Short Stories and Other Stuff

Wednesday, June 15, 2005


Sometimes one knows the things that are going to happen. It’s like a premonition only stronger because it comes from experience, if not your own, then somebody else’s; if not in this life, then in another. It’s like watching a movie where you know, simply know, what the next line is going to be: you never read the script; you hadn’t seen the movie before. You simply know that the characters – who, after all, no matter how fictional, are people just like you and me – in a given situation are going to say and do certain things.

In my case, perhaps more often than not, I find myself cast as one of the characters in a real life drama. This intuition then becomes a kind of fatalism, except I am imbued, cursed even, with the terrible knowledge of the outcome, putting me in the curious position of being both puppet and puppeteer. This is how it was when I joined Terri in the little office. I knew that she was going to ask me to read it. I knew what was going to be in it. I also knew that by simply reading it, something irrevocable would happen between Terri and me.

I didn't realize it at the time, but I knew Terri better than any of the others in Vientiane. Of course, we expatriates never really 'knew' each other; rather we clung to each other the way strangers in an airport lounge do while waiting for a severely delayed flight: momentarily trapped but knowing that inevitably, sooner or later, we would all move on. During such fleeting encounters, there are many reasons to maintain respectful distances from each other -- and just as many compelling us to become entwined. No doubt I was already poised, but when the fax came in, I was propelled headlong into Terri’s life, though I’m sure I said nothing especially wise or insightful. But the thing which binds us to – or repels us from -- another is not what is said, but what is heard.

It was easy to see why from the moment of her arrival in the little Lao capital, Terri was the favorite subject of discussions in our group that met regularly at the little cafe along the riverbank. To be honest, it was less discussion and more gossip: a kind of idle chatter, driven by the lack of anything else happening in our lives, which took on a certain arrogant importance, then, like the river flowing past it, dissolved downstream into a vast ocean of insignificance. ‘She looks more Chinese than Lao’, one in our group would say. ‘Ah, but she is very French!’ another would say. ‘Never mind all that’, a third would say, ‘look at the way she moves and what a body!’ Despite the triviality, there was an almost accidental accuracy about those observations.

Nobody knew for sure why Terri was in Vientiane. What we did know was that unlike most of us she was there by deliberate, if tentative, choice. Sorbonne-educated (with honors), confident and quadrilingual, she could have easily remained in France and pursued any number of career choices laid out before her like red carpets. Instead she chose to return to the land of her birth, arriving jobless and nearly penniless but possessed of a brash curiosity about a place known to her only through food, language and that other inalienable product of exile, collective memory.

Terri (her name was Therese, but insisted on being called Terri, accent on the second syllable) was petite in the way that many thirty-something Lao women are, but --betraying her Western upbringing -- evidenced a discernible robustness. Her features were indeed striking: intelligent sloping dark eyes set in a broad oval face covered with smooth off-white skin out of which protruded firm round lips. One could not say that she was beautiful, but whether we knew it or not -- and I cannot say that I knew it though I sensed it -- there was more about Terri that set her off from everyone; something indefinable; an irresistible quality which subsumed beauty, rendering it irrelevant. It might have been glimpsed in the way her neck length black hair swished from side to side in exact time and rhythm with her hips; or the way her engaging smile and companion laugh always seemed to conceal as much as it conveyed; or the way her bare footprint left no connection between the heel and ball.

Whatever it was, it was certainly without my knowledge or awareness that I was drawn to her as a man who has just crossed the desert might be drawn to a cool stream. It cannot be denied that the attraction was in some way sexual, but it was more; much more; so much, in fact, that it was asexual. She arose in me a transcendental desire to know her, to consume her, the way one might consume a book.

I don't remember how or where we actually met. In our group, there seemed to be no introductions and few farewells. After a time an acquaintance was simply there, as if he or she had always been there; and then, after a time, was no longer there. What I do remember was that my awareness of her was immediate, sharp and sustained, like the awareness of an alley cat’s cry in the still of the night. She was exuberant, joyful and, with a kind of coy innocence, skillfully exhibited her many appetites for all to see. She talked incessantly without being tiresome and ate constantly without gaining an ounce. At the nightclubs we frequented, she moved her lithe body on the dance floor with a kind of primitive abandon, characteristically indifferent to the stolen glances of admiration from the others. Terri had presence.

