Scrubbing toilets wasn’t usually this interesting. Mỹ had done it so many times she had a streamlined routine by now. Spray with poison everywhere. Pour poison inside. Scrub, scrub, scrub, scrub, scrub. Wipe, wipe, wipe. Flush. Done in less than two minutes. If they had a toilet-cleaning contest, Mỹ would be a top contender.
Not today, though. The noises in the next stall kept distracting her. She was pretty sure the girl in there was crying. Either that or exercising. There was lots of heavy breathing going on. What kind of workout could you do in a bathroom stall? Knee-ups maybe.
A strangled sound issued, followed by a high-pitched whimper, and Mỹ let go of her toilet brush. That was definitely crying. Leaning her temple against the side of the stall, she cleared her throat and asked, “Miss, is something wrong?”
“No, nothing’s wrong,” the girl said, but her cries got louder before they stopped abruptly, replaced by more muffled heavy breathing.
“I work in this hotel.” As a janitor/maid. “If someone treated you badly, I can help.” She’d try to, anyway. Nothing rankled her like a bully. She couldn’t afford to lose this job, though.
“No, I’m fine.” The door latch rattled, and shoes clacked against the marble floor.
Mỹ stuck her head out of her stall in time to see a pretty girl saunter toward the sinks. She wore the highest, scariest heels Mỹ had ever seen and a red skintight dress that ended right beneath her butt. If you believed anything Mỹ’s grandma said, that girl would get pregnant the second she stepped foot on the street. She was probably pregnant already — from the potency of a man’s child-giving stare.
For her part, Mỹ had gotten pregnant by messing around with a playboy from school, no skimpy dress and scary heels needed. She’d resisted him at first. Her mom and grandma had been clear that studies came first, but he’d pursued her until she’d caved, thinking it was love. Instead of marrying her when she’d told him about the baby, however, he’d grudgingly offered to keep her as his secret mistress. She wasn’t the kind of girl he could introduce to his upper-class family, and surprise, he was engaged and planned to go through with the wedding. Obviously, she’d turned him down, which had been both a relief and a shock for him, that son of a dog. Her family, on the other hand, had been heartbroken with disappointment — they’d pinned so many hopes on her. But as she’d known they would, they’d supported her and her baby.
The girl in the red dress washed her hands and dabbed at her mascara-streaked cheeks before tossing her hand towel on the counter and leaving the bathroom. Mỹ’s yellow rubber gloves squeaked as she fisted her hands. The towel basket was right there. Grumbling to herself, she stalked to the sinks, wiped off the counter with the girl’s hand towel, and launched it into the towel basket. A quick inspection of the sink, counter, mirror, and neatly rolled stack of towels confirmed everything was acceptable, and she started back toward the last toilet.
The bathroom door swung open, and another girl rushed inside. With her waist-length black hair, skinny body, long legs, and danger heels, she looked a lot like the previous girl. Only her dress was white. Was the hotel having some kind of pageant? And why was this girl crying, too?
“Miss, are you okay?” Mỹ asked as she took a tentative step toward her.
The girl splashed water on her face. “I’m fine.” She braced her wet hands on the granite countertop, making more mess for Mỹ to clean up, and stared at her reflection in the mirror as she took deep breaths. “I thought she was going to pick me. I was so sure. Why ask that question if she doesn’t want that answer? She’s a sneaky woman.”
Mỹ tore her gaze away from the fresh water drops on the counter and focused on the girl’s face. “What woman? Pick you for what?”
The girl raked a certain look over Mỹ’s hotel uniform and rolled her eyes. “You wouldn’t understand.”
Mỹ’s back stiffened, and her skin flushed with embarrassed heat. She’d gotten that look and tone of voice before. She knew what they meant. Before she could come up with a suitable response, the girl was gone. And another crumpled towel lay on the counter. Just as Mỹ’s gloved fingers closed around the towel, the door swung open yet again. She looked heavenward. If it was another crying spoiled girl, she was leaving for a bathroom on the other side of the hotel.
