Stranger Than Sympathy

by Noberu Izari (叙いざり)


The Vietnam War meant that no one knew when to be sympathetic or when to pity. I had been advised to pick neither road. It was too easy to be labeled a commie sympathizer, a traitor, and a shameful blemish on the perfect country that we were serving.

I never served anything and gave up on my sympathies. The country’s people were stronger than that, and didn’t want what emotions I could give them. For that very reason, I had no excuse other than the fact that I was just very easily won over with sugar cane.

I first saw her on a dirt road, bending over gingerly in her long dress to scrunch her nose at some weeds that grew beside it. At that time, I was just recovering from a wound I had gotten in the field, small and insignificant, but it had gotten infected and thrown me into weeks of humidity, fever, and delirium. The sergeant I had been assigned with at the time visited me regularly enough, this particular man having survived practically all fifteen years of the war that had transpired, and yet, who had never wanted to be promoted above his own rank.

He was walking with me when I froze at the sight of her. I was an impressionable twenty-something year old journalist back then, influenced by the quickly changing outlook on the world, fearful enough that I listened to whatever my superiors said. I remembered, at the sight of her, the words I had heard from soldiers about the native woman in their long white gowns, pure and smiling. It was almost enough, they had said, to make you feel sorry for them. Then I heard the words of the politicians, the people who had shipped us over, the general feelings of animosity at the beginning of the war—it was absolutely crucial for me to not be labeled a commie sympathizer.

Then there was the sound of the sergeant’s voice as he chuckled at my reaction. I looked up at him for a moment, realizing for the first time in three weeks just how clearly I could see him, even if he stood a foot taller than me. “Vietnam is beautiful, isn’t it?” he asked me.

“Yes. Yes, it is.” She had rosy cheeks and shining eyes as she bent down to pick the weeds, completely oblivious to the fact that I was watching her. Unknowingly, I had taken a step towards her, and another, and another, until I tripped over a stone in my path and looked down for only a second to figure out what had happened before looking up—

And realizing that I could not see the girl with long black hair, rosy cheeks, and shining eyes, but the thin shoulders of a pale skinned boy standing in between us. “Em, minh can di ve. Ngung lai di.”

That was when the sergeant pulled me back, his large hand coaxing movement out of my stunned legs. He came up from behind me, tilting his head a bit to the side as he looked at the two of them. I had no idea what they were saying.

Were they going away? The girl had stopped in her observations, and picked a few weeds that she looked on with satisfaction. She brushed off her hands afterwards, and took the handkerchief the boy offered her. A boy—a boyfriend, a cousin, a normal friend, a brother—that led her off down the dirt road, and kept me staring after the both of them until they were out of sight.

“He said they had to go home, Turner. You’ll get the chance to see her again. It’s not as if she’s fallen off the face of the Earth.” I remember looking up at the sergeant in amazement, and realizing how stupid I was, for the man had been here for fifteen years. He was never the type of man who was happy with not knowing the world around him.

“You know Vietnamese?” I had asked him, then, and hoped that he would pick up on the question by himself. I knew he had when he smiled.

“Why don’t we start with ‘thank you’…”

That was a while back, when the sergeant had still been in town for a rest, back when I had not been labeled a commie sympathizer simply because I associated with a man who felt for the natives. Now, I sit in the smoke clouded bar, smelling the fumes of the chemicals in the beer, wishing desperately that I had somewhere else to study the Vietnamese that the sergeant had painstakingly written out for me—the phonetics of each phrase next to the actual language.

A few man clap me on the back roughly as they pass by, drunk on beer that is likely to rot their intestines out. I ignore them as best I can, trying to figure out the correct way to ask another person’s name as I finish up a paragraph for the newest article back in the States. I realize too late that there is a booming voice behind me, announcing to the world that ‘Johnny has found his mark!’ I stare at the drunken man skeptically, taking back the book with the phrases in it and ignoring the raucous laughter.

After a few more minutes, however, I can no longer stand it, and politely stand up to scoot myself out of the bar and into the open air. Outside is practically a no man’s land, for those who sit there mean nothing to anyone inside. They’re all people who aren’t accepted in the eyes of the general army, even if they happen to be a part of it.

I stop at the door, wondering for a moment if it’d be a good choice to go out there. I always had the choice to return to the hut I had stayed at while injured, of course, but I could not stand the packed in humidity that bore down on me in there. Yet, I could not stand the fumes in here, either.

At that moment, I look up through the dirty little rectangle that was the best source of light the bar had. I do a double take, figuring my eyes were playing tricks on me, but no. I burst through the door, managing to annoy several other commie sympathizers who are resting from the sergeant’s group. They stop yelling threats at me when they figure out who I am, though I’m not sure they won’t exact some sort of revenge later, when I’m not struggling to regain my footing.

She’s going to pass by, I think, and I may never have a chance to see her again. I speed up, reaching out for the gate as she heads pass. Grabbing the left side of the wall, I use my momentum to swing me out of the gateway, and try to stop before I crash into that white gown that covers up every bit of her.

There’s surprise in her movements, but she turns around promptly. She seems surprised again, however, when she realizes that I’m an American from the bar she has just passed. We stare at each other for a long time, and I’m sure she expects me to say something, but I can’t think of the right words.

“Are… you okay?” She puts her strong emphasis on the wrong syllables, but I can understand her all the same. I smile broadly at her English. It not only means we can talk a bit, but it also tells me that she probably takes the English classes offered by the base, and that I could just switch some duty time with the teacher if I wanted to talk to her.

Diabolical planning aside, though, I figure I should make a good impression. “Sinh loi,” I finally apologize, and it seems to release a great amount of tension from her shoulders.

