Let me tell you: eighteen hours on a plane does not improve your looks any. I stared at myself in the cracked and dulled mirror above the sink, scowling. My hair was lank, my face was greasy, and my clothes were wrinkled. The damp heat was beginning to plaster my hair to my forehead, and to top it all off I felt fat. Eighteen hours on your ass, scarfing down cups of instant ramen, can do that to you.
"Loc!" my mom called from outside the restroom.
"Coming!" I shouted. I tried to fix my hair a little, but it only flopped back down dejectedly, so I gave up on it in disgust.
My mom herded me to the exit doors as soon as I stepped back into the airport. "Hurry, hurry," she urged me. "There are people waiting for us."
"Where's our luggage?" I asked as I was propelled outside.
"Your father has it. Now, where is he? Ah, there!" She hustled me over to a group of people standing near some taxis.
I dragged my feet, partly because I wasn't all too eager to meet these people, partly because of the glaring heat. It was oppressive, worse than California in summer, and so humid it seemed thick enough to smother. Five minutes outside and I already felt as if I would melt. Welcome to Vietnam. It was my first time visiting the "motherland," and I wanted out.
As soon as we reached the waiting crowd, my mom let go of my arm and hugged one of the women. "Lien!" she all but squealed. She motioned me forward. "Loc, come here! This is my old friend, Lien. Lien," and she launched into some rapid Vietnamese. The rest of the people surged forward, enveloping the two women and clamoring for my mom's attention. Only my dad and I were left standing on the outside.
After a while, my mom detached herself from the hubbub. Lien followed her, and behind the two of them trailed a boy who looked a little younger than me.
"Loc, this is Lien's son Minh." My mom introduced me. "He speaks a little English. Maybe you can help him learn it a little better while you're here."
"Oh yeah, sure," I said immediately. My mom glanced at me quizzically. I knew she was wondering if I was being sarcastic, but I wasn't. I was in the middle of a meltdown, and it wasn't because of the heat. This boy was cute.
His hair grew to his shoulders, curling a little at the ends. It was a dark brown, and framed his oval face. His dark eyes twinkled as he smiled, revealing a surprisingly straight and white row of teeth. His nose was small, and he was short, but I found it more adorable than funny. He held his hand out for a handshake.
"Hey," I said, feeling weak on my knees.
"Hey," he copied me. Then he cocked his head to the side. "Your name is…Loc?" he asked in halting English.
"Wes," I corrected him automatically, using the name everybody except my mom called me.
Minh tried to pronounce the name. "Wes…Wes…" He kept repeating it, as if he wanted to taste my name thoroughly.
I felt heat curl at the bottom of my stomach; it spread gradually downwards, and I said hastily, "It's okay. You can just call me Loc." I didn't think I could stand it if he kept saying my name like that.
"No, no, it is, how do you say it, okay. I like your American name. It is interesting."
All I could think of in reply was, "Oh. Okay then."
I had been so absorbed in Minh, I didn't remember my mom standing next to me until she said, "Loc, we're going to Lien's house now."
"Are we going to stay there?" I asked, hopeful.
"Yes. Now, we need to get a taxi…" She started towards one of the taxis, but Lien stopped her. The two women seemed to argue for a bit, and Minh stepped in. For once I wished I understood Vietnamese better. Finally, Minh beckoned to me.
"Do you want to ride with me?" he asked.
"What?" Ride? With him?
He wrinkled his forehead in confusion. "I am sorry. Did I say it wrong?" Oh god, he was so adorable. I wanted to grab him right there and kiss him senseless. Which, thinking about it rationally, might be a little gross—he looked younger than me, maybe by a year or two. There wasn't anything pedophilic about a two-year age difference (hell, my dad was ten years older than my mom) but when you're seventeen years-old it makes more of a difference than when you're, say, fifty.
I snapped myself out of my thoughts. "Yeah?"
"I was asking if you would to go with me on my—my—" He struggled to find the right word. Then he pointed to a vespa parked some distance away. "Is that a car?" he asked.
"No. That's a vespa."
"Oh!" His face lighted up. "Would you like to ride to the house with me on my vespa?"
I said, "Sure!"
He grinned and grabbed my arm. "Good! Then come." He started to tug me to his vespa. I followed eagerly, but my mom stopped me for some warnings.
"Hold on tight to Minh," No problem, "and be careful getting off, or you'll burn yourself on the spoke—"
"Don't worry," Minh chirped in Vietnamese. Then in English he said to me, "I drive very good."
