The Secret War
Oakland, CA, USA
I. War Factories
When the war settled, Papa left but his ghost still slept in our apartment. The first few months after he stormed out, Mama cried herself into a steel mill of a woman. She is big-boned, hot tempered, and heaves like a factory during a busy sunrise. At the dinner table, her heaving becomes background noise when my sisters fight over the rent. Mama has fallen into a habit of breaking my sisters down and casting their hearts into iron.
My father was a Laotian Civil War soldier recruited by the CIA Special Activities Division. Among his friends it is called The Secret War because they were never told of the freedom they were holding arms for. Even after coming back home, my mother refused to call him a “veteran” because she does not believe he has yet left the war. He was already a firebomb of a man before he left Mama. With such an explosive personality, he was an accident waiting to happen.
II. Spring Love
My father fell in love with my mother in the spring of 1965, seven years before he was recruited for the Secret War. After taking his last exam of the semester, Papa chased the night into a seedy bar. Cigarette smoke and dim flickering lights swept the room like a quiet tornado. Whistles and claps boom across the room as a silhouette emerges on stage.
You never know how much I love ya
Never know how much I care
When you put your arms around me
I get a feelin’ that’s so hard to bear
You give me fever
In the smoky lights, my father’s eyes followed a silhouette across stage. Mama was a twenty-one-year-old songstress who performed her way into Papa’s arms.They were young and love is somehow always more scarce during wartime. Unlike flowers, where the growth has to stop somewhere, my parents’ love kept blooming as one season shifted into another.
Over the next six years, Mama gave birth to four daughters. When Papa left for the war, Mama was gentle like a sunflower possessed by the light. But three years of unreturned love notes withered her spirit and drained her of her youth.
III. The demons within
The Tuesday morning before Christmas of 1975 was coldest day of that winter. Our apartment door swung open to a silhouette of a man. The blizzard stormed into our living room as Papa stumbled inside with nothing but an empty cup of coffee in one hand and a bottle of whisky in the other. The caffeine kept him awake and away from a country of dying men, while the alcohol kept the dead men’s ghosts in their graves. Mama, eyes swollen with tears, dropped her pots and pans and ran towards him. She was so happy to see him that she almost burned the house down. She hugged him, then kissed him, and hugged him again. Papa had a mouth that understood silence, but three years of war taught him how to master it. Beneath the coffee and whisky, he smelled of rotting flesh and bone, but Mama was sure she could cast him back into a man.
Papa became a shadow of a man after coming back home. Elusive in thought and transparent in emotion, he looked like he was always running away from something. Most mornings, he was gone before breakfast. Sunlight sliding in between the blinds of our living room, Mama often spotted him sitting alone in his car. He said his car was the only place small enough to trap his demons. When he had enough control to leave his car, the doorknob always shook like a nervous finger on a trigger; the door always swung open like an operative raid.
IV. Choosing ingredients
After ten years of marriage, Papa went back to war with his demons. The first time my father hurt my mother, my father swore there was a dead boy on the floor. “You did this! You did this!” His hands trembled so he balled them into iron fists. My mother trembled, so he balled her into a fist. The first time Mama was scared of Papa was when he woke her up to choke her back to sleep. For the next two weeks, he slept outside and she slept with locked doors. To Mama, the hardest part about all of this was sending my sisters away with my aunt. She often tells me, “Your dad was sent to war and came back with demons. I didn’t know how to raise your sisters without letting the demons possess them too.”
Despite how far away he was drifting from home, my mother always tried to bring him back. She had not sung a song since my father left. The siren in her throat could no longer bring Papa back to shore, so she tried to find other ways to reel him back in. Mama knew that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, so she spent hours in the kitchen preparing meals. In every meal, she picked the ingredients carefully: onions for the tears, beetroots for the blood she covered, and peppers for the growing rage.
The last time Mama saw Papa before the wake was at dinner. She was tired of falling into the shrapnel, so she went to cook him a meal. “I’m sorry. I love you.” While he washed off the blood between the cracks of his knuckles, she laced his food with belladonna—a poison fitting for a beautiful woman with a dark rage. “I’m sorry. I love you.” When he drunkenly stumbled into the kitchen, she handed him a plate of food. “I’m sorry. I love you.” He bit into the food. “I’m sorry I loved you.”
Two months later, my mother’s belly swelled up with my pregnancy. I am the youngest of five siblings and the only boy. My sisters and I were born of violence. We are not soldiers but we were birthed into combat boots. The day my mother found out she was pregnant with a boy, she also found herself at the abortion clinic. The doctor refused to remove me—a tumor lodged inside her core—from her womb. When she returned home, she grabbed the hanger and went into the bathroom. She couldn’t go through with the procedure. Women often practice how to lose their daughters to men, but my mother didn’t know how to lose a son, regardless of how scared she was.
V. White flag
The day I told my mother I had AIDS, she said, “I told you to never trust a man.” Whenever I talk about my boyfriend, my mother still cooks like my father’s demons are in the house. She still heaves likes a factory trying to meet the monthly quota. I do not think she is afraid or ashamed of my sexuality. Rather, she is afraid of the war I am bringing home with me. She is afraid of the landmines I am letting other men plant in my life. Too often she tells me to tread carefully. But I have never listened to her.
The heart monitor next to my hospital bed develops it own cadence. Mama stares out the window. The wind bends the trees at a right angle, while the sun hides behind smoky clouds. She redirects her gaze at me and sighs. Her eyes hold almost no remorse. “I’ve only heard of AIDS in men. AIDS is an autoimmune disease. When a man’s demons catch up with him, his body begins to self-destruct. If your father had AIDS, maybe he would have been more humble. Disease is a humbling thing.”
She pauses in between her breaths and positions my hands like a prayer without words. “When your dad died, they erected a tombstone for him. They asked me what I wanted it to say.” She pauses again. “War Hero; that’ll look good under your dad’s name . . . You know, when he died, he was still at war . . .” She heaves in unison with the ventilator next to me. “. . . With his past, with his demons. He’s been fighting this . . . this secret war and we were caught in the crossfire.”
I catch the silence after her story and tell her I might not have a lot of time left. She says, “When you were younger, I remember dressing your warm body in cold clothes. I never thought one day I would have to dress your cold body in warm clothes.” She did not hesitate before letting my hand go.
When my father left, he didn’t take his demons with him; he only took Mama to the battlefield with hers. My mother is a woman hardened by the fists of my father. She has already practiced and perfected losing the men in her life to violence. I did not know how to tell her that I am not at war with her and I am done fighting with her demons. So I lay in my hospital bed waving my white flag, letting her wait for me to die.
BRYANT PHAN a native of Oakland, CA, began writing poetry and prose in middle school when his seventh grade English teacher introduced him to spoken word poetry. He has competed in multiple national and international poetry slams, winning local and national competitions. He recently graduated from Stanford University with a Bachelor of Arts in Human Biology with a concentration in Biomedical Ethics and Biomedical Ethics Research. He is planning to attend medical school in the near future, while continuing to pursue his interest in writing.