“Anh biet tieng Viet?” Those black eyes light up again, and she gives me a bright smile. I smile in return, trying not to frown at her words. I understand what she means, she wants to know if I know Vietnamese, but I’m not sure how to answer her.

After a few moments of awkwardness, I finally come up with, “Chi mot it, toi,” which gives me more credit than I deserve. I don’t know a little Vietnamese, I know next to nothing.

She nods, understanding my badly butchered words, and gives me an indulgent smile in return. There’s some disappointment, but she’s still more relaxed around me than she was when I first ran into her.

But I suppose that would be logical.

I want to say something else, standing there awkwardly as she swings her basket of weeds around. I had just been learning how to ask someone’s name, but I find myself drawing a blank at the sight of her face. After a moment, she seems to realize I have nothing else to say, because she gives me an even brighter smile before saying goodbye. I return it, with an extra apology, and watch as she turns around and continues down the road. Down, down, and around the corner—and I figure that I should go fetch my things right away. I obviously need them.

I jump at the tapping on my shoulder. I expect those threats from earlier are here to be fulfilled, and so I turn around slowly. I am not quite prepared for the sight of the boy from yesterday, so I step back as if this frail looking teenager intimidates me, this teenager who is several centimeters shorter than me.

He is awfully pale up close, which is actually not a trait common among the people, and so I figure that he’s probably related to the girl. I hope he’s related to the girl. At least, I don’t want to have to fight her boyfriend, even if I figure I could take him.

He surprises me again when he speaks up. “What are you doing?” His pronunciation is much better, the emphasis on the syllables all right where they should be. I do not take too much time being impressed, however, the question having registered in my mind.

“Excuse me?” I ask, figuring it’s common courtesy to make sure I heard him correctly. He gives me a veiled look that still manages to convey that he figures I’m the dumbest thing to exist since moss on rocks.

“What are you doing? Do not talk to that girl.” I instinctively lift up my hands, never having been one for violence. Besides, there’s no doubt that he’s something important to that girl, and even if I’m not aiming for more than a stupid one night stand with a beautiful native girl, it can’t be a good idea to get her boyfriend-brother-cousin-friend mad.

“I just ran into her,” I try to clarify to him, not sure if I should mime the actions out. I doubt it’d impress him.

My response certainly didn’t, as he’s almost scowling now, staring at me with distrust. “Soldiers are bad,” is the only sentence he says, but it tells me clearly how he feels about me. I wonder at his pronunciation of the phrase. It seems so natural, as if it is a phrase he uses often.

I try to reassure him again, nodding to agree with him. “Not a soldier,” I try to explain, gesturing at myself. His defiance seems to falter, and he looks at me with momentarily confused eyes. I wonder how old he is. “I write.” I make pencil actions and hope he doesn’t mistake it for drawing.

He seems to know the word write, though, because he backs off. Looking closer, he even seems a bit flushed, a bit intimidated. “But… bad,” he insists, his firm grip on his confidence and conviction seem to have melted away. I watch him as his shoulders slump while the tip of his right sandal goes to toeing the dirt covered walk.

It strikes me how young he looks. I can’t bring myself to say anything. He looks up at me once more, as if trying to figure me out, but his eyes keep falling to my hands and he shakes his head before turning around and running off.

I rub the back of my neck and sigh. I’m not sure whether I’ll see them again. Remembering the lost expression on the poor boy’s face, I don’t know if I want to.

Weeks later, I find that the impossible does happen, and am assigned to go over an event inside the city. They’re still treating me gingerly after my wound and delirium, probably more worried about me being a nuisance to the troops than any bit about me dying. I don’t take it with much offense, though, because what kind of thickheaded idiot begs to be sent out into smoke and ash, gunfire and mines?

The brave ones, probably, and the famous who would turn their noses down at me for mucking through the broken cement streets of the city, getting lost amidst houses that tower narrow but damn tall over my head. It’s hard to see the sky from inside the little groupings of houses, but I spend most of my time looking at the crooked streets anyways, trying to avoid any bicycles or motorcycles that might be heading my way. By the time I start getting tired of squeezing against the wall for angry Vietnamese motorists to pass by, I find that my boots have been completely covered by whatever dangerous piles might be lying in the streets.

I am suddenly grateful that the military issues us boots. I don’t think I would be able to stand cleaning them myself.

Eventually, I give up on trying to avoid the waste in the streets and look up to the sky for signs of smoke. That’s what they said would lead me to my assignment. There had been an air raid that had lit rows of houses on fire, and I was sent to report on it. They hadn’t even told me who had bombed the area, which meant that I am to assume it was the Vietcong. I frown, still following the smoke and listening for the sounds of two-wheeled monstrosities. I suddenly understand why that boy had been so unwilling to trust me.

I take a few more turns, knowing that it can’t be too far off. The smoke blocks out the patch of blue spared from the building’s heights so that I can see nothing of the sky. It’s depressing, I think, and wonder how anyone lives like this. Who are these people that hide away behind the streets so that we can’t see them when we pass by?

Oh, I realize, finally coming face to face with the acrid smell of burning homes and lives and ignoring it for the wide eyes that gawk at me. I know that face, I think, and back up a bit in anxiety and fear just as much as anything else. Hiding behind my pad, I sidestep him even as he takes a step toward me. There are a few soldiers here who are looking over the wreck, and even if it makes me sick to my stomach to go to them, I do so anyways. For some reason, standing in the middle of angry and sorrowful natives who have just had their houses burned down, it doesn’t seem like a good idea.

