(from the collection A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain (Henry Holt & Co. 1992; Penguin Books 1993); first appeared in The Virginia Quarterly Review, Autumn 1990)
I like the way fairy tales start in America. When I learn English for real, I buy books for children and I read, "Once upon a time". I recognize this word "upon" from some GI who buys me Saigon teas and spends some time with me and he is a cowboy from the great state of Texas. He tells me he gets up on the back of a bull and he rides it. I tell him he is joking with Miss Noi (that's my Vietnam name), but he says no, he really gets up on a bull. I make him explain that "up on" so I know I am hearing right. I want to know for true so I can tell this story to all my friends so that they understand, no lie, what this man who stays with me can do. After that, a few years later, I come to America and I read some fairy tales to help me learn more English and I see this word and I ask a man in the place I work on Bourbon Street in New Orleans if this is the same. Up on and upon. He is a nice man who comes late in the evening to clean up after the men who see the show. He says this is a good question and he thinks about it and he says that yes, they are the same. I think this is very nice, how you get up on the back of time and ride and you don't know where it will go or how it will try to throw you off.
Once upon a time I was a dumb Saigon bargirl. If you want to know how dumb some Vietnam bargirl can be, I can give you one example. A man brought me to America in 1974. He says he loves me and I say I love that man. When I meet him in Saigon, he works in the embassy of America. He can bring me to this country even before he marries me. He says that he wants to marry me and maybe I think that this idea scares me one little bit. But I say, what the hell. I love him. Then boom. I'm in America and this man is different from in Vietnam, and I guess he thinks I am different too. How dumb is a Saigon bargirl is this. I hear him talk to a big crowd of important people in Vietnam, businessman, politician, big people like that. I am there too and I wear my best ao dai, red like an apple and my quan, my silk trousers, are white. He speaks in English to these Vietnam people because they are big, so they know English. Also my boyfriend does not speak Vietnam. But at the end of his speech he says something in my language and it is very important to me.
You must understand one thing about the Vietnam language. We use tones to make our words. The sound you say is important but just as important is what your voice does, if it goes up or down or stays the same or it curls around or it comes from your throat, very tight. These all change the meaning of the word, sometimes very much, and if you say one tone and I hear a certain word, there is no reason for me to think that you mean some other tone and some other word. It was not until everything is too late and I am in America that I realize something is wrong in what I am hearing that day. Even after this man is gone and I am in New Orleans, I have to sit down and try all different tones to know what he wanted to say to those people in Saigon.
He wanted to say in my language, "May Vietnam live for ten thousand years." What he said, very clear, was, "The sunburnt duck is lying down." Now if I think this man says that Vietnam should live for ten thousand years, I think he is a certain kind of man. But when he says that a sunburnt duck is lying down boom, my heart melts. We have many tales in Vietnam, some about ducks. I never hear this tale that he is telling us about, but it sounds like it is very good. I should ask him that night what this tale is, but we make love and we talk about me going to America and I think I understand anyway. The duck is not burned up, destroyed. He is only sunburnt. Vietnam women don't like the sun. It makes their skin dark, like the peasants. I understand. And the duck is not crushed on the ground. He is just lying down and he can get up when he wants to. I love that man for telling the Vietnam people this true thing. So I come to America and when I come here I do not know I will be in more bars. I come thinking I still love that man and I will be a housewife with a toaster machine and a vacuum cleaner. Then when I think I don't love him anymore I try one last time and I ask him in the dark night to tell me about the sunburnt duck, what is that story. He thinks I am one crazy Vietnam girl and he says things that can burn Miss Noi more than the sun.
So boom, I am gone from that man. There is no more South Vietnam and he gives me all the right papers so I can be American and he can look like a good man. This is all happening in Atlanta. Then I hear about New Orleans. I am a Catholic girl and I am a bargirl, and this city sounds for me like I can be both those things. I am 25 years old and my titties are small, especially in America, but I am still number one girl. I can shake it baby, and soon I am a dancer in a bar on Bourbon Street and everybody likes me to stay a Vietnam girl. Maybe some men have nice memories of Vietnam girls.
