Liem’s plan was to walk calmly past the waiting crowd after he disembarked, but instead he found himself hesitating at the gate, anxiously scanning the strange faces. In one hand he held his duffel bag, and in the other he clutched the form given to him by Mrs. Lindemulder, the woman with the horn-rimmed glasses from the refugee service. When she had seen him off at the San Diego airport, she’d told him his sponsor, Parrish Coyne, would be waiting in San Francisco. The flight was only his second trip by air, and he’d passed it crumpling and uncrumpling an empty pretzel bag, until his seatmate asked him if he would please stop. American etiquette confused him, for Americans could sometimes be very polite, and at other times rather rude, jostling by him as they did now in their rush to disembark. The lingering pressure in his ears bewildered him further, making it hard for him to understand the PA system’s distorted English. He was wondering if he was missing something important when he spotted the man who must be Parrish Coyne, standing near the back of the crowd and holding up a hand-lettered placard with MR. LIEM printed neatly on it in red. The sight nearly overwhelmed Liem with relief and gratitude, for no one had ever called him “mister” before.
Parrish Coyne was middle-aged and, except for his gray ponytail, distinguished-looking, his deep-set green eyes resting above a thin, straight nose. He wore a brown fedora and a black leather jacket, unbuttoned over a generous belly. After Liem shyly approached him, but before Liem could say a word, he said Liem’s name twice. “Li-am, I presume?” Parrish spoke with an English accent as he clasped Liem’s hand and mispronounced his name, using two syllables instead of one. “Li-am, is it?”
“Yes,” Liem said, guessing that his foreignness was evident to all. “That is me.” He meant to correct Parrish’s pronunciation, but before he could do so, Parrish unexpectedly hugged him, leaving him to pat the man’s shoulder awkwardly, aware of other people watching them and wondering, no doubt, about their relationship. Then Parrish stepped back and gripped his shoulders, staring at him with an intensity that made Liem self-conscious, unused as he was to being the object of such scrutiny.
“To be honest,” Parrish announced at last, “I didn’t expect
you to be so pretty.”
“Really?” Liem kept smiling and said no more. He wasn’t sure he’d heard right, but he’d learned to bide his time in situations like this, sticking to monosyllables until the course of a conversation clarified matters.
“Stop it,” the young man next to Parrish said, also with an English accent. “You’re embarrassing him.” Just then the pressure in Liem’s eardrums popped, and the muffled sounds of the terminal swelled to a normal volume and clarity.
“This is Marcus Chan,” Parrish said, “my good friend.”
Marcus appeared to be in his mid-twenties, only a few years older than Liem, who’d turned eighteen over the summer. If Marcus’s smile seemed a little disdainful as he offered his hand, Liem could hardly blame him, for compared with Marcus, he was sorely lacking in just about every regard. Even the yellowness of his teeth was more evident next to the whiteness of Marcus’s. With body erect and head tilted back, Marcus had the posture of someone expecting an inheritance, while Liem’s sense of debt caused him to walk with eyes downcast, as if searching for pennies. Since he was shorter than both Marcus and Parrish, he was forced to look up as he said, “I am very happy to meet you.” Out of sheer nervousness, Marcus’s hand still gripped in his, he added, “San Francisco number one.”
“That’s lovely.” Marcus gently let go of his hand. “What’s number two then?”
“Hush.” Parrish frowned. “Why not be helpful and take Liem’s bag?”
From “The Refugees” by Viet Than Nguyen. Copyright © 2017 by Viet Thanh Nguyen. A version of “The Other Man” was originally published under the title “A Correct Life” in Best New American Voices 2007. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Grove Press, an imprint of Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.