“Are you the reporter?” I nod, opening up my pad. I already know the general things I’m supposed to ask them, and I get ready to do just that when he interrupts me again. “All right, then. These are the details.”

It takes him only fifteen minutes to go over all of them, and walks away promptly afterwards, as if he didn’t really want to do this. I want him to elaborate, staring at the list of sparse details he gave me. I’m not sure how I’m supposed to write anything with them, and staring around at the suspicious neighborhood crowding around the wreckage, I don’t suppose I’ll get anything out of them.

The boy is standing all the way in the back, staring at me strangely. He is eyeing the pad and pencil in my hands, as if finally accepting that I really am a reporter. I feel embarrassed, unsure of that fact at the moment. I didn’t know what I was supposed to expect, as the previously report I was supposed to write was given to someone else due to the fact that I was going crazy in a hut. I realize in that moment that I’m really not cut out to be a great reporter, too scared to join the army out in the fields, too anxious to go talk with the officer that gave me the details. He is still standing there, waiting for the photographer to take a picture of him next to the rubble.

Which is what the rest of my story is about, I suppose, and turn around to see the men of the neighborhood poke around in the remains. If there is one thing I know, it is that these houses are built to withstand a lot, even if they aren’t aesthetically pleasing. The scent of materials too reinforced to be burned, and were instead exploded, assaults my senses as I step closer to the ruins. The ash in the air gets into my eyes.

I join a group of women who look on at the remains. All of them are crying, though some are trying to comfort the others. In the midst of them are a group of young women in their pale white dresses designed with all the prudence of Victorian fashion, no ankle or wrist displayed. I turn back to the wreckage, wondering how many adjectives I can incorporate with an ‘exploded mess of civilian casualties.’ At least, I figure that people died, and even those that didn’t lost their lives. There is no trust left in the nation at this point. Everything is kept inside the home. It is a sanctuary of sorts. What kind of shock is it to lose the only place a person considered relatively safe?

The shock of discovering that there was nowhere in your beloved country that you were safe, I suppose.

I am stuck wondering about what the government will do to me for pursuing such a thought in my article that I don’t realize that a voice has been trying to talk to me until its attached hand taps at my shoulder nervously. I turn around to face the girl, her eyes red and skin slightly blotchy, but still looking rather stunning in her white dress. I inhale deeply, regretting not having studied more, hating the fact that I’m seeing her like this.

“Why—” she begins, trying to piece together the sentence. I note that she speaks English with a slight French accent, probably having learned the language to the point where she associates their sounds to the letters. I wonder if she speaks French better than she does English because that would probably be easier for me to learn. “Do you—” she starts again.

“Em, noi chuyen voi nguoi do lam gi?” Her head darts back to where her brother shoots a disapproving look at her before she glances back at me apologetically. I realize she’s just been scolded for talking to an American, and looking around to where her neighbors seem to be staring on in amazement and horror, I find I respect her quite a bit for approaching me.

Still, I would rather she had not because I don’t know how I’m going to get out of this run in. The boy is stalking up to us now, and even if he is younger and quite a bit shorter, I find that I am terrified by the look in his eyes. He is not just protective of his sister—he seems a bit frightened of me. That explains why he does not just insert himself between us, instead taking the girl’s hand and tugging. She immediately walks away to where the women are currently standing, and I watch as she bows her head to their chides.

I don’t know whether to be indignant for her or awkward under the suspicious gaze of the boy. One of the older men is currently talking to him, and I turn back, trying to seem uninterested and detached. I take a few notes on the burnt rubbish, but I find that there is not much I can say on burnt rubbish. I finish with my ideas about the state of the nation, the feeling of being invaded by allies. I look up from my notepad to see that no one has stopped watching me, and wonder if it would be better for me to stay in one spot for long enough so that they lose interest or to run.

The choice is taken away from me as the boy, who looks very worried, walks up to me. He gestures at me to lean in, though I hardly believe it. He keeps gesturing with his fingers until we’re both brow to brow and I can see fear and depression in his eyes. “Do you love your country?” I want to ask him that question, but it seems rather insensitive, and I don’t figure he could understand me.

“Do you speak Vietnamese?” he asks me, sounding obviously practiced. It’s good to know that he’s learned something in English class.

I reply with the same thing phrase that I gave the girl. “Chi mot it, toi.” This seems to surprise him, and I again feel the need to lighten the atmosphere with a joke about how he shouldn’t have asked if he had already assumed I didn’t know, but I don’t. He looks serious, worried.

“May cung di, khong o day duoc.” He illustrates every one of the words with gestures, and goes slowly enough so that I can understand I’m not meant to be here. I wonder if he’s acting so kindly because he was told to or maybe he’s just scared. The soldiers are still here at the moment.

“Anh khong co muon o day.” By the way he winces, I realize I’m doing a fantastic job at butchering his language. Still, he seems impressed I can string together such a long sentence. He opens his mouth, and if I said what I meant, it’s to tell me to just leave then. I quickly hold up a finger to silence him. “Ma anh khong co muon di voi…” I realize I don’t know how to say ‘them,’ and am left to gesture wildly and yet stealthily at the group of soldiers. I hope I look sincere when I say it, I really don’t want to leave with them. The whole experience has made me suddenly sick.

He seems to understand, as his shoulders slump in sympathy. Really, other than the fact that we are practically on opposite sides of the war even as allies, he’s a pretty good kid. I feel the need to introduce myself, but he turns around and walks back to talk to an older man before I can.

I have no idea what they’re talking about, but my stomach twists a bit as the boy does not quite manage to hide his fearful expression. He looks like he is trying to be adult about whatever the man is telling him, but he is frightened nonetheless. He is not the type of person suited to approach a big, bad American and tell him that he is to stay away from girls, but he is trying to be. I stand there and am unsure about whether he’d be offended if I felt sorry for him.

