sweet thing?” he replied. “That’s Rupert. Some sort of aspiring soul singer. I tell you, I didn’t think there were any more soul singers nowadays, but some of these young kids got the itch I guess. Come on, let’s have a listen.” We picked up our bags and walked, following the music to a large clearing in front of the now empty ticket counters. And there, a man, somewhere in his early 30s, dressed in a white suit, his face shadowed with a low fedora, swayed and crooned into a mic hooked up to a portable amplifier and an iPod loaded with instrumental Motown hits. He closed his eyes and sang. If velvet cigarettes had a sound, that was it. It was “At Last” by Etta James. Sage started to shift his feet and I could tell his bones knew this familiar work as he gyrated and two-stepped, his fingers quickening into a snapping to the beat. “Man! How he gonna do me like this? This song gonna kill me tonight. It’s the saddest song in the world,” he shouted, his face wet with sweat. I nodded, smiling. People were already gathering, mostly other residents, but there were some stragglers of the night who were waiting for the final trains, standing with their last beers, a pizza or a pretzel in their hands. I saw the other homeless men and women begin to cheer up as they gathered and lay down around the song. Their limbs started to move and gesticulate as they warmed up to one another. As if through the song’s familiar landscape, they were able to see each other as human begins again. The whole scene had the effect of tremendous warmth and crushing sadness. I suddenly started to think of my mother, how, after my father was in prison, she and I would stand in the long lines outside churches to receive a loaf of bread and dented cans of soup. How we warmed ourselves by making up a song and dancing as the line moved along the snowy parking lot. I was suddenly stricken with a overpowering urge to weep. I wanted to weep fully and hard. But I didn’t. I was actually too tired to do so. I didn’t have the energy or even the cathartic motivation to cry. I just focused on busying my lips with the song, letting the words find their way in as I chewed those bittersweet lyrics with Sage beside me. “At last…. At last, my love has come along…”
One day after classes, I was making my way into the Starbucks at Penn to charge my phone when I saw a missed call. It was from a friend who lived on Long Island. I had met him at various poetry readings I’ve been to throughout the city and we quickly became acquainted. After the readings I would usually head to Penn Station as everyone else went home or to another bar for drinks. I wasn’t keen on telling anyone about my staying in the station, but eventually I told him. Shocked, he suggested I just return to Connecticut, or at least call my mother. And although I was often tempted to do so, the semester was already in its fourth week and I figured I could just “tough it out” and at least get twelve credits closer to my degree. Besides, my mother was so proud of having a son attend college—she taped a postcard depicting the gold-plated bell tower on top of the Brooklyn College library at her table in the nail salon and, not being able to pronounce the name of the school, would gleefully point to it when customers and co-workers inquired about her oldest son. “My son in the college! He go here! New York City.”
I called my Long Island friend back. “Hey! I have a deal for you,” he said, “I talked to my mom and she said that ifi you take care of my grandmother in Brooklyn you can get a room there for free…” The words “room” and “free” were all I heard, they struck my mind like shards of colored light. I heard nothing else. “Can I come now? Okay…Okay. I’ll be there in an hour. Wait, wait—what train do I take?”
The building was an old Brooklyn brownstone: two floors and three rooms, only one of which was occupied. The children had long moved out and the husband long passed. When my friend opened the door, a little puff of white hair hovered behind his shoulders. An old woman timidly peered out from behind him. Slowly, she stepped out from behind my friend and started to smile, apparently relived at my small stature. “Oh, he’s just a small one! That’s good! That’s good. Come in, we have tea.” She turned in and I followed them inside the house. “Labas,” (Lithuanian for Hello) I’m Grazina!”
“Labas, I’m Ocean.” This one word would play a major role in our exchanges with one another. To make her feel at ease, I would always use her native tongue and say “Labas” instead of “hello.” For some reason, she never trusted herself calling me Ocean, perhaps because my name is a bit unique. And, being self- conscious about her dementia, she would say “Ocean” and quickly look down at the floor, ashamed, thinking she had said something terribly idiotic. Who in their right mind would call someone a body of water? Eventually, she just called me Labas and to keep it simple, I called her Labas as well. From then on, we would greet each other by saying, “Hi, Labas!”