The relationship between us, such as it became, could best be described as close, but proper. We saw each other often, but rarely were we alone. And yet, in the midst of the crowd, as it were, there was a shared affinity; an audible but unspoken understanding between us which sprang up from a place sighted but as yet undiscovered. Somehow, in the crowd we would intuitively seek out each other and, in the corner of a room, talk for what could have been hours. We spoke, as lovers might, of things mundane but charged with intimacy; of politics and philosophies; of faded dreams and incipient hopes; of loves come and gone. We spoke mostly in English, but dictated by her occasional need to reach for an idea otherwise inexpressible, sometimes switched seamlessly to French, in the process managing simply, quietly to draw even closer. It was a relationship which, in spite of ourselves, was destined to develop like a sunset on the Mekong, furtively in plain view.

It was about two weeks before the fax from Paris came in and we were, unusually, alone. She sat half facing me, half facing the river. A hint of evening cool could be felt in the gentle breeze as the fiery rays of the pre-monsoon sun, now dipping towards the trees framing the upstream bend, gave way to a soft orange luminescence. The light fluttered through the elongated leaves of a fruit-laden mango tree overhanging the café; the brilliance backlighting a formidable army of red ants marching along a branch, determined to complete its harvest of sweet nectar before the onset of the rains.

“He had no right to speak to me that way,” Terri said, without turning her head, as if speaking to the parched and feeble river lying beneath us.

She looked spectacular, but was subdued, contemplative, brooding even. She wore only the barest touch of make up nudging the fullness of her mouth toward domination of the flat plane of her face. There was a Tahitian suggestion to her low cut, sleeveless floral print day dress held up by two thin bow tied straps. Her bare café-creme shoulders and arms showed themselves gently sun kissed; bosom rising and falling as she drew on a Gauloise, then exhaled. A pitcher of Beer Lao and two half full glasses sat between us.

Though rhetorical, I assumed a response to her comment was expected, but I let her words hang over the river for a while and simply watched as the sun turned to a fireball and her cigarette turned to ash.

“He’s your fiancé,” I said finally, “isn’t it only natural that he would have expectations?” I paused and looked directly at her profile. “And he seemed very understanding about your need to leave France -- and him -- to come here.”

She finally turned to face me fully and I could see a mixture of guilt and anger in her eyes. “Yes, I know he has been patient,” her eyes darted plaintively back to the river, “but he doesn’t possess me; I’m not his property!”

I smiled mischievously, “For a man there is a thin line between passion and possession. The more desirable the woman -- and you know that you are very desirable -- the thinner the line. Call it primeval, if you wish, but that’s the way we are. Testosterone and all that.” She managed to return a thin smile. “But anyway,” I continued, “even though he’s not handling being apart very well, maybe the real problem is you. How much are you committed to him?”

She reflected on this for a few moments.

“No, I am committed and he knows full well that I am. It’s just that I need space; you know, to be me. I don’t want to live pretensively as the alter ego of someone else, even my lover.”

“”Well”, I said trying to sound more provocative than sarcastic, “there is certainly a lot of space between France and Laos! How much do you need?

“I didn’t necessarily mean physical space, though that might be a part of it. Just freedom to be me and follow my own heart.”

“Isn’t it possible to find space -- and freedom -- in commitment?”

“I’ve tried.” She paused and involuntarily let out a self-deprecating chuckle. “But I keep running into myself.”

“But then that is you. You’re putting too much weight on his shoulders, then blaming him for straining under the load.”

She nodded her head slowly in agreement. “Umm, maybe you’re right. Maybe I am being a bit unfair to Jean-Pierre.“ She took a final drag on the Gauloise, and with her foot, crushed it out absently on the floor. “But why is it me who has to be fair?”, she added with a deep sigh.

