Anna Nguyen is a first year student at PLU from Nashville, Tennessee. She’s working on a major in English Literature and a minor in French.
Advice about Grapefruit and Getting Dumped
Grapefruit are always cheaper in Atlanta than in Nashville, so without fail, my grandmother always returns home with a whole laundry basket full of them. After a big hug and some chiding about how I’ve gained weight since my last visit (“Khánh, your arms are manly!”), she leaves me to carry in her luggage. I awkwardly heave her bounty of grapefruit out of the car’s trunk and into the living room, where she sits on a plastic footstool between the couch and coffee table. “The cushions are too soft,” she’d say. “Too soft for Bà.”
My grandmother speaks exclusively in Vietnamese around the house, and for a few futile months after I’d started kindergarten, she insisted that I do the same. By now, fourteen years later, the rule has stopped holding up— she still speaks to me in Vietnamese, I just answer in English. I’ll always call her Bà though.
Bà is dressed in her typical below-sixty-degrees-outside garb: matching light gray sweats and sweater, a flimsy, blue scarf, and a dark gray beanie that rarely leaves her head during the months of November through February. The television’s on Channel 2, morning news: women in blazers and old, coiffed men discussing weather and churches or something. Bà picks up a grapefruit from the basket and turns it this way and that in her palms. The bright yellow grapefruits look hefty and plump on their own, but in her small hands they seem gargantuan.
She thrusts one of two knives on the coffee table toward me, much like she wants to stab me. Her gaze isn’t threatening. I gingerly take the knife. Looking at her now, I could see that an odd milkiness had overtaken her once clear, brown eyes with filmy splotches of blue. Her left eye was constantly watery– a side-effect of her new glaucoma medication, she told me when I asked her earlier if she was crying.
I settle onto the couch, and we begin peeling grapefruit. She grips her knife entirely by the blade as she works through the thick rind, a technique I have neither the callouses nor confidence to attempt.
“How do you pick out a grapefruit, Bà?” I’m humoring her. My fingers are already sticky from my amateur knife-work piercing the fruit’s flesh.
“I always choose the heavy ones.” She pats the one she’s already a quarter done with. “They should have smooth skin and smell like heaven.”
Bà is always eager to give advice, solicited or otherwise. She’s never shy to point out that she could die soon, so I’d better listen carefully while I could. I call her morbid; she calls herself honest.
“How’s your friend, Sam?” Bà asks as she begins artfully peeling away swathes of white pith from her grapefruit. I know she means boyfriend.
Sam’s actual name is Sarah, and she’s definitely not a boy, but I’d sooner die than tell Bà I’m a lesbian. She’d probably keel over. Not that I had to worry about her finding out during Christmas dinner through some grand gesture anymore since…
“I got dumped last month.”
“What does ‘dumped’ mean?” She’s asking genuinely. I sigh.
“Sam broke up with me.”
Bà turns her whole body to look up at me from her footstool. She’s not peeling anymore. She puts the knife down, and takes one of my sticky hands into hers. Her hands are very knuckle-prominent and veiny. I’d never seen her without her gold wedding band on her left ring finger. Whether that dedication was for sentimental reasons or because of arthritic pains, I’d never asked. For some reason, I feel the urge to apologize.
Instead, I ask, “Bà, how do I get over heartbreak?” My mouth is set in a sardonic smile, as if I wasn’t actually desperate for guidance.
She isn’t matching my smile. “What happened?”
I’m finished peeling my first grapefruit before she is. Victory, at last. The flesh is a pale pink, and she was right: it smelled like heaven. My eyes are starting to sting though. Bà is staring at me intensely and gripping my hand like she’s afraid I’d slip out.
I answer, “I don’t know. It was sudden.” It’s been twenty-three days since then. Sarah and I were lying in bed together when she turned to ask me if she ever made me feel lonely, and the night went downhill from there. She stopped answering my calls last week. I pinch the bridge of my nose with my free hand and squeeze my eyes shut.
“You really loved him.” She lets go of my hand to pass me a box of tissues.
“I still do.” I wad up two corners of a tissue and stuff each end up my nostrils. I tend to cry with my nose. My tears are salty and usually leave my skin feeling uncomfortably tight as they dry.
