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The American

by Lara Markstein


I.

When I was eighteen, I lived in a small shared flat with an American and a German on an alley off Nguyen Thi Minh Khai in Saigon. That was the year I practiced waiting—for the monsoons to end, my money to run out, the coffee at cafes to muddy the sweetened condensed milk I drank by the glass between English classes I pretended to teach. Kirsten—the American—called herself a Communications Director for a nearby law firm. Her job consisted of poaching articles for the company newsletter and I imagined her boiling paragraphs until the words toughened in white, rubber strips. Hans was involved with elevators—the exact nature of his work was too difficult to understand. He had wanted to fly airplanes once, but after failing to certify four times, had packed a single army duffel and headed east, still weightless, as he would be for the rest of his life.

We would not have been friends elsewhere, but in Vietnam we lost ourselves in each other’s pockets, like the worthless 500-dong coins we accrued and later tossed in ashtrays.

“Do you smoke?” Kirsten asked when I moved in. I said no and she handed me a cigarette. “Me neither.” She and Hans had perfected the art of waiting by the time I arrived.


II.

We streaked through red lights on patched tires and oil-can exhaust, spat out sticks of gum we’d barely chewed in case the taste began to fade, emptied crates of Tattinger on Sundays when the Grand Hotels held brunch. We drew attention to ourselves.

We did not know what we were waiting for, but we were certain it would not be found in the cramped flat with its clanky fan and thin walls through which we heard the neighbors hawk. You had to hunt what you were after. I saw my shapeless target gliding cut-tailed nearby, like a fat fish beneath the surface of the Saigon River, which carved through town. This pursuit, it was why we’d collected here: to offer every opportunity for something miraculous to occur that would change the course of our lives forever. Knit tight the loose ends, sand the rough edges, fire us into a form you could hang a coat on.

Kirsten coordinated most of these stunts. Our fearless leader, our Caesar, our five-foot-flat Napoleon Bonaparte. She was good at organizing; she’d slept with eighty percent of the expat men in under two years, which took some arranging. I figured she was searching for love in her spare time. “Eternity isn’t forever,” Kirsten said. She was only twenty-five, but already had hair the colour of eggshells that she dyed a plain gold. She believed this gave her special insight into mortality.

“I’ll die of pills,” she’d say, matter-of-fact. “Hans of complications related to AIDS.” I spluttered a little and she smiled as if to say, “You didn’t know?” Which I didn’t, because it was the type of thing she made up.

When I asked her how I would go, she said my heart would stop. “In your dotage, dear. You won’t fucking know.” A dull death; it was the worst insult she could think of for someone of my youth.

If Kirsten was the cynical one, Hans was our Pangloss, our Pollyanna, the ice in our warm beer. He was well-liked for this reason and invited everywhere, though Kirsten claimed it was because he was rich and too dumb to argue over the check. Streets might reek of durian, guards might blow their noses until a bribe was involved, but Hans would notice only the fruit trees blooming on the roofs, and how the thin, silk blouses of the women on their scooters breathed in and out.

I thought sometimes he was waiting for Vietnam to turn into the country he’d dreamed.

And why shouldn’t he? The world spun faster there. Buildings sprouted in tight, lightless cavities. Baby stores swelled, popping open on each block. Women clustered on the street side juiced oranges with an abandon I’d only ever experienced once in my life, in a converted garage where I convinced myself for a time that I enjoyed sex, or at least that I did not hate my boyfriend, which was the same thing.

“Vietnam’s one of the fastest growing nations,” Kirsten liked to say. “Growth rate of seven percent. Oil reserves. They’re building a space program.” She had a head for statistics. The point was, anything could happen there and you had to be prepared.

So we dashed across the city, sometimes buying trinkets, sometimes clothes we haggled fiercely over, squabbling about the cut, the price, the bias, cotton, lace, organza, tulle. And still raw silk scarves burst from my drawers, smothering the closet like a fine fungus, because I only ever wore one wool cardigan, not wanting to ruin the freshness of my purchases.