"Well," I corrected him.
He repeated, "Well. I drive well."
We walked over to his vespa. Beginning to be a little concerned (but probably not as much as I should be; god, Minh had a nice ass), I asked him, "Minh, uh—how old are you, exactly?"
He smiled innocently at me as he got onto the vespa. "I am eighteen years-old."
I sputtered incredulously. I could have sworn Minh was no older than sixteen. "Are you serious?"
He cocked his head to the side again, a cute, puzzled expression on his face. "Was that supposed to be a joke?"
"No. It's just—you look younger than eighteen."
"How old are you?" he asked, head still angled.
"Ah! You are younger than me then. But I thought you were older."
"How old?" I demanded. Shit, had I gained some wrinkles on the ride over or something?
"I do not know…" Minh mused. "Maybe…twenty?"
"Twenty?!" I blurted, indignant.
"That is not very old," Minh said consolingly.
"Is everybody here as freakishly young-looking as you?" I muttered.
"Well then, we should, how do you say it, get going?"
"Yeah, uh—we should."
Minh patted the seat behind him. "Sit here," he said. I slid into the seat, squirming around to get comfortable. Minh reached behind him and tugged my arms around his waist. "You need to hold onto me," he instructed. I complied, inching forward until my chest was flush against his back. He didn't jerk away; instead, he even tightened my grip around his waist before starting the engine.
We pulled out of the airport's parking lot. I was totally unprepared for the sight that met my eyes. I was from California, and not even from L.A. or San Francisco. Nope, I was from a suburban area, and it was a bubble compared to what I now saw.
The streets were choked with vespas and taxis. Every single square inch was taken up by a vehicle; sometimes it got so crowded that an impatient driver would zoom up onto the sidewalk and zip along until he or she found an area to squeeze back into the traffic.
Crosswalks and stop lights didn't seem to exist. Pedestrians just jumped right into the melee when they needed to cross the street, and the motorists swerved around them. Well, that would explain all those old Vietnamese people back home who jaywalked all the time. Southern California traffic was a piece of cake compared to this.
There weren't that many cars around. It was all either vespas, motorbikes, or taxis. There were as many as three people crammed onto a single vespa or motorbike sometimes. Children who couldn't be older than three or four rode in their parents' laps. Pregnant women sped alongside stooped old men.
It was an exhilarating experience, riding through this bustle of life exposed to the wind, the sights and sounds unobstructed by a window. The wind whipped my hair into my eyes, stinging them, but I felt more alive than I had ever since I was four and soared to the sky in my first swing ride.
Minh navigated through the traffic expertly. I clung to him as he steered around pedestrians and threaded through the tangle of vehicles until we turned down a street and coasted to a stop in front of a tailor shop.
"My home," he announced proudly.
Maybe, I thought, this trip won't be half bad after all.
The tailor shop wasn't owned by Minh's family, although they did own the building. There was a tiny, cramped kitchen in the back. The rooms were upstairs, two to a floor. I was going to be staying in Minh's room.
The room, which was on the third floor, was spacious and cool. The floor was of some sort of stone, and a bed stood against the wall. At the far end of the room, glass doors opened onto a balcony overlooking the street below. The loud clamor of traffic floated into the room.
"Is it too small?" Minh asked worriedly.
"No, it's okay." I glanced at the bed. It was moderately big but a bit narrow. There was no mattress, just one pillow and a blanket folded neatly at the foot. The bottom was a crisscross of wood, uncomfortable looking. "So, uh, Minh—do you have any extra blankets or pillows or anything?"
He asked, "Why?" looking amused. "Do you need more blankets? It is not so cold here."
"No, that's not it. I just thought I would be, you know, sleeping on the floor."
"Oh, of course not! Why, do you think the bed cannot fit us both?" Minh climbed onto the bed, lying down and beckoning to me. "Come lie down with me, and see if it is comfortable enough."
Holy shit. Minh was inviting me to climb into bed with him. Not in any sexual way, of course, but just the thought was enough to make me feel a little uncomfortable in my jeans. I gulped. "Uhhh, that's okay. Really, Minh—"
He propped himself up on one elbow, and with the other arm pulled me forward. My knees banged against the side of the bed and I yelped, tumbling onto Minh. He actually giggled. Not an annoying, girly, "Look-at-me-I'm-so-cute" giggle, the one that sounds forced and fake, but one that was just a spontaneous expression of glee.
"See? You fit," he said, lying back down.
