Perhaps Rose was right and she was being, as her cousin put it, “ingloriously cruel.” Or was that vainglorious? Vaingloriously?
Didn’t matter. She wasn’t really listening. And Hien was a prick, had always been such a prick, and he knew it too—all self-righteous swagger and bloated ambition and clutching, heedless entitlement. So why not call a spade a spade and confirm his own worst suspicions about himself? He had, also, always been such an ugly prick—greasy-skinned, buck-toothed and gangly-limbed—so she had let him know that, too.
The expression on his face after she’d finished with him, the way he lingered around her like a bad smell—thoroughly trounced yet desirous, it seemed, for her to go on, cut into him a little more so that he could rally himself, assemble his wits and his nerve and respond in kind—was something Ash had anticipated, but had not expected to enjoy so very much.
She should have done this years ago.
Besides, Rose, perfect Rosy Rose, with the great job, the good man, the nice house and the car that was never more than three years old, had always been as much a show off as she was a coward, was always ready with commentary (often in the form of righteous condemnation or gleeful disgust) after the fact.
Cruel? So be it. Ash had promised, hadn’t she? She had promised the child that she, the adult, would not, like all other adults before her, disappoint. She would not waver. She would not back down.
She would be merciless. If “mercy” was even the word—the concept, the conceit— to be used in this particular, in these special circumstances.
Actually. Ash pulled out her phone and texted Rose. She sent her a picture she’d found in one of the more vulgar outposts of the internet.
“What the–?” said Rose, holding the phone close to her nearsighted eyes. “Oh my god! Grow up, Ashley!” She stormed off, gripping the Samsung between her thumb and forefinger like it was diseased.
Ash smiled. Two down, and the night still young. She took another look around the crowded house, at the bodies everywhere, and wondered how many more she would take before they finally caught up to her.
It had been—what? Three or four (or maybe five…six or seven at most) years since her last family reunion dinner—a “tradition” that started when she was, like, eleven or so. Maybe twelve. An almost-teen way past the point of wanting to attend family gatherings, though as she found out, not past the point of being too big to be dragged to such things. Outside of her “photo-op years” (ages 0-5), when her mom could still force her into those frilly dresses with the tight, tight stockings that cut her front and backside oh-so-painfully, the family never really had dinner together. Never staged a reunion. Not ones as large or elaborate as this. Who had the time? Who wanted the trouble?
Now, though. It seemed that as the adults got older and as the “kids” established themselves, gathering the family together, including her deviant ass, had become an overriding obsession. The emails, texts and Facebook messages they had bombarded her with this year—citing obligation and hurt feelings and lost time—had been, by sheer volume alone, quite impressive. After all, even if they had Rosy Rose, her other cousins (including exalted Hien), her sister, Tam, and her other sister, Sandy, they had failed to keep her in check and so failed, fundamentally, as a family unit. What would people think?
Perhaps things would have been better if she had simply died, like her cousin Brittney. Aneurysm. Then they could have remembered her however they wished and made her into whatever they wanted: a saint, a cautionary tale. But it was too late for that now.
She had fallen out of their grasp.
And that was something they were determined to rectify.
And it was exactly what Ash had waited for all these years.
Cousins dispatched, Ash sashayed over to the buffet table, loaded her plate, ate until the ceramic’s cheap surface gleamed once more, then went back for seconds.
She smacked her lips, tapped her toes and swayed her hips as she dug eagerly into one delicacy after another: chả giò, gỏi cuốn, fried tôm, sautéed mực, fish sticks and cheese wontons, to name a few.
And…yes, there it was! She could feel her aunties giving her the side-eye for going back to the buffet, although they had goaded her, just minutes before to go, go eat, eat something Ash-ley! Then, on some unknown signal, like a pack of wild dogs honing in for the kill, one of them charged forth and pounced, followed quickly by the others.
“Oh? You really need more food, Ash-ley?” said a loud, shrill voice.
Auntie Q. Of course, it would be her. Always so mean!
“Ash! You gain weight?”
Auntie P, right on cue, and even worse, as ever!
The other aunties, Auntie Y., Auntie N., Auntie T. and Auntie X., murmured their assent.
Ash felt her cheeks burn even as she steadied her shaking hands. When it came, her voice was loud, clear, undeniable.
“You’re the fattest one here, Aunt P!” It was exactly the wrong thing to say and she had said it perfectly. She turned to Aunt Q. “Your eggrolls are drrry, by the way.”
