Matador Review

A Quarterly Missive of Alternative Concern

kimarlee nguyen

a short reminder of how history works


[An inventory: part 1]

- two (2) short-sleeved button up white blouses, school-issued

- one (1) light blue pleated skirt, knee length (for the summer months), school-issued

- one (1) ankle length pleated skirt (for the rainy season), school-issued

- four (4) cotton sarongs, green, orange, red, grey, speckled by the sun

- three (3) kramas, all in shades of blue, darker blue and darkest blue

- one (1) pair of rubber-soled flip-flops, the right side with a small hole at the heel from the time she raced a boy (whose name she can't remember, not even today)

- one (1) pair of gold-studded earrings that she hid in the spine of her Khmer-French dictionary

- one (1) Khmer-French dictionary with a picture of Ma and Ba wedged in between pages 77 & 78


[what she said]

            When they came for her, she was busy packing a suitcase, something Ma told her to do, but like all girls who were straddling the line between teenager and adult, she didn't think her Ma knew anything and waited until the square of light from the window was shadowed by the approaching iron-toed boots and hunched shoulders. She knew what little time she had left—already the air smelled like gunpowder and of soil far away from the capital city. Even the goddamn parrot, the one Ba brought her for her birthday, was quiet, a sign of impending doom. She knew that perhaps this house, the one she often hated with its deceptive stature—three floors separated by winding staircases that negated the small living rooms—would never be inhabited again by her family. Though Ma was right next to her, kneeling on the mat, she knew that Ma, the one with the calm smile and the elaborate mid-week dinners, was gone since the time they first came to take Ba away to a place everyone whispered about.

            "Daughter—" Ma said, tugging at the edge of her blouse sleeve, "they're—"

            "I know, Ma." She was sixteen now. Her birthday was yesterday; no Ba, no brothers and now, today, as the soldiers stormed into the house, she felt the weight in her body disappear, her eyes widening with the feeling of almost anticipation. Even in the face of so many angry eyes, she could not help but giggle.

            All last year and the better part of this year too, everything weighed down on her, making a mess of her hair, tangled deep in the space between her head and her neck and cutting off her breath every time she talked.

            Now, even in the face of so many bitter faces, she took Ma's hand as she slammed the case of her suitcase shut, no more waiting.

            They took her so quickly she did not have time to tell Ma that everything will be ok.


[An inventory: part 2]

- sarongs drying on the line outside the kitchen window

- cooking fish and char grilled vegetables

- incense so heavy, nearly choking her

- salors simmering over the open stove, bits of fire snapping into the air

- pouring water from the well into a pot of rice, swirling and swirling the grains, emptying the water into the chicken pen

- she did not know how to pack hope and for a long time, she had none



            One day when words weren't repeated anymore just to make sure voices worked and the words weren't all jumbled up in everyone else's mouth and the suitcases were pulled down only occasionally to visit but never to stay forever and that's the closest any of them came to calling here their home, a little girl asked her father, Ba, what's there, over the sea?

            He shook his head, nothing, nothing's there.

            They walked next to each other, hand in hand down a stretch of sand and he said, and so is everything else.

Kimarlee Nguyen was born and raised in Revere, Massachusetts, and received her BA in English from Vassar College. A full-time English teacher at the Brooklyn Latin School, she recently received her MFA in creative writing from Long Island University Brooklyn. She was a participant in the 2014 Cullman Center Institute for Teachers and is a 2017 recipient of the Teacher and Librarian Scholarship to the Key West Literary Seminar. Her fiction has previously appeared in Drunken Boat, Hyphen, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, The Adroit Journal, Day One, PANK and is forthcoming in the Opiate and an anthology published by Third Woman Press.