In the spring of 1982 I realized that I had for the first time fallen in love. I was fifteen. I clearly remember that morning in English class as we'd worked over the vocabulary words diurnal, nocturnal, and crepuscular. Crepuscular, it means twilight time when it isn't quite day or night; that one was new to me. Fifteen years old, I thought, is a crepuscular time, isn't it, not a child, yet not a functioning adult. Still, that was the moment that I realized I was in love.
Earlier, just before the Thanksgiving Day break, Tran Hung had slipped a note into my locker.
This for you to please know I think you are so nice. I want to be friend with you. Forgive me to be this very shy boy. Even to write this to you very difficult. If you want Tran Hung to be friend with you you can just write little note and put in my locker number 401.
I knew him then only as the very bright, shy Vietnamese boy in my English and geometry classes. He was super smart. Mrs. Tully had recommended that he move up to trig though he wished to stay in geometry. Later he would tell me this was just to be near me for an hour a day. Of him I knew only that his family were refugees who had been sponsored by a church
Dear Tran Hung,
Thank you for your frank expression. Your offer of friendship is accepted with pleasure. Seventh period I am a librarian assistant, if you can get a library pass then we can introduce ourselves.
And so we met. Indeed he was shy, but against the general clumsy machismo of other boys he was attractive. Soon we arranged to meet in the library after school three days a week, ostensibly he to help me with geometry and I to help him with English. With a wonderful clarity of explanation he was an excellent tutor, though mostly we spoke of ourselves, our likes, dislikes, our hopes. Tran, intelligent, sensitive, and affectionate and always polite was so easy to be with. His father ran a tiny oriental restaurant near the shipyard with his mother who also cleaned rooms mornings at the Holiday Inn. Tran too worked in the restaurant on weekends, but he did not tell me this for the longest time. On the final day before Christmas break he presented me with a small package wrapped in tissue, bound with a gold ribbon. "For you, Jeannie, some little Christmas present." He still pronounced the word little lit-oh. I had corrected this pronunciation so often that it had become a standing joke between us. I had asked my mother whether it would be proper to give a card or little gift to my geometry tutor. She then baked and packed into a Christmas tin a batch of oatmeal raisin cookies which I gave to him. When we stood to part I lay his little parcel on a library table moved forward and gave Tran a gentle hug, "Thank you Tran, and I hope you have a happy lit-oh Christmas." The unexpected hug had left him speechless, though in a moment he raised his arms and took both of my hands in his and gave a soft squeeze. The Christmas card included my telephone number.
During the break we talked every day save Christmas Day. His gift, an elegant egg shell hand painted with a miniature scene of a bridge spanning a stream, was so precious. I placed this and its little wooden cradle under my summer blouses in the bottom drawer of my bureau, but took it out each night. With the nightly phone calls my parents easily discerned that a boyfriend, my first, had emerged. I was wary to tell them Tran's name or that he was from Viet Nam where my dad had been wounded during a Tet Offensive mortar attack, his left arm amputated at the elbow.
I had not told Tran that my dad had fought in Viet Nam. The issue seemed too dodgy. Father spoke of the war only when asked, then he said but little. He had, however, made clear to me that he believed strongly that the war had been an unjust and shameful American adventure against a tenacious people who believed in and fought bravely against our might. He put it this way, "There was only one enemy in that war: us. They were little people defending their ways against a foreign giant." My dad, you see, is liberal. Conversely, in our house it was my conservative mother who saw the war in terms of preserving democracy and halting communism. When my mom asked about the boy calling, I told her that he was the boy helping me with geometry, but she laughed and quickly smoked us out. "Well Jeannie, I suspected obtuse angles might be at play." On the afternoon of Christmas Day I was upstairs helping my dad assemble the exercise machine he'd given mother for Christmas.
"Dad, the boy, the boy, the one whose been calling me, he's really a very special friend. I want to ask you how you reckon mom would react if she found out I'm sweet on one of her, uh one of her gooks, a Vietnamese boy.
"I see your point, sweetie. If you want, I'll try to ease her into this. Jeannie, as long as he's good. I trust your judgment; you know that."
"Well Dad, he is good, he's very good, and he's special. He wants me to meet his mom and dad. They've got a restaurant, Tran, that's his name; Tran has asked me to come to the restaurant to eat and to meet them."
"Well that's no problem, just go, honey."
