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follow my smile

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Often, she goes down to the lakeside and sits on the pier, dangling her feet in the water. It’s soothing, watching the lives roll back and forth along the pavement, wholesome American mothers who never have to tell their wholesome American children to look out for the mines, the grey suits going about their Very Important Work, the bums shuffling around on their daily pilgrimage to find food and shelter and somewhere safe to sleep. She sketches them sometimes, ingrains tiny moments of their lives into her book as though their normality would be able to seep out of the pages and into her blood and make her feel less like a fraud.

She shouldn’t be here. She knows that as well as she knows her own name. Whatever dreams she’d built up of America when she was a prostitute – first in Hanoi, then in Saigon, fucking her way through soldiers and sailors and anyone who had a deep enough pocket – should’ve stayed just that; dreams. She should have realised that reality is never as good as the stories she built in her head.

*

“You want to do what?” Kim turns away from the clutter of pots and pans on the stove. “Tam, tell your Aunt Gigi that she’s finally lost it.”

The baby in Gigi’s arms gurgles, batting his fat sticky hands against Gigi’s face. She rocks him idly, letting him stick one of her fingers into his mouth.

“I’m just…Chicago isn’t the place for me. You’re all settled, you’ve got Chris and Tam, and you help out at soup kitchens and you’re doing college but I’m…I need something new. I just…”

“It’s okay,” Kim says, coming to sit down opposite her with her tea mug in her hand. “Gigi, we went through hell out there, you have every right to do whatever on earth you want.”

Gigi reaches out to catch her hand. “Thank you.”

Tam starts to wail, suddenly, and Kim laughs. “Well, looks like Tam doesn’t like the idea of his favourite aunt leaving him.”

“I knew he liked me the best,” Gigi smiles, handing the bundle of stinky, screaming baby back to his mother.

*

It starts on a quiet, cold morning at the bus station – Kim and Chris and Tam are here to see her off, the baby asleep against his father’s chest and Kim bouncing up and down on the tips of her toes.

“Have you got everything?” she asks. “Money, clothes, snacks…”

“Kim, stop worrying,” Chris says, putting a hand on his wife’s back. “Gigi will be fine, and if she’s not, she knows to call.”

“Okay, okay.”

“Why do you listen to him and not me?”

“I worry about you, silly.” Kim moves forward and gives her a hug that is surprisingly bone-crushing for someone so small. “Send me postcards.”

“Of course.” Gigi kisses the top of Kim’s head. “I’ll be back, I promise.”

“Be safe.”

“I will. Bye!”

She sees them standing there, Chris waving one of Tam’s tiny starfish hands at her, until the bus turns out of the station, and they disappear into the reality she’s leaving behind.

*

She heads west first, out towards the Pacific. It’s strange, standing knee deep in the sea in San Francisco with the wind tangling her hair into knots and thinking that it might have blown across Vietnam many weeks ago. She wonders what it’s like out there. The American news agencies never say much about Vietnam and she wonders whether its shame or disinterest or fear that keeps their reporters in other parts of the world.

The city itself is a revelation and she picks up a job in a café for a month, learning how to work a coffee machine and how to like the taste of coffee, how to earn money without once opening her legs to another client who will take her and throw her away once he’s through.

“So.” They’re closing up shop, wiping down the tables when Gigi’s colleague – and friend? She thinks friend; Crystal is chatty and fun and has a tattoo poking out of the neckline of her uniform – leans over to her. “Wanna go out for a drink later?”

“Sure,” Gigi says before she can say no. She’s chickened out of going to clubs and bars in Chicago, well aware of the eyes that followed her and the sickening feeling that always crawled up her spine at the thought of packs of men watching her like wolves. But this was her challenge – to get out and try something new, to fill her sketchbook with new faces and new stories and new lives.

(she doesn’t want to live like a shadow forever).

“I’ll pick you up at nine,” Crystal says.

*

It’s the first time she’s been drunk since Saigon and it’s scary how fast the alcohol affects her system. By ten, she and Crystal are dancing in the corner of the club, and her body is slipping back into all the dance moves she used to pull in Saigon and Bangkok, pulling the other woman closer and closer. Crystal runs her hands over Gigi’s shoulders; the touch sizzles along her skin.

