No sooner had the taxi lurched into the traffic than Rowen’s father leaned forward in the seat. “Oh, no, we don’t.” He put his hand on the driver’s shoulder and said something in Vietnamese. Before the driver had fully registered understanding, Rowen’s father produced a folded twenty-dollar bill from his breast pocket. He held it by the driver’s ear with more words in Vietnamese until the driver took it from him, nodding. Now the taxi slowed to a crawl, the furious stream of mopeds and bicycles parting behind them and flowing back together in front. Rowen Sr. sat back expansively, draping his arm along the seat back behind Rowen.
“For chrissakes, Dad, you flew gunships over this country.”
“I had a reason to risk my life then.”
Right, Rowen thought, to make the world safe for Democracy. North Vietnam—with its poet-philosopher leader and its dream of proletarian revolution—had long been an idea, at least in the abstract, that Rowen couldn’t help feeling sympathy for. He followed his father’s eyes out the cab window, where carbon-streaked billboards loomed over the fishing huts and mangroves along the Saigon River. Most of the billboards were in Vietnamese, but many had recognizable logos: Coke, Pepsi, BMW, Dupont. “I didn’t know you spoke Vietnamese,” Rowen said.
“There are things you pick up: Slow down,’ I’ll make it worth your while.’ I surprise myself how much I remember.”
“I’ll make it worth your while?’”
“You don’t think he’s happy to make twenty bucks? American?” His dad snorted. “He’d drive there backwards for twenty bucks.”
Rowen had promised himself that he wouldn’t get into this kind of bickering with his old man—he could hear the adolescent tone of his own voice—but how could he help feeling angry? All the way to the airport, he’d beaten himself up for being half an hour late to meet his father, only to find out when he finally got there that Rowen Sr. had been in the country for a week. He’d decided to come early to revisit some of the places he’d been during the war. “Didn’t know how to get a hold of you,” he’d said into Rowen’s ear during their traditional back-clapping hug. The old man had begun the day at the very hotel they were headed to now; Rowen could have bumped into him on the street.
The taxi left Tan Son Nhut Airport alongside the expanse of American-built tarmac, now mostly unused, with foot-high grass sprouting in the cracks. The asphalt revetments, built to shield American F-14s from rocket attack, lined the runways in various states of disrepair, but the enormous control tower with its rotating antennae still stood, a lonely sentry in the flat sea of gray. Rowen had seen it all twice before—the day three weeks ago, when he arrived himself, and a couple days later, when he met the World Volunteers team—but he had seen it countless times before that, too, in magazines and on television, in the dozens of R-rated movies he sneaked into by buying tickets for something PG. During his early teens, Rowen had eaten dinner with his divorced father just once a week, but he’d spent nearly every afternoon with the old man’s war souvenirs. And to this day, Rowen couldn’t visit his mother in St. Louis without giving in to the pull of the footlocker full of war mementos—all meticulously labeled by date in his mother’s cramped hand—in the cedar closet on the third floor of the house where she still lived. All week, Rowen had shaken off the thread of anticipation he felt rising in himself when he thought about meeting his father—in Vietnam, no less—reminding himself that the most important thing that the movie theater and cedar closet had in common, besides the swaddling closeness of the darkness in one case and the cedar smell in the other, besides Vietnam, was that his father wasn’t there. Rowen stifled a laugh as the taxi jerked to a stop in the traffic.
“How was your project?” Rowen Sr. asked.
“It went well.” Rowen nodded his gratitude grudgingly. In the eight years since college that he’d been leading World Volunteers trips, Rowen had told his dad little about the organization. But when this project had almost fallen through at the last moment, threatening their week together, his old man put Rowen in touch with a couple of his Veterans Association Vietnam contacts. Rowen had been touched by the old man’s persistence. Rowen made a handful of 2:00 a.m. phone calls from his shotgun apartment in Madison, and the difficulties evaporated.
“And your trip?” Rowen said. “Where’d you go?”
“Bien Hoa, where I was stationed. The Cu Chi Tunnels. My Lai.”
“You went to My Lai?”
“I wanted to see it.” Rowen Sr. nodded. “It’s strange. In some ways the country’s changed so much; in some ways it hasn’t changed one goddamn bit. You know what’s the same? The goddamn smell is the same. I wouldn’t have been able to tell you Vietnam even had a smell till I got back here. I was telling your mother: I can name every kind of tree in Illinois. Or St. Louis, or Houston for that matter. I spent two years here and I can’t tell you a damn thing about the trees. It’s like I never even saw them.”
His father’s tone caused Rowen to look up. But behind the squint, the old man’s eyes were their usual disarmingly clear blue, even through the tint of his prescription sunglasses.
“Listen.” Rowen Sr. crooked his arm to look at the bulky gold Rolex. He still had the Popeye forearms that had made such an impression on Rowen’s youth, but the ragged Brillo of hair was speckled now with gray. “There’s a man I’m supposed to see. I thought we’d have time to stop first, get a bite to eat, but I should go meet him.”
“Turns out he’s an old pilot. Isn’t that something? Flew a MiG two-one. Bastard probably took shots at me.” Again Rowen Sr. snorted. “I’ll drop you off first. You can get your stuff and move into my hotel. It’s on the old man.”