I have nice memories. In Saigon I work in a bar they call Blossoms. I am one blossom. Around the corner I have a little apartment. You have to walk into the alley and then you go up the stairs three floors and I have a place there where all the shouting and the crying and sometimes the gunfire in the street sounds very far away. I do not mix with the other girls. They do bad things. Take drugs, steal from the men. One girl lives next to me in Saigon and she does bad things. Soon people begin to come in a black car. She goes. She likes that, but I do not talk to her. One day she goes in the black car and does not come back. She leaves everything in her place. Even her Buddha shrine to her parents. Very bad. I live alone in Saigon. I have a double bed with a very nice sheet. Two pillows. A cedar closet with my clothes, which are very nice. Three ao dais, one apple red, one blue like you see in the eyes of some American man, one black like my hair. I have a glass cabinet with pictures. My father. Some two or three American men who like me very special. My mother. My son.
Yes, I have a son. One American gives me that son, but my boy is living in Vietnam with my mother. My mother says I cannot bring up a child with my life. I say to her that my son should have the best. If Miss Noi is not best for my son, then my son should be someplace different. When the man brings me to America, he does not want a son either, and my mother does not talk to me very much anyway except to say my son is Vietnam boy, not American boy. At least my mother is my blood, though sometimes she is unhappy about that, I think. I do not think they are happy in Vietnam now, but who can say? You have a mother and then you have a son and then boom, you do not have either a mother or a son, though they are alive somewhere, so I do not have to pray for their souls. I do not have to be unhappy.
I pray in my little room in Saigon. I am a Catholic girl and I have a large statue of Mary in my room. That statue is Mary the mother of God, not Mary Magdalen who was a bargirl one time too. My statue of Mary the mother of God is very beautiful. She is wearing a blue robe and her bare feet are sticking out of the bottom. Her feet are beautiful like the feet of a Vietnam girl, and I pray to Mary and I paint her toenails and I talk to her. She faces the door and does not see my bed.
I sleep with men in Saigon. This is true. But I sleep with only one at a time. I do not take drugs with any man. I do not steal from any man. I give some man love when he is alone and frightened and he wants something soft to be close to him. I take money for this loving, but I do not ask them to take me to restaurants or to movie shows or to buy me jewelry or any gifts. If a girl does not take money but makes him take her to a restaurant and a movie show and buy her jewelry and then gives him loving, is this different? I would not take a man to my room and love him if I did not want to do that. The others could buy me Saigon tea in the Blossoms bar. The men would water the blossoms with Saigon tea. I talk with them and they put their arm around me and play music on the jukebox, but I do not take them to my room unless I would like them to be there. Then they would give me money, but I ask for nothing else. Only when they love me very much I ask them to get me something. In the place where the GI eats, they have something I cannot get in Saigon. This thing is an apple. I only ask for apples. I buy mangoes and papayas and pineapples and other sweet things to eat in the market, but in South Vietnam, an apple is a special thing. I hold an apple and it fills my hand and it is very smooth and very hard and it is red like my favorite ao dai. So red. I bite it and it is very sweet, like sweet water, like a stream of water from a mountain, and it is not stringy like a pineapple, and it is not mushy like a mango or papaya.
In New Orleans I buy many apples. I eat them in America whenever I want to. But is that memory not better? A GI who loves me brings me an apple and I put it on the table where Mary sits and after that man is sleeping and the room is dark, I walk across the floor and I am naked and the air feels cool on me and I take that apple and go to the window and I watch the dark roofs of Saigon and the moon rising and I eat my apple.
