"I'm sorry, sir, the elephant is dead."
The light in Carl's eyes dimmed like momentary darkness when paper lanterns flicker in the wind. We had just huffed up a hundred stairs to the lobby of Victoria Hoi An Hotel. Tired, wrinkled and sweaty, we stood like two toadstools, heads bobbing over the check-in desk. The Vietnamese boy—they all look like boys—smiled, held his hands under his chin, his delicate fingers forming a bridge.
"Happiness?" Carl said.
I heard something break inside of him, like a twig snapping. Tales of that damned elephant had stomped through our dinner parties for years, and now this. A perfect omen: I hadn't even told Carl I was leaving him yet. After two weeks of "Danang–The Final Tour," a private cruise for twenty-two of Carl's former army pals, I was convinced I was making the correct decision. Vietnam seemed the right place to end the forty-year war of our marriage; it was certainly better than Upper Fells, New Jersey. But now, overheated and dripping, dyspeptic from the Cha Ca still swimming towards my lower tract, I wished I hadn't waited.
"So sorry, sir. You knew Happiness?"
As Carl trotted out the story, my mind echoed his words. End of the war. Holed up in the village. Bored. Hotel owner married a Thai girl. The family sent an elephant as a gift. GI's sitting at the bar drinking shots and Tiger beer. Teaching the elephant tricks. Roll the ball… one foot up… up!
The boy smiled, amused. Given an audience, Carl would drone on for hours. I elbowed him and flashed my cut-the-crap smile, anxious to get to our room. My feet hurt from stomping around rice paddies reliving the glory days, and now this. The goddamn elephant dies.
Carl ignored me. "What an appetite she had for life. Playful. Pushy. Talkative. She had a mind of her own. I loved the bitch." He shook his head.
"She so nice. Veddy old. Over fifty, maybe sixty years. No one knows. You see picture…" He handed Carl a faded black and white photo of a weary looking pachyderm chained to a pole.
They stared at it with reverence. The boy with his shiny eyes and Carl with his stony blues, his square jaw and gray hair rumpled with distinction, looking senatorial and serious. Perched upon an embankment on the Thu Ban River, the hotel was like an aerie with views of the river ambling along in front and the ocean behind. The two of them were huddled in the nest, sharing a moment for a gargantuan ghost and I was dying on my feet.
"Very nice, yes?" Vihn, his name engraved on a shiny bronze plate pinned to his tunic, was beautiful. He had high cheekbones, eyes cherry dark and sweet. His frame was a graceful arc. I was jealous of his hips, of his perfect skin. He smiled with the patience of a generation of young Vietnamese who knew the pendulum was swinging their way, willing to bide their time as T-lines were dropped at every café and taxis jockeyed water buffaloes out of existence. Carl cradled the photograph as if it were a sacred relic, while I unglued the pith helmet from my head.
"Our key?" I over-enunciated the words as if I were talking to a two-year old, but he moved so slowly, elegantly.
Carl glanced about as if he had no idea where he was, living up to my vision of a future Carl, bumbling around, lost and confused, an old man in stained underpants, searching for something he can't remember. And there I stood next to him, every bit the dour, unhappy, old bitch. What a pair!
The boy finally set the registration card on the desk. I signed our names and took the key. With one slender finger, the fingernail shiny and pale as porcelain, he rang the bell and a man with a luggage cart appeared and showed us to our room.
Years ago, walking into a hotel room was the prelude for a carnal festival with Carl leering and pawing me. I'd bounce on the bed, shaking my breasts with excitement and pride. We loved to play nasty, and did a good job with it. Now, I longed to put my feet up, turn the lights out and let the evening disappear. Our suitcases were lined along the wall, and though I usually fussed and hung everything up immediately to avoid wrinkles, I popped the lid, dug out a nightgown and retired to bed.
"Want a nightcap or something?" Carl stepped out of his pants and toyed with the remote control.
"No." I scratched at a heat rash that had developed beneath my bra strap.
"The boys too much for you?" He hit the mute, retrieved a bottle of whiskey, and poured himself a drink.
