The next of Franco’s breaks back to Twinbrook was in the December of his senior year. After his penultimate finals period, Franco wanted a familiar place to relax in.
And again, he had to bring Seng. Or, well, come to Seng.
Seng got less annoying with his drive to pass the Bar Exam. He graduated law school that May. After failing the exam once in February, he took the preparation seriously. Annette promised to get him work in Terrebonne later, regardless of his school’s middling rank. So he slept in a guest room and took the Bar Exam in Terrebonne that summer, and the results lagged. One by one, other test-takers got theirs back in September. And October. And November at worst. Maybe Seng was that bad and difficult to grade, as nothing came back to him.
Seng got little physical mail in those days, aside from Amazon purchases on Annette’s dime. So when a manilla envelope with his name on it came in with the usual parcels, he rushed to tear it open.
“PASSED! I passed! Take that!” He leapt up in the air for joy. His letter dropped to the ground. “Oh god, if only I could go home and see the look on their faces when they hear that Terrebonne now has a Hmong lawyer.”
“Is it really that significant?” Franco asked.
Seng turned around. “When you’re the bad kind of Asian who drops out of high school and abuses sleeping pills, of course! Just ask my older siblings. Really, everyone in the Thao clan was thrilled to hear that I even went to college.”
Franco didn’t even have to grit his teeth to give praise. “I’m glad you made it,” he said.
“Yeah. I mean, I have to go to the acceptance ceremony, but I need to grab your mum for a celebration now.” And knowing Seng, all it meant was beers and then five more beers.
As if summoned by a spell, Annette peeked into the kitchen. Her brown work apron flopped down.
“Uh, sorry Seng. You’re gonna have to have fun with Franco and Hannah,” she said. “It’s an emergency, okay? I wanted to celebrate with you! I saved up all sorts of money for this moment.”
“It’s in the smaller cookie jar, right?” Seng asked.
She chuckled. “Oh, you’re learning fast, aren’t you? But grab some condoms from the big one if you need them. Not gonna judge.”
What a shame. If his mother had one skill, it was entertaining other perverts and drunkards. And if Franco had a weak spot, it was there. More and more he felt like he couldn’t even entertain Hannah: the second-most boring person he knew.
Seng crossed his arms. “Don’t even bother trying to think for me. We’re going to the capital.”
“That was fast,” Franco said. “And what? Get drunk with every bisexual pervert in the state?”
“Of course! I gotta meet more of my kind. We’re shit out of luck for meeting other Hmong.” He started to head upstairs, to grab a jacket for such a cold night. “Oh, and I’m gonna say hi to Youa and Benji first, at their place. You can Hannah can be my designated people to get me home.”
“Absolutely…fine. I don’t want to die.” Franco sighed. Annette never wanted her precious prodigy to go bored, when he was under her roof. After Seng graduated, it became more and more frequent. And why not? She paid for online goodies and alcohol, for video games and a gym membership. She learned how to cook like his mum, and her khaub poob was among the best he ever had. No one had gotten in the way of her spoiling before, so god forbid Franco become the first to.
But maybe even Annette would have changed her mind with visiting Youa. In the end, Franco had little against a young student like her. She’d just be better if she wasn’t banging Benji.
They piled into Franco’s car, the grey convertible he got as a teen, that usually laid idle in the driveway. He was strict on only one thing: Hannah got shotgun. Franco had little interest in seeing Seng’s hair flow in the breeze, if he had the top down.
It was a long drive to the city, and dark and overcast by the time they found parking. And Franco turned up his nose at Youa’s apartment complex first. The wallpaper looked fresh, but everything else smelled musty. Every single sound traveled through the walls. Fights, sex, babies and children. When they got to Youa’s door, that one was the quietest.
She attacked her brother with a hug, perhaps as his news was easy to predict. “Can’t believe that Terrebonne’s first Hmong lawyer’s been ignoring me this whole time!”
He gave her a tiny squeeze back. “You’d understand if you had to study for the Bar, okay?”
Franco peered in the doorway. First thing he noticed was the drab, slate wallpaper. Not Youa’s fault, but even college dorms tended to look nicer than that.
And the second thing that caught his eye was none other than the bitter ginger himself.
Benji didn’t exchange a word with Franco. He shook Seng’s hand and immediately offered to grab a beer from the fridge. Franco held his tongue about any comments of two underage students having beers in hand. He was the guy who split a bottle of wine with Benji’s twin when they were thirteen.
Between the Thao siblings and Benji, Franco had no room to squeeze in. Neither did Hannah, and half of Franco’s heart ached to not leave her moping in the corner. But the other half ached to explore that tiny flat.
It was an unremarkable studio in most aspects. Their double-bed had a tacky set of sheets and a frame with some rusting at the edges. How it held up to Youa’s sex drive was an unexplained miracle.
But maybe it had to do with what burned in the corner.
It was controlled, though. A stick of incense smoldered in its holder, and two small bowls sat next to it. One was full of cold white rice, and the other of cold chicken soup.
Franco was puzzled. Seng wasn’t a spiritual man in the slightest, so nothing about his family’s beliefs ever got brought up. If nothing else, getting a lesson would be preferable to anything else about that night.
It was hard to hear someone walking in soft boots too.
“You know, I should’ve placed it opposite to the front door, but I had to make do.”
Franco turned around to find Youa and her sweet, toothy smile.
“What is it?” he asked. “I mean…it’s not like Seng ever set an altar up.”
