An instant New York Times Bestseller!
Longlisted for the 2019 National Book Award for Fiction, the Carnegie Medal in Fiction, the 2019 Aspen Words Literacy Prize, and the PEN/Hemingway Debut Novel Award
Shortlisted for the 2019 Center for Fiction First Novel Prize
Winner of the 2019 New England Book Award for Fiction!
Named one of the most anticipated books of 2019 by Vulture, Entertainment Weekly, Buzzfeed, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe, Oprah.com, Huffington Post, The A.V. Club, Nylon, The Week, The Rumpus, The Millions, The Guardian, Publishers Weekly, and more.
“A lyrical work of self-discovery that’s shockingly intimate and insistently universal…Not so much briefly gorgeous as permanently stunning.” —Ron Charles, The Washington Post
Poet Ocean Vuong’s debut novel is a shattering portrait of a family, a first love, and the redemptive power of storytelling
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is a letter from a son to a mother who cannot read. Written when the speaker, Little Dog, is in his late twenties, the letter unearths a family’s history that began before he was born — a history whose epicenter is rooted in Vietnam — and serves as a doorway into parts of his life his mother has never known, all of it leading to an unforgettable revelation. At once a witness to the fraught yet undeniable love between a single mother and her son, it is also a brutally honest exploration of race, class, and masculinity. Asking questions central to our American moment, immersed as we are in addiction, violence, and trauma, but undergirded by compassion and tenderness, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is as much about the power of telling one’s own story as it is about the obliterating silence of not being heard.
With stunning urgency and grace, Ocean Vuong writes of people caught between disparate worlds, and asks how we heal and rescue one another without forsaking who we are. The question of how to survive, and how to make of it a kind of joy, powers the most important debut novel of many years.
Named a Best Book of the Year by:
GQ, Kirkus Reviews, Booklist, Library Journal, TIME, Esquire, The Washington Post, Apple, Good Housekeeping, The New Yorker, The New York Public Library, Elle.com, The Guardian, The A.V. Club, NPR, Lithub, Entertainment Weekly, Vogue.com, The San Francisco Chronicle, Mother Jones, Vanity Fair, The Wall Street Journal Magazine and more!
There is an immediacy to On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous that almost feels unique. The author Ocean Vuong was first published as a poet, and the poetry in this novel—present in the language, in the images and ideas—is unforgettable. The narrator is a young man in his late twenties, nicknamed Little Dog by his family, who is composing a long letter to his Vietnamese mother. Little Dog and his family grew up poor in Hartford, Connecticut, but their struggles do not end there. His mother still carries the burden of the war, as does his grandmother, and Little Dog’s struggles reach not only back to the traumas of Vietnam but forward in his efforts to fit in to a world that sees him as other. Eventually, he does find some solace in an ill-fated relationship with an older “redneck” boy, but that is only temporary. What is permanent is his desire to write, and of course his family. Vuong almost seems to be trying to super inject imagery, emotion, and language into every page, and to great effect; but no writer can reach absolute perfection. There are soaring moments in this novel, many of them. There will also be moments (although they will disagree on which ones) where readers feel that the writing fails. That’s how great art is made. —Chris Schluep, Amazon Book Review
“Vuong writes about the yearning for connection that afflicts immigrants. But ‘ocean’ also describes the distinctive way Vuong writes: His words are liquid, flowing, rolling, teasing, mighty and overpowering. When Vuong’s mother gave him the oh-so-apt name of Ocean, she inadvertently called into being a writer whose language some of us readers could happily drown in…Like so many immigrant writers before him, Vuong has taken the English he acquired with difficulty and not only made it his own — he’s made it better.” — Maureen Corrigan, Fresh Air
“With his radical approach to form and his daring mix of personal reflection, historical recollection and sexual exploration, Vuong is surely a literary descendant of [Walt Whitman]. Emerging from the most marginalized circumstances, he has produced a lyrical work of self-discovery that’s shockingly intimate and insistently universal…[The] narrative flows — rushing from one anecdote to another, swirling past and present, constantly swelling with poignancy…Vuong ties the private terrors of supposedly inconsequential people to the larger forces pulsing through America…At times, the tension between Little Dog’s passion and his concern seems to explode the very structure of traditional narrative, and the pages break apart into the lines of an evocative prose poem — not so much briefly gorgeous as permanently stunning.” — Ron Charles, Washington Post
“In order to survive, Little Dog has to receive and reject another kind of violence, too: he must see his mother through the American eyes that scan her for weakness and incompetence and, at best, disregard her, the way that evil spirits might ignore a child named for a little dog. There is a staggering tenderness in the way that Little Dog holds all of this within himself, absorbing it and refusing to pass it on. Reading ‘On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous’ can feel like watching an act of endurance art, or a slow, strange piece of magic in which bones become sonatas, to borrow one of Vuong’s metaphors.” —Jia Tolentino, The New Yorker
