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I get an erection every time I hear “The Star Spangled Banner.” Ever since Vietnam. When I was married and my boy wasn’t a hot-shot executive in Silicon Valley and he was still just a boy, we’d go to a baseball game and they’d play the anthem and I tried to keep my mind elsewhere, think about batting averages or beer and hot dogs or whatever, but instead I’d follow the tune and it’d lead me back to Vietnam, which I went to out of what that song stood for, and Vietnam’d lead me to some little dive of a bar in Saigon, where I was stationed as a clerk, and the bar, of course, was filled with girls in silk dresses, Vietnamese girls, all with black hair falling long down their backs and all of them tiny and slender and with the prettiest — what? — everything about them — the prettiest skin, a little bit dusky — the prettiest feet, they all made over their feet like it was the sexiest part of them, filing and painting the nails and flaring their toes to see if it was just right. I never noticed a woman’s foot before I went to Vietnam. I stand there in a ball park or wherever it is I hear “The Star Spangled Banner” and all I can think of is those girls.

So it’s a new millennium. Bygones are bygones and I find myself on an Air Vietnam flight from Hong Kong to Hanoi because after all the crap we went through and us losing the war, these Vietnamese communists decide to embrace capitalism after all. We come in over these chocolate-colored rivers and the rice paddies, and the same water buffalo and women in conical straw hats are out there doing their thing like nothing ever happened, even up to the edge of the runway there’s women bending into the flooded fields plucking at the rice and it looks like we’re going to land right on top of them but they flash past and there’s a little clump of banana trees and then we’ve touched down.

The cab driver’s old enough and wiry enough that there probably was a time about thirty years ago he would’ve emptied an AK-47 clip into me if he’d had a chance, but instead he shoots me a killer smile, like he’s real glad to see me, and he says, “Hello. Good luck. We go.” And we go. Along the paddies, over the Red River, and into a city that the only U.S. service guys who got to see it were the John McCains, suffering for the duration and humming the anthem to keep from going mad. All this, while guys like me — and there were plenty of us — armies are fat with non-combatants — we fucked our brains out for God and country.

But even from sitting at a desk for a year, you still get a twist of something seeing the red flag and the yellow star and seeing the pith helmets on half these Vietnamese men in the streets and seeing big pictures of Ho Chi Minh everywhere.

I’m in cement. Communists love cement. Nothing’s as exciting to guys who
learned their politics in Moscow than a cement plant out on the edge of the city pumping coal smoke into the air and showing x-number of metric tons of industrial progress. Hey. I can’t criticize. I get caught up in it myself. Sometimes the guys I work with and me seem to get so heated up about vertical cyclone chambers and rotating kilns and pure Portland-grade cement — I mean sweet, marble-gray pure cement — that you’d think our secret sex lives was to jerk off on a fresh laid foundation. Just call my dick Mr. Rebar.

A guy and his job. Is that the real passion?

Hell no. It’s all sublimation, let me tell you.

I did my job during the day, meeting the People’s Committee on Economic Development, kicking around at a bulldozed site out in the middle of the rice paddies west of the city, with the Ba Vi Mountains sitting on the horizon and about a half-ton water buffalo snorting along a dirt path with a little boy on his back. I said some of the things I knew about this business and felt pretty good about that, with these Vietnamese guys who kicked our asses in the war hanging on my every word. I like being an expert. But what was really important to me, down in the hot center of who I really am, was going on at the edge of my sight while I talked: some young Vietnamese woman in her straw hat and floppy shirt and black pantaloons rolled up to her knees out there in a nearby paddy and she’s bending over fiddling with the rice plants and her sweet little ass is waving at me there and something real specific comes back, the tight split-moon of a bargirl’s bare ass waving at me from the bed like an anemone at the bottom of the sea saying to a fish, swim right on in. This was in some room in some alley in Saigon and it’s thirty-one years ago and I’m standing back from her a little ways, I’ve just stripped off my own clothes and my hands are trembling, they’re so happy, I’m very young and very inexperienced but I’ve also always had a real good imagination and this is far beyond my wildest expectations, this stunningly sweet vision of female skin with a complex darkness at its center, and I’m actually in its presence and I can touch it, she’s waiting for me to touch her. Even while this long-gone moment was rerunning in me, I was saying these things about the centerpiece of the cement plant — the two-hundred-and-fifty-foot, preheating, precalcining tower — and I never missed a beat.

But that night in Hanoi I was back in my brand-new, Korean-built hotel, where all you had to do was draw the drapes and you could be in any city in the world, and I thought for the briefest moment of the girl in the rice paddy that day and my hands started trembling again — very faintly, but no shit, they trembled. Because I’d suddenly gotten an idea. The embargo is lifted. The free market is alive and well in Vietnam. If Coca-Cola and Nike can rebound, surely Sex can too. I’d go out. I’d find a girl.

The first bellman I spoke to leaned near and he had one whispered word of advice for me: karaoke.

I found a cab outside the hotel and I simply repeated the one word to the driver and we were off at once with a nod of mutual understanding.

The Vietnamese nights in my head are full of noise and hustle — these are memories of Saigon, a place not much changed in its motorcycle-rush even today, from what I’ve heard. The people of Hanoi love the night as well — they were everywhere around me on the way to karaoke — but there was a quietness about them, a sense of leisure, reflection even, as they strolled the streets or slipped along on their bikes, the handlebar bells chirping like crickets, or they lounged on tiny plastic chairs in the mouths of little soup restaurants.

