The War Tourist
one word to you, to
you and your children:
learn the flowers
Gook was the best known, but slope, chuck, slant, and dink were popular too, according to Jamie’s friends. After he died and his friends came back when their time was up, they regularly gathered on Saturday afternoons at their childhood friend’s house and smoked pot with his mom. Jean had been a teenaged mother, and at forty she still fit into the small-size jeans she wore in high school. Many years later she believed that those Saturday afternoons where she was considered hip enough and young enough to be included in their youthful mourning, both for their fallen friend but also for their own destroyed youth, were the only thing that kept her from taking her own life.
She made large quantities of unfussy food, the kind that young men ;ate in quantity without thinking — huge pots of spaghetti and meatballs, casseroles, mac and cheese, and plates of tacos. When the despair was especially acute so that she didn’t make it out of bed till noon, she ordered in pizzas. There was always plenty of beer in the refrigerator (even though, ironically, some of the boys were still technically underage to drink it), so much beer that the liquor store clerk stopped saying, “Having a party?” when she came in for the fifth Friday in a row. Stoned, drunk, and heartbroken, Jean stared into the tender, unlined faces of her son’s friends and tried to guess what the experience of war had done to them in that place called “the Nam,” a dark place of constant threat and treachery and lack of return. The death report said Jamie had died in a place with the poetic name, Plain of Reeds. Amongst themselves, the boys talked about traps and snares, Bouncing Betties, the perfidious South Vietnamese soldiers, and the doll-faced women with razors hidden in their snatches. Once they realized that nothing shocked Jean, they spoke freely in front of her, talked of street vendors conking out puppies to cook them, baggies of heroin for only a dollar, and child prostitutes who barely came up to their waists. Just right, they joked grimly, and Jean, dizzy with fright, agreed that she wouldn’t have cared if the whole place had been bombed back to the Stone Age, bulldozed flat and concreted over. She would trade the whole country to have her son back.
That summer of mourning came to an abrupt end in September when one of the boys — a skinny, undersized boy named Sam — hung himself with a dog leash in his father’s garage. The macabre detail of the leash could have lent itself to grisly jokes but instead the group broke up. After all they had been through, they collectively couldn’t bear this betrayal, the fact that none of them had sensed its potential, much less been able to stop it. That although they may have escaped with their lives, apparently the poison of the place had stowed away with them, came back home and thrived. Shit, one of them said in a final gathering, if being messed up is a sign then we should all be in the loony bin.
Jamie’s dog tags had never been recovered, but when Jean helped Sam’s parents clear out his belongings for Goodwill and saw they were throwing out his tags, she asked for them. Sam’s mother narrowed her eyes appraisingly at Jean but then shrugged her shoulders.
The suicide ended not only the meetings but also the camaraderie between the members of the group. One by one Jean received news that they had picked up their lives and moved on, which was in equal parts gratifying and devastating to hear. One got a job as a mechanic; one went to New York to join a heavy-metal band; three went to college on the G.I. bill and eventually marched against the war. None of them stayed in touch with her. She couldn’t blame them, really, because as they met girls and fell in love and pursued careers, how could they risk the taint of death? What was she, after all, but the mother of a boy who never came back? For their purposes, she was just a reminder of a time they would rather forget — the possibility that if the fates had been different, they too might already be forgotten.
Twenty-odd years later, Jean would sometimes be sitting at a barstool late at night when one of these boys walked in, alone or with friends, only now they were no longer boys; they had unforgivably become middle-aged, with added pounds, receding hairlines, and wrinkles. Jean only heard from a few of them in mass, Christmas-letter mailings that chronicled marriages, births, and triumphs of their embodied lives. By now, Jean had her own wrinkles and gray hair, but the pain was still youthful, still fresh in her, and when she saw any of them, she shrank back into the glum corners of the bar, hurriedly paid her bill and left.
She had gone through three husbands and two abortions, and as she told her therapist, the only thing that seemed to permanent was the drink that she increasingly relied upon to get through her days. It all came to a grim climax when she was speeding in her Impala to an afternoon Christmas party at the office where she did part-time secretarial work. Already drunk and late, she glided through a red light, missing a child, and came to a rest on some woman’s posh lawn. She didn’t remember a thing till the cops woke her up, still strapped in the driver’s seat. Her license was revoked, and she had to wake up hours earlier than usual to ride a bus to work.
Standing in the dark at those bus stops, sitting on the soiled vinyl, breathing in the defeated air of others who for one reason or another had also fallen through the cracks, she reveled in the idea that her punishment was deserved, meted from above. After all, what kind of mother allows her son to go off to war, doesn’t encourage him to do anything possible to save his life?
