My English wasn’t always this good. Once, I stood before an impatient pharmacist, touching my son’s throat and saying, “Sick,” and, “Help.” I stuttered in fear buying a bus pass or a sack of oranges. I set a microwave dinner afire on the stovetop because I couldn’t read the four sentences of instructions.
Now I’ve crossed the mountain: I’ve battled my way through night school, learned to understand the swift English of Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien, and bought a dozen used books, the first I’ve ever owned. They wait on a shelf in my son’s room for the day that Gay Htoo is old enough for us to read them together. Some days, when he’s at school, I go in and say the titles aloud for practice: Dracula. A Tale of Two Cities. To Kill a Mockingbird. The Bourne Ultimatum. I buy chicken and pumpkins using crisp, clean consonants. I’m still a foreigner, but at least people don’t revolve their eyes when I speak.
Today there are hundreds of resettled Karen refugees from Burma here in Milwaukee, but you can imagine what life was like for us, the first twenty, sprinkled across the city like the seeds of a careless farmer. Picture me following Derek, our startlingly obese caseworker, through the new apartment, trying to concentrate on his English with all of my mind. Picture me flipping a light switch for the first time and seeing the lamps blossom into electric life. Picture me flinching at the scream of the smoke alarm and the rush of water in the toilet and the wintry blast of the freezer, the coldest air I’d ever felt. My new apartment was full of traps, it seemed.
Derek demonstrated the telephone, the gas oven, and the toilet paper. (Put it only in the toilet, he instructed, never in the trash.) Finally he moved to the door, and his hand engulfed mine like a catfish eating a minnow.
“Congratulations, Naw Me Me,” he said, shaking my hand. “You made it.”
After he left, I held the card with his phone number and read it. I picked up the phone and practiced pointing my finger at the numbers. I sank into the couch with Gay Htoo, but its softness unnerved me, and we moved to the carpet instead.
“When will we see the Statue of Liberty?” he asked me in Karen.
“Say it in English,” I told him, and when his face sank, I added, “Maybe soon.”
For all I knew, it could even have been true.
When we finally, ventured to the supermarket we walked every aisle, marveling. I hefted onions as big as my fist and an eggplant the size of Gay Htoo’s head. I stared at boxes for manicotti noodles, Hamburger Helper, and frozen blueberry waffles, trying to imagine what foods they might contain. We watched carts go by full to the top with potato chips, frozen pizzas, and bottles of juice and soda.
I wanted to try one of everything, but I was still confused by American money and its decimals, and I didn’t know what I could afford. In the end I took two five-pound bags of rice and an orange for Gay Htoo, and I got in line to pay.
“Hello,” I said to the tall boy behind the counter as he dragged my food across the sensor. I held out a pair of bills, careful to touch my left hand to my elbow in respect. “Please, thank you,” I said. He had a faint blond mustache, like the hairs you scrape from a hog before its butchering. It’s not my fault, I wanted to tell him. In my country I could speak just like you. Alone in my apartment I knew hundreds of English words — I could walk through, pointing for Gay Htoo, and say, “Microwave, ceiling fan, electrical socket,” with him repeating after me — but whenever I actually faced a white person, the words faded like ghosts, and all I wanted to do was run.
“Please, thank you,” I said again, pushing the bills toward the boy. Finally he took one. I picked up my rice and my orange, grabbed Gay Htoo’s hand, and hurried toward the sliding doors.
“Miss!” the tall boy called behind me. “Miss, wait!”
I hadn’t paid enough, I feared. I thought of the police, of the stories I’d heard in Thailand of beatings and gropings of the women unlucky enough to be caught outside the refugee camp. Two days in America, I thought, and already I have one foot on the prison wall.
The tall boy caught up to me, his face flushed.
“Jeez, Miss,” he said, “don’t forget your change.” He held out two bills and a handful of silver coins.
“Please, thank you,” I said, taking the money, and I meant it.
After that, I hid in my apartment afraid to leave, afraid to stay, watching the television and eating rice, my son trapped beside me. This is how the Pritchards found us a week later. When I heard the three sharp bangs on the door, I reached for the phone, thinking, Nine-one-one, nine-one-one, as I’d rehearsed so many times, but then a woman called my name.
“Hello?” I called back, gesturing for Gay Htoo to silence the television. “Who, please?”
“I’m Belle Pritchard,” the woman said through the door. “I’m here with my husband, Alex. We’re from the First Lutheran Church?” She said it as a question, as if I was expected to confirm.
