Admission by Loan Le
Loan Le’s “Admission” is a short story rich in detail, hooking us from the first line (“The slime of shredded pork meat coats Minh’s fingers as she mixes strands of mushroom, carrot shavings, and salt.”) and immersing us in the world of these characters and this extended family. With seamless storytelling, Le grounds us with strong, quick worldbuilding and keeps us invested by maintaining depth and tension throughout. The relationship between main character Minh and her cousin Hải is particularly genuine and layered. Despite the serious subject matter, there is warmth to this story. Le weaves subtext effectively to deliver a clear conflict and sustain tension (see her author’s note for more on secrets in fiction). The narrative control allows the scenes to flow easily—individual sentences interact, build, push forward, and combine to equal something greater. —CRAFT
The slime of shredded pork meat coats Minh’s fingers as she mixes strands of mushroom, carrot shavings, and salt. Her hands ache from clawing, squeezing, and lifting. She wants to sit, but she needs to have her feet planted to the ground to properly do this.
Minh’s station is quiet while the women around her, old and young, big-boned and skinny, are not. They speak in Vietnamese, gossip passing through their lips followed by schoolgirl giggles. Minh only understands bits and pieces; this is one occasion where she wishes she paid attention when her mother taught the language at home.
They talk about Dì Yên’s handsome fiancé, Aaron, as he sits only a few feet away. When Minh’s aunt first introduced Aaron to their family, her other aunts teased Dì Yên about seducing a younger man, to which she replied quickly, “I am only thirty-eight. Not old and dried up like all of you.”
Minh’s two younger cousins fight for dominance on his lap while Aaron keeps them from falling over. His eyes flash with hesitation as women flurry through the kitchen and speak a language not his own. This will be the rest of his life—odd women, related and unrelated, in and out of his own kitchen. An inherited mess, one after another. Earlier, he tried to offer a hand, as he always does when he visits, but her aunts denied him, muttering—in Vietnamese—that he would mess things up, before smiling and saying loudly, “Oh, you’re nice. No, no. Sit.”
Now Minh sits. Her feet are swollen, and this morning she got sick. She hugged the toilet and in between dry retches listened to the clang of pots and pans as her mother readied her artillery for the day.
The glass door slides open and the wind curls around her feet. Minh jumps up and resumes mixing.
Her mother enters, gripping chopsticks in one hand. She peers into Minh’s bowl. She tells her to start rolling, and fusses her way out of the kitchen, inspecting friends and Minh’s first, second, and third cousins on her father’s side at their own prep stations. Only women are in the kitchen now—the fiancé escaped, perhaps in search of her aunt.
Minh’s mother speaks to someone in the living room, where the men are watching an NFL game. Unlike the spectators at her high school football games, they sit in silence peppered every so often by phlegm-racked snorts. Her father is there, legs crossed almost girlishly, though when Minh teased him about this one time, he only gave her an absent smile. She had spoken to him in English, which he only understands when he needs to.
Her mother barrels back into the kitchen later and checks the aluminum foil platter where Minh had placed her four egg rolls.
“Con!” She clicks her tongue, shakes her head. “Con làm dở quá.” Squeezing a roll, she tells Minh it’s too soft, that once it hits the oil, it will fall apart. She orders Minh to peel the thawed wrappers for everyone instead. With a sharp call, two of her cousins, dressed in knock-off Hollister clothes, sit down to replace her. They always come when summoned, and this earns a nod from her mother.
“I can do it,” Minh protests. She watches her cousins’ slim hands deftly working, and looks down at her own, her father’s hands, thick and manly. “Like Olive Garden breadsticks,” she had once written for an English class poetry assignment.
“No, you won’t do it well enough.” Her mother thrusts a packet of cold wrappers toward her and, reluctantly, Minh pulls them apart for her cousins. “Con phải be more careful.”
Minh thought she had been careful with Eduardo. They weren’t reckless. But the test had come out positive, and just like that, the good memories she’d come to have with him—the joy and comfort—started slipping away from her.