“It takes time,” Bà says. She raises herself up to sink into the space on the couch beside me. Every single one of her joints announce themselves along the way. “Pop, pop, pop,” she says with a laugh. I begin to crack my knuckles in solidarity but she lightly slaps my hand. That’s why Bà thinks her knuckles have all ended up pointing in the wrong direction in her old age: cracking knuckles. I’m still not sure I believe her.
“The Price is Right” is on now. I hope those middle-aged men and women know how much dish soap costs. They’re certainly eager to try. We watch in silence. Bà picks up her unfinished grapefruit, and I begin to pull apart my own. Occasionally, she reads out words on the screen during commercial breaks, practicing her pronunciation. “Misconduct… Energize… Credibility…” She hangs onto every syllable with extreme care. If she gives me a certain look, I offer corrections.
“Bà, I keep dreaming about her—“ I drop a slice of grapefruit, and it falls onto the dusty rug. Oh god, the pronoun slipped. At least in English, the sounds of “him” and “her” are similar, easy enough to pass off as mistakes. In Vietnamese “anh” is the hard and strong male pronoun while “em” is the soft, lilted female one. I glance at her out of the corner of my eye. She hasn’t turned away from the television, but there’s a thoughtful look on her face.
That’s the worst part of it all, really—the dreams. During the day, I could redirect my thoughts. Distract myself. Go on long walks. Throw around heavy dumbbells. Drink. Write angry, sobbing journal entries, tear them to shreds, burn them, eat them, fold them into sad, soggy paper cranes (not in that order).
At night, I’m at my treacherous, self-sabotaging brain’s mercy. Dreams are limitless realms of possibility, but all I’d been able to imagine was Sarah. Sarah’s hazel eyes that warmed my heart but I also teased her about being only second in cliché-ness to some icy-blue eyed protagonist in a shitty romance novela. Sarah’s almost violent snort that awakened whenever I told a bad joke. Sarah’s apologies when I leaned my head on her shoulder because she was “all bones, no meat” to which I’d sometimes respond by squeezing her boob and wiggling my eyebrows. Sarah’s right, pale hand, marked by three round cigarette burn scars that I’d kiss and I’d kiss again and again until we were both on fire. Sarah curled up on the front porch in that dumb, gray, over-sized Snuggie knock-off while she smoked, and we watched the snow falling, shining in the orange glow of street lights. Sarah saying that she loves me. Sarah shouting that she LOVES me. Sarah crying that Monday night, twenty-three days ago, when she whispered for one last time that she loved me.
“Dreams are useful reminders,” Bà says, breaking me from my reverie by taking my hand in hers again, “They remind of what’s lost and what’s yet to come.”
“That’s not helping.” I sniffle loudly and pull out three more tissues in quick succession. The pile of white, snotty wads of paper beside me is ever-growing.
“Khánh, if you’re strong enough to continue loving her, then you’re strong enough to let her go. Life is too short, pumpkin. Too short to hang onto pain. You’ll grow from this, and she will too. Save your tears for when I die.” She uses “em.” She knows. I’d be much happier about this, under different circumstances.
I lay down and rest my head on Bà’s lap, my legs cramped up against the end of the couch. “What if I don’t want to let her go? I don’t want to stop loving her.”
Bà laughs quietly and gives my head two solid pats before resting her hand right above my ear. “Then you’re strong, and you’re also an idiot. But we both knew that already.”
We sit in silence. The material of Bà’s gray sweats is itchy against my cheek. I have no idea how she wears that all day. She turns the television back on. I don’t remember what the news segment was about, only that I wish in that moment that I could pull off a plum blazer like the one the lady wore and get away with chopping off all of my hair.
Bà dangles a piece of grapefruit above my lips. I open.
It’s a little bitter and sour enough to burn the small cut on my lip, none of which I could tell by smell alone, but the sweetness of it all brings me back to earth, and I begin to breathe more softly. I fall asleep to the sound of her knife squeaking and scratching against the rind of another grapefruit, the smell overpowering everything. I can no longer taste my tears.