On Miss Yen’s phone I called DB at the hospital to beg off, carefully explaining my most excellent prospects for the night as she listened.
“Hi DB. Look I need to make a change in plans for tonight.”
“What, you got a better offer?”
“I did. I did. Miss Yen and I are spending the evening together, starting by going down town for dinner. Someplace fancy.”
“You lucky bastard! How did you pull that off. I’d give a month’s pay for an evening with her. The whole night? or just dinner?” He had seen her when I introduced them on afternoon when I’d met DB at the market and she also got off the truck to meet Su Lin.
“I’ll tell you Sunday. We still on for dinner Sunday?”
“You bet! The boys have finished a fresh batch of whiskey. And it’s good! Now don’t leave out any details, you lucky dog you.”
“You still going to Cholon?”
“Yeah. Payday was yesterday and Virgil wants to play cards and maybe roulette if he wins at poker. I’ll just stick to poker. Listen, got to run. I got an orderly here who wants an armload of surgical masks. It’s been busy at Hobo Woods today. Choppers every five minutes. Nurses collapsed in the cafeteria; asleep with a cup of coffee in one hand.
“See you Sunday, bye.”
Dinner out with Miss Yen was absolutely wonderful. I’d eaten with my family a few times in fancy Seattle restaurants and taken my prom date to The Flame overlooking Lake Union but compared to this fancy Saigon restaurant, that catered to the upper crust, prom night was just play acting. This was the real deal. And Miss Yen might as well have been Stella Stevens, my Friday-night, silver screen heart throb.
Miss Yen was waiting in a taxi at the entrance to the hotel as I exited the Dai Nam’s lobby; one of the ubiquitous blue and yellow Renault 2CVs. She was wearing a light scarf and a full length wrap despite the oppressive heat. It was just a visual effect, really, being mostly holes in the lace but it did give her a formal, no-nonsense look.
I wondered why she hadn’t used her father’s elegant sedan and driver. The taxi was a bit of a comedown for the vivacious girl who was turning out to be an elegant lady. When we arrived at the restaurant the cabbie didn’t even bother to open the door. Such was the world of Saigon taxis. I tipped him anyway; a few piasters more than he asked. There was no taximeter.
It’s hard to put on the dog wearing army fatigues and combat boots, even if they are ironed and polished but I wasn’t the only American soldier in the place, though I may have been the only enlisted man. Miss Yen however, was dressed fit to kill. Hip hugger jeans from Paris with a flare at the cuff and silver lame sash tied as a belt, a diaphanous silk blouse revealing lingerie from a fancy corsetier, her straight, shining, black hair hanging just to her breast and white ankle-high boots. After all, this was 1969, she read the fashion magazines and looked a class act that more than made up for my frumpiness and that of every other man in the room.
I couldn’t help but notice the male gaze lock on as we walked into the dining room. She really turned some heads. She was beautiful and she enjoyed it. She saw my reaction to the stir she made in the mirror behind the bar, squeezed my hand and whispered, “I thought you might like being the object of envy for the evening.” She was right. It felt great.
The mater ‘d greeted her warmly and deferentially yet clearly with an appreciative eye for a well turned out young woman. “Votre pere’s table, Co Yen?”
Merci, très bon,” she answered.
He seated us at a secluded table, out of earshot of other diners and overlooking the courtyard away from the noisy street. He handed me the daily fresh sheet as he seated Agnes. It was printed in French, of course. By now thanks to some coaching by Miss Yen, my command of the French language extended to ordering in a restaurant and making pleasant conversation but after we ordered we switched to English.
At first the evening seemed awkward. What should I talk about? Was that my responsibility? I flashed on my first date with Monica. We had known each other since we were children. Her family lived on my paper route. I watched her grow up. Then one day we weren’t children. We were in high school and she was the prettiest girl in class. One day I screwed up the courage to ask her on a date. We went to the local hamburger joint next door to the laundromat where the truck dropped our newspapers. With my paper route money I bought her a chocolate malt and one for me. We sat at a table in the corner away from the prying eyes of the other paperboys and looked at each other. I couldn’t think of a think so say. We had just read Hemingway’s ‘A Farewell to Arms’ in English lit class so I asked her about that. What did she think of the story. “It was very sad,” she said.
So with Miss Yen I made an opening attempt at sophisticated conversation appropriate for a sophisticated lady.
“You know the trouble with relationships born in war? They end abruptly through circumstances out of our control. Now take Hemingway’s ‘Farewell to Arms.’ How much control did those lovers have over their fate? Almost none. They were victims of circumstance. Yet they were passionate lovers. Only to end tragically.”
Agnes looked startled. “Relationships born of circumstance?” she asked almost incredulously.
“Sure. Theirs was circumstantial enough.” I said as she took the bait.
“Certainly not on his part. It was deliberate. A couple of bachelor soldiers hoping to score with the English nurses. It’s a story I’ve seen played out countless times. It happens to me on the street also and I’m not an American nurse.”
“Maybe not. But in western dress you look like many girls from home. Just more beautiful. I can see why the G.I.s take notice.”
Agnes blushed, then smiled, “You aren’t so deliberate as Hemingway’s protagonist. He was nearly as macho as Hemingway himself. It’s cute. How you approach me. I don’t know if its out of respect or timidity.”
“All the macho guys went to the infantry. I was looking to save myself and went to the Signal Corps. No, I’m not any of Hemingway’s characters. Do you think I was deliberate in approaching you?”
“God no! You actually looked shell shocked when you walked into the office with a bloody lip. I felt a little maternal, you seemed to need some looking after. And I couldn’t let you report to the colonel in that state. Colonels like confidence, assertiveness, in their men. Especially someone about to take charge of an important project.”