“We’re here to help,” a male voice added.
I stood on my toes to look through the peephole and saw two smiling white faces: Belle’s slender and well made-up, and Alex’s bearded and fat as a pineapple. I was relieved. In those days, it shames me to say, I was still terrified of my black neighbors; a friend who’d resettled in Dallas had written to us that it was the dark-skinned Americans you had to be careful of, and seeing the angry slouches of my building’s teenagers, I foolishly believed her.
“Enter, please,” I said to Alex and Belle now, opening the door. I motioned to the couch as they stepped inside. Gay Htoo stood quiet, awed at our first white guests. With her church-mother’s instincts, Belle noticed him immediately.
“And who’s this?” she cried in exaggerated delight, crouching and clapping her hands to her thighs.
Gay Htoo’s eyes went big with fear.
“Please,” I said. “This is my son, Gay Htoo. You are very welcome.” I motioned again to the couch.
“I’m Alex Pritchard,” Alex said. Before I could react, he grabbed my hand and shook.
“Yes,” I said, touching my other hand to my elbow. “Thank you.”
“Hey there, little buddy,” he said, crouching beside his wife to look at Gay Htoo, who now ran to my side and grabbed hold of my longyi.
“Please,” I said, “sit,” finally finding the word, and they did.
Their church was partnered with Derek’s refugee agency, Alex explained; he and Belle had come to see if there was any way they could help me adjust to America. As he talked, I could see Belle assessing my apartment: the carpets littered with rice grains that I couldn’t seem to sweep away; the greasy coffee table where we’d just eaten; the nose-smudged windows where Gay Htoo and I perched to watch our new world of brick, concrete, and streetlamps.
“How do you like Milwaukee?” Alex asked.
“Oh,” I said, “very good city,” as if, had I given any other answer, they would have sent me home.
Belle stood and wandered into my kitchen.
Alex continued asking questions. “Is your apartment satisfactory?”
“Oh,” I said, “very good apartment.”
Belle opened the refrigerator and furrowed her plucked eyebrows. Inside I had four boxes of light bulbs and nothing else; they’d seemed so delicate that I hadn’t known what else to do with them.
“Is there anything we can bring you?” Alex asked. “Anything that you need, or that your son needs?”
Fish paste and curry, I wanted to tell him. Ti-leaf salad and mohinga. A plastic floor mat for eating. Pumpkins and tofu. A job, so I could pay the first installment of my airfare debt. A way to leave my apartment without watching for tripwires. A way for my son to live a better life than his father’s.
“No,” I said. “Everything, very good.”
Then Belle opened a cabinet in the kitchen and gave a shriek. Alex jumped to his feet, but already Belle was shaking her head and trying to make herself laugh.
“Just a roach,” she said. But I knew my cabinets, and I knew that she hadn’t seen just one. Alex moved to Belle, squeezed her shoulder, and gave her a look that even I understood. We’re helping this one whether she likes it or not, his look said, and her look back said, I love you, and then she turned to see me watching them like a beggar outside a wedding feast.
“If it’s OK to ask,” she said, “are you married?”
“Honey,” Alex murmured, but I said quickly, “Oh, yes. Very happy.”
Belle smiled, relieved. “Is your husband still in Burma?”
“He will come,” I said. “Later.”
But Saw Isaac had left with the Karen National Liberation Army five years before, and I had not seen him since.
On their second visit Alex and Belle brought bananas and rice and, though I had no can opener, dozens of cans of vegetables, beans, and fruit. They brought milk, which I dutifully put in my refrigerator, too shy and word-clumsy to explain what I’d learned in the camps: that both Gay Htoo and I were lactose intolerant from our Karen diets. They brought carrots, tomatoes, and asparagus and showed me how to store them in the crisper drawer. They brought lamps for my apartment’s shadowed corners, a vacuum for the carpets, and a gorilla doll for Gay Htoo, which he carried in his arms for the rest of the afternoon, beating his chest and roaring as Alex had taught him.
“This is too much,” I said with every bag they opened. “No, no, too much!” But I didn’t mean it, and they knew. It was like Water Festival and Christmas combined, and before the afternoon was out, I had more possessions than ever before in my life.
“Welcome to America,” Alex said, and he laughed. It was a laugh with many feelings, I think: The pleasure of helping another, because Alex had a heart to match his stomach. Amused surprise, that I might think this was a real sacrifice. (I didn’t, really, though I will always be grateful for their help.) Embarrassment, that they had so much, and I so little. And, for the same reason, pride.
