It wasn’t actually all that long before Mark had started screwing around with local girls. Less than a year, she guessed. At least as far as she knew. She’d been warned about it ahead of time, of course. That living in Southeast Asia would wreck her marriage. That Western men were incapable of resisting all that flirtation and adoration. She guessed she shouldn’t have been surprised Mark had succumbed. And she guessed, when she really thought about it, she wasn’t.
By this point, there was so much tension between the two of them anyway. There was mutual disdain that framed all their interactions like some historical atrocity never publicly reconciled. Their conversations were perfunctory, and they each rolled their eyes at much of what the other said. Beth figured her husband sleeping with Vietnamese bar girls was probably just another symptom of a more severe degenerative condition.
Beth and Mark hadn’t been particularly adventurous people before they found themselves in living in Ho Chi Minh City. They hadn’t previously studied for a semester abroad as international exchange students or backpacked through Europe after graduation. They hadn’t hung out in Bangkok youth hostels smoking bad weed with dreadlocked white Australians tunelessly strumming acoustic guitars or taken long rides on dilapidated public buses through Cambodia next to old men who devoured skewers of deep-fried spiders. They hadn’t gone to Ghana or Burkina Faso with the Peace Corps and lived in mud huts and dug irrigation ditches to repay their karmic debt to the universe for having been born privileged. They hadn’t left their hometowns at some point and then returned, having become alien and insufferable to their childhood friends.
They’d instead married young at 23, just after college. They’d utilized their education degrees and had student- taught and substituted in dismal US public schools and then had gone on a whim to an overseas recruiting fair in Northern Iowa. They’d been hired to teach in a faraway country they knew only from Cold War action adventure movies. They’d acted rashly and out of character and had torn the already-written script of their lives to shreds.
Their friends had been mystified. Their fathers had delivered canned, cable news rhetoric. They hate Americans there. Their mothers had sulked and threatened to cancel Christmas celebrations.
Look, I know I sound like their biographers here, but I did work with Beth and Mark for a bit and actually got to know them pretty well. Good kids. Earnest like Midwesterners often are. A lot of these details I’m sure I’ve invented or conflated or misremembered, but I can say that, by the end of this story, the two would be irrevocably altered. That much is true. Scout’s honor.
Beth taught 5th grade, and Mark taught middle school math. The school was a locally owned chain operating out of a few floors of a large office building downtown. There was nothing really international about it; it was basically an English language school for middle class local families that offered a generic Western education for kids to vie for spots in competitive North American universities. Teachers did their best with minimal resources, spotty internet, and a revolving door of inept administrators. The people who taught there were itinerant backpackers or experienced educators who were now too old or who had burned too many bridges to get hired at more reputable schools. Some were running from scandals back home in the US or Canada. Some were in Southeast Asia primarily to have sex with girls half their age and were motivated by little else. Receiving paychecks was a bonus.
I won’t comment here on which of these categories describes me. They aren’t mutually exclusive anyway. Personally, I think it’s great to work at a place where no one is particularly concerned with whether or not you’re still drunk from the night before or if you’re repurposing the chem labs and materials to manufacture your own illicit substances. And this is what it was like at the American School of Saigon. No, that wasn’t the school’s real name, but I like the acronym it makes and I’m a moronic child who has somehow been entrusted with the responsibility of helping kids in a rapidly developing country grow up to be mature, productive members of society. Plus, the place was kind of a shit-show even before it was eventually consumed in an apocalyptic hell storm spoken of today only in hushed tones. OK, maybe that last bit is exaggerated, but ASS is now only a distant memory.
Beth and Mark had thought of coming here as a stepping stone to better schools or maybe just a brief stint overseas to pad their CVs before they returned to the Midwest suburbs, applied for full-time public school teaching jobs, and bought a nondescript little house somewhere. It would be a story to tell their friends and later their children. We were reckless, once. Believe us.
They lived on the 12th floor of a high-rise off Nguyễn Trãi street in District 1 near Bến Thành Market and the city center. There were nicer, gentrified neighborhoods where foreigners tended to settle in Thảo Điền or Phú Mỹ Hưng, but Mark had had some pretentious notion about authenticity and experiencing the real Vietnam. Beth had complied, mostly indifferent to where they lived. Their street was bustling at all hours with swarms of tiny motorbikes and street food carts. Roving mobs of children ran screaming in every direction. Horns blared and vendors yelled indecipherable slogans. It was an onslaught of stimulation. But really, really real.
There was novelty to it at first. They would sometimes meet colleagues in the evenings and sit on little plastic chairs at curbside tables drinking cheap 333 beer and eating rice and pork chops or bánh xèo. I was usually there, and that’s how I got to know the two of them. Beth would go to local spas with the new friends she’d made for cheap massages and pedicures. Mark would sometimes stop after school at a nearby beer club for three-hour free-flow happy hours and then weave home half-drunk on his rented automatic motorbike. Eventually, Mark began stopping nearly every day after school and sometimes didn’t come home at all. Beth often tried to pinpoint when exactly that change had happened.
