If You Cut Me Open, Right Now, This Is What You’ll Find:
1. A HEART, but my heart, unlike yours, is not a whole, beating thing, veins and muscles and a steady stream of what we call blood but all know is the reassurance of life flowing, coursing, dancing. My heart died in pieces, breaking off from the whole to disintegrate into nothing; my heart, all that’s left of it, is probably just the size of two fingers pressed together, faintly beating against all odds.
I’m sitting here, listening to the scattered footsteps of children running across the floor of the apartment above my head as a dog sleeps peacefully on top of my feet. In the relative silence, I can hear it, softly, an echo of an echo ringing in my ears. My heart, poor, poor thing, is fluttering, always resisting and I think about the first time I heard, clearly, the sound of my heart beating in rhythm to someone else’s and what happened when it stopped.
You know, in the lakorns, when the guy finally meets the girl, they are bound forever in eternal love, all spring flowers blossoming and everyone in the city realizing how honest and strong and true it can all be but they never film the part when guy gets killed by pickaxe to the skull and buried among nameless others and the girl has to survive because if there’s one thing she knows how to, it is that. Surviving, I mean.
That was when the first piece broke off, wailing and beating a forehead against a tree trunk until blood, that is to say, life burst through, staining the ground and refusing to follow as the rest of me fled away from the burning city, the screams and the pickaxes. Instead of taking a hold of my blistering, bare feet, pounding, pounding against the sidewalk as the sound of gunfire ripped through the air, a piece of my heart decided to turn and walk back to the fields, hoping to find the warmth of his hand, always open, palms facing towards me.
Just a small piece, probably the size of a lychee nut, but how brave to crawl among the dirt and filth, trying to go back to the man who first held me in the descending twilight, all fresh-faced and clean, not realizing the darkness that was to come.
2. A STOMACH THAT IS LINED WITH THORNS and I am not saying this metaphorically. When I first came here, I was anger and rage, all five two of me bustling with the potential of instant combustion as the world around me tried to apologize for what happened back home.
I’m trying to get up now, from the chair that was placed in a square of sunlight as the dog shakes himself awake. I can smell the salor burning on the stove, the chicken getting too soft and the tomatoes surrendering all shape and color to the steaming broth but a thorn in my stomach is piercing through again and I have to sit back down before I lose my breath.
They used to say anger never solves anything but for me, it was a white hot flame burning me clean as I learned the language, wore old clothes and tried a new way of living. Everyone, everywhere saying how lucky I was, that things that happened back home will never happen again and all things considered, I will learn to love where I am and all I could think about was the last time I saw my mother’s face.
Hunger is not a beautiful thing; my grandchildren push away this or that saying that the boys at school don’t want no fat Asian chicks and I think back to hallow cheeks, the bones that push through skin and the eyes, always searching, scanning, hoping for something, anything edible.
My mother’s face still so full of love as she crouched over me, holding out a handful of weeds, a fistful of thorns. She didn’t have to plead, didn’t have to reason because I opened my mouth and swallowed everything whole. It was that kind of hunger, a predator that slithered in the darkness, a bitter tasting thing that made me retch and retch until I heaved up nothing but spit and dry air and my mother crying until nothing was left.
A pot of salor, burned chicken, and vegetables and all, was something we could only dream about and when my mother died, I held her, whispering all the good things she’ll eat in her afterlife.
Salor ma-chu trey
Num bonk skor.
One after the other, things she made for us, for herself, for her family during the holidays or the rainy season, all memories of a time where hunger was something we joked about and not a thing so real and so undeniable that it had a face; my mother’s, eyes unblinking, mouth hung open as if ready to feast.
3. KIDNEYS, RIGHT ONE PERFECTLY FINE, THE LEFT KICKED IN and it was during the night in the labor camp after I watched all the village men get killed, one after the other as if their lives didn’t matter and the Khmer Rouge was drinking that night, I could hear it in their voices and the way they jokingly pointed machine guns at the floor telling us to dance, dance little girl, dance and one reached for me and all the voices of the women in my family dead, alive, half dead and alive but wishing they were dead all cried out for me to run, run swaa and climb a tree and the solider kicked me hard, again and again as he tried grabbing me but I listened you can never say I didn’t listen when it mattered and though my sarong ripped and my side hurt, I climbed so high that the bullets fired at me just drifted into the air and the solider couldn’t do anything but grab another girl and drag her into the woods and though I peed out blood for days, at that moment right there I felt like a real monkey would; victorious and all together, too pleased that I was more clever than anyone else.
4. A BRAIN WELL VERSED IN REGRET because the key to surviving is to always look ahead even when it gets too hard to believe that things will get better because if you saw what I saw it’s hard to believe anything but death. I’m always trying to think of ways to tell you about the war, about home but every time I try to another memory floats to the surface, something I thought I forgot but didn’t.
I regret so many things; not saying I love you when I should have, never learning to dance, not knowing that all the teachers would be killed, not eating so many sweets the New Years before the war came because I didn’t want to look greedy in front of the boy I loved, telling my sister that I was too old to play during the rainy season, never realizing that she would be the first in the family to die. Too much of a dreamer, my father said, to survive something like this.
It wasn’t always bad. I lean against the counter, stirring the pot with a big wooden spoon as the dog licked the floor, hoping for my shaky hands to benefit him once again. There was this time in Thailand, after the Viet Kong came and freed the city and I was sent away again to a refugee camp and the sun was so hot, beating hot and I realized that my mother, father, sister was dead and also, the boy I loved and maybe surviving means nothing if you can’t take the ones who died with you when something pelted the top of my head and like a miracle, a mango fell into my lap.
When life gets real hard and the winters here get so cold that I feel my bones breaking and everyone in the house is screaming about stupid things that won’t matter tomorrow, I tip my head back like this, right and remember me, all bruises and anger, leaning back, just holding the mango to my nose, smelling, smelling all the good that is yet to come.
Kimarlee Nguyen was born and raised in Revere, Massachusetts to a family of Khmer Rouge survivors. Her family’s traumatic history, as well as her own experience of growing up in a traditional Cambodian household, has shaped the heart of her writing. Recently graduated from Vassar College with a BA in English, she is currently a high school English teacher at Bushwick Leaders’ High School in Brooklyn, New York.