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..:: CONTENTS ::..
   Volume IV, Issue I

..:: POETRY ::..

..:: PROSE ::..
..:: HORTON ::..

..:: ETC ::..
   Contributor's Notes

..:: ARCHIVES ::..
   Volume I, Issue I
   Volume I, Issue II
   Volume II, Issue I
   Volume II, Issue II
   Volume III, Issue I
   Volume III, Issue II


Happy Birthday in Ho Chi Minh City
Yung Seoul Kim


Two years earlier when Isabelle and John got married in the backyard of their gracious and loyal long-time college friend Rob, Rob's pet salamander Ho Hi Minh City crashed the ceremony. As the couple began exchanging their vows and John took Isabelle's hands, Ho Chi Minh City slithered his way from the cluttered garage through the steel and blonde wood kitchen, out the Italian engraved back door, down the grassy pathway, past the well-dressed guests and then boldly onto the bride's white tulle train.

No one beyond the sixth row of wedding guests seemed to notice the presence of Ho Chi Minh City, except for the prospective husband. From his peripheral vision, John found himself glaring at the reptile, before moving his eyes quickly back to Isabelle and the ceremony. The minister also cast a hurried, concerned glance in the same direction. In the end, John's fierce gaze did nothing to intimidate Ho Chi Minh City. He managed to continue moving stately and smug. The prospective husband's warning glare could do nothing to stop the scaly determined salamander. The amphibian journeyed in his deadpan way through the early evening Saturday wedding on his own terms.

The ceremony went on and Ho Chi Minh City persevered through the grassy knoll on his stomach, tongue ablaze, flickering in and out like a heavy-metal fan at an outdoor rock concert. Instead of fake fog and fancy lighting effects, a grain of rice and a carnation petal landed on his head. Soft as summer rain. A little double hat. A quiet piece of reptilic performance art frozen in time, without applause.

In retrospect, Isabelle always enjoyed the memory of Rob's salamander showing up uninvited on her wedding day, calmly riding the white wave of silk and chiffon. After viewing the official wedding photos, her mother scrutinized the green blot on white for a long moment and was horrified. By contrast, Isabelle was of another mind. She liked to remember how Ho Chi wiggled himself slithery and sweet, adding an unexpected moment of dark comic levity to an otherwise oversolemn wedding. The detail was unusual, but it was real. Little hero Ho Chi Minh.

She knew however that her husband John thought the salamander incident very unfunny. Even ridiculous, bizarre. He relegated that particular photo to the back of their wedding album.

* * *

Many months later, on a sultry Sunday afternoon, Isabelle and John had work friends over for an extended lazy brunch at their house. Isabelle cooked up a storm of chive frittata, corn muffins, cranberry-orange mimosas, and apricot parfait. South meets Too Many Varied Fruits. During the relaxed course of the meal, Isabelle brought out the wedding album to show Dan and Christine.

When she got to the infamous Ho Chi Minh City photo, John found himself stretching out his legs, leaning back, clasping his hands behind his head, and rolling his eyes. Isabelle shot him a sharp look and he batted back a swift grin. As she flipped through the album, explaining the photos to their friends, John stood up, abruptly asked everyone if they wanted anything more to drink in an odd voice, and headed towards their kitchen.

As he opened another bottle of wine, John thought about how Ho Chi Minh City had been a waste of salamander food and an incredibly ugly creature, to boot. He never voiced this radical opinion to Rob or Isabelle. They doted on the creature and would have batted down his comment instantly. Personally, he never understood why Rob would name a pet salamander after a city and county that he had never traveled to once in his life. A book or conversation with Vietnamese friends hardly counted as experience. No, that salamander was named via substitute experience. It was decidedly fake. The little lizard had no right to the name.

John stopped himself from criticizing Rob openly because he didn't want to annoy his wife. They were newlyweds and he didn't think he should start annoying her deliberately just yet. He chose his battles wisely. He was strategic enough to realize that he might give his wife and their friend a reason to start, quote gossiping unquote, about him. He knew he spoke in stiff, preppy, white-shirt starched sentences. He couldn't help it. As a business correspondent for a large metropolitan newspaper, these were the sector of people he was surrounded by. Why must he justify. It made him brittle, unspontaneous. Sullen and sarcastic. In any case, John found many of Isabelle's gallery friends overdramatic and strange. They became very excited about four black painted lines criss-crossing a red painted square. Someone had to keep up their living expenses. Certainly Isabelle with her job in non-profit museum publicity wasn't doing it.

No, he didn't want a battle or a scene. Especially over a salamander. He had enough on his plate. He needed allies. Relaxation was the order of the day, less edge was the planned future modus operandi. He had sought allies of various sorts outside of his marriage to the point of feeling like an unpaid politician at times. Things didn't entirely click in this post-married haze. There was a strange insistence that entered him in the mornings, blotting the landscape of his days. A compulsion or need that strangled his focus and attention every few months. He had caught Isabelle studying him as if he were a mathematical problem she needed to solve. Those things didn't quite signify. His problem was that he could not articulate those things.

Finally, the cork of the bottle unloosened form the wine bottle's glass grip. It punctured the air with a pop a moment too soon. Now his white button-down was soused. A puddle of grape-colored stain. Kool-Aid dipped in a Rorscharch test. Not seeing any dish towels nearby, he shouted Isabelle's name.

