Lucy at Home (excerpt)
Hospital walls were whiter than winter. They rolled an old transparent crinkled lady in, with dull blue eyes and red wrinkles. She needed a transfusion or so, and while Lucy prepped the needle and gathered the wipes, the woman croaked and wheezed like a plastic bag.
“You’re twitchy, dear,” she said. “Real twitchy.”
When Lucy finished, she grabbed her daily Coke and took a sip, pursed her lips and said bye to the woman, wished her a nice day.
“Coke?” the woman laughed. “Coke! And you’d think nurses would be careful not to bang their arteries with that kind of juice!” Lucy closed the door and listened to the old woman’s chortle through the white, white walls.
The first person Lucy met in Vietnam was Sally Sherman, with candy pink lips and a sad-looking thin chin. They ate lunch outside on the beach – sloppy sandwiches and Cokes – overlooking the grayer than gray South China Sea. Mountain shadows in the background. Sky filled with clouds that looked mowed. Fourth day in the midst of the Vietnam War.
“Aren’t you gonna drink that Coke?” Sally asked, when Lucy finished her sandwich. She shook her head.
“Never liked it. It tastes a little gunky.”
Sally laughed and it echoed, bounced along the phantom waves of the sea. “Oh cute, like you think the gooks are going to go clean up the mud for you just because you look like them? You’ll learn real quick. We can’t be picky here.” And she pushed the can over to Lucy. “Go and drink that Coke.”
Tuy Hoa was something lush and dumpy simultaneously. There were the green tents and the airplanes, but there was also this forest, a misty curtain of seeming nothing and everything, mountains with soft edges that hardened and ripped as one got closer.
And even though the foot soldiers said it was paradise, a dream, Lucy felt it ached. Some days she’d walk around the perimeter and watch the pregnant black-haired, almond-eyed lovers of American soldiers, straggling. And other days, it was the tragedy of new soldiers, fantasizing and apprehending death, all the same.
One day, an earlier day, she went up to the sleeping quarters and saw Sally in a cloud of foul smelling mist, lying in bed. The dope stick was to the side of her mouth, the left, so that she inhaled through the left and exhaled through the right. She looked dead except for the inhaling and the exhaling, the puffs of smoke, the strings of phantoms surrounding her. The war was over, and Brooklyn was still Brooklyn; New York was still New York.
When Lucy was a child, her parents owned a Chinese beauty shop, and she had to take orders from everyone everywhere. The leopard-jacketed black women and their click tongued snappings. The middle-class white families that looked like the shop was swarming with mosquitoes. The tickers. The tockers.
And she heard everything. Naw, he-llll naw, for sure those earrings aren’t $2.99? I’ll just go to those chinks across the street, how ‘bout that? Lip smacks. Oh look how dirty these wigs are. Shit cracks. This place looks cheap as fake dope. All of that and more. And she was still forced to smile. Desensitized by quality. Sometimes, when she was in high school, these girls would snicker, be like, Damn, Lucy owns a beauty shop and she still can’t put on eyeliner for shit? It didn’t matter. And there was still always, a good morning, a thank you, a have a nice day escaping from Lucy’s mouth. Always.
Her parents still abided by immigrant codes. They wouldn’t let her walk in the streets after dark or eat hot dogs off the streets. They believed in quality. Zhiliang. No cheap boyfriends. Clean cut shirts. Color coded nail polish on shelves. White mannequin heads.
The war was over, and it still hurt to talk. She’d leave work fast as possible, and walk around the streets, around and around and around until two or three in the morning, like she was trying to find something, someplace. She’d walk by her parent’s store, but she’d never stop in. She wondered if they saw her through the window, peering in – just like she wondered if they knew the E in BEAUTY SHOP wasn’t lighting up. The same people, always. The same bright white mannequins. Then she’d walk in circles, around the block, around and around and around.
She’d call a friend and they’d meet for drinks, but she’d never make it through the night. No matter what she did, she’d always end up on the streets, walking like she had some place to go, but never going anywhere.
For weeks in Vietnam, she dreamed the same dream. She’d smoke like Sally to make sure it would escape, but she never had Sally’s waking willpower. It was tiring, being a nurse – a nurturer, mother, sister, wife, girlfriend, daughter, Mary or Michelle or Angela. Angel. In the white, stiff uniforms, bothersome caps, in the midst of the cuts and blood and cries of all types of men, of all sizes and colors and stories.
Mostly, it was to keep company. One time, a nineteen year-old boy who looked like her came to the hospital with his leg blown off and a fever, and he stayed in her company for two weeks before finally leaving. She tended his wounds and pressed the disinfecting cloth to his lost leg. Men: of all different sizes and colors and stories. His name was Donald Wang from San Francisco, whose parents owned a nail salon where they did nails cheap, five dollar manicures and six dollar pedicures and ten cents per nail color.
The first thing he said to Lucy was, “Thank God you’re not white.” Bitter stories till after midnight. He told about the fifth night in basic training, and Lieutenant Brickshaw, fucking racist, gave him a tipped coolie hat, some black pajamas, and an M16; stood him in front of the group in front of the woods behind the site; said, “And this is how a gook looks like. This is who you’re gonna fucking fight.” The day he and his friend Jack, black and glossy as ebony, were walking through the woods and he heard three bullets, blasting right past his ear. And Jack screamed, “Goddamn it assholes; you know he’s one of us.”
The last thing he said was Mama, why me? He died with his eyes open, hopeful for an answer.
The night he died, Lucy went to sleep with a joint in her mouth, next to Sally, and they had a conversation, inhaling exhaling. Sally exhaled while Lucy inhaled and Lucy inhaled while Sally exhaled. And everything was blurry except for Lucy’s lucid dream.
A couple years after the war, and Lucy’s mother died, in her sleep. She was not too old – seventy eight, but she had it good. The store was going well; she bought an apartment with the porch she always wanted; she had a gaggle of friends she could shop with, a nice old husband she could talk to, and nice old tradition. The funeral was a pink curtain day, like the too sweet paste of a lotus flower in a pastry. The sun was brilliant. The trees were swinging. The wind whistled. And everyone was crying.
Her father nudged her. “Lucy, people expect you to cry at your mother’s funeral.” He gazed at her with the stern eyes that reminded her of bad trades at the Manhattan night market, his stale cigarettes, his cracked hands.
“I know,” she said.
How could she explain tragedy to lambs? How endings could be joyous? True endings broke the living quickly; there was no melting into half-death and it was fast and sharp as a bullet. True tragedy – like a nineteen-year-old boy whose last thought was the way his country had betrayed him, whose eulogy were the words poor gook, whose funeral song was a green exhale – cannot be imagined. The blood taste of Coke. Burnt disillusionment. Mistaken as the enemy. Men dying with potential in their pockets. Boys dead with photographs etched in their hearts. Unwritten letters. Kids’ phantoms, asking, why me?