“Heck, I barely did,” she said. “It’s not the real deal. And look at this crappy place! The dab xwm kab clearly isn’t listening…yeah. It kind of sucks to be Hmong out here.”
“It’s the racist Deep South, I guess it’s tough to change-”
“No! I mean that I’m all alone out here!” She gave her nose-bridge a frustrated pinch. “Sorry, it’s just something I’m sore about. But I was so used to having tons of us in Brew City, and even if my fam’s kind of fucked up, we had everyone else in the Thao clan to fall back on. It’s not like I can ask an elder about some beliefs I barely have, or find a shaman here. I guess…well, I guess I feel like you now.”
“Benji talks about you being some weird space-demon who’s alone in the world,” said Youa. “He says he’d feel sorry if you guys weren’t so terrible. But I feel it a little closer.”
“Of course he still talks about me like that,” Franco grumbled. He noticed Benji shooting them a dirty look from the couch. “No, I’m here as a guest. I’ll keep my mouth shut.”
Youa just gave him a tender look. “Thanks for keeping Seng in line for all these years. It’s pretty damn good of you.”
“Believe me, I feel like a saint,” he said.
Youa had work later that evening. She had a dinner shift at Outlanders by the Bay, which was a four-table bistro near the harbor. So she left Franco alone as she freshened up.
Barely two feet away from his shoes was a pile of books and notes. And with two college students in the flat, they had plenty of those from the last semester.
It didn’t take snooping to find out who’s they were. Youa studied biology, but the book on the top of that pile was Web Design & Integration: Vol IX. Adobe Creative Suite: 2052 Edition. PHP for Plebs. Nothing related to a hard science at all! And notebooks upon notebooks marked up with Benji’s neat, near-mechanical handwriting. Franco knew it well, back when he copied math notes from him.
A few folders sat to the side, with papers sticking out of them. One had syllabuses. The other had a graded test for the elective African-American literature class he took.
The third: “Aliens Among Us”. Even from just a corner of a picture, Franco could place it as one taken from his family. It had a floral pattern from one of Annette’s favorite tunics.
“What a sneaky little-”
“You don’t see me breaking into your home to be a fucking snoop.”
It was Benji, with crossed arms and his bold eyebrows arched and furrowed in disapproval.
“So why do you care so much?” Franco asked.
“I don’t. Because you didn’t see anything.”
“Maybe you shouldn’t write those things at all-”
“There are a lot of floral tunics in the world! And even if I was trying to smear your family, so what? Your mum’s a slut and I wish you would fucking die.”
“Guys, did I miss something?!”
Hannah must have stepped in the loo while Franco wasn’t looking. She watched the confrontation with a fearful look in her round blue eyes.
“Nothing important,” said Franco, shooting a dirty look at Benji. “But it’s clear that I’m not welcome here.”
“Damn straight,” Benji mumbled.
He backed up close to Hannah, letting her grab his shoulder. “I guess this is good-bye.” He gave Benji a sharp, stern look.
“Benji, you ready to introduce Franco to bi night?”
He laughed. “Oh, of course we are! How could I kick this man out before we do that? It’ll be…just like home.”
“Bi Us, For Us” was a themed night at one of the nightclubs. Every Wednesday, they switched up the barstools and lighting for a rare and much-needed night of bisexual bonding. And Benji tried to make it whenever he could. Youa accepted the need for him to flirt a bit and stay in touch with his identity. She was the one who gave Seng the message too.
And for a single or open-minded bi, it was a great club. Full of mingling, hook-ups, and plenty of people who met lovers and soulmates there too. It was like any bar, gay or straight, for that matter.
In spite of the clubbing atmosphere, a karaoke machine on stage was a big attraction, and a way for the DJ to take a rest for an hour. Hannah got the last slot of the hour, with a girl she didn’t know at all.
Franco took a lot of joy in Hannah’s singing. Even without her being Hannah, she had the trained voice that could draw a whole room’s attention. She sounded too good to waste a night with karaoke, but the options were limited.
There was a boo, ya showoff! from the lady in the green dress. But Hannah didn’t miss a note for her entire solo verse.
And her sustained finishing note got everyone to turn their heads.
There was a small applause when the song finished, and it wasn’t for her off-key partner. Hannah’s face glowed. She put her hand up to cover her big, beaming smile.
“Oh yeah! Sing for me, Falls Harbor!” She slid to her knees and elicited a few good-spirited laughs too.
Franco looked over to the wall, where Benji’s eyes avoided the stage, and his argumentative brother-in-law too.
She was fine.
I know she’s fine…too fine for Franco.
A/N: The dab xwm kab is a spirit of wealth and fortune in the traditional Hmong religion. While it’s customary for households to have an altar to it anyways, a poor college student like Youa needs all the help she can get. 😛 But it’s a pretty bad altar. Not in the right place, as she mentioned, and a lot of the trappings aren’t there (they’re a lot more elaborate). Though, as she said, she’s kind of away from her community or any while in Terrebonne. Who’s gonna tell her that she did it wrong? 😉
And Seng does bring up the bad stereotypes and facts about Hmong-Americans. As a group, they do have high rates of poverty and low rates of education (Seng would be a major outlier as a juris doctor), and we all know the bad connotations that surround that.
…Well that was kind of sad. Here’s a recipe for khaub poob. It’s not vegetarian, but maybe there’s a way to without completely ruining the dish.