Khai Diep has no feelings. Well, he feels irritation when people move his things or contentment when ledgers balance down to the penny, but not big, important emotions—like grief. And love. He thinks he's defective. His family knows better—that his autism means he just processes emotions differently. When he steadfastly avoids relationships, his mother takes matters into her own hands and returns to Vietnam to find him the perfect bride.
As a mixed-race girl living in the slums of Ho Chi Minh City, Esme Tran has always felt out of place. When the opportunity arises to come to America and meet a potential husband, she can't turn it down, thinking this could be the break her family needs. Seducing Khai, however, doesn't go as planned. Esme's lessons in love seem to be working...but only on herself. She's hopelessly smitten with a man who's convinced he can never return her affection.
With Esme's time in the United States dwindling, Khai is forced to understand he's been wrong all along. And there's more than one way to love.
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|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.90(d)|
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***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Copyright © 2018 Helen Hoang
Ten years ago
San Jose, California
Khai was supposed to be crying. He knew he was supposed to be crying. Everyone else was.
But his eyes were dry.
If they stung, it was due to the heavy incense fogging the funeral parlor’s reception room. Was he sad? He thought he was sad. But he should be sadder. When your best friend died like this, you were supposed to be destroyed. If this were a Vietnamese opera, his tears would be forming rivers and drowning everyone.
Why was his mind clear? Why was he thinking about the homework assignment that was due tomorrow? Why was he still functioning?
His cousin Sara had sobbed so hard she’d needed to rush to the bathroom to vomit. She was still there now—he suspected—being sick over and over. Her mom, Dì Mai, sat stiffly in the front row, palms flat together and head bowed. Khai’s mom patted her back from time to time, but she remained unresponsive. Like Khai, she shed no tears, but that was because she’d cried them all out days before. The family was worried about her. She’d withered down to her skeleton since they’d gotten the call.
Rows of Buddhist monks in yellow robes blocked his view of the open casket, but that was a good thing. Though the morticians had done their best, the body looked misshapen and wrong. That was not the sixteen-year-old boy who used to be Khai’s friend and favorite cousin. That was not Andy.
Andy was gone.
The only parts of him that survived were the memories in Khai’s head. Stick fights and sword fights, wrestling matches that Khai never won but refused to lose. Khai would rather break both of his own arms than call Andy his daddy. Andy said Khai was pathologically stubborn. Khai insisted he merely had principles. He still remembered their long walks home when the weight of the sun was heavier than their book-filled backpacks and the conversations that had taken place during those walks.
Even now, he could hear his cousin scoffing at him. The specific circumstances eluded him, but the words remained.
Nothing gets to you. It’s like your heart is made of stone.
He hadn’t understood Andy then. He was beginning to now.
The droning of Buddhist chants filled the room, low, off-key syllables spoken in a language no one understood. It flowed over and around him and vibrated in his head, and he couldn’t stop shaking his leg even though people had given him looks. A furtive glance at his watch confirmed that, yes, this had been going on for hours. He wanted the noise to stop. He could almost envision himself crawling into the coffin and shutting the lid to block the sound. But then he’d be stuck in a tight space with a corpse, and he wasn’t sure if that was an improvement over his current predicament.
If Andy were here—alive and here—they’d escape together and find something to do, even if it was just going outside to kick rocks around the parking lot. Andy was good that way. He was always there when you needed him. Except for now.
Khai’s big brother sat beside him, but he knew Quan wouldn’t want to leave early. Funerals existed for people like Quan. He needed the closure or whatever it was people got from them. With his intimidating build and the new tattoos on his neck and arms, Quan looked like one badass motherfucker, but his eyes were rimmed red. From time to time, he discreetly brushed the moisture from his cheeks. Just like always, Khai wished he could be more like his brother.
A metal bowl rang, and the chanting stopped. Relief was instant and dizzying, like an enormous pressure had suddenly dissolved. The monks worked with the pallbearers to close the casket, and soon a procession filed sedately down the center aisle. Because he disliked standing in lines and the claustrophobic press of bodies, Khai stayed seated as Quan got to his feet, squeezed his shoulder once, and joined the exodus.
