Mai Tais in Paradise – 1967
By Louis M. Abbey
The man stands naked in front of the sky-filled window curling his toes into the pile carpet. A drop of sweat trickles down his hairless chest. He feels the walls press close around him like the reeds would at night on the river. Fifteen stories below, bathers wander in and out of surf and traffic crawls along a flower-lined boulevard. Colors mute, merge and separate in the glaze of bright sunlight. He turns.
The woman on the bed is sitting up, hugging her knees surrounded by a tangle of love-wrecked sheets.
“At least you’re here, Jen,” he says, jaw muscles pulsing.
“I’m here. We’re here,” she says. “Where were you?”
“In the middle of writing to you, Go to the travel agent. Book a flight to Vietnam, now. Don’t think about it, do it. I’d just written that down when the incoming flashed— shrapnel! First round blows the Sergeant Major’s hooch! Hit the bunkers!”
“You’re not there, Ricky, you’re here with me in our hotel — Hawaii, R&R. It’s been five days. Remember? Yesterday? The beach, that couple arguing at the café, Don Ho’s club, all those songs — remember? We’ve only got today. You go back tomorrow night. Here, see? Touch me. Real.”
She stretches out her arm. He steps toward her, shivering, teeth chattering, takes her hand. She smiles, tilts her head, hair falls over a shoulder. He sits on the edge of the bed beside her.
“Be still, hon,” She says. “Take a deep breath with me. Inhale… exhale. This is real.”
She wraps her arm around his back, draws him closer hauling the blanket over them. His face flattens in the angle between her neck and shoulder. They remain that way for a time, silent, breathing together, sharing warmth. Finally, he sleeps.
He blinks awake, sits up and stretches. Pink light in the room. Jen is on the phone.
“Who are you calling?” He groans through a yawn.
“Room service.” Cheerful. “Want some breakfast?”
“It’s too late.”
“No, hon, its another morning. We slept all day yesterday and the night. Coconut pancakes, OK, with bacon, guava syrup, lychees?”
“Yeah, coffee too. What’s guava?”
“Fruit. You’ve had it before. Really good!”
“What’s it taste like?”
“Sort of blackberry-cherryish.”
“OK get it, whatever it is.”
He gets up, wanders to the window. The beach looks the same, crawling with people. Bodies litter the sand at odd angles like sprinkles on ice cream.
She watches him. Outlines of his back muscles change with each breath.
“You still tired?” she asks.
He turns toward her, head hanging as if gazing down his naked body.
“I like to watch the people and cars move. They come and go, no worries. I can’t…”
“Come and go. That life out there, I can’t believe it’s real. Or maybe mine’s a dream and that’s not.”
“You are still tired.”
A knock at the door – she opens, speaks with someone and returns carrying a napkin-covered tray.
“Who was that?”
“Breakfast! Voila!” She whips the napkin off the tray with a flourish. He ducks, a wild look in his eyes. “Sorry, hon. I didn’t mean to. Just trying to make you smile—feel good.”
They share a blanket at the small round table by the window. He pours syrup over the pancakes and devours them with the bacon in three mouthfuls, each followed by a gulp of black coffee; pushes the plate away. The red, rough-skinned lychees lie untouched.
He clasps hands behind his head and stares out the tall glass pane.
She picks at her food.
“I was at a meeting — the R&R center before you got here, Rick. You know what they told us?”
He shakes his head.
“They said we shouldn’t press you, that you’d tell us when you were ready. You haven’t…”
He glances at her, remains silent.
The blanket rises and falls with their breathing.
“What was it like, Rick?” She asks finally.
He turns a blank stare at her. She lowers her eyes to her plate, mashing little pieces of pancake with her fork.
“I’m a whore.”
“What does that mean, Rick?”
“You know what a whore is.”
“You’re not a woman taking money for sex.”
“No, I’m a fucking death whore — a hired killer.”
“You are not, Ricky. You’re just doing your job, protecting yourself.”
“Supposed to be protecting you. Feel safe?”
“Do you feel like you’d be in danger if I wasn’t over there?”
“No. It’s a long ways away. I don’t feel danger from your war. But I’d feel safer if you were home with me.”
