You have always thought that you are intelligent enough to get yourself out of any bind. Pure negotiation and sincere appeals to reason, along with a command of persuasive rhetoric, are tools that have worked for you your entire life. You could talk your mother into buying you snacks or a trip to Alum Rock Park as a child, and as an adult you’ve talked your work superiors into raising your pay. That was, of course, before you took your bosses’ positions by telling their bosses that you could do their jobs better. You progressed up the ladder of life deftly using your skills until you arrived where you are today: self-employed. These skills have always worked in your favor, filling your life with the things you desire. But these skills you have harnessed and honed over the years, the ones which have brought you so many successes, have rarely been challenged by the aspects of life that don’t adhere to rationality—the biggest being love, which, as you see it anyway is counterintuitive to rationality, and thus has no prescribed rules to follow. Love is an outlier on your scatter graph of what is within your control; it is the emotion that will bring you to your knees.
You wake up in your own place. It has been three years since you purchased the house on the hill, which now seems an outlandish excess. Its panoramic view of the lake is as breathtaking as the first day the realtor showed you the property. Blue jays caw in the morning sunshine as you rub the sleep out of your eyes. Being self-employed has its perks. You tell yourself, I can sleep in and wake up to a quiet house. God, is this nice. Your three kids and your wife are down in the valley winding their way into their day. You picture the black Mercedes in which they ride, frantically seeking its place in a long line of cars on the highway. Later, when you climb the hill on the back side of your property to have a morning smoke, in the distance you can see those lines of cars on the freeway. They resemble a line of marching ants trampling their way into the sweetness of the day. As sugar is to ants, Silicon Valley is the life essence to the masses that have moved to this quaint town with its million-dollar views.
You shower off the smell of smoke, dress in the clothes that define your position in life, and get into your car. Now you take your turn making the journey to your day. The drive down the oak-lined country road has you lost in thought, of times when things were simple, when you had less but were happier, until your cell phone service comes on with the beep that tells you that you have messages. You push the button on the phone that starts your day and listen to the messages which are all meaningless business, apart from one—the one that you will not return because you are “trying.”
But “trying” does not erase your memories of her. Nothing can. You crave her more as time passes. You think of her smile and her laugh and how much happiness she has brought you over the last three and a half years. You think of the daily three o’clock meetings at the park, the roses in bloom and her soft hand warm in yours. You crave to look into her brown eyes; you can’t break the spell they have over you.
At your office, you sit at your desk and you write 33 short letters on blue lined binder paper. You are “trying.” The letters you write are to your wife, not your lover. You will put them in plain white envelopes, date them for each day that you will be away and place them in your wife’s underwear drawer as a surprise. This is your way to convince yourself that your “trying” is sincere. But it is not sincere. Every letter you’ve written to your wife is somehow filled with the deep love you feel for your lover Delores. All the things you desperately want to tell her, you tell to your wife, the ink spreading deception as your letters grow more loving and compassionate. You look forward to being away.
The last time you were at the airport it was Delores who passionately kissed you goodbye. The last time you left, you did not want to be gone long because you couldn’t stand the thoughts of not being there to meet her at the rose garden in the park. This time your wife drops you off, walking all the way to the terminal—all the while shooting your interpreter, Ms. Loi, suspicious looks as you check in at the ticket counter. You kiss her a spark-less kiss, promising to call once you land 18 hours later and almost halfway around the globe.
The humid air hits you as you exit the plane. You don’t think to call home. It doesn’t matter anymore. You are what seems like a million miles away, and your past life and its self-created problems are patiently waiting for you 33 days in the future. You smile at the bustling people as you exit the airport with your luggage. You maneuver yourself behind Ms. Loi. You see that she is comfortable here, as you watch her push through the crowd of people. Her youth is gone; now in her 60s, she has lost the beauty that attracted her Army Sergeant husband to marry her back when this county was torn by war.
