Virtual Book Tour: Her Own Vietnam by Lynn Kanter

  • Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Today is the 3rd stop of Lynn Kanter’s virtual book tour. Tomorrow, head over to The Next Best Book Club blog!


[In this excerpt, my main character, Della, is in her living room with her sister Rosalind and Rosalind’s partner, Anne. They are all middle-aged now, and they’ve been talking about their first experiences with love.]

“You don’t want to hear my story. It’s not sweet.”

“I knew it,” declared Rosalind. “That blond guy, Ronnie. You could tell he thought he was quite the catch.”

“No, it was much later, when I was overseas,” said Della.

“You were a virgin? You were twenty-one when you went over there. Abby’s age.” [1]

“But it was a different world,” Della said. “I was in nursing school. I lived in a dorm with forty other girls, and we had a housemother who made sure men left the building by ten o’clock.”

“Sounds like heaven.”

“You are such a pervert, Rosalind.”

“Don’t I know it.” [2]

“Tell us,” said Anne. “I don’t care if it’s not pretty.” [3]

Della hesitated, but only for a moment. “His name was Mac. He flew a dustoff chopper, one of the helicopters that fly into battle zones and pick up the injured. The nurses were close with the dustoff pilots. They handed off their wounded to us, and they saw the same kind of carnage we did day after day. Mac had been flirting with me for a long time, and I had been resisting. Then one day I decided to go ahead with it.”

“That sounds a little cold,” said Rosalind.

“You could say I reassessed my future.”

“Della, is there a reason why you have to be so cryptic? Either tell us or don’t.” Rosalind took off her glasses and tossed them onto the coffee table. Della jumped a little at the sound. [4]

“All right.” The familiar agitation ran like ants along her nerves. “The first time I decided to have sex,” she said, “it was because I had just watched a boy die. And in a way it was my fault.”

Della gulped some water, but it couldn’t seem to reach the parched place in her throat. She gripped the glass with both hands.

“It was early morning. Charlene and I were just completing the overnight shift. The fighting had been pretty heavy, and the ward was completely packed. There was this one patient who had sustained so much damage….

“We had all these clinical abbreviations to describe wounds. GSW for gunshot wound. AEA for above-the-elbow amputation. But cases like his, well, some nurses just called them ‘horriblectomies’ because there was so much wrong with him. He had lost a leg and an arm. His genitals had been blown off. There was a crater where his right eye used to be, and his left eye was all bandaged. Flies had laid eggs in his open wounds, and the surgeons were letting the maggots debride his wounds.” [5]

Rosalind turned her face away as if she could see the wounds on Della. “What is that?”

“The maggots ate the pus and the decaying flesh. It’s an ancient medical technique, and some of the surgeons found it helpful. But I could never get used to it. It made me gag every time.”

Della glanced at Anne to see if she should continue. Anne gave a slight nod. “I passed near this patient’s cot, and he called out, ‘Nurse? Did I get a letter or did I dream that?’ He asked me to read it to him.

“I opened the letter. He was so new in country that this was the first letter he had received. As soon as I started reading it out loud, I knew it was a mistake. Charlene kept signaling at me to be quiet, but I couldn’t figure out what to tell him if I stopped reading. [6]

“The letter was from his girlfriend. She was kicking herself because she had been too afraid to sleep with him before he left for Vietnam. I read each word to him, words she never intended anyone else to hear.” Della could see the round careful writing, blue ink on flimsy lined paper.

“She wrote, ‘Next time I see you it’s going to be different. I’m going to hold you so tight and never let go. Oh, honey, I get hot just thinking about it. I don’t care what Mama says. If we end up having a baby I don’t mind, as long as he has your beautiful blue eyes.’”

Della rested her forehead in her hand. “When I looked up from the letter, I could tell he wanted to die. That was no figure of speech. There’s a light people have when they’re struggling to live, and I watched his flicker out. He would never make love with this girl who

was longing for him. No child would have his beautiful blue eyes.

“What kind of life could he look forward to, with chronic pain and only half a body? You can talk about healing, you can talk about the miracle of prosthetics. And I did. But who can believe that when he can smell his own flesh rotting?”

She looked up. Rosalind was no longer prone on the couch, but sitting upright, hands clenched in her lap. Della remembered that they had been expecting a lighthearted story about her own first romance, not this detour into horror. [7] But it was all so connected there was no way to talk about one without the other.

It was monsoon weather, inside and out. [8] Rain and wind battered Della’s hooch, where she and Mac stood inches apart. A sudden gust blew open the tin flap that covered the window, and water pelted the small room. They barely noticed, reaching for one another. She felt dazed and stupid with desire.