"They were heaven. I particularly enjoyed Lieutenant Brady tossing bottles of whiskey from his mechanical hand into the air before pouring shots for the crew."
Brady, a second lieutenant from Texas who sponsored the tour, had lost his arm in a mine explosion then made a fortune in bionic limbs, thanks to Iraq. The entire cruise was exactly the kind of thing I had feared when I married Carl.
"For chrissakes, we didn't come to Vietnam to fight. Did we, Hanoi?"
He christened me Hanoi Joan, a reference to Fonda's unpopular trip, when we first met forty-three years ago. I returned the compliment by declaring him Carl the Baby Killer, a dig at his years in the service. After arguing about the war, we screwed in the bathroom at a house party while Jim Morrison sang an anthem about sex and death in the background. Carl was testosterone unlimited, the kind of guy I—a preacher's kid, Grateful Dead and pot, Betty Freidan and Poulenc—avoided like the plague. But he was a great fuck and handsome as hell in a thick Paul Newman way. He was everything I didn't need, but he was determined. Weeks later, he appeared at my apartment door unannounced and uninvited. I poured a glass of Chardonnay and tried to decide whether I was annoyed or flattered, while he eyed me like prey, or scanned the apartment for manly things to be fixed. Resetting a recalcitrant window in the kitchen, he spied pot growing among the herbs in my window garden.
"Are you fuckin' kidding me?" he asked.
"It's an herb garden. Cannabis is an herb." I sipped my wine.
"Bad law," I replied.
"Don't pull that commie shit with me." And he launched my terra cotta planter into a garbage bag and marched it outside to the dumpster.
I locked him out of my apartment and he broke the door off its hinges. I was beating him on the chest screaming Fascist! when a policeman arrived. Carl took him aside and told him he loved me. Men always confide things to one another; it's easier for them than talking to women. I was furious, and we ended up having sex on the floor. I remember lying by his side, sweat dripping and a fresh breeze tickling me between my bare legs. I looked up through the broken door at the outside world, and laughed. He started laughing too, so I kicked him and told him to get up and fix the goddamn door.
That was our first really good argument, but there were plenty more. Fighting was good for the soul. It kept us honest. Abortion, PETA, turn signals, Iraq, all took their places alongside picking up the kids, land use, WBNA, text messaging, and coriander. Then we slowed down; old age invaded as if a stranger had suddenly broken into our home and neither of us knew what to say. The inevitable medications, nothing serious, started lining up alongside our coffee in the morning. The slowness of movement, the aches of joints, the rustiness of sex if it occurred at all, and more and more, the forgetfulness followed by self-anger, all these things shaped our lives individually, and our life together, without our consent. Gone were the snappy, bitchy, sparring partners who hated to miss a blow, and in their places were two fragile, frightened people I didn't know.
There he sat, still glowing from his days playing soldier on leave with his buddies. I should have been happy for him, but I wasn't; it was too painful of a reminder that we had resigned our best times to the past, relegated our youth to annual outings of misbehavior. Our children, both single and selfish, would never give us grandchildren. Todd, an adrenaline junkie, was too busy climbing Aconcagua to complete his seven peaks. And Anne, a workaholic lawyer, was uninterested in men. I could see us spending the rest of our lives attending army reunions and medicating ourselves while watching the evening news and Know thy Shrub! on HGTV.
Lying in the dark, aware of every crease of skin, every lick of lips, and every uneven breath, the shadows of war crept in beside us. I had learned more about Carl's Vietnam experiences in the past two weeks than I had in forty-three years of marriage. The years he spent clutching an M-16 in the mud had become the most important time in his life, more than any other, including the births of our son and daughter. It had transformed him.
I had no such event in my life. It made me angry and ashamed. I had no past beyond Carl. I was nobody.
After breakfast, we strolled along the beach, fine white dust clinging between our toes. It was nearly deserted, and I felt as if we'd walked onto an unfinished canvas, an infinite expanse of white and blue. With the waves washing up beneath our feet, I contemplated another life, perhaps the one I lost when I married Carl. The work I thought I'd do, the books I might have written. I wanted to join the Peace Corps. Was it too late? Do they still have a Peace Corps? What could I possibly offer the world now?
