Happy Birthday in Ho Chi Minh City
Yung Seoul Kim
years earlier when Isabelle and John got married in the
backyard of their gracious and loyal long-time college friend
Rob, Rob's pet salamander Ho Hi Minh City crashed the
ceremony. As the couple began exchanging their vows and John
took Isabelle's hands, Ho Chi Minh City slithered his way from
the cluttered garage through the steel and blonde wood
kitchen, out the Italian engraved back door, down the grassy
pathway, past the well-dressed guests and then boldly onto the
bride's white tulle train.
one beyond the sixth row of wedding guests seemed to notice
the presence of Ho Chi Minh City, except for the prospective
husband. From his peripheral vision, John found himself
glaring at the reptile, before moving his eyes quickly back to
Isabelle and the ceremony. The minister also cast a hurried,
concerned glance in the same direction. In the end, John's
fierce gaze did nothing to intimidate Ho Chi Minh City. He
managed to continue moving stately and smug. The prospective
husband's warning glare could do nothing to stop the scaly
determined salamander. The amphibian journeyed in his deadpan
way through the early evening Saturday wedding on his own
ceremony went on and Ho Chi Minh City persevered through the
grassy knoll on his stomach, tongue ablaze, flickering in and
out like a heavy-metal fan at an outdoor rock concert. Instead
of fake fog and fancy lighting effects, a grain of rice and a
carnation petal landed on his head. Soft as summer rain. A
little double hat. A quiet piece of reptilic performance art
frozen in time, without applause.
retrospect, Isabelle always enjoyed the memory of Rob's
salamander showing up uninvited on her wedding day, calmly
riding the white wave of silk and chiffon. After viewing the
official wedding photos, her mother scrutinized the green blot
on white for a long moment and was horrified. By contrast,
Isabelle was of another mind. She liked to remember how Ho Chi
wiggled himself slithery and sweet, adding an unexpected
moment of dark comic levity to an otherwise oversolemn
wedding. The detail was unusual, but it was real. Little hero
Ho Chi Minh.
knew however that her husband John thought the salamander
incident very unfunny. Even ridiculous, bizarre. He relegated
that particular photo to the back of their wedding album.
months later, on a sultry Sunday afternoon, Isabelle and John
had work friends over for an extended lazy brunch at their
house. Isabelle cooked up a storm of chive frittata, corn
muffins, cranberry-orange mimosas, and apricot parfait. South
meets Too Many Varied Fruits. During the relaxed course of the
meal, Isabelle brought out the wedding album to show Dan and
she got to the infamous Ho Chi Minh City photo, John found
himself stretching out his legs, leaning back, clasping his
hands behind his head, and rolling his eyes. Isabelle shot him
a sharp look and he batted back a swift grin. As she flipped
through the album, explaining the photos to their friends,
John stood up, abruptly asked everyone if they wanted anything
more to drink in an odd voice, and headed towards their
opened another bottle of wine, John thought about how Ho Chi
Minh City had been a waste of salamander food and an
incredibly ugly creature, to boot. He never voiced this
radical opinion to Rob or Isabelle. They doted on the creature
and would have batted down his comment instantly. Personally,
he never understood why Rob would name a pet salamander after
a city and county that he had never traveled to once in his
life. A book or conversation with Vietnamese friends hardly
counted as experience. No, that salamander was named via
substitute experience. It was decidedly fake. The little
lizard had no right to the name.
stopped himself from criticizing Rob openly because he didn't
want to annoy his wife. They were newlyweds and he didn't
think he should start annoying her deliberately just yet. He
chose his battles wisely. He was strategic enough to realize
that he might give his wife and their friend a reason to
start, quote gossiping unquote, about him. He knew he spoke in
stiff, preppy, white-shirt starched sentences. He couldn't
help it. As a business correspondent for a large metropolitan
newspaper, these were the sector of people he was surrounded
by. Why must he justify. It made him brittle, unspontaneous.
Sullen and sarcastic. In any case, John found many of
Isabelle's gallery friends overdramatic and strange. They
became very excited about four black painted lines criss-crossing
a red painted square. Someone had to keep up their living
expenses. Certainly Isabelle with her job in non-profit museum
publicity wasn't doing it.
he didn't want a battle or a scene. Especially over a
salamander. He had enough on his plate. He needed allies.
Relaxation was the order of the day, less edge was the planned
future modus operandi. He had sought allies of various sorts
outside of his marriage to the point of feeling like an unpaid
politician at times. Things didn't entirely click in
this post-married haze. There was a strange insistence that
entered him in the mornings, blotting the landscape of his
days. A compulsion or need that strangled his focus and
attention every few months. He had caught Isabelle studying
him as if he were a mathematical problem she needed to solve.