They grappled, sweaty and urgent on Della’s narrow cot, sandwiched between flimsy plywood walls that carried every sound. He told her everything he wanted to do before he did it. She thought it was tenderness, some kind of deference to her inexperience. Later she wondered if it had been a form of seduction, his breath hot in her ear as he whispered what the next moment would bring.

There was no way to tell what was his frenzy, what was hers, what was the wildness of the Southeast Asian summer, spending itself in the late afternoon. Above the battering of the rain she caught a moaning sound, like nothing she had ever heard. It was rising from her own throat. Della could no more have stopped it than she could stop the storm. At the end Mac had to clamp his hand over her mouth.

The war vanished, the world was wiped clean, and all that remained were two young animals, healthy and whole and driven towards life. Sleep pulled her under.

A few hours later, the war snatched her back. Della and Mac were awakened by sirens, by the whump and crash of mortars, by one of her hoochmates muttering, “Where the fuck’s my flak jacket?” Incoming, she thought. Of course. She hardly had time to register the sweetness of his arms wrapped around her before Mac released her and began to feel around on the floor for his clothes.

“You’re not going to the bunker, are you?” She sat up in the cot.

He zipped his pants. “Nah. But I gotta go.” Mac sat on the bed and looked frankly at her breasts in the dimness. She pushed away the sheet. “Wow,” he said. “You are a beauty, Della Brown.”

The words meant nothing, she knew, but his fervent voice thrilled her. Mac looked different to her now: his face appeared softer, like a pencil sketch smudged by someone’s hand. Della wondered if she looked different too, or if that was just how everyone looked after they’d had sex and their body and mind were filled with light.

Another explosion ripped the night, farther away this time. Mac leaned in to kiss her, crushing her breasts against his bare chest. She could feel the muscles of his back move under her fingertips. Cool air rushed between them when he pulled away. [9]

“I have to get some sleep,” he said, reaching for his shirt. “Tomorrow morning I’m on call for twenty-four hours. Can’t fly when my brain is mush.”

“You can sleep here.”

Mac grinned. “With you looking like that? I wouldn’t be able to shut my eyes. Besides, I’m not supposed to be in the women’s hooch past 2300 hours.”

“What are they going to do, send you to Vietnam?”

“No, but your roommates might kick my ass.” [10]

“That’s true.” But she scooted over to make room for him in the bed.

“Baby, if I stay here one more minute, no one’s going to get any sleep tonight.” He took her hand, pressed it against his beating heart, and left.

Della had been in Vietnam four months by then, long enough to know she was in trouble. You didn’t rest your happiness in a man, much less a man who belonged to the sky.

Author Insights
[1] Abby is Della’s daughter.

[2] I enjoyed writing this dialogue between the two sisters, when they are being playful and teasing each other. I wanted to show both their sisterly ease with each other and then, later in the scene, their strained relationship.

[3] Anne is aware that the whole issue of Della’s experiences in and after Vietnam is rife with family tension, but she rarely hesitates to wade into it.

[4] Here I was trying to show two things. First, Rosalind’s ambivalence: she both wants to hear and is afraid to hear the stories from Vietnam that Della has never told. Second, the dynamic between the two sisters: it is a big emotional risk for Della to start revealing these experiences, and she’s terrified that the truth of her history will make her sister recoil from her.

[5] Now that Della is finally talking about her war experiences, it’s important for her to try to make her family understand the gruesome reality of war, as opposed to the movie version. Of course, she knows they can’t truly understand.

[6] Here I was trying to remind the reader of how young Della had been when she was in Vietnam, only 22. The mature, resourceful Della would not have made this fateful mistake.

[7] Della knows that she will never have any cute, funny “first time” stories like her sister or friends. Her first love, first job, first heartbreak all took place in the context of war, of carnage and disaster. It makes her feel marked for all time as an outsider.

[8] I have never been in Vietnam or anyplace that has monsoons, so I had to use research and imagination to figure out what it would be like. It helped to have lived in southern Florida for some years.

[9] As a lesbian, I had to truly put myself into Della's point of view to figure out how she would feel, what details she would notice, during her first time with this man - especially in the context of being in a war zone, where emotions and experiences can feel so intense.

[10] They would, too.

About Lynn Kanter

Lynn Kanter is the author of the novels Her Own Vietnam (2014, Shade Mountain Press), The Mayor of Heaven (1997) and On Lill Street (1992), both published by Third Side Press. Her short fiction and nonfiction has appeared in several anthologies. Lynn is a lifelong activist for feminist and other progressive causes, and has the T-shirts to prove it. Since 1992 Lynn has worked as a writer for the Center for Community Change, a national social justice organization. She lives with her wife in Washington, DC.

1 comment

  1. "It was monsoon weather, inside and out." Such a beautiful line, so evocative and metaphoric.


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