2. On that day, he had been standing in the doorway of a jewelry shop on Quang Trung Street when the girl passed by on her bicycle. He had not seen her since the Sunday when she sat beside him in the small room and he repeated the words that had flowed so easily from her mouth. And then she had whispered that he was saved. “Oh,” she said, “That’s wonderful.” He had not known, at that moment, what was wonderful, but he was pleased that she was pleased and he had loved the calm of that moment, the stillness, the closed space in which the two of them sat, side by side. At that point he had been carried away and he imagined that it was she who had saved him.
But the stillness had passed and what he experienced in the days that followed was confusion. And shame. Though he did not know it was shame. And so, when the girl passed by on her bicycle he thought of calling out, but he didn’t, and instead he took his own bicycle and he followed her. She rode across the bridge and towards the mountain and then up the hill to the trail that led down to the beach. She locked her bike at the top of the hill and then disappeared. The boy set his bike in a grove of trees and he walked to the edge of the hill and looked down onto the beach. The girl was alone. She wore black shorts and she took these off to reveal a dark blue bathing suit bottom and white legs, and then she removed her top and under that was another part of the bathing suit, and this part covered her breasts. Her stomach was bare. She lay down on her back in the sand and stretched out her arms.
She lay like that and did not move. The boy descended the hill and walked through the sand towards the girl. It was a windy day and the ocean threw itself against the shore. There was a white bird out over the water and it dropped and then rose quickly.
She saw the boy before he spoke. She was surprised and she sat up quickly and covered her chest with an arm and said, “Oh,” and then she looked around and back at the boy and asked how he had found her. What was he doing here?
“You rode by,” he said. “Very quickly. And I followed you.” Then he said it was not safe. This was a lonely beach.
The girl looked about. She said that she had been here before.
The boy nodded and then he said that he wanted to sit beside her. Was that okay?
She shook her head. She wanted to be alone. Then, she reached out and touched his arm and said, “I’m sorry.”
On her wrist was a watch with a black strap and this made her skin look very white. The sun was high above them and it was hot and the boy felt the heat against his head. He said that he did not know what was happening. He had done what she wanted. He did not understand her.
The girl said, “No, no. What are you talking about?” Then she laughed, but it was not a happy laugh. She seemed frightened and the boy wanted to tell her that there was no need to be frightened. He was not dangerous.
The girl’s arm swung out to take in the sky and the air and the trees behind them and the sand and the sea. When she spoke he did not recognize her voice. It was too high and she spoke too quickly. She said, “All of this. Do you see it? Do you understand that all of this was created by Him?”
The boy said that he understood. “And you,” he said. “You too.” His hand slid along an imaginary line that ran from her feet to her head. He held his palm near her face and then he touched her jaw and said, “You are very beautiful.”
“No,” she said and she pushed him away and stood quickly. Brushed sand from the backs of her shoulders. She picked up her bag and her jeans and shirt and began to walk away. The sun was high in the sky and very bright and hot and she disappeared into the sun and then reappeared, her hands holding her clothes and her bare back still streaked with sand.
He followed her. He wanted to stop her, to explain that he was a good person, and that his goodness had come from her. He called out and she began to run and so, in order to stop her, he hit her. He picked up a rock the size of a mango and he caught up to her and hit her on the back of the head with the rock.
When she fell, her bag spilled out onto the sand and her right arm twisted upwards behind her back and she lay with one cheek against the sand. He waited for her to stand but she didn’t move. He called her name but she just lay there. He heard the sound of the surf and he looked up the hill towards the bicycles and then he looked back down the beach. They were alone. He wondered if the girl was pretending to be hurt, if she was waiting for him to walk away and then she would rise. He knelt and took her hand and said her name again. There was blood on her head and it ran down into the sand. Not much, just a small line of red. Her skin was the colour of the sand and in the glare of the sun it seemed that she and the sand were one and the same.
The boy stood up. He walked away from the girl towards the base of the hill, and then he turned and walked back. There was her purse and beside it lay a brush and a tube of lipstick and an unopened letter and some Vietnamese money. The boy picked up these things and put them into the purse and carried them, along with the jeans and shirt, to the spot where the girl had been sitting. Then he went back to the girl. He held her wrist. His own hands were shaking and he could not tell if she was alive. He put his hand up against her mouth in order to feel her breath. He felt nothing. He sat for a long time beside the girl. He did not worry about being seen. He studied the curve of her back to see if it would rise and fall with her breathing. He saw nothing and knew then that the girl was dead. At some point he began to say sorry, and he said this over and over again, as if it were some chant that could raise the girl from the sand. He said it in his own language and he said it in the girl’s language. He said it loudly at first and then he only whispered it, until his voice faded away.
