AN AMERICAN PRISONER IN VIETNAM

Chapter 23

James is transferred to a cell now. This solitary confinement cell is eight feet long, three and a half feet wide. A toilet seat and a jar of water are at the end of the cell. A raised cement platform is James’ bed. A rush mat, measuring two feet wide, covers the platform. James can stretch his legs comfortably. James is also given a thick blanket. He still needs a pillow and a mosquito net. The air vent is always open, giving him enough fresh air to breathe. In the daytime he can move his arms and legs freely. At night his arms are shackled behind him; so James has to sleep on his side. He has stopped doubting and questioning, like Chi Mai had requested. If he still remembers what she had said- “Your troubles may be over, but mine are coming”- James will understand why he has been transferred to this cell, and his arms are shackled at night. His food has also been restricted. James no longer has fruits, coffee, or cigarettes after a meal. He doesn’t know that it is Chi Mai who has ordered the warden to limit his food ration and shackle him at night. She doesn’t want anyone to have any doubts about her determination to punish the American prisoner.

As for James, he doesn’t care about material comfort. All he needs is to have a talk with Chi Mai every day, to listen to her voice, and to admire her beauty. The image of Susan McCareen is no longer clear in James’ imagination. Every time he thinks of her, Chi Mai’s face appears distinctly. Susan is so far away, while Chi Mai is right here by him. It has been a few days since his last talk with her. James is waiting anxiously for the guard to take him to her office. He is afraid she has left the camp for Hanoi. Suddenly, James feels sad. He no longer has an appetite. Anxiety keeps him from sleeping. James wonders whether these sleepless nights are the prize he gets for “loving your enemies.”

The door opens. The guard beckons him to come out and takes him to Chi Mai’s office. A thrilling emotion pervades James, an emotion just like the one he felt the day he went out on his first date with Susan. Today Chi Mai is dressed in a white pullover and bluejeans. She’s wearing a pair of athletic Adidas shoes. A light rouge and a little lipstick make her look alluring. A gentle fragrance fills James with a strange excitement.

– “How are you doing, James?”

He says,

– “You look very…European.”

She smiles.

– “Oh, it’s flattering. But I’m asking you about your health, James. I don’t expect to hear your comment about my looks.”

James feels his ears getting hot.

– “I’m sorry, Ms. Chi Mai. I’ve been doing well.”

She looks at him intently.

– “You’re good looking, James.”

He feels the heat spread to his face.

– “You have the looks of Burt Lancaster. I like the type of strong men who have character. You fit that type, James.”

James suddenly feels weak and embarrassed in front of her.

– “Thank you.”

– “Have you seen a Vietnamese woman who is completely Vietnamese?”

– “No, I haven’t.”

– “How many Vietnamese women have you seen?”

– “Two.”

– “Who are they?”

– “One was the woman who pointed her gun at me when I landed with my parachute; the other is you.”

– “I’ll wear the traditional ao dai some day, and you will no longer say that I look European.”

– “I’ll wait for that day.”

– “James.”

– “I’m listening.”

– “Have a cigarette, and a cup of tea, please.”

James lights the cigarette, and inhales. Still holding the smoke in, he takes a sip of tea.

– “ Tea and Sympathy, have you seen this film?”

James shakes his head.

– “No, I haven’t.”

– “That’s too bad. You haven’t read the novel either have you?”

– “No, I haven’t.”

– “That’s too bad.”

– “Yes, that’s too bad.”

She looks at the circles of smoke.

– “James.”

He says hastily.

– “Yes, Ms. Chi Mai.”

– “What will you do on your return to America?”

– “I shall write a novel. Do you find it strange?”

– “Why strange?”

– “A mechanical engineer who doesn’t work with machines, but with a pen.”

– “In my country, it’s common for farmers to become poets, and factory workers to become writers. What will you write about?”

– “About charity and compassion in the ninth cycle of Hell.”

– “Why did you decide to change careers?”