"Here's a beaut!" Carl was collecting seashells: lovely pink cones and ivory stars. He rubbed some grit from his eye and handed me a delicate purple fan. It was three inches across and so thin it was translucent. As I held it up to the sun, I felt I was holding the balance of our lives in my fingers. The thinnest membrane could easily crumble with the slightest force. I held it carefully and knelt down to wash it in the sea. Carl drew a picture in the sand with his big toe and I carried the shell back to our room, certain that it would disintegrate before I got it home.
At the hotel, we claimed two deck chairs and Carl called to a waiter, "Bring me a bottle of Jack and some ice." His voice crashed across the infinity pool and out towards the ocean. His booming proclamations had embarrassed me at parties and gatherings for decades. He'd announce his presence—How's everybody doing?—interrupting a dozen conversations, and people would stop, turn and chuckle in a way I'd say was dismissive, but he'd call it friendly. We'd set it aside to fight about later, unless a better topic materialized. You'd argue a starving Chinaman out of a bag of rice, if you could, he'd say. I'd counter with something vulgar and venal, or both.
As soon as I was really angry, he'd turn on the charm and try to kiss my neck, which infuriated me even more. Those quirks and quips that drove me mad now seemed endearing. Why had we stopped fighting? Didn't we care enough anymore?
"I think I'll go to town." I needed time alone.
"Go ahead." He held up his glass as if toasting me off to a party; the ice cubes tolled like tiny bells.
Carl knew I was contemplating leaving him. He knew I hadn't hung his dress shirts up last night, just as he knew I was unusually quiet these past few days. But evasion had become standard gear for us; we wore it like armor. Sealed in a secrecy and fear that neither of us had the courage to acknowledge, we were afraid the slightest movement would expose our delicate pretense. He, too, remained silent, but I could see him sinking into the muck of life—his expression, something he picked up during the war wading through the Mekong delta. He tried to explain that it was funny, back then. But there's nothing amusing about the prelude to depression. I'd seen glimpses of it before: Carl in his chair at home, in his dusty office, wherever he was with J.D. by his side, sinking into the muck of his post-war life. Now more than ever, it was only a matter of time before it smothered him and I knew that if I stayed with him, the muck would drag me down too.
I hired a tuk-tuk to take me to town to buy tranquilizers, to steel my nerves. The pharmacist, a small man dressed in white pajamas, tried to sell me a Chinese herbal medication guaranteed to "settle thoughts peacefully, center mind and promote harmony within." Frustrated, I walked away. Along the dusty streets, circles of men chatted over tea as women hovered in the background, like accessories, pleasant but disposable.
I stepped around an old woman cleaning the sidewalk with a bucket of water and a brush. She was bent over in that way only an Asian seems to be able to accomplish, arms and elbows splayed like wings, knees crooked like a grasshopper. She was scraping dust away from the pavement in a pathetic but noble way. The town was covered in a cloud of red clay; it dusted windows and doors, crept into one's lungs, made a fine film on water glasses set out at cafes for Western tourists. Yet, in the quiet urgency of her circling arm, the woman was fighting against defeat. I admired and envied her determination.
Come see! You want? Good stuff! Although I ignored the hawkers with their colorful leaflets and insistent monosyllabic entreaties, I stopped and spoke with a young woman, stationed in front of a three-story shop housing embroidery and dressmaking. She invited me to come in and see the silk worms. Her long black hair fell perfectly upon the lavender of her aodai. I wandered into the dusty shop where six young women, like mannequins, were lined up and ready to serve. One of them guided me to an upstairs room where a dozen seamstresses bent over their needlepoint: swans drifting across an imaginary lake, rocks rising in a bay of mist, doe-eyed girls with conical hats. It was so simple and tedious, both the work and the art itself, profoundly sad. For these garish imitations of life, these girls were sacrificing their youth. Already, I could see their eyes were smarting and their backs were becoming bent. I wanted to grab them by their slender necks and force them outside. Live, for chrissakes, you're young. I wanted to shout. Instead, I sneered at the man in the black suit standing over them, smiling and counting every dong he would make from each stitch.