On Sunday they drove Gay Htoo and me to their church, a stone castle floating in a lake of grass. How silly I felt, in my hand-sewn longyi with no thanaka for my cheeks, beside these beautiful ladies with shoes that matched their dresses and handbags that matched their shoes. How small I felt beside these men in their broad suits and ties. How poor I felt before the church’s thick carpets and arching chapel, its stained glass and bright banners and bulging organ. I thought of the church in Kah Law Ghaw, with its bamboo walls and a blue plastic tarp for a roof, the way we’d celebrated after our church had raised the money — about five American dollars — to buy that tarp. I thought of the day a British camp volunteer, a young woman who had scandalized our English class by teaching in sleeveless shirts, tried to explain the phrase “on holiday.”
“A trip,” she told the class. “You travel, to see something new, to have an adventure. If you could go on holiday, where would you go?”
“I want return my village,” a man answered, and several people nodded.
“No, no,” the volunteer said. “Somewhere new. Like Angkor Wat, or the Grand Canyon. Someplace you want to visit for fun.”
I put up my hand.
“Like you visit refugee camp?” I asked.
“No,” she said, reddening, “I’m here to help.”
And at that moment I hated her, this lovely woman who’d left her job and her family to bring us textbooks and knowledge but then spent more in a week on alcohol than I would see in four years. That night I prayed to God to take my envy from me, and for penance I bought the woman a package of cookies I couldn’t afford. Still the anger lingered, and that day with the Pritchards it followed me even into the house of my God.
We Karen have no family names, but when I applied for Gay Htoo’s Social Security card, the rushed clerk listed him as “Htoo, Gay.” (If only this man had warned me what this name would mean for my son’s future: the taunts and shoves, the scrapes and bruises, the afternoons of him weeping in his room, until at last he declared his new first name to be Greg.) So when the first letter came from the school, it came addressed to “the parents of Htoo, Gay.”
I sat for hours with the letter and my Karen-English dictionary, trying to work it out: immunizations, enrollment papers, school supplies. As Gay Htoo watched cartoons beside me, I parsed phrases like “three-ring binder” and “safety scissors” and “dry-erase markers,” but though I could find each word, they added up to nothing. I counted the remainder of our resettlement money, but I had no idea what these items would cost.
On the television two American boys played joyously with a robot that fired plastic rockets from its hands. If only Gay Htoo could be one of these boys, I thought. I considered calling Alex and Belle, as they’d so often urged me to do, but they came less often now, and always in a rush, dropping gifts of groceries or toys on the counter and stopping only a moment for conversation. Belle would ask me about our food, and Alex would ask me about the plumbing, but even as I stammered my answers, blushing with shame at my English and with pleasure from their company, their eyes drifted back to the door, perhaps fixing on their next hurried good deed.
So in the end I was a coward: I left the letter on the table and didn’t call. Two days passed, and then four. I caught myself waiting at the window and listening for footsteps in the hall, but all I heard was the thrum of the ceiling fan and the slide whistle of Gay Htoo’s cartoons. When we’d first come to Milwaukee, he’d asked me every day to go play outside, missing the open spaces of the camp, but I was too afraid of murderers and police. Finally he’d stopped asking, and now we spent our days playing with his building blocks or practicing English but more often sitting side by side, watching cartoons, movies, and talk shows we barely understood and waiting for Belle and Alex to knock.
When I finally heard the bang at the door, I was frying pork for lunch. I ran from the kitchen without even turning off the stove.
“Please,” I said, opening the door to Alex and Belle, “come in, come in.”
But Belle smiled and shook her head. “We just wanted to drop off a few more things the congregation gave,” she said, handing me a paper sack. (Board games and military dolls, I discovered later.) “We have to run.”
The apartment filled with the smell of scorching chilies. I thought of the school’s letter and tried to insist, but in the end it was Gay Htoo who saved us, bounding up behind me shouting, “Hello, hello, hello!” and giving his gorilla roar. Alex smiled, and Belle relented. They stepped into our kitchen, where I turned off the burner too late to save our lunch.
“Mmmm, smells good in here,” Belle said.
Alex put a sack of children’s clothes down on the table, and then, as I’d planned, he saw the letter.
“Uh-oh,” he said to Gay Htoo. “Looks like somebody’s starting school.”
Belle looked over her husband’s shoulder. “They ask for more every year, don’t they?”
“Please,” I asked, “what is ‘three-ring binder’?”