He watched as relatives trudged past. Some cried openly. Others were more stoic, but their sadness was obvious even to him. Aunts, uncles, cousins, distant relations, and friends of the family all supported each other, joined together by this thing called grief. As usual, Khai was not a part of it.
A group of older women that consisted of his mom, Dì Mai, and two of his other aunts brought up the end of the line because of a near-fainting spell, sticking close in adulthood just like everyone said they had as young girls. If it weren’t for the fact that they all wore black, they could have been attending a wedding. Diamonds and jade hung from their ears, throats, and fingers, and he could smell their makeup and perfume through the haze of the incense.
As they passed his row, he stood and straightened the hand-me-down suit coat from Quan. He had a lot of growing to do if he was ever going to fill this thing out. And pull-ups. Thousands of pull-ups. He’d start those tonight.
When he looked up, he discovered the ladies had all paused next to him. Dì Mai reached a hand toward his cheek but stopped before touching him.
She searched his face with solemn eyes. “I thought you two were close. Don’t you care that he’s gone?”
His heart jumped and started beating so fast it hurt. When he tried to speak, nothing came out. His throat was swollen shut.
“Of course they were close,” his mom chided her sister before tugging on her arm. “Come, Mai, let’s go. They’re waiting for us.”
With his feet frozen to the floor, he watched as they disappeared through the doorway. Logically, he knew he was standing in place, but he felt like he was falling. Down, down, down.
I thought you two were close.
Ever since his elementary school teacher insisted his parents take him to a psychologist, he’d known he was different. The majority of his family, however, had discounted the resulting diagnosis, saying he was merely “a little strange.” There was no such thing as autism or Asperger’s syndrome in the countryside of Vietnam. Besides, he didn’t get into trouble and did well in school. What did it matter?
I thought you two were close.
The words wouldn’t stop echoing in his head, bringing him to an unwelcome self-realization: He was different, yes, but in a bad way.
I thought you two were close.
Andy hadn’t just been his best friend. He’d been his only friend. Andy was as close as close got for Khai. If he couldn’t grieve for Andy, that meant he couldn’t grieve at all. And if he couldn’t grieve, the flip side also had to be true.
He couldn’t love.
Andy had been right. Khai’s heart really was made of metaphorical stone.
The knowledge spread over him like petroleum in an oil spill. He didn’t like it, but there was nothing to do but accept it. This wasn’t something you could change. He was what he was.
I thought you two were close.
He was . . . bad.
He unfisted his hands, worked the fingers. His legs moved when he commanded them. His lungs drew breath. He saw, he heard, he experienced. And it struck him as being incredibly unfair. This was not what he would have chosen. If he could have chosen who went in that casket.
The chanting started again, signaling the funeral was nearing its end. Time to join the others as they said their final good-byes. No one seemed to understand it wasn’t good-bye unless Andy said it back. For his part, Khai would say nothing.
Two months ago
T.P. Hồ Chí Minh, Việt Nam
Scrubbing toilets wasn’t usually this interesting. Mỹ had done it so many times she had a streamlined routine by now. Spray with poison everywhere. Pour poison inside. Scrub, scrub, scrub, scrub, scrub. Wipe, wipe, wipe. Flush. Done in less than two minutes. If they had a toilet-cleaning contest, Mỹ would be a top contender. Not today, though. The noises in the next stall kept distracting her.
She was pretty sure the girl in there was crying. Either that or exercising. There was lots of heavy breathing going on. What kind of workout could you do in a bathroom stall? Knee-ups maybe.
A strangled sound issued, followed by a high-pitched whimper, and Mỹ let go of her toilet brush. That was definitely crying. Leaning her temple against the side of the stall, she cleared her throat and asked, “Miss, is something wrong?”
“No, nothing’s wrong,” the girl said, but her cries got louder before they stopped abruptly, replaced by more muffled heavy breathing.
“I work in this hotel.” As a janitor/maid. “If someone treated you badly, I can help.” She’d try to, anyway. Nothing rankled her like a bully. She couldn’t afford to lose this job, though.
