Return to a Destroyed City
Phan Nhat Nam
On the vehicle taking the officer corp to Phuong-Hoang club, it just occurred to me that today is my birthday. "Today is my birthday, I'm 23 already, guys!" Lieutenant colonel, the regiment's commanding officer, half-joked. "Twenty three years of age? Way too old, huh?" Everyone joined in, teasing. "Twenty three? Mandarin Junior still too young, don't mean a thing." I protested, "But five years soldiering must count for something." Duc whispered in my ear, "That's just about the same length of someone's gonorrhea, son!" Embarassed, I lost my protesting mood and kept silent. "How does it feel, young hero? Missing the wife already?" Chau the Scab joined in. "Motherf*ck, wouldn't surprise me if my boy here doesn't know where to find 'that' thing on his wife. Sheesh! Thought he's grown, who'd know the boy's just 23," brother Ba "Moustache," imfamous in the Ranger Corp for his reckless talk and risky plays, stunned me.
Right! I'm still very young. A twenty-three-year-old who knows didley. Who could have known what seemed like twenty years has just passed? Five days of the last mission. Twenty fives kilometers without the sun, moving since seven in the morning, sleeping only to awaken intermittently at night for fear of Viet-Cong ambush. Has this not been the extreme of suffering? Last night, coming out of Le-Thanh county, the nighttime air on mountainous terrain numbingly cold, cutting at the skin. And yet, I just had to dive into the freezing stream for a quick wash; five raw corns swallowed without a moment to chew because of hunger! The suffering of the past three years, has it not been enough to make a child old? The laborous hardship and tribulation of survival, together with all of their complications and troubles not enough to make me a man? I stayed brusque through the meal. After dinner, everyone went to the dancing hall.
-"Go dance, buddy. Some of the chicks here are pretty decent,"
-What the hell for? Just get me more beer."
The dancing hall, annoyingly dim and clouded. Small-town debauchery, unbearably clumsy and classless.To add insult to injury, Nhat Truong, the technician of a singer, just had to show out of nowhere to sing a song as a gift to "our soldiering brothers." Mother-fucker. Gift with no gift! The day before yesterday, deep in the forest, my lead company was fumbling around, looking for the landing zone of the Med-Vac. Two dying soldiers, heavy like two rice sacks, the forest so dense, each meter is like a mile. Overhead, the helicopter hovered, waiting. Down below, the commanding officer hurried us up. My head was bursting with flame. Just about then, this freak of a singing technician on L19, took over the handset of the air to land communications line to sing a dedication to the "Angels in Red Beret!" "Singing with no singing, you bastard, let me come and dedicate you a few of these fists," I stood up mumbling.
"Wo wo wo!!" Brother Ba Mustache freaked. "Hold it! Hold it. Let me beg of you, big Daddy. If Daddy don't wanna sit here, then scoot! Go and be useful. Trang, take him away for me. He hangs around and starts a fight, brother Tuong gonna throw us all in jail. Scoot!" Trang led me out. At the door, a stuffed tiger was sitting at the entrance. I gave it a hearty kick. "Your goddamned mother of a goddamn life! Just have to be elephant or tiger all the time, don't ya..."
-"Where you wanna go?" Trang asked.
-Just let me wander around
-What the hell for? Let's go to the 'convalescence center' for kicks.
-Awright, same diff.
The center for 'soldier convalescence' is a box filled with cigarette smoke. East and West mingled in cramped chaos. Beer drank not by the bottles, but by the cases. Drink to suppress the smell. The smell of hookers, of soldiers, of whorish perfume, of bodies long unwashed, of "matter" secreted by men and women after thousand times of sexual intercourse. Secretion long retained and accummulated on the beds and linens, in the corner, on the floor. The floor! A dim tactless hell, full of red dirt dragged in by thousands pairs of soldier boots and sprawled with hundreds of used 'rubbers'. There's just no place more disgusting and tasteless.
The hooker girl is standing in front. The light too weak to reveal much of anything but a wrinkled belly, full of bruises. "Honey, take off your clothes." I didn't budge. She continues to take off outer wear. With what's left, she went to the bed, sitting and gestured me to come over. "I'll do it for you, then?" She moves her hands to the buttons of my shirt.
-No need. Just leave it as is. I want to do it standing up.
-I'm not used to it. It's too difficult standing. Besides, I'm shorter than you.
-What the hell does it matter? You stand on the bed!!
The girl shook her head. I threw a hard punch. She fell back, screaming like a siren. Outside, someone's running. The whore next door blasted an American without mercy, ".. Fuck you!!" I dashed for the door, signaled Trang to get on the Jeep, speeding toward Pleiku. "You're drunk?" "Yeah." I let him take over the wheels. Falling back on the seat, I'm feeling exhausted like an athlete, expleted of energy, in a game beyond his league.
"What now?" Trang asked. "Just get into a bar, any would do." And there we were. Pleiku, the city of snack bars, a place of no one decent and good on the street after eight, I thought to myself. City of blatant prostitution, of shamelessly obvious sex traded for money. A city no longer of any humane character. What's left to keep? Bingo, what's the point? Just join in for the hell of it. There's nothing left in this place anymore.
Here, just two years ago, the eighth month of 1964, I came here running like a tornado to look for you. It was nightime, I ran like a madman losing his mind. I knocked on every door, asked each passer-by. "Where is she now? Where is she?" There was your house, on Hoang-Dieu street endlessly long and deserted, muddied, lightless, and without a soul. I got to your house, thinking that there will be voices and smiling faces, and that you would be there, whole and complete, just like those times I had you in my arms.
But there was nothing. Absolutely nothing. On the way back, the deserted gentle slope was as brutally tragic as the road onto Death. It has been more than two years only to find myself back in the old city, transformed without leaving a trace of the old days. Whorish, obnoxiously colorful, tasteless ostentation have taken over the streets, the laughs and voices bearing not a vestige of the Viet character. And you? Like all things precious, you too have vanished into the forgotten destruction of an obliterated land.
That night, I was no longer conscious. I don't recall how many bars I visited. I don't recall how many faces, disgusting and sickening, that I had to see. Nor how many mouths in whorish red lipsticks that I had to watch opening and closing; festering orificices of scabby open wounds that they were. I only know that I needed to get drunk, blisteringly drunk. Drink on to numb the pain of knowing. There was no longer anything worthy. Our own motherland, and we didn't even care enough to protect and keep. What's the point of us?
I was so drunk that I could hardly take a step. At midnight, the city was but a boundless fog, interpersed with a few street lights. I sat on the sidewalk, shivering from the cold, eating a bowl of beef noode, half-comforted by the fire from the stove."How come you gentlemen are out so late?" The traveling vendor asked aimlessly. Another homeless wanderer trying to survive just like I. Trang is whispering a song to himself. Bitterness and painful regrets scratched at my eyes, weighing heavy on the eyelids. That was the day I turned twenty-three. Pleiku, Vietnam, September 1966