Your interpreter is your high school girlfriend’s mother. You and Loi’s daughter, the eldest of her three children, still speak and on occasion get together to fuck. Tao was molested by her father. He started touching her when she was nine and didn’t stop until she was fourteen. You guess that this is why it never worked between the two of you. You know she is damaged, and you know that paying her rent and other bills is wrong. It is your leverage to keep her under your wing and it will keep her sleeping with you. You have no regard for the fact that both of you are married. Tao does not care that you are married. But Tao is infuriated that you have another girlfriend, she is infuriated that you hired her mother as your interpreter, and she is infuriated that you will spend the next month living in the home of her Vietnamese family who she has never met.
Your driver approaches and Ms. Loi greets him. His rotten, toothy smile greets her back as he reaches for the luggage cart you are pushing. Behind him are Ms. Loi’s brother and his daughter Giau. You get into the mini van, sweat pouring down your face, your clothes pasted to your body. You watch the people go by chattering with loved ones as the luggage is being loaded. Some of the passersby are startled when they see you—the first time they have seen a black man in person since the war. One of the women passing has pale white skin and bright red lipstick. She notices you looking and smiles at you. Her gaze brings back memories of the “comfort women” from your last trip to Southeast Asia. But you tell yourself that you will not indulge because you are now “trying” to save your marriage. Plus, you think of Delores and how she has stolen your heart. The memories are painful and you promise yourself that you won’t think of her anymore.
You are relieved when the van starts moving out of the airport parking lot, the hot breeze through the window offering a little comfort. Giau, Ms. Loi’s niece, asks you if you want to stop for hi-nee-ken. You nod and smile at her, noticing for the first time that she is happy to see you. The van takes you to the black market and you change a handful of hundred-dollar bills for millions of Vietnamese Dong. Ms. Loi produces a red envelope and hands it to you. You put the money in the envelope and hand it over to Giau. Giau will hold your Vietnamese money, wash your clothes, cook your food and help you practice the language. The bill-pregnant envelope and Giau disappear to get your Heineken. After two layovers and 18 hours in the air, the beer will help you swallow the fact that 10 hours of rough roads through patchy jungle and the seemingly endless rice paddies of the Mekong Delta lay between you and your destination.
Giau returns to the van with a chunk of ice and a 12-pack of green cans. She opens one and hands it to you. You look at the pull tab and think about how long it has been since you have seen pull tabs in the states. Not since the eighties. Giau stacks the rest of the cans neatly into the communist-red ice chest on the floor of the van. She holds the purchased chunk of ice with one hand and expertly stabs at it with a metal pick, shattering it into bits that fall into the chest. You down the beer in a few gulps as the van begins to move again. The landscape turns emerald as the van leaves the filthy city behind. It’s awe-inspiringly beautiful. The sweet-sour smell of the city blows out of the van as it fills with floral aromas from the humid jungle. Giau takes the empty can from your hand and motions to throw it out of the window. You look at her and see her recognition of how much you hate litter and how you told her not to make her beautiful country ugly. She smiles back at you and puts the can on the floor of the van.
It is hard not to think about home. You miss your children and, of course, you miss her: Delores. You wonder if your wife has found the letters that you left in her drawer. You wonder if she will follow the simple directions you left and open one every day. It runs through your mind that she will open them all, ruining the effect you wanted them to have. You want her to know that you are “trying.” Again you are doing what you promised yourself you would not do: think about home or think about Delores. But you can’t help it. Jet-lagged, you fade into restless sleep and dream that you are arguing with your wife. She is screaming at you, telling you that the letters you left in her drawer are fraudulent. She tells you that the letters are written to your mistress. She tells you that you are not trying as you promised her you would during the marriage counseling sessions. You yell back. You lie, telling her that you are “trying” and that she is a bitch for even thinking that the letters are not written to her, though you ask yourself how she knows this. You are jarred awake by a bump in the road. You are no longer in California in your bedroom arguing with your wife. You are in a van on an unpaved road in a foreign country and everyone in the van has their head turned your direction looking at you except the van’s driver. And even he is peering through the rear view mirror. Ms. Loi asks you if you are okay. You tell her that you were having a bad dream and ask her why everyone is looking at you. She tells you that you were talking loud in your sleep. You ask Ms. Loi to apologize to everyone and ask Giau to give you a cold beer.
