Nate Gualtieri is a writer and filmmaker originally from Boston, Massachusetts. His television pilot script, Badwater, recently placed in the Second Round at the Austin Film Festival. In his spare time, he enjoys backpacking, long-distance running, and baking.
It is morning again, a quiet one, and I slip outside into a heat that I swim into. The sun is just a thumbnail of amber on the edges of the airfield. Already palms bend under the humidity. I reach in the pocket of my fatigues—the ones all the girls hate because they’re not as feminine as the crisp, white nurse uniforms in the states—and thumb the edges of pencil, paper, stamps. My stationary has gone limp. I flatten it as best I can on bent, ashen knees, my script looping to match the curve of my body, as if I can write my flesh into the paper, and when she touches it she will sense that my thoughts of her are written in my skin. I sign it:
Sending love from paradise,
and fold it into crisp little squares and shove it inside an envelope. Carolyn will receive it in our tiny, black mailbox, crumpled and stained with browned edges of moist air. But the words will be there.
“You’re up early.” Lt. Sorensen calls from behind me. She is Midwestern wholesome. White. Skin shined by the sun to a rouged pink like a peach for the corpsman to take bites out of. She is the peach and I am the pit: dark brown, hard, used to breaking men’s teeth. I will not allow myself to be swallowed. But Sorenson thinks we’re friends, and so I let her believe it.
She crouches down, hands neatly tucked between her bent knees. “What’s the hurry?”
“A letter for Carl.” It slips out so easily, the truncation of names and switching of pronouns. Carl is a carpenter. Carl is my fiancée. Carl is a ghost, like so many men here. Vietnam is a great place to be a liar because everyone’s scared shitless, but everyone’s lying about it.
“Oh. Didn’t mean to interrupt.” “You didn’t. I was finished.”
Allison pauses, looking for another comment, longing for interactions away from the half-limbed men wheezing between the rubber walls of the MUST where they grope at her with hungry hands, afraid of being left alone.
“Nice day out today. I’d take heat over monsoons any day.”
“Sure. Sure is.” A little sadness breaks in a levy in me, how I let Carolyn slip further and further from me.
“You’re lucky you got someone to write to. Besides family, I mean. My ma says I should’ve gotten married while I could. Says it makes the time go faster if you got someone to get back to.” Her eyes are bright, even in early morning. I stand, trying to wipe out the creases in my uniform. “Do you think it’s true?”
She is so expectant, so pregnant with hope that I consider lying. But she needs to learn sometime, and so I tell the truth. “Time goes just as fast as it’s meant to. Doesn’t make a difference if you have someone on the other side,” I answer, and it’s not the answer she’s looking for.
“Oh,” she replies softly. And it’s a perfect summation of this war: oh. Noncommittal, apathetic. Detached. Same way everyone here learns to be. Oh.
We drive to Death Valley in Carolyn’s Buick, not stopping, eating tinned sardines bunched in the front seat and licking the salt from our fingers.
I drift off with the sky, a cornflower blue burned beneath my eyelids, and when I wake up, we are lurching across a gravel driveway into the salt flats. I watch the heat bend through the air in waves, the raised honeycombed crusts of salt spread across the ground in fractals. We stretch our legs outside the car, and I crouch in the dirt where I snap off a spear of salt and offer it to Carolyn.
“It’ll help you retain some water in the heat,” I explain.
She takes it gratefully and licks at it, letting the crystals dissolve on her tongue. “Think it’ll be this hot in Vietnam?” she asks.
“I don’t know. I hope not. But probably.” “No popsicles over there?”
I smile. “No popsicles.”
“I’ll sneak some in your bag.” “Sneak yourself in there instead.”
“I have a better idea.” She reaches in my knapsack tugging at my shoulders. My shirt is damp beneath the straps. She shoves her polaroid in my hands and leaps backwards. Her pale freckled arm suggests constellations as it reaches through a sky sharply blue with heat. Her fingertips graze the mountaintops, and I tell her to lower them just a bit to make the effect seem more real. The camera snaps, and the hanging tongue of a Polaroid slides out a second later. She’s a ghost written into paper. Developed ink fills in the cracks of where she is supposed to exist.
She takes the picture from my hands as we sit in the heat of the sun and watch it develop. Her legs appear up to the waist, her whitewashed denim shorts, thin t-shirt, sunglasses. She is a person built out of nothing. Only colors and halide.
Her breathing is quiet beside mine. But I hear her whisper, “I’ll miss you.” “I know,” I whisper back.
Our bodies are coated in a film of sweat and dirt and bug spray. Some girls try to cover it up with perfume and dab at their bug bites with rubbing alcohol.
But after the third week, we give up, twisting up our greased hair tight on our heads. The soil of the country lives on our skin, and we permit it.
