What We Were, Yesterday
It’s all rocketing towards an end.
“Look at me, Tam,” she says, framing her little boy’s face with her hands, feeling the warmth of the baby-skin against her palms. “Don’t forget me, please.”
He looks back, mute, all big dark eyes and golden skin. She kisses him hard on the forehead, and then holds him close, his arms around her neck and legs around her waist. She never wants to let him go, not now, not ever. But this is the only way. This is how it has to be.
The Engineer appears, and Kim disentangles herself from her baby. “Go with Uncle Tranh, Tam.” He does, silently, looking back over his shoulder to her. She nods, and once he’s out of earshot, whispers a goodbye. It’s frighteningly logical, when she thinks about it. Chris and his new wife won’t take her son to America while she’s still there. How could they separate a child from his mother? But if there is no mother, they have to take him. Simple and easy.
She stumbles to her feet, digs around in the blankets in their seedy little room above the club, finds the gun. His gun. The one he left with her on the night that ripped her life apart all those years ago. It’s heavy and metallic and smells like smoke.
This is it. The only option. She puts the muzzle of the gun to her belly and pulls the trigger.
The club is hot and sweaty and dark, and there are bodies everywhere. The other girls, confident and full of false giggles strut around, pulled off to the little rooms upstairs every so often and re-appearing flushed and painting smiles back onto their faces. She doesn’t want to think about when it’s her turn.
But when it happens, it’s not a hand on the small of her back and a faceless man irritated by her lack of experience. It’s a marine who’s been looking at her out of the corners of his eyes all night, the one sitting alone with his beer and watching exasperatedly as his friend flirts and touches the other girls. The Engineer gives her a shove in his direction. He looks almost reluctant, which would grate if she wasn’t so scared, clammy hands and twisting stomach and dry mouth, but puts his hands on her waist. Heat blooms under her thin silk dress, and she rests hers on his shoulders – he’s so tall, it’s quite a reach – trying to remember what the other girls did. She tries to sound confident, knowing, but the words stick in her throat.
He’s irritated, she can tell, by the snap of his voice, the tenseness he carries with him. He walks away. Immediately, the Engineer is there, fingers digging into her skin, sharp nails and little crescent-shape jabs of pain. “What did you do, you stupid slut?”
She swallows. She doesn’t know what to say. But then he’s back, in-between her and the Engineer, and all she has to do is play her part. It should be simple and easy. But where he’s concerned, it never is.
When she wakes up, he’s gone. She stretches, feeling the lumpy mattress under her aching muscles and wishing she could curl up and sleep more. It’s still dark outside. There’s a bit of soreness between her thighs, but it isn’t as bad as she thought it would be, or as she’d heard from her married sisters. Her sisters. She pushes the thought of them back down, and stands up, finding her underwear and her dress from yesterday. Pulls her hair back up, off her face. And then she sits down on the edge of the bed, gripping the blankets in her hands and waits for him. He’s going to be back at some point.
Somehow the thought doesn’t make her feel sick like it did yesterday. He was very kind, and very gentle, last night. Didn’t seem to care that she didn’t have a clue about what to do.
There’s a creak of stairs, and then he appears from the staircase outside, tired and holding onto a wad of notes. He tries to press them into her hand.
“I…I don’t want it,” she says.
She shrugs, trying to stay calm. His blue eyes are fixed on her bowed head, she can feel his gaze. A funny sort of feeling squeezes somewhere inside of her. “You already paid the Engineer. And…I’ve never done that before.”
“That can’t be true.”
“Why would I lie to you?”
“Everyone here lies.” She darts a glance up through her lashes. He rakes a hand through his hair. “All of the girls are desperate to get out. They’ll do anything.” He pauses. “I don’t know, maybe you’re not like that.”
“No, I’m not.” Sharpness has crept into her voice. She’s nothing like the girls downstairs. Nothing.
“I don’t know who you are.”
Anger bubbles beneath the surface. He thinks she’s pretending, but here he is making it seem like he doesn’t know what his army has been doing to her country. He pretends ignorance when he knows exactly who she is because she knows he’s met countless girls in exactly the same situation she’s in now. He turns to leave, and she follows, standing at the top of the stairs that lead down into the silent, deserted street. The moon spills silver over the city, and she tells him, shouting after him as he walks away.
“I’m just like every other girl in this godforsaken place! My parents are dead, my betrothed betrayed us, ran off to the other side, my village was burned! What more do you want?”
He turns, slowly, to face her. Everything’s changed. She can see it in his face.
Kissing him feels like safety. For the first time in sosolong, she feels safe.
“So?” Gigi is expectant, hands on hips, leaning against the doorway. Kim tries to duck past her, but the older woman won’t let her through. “How was it?”
Kim’s not sure whether it’s genuine curiosity or something mocking. She knows that Gigi has been a bargirl for years, and that she’s probably expecting a sob-story, oh it was awful, he hurt me so much. Instead, she looks up into Gigi’s poker face, and smiles.
“He’s taking me to America.”
“What?” Gigi’s mouth has gone slack. She reaches out to grip Kim’s arms, hard enough to bruise. “Are you fucking with me?”
“No. We’re having a blessing, later, and then when he leaves, I’m going with him.”
A smile starts to break from Gigi, slowly and then all at once. She puts her arms around Kim, who stands stiff for a second, remembering Gigi’s harsh words the night before. (I’d stop that pretence of being a virgin, you know. They see right through it). “I’m so jealous! America…wow. If only his friend had agreed to take me.”
A pause. Gigi steps back, and takes Kim’s arms again, gentler this time. “Promise me you’ll be happy. Have lots of kids. Eat nice things and wear pretty clothes and think of me, won’t you?”