“No, I’m fine.” The door latch rattled, and shoes clacked against the marble floor.
Mỹ stuck her head out of her stall in time to see a pretty girl saunter toward the sinks. She wore the highest, scariest heels Mỹ had ever seen and a red skintight dress that ended right beneath her butt. If you believed anything Mỹ’s grandma said, that girl would get pregnant the second she stepped foot on the street. She was probably pregnant already—from the potency of a man’s child-giving stare.
For her part, Mỹ had gotten pregnant by messing around with a playboy from school, no skimpy dress and scary heels needed. She’d resisted him at first. Her mom and grandma had been clear that studies came first, but he’d pursued her until she’d caved, thinking it was love. Instead of marrying her when she’d told him about the baby, however, he’d grudgingly offered to keep her as his secret mistress. She wasn’t the kind of girl he could introduce to his upper-class family, and surprise, he was engaged and planned to go through with the wedding. Obviously, she’d turned him down, which had been both a relief and a shock for him, that son of a dog. Her family, on the other hand, had been heartbroken with disappointment—they’d pinned so many hopes on her. But as she’d known they would, they’d supported her and her baby.
The girl in the red dress washed her hands and dabbed at her mascara-streaked cheeks before tossing her hand towel on the counter and leaving the bathroom. Mỹ’s yellow rubber gloves squeaked as she fisted her hands. The towel basket was right there. Grumbling to herself, she stalked to the sinks, wiped off the counter with the girl’s hand towel, and launched it into the towel basket. A quick inspection of the sink, counter, mirror, and neatly rolled stack of towels confirmed everything was acceptable, and she started back toward the last toilet.
The bathroom door swung open, and another girl rushed inside. With her waist-length black hair, skinny body, long legs, and danger heels, she looked a lot like the previous girl. Only her dress was white. Was the hotel having some kind of pageant? And why was this girl crying, too?
“Miss, are you okay?” Mỹ asked as she took a tentative step toward her.
The girl splashed water on her face. “I’m fine.” She braced her wet hands on the granite countertop, making more mess for Mỹ to clean up, and stared at her reflection in the mirror as she took deep breaths. “I thought she was going to pick me. I was so sure. Why ask that question if she doesn’t want that answer? She’s a sneaky woman.”
Mỹ tore her gaze away from the fresh water drops on the counter and focused on the girl’s face. “What woman? Pick you for what?”
The girl raked a certain look over Mỹ’s hotel uniform and rolled her eyes. “You wouldn’t understand.”
Mỹ’s back stiffened, and her skin flushed with embarrassed heat. She’d gotten that look and tone of voice before. She knew what they meant. Before she could come up with a suitable response, the girl was gone. And, forget the girl’s grandpa and all her other ancestors, too, another crumpled towel lay on the counter.
Mỹ stomped to the sink, wiped up the girl’s mess, and threw the towel into the basket. Well, she meant to. Her aim was off, and it landed on the floor. Huffing in frustration, she went to pick it up.
Just as her gloved fingers closed around the towel, the door swung open yet again. She looked heavenward. If it was another crying spoiled girl, she was leaving for a bathroom on the other side of the hotel.
But it wasn’t. A tired-looking older woman padded to the sitting room on the far end of the bathroom and sat on one of the velvet-upholstered love seats. Mỹ knew at first glance the lady was a Việt kiều. It was a combination of things that gave it away: her genuine granddaddy-sized Louis Vuitton handbag, her expensive clothes, and her feet. Manicured and perfectly uncalloused, those sandaled feet had to belong to an overseas Vietnamese. Those people tipped really well, for everything. Money practically poured out of them. Maybe today was Mỹ’s lucky day.
She tossed the hand towel in the basket and approached the woman. “Miss, can I get you anything?”
The lady waved at her dismissively.
“Just let me know, miss. Enjoy your time in here. It’s a very nice bathroom.” She winced, wishing she could retract the last words, and turned back toward her toilets. Why they had a sitting room in here was beyond her. Sure, it was a nice room, but why relax where you could hear people doing bathroom stuff?