But it wasn’t. A tired-looking older woman padded to the sitting room on the far end of the bathroom and sat on one of the velvet-upholstered loveseats. Mỹ knew at first glance the lady was a Việt kiều. It was a combination of things that gave it away: her genuine granddaddy-sized Louis Vuitton handbag, her expensive clothes, and her feet. Manicured and perfectly uncalloused, those sandaled feet had to belong to an overseas Vietnamese. Those people tipped really well, for everything. Money practically poured out of them. Maybe today was Mỹ’s lucky day.
She tossed the hand towel in the basket and approached the woman. “Miss, can I get you anything?”
The lady waved at her dismissively.
“Just let me know, miss. Enjoy your time in here. It’s a very nice bathroom.” She winced, wishing she could retract the last words, and turned back toward her toilets. Why they had a sitting room in here was beyond her. Sure, it was a nice room, but why relax where you could hear people doing bathroom stuff?
She finished her work, set her bucket of cleaning supplies on the floor by the sinks, and performed one last inspection of the bathroom. One of the hand towels had partially unrolled, so she shook it out, rerolled it, and set it on the stack with the others. Then she repositioned the tissue box. There. Everything was presentable.
She bent to pick up her bucket, but before her fingers could close around the handle, the lady said, “Why did you fix the box of Kleenex like that?”
Mỹ straightened, looked at the tissue box, and then tilted her head at the lady. “Because that’s how the hotel likes it, miss.”
A thinking expression crossed the lady’s face, and after a second, she beckoned Mỹ toward her and patted the space next to her on the sofa. “Come talk to me for a minute. Call me Cô Nga.”
Mỹ smiled in puzzlement but did as she was bid, sitting down next to the lady and keeping her back straight, her hands folded, and her knees pressed together like the virginest virgin. Her grandma would have been proud.
Sharp eyes in a pale powdered face assessed her much like Mỹ had just done to the bathroom counter, and Mỹ pressed her feet together awkwardly and beamed her best smile at the lady.
After reading her name tag, the lady said, “So your name is Trần Ngọc Mỹ.”
“You clean the bathrooms here? What else do you do?”
Mỹ’s smile threatened to fade, and she kept it up with effort. “I also clean the guests’ rooms, so that’s more bathrooms, changing sheets, making beds, vacuuming. Those kinds of things.” It wasn’t what she’d dreamed of doing when she was younger, but it paid, and she made sure she did good work.
“Ah, that is — You have mixed blood.” Leaning forward, the lady clasped Mỹ’s chin and angled her face upward. “Your eyes are green.”
Mỹ held her breath and tried to figure out the lady’s opinion on this. Sometimes it was a good thing. Most of the time it wasn’t. It was much better to be mixed race when you had money.
The lady frowned. “But how? There haven’t been American soldiers here since the war.” Mỹ shrugged.
“My mom says he was a businessman. I’ve never met him.” As the story went, her mom had been his housekeeper — and something else on the side — and their affair had ended when his work project finished and he left the country. It wasn’t until afterward that her mom discovered she was pregnant, and by then it was too late. She hadn’t known how to find him. She’d had no choice but to move back home to live with her family. Mỹ had always thought she’d do better than her mom, but she’d managed to follow in her footsteps almost exactly.
The lady nodded and squeezed her arm once. “Did you just move to the city? You don’t seem like you’re from around here.”
Mỹ averted her eyes, and her smile fell. She’d grown up with very little money, but it wasn’t until she’d come to the big city that she’d learned just how poor she really was. “We moved a couple months ago because I got the job here. Is it that easy to tell?”
The lady patted Mỹ’s cheek in an oddly affectionate manner. “You’re still naïve like a country girl. Where are you from?”
“A village close to Mỹ Tho, by the water.”
A wide grin stretched over the lady’s face. “I knew I liked you. Places make people. I grew up there. I named my restaurant Mỹ Tho Noodles. It’s a very good restaurant in California. They talk about it on TV and in magazines. I guess you wouldn’t have heard about it here, though.” She sighed to herself before her eyes sharpened and she asked, “How old are you?”
“You look younger than that,” Cô Nga said with a laugh. “But that’s a good age.”
A good age for what? But Mỹ didn’t ask. Tip or no tip, she was ready for this conversation to end. Maybe a real city girl would have left already. Toilets didn’t scrub themselves.