She almost told him the truth last Sunday afternoon, when they were in bed together. Their study sessions always end the same, and it is mostly because of her. Out of the two of them, Eduardo is better at school. He knows, with a certainty that Minh can only hope for, that he wants to be a lawyer, wants to end up working in a skyscraper so he can climb the stairs every day and see how far he’s come.
He was talking about that again—the future—and Minh just listened because she loved moments like this. Trying to collect their breath, trying to hold still as his fingers traveled up her arm, grazed the side of her breast, her ribs, her belly.
He let his hand rest on her stomach. Did he notice the difference?
They were once caught in less explicit circumstances. He came over to help her with AP Lit. He kept his hand on her thigh and squeezed as she read passages out loud. His smile widened when her breath hitched. They didn’t register the beeping from the kitchen’s rice cooker, and it was too late for them to move away when her mother stepped in.
The invitation to stay for dinner, a common courtesy to Minh’s friends, was not given, and her mother’s stare pushed Eduardo out of the house.
“No dating until you’re married,” she said once he was gone. Minh wanted to laugh, wanted to correct her. Did her mother understand what she was saying? But the rigidness of her back as she turned away and the sharp clattering of the rice bowls as they were taken down from the cabinets told Minh just enough.
An hour later, the eggs rolls emerge from their oil bath tanned and hot. Even Minh’s are still intact, though she doesn’t point this out. Her mother hands her the first one as they stand on the patio together. Minh bites into it. The delicate crispness gives way, and the steam brushes against her lips. The meat is moist, soaks her tongue with salt that’s soothed by the carrots’ slight sweetness. Her work from this morning was worth it.
Her mother smiles. “It’s good like this. Hot. Ngon.” She chews loudly, in defiance of the wind, while Minh flinches from the chill. “You look sick.”
“I’m not sick,” Minh says, shoving the rest of the eggroll into her mouth.
“You’re sick. If you’re bệnh, you will miss school, and you have a few tests this week.”
“I’m not—” Her mother presses her hand against Minh’s forehead.
She is back to being a child. A long time ago, when she couldn’t finish her bowl of rice, she tried to tuck the rest in both cheeks and hold it until after dinner. But her mother knew. She held out her palm and made Minh spit out all the rice. Instead of scolding her, her mother laughed. “Tức cười.” She cupped her empty cheek. She knew.
There is no smile now. Minh leans into her mother’s touch, but it is too late. Her mother tilts her head. “Con not hot, but con should go upstairs. Rest. Mẹ will keu con when it’s time to change for the ceremony.” She resumes her vigil from before, staring into the pot as if it might tell her something.
“Mẹ?” The salt lingers on Minh’s tongue. A gust whips their deck umbrella to one side. It vacillates before righting itself, but her mother is unmoved. She only turns when she’s called again, and her eyes slip down to where Minh shields her stomach with a hand.
Her mother gestures with her chin to the patio door. “Đi đi.”
Minh’s mother and Dì Yên have always had each other. After what had happened to her aunt during the days at sea, when the sisters finally arrived at the camps in the Philippines, her mother was the one to console her, the one to force her to eat, to bandage her hands after they were done sewing clothes for the day. Eventually, they came here together. Her aunt likes to joke that they’re practically hai chị em sinh đôi, despite their two-year difference.
In fifth grade, Minh had to do a family history project, but instead of working by herself, another kid in class had to interview her, collect her history, then present it to the class. Minh was paired up with Witt. She told him about her mother and her aunt escaping Vietnam by boat, with her aunt’s husband and kid, only the other two didn’t make it. It was something she’d heard her whole life, a fact. Witt kept his head down, scribbling notes.
The day after, Witt brought in an article he got from the microfilm at the library. It was published in 1981: CANNIBALISM TALES FROM BOAT REFUGEES flashed across the top fold. A refugee confessed to convincing his fellow passengers to feast on a dead man’s body, and though disgusted at first, eventually their hunger became too much.