"If I go, Dad, then I will want to invite Tran to come to eat with us. You see?"
Dad wasted no time. At breakfast mom, speaking directly said, "Jeannie you can bring your little friend around. Just give me a head's up so I can buy some fish heads – just joking, Jeannie!" But I heard her muttering under her breath. Every girl, I thought, should have such a father. That night I placed the painted egg in the tiny cradle under the table lamp at my bedside.
I was so ready for school to resume. After only two weeks Tran looked so good, even older. I know that he was as happy to see me as I was to see him. When I told him that I'd placed the lit-oh egg in a special place at my bedside, he smiled beautifully. I did not tell Tran that this was the last thing I saw before the dark of night and the first thing in the light of morning. Nor did I tell him that the routine of falling to sleep had become a delightful passage of conjuring images of Tran next to me in the library, our Christmas hug, and even kissing, which had yet to happen.
In English class we had begun reading aloud "Romeo and Juliet," with me reading the part of Juliette and Wayne Calverson reading Romeo. Early in ninth grade Wayne had asked me to a school dance, but I had said no, as my folks thought I was still a might too young. Later he continued to ask me to things but in truth I did not care for him. Although bright, had a bullying nature; his father was Chief of Police which gave him much status with other students and even teachers. But he was a very good reader and I much enjoyed the play. In the afternoons I carefully parsed Shakespeare's language for Tran. His insight was impressive; he saw things I failed to pick up.
"Romeo and Juliet so young, no? And those family hate each other so much to even kill. But Romeo and Juliet kind of like adult but they adult families behave like lit-oh children, no? Maybe this put much pressure on their children so maybe children look for love with each other because family love empty for too full of hate all around, no? But every thing for wrong reason, everything. Cannot bring happy time to nobody. So sad this Romeo and Juliet story."
One day after English class Wayne Calverson asked me to go to the beach with him on Saturday. When I declined, he froze and with a grimace said, "Oh that's right, you've got you a boyfriend already, right? Tran, that his name? Tran Hung? Tell me Jeannie, is Tran hung? Well hung, is he; he got a huge one, has he? Is that it? Are you two going steady?" Enraged I stared him down without answering until he huffed and stomped off muttering ugliness about Chinamen, the idiot.
That afternoon in the library Tran asked if I could come to his parents' restaurant on Saturday. When I said that I would love to he clasped my hands and squeezed. He looked beautiful to me and I felt such a surge of warmth. "Come over here," I said leading him between two tall bookshelves where I embraced him in a heartfelt hug, then cupping his cheeks between my hands we kissed.
At the restaurant that Saturday, his parents were very kind, timid, even deferential. His mother did most of the speaking. Tran said his father was embarrassed speaking English. When I later asked Tran how his father had lost an arm, uncomfortable and frowning, he said "Just something in that war over there." I then told him that my father too had suffered the loss of an arm in the war. "He don't blame so much the Americans," Tran was quick to add, "just some Communists over there." My mother she understand better than father. Father still hurt so much from that war."
I explained it was pretty much the opposite at our house, I told Tran how my father had reckoned the war, but that my mother always saw our country as right and justified in everything. Your father and mine, they're like bookends in a way, thinking it might draw us closer.
"Maybe better we do not talk about that war over there, Jeannie," he said. Two days later when I asked Tran to come to our house for dinner, I was saddened and confused when he said no.
That next Monday Tran was moved up to trig. I again asked Tran to come to our house for dinner and was heartbroken when he said no. Once more I invited him, but he said that he could not. He was drawing away. "Jeannie," he said," That lit-to egg, you know, it got some picture of river. Girl live one side, boy live other side." Tears began rolling down my cheeks.
"But Tran, there's that bridge across the river!" I exclaimed."
"That boy and that girl are forbid to go bridge. See, it just like Romeo and Juliet. Maybe whole world like Romeo and Juliet, everybody fight and hate. Me and you can be friends, Jeannie, but I can not come to your house, my father say, my mother say."
The summer after Tran left for the University, Wayne Calverson driving drunk, died when his Camero crashed into a utility pole. I learned from a girlfriend of Wayne's that he and a friend had gone to Tran's family restaurant dressed in Junior Auxiliary Police uniforms suggesting to them that their son date a Vietnamese girl and to leave white girls to white boys. Tran never answered my letters.