Premiere issue Autumn 2002

Bitter Melon

About the author

In peregrinations ranging from the Ohio River to the shores of San Diego, Michael J. Williams worked on transboptic field theory while supporting himself as a grill cook, dishwasher, janitor, waiter, bartender, busboy, English as a Second Language teacher, squid packer, advertising copywriter, concert refreshment-stand set-up guy, casino coin-change checker, press room insert operator, and termite company office manager. He has retained employment as a journalist in north San Diego County for the past 16 years. He can be reached at mwilliams@nctimes.com.

Long Vinh was taking his after-work smoke on the back patio by the garden. He offered a stick of Winston's. As always, Mel declined.

"I'll be leaving tonight," he said. He paused long enough to see the arch of Long's eyebrow above the chrome rim of his thick-lensed eyeglasses. They gave him the look of a physics professor rather than an assembly plant foreman, his current job.

"I talked to a friend in O.B. He said I can stay at his place for awhile. In Ocean Beach."

Long drew on the cigarette, then blew out the smoke slowly, wisps floating into the garden's extravagant foliage. Mel looked at him to see if he detected the deception, but Long gazed blankly at the garden.

"You sure? You don't have to leave so soon."

"It's okay," Mel said, attempting to reassure Long. "I better go while I got a place to stay."

That morning, over the American breakfast of eggs and buttered toast that Long's wife, Tuyet, had proudly prepared, they had told him he must leave. She spoke demurely, with an appropriate measure of restrained regret. His staying there wasn't going to work out. Long didn't say anything, but appeared to assent. Mel said he understood and that was the end of the discussion.

He felt acutely aware of not being Vietnamese, of being a bearded, blue-jeaned, beer-drinking American guy in hiking boots with a button missing on his frayed flannel shirt. He had failed to measure up in some unspecified way.

Several times, Long had observed that Mel seemed more Asian in taste and behavior than American, which Mel had taken as a compliment. He was supposed to spend the summer helping Tuyet and the kids with English and teaching Long how to play the guitar, specifically Santana songs. Santana was a big hit with the Vietnamese, and Long was no exception. In exchange, Mel would have a place to stay.

His roommates had moved out and went back home after school was out for the summer. He was unable to afford the apartment on his weekly salary of $75 teaching English to refugee adults. He had not realized he would have to sleep in little Tony's bed, while the four-year-old slept across the room in eight-year-old Linda's bed, and Linda slept with her mom and dad. Though initially uncomfortable about the arrangement, the family seemed to accept it cheerfully. The announcement that he must leave took him by surprise, though he avoided an emotional reaction.

Long smoked and looked at the garden in his characteristic manner, dangling a cigarette from his hand pointing outward, his upper arm resting on his left forearm folded across his chest.

Garden The garden was an exuberant, verdant chaos of vines, tendrils, leaves and oddly shaped fruits and vegetables that were the family staples. They undoubtedly looked weird to the neighbors, with their rose bushes, bougainvillea, birds of paradise and jacaranda trees decorating Arizona Street.

The garden was not actually the work of the family, though Long and Tuyet tended to it when they had time or were in the mood. It was the creation of Tuyet's father, who lived down the street with the rest of Tuyet's family, the Truong household. Besides the mother and father there were Tuyet's older sister, Ngoc, and the younger sister, Huynh, and the youngest, a brother named Lam. An older brother had his own family and lived in another part of town.

The old man was a former engineer who built bridges for the American military during the war. He had plenty of time on his hands to take care of both his own garden and that of his daughter's family.

His children professed embarrassment over their father's passion for gardening. In this family, they said, the roles of mother and father were reversed. The father was compliant, good-natured, quiet; the mother: stern, stoic and disciplinarian.

A closer inspection of the garden beyond the tangle of leaves and stems revealed an intricate design, a matrix of interlocking lattices and stakes. It reminded Mel of a miniature, ancient civilization like Angkor Wat, languoring for centuries under the jungle canopy.

The old man didn't say much. He regularly went to Tijuana and gambled on Jai Alai, and won. That amazed Mel, since he and everyone else he knew who gambled there consistently lost.

Long was inspecting the bitter melons. The cucumber-shaped vegetables with their wrinkly pock-marked skins hung from vines that twisted along a wire screen held up by stakes.

Bitter melons were Ngoc's favorite. She had told Mel how to harvest and prepare them. As they grow, they get larger and greener. When it looks like they aren't going to grow anymore, you can pick them. When they start turning yellow, it's too late. In the sun, they go bad quickly, within a day or two. The skin turns yellow and then orange, while the pulp and seeds inside turn red. You can save the seeds and dry them for planting.

