Fiction from Web Del Sol

An Excerpt from "The Deep Green Sea"

Robert Olen Butler

These are the opening pages of Robert Olen Butler's novel, The Deep Green Sea published in paperback by Henry Holt, 1997.

There is a moment now, come suddenly upon us, when the sound of the motorbikes from the street has faded almost to silence, and I can smell, faintly, the incense I have burned, and I am naked at last. He is naked, too, though I still have not let my eyes move beyond his face and his arms and his hands. He is very gentle, very cautious, in this moment, and to my surprise, I say, "I have never done this before."
      I am lying on my bed and he is beside me and we are lit by neon from the hotel across the street and his cautious hands have touched only my shoulders. One is moving there when I say these words, and it hesitates. There is also a hesitation in me. I hear what I have said. Some place inside me says these words are true, and some other place says that I am a liar.
      I am twenty-six years old and I have been with two men in my life. But I was never with them in this bed, I was never with them in this room where I was a child of my grandmother, this room where I keep the altar to my dead father, and when I removed my clothes with these men, I did not feel I was naked with them, though I wished to be. There was fear in my heart and incomprehension in their eyes, and when we rose from the places where we touched, I felt nothing except that I was alone.
      Until this moment with Ben, I have known how to understand that. I am a girl of this new Vietnam. I am not my mother, who is of a different Vietnam and who had her own fear and incomprehension with men, and who is far away from me. I am alone in this world but it is all right, I have always thought, because in a great socialist republic everyone is equal and each of us can find a place in the state that holds us all. There is no aloneness.
      But everything is different now. I am suddenly different. I am naked. This is what I wish to tell him with my words. It is what I wish to tell myself.
      There is a surge of sound in the room, the motorbikes again, the others going around and around the streets of Ho Chi Minh City on a Saturday night, and I wish it was quiet again. I want to hear the sound of his breathing. I want to hear the faint stretching of him inside his skin as he lifts slightly away from me in thought and turns his head to the window.
      His chest is naked and so is mine. I feel my nipples tighten at the thought of him and I want it to be quiet and I want the light to be better too. I want to look at his body, this part at least. No more for now. I want to start with this naked chest of his and also his hands, which I have been able to see for these past days but that I have not yet really looked at. I take one of these hands now in mine as he thinks about what I have said. I take it and in the cold red burning of the neon light I can see his thick hand. He worked once in the steel mills. He told me of their fire. He worked once driving a great truck many thousands of miles across his country, the United States of America, gripping the steering wheel of this truck, and I love the corded veins here as I hold his hand. "It is all right," I say. I lift his hand and put it on my chest. I cover my yearning nipple.
      I look at his hand and it is very large and my own hands are small and my fingers are slender and his are not, his are thick and his skin in the light from the moon and the hotel across the street seems pale and mine seems darker. I am Vietnamese. Every Vietnamese child hears the tale of how our country began. Once long ago a dragon who was the ruler of all the oceans lived in his palace in the deep deep bottom of the South China Sea. He grew very lonely, so he rose up from the sea and flew to the land, the rich jungles and mountains and plains that are now our Vietnam. And there he met a fairy princess. A very beautiful princess. And they fell in love. This is the thing that is told to us so easily and no one ever questions her mother or her grandmother or her aunt or her friend hiding with her in the dark roots of a banyan tree, even here in Saigon, the great banyan tree in the park on Dong Khoi that was there a hundred years before the revolution. I heard the story there, on the street, and you never think to ask whoever is telling you, How did this happen? How did this feeling happen between two such different creatures? My friend Diep, who was also the daughter of a prostitute, but one who did not flee, did not give her daughter over to what she saw was a better life, my friend whispered this story to me and a stripe of light lay on her face through the cords of the roots in the banyan and she said that the fairy princess and the dragon fell in love and they married and then she laid a hundred eggs in a beautiful silk bag. And I said only, Yes, like I understood such a thing. I said, Did he love her very much? Yes, Diep said. Very much.
      And the princess had one hundred children. And there was no childhood for them. They grew instantly upon birth into very beautiful adults. Diep told me that they were both princes and princesses. Fifty boys and fifty girls. For a while they all lived together and the fairy princess was happy and the children were happy. But the dragon was not. He missed the sea and one day the fairy princess woke and he was gone. He had gone back to his palace beneath the water. She understood. She tried to live on without him. But it was very difficult because she was very much in love with him. And so she called him back. I do not know how. I did not think to ask. Somehow he knew to come back and yet he could not stay. He told her that their differences were too great. He could not be happy in the land. He had to go back to his palace, though he promised that if she ever knew any danger or terrible hardship he would return to help. So he took fifty of their children with him and he returned to the sea. And she took fifty of their children with her to the mountains. And these children became the people of Vietnam.
