“What on Earth could make Oregon that fucking special, Huong? Enough for you to
do all this planning, manipulating, and even stealing?”
“It doesn’t matter, Nam! I don’t even care if it’s all desert over there, as long as it’s
part of America. As long as I get to step foot on that country, nothing else even matters to
Huong ended the conversation with Nam a little bit over two months ago with a
slam of the door to his face, effectively ending their friendship. Now, sitting idly by the
Notre Dame Cathedral among hundreds of others to enjoy an afternoon of coffee,
sunshine, and street-food, Nam takes a long drag on the cigarette, filling his lungs with hot
air. He cannot recall when this routine started, but every afternoon without fail, Nam
would come out here to Notre Dame, look for some coffee from nearby vendors, sit on the
ground with his flip-flops as a cushion, and drag from his pocket the good old pack of
Marlboros. His afternoon would end after the third cigarette, when Nam would get up and
put back on his flip-flops.
Keeps him calm, Nam thinks, this whole routine. Once a day, just like that, Nam
gets to fill his mind with images of people sipping coffee and bantering around the park,
smells of street-food cooking and flowers blooming, sounds of bird chirping and moped
honking, and the burning yet satisfying sensations of heat filling up his lungs from the tiny
cigarettes. Once a day, he gets to forget very briefly about Huong and her goodbye. Yet,
somehow, the memories of their conversations still manage to creep in his mind.
It was a scorching-hot day in early July when Huong took Nam out to The Morning
Coffee, their favorite coffee house. The two were having a lively discussion, Nam
remembers, about whether he looked better with this new short hair, or that he should
have kept his old long and shaggy look. Huong insisted on the old hair without faltering,
the same insistence, now that Nam has realized, Huong had in her eyes when she told
him about her plan later on in their conversation. Except that when Huong insisted on
keeping the hair, she was thinking about and caring for Nam. The latter, when Huong was
elaborating on her plan, she was choosing to crumble up his feelings and go along instead
with her excitement for the unknown.
“Oregon – That’s where Khoi lives,” Huong stirred her cup of hot chocolate once,
then again, and again once more, not looking up. “He made his offer during our second
get-together. I don’t know. I mean, it would be whole new life for me. New opportunities–
wait, you remember Khoi, right? He’s Thu’s brother, the one that moved to the States years
ago but is now visiting her. Well, he seems a bit older, but really he’s only 30. Just a
couple of years ahead of us. He runs some sort of nail salon or business over there, I think.
Anyway, he made his offer, and it’s gonna be 15K upfront, then another 10 when
everything’s done. It’s actually cheaper than the usual. Much cheaper.”
The Morning Coffee that day received a little bit more sunshine than usual,
generating a warmer atmosphere. A sweat broke on Huong’s face after her blabbering,
due to the heat or her nervousness, Nam wasn’t sure.
“Well… Should you really be considering this? I mean, at our age? Why risk
breaking the law for a fake marriage with someone you barely know, while there are also
other ways to get a green card?” Their eyes finally met.
“I mean… It’s not like I have no idea who he is. It’s Thu’s brother, and he’s a nice
person, that I know for sure.” Huong shrugs.
“Sure, even if he’s as nice as Thu. What about other ways to get a green card? Like
that investment route, or whatever it’s called? I’ve heard that attorneys nowadays are
really good at looking for potential areas for you to put your money in and pave way for
permanent residency. Wouldn’t that work better?”
“Yeah sure, but you know how I dislike lawyers! I mean, they just keep talking and
talking, billing us by the hour. And the way they talk! So condescending, too!”
It became clear to Nam that Huong wasn’t asking for his approval, or advice, or
even opinion. She was merely informing him of her decision, her new adventure. Huong
had always been a risk-taker, always seeking new routes and diving into the unknown. It
was Huong who dragged Nam to the rooftop of their high school when they were told not
to; it was Huong who kept Nam on the road until two in the morning with his moped
speeding at 100 kilometers per hour; and it was Huong who got the bamboo bong for the
two’s first taste of thuoc lao (which, Nam only realized later, contained up to 1000% the
amount of nicotine normally found in cigarette tobacco). That was her – always searching
for the exciting, jumping at any adventure she could find, and that was him – always
following closely, backing her up and having her back, never a hint of hesitation.
