The Shard, The Tissue, An Affair
When a poet lands in San Francisco, even our romantic Victorian city may not be enough to make a love affair last. Today’s podcast is from Vietnamese-American author Andrew Lam, who was also the web editor of New America Media for many years.
In 2005, he published his first book, Perfume Dreams. He is also the author of the book Birds of Paradise, about the Vietnamese immigrant community in the Bay Area. He is working on a fourth book tentatively titled Stories From the Edge of the Sea, a collection of stories about love and loss. Many of the stories are based in San Francisco and Vietnam, both places in which the seaside plays a prominent role: geographically, thematically, and metaphorically.
Today’s story is a more literary departure from our regular storytelling approach, but we think all San Franciscans listening may find a bit of themselves within this piece.
You can find this piece excerpted in Andrew’s new collection of stories. You can also find a transcript of “The Shard, The Tissue, an Affair” below. To submit your own story, please email us your pitch at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Photo by Tara Ramroop
Transcript of Andrew’s story:
The Shard, The Tissue, An Affair
Not that the glass shard had any business with the sole of his foot; nevertheless, it made itself familiar. And it was an unending story of how he teased and squeezed and how it refuted his negotiations. But finally, the shard—so small, smaller than the tiniest teardrop—was retrieved and he, pained still, examined it for a brief moment against the halogen lamp be-fore flicking it to hurl like a comet out my window.
On my bed he sat, a teary-eyed Shiva, his wounded foot raised in the air, kicking, kicking.
I should have swept carefully. This was no way to welcome a poet. I should have mopped, waxed. Something. Now I watched as he wiped the wound with a tissue paper and felt awkward, like a caught voyeur. But then he looked up and smiled. Come here, he said.
We had seduced each other over the phone and via emails a year before we actually met. An essay of mine had found its way to his part of the world and he took the initiative of sending me an e-mail full of compliments. I replied, thanking him for his kind words, and discretely enclosed my number.
Mostly of home, of our tropical Vietnamese childhood. He named for me seasons half for-gotten, our childhood fruits, fruits eaten in stealth and ecstasy. Remember the green man-go? Sweet and sour and crunchy, eaten with salt and red chilly pepper or even fish sauce, hidden under the student desks while an old geezer of a teacher drone on. And the durian, loafs of yellow brain eaten with glee by the entire family after dinner, fingers digging through a split thorny-shell the size of a skull, family brain surgery, that’s what it was, a ceremony of shared flesh. And what a smell! Rotten flesh fragrance, its pungent aroma re-maining for days in your hair, your nostrils, your breath. And the milk apple, green and purple outside, milky white inside, to be eaten after siesta, its cool and smooth texture slid-ing against your throat like sweet ice. Afterwards, washing the milky sap off your lips, scrubbing real hard, and see how raw they look in the mirror, as if from too much kissing.
I, in turn, recounted for him the flame trees that blossom in the courtyard of my elementary school, red and green, glowing to the point of blindness under an unforgiving sun, its black fruits, hard shells that fit perfectly in a child’s palm, turned into swords for the boys to duel with. I recalled a summer villa veiled in a cloud of red bougainvillea by the ocean in Nha-Trang. The way I slept in the afternoon on the second floor, soundly, insulated in my par-ents’ rhapsodic laughter, which echoed like shattered crystals from room to room (and how I loved the roaring sound of waves out the tall French windows that made me dream of ti-gers). My favorite childhood smells: the sea, of course, with faint suggestions of kelps and dead fish, ripened rice field at dusk, my grandmother’s eucalyptus ointment to ward against evil winds, the sweetness of sandalwood incense burnt by my pious mother nightly.
On the phone late one autumn evening, I whispered, Read me a poem. Out on the bay the foghorn wailed mournfully. A poem, please.
I don’t know, said he. You were supposed to send a photo, remember?
I’m sorry. I’ll send one tomorrow. I swear. Poem, please.
Mother burns pages of albums
wedding day, first child, father’s
quick, she says, hurry, pack,
we’ll sail away
to sea …
Saigon in April
A season of smoke
His poetry went on to speak of a perilous journey, one full of wonders and griefs.
So I took my chance: Will you come for a visit?
To your city? He asked.
Of course, I said. By the sea. You can see sail boats every morning out my window. Hear the cable cars go rumbling-clanging by. Feel the sea breeze on your skin, taste its salt …
To fall in love is to have one’s sense of geography grafted onto another’s, no matter how tenuous, so as to form a new country. I saw Houston in my mind, a city of strip malls, grand old homes and gleaming glass-and-steel skyscrapers that coexist cheek by jowl. He, in turn, imagined San Francisco with its Transamerica Pyramid poking the blue sky, windblown hills the color of ember at twilight, sail boats gliding on the bay like playful white butterflies; he imagined—and I could tell this from his voice—that there was freedom somewhere in the next valley.
Alright, he said, I’ll come. In December, at the beginning of Winter.