“What’re you meeting him for?” Rowen asked. It hadn’t occurred to him that the man might be Vietnamese.
As Rowen Sr. turned absently toward the window, his glasses darkened to adjust to the outside glare. “I’m thinking about doing some business here.”
“A little textile factory—I’m bailing it out.”
“You can’t be serious.”
“Yep. Way of giving something back after all these years. We’ll make it a joint venture because their taxes screw you otherwise, but that’s just a formality.”
“So now you’re in the textile business?”
“I’m in the money-making business.” Rowen Sr.’s forehead crinkled as he looked over his glasses. Rowen could have finished the sentence for him. “If they let you print it directly, I would.” What amazed Rowen was that there was a species of man who inevitably fell for this shtick. “Boeing needs seat covers for all the seats in their new seven-sixty-sevens.”
“And having a bunch of little Vietnamese stitch them up at less than a buck a day will make Daddy a rich man.” This would be the real reason his father had come early to Vietnam. Rowen Sr.’s former Air Force buddies were spread all around the aviation industry, the various airlines, and the FAA, and Powell’s American Airplane Parts with its original one-story warehouse on Midwest Industrial Court, two miles from where Rowen’s mother still lived, had made Rowen Sr. a rich man. He secured the contracts and passed the inspections. Was it all aboveboard? Rowen had no evidence to the contrary, but these were men who had fought an entire war out of Laos without telling their loved ones.
“We’ll pay more than twice the minimum wage,” his father said.
“Dad, that’s fifty bucks a month.”
“It’s more than twice the minimum wage. You ask them families if they want the jobs. Go ahead. I’ll hire you the translator.”
Rowen looked past his father to the mass of scooters and motorbikes and bicycles crisscrossing around the cyclos on the road in front of them. The steady, languid strokes of the cyclo drivers lent a sort of nobility to the ragged contraptions, but Rowen knew that it had been the profession of last resort for ARVN soldiers returned to the city from Communist reeducation camps.
“This country means a lot to me.” Rowen Sr. jutted out his lower jaw. “I don’t expect you to understand that.”
In the third-floor footlocker at Rowen’s mother’s, there were ARVN, NVA, and Vietcong flags. There was a shoebox full of Zippo lighters and miniature Buddhas, a soft pack of Vietnamese cigarettes, a folded ao dai. There were newspaper clippings from the Decatur Sentinel and St. Louis Post Dispatch, and a touching two letters per week addressed to Rowen and his mother, each with a page titled “Junior” filled with stick-figure drawings for his young son. But the earnest drawings were quickly replaced in Rowen’s mind by an image of the official request form—part of the manila “Airforce” file—which his father had filled out at the end of flight school. “Something with guns,” he’d written, and Rowen could almost hear the Southern Illinois twang, “not a cargo ship.” Rowen wondered if his dad knew that he could recite the exact specs of the spooky AC-47 gunship the old man had flown. “Puff, the Magic Dragon,” it was called for the flaming fury of the fixed-wing 7.62 mm miniguns that the pilot aimed by banking the slow-moving DC-3 low above its target—almost always people on the ground. Troops hopefully, people definitely.
“And this is your way of giving back?”
“You’re goddamn right it is. They may have won the war, but look what it got them. They’re losing the hell out of the peace.” Rowen Sr. nodded toward the window, indicating a row of shacks with corrugated metal roofs. “They need as much of our business as they can get. You don’t stand to do so bad yourself,” Rowen’s father added with a wink. He had set up a real estate holding company for his five children by three different wives. Every month, it spat out a check nearly equivalent to Rowen’s salary as a graduate assistant teacher.
Rowen stopped himself from arguing back: where would he start? This was his father: Southern Illinois farm boy turned Air Force hero turned entrepreneurial millionaire; father of five, ex-husband to three, self-proclaimed benefactor of all. He was the living proof of everything he believed in. Rowen didn’t know why he’d expected anything different in Vietnam.
“You’re right about one thing, though,” Rowen Sr. said. “I killed a lot of people here.”
Rowen’s parents were married in a square, white church in Rowen Sr.’s hometown. Rowen went there with his parents once when his little brother Jake was still a toddler. It was one of Rowen’s earliest memories: he saw cornfields from the church steps. In the wedding pictures, his mother was frail and pretty, and only in retrospect could you tell that it was the kind of pretty that would grow shrewish with years—her cheeks already drawn, her eyes just slightly bugged. The last picture showed Rowen Sr. carrying her out of the church. He had a thick shock of dark hair, and he seemed barely conscious of her weight; in the photo, Rowen’s mother was distracted by the complicated bustle bunched around her legs. She was a sickly girl, always missing school for vague, unspecific complaints, and it’s likely that everyone at the church, including the bride and groom, expected Rowen Sr. to spend his life taking care of her. Financially, at least, he had.
According to the little bit of family history Rowen had been able to get out of his parents, flight school had been as much his mother’s idea as his father’s; by the time he returned from his second tour, though, she had marched against the war, with little Rowen in tow. But even as she protested the war, Rowen’s mother was building the footlocker shrine where Rowen would spend so much of his early teens.
