Sample text for The book of salt / Monique Truong.


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Counter 1

Of that day I have two photographs and, of course, my memories.
We had arrived at the Gare du Nord with over three hours to
spare. There were, after all, a tremendous number of traveling cases and
trunks. It took us two taxi rides from the apartment to the train station before
all the pieces could be accounted for. A small group of photographers, who
had gathered for the occasion, volunteered to watch over the first load while
we returned to the rue de Fleurus for more. My Mesdames accepted their
offer without hesitation. They had an almost childlike trust in photographers.
Photographers, my Mesdames believed, transformed an occasion into an
event. Their presence signaled that importance and fame had arrived,
holding each other"s hands. Their flashing cameras, like the brilliant smiles of
long-lost friends, had quickly warmed my Mesdames" collective heart. More
like friends too new to trust, I had thought. I had been with my Mesdames for
half a decade by then. The photographers had not been there from the very
beginning. But once the preparation for the journey began, they swarmed to
the entrance of 27 rue de Fleurus like honeybees. I could easily see why
my Mesdames cultivated them. Every visit by a photographer would be
inevitably followed by a letter enclosing a newspaper or magazine clipping
with my Mesdames" names circled in a halo of red ink. The clippings, each
carefully pressed with a heated iron, especially if a crease had thoughtlessly
fallen on my Mesdames" faces, went immediately into an album with a green
leather cover. "Green is the color of envy," my Mesdames told me. At this,
knowing looks shot back and forth between them, conveying what can only
be described as glee. My Mesdames communicated with each other in
cryptic ways, but after all my years in their company I was privy to their
keys. "Green" meant that they had waited desperately for this day, had tired
of seeing it arriving on the doorsteps of friends and mere acquaintances;
that the album had been there from the very beginning, impatient but biding
its time; that they were now thrilled to fill it with family photographs of the
most public kind. "Green" meant no longer their own but other people"s envy.
I know that it may be difficult to believe, but it took the arrival of
the photographers for me to understand that my Mesdames were not, well,
really mine; that they belonged to a country larger than any that I had ever
been to; that its people had a right to embrace and to reclaim them as one
of their own. Of course, 27 rue de Fleurus had always been filled with visitors,
but that was different. My Mesdames enjoyed receiving guests, but they
also enjoyed seeing them go. Many had arrived hoping for a permanent place
around my Mesdames" tea table, but I always knew that after the third pot
they would have to leave. My Mesdames had to pay me to stay around. A
delicious bit of irony, I had always thought. The photographers, though,
marked the beginning of something new. This latest crop of admirers was
extremely demanding and altogether inconsolable. They, I was stunned to
see, were not satisfied with knocking at the door to 27 rue de Fleurus,
politely seeking entrance to sip a cup of tea. No, the photographers wanted
my Mesdames to go away with them, to leave the rue de Fleurus behind, to
lock it up with a key. At the Gare du Nord that day, all I could think about
were the flashes of the cameras, how they had never stopped frightening
me. They were lights that feigned to illuminate but really intended to blind.
Lightning before a driving storm, I had thought. But I suppose that was the
sailor"s apprehension in me talking. It had been eleven years since I had
made a true ocean crossing. For my Mesdames, it had been over thirty.
The ocean for them was only a memory, a calming blue expanse between
here and there. For me it was alive and belligerent, a reminder of how
distance cannot be measured by the vastness of the open seas, that that
was just the beginning.
When my Mesdames first began preparing for the journey, they
had wanted to bring Basket and Pépé along with them. The SS Champlain
gladly accommodated dogs and assorted pets, just as long as they were
accompanied by a first-class owner. The problem, however, was America.
No hotels or at least none on their itinerary would accept traveling
companions of the four-legged kind. The discussion had been briefly tearful
but above all brief. My Mesdames had in recent years become practical.