“You might still get out…there are other marines out there…”
“Kim. I think we both know that’s not going to happen.”
Another pause. “I promise.”
“Good. Now tell me everything. Was it good? When’s this blessing, oh, we’ll have to tell everyone else, they’ll be thrilled!”
Kim suspects that inside they’ll all be angry that they’ve been doing this so much longer and they’ve never got an offer to go away to America, but she plasters on a smile and lets Gigi tow her backstage.
“Which one do you want?” he asks, looking over the dresses on the market stall. His hand is warm in hers. She loves the way they fit together. She picks up the cheapest one, a brown cotton thing, like the ones she used to wear in the fields back in her village, working in the paddies with the river glinting in the dry sunshine.
“Kim.” She looks up at him. “Not just the least expensive. The one you want.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, of course I am.” He squeezes her hand. “Whatever you want.”
She spends a long time sifting through them after that, but he stands there without complaint as she runs the material across her hands, finally settling on a white one with coloured patterns and pink trousers. He hands over the money, and the stall holder offers the privacy of the curtain behind the stall to change in.
When she re-appears, the look on Chris’ face is beautiful.
The girls are all waiting for them, back at the club, and thank-god, the Engineer is nowhere to be seen. Gigi greets her with a hug and a kiss, and then she slips her shoes off, finding her basket that she brought all the way from the countryside from the backstage rooms and setting up the little altar, candlesticks, and the picture of her parents. The wedding crown and veil.
“Shoes off,” she hears Gigi say sharply, and stifles a little giggle as she turns to watch Chris awkwardly pull off his regulation army boots and stand there in well-darned grey socks and his khakis. The girls flock around him, bringing a bowl of water and the incense, and he shoots a look in her direction that says helpmewhataretheydoing.
It’s fine, she mouths back, turning her attention back to the altar. When the girls start to sing, the traditional wedding song that fills her head and makes her feel giddy, he appears kneeling beside her. She looks at him and smiles, and then starts the prayer, the words like wine on her tongue. (Will you who gave me life smile today? Look with favouring eyes on this man? Show your daughter’s heart your forgiveness and send to us from your home above, your blessing on our love…) He copies her movements in a way that is all endearing clumsiness and awkwardness, and it makes her love him even more.
“What are they singing?” he asks after a while.
“It’s the song everyone sings at weddings.”
“They didn’t know what else to sing.”
“It’s the loveliest thing I’ve ever heard,” he says, lifting the veil away from her face and pulling her in for a kiss, but then Gigi’s hand is on her shoulder.
“Yvonne has a camera.” She’s smiling, and holding a glass of something from the bar. In the back of her mind, Kim knows the Engineer will be furious at this, but she can’t bring herself to care. She and Chris are married, in her parents’ sight at least. Married. They get up, and then the others are all crowding around her, Gigi holding her free hand and the girls up on tiptoes to be seen behind them, smiling and laughing at the flash of it. Yvonne gives her the photo, shows her how to shake it until it dries, and then she tucks it into her dress for safekeeping.
It feels like a fairytale, how everything’s come together.
But of course the witch arrives. It always happens. But Chris is there, gun out, and she knows that he’ll always protect her.
When everyone’s gone, she finds a radio on the bar, and fiddles with a few dials, not really knowing what she’s doing, but then there’s a crackle and an oh-so-familiar tune begins to play.
“Isn’t this what John was playing on that old saxophone yesterday?” Chris asks.
“I think so?”
They dance together, anyway, the old lamp and neon Dreamland sign sputtering above their heads, and then Chris pulls her up into his arms and carries her back to their little room above the street, deepening their kiss until she can feel it in her bones and her veins. He breaks it, pressing hot kisses along her collarbone and she runs her fingers through his curly hair, pulling him closer and closer, and struggling with the hooks on her dress.
“Here, let me help,” he says, his voice low.
She lifts her arms obediently, and then the air from the open window is cool on her skin, and he’s pulling his top off, and kissing her again, and they tumble backwards into the bed. She forgets about the Viet Cong approaching, forgets about the war and her family and her burning village.
In this moment, there is only him.
When it all goes to hell, she never doubts him. Not once. Not when she’s on one side of the embassy gate and he’s on the other, not with the other desperate people begging and screaming and crying. Not even when the helicopter comes rushing down in a blaze of chopping blades and bright lights and shouting, when she sees Chris pushed onto it with his friend’s gun aimed at his head, not when they lock eyes and dimly, over the roar of the engine and the wind, she sees him yell, “Kim! I’m sorry!”
She never doubts him. Not once. He’ll come back to get her. She knows he will.
There’s a moment of silence, as though the world is holding its breath. The pain in her stomach is blinding, her vision is hazy. She can feel blood soaking through that dress Chris bought her all that time ago.
And then he’s there. For the first time in three, endless years. Chris. Bending over her, one hand on her hair, looking towards the blood, all the blood. “What have you done?” His voice cracks. There are tears swimming in his blue eyes. “Why?”
“The gods have brought you…” she takes a sharp breath. “to your son.”
“Jesus.” The pain in his voice crushes her heart a little more.
“Hold me…please. Please.” The world is spinning, and then his warm arms are around her, holding her tightly and even though it hurts, she can almost forget that she’s dying because he’s here, he’s got her, he’ll never let her go again. His lips are soft on hers, and she reaches up to touch his cheek. Her arm feels wobbly. Something like singing is ringing in her ears. Odd.
“How in one night…” the words aren’t coming, she can’t make them come. Her tongue is heavy, the pain in her stomach is dulling, settling down. She can feel part of her floating away. “Did we come so far?”
She rests her head against the warmth of his shoulder. She’s so tired. Tired of everything. Chris is here now, he’ll look after her. It’ll be alright.
She lets herself go.