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Vinho Verde, Jonah and The Ugliest Girl
[Vung Tau, 6/7/22]
I’ve been delayed, yes, held up by a private matter. Two weeks ago, I was approached by a maverick Saigonese who proposed to publish all my work! Whatever I give him, he’ll print in the most handsome editions. I’ve seen his marvelous books.
Coming to Vung Tau specifically to meet me, he even brought a bottle of Anselmo Mendes' Alvarinho Contacto. It’s vinho verde, compreendes? Though I spent two years in the warm, fragrant bosom of chianti country, I wouldn’t know a good wine if it white, red or green showered on my sinful face. If it’s not vinegar, I’ll sip it, though I’d prefer a Tiger, Beer Lao or, when available and I have an extra kopek or two, drafts of Guinness. Milk stouts are soothing too, from Mackeson to Castle.
Canceled in the woke USA, I’m embraced by Vietnam. Thank you, mommy.
My collected poems in English, Blue Threads to the Soul, will be my first book under this imprint. Combing through the manuscript, I tweaked a bunch of poems and canceled a few. As I’ve said somewhere, each artistic flaw reflects a character or even moral one. My most common is impatience. Afflicted with hastiness, I rush, thus sometimes serve up under fermented lick her.
Rushing a bit, perhaps, I sent Blue Threads to Saigon, so am now working on a collection of prose in Vietnamese, with about half translated from my writing in English. (The other half was written directly in my native tongue.)
A decade ago, I had a book of stories published in Vietnamese, but translated by someone else. I never read it, until last week. Unsurprisingly, there are critical mistakes all over. I had a similar experience proofing translations of my work into Italian and Spanish.
It’s an extremely arduous task to enter another language, requiring endless patience. It’s challenging enough to not embarrass yourself with your own. Tongue, that is, as in sly, wiggly and obscenely playful. Let’s tongue until sunrise. Actually, let’s not.
Though living in the US, my translator from English into Vietnamese is not familiar with American colloquialism, for he has had no time to stew in shit bars like I have. Coming to the US at 21-years-old, he now has a decent job at a university. He doesn’t know a shot means a shot of hard liquor. He’s oblivious to the differences between dick, prick, cock, penis, privates and genitals. He doesn’t understand baseball, so metaphors like first base, home run, strike out and left field mean nothing.
Not familiar with Christianity, he translates “the Lord” as “Thượng đế,” derived from the Chinese Shangdi and meaning, literally, “Upper Emperor.” Though it is God enough, the Christian appropriate term is “Thiên Chúa,” or “Heavenly Lord.”
Worse, he misses my Jesus and Jonah joke. In my “Dead On Arrival,” the speaker is a 10-year-old boy who gets innumerable facts wrong, as in declaring the best American band as The Bee Gees, and the second best as The Beatles.
In the Jonah bit, this boy says:
A whale spat Jonah out into the desert. It was noon. The sun was blazing.
Jesus felt sorry for Jonah and gave him a gourd for shade.
Jonah slept under this shade.
When Jonah woke up, he was no longer in the shade because the sun had moved.
When Jonah became angry, Jesus said, “And so many cows besides?”
Of course, there’s no Jesus in the Old Testament.
I’m retranslating “Dead on Arrival” and other stories. I must take care of some business before Jesus kicks my wretched ass through the upright.
My first collection, Fake House, is dedicated “to the unchosen.” Being left out or left behind is a common enough human condition, with losing the final result for us all, though we must put up a fight, or at least speak, to convey what it is we must endure. Meet, then, someone you’re sure to recognize, from my Fake House:
The Ugliest Girl
My consciousness begins with the fact that I’m an ugly girl. And not just any ugly girl but the ugliest girl. Not counting the freaks, the harelips, the Down’s syndromes, the ones with lye splashed on their face, born without a nose, an extra mouth, five ears, and so on, I am the ugliest girl.
When I cross the street in front of a car, I always stare straight ahead and never look in the driver’s direction. I do not want to startle him with my ugliness. Even in my dreams I do this: avert my gaze from the driver as I cross the street.
At a party, should there be another ugly girl in the room—perhaps someone only half as ugly as I am—it would be me who would be embarrassed. I would be embarrassed for her because as soon as she sees me, I become her mirror. By being there, I expose her, interfere with her attempt to pass. My presence would ground her.
Without me there is a possibility that she could forget, for a moment, who she is. Surrounded by beautiful people, she might even lapse into the illusion that she is one of them, that she belongs to them and not to her own ugliness.
But with me in the room, this possibility is eliminated. Suddenly there is a subgroup, a minority of two, a sorority of ugliness.