It was true. Minh and I lay side by side on the bed; our arms and legs touched in a way that I knew would have made most boys I knew uncomfortable, but Minh seemed completely at ease. There was just enough room for the both of us, a cozy arrangement.
Or, well, as cozy as I could get being so physically close to Minh. And he seemed to expect us to sleep in the same bed, every night. I gulped. The prospect of sleep seemed very, very far away.
I didn't know if it was the norm in Vietnam or if I was just used to the way most of the guys I knew in America treated me, but it seemed to me like Minh had no inhibitions. That night, he climbed into bed next to me wearing nothing but his boxers and a flimsy cotton T-shirt. I was wearing shorts and a shirt; as hot as it was, and as much as I wanted to, I didn't feel comfortable enough to strip down to my boxers. I entertained the thought briefly, but then decided against it. No way was I going to bed with anything less than what I already had on. Not with Minh right there next to me, sleeping peacefully.
I resisted the urge to kiss his forehead (and pretty much everywhere else I could reach) and rolled over to face the wall. Even now, this late at night, the sound of traffic was audible; it lulled me to sleep, a constant backdrop to Minh's light breathing.
The next morning, I woke up to find Minh still sleeping, curled up on my chest.
I tried not to breathe too hard. Ohshitohshitohshit. Minh is sleeping right on top of me. Not to mention, he'd somehow managed to shove his knee in between my legs. How the hell had I slept at all last night?
Oh, right. Time zones. Jet lag. I'd been too exhausted last night to keep my eyes open for very long. And now my body still felt like sleeping some more, even though I was pretty sure that I'd been conked out for more than twelve hours already. What time was it in America right now? Nine at night? Ten?
I groaned, shifting a little. Minh mumbled a protest in Vietnamese, fisting his hands into my shirt. I stilled. I didn't want to wake up him. But should I? Did Minh have school? What day was it, anyway? I'd left on the midnight flight Tuesday. Flown for eighteen hours. So it was Wednesday in America when I arrived, and if Vietnam was fifteen hours ahead then it was Thursday here. Then I'd slept, and it was the next morning, so it was…Friday? Shit. I had a headache just trying to figure that out.
But if it was Friday, then Minh probably had to get to school, and soon. I shook him gently. "Minh? Minh, wake up."
"Khong," he mumbled.
Hey, I understood that. Khong. No. I used that word pretty often; in fact, whenever my mom wanted me to baby sit my cousins. "Come on," I coaxed him. "It's morning already."
"Wes," he moaned, and nuzzled my neck. I froze. Minh was still asleep, but now he began to wriggle around on top of me. "Wes," he repeated, and I wondered at the foreign sound his accent gave my name.
Minh was saying my name in his sleep; he was thinking about me, obviously, but in what way? I puzzled over the question as Minh began to wake up. Finally, he yawned against my chest and stretched languidly, extending his body along mine. I squirmed, remembering the feel of his mouth through my shirt. Was I going to have to wake up to this every day? Because if I did, I wasn't sure if I could keep my hands off Minh for very long.
It turned out that Minh had school in the afternoon, something for which I envied him. What I wouldn't give to be able to sleep in during mornings.
"I show you around Saigon," he offered. "Then I go to school. Do you want to?"
"Sure," I agreed, and he started to chatter happily about all the sights, sometimes missing a word here or there, sometimes lapsing back into Vietnamese.
We fell into a kind of pattern. In the mornings he would drag me outside, shouting a greeting to the people in the tailor shop, who would always smile at him. He would show me all his favorite haunts: the food vendors who sold everything from banh mi to nuoc mia, the restaurants, the stores. Then we would wind our way back through the streets to where my mom and his sat gossiping, and he would get ready for school.
There was nothing beautiful about Saigon, architecturally or otherwise. In fact, it was downright filthy. The streets were littered with trash; dirt and grime clung to pretty much everything. Often I would see a cripple, someone with a deformity: hunched backs, missing limbs. There was no way to see Saigon through rose-tinted glasses. I liked it for its busyness, its vibrant, teeming life, but it was definitely not Paris or Venice. Looking at Minh's laughing, kind face as we walked home one day, I thought at that moment that it was the last city I would have expected to fall in love in.
After two weeks I was able to find my way on my own to a little restaurant at the end of Minh's street. He'd told me that he often stopped there after school; several times he'd even brought me back some food, which I'd sampled politely at first, and then devoured. It was some pretty damn good stuff.
