“Sophie? Finished studying, finally? Cleaun thdei, kohn?” My dad called from the living room. Are you hungry, child? He always asked whether I were hungry. That was the Khmer equivalent of “How are you?” and “I love you.”
“No,” I called back to him, “Lana’s here, we’re going to study some more.” I hesitated, suddenly unsure of whether to ask about her staying over, or to just let it happen. Sometimes they fell asleep early and the next day I would tell them Lana had left. I wouldn’t tell them that she left after we slept in and I found myself hours late for school. Lana looked at me as we stood at the entrance, the spell of our afternoon together fading. I shrugged at her.
My father appeared from the living room. The television was on. Just a little too loud, as usual. I heard my mother in the shower down the hall.
“Oh, hello Lana,” he said. “Have you eaten? We have food.” There was always food in the house. Always more than enough. Lana had eaten dinner with us a few times. She told my parents that the food was kind of like what she ate at home. They were glad I had a friend who understood fish sauce and wouldn’t think our food was strange. Lana’s parents didn’t cook much Vietnamese food, though. I had been surprised when I went over to her house and saw cans of Campbell’s soup. They had a lot of American food around their kitchen. Foreign to me.
“Thanks, that’s okay,” Lana answered my father. “We ate earlier.” She smiled warmly at him, her eyes shifting over to me.
“What are you going to study tonight?” He asked.
“Lana’s going to help me with some math homework,” I said. The words slid easily off my tongue. Lana was terrible at math. It was amazing how good I got at these white lies.
“Okay,” he said. “Don’t stay up too late, though. It’s already almost ten.”
“Of course, just a little bit more to go, we’ll be done soon,” I replied. I shifted my backpack on my shoulder and began to walk toward the hallway to my room. Lana began to follow when my dad stopped us.
“You’re getting sand in the house,” he observed. If he had any other thoughts about that, he didn’t show it.
“Oh, sorry. We’ll go cooh spaight cheung outside.” I gestured to Lana that we would go back outside to knock our shoes together to get the sand off.
My father made a small sound of acknowledgement and went back to the living room.
Outside, Lana gave me a sly smile. “You really think he doesn’t know…?”
I reddened. “If he does think anything, he’s not saying it. And it’s better that way.” Did I believe that?
“I guess so.” She banged her sandals together. “He must know that we’re probably not studying all that hard, wherever we were today. My parents didn’t freak out that bad when I told them, you know.”
“Your parents are different, Lana.” I sighed. I knocked my sandals against the concrete. Sand fell off in small waves. “They’re younger than mine.” I stood up and brushed my clothes off. More sand shook from my clothes. Lana did the same. I waited for her to finish and turned to go back to my room. “Let’s not talk about this any more tonight?”
“Fine. I just wish you would give your parents a chance. You never know.” She followed me into the house, closed the door. The living room had gone silent. I heard my father cough down the hall as I walked to my room. Our two bedroom house felt so small sometimes.
I knew that she could be right. I also knew that I didn’t care to deal with it. That I did not want to discover how my parents would react. And my grandmother, my aunts and uncles, my cousins, everyone in the simultaneously immense and tiny network of relatives and pseudo-relatives, and perhaps also a broader Khmer community. My grandmother knew so many Khmers through the wat. It would make it harder for her, too, I thought. There was a strong sense in me of not wanting to shame the family in any way. I was my parents’ only child. Why they never had more, I couldn’t understand. I had so many cousins. My aunts and uncles had at least two children each. I wouldn’t feel so much pressure if I had a sibling to split all the familial piety with.
We made our way to my bedroom. There were two twin beds; one was my grandmother’s. She split her time between my father’s house and my uncle’s. The beds were pushed against opposite walls with my desk in between, sharing the wall with our headboards. Both the beds had plaid comforters and sheets. Mine was distinguished by the stuffed bear and monkey sitting in the corner on my pillows, while my grandmother’s bed was watched over by her Buddha posters. The heads of our beds pointed north.
I closed the door behind us. Lana sat down on my bed. “I’m sorry, Sophie.” She reached out for my hands and I placed them in hers. “I like sneaking around with you, anyway. Your parents might feel weird about us staying so long in your room with the door closed if they knew.” Her devilish smile.
She had read my mind. I liked that my parents did not worry about Lana being over in the same way that they had worried when I had brought male friends over to hang out. They’d had nothing to worry about then, but they made sure that we studied where we could see them. I wondered whether, without the threat of pregnancy, they would care if they knew that Lana and I were together. Still, I didn’t care to find out. It was simpler this way.
I walked into her arms. “Yeah, they might not want you helping me with my math homework, would they?” I leaned down to kiss her. Her lips were familiar and familiarly electric. My hands went to the back of her neck, fingers slipping into her thick hair.
“I love helping you with your math,” she said, smiling against my lips. It was as easy as that to diffuse our brief disagreements. Kisses, her warmth against me. I became aware of the wet noises our mouths made and the thought crossed my mind to turn on music. I pulled away.
“Did you bring the CD with you?” I asked.
“No,” Lana said, “I left it in the car. You want to go get it?” Her lips found my neck. She knew it was a sensitive area. I forgot about the music, closing my eyes and leaning back into her.
The telephone next to my bed rang loudly, waking me. It was dark. The middle of the night. Lana’s arms were around me, my back pressed against her bare chest. She slept so heavily. The phone rang loudly again. My body tensed. I heard my parents’ door open across the hall, then footsteps trailing toward the living room. The ringing stopped. My mother’s muffled voice answered the call. I strained to hear what she was saying. I squeezed Lana’s hand and slipped out of her arms. I reached down to find clothes.
I pulled on a t-shirt and sweatpants just as footsteps came back up the hallway. I tensed again. The door to my parents’ room squeaked. I sensed that my mother was waking up my father. A minute later, a soft knock on my door.
“Sophie,” my mother said, “pngak lang.” Wake up.
Panic rose. Lana stirred, her eyes fluttering open. I found another t-shirt and tossed it to her. “My mom’s calling me,” I whispered urgently. She sat up groggily and put on the shirt.
“Where are my pants?” She asked in a low, sleepy whisper.
“Sophie,” my mother said again, knocking a little more loudly.
“Cha,” I said, “I’m awake. Hold on.” I wasn’t sure what to do about Lana, blinking groggily in my bed, the comforter over her lap. Shit, I thought.
I went to the door and opened it a crack, hoping that my mother would not notice Lana in my bed in the dark. “What is it?” I asked.
“Yey choul pbedt,” she said. Grandma went to the hospital.
“What? What happened?” I opened the door a little wider. My mother didn’t seem to notice Lana in my bed. I was still nervous.
“Chabp plah khow-auw. Yeung thdew ped eh-leuw.” Get dressed. We’re going to the hospital now.
“Okay,” I said, confused and worried. “I’ll be ready in a minute.” I closed the door. Lights came on in the hallway. The sound of shuffling came.
“What’s going on?” Lana whispered, more alert now that she could sense something wrong.
“My grandmother’s in the hospital,” I said, “My mom says I have to get ready to go now.” I found a pair of jeans on the floor and changed out of my sweatpants.
“Oh my god, is she okay?” Lana turned on a lamp and began to look for her clothes.
“I don’t know. I have no idea what’s going on.” I pulled on a long sleeve shirt. It was still warm, even in the middle the night. Summer.
“Can I come with you?” Lana asked just as my door opened and my father poked his head inside.
Surprise registered on his face. His eyes went to Lana, then to me, then to my grandmother’s un-mussed bed, then to my bed. “We have to go,” he said.