Updated: Nov 5, 2022
At one of the lowest points in my life, I was hitchhiking in the desert...
I’m not sure why anyone would pick up a hitchhiker in the middle of a Nevada desert. A carpenter named Russell finds me thumbing along a dirt road with two dollars in my pocket and a gallon of water. He is one of those Vietnam vets who carry an odd survivor’s aura of lightness. He drives me five hundred miles to a bus station and presses into my hand a hundred-dollar bill.
Your address, I say. I’ll send it back to you.
Russell shakes his head, saying, Pass it on. There is always someone in need.
It is difficult to breathe as I watch him drive off in his old VW bus.
I’m not sure why I have come back to Vietnam. My family escaped twenty-five years ago. It has been four years since I was last here. Maybe I am hoping for a final good-bye.
I am standing on the muddy outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City, here to see my old friend Hoa. She is ill and very thin. Hoa claims to have gained weight. Eight-three pounds, she says, smiling; not too bad for a woman of five-three. And she claims her prayers have been answered: her itinerant husband has returned home, although with a broken leg, I see her thatched hut has acquired a concrete foundation, something she has long fantasized about. It is the last in a row of shanties clinging to a narrow dike built with dirt, sundered blocks of concrete, and rusty whiskers of rebar. A debris-strewn river meanders between grassy banks. Across the rice paddies and beyond the spindly power poles, new high-rises push up through the smog from the ruins of Saigon.
Hoa and I were born in the same fishing village, on parallel alleys. Same grade school, same class. More than twenty years later, I found her at a Saigon inn. She was a maid, I a Vietnamese American. I had just completed a year-long bicycle journey, and I was penniless. Of all things, we had talked about banh cang, a specialty of our hometown made with nothing more than a few drops of scallion oil, rice flour, and thin fish gravy—a food so simple, so impoverish, that no restaurant bothered to offer it. We remembered eating it on the stoops of our neighbors’ houses.
When I left, Hoa hand-washed my laundry without charge so I would have clean clothes for my Ameican homecoming: a gift from one poor person to another.
This time, she is the one in need, so I have brought tins of biscuits, chocolates, powdered milk, vitamins, tea, painkillers. They are wrapped in old newspaper pages with headlines telling of the burning of Kosovo. I have also come bearing an envelope. Perhaps it will see her through her illness.
Hoa bows deeply, hands clasped against her belly. She cannot accept such a gift. It isn’t my gift at all, I say. This came to me years ago. I tell Hoa about Russell. Then I tell her that these are honorable investments that pay in perpetuity. So we stand there, this small woman and I, in the dripping heat, smiling at the image of an old carpenter in a battered VW bus.
I’m not sure why have come to Havana. After wandering around Cuba for a month, I’m still uncertain of what I have come to see, or if whether I’ve seen it. Valentino, my new Cuban friend, thinks I’m mad, but he is an artist, and artists—I know—need drinking buddies, particularly the paying type. Besides, I am renting his sister’s flat, a fourth-floor walk-up.
We’re sitting on the roof, between a bottle of rum, cans of Coca-Cola and an ice bucket. We’ve been drinking Cuba libres since noon. Except for one thing, you and me, Valentino says, we are same. But you an in America and me, I am here, always.
Valentino is on probation for anti-government graffiti. He also served six months of re-education for his last attempt to cross the Gulf to Miami.
He points out to sea, saying, Between those two buildings. Not far to Miami.
I don’t have the heart to tell him he’s sixty degrees off. Doesn’t matter anyway.
Valentino paints good cityscapes of the real Havana—dark, crooked buildings with skinny figures wandering sinewy streets. I traded my bicycle for one of them. Later, he told me he thought he’d trumped me on the deal: the painting—at best—was worth forty U.S. dollars; the bike, new, would cost a hundred fifty. I had bought the Chinese contraption in Varadero at the Panamerica Tienda and logged fewer than four hundred miles on it pedaling around the island. I broke three spokes in the first ten miles, lost the seat in the next five, got stabbed by the stem ten miles later. I shrugged: the same piece of junk was sold for $65 in Vietnam and $45 in China. This news stunned him. Valentino is not old enough to remember pre-Castro decadence, so he has never known the true weight of the U.S. embargo. It is embarrassingly easy to shock him and his friends with little worldly facts.
