Love Letter, December 31st
Hold to the now, the here, through which all future plunges to the past…
—James Joyce, Ulysses
Wandering the quiet streets, he remembered afternoons spent on his motorcycle, the smell of gasoline and humid summer, nothing but the roar of traffic and drone of Ben Thanh street vendors by his side. His mother ran a restaurant in the city then, and they lived generously. He peered into restaurant windows crowded with late-night youth and thought of phở đặc biệt, of slabs of rare beef and fatty flank floating in a simmering meat broth and the smell only Saigon cinnamon and roasted ginger could conceive— the smell of home now, re-created, in Little Saigon, the smell of Lenoi and nine years ago when she left for Nha Trang and he didn’t follow.
After all, his refugee mother hadn’t escaped the war on a boat to America for him just to go back. He’d been sure of this for a long time. Lenoi and he had graduated high school and were living as next door neighbors, still with their parents, planning for college and new capitalistic lives with each other in Los Angeles. His eldest brother Timothy was still with his wife then. Life was strong, full of optimism.
Now perhaps Lenoi was wrapping barbeque pork in rice paper on the sand and eating by herself, or with someone else. Or maybe she was working in a hotel and teaching tourists how to scuba. He didn’t know.
If I weren’t going backwards, I might have met you already. We could be sitting in that park by the library, the one with the train that’s too big for you and me, on a blanket with Angela in the corner wearing those tiny blue sneakers I bought for her last July. Do you remember sitting on that log with me? The parade and the fireworks and the shiny blue flag? We sat on a log in the sand. The air moved between us like warm water. You said, I love you, and I said it back. I’m so sorry. Angela was just yolk in an egg then.
All that mattered was too long ago. He continued to walk and tried to focus on the things he loved now—Jacqueline, his wife, the woman who had bore him a now three year-old baby, both of whom now slept at home—but on New Year’s Eve, even older men with experience cannot help but reminisce.
He wondered what he and Lenoi would have accomplished if he had gone back. He wondered whether they would have found a hut on the shore and made love to the sounds of the ocean turning, always smelling of sea salt and warm fish and shelled crab. He wondered if he would have wanted her to cook for him or whether together they would have concocted sweet tofu desserts coated in hot yellow sugar. He wondered all this because he was in Little Saigon, an imitation of a real place called home and not America, the world of his imagination as a young boy in love with his neighbor.
He walked brisker now and with more direction. He fantasized about the proverbial American dream he should have known, then of going back in time where things couldn’t change no matter who wanted it.
You’re growing and becoming lovelier with each day, and I can hardly stand it. You’re doing it, everything you ever wanted. Those paintings of yours, the ones of Angela in the bathtub, they hurt me they’re so true. She’s growing, too—her feet, her hands, her hair getting longer and more like yours.
But it hasn’t been enough, and it’s my fault. You keep learning things and becoming better and I’m stuck, still lost, still unsuccessful and not the man that I aspired to be when I was a young boy in Saigon. Sometimes I think you are so much older than me.
The big ball was dropping in half an hour. Little Saigon had still a month to wait until the start of new lunar year, but even tonight, busted Heinekens and hot firecracker ash littered the streets. There’s something about celebrating the beginning twice; second chances don’t come around too often and he struggled over how to reconcile it. Yesterday a buddy, Dale, had informed him of a party on Po and Harbor, and when Jacqueline told him she felt too tired, he went alone. He sipped too much drink, mingled with strangers he’d never see again and danced uncoordinatedly with a young Japanese girl named Marie who wore a sequined blue dress.
And as expected, it took about an hour at the place for the guilt to hit.
So there he was, alone in the familiar streets of his city. And at that moment, on an empty sidewalk dyed orange by streetlamp, without company or the flash of a television to distract him, he felt the crushing weight of time passing, of age and of the past. The start of a new decade appeared to him as blue as jazz.
I know I hurt you by saying this, but maybe I should have gone with Lenoi all those years ago. You and I didn’t know each other. I don’t know why I’m doing this now, really. It’s an excuse, a selfish one, but I’m restless. I’ve been thinking of Timothy and feeling weak. Maybe weakness runs in our blood. My father left us early, and my mother must have sensed it in me the moment she gave birth to me, I’m sure of it. I don’t have the instinct for survival like she does. She risked everything so I could have a grand life in America, and what have I given us?
Eleven forty-five his phone rang.
“Happy New Year, my beautiful boy. I’m watching the classic movie channel by myself and I missed you.” His mother had become accustomed to speaking English with their family after he married Jacqueline, but tonight she spoke in her native tongue. Her tender voice cheered him up.
“Happy New Year to you too, Mẹ. Are you well?” he asked.
“Oh God, no. The movies never work, my child. I only think of Timothy. It was a year ago exactly. You remember, don’t you?”
“Of course I remember.”
“How is work? And Jacqueline and the baby girl?”
“Jacqueline’s been busy at home. Her paintings are selling well. They’re very good. She’s been taking classes at the community college.”
“Jacqueline’s a good girl. She makes a good wife and mother, I told you that when you were just a young punk and didn’t know anything. Tell me, are things still rough with you?”
“Yeah, I’ve been showing my work around, but it’s slow. I have the job at the station for now.” He felt shame regardless.
“Don’t worry, baby. I am proud of you. I know you will do what needs to be done. You know, Timothy used to talk and talk about being an ambassador and changing the world, and look where he ended up. Oh God, I can’t even go near the Marina anymore, you know. I feel as if he’s right in between my toes, right in the sand beneath my feet. Can you imagine?”
“Have you talked to Wendy, lately?”