– “In my country, life is like the surface of the water. Any fish that can jump high above this surface will have great success. Maybe you’ve heard of Nat King Cole, one of our top singers. He started as a choir member in a small church and became the great Nat King Cole, the pride of America, admired by millions of people all over the world. In every field, it doesn’t matter if a person is rich or poor, black or white, as long as he or she has talent, the person can become an idol. I don’t have the ambition to become an idol. I’ll become a writer to wake up the conscience of my people, so that they know what suffering is, and also to…”

– “Go on, James.”

– “And to thank you. I shall dedicate the book to you.”

– “Do I have that honor?”

– Yes, you deserve it.

Chi Mai tries to hide her emotion. She changes the subject.

– “The world is getting smaller every day, isn’t it, James?”

He says,

– “Yes, I think so, too.”

– “You will go back to America, and I shall go to Europe. Maybe we shall meet again when I go to America. What do you think we shall do then?”

– “We shall talk about good things, and good people.”

– “Oh, these fairy tales. To me, they are just like the stories of Anderson, Perrault, and Grimm.”

– “James.”

– “I’m listening.”

– “Do you still want to come to my office to talk?” James feels hesitant. And in that short moment of embarrassment, he completely forgets himself as the unfortunate prisoner who is sitting in front of a powerful investigator. James says,

– “I have always been thinking of you…actually… I’ve missed you.”

She apparently is more embarrassed than he is.

– “You’ve missed me?”

– “Yes, every minute of my hours in my cell.”

She pushes the button. The guard opens the door and comes in.

– “James, go back to your cell and rest.”

Bewildered, James looks at her. Then he follows the guard to his cell. When the steel door is closed tight, and the lock has clicked, James sits on the raised cement platform, his elbows on his thighs and his head resting in his hands. He is completely lost. James wonders whether he has upset Chi Mai. She has rung the bell, and cut off his spontaneous inspiration. James feels upset at himself, too. Why did he rush to say he missed her? He was not supposed to say such a thing. He should have been more clever. The honest American soldier was too honest. Was that because he didn’t understand the thinking of a Vietnamese woman? James keeps on blaming himself. He becomes listless. He finishes his evening meal very fast, and waits for the guard to shackle his arms behind him. Time seems to pass slowly. He waits and waits. Not until darkness has covered everything outside the prison and inside his cell do they come to put him in shackles…

James is lying on his side on the cement platform, unable to sleep. He can hear the sad songs of crickets outside. Suddenly James is afraid. His greatest fear is never being able to see Chi Mai again. The brave soldier has mellowed because of love. James has been able to rise beyond so many sufferings, but he cannot get over love. James has to admit to himself: I love Chi Mai. I really love her. He will go crazy. He will cause disorder, and destroy everything around him. He will do anything so that they will shoot him dead, or make him suffer to death, if he can’t see Chi Mai again, or if she leaves him alone here to go back to Hanoi and forget him.

James doesn’t know when he falls off to sleep. A familiar scent wakes him up. James inhales that scent again, and thinks that he is dreaming. A hand is gently placed over his mouth, telling him not to say anything. James is not dreaming. She has undressed and lain down by his side. Their faces are close together. She kisses him. James is ecstatic. All the muscles in his body are tense. She puts her hands under his shirt, caressing his skin. James trembles with excitement. Their lips are locked together in embrace. James is desperate, for his arms are behind him. How he wishes he could use them to hold her tight, closer to him! James wriggles downward to place his face on her breasts. He gently chews on the two heavenly peaches, gulping them like a hungry infant sucking his mother’s milk. Chi Mai is in a trance now. Bending her legs, she uses her toes to push his pants down, and pulls him over on top of her. She locks her arms and her legs around him, just like a boa strangling its prey. The armless horse rider can do nothing but slack his reins, and let his horse gallop, gallop… Suddenly the animal falls into a soft hollow, and continues to sink in, sink in; its hoofs wriggling up and down. It is pitch dark in the cell, at the East corner of the Garden of Hell. Eve is breathing faster now. Her heaving chest gently pushes James up and down, in rhythm with her breathing of happiness. There is complete silence around them. The singing of insects outside has stopped. Now it is thundering, and the rain pours down. The rain from James has watered the parched land in Chi Mai.

—> 24

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