NEA Literature Fellowships

Aimee Phan

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(2010 - Prose)

From the novel The Reeducation of Cherry Truong

On the day they were supposed to return to Paris, Xuan's mother suggested they take one last walk to the grotto in the morning. The Bourdains and the rest of the Truongs preferred to remain at the chateau to clean up and prepare for their train ride home. Xuan's mother promised him it wouldn't take long. She only wanted to recite a rosary before leaving. Although Xuan would have liked to stay behind with Petit Michel and Cam, he didn't want his mother to walk by herself.

Other morning worshippers sat throughout the grotto. Xuan tried his best to follow each prayer with the beads on his rosary. His mother, though, appeared deep in her own prayers, her rosary tangled between her tightened knuckles. It felt much colder than the day before. Xuan looked up to the dark skies. There was no hint of sun.

During their last Hail Mary, a woman screamed from the front row. People stood. Xuan stood too. He stepped closer to where the people gathered and saw an old man with gray hair lying on the floor, wedged between the pews. Yellow vomit dotted the front of his navy coat. His body was convulsing.

A woman cradled the old man's head in her lap, her screams filling the normally tranquil grotto. People yelled in several languages for an ambulance. One person demanded they take the old man to the baths. That was his mother.

Xuan turned to see her push her way to the center of the turmoil. "Baths," she said again in Vietnamese and made several gestures for washing and pointed next door to the baths. Finally, she remembered her French: "He needs to wash in the holy water!"

But they ignored her, pushing her away, calling for a doctor. A tall dark woman breathed into the old man's mouth and pounded away on his chest with both fists.

The blares of an ambulance siren crept closer. His mom continued to plead for them to take the man to the baths, but no one paid attention to her.

A man and a woman in dark blue uniforms rushed to the grotto carrying medical equipment. Everyone stepped out of their way. Xuan had to pull his mom back with the crowd. Now she yelled about the holy water to the paramedics. Xuan wanted her to shut up. The man had stopped convulsing and his eyes rolled back in his head. Xuan knew the old man didn't need a bath. He needed a real doctor.

Xuan's eyes focused on the old man. He could hear sobbing from the woman he assumed was the old man's wife. He suddenly felt sick. He realized the man's stillness was not sleep or even the shocked state his mom would go into after a nightmare. This felt different. This was something that couldn't be fixed.

It started to sprinkle. As the paramedics began to take the body away, Xuan realized his mother was no longer standing next to him. He looked around the grotto, which was emptying out. His mother knelt in the front pew, her eyes and lips pressed shut.

"They should have listened to me," his mom said when Xuan sat next to her. When she opened her eyes, she did not look sad, but proud. "They have no one to blame but themselves."

Xuan stared at his mother. She seemed so much smaller kneeling in the pew, no bigger than a child. "Mom…"

"But it's not too late," she said, re-clasping her hands and bending her head. "We can still pray. Mary can still save him."

"Mommy," Xuan tried again. "He's dead."

She shook her head, refusing to listen. "No, Xuan. He needs your prayers. You can't give up on your faith."

"This isn't about faith," Xuan cried. "This is a fact. He's dead."

"You're wrong," his mom said, her voice shaking. "Mary protects all her children."

"No, she doesn't," Xuan yelled. "You always said that, but she never did. She didn't protect us in Vietnam and she didn't protect you in the camps."

There. He said it. The one thing he knew that could stop any conversation, what he wasn't allowed to share with anyone, not his Grandmere, Grandpere, his father, and before this moment, his mother.

Before she could respond, Xuan turned and walked away. He couldn't look at her face. When he heard his mother calling out to him, Xuan ignored her, his walk breaking into a run.

Aimee Phan's first book, We Should Never Meet: Stories (St. Martin's Press, 2004), was named a Notable Book by the Kiriyama Prize in fiction, as well as a finalist for the 2005 Asian American Literary Awards. Her fiction has appeared in Colorado Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, Chelsea, Prairie Schooner, and Meridian. Her nonfiction has appeared in the New York Times, USA Today, and the Oregonian. She has received a Maytag Fellowship from the Iowa Writers' Workshop and a MacDowell Colony Residency. She currently chairs the Writing and Literature program at California College of the Arts in Oakland, California.

Photo by Matt Shears

Author's Statement

This truly couldn't have come at a better time. It has been seven long years with this novel, and as I was realizing that I had another lengthy revision ahead of me, this lovely call from the NEA arrived in my voicemail. It was too late to call back, so that night I lay awake, imagining the possibilities: another research trip, release time from teaching, and best of all: childcare. It is a great vote of confidence, and I feel humbled and honored for the recognition. I wanted the time and opportunity to make this novel the best it could be, but other responsibilities kept threatening to pull me away. I wasn't giving the manuscript the attention it deserved, and this grant reminds me that it should be at the top of my priorities. For that, I am very grateful.