She finished her work, set her bucket of cleaning supplies on the floor by the sinks, and performed one last inspection of the bathroom. One of the hand towels had partially unrolled, so she shook it out, rerolled it, and set it on the stack with the others. Then she repositioned the tissue box. There. Everything was presentable.
She bent to pick up her bucket, but before her fingers could close around the handle, the lady said, “Why did you fix the box of Klee-néx like that?”
Mỹ straightened, looked at the tissue box, and then tilted her head at the lady. “Because that’s how the hotel likes it, miss.”
A thinking expression crossed the lady’s face, and after a second, she beckoned Mỹ toward her and patted the space next to her on the sofa. “Come talk to me for a minute. Call me Cô Nga.”
Mỹ smiled in puzzlement but did as she was bid, sitting down next to the lady and keeping her back straight, her hands folded, and her knees pressed together like the virginest virgin. Her grandma would have been proud.
Sharp eyes in a pale powdered face assessed her much like Mỹ had just done to the bathroom counter, and Mỹ pressed her feet together awkwardly and beamed her best smile at the lady.
After reading her name tag, the lady said, “So your name is Trần Ngọc Mỹ.”
“You clean the bathrooms here? What else do you do?”
Mỹ’s smile threatened to fade, and she kept it up with effort. “I also clean the guests’ rooms, so that’s more bathrooms, changing sheets, making beds, vacuuming. Those kinds of things.” It wasn’t what she’d dreamed of doing when she was younger, but it paid, and she made sure she did good work.
“Ah, that is—You have mixed blood.” Leaning forward, the lady clasped Mỹ’s chin and angled her face upward. “Your eyes are green.”
Mỹ held her breath and tried to figure out the lady’s opinion on this. Sometimes it was a good thing. Most of the time it wasn’t. It was much better to be mixed race when you had money.
The lady frowned. “But how? There haven’t been American soldiers here since the war.”
Mỹ shrugged. “My mom says he was a businessman. I’ve never met him.” As the story went, her mom had been his housekeeper—and something else on the side—and their affair had ended when his work project finished and he left the country. It wasn’t until afterward that her mom discovered she was pregnant, and by then it was too late. She hadn’t known how to find him. She’d had no choice but to move back home to live with her family. Mỹ had always thought she’d do better than her mom, but she’d managed to follow in her footsteps almost exactly.
The lady nodded and squeezed her arm once. “Did you just move to the city? You don’t seem like you’re from around here.”
Mỹ averted her eyes, and her smile fell. She’d grown up with very little money, but it wasn’t until she’d come to the big city that she’d learned just how poor she really was. “We moved a couple months ago because I got the job here. Is it that easy to tell?”
The lady patted Mỹ’s cheek in an oddly affectionate manner. “You’re still naïve like a country girl. Where are you from?”
“A village close to Mỹ Tho, by the water.”
A wide grin stretched over the lady’s face. “I knew I liked you. Places make people. I grew up there. I named my restaurant Mỹ Tho Noodles. It’s a very good restaurant in California. They talk about it on TV and in magazines. I guess you wouldn’t have heard about it here, though.” She sighed to herself before her eyes sharpened and she asked, “How old are you?”
“You look younger than that,” Cô Nga said with a laugh. “But that’s a good age.”
A good age for what? But Mỹ didn’t ask. Tip or no tip, she was ready for this conversation to end. Maybe a real city girl would have left already. Toilets didn’t scrub themselves.
“Have you ever thought of coming to America?” Cô Nga asked.
Mỹ shook her head, but that was a lie. As a child, she’d fantasized about living in a place where she didn’t stick out and maybe meeting her green-eyed dad. But there was more than an ocean separating Việt Nam and America, and the older she’d grown, the larger the distance had become.
“Are you married?” the lady asked. “Do you have a boyfriend?”
“No, no husband, no boyfriend.” She smoothed her hands over her thighs and gripped her knees. What did this woman want? She’d heard the horror stories about strangers. Was this sweet-looking woman trying to trick her and sell her into prostitution in Cambodia?
“Don’t look so worried. I have good intentions. Here, let me show you something.” The lady dug through her giant Louis Vuitton purse until she found a manila file. Then she pulled out a photograph and handed it to Mỹ. “This is my Diệp Khải, my youngest son. He’s handsome, ha?”