Mostly we found ourselves at the same three businesses: an expat bar, a Japantown club, and a pho place with plastic chairs and cheap beer where Binh, an old man who watched soccer on T.V. and would lose his life savings betting on Brazil in the World Cup, scowled when we ordered and shortchanged us consistently. Kirsten argued once about the bill. But he just picked his teeth and scratched his balls until she left.


III.

The Japantown club was also a brothel, like most late-night establishments in Saigon. With its wiped-down leather seats and dark lighting that hid the age of the faux marble, you might have been in any other of the high-rent drinking lounges that skewered the city.

We went because Kirsten’s co-workers Davy and Quan had half-drunk liquor bottles they’d bought leftover behind the bar. The complimentary fruit plates were also better there, and the prostitutes were nice. They taught us drinking games. Most often we played a version of rock-paper-scissors that involved shooting imaginary guns. The women in their tight dresses twisted their shoulders from our barreled fingers carefully. When we tired of games, they drank, their mouths slackening a little so you could see the coming years thicken in their faces, their doughy beauty turning like milk. We paid them twenty-five dollars at the end of the night.

“Exploitation,” Kirsten said once in the cab home. “Growing nations all struggle with this.” The sky a closed purse between the office buildings, jangled with stars we couldn’t see through the smog. “It’s a rip-off, though.”

“That’s just because you like Davy,” Hans said.

“If you were American, you’d understand.” She turned to me. “Right?” Though I was not American.

Davy, like most of the expat men, had a Vietnamese girlfriend who was beautiful. More beautiful, anyway, than Kirsten, who was thick and lumbering. “God knows what they talk about,” Kirsten said.

Hans said, “Maybe they don’t talk.” Only he didn’t seem to realize why that pissed her off more.

Hans spoke from experience. He bedded many of the women we met. I believe it was because he was twenty-eight, and could feel the weight of thirty in his bones. Kirsten and I laughed at the diseases we assumed he’d contracted, and he smiled on us benevolently.

Was it worth it, I might ask? “Of course,” Hans would say, looking at me as though I had sunken skin where my eyes should be, like the men we walked past faster on the street.


IV.

Some evenings I drank alone. I’d finish teaching at the English language institute, and find a hotel bar where I knew no one. I liked how the businessmen took comfort in the familiarity of loosening their ties, how the staff creased their clothes in perfect lines. You could almost smell the starch. You could imagine you were in a novel from years ago if it weren’t for the red-faced tourists wearing shorts that exposed their dimpled legs-the soft, sticky flesh like steamed dumplings, quivering.

The tourists came from Moscow, Beijing, Paris, Memphis. The Americans wore flag pins, and fanny packs. They were returning vets, mostly. I got to where I could spot one across the room before he opened his mouth just by the pained look of wonder on his face, as if he’d fished up something he did not expect. Ammunition, a land mine, the boot he’d lost forty years ago, the body of a Mekong dolphin, long since extinct. These men all found their way to the empty stool at my side, eventually. They wanted to talk. I listened because they bought me drinks.

“I was here thirty years ago,” was how most of them began. “Forty,” Kirsten would have said. I held my tongue until after the third round, when I thought being blunt was charming, or at least excusable.

One night, I met Richie—a lucky one. I’d talked to privates swallowed by the jungle before, spat out mildewy, their flesh corrupted, scaled like fish; tunnel rats, dropped into tight holes with just a rope tied about their waists and a gun they couldn’t swing. Richie had been a pilot and flown above the fray, sousing the forests in chemicals and flames, watching the sun set from the cockpit of the B-52 as he skirted the inland ranges before spinning back towards the coast, with its rubbery clouds, over the city of Hue.

“I was shot down,” Richie said. He was defensive; he must have noticed my indifference. “I was shot down over a rice paddy. Not a clean one either. Filled with shit. Christ, it stank. I fell right beside a water buffalo. This was up north, near Nam Dinh.”

Even there fortune had followed him. The locals carried him to their village, where they reset his mangled leg and laid cold compresses on his head from rags soaked in swamp-water. The next day, they fed him rice cakes though their own ribs poked through their shirts, and led him into the forest, because it was too dangerous for him to stay.