When his old man returned, Rowen’s parents were able to put their politics aside long enough to have Jake, to settle in suburban St. Louis, to buy the three-story classic colonial where his mother still lived. Neither parent would talk about what finally came between them, but Rowen suspected infidelity on both sides—would his mother’s politics really have changed that much of her own accord? Could anything ever temper his father’s personal sense of manifest destiny?—and he knew that the war in Vietnam would never be far enough away. By the time the American helicopters were leaving the embassy roof, Rowen’s father was engaged to be married again.
That same year, Rowen’s mother ran for city council. It was her only foray into public life, and it had left Rowen with one of his most indelible childhood images: his mother changing little Jake amidst the half-dozen jerry-rigged rotary phones on the dining room table that was election headquarters. In Rowen’s memory, both Jake and he were crying as all of the telephones rang at once. For all of his mother’s obvious folly—her progressive politics and her strident, defiantly single-mother persona were entirely out of touch with the suburban area where she lived, and the final election was a rout—Rowen had always felt strangely bolstered by the memory. Her impulse to do good was undeniable. And though she’d been utterly ineffectual, Rowen felt like that baton had been handed to him. In many ways, he knew, his mother had ended up more pathetic than those whose causes she would have championed, and Rowen longed for a political ideology independent of personal psychology. In fact, he often worried that it had been this longing that had propelled him to graduate school in the first place—as if the confounding stain of personality could somehow be educated away. As he grew increasingly disenchanted with the pettiness of his fellow graduate students—the competition over teaching assistantships, curriculum decisions, letters of recommendation, the endless interdepartmental politics—World Volunteers became even more important to him. At the end of three weeks, he could see the schoolhouse painted, the well dug, the community center roofed.
After her lopsided political loss, Rowen’s mother took few risks—professional or otherwise. In the years since, she had held down the same job as an executive secretary at a local private high school. She had been hospitalized twice for depression and several other times for arrythmias and other endocrine irregularities. She had not been on a third date with a man. To Jake, who had far less patience for his mother’s complaints, Rowen Sr. was a savior, a fact Jake made little effort to hide. Rowen would never give the old man that satisfaction—he didn’t want saving, for himself or for his mother. It was this stubborn loyalty to his mother, Rowen suspected, as well, perhaps, as some shrill thread of resemblance, that made Rowen his father’s favorite, even if they rarely got along. Though there were no longer arrangements to be made for Jake or himself, Rowen knew that his parents still spoke on the phone a couple of times each week.
The revolving doors swished shut on the street tumult as Rowen followed his father into the hush of the New World Hotel’s gleaming white lobby. “You sure you want to join us?” Rowen Sr. asked. “It’s not much to see. In America we’d be done with meetings already.”
“I’d like to meet the man who took shots at my father.”
“Suit yourself,” Rowen Sr. scoffed. He lifted his chin. “My Vietnam consultant should be waiting for me here. Kid your age, named Connie.”
Rowen picked out Connie immediately. He sat almost primly, his knees close together, a briefcase on the ground parallel to his thighs, a benign, expectant look on his face.
“Grasshopper,” Rowen’s dad called.
“Uncle Ho.” Connie stood up smoothly and took Rowen Sr.’s hand.
“This is my son, Rowen Junior. Rowen, Connie Hornig.”
“Your father told me all about your project.” Connie nodded as he pumped Rowen’s hand. “That’s great, man.”
“You got anything left in that grab bag of yours?” Rowen Sr. asked him.
“Let’s see.” Connie set the briefcase on the glass coffee table and flipped open the lid with a flourish of his wrists. There was something almost effeminate about the precision of his movements. From the cloth flap inside, he took out several bulbs of green tissue secured with gold ties. He handed them to Rowen Sr., who then handed them to Rowen. “Commemorative silver dollars,” Connie said, “each worth about a buck fifty.”
“Gifts,” Rowen Sr. said.
Rowen slipped the silver dollars into the leather satchel he’d bought during a World Volunteers project in Guatemala. Rowen had seen some version of Connie Consultant in all the developing countries he’d been to with World Volunteers. Roughly his own age, almost always male, they were the swaggering forward flank of U.S. business. Rowen had no doubt that this Connie—with his monogrammed oxford and a cell phone clipped to his needlepoint belt—spoke fluent Vietnamese, that he slept with Vietnamese women, that he couldn’t care less about the country.
At the bank of elevators, Connie trotted ahead of them, his briefcase swinging clumsily from its handle. He thrust his free hand into a closing elevator and parted the doors, then stood aside to let Rowen and his father enter first.
Connie met Rowen’s eyes in the smudged bronze reflection on the inside of the elevator doors. “So tell me about Dong Thap; is it as muggy as they say?”
“It’s not so bad.”
“It’s great what you did,” Connie said. “I’ve been meaning to get down there myself.”
“That’s one part of the country I don’t care if I ever see again,” Rowen Sr. said. Rowen recognized the tone: his old man required a certain amount of deference, and he could turn bullying when he didn’t get it, but he would always undercut it when he did. So Connie Consultant thought he could brown-nose the old man through Rowen? Well, Rowen thought, he wasn’t about to tell Connie otherwise.
They followed Connie down a corridor lined by black lacquer paintings inlaid with mother of pearl. A semicircular niche held a fat, emerald green Buddha.