The restaurant was little more than a scattering of tables under a canvas awning. The kitchen was at one end, pots, pans, and stoves clattering noisily in full view. A woman spotted me and walked over.
"You need help?" she inquired, her English more thickly accented than Minh's.
I wondered, not for the first time since I'd arrived, how it was that people could tell just by looking at me that I was from America. "Uh, no thanks. Con…uh…con dang doi cho ban con." (I'm…uh…I'm waiting for my friend.)
"Oh. Ten cua ban co la gi?" (Oh. What's your friend's name?)
"Um…thua co, Minh." (Um…Minh.)
"Ah! Minh! Dang Minh dung khong?" (Ah! Minh? Minh Dang, right?)
I recognized Minh's last name, but not the rest of the rapid Vietnamese that she launched at me. Luckily, Minh showed up to save me before I was forced to mangle any more Vietnamese. He spoke to the woman for a few moments before turning to me. "Do you want to sit here and eat?" he asked.
"Yeah. Sure. But you're gonna have to order for me. I have no clue what to get."
There was a snort, and I finally noticed the boy standing next to Minh. From the book bag slung over his shoulder, I assumed that he was a friend from school. He gazed at me, dislike obvious in his eyes. "Thang nay la ai, huh, Minh?" (Who is this guy, huh, Minh?)
Minh hastened to introduce us. "Giang, em la ban cua Minh, Wes." (Giang, this is my friend, Wes.) "Wes, this is Giang."
"Hey," I said.
He sniffed. "Wes? Ten la." (Wes? Strange name.)
I struggled to find something to say. Minh noticed. So did Giang. He spoke to Minh, but looked me right in the face. "Minh, cai thang nay khong biet noi tieng viet, dung khong?" (Minh, this guy doesn't know how to speak Vietnamese, right?) The scorn was evident in his voice.
I flushed. Stupid bastard— "I can't speak Vietnamese that well, but I can understand it a little better."
Giang sneered. "Minh, banh—" (Minh, your friend—)
"Noi tieng my," Minh commanded scowling. (Speak in English.) Only his version of scowling was wrinkling his nose and attempting a fierce glare, which didn't work out too well. I tried not to laugh.
Surprisingly, Giang listened to him. "Hello," he said stiffly. His English seemed as good as Minh's, except he was reluctant to use it. "You are from America?"
"Yeah. You're a friend of Minh's?"
"Yes. From school."
"I have known him since we were little children," Minh added, drawing Giang into a one-armed hug. Giang smiled faintly at him, seeming a little indulgent, and it was my turn to gaze at the other boy with dislike.
We sat down at a table near the street. Minh ordered some ban bao for the two of us, but Giang declined. He only asked for some tea. My dislike for him grew as Minh chattered about school and asked me questions about my school. It was obvious that Giang didn't like me; I had no idea why, though. I knew why I didn't like him: he was arrogant, and treated me as if I was slow and couldn't understand much, just because I didn't speak Vietnamese well. And, the way he treated Minh bugged me, too. He was…possessive. I really couldn't find another word for it. If he thought that Minh and I were talking together too much, he would butt in and try to steer the conversation his way. Sometimes he would lay a hand on Minh's arm, and lean in to whisper something, probably about me. On the way back to Minh's house, he walked really close to Minh, shoulders bumping, and flat-out glared at me if I so much as wandered within two feet of them.
All in all, I thought, Giang was acting like a jealous girlfriend.
It didn't take me long to figure out the source of Giang's dislike. The guy clearly had a crush on Minh, and saw me as competition. I would have been flattered that he thought I was an actual threat, except that he saw everybody (girl and boy) under the age of thirty to be a threat. Minh told me that Giang was rude to every girl who came up to them, and never liked for Minh to talk to any of his classmates. I noticed as I hung out with them that Giang was even suspicious of the French tourists that Minh occasionally helped out (he spoke French fluently because he'd learned it from his grandfather). It was downright freaky. I mean, I knew that Minh was attractive to a lot of people (Giang and I once had to pry him away from an overly friendly French man) but to be jealous of some old, hairy men was just plain weird. Paranoia, much?
Giang wasn't exactly the Hunchback of Notre Dame himself, either. He was handsome in a broody, don't-touch-me-because-I'm-better-than-you kind of way. It was just that Minh's outgoing exuberance drew more attention than his scowling countenance.
