Cà Phê 179 (I have never been to Vietnam)

I have never been to Vietnam.

I have never been to Vietnam.

In the late summer of quarantine, when summer was understood as “fall” and heavy knitted turtlenecks and wool and cashmere coats replaced tees and flops, my father, my sister, and I treated ourselves to some cozy Tsukuyomi ramen in the heart of the mile-end. “This is where Aman and Gino live!” I’d share in the car. “Oh! My friends and I go picnic-ing here all the time!” I’d suddenly exclaim, pointing to the residential park tucked in the nest between Parc Avenue and Mordecai-Richler Library. Memories of rich St-Viateur bagels fresh out the oven and photoshoots under the sun on Jeanne-Mance passed by as boutique lights reflected on the windows of Papa’s Honda Accord. When the masked employee sat us down along the exposed brick wall, my father spoke proudly: “Ông nội’s café had an overarching wall like this one, in Vietnam.”

***

In the spring of quarantine, I brought up the dust-filled books and photo albums from our family basement. Printed films of my parents’ wedding and The History of Vietnam took over my bedside table. Thus began a well-awaited search for identity, history, any semblance of home that was not the refurbished house I spent my days in. 

***

“179,” he said. “It was called 179, our house number on the street.”

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The decadence of Takoyaki octopus balls called on my sister’s appetite, while the story of my grandfather’s local business answered my cravings more. Here laid Cà Phê 179, my father’s home I claimed as mine—more than the one I celebrated my 5th, 8th, and 20th birthday in—more than the one safely guarding me against the Men my grandmother so deeply feared for my young adult life. 

“We I live in a mid-century-built two-storey home in the heart of Ville Saint-Laurent’s Jewish neighbourhood, which my mother has painted and repainted, renovated and sculpted to look like the glossed papers of IKEA and HGTV magazines. My bedroom wall shares one with my grandmother’s. My peach-painted door opens to the extremity of the hallway, a direct pathway to the bedroom my younger self sought shelter in during the wakes of childish night terrors—the same my mother now safely shares with a Man whose complexion differs from mine. When I step out the front door, bà ngoai watches my leavings-and-goings through the window. She instinctively and carefully studies the camera monitors when an arrival is signalled through the beep-ing of the home system and shakes the way she must have when communists entered her home and claimed it as theirs. My mother has never been back to Vietnam—neither has my grandmother. 

 played all kinds of music,” he continued, “mostly American because of the cộng sản—but we also played Viêt music, which was forbidden.” 

I questioned Papa whether Cà Phê 179 still stood tall. 

Chú Tuấn now lives there with his family,” he simply responded, “It became a home when your cousins were born.” 

The thought of my uncle and his children—whom I’d never met—the history that laid between the walls that my grandpa had handbuilt for my recently deceased bà nội., t The unspoken understanding between my father and meI that no past memory could be explained through dinner conversation. All of these lingered and diluted into the warmth of the chicken broth that swept the back of my throat like St-Viateur bagels and photoshoots on Jeanne-Mance street.

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***

Today, I am grateful for the roof atop my head, the chả giò’s bà ngoại taught me how to cook, and the Park dubbed “Gold” I spend my evenings skating in. The streets I have mindlessly walked and ran and biked through, the dried leaves my suede boots have stepped on in the arrival of autumn, the well-familiar sax melodies of Montréal’s beloved Jazz fest all taste like Tsukuyomi tofu ramen to my lips, smell like the books of Mordecai-Richler Library to the tip of my nose, and feel like Aman and Gino’s apartments to my being. And, yet—still, though my father speaks of Cà Phê 179 as if a flashback and my mother still dreams of damaged walls despite soundly sleeping between remodeled ones, my palette longs for authentic cà phê sữa da, my ears the sound of ABBA and traditional cải lương music on tape, and my senses the language of home.

 

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