Her name is Adrianna and she lives in the two-story, balconied apartment complex across the dirt road – Toy Ngoc Hau – where I live. Prior to having slipped into the trance of nearly being a mole I had periodically seen her on her balcony when I was on my balcony. She is a civilian employee of some American contractor, and, unlike the few American-women-military-persons assigned to the Saigon war effort, who all live in rabbit hutch-like little cubicles that have been built especially for that purpose, she lives on the economy. She has an unshared apartment just across from me just before the street becomes a dead end.
The first time I saw her I couldn’t come to grips with her as reality. I couldn’t make myself believe that there was something, somebody that stunning in the shithole that I inhabit. It seems only fitting for me to be in such a place, but it does not seem at all fitting for one such as she. She is slender, but well endowed where endowment is an asset. She has black hair with red highlights cut short to cope with the heat. She is a third taller than the Vietnamese women that I have unconsciously begun to accept as being standards of human femininity. In that first, brief, encounter she was looking absently across the alleyway toward me from her balcony. Before any chance of our making eye contact – we were after all standing directly across from one another looking, each, in kind, in the direction of the other – I ducked back into my room.
I know that the protocols of this place leave American women in general - even not very good looking ones - to officers of rank vastly superior to mine. Looking at someone as spectacular as is my across the street neighbor and having absolute certainty that there is no chance of my muscling aside what must be a long line of colonels and generals I am stirred with feelings so morose that, when added to my general everyday moroseness, I want to withdraw immediately from any contact with that beautiful creature.
So I ducked back into the gloom of my apartment, sat on the bed and picked up my guitar. Later, after she had vacated her balcony, I took some ice cubes from my Sanyo, put them in a water glass and filled the glass with some of my current month’s vodka ration and retreated to the roof top of the building where one can sit among potted flowering plants and small trees and contemplate the incongruous mixture of ugliness of the skyline and the fabulous beauty of the retreating sun’s color-drenching effect on the vast puffily globular mounds of clouds that make the ugly skyline a moot issue.
Not long after that event I began to descend into a state of being where reality and fantasy become meaningfully and meaninglessly one, people become shadows and beautiful women don’t exist. I was able to get on, and to go on, but it was not “getting on” with my life or with anyone’s life; I was getting on with getting on, while I tried to distinguish between the shadows and the tangibles so that I could align myself with the shadows.
I had great success during my stint as lord of the shadows.
That intense mental pain of – something – was always reliably allayed and eluded by those multiple shadow alignments.
I could deal with people: my superiors, my subordinates, my same-rank associates and my same or higher rank friends in a manner that would have seemed ethereal to the point of intense danger to the person that I had been not long before slipping into this shadow land.
But to the person that I had become that manner of dealing with existence seemed to be of the most natural order.
And time does pass.
One early evening recently, I was in the street, or dirt track, that is Toy Ngoc Hau. I had walked that afternoon after my daily contribution to the war effort all the way back to the dwelling. Sometimes I do that. Riding the Air Force bus is an exceptionally depressing addition to an already depressing existence. In fact the shadows seem to thicken when I ride that bus. That makes riding the bus an all but mandatory part of my days.
But not on the evening being described.
Walking home starts where I work every day: the hootch that squats next to the two story air conditioned building that houses 7AF HQ. It continues down the main drag of Ton Son Nhut, with perhaps a stop at the Officers’ Club to see if any new blood that I have known in a previous existence has been added to the “effort”, takes the road to the main gate past the army encampment which is constantly wetted down to keep the mud content high, and off base, down the main road to downtown Saigon, past the field that is a lake in which there are things that snarl and roil the shallow waters. I then take a right turn off that main road, into the area that ultimately meanders into Toy Ngoc Hau.
I have traversed that route many times. And I had just done so again on the early evening being described. Toy Ngoc Hau is not a long street; it is probably a long four or five blocks by American standards. It is totally residential. There are no shops or stalls, stands or carts. It is made of dirt with gravel and some lonely, down at the heels cobble stones. At one time it probably resembled a street that could have been found in the cities of its colonial mistress. By the time I have become associated with it, it is a dusty track.