But while I was sure that Giang was far from interested in girls, I was getting mixed signals from Minh. He was always friendly and never afraid to display affection, or get close physically (I woke up every morning to find him curled up on top of me), but he was equally outgoing with people of both sex. He hugged or snuggled up to boys and girls, and for a while I wondered if maybe he was bi. Or asexual. That would be very disappointing. Although, I didn't think I had to worry about that too much. What kind of eighteen year-old boy could be asexual?
I tried to sound him out, be subtle. Except subtlety wasn't exactly my forte. Sometimes I just wanted to scream, "Minh, I am in love with you! Are you even interested?" Of course, he might just be disgusted, and refuse to ever talk to me again. Which would be devastating.
Whoever said love was easy was obviously a big fat liar.
I liked listening to Minh speak in Vietnamese, even if I had trouble getting my tongue around the constant ups and downs of the intonation. I also enjoyed listening to him when he chattered in French.
Apparently, a while ago the schools in Vietnam taught French to all the students (considering that Vietnam was a colony of France up until the Communists took over, it wasn't surprising). As a result, Minh's grandfather knew the language, and Minh had insisted on learning it.
I didn't know any French, either, but it was pleasant to listen to Minh's voice pronounce the words. He spoke French with the surprisingly large influx of French tourists who crowded into the shopping mall Ben Thanh (god knows why, the place was an oven) and the many markets of Saigon. They always took a liking to him because he was friendly and helpful; Giang, who was almost always right over his shoulder, was not so popular. And me? Even foreign tourists could tell I wasn't a native, with my Aeropostale T-shirts and black Converse. I had interesting conversations with European guys about my age, or a little older, several of whom came on to me. It was pretty funny, considering that I was getting more attention over here in a day than I had in three years of high school. Unless you counted the kind of attention that involved getting slammed against my locker or getting my face ground into the dirt. I swear, the guys who beat up on me spent more time with me than they did with members of the fairer sex. And they think they're straight.
I had been in Saigon for maybe a little over two weeks when my mom announced that we were going to spend our last week at the beach.
"The beach?" I asked, trying not to panic. What the hell, was I going to have to spend the last week of my stay in Vietnam away from Minh?
"Mui Ne," my mom clarified, not that it made any more sense.
My dad, seeing my worried expression and misinterpreting it as confusion, tried to explain. "It's a beach a couple of hours drive from here. There are a lot of resorts; mostly a place for tourists."
"We can go swimming!" Minh exclaimed suddenly from the doorway of my parents' room, where I was currently trying not to freak out.
"Wait. What?" I tried to process this information while staring at Minh. He had obviously just gotten back from school, his satchel still hanging from one shoulder. "You're going?"
"Of course Minh is going." My mom frowned. "Lien's cousin is driving us up there and back. Why wouldn't he go?"
Minh laughed. "I take a week off school. It is okay. My grades are well."
He grabbed my arm. "Yes, good," he said, misunderstanding my correction. "It will be much fun! We can go for a drop in the ocean."
"A dip. A dip in the ocean."
He nodded his head as he dragged me into his room. Shutting the door, he began rummaging through a drawer, saying something about finding swimming pants while I sat down on the bed. I wasn't really paying attention, my mind on something else. Minh was going. Minh was going to the beach with me, and we were going to go swimming. Minh wasn't going to be wearing and shirt and he was going to be dripping. Wet. Oh god.
"Wes? Wes, you are going to go swimming, yes?" Minh was standing in front of me.
"Um…yes?" I answered distractedly, images of Minh with water sliding off him still flashing through my head.
"You will wear shorts?"
"A shirt?" Minh pressed.
I wondered why Minh was asking me what I was going to wear. Did he not know what to bring to the beach? "No, I'm not going to wear a shirt."
He grinned, suddenly sliding into my lap. His face was mere centimeters from mine. "Good," he whispered, and a shiver ran down my spine.
Minh slid a hand up my shirt, his fingers pressing into the knobs of my spine. "You never take your shirt off here," he murmured. "Why? Are you shy?"
I gulped. "Minh, what are you doing?" There was absolutely nothing cute anymore about the way his fingers were roaming all over my skin; I shivered again when they brushed lightly over a nipple. "Minh—"
"Shhh…" He lifted up my shirt and kissed the skin right below my collarbone. I swallowed nervously as he trailed his lips down. A little moan escaped from me when he enclosed my nipple in his mouth and sucked lightly on the hardened nub before nipping at it.
