America Encaustic

         Matt thought the air smelled something like Vietnam—it hung around his neck in thick, heavy ropes, choked with smoke and hot breath and what could’ve been gunpowder but was probably just firecrackers, he reminded himself. Ahead of him, Johnson snaked through the dancers, winding his body into the spaces between wayward elbows and knees. Matt’s shoulders excavated holes in the crowd, bludgeoning through people with an apologetic, “Excuse me” and “I’m sorry.” Most of them were too blissed out to care. Their bodies pulsed to some deeply universal beat, even though the stage was still empty of any musicians. The arms of the crowd stretched into the roiling, smoky red air of the arena like branches extending into the jungle canopy, mosquitoes buzzing around his exposed skin, boots thick with mud and blood—

         “Matt,” Johnson yelled. “Hey, bud, you good?”

         “Uh, yeah,” he said, shaking himself back into the club. Johnson clapped him on the back and grinned, the scar on his cheek stretching his lips gruesomely high in the lowlight. It was something he’d had to get used to since he got back from Vietnam, his friend’s new skin—the last time he’d seen Johnson, it was summer in Vegas and they were spending their nights lavishly in casinos and bars and clubs. Then it was winter in boot camp and his parents sent a letter detailing a certain incident between Johnson and the federal officers who had come to collect on his draft sentence. His friend would never make it to Vietnam after that.

         Instead, Johnson made it into the world of rock ’n’ roll. He liked to describe it to Matt as beginning with a particularly good night with particularly potent beer, sleazy motels, and lots and lots of hot chicks. That was where he found a guy who introduced himself as Jim Johannesen, and they drank and slept and fucked their way halfway across America before Johnson realized that they were on a music tour. He crashed back into Vegas in March of 1973, where a newly war-christened Matt was sitting in a bar that sold the particularly potent beer that started his friend’s three-year crusade across the States. Now they stood in an arena waiting for Jim Johannesen’s band to fill the smoke with a promise of a “new-fucking-life, man,” as Johnson had described it. Matt sighed and wished he was back in his apartment, maybe curled up with Jane, where the air was cool and quiet and didn’t remind him so much of the inside of his tent camped on the borders of Phuoc Long right before the bombs went off.

         Johnson was talking again, his voice almost lost in the sound from the crowd. “You wouldn’t fuckin’ believe it, man,” he said, gesturing wildly with the beer in his hand. “Chicks like you would not believe. And they don’t even care if you’re not in the band, if you’re backstage that’s good enough for them.”

“Yeah, and Jane would love that,” Matt answered, knocking back his own beer.

Johnson gave him a dubious look and said, “Yeah, like you didn’t already fuck a dozen hot Asian chicks when you were in Vietnam.”

The band mounted the stage, their faces blurring together in a composed whiteness so that Matt couldn’t tell one from another, or even from the famed Jim Johannesen. The opening notes crashed down louder than he expected. The cymbals tore the stadium into a war zone, the arms of the jungle swaying and toppling into the mass of black, heaving bodies. He saw her fall first, bullet holes ripped through her chest, arms, legs, chest. One of them must have hit something vital because she didn’t get back up again. “Traitor,” someone whispered in his ear. “Pick a side, Private Wang.”

Matt must’ve fucked a dozen chicks, Johnson said, he must’ve gotten lonely at night with only his hands for company. But no, the war wasn’t like that. Matt’s platoon was in An Loc for a week before the orders came to storm the surrounding villages for hidden members of the Viet Cong. The privates were supposed to stay in camp, but the other young, angry men in his squad pushed and writhed against the borders, itching for something to kill besides their endless time. Matt stayed in his tent and wrote letters to Jane and his family and Johnson, because his boundaries were much stricter than the rest. American and Asian were the dividing labels in Vietnam, and it didn’t matter that he was both. It didn’t matter when they said “Asian” that he was Chinese, because every person with distinct non-white features was under suspicion no matter where they were from. It didn’t matter that twenty-four years ago, his parents had fled to the United States to escape the communist regimes they were now fighting against. What mattered was how many steps he took outside the camp to piss and who he spoke to in the villages and how many bullets he put in them when he killed them.

