You, Soldier, and Others
by EMILY MOECK
I was on the phone, in the middle of booking a ten-day tour for a couple’s thirtieth when I got an email from an old friend with your name in the subject. At first, I couldn’t help but laugh at the odds. But I guess they were pretty high, ever since Vietnam was voted one of Travel and Leisure's “Top Ten Most Beautiful Places To Visit” a few years back. Now, the age of the internet has reduced my clients to the pseudo rich and the elderly and I run the whole thing out of
my garage in Tarzana.
“Have you ever been?” the woman on the phone asks.
When I tell her about the tunnels I can almost hear her eager fingers flipping through the index of her Rick Steve’s, scanning the page till she finds it under Things To Do in Ho Chi Minh City (but to me it will always be Saigon).
They always insist on reading their travel guides out loud to me over the phone. This is my job, I want to say, but I let her get excited.
“The Chu Chi tunnels were dug with simple tools and bare hands,” she reads slow and methodical and in her pauses I can almost see her eyes squinting as she leans towards the page, careful not to skip a line as she follows with her finger, “The tunnels provided the Viet Cong with refuge and defense against the American and South Vietnamese forces. American soldiers used the term ‘Black Echo’ to describe the Viet Cong who would emerge from the tunnels at night, all muddy, to scavenge for supplies or engage in battle. Air, food, and water were scarce in the vermin infested tunnels, and during periods of heavy bombing or American troop movement, they would be forced to remain underground for many days at a time.”
A long pause and I imagine her looking up from the book, smiling.
“Sounds wonderful,” I say.
I tell her the walking tour includes the headquarters where the VC brainstormed the Tet Offensive and the last attacks towards victory and the overthrow of Saigon and she counters by reminding me Saigon was also once Prey Nokor, a small fishing village, before the French colonized it in 1859. If you stare at something long enough, I guess it’s bound to become something else. She tells me the book also says they let you fire live ammunition from an vintage MK at the end of the tour.
“Yes, that too,” I say, “Very exciting.”
The email was from an old friend we used to know when I still worked for American and it said you crashed off the coast in a little two-seater flying back from Mexico a few weeks ago. A few weeks ago. You had been there on your annual trip with a few others from your congregation laying the foundation and building the framework of multiple houses outside of Tijuana. That he would have let me know sooner but he had to hunt down my information.
Bower, he wrote, that’s a nice name.
I don’t remember getting the client off the phone. Nor do I remember typing your name in the search bar, but there they were—a bunch of local news articles and a few pictures of a little one engine all lit up with with the flash, its left wing sticking out in the night, and I couldn’t help but think of that flight out of Honolulu where we met half a life ago and then to imagine you there on my screen or I guess somewhere close to Catalina, and if I could only see through all that steel and black water to you in the sea. I clicked around.
The Palisadian Post had a short blurb about you—an alumni of ‘66 three-year-varsity backstroker turned paratrooper turned swim instructor to the Los Angeleno elite and amature pilot—who died from drowning when he ran out of gas less than a mile out.
They shipped you home on my flight. Back then, soldiers were advised to change into civilian clothes on their last leg home so they wouldn’t be accosted by protesters at the airport.
But all we ever had to do was look in your eyes or watch your shoulders when the food cart went down the aisle. None of you fooled us. If it had been up to me I would have taken you all home, but your friend was the one that had the balls to ask. Eventually I knew it would lead to you.
I often wonder if you were so hollow as a kid, or if that was something you brought back. I remember the car crash when we were living in that shitty place off Laurel Canyon, us driving home and that red Shelby ran a red—or maybe you did—and the world broke loose and we came back upside-down and trapped amongst broken glass and bleeding and you were so calm so quiet, even then like it happened everyday. Psychological Inoculation, something some book said once when I still cared. I swear we were pulling shards out of our skin for weeks, cutting each other when we made love or tried to.
The Newport Breeze reported you were traveling alone and that the autopsy results indicated drowning. They said the water where you went down was only a few feet deep and then mud, causing the tiny plane to be sucked under soon after impact.
My fingertips felt prickly like pins and I thought maybe it was time for a glass of wine.
There was an open bottle in the fridge and I used the remote to flip on the set in the living room. Jon had left it on a news station—probably watching before work—and I listened to last night’s game scores and put water on to boil. It’d have to be pasta tonight.
At the end of the article was a picture of a man that looked like you, but older and somehow different. Balding now and skinner, true, but I didn’t remember your teeth ever showing. So tiny and tilted inward.