Even the thought of their beloved poodle and Chihuahua languishing in Paris,
whimpering, or, in the case of the Chihuahua, yapping, for many months if
not years to come, even this could not postpone the journey home. There
was certainly no love lost between me and those dogs, the poodle Basket
especially. My Mesdames bought him in Paris at a dog show in the spring of
1929. Later that same year, I too joined the rue de Fleurus household. I have
always suspected that it was the closeness of our arrivals that made this
animal behave so badly toward me. Jealousy is instinctual, after all. Every
morning, my Mesdames insisted on washing Basket in a solution of sulfur
water. A cleaner dog could not have existed anywhere else. Visitors to the
rue de Fleurus often stopped in midsentence to admire Basket"s fur and its
raw-veal shade of pink. At first, I thought it was the sulfur water that had
altered the color of His Highness"s curly white coat. But then I realized that
he was simply losing his hair, that his sausage-casing skin had started to
shine through, an embarrassing peep show no doubt produced by his
morning baths. My Mesdames soon began "dressing" Basket in little
capelike outfits whenever guests were around.
I could wash and dress myself, thank you. Though, like Basket, I
too had a number of admirers. Well, maybe only one or two. Pépé the
Chihuahua, on the other hand, was small and loathsome. He was hardly a
dog, just all eyes and a wet little nose. Pépé should have had no admirers,
but he, like Basket, was a fine example of how my Mesdames" affections
were occasionally misplaced. Of course, my Mesdames asked me to
accompany them. Imagine them extending an invitation to Basket and Pépé
and not me. Never. We, remember, had been together for over half a decade
by then. I had traveled with them everywhere, though in truth that only
meant from Paris to their summer house in Bilignin. My Mesdames were
both in their fifties by the time I found them. They had lost their wanderlust by
then. A journey for them had come to mean an uneventful shuttle from one
site of comfort to another, an automobile ride through the muted colors of the
French countryside.
Ocean travel changed everything. My Mesdames began preparing
for it months in advance. They placed orders for new dresses, gloves, and
shoes. Nothing was extravagant, but everything was luxurious: waistcoats
embroidered with flowers and several kinds of birds, traveling outfits in
handsome tweeds with brown velvet trims and buttons, shoes identical
except for the heels and the size. The larger pair made only a slight effort at
a lift. They were schoolgirlish in their elevation but mannish in their
proportion. The smaller pair aspired to greater but hardly dizzying heights.
Both my Mesdames, remember, were very concerned about comfort.
"We"ll take a train from Paris to Le Havre, where the SS
Champlain will be docked. From there, the Atlantic will be our host for six to
seven days, and then New York City will float into view. From New York,
we"ll head north to Massachusetts, then south to Maryland and Virginia, then
west to Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, Texas, California, all the way to the shores of
the Pacific and then, maybe, back again." As my Mesdames mapped the
proposed journey, the name of each city—New York, Boston, Baltimore,
Cleveland, Chicago, Houston, San Francisco—was a sharp note of
excitement rising from their otherwise atonal flats. Their voices especially
quivered at the mention of the airplanes. They wanted to see their America
from a true twentieth-century point of view, they told the photographers.
Imagine, they said to each other, a flight of fancy was no longer just a figure
of speech. They wondered about the cost of acquiring one for their very
own, a secondhand plane of course. My Mesdames were still practical, after
all.
I was somewhat superstitious. I thought that fate must have also
been listening in on this reverie about travel and flight. How could I not when
the letter arrived at the rue de Fleurus later on that same day? It was quite
an event. My Mesdames handed me the envelope on a small silver tray. They
said that they had been startled to realize that they had never seen my full
name in writing before. What probably startled them more was the
realization that during my years in their employment I had never received a
piece of correspondence until this one. I did not have to look at the envelope
to know. It was from my oldest brother. No one else back there would have
known where to find me, that 27 rue de Fleurus was my home. I sniffed the
envelope before opening it. It smelled of a faraway city, pungent with
anticipation for rain. If my Mesdames had not been in the room, I would have
tasted it with my tongue. I was certain to find the familiar sting of salt, but
what I needed to know was what kind: kitchen, sweat, tears or the sea. I
wanted this paper-shrouded thing to divulge itself to me, to tell me even
before the words emerged why it had taken my brother almost five years to
respond to my first and only letter home.
I had written to him at the end of 1929. I was drunk, sitting alone
in a crowded café. That December was a terrible month to be in Paris. All
my favorite establishments were either overly crowded or pathetically empty.
