‘At a Flip of a Coin’ by Kathy Nguyen15 min read

24 August, 2016 0 comment

A coin, nestled in the caverns of a dead body. In my later years I have this dream in which I always hesitated to fill out the report sheet. CAUSE OF DEATH: ?


It rained that day, but Mother wanted to go to Chinatown anyway. “Canada is too lonely, Winston,” she’d muse, “ and cold, even in the city.” But she said she liked the way Chinatown’s stores burst with sharp scents and dried fruits and chatty people—not even the downpour could dampen the bustle. Mother said it reminded her of Vietnam.

One of the stores we passed smelled of the ocean. Its ice-packed tables spilled out onto the sidewalk, and Mother pointed out one of the ginormous fish on sale. Its body was shorn off, but it was easily bigger than any of the fish I’d seen swimming in the tanks at Superstore. Then Mother yelped: a flab of fish flesh was rising and falling jerkily—its gills were moving.

Unlike the other fish, the life snuffed out of almost all of them, its eyes were bulbous and unclouded. I could have plucked them out and it would be like holding two marbles, except stickier and less fun to roll around. I imagined playing a game of marbles with my friends in our school courtyard and me taking out the fish eyes just to watch them gape. This would be at the game’s climax, and a small crowd of onlookers would have gathered to see who was going to prevail. And maybe among them, Lucy Wu.

A fad had spread throughout our sixth grade class: you had to choose someone you liked as more than just friends, and you had to declare this to everyone but, bafflingly, that person. I preferred marbles over girls then, but Lucy was gaining quite a few admirers, so I saw no reason not to jump on the bandwagon if it meant gaining more friends to play marbles with. I guess after a month of pretending to be shy around Lucy, I got so good I didn’t have to pretend anymore.

What would Lucy think of the fish eye as my secret weapon? Maybe she would shriek in disgust. Or maybe she would call me brave, and I would score the winning shot.

I looked at the fish again, and my cheeks burned with shame. I backed away, brushing against Mother’s arm as she was holding it out to receive her purchase. The plastic bag the employee handed her was white, but at the bottom I could see some of the pink and grey mush of what was inside.


The only fish I tolerated came from the Fisherman’s Boat seafood restaurant, and their fish stew, creamy and thick, was probably only second best to Mother’s pho.

Mother was a fine cook—when she stuck to her own recipes. So when she told me she planned to imitate the stew at Fisherman’s Boat as we bused home, it took some effort to suppress my grimace. “Making it will be cheaper,” she said, “and it will taste exactly the same.” That’s what she said about the pork buns and dumplings, and I was getting tired of telling her the food was delicious but refusing to eat any more. Mother was a fine cook, but not a master chef.

I did my math assignment in the kitchen as Mother gutted the Pacific cod by the sink. “What’s this?” she said suddenly, and because I was getting nowhere with question fourteen, I was all too eager to zip to her side. Mother had already sliced open the cod on the blue cutting board. Something gold and glittering was wedged inside. She picked it out—I recoiled at the squelching—and held it to her eye and then to me. “Treasure,” she said.

“Coins!” I said, because there were two. They were as large as pennies but had neither the entwined maple leaves nor the queen, although the embossing was so worn it was difficult to tell. I thought I could make out a palace, the Lost City of Atlantis, perhaps. Mother washed the coins and gave them to me, and while I didn’t know their worth—yet—I was richer than yesterday, and sometimes simple reasons like that are enough.


“It’s cursed, then,” said Janpreet. “The fish swallowed it, and it died.”

“Stupid,” said Hank. “You kill the fish after it’s been captured. The fish ate the coin first and survived, so really the coin is good luck. A fisherman just happened to come by at the wrong moment, is all.”

I had told my friends about the fish incident at school, and we were huddled in our usual spot, waiting for Mr. Cremaschi, the math teacher, to show. Somehow Hank had overheard our conversation, and he now sat on top of my desk to face Janpreet. I did not appreciate having to stare at Hank’s backside, but nobody denied Hank of anything in this class, simply because he was Hank. The students loved his coolness, the teachers celebrated his cleverness.

The only people Hank could not impress seemed to be his parents. I saw then at a parent-teacher conference once. I doubt they understood the point of the ordeal. Neither did my parents, but at least they were willing to try. Mother complimented me on my poster of the Hubble Space Telescope, and even Father attempted to smile when Mr. Cremaschi said I’d improved since last term (although I still had to work on those fractions).

“Which is my point,” continued Janpreet.

“You’re just jealous because the coin could’ve come from Atlantis. I bet you’re trying to scare Winston into chucking the coin so you can dig it up from the trash later. But it’s not going to work, right, Winston?” Hank twisted around to grin at me. Janpreet scowled.