Then he stepped on the shard. And had trouble walking the next day, his new boots, bought a week before, unyielding, his dye stained socks kept sliding downward inside. He walked the city, my city, with a slightest of limb.
We were otherwise chirpy as songbirds that first day. At lunch we held hands under the ta-ble at Cafe Claude while I introduced him to friends, and afterward walking home, we broke into an old folk song about rice harvesting, a song learned so long ago and so mean-ingless now that neither one of us knows its lyric entirely.
Day two: To Carmel. I drive, my hand resting sporadically in her, Cesoria Evora cooing nostalgic ballads of love. Last night under a flapping red awning of a stucco apartment building somewhere on Russian Hill we kissed and I, impulsively, beckoned him to move in with me. He stared out to the dark water and contemplated the offer. Then before I could speak he kissed me again and shut me up.
He contemplated the sea now, a glittering sheet of silver lamé that stretches back to the past. It must be strange for him to see the Pacific once more, so long hidden from him in Texas, the ocean a reminder of that terrible flight on that crowded boat full of refugees from Saigon. He relives it all once more. He sees the small of his mother’s back as he huddles her children in the corner of a dark and crowded and stinking hull. He wanted to take her place so that she could rise to the upper deck and smell the fresh air, even if only just once. But she never did. The journey she kept her lioness vigilance over a sickly brood. It was him who begged for water, who gathered bad news. It was him who told them how blue the sky, how vast the sea.
His siblings are grown now, his mother well passed middle age and half crazed, and he, like a benevolent spirit, still needs to watch over her, over them, lest he would somehow los-es all purposes and meanings, though how he yearns for freedom, god only knows, a night-ly defeat.
He turns to me then, the wind in his hair, the sea a blur in the corner of his eye: I want to. I really do.
Day three: Something has changed. A shadow has flown across my window, a movement in the stars. The initial delight of recognition shifts to the fact of too many details; we fall into routine. He sleeps on my favorite side of the bed, my left arm hurts from the weight of his handsome head. The way he throws the scarf over his shoulder vaguely bothers me and I can’t say why. Sometimes he has this sad look, a poet’s melancholy, I suppose, and is un-reachable. He wears it too often, like a geisha his powder. I look at him now insulated in sadness and wonder how his books could possibly fit in my apartment when my shelves have no more space for V.S. Naipaul’s collected works?
Day four: He discovers an unfinished poem on my desk, an ode to his beauty. He says nothing but I can tell he doesn’t really like it. It’s not jealousy, it’s the fact that I have moved into his “territory,” even if to woo him. Something in his sigh I recognize too well: it’s claus-trophobia.
Day five: Or rather night. Rain. A chorus of remembrances. Fifteen years and he is tonight as he was then, a moist-eyed boy standing in the refugee camp watching his mother hug-ging her sickly brother, her youngest pup dying of pneumonia before her eyes. He is drunk, not from the alcohol, but from trusting, and grief. He stares out the window and speaks of leaving, of wanting to leave, leaving his mother, which is impossible, leaving his siblings, who have already left him, leaving Texas which he didn’t care for, leaving everything, him memory, his sadness, what owns him.
We buried Little Binh in Guam. Around the grave we stood and sang his favorite song then left his plastic dog on the mound until the rain washed it away. My sister went back to look for the grave last year but she couldn’t find it. Some morning my mother stares out the window and cries as if it had just happened last night.
Listening to him I suddenly am also overwhelmed by a particular memory. It was in summer of 1973, a year after the ARVN and Americans recaptured the city of Quang-Tri near the DMZ. I had visited it with my father via helicopter, a rather strange excursion. The city was destroyed in the recapturing, reduced to piles of rubble by B-52 bombs that left deep holes that, after the monsoon, turned into swimming pools for the children who sur-vived. I walked about. Behind a broken window of a house sat an old woman. She sat as she must have as always, with an ease of years, but she stared out to nothing now, the old neighborhood gone, and the wall that held her window was the only thing left standing of the old house. I remember waving to her. She did not wave back.
Day six: I want to tell him, the angel sleeping on my shoulder, that it’s strange how love between two exiles can be thwarted by the hunger of memories, that Vietnam remains, in many ways, an unfinished country between us—even now, body to body, lips to lips.
Day seven: She needs me, he says. You’re lucky. You’re free.
And, therefore, I thought, utterly alone.
On the way back from the airport it suddenly occurs to me how the tiny shard came to be there on my floor. A thin crystal vase that held a dozen white tulips toppled over one windy evening last spring. I remember holding the flowers upside down, drunk and out of breath, a lake of sharp crystals lapsing at my feet, water dripping from the grieving bulbs like melt-ed snow.
A month, and still no news. His phone is disconnected. This morning I found the wrinkled tissue dotted with dry blood under my bed, my own shroud of Turin. He is so far away now, hidden across time zones, cocooned in requiems; I walk barefoot in my apartment, hoping another shard would pierce me too. But I’m not made for such a thing, alas, and must resort to keeping under my cool blue satin pillow the blood-stained tissue, remnant of an uneasy dream of communion whose yearning is long.