Halfway from its mouth – the entrance from the turn-off from the main road to downtown Saigon – on the way to the place where I live there is a gigantic mound of garbage piled in a slanting jumble up the side of the wall that separates the street from the small courtyard of the residence in front of which the garbage is piled. The pile never appears to get any bigger – it is already huge – nor does it ever appear to get any smaller. Like many things that have begun to inhabit my world, the shadows for example, it just is.
And as such I am always glad to see it. Initially it became a sort of presence. With time it has assumed the visage of a friend.
I had passed the garbage heap when I heard a kind of strangled croaking noise. It wasn’t of a quality that could be called a squawk: it was longer in duration than the onomatopoeic implications that would have been assigned to that word. It was kind of an agh agh agh ah aaaah sound wrapped in a croak.
It was Frank the Hiking Chicken.
I first became aware of Frank not long before the evening that I am recounting. It has been a few weeks perhaps; in my shadow world it is always hard to tell.
I awoke early one stifling morning, and while I lay there summoning the energy to get up I heard a sound that I couldn’t identify. “What is that?” I said to myself; “a retarded frog?” was all that I could summon as an answer to the question.
I got up and went out on the balcony and listened. There it was again. And there it was again. I finally identified the source. It was a disreputable half grown white chicken sitting on top of a small clump of indeterminate detritus, stretching his neck skyward and emitting the noise that I had heard. Apparently he was trying to crow. He was failing miserably.
As the mornings progressed after that first encounter with the proto rooster, I am always awakened, or hear after awakening for other reasons, Frank trying to be the cock of the rock. I have named him Frank the Hiking Chicken because of some Smothers Brothers routine that I heard once.
Not having ever been exposed to farm life, I didn’t know that roosters don’t just crow at dawn. Although they do start at dawn, they continue intermittently throughout the rest of the day until darkness causes them to tuck their heads under their wings and go to sleep.
And that was what I was hearing as I returned to Toy Ngoc Hau that early evening.
It not being dark yet, Frank hadn’t yet tucked his head under his wing and he was working on his crow.
I made the mental note that it probably wouldn’t be long before he got out a legitimate cock-a-doodle-doo. Just at that point a rat skittered out of somewhere and made a run at Frank. Frank crouched down from his neck-extended vocalizing stance and took three quick strides in the opposite direction from the direction of the rat.
That put him roughly under my feet.
Since I hadn’t expected to have been about to have a chicken between my feet, and since my feet had been in the process of being deployed based upon different, more traditional walking-down-the road assumptions, Frank’s move caused me some pedestrian disorientation.
I stumbled, caught my balance, tangled one foot with the other, and went down. I landed on my back. The rat skittered across my stomach and toward Frank. Frank jumped skyward, flapped a little bit and landed on my chest. “Cock-a-doodle-doo” said Frank. I said, “Congratulations, you’re a full rooster.” The few Vietnamese that lived in this little compound were all pointing and laughing. I started laughing and just lay there.
It was the first time that I had laughed since the advent of the shadows.
Some thought of brushing Frank off and onto the ground, getting up and trying to assume some semblance of the dignity that my august rank of First Lieutenant should have carried with it had begun to enter my mind when I heard a different, non-Vietnamese sort of laughter. It came from above me. I followed the sound upward to its source, not attempting to get up, while Frank continued to crow. He seemed to be pretty satisfied with his new roost.
Indicative of that fact he deposited some chicken shit on my shirt. The laughter of all sorts grew louder.
As I stared upwards I saw my beautiful neighbor hanging over the balcony looking at me and laughing uncontrollably. Even at the distance from my supine position on the street up to her eyes I could see that there were tears accompanying the laughter. And her eyes, those eyes that I had consciously avoided the one other time I had seen her were of the greenest green.
“Teaching a rooster to crow is a tough, dangerous business,” I said.