Much later, a warm rain began to fall. It started slowly and then grew stronger and came in sideways off the ocean. The boy stood and he took the girl by the wrists and he pulled her towards the water. The rain had soaked the girl and her wet hair covered her face. The boy dragged the body out into the water. He dropped the wrists and pushed the girl out. She floated away and then rolled back. The boy pushed her out further and attempted to hold her under, but she was stubborn and wouldn’t sink. For a long time he stood in water up to his chest and held her down and finally, just as the rain let up, she sank.
The boy walked out of the water, past the girl’s bag and jeans and shirt, and on up the hill towards the stand of trees, where he retrieved his bicycle. He climbed on and he rode down towards town. The pavement was slippery from the rain and he rode carefully, aware that if he fell, he would hurt himself.
3. . For over a year the boy had slept in a small room at the rear of the post office where his uncle, who was not really his uncle, worked as a janitor. He was allowed to be in the room from midnight till five a.m. but sometimes his uncle forgot about him and when that happened he slept late and woke hungry. When he went back out onto the streets, he searched for food and money. The Europeans who frequented the restaurant on the harbour would sometimes hand him small amounts of money, but it was not much, and he rarely made enough to buy himself breakfast.
He had worked at a bicycle repair shop, but the pay was meager and the work was hard and the owner was fond of hitting him with a vice grip, leaving a string of bruises along his thigh. After this, he helped his uncle’s wife, pouring petrol into whiskey bottles for her to sell to passing motorcyclists. The fumes from the petrol were pleasant, and the wife gave him free cigarettes, but the allure of the tourists and the lives those tourists lived, these were the factors that pulled the boy away from steady work.
One evening, two months before he met Marcie, hungry and in need of money, he dressed up in dark pants and a clean white shirt, borrowed his uncle’s shoes that were much too big, oiled his hair, and he walked up to the Pacific Hotel where the German women were known to pick up Vietnamese boys. He stood alongside the brick wall that surrounded the hotel, hands out of his pockets, and by ten o’clock he was in the room of a dark haired woman who told him, in poor English, that her name was Erika.
“Do you speak German?” she asked.
The boy shook his head.
The woman lit a cigarette and studied him. She waved a pudgy hand and said, “Your shoes.”
He was sitting in a chair. His feet did not reach the carpet. He bent forward and slipped out of his shoes. He wasn’t wearing socks; his feet were unwashed and showed the shadows of the straps from his flip-flops.
Erika told him to take off his pants and shirt. He did this slowly, his eyes on his own feet. Then he looked up and faced her, his hands covering his genitals.
“Come here,” she said and waggled a finger. She was wearing black shoes with high heels and tiny straps.
He stepped forward and turned his head to look at the wall as she took his penis and held it. She put out her cigarette and fondled his testicles until he had an erection.
“Good,” she said, and made him lie on his back on the bed.
She undressed and straddled him, took his erect penis and put it inside her. Then she held her big breasts, closed her eyes, and called out, “Bitte, bitte, bitte.” After, she handed him whiskey in a glass and he pretended to drink while she stroked his chest. When he left, she gave him an equivalent of five dollars in Vietnamese money.
The next night he went back to Erika and they did exactly what they’d done the night before. After, she kissed him on the mouth and said, “Beautiful child. How old are you?”
“Eighteen,” he said.
She laughed, poked his chest, and said, “No, no.”
She was wearing black panties and her stomach hung over the elastic. Her nipples were almost the size of the small saucers that sat beneath the espresso cups in the café to which the boy went every morning in order to watch the European women with their beautiful shoes.
She took his head and held it between her large hands and pushed a breast against his mouth. “My child,” she said.
Then she asked him to walk across the room while she lay on the bed and watched. She told him to bend over and he did so while she inspected his little buttocks and pushed a finger against his asshole. He jumped and she laughed.
On the third and final night another woman was in the room with them. This woman was younger and skinnier. Erika sat on a chair and held herself while the skinny woman climbed onto the boy.