People either sipped fine vintages in celebration or gulped intoxicants of
who cares what kind, drowning themselves in a lack of moderation, raising a
glass to lower inhibitions, imbibing spirits to raise their own. The expressions
abounded, but that December the talk everywhere was the same: "The
Americans are going home." Better yet, those who had not were no longer
so cocky, so overweening with pride. Money, everyone was saying, is
required to keep such things alive. It was true, the Americans were going
home, and that, depending on who you were, was a cause to rejoice or a
cause to mourn.
The city"s le mont-de-piété, for instance, were doing a booming
business. "Mountains of mercy," indeed. So French, so snide to use such a
heaping load of poetic words to refer to pawnshops, places filled with
everything of value but never with poetry. The pawnshops in Paris were
swamped, I had heard, with well-made American suits. At the end of
October when it all began, there were seersuckers, cotton broadcloths,
linens. Hardly a sacrifice at that time of the year, I thought. Paris was already
too cool for such garb. I have always thought it best to pawn my lightweight
suits when the weather changed. It provided protection from hungry moths
and a saving on mothballs. My own hunger also played a somewhat deciding
role. But by the beginning of that winter it became clear. The Americans were
pawning corduroys, three-ply wools, flannel-lined tweeds. Seasonal clothing
could only mean one thing. Desperation was demanding more closet space.
Desperation was extending its stay. The end of 1929 also brought with it
frustration, heard in and around all the cafés, about the months" worth of
unpaid bar tabs, not to mention the skipped-out hotel bills or the overdue
rents. "The funds from home never made it across the Atlantic," the
departing Americans had claimed. The funds from home were never sent or,
worse, no longer enough, everyone in Paris by then knew. Americans, not
just here but in America, had lost their fortunes. An evil little wish had come
true. The Parisians missed the money all right, but no one missed the
Americans. Though I heard that in the beginning there had been sympathy.
When the Americans first began arriving, the Parisians had even felt
charitable toward them. These lost souls, after all, had taken flight from a
country where a bottle of wine was of all things contraband, a flute of
champagne a criminal offense. But when it became clear that the Americans
had no intention of leaving and no intention of ever becoming sober, the
Parisians wanted their city back. But it was already too late. The pattern of
behavior had become comically clear. Americans traveled here in order to
indulge in the "vices" of home. First, they had invaded the bordellos and then
it was the cafés. Parisians could more than understand the whoring and the
drinking, but in the end it was the hypocrisy that did not translate well.
"But there are still the Russians, Hungarians, Spaniards . . . not
nearly as well endowed but in other ways so charmingly equipped." The
laughter that immediately followed this observation told me that the table
next to mine was commenting on more than just money. When gathered in
their cafés, Parisians rarely spoke of money for very long. They exhausted
the topic with one or two words. Sex, though, was an entirely different story,
an epic really. I always got my gossip and my world news for that matter
from the cafés. It would certainly take me awhile, but the longer I stayed the
more I was able to comprehend. Alcohol, I had learned, was an eloquent if
somewhat inaccurate interpreter. I had placed my trust that December night
in glass after glass of it, eager not for drink but for a bit of talk. I also had
that night no other place I had to be, so I sat and stared at the cigarette-
stained walls of the café until my wallet was empty, my bladder was full, and
until I was very drunk. Worse, the alcohol had deceived me, made me
promises and then refused to follow through. In the past the little glasses had
blurred the jagged seams between the French words, but that night they
magnified and sharpened them. They threatened to rip and to tear. They
bullied me with questions, sneering at how I could sit there stealing laughter,
lifting conversations, when it was now common knowledge that "the
Americans are going home." Panic then abruptly took over the line of
questioning: "Would my new Mesdames go with them?" Or, maybe, the
question was just a matter of "When?"