“Ocean Vuong’s devastatingly beautiful first novel, as evocative as its title, is a painful but extraordinary coming-of-age story about surviving the aftermath of trauma…Vuong’s language soars as he writes of beauty, survival, and freedom, which sometimes isn’t freedom at all, but ‘simply the cage widening far away from you, the bars abstracted with distance but still there’… The title says it: Gorgeous.” — Heller McAlpin, NPR.org
“A stunningly written journey that…explores how race, masculinity, addiction and poverty are seen in our country—all topics that feel especially significant today.” — WSJ. Magazine
“Hands down, the book that carried me through the year was Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. I’m willing to bet this book carried legions of us, with the brutal and yet also tender beauty of the poetics, the intimacy between bodies, the weight of the heart suspended inside longing. This is a book that multiplies meanings, but at the center is a queer coming-of-age story as well as a bicultural family history. The shadow of a mother-son relationship and the shadow of the America-Vietnam relationship haunts the story. I fell in love with the narrator a hundred times over. I also felt suspended between the atomized mother who cannot fully understand the language of her son, a son’s attempt to both inhabit as well as break free from his own family history, and the force of nature it takes to wrestle the gap. The language went into my body.” — Lidia Yuknavitch, Vogue.com
“To read On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is to experience a beginning again and again. It is to see the world as an open field, full of possibility.” — Rumpus
"A riot of feeling and sensation…delirious and star-bright…Vuong is pushing the boundaries of the novel form, reshaping the definition to fit the contours of his restless poetic exploration, using language to capture consciousness and being. The text spasms with memory like synapses firing in the dark…To read this book is to fill your whole life with it, albeit not briefly. Vuong’s is poetry that lingers in the blood long after the words have run out.” — Barbara VanDenburgh, USA Today
“Vuong is masterly at creating indelible, impressionistic images…Vuong beautifully evokes [Trevor’s] seductive power over Little Dog: This is some of the most moving writing I’ve read about two boys experimenting together…The book is brilliant in the way it pays attention not to what our thoughts make us feel, but to what our feelings make us think. To what kinds of truth does feeling lead? Oscar Wilde famously quipped that sentimentalism is wanting to have an emotion without paying for it, but Little Dog has paid and paid, and the truths arrived at in this book are valuable precisely because they are steeped in feeling.” — Justin Torres, The New York Times Book Review
“Vuong as a writer is daring. He goes where the hurt is, creating a novel saturated with yearning and ache…He transforms the emotional, the visceral, the individual into the political in an unforgettable–indeed, gorgeous–novel, a book that seeks to affect its readers as profoundly as Little Dog is affected, not only by his lover but also by the person who brought him into the world.” — Viet Thanh Nguyen, TIME
“The novel is expansive and introspective, fragmented and dreamlike, a coming of age tale conveyed in images and anecdotes and explorations…Just as he fuels his prose with his poetry, Vuong takes what he needs from lived experience to animate his storytelling with visceral beauty and a strain of what feels like uncut truth…For the duration of this marvelous novel, Vuong holds our gaze and fills it with what he wills — the migration of butterflies, love in a tobacco barn, purple flowers gathered on a highway.” —Steph Cha, Los Angeles Times
“[Vuong is] a remarkable storyteller… Depictions of poverty, queerness, and the immigrant experience are vivid, exacting, and humane… This book is no ordinary novel. This thing feels alive.” — David Canfield, Entertainment Weekly
“The novel’s overarching structure is an ingenious representation of our failure — as members of families and communities, as fellow citizens — to understand one another…[This is] a distinctive, intimate novel that is also a reckoning with the Vietnam War’s long shadow…Vuong is a skillful, daring writer, and his first novel is a powerful one.” — Kevin Canfield, San Francisco Chronicle
“A bildungsroman that vacillates between moments of piercing tenderness and savage brutality, set against quixotic hopes of the American Dream and the devastation of the opioid crisis. Vuong’s deeply felt work might just be the first great fiction of this modern, homegrown travesty, but it’s also a story that is enriched by both the beautiful and the ugly currents of American history.” — Chloe Schama, Vogue.com
“A diary of life on the margins of American society…For all that Vuong has to say about history, queerness, and American culture, everything about his book feels specific and personal.” — Boris Kachka, Vulture
“Lyrical…With this book, [Vuong] is creating an account of lives that are at once overlooked and thoroughly American. These days, this feels like a political act.”— Wall Street Journal