They’d met in college. They’d had friends in common and had just started sitting together in between classes in a common campus food court area. Maybe they’d had a course together once: Intro to Philosophy or Principles of Macroeconomics. They’d come from adjacent small towns and had had similar upbringings of church and varsity sports.
They’d both been pretty chaste growing up. Beth had had only one boyfriend before Mark. She had furtive sex with him sometimes between 3:30 and 4:00 during high school before her mother got home from work and he sneaked away. During her first year of college, she’d slept with some guy she met at a party and briefly attempted to be his girlfriend before they both lost motivation. Mark’s past had been similar: a few awkward encounters and some high-five fodder for his friends on his university baseball team. I’m filling in the blanks here and, of course, sacrificing anything like accuracy for the sake of a good story, but I have no inkling of anything atypical or deviant in their pasts.
And before too long, here they were. At an impasse in a foreign land. Beth felt alone so far from friends and family and without Mark for support, but somehow it didn’t bother her as much as she would’ve thought. Somehow, she preferred this. He could have his bar girls. Let them deal with his evasions. His moods. His restlessness.
I imagine Beth at home alone on a random Saturday afternoon as she poured herself another glass of wine. She assumed Mark was off getting day-drunk in a nearby pub. It was a fair assumption. She pictured him surrounded by girls in short, skin-tight dresses advertising Sapporo, Tiger or San Miguel beer. Giggling at his inept flirting. Touching his arm or rubbing his shoulders. Sitting on his lap. She wondered how these girls had the fortitude to pretend to be charmed all day by slurring white foreigners. But she knew. She understood the difference a boyfriend with even a little bit of money could make in the lives of many of these girls.
She’d had overlooked the internet pornography for years, going back even to the early days of their marriage. He never even erased his browsing history. She wondered if that was brazenness or obliviousness. She’d gotten angry at him the first few times, and he’d done a pretty good job of performing shame. But it had always happened again. She thought it wouldn’t have been so bad if he hadn’t also stopped initiating sex with her. Which made her angry. Which made him withdraw even more. Which made her angrier.
And now he was here and able to get laid whenever he wanted with minimal effort. And she seethed, less over the betrayal than the injustice of it.
In the newspaper’s English edition, the story’s headline read “Flammable Girl Sets House on Fire”. The girl in question was referred to as N. in order to protect her identity. I’ll do the same here. I’m sure it was Nguyễn or Nhân or Nhi. Doesn’t matter. She was just a kid. Her identity should be protected despite everything that happened. Despite all the death and destruction.
It goes without saying that I’ve taken a few liberties with this account but not as many as you might think. Look it up. Seriously.
It started when N.’s father had reportedly begun noticing melted and burned items in the family’s four-story house in Bình Thạnh District. He found articles of clothing in the wash that seemed to have been scorched by fire and discovered blackened plugs and wires throughout the house. Reasonably thinking there was an electrical short somewhere, he called an electrician, who came to the house but could find no problem, yet N.’s father continued to see evidence of small fires around the house every few days.
One day, a fairly large fire started on the second story in N.’s bedroom. The flames destroyed a bedside lamp before charring N.’s mattress and closet door. N.’s father had noticed that most of the incidents originated in N.’s bedroom and in the areas of the house where the ten-year-old spent the most time. He also thought back to a phone call a few weeks prior from his mother in Vũng Tàu, who had found a burned teddy bear in the bedroom where N. slept when she’d come to
Again, his first thoughts were rational. He searched his daughter’s room and possessions for a lighter or matches but could find none. He asked N. directly if she was setting these fires, but she denied it. Still, he could tell something was bothering her. He wondered if it was guilt over something she’d done or fear that the house might be unsafe. When he pushed the girl a little more on the issue and her demeanor, she complained of a sore throat and fled to her bedroom. A month before, N. had broken out suddenly in a rash that dermatologists had diagnosed as eczema but had been unsuccessful at treating with creams and antibiotics. The girl had been home from school ever since with that strange rash and an intermittent fever.
Whether it was reasonable or not N.’s father somehow knew his daughter was the cause of these fires. He took her to the local pediatric hospital where she underwent blood tests and an EEG, but the results revealed nothing out of the ordinary. Still, she was put on a diet low in glucose and protein in the hope that it would “reduce her internal energy”. N.’s father scoffed at this kind of magical thinking but was surprised when N.’s rash cleared up just as quickly as it had broken out.
Poor N. Just imagine how she suffered not knowing the cause of these terrifying fires continually igniting around her but coming to the realization that it must have something to do with her, feeling ostracized from her family and from the kids whose acceptance a girl her age must have craved, and being unable to confide in anyone because she had to know on some level that no one else in the world had ever faced something like this. And that maybe her condition was self- perpetuating. Maybe it was cyclical the way the flames caused her anxiety which in turn caused more fires to ignite from her subconscious.
