It was years ago. I was visiting my grandparents in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. They lived off a busy road. The sounds of mopeds always lingered in the air. The street was lined with houses and families all of different classes. The houses were made of thick concrete and painted over with bright colors.
I sat on the stoop of my grandparents’ bright blue-gated house, and your house was just across the way. Your house was worn out, kind of like the shoes you were wearing. I was thirteen, and you were sixteen. Your slim body was leaning against the metal gate of your family home, your feet crossed over one another. The white T-shirt you wore hung loosely on your sun-kissed skin. You kept a cigarette in between your fingers, barely inhaling its killer smoke. My face twisted as you blew it in my direction. Your neatly combed hair slicked back, either with sweat or too much gel. I was mesmerized. The late afternoon sun was beating down on your already tanned skin and I felt my cheeks turning red as I kept staring at you. I thought you were the coolest boy, a badass. Already looking over, you motion the cigarette towards me, I shook my head and you placed it in between your lips once more. With that last inhale, you tossed it to the ground and walked towards to me.
You held out your hand, never once saying hello or what your plans were but every fiber in my body had already said yes as I reached out and took your hand. We walked down the unevenly paved road to the nearest café. There was no door for the entrance. The whole front wall was nonexistent. The café was lined with dark wooden tables and chairs to match. The lights hung low, the sun beaming through the open space. I sat at a large table you pointed towards and watched as you ordered two tall glasses of milky brown coffee.
“What’s your name?” you finally asked in Vietnamese as you sat down.
“Cynthia,” I said slowly. I took a sip. The sweet, bitter concoction filled my taste buds.
The three-syllable name barely rolled off your tongue, proving to me you didn’t speak much English.
We sat for hours talking, nothing in particular, just casual banter. Our hands rested on the table, our fingertips touching. Your whole body shook when you laughed and I thought it was the sweetest thing. I asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” That question to me seemed normal, a question that was asked one too many times and my answer was automatic. A doctor.
“Nothing,” you said as you lit another cigarette and stuck it between your lips. The puff of smoke trailed along with my thoughts. Was it because we came from different worlds? I was able to go back to the States and pursue my dream but where would you be years from now?
The moment was broken when I heard my mom’s loud voice echoing through the establishment. My name was repeated over and over. She walked in and spotted us instantly. Her hands flew up over her head. She never said a word to you but the look she gave you said it all. I remember looking back as my mom was pulling me back home, your hand combing through your hair and the cigarette between your lips.
Cynthia Le is a student at CCSU.
Letter to a Stranger was inspired by Off Assignment Magazine.