Part of the sentencing to avoid jail time involved mandatory counseling. Her already therapist, Elaine, would now be paid by the state because Jean had lost her job, could not bear the two-hour, zigzagging bus commute that was only a twenty-minute car ride. Jean resented that the powers-that-be did not see her time was more valuable. Now Elaine did away with the soft civilian touch of privately funded payment; she became punitive. She had been two years behind Jean at UCLA, had worse grades and fewer friends, and now in a sadistic twist of fate, the tables had turned. But Jean had purposely sought her out because she had a good reputation and the additional humiliation of reversed fortunes seemed somehow just.
Elaine had gray hair in a practical bob and dispassionate blue eyes. A woman who had not been out on a date in a very long time. Jean guessed she was single because of the pictures of cats on her desk.
“Were you ever married?” Jean asked.
“Yes. Once. Briefly. But we’re here to talk about you.”
“I’m bored with me.”
“I don’t think you’re getting over Jaime’s death.”
Jean hated her for resurrecting her son’s name like that, as if she knew him, which she hadn’t. “Have you ever had a child?”
“Then we can’t talk.”
“That’s time in prison if we can’t reach some kind of quantifiable progress.”
“Once you get a certain age, there are things you no longer recover from.”
The flight from Los Angeles was a kind of purgatory, Jean cramped into coach for seventeen hours. In fitting tribute, she had sold her car for the money for the trip. She had packed minimally, as if going to prison. The only ornament she allowed herself the dog tags that had transmuted over the years to stand not only for Sam and Jamie but for all of the boys lost one way or another. Her seatmates were two Vietnamese men who spoke in the guttural, popping sound of their own language, only acknowledging Jean when she passed over drinks or trays of food at the stewardess’s prodding. Jean shrank away from them, from everyone, from the whole ordeal of the trip, wanting to turn around at every juncture, except that once idiotic Elaine made the proposal to the judge, it suddenly became the only thing that would suffice. Jean would be sacrificed for these do-gooders.
She was appalled as she leaned over the two men to get a view of the final descent to Tan Son Nhut airport. The surrounding buildings looked provisional, rickety. The place looked generally unsafe. Jetlagged, she had the solipsist’s fantasy that the assault of the city on the senses —the hot, humid air; poisonous blue diesel fumes; tumescent roar of a million motorbikes, the cries of the pent-up crowd waiting to get at the disembarking passengers — was aimed directly at her. It occurred to her that this was a mild version of what Jamie must have felt — a shock to realize this was the last city he had known. She was ￼￼￼￼not going to war, she was not hated, or for that matter even noticed by the pouring crowds around her.
The drive into District 1 was harrowing. The hotel van doing a slow rocking motion, forward and off, forward and off, into the parting sea of motorbikes that never ended. Grown men in business suits, young women wearing high-heels and face masks, mothers with babies bundled in front of them. A strange kind of grace that no one got hurt, not a single accident, a thousand close calls, Jean gripping the bottom of her seat. Eyes stinging, throat burning, she left her luggage, fled inside the hotel, happy for the threadbare attempts at Westernizing, the cold air and rare luxury of empty, clean space. Collapsing on her bed, she slept twelve hours straight, and woke at dawn. Out the window tender lavender clouds cupped the tall, soiled buildings across the square. If she squinted just so, could she imagine it the way it had appeared to Jamie all those years ago?
She stood shivering in the artificially cold air and looked down into the street. Vendors were up and hustling, their low plastic tables and stools full. Others hurried with filled baskets. Braziers flared. Already at this hour the press of motorbikes, the soft percussion of horns. What had her son made of such a place?
Hours later she ate breakfast in the hotel restaurant. In Europe on her hasty, short-lived honeymoons, she always left the hotels in order to get to know the place better, but here she had no such desire. She gladly ate her eggs and drank her coffee, even as some Asian guests around her ate from steaming bowls of pho, noodle soup. Before she was done, a young man in jeans, T-shirt, and white sneakers approached the table.
“Are you Mrs. Martin?”
She couldn’t help the fact that she cringed before she turned to look up. “Jean.”
“I am your guide, An.”
He was large for a Vietnamese, chubby, with broad forehead and slightly bulging eyes. She was frankly disappointed. She had imagined a scrappy little Vietcong taking her around. Or at least an old man with a wispy beard resembling Ho Chi Minh.
“I’ll get the bill.”
