We used to hide in the chôm chôm evergreens, where our mothers couldn’t find us and only our ancestors who resided in the heavens saw our hands embrace. Our mothers might not have been looking however, because they usually concentrated on Father Chris and his commanding voice. Tran and I would crouch behind the cluster of leaves, pulling at its chôm chôm pearls. Our mothers could probably see, between the outdoor cathedral columns, each branch bobbing down, then launching back up. Down, up, down, up!
Tran picked into the lychee-like fruit with her fingernails, peeling off its dark pink skin, which was covered in green hairs. Then we ate the chôm chôm pearls under the sun, the overhang of the branches doing nothing to hide our faces from the heavens. I can imagine my ancestors laughing at us. I can imagine them reminiscing about how they hid in the same evergreen forest, how they ate the same chôm chôm pearls, and how, like us kids at thirteen, they fed the seeds back to the soil.
Tran and I met up almost every Sunday for two months, skipping mass for a more human connection. We talked about our week. We talked about how she wanted to cut her long, black hair because it was always too hot out. We joked about how I always turned red-faced because of the heat, and if I lost any more weight, I would be comparable to the bark of the evergreen trees. We both pulled on the collars of our pastel, pink and blue, button-up shirts to fan some air down.
We talked about how grateful we were that the Vietnam War didn’t reach our town of Long Khánh, even though Saigon resided across the river and farmland. We talked about how boring our lives were—and how our moms always either cooked rice or cháo, a basic congee. Tran bragged about how she would get leftover grilled pork from her mother’s street restaurant.
One time, Tran told me, “Sometimes my ma didn’t give me any, I stole them from her cart.” Then she put her fistful of chôm chôm skins up to her mouth, trying to hide her rambunctious giggling.
When the church bells signaled the end of our rendezvous, she’d untangle her fingers from mine; we didn’t want to relinquish each other. So, we took our time—our hands unraveling as awkwardly as peeling apart the chôm chôm. The heat helped. So did the sweat. And the sticky fruit.
When my mother found me, she lectured me on why we should be obediently kneeling to the cross instead of ruining the view of the evergreens. She told me that my ancestors used to attend mass with the first Vietnamese bishop many years ago. Even though she could never produce the name of the bishop, she always hung my ancestors over my head—a dangling guilt trying to carve an obedient son.
One time after mass, Father Chris helped my mother find me. They divided and conquered, and Father Chris found me first. Instead of calling my mother, he squatted down alongside me and plucked a chôm chôm pearl. He said, “You know, we don’t have these back in California. Do you know the English word for these?”
I shook my head. He peeled it apart, more vicariously than Tran. He said, “Well, these are called rambutans. Can you pronounce that Bao?”
He squished the innards of the chôm chôm into his mouth, “Keep going Bao. Ram…”
He laughed. “That’s fine Bao; it’s a hard word. And truthfully, Bao, you don’t need to know everything. You just need to listen and respect your mom, especially in these times.”
I nodded. Then he continued, “Your father is fighting a war of course, a commander in his own right. So, give your mother an easier time; she’s got it as hard as you do, Bao.”
I responded with, “Ramutaane.” I got up from my squat and ran to my mother. She caught me. Then we waved goodbye to Father Chris.
Before dinner, my mother sliced up half a clove of garlic. Then she turned to me and said, “Garlic’s expensive. Money. Money. Money.” She repeated the word ‘money’ every time she sliced the clove thin, adding it to the pan frying water spinach. We didn’t use garlic often, but we were always appreciative of its subtle quality. Truthfully, garlic was a luxury.
We would pray first, giving attention to the shrine of an American Jesus, which we got from Father Chris. American Jesus was shrouded in smoky incense and surrounded by mangoes, citruses, and dragon fruit that my mother had left to ripen, perhaps to be blessed as well. Then, we gave our attention to my father’s picture, which stood strong as an ox at his place on the dinner table. He had been in war for the past seven years.
My mother and I made the sign of the cross and said together, “Nhân Cha, và Con, và Thánh
Thần, Amen.” In English it meant “Human father, and son, and holy spirit, Amen.”
Because I was younger, I welcomed her to eat dinner. Then, she allowed me to eat.
