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Grey Sparrow Journal

Issue 30, July 31, 2017
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War, Love, Rain

 

by Louis M. Abbey

 

 

 

Phuong met the new American doctor at the officers’ club shortly after he arrived in Vietnam. She was a waitress then. He was drunk and complaining about the surgical assistants. She brought him whiskey, listening and joking with him and others at the table. Afterward she steered him back to his Quonset hut. He held her hand, pronouncing her a better assistant than the American nurses.

 

“I will work for you,” she said. He hired her the next day.

 

It was hot that summer in Chu Lai and the M.A.S.H. operated full tilt. Med-evacs darted like dragonflies on and off the helipad, unloading body bags and the wounded, keeping operating rooms full. At night it cooled and bats fluttered around the arc lamps.

 

The young surgeon had a brutal temper. No one wanted to work with him. Phuong was a hard worker but polite and deferential. Block your ears, the nurses told her. He’ll swear at you and call you names, but pay no attention. Duck when he throws something. She mastered one-handed knots, learned to anticipate his needs for instruments, pressure, access and visibility. She caught on fast, so he rarely directed her. Their eyes, above their masks, flashed questions, approvals, apologies, harmony and regret. In three months she was as good as anyone.

 

After surgeries, they remained with their patients in recovery, so Phuong often missed the last worker bus to the village. Those nights she slept in his bed while he worked in the emergency room. The soldiers talked about night patrols…fear of dying alone …you can’t see your hand in front of your face. But they couldn’t wait to return to duty. In morning twilight he’d lie down beside her. Everyone knew about them.

 

One slow day, they walked the bluff above the sea and Phuong asked about his marriage. He hadn’t been married long. His wife joined the antiwar movement after he was drafted.

“She hates the war,” he said. “Says I’ll die for nothing…it’s all about money.”

 

“You have me and the war. We die together,” Phuong laughed.

 

Some days, they wandered the fly-infested market in her village and visited the Buddhist shrine, leaving their shoes outside. Phuong lighted joss sticks and bowed before the bronze Buddha.

 

“What do you pray about?” he asked.

 

“That we stay together through the war.”

 

“What else is there but war?”

 

“The rain,” she said.

 

Attacks and casualties increased with the monsoon and he and Phuong worked ‘round the clock, napping between surgeries. One day she told him her brother had joined the Viet Cong. He promised to have someone look into it, but never did.

 

Lying with him in bed one night, rain tatting on the tin roof, she told him she loved him and asked, “You love me?”

 

Silence.

 

“What will I do when you go?”

 

“I don’t know. Go on working, I suppose.”

 

The rains dissolved into heat again and he became chief of surgery. New doctors and nurses replaced those who went home. He’d stopped smoking and drinking entirely and developed a reputation for surgical skill and friendly wit. Everyone liked Phuong. She was relaxed, even joked about his rare temper tantrums. She had her own space in his new quarters, though she didn’t live there.

 

With the new dry season, he got orders to return home and Phuong became quiet, withdrawn…indirect. That evening in bed she asked if he would marry her before he left. It was possible.

 

“When we get to the States, you can divorce me and never see me again,” she said.

 

“That’s impossible.” He shouted.  “You know I’m married! America will liberate Vietnam. You have skills to get a good job after the war. Work at a hospital, marry a Vietnamese doctor, have a family and a good life.”

 

“Never happen,” she scoffed, “My brother is Viet Cong and I am not innocent.”

 

They quarreled off and on during that final week and distance grew between them.

 

His last night, they dined at the Officers’ Club. She spoke positively about the future. He drank too much, argued, and grew sullen. Rising, he lit a cigarette and walked to the window. Flares drifted above a battle on the peninsula across the bay. Tracers flew back and forth. He’d miss her in his bed and the exciting rush combat brought to the hospital.

 

Phuong watched his silhouette against the window and the firefight beyond. From her seat at the table, the distant red tracer lines appeared to plunge into his chest.

 

Next morning, before sunrise, she followed him to the helipad. He’d told her not to, shouted at her to go back. He’d never meant it to end that way, but time had run out. She turned and he was gone.

 

She sent many letters. In those he opened, she wrote about how quiet and sad the hospital was without him; she felt lonely and missed him, especially at night. She’d come to America, she said, if he sent for her. He grew coarse in manner and temper. His wife left him. At work, he bullied the other doctors. Patients and nurses complained. He threw one assistant bodily out of the operating room and was disciplined for being drunk while on call.

 

After a long hiatus, he received a final letter. She still loved him, she said, but realized there was no life left in their love. For that she was sorry. But she’d fallen in love with a new American surgeon and was certain he would marry her and bring her to the States.

 

Her new love didn’t marry her. After he left, she continued to work at the M.A.S.H., taking up with one doctor after another until they complained and she was permanently barred from the base as a nuisance and a source of disease.