“No hurry. Take your time.”
She had signed up for a day tour of the city. Grudgingly she asked, “Will you join me for a cup of coffee?” She didn’t want to be forced into small talk.
“I’ll wait in the lobby.”
He was gone before she could decide if he was rude. She was only halfway through her breakfast and hadn’t even glanced at the English-language paper. So she did just as he asked and took her time. Deliberately, she ate and read, and although she could not get the feeling of hurry away from her, she did not emerge from the dining room for an hour. Her dime, and still it was unpleasant, the sensation of having someone waiting for her. Expecting him to be anxious, she found him at the concierge desk, chatting up the pretty clerks.
“Already done! You eat fast.” He and the girl both laughed, and Jean inexplicably found herself blushing. Did they hate her, she wondered, she and her country that had caused such suffering? Did they begrudge herding her around for her precious dollars?
Outside they got into a hired car and made their way to Independence Palace. In the closed space of the car, she could smell cigarettes on him.
“All Americans want to go there,” he said. “I wonder, do you find the building pleasing?”
“Do you enjoy the style of design?”
“I don’t know. I never thought about it.”
“Myself, when I become rich, I wish to build a house in the French style. The building before this one was French, very elegant.”
They drove down the long boulevard to the palace, but Jean felt blinkered, confused by An’s questions. The building, the ornate gates and fencing, had been one of the final images of the war, years after Jamie’s death — a slow, ugly burn with the tanks crashing through, and the red flag with its gold star unfurled from the second story balcony. As they walked up the long driveway, she felt dazed, the jetlag making everything take on a surreal quality. So improbable that the building still existed, that it didn’t belong to the same unreality as a movie set.
Inside, the boxy furniture, the big clumsy telephones, all preserved from the fifties and sixties, reminded her of her childhood and teenage￼￼￼￼￼ years. She was Alice falling in a time warp. In each crowded stateroom, An stopped and loudly recited his rehearsed history as if he were speaking to a huge group and not just Jean. She was itching to move on, to get it over with. Far from being historical, these rooms simply made her feel contemporary, and she imagined her forty-year-old self moving through them. In the ceremonial chambers, the heavy carpets were fraying; the wiring looked ancient and a fire hazard. Had so much time really passed? The view out from the infamous balcony was benign. The grounds sleepy and dull, beds dug up around the central fountain. The boulevard outside the gates hummed along oblivious. How could this be the locus of so much pain?
Outside on the street, An offered her a cigarette, which she primly refused, and then lit up his own and moved cheerfully along the sidewalk between vendors. “The traditional breakfast of the Vietnamese is pho, but it can also be rice, or even a baguette with meats inside. Less expensive.” Her lack of interest was palpable.
“Sometimes the people come in from the country to do business. They stay in a micro-hotels, or they rent a chair at one of the vendor’s for the night.”
Jean stared at the woman stirring something in her pot, the men smoking as they watched. She supposed he was giving her his hard-luck story to garner a bigger tip. When Jamie was young, she had worked as a janitor nights to support him.
“We are a poor country. But now many people get rich. I play lottery every day.”
“What will you do with the money if you win?” Jean felt eyes on her but could not tell their intent.
“I buy a Rolls Royce Silver Phantom!”
“That’s a fancy car.”
“What kid of car you drive?”
He made a slight face. “Safe car.”
As they drove and walked through the city, Jean glimpsed beautiful blank-faced girls, heard their little bird voices. Had a girl like that possibly made love to her son, and if so, had she been kind in her mercenary way? Or had he been relegated to one of the plain-faced ones, the ones who had to do anything to survive now relegated to backbreaking labor? Ones who perhaps hated him? Jamie had been drafted at nineteen. Although he had a girlfriend, the relationship had been recent. Jean couldn’t be sure if he was still a virgin when he went to Vietnam. It didn’t seem fair to ask the girl such a question after his death.
A street woman in her conical hat forced in Jean’s hand a ball of puffed rice, hoping she would taste it and buy a bagful, but she wasn’t going to fall for that. Jean dumped it on the ground as she walked away. The woman glared and spat words that clearly not good.
An waited for her at the corner of a busy thoroughfare and began to cross the street that was in full roar of traffic. Jean stood paralyzed, looking for a break in the flow, while Vietnamese casually walked around her, talking and eating as they waded to the other side. She took a first step and saw a motorbike headed straight for her. As she jumped forward, two others swerved at the last moment to avoid hitting her. A small truck stopped and hit its horn, a fluttering, bleating sound. An came back.