Ash continued eating as the aunties balked—their eyes bulging, mouths gaping, neck meat swinging—then as one dove into the usual litany: that she was a spoiled, ungrateful brat who always talked back and never saved face; that she would burn for this, for who knows how long and no wonder she was still single; what man would have her; thank god her grandparents weren’t alive to see the shameful mess she’d become.
They talked about her and at her, but not to her (never to her), as was their custom.
On and on.
Damage done, bodies taken, Ash chewed, ate and waited.
“Ash-ley! Ash-ley!” The voice sounded above the squabbling din of the aunties, hissed and wheezed around them like the gutted hose of a run-down vacuum cleaner determined, nevertheless, to suck at scattered debris.
It was the sound of too many cigarettes. Of emphysema, and stale regret. It was Uncle. T.
Big Uncle T.!
The man with the pockmarked face and the overlarge glasses that pressed upon a massive edifice of a face which plateaued—skid, really—from the forehead down. The man with the sickly pallor and crooked nostrils, whose mouth sagged heavily over his jawline like a busted awning.
Instigator! Drama Queen! Uncle T.
His halitosis was so thick and strong that it enveloped his entire being like an angry, reeking aura. Here was the man who, after grandfather died, became the “de facto” patriarch of the family, her family being the kind to need a patriarch. He’d seen her humiliate Hien, insult Rose and disrespect the aunties, his sisters. This same man who knew of her “lifestyle” through her articles, Facebook and vlogs (which he, of course, never read or watched, and only heard of them from other, less scrupulous family members), not to mention her sheer, wanton shamelessness—today’s outfit: a sequined halter top and acid wash booty shorts. He shouldered past the gaggle of aunties, a weathered bull through a cut-rate china shop, to stand before her in all his manufactured glory.
“Ash-ley! Look at you! No blond hair, no blue eyes. You not Canadian! Stop talking English. You here, you talk Viet. Talk Viet! Talk Viet!”
It was his favourite method of shaming her, calling her out for what Ash admitted was her preference for English over her clumsy Vietnamese. Her parents, hovering somewhere in the background, never stopped Uncle T. from accosting her with these tired demands for…what was it he wanted, exactly?
She was Canadian, born if not bred.
“Go back to Vietnam and learn!”
She’d never been “back” to Vietnam, because she’d never been to Vietnam.
“Speak like good girl! Why can’t you be good girl?”
Why indeed? Also, she was 32.
But this was an old argument based not on logic, not on facts.
Remember how he used to say how good Rose, Tam and Sandy were, but made sure never to say your name?
Of course. Even if she had been speaking Vietnamese, he’d ridicule her lousy accent, scorn her inept pronunciation and laugh at her slow-wittedness in the so-called “mother tongue.”
Remember how he told everyone you’d never be as good as Hien? Or Brittney. After she died?
Of course. Before today, Ash would have lowered her eyes and quietly excused herself, getting as far away from her uncle’s tirade as possible. But today, because she promised, Ash was ready.
She advanced the two small steps that brought her deep into his personal space.
“FOR ONCE IN YOUR FUCKING LIFE, EAT A FUCKING MINT BEFORE YOU TALK TO ME, YOU STUPID, FUCKING, OLD MAN.”
Fucking. That was the key, paired with stupid and old. Nothing like a good fuck. So unladylike, so barefaced and irrefutable. So Canadian.
Uncle T.’s face took on a red Ash had not thought possible for human skin; so red it was black, so black it was blue. Out of instinct or habit, he lifted his arm high above his head, but shrank back when she didn’t flinch, only narrowed her eyes and stuck out her chin defiantly at him. That was the problem. Uncle T. was a big man, despite having grown stoop-shouldered and rounded with age. Ash, however, was bigger, had grown large, strong in her exile. He was long past the point where he could slap her face, box her ears, grab her by the hair and neck and throw her around the house while the rest of the family watched, scandalized at what she had forced him to do.
Ash had always been big for her age and was always going to out-grow them all. Only now he knew it—they knew it—or at least could no longer deny it.
She rolled her eyes as Uncle T. blinked, hesitated, then slowly lifted his arm again like some great, ridiculous bird; Ash envisioned an injured flamingo or discombobulated stork. His breath permeated and rankled.
“What are you going to do? You can’t do shit. So get your tired old ass out of my face before we really have a problem.” Ash clenched her fists, baring her teeth in a smile that was no smile.
