On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous

by Ocean Vuong

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Part 2, Section 2

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Last Updated on July 4, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1307

Little Dog describes his first memory of his parents: in a yellow kitchen in Hartford, his mother's nose running and his grandmother screaming. Lan ran to the balcony and shouted in Vietnamese that Little Dog's father was killing Rose. Ambulances approached, and Little Dog's father tried to bribe the police as if he were still in Saigon. He was taken away, while Rose was taken into an ambulance on a stretcher.

Little Dog watched while Trevor aimed his gun at a row of paint cans. This was the boys' Saturday night activity. They smoked a joint sprinkled with crushed OxyContin.

A week after their first attempt at sex, the boys slept together again. Little Dog performed oral sex on Trevor, feeling that "submission is a kind of power." Later, Trevor asked Little Dog to take control instead in one of their sexual encounters, but he then retreated in fear, saying that he didn't want to "feel like a girl." Little Dog was ashamed, feeling that this was how Trevor thought of him; Trevor noticed his expression and apologized, but Little Dog was disappointed to find that the unspoken rules of gendered existence had been so internalized by Trevor.

One night when he was still too young to read chapter books, Little Dog ran away from home. His grandmother followed him to his hiding place in the park and explained that his mother loved him but was "not normal." She told Little Dog that there was no reason to be scared.

Another night, Trevor and Little Dog rode their bikes down Main Street. Trevor mimicked a scene from Titanic, holding out both arms as the bicycle descended: "I'm flying, Jack!" The pair stopped at a gas station for sandwiches, which they ate on the stoop of a dentist's office. A father passed with young children, and the two discussed whether they would still know each other when they were a hundred.

Another memory: a younger Little Dog hears Chopin coming through his bedroom wall. His mother's room is full of broken records; Rose herself is at the bottom of the garden in her torn nightgown, smoking. Little Dog tells her that he hates her, but she does not even flinch. He tells her she's a monster; then, when she does not react, he realizes she isn't there at all. This is only a dream, and he is alone in the yard.

Little Dog told his mother the truth about himself on a "greyish Sunday." He told her that he didn't like girls, not wanting to use the Vietnamese word, which conflated homosexuality with pedophilia. After he clarified that he liked boys, she fell silent before asking, "Are you going to wear a dress now?" and then telling Little Dog that he would be killed for this. She did not want him to leave the house but asked when his feelings for boys had begun, saying that he had been "healthy" when he was born.

Little Dog recalls that when he was six, he attended school in a refurbished Lutheran church. One lunchtime, he sat next to a boy named Gramoz who offered him a pizza bagel. After this, Little Dog followed Gramoz everywhere, but he was still unable to speak English. He wanted to be close to Gramoz, but eventually, the boy told him he was a "freak" and asked him to stop following him.

After he confessed to his mother, Rose told Little Dog her own secret: she had been pregnant with a son before him but had been forced to abort him. Circumstances had been dire; there had been...

(This entire section contains 1307 words.)

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nothing to eat. Rose had been given a bottle of pills; when these did not work, she had been forced to go to the hospital to have the baby "scraped" out of her. Later, she said, her aborted child came to visit her in a dream, as if to see what she looked like. She had been seventeen.

Little Dog remembers that, after the incident with Gramoz and the pizza bagel, Rose bought him his first bicycle. It had been pink, simply because the pink bike was the cheapest one, but a boy took issue with this, flipping Little Dog off his bicycle and scratching at the paint. Rose repaired the damage with nail varnish. This was when Little Dog learned how dangerous a symbol, or a color, could be.

In Vietnam around this time, a young boy was attacked with acid because he was gay. Forty-nine people were killed, more recently, in Orlando in a gay club. Little Dog recognizes that survival is not always easy for those who are considered to be different. He wonders whether it is true that homosexuality is narcissistic and that gay men are seeking a mirror of themselves.

At the end of the confessional conversation, Rose was overcome by nausea and threw up, Little Dog rubbing her back. Little Dog thought about what he hadn't confessed: that a few weeks earlier, he had in fact taken a dress from his mother and danced in it in the barn in front of Trevor. 

One evening after this, Trevor and Little Dog sat together in the mobile home, laughing over texts they were sending to a boy in Windsor they'd never met. Trevor's father, drunk, became irritable, believing the boys were laughing at him. He said that he "see[s] things," in a warning tone. He referred to Little Dog as a "China boy" and said that his brother, Trevor's uncle, had burned up four Vietnamese boys in a ditch during the war.

Trevor's reaction was to tell his father that he "smell[s] like shit," and when challenged, asked what his father planned to do to him for his backtalk: "Make me burn." However, this had the opposite effect to what Little Dog was expecting; Trevor's father was pleased with Trevor's temper, believing it proved that he was a warrior and could protect himself.

The boys left on their bikes, riding down the Connecticut River. Cycling this route, all the different types of people in the city could be encountered. They passed the tenement building on New Britain Avenue where Little Dog and his mother had once lived when he owned the pink bike. But the building itself had been partially torn down, replaced by a YMCA.

They cycled past places where friends had overdosed, where babies cried in the arms of their impoverished parents; past Mozzicato's where Little Dog had his first cannoli, all the way to East Hartford. Eventually, they reached the Coca-Cola bottling plant and pushed beyond it into the suburbs and up to the top of a hill in the quiet part of town. 

The two boys sat down and smoked together, looking down at Hartford from above. For a moment, it appeared to "throb" and "shimmer" to them both.

Little Dog lists a series of fragmented memories of Trevor in the style of a prose poem: the scar on his neck, the smell of him and his preference for Burger King. In the poem, Little Dog describes how Trevor would load his shotgun; how he knocked on the window of Little Dog's room in the small hours of the morning and then cried.

To Little Dog, Trevor felt "real," but Trevor was afraid of himself, totaling a truck one night because he was drunk on vodka. For two months, he was silent; then he texted Little Dog with the word "plz." At sixteen, he ran from his father and Little Dog found him shivering under a metal slide in the park, joining him there in an attempt to warm him up. Eventually, the pair of them fall asleep beneath the slide, and Little Dog imagines himself listening to the sound "buried deep in Trevor's chest." He listened, he says, "like an animal learning how to speak."


Part 2, Section 1


Part 3, Section 1