A few days later, specialists came to measure magnetic frequencies around the girl’s house but there didn’t seem to be anything out of the ordinary. A second electrician found that although plugs, light switches and outlets were blackened, the wires themselves seemed completely fine.
N. next underwent an Electromagnetic Interference test, which determined irregularities in the right hemisphere of her brain. The doctor explained that this hemisphere plays a vital role in creativity and artistic ability but could also be the source of the excess heat within N. that manifested itself in these fires that occurred only in places where the girl had been. N.’s father didn’t understand this diagnosis, but he didn’t feel comfortable questioning or contradicting the doctor. He figured that if the doctor could cure N. then it didn’t matter whether his theories made sense.
After many more tests and much research, the doctor outfitted N. with a black quartz bracelet which he hoped would control the power generated by her right hemisphere. Additional tests showed no brain irregularities when N. wore the bracelet, and there were reportedly no more fires around N.’s house. The girl did, however, begin to experience occasional seizures and headaches. Even so, the doctor was confident that with the bracelet and continued therapy in the Radionics department of the hospital, N. would learn to control these issues and be a normal girl again.
N.’s father was advised to make sure the house had working fire extinguishers and told that the girl could now return to school after a one-month absence. By the time the article ran in the papers, she’d been back in class for about two weeks. It was good for N., who liked school and missed her homeroom teacher, Miss Beth, if not the other kids who gave her a wide berth in the hallways and snickered behind her back, or so I imagine. This is mostly speculation, of course.
“Maybe we could start some kind of special school for kids with superpowers. A place where we could protect their identities and teach them to harness their abilities. I’d love to work at a school like that.”
“What, like the X-Men?”
“No, I’m not at all comfortable with that. Can you imagine having all of these young superhuman prodigies thrown together, encouraging and one-upping each other, and getting more and more powerful? There’d be no stopping them. I’d much rather have them all identified and monitored for the public good.
“That’s what the Nazis would’ve done. Why not put them in camps?”
“Hey, we’ve never faced a threat like mutant superpowers. There’s no historical parallel.”
These were typical break room conversations for Mark and his coworkers. I’ve invented all the dialogue, of course, but I was often there, and this was the kind of stupid shit we talked about. What Hollywood celebrity would play you in the movie version of your life? Do you think the next ASS school principal will be chosen by just having all the teachers place a hand on the desk in the principal’s office and see who can last the longest or would just sneaking in there and scheduling a meeting on the calendar suffice to get you the job?
“I guess we’ll all have to start wearing black quartz bracelets now for protection. This is the new normal, people. Get used to it.”
“Look. Beth teaches the kid. She doesn’t have supernatural abilities. She’s just a budding pyromaniac who likes playing with lighters.”
“Are you sure? Maybe her parents were participants in something like MK Ultra and gained superpowers through all those covert scientific experiments messing around with their DNA. And maybe they passed those abilities on to their daughter.”
“No, here’s what I think: the source of her power can be traced directly back to Western colonialism. Once the French lost their hold on Indochina in the 1950s and the US and USSR began using the region as a playground for their proxy war games, the seeds were sown for N.’s ascent to the level of something greater than human. Something like a god. The girl’s ancestral village was bombarded with Agent Orange in the early 70s to deprive Vietcong rebels of the plant cover they needed to stage counterattacks. But there was no way the US could have known that its bombing campaigns would one day create the world’s greatest human weapon.”
“In theaters this summer…”
“She had a lighter in her bag. Beth told me.”
“Misinformation. The next evolutionary leap is here. They walk among us now.”
“Wait, so what’s this about superheroes? I just got here.”
“It was an article that ran in the paper today: ‘Flammable Girl Sets House on Fire’. I’ll email you the English version from the website. A young girl identified only by the letter N. has apparently been starting fires with her mind and has burned up appliances in her home. Her parents noticed that objects would burn whenever the girl walked by them.”
“Yeah but, come on, that’s just some kind of bullshit peasant superstition, right?”
“Hey. Check your privilege, white devil. Your precious scientific method doesn’t explain everything in this world, you know?”
“And the kid goes to school here. And, as Mark just said, she’s in Beth’s class.”
“Yeah. So, her parents took her to see a specialist, who found that there were problems in the right hemisphere of her brain. Supposedly, there’s a link between artistic creativity and…”
“…And the ability to start fires with one’s mind?”
“And it’s also connected to her sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.”
“Are those even real things?”
“I’m no doctor. I don’t pretend to be one. But I guess they’ve been able to control her fire-starting abilities by making her wear a black quartz bracelet. Works like a charm. It helps balance her internal energy.”
“Well thank god for that.”
We laughed and mocked and imagined ourselves to be superior to those not educated in Western post- Enlightenment rationalism, but we were sadly mistaken. And a few people in that room would end up paying dearly for our error.
Beth called home once a week. It wasn’t so much that she was homesick; it was more that she liked having and maintaining routines. There was a 12-hour time difference between Vietnam and her parents’ house, so she could call them in the evening and chat as they were waking up and having their first of many cups of coffee.