She reached out and held my hand with both of hers. I noticed how cold they were. She led me through a dimly-lit hallway, which opened to a living room furnished with what seemed to be everything made before 1965. The walls were plastered with some sort of faux woodgrain. There was an assortment of odd, Victorian style chairs covered in clear plastic that seemed to be facing in no particular direction. Everything, save for the rug and our bodies was coated in a thin or thick layer dust. What was most bizarre, however, was a glass armoire in the dining room that housed a fleet of sad-looking porcelain owl figurines—also filmed with dust. In fact, there were owls everywhere. Apparently, Grazina was an avid collector of all things owl: owl clocks, owl paintings, owl lamps, towels imprinted with owls, even owl slippers. Everywhere I went, I was watched by hundreds of mournful yellow eyes.
She invited her grandson and me to sit down in the kitchen for tea. Fumbling through the drawers and opening and closing the cupboards, she tried, with great difficulty, to find the proper cups. Her breaths grew heavy and her poof of white hair vibrated vigorously in the effort. “I know they’re here. Don’t— don’t worry. I know….I know. Please…” Growing uneasy, I looked to my friend who looked equally confused. Finally, she turned to us; a wooden spoon and a sponge in her hand, her forehead jeweled with sweat. Her eyes had the look of a child’s who’s just been caught drawing on the wall, waiting for either an affirmation or scolding. She was clearly lost. I suddenly realized how serious her dementia really was. Besides, in my naivete, dementia was just a vague term for “being old.”
My friend took me to my room on the second floor. When I opened the door, I was immediately plunged into a thick musty odor. It was the scent of air trapped for too long. I went over to open the window, which had a picturesque view of the brickwork on the side of the next building. Of course, I didn’t mind any of this. After all—I wasn’t actually living in luxury at my previous residence. And then I saw it: an old wooden thing resting in the corner–with only three and a half legs. A desk, lit with a trapezoid of ochre evening light falling through the window. It looked like a blank sheet of paper was burning on the desk.“Can I keep that?” I asked, pointing to it. “If you want,” my friend shrugged, “I don’t see why not. It’d be a pain in the ass to move it anyways.” I walked over and touched it, ran my fingers across the surface, the dust, the wood, the bolts, the cracks and seams and knots in the wood. I opened the drawers, I placed my hands on the table, testing the height for writing. It was fake oak—laminated to look natural, but it was perfect. Perfect not because of its quality (or lack there of) but because it was mine. My first desk. It didn’t occur to me until then that having a desk of my own, something I did not have even in Connecticut, somehow legitimized my identity as a writer. It was a badge, a label, a dedication, my vehicle and anchor. And, having no publication and barely any respectable poems, the desk was a promise of possibilities, that good work would be done, and it would be done right here.
A thunderclap erupts through the night, and, in a small room in Brooklyn, Grazina’s mind is firing a memory from 1944—in Dresden, where, as a young girl, she and her family were caught in one of the most devastating bombings of World War II. Grazina’s family had been fleeing the Red Army and was heading east when the bombs fell. The Allied Forces, in a last ditch effort to snuff the thinning Nazi Army, barraged the city of Dresden in a devastating fire bombing. The damage would take decades to repair—but for those, like Grazina, who lived through it, the trauma is seared into the mind, sometimes returning like a fresh wet wound.
It’s strange how much Grazina and I, despite our coincidental co-inhabitance, had in common. Besides being an immigrant, the genesis of my own family also began in the very nucleus of bombs. As a product of the war in Vietnam, my mother is a “con lai” or “mixed child” whose father was an American vet. Without the war, I wouldn’t even exist. When heavy fighting tore through her small farming village, my grandmother took my mother, only a toddler then, and fled to Saigon, the most heavily fortified city south of the seventy-sixth parallel, the line that divided the conflicting North and South Vietnam. The city was a merciless place in time of war, especially for a young woman with no education and two small mouths to feed. My grandmother, along with many other young women from the countryside, took to the streets where American G.I.s, far from home and battle- shocked, were starving for affection—and had plenty of money to pay for it. When my mother was born in 1968, her father was already long gone. No face. No photo. No name.