He stands there worrying his lip for a while, before it seems to catch the eye of the older man, and he promptly stops. He nods solemnly, as if undertaking a great task, and then turns back to me. He walks until he is in arm’s reach of me, but does not bother to actually grab me. Instead, he surreptitiously inclines his head towards an alley that leads to a slightly wider network of streets. They want to get rid of me, I think, and look back to where men are now dragging tools out. They are trying to rebuild, and they think I’ll interfere.

I am only too happy to follow him out. He is too visibly worried to even try to act calm, but he seems to have a plan in mind, as he herds me down the street to wherever. I feel the need to break the silence, but my mind is blanking in Vietnamese. I try English instead because I did want to know his name and stop referring to him as a boy. “What is your name?” I carefully avoid contractions so as not to confuse him, feeling like an idiot. I shouldn’t, because he must feel like an idiot, walking with an American reporter in his shadow. He is not just a boy, I realize, as he turns around and looks at me reluctantly.

He is someone who knows too much, I can read it in his hesitation, and I wonder what kind of grand story he has. Maybe he is the oldest son in a family of eight, maybe his father is dead and he works instead of going to school—but that can’t be, because he is learning English—maybe he has been sent to jail for whatever reason, his eyes shine anxiously. He licks his lips and leaves his eagerness to please on his red lips. “Truong Huu Thuan,” he rattles out all at once. I’m not quite sure which part is his first name.

“Truong?” I try, but he shakes his head, and starts moving again.

“Thuan,” he clarifies. I try to say it, but the disapproving look he shoots over his shoulder at me shows that I mess up spectacularly. I’m sure he didn’t appreciate my try at his last name either.

“Where are we going?” He looks back at the sound of my voice, and I move my index and middle finger to simulate walking. It seems to take him off guard and he snorts with amusement that is only barely caught. I feel a bit ridiculous, knowing that I’m drawing looks from everyone on both sides of the street as well, but it’s better to be feeling ridiculous and having him laugh at me than it is to stay deadly quiet.

“Hungry?” he asks, and that eagerness is back, and it leaves his lips glistening again. I shake my head and tell myself to read his emotions off of another body part, and he looks a bit worried that I meant no.

“No! Hungry, yes!” I would feel horrified that my voice just cracked like a thirteen-year-old boy’s, but he’s not even bothering to hide his smile this time. I must be three years older than him, and counting down, but we’re mutually awkward and this is a way to accept it.

He leads me to a cart, not a proper restaurant at all, and while I sidestep a motorcycle heading for my ankle, he pulls back a stool at a low outdoor table that looks suspiciously like the one the little kids sit at during family reunions. I carefully say nothing and take a seat as well. There is shouting, and by the nods from the woman standing behind the cart, I assume that Thuan is ordering for us. I scrunch my eyebrows, wondering what exactly he’s ordering and hoping he’s not leaving me out. “Money?” he asks me, and I wonder why I’m surprised that he expects me to foot the bill.

Vietnamese money is worth very little in the face of American dollars, and being the ex-boy scout that I am, I always keep at least five dollars worth of the native currency on me. That’s probably enough to pay for whatever he’s ordered twenty times over, so I nod at his question. He nods at me once, looks back at the woman, and nods again. The food arrives fairly quickly afterwards.

I stare down at the bowl. Native cooking has always churned my stomach, though I am decidedly hungry. Mixing the dish, that looks very much like normal porridge, I wonder briefly at the pieces of gray meat I see in it. I look up to watch Thuan eating the meal calmly, looking as if he enjoys it thoroughly. I wonder if it’s the first decent meal he’s had in the while, as he licks his lips with relish. Stop looking at the lips, I berate myself, and then go back to remembering what the sergeant had taught me about the culture in the middle of Vietnamese lessons. Ah, yes, the Vietnamese just really enjoyed a good meal.

I finally work up enough courage to take a sip by the time he’s halfway done. After, of course, he spends a good five minutes working his porridge over to wait for me. Luckily, he looks more amused than anything else, and a little bit anxious to see my reaction. “Good,” I state a bit more bluntly than I mean to, hoping I don’t sound as surprised as I feel. The porridge does not taste like molten lava, the green bits floating about almost look fresh, and after taking a bite of the meat, I find myself thinking it’s actually pretty effective.

Of course, I don’t expect him to laugh at me telling him this, and it’s a bit more disorienting when he turns back and tells the woman what I said. She laughs affectionately, showing me the few teeth still in her mouth, and while I feel as if my small town sensibilities are being offended, I genuinely laugh at myself as she hits me on the back and goes on about something that I don’t understand. A smell purely for the older generation of Asia hits me, and it smells spicy and strong, but it is reassuring. When Thuan finally stops laughing, he looks back at me and smiles, “She say you cute.”

It is the first time he says something in English that he not confident in, and I’m glad he’s willing to let down his guard enough to try it. So glad, in fact, that I don’t say anything when they continue laughing about my blush. “What…?” I eventually ask when they quiet down, brandishing the meat. He finishes his, licks his lips again, and stares at the meat in deep thought. I suddenly wonder if I shouldn’t know.

He doesn’t know the word for it, so he juts his stomach out and gestures, but I can’t remember anything from high school biology. He frowns at me before he waves over the cook. She brings something to him that she keeps carefully hidden from me. He picks up the tongs and shows me the contents of the bowl, and I promptly drop the piece of stuffed pig intestines back into the bowl. They laugh at me, shaking their head at what are probably my cowardly American values. Yet, Thuan is kind enough, encouraging me to go back to eat it. “You eat when hungry,” he says, his pronunciation getting sloppier, and that relaxes me enough that I go back to ignoring what it is. It does taste good, after all.