Jean was shamed, red-faced. “I can’t do this.”
“Hold onto my arm.” Patiently, he cradled her elbow in his, as you would a convalescent. “Just walk across. Slowly. Give them time to adjust. You hurry — ” He let go of her arm to slap his palms together.
Grabbing his arm back, unable to look at the traffic bearing down on them, Jean allowed An to steer them through. Besides the sweat from the heat, Jean’s back and underarms were soaked by panic. Each time she made it to the other side of the street felt like a small miracle.
At the pagoda, there were men and women with stacks of cages crowded with little sparrows so tightly they could hardly move.
“What are those for?” Jean asked, dreading it was another kid of local snack.
“For merit. You pay, and they are released.”
Jean longed to empty her wallet, buy all the cages and release them. With the idea of giving these creatures their freedom, she experienced an overwhelming relief, but then she had a thought. “What happens to them?”
An gave her his sneaking smile. “The vendors have them trained.￼￼￼￼￼￼￼ They fly away and then go home. Like the pigeon.”
Of course. The whole country rigged to make a buck. A scam. Jean gave the birds a last hopeless glance.
“I want to go back to the hotel.”
“What about the temple?” An looked confused.
“I don’t care.”
“Have I done something wrong?”
At the hotel, An lit a cigarette with nervous, fumbling fingers. Jean felt she should somehow make amends for her behavior. “A headache.”
“Good,” An said, relief on his face. “I come back in a few hours.”
“I’ll call you when I feel better.”
She did not call, but spent the afternoon trying to book a flight back home. She then called Elaine, at home, in the middle of the night.
“What did you think this would accomplish?”
Jean found the record in her head was always directed toward Elaine, and it surprised her when she realized that to Elaine, she was just another patient.
“I hate it here. Do you understand?”
“Jean,” Elaine said, so quiet and sad that there was nothing left but to hang up the phone.
The airline change fees were impossible, and Jean resigned herself to spending the week holed up in her hotel. She fell into bed and woke at midnight, wide-awake and strangely calm and collected, as if she had thrown off the first shock of travel and acclimated the slightest degree. She was starving. Room service had closed, and she decided to dress and go ask the front desk what the possibilities were. A family- style diner was only two blocks away and served all night. Her new resilience started to falter as she peered into the murky dark outside the hotel, unlit by streetlights, but she was too embarrassed in front of the encouraging staff to sulk back to her room.
She plunged out onto the dim sidewalks, lit only by storefronts. Unlike American cities, the streets there were never abandoned at night. Vendors did a brisk post-midnight business, and animated conversations erupted all around her. She felt reassured by the crowds, and the cover of darkness made her feel slightly less conspicuous. At the diner, she squinted in the bright, fluorescent light. She was shown a table in the middle of the room: the only foreigner, the only single person at a table in a sea of packed tables. Not knowing if the water was safe, she pointed at a bottle of beer to drink, although she didn’t need the complication of alcohol. Not able to read the menu, she pointed at dishes at other tables. When the food came, she ate so quickly she hardly tasted it. The waitress, amused, showed her the right bowl to dip her spring rolls in. Fish sauce dribbled off her chin. Food slipped off her chopsticks. When people at surrounding tables stared, she lifted her beer at them in a toast and drank a sip. Then another. Ended up ordering a second bottle.
Feeling proud of herself, Jean barreled out of the restaurant after paying in the local currency that resembled monopoly money, confidently turning left when she should have turned right, ending up at a cul-de-sac just as it began to rain. People covered themselves in plastic ponchos and rode their bikes. Tables were pushed under awnings. Everyone else, including Jean, went on as if there were no rain. Lost in a maze of streets, she was too scared to ask for directions, figuring no one would understand her anyway. After an hour of what should have been a ten-minute walk back, she found a policeman who understood not a word she said. She took out a piece of stationery from the hotel and showed him the name, and he impatiently pointed back in the direction she came. It couldn’t possibly be a single street back to her hotel, she had crossed so many, and horrified, she found herself crying. She shouldn’t have drank that second beer. The policeman forced over a cyclo driver and had a heated conversation with him as if he had caused her problem. Ten minutes later, a soaked Jean was deposited back on her hotel doorstep. Shamed, she gave the driver a tip that must have amounted to a month’s wages.
The next morning when she went down for coffee, there was An. “Are you ready for the rest of the tour?”
“No. That’s okay.”
“But you paid for it.” ￼
“It doesn’t matter.”
“I take you shopping — silk, marble, lacquer.”
