Listen to the Bayou
Can you feel the blues
In my lonely heart…

“The Bayou is a river that moves with the ties,” Kaitlin’s dad explained to me as we drove along a branch of the Mississippi river that used to be a heavy trading route back in the days. I realize how often I use the phrase: back in the days when we used to go to Franklin, back in the days when Coach Firneno’d make girls bend over to check if their skirts were long enough, back in the days when we’d roll down Saint Charles on the streetcar named Desire and lazily sipped a paper cup of latte at the Café du Monde…

I dropped by 3437 Napoleon Ave at midnight. In the eerie chilly air, a lone streetlight casted my peeled shadow on the wall of a ghost town. The whole street was deserted. The little basement where 7 Vietnamese families used to live and fight over the bathroom now stood empty, its walls stripped down exposing molded beams, its floors dusty, still lingering the smell of stale water. I looked at my shawdow on the plastered wall and cried a little. Hard times...

3437 Napoleon Ave was never quiet on the bathroom front: something was always stuck, or missing - most often toilet paper. Someone (impossibled to identified, since there were at least 20 of us living in the space of 5) had hiden the toilet paper away, right on the day Elisa dropped by and had to pee. So we ran to the public library down the road and stole all of its toilet paper. Becky O'Malley - upon learning this - condemned us of stealing against the Catholic Archdiosese and the next day, brough me a package of 12 rolls, which lasted me till the day I left.

Becky was the first true American friend I had. Apparently she had noticed me thanks to the school bus incident. You see, I didn't belong to the yellow school bus that picked kids up from their houses. I usually took the public bus, but somehow that day I needed to get home fast. So I kinda just climbed on the yellow bus, hoping the lady wouldn't noticed. But of course she did, stopped the vehicle, and tried to kick me out. And well - I begged, please, i'm from Vietnam, I don't know how to get home, please take me. I must have reminded her of a strayed dog, because she let me stay. True, I was a strayed dog. In the back, Becky had a great laugh out of the incident, and noticed the next day that I was in her homeroom. So she asked me to come over her house to watch some animation.

I have too many stories to tell about Ben Franklin High School - its notorious green roof, the Rapuzel-haired Ms. Fontenot, Coach Firneno - an ex-marine who taught with a yard-long rulerstick and many many other characters that could have come straight from the satire The Confederacy of Dunces. Kaitlin Baudier took me back to Franklin the night before I left, so I could glue my nose to the glass door and squint at the status of Monsieur Benjamin, standing so proudly in the centre of the hallway, like he has always. Kaitlin is the female version of a true Huck Finn. Her famous Hess story goes like this: Mr. Hess - the economic teacher - always wore red socks. His classic pose: slumping in the armchair, arms folded, his feet on the table, red socks exposing, the corner of his mouth sagged down , ready to spit out sarcastic comments as the students poured into class. One day, Kaitlin realized she also had red socks on. So she pulled up a desk straight in front of his table, put her feet up and assumed the same pose. Hess said nothing but looked at her. They just sat there for 10 mins, red socks looking at each other. All the students pointed, laughed, talked, then got really quiet. Eventually, Kaitlin couldn't hold it anymore, so she broke out into a laugh. "Ha!" Hess said, put his feet down, and started the class.

Bruce was my first kiss - a 6 feet 4 muscular guy with a huge smile and goofy mind. Like Kaitlin, Bruce is the kind of kid that can sit down at all cafeteria tables (the Asian table, the Black table, the Gothic squatting group, the nerds) and would be welcomed. Everytime he saw me running down the hall, bookpack unzipped and notebooks spilling out, he'd pick me up with one arm, hailed me across his shoulder and carried me and my books to the next class. On weekend, he'd take us out on his beat-up truck - whose wheel was not even working unless you banged on it hard. We cruised down the water front, along the lake, veering left and right, bruised as we smashed side to side in the tight cabin.

One day, Kaitlin and Paoblo - a sturdy red-headed with a long beard - were fighting in the hall. Paoblo smashed Kaitlin's head, so she punched him in the stomach and pulled his beard down. Just their luck, Ms. Gills - the grumpy Creative Writing teacher - turned the corner and caught them. So, they stopped as quick as lightning, stood mellowly side by side like two innocent statues. Ms. Gills looked at them tentatively, and decided they were making out, so she gave them a PDA offense. Kaitlin later explained to her parents, "No, we were fighting, and Paoblo is dating a man right now!"

Apparently Paoblo has become gay - which was funny to me since he once asked me out on a date. James Page - my biggest high school crush - has also declared that he is gay. And Brian Pittman - the anime fanatic - got married and played a vampire movie in the church (the priest ran yelling, you cannot play images of the undead here!) Elisa and Kaitlin are now living in FEMA trailers because their houses were flooded. Ben Franklin has become a charter school. Ngoc has committed suicide. And Lanisha died last May of a brain tumor, after beling locked out by her crack-head boyfriend. I remember she was so pretty, the prettiest girl in school. I always bumped into her crying in the bathroom because her family did not approve their relationship ("he is white, but so what!")