These stories from survivors, they were all the same.


V.

After drinking with the tunnel rat, I’d wanted to visit Cu Chi.

“I don’t do tourist shit,” Kirsten had said. She didn’t want to be lumped together with a bunch of ignorant foreigners. “All on some fucking find-yourself-in-an-ashram quest.” We were at our usual riverfront American bar and she was struggling to light her cigarette with a match in the wind. None of us offered our lighters or pointed out that there were no ashrams in Vietnam.

“I’ll go,” Hans said. He liked to have a destination. He also liked the idea of sinking even further into the earth, growing heavy with the pressure of bedrock and clay. Davy and Quan didn’t have other plans. We amassed like that, haphazardly. Although Kirsten deciphered grand designs. “Davy gets bored if he has to spend all weekend with his girl,” she said, triumphant.

Cu Chi was a dusty village north of the city in a sea of spindly mango trees that had never fully regrown after bombing campaigns. We crouched on our haunches in what little shade we found, while our guide spoke excitedly of the traps they’d made to kill Americans. Steel jaws, spikes carved from unexploded ordnance, bamboo stakes. Or was it steel stakes and bamboo jaws, roots for hands, a bud mouth, pollen prayers? The litany confused me. I wondered what one did in a tunnel with a tummy ache.

We were sick of the heat, sick of the guide’s lame jokes, sick of the poorness of the whole exhibit when we arrived at the gun range, where you could shoot arms from the American War for a price. Our guide told us this with pride. “AK-47, M60 machine gun, M1 carbine, Russian SKS,” he ticked them from his fingers.

Twenty dollars bought only six rounds of ammunition, but everyone leapt forward to join a long shadeless line that accepted credit cards. I did not have the money, and besides, the pounding of the artillery made my head ache. I purchased a Pepsi and sat on a tin bench that burnt the backs of my thighs instead.

The guns aimed at an empty field, blasted bare even of flies. The metal barrels twisted in the sun. If you squinted you could imagine they were organ pipes. I watched the backs of my friends’ calves tighten. The muscles in their necks tugged the ligaments of their shoulders into hard, new forms. I couldn’t see where their bullets fell and wasn’t interested. I turned to Hans, scrunched over the rifle scope, but quickly looked away. A foreign, rigid expression had seized his features and his mouth worked around strange words. He spat out each syllable in a gob of saliva that stuck to his fleshy lips.

I did not understand their love of shooting things.

“We’re American,” Kirsten said, her body loose and recognizable once more. “Guns are in our blood.” I was not American. I was not made of pistons and hammers but number eight wire and possum wool socks.

“In the Killing Fields in Cambodia the guns aren’t bolted down,” Quan said. “You can pick them up and shoot anything you like.” Everyone agreed it was better there.

The rubbish bin overflowed and I had to carry my sticky can on the bus the whole way home.


VI.

“I’m going to find the village,” Richie told me one evening around my second daiquiri. He also told me his life history: married back in Michigan, a General Motors welder, two daughters—college educated. He’d done good. Of course, neither daughter talked to him, on account of his moving out of the family home into a motel room on the edge of town that he let by the week though it stank of damp cheese. “I wouldn’t be alive if it wasn’t for that man saving me. I’m going to thank him.”

“I’ll have another one,” I told the waiter.

He watched a group of women beneath the snaking power lines outside. The cables, curling around each other, sagged beneath their own weight, and snarled tightly to a slanted pole. “I might have a son here, you know.”

“Grandsons, too,” I said.


VII.

Quan was Viet Kieu. His family had managed to escape the country as Saigon fell to the Communists because his father worked for the CIA, teaching VC how to fly from helicopters. “They were poor learners,” Quan said—a joke that held the weight of used-up laughter from years of practice, first in his south San Francisco elementary school and later at dinner with the Republican family of his girlfriend, the same girlfriend who would leave him at the Barristers Ball for a friend with a New York job offer, causing him to purchase the one-way ticket that landed him in Vietnam. He was paid a piddling sum, but it was better than not being paid at all.