      It seemed a very beautiful and sad story to me. And I came home to the very room that I lie in with this man. Years ago in this place I came home to my grandmother and I told her the story and she said that it was true.
      No. Not my grandmother. She and I lived in this room for most of the time I was a child. But I heard about the dragon and the fairy princess before that. I came to my mother, and that was near to this place but not in this room, and I was perhaps seven years old, and I told her the story and she said it was true. But she corrected one thing. They were all sons. A hundred sons. And the eldest of them became the first king of Vietnam. I did not ask anything more, questions that I now have that roll in me and break in me more strongly than the waves of the dragon's precious sea. But it is this that I wonder as I hold this man's hand in my bed: how did she look upon her dragon when she first lay with him? Did the princess take the great scaled hand of this creature that she was loving so strongly even then, ready as she was to open her body to him, did she put her tiny, silken hands on his and did she pass her fingers softly over the layers of his hard flesh still smelling of the sea, did she touch the tips of his claws, did she look into his great red eyes and see all the gentleness that she had dreamed for? And surely the answer is yes. Surely that is what she did.
      I cannot see Ben's eyes. Not the color of them. Not what might be there of his heart. He turns his face to me when I lead him to touch my breast and there is only shadow where his eyes are and I cannot see. But I feel him through his hand. He is very gentle in this place of steel mills and trucks and I know he likes the touch of me and I know this even though he lifts his hand now. Just the tiniest bit so that he does not touch me with his flesh, but I can still feel the heat of him. "Are you sure?" he says. He believes this thing I have said about myself. I believe it, too. And I am sure of this: with this man, I am naked and I do not feel as if I am alone. "Yes," I say, and he puts his hand on me but not over my nipple. He puts his hand in the center of my chest, between my breasts, and the tip of his middle finger is in the hollow of my throat. It feels as if he touches my whole body with his palm and I do not know what is to come and I tell myself I do not care.

She tells me I'm the first man she's ever done it with and I stop right off. It wouldn't make a difference in my feelings for her, either way, but when she says she's never made love before, I do feel like I've been given some kind of a second chance. I almost tell her it's the same for me.
      For Christ's sake, to be able to start again from a place where there's nothing to remember, nothing to ask about, nothing but what's there for both of you right in that moment, without any history at all, that's almost too good to be true. And to my surprise, my face goes hot and I get a feeling in my eyes like when you step in front of a coke oven and you take that first blast of heat before you start shoveling the spill.
      Like that maybe, like a feeling at the mill, but that's a little bit of bullshit on my part. In fact, it's like when you're about to cry. This woman lying here in a dim room saying she's a virgin and she wants me to be inside her body and she is who she is, she listens to me talk like she does with those sweet dark eyes never looking away even for a second and she takes me into a room like this and says so easily this is my good luck Buddha and this is my long life Buddha and this is my ancestor shrine and it's like she thinks I'm going to understand these things right off. She just makes me part of them, though a couple of the things should seem silly to me, little ceramic fat guys sitting on the floor, but I don't want to laugh at them, only maybe a quiet laugh in pleasure from her being like this. A Vietnam woman. In a room in goddamn Saigon, after all. Those people out there going around and around all night on their motorcycles, a bunch of them maybe guys who twenty years ago were in the business of killing Americans. And she tells me that there is no past at all and she wants me and I feel like I'm going to goddamn cry.
      So I turn my face to the window. And I hope that it will be all right for her. I hope she shouldn't be waiting for the man she's going to marry, though it's not like I've ruled out that the man she could marry is me. If I figured otherwise, I think I'd be strong enough to get up and thank her as sweetly as I could so it wouldn't hurt her and I'd get the hell out of here. But I realize--and this is a shock to me, as a matter of fact--that it could be me. It took me to come back to the fucking Nam to realize that I could be married to somebody again. And just at the moment I come to the little shock of that, Tien says, "It is all right," and she takes my hand and puts it on her breast.