He pulled away, letting my shirt drop back down. His knees dug painfully into my legs where he straddled me. I was breathing hard, and he bit his lower lip. "I am sorry," he whispered. "Xin loi. I just…I thought perhaps that you liked me… And you were not doing anything about it, so I—"
"Minh…" A suspicion was beginning to grow in my brain. "Have you been faking being cute this whole time?"
"I am real!" he insisted. Shit, even after that little performance of his I couldn't help but think that he looked adorable, eyes wide and earnest. "It is just that I knew…" He searched for the words. "You thought I was…cute. So I thought, if I was like that…you would like me."
"So you're not?" He looked confused. "I mean, you don't act like you do around me all the time?"
"I do," he murmured. "Just…not as—as—"
"Innocent?" He fiddled with the edge of my T-shirt. "Minh, have you, uh—have you been waiting for me to make the first move, or something?"
"What does that mean?"
"It means, were you waiting for me to…to do what you just did?"
"Yes," he confessed. "I did not know what to do."
Oh really, I thought dryly. Then I thought, Oh shit. What if Minh and Giang— "Minh, have you ever kissed Giang?" I blurted.
He looked confused. "No. Of course not. Giang is only a friend."
"That's not what he thinks," I muttered.
"Nothing." I dropped the subject.
"All right…" Minh grinned and leaned in again. "So…Wes…Will you wear a shirt tonight?"
"Well…it has been really hot." I waggled my eyebrows, my spirits high. Minh was not asexual at all. Minh liked me.
"Maybe I should help you take your shirt off," he suggested innocently.
Oh yeah. Definitely not asexual.
Even Giang's scowling face at the ungodly hour of five-thirty in the morning couldn't dampen my spirits when we left for Mui Ne. Apparently, he'd insisted on going with us. It was probably to keep an eye on me.
"I am sleepy," Minh announced as soon as we were in the van. He promptly curled up on the seat, taking up most of the room and laying his head in my lap. I grinned at him and ran my fingers through his hair. Giang, forced to the seat in front of us, twisted around to glare at me.
"What?" I challenged him.
He muttered, "Nothing," and sulked in a corner by the window for the rest of the ride.
Ever since that little performance in his room, Minh had been more openly affectionate to me in public; and more aggressive, too. Not that I minded. I still woke up every morning to find that he had somehow crawled on top of me, but instead of freaking out I just waited for him to wake up, too. I never let him kiss me on the mouth right after waking up (not even for Minh was I going to make out with someone before he brushed his teeth) so he settled instead for kissing whatever bare skin he could reach. Which, considering that I was now only wearing my boxers to bed, was quite a lot.
He asked me not to tell his parents about us, something that I wouldn't have done anyway. I understood. His mom already knew, though; she'd caught him being overly affectionate with a boy from the neighborhood when he was fifteen. She cottoned on pretty quickly to the two of us, especially since Minh was a little less subtle about his caresses. I could tell from the way she stared and pursed her lips that she was reacting the same way my mom had when I had come out. Shocked, but still accepting it. I still felt a little sorry for my mom, though; I knew she still hoped that I would eventually just get over being gay and marry a nice Vietnamese girl, to start my own family. I knew Lien probably still hoped for the same thing with Minh. Not likely.
Minh didn't wake up until we were well on the road. "Hello," he mumbled sleepily.
He sat up, tracing the slight bags under my eyes with his fingers, concerned. "You are tired?" he asked.
"A little, yeah."
"Here." He patted his lap. "It is your turn to sleep on me." I laughed, and he pulled me down. He stroked my hair. "Go to sleep," he ordered. I laughed again, but obeyed him.
Only the abrupt halt of the car roused me. I mumbled something unintelligible about lockers and closets, still disoriented from my dream. It had been something about claustrophobia, something about being trapped. Reality, I thought as Minh brushed his lips quickly over my forehead, was so much better.
The resort was a cluster of bungalows grouped along a stretch of the beach. A pool in the center of the clump teemed with screaming children, and a small restaurant stood under a tent. Inside the bungalows, there were two rooms, each with two beds and a bathroom. The shower was only a showerhead with a plastic curtain ringed around it. No tub or anything, just a drainage hole for the water.
We'd rented two bungalows. Lien and her family were staying in one; mine in another. But Minh asked to stay in my cabin, and, when he heard about it, Giang insisted as well. Our parents reluctantly agreed, although my mom pulled me aside to warn me not to do anything "funny" with Minh. I was offended. Giang was going to be in the room, too! What did she expect, for me to get it on with Minh with Giang watching? Or for me to have a threesome? My dad didn't say anything. It was his attempt at being "open-minded" and "liberal."