The boy thought that the skinny woman was perfect. She had many rings and bracelets and she wore a very expensive watch that scraped against his shoulder. He was getting used to the sound and smell of love and, after the woman was done, he said, “You are very beautiful.”
She laughed and patted his cheek and called him a tiny hairless pig. She said this in German and he did not understand everything, only the word Schweine. She then repeated this in English.
He told her the story of his father, who had become very rich raising pigs, but then had died. He said he had no mother. He said that he was hungry.
The beautiful woman laughed and offered him a cigarette and some gum. He took what she offered, and then he left.
4. He had loved her shoes, which were made of soft leather. He liked the flat square toes and the smallness of her feet and he liked it when she wore long pants and the cuffs of the pants folded over the top of the shoes, almost touching the ground, but not quite. She walked long distances in shoes that were not made for walking. Her name was Marcie. She lived with five other foreigners, two Brits and three Americans, in a two-storey house close to the train station. On Sundays she sang songs with her friends and invited whoever was willing to join them. She met the boy on the street and asked him to come and he went once. Crackers and juice were served and cheese as well, but the boy didn’t like cheese. It was soft and tasted bitter and it left his mouth dry.
He saw her on the streets. She rode her bicycle around town, her bag in the basket, and when it rained she held her umbrella with one hand. Once, after she got off the ferry that took her across the river, she stopped and bent forward and removed her shoes and socks and continued barefoot towards the beach. At some point she dropped a sock. He picked it up and put it in his pocket.
Every other day she mailed a letter. She climbed the stairs to the post office and sat on a wooden bench along the wall and it was here that she addressed her envelopes, and then she went to the wicket and bought stamps. One afternoon, as she stepped out of the post office, he was there and she looked at him and then over her shoulder and then back at him again and she said she had not seen him for a long time. She said that he should come back to the house on Sunday. In the sunlight her hair was lighter, with streaks of copper. He was aware of her fragrance, and he saw her blue eyes and the roundness of her jaw.
She hugged her bag to her chest, breathed in the morning air, and said that in a month she would be going home. “So, you must come,” she said.
On that Sunday she sat beside him in the meeting room while an older man named Brian, who seemed to be the leader, stood and told a story about two brothers, one selfish, one kind. Brian spoke very quickly and the boy did not catch everything, but this was no problem, because the only thing the boy really wanted was to be sitting beside Marcie. After Brian had finished speaking, the group sang a song and the boy was amazed at how clear and strong Marcie’s voice was. She sat up straight and took deep breaths and he wanted to be the air that she breathed.
Later, she asked him if he was happy.
He said he was. Very.
She said that she didn’t know anything about him.
He said that his father was a physician and his mother a lawyer and he was an only child and in two years he would be ready for university and his parents would send him to Michigan, probably. Or California.
Marcie laughed and said that she had not heard anyone use the word physician in that way.
“What should I say?” the boy asked.
“We would say doctor.” Marcie waved a hand and said it didn’t matter. It was just odd. But okay. Then her face tightened and her voice lowered and she asked him if he knew Jesus.
The boy loved the softness of her voice and the hair that grew on her arms and the shape of her knuckles. She was slightly overweight. Her chin was double. He said maybe.
She asked him if he wanted to talk about Jesus.
“Yes,” he said. “I do.”
She took his arm and led him into a small room, away from the larger group, and they sat side by side on the edge of a bed. There were posters of rock singers on the wall and there was a white towel on the back of a chair, and shoes lined up by the closet, and there was a pair of jeans crumpled on the floor.
Marcie crossed her legs and told him that Jesus loved him. “He loves you exactly as you are. With all your mistakes, your sins, your ugly thoughts. And he wants to make you whole.” She looked at the boy and asked if he wanted to become a Christian.
He said he did.
She went, “Oh,” and she squeezed her hands together and said, “That’s wonderful.” She asked him to close his eyes and repeat after her.
He closed his eyes and then immediately opened them again and he watched her as she spoke, and he said exactly what she said, “Jesus, I am a sinner but I want you to take away my sin and I want you to make me whole. I want to be loved. I want to be good. Please, Jesus.” And when she was done she lifted her head and opened her eyes and she reached out to take one of his hands and she held his hand between her own soft palms and she told him that he was saved.
David Bergen will publish a new novel, Stranger, in September.