Il pleuvait sans cesse sur Brest ce jour-là
Et tu marchais souriante
Epanouie ravie ruisselante
Sous la pluie …
quand même ce jour-la
un homme sous un porche s’abritait
Et il a crie ton nom Barbara
When the blue car drove through the street puddle, my shirt was splashed with water and it evoked a memory of your laugh, sharp and dry. All at once I felt as if our happiness had too been doused like a person walking in a torrential rain.
Do you still remember when our car broke down near the Vietnam Veterans’ wall on Constitution Avenue on that summer afternoon, and we sat on a green rock at the foot of the bridge spanning the Potomac River, watching the current? Perhaps the river has iced over by now and the birds — I don’t know what they’re called — perhaps they’re waddling around on the icy surface? Have you ever pulled over on 21st Street on your way home from work one evening, strolled on the lawn where American high school students play soccer, and gone to sit on the rock where you might hear once again the frenzied breathing of two people meeting for the first time in more than ten years? When you wake up in the morning, do you have to wade through the snow in the front yard, with your jacket, your scarf, your knit cap, your gloves and a thermos of boiling water to pour over the frozen lock on the car door, and then turn on the ignition key and wait for everything to defrost before you can go to work? Coming home from Washington on the beltway in the evening, do you still run into traffic jams when you turn onto the street in the direction of Backlick Park? And Springfield, your town, has it been covered under the cold white of the God of Winter?
Yesterday, at the other end of a long distance call, I heard you talk with your co-workers, your voice soft and fluent like a native speaker. And me, with my spotty English, always having to think before I speak, stringing words together while grappling with my pronunciation, like a person struggling up a slope hauling a big bag over his shoulder, not being able to make myself understood. But it doesn’t matter, because I’m living in the middle of a Vietnamese community and I still speak Vietnamese exactly like I used to do back in Saigon. I still speak Vietnamese like a person who has never left the country, even though a black family lives on one side of my house, a Korean on the other, a Mexican in front and a Filipino at the back. A friend of mine who lives in the northeast chides me for choosing such a house! He warns me that my children will all become delinquents, failing school, and joining gangs…Perhaps everything he’s said is right, but…for people who have lost their homeland, any place that still has a little color, a little taste, a little culture is appealing enough. I’m not a picky person. Right?
A French or a German person, or generally speaking, any European, comes to America already having a common denominator — the same skin color, same hair color, same height and same weight, same build and same ancestors. They only have one last barrier, language. But this isn’t that difficult to overcome. As for us Asians, with yellow skin and flat noses, a humble height, slight build, hair pitch black, eyes a sad brown…We are total strangers to natives here. No matter how hard we try, we’re still a minority group speaking English. We’re Americans, but ones who speak very little English. Our children and even we our selves will become American citizens, of course. But how much longer will it take for us to become Americans like others? Could it be after three or four generations, mixing up many times, this husband marrying that wife? Three or four generations, like the Japanese or the Chinese are now, with some of them becoming members of Congress, cabinet secretaries, governors, professors, scientists…but they’re still Asians in public and private. In traditions, they want to go back to their roots. In manners, they want to be assimilated with Americans. In spite of that, no American says that these minorities are American, and back home, no one calls them compatriots any more. As for us, when that time comes, what ethnic group will we resemble most in this multiracial country?
Oh, why do I say these silly things to you! I know that I miss you, I miss your smiling brown eyes, I miss your long neck, like a figure in a painting by Modigliani , I miss the soft hair on your temples. The long strands, the short strands. That, I miss and love. Once you said to me "if we can’t get married, we’ll still love each other for thousands of years." (footnote here)
Right now it’s as if I can still hear you begging me to slow down as I steered the car onto the exit ramp from interstate 405 onto highway 22.
Do you still remember that very night when we returned to Westminster? You and I had stopped at Nguyet Cam coffee shop and listened to the throaty voice of an attractive woman in black and the sound of a melancholy saxophone played by a middle-aged man. My black coffee, your soymilk, and our situation! The light was too dim to light up your face but my memory is still full of your shining image. I had chain-smoked Pall Malls in that coffee shop, burying you in that space filled with toxic gray smoke.
