by Mitchell Grabois
After Tu and I made love, I fell asleep and dreamt I was running along the edge of a swamp. I knew I should be in the trees but there I was, exposed, sloshing through mud and water. Leeches sucked the flesh of my legs chest neck. They were my confederates, the only ones lacking deception. I ran, hunched over, threw myself down in the water, shots and explosions all around me. One of them would kill me. People screamed. I couldn’t see them.
On the run again. Another explosion threw me into the air. I flew sideways, a torpedo, trailing pieces of my leg like a comet. I felt for my M-16, my best friend. I would never know a woman the way I knew that weapon. I flew over the corpse of a water buffalo, over fields of rice plants, the guardians of peace in the universe, tranquility waiting for us all somewhere.
Maybe death is not so bad, I told myself, not worth resisting. I awoke, cradled in Tu’s thin arms and I knew it wasn’t a dream. I had been there, a soldier. Tu, her skin infused with the blue afterglow of napalm, had known it all along, but until that moment I had been so filled with shame and guilt, I had suppressed and denied, utterly deceived myself, lived a lie, but I knew Tu had forgiven me, so it was alright. I sobbed. She held me until my grief was spent, which took weeks, maybe months.
The mud was orange ointment, a salve made from palmetto swords and alligator puke, which they donated like a mother bird who regurgitates into her fledgling’s mouth. Yes, alligators feel love. All the love humans have abandoned has to go somewhere, as physics teaches: energy is neither created nor destroyed.
When I cut Tu’s clothing with sewing scissors, when I peeled cloth from her body, her molten blue flesh, immersed in the ooze, hissed like serpents. I was aroused like never before. God created Tu to excite me. God created me to excite Tu. There was no other reason for us to exist. If we stopped exciting each other, we would die, like tomato plants at the end of the season, gnarled and bitter.
Crawdads scuttled out of the way, propelled by the wake of our transcendence. Orgasm blew my head off, more efficient than any sniper. The crawdads ran like hell, as if they were trying to outrun a nuclear blast. An entire race of people banged blocks together, nodding and smiling, deafening us. Lightning illuminated their slant-eyed faces. They were the opposite of zombies. They had come to live in the swamp because they had so much excess life, they needed to damp it down.
I had finally found release. I had found love. Tu and I were one organism. Tu and I had forged the ultimate marriage. Out of violence had come compassion. There was no reason in the world anymore, there was no unreason. Our brains were dribbling onto the orange ointment made of alligator puke and palmetto spikes.
That night Tu handed me a couple of pills. For your malaria, she said. What you always thought was depression was really malaria.
I hadn’t known. I took the pills as a show of trust. They were yellow and glowed in a way I recognized later was malevolent. I felt sick and lay down in the high green grass. The moist blades played hide-and-seek with my nausea. I’d always suspected there was an intimate relationship between nausea and depression, but now I had to reframe it: nausea and malaria. It made more sense.
Tu turned to me with an evil smile. Do you think that we Vietnamese are saints? We cannot release the past any easier than anyone else. You earnest dummy.
Then I realized that I was in a correlate of a James Bond movie. I had been deceived, weakened by a drug, naïve as any new coed with roofies in her martini and someone’s cock in her mouth. Tu tied me to the bedposts. I was helpless. I was no James Bond, I was only a veteran with PTSD, a dumb grunt, a bad judge of character, putting myself in harm’s way as I had always done.