He placed the notes on the side table and met her eyes in the dim light. “US dollars okay?” She walked over, counted out a few bills and handed the rest back to him. He closed her fingers around them. “I’d like to take you out.”
Oh no, she sighed. “You seem like a sweet kid. Why don’t you go home instead.”
“Let’s go to dinner.”
Not another one. “I don’t need saving.”
“We all need saving,” he learned that at an early age. “Have dinner with me and then do whatever you want with the rest of your night.”
She hesitated then decided there were worse ways to spend the evening. She settled up with Larry who smirked, “Love is good for business.” The kid couldn’t be thirty years old.
“You’re from Vietnam, right?” He waited but she didn’t answer. Who had he been talking to? She brushed out her hair and tied it in a long braid.
They made their way through the crowded cobblestone side streets. “Where is the best Pho Bo?” She laughed. So that’s why he wanted to come to Chinatown.
She led them to an open kitchen area. They found an empty metal table amid the haze. He pulled out her chair and ordered them two bowls.
“Would you tell me about your childhood? About Saigon?”
He wasn’t with the church after all, so what did he want with her? He reached into his backpack and pulled out some letters. Then a small tape recorder.
“You should have told me you’re a reporter.” She got up to leave.
“Wait!” He handed her a faded photograph. “My father.”
“Look, I don’t get involved in family business.” She pushed the photo away.
“I want to understand…the war….” his voice trailed off.
She bristled at being blindsided. “I didn’t know any American GIs.”
“No, no,” he tried to explain. “I want to understand…what was it like? Before?”
She paused at his sincerity and searched his face. How could she explain something like that?
“I know that in 1965 active combat units arrived,” he looked at her intently.
“I don’t want to talk about this.” She never wanted to go back. She reached over and clicked off the tape recorder.
He looked at her earnestly. She stared back evenly.
“Not you, not exactly,” he tried to explain. “Me. If I can understand…my father…why he was…the way he was.”
He searched for the words. She understood.
“Before. After.” She slowly stirred the noodles. “Nothing was ever the same. Not for countries and not for the people.” Images of the dirt road leading to her house danced through the curls of steam.
He shifted in his chair uncomfortably. Maybe he didn’t want to know, after all.
She could almost feel a thin layer of dust on her skin. Maybe she could finally do this, now, with this American boy.
She nodded to the tape recorder. “It’s okay. Turn it back on.” His face warmed in gratitude.
“But remember,” she cautioned. Her thoughts turned to the GIs. “Sometimes you can never really come home.”
“Yes,” he said. She could see that he didn’t understand. Not yet.
“Let’s have some tea. You like oolong?” He nodded absently.
She ordered them a pot of tung ting. “This was my favorite tea as a girl.”
And she began.