I did not remember asking the waiter for pencil and paper, but I
must have, as I never carry such items in my pockets. The cafés used to
give them out for free. So French to sell water and to give such luxuries
away. The content of my letter was dull, crammed with details only my oldest
brother would be interested in: my health, the cost of underwear and shoes,
the price of a métro ticket, my weekly wage, the menu of my last meal, rain
bouncing off the face of Notre-Dame, Paris covered by a thin sheet of snow. I
had forgotten how different my language looks on paper, that its letters have
so little resemblance to how they actually sound. Words, most I had not
spoken for years, generously gave themselves to me. Fluency, after all, is
relative. On that sheet of paper, on another side of the globe, I am fluent. The
scratching of the pen, the writhing of the paper, I did not want it to stop, but
I was running out of room. So I wrote it in the margin: "My Mesdames may
be going home. I do not want to start all over again, scanning the
help-wanteds, knocking on doors, walking away alone. I am afraid." I had
meant to place a comma between "alone" and "I am afraid." But on paper, a
period instead of a comma had turned a dangling token of regret into a plainly
worded confession. I could have fixed it with a quick flick of lead, but then I
read the sentences over again and thought, That is true as well.
The first line of my brother"s response startled me, made me
wonder whether he wrote it at all. "It is time for you to come home to Viet-
Nam," he declared in a breathtaking evocation of the Old Man"s voice,
complete with his spine-snapping ability to stifle and to control. But the
lines that followed made it clear who had held the pen: "You are my brother
and that is all. I do not offer you my forgiveness because you never had to
apologize to me. I think of you often, especially at the Lunar New Year. I
hope to see you home for the next. A good meal and a red packet await
you. So do I." The letter was dated January 27, 1934. It had taken only a
month for his letter to arrive at the rue de Fleurus. He offered no explanation
for his delay in writing except to say that everything at home had changed.
He wrote that it would have been better for me to hear it all in person. What
he meant was that paper was not strong enough to bear the weight of what
he had to say but that he would have to test its strength anyway.
At the edge of that sheet of paper, on the other side of the globe,
my brother signed his name. And then, as if it were an afterthought, he
wrote the words "safe journey" where the end should have been.
I folded my brother"s letter and kept it in the pocket of my only
and, therefore, my finest cold-weather suit. I wore them both to the Gare du
Nord that day. The suit was neatly pressed, if a bit worn. The letter was
worse off. The oils on my fingertips, the heat of my body, had altered its
physical composition. The pages had grown translucent from the repeated
handling, repetitive rereading. The ink had faded to purple. It was becoming
difficult to read. Though in truth, my memory had already made that act
obsolete.
The first photograph of the journey was taken there at the station.
It shows my Mesdames sitting side by side and looking straight ahead.
They are waiting for the train to Le Havre, chitchatting with the photographers,
looking wide-eyed into the lens. They wear the same expression as when
they put on a new pair of shoes. They never immediately get up and walk
around. They prefer to sit and let their toes slowly explore where the leather
gives and where it binds. A pleasurable exercise for them, I am certain, as
they always share a somewhat delinquent little smile. I am over there on
the bench, behind them, on the left-hand side. I am the one with my head
lowered, my eyes closed. I am not asleep, just thinking, and that for me is
sometimes aided by the dark. I am a man unused to choices, so the
months leading up to that day at the Gare du Nord had subjected me to an
agony, sharp and new, self-inflicted and self-prolonged. I had forgotten that
discretion can feel this way.
I sometimes now look at this photograph and wonder whether it
was taken before or after. Pure speculation at this point, I know. Though I
seem to remember that once I had made up my mind, I looked up
instinctually, as if someone had called out my name. If that is true, then the
photograph must have been taken during the moments before, when my
heart was beating a hard, syncopated rhythm, like those of the approaching
trains, and all I could hear in the darkness was a simple refrain:

I do not want to start all over again.
Scanning the help-wanteds.
Knocking on doors.
Walking away alone.
And, yes, I am afraid.

Copyright © 2003 by Monique T. D. Truong. Reprinted by permission of
Houghton Mifflin Company.


Library of Congress subject headings for this publication: Vietnamese France Fiction, Stein, Gertrude, 1874-1946 Fiction, Americans France Fiction, Toklas, Alice B, Fiction, Paris (France) Fiction, Women authors Fiction, Domestics Fiction, Vietnam Fiction, Gay men Fiction, Cookery Fiction