Loaded with niacin, the vegetable is so acrid raw that it is practically inedible. Cooking it properly reduces the bitterness and it complements salty flavors. After he'd gotten used to it, Mel had come to crave it. He sensed it was wondrously nutritious.

To prepare it, you scooped out the pulp and seeds and boiled it to cut down on the bitterness. Then you could either slice it and stir-fry it with ground meat, garlic and vegetables, or cut it in half and stuff it with ground pork, bean-thread noodles, garlic, salt and black pepper and cook it in water, resulting in a delicious broth. It was an item for the cookbook Ngoc and Mel had talked of creating. She would explain the recipes and Mel would put them into English. That was before she stopped talking to him.

The air on the patio was chilly. All traces of pink in the sky had vanished in the dusk.

"I better pack up," Mel said.

Long squatted by the melons, taking a closer look at their progress. He pursed his lips, pointing them in the direction of a melon that had turned yellow.

"This one no good," he said. As he tugged it from its stem, it turned to mush in his hand. Crimson juice rolled down his wrist and forearm and gave off the smell of urine.

*     *     *     *     *

In the kids' bedroom, Mel laid out his things on Tony's bed and sat down on the edge of the thin, tough mattress that rested only on a metal frame. That was one thing he wouldn't miss, trying to sleep, squished up on Tony's small, hard bed.

The boy charged into the room on his plastic tricycle.

"Hi Uncle Mel. Let's play," he said, ripping around the room in circles. Tuyet called from the kitchen.

"Tony, leave Uncle Mel along. Come eat your dinner."

The boy left and Mel finished stuffing his fading green canvas Army backpack with his things: two pairs of jeans, two T-shirts, a plaid flannel shirt, underwear, socks, soap, a towel, a stenographer's notebook for writing. He'd left books, records and any other items that were now burdensome scattered around at the houses of friends and acquaintances. They were kind enough to store his things, but didn't have a place for him to stay.

He pulled the drawstring tight and buckled the flaps. The pack went back a long way, he thought, leaning back on the mattress to rest. He had picked it up at a yard sale back in Ohio for five bucks. He was going to meet his girlfriend after she had left for New York City. That was the last time he had seen her and her enchanting green eyes. It became a long-distance affair that dissipated as such affairs do, and now was relegated to a museum wing of his mind.

Ngoc did not have green eyes, but her name meant jade or emerald or something like that. He wasn't sure from her explanation whether it meant the gem or the color. It took him weeks just to pronounce her name right. At first, she had given him her last name, Truong, knowing Americans have as much trouble pronouncing the "ng" sound as she had dealing with "r"s. When he called her house, the younger sister, who enjoyed being a smart ass, said, "Yes, I am Truong. Which Truong do you want? There are many Truongs here." So he had learned to say Ngoc though he never got it quite right.

Then again, miscommunication and misapprehension were constants from the beginning. He was working the grill at the student union hamburger joint, working his way through graduate school in linguistics. Barney was at the counter trying to take other customers' orders when this wide-eyed, confounded Vietnamese woman looked on in a mixture of embarrassment and frustration. She had straight black hair clipped short just below her ears and except for a trace of lipstick, she was unmade up, and she wore a dull pink blouse and skirt. It was as if she were trying to conceal her beauty.

Mel took matters in hand and asked what she wanted. He could barely make out what she said, in her chirpy voice, something like "ha thow, plea." But when she timidly pointed to the left side of the grill, he knew she meant "hot dog."

During his break, he found her at a table and asked to join her. She came to the lunchroom every Tuesday between English and accounting, and he would sit with her and talk to her then. When he took a job with the tutoring service, she came to him and he continued helping her outside of work. They began to meet several times a week on campus, sometimes in the library or cafeteria or outside on a bench. Sometimes he would walk her to a bus stop or to Lam's car. His nonchalant, comical behavior irritated everybody in the family, but especially Ngoc.

He began talking with her on the phone a lot, sometimes from two to three hours at a time, to the annoyance of his roommates, who teased him unmercifully. She invited him to family outings: the Vietnamese New Year's celebration with a Santana cover band, a family feast, a family picnic. The older brother, who had been a a professor of literature in Vietnam, talked incessantly to him, the other sisters needled him, the old man smiled and nodded knowingly, like Uncle Ho without the sinister side. The old lady, whom he likened to the Empress Dowager of China of the Boxer Rebellion days, grimaced, and Ngoc mostly ignored him aside from making sure he had something to eat. He felt vaguely foolish but braved these events nonetheless. She declined his invitations to take her out for dinner or to a movie.

One day she told him the crab story. They had stayed late studying at the library and she had to wait a while before the younger brother would arrive to pick them up. They sat on a cold concrete bench near the visitor's entrance. It was going on 11 p.m. and the campus was serene. Few students were around.