      This is the first real touch. The first touch of sex. We're half naked at the moment and we've been kissing, but this is the first touch. I take my hand away but not very far. I can't say that something's warning me. I just want to be sure she isn't making a mistake about what she wants. They think about these things a little different over here. Even if the communists are in control, they still seem to think in some older ways. I don't want her to end up spoiled for some other man, just in case. Though I'm wanting to go on with this very bad now. And it's been a long time since I've felt this way. I don't even try to think of the last time. I lift my hand just a little bit and my palm is burning with the tiny hard spot where the tip of her nipple was and what I do think of is a moment when I was pulling oil on the California coast, some years ago now, and I stepped out of my rig in a rest stop somewhere in the San Joaquin Valley and it was night and the air was full of the smell of oranges. A couple of Peterbilts had just huffed away and they'd been full of oranges and the smell was everywhere, that and the smell of diesel fuel, and I suddenly wanted a woman bad. I wasn't sure why but it seemed to have something to do with this place. Saigon. These streets are always full of that kind of mix of smells, some sweet something, fruit or flowers or incense, but something else too in the same air, dry rot or old fish or the exhaust from the motorbikes. I got out of my truck, and what passed for a marriage in my life was dead already and I didn't care if my pecker ever saw the light of day again and it was a thing that smelled like Vietnam that made me want a woman once more.
      I push Tien a little bit. "Are you sure you want to?" I ask her and I hope the answer is going to be yes. And it is. She says it right away and I put my hand in the center of her chest and I wish my hand was big enough to hold her in it, all of her, just cover her with the palm of my hand and keep her safe and make her happy. I ache in the shoulders from wanting that. And the mix of things is in the air right then. The incense from her ancestor shrine and the smell of all the cheap motors outside and somebody in a room nearby cooking with the fish oil they use.
      Soon after I got back here to Vietnam I came to this street I once knew. It was the only one that stuck in my head after all these years. And that was because of a woman. I guess we used the word "love' to each other for a few months, her and me. Whatever love was for me at twenty. And there was something between us for a while. Something. But I didn't come back here looking for her. It was just a street I knew. There were bars along here, in 1966. A clothing shop now. A noodle shop. A place on the sidewalk fixing tires. Just a street with its life out in the open like life in this city always seemed to be and it still is and I walked around here and I sat at a tiny plastic table in the open garage mouth of the noodle shop and I drank a warm Coke, staying away from the ice, and this was all I had to worry about now, the water, and I watched these people moving around and I just held still knowing that I didn't have to be afraid about Vietnam anymore.
      The water and the dogs. They always shy away as if every one of them has been beaten since birth, but I don't trust them. They're slick featured, scoop-eared, more like dingoes or hyenas than like American dogs and while I was sitting on that first day at the noodle shop, one of them sniffed by, stopping at a stain on the sidewalk and then he saw me watching him and he flinched back right away, ducking his head like I'd raised my hand to hit him. I was thinking I shouldn't have this feeling. He'd just had it bad as a pup and I sucked back my nerves and clicked at him a little bit. He stopped at this but he was clearly not going to come to me. "Be careful of all the dogs," a voice said and I looked up into her face.
      That first moment I saw her, I flinched a little inside, her face was so beautiful. And like with all these Vietnamese, it surprised me. There's always something floating in a Vietnamese face that you don't expect. There was an old woman with her gums red from chewing betel leaves who"d been crouching for a long while off to my left, drinking her soup with her bowl up at her face the whole time, but once, she'd glanced over to me, just a couple of minutes before I clicked at the dog and started all this, and she smiled her bright red smile and she had a color in her eyes like when the interstate ahead looks like water and is reflecting the sky. Wet and almost blue but dark from concrete. And I thought when I saw the mama-san's eyes that her daddy was French or something. So when there was this beautiful face before me telling me to be careful of the dogs, I wasn't surprised by the things you didn't expect in it. Her eyes were very dark but they weren't so sharply lidded. They looked soft around the edge and her face wasn't so round. She had a squareness to her jaw and a mouth that smiled now a little bit but just on one side and her skin was pale and I just eased back and thought, Holy shit this is a beautiful woman, and she said, "They might be sick." She'd been talking English, too, with not much of an accent at all.
      "Thanks," I said, and she was moving off. Just like that. Nothing more. She was through a passageway a couple of storefronts down and gone and I sat there wondering what the hell just happened. I looked over to where the dog was and he'd taken off. I thought about standing up, about walking down to the passageway and at least looking along to where this woman disappeared, but I didn't. The mama-san was gone too. There was the buzz and rush of motorcycles in the street, of course, and people crouching on the sidewalk in either direction, but it was the time of day in Saigon when if you're on foot, you find some shade and stay still and nobody was near me or coming toward me and for a moment I felt absolutely alone. In the midst of this city of all places, I felt invisible, and that was a feeling I realized I wanted to hold on to for awhile and so I didn't get up. I let her face fade and I waited and I even closed my eyes.