In New Orleans, there are apples in the stores and I buy them and I eat too many. The taste is still good but it is not special anymore. I am sometimes very tired. I take off my clothes on the stage of the club. I am not a blossom in New Orleans. I am a voodoo girl. The manager of the club gives me a necklace of bones to wear and the faces of the men are raised to me and I am naked. Many eyes see me. Many men want to touch Miss Noi, and I sleep with men in New Orleans. I still do not take them to my bed if I am not ready to like them. When they get up in the morning I always make sure they shave right. Many of the men miss a place at the back of their jaw or under their bottom lip. I make sure they have a clean shirt. I am ready to wash their shirt if they want me to. But they pay me money and they go, and they do not let me clean their shirt. Sometimes they go before the night is done. These are the men who have wives. I can see the place on their fingers where the sun has tanned around the ring which they took off to come to the bar. Their finger is dark skinned, but the band of flesh is white and they look naked there, even more naked than I must look to them on the stage. Their ring is in some pocket. I worry about their rings. What if the ring is to fall out on my floor and is kicked under the bed? What do they say to their wife when she sees their naked hand?
How does a life change? You meet some man who says he will take you away across the sea and he will marry you. A blossom and even a voodoo girl gets many men who talk about love and some of them talk about marriage. You are very careful about that. Many girls on Bourbon Street tell stories and laugh very hard about the men who say they want to marry them. I do not tell the story about the embassy man and the sunburnt duck. They would not understand. I dance naked on the stage and one night the announcer makes a big deal about Miss Noi being Vietnam girl. Sometimes he does this, sometimes Miss Noi is just some voodoo girl. But this night he sees some men in the audience with jackets on that says they were in Vietnam, so he says I am from Saigon and I am ready to please.
After I dance and put on my clothes and go and sit at the bar, these men in the jackets do not come near me. But one other man comes and stands beside me and he calls me "Miss." He says, "Miss, may I sit down?" If you want to sit next to a bargirl and hope that she will think you are an okay man, this is a good way to start, with "May I sit down, Miss." I look at this man and he is a tall man with a long neck so that he seems to stretch up as high as he can to see over a fence. His skin is dark, like he's been in the sun too long, and he is wearing a plaid shirt and blue jeans and his hands are rough, but there is no white band where a ring has been taken off. I look at his face and his eyes are black, but very small. His nose is long. Vietnam noses are not long and though I know many Americans in my life and some French too, I still lean back just a little when there is a long nose, because it seems to be pointing at me.
This man is not number one for looking at him, but he calls me "Miss" and he stands with his eyes looking down and then he peeks at me and then he lowers his eyes again as he waits for me to say if he can sit down. So I say yes. He seems like a nice man.
"You are very beautiful, Miss Noi," this man says.
This is 1981 and Miss Noi is thirty years old and I am glad to hear some man say it this way. I am not sexy bitch, wiggle it baby, oh boy oh boy it's hot, it feels good. These are okay things, too, for Miss Noi. These men give me money and they love me. But this man says I am beautiful and I say, "Thank you. You buy me a drink, okay?" I say this to all the men who sit next to me at the bar. This is what I am supposed to do. But I want this man to buy me a drink because he thinks I am beautiful. So he buys me a drink and I say he must buy one too and he buys a Dr. Pepper, even though it is the same price as a drink of liquor. My drink is supposed to be liquor but it is mostly water, like Saigon tea. They make it the same in New Orleans, the New Orleans tea.
We sip our drinks and he does not have many words to say. He sips and looks at me and sips and I have many words I use on men. You from this town? You in New Orleans for long? You like Bourbon Street? You listen to jazz music? What is your work? But I do not use these words. I tell you I am sometimes very tired. This man's long nose dips down toward his Dr. Pepper like he's going to drink through it, but it stops and then he lifts his chin a little and sips at his straw. His face seems very strange looking and his hair is black but a little greasy and I just let him be quiet if he wants and I am quiet too. Then he says, "It was nice to see you dance."
"You come often and see me dance and buy me drinks, okay?"
"You look different," he says.
"Miss Noi is a Vietnam girl. You never see that before."
"I seen it," this man says. "I was in Vietnam."