“Have you ever thought of coming to America?” Cô Nga asked.
Mỹ shook her head, but that was a lie. As a child, she’d fantasized about living in a place where she didn’t stick out and maybe meeting her green-eyed dad. But there was more than an ocean separating Việt Nam and America, and the older she’d grown, the larger the distance had become.
“Are you married?” the lady asked. “Do you have a boyfriend?”
“No, no husband, no boyfriend.” She smoothed her hands over her thighs and gripped her knees. What did this woman want? She’d heard the horror stories about strangers. Was this sweet-looking woman trying to trick her and sell her into prostitution in Cambodia?
“Don’t look so worried. I have good intentions. Here, let me show you something.” The lady dug through her giant Louis Vuitton purse until she found a manila file. Then she pulled out a photograph and handed it to Mỹ. “This is my Diệp Khải, my youngest son. He’s handsome, ha?”
Mỹ didn’t want to look — she honestly didn’t care about this unknown man who lived in the paradise of California — but she decided to humor the woman. She’d look at the picture and make all the appropriate noises. She’d tell Cô Nga her son looked like a movie star, and then she’d find some excuse to leave.
When she glanced at the photograph, however, her body went still, just like the sky immediately before a rainstorm.
He did look like a movie star, a beautiful one, with sexy wind-tossed hair and strong, clean features. Most captivating of all, however, was the quiet intensity that emanated from him. A shadow of a smile touched his lips as he focused on something to the side, and she found herself leaning toward the photo. If he were an actor, all the aloof dangerous hero roles would be his, like a bodyguard or a kung fu master. He made you wonder: What was he thinking about so intently? What was his story? Why didn’t he smile for real?
“Ah, so Mỹ approves. I told you he was handsome,” Cô Nga said with a knowing smile.
Mỹ blinked like she was coming out of a trance and handed the picture back to the lady. “Yes, he is.” He’d make a lucky girl even luckier someday, and they’d live a long, lucky life together. She hoped they experienced food poisoning at least once. Nothing life-threatening, of course. Just inconvenient — make that very inconvenient. And mildly painful. Embarrassing, too.
“He’s also smart and talented. He went to graduate school.”
Mỹ worked up a smile. “That’s impressive. I would be very proud if I had a son like him.” Her mom, on the other hand, had a toilet cleaner for a daughter. She pushed her bitterness away and reminded herself to keep her head down and go about her own business. Jealousy wouldn’t get her anything but misery. But she wished him extra incidences of food poisoning, anyway. There had to be some fairness in the world.
“I am very proud of him,” Cô Nga said. “He’s why I’m here, actually. To find him a wife.”
“Oh.” Mỹ frowned. “I didn’t know Americans did that.”
“They don’t do it, and Khải would be angry if he knew. But I have to do something. His older brother is too good with women — I don’t need to worry about him — but Khải is twenty-six and still hasn’t had a girlfriend. When I set up dates for him, he doesn’t go. When girls call him, he hangs up. This coming summer, there are three weddings in our family, three, but is one his? No. Since he doesn’t know how to find himself a wife, I decided to do it for him. I’ve been interviewing candidates all day. None of them fit my expectations.”
Her jaw fell. “All the crying girls . . .”
Cô Nga waved her comment away. “They’re crying because they’re ashamed of themselves. They’ll recover. I had to know if they were serious about marrying my son. None of them were.”
“They seemed very serious.” They hadn’t been fake crying in the bathroom — that was for sure.
“How about you?” Cô Nga fixed that assessing stare on her again.
“What about me?”
“Are you interested in marrying my Khải?”
Mỹ looked behind herself before pointing at her own chest. “Me?”
Cô Nga nodded. “Yes, you. You’ve caught my attention.”
Her eyes widened. How?
As if she could read Mỹ’s mind, Cô Nga said, “You’re a good, hardworking girl and pretty in an unusual way. I think I could trust you with my Khải.”