“I didn’t come here to shop.”
She put her hand on her collarbone. Her T-shirt covered the dogtags that she was loathe for An to discover. She did not want to be pigeonholed into one of the bereaved. A war tourist. But he seemed despondent, and she had to wonder if this would show up as a black mark against him. Since the country had opened only a few years before, there were rumors that tour guides reported to the government. Maybe her erratic behavior would cause him trouble.
“Fine,” she said. “Let’s go.”
Predictably, An led her right back to where they had left off — the pagoda. Jean refused to even glance at the cages of birds but went straight inside.
The courtyard had large urns the size of oil barrels, filled to the brim with sand and planted with bundles of incense. Instead of flowers, the stems gave off trailing bits of smoke into the air. Jean took off her shoes and wandered the interior, contemplated the altars filled with Buddhas, watched a monk reciting prayer from a thick book while beating in time with a drum. The sound vibrated through her. When she came out, An was in negotiation with an old woman as he wrote out a list on a long, red-edged billet.
“I’m making an offering. Paper money, paper jewels and car, paper house. A big coil of incense that burns for three weeks.”
“I thought that stuff was just for the tourists.”
Overhead Jean now noticed the whole ceiling covered with the big coils, and attached to each a red-edged card. Imperceptibly, a slow snowfall of ash was floating through the air, dusting all the surfaces underneath, including herself, she realized, with a small spasm of revulsion. She quickly moved to the open courtyard.
“Sorry, just one more minute.”
“Take your time. I’d like to rest.” Jean went to a back wall and sat on a bench. Despite the traffic she could hear over the wall, inside the complex it was peaceful. Lean dogs scavenged around the bushes. She had been told that the grounds were a safe haven for them. It was so quiet that when An came up, she startled.
“We can go.”
Jean was reluctant to break the spell of the quiet by leaving. She tried to stall.
“Do you really believe in all that stuff?”
An sighed and sat down. “I didn’t much at first, but now more so. Last night my wife called. She is staying in the country with my parents. She said her baby sister woke her in the middle of the night and demanded to have our bedroom. She said my wife is now married and has baby, while she has nothing.”
“How old is the sister?”
He shrugged. “She die at two years old of malnourishment. This is right after the war. Late seventies. Anyway, my wife does not know what to do. The fortuneteller tells her to make offering.”
Jean nodded and looked off at the angling trails of smoke. She did not know what to be more shocked by — the offhanded mention of starvation or the occurrence of ghosts or the coexistence of both in the same breath.
“Why did you come to Vietnam?” An asked.
Jean was less offended by the intrusiveness of the question than she might have been. An regularly asked personal questions: the size of her house, what car she drove, what did she do, how much did she earn. He was equally forthcoming about himself, even though Jean was squeamish about getting so much information.
“I came,” Jean said, “because I liked travel. It seemed an interesting place to visit.”
That evening as she sat in yet another restaurant alone while An disappeared, she felt the first rumble in her intestines. By the time she was back at the hotel, it was all she could do to rush to the bathroom before her insides exploded. She left a message that she was ill at the front desk for An; they would have to reschedule the trip to the delta. She resolutely stayed inside her room all day, kept the windows sealed and the air-conditioning cranked on, ordered a club sandwich and fries. She watched CNN because she was tired of not understanding the soft, guttural sighing language that refused to reveal itself to her.
The next morning she was pale but resigned, her purse stuffed with toilet paper from the room and a large box of Pepto-Bismol tablets￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼ that she popped like mints. The country had ambushed her despite her precautions, her careful diet, her avoidance of salad and ice and bodily fluids. All night long there had been a deep, strange ache in her gut. Panicked, she swallowed a triple dose of Cipro, antibiotic, that she had brought with her. Now everything looked suspicious—the seals on the bottled water, the doneness of the eggs. She entirely gave up butter and meat, ate dry toast for breakfast.
An sat up front with the driver and periodically turned in his seat to talk to her: English, Vietnamese, English, like a tennis match. He now smoked inside the car, despite her repeated coughs. With polite concern, he asked what she had eaten that made her so ill, then, sadist, proceeded to describe his favorite meal: duck organs covered in fresh duck blood. Jean thoughtfully chewed on her Pepto tablets and nodded, pretending he wasn’t getting to her.