Mỹ didn’t want to look—she honestly didn’t care about this unknown man who lived in the paradise of California—but she decided to humor the woman. She’d look at the picture and make all the appropriate noises. She’d tell Cô Nga her son looked like a movie star, and then she’d find some excuse to leave.
When she glanced at the photograph, however, her body went still, just like the sky immediately before a rainstorm.
He did look like a movie star, a man-beautiful one, with sexy wind-tossed hair and strong, clean features. Most captivating of all, however, was the quiet intensity that emanated from him. A shadow of a smile touched his lips as he focused on something to the side, and she found herself leaning toward the photo. If he were an actor, all the aloof dangerous hero roles would be his, like a bodyguard or a kung fu master. He made you wonder: What was he thinking about so intently? What was his story? Why didn’t he smile for real?
“Ah, so Mỹ approves. I told you he was handsome,” Cô Nga said with a knowing smile.
Mỹ blinked like she was coming out of a trance and handed the picture back to the lady. “Yes, he is.” He’d make a lucky girl even luckier someday, and they’d live a long, lucky life together. She hoped they experienced food poisoning at least once. Nothing life-threatening, of course. Just inconvenient—make that very inconvenient. And mildly painful. Embarrassing, too.
“He’s also smart and talented. He went to graduate school.”
Mỹ worked up a smile. “That’s impressive. I would be very proud if I had a son like him.” Her mom, on the other hand, had a toilet cleaner for a daughter. She pushed her bitterness away and reminded herself to keep her head down and go about her own business. Jealousy wouldn’t get her anything but misery. But she wished him extra incidences of food poisoning, anyway. There had to be some fairness in the world.
“I am very proud of him,” Cô Nga said. “He’s why I’m here, actually. To find him a wife.”
“Oh.” Mỹ frowned. “I didn’t know Americans did that.” It seemed horribly old-fashioned to her.
“They don’t do it, and Khải would be angry if he knew. But I have to do something. His older brother is too good with women—I don’t need to worry about him—but Khải is twenty-six and still hasn’t had a girlfriend. When I set up dates for him, he doesn’t go. When girls call him, he hangs up. This coming summer, there are three weddings in our family, three, but is one his? No. Since he doesn’t know how to find himself a wife, I decided to do it for him. I’ve been interviewing candidates all day. None of them fit my expectations.”
Her jaw fell. “All the crying girls . . .”
Cô Nga waved her comment away. “They’re crying because they’re ashamed of themselves. They’ll recover. I had to know if they were serious about marrying my son. None of them were.”
“They seemed very serious.” They hadn’t been fake crying in the bathroom—that was for sure.
“How about you?” Cô Nga fixed that assessing stare on her again.
“What about me?”
“Are you interested in marrying my Khải?”
Mỹ looked behind herself before pointing at her own chest. “Me?”
Cô Nga nodded. “Yes, you. You’ve caught my attention.”
Her eyes widened. How?
As if she could read Mỹ’s mind, Cô Nga said, “You’re a good, hardworking girl and pretty in an unusual way. I think I could trust you with my Khải.”
All Mỹ could do was stare. Had the fumes from the cleaning chemicals finally damaged her brain? “You want me to marry your son? But we’ve never met. You might like me . . .” She shook her head, still unable to wrap her mind around that. She cleaned toilets for a living. “But your son probably won’t. He sounds picky, and I’m not—”
“Oh, no, no,” Cô Nga interrupted. “He’s not picky. He’s shy. And stubborn. He thinks he doesn’t want a family. He needs a girl who is more stubborn. You’d have to make him change his mind.”
“How would I—”
“Ơi, you know. You dress up, take care of him, cook the things he likes, do the things he likes . . .”
Mỹ couldn’t help grimacing, and Cô Nga surprised her by laughing.
“This is why I like you. You can’t help but be yourself. What do you think? I could give you a summer in America to see if you two fit. If you don’t, no problem, you go home. At the very least, you’ll go to all our family weddings and have some food and fun. How’s that?”