“Stunningly lyrical…We are witnessing something necessary and powerful with On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, which asks us to search what is human in us and ask what it really means to be alive, to seek truth within the mess that is life.” — Philadelphia Inquirer
“Dazzling…We see the power and purifying rage of Vuong’s prose.” — Julie Wittes Schlack, The ARTery on WBUR.org
“[A] raw, fearless debut…In prose as radiant and assured as his poetry, Vuong explores the ability of stories to heal generational wounds, and asks how we can rescue and transform one another in the wake of unimaginable loss.” — Esquire.com
“[ On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous] captures a peculiar kind of American immigrant experience with all of its cultural ambiguity and heartbreak intact. For all of its pain, it never loses sight of the privilege of being alive.” — Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
“A candid meditation on masculinity, art, and the inescapable pull of opioids…Vuong peels apart phrases and reconfigures them into new, surprising ideas.” — ELLE
“An epistolary masterpiece…Fearless, revelatory, extraordinary.” —Library Journal (starred review)
“Disarmingly frank, raw in subject matter but polished in style and language, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous reveals the strengths and limitations of human connection and the importance of speaking your truth.” — BookPage
“[Vuong’s] first foray into fiction is poetic in the deepest sense—not merely on the level of language, but in its structure and its intelligence…The result is an uncategorizable hybrid of what reads like memoir, bildungsroman, and book-length poem. More important than labels, though, is the novel's earnest and open-hearted belief in the necessity of stories and language for our survival. A raw and incandescently written foray into fiction by one of our most gifted poets.”— Kirkus (starred review)
“Casting a truly literary spell, Vuong's tale of language and origin, beauty and the power of story, is an enrapturing first novel.”— Booklist (starred review)
“Sometimes a writer comes along and stops your breath. I’m reading On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous and there is so little air moving through my body as I read. When writing is this good, who needs air?” — Jacqueline Woodson, author of Red at the Bone
“A bruised, breathtaking love letter never meant to be sent. A powerful testimony to magic and loss. A marvel.” —Marlon James, author of Black Leopard, Red Wolf
“This is one of the best novels I’ve ever read. I always want my favorite poets to write novels and here it’s happened. Ocean Vuong is a master. This book a masterpiece. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is an ode to loss and struggle, to being a Vietnamese American, to Hartford, Connecticut, and it’s a compassionate epistolary ode to a mother who may or may not know how to read. I dog-eared so many pages the book almost collapsed—I almost did.” —Tommy Orange, author of There There
“ On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous will be described — rightly — as luminous, shattering, urgent, necessary. But the word I keep circling back to is raw: that's how powerful the emotions here are, and how you'll feel after reading it — scoured down to bone. With a poet's precision, Ocean Vuong examines whether putting words to one's experience can bridge wounds that span generations, and whether it's ever possible to be truly heard by those we love most.” —Celeste Ng, author of Everything I Never Told You and Little Fires Everywhere
“This book—gorgeous is right there in the title—finds incredible, aching beauty in the deep observation of love in many forms. Ocean Vuong's debut novel contains all the power of his poetry, and I finished the book knowing that we are seeing only the very beginning of his truly magnificent talent.” —Emma Straub, author of Modern Lovers and The Vacationers
“Ocean Vuong runs up against the limits of language—this book is addressed to a mother who cannot read it—and expands our sense of what literature can make visible, thinkable, felt across borders and generations and genres. This is a courageous, embodied inquiry into the tangle of colonial and personal histories. It is also a gorgeous argument for astonishment over irony—for the transformative possibilities of love.” —Ben Lerner, author of Leaving the Atocha Station and 10:04
“One is not often given the chance to apply words like “brilliant” and “remarkable” to any novels, certainly not first novels. Thank you, Ocean Vuong, for this brilliant and remarkable first novel." —Michael Cunningham, author of The Hours
“[ On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous] is one of the most beautiful novels I have ever read, a literary marvel and a work of extraordinary humanity. It is about who we are, and how we find ourselves in our bodies, in each other, in countries, on this earth: truly a masterpiece.” —Max Porter, Grief is the Thing with Feathers
Ocean Vuong is the author of the critically acclaimed poetry collection Night Sky with Exit Wounds and the New York Times bestselling novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. A recipient of the 2019 MacArthur "Genius" Grant, he is also the winner of the Whiting Award and the T.S. Eliot Prize. His writings have been featured in The Atlantic, Harper's Magazine, The Nation, The New Republic, The New Yorker, and The New York Times. Born in Saigon, Vietnam, he currently lives in Northampton, Massachusetts.