Her laughter rose again and the green eyes welled even more tears.
“Didn’t your mother tell you not to play with chickens?”
“No, she told me not to fuck them.” I have no idea what caused me to say that, or where the idea even came from. It was probably some perverse way of venting the anger that, even in my shadow world state, I was feeling. It was probably a violent thrust to repel contact with someone that I had already identified as desirable beyond any ability at my disposal to describe and untouchable by me under any circumstances.
Or it may have been something that I thought was a snappy riposte. In any event that is what I said.
Rather than having its –perhaps – intended effect, the remark caused redoubled laughter, tears and dazzling green-eyed merriment. Frank crowed again. I looked up again and she was gone from the balcony.
As I tried to remove Frank without being too rough – he was after all about my only friend in the compound – and as I was assessing the least personally disgusting manner to clean Frank’s deposit from my shirt, someone took my arm and helped me up. “You really need some work,” she said, still laughing. As I straightened up I looked at her, this time with barely the buffer of normal human personal space separating us. The top of her head came up to about to my larynx, right about at the point where a triage doctor would insert a tube for a tracheotomy.
I had an overwhelming sensation of wanting that personal space to vanish.
I was looking at someone different from, and with a feeling different than, anyone or anything I had ever experienced.
“But Generals are no doubt, in a constant state of vying for her” quickly flashed through my mind.
“Seriously, let me fix you a drink,” I thought I was hearing someone say.
“You do drink – when you’re not training roosters, that is?” I realized that I had been mute for an abnormal length of time for me. A simple “yes” should have sufficed, but I was feeling the need to try to regain the verbal high ground.
Without any thought at all I blurted, “It takes a heap of homin’ to make a pigeon toed.” The look of good natured merriment fled into a look of mild disbelief or complete incomprehension.
“Strike that; I must have been delirious; absolutely; yes; a drink; your place or mine?” I had a momentary sense of horror at having in two brief conversational snippets lapsed from the apparently irrational to the undeniably banal. But that was the verbal hand I had dealt myself, so I forged ahead. “I mean, I have some ice. This month’s ration is gin; and I think I have two pretty clean water glasses. What about you?”
“I was thinking about a bottle of Bordeaux that I got in Cholon.”
Seeing my balcony from the one across from it was a whole new perspective. I vastly prefer that new perspective. I had a passing sensation of the shadow world indulging in a sort of elastic pull back. Something for the better seemed to be in the process of occurring.
Her apartment is a much bigger space than mine. And while “space” is the most accurate term to describe where I live, because it is roughly a square, approximately24 feet by 24 feet, with a piece of it partitioned off to house a toilet, basin and shower, “space” is not an accurate description of the living quarters in which I was having a glass of wine, from the bottle, from the wine shop in Cholon.
Her apartment occupies a “space”, but at that point the similarity to mine utterly ceases.
Her “space” is perhaps twice as large as the one that I occupy. It has a small alcove that is the kitchen, which has a two burner cook top with thick metal one piece elements; it has a small – but bigger than mine - new Sanyo refrigerator, a sink and a small butcher block table. The wall has open-faced cabinets with dishes and glasses; there is a small wine rack on the butcher block table; and there are cabinets from the floor to the level of the sink with counter tops upon them and pots and pans in them. To the left of the kitchen alcove, and separated by that alcove’s wall, and enclosed by a full floor to ceiling front wall is a door, and it is a door that glows through its ancient pressed glass panes, and it is a door that has a cut glass knob. Within the space accessed through this door, and bounded on the other side by the interior of the outer wall of the building there is a bathroom with a toilet, that - like mine - has a tank attached above it to the wall with a pull chain; but - unlike mine - there is a small floor-standing bath tub with a shower attachment, and with a flexible hose. That hose is attached to the water spigots at whose juncture there is a turn lever valve to switch between fill the tub and let’s have a shower modes. There is a basin with a mirror with cabinets on either side.