Vietnam "Before, long time ago, I used to have boyfriend, in Vietnam," she began. "This after we move to south. This boy, he is very nice, he walk home with me from the school. He carry my book for me. His is very nice boy. I know he is very poor. After school, he like to go fishing because he is very poor. He need to find food for his family. One day he say to me, come with me and he take me walk with him to the river. What do you say, it look like a shore. Beach, you know. And he go into water and he have a net. He come back to me and say I give to you, this. I have a bag and open it and he put three, four ... crab?"

She paused dramatically, took a deep breath and repeated the word "crab" because it gave her so much trouble pronouncing it.

"He say to me, I know you love crab food, so I am give to you. And ... I know this boy and his family not have to much money. My family do not need food, but he give to me. This make me want to cry so much. I know this boy love me and I think I love this boy. But he is not rich and my family is not poor. I think we almost rich."

She looked at her watch. Her brother was late. She shook her head in exasperation, then continued the story. She looked ahead, not at Mel, but Mel's attention was riveted on her. She rarely spoke with such emotion.

"You see my mother is very, very strong woman. My mother and father have friends are very rich. They have son, he is very handsome. My mother want me to marry this boy. His parents come to my house and they say, want son marry with me. My mother say, this is a good boy, he going to college and family is very rich. My father say okay too. What my mother say, my father say too. But. I do not like this boy. I am in love with my friend. Nobody understand that. So I say no, I am not to marry this boy. I do not care. My mother, she is very, very mad."

"Wait a minute," Mel said. "Were you already engaged to be married, or was this before that?"

"Wait. I tell you," Ngoc said, excitedly. "Already we engage. Parents engage me and son. You know. This is Vietnamese custom. Then we go to marry. All his family come and all my family there. I stay in room and I am crying all day. They make me put on dress, very beautiful dress. My sister they say, Ngoc, time to go and marry with this boy. But. I say I can not go. And I can not stop cry. They wait all day, five, six hours, but I not go. My mother is very mad. The boy parents very mad. Everybody is mad with me.

"My mother say, okay, you not marry this boy, you not marry anybody. Then. I want to see my poor boy, the boy I love, but I can not. Or I have big problem. I never see him again. The war is coming to my town. I almost die. Many people die. My family must go to America. I do not want go. But no choice. I am refugee."

Mel studied her face. The smooth skin the color of white peach flesh, the almond-shaped brown eyes, the wisp of black hair curled around her delicate ear — more than ever he was drawn to her. He wanted to say something, to soothe her anguish, to allay her suffering, to confess his adoration of her. He could say nothing.

Hurried footsteps approached and they saw the face of Lam coming into the light of the street lamp, giggling. He began talking excitedly in Vietnamese while Ngoc responded in a rebukish tone. The exchange went on until Ngoc stood up, reached into her purse and pushed a ten-dollar bill at him. She picked up her books, wrapped her arms around them tightly, pinning them to her chest and looked the other way.

"I ran out of gas," Lam said to Mel. "Sorry about that. Don't worry. I'll get some gas now. Be back soon."

Not only had Lam made the mistake of running out of gas, he had forgot to bring his wallet.

"Okay, I'll wait here with your sister," Mel said. Ngoc looked sharply at him.

"You. Go with him. I wait. Go!"

He was taken aback by her insistence.

"Ngoc," he pleaded gently. "It's not a good idea for you to stand out here by yourself. I can't let you stay here alone."

"No," she shook her head. "You go! Go with my stupid brother." She turned abruptly away from him. Mel saw it was useless to continue the debate, but he remained with her nonetheless, suffering nervously, as she continued to disavow his presence. She refused to speak to Lam when he returned with the car, grinning and cheerful as ever. Mel acted like everything was normal and when Lam let him out at his apartment, he promised to call her soon. When he called after that, she said she was too busy and could not talk to him.

A couple weeks after the incident, he ran into Tuyet on campus. She brought up the idea of his staying with them. When he mentioned Ngoc wasn't talking to him, she laughed.

"Don't worry about my sister. She's a special case."

*     *     *     *     *

A knock on the door frame of the bedroom roused Mel.

"Hey, Mel," Long said. "How you doing? Sorry if I woke you."

"Oh, that's okay. Oh, man, how long have I been out?" He sat up and noticed through the window that it was almost dark. Probably past eight. He heard unfamiliar Vietnamese voices, coming from the living room.

"I better get going," he said, grasping his bag and standing up.

"Hey, you don't have to go tonight," Long said. "You can stay longer. I'm sorry maybe you didn't understand. You don't have to leave immediately. My friends are coming over now. Friday night. We don't work tomorrow. Tonight, we have a party. You can meet my friends. See what a party is like, Vietnamese-style."

