FICTION – Bitter Melon by Souvankham Thammavongsa


“But we’re supposed to be in this together,” Daisy said.

Michael said nothing.

She looked at the menu in front of her. It was printed on pink paper, the letters in red. There was a section at the back that wasn’t printed in English. She wondered what was listed there.

It was a language she was supposed to know.

This was a restaurant neither of them had tried before. The cooks worked in the front, behind a glass window, like fish in a bowl. On the other side, was the street; people gathered to watch the cooks steam vegetables or dumplings; they’d point at the ducks, each displayed, hanging by their necks. Sometimes they took pictures.

Michael, leaned over and said, “Hey, you ever tried the bitter melon?”

“No. What is it?”

“It’s a vegetable thing. C’mon, let’s give it a try.”

Daisy said nothing.

Michael was wearing a navy blue cashmere sweater.

Daisy knew it was real cashmere. She bought it for him. He wore it everyday, at first. She took this to mean something. Took this as a sign—a sign that this, his wearing it everyday, must mean he cared for her, even loved her maybe. She was never really sure she knew how he felt about her. Whenever she’d bring it up he’d just respond this way, with nothing.

When she pointed out it was sweet of him to wear the sweater everyday, he laughed and said, “It isn’t because it’s from you. I just haven’t done any laundry. That’s all.”

Michael was not a bad-looking man. He had bright, clear blue eyes and a slim nose. He complained about getting old or feeling old, about his sore back. He was only thirty-seven. They were the same age, in fact.

He had his head shaved recently. It was an attempt to conceal that he was losing hair. The small brown hairs started to grow back already except for the spot that didn’t have any.

Daisy was thinking of what to say, how to begin again.

Michael said, “This is boring. Say something.”

“I don’t know what to say to you.”

“You’re mad, aren’t you?” Pause. “Look, it’s just how I feel about it and I’ve got the right to feel this way about it. It’s just the way it is. Accept it.”

“I want to be together, for this.” She heard herself say it aloud. She had become the kind of woman she said she’d never be.

“Ugh, there’s that word again. Together like it means something.” He continued, “I told you, I don’t do relationships. I don’t know what you thought this whole thing was supposed to be. We’re just having some fun. That’s all it is.”

“It’s just…” she trailed off. What they had now, demanded more of her but not of him. How could he know that, at all? She tried again, “I have the right to want to be—“

“—Why do we even have to have this conversation? It’s so annoying,” he said. “What, you’re crying now? Ugh!”

The bitter melon was placed on the table.

Michael reached out and threw a piece into his mouth like it was popcorn and said, “It’s weird, huh?”

The bitter melon was light green like the inside of a sweet melon. It was long, shaped like a cucumber but not as smooth. The skin was wrinkled and shrunken. Some parts, so shrunken it folded in on itself.

Michael ate.

He took a piece of duck, tore at the meat, then sucked at the bone. His lips were oily like he had rubbed Vaseline to them.

He tossed the bone onto the table. He burped. He took his phone out from the back of his blue jean pocket and tapped on its screen, brushing aside applications that he didn’t need. He checked for text messages, read some of them and laughed to himself.

He sung a happy, casual tune to pass the time, tapping the drumbeat on the table.

Daisy didn’t touch any of the food brought to their table even though she was eating for two now.

The small bowl of rice sat there steaming.

She looked at the other dishes he ordered: broccoli with garlic sauce, fried shrimps and squids, hot and sour soup.

She looked at the dish closest to him. It was a lobster. The eyes were still intact. Two light brown beads looked at her.

It made her think of her Pa.

Whenever he ordered lobster in a restaurant, before eating it, he would rearrange the chopped bits on the plate. He would assemble its body back together to see if there was something missing. This one time, when he assembled it there, there was one claw, half a tail, some missing legs. Her Pa called the waiter over, made a big show out of being cheated, made sure the whole restaurant knew he was not one to tolerate such a cheat.

Daisy thought of doing this now. Assemble the lobster back by its bits and pieces, one by one like points missing in an argument.

She reached for the bits Michael had chewed and spit out. She tried to unfold one.

Michael, in a hushed voice, yelled, “What are you doing?!”

Daisy could hardly make shape of what these bits used to be.

Michael quickly motioned for the bill. His arm shot up and he waved it around as if he was calling in a rescue. His index finger made a check mark in the air when the waiter noticed him.

The waiter brought the bill over to the table, placed it in front of Michael.

Michael slid the bill to Daisy.

Souvankham Thammavongsa is the author of three poetry books, the most recent of which is Light (Pedlar Press, 2013).

Featured Image photograph by E.B. Bartels,

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