She had a teenage sister, Stephanie, who rarely came to the phone. Stephanie either slept in in the mornings or was already off at school, even on the weekends, doing something softball-related by the time Beth called. Stephanie was on the varsity team, and when she didn’t have a game, she had practice or strength training. The sisters had never been particularly close, but Beth hoped that would change someday, once they were both adults.
Sometimes Beth’s dad would get on the phone, and she would find him unusually talkative. On these occasions, he would tell her about whatever he’d been watching on TV or on his computer. For a while it was online streaming videos of car crashes in foreign countries that absorbed him for hours at a time. He’d sit on the sofa drinking coffee and pass judgment on how bad they drive over there. She wondered at what point witnessing frantic Eastern Europeans lose control of their vehicles in heavy snow or run traffic lights and smash into one another would lose its novelty.
Other times it was weird conspiracy and supernatural stuff. Thought control chemicals in household products created by multinational corporations. Grand conspiracies about a still-living-and-breathing Hitler somewhere in South America. So many ghosts. Hunters of mythical creatures converging on small, rural towns where everyone claims to have seen said creature, but no one has taken a decent picture of one, despite the fact that pretty much everyone on Earth walks around at all times with a tiny HD camera easily accessible in their front pocket. And, of course, 24-hour cable news of the paranoiac variety. Beth’s dad liked to rant about whatever political hot button issue he’d just been exposed to on the TV. They’ve got these sanctuary cities now where they don’t even bother enforcing the laws anymore. She usually had no idea what he was talking about, paying little attention to the latest skirmishes in these endless culture wars.
But most of the time, he didn’t say much. If there was any static or delay on the call, he’d immediately excuse himself and hand the phone back to Beth’s mother. A lot of times he’d beg off before he’d even talked to her, giving an excuse about some menial household task requiring his immediate attention. During her most recent call, he told he’d bought these screens from the Home Depot you put over your gutters to keep the leaves out and that he needed to get them installed before the next hard rain.
Which left Beth’s mother, who was so concerned for others that she didn’t want to take up all Beth’s time by keeping her on the phone all day long and so sometimes tried to end Beth’s calls home before they’d really begun. Beth would have to redirect her—“Tell me about Aunt Alice. How’s her arm? What’s up with the cousins? Who’s pregnant this time?”—just to sustain the conversation beyond the ten- minute mark. She found this frustrating, but at least she never had to decide whether or not to tell her parents what was happening with Mark. And so she didn’t say a word.
Obviously, I’m developing my protagonist Beth here using details I couldn’t possibly know. We talked quite a bit during the year and a half we worked together and even got drinks from time to time during the lowest points of her marriage to Mark when she needed a friend to confide in. She probably did talk to me about her family and maybe we shared our frustrations about calling home, but I have no idea what her dad watched on TV. Given his generation and geographic location, though, I’m probably spot on with political cable news.
Besides, Mark and Beth both disappeared from my life after the fire. My conscience is clear about reinventing them in this story however I see fit.
And, no, I never took advantage of Beth’s fragile state as her marriage collapsed or her loneliness after Mark basically disappeared from the apartment to follow the Vietnamese girl he’d more or less started dating. I guess I’m proud of myself for not being a shameless opportunist, but the truth is that Beth was never fragile. She wasn’t all that lonely either. At least not for long.
I never met you, N. I’m not sure our paths even crossed. Maybe you were one of the crowd of little kids in the elementary school two floors down from my classroom I sometimes passed and smiled at on my way to the reception office or to Beth’s room to say hello. Maybe you stood slightly apart from the rest of the group, clutching your black bracelet and struggling to keep the flames at bay. Maybe you hid out in the girls’ bathroom in a stall during breaks to avoid the mocking and exclusion you regularly endured after the news article ran and everyone, of course, knew exactly who you were.
Did you dread all those eyes on you every day as you entered school and walked to your classroom? Other kids now recalling the burned-up pencil erasers and worksheets in your desk, the heat radiating from you as you worked in small groups or pairs. The teachers now monitoring your movements, all hoping to catch you in the act of striking the match or pulling the lighter from your bag. And you wanting to scream, “I didn’t do it. Not on purpose,” but knowing what could happen if you lost control for even a moment.
I imagine that at a set time every week–Thursday after lunch, maybe–the school counselor called you to her office from class and made a point of not directly interrogating you in such an obvious way that it made you feel even more anxious and guilty. She asked you what was happening at home and if you were having any trouble making friends at school. She asked how your math homework was coming along and if you were thinking about trying out for the school musical, but you were evasive and sat staring down at your lap, giving concise answers, and fiddling with those darkened stones on your left wrist.
Was home worse? Did your father no longer trust you to be alone? Did he directly confront you? Or, worse, did he dance around the issue by suddenly becoming more attentive and asking after your schoolwork and social life? Where was your mom? There was no mention of her in the newspaper. Had she given birth to you far too young and then run off for a better life somewhere else when you were too young to remember her? Where were your siblings? Had your father never remarried and from then on spent all his days somberly attending to only you or was he always at work leaving you alone every day to keep the house from burning?
