"Right, Mommy," I agreed halfheartedly.
I walked to the bedroom window and looked outside. I could see porters carrying cases of Champagne Guy Larmandier into the house. The garden was lit up by multicolored lights, with every shrub transformed into some sort of animal. Next to the pool, behind a couple of rose bushes, a group of musicians tested their electrical instruments. The noise resolved itself into a lively, cheery tune that carried through the thick air. The cooks, maids, and waiters ran back and forth like ants in an ant farm, all lost in their own assignments. The neighborhood children, clustered next to a few adults, gathered around the front gates, staring curiously inside. Should anyone venture too close to the gates, security men would push them away. Over the sounds of celebration, deep in the darkness, the ocean moaned its constant, breathy rhythm.
"When do I get to blow out the candles?" I asked, turning to look at my mother.
"Right after dinner."
"When do we have dinner?"
"When all the guests arrive," she said.
"When will that be?"
"Around nine-thirty." My mother regarded her nails. A pang of dissatisfaction washed over her face as she reached for her bright orange nail polish.
"Can I stay awake after the cake, Mommy?"
"No, darling. After the cake there will be dancing. You are too young to stay up that late. Maybe next year. Now, be a good boy and go play with your brother."
"But he is sleeping in Grandma's room."
"Then go wake him up. Tell Grandma or Loan to dress both of you." She pushed me out of her room and carefully closed the door without touching her nails.
BY THE TIME Jimmy and I changed into the party clothes that my mother had ordered from the Sears catalog, a luxury that few could afford in Vietnam, the guests had finally arrived. From my grandparents' bedroom, we could hear every noise the people outside made. Gazing at each other nervously, we pressed our ears against the thin wall, listening to the footsteps that ran frantically up and down the hallway. The rich smell of cooked spices mixed with the heavy odor of perfume.
Finally, my mother burst into the room with enough exuberance to burn out a lightbulb. Her off-white evening gown embraced her, gushing down her body like a stream of silver water. Her hair was bound above her neck in a complicated knot, revealing a diamond necklace and two small diamond earrings. She looked foreign, formidable, elegant as an Egyptian queen. She smiled through her makeup, as she reached for us with bare arms that sparkled with diamonds. We entered her cloud of perfume, and together, hand in hand, we walked into the noisy brightness outside.
The rest of the evening is a blur. I vaguely recall the laughter, the kisses, the food, the stark colors, the songs, and the mountain of presents that filled my room. I also remember the foreign guests with sandy hair and blue eyes, as well as the anxious talk on everyone's lips about the revolution. Jimmy and I were sent to bed immediately after I blew out the candles on top of my gigantic cake. And I was to sleep for three years, banished from my mother's warmth and sent away to school, leaving behind the special night that was supposed to be mine.
Copyright © 2001 by Nguyen-Andrews, LLC
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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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