I suppose you had stirred up the memory of those days in Saigon when we had just gotten to know one another. Then, our sweet love was spiced with the bittersweet taste of tear gas canisters. When the first night of city curfew went into effect, we had been out driving on Hien Vuong Street. The streets that were off-limits had been blocked with barbed wire. A patrol jeep had driven past us while we were hurriedly kissing each other goodbye, since early the next morning I would have to go back to my unit. The tamarind trees lining both sides of Gia Long Street had been a witness to our passionate love.
Everything is gone, the sandbags stacked in a pile on the corner of an intersection, with black muzzles sticking out in all four directions. Also gone is the terrifying siren announcing the midnight curfew. That night I had stopped the car at a snack bar by the name of Ohio, letting you off at the corner of Nguyen Van Gian and Phan Thanh Gian. I drove home like mad speeding like a reckless racecar, and the deserted streets of war were filled with your image.
Now, ten years later, seeing each other again in winter, in the capital of the largest, wealthiest, most peaceful country in the world, how far we are from each other!
When the car zoomed by, the water in the gutter splashed up and the sound of your laughter escaped with a gust of the wind, making me think you. About you, and the sound of broken laughter. You, with our hopeless love . About you, with all the worries and fears.
Why couldn’t it have been someone else sitting next to me in the Edwards movie theater in South Coast Plaza? Our fingers intertwined because we knew that in a few moments we would have to say goodbye, perhaps forever. The painful silence oppressed us, making us each try to utter words that were meaningless. "Out of Africa”– it was a good movie. At one point, you agreed with me, but as the movie went on you formed your own opinion. The ending of the movie was the thing you hated most. You criticized the director as well as the screenwriter. I loved the magnificent scenery of African mountains and forests, and enjoyed the movie’s music and sound. Once, you asked me if I still remembered the move "L’Insoumis" which we had seen the day I was on leave from Ban Me Thuot and we had gone into a dilapidated old movie theater in Cholon. How could the heroine, a cold and obstinate lawyer, have fallen in love with such a sinful man at first sight? At a fork in their love affair, the man and woman, two French who had loved each other in Algeria, hadn’t known what decision they would have to make. Just like you and me, two Vietnamese in America, we didn’t know what decision to make. We were like leaves on the surface of a river in the flood season. "Let it be!" You said so! But that wasn’t your real thought, was it? You, who bows to tradition, public opinion, living behind high walls and locked gates…Did we love each other, or not? Neither of us could answer that short and routine question with any certainty.
You said that those ten years had stolen all of your youth, your girlhood. Those ten years had blown away the yellow pine pollen of illusions that a man like me couldn’t be without. We were standing on a beach and the waves of forgetfulness were eroding the rock of memory that stood at the feet of the present. Just like drivers on a freeway, we could only move forward, move forward forever, at a high speed that had been pre-determined. We could neither move faster nor slower, able to get off at the next exit, but unable to make a sudden u-turn upon seeing an acquaintance driving in the opposite direction on the other side of the freeway.
Do you remember Saigon in those days, when I came to visit you while on leave, not daring to step into your house? Instead I would sit in that cheap coffeehouse across the street, drinking black coffee and smoking raisin-scented Pall Malls down to their filters. And it seems to me that once you stood me up because that day your father had changed his mind and didn’t go to the racetrack as you had said. A fierce rain had soaked the sidewalk coffeehouse and left me waiting in anger. My coffee had become watered down with raindrops dripping from the military tarp, but my thoughts were always filled with your image. The day before I left our homeland ten years later, that coffeehouse was still as it had been in those days, with only two differences: the owner had fled the country and the coffeehouse had grown even more dilapidated.