I took this as a truly rhetorical question and we both fell silent. But in the few words we had just exchanged something significant had happened; a corner had been turned, and we both knew it. She took a swig of beer, leaned back in her chair and swept her fingers through her hair, piling it up on the top of her head, then releasing, letting it drop back more or less into place. I emptied the remaining beer into our glasses and motioned the waitress for another.

I broke the silence first. “Why don’t you just go back? You are young; you have a fantastic resume; I’m sure you could write your own career ticket. Plus, there is the added bonus of making Jean-Pierre a very happy man.”

“I’m not sure I can ever live again in France,” she answered firmly, “My passport says I am French but when I came back to Laos for my grandmother’s funeral – the first time here since I was six years old – the place; the people...captured me. In my heart, I have been here ever since.” She started to say something else then stopped just before the words came out.

“What were you going to say?”


“No, really,” I persisted, “what were you about to say?”

“If Jean-Pierre wants me to be with him, I think he must come here.” She said this rapidly, almost breathlessly, as if it was something trapped inside that had suddenly found its way out.

“That might solve the problem,” I said, “if he would come and if you really want him to.”

“I don’t know if he would come.” She paused and looked straight at me, “But I know I really want him to come. I do miss him, you know.”
For the first time, I sensed an air of vulnerability about her; a chink in the armor of self-assurance she usually wore. Here was a woman, a modern woman, possessed of all the gifts of intellect and language; endowed with all the talents needed to secure her own future; and, even more, predisposed toward using them. And yet, I could see that she was not free; she was a fugitive from the bonds of convention and they continued to pursue her.

“Then the hard part – deciding what to do -- is finished,” I said with a smile, “only the easy part remains.”

She laughed. “Easy for you maybe, but not for me. Perhaps you can make the invitation on my behalf.”

It seemed the decision she had made lifted her spirits and I chuckled with her, settling back to watch the sun to bed and celebrate the subsequent descent of the cool twilight. Feeling pleasure amidst a stirring disquiet, I was glad I had payed some small part in assisting Terri to take a major step forward in her life.

I like to think it was by coincidence that I happened to be at her place for the dinner party. But, deliberately or not, she had invited me knowing that Jean-Pierre’s response to her invitation to join her was expected by fax that evening. I don’t remember the occasion for the party. It might have been someone’s birthday or perhaps someone was leaving. What I do remember was Terri looked great. She wore a simple green dress made out of some very soft fabric like silk or satin. The styling was neither fashionable nor unfashionable, but plain. What was not plain, however, was the way the dress seemed molded onto her such that every line or curve of her body underneath was accentuated without being uncovered, yielding a perfect balance of sensuality and modesty.

As she had been ever since our chat by the river, she was upbeat and positive that night and moved about the main hall to her house greeting the seven or eight guests with her typical confidence and elan. Several days before she had dispatched her invitation to Jean-Pierre to join her. I hadn’t read it, but she had told me all about it. In it she had spoken frankly about her need to remain in Laos in an attempt, no matter how potentially futile, to discover what she had missed in exile; about not expecting a return to France in the near future; and about her fondness and devotion to him. She had made enquiries, she had told him, about possible jobs in Laos and had received a number of expressions of interest in his qualifications. Their life in Laos could be expected to be exciting, interesting and possibly even financially rewarding. Terri had worked for a long time on her invitation and felt proud of her tactfully, almost artfully, worded letter. She felt sure of a positive response.

When the phone rang, she apologetically excused herself from the guests to retrieve it. I watched her enter the little office off the main hall and, through the open door saw her stand guard over the machine pulling off each sheet with hands trembling with anticipation. From my vantage point, I could just barely make out a face, which appeared to contort first with disbelief then dissolve into rage as the words raced through her eyes and into her soul.

The other guests seemed oblivious of the tempest raging in the little office; I could only sit and watch until, at a certain point her tear-filled eyes met mine. I don’t know if she beckoned me, if I took it upon myself or if it was by some manipulation of fate which transcended us both, but presently, I found myself by her side.

“I can’t believe him”, she stammered over and over again in French, as I joined her in the little office, tears streaming down her face. “Here, just look at this!”