The first time Matt saw the girl, they were doing recon three days before the invasion. She watched from the doorway of one of the houses as soldiers slunk through the jungle growth around her, radios beeping and whistling in between the chirping of birds in the trees. The other people in the village moved along tensely, avoiding the soldiers with every muscle in their bodies, but she caught his eyes and held them. He could read the silent question on her lips—why are you with them? Matt had returned to his tent and that night he tried to think of Jane, but the girl that came to mind had harder features and tanned skin and bored into his soul with her eyes. He tried not to think at all.

Matt saw her twice more after that. She squatted in the vines draped around their camp and whistled at him one night when he stepped outside for mealtime. He had five minutes before the others would notice he was missing. “My name is Minh,” she told him, her English thick and heavy. She told him more about how her brother had joined the Viet Cong but they hadn’t seen him in years, how none of her village had seen any of the enemy at all. “Do not come for us,” she begged. “What have we done to you?”

Traitor, Matt had thought to himself as he held her hand, traitor; but she was really the one he was betraying when he whispered, “I’ll try to stop them.” 

The order came the next day, and the cymbals onstage crashed, and the soldiers tore the village apart. The privates, vengeful and drooling for heroics, screamed for the residents to give up the traitors and shot them if they didn’t respond fast enough. Matt looked for Minh, but it seemed as though she had run. Until he walked into a house, looked to his left, and saw her underneath a soldier, dwarfed by his large hands that covered her mouth so she couldn’t scream and his large legs which pinned her to the ground as he tore into her. Her white dress was pushed up to her stomach, caked with mud and blood, her arms splayed out in defeat like she was laid out on a cross. Matt thought of Jane, the softness of her skin against his, how he always brushed her hair back behind her ear when he first pushed into her. A slow, sick feeling spread between his legs and up into his stomach, filling his mouth with bile as he stared at the broken girl on the ground, her long black hair loose around her face. As he watched, she turned her head slightly, and the dulled brown of her eyes asked him, “Why are you with them?” The soldier looked up at him and sneered, “What’re you looking at?” 

And Matt had turned away, because they would’ve shot him too if they had the chance. Traitor. The gunshot went off ten minutes later, and even though there were hundreds of bullets popping around him, Matt could tell that that was the one that killed her.

The club was writhing with sound. What had once invisibly possessed the crowd now controlled them like marionettes, flinging their bodies in waves with the music. “Like nothing you’ve ever heard before, right?” Johnson called over to Matt, his eyes smoky and red in the light. Without any response, he nodded to himself and said, “Yeah, motherfucking genius, that’s right.”

“I need to get out of here,” Matt yelled at him, the pulses of sound from the stage moving his heart in time with the band. He was afraid that if they stopped playing, his heart would stop too. The air stuck to his skin and held him in place in the crowd. “Johnson! Please!”

         Johnson dragged Matt out into the open air gasping and coughing, falling to his hands and knees on the asphalt outside. His friend stood to the side as Matt vomited onto the ground, bile burning at his throat and roiling in his stomach. When it seemed like he had finished, Johnson walked back up to him and patted him on the back. “You good, buddy?”

         Matt wiped at his mouth and heaved out an exhausted sigh. “I’m fine.”

         “Good enough to go back in there?” Johnson asked hopefully, his eyes falling when Matt shook his head urgently. “All right, okay. What was it? The alcohol? Did you take something? What happened?”

         “N-nothing—I just,” Matt paused, swallowing the memory of the girl’s eyes. He gripped the crucifix around his neck. He had gotten it at a street market in Saigon. The craftsman had carved the figure on the cross into the shape of a woman instead of a man, her white dress blowing in some invisible wind, her head drooped against her chest in defeat. He remembered trading the man his parents’ silver crucifix for the new one and hanging it around his neck. 

         “We can go backstage,” Johnson offered. “Jimmy’ll be done in forty.”

         Matt nodded, breathing in and out like they’d taught him in the hospital after his first panic attack. Johnson beamed and helped him up, chattering about how now they could really enjoy the fun, and there was a particular blonde groupie who had been flirting with him the past few days—

         “Will they have beer?” Matt interrupted him.

         Johnson smiled. The puckered, shiny skin of his scars carved his face into fragments under the lights of the arena. “They’ll have much more than beer.”