“How about we go back to my place?” Crystal whispers under a curtain of heavy auburn hair. Gigi nods, and they’re sliding back through the crowds, Crystal’s hand under her elbow, out into the frigid night air. They walk along, close, but not touching, and Gigi feels the electricity crackling in the space between them; the second they get back into Crystal’s apartment block and into her second floor flat, they’re onto each other, kissing and running hands over each other’s bodies, bones and curves and breasts under the lines of their palms. Crystal is beautiful, Gigi decides, with the ink of her tattoos seeping across her ribs and hips and thighs.

“Have you done this with a woman before?” Crystal gasps as Gigi kisses her way down the smoothness of neck.

“Yes,” Gigi says in between kisses. Her hand is between Crystal’s legs; she can feel the wetness through her underwear. “Back in Bangkok, there were a few.”

“Bangkok?”

“Later.” Her fingers slip into Crystal, thumb rubbing against her clit and then there are no words, just breathless moans and skin against skin, and god, Gigi doesn’t remember the last time she did this for pleasure rather than for staying alive.

After, they lie in a tangle of limbs on the crisp sheets, and Gigi makes up a story about escaping the war as a child, and living in Thailand with three sisters and two brothers and a kind, strict mother. Crystal falls asleep halfway through and Gigi finds her sketchbook in her bag, letting her pencil trace the outlines of Crystal’s naked body, the words inscribed in her cells, the curl of her fiery hair, and lets herself feel content.

*

She allows herself three weeks with Crystal – three weeks of secret smiles at the coffee shop, and nights dancing away at clubs and fucking breathlessly in the early hours of the morning, breathing each other’s air and telling each other lies. Gigi knows that Crystal has a boyfriend in the army – she’s seen the pictures of him, and the ring – but Crystal never talks about him, and Gigi never talks about the web of lies she’s been weaving.

The morning she leaves, she writes a letter to Kim with her new address – Phoenix, Arizona – and tucks one of her sketches of Crystal into her sleeping hand, kisses her forehead and doesn’t look back.

*

With every new place, she tries on a new identity. Gigi the beautician from Phoenix, who’s into rough men on motorcycles that take her for rides and tie her wrists to their headboards. Gigi the model in LA who is a second generation immigrant and goes out drinking with the lads but never gets too close. Gigi the tour guide in Montreal who loves walking and nature and never says no to anything.

She hooks up with people and fills her sketchbook with their faces and lines and bodies, and goes to places she’d never dreamed of visiting, filling herself with experiences that build up like towers of stars through her veins. She stands on top of a mountain with the wind racing past her face, and leans over the edge of the Niagara falls, and watches the sunrise over the Grand Canyon with a pair of strong arms around her and slowly, slowly, she starts to wonder where all these identities end and she begins.

*

New York at Christmastime is a sight to behold. She’s waiting to hear back from an audition that she went to on a whim, browsing the shelves of a little bookshop to find something for Tam for Christmas. Kim’s latest letter included a photograph and she thinks how scary it is that he’s growing so fast. Then again they’re all growing. It’s been two years since Saigon fell and their lives have changed so dramatically she often pinches herself just to make sure it’s real and not a fever dream flashing behind her eyelids as some nameless soldier takes her against a wall.

She picks out something bright and fun looking by an author called Dr Seuss – the name makes her laugh – and steps back, straight onto someone’s foot. “Ow!”

“Oh, I’m so sorry!” she says, spinning around. He grimaces at her for a second, before it fades into a smile. She tells herself to stop blushing. It’s not even like he’s that handsome, there’s just something so open and cheerful about his face and…

“No harm, no foul.”

She smiles her insincere smile that she saves for moments like these and walks away, wondering why she has to force herself not to look back.

*

Of course, it’s inevitable that when she walks into the first day of rehearsals, he’s by the barre set into the wall, stretching out his legs. His eyes meet hers and she holds them for a second before turning and making her way over to the gaggle of women by the piano, trying to ignore the way her heart wants to burst out of the cage of her ribs.

*

“So, bookshop girl,” he says, falling into step beside her one day as she leaves the rehearsal rooms. “Fancy seeing you here.”

