After high school, Laura, Camille, Jeanette, and I got twenty-hour-a-week jobs at the Avalon Mall and devised elaborate plots to maintain long-distance relationships with our boyfriends. Gracie announced that she’d bought a ticket to Saigon.
She only got waitlisted. She hasn’t had a boyfriend since junior year. She’s throwing eighteen years of perfectionist parenting in her mother’s face.
She wants attention.
We gasped, why?
Gracie said, “Because I’ve heard the Vietnamese embrace life.”
We scolded, What about a summer job?
Gracie said, “What about it?”
We cried, But what about COLLEGE?
Gracie shrugged. “It’ll still be there.”
* * *
We told our families, over dinner, washing dishes, during commercials, on our fifteen-minute breaks.
Ho Chi Minh City, insisted one sister, the future policy wonk. The twins chorused So? and a brother said Good for her and smirked. A dad blared, I can’t hear the TV.
Our mothers nodded sagely. She’s read too much Marguerite Duras.
We didn’t know what that meant. But we declared, Gracie’ll be back in three weeks.
Instead, Gracie sent us photos of herself riding a motorbike taxi, shopping at Bến Thành Market, exploring the Presidential Palace, enjoying the water puppets. We returned moderate praise. We had our own bright-blue beach days, orange bonfires, white-water kayaking, red-lipstick stargazing dates. And, we decided, green had never looked good on us.
Then Jeff broke up with Camille, beneath the lime-hued fireworks at Macarthur Park.
Laura, Jeanette, and I rallied around, offering Kleenex, slurs on Jeff’s intellect, The Simpsons DVDs, and Ben and Jerry’s. We crooned consolation. Before anyone had thought to warn/inform Gracie, she sent a conspicuously cute photo of her with a striking young man named Bình.
Camille saw. Flung her phone face-down against the couch.
We suggested a walk.
We strolled up carefully numbered streets, then counted down again.
Gracie discovered Instagram, where she and Bình curated street food collages. Our parents cried, Where do we get that?
We were outside the delivery range for Salem’s new Vietnamese restaurant. Our mothers sighed and called in orders, our older brothers grumbled but located their keys, our little sisters set the tables, our fathers cracked their knuckles in anticipation. Caramelized pork, chicken with lemongrass, shrimp and lotus salads, shaken beef. (We remained confident, however, that Gracie’s funds couldn’t last, that she’d resume the meatloaf grind soon enough.)
We—minus Camille—went out with our boyfriends; we enjoyed movies, the lakeshore, the go-cart track. We said, tonight is everything, un-ironically channeling John Hughes. But something kept tickling the backs of our minds…
Gracie announced that she’d gotten a job. Well—steady work. Bình himself spoke excellent English (a product of business-class parents and YouTube), but he introduced Gracie to friends and relations prepared to pay a native speaker. One even offered a spare bedroom.
One of us—Laura (?) –wondered aloud how anyone but Gracie Allen could still go by such an infantile nickname.
We scoured Target ads for innocuous dorm decorations and fought summer colds. We traipsed through outlet malls, fifteen feet behind our mothers, surreptitiously gleaning the intricate calculus of Midwestern budgeting. We sent nice-but-not-too-eager emails to future roommates. We started, but did not finish, the novels our colleges assigned as icebreakers.
We sent perfunctory messages to Gracie: Glad you’re well. How’s things? Cute photos. Hope we see you before we go.
In August we collected our last piddling mall paychecks, packed stackable crates in our parents’ minivans, took obligatory fixed-smile off-to-college selfies and (except Camille) swore love to our boyfriends. Our fathers said I can’t see out the back window. Our mothers squeezed in extra hugs. Our brothers said, Don’t get raped. Our sisters asked to borrow our sweaters.
Suddenly: another missive from Gracie. She’d gotten a Vietnamese work permit so she could teach at a local language institute. She’d attached a photo of herself and Bình, flashing peace signs.
I glanced toward the minivan, its tires sagging under the weight of the future.
I imagined unpacking the neatly-folded jeans, the crisp notebooks, the washed-and-plastic-re-sheathed Twin XL sheets, the mandatory flip-flops. Returning $300 in still-unopened loot, buying a beater car, hitting the road. Flying to see Gracie.
Finding out what I would do.
A cold drip of perspiration slid down my right side.
We WhatsApp’d each other Well, this is it. We clambered over coolers and settled into backseats, reliable air conditioning kicking in. We squabbled reassuringly over the music. We drove forward past familiar strip malls and gas stations, our road ahead clear.
Linda McMullen is a wife, mother, diplomat, and homesick Wisconsinite. Her short stories and the occasional poem have appeared in over one hundred fifty literary magazines. She received Pushcart and Best of the Net nominations in 2020. She may be found on Twitter: @LindaCMcMullen.