I wonder if you had a secret place you went to sometimes and took off your bracelet. Maybe there was an abandoned lot near your house or a construction site where the workers were often absent. Maybe you practiced setting small fires to dry brush or empty plastic water bottles littering the vicinity. Maybe you focused intensely on the things that hurt you or made you feel rage and then practiced calming yourself to see whether or not you could control it. And maybe sometimes you lost control and you shook and your eyes rolled back in your head and then you came to an hour later in the center of a perimeter of scorched earth.
“I think Tien is cheating on me.”
“You think the woman you’re cheating on your wife with is cheating on you?”
“Look, I know I probably don’t deserve any sympathy here. You like Beth, which you should; she’s great. And I’m clearly the asshole here, but I’ve never felt like this before. Tien is different. She’s so exciting and playful. I just…”
“But you think she’s cheating on you?”
“Yeah, I…I don’t know. I think she’s just into me for my money.”
“Yes, Mark, she is. Of course she’s just with you for your money. Do you think she’s with you because you’re so debonair or charming? Or because, in cheating on your wife with her, you’ve shown yourself to be a stable companion worth taking a chance on?”
“God, I know. I’m so stupid. But I think I’m in love with her.”
It was like this for a while actually. I’m making this a single event here, but it’s actually a composite of many nights that spring. Mark had fallen hard for this girl he’d met late one night at some girlie bar. Being older and supposedly wiser than Mark, I tried to counsel him. Don’t rent her a motorbike. Don’t rent her an apartment. Don’t invest in her parents’ business. But the heart wants….well, the heart is a hapless scapegoat for what the ego wants: constant validation and impulse gratification.
“Dude. Here’s one thing I can tell you for sure. A bar girl in Southeast Asia is infinitely savvier than you will ever be at matters of romance.”
“Look, I know that’s the stereotype, but sometimes two people actually fall in love, right? An American man and a Vietnamese woman can meet here and love each other as equal partners just like any man and woman anywhere else in the world, can’t they? They don’t have to be using each other. There don’t need to be these issues of power and manipulation.”
“That’s true. I know many couples here who work that way. But you and Tien are not one of them. You’re a horny dope who’s cheating on his wife, and she’s a smart opportunist who’s making money off you.”
“Shit. I know. You’re right. And I know she’s got other foreign boyfriends. I’m not stupid. I’ve seen her out with them.”
“So what are you going to do?”
“I don’t know.”
“You do, though.”
“I guess I’ve got to break it off with her. Go back to Beth. Save my marriage. Undo all the damage I’ve done. God, I’m an idiot.”
“Even if Beth wants you back…yeah, good luck with that.”
“What do you mean?”
“You clearly haven’t broken up with many Southeast Asian bar girls before. You know all that cuteness and playfulness? Yeah, that’s going to take a seriously dark turn really quickly. These girls don’t take rejection particularly well, and you’d also be closing down the Bank of Mark. You might want to consider faking your own death and starting over in a new city with a new identity. It would be a lot easier.”
Looking back, I acknowledge how problematic this whole conversation is. Particularly my part of it, which, while not verbatim, is pretty much what I said. I knew nothing about this woman, her character, or her motives. I was projecting my own damaged history here in Vietnam onto Mark without any real cause to do so. I might have been completely wrong about Tien, who might have been a perfectly nice girl just playing the field before settling down with someone.
Unfortunately, because of what happened just a few weeks later, I never found out one way or the other.
On Sundays, Beth had begun going with friends to the Australian university here in town to watch the teams play cricket on the school’s large fields. It’s a really good time, actually, even if the game itself is completely inscrutable to Americans like me. The English, Australian and Indian cricket teams set up these white canopy tents with camping chairs and beer coolers, and you can walk around and get the best kind of drunk—outdoors and in the middle of the day—and have some snacks a few of the local restaurants provide for free. The Indian tent is the best, just because the quality of food is so much better. Who doesn’t love samosas, honestly? Everyone is really fun and generous and seem to have no problem with you being a shameless freeloader.
The campus is wide open with nice, green fields where you can go for a walk to sober up a little, have a smoke or something, or find an out-of-view spot to piss if you’re too out-of-it to make it all the way to the bathrooms near the university dorms. The sport itself is a lot of fun to watch, and you can always find a drunk expat to explain it to you in a way that clarifies nothing but makes the experience even richer and more entertaining. Especially after a lot of cold Saigon Green in the tropical sun. So, yeah, even if the score is 60-210 and that’s supposedly a real close nail-biter of a match, it’s one of the better ways to spend a Sunday morning in Ho Chi Minh City. Highly recommended.
OK, now that I’ve finished this TripAdvisor review, back to Beth.