Sometimes I’d mumble the prayers, just to rebel against my mother’s wishes. An obedient, Christian, respectful son. She saw me twirling the spoon, forming a soft hill of white rice, and plunging the spoon in the middle—a volcanic eruption. The crater allowed me to stuff the water spinach and cabbage inside. My mother took notice, but she’d given up on telling me to stop playing with my food. I made the cabbage leaves stand up above the rice volcano; it looked like a green phoenix rising with five wings. I ate it. The phoenix was killed easily, its aspirations smushed down by a stronger force, a force that couldn’t be reckoned with—my plastic spoon.
I finished my plate and tossed it into the plastic bowl outside, where my mother would make me wash it later. I went back to my seat to eat the mangoes already sliced by my mother. After the prayer, my head flushed with doubt; I didn’t remember why we were Catholic, aside from my mother telling me that our ancestors used to be Catholic; therefore, so were we.
I asked, “Do we believe in God just because our ancestors used to?”
“Yes. Now eat your mangoes.”
“What happens if the Bắc believe in God too? Will God favor their side of the war?”
She looked at me with an annoyed brow. “Bao, I don’t know. Now stop talking and eat your mangoes.”
Every morning, my mother walked downstairs and opened shop. She sold accessories like hats and wooden slippers alongside mangoes and dragon fruit. Right next to her shop was a small billiards place with less than four tables and only six sticks. It even had a Pizza sign lighting up the entrance. I went there once to try some pizza, but they lied—they didn’t serve it, and I still don’t know what it was.
Occupying the space to our left was a cheap shop that sold motorbike helmets, fabrics, small toys, and other miscellaneous things. There were geckos all over the shop’s ceiling as well. But that was common—you couldn’t find any building that didn’t have geckos scaling walls or mosquitos hitched up in a corner somewhere. Sometimes, the owner would turn on the radio; American music would fill the block. It was different; it was fast and energetic, always seducing people to move.
When business was slow, my mother partook in one of her many crafting hobbies, from sewing up ripped shirts and fabric she received from the church to weaving nón lá: conical straw hats. They sold well because of the sun the farmers and other workers had to endure around here. For close friends and family, she would paint flower designs onto the nón lá; painted lotuses and carnations and vines rose from the inanimate drawings, weaving roots into the hat and blooming petals toward the heavens. Paint was expensive, so she didn’t do it as often as she would’ve liked.
My mother would always invite her friends over to craft as well. Or just to spend time together. You could hear their boisterous gossip and laughter from across town. The sound pollution of American music and motorbikes and passing military vehicles couldn’t drown these Vietnamese aunties out.
I remember them gossiping about me one night. I only went downstairs to drop off my empty bowl of mangoes, but I heard them talking about how Tran and I always skipped mass. How we would fill our bellies up with chôm chôm pearls. I also heard them talking about Tran’s parents, how they were more nationalistic and invested in the war than other parents. They called her the chị nướng or the sister of grilling because she mainly sold grilled foods.
They also talked about Tran’s father, which intrigued me because I’d never even seen him before. He wasn’t from our area, moving from Saigon for Tran’s mother. Then he had to go to war, so nobody really had much information on him.
Twice a week, my mother gave me the responsibility of setting up the drying clotheslines on the roof. I took notice of the billiards shop owner’s roof because they set up clotheslines as well—permanently–stained button-ups, some swampy police uniforms…or well, they might’ve been army uniforms. You could never tell the difference around here. And some smaller attire that I assumed were for the owner’s kids.
I remembered my father wearing a similar green uniform, but only until he got home—once home, his military stance and attitude and career faded. He hung up the uniform on a red plastic chair in front of the evergreen trees when we went to the lake to wash up. If not for that chair, he wouldn’t have been able to find those medals again. Though, he wouldn’t have minded if it went missing; his nostalgia for the war was invisible compared to many other soldiers.
But he’d sit me down on a smaller plastic chair, then dump the clean lake water onto me. We didn’t do this often, because it usually took two church bells and an itching back from the pulsing sun to get to the river, but I cherished every single time we went. The war left me with only a few memories of my father.
If he were stationed for a long period of time, he would send us letters. I still have them all stored under my mattress. Every once in a while, I pulled them out and sat down at the dinner table, reading them aloud for my father’s picture frame. Unfortunately for American Jesus, he had to listen to me too.
Dear Bao and Tam (my mother’s name)
I was stationed to defend Da Lat from the North. They coined the Viet Cong’s attack as the Tet Offensive—because it happened during New Year’s.