I hung out the window of the cab. All this was, well, turning me on. It’d been a long time since I was really truly aware of what was happening in my senses. We passed a gaggle of kids and I knew at once what they were doing, from the way they were standing, though the strings going up from their hands were invisible. I leaned out farther to try to see into the night sky and I could barely make out their kites up there, quaking in the dark. I drew back into the cab and I tried to think of her face, that first bargirl thirty years ago. I could see her eyes, showing the curve of a French colonialist father or grandfather in their languid lids. But she wouldn’t quite come into focus.

Then we were stopped and the word hung in the window in neon like the name of a beer: karaoke. Inside, the place was small and dim and thick with cigarette smoke. An Asian businessman in a suit and tie and with a square face — I took him to be Korean — was singing “The Long and Winding Road” into a wireless mike, his eyes glued to the lyrics coming up on a big screen TV hanging over the bar. His colleagues at a table in a corner, draped with Vietnamese girls, bellowed out the chorus with him, and I was instantly impatient with the whole scene. Then there was a soft touch on my arm and I turned to a woman with short hair, like a ’20s flapper, and with a face like the face of somebody from a newspaper years ago, some pretty young girl at the side of some shot-down American jet pilot she’s just taken captive. She’s as pretty as the girls in the bars but she’s got an AK-47 slung under her arm and it’s pointing at this pilot’s dick.

“You buy me drink, sing me song?” she says to me.

“Lead me to your door,” I say, echoed instantly by the band of businessmen, only I mean it, I just want to go somewhere quiet and alone with this woman, though she makes me a little nervous — this is fucking Hanoi, after all, and there are certain things that once they scare you, they just never quite stop scaring you.

She’s not looking like she understands. I say, “We go . . . ” and I realize I don’t know what the words are for this request, in this city, in this decade.

But now she gets it. “You want special date with me?”

“Yes,” I say. “Special date.”

The businessman was finished and his cohorts were cheering and squeezing their girls, and my girl stepped forward and grabbed the mike and handed it to me. I found myself at the bar and what I figured was tea appeared before her in a Manhattan glass. Saigon Tea, we used to call these things. Hanoi Tea, now. And the guy behind the bar gave me a list of songs I could do. I glanced at it and saw “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Careless Whisper” and “Karma Chameleon” and “My Heart Will Go On” and I pushed the list away.

I said, “I want to do the American national anthem.”

“We have only this much songs,” the guy said, pushing the list back to me. My girl was looking at me with a funny little smile.

I leaned close to her and said, “If I sing, can we go?”

She put the tip of her forefinger on the point of my chin. “You sing, then you pay twenty dollars American, then we have special date.”

So I step away from the bar into my own little space and I blow into the mike and the hiss fills the bar and I stand up straight and I start to sing, “Oh say can you see, by the dawn’s early light . . . ” and the bar quiets down. I don’t make a pretty sound but I get the tune right and I get the words right, by God — I’m an American, and it wasn’t my fault I ended up with a goddamn Underwood as a weapon, I still went to the Nam and took my chances — and everybody’s staring at me and I’m the only American here, that’s for sure, nobody’s chiming in with me on the lyrics, and there’s no music at all behind me but I’m singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” like I’m standing out at home plate and there’s forty thousand fans all around me in the stands with their beers at parade rest, and I look at my special date sitting there at this karaoke bar in Hanoi and the bombs are bursting in air and it’s all coming together again, my country and Vietnam and a sleek, pretty woman waiting to have sex with me, and I’m so hard now I could lie back and hold up the roof better than anything made of goddamn cement.

And at last it’s “the land of the free and the home” — I draw out the “o” in “home,” filling it with my patriotic passion — “of the brave” — and I carry the “a” in “brave” for a long while, stretch it out while I look into her sharp-cut Asian eyes, sparkling like the sun off a ballpark beer.

Then we’re out the back door and down some narrow stone steps and through a dank passageway smelling of that fish sauce they put in everything they eat and at last I am alone in a dingy tiny room with a Vietnamese woman and all I can do is sit on a straw mat while she sits on the bed smiling at me and she is unbuttoning her blouse and her skirt has ridden up her thigh and I can barely draw a breath and my heart is pounding over the thought of sex like it hasn’t pounded for decades. And I wonder if maybe I came to Vietnam in 1969 and I actually died, I came here and I was walking around the streets of Saigon one night and some VC sympathizer just came out of the shadows of some alley I was passing and killed me dead and I never even realized it, I’ve been having this American-Dream Dream, this Marriage-and-Fatherhood-and-Divorce-and-Work-and-On-and-On Dream, this Cement Dream, ever since, and all the time I’m one of those ghosts who doesn’t even realize he’s dead. Here I am and this woman’s blouse is off and her bra falls away and her sweet little nipples, the color of butterscotch, are erect for me, and suddenly this feels like life again and I can’t remember a feeling like this since back in the goddamn war.

“Am I real?” I say, aloud, and she doesn’t pay any attention. She’s standing up now and her skirt falls and her panties slide down and from the sweet pinch of her pussy lips, a lick of dark hair rises, just a little lick, like I’d already touched her there with my tongue and this is the track of it, and she turns and she leans forward on the bed and she lifts her naked bottom to me and I answer my own question. “Yes,” I say. “I’m real.”

This story first ran on NERVE in 2000.