“Does your card-carrying fiancée know this?” Kirsten asked once. She was practical like that. I was still imagining what it would be like to have a body fall from the sky at your feet like a divine delivery. I wondered who cleaned the mess a human body made. Perhaps it hardened on the asphalt like an ancient, inky map. A sign: Here lies the human heart.

I haven’t told her,” Quan said. We pictured the wedding endlessly. Not hoping for disaster precisely, but.

The wedding was in the marshland of District Two. Weeds sprouted in mud tracks. Storks swooped over a clay riverbed, which in the last rags of a breeze smelled of rotting fish.

Trucked in on air-conditioned buses, we trooped single-file to congratulate the bride and groom. Then we stuffed as much food in our faces as possible over the hour-long lunch. Quan’s was wedding three of five for the venue; the staff hovered to turn the tables around.

When the other guests returned to the coach, bloated and gaseous, we followed the families to a private waterfront room, where special-label liquor lined a long table. Toasts were made, which we did not understand, but we swallowed the alcohol poured for us.

While I focused on keeping the glass from clinking against my teeth, the man beside me spoke of the United States.

“I love America. Plastic-wrapped cheese. What convenience!”

I tried to tell him I was not American, but Hans appeared with a chicken head from lunch that he’d stuffed between two plates. He shook the china by his ear with a twist and a clang and whoever the beak pointed to drank. The Party members giggled wildly.

I sank into my seat. I wanted to ask Hans if he’d learned this game from our prostitutes, but he was already disappearing from view behind a man with a heavy silver watch, a suit sewn from thread of gold. I tried to reach out, but it struck me that Hans did not need my help. He would always be safe. He had an unfinished face; he could mold to any cast.

I was not surprised Hans was picked. I was a little disappointed no one had chosen me. The world crawled sideways, the river creeping upwards, and I felt as if I might drown.

Kirsten and Davy must have thrown me in the back of a cab, because when I raised my head, I spluttered chlorinated water from an apartment swimming pool, which I washed from my mouth with Veuve Cliquot. Davy rooted in my handbag for more champagne, which I’d stolen from the ceremony. “Aha!” he cried, rising with the fresh bottle and smashing his forehead against a hanging potted plant. The terracotta shattered, and blood dripped along his hairline into his ear. For some reason we thought this hilarious. We took turns pulling down the planters and throwing them up towards the sky like little bombs.


VIII.

I left alone that night.

“Kirsten wanted business experience in China—the emerging markets of the East,” Hans said the next morning, handing me an iced coffee and manioc cake from the corner bakery. “But she couldn’t figure out Chinese characters, so her father found her this instead.”

When Kirsten returned, she did not acknowledge us, popping a Xanax and curling up in a lump on her bed. She bought Xanax by the box. For headaches, heartache, period pain. To make it through the day.


IX.

The last time I saw Richie, he didn’t want to talk. His eyes stuck on four Vietnamese women drinking martinis. Their laughter, like their hair, seemed shellacked to their perfect bodies. I stuffed my mouth with bar snacks, the nuts cracking between my loosening teeth. Eventually, I asked how his visit went.

“It was.” He couldn’t find the words.

“Moving, enthralling, spiritual,” I supplied a few I’d already heard.

“A woman remembered me. It was her brother I wanted to thank. I’d forgotten there’d been a girl. She’s so much older now,” he said, almost in pain, his tears like bricks that had lodged in his throat. Grief was like that: a building that had to be constructed piece by piece.

“You thanked her, then.” It was remarkable how vets expected you to tell their story for them.

“I told her how I had nightmares of everything that happened here. I told her how I almost turned my car engine on and covered the exhaust. I don’t know how much she understood,” he trailed off. The women crossed their long legs slowly.

Lately I noticed this languor in the city. Shirtless men crouched on steps, smoking cigarettes, their eyes following me as I walked. Women wore loose clothing that could be bought at the market ten a pack. I once waited half an hour for my left hand to be manicured because the girl with the nail file stared over my head at her television soap.

