Grass Liquor

 

I had always wanted to become a surgeon. To save lives through action, backed by knowledge. To cut away death with a blade, so precise, that it would not know I was coming. I believed in the weapons forged from surgical grade steel.
I was not surprised, then, when I received a scholarship for my surgical elective at Saigon Hospital. I was a sterling achiever. School Captain. University President. An avid collector of titles and awards, the way others were drawn to figurines and comics.
My secret was sleeplessness. I was a human vigilante against dead seconds, trading my minutes for units of productivity. One hour to every essay. One day to the study of each human organ.
A beating Monday to Sunday of heart, liver and spleen. Weeks and months of insomnia and Gray’s Anatomy and Harrison’s Textbook of Medicine. Five years of completed ‘To Do’ lists, separating order from anarchy, like yolk from egg white. I was a dictator of time.
In particular, I liked acronyms. Simple was best. ABC. Elementary, Watson. Expansive pools of information reduced to neat parcels of memory codex.
Anatomy. Biology. Chemistry.
Absolute Basophil Count.
Avoid Bad Company.
Pulled towards Vietnam, I was an international crusader, learning the craft of surgery. Shattered bones and bleeding skin were my passion, salting the bruises of broken people. I bandaged patients never-ending, sprinting from one marathon of human suffering to the next.
‘Doctor, help me.’ A young boy.
I was a medical student.
His mother pushed a cash note into my hand. A bribe. ‘Help us.’
Smashed teeth blocked her son’s airway. His breathing laboured. Blood had splattered across his face, contorting his expression into a Rorschach mask of terror. His circulation was on the outside.
Help him? Help me. I did not know what to do.
‘Take him to the operating theatre. Now.’
A new voice sounded. Masculine and strong. Authoritative. Surgeon Danh entered, tall and muscular, with stylish unkempt black hair. A beautiful man. He led me to his operating table and dazzled me with a multimedia show of theatre lights and surgical skill.
I fell in love.
My body dancing to the tachyarrhythmic beat of lust.
It was his eyes that did it.
In theatre, Danh was intent on perfection. His gaze unfaltering as he carefully sutured muscle and skin. Outside of theatre, Danh’s gaze fell deliciously on me. On my naked skin. Without words Danh asked for everything and I obliged. My tendency towards melancholy gave way to delirium. I was first assistant to this surgeon. First to praise him, first on his motorbike. Probably not first in his bed.
I was high on the adrenaline of success. I was seduced.
Freedom was a motorbike between my legs and holding onto Danh from behind. In a street side café we drank percolated coffee with sweetened condensed milk. He told me his definition of love. Three words. Not an ABC acronym, but close enough. Near perfect.
Cup. Bowl. Stick.
Sharing a cup of coffee, a bowl of rice and a cigarette stick cemented friendship and ignited love’s flame. I smoked for him.
At night, when the streets were busier and shops sprinkled with fairy lights, we drank wine. Rice wine, instead of coffee. The clear sharp liquid was r??u ??. Grass liquor. So named, as villagers would hide their wine in fields overgrown with ?? grass. The greenery, spiralling up to three metres tall, was perfect for harbouring alcohol, wayward snakes and young lovers.
We fucked in the doctors’ room. Making noisy love in the tropical heat on a hospital bed. We stayed up until the sun rose over the hospital car park and shone on our bodies. While economy here forced patients to sleep head to tail, two in a bed like a yin yang of fish, desire placed us tête-à-tête and more.
Ti amo. Je t’aime. Em yêu anh.
I loved him in every way. And then I slept.
It was bliss.
Danh was my paramour. I was his mistress. Hours of surgical assisting by day, then passion by night, passed too quickly. My three month segue was over.
I could not reasonably expect this season to last forever. But I had to try.
‘Come with me.’ I said.
‘To Australia.’
Laughter. ‘What? And leave my life behind?’
“I could make you a citizen.’
Indignant. ‘Ha. To be your little wife?’
‘Husband.’
‘I am a surgeon!’ Emphasis. ‘Not a kept man.’
With purposed movement he flicked open his wallet and pulled out a photo. It was a portrait of him holding another woman.
‘My wife.’
Disbelief.
‘She cooks and cleans and sucks me. She waits in our village near the Mekong Delta.’
Whisper. ‘What about us? What about the cup and bowl and stick?’
‘Ha.’ Again. ‘You are not the only girl I have shared a meal with.’
I saw the treacherous snake who had poisoned my grass liquor. My fleshy heart was cut and Danh, the surgeon, had cut it. I cried my own Mekong Delta as I ran. Away from him, my stupid naivety and the broken promise that was Saigon.
Long shadows of regret and shame cast over my face. The sun had set on our fake love.
A Bad Choice.

Violet Kieu

Author: Violet Kieu

Violet is a writer and doctor with training in paediatric surgery, general surgery and obstetrics & gynaecology. She has received a Boroondara Literature Award, been shortlisted for the Marjorie Barnard Short Story Award and has published in Cha: An Asian Literary Journal.

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