Mr. Cremaschi walked in, and Hank went to sit beside Lucy. I kept my eyes on the board —and after a half hour of comprehending absolutely nothing, let them focus on the posters adorning the room. How was Hank able to talk to converse with Lucy so easily? The answer was, of course, because he was Hank. In one of the posters, Albert Einstein stuck his tongue out at me. Didn’t Einstein explain relativity by comparing it to burning your hand on a stove for a minute and sitting next to a pretty girl for an hour? If only polynomials were this relatable. Or liking people as more than just friends this logical.

At the end of class, Hank was waiting for me by the garbage bin. I tended to splay out everything on my desk, so it took a while to reorganize everything, and I was normally the last to leave. My friends weren’t the type to stick around. “You’re not going to throw away the coin, are you?” Hank asked.

“Of course not.” Didn’t he tell me it wasn’t cursed?

“Right. Only making sure. It’s something special you should hold on to.”

I had my reservations, but I could tell by the way his gaze kept darting to my fist, enclosed within it the two coins, that he wanted them. It was strange. Hank could want chocolate milk for lunch and a trip to Science World like the rest of us—or at least, he said those things like the rest of us—but I never saw him get excited for anything, eyes alight and lips frequently twitching into a smile. I sighed. I opened my fist before him, unfurled my fingers like petals peeling away, and said in my bravest voice, “Take one.”

“You serious?”

I nodded. “Without you I’d have neither. And maybe…”

Hank’s finger rested on one of the coins, waiting

“M-maybe, Hank, you’d wanna play marbles with me and Janpreet and the others sometime?” I could imagine it vividly: Lucy in the crowd, admiring me crouched on the ground to align my vision with Hank’s green glass marble, ready to knock it out with my own…

Hank shrugged. “Sure.” He took the coin and flipped in in the air. I rushed to P.E. before I could ask for it back. The problem, I was beginning to realize, was that being with someone as cool as Hank made you want to be that cool too, even if no such qualities existed inside you.


Hank and I never did have a marble match together. We were entering a new era, one in which teachers dealt math homework mixed with Greek letters, and a school hierarchy separated people like me and people like Hank at even farther ends of the classroom. My friends forgot about the coin, and by tenth grade, I had forgotten it too, forgotten even its origins in Atlantis. It lay on my bookshelf, gathering dust.

In tenth grade, students were required to take a course that covered topics from budgeting to career goals. Life plans. If-you-ever-make-it-out-of-here plans. The teacher for that course, a short, matronly lady, asked questions such as, “What are your talents? What do you want your talents to be? How might you put those talents to use in the future?” and I would have answered, “Dunno. Dunno. Dunno,” if she allowed the option. So instead I echoed what my parents wanted for me: “Biology. Medicine. Doctor.”

Once, at Fisherman’s Boat, I slipped. “What about a screenwriter?” I asked, focusing on the fish stew eddies I created with my spoon. My parents didn’t understand what this meant, and neither did I, exactly, but I knew I loved stories, loved when their words took colour and form. Last month Janpreet and I went to the theatre and selected a random movie, one about a girl whose parents turned into pigs and and a bathhouse which catered to spirits. I stayed even as the credits rolled and the custodian came to sweep up spilled popcorn and Janpreet got cranky. How astounding that all of this had started inside one person’s head-space? How astounding if I had the talent to conjure a sliver of something just as extraordinary? My palms itched.

Hayao Miyazaki, the creator of the film, was said to be an anomaly in the way he produced his work. I had no need to be so untraditional, but suddenly I could visualize a future toying with stories the way I used to fantasize playing with marbles: eagerly, impatiently. But screenwriter gig aside, I was sure my parents would reject to me being a professional marble player.

Still, they rejected to me being a screenwriter, too. Mother said, “But you always wanted to be a doctor. You made me so happy when you said that, Winston.” How could I tell her it was just that—words to make her and Father happy, not at all a reflection of my talents and what I desired my talents to be? Because I witnessed their struggles, coming home hours into the night every night from the fast food restaurant where they worked, each coin earned another token of hope for me and whatever I was supposed to accomplish.

“Writing—that does not make a lot of money,” Father said, meaning: “We did not immigrate here for you to gamble on your future.” It was enough to make me ashamed of my selfishness, to hold my tongue for the next few weeks, and when those weeks passed and Mother found a lump in her left breast, that was enough to make me hold my tongue for the next couple of years.


Around this time, too, Hank was hospitalized. There were rumours murmured behind locker doors, in the halls, over fries in the cafeteria (he fell off his bike, got beaten up by a gang, he contracted an illness that made you blind in one eye and deaf in one ear, he was the gang member and initiated the brawl), and I dismissed all but one, simply because it was so absurd.

“Hank tried to kill himself.”