      Then there was a car horn close by. I opened my eyes and at the curb was a Renault with a Saigontourist decal across its back window and I knew she was going to appear again. And she did. Out of that passageway and across the sidewalk and into the car and she didn't even give me another glance. So I thought, that's the end of it. But a week later I have my hand on her naked chest and she says yes it's okay and I still don't move. This time, it's from sitting there and wondering at the switchback my luck just seemed to take.

He does not move his hand when I tell him it is okay. I am ready for this moment, but he is waiting. I like this about him. He will be very gentle with me. Very slow. I listen to hear him breathe. There are still too many night sounds and I tell him, "Bring your face close to mine, please."
      This makes him cock his head, like he has not understood. "Bring your face close," I say and he does, sliding to me, and he thinks I want him to kiss me and I say, when he is very near, when his breath has touched my cheek, "Just there. For a moment wait please. I want to know that you are real." He waits. He is real. I can feel his breath on me.
      On the day I first saw him, I would not look at him a second time. Not straight at him. But I glanced in the rearview mirror as the car pulled away. I am a careful girl. I already acted a different way from who I am by finding some American man sitting almost directly beneath my window and speaking to him, even if it was for his own good. Now I could only see him again in a mirror, like the American legend I read, a story about a man and a woman with snakes for hair who could turn him to stone if he looked at her directly. And his face was turned this way and I wondered if he could see me watch him in this small mirror and so I looked for the dog. I feared this man might try to touch it and he would be hurt. I saw no dog and I thought that I was not really so very interested in where the dog was, and when the car began to move and the man's face was gone, I was a little bit angry with myself for my shyness.
      But I am not shy when he brings his face close to mine in my bed. I feel his breath on me and I pull back just a little bit to see him clearly. His eyes are very dark, like a Vietnamese, I think. And I am reminded of the dragon once more. There are many straight lines in the face of a dragon, square corners. Ben's face has much of this in it. At the bottom of his face, at his jaw, there is a squareness that I think is like a dragon's head. I am still trying to understand the story I learned from my friend inside the banyan tree. For a moment I try to see the terribleness of such a face as beautiful. I mean by this, the dragon's face. When I feel Ben's breath and he becomes real and when I know that this real man is about to put his hands on me and his mouth and all the secret ts of him, I do not find him terrible. But I think he can help me understand, because on this night there is something inside me that is afraid, and this is in the same moment with some other thing inside me that wants to reach to him and to put my hand behind his head and pull him to me.
      I tell myself, the fairy princess loved the dragon. She loved him. There are things that frighten us for a while and then from the very strong feeling of this fear we find a different strong feeling. I lived sometimes in a room not far from this one. I was still with my mother and it was on the nights when she did not leave me with my grandmother. I know now that these were the times when there was no all-night man from the bar where she worked. Some man may be there in the afternoon, but she did not lie naked with him through the long night till the morning, and it was those times she kept me on a pallet nearby. And when it was the rainy season I woke from the sound of thunder. The storms came in and bellowed in the air and I heard them with my ears but I felt them inside my body also, each cry. And for a few years it was like this. The cry of the thunder would carry me into my mother's bed on the nights when there was no one else and she would hold me in her arms.
      Sometimes the bed smelled very strange to me, not the smell of my mother at all, something wet, a little like the rain that was rushing outside but stronger, thicker, a smell more like brine, like the sea. For a while I wondered if she was loved by a dragon. The thunder would beat at my body and this smell was in me and my mother was naked beneath the thin silk robe she wore and she held me close and I dreamed of the dragon rising from the South China Sea and flying to my mother and loving her in some way that I did not understand and then he went up into the sky because his kingdom needed him and he did not want to go but he had no choice and he rose high into the air and he cried out his pain and she felt it in her body and I felt it in my body and the dragon cast the sea down upon us to remind my mother of his love and he flew away. And so I came to love the thunder. On the nights I was with my mother, I went to the window at this call and I opened the shutter and I let the sound take me in its hands and squeeze me until I grew wet from the rain and my mother would draw me away. In jealousy, I thought. And when my mother was gone away and the rockets brought another thunder to Saigon, I would go to the windows and the sky was red and my grandmother would pull me away and tell me that there was something dangerous out there. But I still loved the sound. I loved this thing I once had feared.
      I lift my hand now and I put it at the back of Ben's head and he is not wet from the sea and his flesh is not hard scaled. He is soft. His hair is soft and I let my fingers slide inside his hair and I pull him to me and he does not rush, he lets me draw him to me as slow as I wish. Then his breath is on my face and then his lips touch mine.