There was a problem, though, with the sleeping arrangements. Two beds, three boys. Giang wanted one of us to sleep on the floor. Guess who?
"Wes can sleep in the bed with me," Minh suggested, which only earned him a glare from Giang.
"No. It is not right."
"It is not right to make Wes sleep on the floor."
"It's okay, Minh," I broke in. "I don't want to argue about this. It's stupid." I could feel the beginnings of some kind of tension between Minh and Giang filling up the room. It was making me uncomfortable, especially since I didn't know what exactly it was.
Minh looked distressed. "Khong, khong. Giang—" (No, no. Giang—) He started again in English, for my benefit. "If Wes sleeps on the floor, I do, too," he said firmly.
"Khong!" Giang exploded. (No!) "Minh, thang ngu!" (Minh, you idiot!) He grabbed Minh by the shoulder. "Tai sao—tai sao—" (Why—why—)
"Wes sleeps on the bed with me," Minh said, voice trembling. "Please."
I stood frozen, unable to step into this argument. Something had sprung up here between Minh and Giang, something I didn't know, something I couldn't touch. As I watched, Giang dropped his arm from Minh's shoulder and said, "…Fine. Sleep with him." I knew he was speaking in English so I would understand. "Sleep with him," he repeated. "I do not care."
What the hell was going on?
I tried to ignore that argument the next day. Minh and I went for a swim in the ocean, and then, when I saw that Minh couldn't swim all that well, we retreated to the pool. I tried to help Minh with his strokes until we were both exhausted.
Laughing, he hauled himself out of the pool. "I go back to the cabin," he told me. "To shower. Will you get me a—what is that drink…"
"You mean a shake?" I'd introduced Minh to milkshakes at breakfast that morning, and he'd loved it.
"Yes," he nodded his head vigorously. "A shake. A banana one."
He beamed at me. "Thank you!" Grabbing his towel, he trotted off.
I walked over to the restaurant and ordered his milkshake. I held it carefully in my hand as I walked back to the bungalow. Minh was in our room; I could tell from the low murmur of voices from within, and remembered with irritation that Giang had decided to sulk inside all day. He was probably ragging on Minh for something right now, the bastard, although the murmur did stop as I drew nearer.
Minh and Giang didn't notice me as I walked quietly into the room. They probably wouldn't have noticed me if I'd banged the door, even, or dropped the shake—because Minh and Giang were kissing, Giang's arm wrapped tightly around Minh's waist, Minh clutching him by the shoulders.
I set the glass on the floor and backed out, quiet enough despite the violent shaking of my arm—my entire body, for that matter. That bastard.
I didn't know if I was thinking of Minh or Giang.
I was sitting at the deep end of the pool, dangling my legs in the water when Minh found me. I was pissed off: at Giang, at Minh, at myself. How the hell could I have let myself be tricked like this? Of course Minh and Giang were together. Hadn't Minh said that they'd known each other since they were kids? And wasn't Giang obviously into Minh? Minh probably thought it was a big kick to screw with me and then fuck with Giang behind my back. That fake little bastard. I didn't say anything as he walked up, waited for him to start talking, start explaining.
He asked hesitantly, "Wes?" When I didn't reply, he sat down next to me. "Wes, I saw the glass on the floor. Where were you?"
He stared at our shifting reflections in the pool, swallowed nervously. "Wes—did you see?"
"See what?" I didn't look at him.
"You saw." His voice was hoarse. "Wes, please—you do not understand—"
"Yeah. I don't. I thought you and Giang were just friends."
"Do friends normally stick their tongues down each other's throats?" I demanded harshly. "Is that how they do it over here?"
"No. Wes, I did not want to kiss him!"
"But you did."
"He kissed me."
"You kissed him back. I saw your hands on his shoulders—"
"I was pushing him away!"
"How do I know you're telling the truth? How do I know that once I'm gone you won't just go back to whatever it is you have with him?" I stared hard at Minh. "What is it with you two, anyway? What is there between you and him?"
"I do not know what you mean," Minh said quietly. "But Giang once did a very big…favor for me."
"What was it?" What had he done that had created this bond between them? Was it what made him so possessive?
Minh held out his right hand, palm up. "Look," he said quietly, and drew my finger to his hand. He placed it on a thin white line, barely visible, that slashed across the palm.
"Minh, what does your hand have to do with this?"