Our English teacher believed in assigned seatings, so on this occasion Lucy and I sat next to each other at the very back of the classroom, free to whisper behind worn copies of Romeo and Juliet when Lucy became bored of our teacher’s lecturing, which was often. “What do you mean?” I whispered back.

“You know how in sixth grade we all were obsessed with, like, having crushes?”

I tried not to blush; her gaze was too intense.

“Hank never admitted to liking anyone. We sat together in math, and I’d pester him about it, which girl he liked, but he never confessed, and then one day I realized that it wasn’t any girl, it could never be any girl. Winston, he totally liked you.”

Our school had been indifferent to subjects of human sexuality until recently, when our drama teacher decided to take a more proactive approach. She montaged the foyer with rainbow banners and recruited students to craft posters spelling out words such as PRIDE, and it was as if the art room had uprooted from the basement and taken temporary residence upstairs. Yet the following day all the banners were on the ground, most of the posters shredded. The blame was directed at the students before someone hinted that the culprit was actually a staff member.

I didn’t know how I felt about Lucy’s theory, but I knew I disliked her expression, all too eager for a reaction. The sad truth is that while we loved Hank’s coolness, we loved the thrill of gossip so much more. It was so tantalizing witnessing the destruction of our idol, the person we built up, the person we now tore down. If Hank did reach a point when he wished for the end, my guess is that it was for the simple reason of because he was Hank. Because he was Hank, he ceased to be someone real.

And so, my childhood crush ended.


The last conversation I had with Hank was a week before he moved, four days into his return from the hospital. I spotted him perched on the edge of the monkey bars in the park by our old elementary school. He never regained his previous popularity, and although nobody truly knew what had happened, they moved on to other curiosities.

Hank hopped off of the monkey bars, and we walked together for several blocks, speaking little. Cherry blossom petals stuck to the soles of my sneakers, remnants of spring. As the sun dozed, the world was set aflame.

“You know, Winston,” Hank said before we departed; he didn’t look at me but rather beyond me, back at the park we had left, now infested with shadows, “I wonder when I started thinking the coin was cursed.”

He pulled that coin which maybe came from Atlantis out of his shorts pocket, and somehow he made the coin jump over the base of each of his fingers, like a fish rising and falling back into the ocean. Hank was always cool like that.


Guilt burdens me over this admission, but sometimes I have this dream in which Hank died at the hospital, and I was the coroner to perform the autopsy. What would I find, slicing into him with my cold scalpel, peering, prodding, all the deepest, darkest caverns inside him? Why, a coin—of course.


I stopped at Fisherman’s Boat after a trip to the Carnegie Library. Without Mother, trips to Chinatown had dwindled to no more than twice a summer. Each time I would prepare myself for the noise and the people, but eventually I would find there was no need. Streets and stores could still be described as busy, but not to the extent I once remembered.

The door chimes tinkled, and who should walk in then but Mr. Cremaschi, my sixth grade math teacher! I debated on pretending I hadn’t noticed him or vying for his attention, but luckily he noticed me and walked over.

Because he asked, I told him I majored in Biology at UBC, was now taking a course in genetics for the summer term. I filled my head with facts about oncogenes, proto-oncogenes, tumour suppressor genes—cancer. I didn’t tell him I struggled through the material and always had to badger Janpreet for help (he was an exceptional student; he had to be, since he was aiming for med school). I didn’t tell him that although the bits and pieces alluded me, I thought I had a better grasp on cancer than my professor did, how on the night after Mother’s burial I overheard Father sobbing in his bedroom on my way to the toilet—Father, who was never anything but stern and unmoving—and I was so, so scared.

Instead I told him: “I’m really grateful to you. I always recall that first class when you urged everyone to consider what Einstein said about decisions, how the most important one we’ll ever make is whether the world is hostile or benevolent. I think about it a lot.”

Mr. Cremaschi laughed.

After Hank left, I took the coin off my shelf and began carrying it with me, kept it between the pages of my textbooks as I took study breaks to hammer out a screenplay. Writing it proved more challenging than I had anticipated. I churned out dozens of unfinished drafts before producing something halfway decent, something which I might perhaps submit soon to an upcoming contest.

When I left Fisherman’s Boat, I balanced the coin on my thumb. Did it really come down to this: a coin flip? It summersaulted into the air, a glint of gold in the silver rain, bottom face becoming upper face becoming bottom face, and then rolling into the road gutter, falling into a slit opening up to the sewers because I couldn’t or wouldn’t snatch it back in time, ready to be engulfed by a ginormous fish. But I didn’t care. I already had my answer.

Kathy Nguyen is an aspiring writer who was born and raised in Vancouver. She currently attends the University of British Columbia and is working towards a Bachelor of Science. Her favourite fruit is mangosteens.

Featured Image via Shutterstock

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