Alex smiled, picked up the letter, and folded it. “Let us take care of it,” he said, and I felt a rush of guilt for how easily my plan had worked.
“No,” I said, “I will pay. But I do not understand all —”
“Nope,” Alex said. “Taken care of,” and he tucked the paper away into his pocket.
School was two weeks away, and Gay Htoo and I practiced the ten-block walk each morning, past the check-cashing shops and the gas station and the barred windows of our neighbors, down through the park with its basketball hoops and creaking swing sets, along the ragged sidewalks and up to the gate that would separate me from my son for the first time in his life. Derek had arranged it so that I would start work the same day as Gay Htoo’s schooling — half shifts sorting laundry at a downtown hotel. Otherwise I think I would have stood on that sidewalk all day, watching for a glimpse of him in the windows.
“I don’t want to go, Mommy,” he said, but I saw the way he brightened at the sight of the playground’s plastic castles, and I knew he was only telling me what I wanted to hear.
“You must be brave like your father,” I told him mechanically, and then, as an afterthought, “Say it in English.” And to my surprise, he did. He would be a great scholar, I told him, a headmaster or a professor, and on our way home I let him play on the swings.
Days passed with no word from the Pritchards, and each night I checked the calendar and fidgeted the sleeve of my blouse. Gay Htoo and I walked the five miles for Sunday worship, but I didn’t see them in their usual pew; they had gone to the early service, one of their friends told me. Belle called the next day to say Alex would come that evening with the school supplies, but then she called two hours later to say they’d forgotten their daughter’s tae kwon do lesson and asked if Alex could come Friday instead.
“Yes, very good,” I said. “Thank you.” When I marked the day on my calendar, I saw it was only three days before Gay Htoo’s school began.
On Friday we didn’t take our walk to the school because I didn’t dare to leave the apartment for fear of missing Alex. I turned down the volume of Gay Htoo’s cartoons, and we tried to play Chutes and Ladders on the living-room carpet. Though we couldn’t understand all the rules, Gay Htoo enjoyed hopping the cardboard children from square to square, and we raced them from one end to the next. At the slightest sound from the hallway I rushed to the peephole. Six o’clock passed and then seven. We ate one of Belle’s casseroles for dinner, as if this would summon her and Alex’s presence, but the macaroni was bland and soggy, and still no one appeared. At 8:00 I put the card with their cellphone numbers by the phone, and at 8:30 I picked the phone up and put it to my ear, just to hear its buzz.
I put Gay Htoo to bed and stepped to the window, but the city was dark now, the streetlights of our block flickering or broken, and I saw no one. They have forgotten me, I thought. With all their riches and all their promises of help, they had forgotten me. I hefted the phone’s receiver in my hand and listened to the dial tone until a woman’s voice scolded me into hanging up. Then I thought of the fences of the refugee camps, the plans I had made there for my son. I have been a modest Karen long enough, I told myself, and I lifted the receiver again and pressed the numbers to make the first phone call of my life.
Alex’s recorded voice fooled me for several moments. I hung up, and then immediately regretted it. Was this rude, I wondered, to call without leaving a message? I considered calling him again, but instead I called Belle. She didn’t answer either. At last, with no other ideas, I called the church. The receptionist, Carol, was still there.
“Hello,” I said. “Is Alex Pritchard there, please?”
“Oh, Naw Me Me,” Carol said, her voice cracking. Behind her I could hear the soft chirrup of voices and another ringing phone. “You’d better turn on the television.”
“What number?” I asked, meaning, What channel?
“Sweetie,” she said, “it’s everywhere.”
Alex was dead. I watched the news until 2 AM, but still I didn’t understand why. They showed a yearbook photo of a boy and a photo of a gun. They showed weeping neighbors and witnesses and photos of the dead (seven of them at first, though later the total was raised to eight). They showed a hundred police cars and a video-rental store festooned in yellow tape, but still I couldn’t connect them into an explanation. It was only when I stopped listening for words and started watching the frightened eyes of the reporters that I understood: they couldn’t explain, either, not in any way that mattered.
I thought of the day the Burmese soldiers shot my mother, the way her body fell like a sack of rice. I thought of the artillery shells that landed around us as we fled, smashing houses like eggs. I thought of the land mine that tore Saw Htoo Kyaw’s leg off, and the bullet that opened Naw Wah Paw’s forehead and the way her body ran for three more steps before spinning to the ground. I thought of crouching in the ferns, breast-feeding Gay Htoo to keep him silent as I watched the soldiers rape Naw Mary and cleave her head from her body. I was so frightened that the urine ran freely down my legs, but even then I made no noise, no noise at all.
