The food Madam Dai had ordered without consultation arrived. On the table cluttered with greasy glasses, snake specimen jars and overflowing ashtrays, there were small plastic plates, each with a shoddy sample of Vietnamese cuisine. Wise enough not to partake herself, she replenished her glass in the murky jar.
Like a portentous Greek chorus, Robert thought he heard the dead snakes in the jar whisper: “Don’t eat the springrolls.”
“I was the first woman to sit in the senate,” said the old woman. “Back in the old days, when we were pretending to be a democracy. Me, with my law degree from Paris, and my beautiful stylish shoes.”
Her black eyes glinted, the liner around them had run into the creases of her skin and her false eyelashes sat curled and dusty black on her heavy lids, like dead spiders on cupboard shelves.
“Those men,” she said. “Those fucking men. They just couldn’t help themselves. And the Americans only made them worse. The corruption was…” she shook her head and her wig, after a slight delay, agreed. “The corruption was so thick. So thick. I can’t even find words for it. It was like the whole of Saigon had lost its mind. It was something past greed, you know? Ridiculous cherry red Cadillac’s being flown in on a moments notice. Whole crates of refrigerated lobsters left to rot on the dock in the sun. No one did their job. Everyone was too busy squirreling away what they could skim off the Americans. No, skim is the wrong word. I was a spoiled woman, you know? I had been born into a rich family, brought up in a big French house, sent to the Lycee. I thought I’d seen corruption all my life. But it was nothing to this. Nothing. I couldn’t stand the sight of the excess. Perhaps you can’t even comprehend it.”
She looked at Robert, blinking. A black trail of moisture had wormed its way into the puffy hollow under her eye.
“I think I do,” he said.
“Maybe I have something to thank the Americans for.” Her old eyes settled back down on the half-empty glass on the sticky plastic tablecloth. “Maybe they made me patriotic. Maybe they turned Saigon into a bathtub full of money and all the shits floated to the top. That’s when I met my Colonel. That’s when I fell in love.”
“He was Viet Cong?”
“Viet Cong?” she cackled. “You Westerners, you have labels for everything. You think once you put names to things you can control the world. Like Adam in the Garden of Eden.”
Robert decided to ignore the snakes and bit into a spring roll. Without something to soak up the rice alcohol, he wasn’t sure he’d make it through the evening. It was a tough, greasy little thing. Like a fishy tootsie roll.
“So, what was he like, this Colonel of yours?”
Madam Dai closed her eyes and her stained, wrinkled lips spread smooth across her mouth, and displaced all her sags and lines onto the sides of her face. “He was so handsome. He was a teacher, you know? Or that’s what he was pretending to be. I met him on a tour out to see one of the newly invented strategic hamlets out near the Cambodian border.”
“Near Tay Ninh?”
“That’s right. God that place was poor. Poor and filthy.” She shook her head again. “He showed me the school they’d built for the village children. And there was a little clinic. Oh, he was so soft-spoken. He was from Central Vietnam, you know. The peasants there are almost unintelligible. But he was from Hue. I could tell. He was courtly. I knew right away he wasn’t a teacher.”
“But you didn’t say anything?”
“I didn’t care. That slim young man, in his neat, belted trousers and his bright white shirt. You should have seen his hands. He had elegant hands. After all the greedy, fat pigs in Saigon, he seemed to me like a god of the rice fields. With his soft voice and his ravenous eyes.” She grinned again and took a sip from her glass.
“So, how did you two get together? I mean, in those days, it couldn’t have been easy.”
“About three months later, he came to my office in Saigon. Ostensibly to organize funds for some pre-natal program the Americans were using to try and win ‘hearts and minds’ with.”
Madam Dai put down her glass and looked at Robert. “I have always been a clever woman. Believe me, I knew exactly what he was doing, trying to recruit me. At first, I’m sure it was all about doing his duty. I knew that. I just didn’t care. I knew what he was, and I was willing – no, no, I was hungry – to be swept up with his cause. And I wanted those elegant hands on me. I wanted them to lead me to something else, somewhere else.”
“So what did he want you to do?”
“Oh, he didn’t tell me any of that at first. That first visit to Saigon, I took him back to my house and let him fuck me in my marriage bed. It was the best sex I ever had.” She chuckled and looked over to the dusty shelves and the stained plaster. “Not that he was such a great lover. No. The pleasure came from knowing that, with every thrust, I was letting go of all that filth and all that corruption. We screwed until all the French in me came off on the sheets. Until there was nothing left but a Vietnamese girl. He purified me. He fucked me red. Literally.”