Please Pass The Gonads
It was an instant connection. Tong offered his pointer finger and moved his head in a manner that lured me to tug it. I did, he farted, and we laughed.
With flip-flops in tatters and a quick smile, my new nineteen year-old friend strolled the streets of Hoi An with me while we practiced English, as smooth of an undertaking as snacking on nuts and gum. Women methodically shuffled by, wearing conical hats and balancing exotic fruits in baskets hanging from a bamboo pole, slung over their shoulder while toothless vendors kept shop, naked children bathed, and heavy, foul air stung my nostrils.
Through gestures and limited vocabulary, Tong discussed his motherâ€™s insistence on education, all in hopes of a better life for him someday, somewhere. Later, trust gained, I was invited to go fishing with his family.
Our makeshift boat pulled up to the dock nearest Tongâ€™s home to pick up his father – fifty-five, rough-faced, and chain-smoking. Due, Tong’s father, hobbled to the boat. Tong spotted me staring at his fatherâ€™s missing left foot and said, â€œFather – no foot – lose with American bomb.”
Guilt gushed through my veins.
We eased into Dueâ€™s favorite fishing hole beneath trees along a rocky shore in the river. Tong handed me the Huck Finn style-fishing pole. With ten feet of fishing line, a white bobber, a weight, and a live shrimp attached to the hook, I sat with childish enthusiasm, eyes darting. Including Tongâ€™s brother-in-law, Xuan, and Due, there were four men packed in their boat. Among the three of them, there was a cumulative English vocabulary of 200 words, maybe. It appeared they discovered some driftwood and a motor and made a boat on a whim the previous day. Buoyancy was a factor.
Whoosh! My bobber plunged underwater. I whipped back the fishing pole, fashioned from a tree branch, and the hook was empty – no fish or bait. I re-baited and placed it in the water. Bobber sunk. Yank. Nothing. Locals peeked out of huts along the shore. Frustrated, I stood up in the boat and dropped my line in again. Same. I was baffled. Locals giggled. The guys were amused; Tong was chuckling, Due smirked between cigarette drags, and Xuan even cracked a smile.
Through a quick game of charades, Xuan suggested I try a smaller portion of shrimp. Yank. Nothing. Due and Xuan laughed with the locals each time I pulled out the empty hook. My patience was thinning, so I decided to show them who’s who on my next attempt.
Still standing, I gently dropped the baited hook in the murky river and within seconds, the bobber sunk again, just as I suspected. I wildly whipped back the pole. A fish was hooked, but I pulled the pole far too hard, so the catch-of-the-day went sailing over my head, over the boat, and splashed in the water on the opposite side. After turning around, I cautiously raised my trophy out of the water, expecting an addition to grandpaâ€™s mantle. Instead, my fish was smaller than my hand. Still, I felt like it was an accomplishment for the ages, so I removed the fish from the hook, turned toward the onlookers, and raised it high above my head, like a gladiator rejoicing at his victory with sword over his head. Then the motor turned on, the boat moved, and I fell down.
At lunch that afternoon, I glanced from the fish soup I was balancing between my chopsticks to the family members sitting around their table, and back, doubting there was an accurate understanding of soup. Fish soup, see, isnâ€™t exactly food for next Fridayâ€™s dinner party menu. Itâ€™s something youâ€™d feed Simon, your pet hyena. I pecked away at my rice like a dog finding only the treats in its bowl. When I finished the rice, only a mess of fresh pink fish guts remained. Iâ€™m not fond of gonads. No way.
As I devised a plan for my predicament, I wiped nervous sweat from my forehead and rubbed the back of my neck. I simply couldnâ€™t bring myself to tell this poor family that their food wasnâ€™t adequate, especially after they graciously took me into their home. I served myself another scoop of rice to buy time. Everyone else had finished. An uncomfortable attention was directed toward me.
Like a boy hesitantly peeking over the edge of the high-dive before his first jump, I looked into my bowl. Chopsticks in hand, I grabbed a good wad of guts. Eyes were on me. In slow motion, I raised lunch to my mouth. Purple dropped back into the bowl. As it entered my mouth, I began to turbo-chew, like biting into a scorching hot piece of pizza. Then I dug into that bowl like nobodyâ€™s business. A crunch here, a squirt there, I shoveled undeterred. After finishing every last horrid, slimy gut, sweat dripped from my nose and chin. I leaned back in my chair, took a deep breath, and patted my stomach in post-feast relief, eyes still on me. Then my belly gargled, I heaved forward, and vomit projected back into my bowl.
Soon after, there was a knock at the door. A well-dressed Vietnamese man confidently walked into the barren, concrete-walled home. Minh was an English teacher in Hoi An and would serve as a translator. I asked a question about work visas for Vietnamese immigrants, he answered, translated it to the family, and then reversed the process. A half hour later, I had learned that with a dash of luck and piles of paper work, Tong could live his familyâ€™s dream and work for my painting company in America. Thanking the family and saying good-bye, I hopped on the back of Minhâ€™s motorbike. As we began to drive down the dirt road, I turned to wave one last time and saw Tongâ€™s mother, hands to her face, crying on the stoop.
Three months after leaving Hoi An, I received a letter from Tong’s cousin who wrote that Tong had been taken to serve in the Vietnamese military.