East Biloxi 2006
Susie Lê nicknames the boys after presidents. Nixon has thin lips that don’t hold his spit back. When she kisses him, her lips get so wet and slippery that she has to pull her head away from his gummy mouth. In these brief lulls, she curls up her bottom lip and uses her front teeth to mop the excess saliva into her mouth. But she never lets him know that she’s managing the make-out in this way. Nixon thinks she’s biting her lip because she really likes him, like she’s not kissing him for the money. But she doesn’t want all that spit slavering down her chin and giving her pimples
After each boy, she rinses with a scalding green wash. Susie holds it in a clenched jaw, letting it burn into the spaces between her teeth. When it begins to irritate the top of her mouth, she swooshes it around, bleaching the flesh around her back molars. She holds the wash in until the pain is so unbearable she can only swallow or spit. She spits -- and her tongue is left feeling like it’s never going to taste again. There are times, when she’s cleaned so well, held the wash in her mouth for so long, that the skin on the insides of her cheeks peels off in small translucent gobs that she fishes out with her fingers. That’s when she feels as life she’s never had a boy in her mouth.
Unlike Nixon, with Kennedy there’s no spit at all. He starts off kissing her quick, darting his head back and forth. The tips of his lips pinch the tips of hers. Then he starts biting her like that – like a chicken nipping at feed. He’s stupid too. He’s misdirected too, thinking that Susie groans because she likes is. She lets him keep on like he wants because Kennedy pays her the most for a “no touching session” at $7 for 10 minutes. But one time he clamped down too hard, transforming her lower lip into the ridged, red and pinky insides of a peach. When he saw what he had done, he gave her an extra $3.
Eisenhower prefers touching to kissing. Susie has a strict 5 minute rule for touching. The presidents can touch her anywhere for 5 minutes at $7 under her clothes. No squeezing, no poking – only touching. Susie doesn’t touch anyone. Not for any price. She will not give it up this way. But once the boy she calls Kissinger asked if she would get on her knees and just look at it. It smelled like talcum powder. He paid her $10.
The best kisser is Ford. He seems sincere. He’s black but she calls him Ford anyway. He never touches her like Eisenhower, but he holds her close and presses up against her and she sometimes she almost wishes that he would. He once actually kissed her eyelids and then asked, “How does a Vietnamese girl have freckles?” He is better with the time than she is. As soon as his 10 minutes are up, he pulls away and hands her $5 and smiles.
She tells each boy that they were the best she has ever had and sometimes they pay her extra. Other times, though, they think she’ll let her kiss them for free.
“Come on, baby,” they say with their green-blue eyes alight. They are young and their terms of endearment sound like imitations. “Didn’t you like it?”
“Of course,” Susie smiles, “but you know how this works.”
“It feels like a gift when you kiss.”
“Oh, you’re making me blush,” Susie fakes shyness and giggles just like the boys imagine Asian girls to giggle.
“You don’t pay for gifts.”
“You’re flirt!” Susie teases and begins to run her fingers across the front and back pockets as if to look for a wallet.
And if they still don’t pay, she makes herself cry and the money is in her hands.
Susie began kissing boys for pay when her uncle began talking to the ocean. Her family and their church community were the first to return to Biloxi after the storm to find that the ocean was everywhere. Susie felt as though even her thoughts bore the graininess of salt and the stink of rotting fish. The Lê family took the Eucharist in the parking lot of their destroyed church and then Uncle An dived into the Gulf in search of his disappeared shrimp boat. He emerged confused, his thin body quaking. He cursed the water and spit on the sand.
The family restaurant fared better than they had imagined. The general structure of space had withheld the winds so before waiting for the country’s formal assistance, they began to rebuild.
“Your uncle climbed the embassy wall and your father was just child when he came here,” Susie’s mother reminded her, surveying the restaurant’s devastated garden, planning in her mind where she would replant cilantro and where she would situate the chickens’ cages.
At the hospital Uncle An was told that it was time “to retire” and “time to stop smoking” and “probably time to stop drinking too.” Susie’s parents agreed and told the doctor that they would monitor him closely and thanked him for his time.
“Kennedy or Nixon,” Uncle An said to the doctor, “You Americans are all the same.”
Susie counts her bills – $5, $5, $5, $1, $1, $1, $1 – and decides she should begin charging more for touching. Her mother did recently pull her into the lingerie section and, with out a word, handed Susie several beige and darted teen bras in different sizes and told her try them on in the dressing room. She’d buy her three of the kind that fit her best. It must have been long overdue because Susie took the largest size.
Susie had hoped to make more cash, but $19 is enough to buy her uncle a pack of cigarettes and 40 ounces of beer from the beach bodega. She is also able to buy a greasy envelope of fried fish. It has been some time since the storm, but these coastal gulls still seem starved and fly close to Susie. She breaks off a piece of fish and throws it far from her and watches as the birds trample each other and jab one another’s bodies with their beaks just for a flake.