“This happened, right?” Witt asked. A crumb of something left over from lunch period clung to the corner of his lips.
Minh read the words, but couldn’t connect it to anything her mother had told her—and she thought she was told everything: the darkness on the night they escaped, the gold bars traded to secure their passage, the still water, the imagined monsters underneath, and the first sip of Pepsi given to her mother and her aunt when they landed in Thailand.
“I don’t know. I guess,” Minh answered.
“Didn’t you say your aunt’s husband and kid died?”
She shifted under his stare; it was the gleam of someone who’s finally found a new toy.
“Yeah, but they were sick.”
“Did you ever wonder about them?”
“About what happened to the bodies?”
“They—” Her stomach lurched. “Maybe they threw them overboard. To make room for others.”
Witt said, “No, that’d be a waste.”
Her mother and aunt never talked about the husband and the child. But Minh never thought to ask, never thought to care. She would often lie in bed, summon the hush of waters that her mother and aunt listened to for many days, imagine herself floating without direction, without thought of the future, without knowing. Then, she imagined the hunger starting in the stomach, fighting its way up the throat, until fervor overwhelms the mind.
After reading Witt’s article, for the next few weeks, every instance her aunt smiled, Minh imagined flesh and blood still clinging to her teeth.
When her aunt called Minh’s mother five months ago about her engagement and her pregnancy, they stayed on the phone for three hours. Minh listened from her bedroom as they talked about the past, agreed that the baby will be a wonderful thing. Her aunt cried. Her mother cried. And her mother laughed more than she’d ever laughed.
Minh finds kids in her room; she’s not sure which ones are actually her cousins. Some trade Pokémon cards. Two hover over a Game Boy. A few are jumping on her bed. A girl thumbs through her newly bought copy of The Alienist. Minh rips her CD player from one of the children’s hands, then summons her mother’s voice, her mother’s temper that crosses any language barrier. The little ones all scatter.
She plops down into her chair. She twirls and twirls and twirls until she feels sick, until she’s facing the traditional Vietnamese dress on the door, the one measured for her three months ago. It looks so small. Her baggy sweater, Eduardo’s originally, now smells of pork and oil, but she thinks she can smell him—Old Spice then something fruity, the latter courtesy of his grandmother who sprays different scents all around his house. Minh loves going over there, loves that his parents and his abuela cook together and overwhelm her with spices that make her mouth water, a scent her mother compares to the smell of armpits.
Minh and Eduardo re-met in high school, years after they took an ESL class together. They were both born here, but no one in either household knew how to read or speak English.
There are girls at school who start rounding out in the summer, then do not return in the fall. At dinner one night, just after school had begun, Minh told her parents about a senior named Lisbel Garcia. Lisbel was known for her volleyball spike, and her face showed up on almost every yearbook club picture. Her parents should have been better parents, her mother remarked.
“If that happened to you, Mẹ would kill you. Mày chết,” she added, pointing her index finger.
Now Lisbel is getting married soon, Minh heard from classmates, but she’s not coming back to school. Minh wonders if she misses homework while she takes care of her baby.
She reaches into her desk drawer, moving piles of paper to unearth the Planned Parenthood brochure she nicked from the nurse’s office. She’s dialed the place so many times, before hanging up.
“My mom said you have to get better at making egg rolls.”
Minh shuts the drawer and whirls around. Her cousin, Hải, leans against her doorframe.
“Not at the top of my list of things to accomplish.”
He shakes his head. “What’s going to happen when your mom dies and you get married and you have to fight the communists by yourself and cook for your family?”
“I’m feeding them McDonald’s for the rest of their life.”
“You’re a disgrace to the family,” Hải says in a high-pitched voice, mocking their mothers’ inexpungible accents.
“Tell me something I don’t know.”
Hải pads barefooted across the room, and sinks down onto the corner of her bed. “I’m kidding, you know.”
Minh smiles. “School good?”