I have many men say they were in my country and they always sound a little funny, like they have a nasty secret or a sickness that you should be careful not to catch. And sometimes they just call it "Nam" saying that word with broken glass in their voice or saying it through their noses and their noses wrinkle up like the word smells when it comes out. But this man says the name of my country quiet and I don't always understand what American voices do, but he sounds sad to me. I say to him, "You didn't like being there? It makes you sad?"
He lifts his face and looks at me and he says, "I was very happy there. Weren't you?"
Well, this is something for me to think about. I could just answer this man, who is only one more man who saw me dance naked. I could just say yes or no and I could talk about reasons why. I am good at bargirl bullshit when I want to talk like that. But this man's eyes look at mine and I look away and sip my drink.
What do I know about men, after all? I can't tell anything anymore. I take men to my bed and I save my money and there have been very many men, I guess. It's like eating too many apples. You take a bite now and you can make yourself remember that apples are sweet but it is like the the apple in your mouth is not even there. You eat too many apples and all you can do is remember them. So this man who comes with his strange face and sounds sad when he talks about Vietnam because he was so happy there I don't know what to make of him and so I take him to my room and he is very happy about that.
He tells me his name is Fontenot. He lives far away from New Orleans. He owns a little boat and he works fixing car engines. He was in Saigon one year working on car engines and he loved that city very much. I ask him why but he can't really explain. This is all of our talk, every bit of it, except before he makes love to me he says he is sorry he can never get his hands clean. He shows me how the grease from the car engines gets around his fingernails and he can't get them clean. I tell him not to worry and he makes love to me and when he gets off me and lies down, he turns his head and I think that is because he does not want me to see that he is crying. I want to ask if he is very sad again, but I don't say anything. His face is away from me and he wants it like that and so I say nothing. Those are all the words of that night. In the morning I go into the bathroom and he is in the tub and I kneel beside him and take his hands and I have a cuticle file and I clean the grease away. He kisses my hands when he leaves.
What do I know about men anymore? That is not much to say about Mr. Fontenot. He came to see Miss Noi on a Saturday night and left on Sunday morning. Then the next Saturday night I was naked on the stage and I saw his face at the foot of the runway, looking up with his long nose pointed at my special part and I felt a strange thing. My face got warm and I turned my back to him and danced away. After I finished my dance, I got dressed and came out to the bar, but he was not there. I asked the guy behind the bar, "Did you see that tall man with the thin neck and the long nose that I had a drink with last week?"
This guy says, "The one who looks like a goddam goose?"
I don't like this guy behind the bar. I never even learn his name. So I say, "Go to hell, you", and I go outside and there is Mr. Fontenot waiting on the sidewalk. I go to him and I take his arm and we go around the corner and down the block and he says, "I couldn't hang around in there, Miss Noi. It makes me uncomfortable to talk to you in there."
I say, "I know, honey. I know." I see all types of men, though I realize I don't understand any of them deep down. But I know some men feel nervous in a bar. They come there to meet me but then they tell themselves that I really don't belong there, it's not worthy of me. And if I take this type of man to my room, they give me money quiet, folding the bills and putting them under a vase or somewhere, like it's not really happening. I know that kind of man. They can be very sweet sometimes.
We go up to my apartment again. It is a small place, like Saigon. I am comfortable there. Outside my window is a phony balcony. It looks like a balcony but it is only a foot wide, just a grill on the window. But it is nice. It looks like lace, though it is made of iron. I close the shade and turn to Mr. Fontenot and he is sitting on my bed. I go and sit next to him.
"I've been thinking about you," he says.
"You drive all the way back to New Orleans just to see Miss Noi again?"
"Of course," he says. His voice is gentle, but there's also something in it that says I should know this already. This is plenty strange to me, because I know nothing about Mr. Fontenot, really. A few words. He's a quiet man. I know nothing more about him than any man.
Then he says, "Look," and he shows me his hands. I don't understand. "I got one of those things you used on me last week." I look closer and I see that his hands are clean.
