But the beach was free; the beach was for everyone. Huong wanted a day with her daughter, amid the languishing palms and the baking sand. A storybook day, the kind Ann used to read about in her picture books. She felt Ann was growing apart from her lately, her babyish features lengthening, the shadow of adulthood flickering across her brow. It was happening too fast.
But of course, Minh had decided to join them, and how could Huong say no, after everything her mother had done for them?
Then there was the fuss over the bathing suit. Ann wanted to wear her old orange suit, the neon one-piece with black piping, rubbed raw at the bottom from scraping herself along the concrete steps of the public pool, but Huong had gotten her a new one as a gift, pink and ruffled, fit for a princess. More expensive than she could afford, really. But Ann's brows had lowered when she held the suit. She did not consider herself a pink girl. Minh had finally stepped in, telling Huong that life was too short to fight over bathing suits. That's how it always went at the Banyan House. Minh decided what was worth caring about.
At the beach, Ann coughed, then found a stick. She wrote her name. She drew a bird in the sand. Huong noticed that it was a surprisingly good drawing for a kid—she'd captured the midmotion rise of the wings. Then Ann wrote her mother's and grandmother's names in a row. Their whole family, a chain in the sand. The wind blew over the uneven letters.
"Can I swim?" Ann asked.
Huong's breath caught. The ocean. So beautiful and unpredictable. It reminded her, in some ways, of Ann's father. In her mind, she saw the flash of an ashtray flying through the air. A muslin blanket falling too rapidly to the ground. There was no safety in the ocean, or in love. She wanted to keep her daughter on land. Plus, Ann didn't really swim. None of them did. They only waded in gingerly, hoping that gravity and common sense could keep their feet tucked into the undulating seafloor.
"No, con, the water is poisoned," Minh answered, saving Huong from having to reply.
"How do you know?" Ann asked.
"Just wait. The fish will start to wash up on the shore. Their rot will stink it up. We're lucky we got here before the tide got really bad."
"Ew," Ann squealed, delighted. "Rotting fish here, rotting fish there, rotting fish everywhere."
Huong hated to admit that sometimes her daughter annoyed her. There was such energy in her, and Huong was so tired.
They sat to eat bánh mì Minh had packed tight in layers of plastic cling wrap. Headcheese and pâté with sticks of carrot and daikon for the adults, and shredded chicken with sweet soy sauce for Ann. In a cleaned-out old yogurt container were thick slices of mango, dripping sweet and sticky. Ann went to feed her leftover crusts to the gulls, laughing as they tossed their heads to catch the missiles she threw at them.
Somewhere after the sandwiches, Huong's mood shifted, and she began to settle into Ann's reflected glee. She smiled at the sight of Ann prancing in the sand, her gangly body silhouetted by the hazy sun behind her. Something about that joy—unselfconscious and spontaneous—whispered a half-cogent sense of familiarity to Huong. Maybe she had once been that girl too.
"It's a nice day," Minh said, placatingly. "This was a good idea." Huong was pleased at the compliment from her mother.
Ann tucked herself on the mat, and Huong, flushed with shyness, said, "Tell me about school, Ann."
And to Huong's surprise, Ann released a flurry of words that reminded Huong of a piñata breaking open, scattering the ground with the choicest sweets. It was nice to sit alongside her daughter, hearing her babble about school and friends, the plot of a chapter book about teenagers abandoned on an island. At the Banyan House, there were so many rooms that sometimes she felt she saw little of her daughter. They could too easily escape into their own corners. Time sifted quickly through her day. At night, before Huong knew it, Ann was asleep, and she was alone again, hearing the odd chime of the grandfather clock, staring at the ornate flowers pressed into the wallpaper.
Nighttime was when she felt most alone.