And... life goes on.

Does Ms. Fontenot still have long hair? Does Coach Firneno still have his yard-long rulerstick to make girls bend down so he can check the length of their skirts? Mr. Hess still wears red socks?

Life must go on.

Goodbye New Orleans. I come back there everytime I need a little bit of soul, a little air to breath, a little right to be ridiculous, a little jazz down in the French Quarter - a little me.

Goodbye New Orleans, time to move on.
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Khóc bạn hôm nay khóc mãi thôi
Tương lai mơ ước, cuộc đời ơi
Sách vở trăm năm chưa ráo mực
Tài năng một chốc ngọc đà rơi

Tri kỷ còn đây vẫn sớm hôm
Hai mươi mốt tuổi, một tâm hồn
Hải ơi, chữ còn, người còn mãi
Sâu thẳm trong tim: "bạn trong tôi".

Lê Minh Đức (04 - 02 - 2007)

I last met him at the VietAbroader 2005 Conference in Hanoi. He walked in the Twin Towers in white shirt and blue slacks - the usual uniform, though he is already in college - and tapped on my shoulders. We could only chat for a little bit, then I had to go back to greet the guests. I asked him about school in Vietnam, and he smiled sadly that it was pretty bad. I thought it was just another normal complaint - like we always complained. After the conference, he went to shake my hands, and said it was great. He left - and never, never would I have thought - that is the last time.

We did not hang out a lot in secondary school - partly because I sat in the front and he in the back. He was rather quiet back then. This morning, as I frantically scrolled through old friends' blogs, I was suddenly horrified that I didn't quite remember his face. But now it all came back: we sat side by side on a bench outside the Hanoi Twin Towers, I was wearing ao dai and sitting up straight, he rested his elbows on his knees, head bended, wavy hair, a smile slightly sad.

I feel floating, bloating - the same feeling when the acolhol has just hit the brain, slowly numbing the neurons and making life a little more surreal than it should. I remember feeling like this at Christmas 2004, sitting in Sara Snider's living room and crying uncontrollably when Ms. Brandon said, "Ngoc hung herself in the backyard on Christmas Eve." I remember going to her funeral, looking at her purplish stony face, and thought - how could it be, she was always smiling, sitting near my locker in the hallways of Ben Franklin High School. She was always early and I always late. She was always smiling and I perpetually depressed all high school life. How could it be that I am still alive and living while she is dead?

I remember my art class in 5th grade. The teacher tried to teach us to analyze a painting that made a big impression on me. It painted a funeral parade marching through the field, amid the sky and the earth. The parade was tiny, we could only made out the long dark rectangular shape of the coffin. The sky was very blue, but took up only a fifth upper part of the canvas. The other four-fifth was stark black, representing the earth where the coffin was soon to enter. The title was "Gan dat xa troi."

Meanwhile, another New Year is coming...
I remember at age 10, I was addicted to a certain adventure series named TKKG, about four German teenagers who sneaked out of school, chased criminals, flirted, basically kicked ass in all meaningful senses. I remember my anxious longing to grow up fast, to be 15 and full moon, so I could sneak out and chase criminals and do all these great things too. Well - so I realized later this Don Quixote complex - as age 15 rolled around, while I did in fact sneak out of school numerous times, this action resulted in many spitting scoldings; and I still did not find any criminal that I could safely chase let alone kick ass.

Oh well.

When my friends saw my passport picture at age 15, they were further convinced of the myth that Asians age less fast than the rest of humankind. In fact, I did look much older at 15 years-old than I do now at 20. All of us Asians out there however know to ourselves that myth is but myth. I for example am quite convinced that the delayed aging has nothing to do with my yellow undertone but everything to do with my sleep and fulfillment.

At 20, and a senior in college, I was suddenly wind-striken to realize: I am young. In fact, so young. The realization, seemingly simple, is revolutionary to someone like me, who has anguished - and took pride - in being more mature/experienced than most peers, even certain older people. I am surprised, and somewhat disturbed, to learn that I am more and more carefree and nonchalant, more and more optimistic about rosy future and lasting love, that I love the way it is now and am reluctant to reverse - even at the expense of some higher purposes. Instead of power, responsibility and burden, I feel light headed and light feeted, in denial of pain or worries or fear.

It's bad.

I am a happiness junkie. I'm overdosed with laughter and my veins are caked with the cocaine of love. But oh how lovely it feels!

And precisely this - not my tailored resume nor my many econometrics model - is my much-valued liberal arts education. What a disheartening thought to have to graduate.
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