After I finish, I pay and tip the woman who squeezes my arm tightly before waving us off. Thuan does not look so nervous anymore, and even though people are still staring at us, he seems confident enough to start a conversation. “So, you…” he makes the same scribbling gesture I did yesterday while trying to tell him I wrote.

“Write, yes,” I confirm, nodding just to overdo it. “News,” I explain further, pointing at a newsstand as we pass by, and trying to ignore the pitiful look of the man working it when he realizes I’m not going to buy anything.

Thuan nods, staring at me with some sort of newfound respect in his eyes. “I like it,” he explains, “the…” He makes the scribbling gesture again. I laugh.

“Stories?” I ask, putting my palms together to try and imitate the opening and closing of a book. He looks down at my hands and shakes his head, still staring at the place where my hands were when I drop them back to my sides.

“Poems.” I wonder if he looked that word up in English just because he wrote them, and I find myself endeared to him even more. I try to figure out how to ask him if I can read one when he suddenly stops in front of another cart. “Money,” he demands of me, and not knowing how much he needs, I give him the rest of it. He stares at me incredulously. He obviously thinks I’m insane. The man behind the cart seems to agree.

I shrug, hoping that giving him all my money won’t be a good reason for him to run off and leave me here. He seems too noble for that though, and I watch as he picks out a few coins in the midst of all the notes and buys us two coconuts.

Two whole coconuts, actually, split open at the top for us to drink from. There is a spoon included to gouge the coconut meat from the inside walls. I have never actually drunk coconut juice before, let alone in the actual coconut. He sips at it first, as if showing me that it’s safe. I feel like a dog trying to be trained. I take a drink, too. It is very good, and I tell him so, earning another smile. It is not really a thing worthy of a smile, as I would not be so against native food if what they served us at the camp were anything like coconuts and porridge. We sit down again, and he helps me get the meat off of the insides of the coconut. Somewhere in the middle, as he carefully slides another piece of meat into his mouth and licks his sticky fingers, I realize just how natural it seems to like these people. I am suddenly left wondering why everyone thinks the good sergeant is delusional and how my fingers got just as sticky as Thuan’s.

There are no napkins, as they are luxuries, and handkerchiefs do not help sticky fingers. I look down at my hands while Thuan laughs at me. I’m still trying to think of something to say to start up the conversation again, but I can’t think of anything. He does, however, even if the question floors me. “That girl?” he asks, and I look over to where he is with an over exaggerated look of confusion on my face. “You talk to her.”

Oh, oh, I remember. That’s right. “Yes, she is nice.” He goes back to biting his lip, but nods in agreement. “Are you…?” I ask, figuring now was just as good a time as any other to figure out what he is to her, but I don’t think he knows the meaning of the word boyfriend, and I don’t know its Vietnamese translation.

He completes the sentence for me though, “Her brother.” I breathe out a sigh of relief, and he stares at me strangely again. That explains why he was so protective, and it also gives me good reason not to make any strange comments about her in front of him. Not that I would be able to, with the language barrier and all. “You like her?” he asks me, and I nod and shrug. Hopefully, he doesn’t feel the need to punch me, although that doesn’t really strike me as being his style.

“You not know her.” Does he sound sad? He looks at me out of the corner of his eye before his gaze is redirected towards the ground again.

“I would like to?” I try to point out, hoping my tone is pathetic enough. If possibly, he only looks more depressed. I wonder if he understood me.

We make another stop, and he introduces me to sugar cane juice. I am skeptical, even though I stand there and watch as they run the sugar cane through the machine to make the juice. It just doesn’t compute. In the end, we get something that is more ice than liquid, but I take a sip quickly just so that he won’t have to treat me like a dog again. I make a happy sound of approval at the taste. Even better than everything else he’s had me to try today, and I try to vocalize that by adding on an overemphasized really to my good. He laughs and buys another glass for me.

It is a long time before we speak again, and that leaves me time to stare up at the darkening sky and think. Coming over here meant I already had my own imaginings and impressions of the Vietnamese, and Thuan doesn’t fit into them. He is just a teenager, sitting in a stool and leaning against a kiddy’s table while sipping at his drink until it makes that ridiculous slurping sound against the ice. He orders another one for himself.

He seems absolutely normal, although I’m not sure what his culture considers normal. I am sure that he is likeable, that he could probably change some people’s opinion about the whole commie sympathizer bit. It’s ridiculous, thinking about it now, that we refer to all of the natives as Vietcong. You never know whom to trust, the soldiers insist, but these are the victims. These are the underage boys who grow up too fast, who don’t trust anyone but their own adults, and thinking back to the man this morning, I’m not sure that’s really a great idea. I wonder for a brief moment if this is what happened to the sergeant. Was he whisked away by some boy—or even more fun, a girl—to try exotic food and talk about useless things for a day? Did he spend an afternoon watching kids play in the middle of the street, deftly moving out of the way of motorcycles, as they kept sneaking glances at him from the corner of their eyes like he was some very interesting animal on display? Did his guide casually knock their wrists together to ask him if he wanted more sugar cane?

I say yes and hope that the look I’m giving Thuan isn’t as pathetic as I think it is. If it is, he cleverly does not say a word, and goes back to looking up at the sky. I wonder what time he’s supposed to bring me back, or if he is not meant to do that at all.

