The man unhurriedly finished pouring his cup of tea, then returned his gaze to some distant point beyond the cafe window. Outside, the winter rain continued to pour down in heavy drops, as if it had no intention of ever stopping.
The man had been sitting inside the cafe for quite a while now, as it seemed that even the last lingering customers had left some time ago. Perhaps he was the only customer remaining in the place. Occasionally, the man would give a quick glance to his wristwatch, then return to his next sip of tea.
The owner of the cafe, a sweet young lady, glanced at the man several times as she counted the day’s totals, and finally decided to approach him, and gently announce, “We’ll be closing at 9 o’clock, sir.”
Startled from his reverie, the man immediately stood up and apologetically asked for his bill.
The young owner readily handed the customer his check as she glanced at him curiously and said,
“We close at 9 o’clock, but the cleaning and prep for the next day goes on until 10 o’clock. You’re welcome to stay until then if you like.”
Looking at the cafe owner, the man hesitantly replied,
“Actually, I have been wanting to go home for a while now, but the rain won’t let up. My car is in the shop, and I live close by, so I had decided to take advantage of the lovely weather earlier for a walk to your cafe, with the intent of passing an enjoyable evening.”
The cafe owner smiled gently,
“It’s almost the Lunar New Year. Don’t you have any plans to go to Cali or to celebrate the New Year at home with your family?
The man replied: “That is a lovely thought, but it would be lonely to go to Cali by myself. And I don’t really have any family to celebrate with … I’m what they call a confirmed old bachelor!”
The cafe owner broke out in a grin at the man’s witty response. She carefully observed this man, with his full head of hair, stylish appearance, faded jeans, and thoughtful eyes,
“I’ll bet you’re thinking about a woman!”
The man responded, “You’ve got that wrong, young lady. At my age, who is there to think about, much less someone worth thinking about!”
The cafe owner coyly bantered back,
“Is that the truth? I’ve noticed that since you came into the cafe and ordered a bowl of pho and a pot of hot tea, all that you’ve done is to drink the tea and look out the window. The bowl of pho remains, yet you’ve asked for several refills on the pot of tea.”
Taken aback, the man looked into the young girl’s sweet face and large, round, mischievous eyes:
“To be honest, there is some truth in what you’re saying. I am reminiscing … but about a memory from the past …”
“I’m sure it must be a beautiful memory.”
I’m not quite sure how to put it? The man thought to himself, then replied:
“Let me put it this way … have you ever, in the course of organizing your belongings, come across an old photograph, an old letter from your student days, or any other memento in that regard … of which you have not thought about for a very long time, but whose reappearance triggers your memories of a person, of a time? It’s like a classic spool of film rolling through your heart, of which you can recall every last detail within each frame.”
The young cafe owner’s eyes widened:
“I’m not sure that I’ve ever experienced anything like that. But I’m sure that your memory must be quite beautiful for you to be so lost in thought, all alone, watching the rain. If it’s not inconvenient for you, would you mind telling me about it.”
The cafe owner cleverly added:
“If you tell me the story, I’ll bring you a fresh pot of lotus tea, on the house.”
The man smiled, affected by the young girl’s wit and enthusiasm.
The man leisurely raised the steaming cup of lotus tea to his lips for a sip, as he began:
Twenty-seven years ago, late on a rainy night such as this – if I’m not mistaken, it was about 1 o’clock in the early morning – when the phone rang loudly in my house. I awoke with alarm – fearing that only bad news could come from the other end of a call that came at that strange hour.
I ran downstairs quickly to pick up the phone in an attempt to save the rest of the household and their sleep from further disruption. There were no cell phones back then.
As I picked up the phone:
From the other end of the line came a voice that I will never forget:
“Is that you, Phan? It’s Doa …” I was in a state of shock – my heart felt as if it would pound out of my chest.
The cafe owner, wrapped up in the story, queried:
“The young woman must have been your lover for you to have become so weak in the knees and with your heart pounding.”
“You have guessed correctly. Diem Doa was the first love of my life. We met when we were both students. Our love was pure and innocent. Those memories still float in and out of my days.”
Then what happened next? the cafe owner asked quickly:
After that, we corresponded regularly. It was a few years after we had graduated from high school that Diem Doa moved to France with her family and I came to America. For a brief period, we lost contact with one another. Until this day, I still don’t know how Diem Doa got ahold of my phone number at that time. We continued to correspond and dream about our future together during the years from 1992 to 1994.
One night, again quite late, Diem Doa telephoned me. However, this time, I could not hear anything but loud sobbing coming from the other end of the line. In between breaths, I repeatedly asked her,
“What’s going on, Doa?”
But her sobs only grew louder, then she finally said,
“Phan, I don’t think I will ever be able to see you again …” then the line abruptly went dead.
That was the last time that I ever heard her voice. Her family has no idea where she went. Many of my friends and family in France have also aided in the search for Doa. But almost thirty years later, there has not been one scrap of news about her.
When we were in school, Diem Doa had a best friend, Kim Minh, who also became my best friend. We were an inseparable trio with similar likes and interests.
Kim Minh has tirelessly looked for Diem Doa over the years, even flying to France in search of information.
It was tonight, when I saw a Facebook post of Kim Minh, wearing the traditional Vietnamese ao dai during the Tet Festival, that memories of Diem Doa returned to me.
I called Kim Minh to wish her a Happy New Year, and of course we ended up reminiscing about our lost friend and our happy times together as the inseparable trio. To this day, we still have no clue if Diem Doa is still alive, or if she is waiting for us on the other side.
We are much older now, and we feel life much more deeply. The older one gets, the more one tends to return to the beauty and peace of the past, of the dream-filled days of youth.
The cafe owner, who had been engrossed in the story, and now eyes brimming with tears:
Your memory is quite lovely and heart-wrenching … I hope my own future will be filled with such experiences …
The man gave a sad smile:
“Trying to find the past can sometimes get you lost, young lady.”
The rain outside had quieted, as the desert winds began to pick up in the late night. The man stood up and extended his arm to shake the hand of the cafe owner:
“I wish you good luck in the New Year of the Golden Pig.”
The man then stepped outside and hurried across the street.
The young cafe owner, whose eyes were now reddened by tears, looked after the man with a thought … I hope that he will one day find that missing link to the memory of his past …
Las Vegas, Nevada, USA
February 01 – 2019