Ever seen a full-grown man sputter then skitter away like a frightened shrew? Neither had Ash, until then. Aunt Q. and Aunt P., wailing and in tears, respectively, followed after him. As the rest of the family shuffled around in disbelief, faces awash in shock and awe—how dare she? how dare she??—Ash reached over to a nearby side table, grabbed Uncle T.’s wallet, pocketed all the cash—forty dollars??—and casually tossed the wallet away like she’d planned on getting just that little more back the whole time. If anyone saw her, they kept it to themselves. Too bad. She had time for at least one more body.
A crash and a bang and more sputtering from the hallway beyond.
Rose rushed into the room. “Uncle T.’s fallen! He won’t wake up! Someone call an ambulance!”
Well. She hadn’t planned on that.
Since they were in one of the better neighbourhoods, the paramedics arrived in relatively good time. Ash sat in the corner, nibbling on a shrimp skewer slathered in oyster sauce. The family chose to ignore her completely, making sure she knew they were doing just that by the way they sighed, sniffed the air, clucking their tongues around her. Her father circled twice, muttering under his breath with his hands clasped behind his back like some long-suffering monk.
Her uncle, naturally, wasn’t the only drama queen in the family.
As the paramedics hauled Uncle T. onto a gurney, Ash was struck with a rush of recognition, as painful as it was sudden. She dropped the shrimp, admired it for a moment as it smacked against the floor and produced a perfect Rorschach on the shag carpeting.
The taller of the two paramedics turned around. “Ash? That you?”
“It’s good to see you.” So, it was him. Ray. Oh Ray. At the time, he was the biggest, whitest boy she’d ever seen, so alien and taboo. At the time, Ray was exactly what she needed: an excuse, a way out, an irrevocable decision long in the making, as inevitable as it was damning. He had been her scapegoat, her accomplice, her rival. Her almost everything.
And then there was Kelly, Dean, Andy, Jamie, Betty, Celia, Joan, Allan, Linda and Dylan. Others she couldn’t name or didn’t care to. There was the makeup, the clothes. The staying out all hours, just because. The drinking, which helped her immensely tonight of all nights, the drugs, the moving far, far away, away from the family and toward her own life. The lifestyle that had rejected them, their influence, their worth so completely and utterly.
Panic flashed across Ray’s light blue eyes. No doubt he remembered: nights sneaking over to his house, days spent ditching school to smoke and loiter behind the mall. The screaming fights she told him she’d had with her parents, over him—ostensibly over him.
“He will never be good enough,” her mother snapped.
But Ash wasn’t looking for good enough and had long learned to distrust good enough.
Good enough for what? For whom?
“So this…Uh…Your dad?” Ray said, hefting his end of a now semi-conscious Uncle T.
“You think that’s my dad?” Ash asked, incredulously, but then there had been a thousand reasons why she broke things off with Ray.
“I’m sorry! I didn’t…I don’t–” Ray stammered.
She shrugged. “He’s just an uncle.”
Ray’s partner barked at him to get a move on.
“I have to go. But it was good seeing you, Ash. You, uh, you take care, OK?”
The ambulance pulled out of the double-wide driveway.
Ash watched it leave, grinned when it hit a pothole so deep and gaping it must have jolted Uncle T. right out of his gurney. She imagined him then, upturned and akimbo on the ambulance floor.
She surveyed the survivors as they limped around the room, glanced at others (quiet Sandy, little Tam) who she merely considered collateral damage. Who knows how many would speak to her now? Who knows what kind of damage she had inflicted on them, or on herself? But then the love between them had never been enough; it had always been too clouded, too severe to be any good.
She had promised herself as a child that if she could just hold on, then she, the adult, would remember—everything—and that when she was old enough, big enough, strong enough, she would go back and set things right, for both of them. That had been their deal. A new life, a new self, courtesy of the old one.
Her father circled her once more.
She sighed. Maybe there was no going back. Perhaps she was too far gone to expect retribution in retrospect.
Remember when you cussed out Hien? And when you told Uncle T. he was stupid? That was the best!
Then again, maybe not.
Still. Ash figured she should feel worse than she did. Likely, she would feel it later, when the chaos of the evening settled into smaller, more easily digestible events. Perhaps the family didn’t deserve what happened to them, not tonight. But they deserved it then.
No matter. A promise is a promise is a promise. Honour, loyalty above all else, for family. Hadn’t they, after all, taught her that?
As she made her way out the door and back to her real life, Ash glanced at the wallet and seriously considered returning the forty dollars.
Kept it anyway.
Cindy Phan is Vietnamese-Canadian woman and an emerging writer who currently lives on the outskirts of Toronto with her partner, and an aging dachshund named Louis. She has a master’s in Anthropology, a master’s in Political Science, as well as edits and researches academic publications for a living.