She handed me page after page scrawled by hand in almost indecipherable continental script. The French was colloquial and the expression of thought paradoxically both eerily rational and disjointed. But it was understood. The hasty words, the anger-driven message came from beyond the ages, bringing with it the hideous offspring of humanity. It spoke of love in betrayal and betrayal in love; of life in death and death in life. The words, the message purported to be merely frank, but their effect was overtly savage and beastly dripping with a contempt risen, phoenix-like, from the ashes of misplaced hope.

He accused her of being a whore; of being a tease; of leading him on and then abandoning him. He said she was selfish and considered no one but herself; that he had been tricked by her clever female wiles into a false and fraudulent relationship. His hands, once fervently loving and tender, now sought with equal fervor to beat her until she begged for mercy; to take her by force; and finally to seize her neck and squeeze until the distress she had caused him ended, coincident with the end of her life.

“How can he say such things to me?” she raged on plaintively as I reached the last of the ten-page diatribe, “ To rape me. To hurt me. To kill me. Me?”

“I’m sure he doesn’t mean it,” I said weakly, “It’s only his pain talking.”

She began fumbling around the room for a cigarette, then let out a scornful “Ha! You don’t know Jean-Pierre. He means it! He wants to literally spread his pain to me.” She found one, lit it and drew deeply into her lungs as if the smoke had the power to exorcise some demon lurking within her.

“If you think he really means it,” I said,” then perhaps the police should be notified.”

I didn’t really expect her to report the threat, but felt obliged to make the suggestion as a way of focusing on what I was now beginning to see as the real issue. She calmed down somewhat and lapsed into thought, apparently considering my suggestion.

“No,” she said after a time, “he is there and I am here. He is saying these things to frighten me – and he has – but he will not come to Laos to carry them out. I am protected by distance.”

“Yes,” I said, suddenly understanding everything, “a distance – a space – that you created.”

She looked at me with a hint of realization in her eyes and shook her head in agreement. “Thank God I got away from him!”

God indeed. The distance, or space, I referred to was one created long before she knew Jean-Pierre; long before her return to Laos. It was one arising from an inner remoteness which could be neither denied nor avoided. It was anchored in her very nature; she stood alone as in a virgin forest: at once aloof and subjugated. Seeing and feeling so much she was blinded, paralyzed, not from fear but from knowledge. God, yes; and creature. Master, yes; and servant. It was a distance that could never be traversed by one so patently ordinary as the author of the fax....nor was it likely that anyone could.

I realized how much I now knew and understood Terri. It was through these very contemptuous, seething words scribbled on a fax that we had become intertwined, connected in ways that neither of us would ever truly understand, but would always know. The words were directed at her but somehow she knew I would recognize them. I saw in them her soul and touched it with mine. And for an instant, we were one.

“What will you do now,” I asked, knowing full well the answer.

A sad, lonely smile played across her face. “Jean-Pierre has said goodbye; and my guests have been denied the pleasure of our company for too long.” She finished her cigarette, took my arm and, pointedly closing behind us the door to the little office, we rejoined the dinner party.

It was a fitful sleep from which my consciousness slowly emerged the next morning; first aroused by the syncopated percussion of the gong announcing matins at the Buddhist monastery opposite my small room, then conspiratorially, by a chorus of yelping dogs and crowing roosters, all of which soon echoed across Vientiane in orchestral juxtaposition. My eyes opened to the pre-dawn darkness of my room, illuminated only by a thin ray of fluorescent light peeking through the not quite closed bathroom door. The sweet aroma of perfume lingered on the pillow beside me and mingled in the still air of the room with the scented-soap damp smell of a recent shower. A set of small, wet footprints led from the bathroom across the dark tile floor, first to a chair beside the bed, then to the front door.

I rolled over onto my side, and leaning on my elbow, soon found myself in contemplation of the little damp patches on the floor. They really didn’t seem like footprints; indeed there wasn’t even a connection between the heel and the ball, only dry, empty space. There was nothing except the context which led to the conclusion that these were produced at all by feet. It was only in my mind, I told myself, that these spots were footprints. There existed a separate and parallel reality, one I tried to deny but one which would always confront me; inevitable and overwhelming. In the end, I knew I had little choice but to close my eyes and surrender to it.