* * *

The following night, John came home late from work.

A rogue hedge fund financier had flew the coop and John's attempt to track him down for an interview went from hopeless to hopeful to futile again. He slapped his laptop down, nearly breaking the latch. When he found that it was still intact, he drummed his fingers on the top of the laptop, thinking.

His cellphone rang and he listened for 90 seconds before saying a word until he said Maybe, then Okay. He hung up the phone. He continued drumming his fingers against the laptop case.

He wished that the financier would drop a few of his embezzled dollars over his head. John was feeling a pressure swell inside his head and got in his car, speeding home through the canyon, the trees a sideways green blur and the dotted white lines in the middle of the road a long surgical stitch.

Entering their home, John found Isabelle asleep already, knocked out on the white sofa in her butter-yellow silk slip, waiting for him. On the coffee table, he noticed a small cadre of his favorite treats patiently waiting for its recipient: honey roasted peanuts, several bottles of Sam Adams, and a small bowl of wasabi-coated crunchy green peas.

As Isabelle slept, her breath moved through her mouth soft and damp. A strand of hair pressed against her forehead. She looked like a child - defenseless, relaxed, vulnerable - and he kneeled next to the sofa and leaned himself into her as if he had not seen her in a long time and against his better judgment found himself impulsively kissing her awake.

She was glad he was home for the night and he was glad to lift her compact body to their bedroom.

* * *

While waiting for him at the French-Vietnamese restaurant, she looked at her watch, and then looked at her watch again. The restaurant buzzed with activity while the smell of garlic, butter, and cilantro wafted through the air. She turned to Rob.

"Where is he. I thought John said he was going to be here early," she said.

"Maybe someone tipped him off."

"Don't say that. Seriously, don't say that," she said, pushing her shoulder into Rob to gain his compliance. "I spent weeks planning this for him."

"Guys really don't get into all the celebration frills stuff like you women do."

"Doesn't matter. Doesn't matter. He's been getting too crazy with overworking and anyways I'm glad you came Rob. Everyone else is going to show up for dessert. You know how John is. He can't stand having seventeen friends stare him down while he eats."

They were sitting in an alcove seating area behind an intricate web of potted palms. It was a more private area than she had requested. Isabelle hoped that she would be able to see her husband entering the restaurant. She wasn't sure what the function of these exotic palms were, except to generally obstruct a restaurant customer's line of vision. After noticing the vague motions of a couple in another alcove canoodling, she figured that the palm effect must serve some practical function. She thought of her husband's hands under the table, his specialty, and what they might do when Rob was in the restroom and they were alone.

Isabelle was startled from her thought when Rob tapped her arm. Rob's height gave him advantage. She could see John making his way towards them. Medium build, tall, confident, built to last. John had his head down, listening intently to a phone call and speaking brief, one word answers. Isabelle tried to catch his eyes with her own. Her husband looked pressed and preoccupied. Probably bad business.

The waiter seated John at the next table where he proceeded to sit.

"Did they get John's reservation wrong?"

Rob shrugged his shoulders.

"Whatever. I'll let him finish his talk and then grab my man when he's through. Sneak attack him," she laughed. She leaned back into the banquette seating's rich chocolate pleather, the manmade upholstery squeaking.

As they waited, Rob and Isabelle could hear inconsequential bits of John's phone conversation. They decided to play a game of making faces at one another, commenting silently on what they were overhearing.

"That's a bad deal and you know it," John said. His voice was strained, the borders of it, edged, scalloped.

Isabelle raised an eyebrow at Rob. Rob nodded his head towards her.

"No. Fucking. Way," John said, his voice soft, almost tender. The tone seemed to give lie to the words.

Isabelle opened her eyes widely, in mock imitation of surprise at hearing truck-driver language on her husband's mouth.

"That must be one tough interview or a hell of a client," Rob whispered, giving up on the transmission of face imagery. He did not think his face was expressive which Isabelle thought untrue. It was in fact, too expressive.

"Nonononono. You know my situation."

Isabelle's eyes dropped.

"I can't do that to her," her husband continued.

Isabelle continued to not let her eyes meet with Rob's. Her mind was suddenly intense, completely focused, and energetic. All speed and velocity. She flashed back to a series of seemingly random and innocent events. Found herself mechanically putting together a puzzle that she did not want to be assigned to put together.

It seemed to happen at the speed of light. A chill and a tight silence ran through her body, distilling anger, waste, every manner of debris. There had been several late-night excuses from John about late client meetings. She was not his mother's keeper why should she have expected anything less. He was not on a leash. He was not a Leash Husband. She was not a Leash Keeper. There had been the red notebook that was left in the back seat of his car that did not belong to him. The long, feminine handwriting was a cypher. There had been his face and his eyes that did not look like a person she recognized. Now these events looked panicky in this harsh, unflattering light. Damn him, utter jackass. Her eyes became wild. Everything became a sudden highway signpost. There had been his recent inability to look at her full in the eyes when they came together at night. The memory of this last fact seared her.

It was as if she were seeing so much that she was suddenly becoming blind.

When her eyes focused again, it was on the set of large warm hands enfolding her own across the stark white tablecloth.

She did not know if they were Rob's hands, her husband's or both.


//   Advance   //