There is, back from the bathroom and the kitchen, toward the entry door, a large open space with a couch fronted by a low coffee table, two small plush French chairs and two small round marble topped tables, one in each corner. To the left is a recession that houses her bed - which is double. Like mine it has only a sheet on it. Unlike mine her sheet looks to be silk. There are two floor lamps dimly consuming that variable commodity that passes for electricity.
She handed me a bottle and a corkscrew and went to one of the open cabinets in the kitchen for two wine glasses.
The glasses had the look of crystal.
I sat on one of the chairs, put the bottle between my feet to hold it in place, inserted the corkscrew’s coil, turned it down, and, continuing to hold the bottle in place with my feet, I pulled the cork. “I’ve never seen it done that way.” She said. “But then, Jacques warned me to expect aberrations.” At least I thought I had heard her say something like that. The second part had been muttered almost beneath her breath, but I thought that I had heard it and had heard it correctly.
My reaction to that comment was such that it took away my always returned riposte to observations that I opened wine bottles oddly. Normally I would have said, “My father taught me to do it this way”. That is true. Somewhere in Europe, sometime in the Second World War, my father started opening wine bottles in that manner; and he had passed that manner on to me.
I looked at her. I didn’t think asking her if I had heard correctly about her having been forewarned of my oddities by “Jacques” and asking the obvious question of who “Jacques” might be was going to fit into the overall texture of the evening.
So I sat mute.
“Let the wine breathe for a while. Take off that shirt and put this on” she said handing me a man’s tee shirt. “We can soak Frank out of yours in the basin in the bathroom. Please, sit. I have been watching you for months wondering if you were unconscious or just rude. I couldn’t have tried harder, short of showing up on your doorstep to get your attention. I am glad that that bridge has finally been crossed.”
That seemed to give me the leeway to speak my mind.
So I began.
“Starting with the rat and the chicken, this encounter has been not real. So I am going to say a few things that one, not even I, would normally say – this being – by definition of its characteristics - not a real encounter.”
She returned a shrug, accompanied by a poof of air from briefly pursed lips that seemed to say “trivial, probably, but please continue”.
So I did.
“The first time I saw you standing on the balcony I couldn’t take my eyes off you. If there is a thunderbolt, as the Sicilians call it, I have felt it. I had a tangible physical pain somewhere in the lower reaches of my stomach, somewhere near my groin. And all of that in just the time it took for me to see you. I ducked inside before there was any chance of eye contact. I had a compelling feeling that that would have been fatal. I know the rules. Much less beautiful women than you have the pick of any General they want. And there are so many Colonels that if you can’t find a vacant general you can’t miss on the Colonels.”
She looked at me with what – I didn’t know at the time – was going to become “that” look. But this was its first appearance, so I merely placed it in my mental logbook as something to be remembered.
That look had been so intimate that I couldn’t but want to figure out how to induce it again, and induce it with frequency.
And then she spoke.
“I deeply regret that you have felt so. We are such – each to the other – that such a thing is impossible. But I know that you have observed accurately what typically goes on here. What you can’t know – although I would wish that you could – is that such is not my life. You are my life.”
Catholic High School induced guilt, shadow world induced slippage and sheer disbelief that I could possibly have heard her correctly all rose up in a tidal wave of suppressive emotion. I said nothing.
Those green eyes bored into me.
The wine, once first poured, lasted a surprisingly long time. We sat and we talked until Frank, with his newly found maturity, had marked the new day.
I took my shirt across to my side of the alley, deposited it on the to-be-sent-to-the-nice-Vietnamese-lady-who-takes-them-down-to-the-river-and pounds-them-on-the-rocks pile, put on a clean uniform and walked to the base.
Not only had the shadows disappeared in one fel swoop, but also, some amazing thoughts, topics, subjects and revelations had been broached in the hours immediately previous.
And I had held her for a brief moment as I was leaving. As I enveloped her in my arms and brushed my lips across hers I thought I heard a distant, distant voice: “you have come back for me.”