Sitting in a crowded restaurant in the steamy heart of Hanoi I was, as I gazed upon that old photograph, transformed into a guilty perpetrator on the witness stand who had just been presented a damning piece of evidence for his acknowledgment and corroboration. I stared at the picture. I wanted with everything within me to be totally mistaken in this case, but I knew I was not. I knew it with every ounce of conviction that one could have about a memory 43 years old. But this was a recollection that seemed as alive in that moment as it had four decades previous when I held this same picture in my hand. Involuntary, hot tears blurred my vision, my ears burned as blood rushed to my head and my mouth felt desert dry, the way any felon feels when he knows the game is up and he’s been busted by irrefutable evidence.
In that moment, the other one hundred and twenty or so people who were eating lunch in the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology restaurant faded from view, the noise of their conversations receding into the background. Two people, Thuy and I were connected by the picture on the table. Still trying to disbelieve my own positive recollection, I asked Thuy, "Who is this guy in the military uniform?" But, before she could answer, I buried my face in my cloth napkin hoping to mask the fact of my complete unwinding. I burst into uncontrollable tears, tears that flowed inconsolably, torrents, forced up from the depths of my being by desperate, gut wrenching sobs, emanating from the private hell of my conscience.
Not exactly sure what was going on with me, whether I was choking on food or having a heart attack or perhaps a seizure, she replied in a voice that was almost nonchalant, and was certainly matter of fact: "Oh, that is my uncle, Bao; he died in the war."
Her words struck like lightening, ripping through dark secret places hidden from consciousness, repressed, ugly truth came to light at last. Grabbing my breath, I filled in the missing family and middle name of the soldier in the picture for her. "This is Ngo Qui Bao, Sgt. Ngo Qui Bao! This is your uncle?" There was no denying it now, no point in trying to convince myself that it wasn't the same man, no point in keeping the truth from Thuy.
Thuy looked at me with this quizzical look, as if to ask how in the world you could possibly know my uncle, but, she didn't ask that, she just looked at me.
I opened my mouth to speak and without considering the import of what I was about to say or the proper way to say it, the words just tumbled out: "Thuy, I am the man who killed your uncle, on November 23rd, 1968 in Quang Tri Province. I want you to know this!"