An ugly face does not transcend, cannot transcend: it is made of mud. Molded on a wobbly potter’s wheel, it has no structural integrity. An ugly face descends, points downward. It is collapsible yet heavy. It is something soggy, macerated, on the verge of falling apart. All diseases lurk beneath its skin. It gives off a stench one can smell even in a photograph.
A beautiful face adheres to five, maybe six models, whereas an ugly face can shoot off in any direction. Ugliness is inventive, restless, adventurous, promiscuous.
The slightest misplacement of a nose or an eye—say by 1/32 of an inch—can produce the most insidious effects. An ugly face is a parody, not of a beautiful face but of ugliness.
A beautiful face will be forgiven for all inanities and cruelties spewing from its mouth—even vomit from a beautiful face is a turn-on—but an ugly face will be held accountable for even the smallest indiscretion.
The life of a face is capricious. Even the most subtle shift in lighting or mood—in either subject or object—can transform a beautiful face into an ugly one. This said, it is true that a genuinely ugly face can never appear beautiful under any circumstance.
A man who falls in love with an ugly woman will never be able to forgive her for his degradation. All of his rationalizations will be useless. Shocked and humiliated, he will think, My God, what am I doing? before he exacts his revenge on her.
The revulsion caused by an ugly face is tempered by pity and indifference. Whatever violence it may induce is different in kind from that which is aroused by a beautiful face.
Great beauty enrages. It disturbs. Great beauty invites desecration.
There is a photograph of me at five years old. There are eight of us, all girls. At the front, in a pink-and-white-striped dress, and standing with her legs wide apart, is Kelley Henchey. She’s the most beautiful. That’s why she’s front and center. The rest of us huddle behind her. I’m at the back, my face hidden behind the right shoulder of Linda Oakes, with only the top of my head visible.
The adults did not pose us. We posed ourselves. Even at five I knew.
As kids we would play “Spin the Bottle.” We would all sit in a circle around an empty soda bottle. The bottle would be spun and whoever the bottle pointed to consecutively would have to kiss each other.
I was included in this game only to add suspense to the proceeding. The boys kissed me stoically, bravely—some even pretended to enjoy it. Steve Breitenfeld made a point of sticking his tongue in my mouth, shocking all those present. We were both eleven. In seventh grade I sat in the gym bleachers during sock-hops and watched as my friends rubbed their bodies cautiously against boys during the slow numbers. I thought of the possibility of my being a lifelong virgin, and of becoming a nun or a lesbian.
But then I had my first sexual experience.
The Wainwrights lived next door to us. When Mr. Wainwright mowed his lawn, he would mow ours also, we were such good neighbors. They had two kids: Lauren, who was my age—we were both twelve—and Jason, who had just entered college and was seventeen.
It was New Year’s and I was over at their house. Jason was watching a football game. He was sprawled on the carpet with a can of beer in his hand. No adults were around. Lauren and I were pretending to be cheerleaders. We would shout, “Michigan, yahoo!” and kick our legs up. At one point Lauren said, “Jason, I want to stand on your shoulders.”
Jason lifted Lauren up onto his shoulders. Lauren said, “Rah! Rah!” and Jason said, “Rah! Rah!” and then Jason let his sister down and said to me, “Now, Becky, your turn!”
He crouched down so that I could climb onto his shoulders. I sort of squatted on his shoulders, then rose slowly, my hands holding his hands. After I stood up straight, he placed a hand behind my buttocks to help me keep my balance. I gasped because his hand was right against my panties—I was wearing a skirt. Lauren pretended she didn’t see this. She said nothing. No one said anything. Aside from the noise from the TV there was no other noise in the room. We all pretended to be watching TV. Everyone held their breath. Without looking up at me, Jason slipped his thumb under my panties. At first he didn’t do anything. He just kept his thumb there. Then he pressed and pressed, trying to find the point of entry. Then he started to wiggle it. I stood perfectly still while he wiggled his thumb inside me. Lauren could no longer contain herself. She turned to us and yelled, “Stop!”
Jason put me down.
Little did I know that this would be a precedent. All of my erotic adventures, from that point on, would be arrived at fraudulently, by accident, pilfered from drunken, nearly unconscious men. A sexual shoplifter, I would never have sex as sex, only its double. While others can seek their pleasures out in the open, I must seek mine underground, through stealth and corruption, through substitutions and perversions.
I even thought of travel as a solution. In Antananarivo, Visakhapatnam or Ulan Bator, a white girl (with blond hair, blue eyes), even one as ugly as I am, would be an exotic creature, and hence desirable.
In Idfu or Maroni. In Fuzhou. In Kyushu or Lagash. In Kigali.
I would come into McGlinchey’s and see a man sitting by himself. If he was an ugly man, someone fat or old or with other obvious defects, or a foreigner, an Indian or a Chinese, someone socially crippled, unglamorous, or a black man, I would send him a drink. Surprised that a woman was buying him a drink, he would look over and smile, think things over and most likely ignore me. After a while I would send him a second, then a third drink. Some would be so disgusted they would not even look in my direction after the second drink. Some would leave the bar. But there are also those who would reciprocate by buying me a drink. A few would come over and sit next to me.