“I—I—I . . .” She didn’t know what to say. It was too much to take in.
“One more thing.” Cô Nga’s gaze turned measuring, and there was a heavy pause before she said, “He doesn’t want children. But I am determined to have grandchildren. If you manage to get pregnant, I know he’ll do the right thing and marry you, regardless of how you get along. I’ll even give you money. Twenty thousand American dollars. Will you do this for me?”
The breath seeped from Mỹ’s lungs, and her skin went cold. Cô Nga wanted her to steal a baby from her son and force him into marriage. Disappointment and futility crushed her. For a moment, she’d thought this lady saw something special in her, but Cô Nga had judged her based on things she couldn’t control, just like the girls in the skimpy dresses had.
“The other girls all said no, didn’t they? You thought I’d say yes because . . .” She indicated her uniform with an open palm.
Cô Nga said nothing, her gaze steady.
Mỹ pushed away from the sofa, went to gather up her bucket of cleaning supplies, opened the door, and paused in the doorway. With her eyes trained straight ahead, she said, “My answer is no.”
She didn’t have money, connections, or skills, but she could still be as hardheaded and foolish as she wanted. She hoped her refusal stung. Without a backward glance, she left.
That evening, after the hour-long walk home—the same one she did twice a day every day—Mỹ tiptoed into their one-room house and collapsed onto the section of floor mat where she slept at night. She needed to get ready for bed, but first, she wanted to do nothing for a few moments. Just nothing. Nothing was such a luxury.
Her pocket buzzed, ruining her nothing. With a frustrated sigh, she dug her phone out of her pocket.
Unfamiliar phone number.
She debated not answering it, but something had her hitting the talk button and pressing the phone to her ear. “Hello?”
“Mỹ, is this you?”
Mỹ puzzled over the voice. It was slightly familiar, but she couldn’t place it. “Yes. Who’s this?”
“It’s me, Cô Nga. No, don’t hang up,” the lady added quickly. “I got your number from the hotel supervisor. I wanted to talk to you.”
Her fingers tightened on the phone, and she sat upright. “I don’t have anything left to say.”
“You won’t change your mind?”
She resisted the urge to throw her phone at the wall. “No.”
“Good,” Cô Nga said.
Frowning, Mỹ lowered her phone and stared at it. What did she mean good?
She returned the phone to her ear in time to hear Cô Nga say, “It was a test. I don’t want you to trick my son into having a baby, but I needed to know what kind of person you are.”
“So that means . . .?”
“That means you’re the one I want, Mỹ. Come to America to see my son. I’ll give you the entire summer to win him and go to his cousins’ weddings. You’ll need the time. It’ll be work to figure him out, but it’ll be worth it. He’s good stuff. If anyone can do it, I think it’s you. If you want to. Do you?”
Her head began spinning. “I don’t know. I need to think.”
“Then think and call me back. But don’t take too long. I need to arrange your visa and plane ticket,” Cô Nga said. “I’ll be waiting to hear from you.” With that, the call disconnected.
A lamp on the other side of the room clicked on, illuminating the tight, cluttered space with soft, golden light. Clothes and kitchen paraphernalia hung from the walls, covering every square centimeter of crumbling brick not taken up by the old electric stove, tiny refrigerator, and miniature TV they used to watch kung fu sagas and bootleg American films. The center floor space was occupied by the sleeping bodies of her daughter, Ngọc Anh, and her grandma. Her mom lay between Grandma and the stove, her hand on the lamp’s switch. A fan blew humid air at them on the highest setting.
“Who was that?” her mom whispered.
“A Việt kiều,” Mỹ said, barely believing her own words. “She wants me to come to America and marry her son.”
Her mom propped herself up on an elbow, and her hair fell in a silken curtain over her shoulder. Bedtime was the only time she let her hair loose, and it made her look ten years younger. “Is he older than your grandpa? Does he look like a skunk? What’s wrong with him?”
At that moment, Mỹ’s phone buzzed with a message from Cô Nga.
To help you think.
Another buzz, and the photograph of Khải covered the screen—the same one from before. She handed her phone to her mom wordlessly.
