25 March 2007

Trying to Leave Saigon, April 1975

SAIGON WAS IN its last free hours. The smell of chaos filled the air, and confusion was written all over the faces of the people on the street. Groups of armed convicts were breaking into houses, screaming up and down the streets, and shooting into the sky. Furniture flew onto the street, blocking the traffic. Discarded items were set on fire, either by accident or purposely; the smoke and flames added to the terror. Soldiers ran in all directions, tossing their rifles into trash bins, and stripping off their uniforms as if they were on fire. Some children who had lost their parents huddled on a street corner, crying. Above their heads, fire was consuming a coconut tree, and sparks of flame rained down on them. From the car window, they looked as if they were being burned alive in some sacrificial ritual.

We did not get far. The streets were blocked by hordes of desperate people, all with the same futile intention of getting to the airport. Just as we reached the freeway, a painful truth dawned on us: we weren't going anywhere. As far as we could see, the highway was clogged with civilian vehicles and military tanks. The hellish shriek of panic was dreadful in the hot air. People were abandoning their cars, running over each other, jumping on top of one another, climbing onto anything within their reach in order to move forward. Dead bodies lay in contorted positions, grinning horribly at the living. A few steps away from our van, a pregnant woman lay dead near the sidewalk. Her stomach had been ripped open by many hasty footsteps, and next to her lay her dying fetus, moving weakly under a dark mob of curious flies. A pool of dark blood beneath her dried slowly under the harsh sun. My mother quivered and recoiled in her seat, pulling us closer to her.

All along the freeway, people flowed like water down a stream. The crying of lost children looking for their parents, the screams of people being robbed, the songs blaring from the radio, the gunshots, the wailing of the wounded victims all blended into an incoherent symphony of grief. And like the humidity evaporating in the air, this collective keening lifted higher and higher, mixing with the noxious tear gas in a dark cloud of suffering.

Inside the car, my brother and I were too afraid to make a sound. Lam no longer looked relaxed. His long hair fell over his forehead, which was slick with sweat. His fingers, which held to the wheel tightly, were white at the knuckles. His head shook uncontrollably with each breath he took, and his eyes were opened wide, exaggerating the whiteness of his eyeballs.

Lam let out a loud, frustrated scream, as he pounded the horn in a fury. He turned to face my mother. "We have to get the fuck out of the car," he spat. "This is not going to work just sitting here. You take the children and move."

My mother's lips tightened into a straight line. She grasped my arm, and I felt her fingernails dig deeply into my flesh.

"Are you insane?" she replied. "Look at these people! I am not leaving this car."

Lam leaned within an inch of my mother's face. I could see his jugular veins, engorged with blood like two swollen earthworms, as they stared at each other. At last Lam broke the silence.

"Then give me my damned ticket and my passport. I am sick of listening to you, wretched woman. I am leaving with or without you."

My mother did not respond. "Now!" he cried.

The scream startled my mother. She shook her head as if to clear it, then reached for her purse.

Lam's eyes followed her hands. "Give me your ticket and passport as well," he blurted. "I am taking Loan with me."

"Why her?" my mother asked. Lam focused on something invisible on the floor. "She is having my baby."

Loan let out a small cry. My mother ignored her. After exhaling a deep breath, she gazed at Lam calmly.

"So am I. How do you explain this to me? Can't you see that I am also pregnant with your child? " she asked.

"So what? You don't need me. You never did," he said bitterly. "Trust me, you will do just fine."

He yanked the purse out of my mother's hand, searching intensely until he found what he was looking for. In addition to the papers, he grabbed a thick bundle of cash. Waving them teasingly in front of my mother, Lam said, "You just consider this payment for my devoted services."

Behind my mother, Loan finally spoke up. "I am not leaving with you, Lam. I am staying here with the mistress."

He turned to look at her as if she were deranged. Then, his lips pulled back in a distorted smile. "Fine, you stupid servant. Stay. Be my guest."

He picked out my mother's passport and ticket and threw them together with her purse back in her lap. Keeping the money and his own passport, Lam rammed them into the front pocket of his pants. Then, the smile returned to his face. He sank back in his seat, adjusting his clothing, before opening the door to let himself out. Oddly, he turned back one last time to look at us.

"Have a nice life, all of you," was all he said before he disappeared into the crowd.
SOURCE: The Unwanted: A Memoir of Childhood, by Kien Nguyen (Back Bay, 2002), pp. 25-27

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