“A complete surprise,” she says, working to keep her face deadpan. She used to be a pro at it back in Saigon, would never let her true emotions out of the box she locked them in, no matter how violent or disgusting or plain awful the job got, but here her control is slipping. For God’s Sake, she’s thirty two, not a silly, fluttering schoolgirl who blushes at any attention from any man.

“My name’s Ben, by the way,” he says. “You?”

She tells him. And when they reach her door, he leans against the doorjamb as she fumbles with keys that suddenly feel too large in her numb fingers. “So, I was wondering if you wanted to grab a coffee with me sometime?”

She barks out a laugh. “Okay.”

“Awesome. I’ll see you around.”

When she looks over her shoulder, he’s gone.

*

Ben has been a dancer for as long as he can remember, she learns. He’s been doing ballet since he was three and ballroom since he was seven and has never even considered doing anything else with his life. In the mornings before rehearsals, she pads into his kitchen in one of his shirts to find him practising his spins whilst the kettle boils, whooshing in circles around the countertop. Sometimes, late at night, they’ll drunkenly waltz along the sidewalks, his hand on her shoulder blade, leading her in a dizzying whirl where the only fixed thing is his smile and the warmth of him, pressed close. It’s scary how much she doesn’t want to let go this time, doesn’t want to move on, but soon enough the show is closing and she has to start thinking about the next person, the next identity, the next Gigi.

He finds her, one evening, sitting on the balcony with her legs dangling off the edge. “You okay?”

“Ben…” she says, patting the concrete next to her.

“What’s the matter?”

She breathes out through her nose and decides to just come out with it. He, she thinks, will understand. “I don’t know who I am. I’ve been trying and trying and trying and just nothing sticks for that long I just…”

“Gigi,” he says, wrapping an arm around her shoulders. “When does anyone know? It’s life’s big question.”

“What if I never answer it?”

“I don’t think there’s supposed to be a definitive answer. You have to accept it or you just spend your life looking.”

They sit in silence for a moment, staring out at the lights that pass for stars in New York. She leans her head back against his chest. “Let me tell you a story,” she says, quietly.

“Okay.”

“Once upon a time, there was a girl, who lived in Hanoi. Her family weren’t that rich, but they had enough food and they had each other and you know, somehow that was enough. Then the war came, and what food there was was gone, and her father died and the schools shut and suddenly, the only thing she had to support her family was how pretty she looked. The first year was horrid, back alleys and scabby pay and threats, so she learned to dance and toss her hair and flirt and moved to Saigon to work in a club for the Marines. One day, a few days before Saigon fell, a new girl came into the club, a sweet, innocent thing that reminded the girl what she once was. A marine fell in love with the new girl, and promised to take her away only they were separated in the chaos, so he phoned and told her to get out of the country. She took me with her – we went to Bangkok, and of course, the only work there was more clubs, more men, more sex. She was pregnant with his child, and every week, she’d go to the American Embassy in the hopes that he’d be there. For seven months, we waited, and finally, one day when I could tell she was about to give up, there he was, conjured as if out of a daydream. When he brought her home to America, they took me along with them and I’ve been travelling the country for the last two years trying…” Gigi’s voice chokes on a sob, “Trying to figure out who I am now that I’m not a prostitute and a refugee and a woman under siege.”

The silence is thick enough to slice into pieces. “Gigi,” Ben says. His voice cracks. “I don’t know what to say…what you’ve been through…”

“I don’t want pity.”

“I’m in awe of you,” he says, and she turns her head to see his eyes inches from her own. “No-one else I know could have coped with something like that.”

“Thank you?” she gets out. He rests his forehead against hers, wiping away the tears that stick to her cheeks like spider-webs on a freezing morning. “I…do you see my problem?”

“The thing is, I think I have your answer.”

She fists her hands in his shirt and pulls herself closer into his embrace. “Yes?”

“You are Gigi van Tranh, the girl who never gave up on the hope of a better life; you’re the girl who fought for what you wanted, even though it almost killed you. You are amazing, and don’t ever doubt that, you hear me?”

Gigi takes in a deep, wobbling breath of the smell of him. “Yes, I do.” A pause. “This is normally about the time I start moving on.”

Ben pulls away and looks her in the eyes. “Are you going to?”

“No,” she says. “No, I’m staying right here.”