“She’s in and out of the hospital for all sorts of things now, the poor girl. She drives herself mad trying figure things out, and she won’t admit that Timothy was just scared. Forgive me Lord, but Timothy was a coward, James. This is horrible of me to say, but you’re much better than him, my darling. Are you okay, my child? Please talk to me.”
“I need to go.”
Four blocks from the Evergreen trailer park he and Jacqueline called home, there stood a movie theater that played already-released features and old kung-fu movies for real cheap. As a small boy, he frequented the place with Timothy, after they’d arrived in the States and discovered the luxuries of popular leisure. When he started dating Jacqueline, the two of them would go together. There was where he kissed her for the first time. He remembered fooling around in the dark during Enter the Dragon then going out for chè at one of the local bakeries and relishing the stickiness of tapioca pearls and julienned black seaweed swirled in rich coconut cream and mung bean.
But in recent years, he had noticed that the structure of the thing crumbled at the corners and layers of rust and grime made it look feebler than it had seemed in those days. He passed the dilapidated building now with a melancholy feeling, of something lost but too vivid to forget.
Despite the plan he’d constructed in his mind, the letter which he’d been hiding at the bottom of his pocket, he missed Jacqueline. He wanted to go home and kiss his wife at zero. He left the theater behind and walked quickly.
All things aside, I think when you meet someone and fall in love a little, you stumble in wobbly lines toward each other in the same general direction. If it’s real you meet and both know this is what they all said would happen. In our case, I—
Well, I guess I don’t know why we didn’t meet. Is it because we must work always and don’t have time to love each other? Maybe we did meet, temporarily, and something real came out of it, but it couldn’t stay. I haven’t been in it, I’m just not there, and I don’t know how to save it. All I know is that this feels like the only thing left because if I continue traveling backwards, I’ll revert to egg form again and you won’t love me anymore.
Please remember that I love you, even now that I make you cry.
He remembered that Jacqueline was strikingly gorgeous as a girl. She was one of eight white girls at their school, but the only one who knew how to speak Vietnamese well enough to impress the teachers. Her tallness allowed her to carry herself with an elegance few women he knew could manage. After the pregnancy, they could not afford a new wardrobe for her changed body, so she went to the local Goodwill and bought a closet-full of what she called “vintage” clothing—all made of strange fabrics which lasted forever but smelled of must and elbow grease until it was thrown through the wash a couple of times. His mother thought Jacqueline dressed like an old movie star, with her blonde hair that she kept in curls about her face. While she painted, Jacqueline wore one of his beat-up station shirts and tied an apron around her waist that accentuated her hips, which had gained a nice fullness since March.
When he entered the room, she was lying in bed, eyes closed, hair amassed in a yellow nest atop her pillow. He hesitated to wake her.
“What time is it?” she asked him, careful not to wake Angela beside her.
“Six minutes into the new year.”
“So you’re telling me your kiss is six minutes late? Don’t worry about it. I didn’t expect one, anyway.”
“I’m sorry I went to that party.” Even in the dark, he couldn’t look her in the eye.
“Whatever. How was it?”
“I didn’t stay.”
“Will you stay with me, please? I love you, okay? I don’t care that you went, just don’t go again. Stay with me.”
He started to feel heavy again. “No, I have some stuff to take care of.”
“Yes, I have to go now. Dale’s friend, he’s drunk and needs help, I don’t know. Just go back to sleep.” He kissed her on the cheek and shut the door behind him.
He found a cigarette on top of the kitchen counter and went outside to smoke it. He felt more nervous now; his every breath shattered the silence of their neighborhood, of quiet families who watched the ball drop on their television sets, who stayed at home and never went out clubbing in blue sequined dresses.
For the first time he noticed Jacqueline’s garden. No weeds. She had planted purple hydrangeas by the window and a rose bush which wouldn’t bloom for a few more months. The area by the front door where he now stood was clean and well-kept. Pacing slowly, he thought in his mind of their home, the home Jacqueline and he had built for their family. As unplanned as it was, it provided them with comfort and security.
He fingered the note in his pocket.
His mind wandered and he thought of boyhood days spent by the ocean with Timothy and their friends—days too hot for shirts and how their exposed skin browned and peeled. He remembered one particular day when their group dared the brothers to climb the tallest coconut tree. Timothy immediately refused; he was afraid of breaking a bone, he had said.
He remembered the laughing and the shame and how he wanted to do it, to climb the tree and bring down untouched green coconut shells to the other boys.
He thought now that he should have done it.
Twelve twenty. He heard more firecrackers in the distance—the sound of lastness, of celebration coming to an end. He turned and saw a paper lantern hanging lopsided by the door that Jacqueline had crafted and painted with strokes of birds in flight. She had written Angela’s name in Chinese calligraphy. He imagined the two of them playing together while he was at the station—Angela with her little hands and blue shoes and Jacqueline following her around and around.
He extracted the letter, a tad crumpled, with a neat crease down the center.
And as the new year kept on— not stopping for anyone, unaware of time and ends and beginnings— he thought of all that had happened in him and felt it all as one enormous dream, one which had stayed with him since it became impossible and one which would surely come again. He would never again know Lenoi and Nha Trang or what Timothy did to himself that day at the Marina or Saigon as it was before the war. It was tonight that he mourned for them and felt alone.
He smelled the lingering odors of Jacqueline’s leftover chicken. He took in the pink of the lantern hanging above the door, its delicate outer shell speckled with watermarks from morning dew. And he took in the steadiness of the earth as he stood finishing his cigarette—the feeling of now, the feeling of home.