“Sucks. Got a term paper in one class. Two gigantic books to read by Monday. A presentation for another. Usual shit,” Hải says monotonously. The desk lamp hits only part of his face; shadows cling to his lines, giving him a gaunt look. Minh cannot believe he is only four years older.
Their mothers had tried to make them rivals, to push each other to get better grades, but Hải preferred to teach her to solve quadratic equations in her head rather than taunt her with his grades—which never went below an A-minus. Or he sketched whatever cartoon character she asked of him. Her favorite was Stitch.
“How do you do all that?” Minh asks.
“Some kid I know have pills. Keeps you up all night. Don’t tell.”
“I won’t,” she answers quickly. She picks at a frayed thread on her sweatshirt sleeve. A couple kids she knows use pills. Sometimes Eduardo, but he never offers any to her.
Hải flips to an empty page in one of Minh’s notebooks on her desk and starts sketching, glancing at her every so often. She leans back in her chair, holding still without being commanded, knowing he is drawing her. His hands move quickly against the page and she watches the calmness on his pockmarked face, notices the wrinkle absent from between his eyes.
When he’s done with his sketch, he shows it to her. “That’s great,” Minh says honestly.
“Thanks.” Hải looks down at it, then rips it out with sudden force, crunches it into the ball, lugging it against the wall before it misses the waste basket. He turns to Minh, asks in an even voice, “So you thinking of schools yet?”
“Maybe. I’m applying to a few.” All her applications are half-done.
“Psychology maybe. I’ve had a lot experience with that.”
“Well, you’d be a doctor, so that’d make your parents happy,” Hải replies. “And your parents aren’t against it, right?”
“No,” Minh says. Her parents are not like Hải’s. They gave her more playtime growing up. “They’re still strict though. Stuck on the essay portion. Not sure what to write about.”
“Write an essay about your family’s struggle for the American Dream. Add something about a Catholic priest sheltering their poor asses in cots. Maybe write about how hard your mom works at the nail salon and your dad at a laundromat—”
Minh laughs and pretends to throw a punch at him. “But Mom’s an accountant and Dad’s a French interpreter—”
“The committee reads what they want to read.” Hải smirks. Perhaps it’s the absence in his smile and eyes, perhaps it’s the way he threw away his sketch, but Minh feels like hugging him.
As if sensing her thought, her cousin sighs and gets up. He stops at the threshold, saying over his shoulder. “Oh yeah, your mom said to get dressed for the ceremony.”
“How long ago was that?”
Hải pretends to think. “Not too long. I’m only telling you because your mom was holding a knife when she asked me to get you.”
Minh rolls her eyes.
Minh looks at herself in the floor-length mirror. The dress fits, though the silk is a bit tight over her breasts. She searches for the glow that everyone talks about, but maybe it’s a myth, because her skin is dead and her lips are cracked. Her hair shines with grease. Resigned, she turns to go downstairs, yet something outside catches her eye.
Eduardo stands across the street. Today, he is wearing a Sacramento Kings jersey and a pair of jeans, the kind with big pockets that Minh sticks her hands into when she hugs him, kisses him.
Eduardo watches her front door, smoking a cig. Minh starts waving. She points to the right side of the house, just outside the garage but away from any windows, where no one can see them. Rushing downstairs, moving easily through the crowded kitchen, not seeing her mother, Minh slips into the garage where they keep their bulk of onions, potatoes, and drinks from Costco. She walks into the sunlight.
“Whoa,” Eduardo says when he sees her in her dress. He dips his hands into his pockets.
Minh twirls around. “It’s called an áo dài. We have to wear it for ceremonies like this.”
“You look nice.” He smiles, but it slips off like he forgets how to make it stay.
“Thanks.” She grips the silk on her hip. “What’s up?” Her insides tighten; Eduardo never comes by—she didn’t think he knew where she lived.