Rowen paused to let Connie open the conference room door and usher them inside. The four Vietnamese men standing on the opposite side of the table all wore thin white work shirts and dark ties. They turned to face front as Rowen Sr. led the way into the room. A woman in an embossed cream-colored ao dai stood expressionlessly in the corner.
Rowen Sr. greeted the men in Vietnamese. In English, he said: “My son, Rowen Junior.” The four men edged around the side of the conference table to shake Rowen’s hand. “Congratulations on your project,” they said. “Chuc mung. Congratulations.”
Each of the Vietnamese men handed Rowen a business card. The entire process had been described in the World Volunteers packet he’d read on the plane, down to the inclining, two-handed way the men gave him their cards. Rowen studied the cards seriously. Then he handed each of the men a green bulb of tissue paper, also using both hands, also bowing slightly from the waist. When Connie dutifully collected the four wads of discarded tissue, Rowen nearly laughed aloud; he was enjoying himself immensely.
The table was French Colonial, the mahogany polished to a dark, gleaming shine. The Vietnamese hammer and sickle hung on one wall, next to a portrait of Ho Chi Minh in a simple black frame; on the opposite wall was an enormous picture poster of Ho Chi Minh with several lines of handwritten Vietnamese poetry. Connie unclipped his phone from his belt and set it on the table as he took his seat. Each of the Vietnamese men did the same in turn.
“In the old West, they slapped their guns on the table before gettin’ down to business; in the New Frontier, it’s phones.” Rowen Sr. was sporting his thickest Illinois twang as he whispered to Rowen and Connie underneath the hum of the window unit air conditioner. “Personally, I think it’s a dick-size thing, ‘cept now it’s the smaller, the better.”
Connie leaned forward: “We’d have a better shot at bigger dicks than smaller phones in this part of the world.”
“Sounds like the sour grapes of a man with a big phone.” Connie and Rowen Sr. snorted as they sat back in their chairs. Instinctively, Rowen also turned his attention out to the Vietnamese with a smile on his lips.
Now one of the Vietnamese stood again. He was the shortest of the four and had a different, more Western air, his gummy smile studded by a dark gap where an incisor should have been. He tossed his head repeatedly as he talked to keep his hair out of his eyes. He addressed Rowen directly: “It is pleasure to meet with you in person after speaking by phone.” Great, Rowen thought, now he’s confusing Connie with me. “You are a chip off the block.” He said it with obvious pride in the idiom.
Before Rowen could explain, his father lumbered to his feet. “Rowen, this is Tran Van Son, Minister of the Department of Industry and Planning. Y’all talked on the phone before your trip, I believe.”
“You met my assistant,” Tran Van Son said. He was almost hard to take seriously, this Tran Van Son, with his bobbing shock of hair, his stupid smile, his unabashed glee at his own mastery of English. “I have proof.” He pulled two rough-matted folders out of the briefcase open on the table in front of him. He handed one to Rowen and one to his father.
“The World Aqueduct Project,” it said in gold embossed letters on the front cover. Rowen stared at the words for a minute before he realized that it was the word “Volunteers” that was missing.
Rowen opened the folder. Matted on the right side was the picture taken during the ceremony at the beginning of the project’s last week. The glare of the background haze had caused the foreground to be overexposed, turning the paddies’ iridescent green to the color of slate. Rowen stood to the far right in the photograph, the only one in the mixed group of Americans and Vietnamese not holding some sort of tool.
Rowen remembered the small, impatient man showing up for the ceremony in his Party car with a trunk full of certificates and plaques. The speeches were endless—every member of the local People’s Committee taking his turn at the microphone, the local translator butchering the English so badly that the Americans cut their eyes at each other. But Rowen provided a stoic example. He had felt beneficent at the time, stopping work for the presentations, the requisite speeches, this goddamn photograph, even though it would mean remixing three bags of cement afterward. Rowen had never expected to see the eventual picture at all, much less in a context that would reflect well on his father.
Rowen’s old man studied the photograph with the same bemused expression he wore whenever they argued, as if the sheer fact of himself was all the explanation needed.
Tran Van Son chattered on with the silver dollar between his thumb and forefinger. “Friends, not enemies,” he said. “Reconciliation.” Had he been a little boy soldier, Rowen wondered, this chubby, smiling bureaucrat? Rowen tried to imagine him stalking the jungle, killing American GIs with an AK-47 nearly as big as himself. All the men in this room would have seen heavy action, except, of course, for Connie and himself.
Eventually Tran Van Son gave way to the man seated to his left. He had a dark, rectangular face, his jet-black hair cut in severe lines. He spoke in a brusque, guttural Vietnamese, with an apparent air of distaste. Connie translated without editorializing. The issue was the looms and other equipment currently in the factory. Because it was not integral to the building itself, the equipment fell under the jurisdiction of a different government agency. From Connie’s translation, Rowen could tell that this was the current factory director, the MiG pilot that Rowen’s father would be partnering with as a legal “formality.” No doubt he had been an officer of some significant rank, and this man’s military accomplishments—like those of Rowen’s father—had been rewarded with considerable civilian success. Only to find himself twenty-five years later on the wrong side of history, a relic overrun by his former enemy in tinted bifocals and safari shorts. Maybe, Rowen thought, this was the real explanation behind the procedural stumbling blocks. It served his old man right.