The newscaster on the TV wore a windbreaker and his hair flapped back and forth across his forehead—someone I didn’t recognize, from a syndicate or something. Yes the graphic on the bottom said he was outside of Boston. It must be a slow night for news, I thought, outside of you. On the beach where the newscaster stood with his shoes off, the white foam crests broke silently at his bare ankles as he pointed into the dark behind him. It looked as if the sun had been gone only an hour or so and the almost invisible water still clung to the rusty iridescence of a foggy sunset and there was something large on the sand the waves kept crashing into. Out there where he pointed. Large and black like a hole and what was he saying—it was a beast—a sperm whale, he said, washed up outside Rockport this morning, cause of death unknown. What they did know was that biologists called to the scene reported harpoons dating back to Melville still lodged in her flesh and as the camera zoomed in I could see them myself, these thick black slimy scars all over her now opalescent skin and then I felt you—no, Jon touch my shoulder and he was home. And the pot was boiling over and he was holding the empty bottle and asking why I was crying.
If you had died from drowning, then you must have survived the crash. If the water was only a few feet deep, then you must have been sucked under with the plane. You had survived everything else, but maybe that seatbelt was stuck or maybe it all happened too quickly or maybe this was just determinately it. And were you calm like you were with the Shelby when you finally realized what was happening? I can’t think of you out there, having nothing left to breathe but mud.
Jon made me eat a bowl of the pasta he finished before he poured me another glass of wine. As I lifted it to my mouth I could smell the tannin and he turned the channel to one of those animal ones with voiceover, something neutral in the background. He’s good like that. One of the reasons I love him.
I’ve never told Jon about the last time I saw you, after the Northridge quake and I still had the need to call. Make sure you were okay. At the restaurant you said your whole chimney came down, crashed right through your patio and onto your driveway. I remember the water on the table rippling and thinking ‘Jesus, here we go again’ and then you held my hand and I realized the shaking was me. Now it seems silly I didn’t tell Jon about it, but maybe I liked tucking it away. We don’t have many secrets. Jon prefers stories like the time you emptied our whole basket of groceries on the ground in the market because the line was too long or the time you got a little too sloppy and locked yourself out on our patio all night, screaming about nothing to the Hollywood Hills until a neighbor called the cops or the time you almost slapped me because I snuck up too quietly behind you in the kitchen one of those almost mornings when you couldn’t sleep.
But I would too if I were him.
As he cleared our plates I emptied the rest of the bottle into my glass and moved to the couch. All I tasted now was metal and I could feel him looking at me and wanting to help, wanting to touch. But I, I wanted to hurt, wanted to feel you drain back into me. As if old lovers ever leave. Not really. I could feel him behind me as he finished the dishes and waited for me to look at him and tell him with my eyes I was ready to talk, to be with him again and do this together but I couldn’t turn around. My glass empty and something in the ocean on TV and he said he was going up to shower. I heard his socked feet squish down on the carpeted stairs and then a door and then water. It could have been the TV or him, then I knew it was him because I could hear it pound against his skin, changing tone as he moved through it and what did the whale die from if not from her own scars and how long did it take for all that bloated blubber to be light enough to float up and be carried by the waves to that beach?
Do you think the break is clean when we die? All that ugly. But then what’s left and would you know it in the mirror? Did you want to? All shiney and white and un-you. You told me once when you were drunk that you shook their hands after, because it was you or them and you were always going to choose you.
We both did. Or maybe just I did. I thought of you on that final table, all cut open with mud oozing out, all the darkness coming with it and if I were there I would have grabbed a needle and sewed you up and kissed your mouth and maybe I would have tasted mud or wine or you with you not there. You not anywhere.
Everything was heavy and I thought of opening another bottle. I heard the bathroom door creak, but muffled, and then maybe his feet on the stairs, maybe nothing. I don’t know, maybe I slept.
But I remember my eyelids lifting and feeling frightened because the room was drowning and I thought you were here next to me and I was holding the harpoon and there you were on the screen, all white and bloated with the sea--not mud-- and I didn’t want you, empty with glory. But it wasn’t you, just an army of tiny jellyfish like plastic bags floating across the screen. And the voice filling the room and I couldn’t find the remote. Whispering turritopez donherknees turnitooplies donthurtme Turritopsis Dohrnii, the immortal jellyfish first spotted off the coast of Saigon, who can age in reverse, returning to its fetil state after stress or sickness to begin the cycle clean. And then I knew I wasn’t holding the harpoon or you or our old home or anything to come. It was only his hand in the dark.