“Troops arrived after I left. They burned the village. Shot every person in the house I’d stayed in. She was out and they killed her whole family. I cried. We cried and cried.” His face folded in on itself like soggy papier mâché.

“What did you expect?” I said. “A tickertape parade?”

Half an hour later, Richie left with one of the ladies. Headlights cut the rain outside to stars, suspended between the cars; the sky empty as a pavement.

I charged the alcohol to his room.


X.

I’d come to Vietnam because it was not Auckland.

I was bored of my friends by the end of high school; their laughter irritated me. I didn’t know how to break up with the boyfriend I’d been avoiding for weeks. Seeing men cry still makes me uncomfortable.

So when my grandmother died and left me some money, I bought a ticket to Ho Chi Minh City and cancelled my enrollment in university. I was going through a Graham Greene stage, and it was just luck I ended up in Vietnam. I could easily have landed in Mexico or Cuba. Or the Philippines—I was also a fan of W. Somerset Maugham back then.

I’d said I wanted adventure. I wanted out of my suburban life—the empty cul-de-sacs, the fenced-in yards, the choke of streets, feeding arterials to town. I couldn’t breathe anymore on our island. If I stretched my arms wide, I could touch both coasts. The point was then to travel, to escape, to find what lay across the Pacific, which rammed our shores, eating at the earth we balanced on. Seabirds flew north, for days.

I guess what I really wanted was something strange, so unknowable I’d see only myself in its shape. I figured I’d find a purpose for my life if I could only recognize it. Phrased this way, the whole exercise seemed banal. A selfish endeavour no different from a housewife’s affair.


XI.

When Hans had business in Hanoi, I visited the north of the country myself. I was not a good English teacher and my classes weren’t full so I had a fair amount of vacation, yet somehow I’d never traveled farther than Da Nang.

I started in Sapa, a town that hung off a mountainside sliced through with liver-shaped fields of rice. The guidebooks claimed locals dug the terraces with just their fingernails, but bulldozers lay fallow in the mud, rusting with rain. I couldn’t afford one of the recommended tours, so I haggled on the side of a stone street with a gap-toothed woman, who insisted on carrying what looked like a heavy basket strapped to her back on our hike—I thought, uncharitably, to guilt me into raising the price.

The woman talked a lot at first. About her people, the Hmong, who were mistreated by the government, the struggle to provide for her son since her husband died, the intricacy of hand-made scarves—which I could watch being weaved and were, in fact, for sale. Americans usually liked them.

“New Zealand!” she said when I corrected her. “Kia ora. Good ice cream.” And I thought of the Tip Top ice blocks that ruined our school uniforms, though I knew she was referring to the New Zealand Natural stalls in all the malls.

I wished she’d shut up. She was only three years older than me but her skin was scaled like bark, and I kept three paces back as if the passage of time were catching.

Eventually we walked through the villages in resentful silence, barely noticing the women who emerged from their huts as if—embarrassed of their poverty—they had to guard their sleeping mats from sight. A child pooing on the side of the road covered his eyes.

Later, in a bar where you could buy two cocktails for two dollars, a man spoke loudly about the authenticity of the people. How they’d not bought into the myth of the American dream, had preserved their culture, were happy here. “They’re more real than the rest of us.”

I wondered what it was about Americans that made them think everything was about them in the first place.

“Bullshit,” a woman said. “I saw TVs. They had televisions in their huts.” She sounded betrayed.

“They’re so colorful,” another backpacker said, wistfully.

“They’re not goddamn parakeets.” Her partner drank a weak beer. “Clearly. They’re not allowed to leave. This place disgusts me.”

But what was disgusting about the mountains, blanketed in emerald green fields of rice that shivered like water in the wind, and pinned the stretched daylight to the ceiling of the sky so that the blue ached? The entire valley screamed with life.

I waded through the mist on the way back to my hotel, a little drunk, my pants pressed wet against my thighs. I felt like one of Hans’ elevators, suspended between two floors, and I stared at the sesame seed sky, and did not see the woman begging at my feet. Then I rinsed the grime off my body in a tub with no stop for the drain, a draft from the skew windows building clouds of steam above the water.