“Well, I can’t be. I’m there, like you said, doing my job, killing gooks so you’ll be safe at home. You know— defend your country! All my life I waited my turn, but that’s all bullshit now, Jen. Doesn’t mean a thing to me any more. Want me to tell you what my war is like?”
“Well, yeah, I guess, but…”
“It’s getting paid for killing people I don’t know, so you’ll be safe back home. If you don’t feel safer, I’m failing. I don’t do it for no reason.”
She shakes her head, eyes still on the plate.
“You know what it’s like to kill a person?” Jaw muscles pulse. “It’s easy, that’s what!” Voice rises. “First gook I shot? Didn’t even know I’d killed him ‘til somebody told me. Hey, your first kill, man, way to go! Pull the trigger and he flops over, easy. Forget him, on to the next. I’m OK with that now! Got me a fuckin’ medal!”
“Shhhh — Ricky. You’d go to jail if you didn’t do your job. They wouldn’t let you come home. Then I really wouldn’t feel safe.”
“So I kill people to stay out of jail. How fucked up is that? If I go outside right now and kill those people down there, I’d go to jail but the killing wouldn’t bother me ‘cause I’ve learned not to care. Four notches in my gun, I’m a good soldier, Jen, killin’ is my mission.”
“I know you’re not a killer, Rick, you’re not.”
“I’m programmed to kill for peace. That’s the way they look at it. Every gook that drops is a little step toward peace. Fire at will, they say. And the joke, you know what the joke is? Every gook’s name is Will and we fire at will! One gook at a time keels over and I’m so willing to take that step for peace.”
“You’re so angry. I know you care. You only do it because there’s no choice. I know you, Rick. Remember the hedgehog in the garden? Remember what you said? We buried it. That’s the you I remember. Are you mad at me? What’s wrong? What do you want, Rick?”
“Nobody asks me that anymore. What do I want? Week ago I’d have said a night or two of non-stop sex was all I needed. Then I’d go right back up to my ass in mud, waiting for the next gook to move. Dream about you, us, belly to belly, nothing changed. That’s all I need, I thought. Come home, recharge and nothing’s changed.”
“We’ve got all that, Ricky, right here. Has it made things right? Made anything right?”
“I don’t know.” He sighs, runs a hand through his hair, over his arms and chest.
“So, what things are changed? What would make it right?”
She strokes his arm. He pulls away. “I thought this would.”
A gust from the air conditioning vent blows over them.
“We’ve got to talk, Ricky. What would make things right?”
“I don’t know, you, me, life together. Even if I make it back in one fucking piece, everything will be gone or changed. It won’t be the same — all those little steps wasted. Forget about it, they say. Fire at will! Maybe in a hundred years it won’t matter.”
“You want everything to be the same? We can make it that way. Live like we always did. I know it. It’ll be fine, Rick.” She pulls the blanket tighter.
“No it won’t. Something’s broke, disappeared and I can’t put it back together.”
“We can. We’ll make it just like it was. It’s only a year. What’s a year?”
“We can’t. A year’s a thousand little steps. Like this breakfast, pancakes, nuts, fruit, it’s not real. You know what I eat for breakfast?” She shakes her head. “A fuckin’ candy bar and coffee I make out of boiled water that might as well be piss. That’s real! You don’t even know what piss tastes like.”
“Piss — don’t — come on, Rick.”
“Yeah, piss. Gooks piss and shit in the paddies, you know. We add a couple of pills, boil it, drink it and guess what? I’ve gotten to like that coffee. Think you can make coffee taste like piss water?”
“You want more coffee?”
“If it tastes like piss.”
“Come on, Rick, stop trying to be funny. Remember when we went to new places — like in Mexico, our honeymoon? We’d try everything — food, clothes, words, drinks — everything.”
“Yeah. Here we are in paradise, why not try a new drink?”
“Ricky, be serious. Remember the drink book? You’d close your eyes and point and that’s the drink we’d make. Well, when I first got here, I saw this sign in the bar downstairs, Try our Mai Tai. So I did. Bet you never had one. They’re delicious. I’ll call room service right now and order some.”
She drops her end of the blanket, shrugs on a robe and skips across the room to the phone. He leans back in the chair — eyeing her. She talks holding the receiver to her ear with her shoulder, curling red-tipped toes of one foot over the other.
