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Manoa 15.1 (2003) 109-112

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Starting Out

Phan Trieu Hai

The man seemed to know this place. Quan pulled the car over by a restaurant just as it got dark. I got out with the man, but he said, "Go away..." I translated. Quan said, "Ask him when we're going back." I translated. The man seemed upset. "Late." Quan waved at me. "Get in the car then. Let's go find something to eat."

Lights were coming on in the town, but the road was still dark. The old villas lit by dim neon lights slowly faded toward the back. On our right was the sea. It was big and had changed colors since the afternoon. The mountain was getting darker and darker. Quan peered ahead, his arms bent around the steering wheel, his tattoo showing prominently.

"Where's he from?" he asked, his face expressionless.


We stayed silent for a while. The car entered the town, shops and restaurants appearing on either side. Quan slowed the car down, his eyes darting from side to side. "Let's look for a restaurant," he said.

I eyed the ones along the right-hand side, but could not distinguish the restaurants from the cafés under the tiny lamps. The town, small and simple, suited me.

The car pulled to a stop. Quan stood in the door of a restaurant, staring at the plates of food spread out all over. I swallowed my saliva.

"What'd you want to eat?" he asked.

"Whatever," I replied. "This place looks good."

Quan squeezed his eyebrows, called out, "Mam!"

He ordered enough food to cover the table. I filled up soon. Quan stuck a spoon in the soup and stirred it. "Eat."

I wasn't used to eating slowly. Quan got busy eating again, then looked up. "Well, eat."

"You go ahead."

He smiled. "I am." He seemed to be in a better mood. "Your first job?"

"Yes, first time."

"You speak English very well."

I said nothing.

"Are you afraid?" [End Page 109]

"Of what?"

"Oh, of speaking to a Westerner, like this one." He waved his arm.


He nodded his head. "That's good. But in general, whatever we're not good at, what we don't know—that'll make us afraid, huh?"

"You're right."

He took a toothpick and picked his teeth. I waited. He looked out on the road. "There's more for you to learn out there."

I knew that certainly. Sitting there and eating with him was different from eating ice cream with my friends. This restaurant was also far different from our usual ice-cream shop. When we'd graduated, we prepared ourselves for such differences. There wasn't anything too difficult to adjust to.

"I know, I'll get used to it," I said.


The woman selling food was making noises as she cleared the dishes.

"Why didn't he ask you to eat with him?" Quan asked suddenly.

"I don't know. I only translate."

He shook his head. "Strange!"

I said nothing.

He stretched his legs, turned his chest so that his bones cracked. "Mam. The bill..."

I fidgeted.

"Let me," he said.

It was dark now. We went to the beach. The chairs and umbrellas had been folded up and arranged into dark masses. The deserted beach made me feel lonely. During the day, this place would be busy, but at night there was nothing left but the paltry shops without light. It was sad.

I'd been here before. The last time was with some friends. It was summer, and we walked along the beach, the girls barefoot and kicking up the white foam. Up above, the lighthouse swept rays of light out to the sea. I'd been up there, too. Up in the lighthouse, the wind blew hard like a storm. I'd grabbed hold of the railings made of small iron bars, and my girlfriend had, too. I held on to her hand, turned to the sea, and felt that we were at the highest point people...


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