His hand leaves his pocket and squeezes the back of his head. “I heard something.” Eduardo bites his dry bottom lip. He doesn’t believe in ChapStick, so whenever she kisses him, she applies it on her own lips first. “Are you…pregnant?” When she doesn’t answer, Eduardo continues. “Stacey—you know, my cousin? She works at the store on Grand Street, and she rung you out, and saw what you were buying—” He stops and inhales. “But, you know, maybe Stacey got someone confused for you, she does that sometimes.”
It was Stacey, Minh remembers now, though she did not know that at the store. She had met the girl at one of the family gatherings—she’d told her parents she had a study group that night—but they only talked for a few minutes.
“Eduardo,” Minh stops him. She swallows hard. “I am. It’s yours.”
“Shit.” Eduardo’s expletive splits the air. He pivots, then pivots again.
She imagines the skyscrapers that stood so tall in his head.
“Shit. Are you going to keep it?”
She sees them being razed in one fell swoop.
“Minh, are you?”
She opens her mouth to reply, when she sees his anguish give way to fear. The garage door behind them sighs as it closes. Minh whirls around, a sinking feeling reaching her stomach. When she turns back, Eduardo is gone.
The women in the kitchen look at her, then return to plating fruits, egg rolls, and sweet rice wrapped in banana leaves. But someone knows. The door had closed. It was only a matter of time.
Minh runs away, toward her bedroom, like the time she stole one of her mother’s chuối chiên as it rested on an oil-soaked paper towel. Her mother came with a pair of chopsticks and yanked her closet door open to reveal her, knees to chest, sugar-sweet fingers digging into her kneecaps. The closet is much too small for her now, but her mother’s footsteps thundering up the stairs are the same.
“Mày.” Her mother shakes a finger at her. Her voice is a low growl. “Someone told me about a…boy. Con trai Mể. That boy and you…is it true? Is it true?”
Minh backs into a corner near the window. “He’s…I’m sorry,” she says, her body sliding down until she is crouching. “I’m sorry.” The words hurricane past her lips. Her mother lunges. She pulls Minh’s hair, her clothes, her skin, trying to rip it away. The desk lamp falls, followed by notebooks and pens. Minh knows she needs to escape, but she is at a blind crawl. Three women run up from downstairs. They try to help, but Minh’s mother opens her arms and casts them away.
Her mother jabs the chopsticks to the floor. “Đến đây. Nằm xuống! Nằm xuống bây giờ!” Sobbing, Minh collapses onto her stomach like she did as a child, a girl who’s done something wrong and needs to be punished. It is an abject punishment, this position. A cousin’s toy car underneath her digs into her stomach; whatever is inside her, can it feel just yet? The chopsticks come down on her thighs, on her back like sand in a wound, like a papercut on a papercut. Minh shoves her mouth into the carpet, cries.
“Tại sao? Tại sao, hả?” her mother demands.
“Trời ơi!” Her aunt is here. She pries the chopsticks from Minh’s mother. “What’s happening?” Her eyes are darkened with mascara.
Her mother lurches forward again, but her aunt is strong and quick and beautiful. “Thôi!”
Minh feels the chopsticks hit her face, then hears them clatter against the floor. Her mother barges from the room, two or three women following to reason with her, tell her to calm down. Today is supposed to be a happy day, they say.
It is only Minh and her aunt now. Dì Yên’s body is angled toward the door, ready to follow her sister, but her eyes are fixed on Minh, not in an accusatory way. It’s pity.
So, she admits her secret. “I’m pregnant.” She swallows tears and saliva and covers her mouth, as if to catch the words. It’s the first time she’s said this aloud, this awful truth.
The ceremony might have been beautiful, but Minh remembers none of it. She stared at her feet the whole time. She could not look up, even as she accepted the gifts from Aaron’s family, a Vietnamese exchange of fruits, tea, champagne, cakes. She felt the curious looks of relatives, could imagine their knowing sympathy. Or judgment. Perhaps they heard everything. They couldn’t have been quiet, Minh figured, not in this house.