Connie kept repeating the same set of phrases to Rowen’s father: “Regrettably, the equipment requires a different set of codes. Regrettably …” Rowen’s father showed surprisingly little frustration. He made several offers to buy the equipment. But the answer remained the same—another meeting would be necessary, consultation with one more minister.
Rowen heard the vibrating chinaware first. His father had pushed himself up with both hands on the tabletop, and the tea set rang just loudly enough to tighten and charge the air. “I’m supposed to be on vacation.” His father lifted his hands to indicate his outfit. He went on in a tone of obvious self-control. Connie translated with his head inclined. “Maybe this arrangement is more complicated than we imagined. I want to be involved in Vietnam …” Rowen Sr. swallowed visibly. He made a motion with his hand to include Rowen and Connie. “We want to contribute to the reconciliation between our great countries. My son has spent the last month pouring concrete himself. But we are leaving Ho Chi Minh City tomorrow …” He left his hands in the air as his voice trailed off.
Connie was standing now beside Rowen Sr. In an instant, Rowen knew that he was supposed to stand as well. The Vietnamese were clearly expecting it just as much as Connie and his father: anything less would be a blatant show of familial disrespect. Rowen had no choice. He pushed his chair away from the table and joined Connie and his father.
Tran Van Son beamed idiotically. Even the stolid factory director had an almost coquettish half smile on his face. Same with the silent two off to the side. Had his father “lost face” with this show of anger—however uncharacteristically controlled it had been—as the World Volunteers packet suggested? Again, Rowen couldn’t help feeling that it served his old man right.
“We want you enjoy your vacation,” Tran Van Son said, the first English any of the Vietnamese had spoken since the introductions. “The problem is the equipment is having a different jurisdiction.”
“Perhaps,” Connie suggested to Rowen Sr. in a voice noticeably more audible than his usual translations, “Mr. Hguan Ny can take our best offer to the Minister. Perhaps,” he said again, “we could all meet your last night in the country.”
Rowen Sr. considered. “We could pay the retainer fee for his services as negotiator. Conditional upon approval before we return.”
Connie translated, his tone and posture more deferential than ever, but both Tran Van Son and the factory director had clearly already understood. Hguan Ny grunted his approval. What had just happened? Rowen wondered. Had a bribe been offered? Accepted? The whole thing had taken place in front of Rowen’s face, almost entirely in English, and still he couldn’t be sure.
Rowen watched the faces of the Vietnamese as his father and Connie immediately sat back down at the table. Again Rowen saw that he had no choice. With life-size Ho Chi Minh looking over his shoulder, Rowen again took his seat, effectively concluding the negotiations about real-life means of production. Resolved—with some sizable kickback, if Rowen’s guess was correct—to the apparent satisfaction of everyone involved, Communists and capitalists alike, except for Rowen. Rowen looked at the poster on the wall: It’s you and me, Ho, he thought. We’re the real relics here.
One of the silent Vietnamese motioned to the woman in the corner to refill the tea cups as Tran Van Son, Hguan Ny, Rowen Sr., and Connie discussed the particulars.
“Is that okay with you, Rowen?” Rowen’s father addressed him directly for the first time since the meeting had begun. “A Saigon River cruise our last night in country, so to speak?”
“Sure.” Rowen wouldn’t give the old man the satisfaction of a reaction.
“Now.” Smiling, Tran Van Son spread his arms wide. He was back in his ceremonial mode. “We would like you be our guests at the spa. We must go to work, but y’all are on vacation.”
“Hah.” Rowen Sr. threw back his head. “Well done, well done.”
They shook hands in every permutation once before leaving the conference room and again in front of the elevators. Of the four Vietnamese, only Tran Van Son had a firm, Western-style handshake.
When the elevator doors had closed behind them, Connie held out his hand for Rowen Sr. to shake. “You’re good,” Connie whispered. “You’re very good.”
“No,” Rowen’s father said, “you’re very good.” It was the same canned modesty he had after winning a set of doubles or a round of golf.
“You’re both fantastic,” Rowen said.
“For a rookie, you weren’t so bad yourself.” Connie hazarded a shoulder-to-shoulder nudge in the little elevator.
Rowen looked at his father. “What exactly is this spa?”
“Steam room, hot tub,” Rowen Sr. answered, “that kind of stuff, massage.”
“Massa, massa,” Connie imitated the plaintive, girly cry of countless scenes from Vietnam movies.
“Can’t we just blow it off?” Rowen asked. “I’d like to actually see some of the country while I’m here.”
“That wouldn’t be very gracious of us. Ol’ Van Son’s probably making an appointment right now on his tiny little phone.” Rowen Sr. cut a sideways glance at Connie, and Connie looked down at the phone on his belt with a mock show of inadequacy.
The elevator opened on a bright hallway that led to smoked glass double doors. The word Massage was blocked into the glass in heavy silver lettering. Rowen followed Connie through the doors to a waiting area dominated by an elegant pool table with red felt and hatched leather pockets. From a pair of black speakers mounted near the ceiling came the high-pitched pluck and twang of the dan bau, the traditional Vietnamese one-stringed zither.