You asked me where I was going this weekend? Down to San Diego to visit Sea World, or up to San Francisco to see the Golden Gate Bridge? And the famous Las Vegas casinos, you said we should go there just to look at them. Thank you, for surely one day I will go, but right now it isn’t possible, even though this country has many magnificent places and any one of them is worth a visit before we die. It’s because very early in the morning, when the entire city hasn’t quite awakened, I have to deliver the Times and in the afternoons I work for a big-name Vietnamese boss cutting grass. You said that out here, there were so many fun things to do, so much entertainment, that perhaps every weekend I would lose sleep and be tired. Sure, I lose sleep and am tired. But it isn’t from dancing and squandering my time. The disquiet of my heart has made me like that. Please don’t be angry with me if I fail to say that I don’t go to those places because I’m faithful to you, or that I avoid them because of my modest wages. No, that isn’t the reason. I don’t go to those places because I don’t want to. That’s all. Do you think I’m too pessimistic? Or do you think that I suffer from a sense of inferiority because of my poverty? Either way. I’ve always been a person allergic to everything that is snobbish.
Can you believe what I’m saying?
Do you still remember those days in Saigon, when I took you on the silver Lambretta, round and round on the red dirt roads in the university village Thu Duc? Weren’t they the most beautiful roads, the most beautiful days for both of us? Where did we leave our sadness in those moments? The war ate away the flesh of our homeland, invading even my sleep and interfering with our love that had never known a day of peace.
When the blue car went through the puddle, splashing water onto my shirt, even my face, I suddenly realized that our love was also serendipitous. We had met by chance. Where, do you remember? It seems to me that the first time we met, you had gone with your schoolmates to visit the soldiers at an outpost and I was the swaggering platoon leader who had fallen softly when hit by the bullets of your eyes piercing my heart. That’s right, it was only by chance that the two of us got stuck in a traffic jam at the foot of Kieu Bridge (you on the way home from school, and me on leave). When the red light kept us at the intersection by chance…But now, ten years later, that serendipity is no longer with us. Do you know, during the first days of May 1975, when all of Saigon was enveloped in the sound of a city gripped in its death throes, I had come to find you, but you had disappeared without a trace. The house was deserted, empty. The coffeehouse across the street suddenly had more patrons than ever, but everyone who sat there looked dazed, with their feet on the ground, but minds, who knows where. I squeezed myself in too and sat on one of the low stools among all the strangers to whom I nonetheless felt close because now we all had a common name: "puppets". The "puppet solider" was sitting here, but his "puppet" girlfriend had left, god knows when. When would we meet again? You should know that ten years ago, it was a difficult question to answer. I had boldly entered your house, pushed open the door to your room. What did I see? On your desk was a picture of you standing on the school grounds in a white ao dai, a conical hat. It had been taken out of the frame and I found two lines of a poem written by hand in Vietnamese, which seemed to have been written by you, maybe of Byron? I don’t remember.
…Farewell, and if it’s forever once again, farewell forever…
Is it true that the poet Byron had written those lines? Probably they aren’t his. But it doesn’t matter. All I needed was to get your message, and I didn’t care whether it was true to the original. And I understood that you had written those lines on the picture for me and those words carried your message to me. And you had signed your name as Barbara. Yes, it was Barbara and only the two of us understood this code. I’m still keeping it now, and perhaps you understand why, don’t you?
The first day I got to know you, you had copied a poem by Jacques Prevert to give to me. It was a long poem without a comma, only a period at the end. It was a poem that I would have to remember forever and I have! Because it’s so intimate to us, that’s what you said, am I right?
…Oh Barbara Quelle connierie la guerre Qu’es tu devenue maintenant Sous cette pluie de fer De feu d’acier de sang Et celui qui te serrait dans ses bras Amoureusement Est il mort dispaur ou bien encore vivant Oh Barbara …
Barbara by Jacques Prevert
(Nguyễn Xuân Hoàng’s autograph)
You see, my mind is still lucid, right?
Barbara, what are you doing at this moment?
Barbara, did you know that the whole city had collapsed in deception and your departure had sunk me in the ashes of those parting words before death? I sat in your room for a long time, a long, long time. I had lain on the bed still full of your scent and felt as if I was covering myself with your passionate, warm body. I smoked the leftover Pall Malls from my pocket, and had consumed the bottles your father had left in the glass case until I was dead drunk. I pulled out all of the drawers of your desk in order to search for who knows what…if I was lucky enough…some more lines that you had written for me.