We eat in near darkness, the generators running full-bore, thrashing like wild animals. But still the electric lights flicker.
Sorenson wedges herself in beside me. The table is a lineup of drawn-in faces, mostly young, and it feels like summer camp for a while until it doesn’t, and we realize we’re stuck here for twelve months rather than twelve weeks, and mom and dad aren’t coming to get us at the end.
They pass around pictures. Parents, husbands, kids—and when none come from me, they cluck sadly, asking why don’t I have any?
“Didn’t bring any. Pictures make me sad.” And they seem to accept that, nodding silently.
Sorenson chatters on because she can’t seem to stand silence. “Most of the girls back in nursing school think I’m crazy. Don’t see any reason to be here when you could be at hospitals back home.”
“Yeah, well. Just figured I should do something to help.”
“Of course. We all do. But they promised that most nurses serve in Europe. Always wanted to see the Alps. I can’t speak a lick of German or French or whatever it is they speak. But still. I wanted to see the Alps.” Sorenson leans back, cradling her chin in her hands. She turns her head to me, pretty and pointed. “What about you?”
“Family tradition sort of deal. My father served in Belgium at Wereth. His father before him in WWI.”
“They must be proud.” And there is a deep silence, because it is the second lie we’ve told ourselves since we’ve gotten here.
It’s only the first month, and we think we’ll be thrown in the shit right away, and when it doesn’t, we hold our breath.
We are girls again, sitting in stiff-backed folding chairs at the side of the room, waiting for someone to ask us to dance. And Vietnam approaches with outstretched hands.
I am being shaken awake by Lt. Sorenson, her pretty peach face twisted and shriveled into a prune. The folds of the tent around us are a dark, dark black, like everything has been swallowed, and all that’s left is outer space.
“All hands on deck. Come on.” I can only mumble back incoherently. She offers explanation. “There was an artillery attack outside of the A Shau Valley.”
Only after I have slipped on my cleanest pair of fatigues and emerged from my tent do I understand the worry etched into her face: men, more men than I’ve ever seen in one place, their bodies hanging from stretchers, hunched over against APCs. They are crammed belly to back against the MUST. The makeshift medical unit stretches against their weight. More are dragged in by helicopter pilots and field medics. Their blood makes a finger painting in the dust. Dry grass wetted red at the tips.
It has been hours since the worst of the wounded are stabilized and resting in beds with rust-stained sheets. But we are only so many, and there’s only so much we can do. Some get forgotten until it is too late.
They haul in a young guy with skin so pale it’s almost translucent. He’s lost his right leg up to the crotch, skin up his back slashed with a starburst of shrapnel. We work hard to stop his insides from spreading out, and it’s a miracle, but he’s still awake, his reptilian brain beating back the current of unconsciousness. I watch as his perception fades back to reality: the hospital, the black nurse standing over him, the hole in the bed where his leg should be.
“Am I gonna die?” I hate when they ask point-blank. And they always ask. “We’re trying hard,” I tell him.
And then he just laughs. Cracks right up like I’ve told the funniest joke he’s ever heard his whole life. Laughs so hard he can’t breathe.
“Easy. It’s gonna be all right,” I say to him.
He manages to choke out, “I’m gonna die, and you know what I got stuck in my head? Tom Jones. ‘What’s New Pussycat?’ You know that song?”
“Yeah, I know it.”
“’Cept I can’t remember the goddamn words so all I have is the ‘what’s new pussycat’ part spinning over and over in my head.” He starts to sing, exaggerated crooning: “what’s new pussycat! Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa!” And he yowls at his own joke all over again, and another nurse shoots me a look that says morphine. But this is the happiest man in all of Da Nang, probably all of Vietnam, and I can’t take that from him.
He dies two hours later, still soaked in blood and sweat, and a fever burning up in his brain. Under my breath, I give him a short eulogy. “Goodbye, pussycat,” I whisper, and strip the bed as his body is hauled off.
War is weird that way. Makes you laugh. Death should be this beautiful, somber thing, but it isn’t. It’s messy and incomplete, and sometimes it’s the funniest joke you’ve ever heard.
Carolyn is on the ground bleeding through skinned knees, brushing the dust from her shins with bony wrists. I can count the hard knobs of her vertebrae poking through the back of her thin shirt.
“Shoot,” she breathes. “Too many rocks here.” They poke up through the dust, but the hard ridges of them blend with even ground in the thin, watery light. Moon swollen with a champagne glow.
We pack up tomato sandwiches and jump in the car again. The chill seeps in between the windows, and we shiver together behind the wheel with a woven blanket thrown across the gap between our shoulders. It scratches against my skin.