Beth and I hung out a lot with the Australian team where some of our friends from ASS played. We were both complete novices but generally knew how to take a cue from everyone else and cheer or groan with disappointment at appropriate times. We’d have some laughs and get lost in conversations with the people around us, forgetting the game altogether for long stretches, and then pretend to pay attention again. Other than that, we’d sit and enjoy the sunshine while occasionally clinking our cans together with that ubiquitous Vietnamese toasting chant: Một Hai Ba Vô!
I’ll be honest here: I was really into Beth at this point. Completely infatuated. I liked Mark, but I didn’t feel any real sympathy for his epic self-destruction and figured he’d surrendered any right to care whether or not I went after his wife. I was ten years older than her, but that certainly wasn’t an issue in a city where 65-year-olds regularly paraded around town with 20-something girlfriends. Beth and I had been hanging out a lot recently, especially now that Mark had basically disappeared from view to chase Tien around the city’s girlie bar scene, and going out for dinner or drinks here and there. I figured I’d be a shoulder to cry on for Beth and that it might evolve into something deeper. I wasn’t scheming exactly, just hoping to set up the right scenario for everything to work itself out in my favor. The only problem was that Beth didn’t need a shoulder, and she wasn’t crying at all.
Then, fucking Aaron showed up. Aaron was from Canberra and bowled for the Australian team. Nice guy actually: warm, outgoing, funny. Looked like a male calendar model and always seemed to be epically shirtless. And somehow oiled. Everywhere he went women swooned. Hell, I swooned.
I remember it well. We were all standing around at the Australian tent having drinks when he came walking in from the field, glistening and haloed by the sunlight like some mythological god. Was he walking in slow motion? And where the hell did that music come from? As everyone stared, he sauntered up and said something cool and unassuming like, “Hey, mates. Any beer left?” Fucking Aaron.
I was nodding and uh-huhing my way through a lengthy, esoteric explanation of the differences between the club and short-form varieties of cricket by a slurring, elderly Englishman and failed to notice at first that Beth’s attention had wandered to Aaron. By the time I realized what was happening, the two were already lost in conversation and oblivious to their surroundings, the match, and the guy watching them and his hopeful plans fall.
After the match, a group of us jumped in Vinasun taxis and headed downtown to an Aussie sports bar for meat pies and a lot more beer. It was a nice time. We had some laughs, got really, really drunk, and hit on the waitresses and Sapporo girls. At the end of the table, Beth and Aaron sat becoming increasingly more acquainted and closer in physical proximity. I’d figured out it was a lost cause almost immediately, and by this point I was far too drunk to care anyway. It still stung when they left together, but then another round of shots arrived and sweet oblivion beckoned.
In one of my final foggy memories of the night before I apparently auto-piloted home and got myself to bed, I remember looking out the window in time to see Beth and Aaron getting into a taxi. I may have imagined it, but just beyond them, catty-corner to the intersection, I thought I saw someone who looked a little like Mark lurking there and staring in their direction. Then, the memory is extinguished.
Poor N. I can just imagine her sitting outside the principal’s office sniffling and wiping away the tears, waiting to find out how much trouble she would be in. There was no way there wouldn’t be a call home to her father, who had only recently come to accept the doctor’s explanation for the fires and so had stopped eyeing N. so suspiciously all the time.
She wondered how she would explain to him how, even with the quartz bracelet, there’d been a small fire in the girls’ bathroom while she was in it. She could tell him that the other girls were curious and teasing her, that even though she’d initially refused, they’d demanded she take off the bracelet and then took turns putting it on and casting their best approximations of magic spells, and that only then had a small pillar of smoke started wafting up from one of the sink drains, which caused the girls to run screaming bloody murder from the bathroom and Miss Beth to enter and investigate the commotion just as the smoke alarms began blaring.
Miss Beth didn’t believe the explanation, and so N. wondered if her father would either. Miss Beth assumed she’d been playing with matches and had dropped one down the sinkhole to scare the girls into giving back the bracelet, which Miss Beth now held in her hand as she lectured N, or that maybe the girls had been smoking cigarettes in the bathroom even though, as N. tried to point out, the bathroom didn’t smell like cigarettes.
Nothing worked and now N. sat in the hallway outside the principal’s office resigned to her fate. She rubbed the raw spot on her wrist where the bracelet had been and wondered whether or not she should be worried about not having it on at the moment and not knowing where it was.
She imagined there would be more tests and visits to the hospital. She imagined there would be another news article or maybe an interview on Vietnamese television. She thought about how that would be it: she would forever be “Flammable Girl Sets House on Fire”. An outcast. A freak.
Just then, she started to feel a trembling deep inside. Not from the crying but from something less identifiable yet now all too familiar. It was like a freezing cold shiver from fever chills, and just as N.’s eyes rolled back in her head and she began convulsing, the wall behind her burst into flames, which spread quickly and climbed upwards to the ceiling tiles.
“Trời ơi! The hell?”
“I know. It looks pretty bad. It’s actually getting better.”
“Bad? It looks like you got the shit beaten out of you.”
“Well, I did get the shit beaten out of me. It’s been a rough couple of days.”
“Jesus. How did you even see to drive here? You’re deformed. Your eye is practically swollen shut.”