I remember the first few years after immigrating to the U.S. We had no TV, no radio, and no one knew how to read or write in Vietnamese or English. The war disrupted everyone’s education and upon coming to the States, all the adults in my family rushed into nail salons to earn a quick buck making other people beautiful. But even without books, we were filled with stories and, after dinner, we would all gather around my grandmother for “talk story.” She would close her eyes, the words coming slow at first, but soon they sputtered and surged, always growing into a song—albeit a fractured one. It was as if pain could not be told in any other way, that only through singing, could the memory exit the burden of a body and flourish as something abstract and, therefore, tolerable. Within minutes, every wall in the room would melt into fantastical landscapes of terror and wonder. Someone would be in tears, my grandmother would join, the song still coming between her gasps for air. Her daughters would pick up the verse where they could and we children would hum the melody as fresh snow started to crackle against the windows and wind rattled the beams of our tiny Hartford apartment. We would sit deep into the night this way; the tea pot emptied and filled a dozen times over.
With Grazina, most of my duties are manageable. I am in charge of her pills, which means I have to know what they look like and remember their names—all fourteen of them. She needs pills for everything from cholesterol, to arthritis, to nerves, (3) for dementia, and even one for “general pain.” I have to arrange the pills in a giant plastic organizer labeled with the days of the week, making sure she takes them at the right time. Missing one dose risks the possibility of a severe dementia attack. Sometimes, to make sure her mind was working the way it should be, I would check on her by asking her who the president was every few hours. Other responsibilities included showing her how to use the microwave and cooking for her, shoveling the sidewalk and driveway, getting groceries, fixing the cable when it went out, and teaching her how to use the TV remote, which was something I would have to do at least once a day, as she often forgot. Sometimes I would be working on a poem, and, in the midst of wrestling with a stubborn metaphor, would walk to the staircase and shout, “Grazina! Who is the president?!” “My God!”she would shout, clearly annoyed, “It’s ughbama!” “Okay. Thank you.” Eventually, I got better at reading her body language and emotions. For example, if she started to talk to herself while watching TV, or if she suddenly decided to wander around the house, putting owl figurines into her pockets, I would know we were heading towards catastrophic events.
One morning, while she was watching The Price is Right, I walked past her to leave the house for school. She leapt up from the couch and grabbed my arm.
“Eric!” (the name of her forty-eight year-old son), “you can’t leave me like this! What did I do to you! I raise you! I come to this country with nothing for you and now you run away like this!” This was followed by a slew of what I assume to be very harsh and desperate Lithuanian. No matter how much I tried to tell her I was not her son, she didn’t stop. She was so deeply consumed by the attack that there was nothing I could do to convince her that I was, in fact, her twenty-two year old Vietnamese caretaker poet. I ended up having to call her daughter, dialing the phone with one hand since Grazina had a vice-grip on my other arm. Grazina’s daughter, who lives on Long Island, promised that Eric was at her house (which wasn’t even true. Eric lives in Boston and hasn’t seen Grazina in over 8 years) and that he was fine and that he would be coming home soon.
“Are you sure, honey? Oh….Okay. I see my baby later then? Ok. Ok. That’s good.” She smiled awkwardly and hung up before turning to me, wrenching her hands, “Jazus Maria. I’m so sorry, Labas.”
Other times, her dementia was not as violent, but gentle, prolonged, and eerie. Once, I came home from a late night at the library and found her sitting in the kitchen having a casual conversation with an empty chair. When she saw me she pointed to the empty chair and said “Why don’t you make some tea for this nice little girl here?” This was followed by me silently freaking out and quickly ushering her to bed. There was another time when I came home and saw six trays of freshly baked stuffed cabbages. Grazina was slumped in the kitchen chair facing the window, sweating and breathing heavily. “Labas, what is this? What’s happening?” “It’s Sid. He called me. He says he come soon for dinner. He is nice man. But he eats a lot. So I hope I make enough.” I helped Grazina clean up, took out a book and sat there reading beside her while she waited for Sid. We waited for three hours. It was ten o’clock. “Maybe he missed the bus?” Grazina started to cry. Her hands wrung in her lap. “He says he come. He come. I know.” I put the cabbages into the tupperware, took Grazina’s hand and we climbed the stairs, one step at a time, to her room.