As gentle as it was, the intensity of the offer was unusual, so his presence at the party must be important to Long.

"I don't know Long," he said. "I ought to go. My friend's expecting me."

As Mel moved out of the room, Long followed.

"The family's coming over too. I think Ngoc and Huynh are coming over. We'll have some fun. Drink beer, eat some seafood. Crabs. Lobster too."

Mel forced a smile out of politeness as he entered the living room and bowed his head to a half-dozen men in their late 20s and early 30s who were lounging around in extra chairs brought in or on the floor. Long introduced him and Mel sat down in a wooden chair by a wall near the front door. He didn't want to get too comfortable sitting on the sofa, and besides the women would need a place to sit.

Long brought him a Budweiser, opened up the top and handed it to him without asking him, spurning his usual custom of offering a glass with ice in it. All the other men were drinking from cans too. A bottle of cognac was being passed around.

The idea of Ngoc getting drunk made Mel chuckle inwardly. That was one thing he hadn't tried. He had never seen her drink. They knew his weakness, which may have been why he was getting the boot, he pondered. Wasn't a good idea to have a drinking man around the kids. Or maybe this whole thing was a last ditch attempt to hitch him up with Ngoc. Long's plea for him to stay had all the promise of a fortune cookie.

The men chattered gaily and Mel sipped in silence, awaiting the proper moment of his departure. Excruciatingly tantalizing aromas from the kitchen were saturating the living room.

There was some shuffling heard on the porch. The old man, carrying a couple bags of food, and the matriarch had arrived. They immediately went into the kitchen, and Lam burst through the door with some more bags, followed by Huynh, holding the screen door open for Ngoc, who clutched her sister's shoulder. Ngoc was putting on weight and her limp was getting worse from the shrapnel wound she had suffered in her left leg during the war.

She said her hellos in Vietnamese to the guests and muttered a weak "Hi" in the direction of Mel as Huynh helped her to the sofa.

Mel resisted looking at her. Linda duteously trekked to and from the kitchen bearing platters of food, which she placed on a folding table set up in the living room. Steaming mussels, crabs and lobsters lathered in pepper, roast pork and rice paper for wrapping them in, plates of water spinach and a pot of stuffed bitter melons from the garden, and heaps of noodles and rice.

Tony stopped playing with his toy race car and hopped on Mel's leg, playing with his beard. "You're going away Uncle Mel? Where are you going?"

His own nieces and nephews had never called him uncle. It struck Mel this was what a family was all about.

"I'll be back soon," Mel said. "I've got to go see a friend. I've got some special work to do."

He reached into a pocket, got his wallet and took out two dollars. That left him with $69 and probably half a buck in change until next Friday.

"Here. This is for you. Give this one to your sister."

Mel sensed Ngoc's gaze during this exchange, but he saw her quickly turn away as Tony jumped off his leg and ran after Linda. It would be considered rude to leave without dinner. But under the circumstances, he thought it would be understood.

He told Long he had to go, quietly, hoping not to attract too much attention. He picked up his bag, said he was glad to have met everyone, while Long's buddies implored him to stay. He managed to move to the door though.

"Got to catch my bus," Mel said. They offered him rides but he turned them down.

He paused to say goodbye to Huynh and Ngoc, who looked at him before she nervously looked downwards. He wondered if he was making some dreadful mistake at the same time he knew he had too split. Lam slapped him on the back and he hugged the kids and Tuyet.

"Hey," Long said with a rare grin. "What about your guitar and the Santana book."

"Why don't you keep them for awhile. You can use 'em more than I can for the time being."

"When do you think you can come back to see us? I'm going to need some more lessons and Tuyet is going to need some help during summer school. We'll call you at the English school, okay?"

"Yeah, sure, I'll be around," Mel said.

He pushed out into the night onto Arizona Street. Tony raced along side him on his tricycle to the end of the block before turning back. One more block and he was standing on University Avenue next to the Arizona Street sign. He probably should never have left Tucson four years before. But he sucked in the cool San Diego air, feeling revived, mildly delirious.

The electric wires and street lights hummed, as cars whirred by on University. An old-time jazz band was playing "It's All Right With Me," from Tuba Man's bar. It was competing with a disco tune with a screeching guitar wailing from C.J.'s Tavern on the other side of the street. A plucky accordion blared from a juke box inside the door of Alfonso's Taco Shop.

He was on his way to the bus stop to catch the No. 7. He could hit a bar here on University, have a drink to quell the nerves and postpone his hunger. No. He must move on, put Arizona Street behind him. He didn't have anywhere to go and he wasn't sure where he was going. He was going downtown. He'd always wanted to hang out there.

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