Rowen’s father went directly to the far end of the table and began racking the balls. Connie greeted the woman at the reception desk. Perched on a barstool, she was dressed elegantly in metallic green with black cloth buttons tight across her chest. Rowen chose a cue from the rack on the wall, then rolled the cue on the table, just as he would at a bar in the States, to make sure that it was true.
“They’re ready for one of us now,” Connie announced. “Uncle Ho?”
“I’ll wait,” Rowen Sr. said.
“It’s all you, Grasshopper.”
The smoked glass door opened, and a beautiful Vietnamese woman in a vaguely transparent white ao dai appeared in the opening. “See you on the other side.” Connie shrugged, then disappeared behind the smoked glass.
Rowen glared at his father, but the old man busied himself with the triangular rack.
“What the hell are we doing here?” Rowen said.
“I thought we might play some pool, then get a massage.” Rowen Sr. spun the rack between his palms as he lifted it from the table.
“They’re whorehouses, Dad.”
For a moment, the old man seemed to close his eyes. Then he knit his brow above the gold frame of the glasses. “For chrissakes, Rowen, you’re thirty years old. Nobody’s got a gun to your head. If you get so lucky, decide what you want to do then.”
“What about you? You’re about to get married again, remember?”
Rowen Sr. exhaled as he hunched over the table. He lined up the cue ball to break, moving the chalked point resignedly back and forth over the top of the ball. The twang of the Vietnamese monochord warbled between high, indeterminate notes, a scale Rowen had no reference for.
His father brought the cue forward violently, and the balls broke with a smack. A solid went down. “Your organization,” Rowen Sr. jabbed the pool cue toward Rowen as he sidled around the corner of the table. “Isn’t it all about being culturally sensitive? Well? Massage is a big part of Oriental culture.”
“And whoring is a big part of American imperialism.”
His dad threw up his hands. “The Horror. The Horror.’”
“You think this is a joke?”
“Or is it The Whore. The Whore’?”
“A literary reference, Dad, I’m very impressed.”
“I saw the movie.” Rowen Sr. settled over his second shot, the red seven in the side. He hit it gently and it trickled in. “Look at this place. You really think they’re running a brothel on the side? This isn’t Miss Saigon.”
“I wouldn’t know, Dad. I wouldn’t know.” But underneath Rowen’s indignation was an old, uncompromising pull: in all the Vietnam books he’d read, in all the movies he’d sneaked into during his early teens, the war violence was always intertwined with a pitiless sexuality. Rowen had felt it ever since arriving in the country. In Dong Thap, his host family thought nothing of their smooth-skinned sixteen-year-old’s sitting at Rowen’s feet after dinner, rubbing the back of her hand against the hair on his forearms and shins like the little kids in the village. But of course Rowen had felt something. And he continued to feel something later as he tossed and turned in the close heat underneath the gauze mosquito netting around his cot. In Dong Thap, though, he had been clearly under the auspices of World Volunteers. Here, he was just a tourist, playacting the part of international businessman. Here, he was a VIP guest at the spa.
Rowen Sr. had sunk three solids in a row, and Rowen watched as he lined up a fourth. The worst part was how much the old man seemed to be enjoying all this. “So you got your little sweatshop,” Rowen said.
“Shit, boy, can’t you just relax for a minute. Not everything is politics.” It was just the opposite of what his graduate school friends liked to say. Rowen Sr. slid the three down the bank into the corner pocket, coaxing it in with his hips. “Your old man’s about to run the table here; how ‘bout a little respect.”
“How ‘bout the fact that you used World Volunteers to grease your little deal?”
“Nobody used World Volunteers.” Rowen’s father shook his head dismissively. “I helped you out. You think those Communist cronies care about the quality of drinking water in some godforsaken village?”
Before Rowen could answer, the smoked glass door clicked open and the receptionist stood in the doorway in her metallic green. She said something in Vietnamese.
“Massage time,” Rowen Sr. said. “We’re up.” He set his cue on the table and moved purposefully toward the opening. “You enjoy yourself, hear? Come back relaxed. Your mother’s got high hopes for the two of us on this trip.”
By the time Rowen had replaced his cue in the rack on the opposite wall, his father had disappeared behind the glass. The woman waiting now in the doorway was noticeably less attractive than the others. She had a dour, puffy face made up severely with heavy black lines around the eyes. Rowen tried to look past her down the hall, but his father was nowhere in sight.
“Hello,” she said, the heavy accent swallowing the l’s.
“Xin Chao.” Rowen offered a smile. It was important that he not register on his face any disappointment in her appearance.
She took his hand between blunt, clammy fingers and led him down several narrow hallways, making enough turns that Rowen no longer had any sense of where he was in relation to the elevator or the front of the hotel. Female laughter trickled out from the folded curtains and cracked doors as they walked past.
The narrow room had a shower stall at the front, something Rowen hadn’t expected. The massage table was covered with a plain white sheet and a pillow in a white pillowcase. A linoleum counter had been built into the wall, and above it a shelf held a stack of thin towels. All of it seemed neat and clean enough, though it lacked entirely the plush detail of the rest of the hotel. The woman pulled a towel down for Rowen and motioned to the shower. She was speaking in Vietnamese when she left the room.