“This is him?” her mom asked with wide eyes.
“His name is Diệp Khải.”
Her mom stared at the picture for the longest time, quiet save for the soft sighing of her breathing. Finally, she handed the phone back. “You have no choice. You have to do it.”
“But he doesn’t want to get married. I’m supposed to chase him and change his mind. I don’t know how to—”
“Just do it. Do whatever you have to. It’s America, Mỹ. You have to do it for this one.” Her mom reached over Grandma’s thin sleeping form and pulled Ngọc Anh’s thin blanket up to her throat. “If I had the opportunity, I would have done the same for you. For her future. She doesn’t fit in here. And she needs a dad.”
Mỹ clenched her teeth as childhood memories tried to spill from the corner of her mind where she trapped them. She could still hear the children singing Mixed girl with the twelve buttholes at her as she walked home from school. Her childhood had been difficult, but it had prepared her for life. She was stronger now, tougher. “I didn’t have a dad.”
Her mom’s eyes hardened. “And look where that’s gotten you.”
Mỹ looked down at her girl. “It also got me her.” She regretted being with her daughter’s heartless father, but she’d never regretted her baby. Not even for a second.
She brushed the damp baby hairs away from her girl’s temple, and that enormous love expanded in her heart. Gazing at her daughter’s face was like looking in a mirror that reflected a time twenty years past. Her girl looked exactly like Mỹ used to. They had the same eyebrows, cheekbones, nose, and skin tone. Even the shape of their lips was the same. But Ngọc Anh was far, far sweeter than Mỹ had ever been. She would do anything for this little one.
Except give her up.
Once Ngọc Anh’s father had married, his wife had discovered she couldn’t have babies, and they’d offered to raise Ngọc Anh as their own. Again, Mỹ had turned down an offer everyone expected her to accept. They’d called her selfish. His family could give Ngọc Anh all the things she needed.
But what about love? Love mattered, and no one could love her baby like Mỹ could. No one. She felt it in her heart.
Still, from time to time, she worried she’d done the wrong thing.
“If you don’t like him,” her mom said, “you can divorce him after you get your green card and marry someone else.”
“I can’t marry him just for a green card.” He was a person, not a stack of paper, and if he decided to marry her, it would be because she’d succeeded in seducing him, because he cared about her. She couldn’t use someone that way. That would make her just as bad as Ngọc Anh’s dad.
Her mom nodded like she could hear the thoughts in Mỹ’s head. “What happens if you go and you can’t change his mind?”
“I come back at the end of the summer.”
A disgusted sound came from the back of her mom’s throat. “I can’t believe you need to think about this. You have nothing to lose.”
As Mỹ looked at the black screen on her phone, a thought occurred to her. “Cô Nga said he doesn’t want a family. I have Ngọc Anh.”
Her mom rolled her eyes. “What young man wants a family? If he loves you, he’ll love Ngọc Anh.”
“It doesn’t work that way, and you know it. If a man knows you have a baby, most of the time he’s not interested.” And if he was interested, all he wanted was sex.
“Then don’t tell him right away. Give him time to fall for you, and tell him later,” her mom said.
Mỹ shook her head. “That feels wrong.”
“If he tells you he loves you but backs out of marriage because you have a daughter, you don’t want him anyway. But this woman knows her son, and she chose you. You have to try. At the very least, you get a whole summer in America. Do you know how lucky you are? Don’t you want to see America? Where in America is it?”
“She said California, but I don’t think I can stand being away that long.” Mỹ brushed her fingers across her daughter’s baby-soft cheek. She’d never been away from home longer than a day. What if Ngọc Anh thought she’d abandoned her?
Her mom’s forehead creased with thought, and she got up to dig through a pile of boxes kept in the corner. They were her mom’s personal things, and no one was allowed to open them. Growing up, Mỹ used to snoop through them when no one was looking, especially the bottom one. When her mom opened that box specifically and rustled through its contents, Mỹ’s heart started sprinting.