"You like? You like?" he asked me, as I walked between worktables.
"I like not."
I thought of the woman scrubbing the sidewalk.
I thought of the girls and their future. I ordered a dress and held my breath as they measured my waist, my bosom. I felt the coolness of the tape tight against the wattles around my neckline. I stood still and firm, but I wanted to cry.
"Find anything interesting in town?" It was evening, and Carl hadn't moved from his lounge chair. Jack Daniels was half the man I'd seen before, or perhaps a new soldier, I couldn't tell. Carl could hold his liquor. He never got mean; he just dissembled into slower and more carefully pronounced speech. Although lately, there were bouts of melancholy, whispers of self-deprecation, a jocular toss towards pity. These idiosyncrasies arrived with the same unheralded reception as our first Social Security checks, the dietary recommendation of our physician, and the AARP discounts we shrugged at but accepted.
Vihn was standing next to Carl, holding a serving tray. Carl had probably talked his head off and the boy was too polite to leave. For a second, I was an intruder, a feeling I often had in the company of men. On the boat surrounded by others, Carl would strike a more youthful pose. His arthritic elbows reclaimed elasticity as they poked a soon-to-be septuagenarian in the ribs. They seemed to transform themselves, feeding off the memories of their youth. The few women friends I had spoke of fiber and bone loss, of men's prostates and breast cancer. We creaked through Pilates classes and whispered about those women who opted for plastic surgery and botox—a sisterhood of denial and complaints.
I missed Hanoi Joan and Carl the Baby Killer: their naiveté, their ignorance, their resilience. I watched Carl still chatting up Vihn, as a row of palm trees bowed obediently in the wind. The air was dabbed with sea salt and tamarind, the scent lingering like an imprint of a hand on a mist-covered window. It was a beautiful place. One would never know a war had been fought here. But isn't that always the way? After the wraps, rubs, treatments, oils, exfoliates, comes the foundation, eyes, lips, and highlights. And beneath it all, who would know what woman lived there before?
"You order dress?" A Vietnamese man, holding a package, smiled and waited for instructions.
"Come with me." I took the aodai I had ordered to my room for a fitting. The delivery man was taller, a bit broader in the shoulders than most Vietnamese. He seemed an indeterminate age. His hair was slightly thinning, which made me think of him as older. But his eyes, the smoothness of his skin, the way he moved, erased his years, rendered him youthful, strong, and essential.
Inside my room, I stripped down to my underwear and slipped the robe over my head. Although the man waited respectfully outside the door, I called to him. He stared at my bare legs, sixty-four-year-old heifers, but without the scourge of varicose veins or too much cellulite. I wanted to pull him to me, slide my panties aside and have him take me right there without warning, protection, or the necessary lubricants. I was shocked by this momentary lust, quite out of character for me, but now, with the caress of soft silk against my bare thigh, I wanted to feel alive again. I wanted to believe my feet didn't hurt and my breasts weren't sagging.
He touched me. His hand cupped my face and he smiled. "Lovely," he said and lowered his eyes.
I thanked him and held his hand there a moment. He handed me his card. "In case you need something else." His voice was soft and unassuming, there was no impropriety veiled behind his words.
I wondered at the thinness of his waist, the sharpness of the crease in his pants. Giddy with the feeling of being wanted, of seduction, I imagined him easing into me without either of us undressing. Overwhelmed by the thought of passion, not the deed or the act, but its power, I was lifted by memories of uncontrollable lust.
"Miss…?" I watched him back away.
"I'm sorry." I reached for my purse to find a tip. I had no idea how long I had kept him there waiting. He bowed and closed the door behind him. I felt the muck beneath my feet pulling me down. I sat on the bed and didn't realize I was crying until the maid knocked on the door and called, "Turn down!"
Carl hadn't moved, and I took my place in a matching deck chair alongside him. On the bay, fishing boats passed by, their tiny lights twinkling in the dark. Smoke from an outdoor grill filled the air with the smell of meat searing. And the hollow silence between us was underlined by the faint quiet chatter of couples having dinner on the patio. It was a perfect night except for the demons that haunted me and even they had settled down for the moment. I was running out of stamina. In the sea-dark sky, with a half-moon stretched like a cupful of cream, slightly out of reach, I admitted it was the inevitability of old age that I hated. And Carl, the poor sucker, was just a mirror for my insecurity.