      I have known other kisses. A boy, dim now in my mind, in those dark early years of our socialist republic, and I was sixteen and he was a guard at Reunification Hall, and he wore a uniform the color of a tree gecko, and we tread on each other as lightly as that, like lizards. And there was Mr. Bao, who was a driver for a while at Saigontourist. He asked me one night to go to a theater that plays movies from America. It is in a long room with a distant screen and it is very dark. He asked me to go to this place because Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman would be there in a movie called Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. He did not speak good English and he wanted me to tell him the meaning of this title. I did not know. It was not an idiom I had studied. I said that it must be some American legend that would be made clear in the movie.
      It was so dark we could not see to move once the movie began, but all around us, there were couples kissing. This is the only place in public in our city where this is possible. On the screen was a woman's voice translating all of the speaking in the film into Vietnamese, for all the characters, both men and women. I could hear only a murmur of Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman speaking beneath this one female voice. I tried hard to listen to the American voices, but I could make out none of their words. I grew angry at the very sound of my own language. I should have felt shame at this, I think. But I cared only for these Americans on the screen. I grew more ashamed, conscious now of my secret attachment to these people. But Elizabeth Taylor was very beautiful and her husband was very harsh with her and I was concerned. He did not wish to touch her, in spite of her beauty. And he also was very angry at his father. The father wanted very much to please his son. He tried hard, I think. He was there in a great house with his son, alive, and he was trying hard, and I grew very angry at Paul Newman for not understanding.
      These thoughts were in me when Mr. Bao's hand came and turned my face to him and he put his lips on mine. At the touch of his lips, I felt only a hard little knot in my chest. I pulled back. He said he was sorry and I said that it was okay and we both looked at the screen. I wanted to jump up from my seat and scream at Paul Newman to go to his father and embrace him. He is your father, I would cry, you should be grateful to have his love. And then I would tell Paul Newman to go to his wife and do what she desires. People should touch when they are in need. And I heard these words in my head and I felt Elizabeth Taylor's pain as my own and I looked toward the darkness where Mr. Bao was sitting, hurting still from my coldness.
      And so I took my hand and I turned his face to me once again and we kissed some more, though I wondered at this thing, why people sought it so, and then time went on from that night, and eventually we were in the bed in his rooms, and with each touch between us, the thing I wanted so much to feel murmured beneath our acts like the voices of the American actors in the movie, saying things I wanted to hear but being drowned out by this other, too-familiar voice. And I lay beside Mr. Bao afterwards, and all the voices were silent, and when he coughed softly I was startled, because I had forgotten that he was there.
      So I rose up from that bed and left Mr. Bao and after that I have not touched a man. I have been free to do so. But I have chosen not to. I have taken my place in the state, working for Saigontourist to show the truth of how we live to those from other countries that come here. And until this moment, this is how I live. When I do not work, I have some girl friends and we go to a movie or to a park or to a restaurant or to karaoke or to the show at the theater that was once the French Opera House and was then the national assembly building of the puppet government of the divided Vietnam. Or I sit alone in this room and I read a book or I listen on the radio to the classic Vietnam opera or I say prayers and light incense for the soul of my father.
      These prayers I say every night. I am a modern girl of a great socialist state but I am not a communist. Not so very many Vietnamese are communists. I can still pray for the spirits of the dead like my mother and my grandmother taught me. I pray for my grandmother, too, but the ancestor shrine that sits against the wall next to the window has one careful purpose and that is to receive the prayers for the soul of my father, a soul that I have always understood to be suffering terribly in the next life and in great need of these things I offer him.
      And when I lie down in my bed and it is night, there is still the smell in the air of the incense I have burned for him. I lie in my bed and sometimes I wear a silk robe and sometimes I am naked. I lie in my bed for all these years that I have been in this room as a woman, and I always lie alone until this night when Ben touches me for the first time. But it was not clear to me how alone this was until Ben came to me. I do not feel how painful all the nights without him have been until he is here. This is a strange thing to me. As Ben kisses me and I feel he is here with me and I feel that no one has ever been here until this moment, I think that perhaps my father has always protected me from that pain. Perhaps what I gave to my father's soul, the company of my prayers, he always gave back to me. This is what I think as Ben kisses me. And I may seem shy still, as I think too much of Mr. Bao and Elizabeth Taylor and my friends who go with me to restaurants and fill the air with empty words, and I do not concentrate on the feeling of his lips on mine. But it is not shyness. There is at this moment the smell of incense in my room. His lips are upon me and I smell the smoke of my father's soul.