Let me begin again.
What I am about to tell you you will never know. But so be it. I am writing to reach you-even if each word I put down is one word further from where you are. I am writing to go back to the time, at the rest stop in Virginia, when you stared, horror-struck, at the taxidermy buck hung over the soda machine by the restrooms, its antlers shadowing your face. In the car, you kept shaking your head. "I don't understand why they would do that. Can't they see it's a corpse? A corpse should go away, not get stuck forever like that."
I think now of that buck, how you stared into its black glass eyes and saw your reflection, your whole body, warped in that lifeless mirror. How it was not the grotesque mounting of a decapitated animal that shook you-but that the taxidermy embodied a death that won't finish, a death that keeps dying as we walk past it to relieve ourselves.
I am writing because they told me to never start a sentence with because. But I wasn't trying to make a sentence-I was trying to break free. Because freedom, I am told, is nothing but the distance between the hunter and its prey.
Autumn. Somewhere over Michigan, a colony of monarch butterflies, numbering more than fifteen thousand, are beginning their yearly migration south. In the span of two months, from September to November, they will move, one wing beat at a time, from southern Canada and the United States to portions of central Mexico, where they will spend the winter.
They perch among us, on windowsills and chain-link fences, clotheslines still blurred from the just-hung weight of clothes, windowsills, the hood of a faded-blue Chevy, their wings folding slowly, as if being put away, before snapping once, into flight.
It only takes a single night of frost to kill off a generation. To live, then, is a matter of time, of timing.
That time when I was five or six and, playing a prank, leapt out at you from behind the hallway door, shouting, "Boom!" You screamed, face raked and twisted, then burst into sobs, clutched your chest as you leaned against the door, gasping. I stood bewildered, my toy army helmet tilted on my head. I was an American boy parroting what I saw on TV. I didn't know that the war was still inside you, that there was a war to begin with, that once it enters you it never leaves-but merely echoes, a sound forming the face of your own son. Boom.
That time, in third grade, with the help of Mrs. Callahan, my ESL teacher, I read the first book that I loved, a children's book called Thunder Cake, by Patricia Polacco. In the story, when a girl and her grandmother spot a storm brewing on the green horizon, instead of shuttering the windows or nailing boards on the doors, they set out to bake a cake. I was unmoored by this act, its precarious yet bold refusal of common sense. As Mrs. Callahan stood behind me, her mouth at my ear, I was pulled deeper into the current of language. The story unfurled, its storm rolled in as she spoke, then rolled in once more as I repeated the words.
To bake a cake in the eye of a storm; to feed yourself sugar on the cusp of danger. Because I am your son, this made perfect sense. The first time you hit me, I must have been four. A hand, a flash, a reckoning. My mouth a blaze of touch.
The time I tried to teach you to read the way Mrs. Callahan taught me, my lips to your ear, my hand on yours, the words moving underneath the shadows we made. But that act (a son teaching his mother) reversed our hierarchies, and with it our identities, which, in this country, were already tenuous and tethered. After the stutters and false starts, the sentences warped or locked in your throat, after the embarrassment of failure, you slammed the book shut. "I don't need to read," you said, your expression crunched, and pushed away from the table. "I can see-it's gotten me this far, hasn't it?"