“Soldier like girl here,” he tells me, nudging me with the new glass. Sneaking a look at the man behind us, I can see that he is only too glad to have us keep downing them.

“No American girls,” I explain, but he doesn’t seem to think it’s a valid reason. Of course it’s not, it’s just a cause of the effect. “They like your sister?” I guess at where he’s going to, and see him nodding.

“No… Ba,” he says, and assuming that he is not saying three, I figure he’s trying to tell me that he has no dad. “She no can leave. Americans… take girls…” he gestures into the great beyond, and I nod. One-night stands are vicious, they are cruel, and I can see why he did not want me near his sister. At this point, I’m not sure what I had planned to do with her once we had gotten somewhat closer.

“Culture,” Thuan mumbles dejectedly. It is probably another word he looked up just because it was important to him. I smile. “Viet… culture. You not know.” I figure the ‘you’ is directed at all Americans, but at the moment, I feel as if it’s shot right at me.

“… You know?” I counter half-heartedly, thinking back to the look of disapproval that the older man had given Thuan. I hadn’t thought much of it then, I still didn’t. I am very surprised when he scoffs at himself.

He looks over at me with wide, sincere eyes, and I wonder if the sugar cane is spiked. “No,” he says. He seems to be debating whether or not he should get another glass, which, if the drink is spiked, is probably not a good idea. He looks up at me abruptly and the action tears my eyes away from the glass. “You like my sister?” I don’t know why he’s asking me again. To torture me, I think, but he looks a bit too anxious for that.

“Yes.” I want to add on an, ‘I think so,’ but it would just complicate the sentence. He just nods, and turns back to his glass. He turns it over and over in his hands until the ice is half melted in the condensing mug. I suddenly remember that it is humid and that I’m sweating. I should be going back soon, but it seems rude to mention it to Thuan at the moment.

“Do you like…?” This time, when he doesn’t complete the sentence, I know it’s not because he doesn’t know the word. He’s pointing at himself, and I stare at him a bit in surprise. Do I like him? I nod. “Talk.” He sounds as if he’s desperate.

“Yeah, I like you,” I say almost immediately, and he smiles at me again. It still seems desperate, and I feel very lost all of a sudden.

“You say that… for you like sister?” His English is definitely getting sloppy; I try to tell myself, ignoring what he just said. I wonder if it would offend him too much if I point out that it should be ‘because’ in the middle of that and that should be a ‘my’ before sister.

His? His sister, and I wonder if he’s had another soldier lead him around before just because they really liked his sister. Maybe it wasn’t a soldier at all; maybe it was just a neighbor or a friend from school. Is that what he’s suspecting me of? “No.” It works its way out of my mouth before I really think, and it’s stern, it’s forceful—it is full of conviction. He smiles, and my stomach sinks, he doesn’t believe me.

He seems to know a way to test it though, as he grabs my arm and drags me to my feet again. He doesn’t let go as we walk down the street, and I notice that hardly anyone is out anymore. It’s dinnertime, and I wonder if he’ll be missed at home. He doesn’t seem to care or think about it, because we’re still walking further into the messy group of houses. I take the time to appreciate how nice it is outside at night. The streets still smell foul and with everything so dark you have no idea what it is you’re stepping in. Still, it is cooler and the sky is beautiful as it streaks with a million darker shades of color. It is as if it doesn’t want to let go of daylight.

Thuan won’t let go of me, even when he pauses for a moment at the foot of some stone stairs. I see green mildew hanging on the cement of the building, looking rather disgusting against the sickening blue paint. It’s all very normal here, but to me, it still seems demented. It is as if the whole country is just a terrible parody of a nation. This war is being fought over a horrible joke. I am being led up a flight of stairs because a boy who seems much too realistic for his setting is having some internal battle. Either that, or it’s prank the American day, and I wasn’t informed.

There is a tired looking woman there who I look away from because she seems much too real in this ridiculous blue house, and I try to ignore Thuan’s conversation with her. They seem to be arguing, or maybe bartering, as Thuan pays her after a while, and she slips him something before giving me an almost toothless grin. This is a terrible parody of something, all right, but I feel too sick to say anything when I get pulled into a room.

It is too dark to tell if it’s dirty. I hear the rustling of a mat, and can figure that there is no bed in this room. The Vietnamese generally don’t believe in beds, as it would be too hot and too easy to get bitten by whatever lived in the mattresses. Clammy hands reach out for me, and I’m surprised my hands aren’t as sweaty or cold as Thuan’s because I can guess at what’s coming. I’m surprised I am not running away.

I hear his mocking laugh, directed at himself again. I feel my hand against his chest, and I know how young he really is, because his heart is beating faster than mine is. His hands leave mine on his chest as he fumbles with something and lights a candle. I wonder how he found it, and then wonder how much of a safety hazard it is. I can barely see him by the glow of it, but I can see how nervous he is. He laughs again. “I… Not good Vietnamese boy,” he tells me, darting looks between the candle and me. I can’t see what he’s hiding in the hand farthest from me. I don’t want to know.

‘The Vietnamese are prudes,’ whisper the voices in my head. Those loud, booming, boasting voices that I really want to punch out at the moment. I don’t need to hear them; the loud beating of Thuan’s heart tells me this isn’t exactly a part of everyday life.

But it is, that is what this building is here for. An underage boy just led me to a Vietnamese whorehouse. Or, at the very least, an immoral hotel for wild sex acts. This is ridiculous.

