Saturday morning Thuy tells me that her boyfriend, Dung (it looks like you would pronounce it like cow manure but it's actually "Yom" - and you kind of blow your cheeks out when you say it) is bringing his mother over at 5 o'clock Sunday afternoon to "discuss the wedding." They have set their date - May 19; it's a Wednesday, and was chosen because it's Ho Chi Minh's birthday.
"Maggie. I want you here."
This is a big moment; Thuy has been sort of dating him for a year and I have not met him. She keeps making excuses - sometimes he's "busy" or "sick" but often she just says, "He's not handsome." Oh, and she also says, "He's afraid to meet you."
So I had stopped asking.
But now, she is asking me to be there. "You are my sister," she says.
So at five o'clock today - a very hot afternoon - I walk down the alley to meet Dung and his mother. They are not there when I arrive, but Thuy's parents have set up a fold-up table in their tiny living space; three plastic chairs surround the table: one for his mother and two for them. His father lives and works in the Delta, so he could not be present to "discuss issues." On the table are a tin of Danish cookies, huge purple grapes and cold tea. Thuy's mother is dressed in a traditional Vietnamese yellow and green silk blouse and her father is in his usual casual attire. Thuy and Thanh are freshly showered and are dressed casually as well- in jeans and blouses. For a first-time parent meeting, it feels very un-ceremonial for a country so rich on ceremony.
Thanh sets up two plastic chairs against the wall. "This is where we will sit," she tells me. As we wait for Dung and his mother, Thuy and Thanh and I just look at each other and laugh nervously.
They arrive ten minutes late; Dung's mother is on the back of his motorbike. They stop outside in the narrow space in the alley and he gently lifts her off of the bike. He comes in and greets me with "Ciao Co" - "hello teacher." I greet him, by mistake, "Ciao Ba"- "Hello older honored woman." Everyone laughs at this, so I realize my mistake and quickly recover with "Ciao Anh" - "Hello Man" and greet his mother correctly. His mother greets me and Thuy's parents and the three of them sit at the table, exchanging a few words. Dung and Thuy stand at the end of the table. Dung is nervous... streams of sweat run down the side of his head. Thanh sees this and runs across the alley to buy him some tissue to wipe his face.
As the parents talk and Thuy and Dung stand at attention, I keep stealing glances at Dung. I've been expecting some kind of horror show to appear, but he is actually very nice looking. And better yet, he is very kind and gentle. Every few minutes, he turns to Thuy and whispers something. They seem to be at ease with each other, like good friends.
The parents meet for about 30 minutes. Thanh tells me they are talking about the restaurant, and about the jewelry that his parents must present to her on the wedding day. Dung is a jeweler, so he will make the traditional gifts himself. There are many gaps of silence and, being an American who is trained to keep conversations going, I feel uncomfortable. But I am also unable to assist, so I just sit and watch - a spectator at a sporting event - every once in a while whispering questions to Thanh.
"Will they go on a honeymoon?"
"If they have enough money."
"Where will they live?"
"At his house, with his mother and his three older sisters. All of them are unmarried."
I try to let this sink in, but I can't. I can't imagine an equivalent to this scenario at home. How will she do that? Will those sisters eat her up? She's a tough one, but in their home...She will be 40 at the end of May and he is 42; that plays a factor, too.
Suddenly, the meeting is over. Everyone stands up and Thuy and Dung both bow to Thuy's parents, greet me again, get on their bike and drive away.
Thuy's father - who always greets me with a strong handshake and an "America, good!" statement, comes over and asks me what I think of Dung. Thanh translates.
"I think he is a very kind man," I say.
He laughs and says, "Good!" And something like, "the wedding is on!"
Thuy comes in and sits down next to me, hugging me, giggling, and asking, "Maggie. What you think?"
"Thuy," I say, "Dung is so nice and kind. And he is very nice looking!"
Thuy squeals and says, "Oh, Maggie, I am so happy! I afraid you not like him. OK! I am happy!"
I just laugh. "Thuy, why do you say he is not good looking? He is."
She gets a serious look on her face. "I look inside him and see he is good. So to me he is good looking."
"That's right," I answer.
She squeals again, "Oh, I am so happy. If you don't like him, no wedding!" I know she is joking, but I also know she feels relief that we have met. I do, too.
Next weekend, I am taking part in the wedding of a friend from school, Alison, who is marrying a Vietnamese man, Van. Five of us are getting ao dais made for this - the traditional Vietnamese dress.
Rita will be here to experience it all with me. She had written me a few months ago asking if we could "visit a village in the countryside." I wrote back saying that was a very romantic ideal, but that it took hours to get outside of Ho Chi Minh City and I would have no idea where to find this kind of village. One week after I wrote that, I was told the details about this wedding: we will get up early on Sunday morning and take a two hour bus trip deep into the countryside of the Mekong Delta to take part in the traditional ceremony at Van's home.
I forget, sometimes, that there is always a little bit of magic sprinkled in where Rita is concerned. So that's where she will go on her second day here: to a place and a ceremony I haven't been witness to during a year and a half of living here. And two months later, I will experience another wedding in the alley of my neighborhood, for my Vietnamese "sister" who is marrying a very kind and handsome jeweler.