Then the time with the remote control. A bruised welt on my forearm I would lie about to my teachers. "I fell playing tag."
The time, at forty-six, when you had a sudden desire to color. "Let's go to Walmart," you said one morning. "I need coloring books." For months, you filled the space between your arms with all the shades you couldn't pronounce. Magenta, vermilion, marigold, pewter, juniper, cinnamon. Each day, for hours, you slumped over landscapes of farms, pastures, Paris, two horses on a windswept plain, the face of a girl with black hair and skin you left blank, left white. You hung them all over the house, which started to resemble an elementary school classroom. When I asked you, "Why coloring, why now?" you put down the sapphire pencil and stared, dreamlike, at a half-finished garden. "I just go away in it for a while," you said, "but I feel everything. Like I'm still here, in this room."
The time you threw the box of Legos at my head. The hardwood dotted with blood.
"Have you ever made a scene," you said, filling in a Thomas Kinkade house, "and then put yourself inside it? Have you ever watched yourself from behind, going further and deeper into that landscape, away from you?"
How could I tell you that what you were describing was writing? How could I say that we, after all, are so close, the shadows of our hands, on two different pages, merging?
"I'm sorry," you said, bandaging the cut on my forehead. "Grab your coat. I'll get you McDonald's." Head throbbing, I dipped chicken nuggets in ketchup as you watched. "You have to get bigger and stronger, okay?"
I reread Roland Barthes's Mourning Diary yesterday, the book he wrote each day for a year after his mother's death. I have known the body of my mother, he writes, sick and then dying. And that's where I stopped. Where I decided to write to you. You who are still alive.
Those Saturdays at the end of the month when, if you had money left over after the bills, we'd go to the mall. Some people dressed up to go to church or dinner parties; we dressed to the nines to go to a commercial center off I 91. You would wake up early, spend an hour doing your makeup, put on your best sequined black dress, your one pair of gold hoop earrings, black lam shoes. Then you would kneel and smear a handful of pomade through my hair, comb it over.
Seeing us there, a stranger couldn't tell that we bought our groceries at the local corner store on Franklin Avenue, where the doorway was littered with used food stamp receipts, where staples like milk and eggs cost three times more than they did in the suburbs, where the apples, wrinkled and bruised, lay in a cardboard box soaked on the bottom with pig's blood that had leaked from the crate of loose pork chops, the ice long melted.
"Let's get the fancy chocolates," you'd say, pointing to the Godiva chocolatier. We would get a small paper bag containing maybe five or six squares of chocolate we had picked at random. This was often all we bought at the mall. Then we'd walk, passing one back and forth until our fingers shone inky and sweet. "This is how you enjoy your life," you'd say, sucking your fingers, their pink nail polish chipped from a week of giving pedicures.
The time with your fists, shouting in the parking lot, the late sun etching your hair red. My arms shielding my head as your knuckles thudded around me.
Those Saturdays, we'd stroll the corridors until, one by one, the shops pulled shut their steel gates. Then we'd make our way to the bus stop down the street, our breaths floating above us, the makeup drying on your face. Our hands empty except for our hands.
Out my window this morning, just before sunrise, a deer stood in a fog so dense and bright that the second one, not too far away, looked like the unfinished shadow of the first.
You can color that in. You can call it "The History of Memory."
Migration can be triggered by the angle of sunlight, indicating a change in season, temperature, plant life, and food supply. Female monarchs lay eggs along the route. Every history has more than one thread, each thread a story of division. The journey takes four thousand eight hundred and thirty miles, more than the length of this country. The monarchs that fly south will not make it back north. Each departure, then, is final. Only their children return; only the future revisits the past.
What is a country but a borderless sentence, a life?
That time at the Chinese butcher, you pointed to the roasted pig hanging from its hook. "The ribs are just like a person's after they're burned." You let out a clipped chuckle, then paused, took out your pocketbook, your face pinched, and recounted our money.
What is a country but a life sentence?
The time with a gallon of milk. The jug bursting on my shoulder bone, then a steady white rain on the kitchen tiles.