But this time, Nam wasn’t so sure. This was not merely stretching the law – this was
deliberately breaking it at an unmeasurable risk, and for what – an uncertain future in a
strange place? Yet, at the back of his mind, Nam found it hard to say for certain whether
he was upset about the legality of Huong’s plan or that he knew he would not be able to
join her in this new adventure. Whatever it was, Nam did not care. All he knew was that
he would not let the person he cared most about risk her life for a slot in a place she knew
almost nothing about, even if neither of the two had ever explicitly discussed what was
going on in their “friendship,” which was enough for Nam – he was fine with only being
her supportive and caring friend, knowing that he could never become anything more.
The days following the announcement and leading up to their last encounter
witnessed Nam’s constant effort to change Huong’s mind. Oregon remained his target for
a good while as he dug up and saved to his desktop all the bad news about the state. His
attempt became in vain, of course, when Huong bluntly admitted that her goal was never
Oregon, only the States. Oregon just happened to be the state she would be in initially for
Nam’s strategy moved on to other ways Huong could obtain her green card.
Paperwork, policies, attorneys, more paperwork – Nam perused the USCIS website so
often that it appeared on his “Most frequently visited sites.” Looking back, Nam wondered
why he never bothered looking into the guy himself, Khoi, whom neither Huong or Nam
really knew anything about aside from Thu’s praise and validation. Maybe Nam was so
preoccupied with building up his hatred towards Khoi that Nam did not even want to give
that guy any chance. Or maybe at the back of his mind and beneath his effort, Nam knew
anything that he was doing would become pointless. Yet, Nam never wanted to sit still
and do nothing. It didn’t seem right to just say, “I give up,” and watch Huong risk her
whole fortune and life.
In turn, Nam decided to reach out to Huong’s parents, despite knowing how upset
she would be. Huong was never really a family person – she smiled her brightest and
laughed her hardest when surrounded by friends, the people who only came into her life
to leave a footprint but never really stayed. His two-hour conversation with Huong’s
parents ended with her barging in and dragging Nam out of the living room and to the
“What the hell do you think you’re doing, Nam?!” Huong shouted at the top of
their lungs, so loudly that the people on the street were slowing down to watch.
“Saving you from your reckless and stupid plan, isn’t it clear?” Nam was not at his
“I don’t give a damn about how stupid you think I am! Who do you even think you
are?” The honking seemed to fade behind their shouting.
“The only person that is obviously dumb enough to still care about you fucking up
your life, Huong!”
Then there was the slam of the door, shutting Nam outside of the house. And the
blocking on all social media platforms the day after. Then silence.
It was Thu who let Nam know the date and time of Huong’s departure, 11 o’clock
at night on the third of August, but Nam knew his best friend well enough to know that if
he were to show his face that day, only disasters would follow.
So, that entire evening, Nam made sure to stand only behind those big statues at
one end of the crowded airport, watching Huong hugging Thu and her family, who
actually never really cared enough about her to realize how much of a mistake this all
was, her walking towards Khoi, and their figures disappearing behind the gates, marking
the last time Nam saw Huong.
Why he did not do anything to break the silence, Nam was not even sure himself.
He only recalls long hours of lying on the couch, rephrasing the words from his mouth in
the fight, replaying their happier moments, and making mental arguments of why he
should and should not care. Pride was sailing the should-not ship, and when Nam could
not stop going back to Huong’s slammed door, he decided to maintain the silence and
watch her walk away and towards the check-in gates at the airport.
That day, Nam watched Huong go. Now she’s over there in Oregon of America,
and he’s here in Saigon of Vietnam, finishing his cigarette, the sunlight slowly fading
behind. Nam unfolds his legs as he stubs his cigarette out on the ground. Leaning forward
to grab the faded silver helmet, Nam jumps on his moped and gets ready to leave the
Cathedral sight, ending yet another day.
“100 kilometers per hour. Here we go.”