Last Christmas there was this one girl Phuong kept chatting about, and while Tu was interested at first, the more stories about her charitable work that Phuong recounted, the less interested Tu became. By the time Phuong finally introduced them, Tu was expecting someone with a shaved head in a flowing saffron robe who had no interest in romance or other worldly (i.e., carnal) matters. Instead, he was introduced to a cute girl dressed as one of Santa's helpers. She was wearing a short, fuzzy red-and-white miniskirt and her hair was tied into flirty Japanese-schoolgirl-style ponytails underneath her floppy Santa's hat. Tu suddenly felt very shy. He felt other things too, but very shy was perhaps second on the list.
It was Christmas Eve and the three of them were standing among two thousand other Buddhists facing St. Joseph's Cathedral with its blazing neon-blue manger. There were balloons and streamers and ribbons of fake snow floating through the air above, a rainbow of colored lights beaming off the top of the church and music blaring over giant loudspeakers on the church steps, but all Tu felt was the fuzzy warmth of the girl's skirt as she stood wedged between them; all he smelled was her perfume beyond the plastic scent of her clothes; all he felt, suddenly, was her hand on his hand, her head on his shoulder; all he heard was her whispering in his ear, "You can kiss me, you can touch me, if you'd like."
Tu was shocked: there they were wedged together in the crowd when she turned toward him, barely an inch between their noses, and took his hand and placed it on her breast, which was like a perfect brioche from a French bakery, the nipple like a hard raisin. She then slipped her hand down between them, and although she had no room to maneuver, she managed to rub his penis through his jeans. In thirty seconds he erupted, making a sound like a small sneezing dog.
He never saw the girl again. He tried to call her the next day but her cell phone number didn't even exist. It was only then that he asked Phuong, "That girl, she wasn't . . . ? Phuong, you didn't . . . did you?"
"Merry Christmas, my friend."
Tu had been extremely embarrassed about the whole thing and wondered if this is what Phuong had meant when he referred to her "charitable work." Still, he does savor the memory of it and dreams of the meal that will come when he marries, because if he ever does get that close to a real girl, he will certainly be marrying her, although he doesn't want to marry that kind of girl; he want a quiet and traditional girl, one he can introduce with pride to everyone in his family, one who will belong among them, for she will come to live with him and his parents as tradition dictates, because Tu is the firstborn and only son.
Above all, his future wife must show great respect to Old Man Hung. The old man is patriarch of their family in a unique and complicated way, beyond blood. Tu's father has known Old Man Hung since boyhood, since before he was Old Man and was just Hung. He is the one who kept Grandfather Dao's flame burning, holding it close through decades of poverty and war, and waiting patiently for the day when he could share it and pass it on.
Old Man Hung has been present at every important occasion of Tu's life. From his birth to every Tet holiday to his graduation. Given how much the old man seems to have aged over the past few months, Tu worries the remaining occasions are numbered. He means no disrespect to Grandfather Dao, but on such occasions, and even in the day to day, Tu feels Hung to be more of a real grandfather to him than the legendary poet whose image sits enshrined on an overturned crate inside Hung's rickety old shack on the shore of a murky pond.
Introducing a girl to Old Man Hung would be the ultimate test of her moral character. Hung is poorer than poor, and the wrong girl would be put off by the association and might begin to worry about the security of her future. Even if Tu is ashamed by the old man's poverty himself at times, the truth is, Tu is looking for someone who is a better person than he.
Excerpted from The Beauty of Humanity Movement by Camilla Gibb. Copyright © 2011 by Camilla Gibb. Excerpted by permission of Penguin Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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