Yet he is so utterly serious, scooting closer towards me as he unbuttons his shirt. I still don’t know why I’m not running yet, as I am no longer touching him anymore. He batted my hand out of the way, but is quick to replace it once he’s struggled to get his shirt off. I see freckles that dot the pale skin around his shoulders and upper back, probably the result of working in the student labor camps. They bring me into focus as I realize what all of this probably means to him. Extreme left-wing communism my ass, Vietnam is a very conservative country. Sleeping with a guy, an American reporter, someone who is at least five years older, is not taking things lightly. Thuan is absolutely serious.

I can’t even pronounce his name right.

“Why?” I ask him, my voice sounds a bit hoarse from all the shock and possibly a little from the pity. He seems to be content just lying on his back, the candle lighting only half of his face, both of his hands wrapped around the fingers of mine as it lies firmly against his chest.

“Man say to,” he tells me, a bit sadly. Oh, is all I can think, but he’s already started again. “And I like you. No Vietnamese culture.” No, none of that, I can’t judge him in that regard. It doesn’t seem like I need to either, as I can figure out that his neighbors probably know. If he weren’t shaking so much right now, I would think he’d done this before.

It’s at this point that I realize my hands are still sticky, and I hesitantly lift them and drop them back onto his chest. Each time, the sugar coating my fingers react with the sweat that his anxiety has brought him, and my fingers seem more and more reluctant each time to part from his skin, hovering just above the pale chest that is quickly being won over by a healthy flush. I am hypnotized, stuck in the feeling of surrealism. It does not register that his fingers are pulling at mine until the soft texture of his skin turns into something hotter, wetter, and I wonder if my eyes glaze over like his do as his lips work their way around each individual finger, his tongue darting around them. His cheeks are dabbed in flustered pink as his tongue works the sugar off of my fingers. By the time he reaches the last pinky, I have brought my other hand up and offer him that.

The room is dirty and sex will only make it dirtier, it will make Thuan dirtier to lie there on the floor and take this. I cannot deny the pull downwards that makes all thought rush in the general direction, but I cannot imagine doing this to his nervous smile and lips that are wet again. He is still so eager to please.

That eagerness is what lowers me from where I sit next to him so that I can brush my lips against his. It is a completely new exercise in kissing, though I find it ironic that I take more care with him than I do with any other girl I’ve kissed before. He cannot go home with bruised lips that betray what he says to me in this room, but I cannot hold myself back while lost in thoughts, and by the time he gasps away from me, his lips have already gained a delicately shaped pout. I kiss him again, torn between drowning in the parody that feels suspiciously like awkward teenage limbs and feeling disgusted with myself for losing any self-control I assumed I had so easily.

It is an inner battle that I plot on his body, wondering whether I should continue kissing him so that I can run my tongue slowly over his teeth again, slowly building the confidence to break away, or whether I should do what instinct tells me and go for his neck. He arches his back off of the floor at every sensation that jolts down through him, and it exposes his neck at all angles. I lick at it in between breaths, drawing strangled noises from the back of both of our throats. I make my decision when he finally manages to catch my eye, and let myself bury my face into the smooth curve of his neck before moving down.

My lips hover over his collarbone, and he holds his breath as my tongue begins to wet an area just below the angle. He doesn’t even know my name.

I bite down and feel him arch up more than he has before. I place my hand on his waist to steady him, and press a kiss against his temple. “I’ll go only so far, and no more.” There is confusion in his eyes, but what can’t I see in there at this point? I don’t mean for him to understand me, the act of vocalizing it being more for my benefit.

The ease at which I treat him, easing his shirt up and everything else down, makes me wonder if I have ever dreamed of this to be acting so calm. No, but it is the look in his eyes that I read as trust which makes me try so hard to play along. In the morning, the parody will melt away and I will go back to being a reporter. For now, I let him spread something slightly thicker than normal liquid over my hand and then drift lower.

He bites into his bottom lip to keep him from saying anything, and so all that can be heard are pathetic, wanting sounds that sound high pitched with begging. His knee is digging into my side now, and I am forced to move between his legs as his hands reach out to bunch up the front of my clothes. I smile at him as he kisses me—his black eyes seem so sincere. “Your name?” he asks me, panting. His voice sounds tired from the effort of keeping it down.

I lean down and whisper it into his ear as I start running my hand over him and then firmly stroking. The awkwardness of the situation has finally hit me. I ignore it and focus on the way he has thrown his head to the side so that his neck stands out enticingly in the dark. The candlelight illuminates it beautifully and casts his face in darkness. This is not difficult to do, and is even easier to lose myself in. Thuan is a rather strong attracting force. I bury my grin in the nape of his neck and laugh. He shivers with the sensation and finally starts bucking into my hand.

I slow my pace and listen to the low whine that dies in his throat due to obedience. Straightening as I sit back, I am surprised to see that he does the same. Lifting himself up on his palms as his hands fumble in the dark over my arms and chest. He presses a kiss to the corner of my lips before his hands drop. I wonder how vivid his dreams are of these things.

He works himself into a situation where there is almost no room between our seats. Both of his legs rest over mine, and we face each other awkward before he finally moves for buttons and buckles. The fact that I’m holding my breath doesn’t register. The thought just doesn’t occur until I feel warm fingers start manipulating me to lie a little lower with my legs just slightly farther apart. He leans down with me, initiating kisses that leave him too anxious to continue. It reminds me that I should be doing something with my hands, but he is already on his knees, straddling my thigh. I whisper words of encouragement that he can’t possibly understand into his ear as he quickens the pace considerably.