Some of the lighter moments were at breakfast when she would read old Lithuanian magazines, sometimes stretching back to the ‘80s, while sipping her coffee. I would be reading poems or working on one of my own and she would ask me to read one to her: “Labas, read me a love poem please.” She would stare out the window as I read whatever I was working on, her eyes appearing to be searching some distant memory. Whatever it was, I was always glad to see her pleased. When I finished, she would look at me from beneath her glasses and say, without fail, every time, “Very well, then. Very well, then, Labas.” I would take it as a good response. It’s in these moments that I think: this isn’t so bad, she’s actually getting better. I have a place to sleep and shower, not to mention the luxury of writing in a warm room. What more can I ask for?
And yet, the thunder growing louder, the rain relentless. Grazina is clinging to my shirt and, between gasping breaths, begs me to save her brother, whose charred limb she sees poking out beneath a pile of rubble. She points into the darkness and her hand is quickly swallowed by it. I can hear her wet eyelids blinking rapidly as the memory flashes behind them, so clearly that she reaches out for it, insisting that I too should help her. I try to calm her with words: “It’s okay, Labas. It’s just a dream. Please. I’m here. I’m here. It’s Labas.” But her terror is shocking in its vigor and determination. I shake her frail shoulders. I rub her arms until they start to grow hot in my grip. In my panic and desperation, I do what what my mother did for me on those hot summer nights when I was a child, lying awake wheezing and sweating with asthmatic nightmares. I start to sing a Vietnamese folk song, mostly to comfort myself. My voice unsteady and crackling, I guide the dirge of my grandmother’s lost country into Grazina’s ears and through her buckling body. I sing, the long sad notes of ancient Vietnamese poets. And, after about thirty seconds of this, Grazina begins to wilt from her body’s long and tarnished history and returns to the present. I keep up the song and can feel her breathing slowing, her clutch easing. My singing softens into a whisper. It’s suddenly quiet. Only the sound of rain on the windowsill. I stop to ask the crucial question: “Grazina,” I say, willing her eyes to stay with me, “who is the president?” She looks up at me, her face exhausted but plain, subdued, nearly pleading for something to stop or begin. “I am,” she says, “I am the president of the God-damned country.” She chuckles briefly and asks politely to be brought to bed. We shuffle down the hall, arm in arm, and I assist her in, pulling the covers to her neck and tucking the sheets beneath her legs and feet. I sit by her and sing softly the same song until I can hear her breathing evening out, lulling into sleep.
Despite the obvious confusion and difficulties of living with Grazina, not once have I considered it impossible. In fact, I see myself to be quite fortunate, blessed even. Here I am, an immigrant whose family, or what’s left of it, has been living below the poverty line for over twenty-two years; I shouldn’t be living the life of a writer in New York City while having practically zero income. I shouldn’t be going to a great college and studying with some of the smartest and most passionate thinkers in their fields. I shouldn’t have the luxury of making the art I love and feel so strongly about. And yet, here I am, doing it all—and more. And maybe it is my naivete speaking, but in truth, even at the worst moments with Grazina, and even those darker days in Penn Station, all these circumstances, as straining and ecstatic as they are, I see as blessings. They sustained me and allowed me the opportunities I would end up having. In a way, it felt like progress.
Before I sit down to write, I always hum my grandmother’s song, the one I sang and would keep singing to Grazina. The simple ritual helps me focus my attention to the page, like a call to prayer, if you will. I write because I believe in the unquestionable power of words, that poetry can change a life, perhaps not in that one sweeping moment of profound epiphany, but like the words we chisel into the page, our world, and the experiences we make from it, is changed through time, through that steady erosion and resurfacing of meaning. I close the door to Grazina’s room save for a crack just in case she panics again. I close the door, thankful I have a door to close, a room of my own to enter and leave and write in, and a life that allows me the privilege to chisel away at something other than myself.
“Yes?… I’m here.”
“Will you have a new poem for me at breakfast time?”
“A love poem, okay?”
“A love poem.”
“Good…Good. That’s nice.”
Ocean Vuong is the author of Night Sky with Exit Wounds (Copper Canyon Press, 2016). A 2014 Ruth Lilly fellow, he has received honors from Poets House, The Civitella Ranieri Foundation, The Elizabeth George Foundation, The Academy of American Poets, and the Pushcart Prize. His poems appear in Best New Poets 2014, The Boston Review, The Kenyon Review, The Nation, The New Republic, The New Yorker, Poetry, Tri-Quarterly, and American Poetry Review, which awarded him the 2012 Stanley Kunitz Prize for Younger Poets. Born in Saigon, Vietnam, he lives in New York City.
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