“That’s where your dad is from. Here, look.” Her mom handed her a yellowed photo of a man with his arm thrown around her shoulders. Mỹ had spent countless hours peering at this photo, holding it close, looking at it upside down, squinting, anything to confirm the man’s eyes were green and he was, in fact, her father, but nothing worked. The picture had been taken from too far away. His eyes could be any color. They appeared brown, if she was being honest with herself.
The lettering on his shirt, however, was easy to read. It clearly said Cal Berkeley.
“Is that what ‘Cal’ stands for?” she asked. “California?”
Her mom nodded. “I looked it up. It’s a famous university. Maybe when you’re there, you can go see it. Maybe . . . you can try to find him.”
Mỹ’s heart jumped so hard her fingers tingled. “Are you finally going to tell me his name?” she asked, her voice whisper thin. All she knew was “Phil.” That was the name her grandma whispered with hate when she and Mỹ were alone. That Phil. Mister Phil. Your mother’s Phil.
A bitter smile touched her mom’s lips. “He said his full name was ugly. All anyone ever called him was Phil. I think his surname started with an L.”
Mỹ’s hopes shattered before they’d fully formed. “It’s impossible, then.”
Her mom’s expression went determined. “You don’t know until you try. Maybe if they use the expensive computers, they can make a list for you. If you work hard, there’s a chance.”
Mỹ gazed at the picture of her dad, feeling the yearning in her chest grow bigger with every second. Did he live in California? How would he react if he opened his door . . . and saw her? Would he accuse her of coming to ask for money?
Or would he be happy to find a daughter he’d never known he had?
She opened up the picture of Khải on her phone and held the two photos side by side on her lap. What had Cô Nga seen in her that she thought Mỹ was a good match for her son? Would her son see it too? And would he accept her daughter? Would her own father accept his daughter?
Either way, her mom was right. She wouldn’t know until she tried. On both accounts.
Mỹ typed out a text message to Cô Nga and hit send.
Yes, I want to try.
“I’m going to do it,” she told her mom. She tried to sound confident, but she was quaking inside. What had she just agreed to?
“I knew you would, and I’m glad. We’ll take good care of Ngọc Anh while you’re gone. Now, go to sleep. You still have to work tomorrow.” The light clicked off. But after the room went dark, her mom said, “You should know with just one summer, you don’t have time to do things the traditional way. You have to play to win, even if you’re not sure you want him. As long as he’s not evil, love can grow. And remember, good girls don’t get the man. You need to be bad, Mỹ.”
Mỹ swallowed. She had a good idea what “bad” meant, and she was surprised her mom dared to suggest it with her grandma in the room.
Reading Group Guide
THE BRIDE TEST by Helen Hoang
Questions for Discussion
1. Khải grew up in America, while Mỹ was born and raised in a small village in Vietnam. What cultural differences can you see and how do you think this affects who they are now?
2. In the beginning of the book, Khải’s mother is in Vietnam to search for a wife for Khải. Do you think it’s wrong of his mother to meddle and interfere in his personal life, or is this justified as an act of love?
3. Prior to reading this book, how would you have imagined an autistic man? How does Khải compare to this vision?
4. Throughout the book, Khải is adamant about not having feel-ings, thus creating a chasm between him and everyone else. When do you see a breakthrough in this way of thinking? How does Mỹ help with this?
5. Khải memorizes a set of rules that his sister made him that lists what he should do when he’s with a girl (page 37). Do you agree with this list?
6. Though Mỹ originally goes to America with the purpose of se-ducing Khải, a lot of her time is spent going to night school and working at Cô Nga’s restaurant. This reflects the hard work that immigrants go through to build a life in the U.S. Can you or anyone you know relate to this?
7. Mỹ lies to Khải about her occupation and tells him that she’s an accountant. She does this because she’s embarrassed by her sta-tion in life but also to feel some sort of connection to him. Should she have just told him the truth from the beginning or do you think her lie helps bring them together at least a little?
8. As adamant as Khải is about not loving Mỹ, he does things for her that show how much he does care about her, such as carry-ing her and helping to find her father. What other ways does he show he loves her?
9. At the end of the book, Khải tells Mỹ he loves her in Vietnam-ese. What is the significance of this?