I stare at the locked door. Dread fills my throat.
No. Did I really? Yes I did.
Tears swell my eyes and glaze my vision.
Today was going to be the day that I finished all my homework and my club activities before one am and got a solid six hours, because tomorrow after school I have to go to the nail salon where my mom works. We usually don’t return home until seven, sometimes even eight, in the evening. I’ve learned that homework started at that time never gets finished until two or three in the morning.
I need sleep. I scream internally and shake the locked door once more before heading to my backyard. There, I call my dad, and he lectures me on the consequences of carelessness and forgetfulness as if I purposely locked myself out of the house. Two hours is the estimated time before my dad can come to my rescue.
Sigh. I sit down on the grass and rest my head against my knees.
How could I be so stupid? So stupid? So stupid? So stupid? With every question, I clench my fists and punch the ground, and then I let myself fall backward to face the sky above of me. Frustrated tears run down my cheeks.
The sky is blue.
I don’t remember the last time that I looked up to see if indeed the sky was blue.
I take a deep breath to stop the hiccupping.
Wow. Look how majestically the sky carries itself.
I fold my arms behind my head, cross ankles, and let my mind wander into the clear sky. Suddenly, a bee zooms past my nose, and I smile at it. A busy bee is a happy bee. Half an hour passes, and my exhausted soul sleepily notices how the Houston blue sky transforms into the very sky that reflected the blue Pacific Ocean, the same ocean that my parents dropped comfort and security in when they flew over to America from Vietnam a decade ago.
* * *
We landed during the winter, but the bitter cold of the temperature did not shock us as much as the coldness of our new neighbors. Even our “fellow” Vietnamese shunned us as if our broken English and naïveté made us deaf and dumb.
During the first few months, my parents ran around in a whirlwind, trying to find work, rent an apartment and balance work with parenting. Sitting in the eye of the storm, I thought that my existence had faded from their minds, but one morning I woke up with a sticky note tagged on my forehead. In my dad’s neat handwriting, the note said: “Một con ong bận rộn không có thời gian để buồn.”
“A busy bee doesn’t have time to be sad.”
I got up immediately, wanting to find him and talk to him about it, but my excited smile faded when I remembered that he was gone. My dad worked odd hours at a machine shop, so I held on to that sticky note as if it was the map that would lead me to the secrets of this new land that I’d been told to call home.
That night, my dad’s tired eyes lit up in surprise when he saw me still up with questioning eyes and the sticky note I had placed back on my forehead. He understood my eyes and explained: “Người giàu mới có quyền buồn.”
“Sadness is a luxury only afforded to rich people.”
I didn’t understand. “Dad, are you rich enough to be sad?” I whispered to him, and as he shook his head, I saw how the past few months had carved lines onto his face. “Dad, am I rich enough to be sad… because you’re never home anymore?” I tried to look into my dad’s eyes, but in the dim light of the kitchen, the bags under his eyes drew them into the darkness. My hands went up to touch the area under my own eyes. Smooth. I reached up to touch my dad’s face, but then his voice stopped me. “Mẹ va ba đang đấu chiến tranh cho con có tương lai.”
“Your mother and I are fighting a battle for you to have a better chance.”
* * *
On the grass, I unfold one of my arms and touch the bags under my closed eyes. I smile. These bags that I carry under my eyes are the very bags that hold not only my hopes and dreams but also my parents’. But here I am, wasting so much time lying on the grass. I feel the frustration in my throat again. I have to write an essay and study for tomorrow’s history quiz. I need to write my college essays. I didn’t study for the SAT yesterday so I have to double up today. What about that test on Friday? Future Business Leaders of America needs to have a meeting next Monday to talk about fundraising. Art Society has to place orders for club art supplies. Engineering Club should meet next Thursday, so I have to send out reminders. I have to email the Habitat for Humanity downtown for this month’s National Honor Society’s volunteering activity. What else? What am I forgetting? I must be forgetting something.
I breathe faster.
The weight of the deadlines presses on my chest, and I feel myself out of breath. Panic swells in my throat, and I open my eyes and ready myself to stand up and call my dad to rush him home. But I stop dead in my tracks as my eyes catch sight of the empty blue sky. Calmed, I let the grass caress me again.
* * *
“Do you ever feel like you’re missing out on life, Trang?”
Shadows towered over me, offering me shade from the brutal Houston sun. The “bus stop” near my high school was really only a pole with Route 85 on the sign.
“You’re catching a bus to go to work again, right? Come on, it’s Friday! All you ever do is school, clubs, work, then repeat. Seriously, don’t you ever feel like you’re missing out on life?”
My cheeks burned as all the eyes stared down on me.
Seconds passed, and there I sat, rigid and silent, against the rusted bus stop sign with no answer to offer.
* * *
I open my eyes and yearn for answers from the blue sky.
I close my eyes again.
Am I missing out on life?
Yes, I work. And when I work, I work until exhaustion consumes me every night, and I cannot give any more but tears to life. But I didn’t choose the family that needs me. I didn’t choose the background that I come from. I didn’t choose for life to deal me a bad hand from the start.
My friend knew I worked a lot, but she didn’t know that every day since the third grade, I would help my tired mom wash feet, carry foot tubs, wipe the floors, and babysit the children at the nail salon where my mom worked. My friend didn’t know that for me to excel in school, I had to stay up late after coming home from the nail salon to finish my homework and complete my club activities. She didn’t know that every day, I had to push myself to fight continuously to balance family responsibilities and my own personal goals, to not choose one over the other. I want more out of life than what I was born with, so I never let not having enough serve as the excuse to do nothing.
Never will my identity be just “the nail girl.”
I want my soul to move like an artist; I want my mind to think like an engineer; I want my body to fight like a champion.
But it’s not easy. It’s never easy.
Some days, I can barely drag myself to deal with customers.
Some nights, I have ended with doubts about my own strength, but with every sunrise that comes, as long as I am alive—doesn’t matter if I’m more tired than the last morning— I wear a smile. To me, tiredness is the indication that I am working, fighting, for something better.
I wish my friend was next to me now because I have an answer to her question.
I’m not missing out on life.
I was born with nothing but two sturdy hands, and I have used those hands to create the life that I live right now. I never feel like I’m missing out on life because everything and anything that I want my life to be, I know that with time and work, I can make it happen and I will. I am Trang Luu, and I’m a fighter!
I open my eyes.
The sky looks different now. Its blue is richer as if it synthesizes my memories into pigment. From a distance, I hear the crunching of my dad’s car tires over our driveway, and slowly the sky retracts the haven that it extended down to me. I thank my silent friend and walk towards the front door. When I saw my dad, another thought hits me. Yes, my hands carve and shape the life I have now but I could not have done it solely by myself, but I’m glad that no one did it for me. My dad unlocks the door, and as I walk in, I duck my head back out of the doorway.
The sky is simply blue for some, but for me it never colors itself solid blue. Some days it decorates itself as the backdrop for the shape-shifting clouds, distracting me from all my worries. Other days, it transforms into a clear lake in which I cleanse my mind free of fear and doubt. A silent friend, I found in the sky.