Once, as I was leaving the bar, I heard, “I wouldn’t fuck her with your dick and me pushing.” It was the bouncer talking to one of his buddies. It is a tedious job, being a bouncer, and he usually has a friend standing by him to keep him company most of the night. As I walked down the street, I thought, Did he actually say that? He couldn’t possibly have said that. He seems like a friendly guy and I’m always nice to him. Maybe he said, “I wouldn’t hug her because she’s sick and it’s catching.” Or maybe he was talking about somebody else.
I also thought that although what he said was in itself malicious, his tone was jocular, friendly, even endearing. He did not intend to wound. To separate content from delivery is a sign of madness. Besides, it was simply a statement of sexual preference. You can’t force someone to find you attractive. Desire is fickle. And he was not talking to me but to a buddy. Anything could have triggered such a remark: boredom, the desire to amuse, even flirtatiousness.
I was already three blocks from the bar when I decided to go back and confront him. It was a mistake. As soon as I barged through the door, as soon as the bouncer and his buddy saw me again, what had been said earlier, even if it was directed at somebody else, would now be applicable to me. Both of them must have thought, since the sentence was still fresh in their minds, I wouldn’t fuck her with your dick and me pushing.
A man would say, “Looks like shit, feels great.”
A man would say, “That girl requires two six-packs.”
One night as I sat at the bar, a midget bumped against my elbow. I hadn’t even noticed him until his head bumped against my elbow.
It was after midnight and the place was packed. The midget stood patiently waiting to be served. When the bartender came over, the midget said, “What do you have to do get service around here?”
“First you have to be able to see over the bar. What you want?”
“A Rolling Rock.”
I burst out laughing. The midget also laughed. He said to me, “How you doing?”
It was very loud in there. I shouted, “I’m all right. How are you?”
He shouted back, “Can I buy you a drink?”
The midget was about twenty-five, with a smart-alecky face. He had a very deep voice, the voice of a seven-footer. When the bartender came back, the midget said, “Sir, can you get her a drink also?”
I didn’t like his face hovering below my breast. I said, “You want to share my seat?”
“No, no, that’s all right.”
“No, really.” I scooted my ass over.
He hopped up. “I’m Spanky.”
We sat in silence, minding our drinks. His bony hip rubbed against mine. He started to rock back and forth, his feet dangling, then stopped, as if suddenly realizing the inappropriateness of what he was doing. On his square head, flakes of dandruff, like dried onion, were impaled by strands of thinning yellow hair. He said, “You want a shot?”
“I don’t drink shots.”
“A martini? A mixed drink?”
“I’ll take a Jack and Ginger.”
“What is your name again?”
“I’m Spanky!” Then to the bartender: “Sir, can you give Becky a Jack and Ginger, and an Absolut for me?”
I said, “Absolut … yuck! The last time I drank Absolut, I threw up the whole next day.”
“Where do you live?” The midget placed his left hand on my right knee.
I thought, How did we get from me throwing up to “Where do you live?” I did not answer him. He became frightened and took his hand away. I smiled earnestly to reassure him. I leaned my face forward in a vague gesture of intimacy. Our drinks arrived. We toasted: “Cheers!” A generic toast. He placed his left hand on my right knee again. He rubbed this hand back and forth.
Two drinks later his hand was palming my inner thigh. It was like a catcher’s mitt someone had forgotten. He kept it immobile. He didn’t want me to think about it: that his hand was between my legs. If I could have given him my pussy in a plastic bag, he would have said, “Thank you,” kissed me good night, and walked out the door. I said, “Let’s go.”
“No, no, let’s get out of here.”
A man that hard up could easily turn out violent. The whole time I was talking to him, I was thinking of the word dire.
A couple had yanked my hair in bed. One had punched me in the face. But this guy was only a midget. He was half my size. He was a midget.
As we walked down Locust, Spanky couldn’t stop rubbing my ass with his hand. Now pinching, now stroking, he wanted to get as much he could just in case I changed my mind. He was praying. He wanted to rake it all in and save up for the future.
At an intersection, as we waited for the light to change, he steered his face toward my pelvis and jabbed his nose at my crotch. Many cars drove by. Some people honked their horns. I said, “Spanky, you’re treating me like a whore.”
He ignored me. He was homebound and could no longer be distracted. A car slowed and a frat boy with his head sticking out the window yelled: “Whooooooooosh!!!!”
He burrowed and burrowed and burrowed. He gnawed. He clawed my ass with both hands as he bit my denims. He unzipped me with his teeth.