WHAT IT'S LIKE LIVING HERE: HO CHI MINH CITY (SAIGON)
By Jamie Lynn Buehner
To you, the position is called double swan and you do it at the end of class, but Mme. Tuhy, your landlady, was eating chicken feet tonight: that is to say, many things in Saigon are a surprise. Anyway, your teacher leads off with double swan and you know you are in for it.
In the corner of the top-floor studio, there are white stones, mini-pagodas and Bonsai trees—small shrines. It is getting dark outside but no lights are turned on, no candles are lit. In a poster, a model with an Olivia Newton John headband drinks a martini.
Students are not quiet before class. They sit on each others' mats, eat food, talk on their phones, and text. Most of them smile at you. The latecomers don’t apologize and still change in the studio. One woman hangs her shirt and bra on the mirror. There are no men.
The teacher speaks English. She tells you that it is an advanced class and points who is good, which is funny, and she teaches you the words for inhale and exhale in Vietnamese which is helpful, as you often forget to breathe even when you know the word.
She moves through the positions quickly and holds them the correct amount of time. Her technique doesn't follow any of your normal frames of reference. You feel clumsy as Bishop's toad, but put the thought out of your head and concentrate, as they say, on the breath.
Soon, you do not hear any sound in the room besides the teacher’s calm, even voice. When she walks by the woman in front of you she pulls that student’s shirt up over her head without looking at her. The student doesn't move a muscle.
You get adjusted on everything. She's onto you, pushing her whole body into yours, pulling your arms up between your legs.
You go into headstand and hold it for ages. It's the best feeling you've had since you've been in the country, hands down, literally. It's the first time you've heard silence in weeks.
You duck into the kitchen early in the morning before work to give Mme. Tuhy the rest of your rent. It’s only seven but you can see that she is already cooking. You are surprised to see a chicken poking around in there with her. Mme. asks if you would like to come for lunch, and you are already in the process of working up a polite decline when you decide that you will do it.
School breaks for lunch and you walk the fifteen-minute walk back to Mme. Tuhy’s. There are about fifteen motorbikes inside the iron gate, and the table is set for at least as many.
Jamie! Jamie! Come here! Mme. shows you to a seat beside herself and her husband, the Frenchman, who immediately starts pouring wine from his hometown near the Bordeaux region in France.
Over lunch, he tells you the story of how both of his parents were killed, along with five other people, in a terrible automobile accident when he was a young man, and how he spent a lot of time over the next few years cursing life and a god that would allow it to happen. He was only eighteen years old at the time.
When he’d met Mme. Tuhy and told her the story, she’d called all of her relatives—all of them—and they’d traveled from all over Vietnam to her home in Saigon, bringing with them the traditional dishes they had prepared with the food from their respective farms, and they’d gone on to celebrate the lives of the Frenchman’s parents.
They have been doing it every year on the date of his parents’ death since the two of them met, and this happened to be the day.
The Frenchman introduces you to everyone at the table: Mme. Tuhy's two sisters and one brother, her Uncle, the children. He talks about the differences in the ways they were brought up, he in Western Europe and Mme. Tuhy in Vietnam.
There was a lot of commotion—drinking and celebrating—but amid the glasses clinking, you come to understand that as the Buddhist philosophy has entered the Frenchman’s life, he has come to see each day as a blessing, effectively supplanting the way in which he had formerly learned to view each day, as a burden.
You can’t believe that you are the recipient of this whole story, and you feel like a fucking moron for almost declining this invitation: it’s just this wonderful little family and you, and they even made you a little plate of tofu and carrots. You have some Bordeaux anyway, even though you do have to go back to school.
As is often the case on Sunday nights, you are so exhausted you can barely put a sentence together, so you decline the weekly outing with the teachers and head back home.
The place looks quite a bit different than it had only hours before. All of the motorbikes are gone, and the bottles of French wine are sitting outside in the street waiting to be picked up. You walk over to the table where they—Mme. Tuhy and the Frenchman—are eating.
They don't say anything, just smile. You sit down and watch an opera with them for a little while. It’s a beautiful night, hot, and calm. The Frenchman, true to form, pours you a beer.
You kill another one with Sophie's Choice: slap! The tome hits the poor dear, just trying to eat and procreate like the rest of us.
Crushed. Beside you 'neath the Stryon as you type with short fingernails, their tips in the bathroom, with the rest of the army, in the red plastic can.
No longer out here in the morgue, clicking the keys this executioner, giantess, life-deleter.
You’d tried to convince yourself that they were cute, but fear saturated that exaggerated, tiresome tendency: look at them with their little whiskers became where are the ones I cannot see? And then when was the last time I saw something fit so exactly as the cockroaches into my drain grate?
You see one feeler poking out: this fellow hasn't made as clean a getaway as he'd hoped. You do not unicorn it, though, appallingly, consider it.
It's just you and the one lately. For a moment you pause to recall the more populated days, like when you’d walked into the bathroom and saw five staring up at you like a rock band on whom you’d just carelessly brought the house lights.
More flush than someone into a coffin, more evolutionary than a letter into an envelope, they fit like a man into a Cu Chi tunnel, a key into a padlock, a person into the only available free space.
Jamie Lynn Buehner is the author of Dessert Poems (Binge Press, 2012) and Catalpa (Red Bird Chapbooks, forthcoming late 2015). Her recent work appears in Sleet, The Midwest Quarterly, and the Wisconsin Review. She teaches at a private university in Istanbul.