“Oh, come on. It’s just a black eye.”
“Dude, it’s not even a black eye. It’s orange and…is that green?”
“I think the other colors are good. I think that means it’s healing.”
“OK. Well, let me get us a few beers, and you can tell me what the hell happened. Em ơi! Hai bia!”
This conversation I do remember well. This was the last time I went out for drinks with Mark. It was a beautiful, topical day, perfect for an excessive amount of ice-cold cheap pilsner.
“So, you ended things with Tien?”
“Well, kind of. She dropped me for someone else. Someone with more money, I assume.”
“Someone without a wife too, maybe?”
“Yeah, that’s probably true.”
“Please tell me you didn’t try to confront this new guy and get your ass kicked.”
“No, I didn’t. I haven’t seen or talked to Tien since she broke it off. I’m trying to repair my life, not damage it even more.”
“Well, that’s good at least. So where are you staying now?”
“With Greg, the new biology teacher. He’s got a spare bedroom.”
“Nice of him. So, then?”
“So, then I tried to get in touch with Beth to start to fix things and…”
“And you met Aaron.”
“Wait. You know about Aaron. You knew about Aaron and you didn’t tell me? You dick.”
“Hell, no, I didn’t tell you. I didn’t tell Beth about Tien either. I’m staying out of your little married people soap opera.”
“Fine. So, then you can figure most of it out. I showed up unannounced at the apartment to try to work things out with Beth. When I knocked, she came to the door probably thinking it was a delivery. She opened the door and I saw her and…”
“Yeah, fucking Aaron.”
“So, then Aaron beat your ass? You got your face demolished by a pretty boy cricket bowler?”
“No, Beth stepped out into the hallway for a few minutes and tried to talk some sense into me.”
“Did it work?”
“Not really. I still want her back, but it would be hypocritical of me to make a big deal about Aaron since we all know what I did. I’m just going to keep trying and hope I wear her down. Hope she remembers what we’ve had and doesn’t throw it away on some guy she barely knows.”
“So, what the hell happened to your face?”
“Oh, yeah. After I left our apartment…Beth’s apartment…I went over to Phạm Ngũ Lão for some drinks. I stopped by that cigarette cart outside Crazy Buffalo to buy some pot to take home. I felt my phone buzz and pulled it out hoping it was a message from Beth, and some asshole on a motorbike came by and grabbed it out of my hand.”
“Ah, that sucks. Happens to everyone, though. What did you do then?”
“I went back to the apartment and used Greg’s phone to call mine. The thief picked up but didn’t speak English, so we passed the phone to Greg’s girlfriend and…”
“Wait. Greg already has a Vietnamese girlfriend? He’s been here like two months. Are they just issuing them at the airport now?”
“Yeah, sure. So anyway, the guy said I could come to District 4 to buy it back from him for two million.”
“OK. Well, that’s like a hundred bucks. Not the end of the world. Cheaper than a new phone.”
“Yeah, well, I was still pissed off about Tien and then about Beth and Aaron, so I went down there without the money and was just going to get my phone by force if I had to.”
“That was a really bad idea.”
“Oh yeah. I wasn’t thinking clearly.”
“You went to District 4 to fight a Vietnamese criminal over a stolen phone? You’re lucky he and his friends didn’t machete you to pieces and then chum the canal with you. You’re lucky all they did was bust up your face.”
“You’re really kind of an idiot, Mark.”
“Yeah, that’s becoming more and more apparent every day.”
It’s still hard to piece it all together. You spread it out all over a foldable card table and start assembling the borders. You look for discernible patterns and corresponding colors. Maybe words or human shapes that have been bisected. Once it seems like everything fits, there’s another missing little cut- out piece or two under the sofa or coffee table or buried and invisible somewhere in deep shag carpeting, and you realize all this work has been for nothing.
In the smoking aftermath of that day, all we had were rumors. Some said the building’s owners had burned it to the ground to collect a big insurance payout although no one was sure if big insurance payouts were actually a thing in Vietnam. A lot of people blamed faulty infrastructure, bad wiring, tangled power lines intertwined with one another all over the city. It was an accident waiting to happen. A death trap. Maybe the building’s maintenance crew had been improperly storing chemicals. Maybe there had been an electrical short or a freak lightning strike.
No one at the time blamed an isolated little girl who may or may not have been able to start fires with her subconscious. To this day, in fact, it doesn’t seem like anyone has made the connection between that strange news story “Flammable Girl Sets House on Fire” and this terrible tragedy only a month later.
I was sitting in my classroom during a free planning period streaming internet radio and browsing social media when I smelled the smoke. Then, I heard the alarm. Unperturbed, I got up, grabbed my bag and jacket and walked down seven flights of stairs to the front of the building. That’s when I saw the flames. The elementary school floor was already engulfed; it was clear the middle and high school floors were next and then the assorted commercial office spaces and apartments after that. There was an eerie calmness as students and teachers along with residents of other floors and the whole neighborhood of vendors and motorbike commuters stood still and gaped at the spreading inferno. It was burning so fast no fire trucks had arrived yet.