There was nothing else, save the mess that you had left behind. Perhaps you had been in such a hurry before your departure that you couldn’t do anything else.
Barbara, from that moment until the moment I saw you again, ten years had passed. Was that period of time short or long in a person’s life? Had it drunk up the cup of passion in me, a person who had been full of vitality? Had it caused the passionate love in you, a girl who had just matured, to fade away? When will those questions that have plagued me loosen their grip?
When the blue car zoomed past, squashing a tomato on the street, I felt as if our happiness had also been squashed. I remember your Porsche. It was a two-seater, with a modern radio cassette player, a vial of tranquilizers in the glove compartment, and placed beneath the stick shift, next to a nail file, a bottle of Yves Saint Laurent perfume with the smell of fresh lemon…
You asked me whether I had sent my Datsun to the junkyard yet, and immediately you kissed me, so you wouldn’t have to scold me. "Stupid, don’t be mad at me, good heavens! I love you!" You said we should ignore what people thought, even though it was always you who said that we should avoid this street or that restaurant.
You are an entanglement of contradictions.
Do you still remember the night when the two of us drank expresso on the sidewalk of Newport Beach? The summer weather was hot, but that night in Newport Beach was as cold as wintertime. On the other side of the table, two Spanish-speaking Americans were kissing each other and you asked me why we couldn’t act like them. But when I hugged and kissed you, you said "Don’t, please don’t." No! Perhaps we don’t love each other. Perhaps we only love our fragile happiness. We are only clumsy hunters, shooting blindly at an invisible animal in a strange forest on the last night of the lunar month.
When I drove back on the street named Hazard, I ran a red light at the intersection of Euclid, and I got a ticket. No, Hazard doesn’t just mean ‘by chance,’ it also means risk, danger. Is it because I had refused to understand the second and third meanings of the word hazard that I got a ticket? Oh, breaking the traffic laws in America is quite ordinary, like our love. Am I right? People say in this country, there are two frightening things, the police and taxes. Right. But in my opinion, there is something much more frightening, and that is our indifference. Oh, how can people be so unfeeling, so insensitive, so apathetic, so dispassionate?
Perhaps you no longer remember that night at Thu Duc. We had walked around in the dark at an intersection to look for a drink shop to buy a soda for you. Soda? Do you remember? It was the first time I learned that a treatment for nausea was soda. Our outing had to come to an end because you were so tired. You had leaned on my arm all the way home and the steering wheel had lurched when we went by the Ha Tien cement factory. We had escaped death by a hair’s breadth, but you knew nothing. If at that moment I had lost control of the wheel, suppose that the car would have lost its momentum and plowed into a truck carrying timber from Bu Gia Map. Perhaps we would have died two different deaths. You would have died without knowing it. And me, I would have glimpsed death like a flash before the whole sky became pitch dark. I waited for the grim reaper and his scythe. Oh, how terrifying it was between life and death, between the fragile light about to go out and the darkness like an immense net thrown over me in that fateful moment!
Barbara, ten years have passed, your "young and swaggering” army officer—the one who had escaped death on the battlefield of Dong Ha, the one who had gone through life on terrifying Highway Number Seven, the one who had jostled onto a flight that had corpses lying beneath the plane wheels, the one who had tried every way in order to come back to you—in the end only saw the empty room with a picture taken out of the frame, two farewell lines and a cassette tape with the song Sombre Dimanche on it.
Barbara, you were my last refuge, but after I had flown by the highway of horror in a brutal war, that refuge of a boat had pulled up its anchor.
Barbara, eight years in the prison cells have taught me one thing, and that is to love life more fiercely than what life can offer. That we should look at everything through the eyes of a forgiving and charitable heart. That we should be bigger than our enemy, always bigger than even those who have made us suffer. That we should respect human dignity.
There is a place filled with contradictions, and that is our hearts.
Barbara, I love you so much, but isn’t it time for us to say farewell to each other?