“It was all so long ago,” said Agnes, staring out at waves breaking on the beach and the ocean beyond.
“Sometimes the ocean brings me memories of things that were and sometimes the surf roars of things that might have been; things that might have been but for the war and things that might have been if the war had gone differently.”
“I’ve tried hard not to think about it at all,” I said. “Not so much Saigon but the years afterward. It was all such a shock, coming back; like I went to sleep in Saigon and woke up in San Francisco, which is literally almost what happened.”
“The war for you was short and intense, like a love affair that ended too soon. But for me it was my whole life, except for Paris. But then that was part of the story too. I was there because of the war and maybe that was the better outcome. Maybe otherwise my education would have ended in Saigon in 1964. But when I came back there was still the war. It never went away, from the time I can remember until, until; then I lost Tran and his memory extends it even now.”
She fell silent. We walked up the beach a ways and then she said, “Listen, we’re back at cabin 6 and I’m hungry. I intended to have lunch but then you happened along. I could make something or we could go up to Laguna.”
“I’m on the road so much I eat mostly in restaurants so I’d love a homemade meal.”
“Alright then dump the sand out of your cuffs and come in. We’ll cook.”
Cabin 6 was an old-time beach cabin with whitewashed shiplap on the outside. The porch’s floorboards were warped just enough to catch sand on the wind so it had to be swept daily. Inside walls were quarter-inch plywood, painted yellow, white and green with mahogany battens covering the joints. A few original paintings hung here and there interspersed with black and white photos of past beach parties and someone’s family. It was homey but hardly romantic. A woman’s touches showed with sprigs of dried flowers in the kitchen, on the dresser and the top of the toilet tank. I was surprised there was indoor plumbing. The cabin had that dank, musty smell of beachfront property that is only used occasionally but that was shortly to be rectified by food.
There were two bedrooms, both sparely furnished with a vintage steel-tube double-bed frame. Each with an old-time box spring with bare coils. Only one was made up. The other with bedding stacked under a dust cloth. The kitchen had apartment-sized appliances. Both the stove and fridge were powered by a propane bottle of you-don’t-want-to-lift it size but still obviously had to be portable.
Agnes rustled around in the fridge. It was ancient, a Crosly Shelvador according to the nameplate.
“These old American appliances are amazing. No moving parts, like a wok, nothing to wear out. These must be forty years old. We had a gas fridge back home.“
“You mean Saigon? You still think of Saigon as home?”
“Of course. I was raised there. One doesn’t lose that connection,“ she said, pulling celery and bean sprouts from yesterday’s shopping out of the fridge.
“I’d make pho but there isn’t time. I remember you liked that. Here’s the knife. Chop some vegetables for stir fry while I change.”
I took off my jacket, hung it on the back of a straight-back chair and stuffed my tie in the pocket. I wondered what a more casual Agnes would look like. Jeans with the peasant-look blouse that was in vogue that year or something more imaginative. I put my bet on jeans and a sweatshirt. I wasn’t too far off but she blew me away as I was going after an orange pepper in the fridge when she reappeared wearing fitted and faded jeans, flip flops and tight black tee shirt emblazoned on the front with “Keystone Corner,” in gold leaf and a saxophone blowing ice cubes onto a rather distorted music staff as though notes. There was a lot to look at and I took in the full-length view as she picked an apron off the hook by the stove and tied it skillfully behind her.
“You didn’t cook at home. I remember your family had a cook. The week we spent together in Su Lin’s apartment we managed not to starve so you had some cooking skills. At that time I had none so I was pretty dependent on you.”
“I had to learn at school in Paris. I was expected to help out. Fetch me the wok, would you? I remember you cutting vegetables as though you were doing surgery.”
“Do you cook now?”
“No. I have a house keeper who cooks. She came with the house when I bought it. Her mother had worked for the previous owners since, I don’t know, maybe 1950. A long time anyway.”
Agnes had lit a match from the antique match box nailed to the wall next to the stove and lighted the stove. “Hand me the walnut oil in the cupboard on your left. Thanks.
“So I told you my whole life story since we last saw each other; most of it anyway but all I know of you is that you appear in my life eating an expense account lunch.
“And you were also trying hard not to get picked up by a middle-aged woman. By the look of it you’re in sales and and that’s very un-salesmanlike. I thought you guys had trolling lines out full time.”
“I was so taken aback at meeting you here I could hardly think. Are you put off because I didn’t try to pick you up and you had to do it?”
“Not at all. I haven’t become invisible yet. Men still try. But you looked about as stunned as the first time we met so I wasn’t expecting much. I must say, you are much better groomed this time.
Agnes had opened the window to the right of the stove as she added tamari and the breeze sucked the smoke from the now sizzling wok off toward the neighbor’s. It smelled good with the sharp promise of ginger I hadn’t seen her chop. I turned the flame off under the rice. Supper was almost on. Agnes took a bottle of white wine from the fridge. As she set it on the counter she said, “Thomas, Do you remember the last time we had dinner together?”
“Oh, you bet I do. How could I forget that.”
“I’m glad you didn’t forget. We didn’t know it was to be the last. You even helped cook, remember?”
“How could I forget that whole week? What possessed you to capture me in, in a love nest like that?”
“That’s a question that answers itself.”
“It was at Su Lin’s apartment the Thursday before I went up country.
“That proved to be a major adventure.”
“I couldn’t get Col Suel to say anything about it.”
“A lot of it is just technical mumbo jumbo about radars but then some of it has more than a bit of intrigue.”
“I suspected so, based on what people around me didn’t say. It had something to do with the money laundering, yes?”
“Yes, at least indirectly. The rest of the story didn’t involve me but I could hardly avoid it.”