She finds Uncle An in his folding chair looking out onto the Gulf where he used to fish to bring fresh seafood into the restaurant. He is bent over and she knows that he is whispering to the water. He and her grandfather were fishermen who lived and worked along the Mekong Delta. The proximity to the water, the humidity, and the heat on the coast in Mississippi was an adequate American translation for her family.
Susie opens the 40 ounce bottle and puts it next to her uncle’s foot. She slides one cigarette of the pack and leans over and offers it to his whispering mouth.
“I am telling the president what his soldiers did,” he says lighting the cigarette, “in Son My.”
“Yes Uncle,” Susie says. She unfolds a napkin and places a fried fillet on it to give to her uncle who is now drinking from the bottle quickly. “Have something to eat. It’s still hot.”
“Mr. President, let me tell you sometime about ‘Nam’,” Uncle An almost growls. “Do you really know ‘what napalm smells like in the morning’?”
Susie watches her uncle steady himself over the water. His reflection is faint so it’s almost as through he’s addressing himself.
Uncle An gestures down the coast, to the houses that remain boarded. “My wife, Mr. President” he says but doesn’t finish. “It’s all ruined. There is blood in this water now.”
A couple of plump tourists are bobbing in the water in the distance. The woman is wearing a neon green bathing suit with a matching. The man is bare chested and hairless. They are tossing a beach ball back and forth. Susie thinks that their fleshy circular bodies must be burned by now in this afternoon sun. It is lined with mirrors that only accentuate its vacancy.
“Well, c’est la vie!” her uncle laughs manically, putting the lit cigarette out on the tip of his tongue. “C’est la vie!”
Her parents’ restaurant is nearly empty again. The Lês and their church community rebuilt more quickly than the rest of Biloxi. When they first reopened, they sometimes had no customers at all. But tonight there are a few tourists in the booths and a few of her family’s friends, singing karaoke, their monotone voices in sync with the flashing words on-screen. There are some airmen in perfect blue uniforms on one side of the bar, a father and his daughter sit on the other. They are no longer cooking with Uncle An’s catch and the frozen, shipped seafood that they have to purchase hovers in the brothy air.
“How is Uncle?” Susie’s father asks.
“Better,” Susie lies with her hand wandering nervously around her mouth and neck. She forgot to check for any marks that Kennedy might have left.
But her father is preoccupied with the restaurant and has already left her to seat a party that has just arrived.
As Susie ties her apron around her neck to go help her father, an airman at the
bar asks, “ The owners your parents?”
“Yes sir.” Susie says, surveying the men. There are four of them, probably from Keesler.
“Say, do your parents play any American music on that karaoke machine?”
“You mean songs in English?” Susie retorts with unchecked attitude. She catches her raised eyebrow and her pursed lips and wonders if she might be flirting. She stops herself. “What would you like to sing sir?”
“Me? Sing? No. It’s what I’d like you to sing.” He’s drunk and flirting too. He turns to his fellow airmen to ask, “What’s that song that Marilyn Monroe once sang? In Korea?”
“‘Do It Again,’” one of the men answered.
Susie feels perspiration begin to form sweat under the wires of her bra. “I’m not allowed to sing at work,” she says.
“Or you don’t want to sing that song to us?” The other airmen seem to have disengaged, covering their mouths or focusing on their soup. “Pretend you’re like an Asian Marilyn.”
“You sure she’s eighteen?” asks one of the other airmen as quickly and quietly, reengaged by the inappropiate turn of the request.
Susie pans the restaurant. Many of the tables have a thin layer of dust coating. The wall by the door still has water marks. Overhead the ceiling would collapse in another storm.
“It’s just a song, man.” He says. “Just a little song for us, sweetie. We’re going to Iraq.”
Members of the military were always getting free dinners from her father if they mentioned Iraq. Susie imagines what these airmen were like when they were her age, when they were in the 10th grade. She knows already that she is not a Marilyn Monroe. She is something else for the American troops. She removes her apron and changes the music and begins to sing. “Say A, say M, say E, say R, say I” she sings, “American woman gonna mess your mind,” she sings, “American woman get away from me” she sings.
Rebecca Kumar is a fiction writer based in Lodi, New Jersey. “Strategies of Containment” is a selected excerpt from This is, at the Road’s End, a collection of stories in progress. She is a PhD candidate in English Literature at Emory University and currently pursuing an MFA in Fiction at Brooklyn College. Her work has appeared in Nylon Magazine, Venus Zine, The Bergen Record, Loose Change Magazine, and 30 Years After: New Essays on Vietnam War, Literature and Film. She is also co-editor of Brown Town Magazine