He turns to the window, pulls the blanket tighter, stares down at the beach. Bathers wander the sidewalk among waving palms. Bright colors blur, merge with trees and chairs. FLASH! First rocket hits off to the right. People arc into the air, ripped from their clothing, arms flying. A woman’s leg cartwheels over the grass and collides with a man standing beside a table. Organs and separating parts fill the smoky air. A man runs from body to body, lifting heads until one comes off in his hands.
A loud knock behind him cuts the scene.
He snaps his head around as Jen opens the door and speaks to someone.
After a minute she appears with a tray. Sets it down on the table: fresh pineapple strips, two martini glasses, pitcher of pink liquid, ice and napkins. She drops her bathrobe and joins him in the blanket.
With a slight nod to her, he reaches for the pitcher; fills the glasses to the brim. They each take one, smile, clink a silent toast then take a generous sip.
“There,” she says. “Let’s try and have a good time. See if we can’t make things a little more like they used to be.”
“I’m having a great time, aren’t you?”
“Oh, Rick, look at that beach. We could be down there. It’s so beautiful.”
“Why should we?” He slowly shakes his head. “Everything’s fine here.”
“Don’t be silly, this is Hawaii, paradise, the tropics. Anything can happen. Take a nice long drink and see if we can’t have fun.”
“I was being realistic.” He takes another large sip.
“Come to think of it, you’re right, it’s fine here.”
He feels the alcohol warmth spread through his chest and shoulders, loosening knots, down each arm and into his belly. He lets out a long burp follows it up with another sip of the mai tai. Sun glances off a boat windshield, like a muzzle flash, far out from shore. He ducks. She pulls him closer.
“Looks pretty hot out there, but there’s a breeze,” she says. “We could go for a walk. Zoo’s supposed to be great.”
“Pour me another one of those — whatever they’re called,” he says.
“Mai tais, hon.” She pours the pink liquid and ice into his glass.
“It’s nice and cold, but it tastes like perfume.” He sniffs. “Room smells like perfume too.”
“Happens some times.”
“What do you mean?”
“Perfume’s in the tropical breeze, you forget the smells and tastes of home.”
“Where I come from, air smells like diesel, burning shit cans… that’s more home than this room.”
“Come on, Ricky, relax. Be nice. Play along. We can have a good time.”
“Don’t get me wrong, I love it here with you — great food, no letters to write or wait for. Make love any time we want. Maybe you’ll even get pregnant.”
“Is that what you want, Rick? Would that make everything right?”
“What do you mean? We tried hard before I left. It was a good idea then.”
“But we’ve been apart a long time.”
“Might help us get back to normal. You back on the pill?”
“No. But we don’t have to do everything in these few days.”
“You wanted a baby pretty bad before I got my orders.”
“I do want it, as much as before, but things have changed. We’re both alone now. We should be here for each other. Get reacquainted. See what it’s like for a while.”
“We already know, Jen, come on. We’ve been married more than two years. Besides, it might have already happened.” He leans forward, elbows on the table, two fists under his chin.
She stares at the puffy clouds. Car horns, bits of street noise penetrate the glass.
“Maybe it didn’t happen anyway. Who says it has to happen? If you don’t want it, there’s always…”
“Don’t, Rick, don’t!” Hands over her ears.
“Jesus, Jen, it really isn’t that bad.”
“I know, Ricky. And my problems are so small next to yours. All I have to do is be pregnant. You know what you’re going back to and I don’t. All I want is for you to feel like things are all right with me, so we can pick up where we left off. I don’t want you to worry.”
She stands, tosses her end of the blanket on his shoulders and steps to the window, her body a silhouette against sky and clouds. On the beach, a man and woman wrestle with a sailboat in the surf. Couples sit on benches or stroll the boardwalk, arms around each other, pointing toward the sea, the huge piling clouds.
After several tries, the sailboat couple scrambles aboard, nearly capsizing. Finally upright they slice into the waves. Jen turns from the window, folds her arms across her breasts. “What if you don’t come back, Ricky?”
“I will. I know it. But if you’re pregnant, you’ll always have…”
“What if I’m not pregnant and you don’t?”
