Chapter 28

The guard opens the cell door, handcuffs James, and shackles his legs. James is happy. He knows he going to see Chi Mai again. With the fragrant hibiscus flower in his pocket, James follows the guard to the familiar office, the most wonderful dating place any human being could find.

James stands still, gazing at Chi Mai. Still sitting behind her desk, she looks at him, with tears rolling down her face.

– “Sit down, James.”

He sits down on the chair in front of her desk.

– “I have some gifts for you.”

James sees the pack of Winston and a can of Coca-Cola on the desk. He says,

– “You are the most wonderful gift, the comfort mentioned in the Bible. I didn’t think you would ever return, but I have prayed that you would. The Bible teaches: “Ask, and it will be given. Seek, and you will find. Knock, and the door will be opened unto you.”

She smiles.

– “But you haven’t asked. Neither have you sought nor knocked.”

She asks,

– “You didn’t knock at the cell door, did you, James?”

He feels his ears getting hot.

– “No, Chi Mai.”

– “But the door still opened, didn’t it?”

– “Yes, it did.”

– “What about a cigarette now?”

– “I would rather talk to you. I have missed you so much.”

With her palm under her chin, Chi Mai says,

– “I know you’ve missed me. I heard you sing last night. Why did you stop singing?”

He replies,

– “Because I could smell your presence. I was overwhelmed with joy that you were back. I thought you would open the door of my cell. Why didn’t you?”

– “Because you kept silent and didn’t knock.”

– “Do you know I’ve kept your gospel in my pocket?”

– “Yes, I know.”

– “It’s interesting. I can always smell your gospel. What a romantic way to bring the good news.”

– “My people are always that romantic. Had you not been shackled in your cell, you would have dashed out to meet me.”

– “I would, for sure.” – “In your song, you said you missed me on starry nights only. That’s not enough. Vietnamese lovers miss each other every night, whether there are stars or not. One poet has written “Darling, if you can count the number of the stars in the sky, then my love for you is much more that that.” Another poet writes: “There are some nights when the stars forget to shine. As for me, there aren’t any nights when I don’t miss you.” That’s how I have missed you, James.”

– “I think the Vietnamese are the most romantic people in the world.”

– “Romantic and poetic.”

Opening the pack of Winston, she pulls out a cigarette and walks to him. She places the filter between his lips and strikes the match to light the cigarette. Squeezing his shoulder gently, she says,

– “The Americans have lost the Vietnam War; but you, James, you have won, haven’t you?”

She pulls out the cigarette for him to exhale. He asks,

– “Did you say I have won?”

– “Yes.”

– “I think both you and I have won.”

Chi Mai stands by his side until he finishes the cigarette. She opens a can of Coca-Cola and holds it for him to drink. Then she returns to her desk and pushes the button. When the guard enters, she tells him to go and get the warden.

– “They tell me that you sing sad songs every night. Why only sad songs, James?”

– “Because I missed you, Chi Mai.”

– “You only miss me?”

– “Yes.”

– “Have you forgotten your America?”

– “I don’t have any hope of returning to America. You know quite well that there is no way out for me. I only have you to think about now.”

The warden has come. She tells James to stand up to greet him. James is surprised to see him use a tape ruler to measure his size. He even asks James to stand on a piece of carton to measure his feet. Chi Mai asks him what size shoes he wears and translates what James says to the warden. She opens a can of Coca-Cola for the warden, which he drinks before leaving the room.

– “What is going on, Chi Mai?”

She sighs.

– “There has been no other solution for you, James.”

He asks,

– “Are you preparing a coffin for me?”

She nods.

– “You will die as a truthful American, a real soldier. Then they will sell your skeleton.”

– “You will be there when they kill me?”

– “Yes, just to make sure you will die peacefully. I don’t want you to live a shameful life. Neither do I want you to die a tragic death. While in Hanoi, I was so anxious to come back to see you.”

– “Thank you, Chi Mai. May I say something?”

– “Go on, say it, James.”

He looks at her, his bright eyes shining, and his voice trembling,

– “I love you, Chi Mai.”

Tears begin to roll down her cheeks.

– “I love you too, James.”

James finds himself choked with tears.

– “Chi Mai, could you do me a favor?”

She puts the handkerchief to her eyes.

– “Say it, James.”

He hesitates a moment.

– “Can you postpone my execution for a few days?”

She raises her head.

– “You’ll have two weeks to prepare for your death.”

Chi Mai pushes the button.

– “James, I’m powerless in this, I’m sorry.”

The guard has entered. As James follows him to the cell, she sits there in a listless manner for a long time. Then she walks out to the warden’s office and then drives him to Thanh Hoa province, where she buys the items she has listed on a piece of paper. On the streets in downtown Thanh Hoa one can find a lot of US military equipment and products made in the USA, although the prices are much higher than in Saigon. She buys three US canteens, gives one to the warden, and tells him she will keep two to take back to Europe as gifts for her Russian friends. Chi Mai also buys a US-made dagger, some local brown sugar, a bottle of Nghe An fish sauce, and a big box of Chinese dry meals.

It’s already dark when they arrive at the camp. After taking a bath and having dinner, she lies in bed, thinking of James and what may happen to her. She once said to him “By treating others as human beings, we dare to break open what is preventing us from getting closer to our fellow men. As human beings, we shall not be subdued.” James has done his best to live as a decent human being. He is always truthful to himself. Chi Mai has begun to try to live as a decent person. Secretly, she has trampled the communist doctrine under her feet. That’s why she lives in fear. Maybe she needs to take another step in the adventure ahead.

Chi Mai has ordered the guard to stop shackling James during the day, and at night too. During the night, she opens the door to his cell, and comes in to make love to him. Clinging to each other like two octopuses, they travel to the highest peaks of pleasure. James no longer fears death. Neither does he think of his country. What is important to him now is the moment with Chi Mai near him. Here is where he has suffered, and where he has found love, comfort, and happiness. He is willing to die here. As for Chi Mai, she no longer cares about her ideology. She has found meaning for her life right here. Love has brought life back to her. She wants to write a new definition for love at this place.

– “Chi Mai, my darling.”

– “Yes, my dear James.”

– “I no longer count the days before they execute me.”

– “Don’t say anything, my love…”

And they again forget everything around them, floating towards that dreamland together.

—> 29


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