I’m sure I recognized a few colleagues and we sort of shrugged at each other over the absurdity, but I can’t place anyone when I think back on it. Except Mark. I heard him actually before I saw him. He was yelling Beth’s name and asking if anyone had seen her. He was panicked. He must have seen the source of the flames and identified her classroom window and its proximity from the outside of the building. He just kept yelling for Beth. For a quick second, our eyes met, and then he ran towards the fire and into the building. I can’t remember if I reached out to stop him.
It wasn’t long before the area around the building became too hot and dangerous. The police and firefighters had arrived by then and ushered us all away. Parents had shown up and were searching frantically for their children. I joined my colleagues who were all getting on their motorbikes to head to a bar or home to begin searching for new employment.
I don’t remember how the newspapers covered the story in the days that followed. The next few weeks were kind of a daze, and I spent much of the aftermath stupidly drunk. I kept expecting to run into Beth or Mark at some point at one of our regular haunts and compare survivor stories, but I never did. I never saw either of them again.
I tried to call them both from time to time, but no one ever answered. I stopped by their apartment—Beth’s apartment—a week or so after the fire and knocked on the door. An older Vietnamese woman answered, and we both smiled uncomfortably at each for a few seconds before I gave up and walked away.
I assume they both lived. None of the former ASS colleagues I would later run into at bars around the city— many of us having taken jobs at equally shitty schools nearby; mine at a British curriculum proprietary school I’ll only refer to here as BS—knew anything more than I did. Dead Americans would certainly have been international news. There would be public grieving and condemnation from abroad. Maybe the US president would visit. At the very least, there would be histrionic posts on social media about how dangerous it is for Americans to be in other countries. But none of that ever happened. They just disappeared that day. I looked for stories online and for their social media profiles periodically over the next six or seven years, but I never found a trace of them.
Because I don’t know what happened, I’ll invent my own denouement for Beth and Mark. Beth had made it out of her classroom when the fire started but immediately realized she had to help the children find their way to safety. She began moving quickly from classroom to classroom searching for kids who were disoriented by the darkness and smoke or paralyzed with fear under a classroom desk or in a corner closet somewhere. She gathered a few and led them to the stairwell. She told them to keep walking until they saw daylight and then continued her search.
She moved through the elementary school hallways until visibility was too poor for her to see. By then, she’d begun coughing and feeling the effects of all that smoke. She hurried to the stairwell, but it wasn’t there where she’d remembered it. She’d gotten lost and turned all around in the smoke and now had no idea how to get out. It was so hot by then, and she was finding it harder and harder to breathe. She wasn’t exactly resigned to her fate, but it was becoming clear to her that she wasn’t making it out of this alive.
Then she heard it faintly. “Beth! Beth! Where are you?” It was Mark. She wondered if he’d come to rescue her or if he too was trapped somewhere. Probably the latter, she thought and set off to find him too. With her remaining strength, she ran through the hallways, rounding corners and calling his name until she saw his figure in the smoke beckoning her to follow him to safety. He was pointing to an open door, the way out
“That’s the supply room, you idiot,” I imagine she said. Then, she noticed the stairwell directly opposite the direction Mark was pointing. She grabbed his hand, and they ran down the stairs to safety.
Not sure what happened after that. Maybe they went back to Beth’s apartment and showered and then made love all afternoon, deciding to forget about everything that had driven them apart and vowing that it would all be different now. Better. Maybe they went straight to the airport still smoldering and covered in soot and boarded a plane for anywhere else in the world without any luggage to start anew. I’m guessing they talked things through and had a tough, tearful reconciliation and then moved back home and stayed with Beth’s parents until they got back on their feet. Oh you kids and your adventures. We’re just glad you’re home and safe now. After that, they got jobs in public schools somewhere in Iowa or Indiana and taped together that already-written script they’d torn up. Whatever they did, they were alive.
People did die, of course. Fourteen people to be exact. Five of them were children at the school, which made everything even more tragic. I seem to remember that there were lawsuits and a criminal investigation, but I have no idea how it all turned out. I realize how inadequate this makes me as a narrator, but I was there at least and I’m all you’ve got.
No, I don’t know if N. was one of the casualties. I’d like to think she made it out too, but I realize she was probably convulsing on the floor somewhere as the flames consumed her. I’d like to think she expended the rest of her powers in destroying her school and that she had a normal life now and made friends at her next school and escaped her notoriety.
Maybe she was standing there with me as the structure collapsed and we all had to step away from the heat and out into the road. Maybe she was there a few days later in the small crowd that had gathered when I came back out of curiosity to stare at the still-smoldering embers and the smeared black ink spot that was once my disreputable employer. I imagine that as she walked among the ruins in the aftermath of that tragedy she saw lying there, nearly obscured by the vast blackness, her quartz bracelet. I’d like to think she saw it there in the ashes and passed by it without bending down to retrieve it.