I thought of Alex, and I hoped it had been quick.
Gay Htoo and I set out the next morning to see for ourselves the growing mound of flowers we’d seen on the television — I with a bag of apples and my city map, and Gay Htoo with his gorilla. I watched for the numbered signs, and we took one bus and then another, looking out the window as the apartments grew into houses and the sidewalks turned into lawns and the black faces changed to white. Not since the day we’d come to Milwaukee had we seen so much of the city at once, and Gay Htoo knelt on the seat with his hands to the window, naming the objects we passed in Karen and then, when he could, in English. In my pocket, just in case, I carried the caseworker Derek’s phone number, but I was determined not to call.
I didn’t need to. We could see it from the bus: the idle police cars, the television cameras, the somber men and women, the flowers spreading before the yellow police tape as in a mountain field. We stepped off the bus, and I led Gay Htoo along the display. We saw mums, roses, and gladioluses, the air thick with their smell. We saw pictures of the dead, clipped from newspapers and websites. We saw signs from churches and elementary schools and a card from the staff of the Whitefish Bay Taco Bell. We saw a wreath from a university, a teddy bear clutching a heart the size of its chest, and a child’s drawing of angels rising from the video shop’s sliding doors. And though I carried a heavy sorrow in my heart, I felt envy there as well, that this city could afford such luxury for its victims, while the dead of my village were left unburned, a feast for worms and wild pigs.
“Why is Alex there?” Gay Htoo asked me, pointing to his picture.
In my daze I hadn’t known how to explain. “Because he passed away,” I tried. “He’s with God now, so he can’t come to visit us anymore.”
Gay Htoo considered this for a long time, looking at the flowers and candles.
“Like my father?” he finally asked.
“Yes,” I said. “Like your father.”
I woke from a dream of my husband’s touch to a soft knocking at my front door. As always my first thought was to run, but in a moment I realized where I was and who it must be. I still had my refugee habit of sleeping fully dressed, so I slid my arm from beneath Gay Htoo, slipped from the bed, and went to the door.
“I’m sorry to come by so late,” Belle said, trying to smile. With her face stripped of makeup, she looked old enough to be my mother. I wanted to take her in my arms, but I didn’t know what American grief would allow. “I couldn’t sleep. I had this.” She opened a plastic bag to show me pencils, markers, scissors, a three-ring binder.
“Please,” I said, “come in.” I led her to my kitchen and pulled out a chair, glancing at a clock: 3 AM.
“The girls are asleep,” she told me, and I was surprised to smell cigarettes on her. “My sisters are with them. But they just . . .” Her sentence dropped away, and she sat. So this is what it took for her to come to a refugee for friendship, a small, bitter part of me thought. But then I remembered the school supplies, and I pictured her tossing alone in bed without the warmth of Alex’s bulk beside her, and I didn’t care what had brought her. I sat beside her and enwrapped her hands in my own.
“I’d left the girls’ DVDs in the car,” she said. “I called him at work and asked him to drop them at the store.” And then she fell back into silence, and we sat hand in hand, the clock ticking above us, until I spoke.
“I have lost many people,” I told her. “In my family and in my village. It is never easy. But the husband, this is the most difficult.” The English words rose one after another to my lips, unafraid, the way I spoke in my dreams. “Alex was a good man,” I said. “He helped us, and he helped many others. When you are good, my mother said, your good lives on after you die.”
Belle gripped my hands tighter, and though I could feel the bite of her fingernails, still I didn’t let go.
“We survived,” I told her. “You will also.”
Belle turned her head, and I worried that I’d offended her, but still she clutched me, and at last I saw the tears dripping from her face.
“I should get back,” she said. “The girls might wake up.” But she didn’t move her hands, and this is how we sat as she told me about Jamie’s boy trouble and Zoë’s gymnastics and the day that Alex drove three hundred miles to propose to her and three hundred miles back to school the same night, and I told her of my husband, Saw Isaac, and his family’s fruit orchards and his birthmarked cheek and the hymns we sang beside each other in church, until Gay Htoo woke to the breaking dawn and the sound of our voices and emerged sleepily from the bedroom. Belle and I laughed with insomniac delirium and showered him in school supplies and then lifted him to the ceiling, my glorious son, one day from the start of his American schooling, and he looked down upon us as proudly and as somberly as a king.