“So you nursed me a little. Made me feel better, like Miss Barkley.”
“That’s generous of you. I don’t think Miss Barkley was deliberate with him. What was his name? Traficante? No. um Don’t say, let me think. I’ve got it. Tenente.
“She wasn’t deliberate, not at first, anyway. Then with Tenente in hospital and she a nurse, he had to pursue her from his hospital bed. Almost laughable as I tell it but also sad when I think of our present circumstance. All those soldiers in hospital, dreaming of home, of girlfriends left behind, waiting for them. Fantasizing that the nursers are their wives or lovers. But one of them had to take some initiative.”
“As I recall, she was all but a widow and not anxious to involve herself with a badly wounded soldier. They wouldn’t have come together but for the war and not if he hadn’t been an ambulance driver and she a nurse”
“It wasn’t just circumstance that made them lovers.” She paused. “I suppose to a degree it was. They were both emotionally distraught, he had a real combat wound, far more than your bloody lip. And she as a nurse saw so much blood.
“Yes,” I interrupted. “I saw the scene at the Third Field Hospital. Grim.”
“So much blood,” she continued. “I have a friend who’s a nurse. Sometimes she is shaking when she tells me what happens.”
She paused with that far away look of one watching a film in the mind’s eye.
She continued, “So both characters had unmet needs far greater than in peacetime. Emotional needs that perhaps would have been met but for the war. But still, because of war, they gambled, they took the risk of reaching out. That was beyond circumstance. The difference between them and us is that they both had come to the war from afar. In a way they were both mercenaries. Hemingway certainly was in the Spanish Civil War and maybe in WWI, I’m not sure. But you certainly aren’t mercenary and this is my home. In that we are very different.”
God, I had struck nerve. Agnes was speaking from first-hand experience; not like me remembering some classroom analysis of characters in a novel. And not looking at the hospital scene through a 200mm camera lens.
“Well, it was circumstance that ended it,” I said trying to hold my ground.
“What are you saying? That our relationship is doomed before it gets started? That we are even having a relationship?”
“Of course we are having a relationship. And it started based on circumstance. I didn’t answer an ad in the personals.”
“You know, the ads people put in the classifieds in the back of the newspaper.”
“Oh, yes. How could I forget. I haven’t seen those since Paris.
“Then assuming there was initiative, who took it first? Was it me looking after your lip the day you arrived? No. I had some responsibility to see that you arrived at Col. Suel’s office at least looking unharmed. From there we were just thrown together.”
“Perhaps you didn’t take initiative that first day but then you invited Phil and me to Sunday dinner. That was a bold move. That wasn’t just circumstance.”
“Yes, you’re right. That was deliberate. But just as with Miss Barkley, it started based on business. Hers was the business of nursing. Mine is being Major Toms’ secretary.”
“What do you mean? How is inviting two young soldiers to a family dinner related to the business of being a secretary? Unless……….. unless someone’s intent was to develop bonds between your family, the ARVN officers and us. Why would you need such a bond? For information, What information could Phil and I possibly have that any of you need. I’m not buying the business part. I think it was a romantic interest and you’re just embarrassed to admit you made the first move. Anyway I’m really flattered.”
Caught. Agnes smiled while trying not to. “Flattered? I don’t know flattered. What does it mean in French?”
Was she feigning ignorance to buy time? Her English was better than that. Or was she fishing?
“I don’t know the French for flattered but it means that I’m happy that you think so highly of me as to pursue me romantically.”
“Well, that’s not the whole of it. You’re very pretty, you know. No, handsome is the English but more than that, attractive in another way I can’t describe just now.”
“And you. My God, the way men look at you when you’re dressed well.”
“How I dress doesn’t matter. It’s still the same. I can’t stop it so I may just as well enjoy it. The G.Is are lewd sometimes but they don’t touch, especially when I stare a dagger and reach into my purse. That doesn’t happen often. Not like Paris. The Frenchmen are just awful that way.”
“So,” she continued, “admitting we are in a romantic relationship; How will it end? Will we have a falling out or will some unforeseen circumstance end it for us. I mean, someone could bomb the restaurant and kill all of us. It happens. We are in a war.
“Which reminds me to caution you again. This really is wartime. From what you tell me about your travels about the city, sometimes I think you don’t recognize that; how dangerous it is. Saigon is not Milan, far in the rear. Saigon is in the middle of things despite what the American press say. I saw you on the street one day without a pistol. You should at least carry a pistol. I do. And from what you tell me about your people you shouldn’t be traveling to places like Cholon. Chinese merchants aren’t your people and neither are people like DB. You should stay with your kind of people. That’s why I brought you to this place. You should enjoy some finer things.”
“Like you?” I ventured.
Her eyes flashed. I felt a chill, afraid I’d reached too far.
The Mona Lisa smile of embarrassment had broadened, showing teeth as her lips parted.
“Like me.” she laughed. “What would you like for dessert? And don’t say ‘me’.”
The waiter had left the full dessert menu without asking. Was this prix fixe? I wondered. Then remembered, ‘she’s picking up the check.’
“I’ll take it.” I said returning the smile.
“As I told you earlier,” she said still smiling and returning to an earlier point. “We all are playing a game of Saigon roulette. We cannot know the future and the odds aren’t very good. Worse than one in six,” she almost whispered, referring to the six-shot revolver used in the much rumored Russian roulette games.
“So rather than bet on death, let’s bet on life and indulge a little passion. The passion fruit is excellent. I highly recommend it.”
Her words were dead serious but the smile and look in her eye was more than just a little come-hither, something I would indulge in a heartbeat. I hadn’t seen passion fruit on the dessert menu.
We finished dinner. On the street the same cab was standing at the curb with the same driver who smiled broadly as we got in and Agnes gave him an address.