XII.

I waited for the night train to Hanoi and Hans on the crowded tiles of the station, as the sun leaked over the flat-topped buildings. The roofs fell apart, quietly, stuck together with a paste of stone and lime and the ghosts of eggs.

I shared a sleeper cart with a family that trip, three chickens, a ripe bag of mangos. The chicken fretted all night as the train pitched through the countryside, and I slept fitfully. Around one in the morning, I leaned down and plucked the largest of the yellow mangoes from its bag. The chicken watched me with its marble eye, but I ate the fruit, biting straight through the bitter skin, forcing myself to chew the rind until I swallowed and gulped it all down. I slept well afterwards, my sheets sticky with juice.

It was five when we arrived in the city. Outside the station, men diced, drinking colourless liquor in their headlights. As the train whistled to the stop, they thronged along the tracks, pouncing on dry-eyed tourists who needed a ride. Taxi? they asked. Moto?

I did not want to pay double for the car, so I followed a motorbike man with a long cable of hair growing from the mole on his cheek. I’d heard somewhere this was good luck. The helmet he handed me hung from my neck by the strap as we swung through the empty streets, half green in the lamplight and the smog, the wind scraping the hair from my face.

I saw the red light a block away, felt the engine between my legs continue to hum. I wanted to open my mouth and call out, to warn him that we ought to stop. But it occurred to me that he knew. He saw the stop sign, too, and the headlights of oncoming traffic from the right. Perhaps, he even opened the throttle some.

We tore into the intersection and a cab skidded to a stop, metal screeching against metal, rubber burning, as I slammed onto the bonnet, smashing my head against the windscreen, before being thrown to the road.

I lay for a moment on the concrete quite still, feeling my heart batter at my chest. Then I tried to move my legs and when the right wouldn’t budge, I moaned. It wasn’t pain I felt, not yet, but fear. Men and women who’d been walking before the sun scorched the streets stopped and stared at me, curious, and I knew then none of the words I spoke made sense. Hospital. Ambulance. Help. Of what use were they here?

I twisted around, searching for something—I did not know what—a miracle of translation, maybe, a familiar face. But all I found was the motorbike driver, cradling his bloodied foot in his hands, and I choked on my tears. He watched me, his mouth contorted, disfigured by a loathing that seemed to rise from somewhere deeper, older than himself, somewhere lodged within the very tissue of his being, and I wanted to say:

I am not American. I am not Caesar crossing the Rubicon. I am not money. I am not guns. I am not a two car garage in a single family home with a flat screen TV. I am not your individually packaged single serving slice of cheese. I am not the health warning on your cigarette pack. I do not contain multitudes.


But I was silent.


XIII.

“Now you can say this was where you were hit by a car,” Hans said when I arrived on crutches at his hotel. For the first time since meeting him, he sounded jealous.

“You’ll be leaving then?” Kirsten said. I had no intention of going anywhere, but two months later I packed my bags and boarded a plane home. My money was almost spent and everyone was sick of having to discuss my lame leg, which to me was endlessly fascinating. I played the accident over and over again in my mind, repositioning each frame in the sequence beginning from my birth in a south Auckland concrete hospital.

I wrote to Hans and Kirsten after I left. For a time we kept in touch. But Kirsten moved back to the States to begin a law degree, and I never heard from her again. Hans, for all I know, still lives on 18A Nguyen Thi Minh Khai. He was the type of man who was destined to wait all his life, his deliberate innocence turning with age to a foolishness that begs to be misused. He will die with the same face he was born with.

When their photos appear on my computer screen now, they surprise me. My friends are made flat and foreign with the years. But I do not see them often. Mostly, I took pictures of the buildings, which all stand still.

 

Lara Markstein is a South African–born New Zealander who lives in Oakland, where she serves as program officer at the UC Berkeley Center for New Media. Her most recent stories have appeared in The Greensboro Review, Necessary Fiction, and The Four Way Review. (3/2015)


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