“I know we have only just met,” Dúc says in his slightly musical English, the strobe lights like lightning, “but I need a suitcase.” He pulls out a pack of Vietnamese cigarettes, the box dragon-red and elegant, private. On the dance floor people are wriggling to Madonna’s “Holiday.” Watching them, their liquored gyrations, you remember that in Vietnamese the word for dance is just one tone away from the word for puppets.
The strobe lights have turned the world into an old black and white movie — you’re Bette Davis, Myrna Loy, Dietrich in some hole-in-the-wall cabaret just one town over from the Western front, the smoke streaming from your lips. Now would be the time to do some fancy trick, French inhale, the smoke on a continuous loop in and out of your nose.
Dúc tamps a cigarette on the table filled with dirty glasses, lights it in his mouth, then offers it to you. The strobe lights have turned the world into an old black and white movie — you’re Bette Davis, Myrna Loy, Dietrich in some hole-in-the-wall cabaret just one town over from the Western front, the smoke streaming from your lips. Now would be the time to do some fancy trick, French inhale, the smoke on a continuous loop in and out of your nose. But you can’t so you don’t, your throat already burning from something in this Vietnamese cigarette, something bitter and foreign, something you never want to taste again. Dúc nods his head carefully to the music as though it were a cold bath, something he’s trying to get into. “Is it wrong for me to ask? Please say,” he says, his palms down flat on the table. You shake your head. “Good,” he says. “Let us meet in the parking lot by the student union. Say one o’clock tomorrow.”
Because the music has changed decades, the others float back to the table, their faces slightly shiny when the light hits. Eventually there are more drinks, things said in both English and Vietnamese, more cigarettes passed around that taste like wet newspaper. When you finally leave on the edge of last call, Huong, whose father is a party official in Nha Trang, grabs your arm, grins. “Rock and roll,” he says, which eight weeks into the summer semester has become the foreign students’ standard salutation and farewell. You flip him the peace sign and turn to Dúc, who is absent-mindedly sliding a quarter along the fingers of one of his long elegant hands.
“Mot gio,” you mouth, the music pounding.
He nods. “One o’clock.”
Outside the summer night is as clear as vodka. When you wake up in the morning, your head will throb softly like overripe fruit, the taste of this night’s rotten cigarettes still in your mouth.
Although it’s the first week of August, Dúc is standing in the parking lot looking slightly chilled, a denim jacket wrapped around his shoulders. When he sees you turn into the lot, he points repeatedly to the ground where he’s standing, the Vietnamese equivalent of waving your arms in the air and shouting, “I’m over here.”
“Chao em,” you say as he gets into your car, “em co khoe khong?” You wonder how he’ll take this, your using the pronoun meant for children, but he’s twenty-one in Asian years and technically at twenty-two you are his elder. Besides, the sky is blue, the birds are singing, and if he’s put out by your greeting, he doesn’t show it.
“I am fine,” he says, his English more formal here in the quiet of your car. He is wearing a yellow polo shirt and khaki shorts, on his feet a pair of cheap drugstore flip-flops. In his right hand he is carrying a small blue handbag embroidered with what look like large red stars which he immediately presents to you. “From my country,” he says, “for you.”
“Cam on,” you reply, thanking him and basically exhausting your knowledge of conversational Vietnamese despite the last eight weeks of “intensive” study.
He nods and pulls a pair of aviator sunglasses out of the front of his jacket, slides them on and points to the horizon. “Rock and roll,” he says.
“Yeah, rock and roll,” you say, and step on the gas.
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