The roads are empty. Our headlights cut into the dark, into the stillness of the desert and the brilliant silence of it. We stay quiet too, out of an unspoken respect.
I am entranced by the rolling mounds of sand passing beyond the window, but I notice Carolyn bite her lip in a small smile, and I sense she’s got some privately funny joke with herself.
“Pretty empty,” she starts.
“Yup,” I reply, and the eternal silence is broken.
“This is what they meant when people talk about the Wild West. Nothing but you and coyotes and sand. No people at all.”
“Good. You’re enough people for me.”
“No police.” She straightens up in her seat. “No laws.” She hunches up her shoulders at the steering wheel, and the Buick starts to gain speed.
“Carolyn,” I caution. Nerves build in me, and excitement.
The geography of a thousand years whips by in fast forward out the window. The speedometer crawls clockwise: 60, 70, 80. We are a time machine, moving so far forward so fast that everything else slows down, and we are transported back to before our trip, before we met, before there was even a war.
The needle dances towards 100, and Carolyn’s pushing it, but something beneath the hood rattles the metal, and we hear a dull grind that rises to a screech.
“Shit,” Carolyn hisses. We crunch to a stop on the roadside gravel, the smell of hot rubber and oil rising. I can taste it too, and it’s almost sweet. She pops the hood and waves away the smoke, but neither of us know the first thing about cars, and we’re not about to try.
“Guess we’ve arrived,” I tell her, and she nods. Looks past me to Mesquite Flat where millions of grains of sand rise from nothing in humps, and we silently head out, abandoning the car by the roadside.
The dunes swell through the valley, and sand finds every crevice, fills our shoes. We kick them off and keep going, explorers on a distant planet. A chaotic and beautiful mess of stars floats above us. Carolyn cups her hand like a spyglass and sets her sights on the furthest dune. But by the time we reach it, she’s tuckered herself out with the effort and thumps down in the sand, perched at the top of a tidal wave.
For her, I name the constellations: Orion and Andromeda and Cygnus. I make up new ones just for her and me. This one is Carolyn filing her nails. That one is us dancing together. Those are two tongues whispering secrets to each other.
Carolyn and I play God lying flat on our backs, and I envision Inyo County from straight above, mounds of earth with the valleys puckered like scarred flesh. Clumps of dull green creosote flecked across the dust.
“Plenty of jobs as a nurse over here.” Carolyn’s voice gets small, quiet. “You don’t have to go if you don’t want to. Why even go at all?”
“I can’t stand to see good men die for a bad cause. If I’m the one standing between them and their maker, then let me go where it counts.”
“You can still count right here.”
“Just think of it like a vacation. A trip to paradise.”
“A year is a long vacation.”
“I’ll bring you a souvenir when I come back.”
“Just come back.” The desert silence swallows us, two figures vanished into the night in a vacuum. The earth is so still I can hear the flutter of her eyelashes. The sharp inhalations of breath through her teeth.
“Know what this reminds me of?” I start, motioning to the spread of dunes, a shore without a sea.
Carolyn rolls herself on to her elbows, pressing her lips to my cheek. “What?”
“A litter box.”
“It’s the most beautiful litter box I’ve ever seen.”
“You should settle down here. Good for when you start collecting cats after you turn thirty.”
And then she laughs, head thrown back like she’s swallowing the sky. I follow her with arms outstretched as we run in the darkness, thick like molasses across the sand, both laughing.
I have stolen sleep in the corners of break rooms, standing upright against walls, but I can’t allow myself to relax enough to offset the wired mind that accompanies sleeplessness. Instead I bum a joint off one of the field medics and shuffle into a supply closet when no one is looking.
I blow smoke into the corners, away from the crack in the door, and slip into somewhere far away where my skin buzzes, and I can feel the coffee I’ve been swilling turning bitter in my throat.
I miss Carolyn like a stomachache. Her hands scraping off the burnt edges of her toast, smiling sleepily behind a cup of coffee curled between her fingers. The newspaper is smudged where she has touched it, and the crossword is filled in with letters in neat rows.
But she slips further from me. I can’t think about the hole in my own insides when they rush in the boys whose insides are hanging out in tough strips that they hold in with only their fingers and their open mouths muttering oh jesus oh jesus over and over until it runs together on their tongues.
Poor fucker, I think to myself, and the birds outside seem to repeat it. The wind, through shoots of bamboo, echoes it too: poor fucker, poor fucker. Even the land knows that we are poor, and we are absolutely, desperately fucked.
We make a solemn pact, seconded by silent nods at dinner that night, choking down the men’s leftover B- and C-rations, that no matter what, we will not cry. We owe it to these men to be brave. It’s not our right to cry because they are supposed to be the heroes.