“It’ll be fine, even if you’re not. And I will come back. Don’t worry. Anything’s possible but it doesn’t make it so.”
“Yes, we could even come back here,” she says with a lilt. “Live in paradise with the sun and surf — everything we want. That would be easy, wouldn’t it?”
“We’ll have what we’ve always wanted — anything, everything. That’s why I’m fighting, so the world can be ours. Keep your eye on that.” He empties the drink pitcher into his glass.
“But we can’t have everything. You said it yourself. If you make it back everything will be changed. Maybe nothing we do here matters.”
“It all matters. Take it easy, Jen. When it’s over, we’ll be a family. That’ll make it matter.”
She turns to the window again. “We can’t be a whole family if it takes you away.”
“But it hasn’t and it won’t. I’m here aren’t I? Gotta go back and clean up loose ends. That’s all, then we can start over.”
Still facing the window, “You want to fix it all and I don’t understand that. Nobody can fix everything, have everything — not us, not all we want in the whole world.”
He holds the blanket open. “Come on, sit down here with me. Everything’ll be all right. You don’t need to feel bad.” He reaches to draw her toward him.
She pulls away. “I don’t know what I want, but whatever, it feels broken. I just wish it would go away. You seem so sure.”
“Oh, Jen, for Christ’s sake, Jen, I — I care about you. I love you. I want what’s best for us, make everything right for you. Let’s not worry about coming home.”
He tugs at her elbow and she turns. Leaving the couples on the benches. The bright backlight mutes the details of her face.
“Remember our trip to Victoria, Ricky, just before you shipped out? We were lying in bed looking out on the gardens of the Parliament? What did I say to you then?”
“Oh come on, Jen. It was different, a different time.”
“What did I say, Rick?”
“We could stay in Canada.”
“You’d stay with me, always.”
“And what was your answer? ”
“Oh, I don’t know — don’t remember. What did I say?”
“Think about it, Rick. You said…”
He closes his eyes, inhales, rests his head in both hands, sighs, “It would ruin everything.”
“Throw away all I ever wanted in life. Make a fool of me…insult my Dad. I had to take my turn, like he did.”
“Defend our home — my obligation. Jesus, Jen, it was the law.”
“Was that what you believed, Ricky? I can hear your dad saying it, but did you believe it then? We had a dream too. We talked about it remember? What was that?
“I’d go back to school, get a good job in the city and we’d have a family — you and the kids there every night waiting for me to come back from work. I had to protect our dream too; it was the law. Be on the safe side, obey the law is all I ever knew.”
“Do you still believe you have to risk your life to protect our country, Seattle or anywhere, from the Vietnamese? Forget the law. Do you still believe that, feel that way, even now?”
“Not exactly, it’s more complicated now. But I still want to come home to you, get a job, be a family.”
“If you could do it all over, would you stay in Canada?”
“Be real, Jen. It doesn’t matter. We can’t do it over. All I want is for you, us, to be happy now.”
She moves closer, bending down, staring him in the face. Moist tracks angle from the corners of her eyes.
“We could do it right now.” She says. “Book a flight to Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, wherever you want. David Silver got his draft notice. He and Mary Ann left the next week for Toronto and never came back. He’s got a job there, nobody bothers them.”
“Yeah, but get real Jen, we’re here, and I’m already in. They’d come after me.”
She picks up the corner of the blanket, draws it over her shoulder and sits beside him. “There are ways and people who can help. We can go right now before it takes you away from me and we never, ever have a family. What’s wrong with that?”
“It’s not that simple anymore. I don’t know how to say it but it’s not a choice.”
“Sure it is.”
“No, I’m responsible now.”
“Responsible? You said you learned not to care!”
“That’s not the point, not exactly, not legal or anything. You’ll never understand.” He shakes his head, “I’m not sure even I do. But I know I have to see it through. For once, can’t you take my word for it, Jen?”
“What’s more important than me, us, our family? We can have anything we want. The world is ours. You said so.”
“It’s not more important than you, Jen. It hasn’t got anything to do with you. It’s not — I don’t know how to put it to you. I just have to go back, finish things.”
“Have you got a girlfriend there?”
“Jen, don’t start.”
“I think I could understand if you do.”