Those things didn't quite signify. His problem was that he
could not articulate those things.
the cork of the bottle unloosened form the wine bottle's glass
grip. It punctured the air with a pop a moment too soon. Now
his white button-down was soused. A puddle of grape-colored
stain. Kool-Aid dipped in a Rorscharch test. Not seeing any
dish towels nearby, he shouted Isabelle's name.
following night, John came home late from work.
rogue hedge fund financier had flew the coop and John's
attempt to track him down for an interview went from hopeless
to hopeful to futile again. He slapped his laptop down, nearly
breaking the latch. When he found that it was still intact, he
drummed his fingers on the top of the laptop, thinking.
cellphone rang and he listened for 90 seconds before saying a
word until he said Maybe, then Okay. He hung up
the phone. He continued drumming his fingers against the
wished that the financier would drop a few of his embezzled
dollars over his head. John was feeling a pressure swell
inside his head and got in his car, speeding home through the
canyon, the trees a sideways green blur and the dotted white
lines in the middle of the road a long surgical stitch.
their home, John found Isabelle asleep already, knocked out on
the white sofa in her butter-yellow silk slip, waiting for
him. On the coffee table, he noticed a small cadre of his
favorite treats patiently waiting for its recipient: honey
roasted peanuts, several bottles of Sam Adams, and a small
bowl of wasabi-coated crunchy green peas.
Isabelle slept, her breath moved through her mouth soft and
damp. A strand of hair pressed against her forehead. She
looked like a child - defenseless, relaxed, vulnerable - and
he kneeled next to the sofa and leaned himself into her as if
he had not seen her in a long time and against his better
judgment found himself impulsively kissing her awake.
was glad he was home for the night and he was glad to lift her
compact body to their bedroom.
waiting for him at the French-Vietnamese restaurant, she
looked at her watch, and then looked at her watch again. The
restaurant buzzed with activity while the smell of garlic,
butter, and cilantro wafted through the air. She turned to
is he. I thought John said he was going to be here
early," she said.
someone tipped him off."
say that. Seriously, don't say that," she said, pushing
her shoulder into Rob to gain his compliance. "I spent
weeks planning this for him."
really don't get into all the celebration frills stuff like
you women do."
matter. Doesn't matter. He's been getting too crazy with
overworking and anyways I'm glad you came Rob. Everyone else
is going to show up for dessert. You know how John is. He
can't stand having seventeen friends stare him down while he
were sitting in an alcove seating area behind an intricate web
of potted palms. It was a more private area than she had
requested. Isabelle hoped that she would be able to see her
husband entering the restaurant. She wasn't sure what the
function of these exotic palms were, except to generally
obstruct a restaurant customer's line of vision. After
noticing the vague motions of a couple in another alcove
canoodling, she figured that the palm effect must serve some
practical function. She thought of her husband's hands under
the table, his specialty, and what they might do when Rob was
in the restroom and they were alone.
was startled from her thought when Rob tapped her arm. Rob's
height gave him advantage. She could see John making his way
towards them. Medium build, tall, confident, built to last.
John had his head down, listening intently to a phone call and
speaking brief, one word answers. Isabelle tried to catch his
eyes with her own. Her husband looked pressed and preoccupied.
Probably bad business.
waiter seated John at the next table where he proceeded to
they get John's reservation wrong?"
shrugged his shoulders.
I'll let him finish his talk and then grab my man when he's
through. Sneak attack him," she laughed. She leaned back
into the banquette seating's rich chocolate pleather, the
manmade upholstery squeaking.
they waited, Rob and Isabelle could hear inconsequential bits
of John's phone conversation. They decided to play a game of
making faces at one another, commenting silently on what they
a bad deal and you know it," John said. His voice was
strained, the borders of it, edged, scalloped.
raised an eyebrow at Rob. Rob nodded his head towards her.
Fucking. Way," John said, his voice soft, almost tender.
The tone seemed to give lie to the words.
opened her eyes widely, in mock imitation of surprise at
hearing truck-driver language on her husband's mouth.
must be one tough interview or a hell of a client," Rob
whispered, giving up on the transmission of face imagery. He
did not think his face was expressive which Isabelle thought
untrue. It was in fact, too expressive.
You know my situation."
can't do that to her," her husband continued.
continued to not let her eyes meet with Rob's. Her mind was
suddenly intense, completely focused, and energetic. All speed
and velocity. She flashed back to a series of seemingly random
and innocent events. Found herself mechanically putting
together a puzzle that she did not want to be assigned to put
seemed to happen at the speed of light. A chill and a tight
silence ran through her body, distilling anger, waste, every
manner of debris. There had been several late-night excuses
from John about late client meetings. She was not his mother's
keeper why should she have expected anything less. He was not
on a leash. He was not a Leash Husband. She was not a Leash
Keeper. There had been the red notebook that was left in the
back seat of his car that did not belong to him. The long,
feminine handwriting was a cypher. There had been his face and
his eyes that did not look like a person she recognized. Now
these events looked panicky in this harsh, unflattering light.
Damn him, utter jackass. Her eyes became wild.
Everything became a sudden highway signpost. There had been
his recent inability to look at her full in the eyes when they
came together at night. The memory of this last fact seared
was as if she were seeing so much that she was suddenly
her eyes focused again, it was on the set of large warm hands
enfolding her own across the stark white tablecloth.
did not know if they were Rob's hands, her husband's or both.