On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous
- Ocean Vuong
- My last highlight
- Number of highlights
You once told me that the human eye is god’s loneliest creation. How so much of the world passes through the pupil and still it holds nothing. The eye, alone in its socket, doesn’t even know there’s another one, just like it, an inch away, just as hungry, as empty. Opening the front door to the first snowfall of my life, you whispered, “Look.”
What happened was that I was a boy once and bruiseless. I was eight when I stood in the one-bedroom apartment in Hartford staring at Grandma Lan’s sleeping face. Despite being your mother, she is nothing like you; her skin three shades darker, the color of dirt after a rainstorm, spread over a skeletal face whose eyes shone like chipped glass.
“Hey.” The jowlboy leaned in, his vinegar mouth on the side of my cheek. “Don’t you ever say nothin’? Don’t you speak English?” He grabbed my shoulder and spun me to face him. “Look at me when I’m talking to you.” He was only nine but had already mastered the dialect of damaged American fathers.
The most common English word spoken in the nail salon was sorry. It was the one refrain for what it meant to work in the service of beauty.
I remember it all because how can you forget anything about the day you first found yourself beautiful?
The next morning, in the kitchen, I watched as you poured the milk into a glass tall as my head. “Drink,” you said, your lips pouted with pride. “This is American milk so you’re gonna grow a lot. No doubt about it.” I drank so much of that cold milk it grew tasteless on my numbed tongue. Each morning after that, we’d repeat this ritual: the milk poured with a thick white braid, I’d drink it down, gulping, making sure you could see, both of us hoping the whiteness vanishing into me would make more of a yellow boy.
I was once foolish enough to believe knowledge would clarify, but some things are so gauzed behind layers of syntax and semantics, behind days and hours, names forgotten, salvaged and shed, that simply knowing the wound exists does nothing to reveal it. I don’t know what I’m saying. I guess what I mean is that sometimes I don’t know what or who we are. Days I feel like a human being, while other days I feel more like a sound. I touch the world not as myself but as an echo of who I was. Can you hear me yet? Can you read me?
“Do you think we’ll still hang out when we’re a hundred?” I said without thinking.
I wanted to cry but did not yet know how to in English.
The bus’s lights make it feel like a dentist’s office gliding through the wet streets. A woman behind me coughs fitfully between bursts of Haitian-inflected French.
There was this woman named Marsha down the street. She was overweight and had hair like a rancher’s widow, a kind of mullet cut with thick bangs. She would go door-to-door, hobbling on her bad leg, gathering signatures for a petition to put up stop signs in the neighborhood.
He laughed, the fake one you use to test the thickness of a silence.
I’m sorry I keep saying How are you? when I really mean Are you happy?