This makes me feel one more strange thing, a little sinking inside me. I say, "See? You have no need for Miss Noi anymore."
He takes me serious. He puts his arm around my shoulders and he is right to do this. "Don't say that, Miss Noi."
So then we make love. When we are finished, he turns his face away from me again and I reach over and turn it back. There are no tears, but he is looking very serious. I say, "Tell me one thing you like in Saigon."
Mr. Fontenot wiggles his shoulders and looks away. "Everything," he says.
"Why should I not think you are a crazy man? Everybody knows Americans go to Vietnam and they want to go home quick and forget everything. When they think they like Vietnam while they are there, they come home and they know it was all just a dream."
Mr. Fontenot looks at me one more time. "I'm not crazy. I liked everything there."
"'Everything' means same as 'nothing.' I do not understand that. One thing. Just think about you on a street in Saigon and you tell me one thing."
"Okay," he says and then he says it again louder, "Okay," like I just push him some more, though I say nothing. It is louder but not angry. He sounds like a little boy. He wrinkles his brow and his little black eyes close. He stays like this for too long.
I ask, "So?"
"I can't think."
"You are on a street. Just one moment for me."
"Okay," he says. "A street. It's hot in Saigon, like Louisiana. I like it hot. I walk around. There's lots of people rushing around, all of them pretty as nutria."
"Pretty as what?"
"It's a little animal that has a pretty coat. It's good."
"Tell me more."
"Okay," he says. "Here's something. It's hot and I'm sweating and I'm walking through your markets in the open air and when I get back to my quarters, my sweat smells like the fruit and the vegetables in your markets."
I look at Mr. Fontenot and his eyes are on me and he's very serious. I do not understand a word he's saying now, but I know he's not saying any bullshit, that's for sure. He sweats and smells like fruit in Saigon. I want to talk to him now, but what am I to say to this? So I just start in about fruit. I tell him the markets have many good fruits, which I like very much. Mangoes, mangosteens, jackfruit, durians, papaya. I ask him and he says he has not eaten any of these. I still want to say words, to keep this going, so I tell him, "One fruit we do not have in South Vietnam is apples. I loved apples in Saigon when GI bring me apples from their mess hall. I never have apples till the GIs give them to me."
As soon as I say this, Mr. Fontenot's brow wrinkles again and I feel like there's a little animal, maybe a nutria, trying to claw his way out from inside Miss Noi. I have made this man think about all the GIs that I sleep with in Saigon. He knows now what kind of girl he is talking to. This time I turn my face away from him to hide tears. Then we stop talking and we sleep and in the morning he goes and I do not come and help him bathe because he learns from Miss Noi already how to clean his hands.
Is this a sad story or a happy story for Miss Noi? The next Saturday Mr. Fontenot does not come and see me dance naked. I sit at the bar with my clothes on and I am upon a time and I wonder if I'm going to fall off now. Then boom. I go out of that place and Mr. Fontenot is standing on the sidewalk. He is wearing a suit with a tie and his neck reaches up high out of his white shirt and I can bet his hands are clean and he moves to me and one of his hands comes out from behind his back and he gives me an apple and he says he wants to marry Miss Noi.
Once upon a time there was a duck with a long neck and a long beak like all ducks and he lives in a place all alone and he does not know how to build a nest or preen his own feathers. Because of this, the sun shines down and burns him, makes his feathers turn dark and makes him very sad. When he lies down to sleep, you think that he is dead, he is so sad and still. Then one day he flies to another part of the land and he finds a little animal with a nice coat and though that animal is different from him, a nutria, still he lies down beside her. He seems to be all burnt up and dead. But the nutria does not think so and she licks his feathers and makes him well. Then he takes her with him to live in Thibodaux, Louisiana, where he fixes cars and she has a nice little house and she is a housewife with a toaster machine and they go fishing together in his little boat and she never eats an apple unless he thinks to give it to her. Though this may not be very often, they taste very good to her.