The rhythm breaks and he is left panting and gasping for air. I kiss the corner of his mouth as his hand moves up to rub at his throat. He seems surprised that it hurts, and I feel honored to be the only one to have heard him scream. Not as honored as I am, of course, when he starts moving his hand again, biting his bottom lip as he looks at me through his eyelashes. He is embarrassed when I draw him into my arms, occasionally losing dexterity when he moves his fingers in certain ways. By the time I’ve gotten him close enough to bury my face into his neck and count the freckles on his shoulder, he realizes he is close enough to brace himself against the floor and move himself backwards and up so that my poor body thinks it’s going anywhere further for the night.

Thuan seems surprised when my body gives in there and my hands find his chest to lay him back. I keep my lips tightly closed so that no sounds escape until they’re pressed to his neck, where I can feel the tingle of a pulse that draws my tongue out to lick it. His body is flushed, from what I can see, and whether that is due to the fact that we’re both trembling or if it’s because of the undeniable evidence of what we’ve just done sticking to his thighs, I feel as if it is not my right to ask.

“Sinh loi,” I say, shrugging off my jacket so that he can use it to clean up. I wonder if the launderers ask a lot of questions.

He is shaking as he takes it, and steals glances from under half lidded eyes at me. I don’t know if he’s disappointed or horrified. At this point, I’m just hoping he doesn’t push me in front of a motorcycle. I look at the candle while he starts dressing again, the warm light throwing strange shadows on him. It looks as if there are more angles to him than there actually are, and it makes his body look more mature that what I’ve just had against me. I do not notice when he lifts my chin and smiles at me as if he is mocking me vaguely. I notice that is something rather inherent in the culture. “Em yeu anh.”

I can guess at what it means, but I don’t plan on skipping ahead of myself. I stand up and he takes my hand. We leave, pass the woman who is too real against her fantastical blue house and ignore the laugh she aims at us. We talk all the way back, as if nothing has happened, about poetry and languages. He even mentions that his sister I was so enamored with is pregnant with an American soldier’s child, and if it weren’t for how serious the issue was, I would have laughed at his gestures.

“She go to America,” he explains to me, sadness in his voice. “Bad brother to let her.” He is gesturing at himself again. The whole thing gives me an idea, though, and I stare intently at the numbers on the side of his house as he breaks away from me. There are still men working on a temporary shelter for those whose houses were burned down. They stare at him with suspicion as he unlocks his gate and closes it behind him. He leaves a crack open, staring at me through it, and I glance at him before looking at the numbers again. He closes the gate and locks it with a click as soon as he sees me walking down the street. I note the name of that, as well.

I return to the hut startled that the light is still on, and see the sergeant sitting there with a smile as he looks through the Vietnamese newspaper. We stay up the whole night, me asking him questions about everything from Thuan’s words to the address, and he answers every one as if he were expecting them.

The sergeant only asks one question the whole night, and that is, “So, what was the name?”

I know nothing about Vietnamese naming conventions, and I don’t know if Thuan’s name could be read as a girl’s. I answer truthfully, however, feeling no need to hide myself. We’ll both be classified as commie sympathizers, and we’ll both be proud of it. “Truong Huu Thuan,” I reply, wincing at my accent again. Thuan’s name really is beautiful, if only I could pronounce it.

“He’s very submissive, then? Smooth, really easy?” I’m gawking at him as he laughs at me, telling me how priceless my face is. With the audacity of what he just said, I’m not even surprised that he knew Thuan is a boy. “Don’t get dirty thoughts, now. That’s just what his name means.”

I am torn between asking what kind of horrible parent would name their child that when the other question wins. “How do you know that?”

A reminiscing smile comes over his face as he leans back in the chair. “Because I laughed at it for four hours while a flustered Vietnamese soldier tried to convince me that it was a beautiful name. Most useless four hours of his life, I never said it wasn’t.”

There is a sense of revelation, but I push it aside with the casual question, “Thuan is a pretty common name, right?” He shrugs enigmatically.

I file a request for Thuan’s immigration to the United States after a quick letter to him asking him whether he wanted it or not. It had been with shaky hands that he had replied yes, but it had been enough for me to throw myself into it. I did manage to leave Vietnam with a reputation, and have enough prestige and abilities to support myself and someone else in the tidy apartment that I rent.

We write to each other over time, and I watch as he works at his English and improves. He becomes more confident and his sentences evolve into something more complex. There is life in his writing that comes from someone who genuinely loves the art, even if all of his letters speak of generally normal things. I keep two of his letters in my wallet at all times. One of them is a normal letter that goes on and on until the end, in which he dramatically states that he has been accepted to medical school, but will continue writing of course.

The other letter is plain and has a total of two sentences. He wrote it back when he was still mixed in the basics of the language, and it is with broken English that he tells me, “My sister drown going to America.” A little lower down is a crooked line that seemed strangled out of the pen. “My niece name is was Jessica Hanh Caraway.” The ink bleeds thick on the ‘was’, and I have always wondered whether he specifically looked that up.

I do not get to ask him, because it is something you can only ask in person, and the next time I see him must be on American ground. It takes thirteen years for his immigration papers to be approved, and I spend the three weeks after the notification comes talking to the sergeant who has a job lined up for Thuan, begging for reassurance that not everyone dies on the trip to America. The sergeant comforts me—though he is no longer a sergeant but is still the most reliable man—and reminds me that Thuan is flying here. There will be no boat to break apart under his feet.

It still feels surreal, as if the sick parody that was Vietnam is imported in with the immigrants. I fidget and reread his letters. I am holding my breath as his plane lands. He is the first one out of the door while everyone else is holding back. Some of them will be back soon, ready to run back to their countries because different is worse than a razed culture. He looks at them with the sympathy of someone who has been in their place not more than a few days ago, and I find myself scoffing at the memory of the bars and how we accused each other of the same thing.

I maintain that I fell for the sugar cane.

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