The Boat People | A&E: Poetry Picks | Indy Week
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The Boat People 

I.
The Cambodian shoreline turned into afterthought: Pol Pot was becoming a name again: just another name we had not learned to handle. I fastened Sisowath to my torso: hordes pushed, reeked of pain. He writhed against the sweat-tinged shirt caked to my ribcage: he wanted to be back in a belly. Where was his father, Sambath? our son hurt: it hurt me that he would grow up to ask, if we survived: the ocean chewed salt through our skin: if we survived, how could the alkaline hole heal? The moon burned in the sky's hollow flask.

II.
At the immigration station, Sisowath and I looked through the same eye: curious: fearful: determined: relieved: beckoning: there were formal men reckoning us. Their English ran quick as their documents and ink stamps: they would pick which ones to remain, which ones to return. I hovered like a colossus between two continents: back and forth: how I did yearn to stride there forever: the bronze sheen of my face homeward to each sun. They told Sisowath and me to stay: I sighed, signed my English name as Samnang had taught me, rode a train to Los Angeles: nowhere filled my mind.

III.
Some comfort: the cockroaches seemed smaller at the Vista: the Mexican landlord Rodriguez resembled my long deceased shoemaking brother: Sisowath grew plumper, taller on the rice Domnang poured into our closet feedbag. Mr. Ching let me take Sisowath to his store: the local Asian market where I bagged groceries for his family. Mrs. Ching looked after Sisowath for me: the Chings had no children: they had lost two to war: their cheeks sagged like pouches of rice: they craved laughter. Mrs. Ching bought Sisowath a teddy bear: love wavered over the market floor: unsteadily.

IV.
Years later, Sisowath finger-painted a tree in kindergarten: called it maple: Ms. Lewis taped it to the front wall: we saw it at Open House: Ms. Lewis dubbed Sisowath bright. When she said it, I thought of Sambath: memories hit hard still: the moon, sometimes, still triggers agony. We stood for the pledge at the assembly: by heart, I knew most of the words: they lit up the bare air, lingered, then drifted away, toward everywhere we had been.

Roger Pao is an intern for the Common Sense Foundation, a progressive public policy think tank in Raleigh.

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