Giau retrieves a beer from the ice chest and hands it to you, making eye contact. She looks at you lovingly, as if she understands. She is your friend, and you have shared much of your life with her on your previous two trips to Vietnam. The conversational Vietnamese class you secretly took at the community college has helped you immensely in communicating with her. Giau pulls out her Vietnamese-English dictionary and starts thumbing through the pages. She shows you the word for bad, then the word for dream, at which you nod. She puts the book down and asks if you were dreaming about home. You tell her yes, you were dreaming about problems at home. She tells you no problems in Vietnam and pulls your hand in hers. You feel a river of tears welling up in you and turn away and look out of the window. She grips your hand tighter. It comforts you. She holds your hand for three hours, all the way to the village of Tra On.
When you lie in your bed, weary from travel, you can’t sleep. The ceiling fan in your room whirls above the mosquito net; your mind is keeping you awake. It’s humid and the geckos croaking on the walls make you feel at home. They are the same geckos that roam the walls in Africa where your father lives and where you will visit soon after leaving Vietnam. Breaking the promise you made to yourself at the airport, again, you think of Delores. You know that a pretty woman like her will move on. You think of your wife and know that it will never work between the two of you. You think of Tao and wish that she was in the room with you so you could fuck her. You tell yourself fuck this trying game, you are no longer “in love” with your wife. You love her because she is the mother of your children, you love her for memories of better times, but it is all gone now. Oddly, your mind turns to thoughts of Giau and the way she held your hand in the van, the way she looked at you with happiness at the airport, the way she takes such good care of you: she cooks great, she is pretty, and her skin is brown like yours. But even more, she wears a perpetual smile. Then you tell yourself that it is wrong to think about her, she is off-limits, and that at some point you have to stop taking all the things you want. You fall into vivid-dream sleep, which is a side effect of the anti-malarial drugs.
The heat of the day comes on you as you eat Pho noodle soup in the market. Giau’s sister Ngoc owns the open air restaurant. You walk to the restaurant alone after you call your wife back in the States. She scolds you for not calling her sooner to let her know that you were okay. You lie, something you are an expert at doing and have no qualms about, telling her that you tried to call but the call would not go through. You speak to your kids briefly, each one of them telling you that they love you. Your wife tells you that she loves you too, and you have to force yourself to say it in return, three words devoid of their true meaning.
You sit looking into the soup, thinking of your dream. You blissfully think about how you could fly in your dream, something that you have not been able to do in dreams since you were a young boy. Thank God for anti-malarial drugs, you tell yourself. Giau startles you out of your thoughts. She sits down at the plastic table and expertly cuts a red pepper into thin rounds on top of a small wooden cutting board. You look at her as she cuts the pepper. She feels your stare and looks up to meet it. You both smile at each other. She tilts the cutting board over your soup and uses the knife to guide the fiery peppers into your bowl. You watch as she gets up to tend the other tables.
You start to notice things about her as she works. She is thin, but curvy for a Vietnamese woman. Her hair is full and dark, so dark it looks blue in the morning sunshine. She pins it up with chopsticks as she works. Her lips are full and she covers them when she laughs, which is often. She is gorgeous, you think. As the days go by, you and Giau spend more time together. At night you and her sisters (chaperones) go to a café on the Mekong River bank and drink iced coffee and try to talk to each other, laughing at mispronunciations. Soon, you don’t think about home, you don’t think about Delores, your wife, or Giau’s cousin Tao. All you can think about is this young woman who makes you laugh and treats you like a king. At this point, your wife, if she followed your directions, will be through about 15 of the 33 letters you wrote. But she is not in your current universe. In the fleeting moments when you do think about home, it is thoughts about never going back to the States.
You start living another one of your lies. You break out all of the tools that have gotten you all that you want. As you begin this new game of hearts, you unknowingly launch a stone, catapulting it across the Pacific. The stone will crash into your castle with a punishing ferocity. It will cause a catastrophe that will soon destroy all that you have, a revenge for the trail of bloodied hearts that you have left in your selfish wake. But foresight is not one of your specialties, so you continue down the path that your cravings lead you.