Rowen showered quickly, standing on top of a pair of plastic thongs that were too small for him to do anything but hook his big toes through the straps. He walked barefoot back to the table.
The woman came back into the room as he was pulling on his boxers. Rowen felt the beginning of a blush—he still didn’t know if this was anything other than legitimate massage—but she gave no sign of noticing. She took his khakis off of the chair and shook them out with a hard snap of the pants legs. Then she folded them and set them on the linoleum counter, square to the wall. She bent over to line up his bucks on the floor.
“Okay, okay,” she said and nodded toward the table. Rowen lay on the padded table on his stomach. He was relieved when she began to move her hands quickly over his back, but she pulled at his skin and at the hair of his arms and legs more than he would have liked. Then she pounded on him with cupped palms, but it was too forceful to enjoy, and surprisingly, embarrassingly loud.
After about twenty minutes, the woman turned Rowen over with a hand on his shoulder.
“You want release?” she said. Her heavy accent made her baby talk all the more inane.
“You want release?” There was no mistaking her meaning now as she looked at his midsection. “You give tip?” She had a quick, downward way of nodding him on. “Yes? Yes?”
“How much?” He wanted to know.
“Three … no.” An angry look flashed across her face and she shook her head. He could stop the whole thing right here. “Thirty,” she said at last. She made a circle with her forefinger and thumb. She stared at him until he registered understanding. “Four.” She pursed her lips. Then she seemed to pause. Was she waiting for him to interrupt? “Five.” She stared at him bluntly, but she did not make any obscene motion with her body.
“I have twenty-four,” Rowen said, but she just nodded her head hopefully. Yes, yes? He had suspected that the twenty-four dollars in his wallet were not enough, but he had told himself that he would never have to face up to that suspicion. Maybe it was better this way. Maybe, in fact, this had been his way all along of making sure nothing happened. “No,” he said. “I only have twenty-four dollars. Sorry.” He held up two fingers on one hand and four on the other. He felt relieved. “Sin loi. Sorry.”
But she was still nodding, taking him by the shoulders, trying to lay him back down on the table. The forcefulness of her grip unsettled him.
Rowen tried to say the number in Vietnamese—twenty-four, two, four—but she did not understand. She continued to try to position him on the table.
His wallet was in his pants on the shelf. He’d show her, he thought, sliding his feet to the floor, but she tried to stop him as he stood. They collided roughly, elbows and ribs and shoulders. Her thin ao dai was made of a surprisingly coarse material.
“Here,” he pulled the two tens and four ones out of the wallet. He thumbed through the soft Vietnamese bills still left in his wallet, but they totaled only seventy cents’ worth. Since he’d been in Saigon, he hadn’t bothered to convert his money to dong.
She reached inside the fold of her ao dai and pulled out a grubby wad of American and Vietnamese bills. She peeled off three tens and held the money in her hand. She shook it once. Then she added another ten, held it momentarily, then added another.
“Yes, I understand,” Rowen said.
“Yes, yes.” She tried to position him again on the table.
He raised his hands against her, shrugged his shoulders emphatically. “No more.” He took out the Vietnamese money and showed her the empty wallet. He held it upside down and shook it. “No more. I’m sorry. Sin loi.”
She smiled quickly and nodded. “Yes. Okay.” She pointed at the wall and called something in Vietnamese, allowing her voice to carry.
“No.” Rowen, too, had raised his voice, and he could see her recoil. But she had wanted him to ask his father for more money. “No.” She flinched when he touched her shoulder. How had it come to this? Her shoulder was thick and meaty, and it occurred to Rowen for the first time that she was one of the only people he had seen in this country who could be called overweight. He smiled at her consolingly. He searched for some flash of recognition in her bottomless black eyes, some sense of the person inside. “I’m sorry.” He reached for his pants on the counter, still smiling. He bowed his head to show respect. “You very nice,” he pointed at her with his finger. “Very pretty. But I change mind. Massage only. Only.” He held the waistline of his khakis and lowered them to the floor to slip his foot in, but she caught his arm.
“Okay, okay. Massa, massa.” She sounded just like Connie in the elevator. She wrested the khakis from him and set them back on the counter. She took the twenty-four dollars from his wallet and held it briefly in her hand for him to see, before adding it to her wad of money. “Okay, okay.”
“Wait,” Rowen said, watching his money disappear inside the folds of her clothing. “No. Wait.” The top of her head barely came up to his collarbone. Her hair was pulled back into a complicated black bun with loose strands on each side of her face dangling parallel to her cheeks. On a thinner woman, it might have been stunning.
Her hands on his bare hips surprised him. They felt dry and cool, vaguely ticklish. She nodded up at him, her eyes round and wide, angled upward submissively.
Rowen allowed her to guide him back onto the table. When she had him settled again on his back, she made a soft sound of assent with her throat and patted him twice on the chest, fixing him in place. Again nodding. Then she turned away from him. Rowen looked up into the corner of the room where a brown watermark crept down the wall. He could tell from the pattern of the ceiling tiles that the wall had been an addition; at some point, these rooms had been partitioned off.