"When I was nine…" He faltered. "My mother had a—a—that machine. The one that makes nuoc mia. You have seen it?"
"I was helping her. She was trying to make money from it. And I—I was putting the…the sticks—"
"The sugar canes?"
"Yes. I was putting the sugar canes into the machine—" A sick feeling curled in my stomach. Minh whispered, "I was not careful. My hand went in the machine."
"Jesus." I'd seen those machines at home. People fed sugar canes into them, and they ground the whole bundle, in one go, to a pulp. Crushed them to squeeze the juice out. Those machines could mangle solid sugar canes, and Minh's hand had gone into it? "What happened?"
"My hand. It—it ripped—" I winced at his choice of words. "There was a lot of blood. My mother, she wanted to take me to the American hospital, but we did not have enough money. Giang—" He curled and uncurled his hand. "He begged his parents to pay for the American hospital. He got them to help me…It cost very much."
"Did they want you to pay them back?"
"No. They said—it was for friends."
"So what?" I burst out. "He paid your hospital bills for you. Not even him, even, but his parents. Does that mean he owns you or something?"
"Nobody…owns me. You do not understand. If I had not gone to the hospital, I would not—my hand…I would not even have one now, maybe, if I had not gone to that hospital."
I could only stare at the pool. No wonder. Giang thought that because he'd saved Minh, Minh would be connected to him, somehow, that he owed him. Maybe Minh felt the same way, deep down. At the very least, he must feel obligated. "Giang likes you," I said bluntly.
"He has told me…many times."
"And what did you tell him?"
"That I was grateful for what his parents had done for me, but that we were only friends. Always, I told him that."
"I do not love him," he whispered, and I tensed. "Not the way that I love you. Wes." Leaning in, he kissed me on the cheek, then, as I turned to face him, on the mouth. "Wes…Toi yeu em." (I love you.)
"I…" I choked. God, Minh. Did he really mean it? Or was he playing me? Had he been playing me all along? "Why did Giang kiss you?"
Minh drew away. Shit, I was such an idiot. I'd probably just screwed up whatever chance I'd had, right there. But I had to ask. I had to know.
Minh breathed in deeply before he answered. "He was angry. He wanted to know…why I liked you. He—he thought, perhaps…I think…he thought he could make me like him. He has always tried."
"Maybe you should give him a chance."
"I have known him since we were little children. I would know—I would know if I could ever have loved him."
"I did not kiss him back." It was a whisper, a plea.
And I answered it by tilting Minh's face up, and pressing my lips gently against his.
Giang confronted me before we left Mui Ne.
"I hate you."
"It's mutual," I assured him.
"I do not know what Minh sees in you." I don't know what he sees in you, either, you selfish, possessive asshole. "But he picked you, and if you hurt him—" Giang jabbed me in the chest. "I will kill you. Do you understand?"
"Gee, quite the drama queen, aren't you?" I grabbed his hand and added in a low voice, "I would never hurt Minh. Don't be an asshole and assume I would." I left him standing there, glaring at my back.
"So you learned English while you were at the hospital?" I asked Minh. We were standing outside the airport on my last day in Vietnam, trying to say good-bye. Small talk had filled the last ten minutes.
"Yes. The doctor who helped me taught me, too."
"I'll teach you more," I promised him. "And you can help me with Vietnamese."
"I will…email you."
"Yeah." I'd spent the last day or two frantically teaching Minh to use the Internet so he could email me. Thankfully, there was a café across the street from Minh's house with Internet access, and Minh was enthusiastic about the computer. "I'll call you too," I assured him. "Buy a lot of phone cards and stuff."
He laughed, just as my mom called to me. "Go," he urged. But he walked with me to the entrance of the airport, anyway. There, he was forced to stop, because non-passengers couldn't go any further. "Good-bye, Wes."
"Bye. I'll—see you soon."
"Soon," he agreed. And, in front of people, he kissed me, lip to lip.
I melted. "I'll miss you."
We hugged. "I know."
"I love you."
"I love you, too." He kissed the base of my throat. "Do not forget about me."
"Never," I promised. "Never."
A/n: I apologize if the whole Vietnamese-then-translation-in-parenthesis bothered anyone. I just wanted to write it that way, so it would sound more authentic. All observations on Vietnam are personal, and I never intended to make any sort of comment on it. That's just the way I saw it.
banh mi - sandwiches on French baguettes.
nuoc mia - sugar cane juice.
ban bao - steamed buns