When Aaron came to find her aunt earlier, she was mending Minh’s dress. Dì Yên did not say anything about her niece’s pregnancy. She did not say a word. Aaron paled at the sight of Minh shredded and disarrayed. Her aunt left the room, clutching him by the arm. Whatever she explained to him worked, made him forget.
The ceremony went on, and they sounded happy while promising themselves to each other.
Minh hides in her room after the ceremony, stifled by the hunger of not eating for the whole day. She tried calling Eduardo, but the landline just rang and rang, until his mother picked up, traces of laughter in her voice, the television on blast in the background. Minh hung up.
Hải, dressed in his suit with the tie loosened, returns to her room. He has a plate of roasted pork, egg rolls, and sticky rice covered in plastic.
“Heard you got a beatdown.” One side of his lips quirks up, which Minh can’t help but return.
“In other families it’d be considered child abuse.” She accepts the plate he hands her as he sits down beside her.
His eyes widen in mock surprise. “So that’s what happened to us all these years.”
They let silence settle between them. Before Minh knows it, she’s eaten half of the meal. Hải moves over to the desk, sketching again, his pace even more insistent than before. Laughter from downstairs travels through the vents. Outside, her young cousins are playing basketball in the street with other neighborhood children. Girls in silken long dresses chase boys in corduroy shorts and Ninja Turtle T-shirts.
“I’m pregnant, you know,” Minh whispers. “That’s why…”
Hải stops his manic scribbling, eyes fixed on his paper. “Does the guy know?”
“Yeah, he—Eduardo—came earlier. Kind of figured it out. I had to tell him the truth.”
She thinks of Eduardo’s reaction turning his back on her. Of her mother’s anger. Of her aunt’s disappointment, on a day she was supposed to be the happiest. A lump forms in her throat and all she can do is shake her head. “I’m alone in this.” Minh curls up in bed, faces away from her cousin. Breathes in. Breathes out.
“There’s no easy choice,” she hears him say. “Whatever you do, it’ll have consequences. Which one would you be able to live with?”
On an early Saturday morning, days after the initial appointment, Hải and Minh stop at Dunkin’ Donuts before driving over to Planned Parenthood. She declines food; he orders coffee. He gives her money to pay for the procedure. She walks inside, waits for a half hour until she is called in. The clinic practitioners are nice. They examine her. They give her medicine for the pain. Before the sharpness of her mind recedes and her body unclenches, she summons the memory of Eduardo muttering sweet things to her from between her legs. And then the doctor stretches her open. And then a tube replaces Eduardo. And then Minh feels like she’s emptying herself as the doctor’s suction machine hums.
It’s all done in three hours. She spends the next set of hours lying in Hải’s backseat—with him standing outside his car in a vigil, smoking one cigarette after another, though Minh didn’t know he smoked. She goes home and spreads out on the sofa for a nap. She hears her cousin and her mother in the kitchen, whispering in Vietnamese and English, all inscrutable to Minh, as she crosses the line from living to sleep.
She wakes to hear nothing of Hải. A steaming bowl of cháo gà waits on the coffee table and her mother stands above her. For how long, Minh doesn’t know. With her mother’s hair in a severe bun and her face naked without any makeup, she looks like her own mother in that old portrait that hangs over their small shrine, where they pray for family ancestors and light sticks of incense. Before Minh can read her eyes, her mother turns and slips into the kitchen.
Minh sits up. The soup is laden with chicken fat and ground pepper, just the way Minh likes it when she’s sick, but she forgets to blow on it before sipping, and the liquid burns her tongue.
LOAN LE is a Pushcart Prize–nominated writer whose work has appeared in Mud Season Review, Angel City Review, and Submittable. Her debut young adult romantic comedy, A Phở Love Story, will be published by Simon Pulse in February 2021. She holds an MFA in creative writing from the low-residency program at Fairfield University, also her alma mater. She works as an associate editor at Simon & Schuster’s imprint Atria Books. Visit her website writerloanle.me or her Twitter @loanloan for more information.