Last Updated on January 6, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1319
Mrs. Khanh has been married to her husband, the professor, for four decades. He has recently been diagnosed with an illness, likely Alzheimer’s disease, that is stealing his memory a little more with each day that passes. When the story opens, the couple sit at a wedding, and the professor sits staring at the notes he has written on his palms so that he can properly congratulate the new married couple. At this wedding, the professor calls his wife by the wrong name: Yen. Mrs. Khanh has no idea who Yen could be. The professor asks his wife to dance, recalling that “Yen” always wanted to dance when she heard the song that happens to be playing at the wedding. Mrs. Khanh doesn’t make a scene and simply declines the request to dance.
The following morning, the professor makes notes about his odd behavior during the wedding in a notebook, which he keeps in order to keep track of his mental slips. The couple’s oldest son, Vinh, arrives with a painting that he gives to his parents. Mrs. Khanh considers the subject odd, a woman with one green eye and one red eye who has been flattened to resemble a paper doll. Vinh then urges his mother to quit her job as a librarian, telling her that he and his siblings will pay for her missed income as well as a housekeeper and a gardener. Mrs. Khanh tells her son that she actually enjoys gardening and that she is not ready for retirement. Vinh tells his mother that she needs to help his father more.
Mrs. Khanh and the professor begin leaving the house less and less, and eventually she only leaves to go to work and to pick up groceries. Her job gives her a sense of gratification that she doesn’t feel elsewhere; being able to answer questions for patrons makes her feel needed and valuable. When she returns home, her time is increasingly spent taking care of her husband: marking paths from the bedroom to the bathroom, posting signs that remind him to flush the toilet, composing lists that instruct him to put his clothes on in a certain order, and posting schedules of mealtimes. As she does so, her husband becomes more and more of a stranger to her. One day, he presents her with a red rose, a gesture he has never made in all their years of marriage. When she asks him what her name is, he replies, “Yen, of course.” A bit later, he doesn’t recall purchasing the rose at all. She decides to add her own notes to his book of mistakes, commenting that he called her by the wrong name, Yen, and that “this mistake must not be repeated.”
In the following days, the professor calls his wife Yen with increasing frequency. Mrs. Khanh cannot determine whether Yen is a fantasy her husband has conjured up or was perhaps a fellow student during his graduate years in Saigon. When she finds him scrubbing his pants and underwear one day, he yells at her, which he has also never done before. They have endured many difficult times together, including their first years in Southern California, when they lived on government housing assistance and food stamps. They also endured days at sea with their children, and even in their terror that they would never see land again, the professor had never yelled at her.
Mrs. Khanh begins to worry that her husband will call her Yen in front of their acquaintances or children, so she answers the phone less frequently and eventually turns off the ringer so that he won’t answer callers.
Eventually, the professor loses his ability to read books, and Mrs. Khanh resigns herself to reading aloud to him, even though she has no interest whatsoever in the topics of the books that interest him. Sometimes, her husband stops her as she reads to interrupt with a memory. One evening, her husband references an evening with Yen spent in Dalat, where he had once gone for a conference...
(The entire section contains 1319 words.)
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