Tam, remember when we went to Da Lat for our honeymoon because it was known as the love city of Vietnam? Where in January, all the flowers on the streets, hills, random neighbors’ gardens would bloom; myriads of cherry blossoms, purple phoenixes, sunflowers and more filled the atmosphere—you couldn’t go anywhere without seeing primarily flowers, and secondarily the clear sky. There were even public servants watering the flowers every day.
They stopped when the war started.
I received news that the U.S. started pulling troops out of Vietnam. My men are still hopeful.
Tam, I miss your cooking. I miss the street food of Long Khánh too; the nem nướng, gỏi cuốn (spring rolls which were usually filled with shrimp and pickled veggies). I hated shrimp, but I’d eat a boat-full of shrimp instead of the crackers and goop that Americans handed out.
Too many U.S. troops were being pulled out. The South Vietnamese army started losing hope. I don’t know if we can keep fighting. Honestly, I just want to be home with you and Bao.
My mom sat my father down on a tiny, red plastic stool the night he came home, right outside our restaurant. She doused him with pails of water while he utilized an old shirt as a loofah. Near the end of his bath, he shook his head around, splashing my mother. They both started laughing. It was loud enough to drown the American music played by the shop next door.
The following Sunday, I stole a nón lá from my mother’s shop; it was weaved with painted carnations and roots. I thought Tran would appreciate something to render down the sunlight’s intensity while we played in the evergreens.
We locked eyes across the church; Tran and her mother usually stood in the back while my mother and I attended near the front, where the choir was. I clutched the nón lá, and took glances at Tran, hoping to signal to her to meet me outside as usual. Tran saw me, but she didn’t move out like usual.
I caught her mother’s eyes as well, which prompted her to whisper to Tran. I saw Tran’s face go from anger, biting down on her jaw, to acceptance and emptiness. I knew her mother was forbidding her from leaving. Her mother became louder and louder, eventually their tension permeated around nearby parents and children; they looked like they were shaking off goose bumps from their arms and neck.
Tran stayed silent—submissive in front of her mother. I turned back to Father Chris’ lecture, related to the war and post-war, how we were supposed to work hard and spend time with our family now that we had time. Then, the small choir sang a song while Father Chris’ colleague played on the acoustic guitar, signaling the beginning of the communion.
Slap! The sound rang from the back, echoing all the way to the front, where the choir’s songs broke down with flat songs. Everybody stopped in their steps, statues, who for a moment, couldn’t be fed. I saw Tran hastily walk out the church—toward the evergreens. I stood there until my mother bumped me with her shoulder. She told me to go to Tran.
I walked out toward the evergreens while the choir resumed serenading the audience.
The statues began to move, orderly eating the pieces of Jesus’ body.
I saw Tran hidden behind our usual spot, ravaging the chôm chôm pearls, skin and all, spitting the battle-scarred seed and skin out. She popped another in her mouth, then with her fingernails, started to tear open another. One by one the pearls gave themselves up to their giant. She started crying; her tears introduced themselves to each pearl, a farewell greeting almost. I sat next to her, not saying a word. I didn’t know what to say, and I didn’t know if she wanted me to say anything.
She stopped eating. The ground was fed as well with the leftover chôm chôm seeds and skin. My ancestors might’ve been watching, taking pity on the little girl as much as I had. A sense of empathy washed over me, even though I didn’t know what she was going through. I held her in my arms for a while, until the sun and ancestors started descending.
She leaned her head back against the chôm chôm tree and said, “My ma hit me.”
I felt her hand tighten and saw her cheek plump red.
“Ma said that I shouldn’t be skipping church. I should be standing next to her. I should be praying for my dad’s safe passage.” Tran kept sniffling and chewing.
I said, “I heard rumors from my aunties that your father passed away in the war.”
“Yes, he did. But my ma wants to pray for his safe passage to heaven. To be with all our grandparents and ancestors.”
I tried to catch her gaze. “You’re doing that. Just not in the way your mother wants to see. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it.”
Tran had spit out the chôm chôm pearls and said, “Yes I know. That’s why I’m not listening to her. No matter how much she hits me. No matter what she puts me through, I will decide how I spend my time and how I pray for my father.”
She stood up and cleaned the soil from her pants. She held out her hand and I took it. We danced to the church bells and the singing of sparrows.
My father finished chopping the pork for my mother. While she was cooking, he pulled me inside and sat me down. He said, “Bao, since we lost war, as you know, and I was in a higher position of power compared to the regular troops, we might need to leave Vietnam.”