All Mỹ could do was stare. Had the fumes from the cleaning chemicals finally damaged her brain? “You want me to marry your son? But we’ve never met. You might like me . . .” She shook her head, still unable to wrap her mind around that. She cleaned toilets for a living. “But your son probably won’t. He sounds picky, and I’m not—”
“Oh, no, no,” Cô Nga interrupted. “He’s not picky. He’s shy. And stubborn. He thinks he doesn’t want a family. He needs a girl who is more stubborn. You’d have to make him change his mind.”
“How would I—”
“Ơi, you know. You dress up, take care of him, cook the things he likes, do the things he likes....”
Mỹ couldn’t help grimacing, and Cô Nga surprised her by laughing.
“This is why I like you. You can’t help but be yourself. What do you think? I could give you a summer in America to see if you two fit. If you don’t, no problem, you go home. At the very least, you’ll go to all our family weddings and have some food and fun. How’s that?”
“I...” She didn’t know what to say. It was too much to take in.
“One more thing.” Cô Nga’s gaze turned measuring, and there was a heavy pause before she said, “He doesn’t want children. But I am determined to have grandchildren. If you manage to get pregnant, I know he’ll do the right thing and marry you, regardless of how you get along. I’ll even give you money. Twenty thousand American dollars. Will you do this for me?”
The breath seeped from Mỹ’s lungs, and her skin went cold. Cô Nga wanted her to steal a baby from her son and force him into marriage. Disappointment and futility crushed her. For a moment, she’d thought this lady saw something special in her, but Cô Nga had judged her based on things she couldn’t control, just like the girls in the skimpy dresses had.
“The other girls all said no, didn’t they? You thought I’d say yes because...” She indicated her uniform with an open palm.
Cô Nga said nothing, her gaze steady.
Mỹ pushed up from the sofa, went to gather up her bucket of cleaning supplies, opened the door, and paused in the doorway. With her eyes trained straight ahead, she said, “My answer is no.”
She didn’t have money, connections, or skills, but she could still be as hardheaded and foolish as she wanted. She hoped her refusal stung. Without a backward glance, she left.
That evening, after the hour-long walk home — the same one she did twice a day every day — Mỹ tiptoed into their one-room house and collapsed onto the section of floor mat where she slept at night. She needed to get ready for bed, but first, she wanted to do nothing for a few moments. Just nothing. Nothing was such a luxury.
Her pocket buzzed, ruining her nothing. With a frustrated sigh, she dug her phone out of her pocket.
Unfamiliar phone number.
She debated not answering it, but something had her hitting the talk button and pressing the phone to her ear. “Hello?”
“Mỹ, is this you?”
Mỹ puzzled over the voice. It was slightly familiar, but she couldn’t place it. “Yes. Who’s this?”
“It’s me, Cô Nga. No, don’t hang up,” the lady added quickly. “I got your number from the hotel supervisor. I wanted to talk to you.”
Her fingers tightened on the phone, and she sat upright. “I don’t have anything left to say.”
“You won’t change your mind?”
She resisted the urge to throw her phone at the wall. “No.”
“Good,” Cô Nga said.
Frowning, Mỹ lowered her phone and stared at it. She returned the phone to her ear in time to hear Cô Nga say, “It was a test. I don’t want you to trick my son into having a baby, but I needed to know what kind of person you are.”
“So that means...?”
“That means you’re the one I want, Mỹ. Come to America to see my son. I’ll give you the entire summer to win him and go to his cousins’ weddings. You’ll need the time. It’ll be work to figure him out, but it’ll be worth it. He’s good stuff. If anyone can do it, I think it’s you. If you want to. Do you?”
Her head began spinning. “I don’t know. I need to think.”
“Then think and call me back. But don’t take too long. I need to arrange your visa and plane ticket,” Cô Nga said. “I’ll be waiting to hear from you.” With that, the call disconnected. ●
From The Bride Test by Helen Hoang, published on May 7, 2019 by Berkley, an
imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright ©
2019 by Helen Hoang.
Helen Hoang read her first romance novel in eighth grade and has been addicted ever since. In 2016, she was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder in line with what was previously known as Asperger’s syndrome. Her journey inspired The Kiss Quotient. She currently lives in San Diego, California, with her husband, two kids, and pet fish. The Bride Test is her second novel.