Cheryl Jones, instructor of ESL, U.S. Citizenship and the occasional art class at Woodlakes Adult School shook her head and stared in disbelief at the documented bigamy in her hands. “Phuc Nguyen, why did you do this?” she queried of her student, Mr. Nguyen Phuc, age 60, and newly arrived from South Vietnam. “Acquiring two marriage certificates violates U.S. law.”
Nguyen Phuc smiled, and nodded politely to avoid the discomfort of admitting to yet another nice White American Lady that he hadn’t comprehended what she’d said.
However, Linh- better at language learning than either Phuc or his other wife, Loan- recognized the English phrase “…violates U.S. law”, and commenced a panicky session of hyperventilation. “What do we do? What do we do? What do we do?” Linh asked.
Wearing her best May I help the next customer in line? smile, Cheryl attempted to reassure Linh with the words, “Look, don’t worry. You can just annul one of the marriages.” Her smile was contagious, and Linh responded with a wide grin and trusting eyes. But when Linh asked for Cheryl to explain the word “annul”, only Phuc and Loan kept smiling. “Teacher Cheryl, what marriage to annul—Phuc and me, or Phuc and Loan?”
Cheryl glanced at her watch, frowned, and said, “Look, I’m in a hurry. Let’s flip a coin to decide.” She hastily dug beneath the graveyard of stuff buried within her purse, while explaining to Phuc and his one-too-many life partners the value and procedure of a coin toss in making quick decisions. Linh, the one who knew English, took great care in translating the teacher’s words for her life partners of forty-three years.
“Aha!” Cheryl proclaimed at last, holding up the silvery sliver of a quarter. At that moment, the school principal came to the door and mouthed silently, “What’s the slow-up?” Ms. Cheryl Jones carefully held up a finger to indicate she’d join him in just one minute.
“Now remember,” noted the teacher in a serious tone, “Whichever wife ‘wins’ the coin toss will be the one whose marriage will be annulled. Agreed?” The three Asians held hands and nodded solemnly. “Ready?” asked the teacher. “Ready” came the quiet
response. As the coin flew gently upward, Linh called out “tails!” first, and a moment later, a poorly-pronounced “heads!” emerged from Loan’s larynx. The disk landed atop the teacher’s desk and, seeing President Washington’s ponytail, Cheryl sticky
noted the rushed-written message, “Another bigamy- please annul” to the marriage certificate of Phuc and Loan, the wife whose word “heads” had won the toss.
While cramming papers and teaching materials into an overstuffed rolling cart, Cheryl directed the trusting triad to take both marriage documents to their social worker.
“Okay? Do you understand? Tomorrow get that marriage annulled.” The three Asians stood waiting. For what? Cheryl wondered. “Okay, we’re done here. I’ve gotta go. Have a nice day.” She rushed off, but at the doorway stopped, turned toward the trio still standing at her desk, waiting for something. Her reassurance, perhaps?
“It’ll be fine. I'm no lawyer, so don't quote me on this, but I'm confident you’ll be fine if you do the paperwork right away. Don’t worry, but don't delay!”
Then she left.
A week passed before Cheryl saw the Nguyen Phuc family again. Late on Thursday, about twenty minutes after the dismissal of the ESL class they normally attended, Phuc and Linh arrived without Loan. In tearful silence Phuc handed Cheryl a death certificate, and when she recognized the name, Loan Phan, she adopted her best Hallmark Card countenance, placed hand over heart, and said “I’m so sorry for your loss.” Then she noticed the cause of death, suicide, and commented, “Oh my! Loan killed herself?”
Wordlessly, before Cheryl could stop her, Linh picked up the teacher’s favorite Cross pen from its special stand on the desk and, in the corner of her lesson plan book, illustrated a woman hanging from a noose. Winning the fight against vomit, Cheryl lost
the battle to stop herself from asking, “Why?”
Leaning forward slowly, as if bearing a heavy weight upon his frail back, Phuc took the pen from Linh’s shaking hand and, in careful letters, wrote beneath the drawing: HEADS.