On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous

by Ocean Vuong

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Part 2, Section 1

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Last Updated July 4, 2023.

"Memory is a choice," Rose once said to Little Dog. Little Dog thinks this sounds as if Rose were a god; but if she were, she would have seen her son lying under a bridge with a friend, both of them covered in blood, singing "This Little Light of Mine." Instead, she was across town staring out the window, while Little Dog thought that it felt as if a bullet had lodged inside him. Lying under the overpass, Little Dog asked his friend, Trev, to tell him a secret; when Trev asked him to go first, Little Dog confessed that he was no longer afraid of dying.

Little Dog ruminates on Rose's work-roughened hands and the fact that the children of many Vietnamese women are essentially raised in nail salons, which serve as classrooms, kitchens, and community centers. Many try to secure better jobs but ultimately return to the nail salon, the only job they can find, even though it offers no salaries, healthcare, or contracts.

Little Dog remembers a Sunday in the salon when he was ten years old. Rose opened and ran the salon on Sundays. An older lady came in for a pedicure, but when Rose tried to maneuver her feet into the water, the woman removed the lower part of her right leg—a prosthesis.

Without hesitation, Rose performed a pedicure on the one good foot and then, when asked, addressed the phantom place where the other foot once was. The woman said she could feel the touch there, too, and tipped Rose a hundred dollars. Afterward, Little Dog rubbed his mother's back as he had done many times before, until she fell asleep, surprised all over again by how much darker his skin was than hers.

When Little Dog was fourteen, he got a job on a tobacco farm near Hartford but told his mother he was working at a church on the outskirts of town instead. This was 2003. Rose was beginning to suffer frequent nightmares and worried about how to save for a "secret bunker."

Little Dog rode his bike out to the tobacco farm, where he found a row of Spanish-speaking workers, most from Mexico and Central America. The farm was run by Mr. Buford, a tall white man who advised Little Dog to simply do what Manny, the crew leader, dictated. The work entailed cutting down the tobacco crop with machetes, and when the tractors were full, they would be driven back to the barns to be stored. Little Dog learned to speak in gestures to those he worked with, even when they shared no verbal language.

In the nail salon, the word "sorry" was the one most often heard, as workers apologized continually, hoping to remind the customers that they existed; hoping for a tip. In the tobacco fields, the same was true. All the men were working for something different—to buy houses for their mothers; to send their children to university; to fund surgeries and healthcare. They needed to say "sorry" in order to keep their jobs and achieve their goals.

"Sorry" was the first thing Little Dog said to Trevor, too, when they met. Trevor was Burford's grandson and taught Little Dog that "there was something even more brutal and total than work—want."

Little Dog found Trevor again in the barn after work and admired his face and lips. He felt that Trevor had been watching him earlier while he worked and wondered why, having always felt invisible. Trevor told Little Dog that this tobacco crop was low-grade, then admitted that he hated his father. Little Dog averred that...

(This entire section contains 1140 words.)

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he hated his father, too, and the pair bonded over this. 

Little Dog remembers that, at the age of six, his mother locked him in the basement in the dark for wetting his bed. He remembers thinking that his superpower was "to make a dark even darker than what's around me." He remembers another moment, later, when Rose had come home after overtime at the clock factory to find Little Dog playing with toy soldiers. She hit Little Dog across the face repeatedly until Lan came to save him. She repaired the damage by rolling a boiled egg over his face, a traditional remedy, at the end of which Little Dog was given the egg to eat.

As the summer progressed, Little Dog and Trevor began to spend a lot of time together after work, talking about everything from school, guns, and their parents to the meaning of life. One day, Little Dog was "sitting shotgun in Trevor's truck" when Trevor revealed that he had marijuana in his glove box, and the pair smoked together until it was dark. They then retired to the barn, lying on the floor together and listening to the radio. A Patriots game was playing, and Trevor was invested immediately, trying to explain the game to Little Dog. Little Dog was conscious of the space between the two boys shrinking until eventually, a sexual encounter took place.

Little Dog remembers sitting in the truck another time with Trevor, the two of them eating double-cheese Whoppers before kissing again. He recalls that he felt "colored in" when Trevor touched him.

Little Dog worked at the farm for two more summers and began seeing Trevor much more often. One day, the family ate eggs with diced tomatoes, Lan watching a rerun of Rugrats and Rose in a good mood, and Little Dog saw his reflection in the mirror and realized he barely recognized himself. He felt he was "driftwood trying to remember what I had broken from to get here."

Trevor and his father lived in a mobile home together. The home was in considerable disrepair, with a poster of Neil Young taped up in the living room. Trevor played a 50 Cent record for Little Dog in his bedroom; Little Dog pretended he had never heard it, simply to allow Trevor to introduce him to it. Together, they sang the hook of the song and then went to bed together. Little Dog had shaved his head in the sink that day, and the prickle of the loose hairs could be felt everywhere. Little Dog was very conscious that his skin was "yellow" and Trevor's was white.

Soon, however, drugs entered the picture in the form of fentanyl and cocaine, and the pair of them destroyed Trevor's father's Chevy pick-up in a drug-fueled accident. This was the evening when the pair of them had run for the railway bridge and lain under it, singing "This Little Light of Mine" while Rose, as Little Dog imagined, stared into the night from her window across town. 

Little Dog remembers that the first time he and Trevor had sex, they had simply imitated what they had seen in pornography, clumsy with their hands; afterward, Trevor had cried.


Part 1, Section 2


Part 2, Section 2