I inhaled the salty air of the ocean, a feeling of tranquility passing over me as I watched the red ball of flame set beneath the horizon. This was Ha Long Bay, the place of my conception. My family was vacationing in this fishing village for two weeks. People lived on floating houses, their simple lives sustained by fishing. I felt like I had never left, because the emerald waters seemed so familiar. I was not aware of a pair of brown eyes watching me from afar.
I was just about to stick my toes into the water when a boy’s voice called out to me, “Well, don’t just stand there. Try out the water!”
I turned, startled. It was a boy no older than eighteen years old. He wore a huge grin on his face underneath a mop of thick black hair. His eyes seemed to twinkle in the setting sun.
“I was about to,” I mumbled with a scowl. I snuck glances back, waiting for him to leave. He kept motioning me toward the water.
“You need to stop watching me!” I yelled at him. Suddenly, he ran laughing at me and before I knew it I was pushed backwards into the water. I screamed.
“I CAN’T SWIM! HELP! HELP!” It turns out I was just flailing like an idiot for five minutes in water that wasn’t even 2 feet deep. He couldn’t stop laughing as he pulled me out of the water. “My name is Loc, by the way,” he said.
My face was bright red the rest of the day.
Loc and I spent the next two weeks glued to each other’s sides. He was the son of one of the fishermen in the village. He taught me how to fish, how to swim, how to blow bubbles, and most importantly, he taught me how freeing love was. He gave me my first kiss in the rain.
After our parents were asleep on my last night, I met up with Loc at the secret hut we’d built. He presented me with a beautiful jade necklace. “I want you to always remember me. I’ve never loved a girl like I love you,” he said.
I hugged him tightly, not wanting to let go. I felt a warm liquid on my fingers. His back was bleeding. “What happened?” I asked in shock.
“My father beat me. I took some of our fishing money to buy you this necklace.”
I wanted to cry. I got a washcloth and cleaned the wounds. He caught my hand as I was getting up to leave.
“Ngoc, stay with me tonight… I don’t want to think about tomorrow.”
I lay down next to him on the blanketed floor. I rested my head on his chest; it felt so nice and comforting, breathing in his scent and listening to his heartbeat. “Loc,” I whispered, “I’m always here if you need me.” Somehow, it seemed so right, with the two of us lying beneath the stars and the moon and not a care in the world. I forgot that I was leaving the next morning, and that I would probably never see Loc again.
I lay there, listening to his rhythms breathing, feeling the touch of his fingers on my ribs, his salty scent drifting through my senses. I trailed my finger along the contours of his face, tracing every line, engraving it into my heart. I’d never felt this way before, like I belonged somewhere, right in the arms of this strange boy, who’d burst through my life like a giant tidal wave. Why couldn’t time have stopped? I was thinking what a magical night it was, and I thought I could even hear the stars howling above.
It was magical indeed. It was love beneath the howling stars.
The next morning I left Vietnam on a plane. I saw Loc again. It’s been five years, yet I can still smell the fish from his hands and feel his arms around me. Sometimes when the ocean wind blows by, I hear his words, “Anh yeu em,” (I love you), in my ears. And I clutch the necklace I still wear close to my heart.
Ngoc H. Le