Much more than beer could mean anything to two boys who grew up on the Las Vegas strip. After school, they would go to Matt’s parents’ restaurant and study until Johnson coerced Matt’s mom into letting them free. They would stand in the lines for clubs while Matt bit his nails down to their beds from anxiety and Johnson soaked in the neon lights, cozying up to girls wearing sequins and chatting up the bouncers until they were first in line every night. There were powders and pills and smoke and alcohol of every color. His best friend was always about loosening up; his parents were always about studying. “This restaurant won’t become the family business,” they would shout at him every time he came home less than sober. So he found Jane, and he applied to Stanford, and his dad had a heart attack. Then none of it mattered at all when he stayed home from college and the letter arrived in the mail that said, We’re coming for you.

The backstage of the club pulsed with sound. “We’re gonna wait in the band’s dressing room,” Johnson told Matt as they walked in, nodding to the security guard.

“I have to be at work tomorrow by nine,” Matt reminded him as they entered a room hazy with smoke. A girl wearing glitter and little else walked up to them, sashaying to the thrum of music from the concert. “You’re new,” she purred.

“I, uh, have a fiancée,” Matt said awkwardly.

Johnson hit him in the arm, laughing. “That’s not how you fucking do it, man!” He put his arm around the girl and whispered, “I’m single, baby.”

“I hit you last week,” she said dismissively, and wandered back into the smoke. Matt laughed, slapping his friend in the shoulder. “So that’s how you do it?” He asked.

“Shove off,” Johnson mumbled. “Let’s go get the good stuff.”

People lounged or maybe just collapsed on couches around the room, their pupils blown out with ecstasy. Johnson clapped a few on the back, murmuring greetings to the ones he recognized while Matt followed him. One man splayed out over the carpet, his hair slicked to his temples with sweat. Matt squinted at him, the haze in the room nearly obscuring the features he’d seen photographed on the cover of Rolling Stone just the week before. Jim Johannesen laid on the ground, drool drying on his chin, eyes half open and staring at the ceiling. A naked girl draped over him, equally as high, but no one in the room seemed to care. For a moment Matt wondered who was on stage rasping out riffs on a guitar right now, but Johnson kept moving through the room as if that was a question he should already know the answer to. One of the guys handed his friend something small and glowing, which Johnson puffed like a cigarette. He rocked back and gave Matt a long, slow smile.

“Finish this,” he said, offering him the joint. “It’s the best shit around. I smoked pounds of it while I was in the hospital.”

Matt breathed in a long, slow drag, the clarity in his head feeling slightly more swarmy and disjointed than usual. He’d smoked weed before the war, but it was different now. There was more he could forget when he was high. He relaxed his shoulders and smoked the rest of the joint, listening to the crashing sounds of the concert smooth away into the background. Johnson laughed and handed him another, his hands moving with unnatural liquidity in the dark room. “That’s the stuff,” he said. “Wanna go to the bar?”

Matt nodded. He wasn’t sure whose lighter he was holding or how it ended up in his hand, but he lit the joint and smoked it slowly, savoring the high as they walked. The girl standing by the bar had dark hair that fell down her back in gleaming waves, her skin tanned and smooth in the lowlight of the band room. As they approached, she turned to look at them, and her eyes caught Matt’s breath halfway down his throat.

“You wanna fuck?” The dead girl asked him, her eyes the same shade of deep brown that they’d been in the haze of the jungle. Minh smiled, nothing like the smile of broken teeth and bloody lips that had been forced to the ground by the soldier’s hands. She reached out and brushed against his arm, and he took her hand.

“I’m sorry,” he told her.

“Nothing to be sorry for,” Minh said, moving their joined hands towards the skin exposed by her slippery dress. “Don’t you want this?”

Matt nodded, his mouth dry, his mind blurred between realities. There was movement, and different rooms, and darkness, and then the heat of her body on top of his, and lips and breasts and skin soft enough to be satin. Her body stretched and spread over him like the girl on the crucifix, her white dress lifted and pulled away by the same invisible wind. She could’ve been anyone in the shadows, but for those moments she was his, and he pushed her hair behind her ear.

The air was heavy and hot and dark in his tent back in An Loc the day after the massacre. Somewhere a few paces away the other soldiers laughed and told stories together, but Vietnam itself was quiet in its mourning. Matt listened to the mountains whisper around him. They had a woman’s voice.

“We’re leaving on a bus for San Diego tomorrow morning,” the girl whispered in his ear, her voice low and sultry. “Want to come with?”

Matt didn’t say anything in response; instead, he closed his eyes and sank into his skin. By tomorrow morning this would all be gone. 

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