Riding along the bumpy shoulder of a highway under construction, Jean watched as the gray dust coated everything: the shacks, the ground, the murky water of the paddies, the gaunt hides of the grazing water buffalo. Piles of ashy jackfruit the size of skulls lay by the side of the road. Young girls wearing school uniforms of white ao dais pedaled their bicycles, inches away from the front bumper of the car, their black hair tied into long ribbons down their backs. Impossible to look so pristine in such a place. Jean looked like crap — sweaty, frizzy haired, skin tinged a greenish pallor.
They got on the boat to the floating market. She swayed getting on and joked to An that he would have to dive in and rescue her if she fell overboard.
“I can’t swim,” he said.
She studied him, wondering how he could spend his days touring on the water and yet choose to remain helpless, so at mercy to the elements.
The fresh air and the smooth gliding of the boat revived her. But the sunshine was wasted on her. Love so long gone from her life. Dismissed. And yet. She observed the shanties on stilts, families going about their life, using the river for washing, laundry, toilet, everything except drinking. A boat passed, a motorized skiff selling pineapples with two teenaged girls at the front, bent over the side, washing their hair, splashing a cup of water over and over their heads. Pure joy and freedom. When the girls caught Jean looking they laughed, threw back their wet hair and shook it in the wind, waving their hands. Jean’s eyes stung — what could she do but wave wildly back?
The week was over. She packed for the airport, taking stock of her mood regularly, as if taking her temperature: she was the same, unchanged, sealed tight, like a nut firmly packed in its shell. What had Elaine expected? When An picked her up, he suggested the war museum instead of the scheduled botanical gardens. She had heard about this stop, the one-sided propaganda by the communists, but so what? She was leaving in hours. “Bring it on.”
Groups of tourists ranged through the building’s three floors and its inner courtyard. An stayed outside to smoke. Young Vietnamese women guides in flowered ao dais waited around like ushers. Some
sat in chairs, some used the phones, most stood in gossiping groups. Jean buzzed through the displays of weapons and bombs. Check. She glanced at the pictures that everyone from the time recognized from the front pages of Time and Life. Jean had the impression that the museum felt it was showing something new. There were gruesome pictures thrown in, inflammatory stuff that had obviously not had broad coverage because of the nature of the material, as if you could sanitize war. Even in current times it was considered anathema to show the faces of one’s own dead soldiers. How do you tell that story? Many, many pictures of the devastation to the cities and countryside, the requisite gore, the stacked bodies of My Lai. She was starting to feel glazed over with the despair of history. She passed the infamous jars of deformed fetuses in formaldehyde — a voyeuristic crowd around it precluded any kind of private response — ghoulish.
The last room she came to was for watching documentaries —the center was filled with chairs like a theatre — but an exhibit by an English photographer was hanging on the walls. No one was in this part of the museum so Jean plunged in to get away from the crowd. A large poster in black had the outline of Vietnam in white. Inside South Vietnam were white scratches that showed the spray patterns of flights dousing Agent Orange during operation Ranch Hand. The poster was like a photo negative, the scratches so thick in areas to turn them to small blizzards of whiteness, a reverse negative. Jean leaned closer￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼ and saw the heaviest activity was in the area called Plain of Reeds. Jean reeled back, walked in a somnambulist’s pace the rest of the room. Land as infertile as moonscape. Villagers wading in paddies so contaminated nothing could live in them. Picture after picture of disfigured bodies, mutilated generations. The sear unbearable. She clenched her jaw, tried to stop the thing that was pushing inside her, that had been there all along, all these weary years. They had all been lied to.
A mother lying in the maternity ward after giving birth — eyes haunted. The next picture, her twisted baby who died the next day. Dated 1990. So the death had not stopped with the war, but thrived. If Jamie had lived, perhaps his children, too, would have belonged on this wall. The current of pain that ran through Jean was electrical. On a ranch as a young girl, she had grabbed a hot-wired fence by accident, and it was the same grabbing, shuddering pull. She yanked on the chain of the dog tags, flung them away from her as if they burned. The water that streamed down her face had nothing to do with her. Sorrow pounded through her body as if she were mere conduit. Trembling, shaking her apart. Any minute she felt sure she would break.
A crowd formed outside the room —curious, eager. Among them, troubled An. But he could not enter because the young women in their flowered ao dais had blocked off the entrance. A group stood around the chair Jean had collapsed into. Although her eyes were closed, she smelled their scent of flowers, their scent of burnt wood. How would she bear having her hatred stripped from her? The lovely young women faced out like sentinels, uninvolved. Clear that they protected but also that they were ashamed of her. In this place of the mutilated ones, you endured, and when you couldn’t bear it any longer, you did. On and on, till the end, which was exactly what Jean had tried and failed.