"Have a drink." He nodded towards the bottle. "Boy! Bring us another glass here."
Vihn brought a glass and Carl poured, handed him a tip, but the boy remained.
"Sir, I have something for you, if I may?" His hands were folded in front of him as if in prayer, his head tilted to one side, as he waited for permission before he disappeared and then returned with a large strap of leather, cracked and rippled with age. It was nearly two feet wide, soft and damp on one side, and hard and brittle on the other. The distinctive smell of old age interrupted the perfumed air of spring.
"What is this?" Carl took the strap and stared.
"It's a piece of her collar, sir. Happiness. Is O.K.?" Vihn asked.
"It's wonderful." Carl held it up to his face and inhaled.
Vihn bowed slightly and then, his face beaming, slipped away.
Carl smiled too, as he traced the wrinkles of broken leather with his finger. Was it the elephant of years ago or the men he left behind? Whatever it was, Carl the Baby Killer was gone. And in his place was a different man. I watched him caressing the leather.
All this time, I thought I had changed and grown away from stuck-in-the muck Carl. But it was I who hadn't changed. I was clinging to the past with regret, and unable and unwilling to accept a future I didn't understand. Carl understood history. I lived in it.
The whiskey in my glass glistened alongside Carl's watered-down version. I tossed it in me and it burned, neat and smoky. I don't like whiskey, but tonight it was strong and pure. I imagined the soldiers lined up at the bar ordering shots, steeling themselves against unknown tomorrows. The shadow of Happiness in the distance waited for them to come and play. I could see her eyes shining in the dark like ponderous globes, her tongue thick as an Oriental carpet, her tail swinging gloriously. It's easier to love a memory; there are no hideous facts, no telltale stains to remind one of reality. But to embrace the future, one must have faith.
I picked up a napkin and began cleaning water rings on the glass, wiping the table in perfect circles. Carl reached out, grabbed my arm, and stopped me. Even in the darkness, his bloodshot eyes still had the thunderbolt of blue I had marveled at years ago. The scent of bourbon and the musk of an earlier cigar lingered on his breath. Damn him, he really had taken the fight out of our marriage.
Carl stood up, handed me the collar, and walked fully-clothed into the pool. The sound of the splash was festive, as if signaling the beginning of a party. Carl's body disappeared for a moment, then re-emerged dripping as the waters calmed.
"What are you doing?" I laughed, surprised and worried. I looked around to see if anyone was watching.
"Floating," he replied as he lay upon the water, his silk shirt sticking to his chest like a second skin, and his sandals drifting away from his feet.
I sat down and cradled the fragment of the harness to my chest, as a cloud erased the moon. The air sat silent and sullen around us, like the many nights we hid at home in the near dark, Carl with his J.D., and I beneath a reading light shining upon some book I would never finish.
As Carl continued to float on his back, I waited, wondering if in his drunkenness he might drown. Then, as if he could read my thoughts, he spoke. "I'll be all right. We used to practice wading in water for hours at a time. Survival training."
I understood survival mode, although fighting was my way. I still longed for those heated moments, but Carl had learned diplomacy. Without an enemy, there is no war.
As the clouds moved on, I was surrounded by a nervous circle of light, thinking of the aodai carefully folded into my suitcase, my toiletries sealed and secure, and the garment bag zipped up and left hanging like a mummy. I set the collar, brittle and broken, alongside my empty glass, and imagined Happiness finally free and away from the muck of life. Carl drifted in a halo of luminescence as the water rippled away from his body. He was a man floating, and I was on the edge of a battle against losses.
I stood up and walked from the table. I kept moving until I felt my body descend into the water and then rise again buoyant and supple. When I opened my eyes, the pool lights shone blue in the infinity of water. I lifted my legs to the surface and fluttered my arms like wings, my body floating, turning in circles, round and round.
Copyright © Daniel DiStasio 2007.