“Jen, it isn’t…”
“Just try me. See if I can understand. Are you still afraid?”
“They’d come and get us, find us — me. Take me away. I know these people, Jen. They have helicopters and guns, even dogs. Some guys go AWOL on R&R. They bring ’em back. Then where would we be?”
“Everything’s a risk, Ricky, even a baby. But if you’re afraid — that was your problem in Victoria, wasn’t it? Well, I’m afraid now, afraid you’ll get chewed up by all of this so I won’t even recognize you, or worse, maybe never see you again. Then nothing will be all right and everything we’ve ever dreamed of will be gone. How about that? Doesn’t that make you afraid?”
Deep sigh. “Ok, maybe I was afraid then. Fear ran my whole life, Jen. Do you know I was afraid of blackberry canes, bells, being poor, dying in my sleep? Every night I was scared my father would die in his sleep. If we had stayed in Canada, I just knew the MPs would get me before I could take my uniform off. It wasn’t that I was afraid to break the law. Breaking the law didn’t exist for me then; it wasn’t a choice. I didn’t even consider it.”
“You mean I didn’t count in your choice – we didn’t count?”
“Jen, I’d never done anything like that before, not in my whole life! OK? I was scared, scared sick of going to Vietnam but more scared to disobey. All I wanted was to be invisible, keep my head down, do my job and maybe they wouldn’t send me. But it didn’t work! Defend our home? Bullshit, Jen. You may not believe it but I had no strength to do anything out of line then, even for us. Dad might’ve said I had to serve my time, but that didn’t figure in it. I was afraid to get in trouble. I couldn’t think about going AWOL to Canada. I was too scared — not for us — for me!”
He moves to the window. The sky is grey with clouds. People rush back and forth on the beach gathering things. Lightning — thunder — wind spatters raindrops against the glass. Muscles knot his shoulders and cords strain in his neck.
“And you’re still afraid,” she says to his back.
He whirls around, face flushed, fists clenched and shouts “No, I’m not…it’s not the same! Okay? Listen to me! We were in this firefight. A guy fell in front of me. I picked him up, live rounds flying everywhere and I carried him off the field stumbling over the dead ones. That happened in my war, too. Would you be afraid then?”
“Of course, anybody would, what do you think? I’d be petrified. Might never do it in the first place.”
“Well I wasn’t afraid. I know that. Didn’t even think about it. I’m sorry you had to find out. I didn’t want you to know — thought it might make it worse for you. But I did what I had to do when I had to do it; something changed inside me that can’t be undone. It will always be with me and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. But you’re right about one thing, Jen. I know what I’m going back to.”
“Now I’m even more afraid, for you, for us, knowing that’s what you’re going back to and you’re still going.”
He stares past her. Muscles relax in his face, down his neck, shoulders and arms. His hands open. He inhales as if to speak but doesn’t. Then finally in a softer voice…
“Jen, it has to be that way, be reasonable. That rain out there falls on everybody. Part of me is still there and it has nothing to do with fear. Call it what you want. But it’s not any one thing. I can’t explain it any better. You’d have to be there to understand and even then you might not, but I know what I have to do. I can’t walk away.”
“So you’re saying no. Is that it?”
“Jen, all I want is to be a family with you and to have our children. We’ll get through it and I’ll come home. Leave it there. I’ll make it, you’ll see.”
“I’m not sure you can leave it there.” She flops back on the bed. “But whatever you want, fine, I haven’t got anymore energy.”
The phone rings. She rolls over and picks up, “Hello?” Listens, hands it to him. “For you.”
“Specialist Kendall here — yes, I’m on my way.” He passes the phone back and reaches beside the table for his bag, opens it and begins to put his clothes on. “I leave in two hours, Jen.”
Louis Abbey is a retired Professor of Oral and Maxillofacial Pathology from VA Commonwealth University in Richmond, VA. He is a U.S. Army veteran of Vietnam, having served in the Americal Division in Chu Lai 1968-1969. He has an MFA in Creative Writing from VCU and has published both poetry and fiction in journals such as Indiana Review, The MacGuffin, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and Georgetown Review. One of his poems was anthologized in Blood and Bone, Poems by Physicians. He currently lives and writes in Revere, MA.