The time at Six Flags, when you rode the Superman roller coaster with me because I was too scared to do it alone. How you threw up afterward, your whole head in the garbage can. How, in my screeching delight, I forgot to say Thank you.
The time we went to Goodwill and piled the cart with items that had a yellow tag, because on that day a yellow tag meant an additional fifty percent off. I pushed the cart and leaped on the back bar, gliding, feeling rich with our bounty of discarded treasures. It was your birthday. We were splurging. "Do I look like a real American?" you said, pressing a white dress to your length. It was slightly too formal for you to have any occasion to wear, yet casual enough to hold a possibility of use. A chance. I nodded, grinning. The cart was so full by then I no longer saw what was ahead of me.
The time with the kitchen knife-the one you picked up, then put down, shaking, saying quietly, "Get out. Get out." And I ran out the door, down the black summer streets. I ran until I forgot I was ten, until my heartbeat was all I could hear of my name.
The time, in New York City, a week after cousin Phuong died in the car wreck, I stepped onto the uptown 2 train and saw his face, clear and round as the doors opened, looking right at me, alive. I gasped-but knew better, that it was only a man who resembled him. Still, it upended me to see what I thought I'd never see again-the features so exact, heavy jaw, open brow. His name lunged to the fore of my mouth before I caught it. Aboveground, I sat on a hydrant and called you. Ma, I saw him, I breathed. Ma, I swear I saw him. I know it's stupid but I saw Phuong on the train. I was having a panic attack. And you knew it. For a while you said nothing, then started to hum the melody to Happy Birthday. It was not my birthday but it was the only song you knew in English, and you kept going. And I listened, the phone pressed so close to my ear that, for the rest of the night, a pink rectangle was imprinted on my cheek.
I am twenty-eight years old, 5ft 4in tall, 112lbs. I am handsome at exactly three angles and deadly from everywhere else. I am writing you from inside a body that used to be yours. Which is to say, I am writing as a son.
If we are lucky, the end of the sentence is where we might begin. If we are lucky, something is passed on, another alphabet written in the blood, sinew, and neuron; ancestors charging their kin with the silent propulsion to fly south, to turn toward the place in the narrative no one was meant to outlast.
The time, at the nail salon, I overheard you consoling a customer over her recent loss. While you painted her nails, she spoke, between tears. "I lost my baby, my little girl, Julie. I can't believe it, she was my strongest, my oldest."
You nodded, eyes sober behind your mask. "It's okay, it's okay," you said in English, "don't cry. Your Julie," you went on, "how she die?"
"Cancer," the lady said. "And in the backyard, too! She died right there in the backyard, dammit."
You put down her hand, took off your mask. Cancer. You leaned forward. "My mom, too, she die from the cancer." The room went quiet. Your co-workers shifted in their seats. "But what happen in backyard, why she die there?"
The woman wiped her eyes. "That's where she lives. Julie's my horse."
You nodded, put on your mask, and got back to painting her nails. After the woman left, you flung the mask across the room. "A fucking horse?" you said in Vietnamese. "Holy shit, I was ready to go to her daughter's grave with flowers!" For the rest of the day, while you worked on one hand or another, you would look up and shout, "It was a fucking horse!" and we'd all laugh.
The time, at thirteen, when I finally said stop. Your hand in the air, my cheek bone stinging from the first blow. Stop, Ma. Quit it. Please. I looked at you hard, the way I had learned, by then, to look into the eyes of my bullies. You turned away and, saying nothing, put on your brown wool coat and walked to the store. I'm getting eggs, you said over your shoulder, as if nothing had happened. But we both knew you'd never hit me again.
Monarchs that survived the migration passed this message down to their children. The memory of family members lost from the initial winter was woven into their genes.
When does a war end? When can I say your name and have it mean only your name and not what you left behind?
The time I woke into an ink-blue hour, my head-no, the house-filled with soft music. My feet on cool hardwood, I walked to your room. Your bed was empty. "Ma," I said, still as a cut flower over the music. It was Chopin, and it was coming from the closet. The door etched in reddish light, like the entrance to a place on fire. I sat outside it, listening to the overture and, underneath that, your steady breathing. I don't know how long I was there. But at one point I went back to bed, pulled the covers to my chin until it stopped, not the song but my shaking. "Ma," I said again, to no one, "come back. Come back out."