He lifted his head when he heard the splat of the squirt bottle as she squeezed clear oil into her palm. There were more wet, smacking noises as she rubbed her hands together. He could still make it stop. He could grab his clothes and walk out of here, let her keep the twenty-four dollars. She turned back to him. She smiled and nodded at his boxers. He lifted his hips as she pulled the boxers down to his knees. Without looking again at his face she squirted some of the oil directly on him: a strange feeling of no feeling, not warm, not cold, not even wet. She took him in her hands. He was already hard.
So this was it. She moved her hand slowly, squeezing him harder than he was accustomed to. Rowen let his head fall back against the pillow. He told himself that he might as well relax; there was no stopping it now. He might as well try to enjoy. He looked over at her body, but it struck him as squat and workmanlike, and he did not want to see her naked. Between her eyebrows, two vertical lines of concentration ran parallel into her forehead. He would focus on the sensation, he told himself, on the burning below. At this point, he thought, the worst insult might be not giving into it. And it did feel good. The isolated burning, slowly spreading through his pelvis. It felt good.
But he could not come. The more the pressure built, the more convinced Rowen became that he could not ejaculate. He could not slip over the top of the hill. He tensed the muscles in his legs. He lifted his hips off the table, but it was like straining to lift a weight that was just too heavy. It would not budge. He could feel her bearing down, tightening her grip. And the pressure continued to build. Until the muscles in his legs and hips began to hurt. Until he was shaking from the pressure and the effort.
Damn it. He had to relax his legs. He lowered himself back onto the table. He didn’t want it to stop, and yet he couldn’t bear the thought of going on without ejaculating. He looked up at her face: the vertical furrow had deepened into a look of frank exasperation. Rowen tried to catch her eye, but she glowered furiously at his crotch as she pounded away.
The callousness of the look caused a change in Rowen: so what if it did take forever? She couldn’t care less about him—why the hell should he try to spare her? Yet that’s all he’d done from the very beginning. He hadn’t wanted this to happen. He’d worried about being polite. About such things as exploitation and morality. Twenty-four dollars was nearly a month of wages in this country—probably twice as much as she got from any Vietnamese man. And she’d made him feel guilty about it. All he’d wanted was to know the price, to prolong his little game of tourist playacting for another few minutes. She’d practically forced him to go through with it. And now she was frustrated because he couldn’t get it over with?
Well, maybe he wouldn’t settle for what his twenty-four dollars could buy. Maybe he would grab her and put his hand over her mouth. He would part her legs with his knees, rip the flimsy ao dai from her hips. Hold her against the table with his body and get exactly what any Vietnamese man would get for twenty-four dollars.
Rowen could feel the shift in pressure, like a car sliding into gear, revving at a more efficient pitch, and he knew that he was only moments from ejaculating.
God, how it burned. Entering her when she did not want to be entered. Imposing his own will absolutely.
But the moment Rowen became conscious of fantasizing, the pressure began to subside. Rowen was no more capable of doing this woman physical harm than he was of discussing globalization in Vietnamese.
Maybe she mistook the way he looked at her, or maybe she sensed that he was slipping away from the edge, because she swept her ao dai off of her shoulders. Her plump brown belly hung over the waist of functional peach-colored panties. With her free hand she pulled rhythmically at her right tit. It was pale, tube-like, pointy.
Somewhere in this maze of rooms Rowen’s father and Connie were no doubt receiving similar treatment. But they would experience no such chasm between the constraints of conscience and the fulfillment of fantasy. With this woman’s hand around his penis, Rowen was even more repulsed by the idea of his father in a nearby room, and yet he could no longer feel that it was any real betrayal. The old man probably had himself convinced that whatever he allowed himself to do—and there would be no wavering on his part—it was all within the normal course of Vietnamese massage. Who was Rowen to say otherwise?
Rowen felt his own intricate moral scaffolding begin to crumble. The companies he wouldn’t buy shoes from, the fruits he wouldn’t eat. The Chomsky, Said, Zinn, and Foucault. The way, as a graduate student, he could remain apart from the corporate world of endless compromise. Even the moral clarity of World Volunteers. What Rowen felt now, almost viscerally, was his own freedom.
His big American cock in her little Vietnamese hand. She was not beautiful, but she was not ugly either, and if he wanted prettier later, he could have it. If he was willing to raise the price—and he could certainly afford to in this city—he could have almost anything he wanted. Again he let his hips rise off the table.
He looked at the woman differently now, allowing his eyes to linger, appraising. Power would always work to further and maintain power. The world would not change because he allowed himself to enjoy her.
She looked to be a couple years younger than he was. She would not be poor here—not if she took home any reasonable percentage whatsoever of that wad of bills. In her mid- to late twenties, she would have been a toddler when the Americans left Vietnam—did she remember the soldiers? Was her family betrayed by them? Brutalized by them? Then Rowen noticed what should have been obvious all along—her thicker build, her lighter skin, the more varied topography of her face—and Rowen thought again of his father in a nearby room. A surge of remembered bitterness coursed through him, but there was no place for it to lodge inside of him now—he was too light, almost ethereal. There was nothing between himself and the sensation in his groin. He wanted to laugh. His hips rose effortlessly off the table.
The woman took one of the folded towels from the shelf and dabbed at Rowen’s midsection. Then she stood up and went to the sink to wash her hands of him.