Now the whole of Havana has become tenements full of people who do not deserve to live in them. There are blocks of skyscrapers, concrete buildings worn away slab by giant slab. The walls are rotted, fouled as high as a man can piss. Tradewind rain has made the facades as porous as lava rocks. Along the Malecon, white surf knuckles the rampart, taking off cement by the chunk. On the moss-slick embankments, bare-chested young men cast fishnets into the foaming water as girls in Day-Glo spandex look on with disguised interest.
Valentino’s father, Martí, comes up to the roof for the evening air. He fought at the Bay of Pigs. Martí is hungry. He throws up his hands and declares that Communism failed because, although there is plenty of rum, there isn’t any food. Too much drinking and no eating makes for bad digestion. Communism has given the old revolutionary an ulcer. I say, these day Playa de Girón is full of very fat tourists boozing on winter holidays. You know, volleyball on the beach, jazzercise in the surf. Martí laughs and replies that he wishes it had always been like that.
We pour another round, watching the sun going down behind the city. Across the channel, the citadel blooms against the sunset.
The hours have a fluid way of slipping into the Cuban twilight. There are no streetlights to hold back the darkness. Midnight approaches and people are still sweating in the heat. The streets are full of the voices of city folks walking by starlight. The rank, powdery smell of old dog shit, ground underfoot, rises from the pavement. On the crumbling curbs, invisible people sit and trade gossip, their cigarettes flaring like fireflies. Somewhere around the corner, young men laugh. Incorruptible policemen stroll the length of the night, but there is nothing to guard, no one to guard against.
It’s late. I’m leaving for the States in the morning. I tell my friends that in Cambodia the motorbike taxi boys like to wave to Angkor Wat tourists like myself, shouting cheerily, See you in the next life.
Valentino tries to explain this to his father, who shakes his head morosely and say, There is no next life. There is only this life, and there’s heaven.
Valentino asks me, Do Americans think that we go to different heavens?
You mean Americans to American heaven, Cubans to Cuban heaven?
Yes, like different countries.
Probably, I shrug, American preachers don’t say differently.
He declares, I don’t think heaven has borders.
I think you are right, I agree magnanimously.
Valentino is laughing, I’m laughing. We’re punching each other in the shoulders. Then he has an arm around my neck, talking into my ears, asking me for a loan in this life, repayable in the next. Valentino has been after me for capital to kick-start one of his little business schemes. Something about buying bacon from one friend to trade for cigars from another friend, to be bartered to tourists for handsome profits. It’s hopeless, I’ve told him, everyone and his grandpa are already doing it. I get a dozen cigar offers daily. Still, I’ve been feeling like a stingy bastard for not forking it over, but I’ve done my share of Third World travel and know the pitfalls of unequal friendship.
Valentino insists he’s doing this so I won’t feel guilty when we see each other in heaven, guilty because I let him be so poor when I was so rich. I’m stinking drunk and feeling ornery. Valentino, amigo, I say. What makes you think I’ll go to heaven? If I make it there, and you’re still sore about the money, I’ll be American: I’ll just ignore you.
He grins, looks out to sea. It’s a joke, but it’s mean and it’s odious.
Valentino hands me a present, a painting, a stunning off-hued twin of the one I traded my bicycle for. It is his liquid Havana, in taffy colors, splashes of sunsets. I am without words. I have yet to figure out why poor people are always giving gifts.
I surrender much of what remains in my wallet, but not as much as he needed for his doomed venture. I tell Valentino it’s a present from an old American soldier.
Martí is on the edge of his seat, grabbing my knees. He fight Cuba, he fight Playa de Girón?
No, I say, another war. Long story.
Martí, however, needs to know. What war?
I tell him that it doesn’t matter. War is war. Some people kill, some people die, some people get rich.
Martí purses his lips, then relaxes, nodding. Sí, claro.
*This essay was originally published by The American Scholar, 71.2 (2002), 93-96.