My mother calls
and asks what it’s like to live in the desert
surrounded by cacti, except she says
xương rồng: dragon trees.
On the way to the bus stop,
I tell her I count two with hooked
spines, one with short barbs
deceptively fuzzy and yellow
like the pom poms
on my grade-school hat.
Back then the bus stopped
around the corner from our blue house
and in winter, I skipped
over the salted roads, nose
in my scarf.
There was the morning
I stepped in frozen dog shit
and was last to get on the bus,
the morning my mother drove by
and pressed a book against her
frosted window in question:
Chicken Soup for the Pet
Lover’s Soul, do you need this?
I shook my head so hard
my earmuffs fell lopsided, a plea.
The others laughed and delegated
me to the seat behind the
driver – the ultimate humiliation.
But this, too, was a privilege.
In the background, I hear her yell
to my father: Bằng, his name,
means flat, level, steady.
When I was a kid, I walked around
with my thumb and forefinger
pointed in the air yelling bang bang,
shooting the invisible men after me.
Isn’t it funny my dad’s name is Bằng I said,
bang bang I said, blowing away smoke
from the tips of my fingers like
I’d seen in the movies.
I told the kids at the bus stop
my father went to prison once
for 7 or 9 years, I could never remember.
Something about the war, I said.
In middle school, I asked him for his army
jacket. He’d burned it in 1975.
My father was in ‘Nam, I said.
It’s not like in the movies.
I tell her there are sweaty thigh
imprints everywhere: on public
transportation, in my professor’s office
where the salt gathers in the well
above my upper lip, the sound of my skin
In the desert, they want
me until they don’t want me
So, I talk about the internet–
how there are videos of people
jumping from moving vehicles
into thickets of white cholla
with their arms wide open
on a dare or faith.
Or drugs, my mother says.
Don’t ever think of doing that.
I don’t say: here, like everywhere,
means getting confronted on the way
to the bus because my dark
hair, dark eyes all belong
Here, means sidestepping cacti,
mistaking a rattlesnake in the road
for a fallen branch, my tire inches
from its head. Here, I leave evidence
of my existence, a red-blooded survival,
wherever I go.
Susan Nguyen hails from Virginia but currently lives in the desert where she is hard at work on her MFA in poetry at Arizona State University. Previous works have appeared in PANK, diode, Boxcar Poetry Review, and others. She is the recipient of two fellowships from the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing. You can find her at www.girlpoet.co