I looked him in his eyes, and I saw desperation and sadness. My chest tightened up and I couldn’t show my disapproval with words. He saw the sadness in my eyes. I rushed up to his chest and hit it until I started crying. My face turned from confusion to understanding because I knew that it was my responsibility to leave, to be safe. And my father would do anything to keep us safe, even if it meant starting new lives.
My mother walked in and stood at the door. “Bao, I understand what you’re going through. Tran is a lovely girl. But we all have to make sacrifices. I’m leaving my friends behind, but I’m still keeping in contact with them.” She walked up to me and hung her arms on my shoulders. She gave me a kiss on the back of my head, through the thick hairs. Then squished her cheek onto mine.
My father then kissed me on the forehead and sent me off.
To me, responsibility meant staying silent and taking in what my parents wanted me to. Although I had questions that could never have been answered, I still went along with everyone else. I wanted to say no—I wanted to stay back with Tran and the evergreens, but just because I wanted to didn’t mean I could.
I took the news in stride. Small strides, up the steps, to my bedroom, my stained mattress, where I cried and made a bigger stain.
For the next month, Tran and I skipped mass. Because we were leaving, I knew my mother wouldn’t lecture me if I skipped mass. Rather she would be out with her friends as well. They had all decided to spend time with her before my family left for America. I wanted to tell Tran too, but whenever I tried, my throat would tighten up and nothing would come out.
We gave in to temptation. We ran from our mothers when they were out of sight, clamoring through groups of old men, women, children and Roman columns of the outdoor church. We ran through the chôm chôm evergreens, recollecting our thoughts when we were tired and snared in the forest’s embrace.
When it got darker, the week before I had to go, I built up the courage to say “Tran”. Saying her name aloud forced me to continue my thoughts. Sometimes the first step isn’t thinking anything through; it’s just making the first move.
I revealed to her that I was leaving, trying to get through it as fast as possible. I wanted to give her time to think, and honestly, it was just a moment where I felt like I was disappointing the person I loved. She reacted with a mix of confusion and hopelessness. The same as I had when my father told me.
“How long before you go?” asked Tran.
“Soon. I think after next week.”
“Are you flying?”
I shook my head. “Boat.”
We continued to eat chôm chôm pearls. Food helped to dissuade the uneasy feeling in our stomachs. We decided to trek deeper into the evergreens, getting lost in the leaves. The evergreens transformed from a hideaway to a solitary kingdom. Only the singing of sparrows pierced the endless columns of scratchy bark. We held hands, and kissed, and touched, and she was the only person I ever truly loved. She was the one who understood me—who dared to listen to me. And I, her.
The following Sunday we missed not only mass, but the whole afternoon, which was signaled by the screechy calls of black herons at dusk. Because I lived on the rural side of town, I hitched a ride from Father Chris, who was sympathetic after hearing the news of my family’s migration. Tran lived close so I would walk her home first, taking in the aromas of flowers, street food, and sometimes, the burning trash from her neighbor’s alleys.
Before we left, Tran handed me an envelope with an address on it. Then she said, “Bao, don’t open it until you get to America. Then you send letters to this address. To me. And give me extra stamps, I want American stamps.”
I took the envelope. She gave me a kiss. And we spent our last day together eating chôm chôm pearls while staring at the stars.
After Father Chris drove me home that night, on his rusty green motorbike, he gave his farewells and prayers to my family. My mother made me start packing. There wasn’t much we could bring, only the essentials my father told me. My father fixed me up with a second-hand military backpack, which my mother filled with clothes. I wore my nón lá around my neck, and triple-checked that my father’s old letters and Tran’s letter were safely stored in my backpack.
We left Long Khánh for the coast. The Americans didn’t help refugees cross over. But my father knew that staying in Vietnam would be risky under the new regime. Filled with heartache and alongside my father who was rising from the ashes of the Vietnam War, we traveled overseas to the new world, trying to look forward to what was ahead rather than to what we left behind.
I’m writing this on a ship, and I’ll send this to you when I make it to America. Hopefully, I can make enough money to come back for you. We can continue skipping church and praying in our own ways. I want to bring you to where my parents had their first honeymoon, Da Lat, the city of flowers. Then we can visit the church in Long Khánh. And invisible to the eyes of our ancestors, we can run through the chôm chôm evergreens again.