But we do anyways. We all do. Quiet shuddered breaths in the bunks at night, and red eyes puffed at the lids each morning. We are schooled in the art of silent grief, cheeks hot with tears and sleeping on wet pillows.
We are lacking, lacking everything. Don’t even have a proper shitter. Men die waiting for antiseptic. Anesthetic is a luxury. I saw maggots in a wound, white and plump and squirming under the stained gauze, and nearly vomited. Soldiers die hot and fevered and in vain.
Instead, we improvise. We run out of surgical stitches, so a Lieutenant Nurse grabs a sewing kit from her tent, and we stitch men back together like doilies, fragile and stretched thin. It is almost beautiful, the colored thread tinting beneath skin.
They bring in Vietnamese children for care. Their hearts are clay pots, hollow and brittle. They are silent. Children carry pain with quiet grace that grown men do not, stoic and empty as we packed deep cuts with gauze.
The truth is that war is mostly waiting. It is long days that smell like antiseptic, and weak coffee in tin cups. Days spent wiping the backsides of men trying to pretend like they aren’t mortified by it.
I learn to keep quiet in the face of men—soldiers—who press up against you in a corner with their hot whiskey breath and call you “baby” and “peaches” and slide their calloused fingers down to the small of your back. Men who do not take no for an answer. Nurses who clear the back of their throats and look politely away. It takes a year. But I learn.
I have not saved good men. I have simply saved men. A particular arrangement of muscle and bone and skin, an arrangement of molecules and atoms pressed against each other. I have kept a warm body warm for a little longer.
My teeth rattle in my jaw as I am loaded into a Chinook helicopter. Its blades beat against the wind and we are lifted clear of the verdant fields and rice paddies swollen fat with rain. I do not let myself feel relief until my feet touch American soil.
I come home to a sink filled with dishes. The evidence of a busy afternoon stains the kitchen. A peach cobbler, my favorite, on the kitchen table, and the countertops still fresh dusted with flour. I can taste the burnt sugared peaches in the back of my throat, and their scent is so sweet it almost makes me nauseous since it’s been so long since I smelled something that pure, that good. Hot and homemade.
“Welcome home,” she grins big. I sling my duffel off my shoulder, and it thuds on the tile floor. The smell of Da Nang still soaked into the canvas of it, cigarettes and cement.
Carolyn’s already setting out plates. “I got some some vanilla ice cream in the freezer, too,” she suggests. She’s trying so hard to reset things to the way they were, and I’m too polite to tell her that I’m dog-tired and just want to get in bed and never leave it for the next six months.
But I sit with her and swallow down some of the cobbler, sweet and syrupy and good. There’s only silence between us, and I can tell she’s desperately trying to think of what to say. I used to love quiet mornings with her, silently tethered to one another even in the absence of words to fill the empty air.
There is a chasm now. One neither of us quite knows how to bridge. Carolyn gives me the tour of a place which no longer feels like home. I am reintroduced to peeling paint and threadbare couches. The bodega on the corner. Stray cats with matted fur, licking at puddles on hot asphalt.
She shows me the crumpled letters in envelopes with their neat blue and red candy cane stripes. I imagine her reading each one twice through, trying to make them last—fifteen minutes, forty-five, an hour—until she’s practically memorized it. She’s tucked them behind our bed in a shoebox with all the others, and I look at the fat pile they’ve amassed, a timeline of my absence.
She collapses with me on to the bed, and we strip beneath the covers even though it is midafternoon. Her hand is warm and small and pink in mine. She sighs and rests a cheek across my bare breasts, skin to skin.
“Must be good to be home.” “Yeah,” I lie. “Real good.”
After the war, my only dreams are kaleidoscopes:
Sheet rocks curve in strips of color—amber and rust and shale like bands of taffy folded together. The tips of my fingers brush against the canyon walls, smoothed over with the weathering of a thousand floods, and I look to find Carolyn behind me, but she isn’t there.
I jog forward trying to catch a glimpse of her. The sheets of rock wall funnel to a slot until the only light that slips in is a luminescent red as it bounces off layers of quartzite. I am enclosed in a pink world, a womb. I am pushed out, wet and gasping, into a rice paddy foamed red at the edges. But the paddy is a bog; it is quicksand, and the harder I fight to leave, the more I am desperately trapped.
I can’t imagine what happens to love spread thin, spread across the invisible delineations of countries and over the whorled blue chasms of ocean. I used to think that souls could bridge distances like strings of gold, thin and unbroken in invisible strings.
Love does not survive war. It does not transcend. It’s not like the songs.
I wake up. I wake up in bed next to Carolyn. I wake up on a thin mattress in a rubber tent, springs poking in my back. I wake up, and I have never left. I will never leave. I wake up.