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Her Own Vietnam

A Novel Excerpt

Della Brown unlocks her front door and glances at the mail scattered across the dark linoleum floor. Stepping inside, she feels the house clenched like a held breath, until she reminds herself that Abby’s gone. Funny how the silence of a house where no one else lives feels different from the quiet of a house where everyone’s out. But there are all kinds of silences, Della knows.

When Abby was growing up, Della sometimes imagined the serenity of an empty nest. Now she’s got one, and it takes some getting used to. No more loud music, no dirty dishes in the sink. No one to talk to, either. She stoops to pick up the mail.

In the kitchen, she watches blue flame bloom under the tea kettle before she flicks on the light. With its butter-colored walls and worn wooden table, the room feels cozy despite the afternoon chill. It’s late February, and spring is weeks away from Della’s corner of New York State. She’s wearing a short-sleeved blue scrub suit, and when she runs her hands down her arms the skin feels pebbled.

Her back to the porcelain sink, Della sorts through the mail, tossing it onto the table in piles. A bill. Another bill. Junk mail for recycling. The Journal of Advanced Nursing. A hot pink card inviting Abby to rant and rave at some club. Della hesitates before sailing that one into the recycling pile. Abby won’t care about a club back home; she’s sharing a run-down Manhattan apartment with six other girls, all trying to make it as actresses. Della slaps down another bill. Then she holds up a slim white envelope and stares.

It’s a letter, an honest-to-God letter. Della thought they were extinct. The handwriting is familiar, although she can’t quite place it. She doesn’t recognize the Boston street in the return address. Unaccountably, she raises the envelope to her nose. Della doesn’t know what she hopes to smell, but it has no aroma. She sits in a bentwood chair and pulls out the single typed sheet.

Hello Della.

Been a while, hasn’t it? I tried to find you so many times, back in the day. Now here we are and thank goodness for the Internet.

Here’s why I’m writing. My son Will is getting married this summer. Now, this isn’t one of those June-moon-swoon kind of weddings. Will is twenty-seven, and his bride is thirty-three. They’re paying for the wedding, and they don’t want a big to-do. My husband and I are only allowed to invite ten people. My son said, just invite the ten people who’ve meant the most to you.

There was something about the way he put it that really made me think. And what can I say, Della, you made the top ten.

Now I know that’s kind of strange, since you and I haven’t spoken since before Will was born. And I know that seeing each other again after all these years is more than a notion. So I’m not going to invite you to the wedding of a boy you’ve never met, but I am writing to ask if you will see me sometime. We can meet in your town, my town, or somewhere in between. You choose.

Della, there’s so much I want to tell you and so much I want to know about you. I hope you call me, and soon.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to stalk you like that little corporal from Minnesota. Remember him? I bet you do. I bet you remember all of it, like I do. Well, maybe not all, but enough. Too much, sometimes. They say time heals all wounds. I don’t know about you, but I’m still waiting.

Della, I hope this letter doesn’t upset you. If it does, just remind yourself . . . it don’t mean nothin’.

Charlene (Johnson) Randall

Della folds the letter and holds it flat between her palms like a prayer. Her heart rackets around in her chest. She twists off the flame beneath the shrieking kettle.

Charlene Johnson. Her closest friend, her comrade, the one person Della has ever trusted—quite literally—with her life. There’s no way she’s going to call Charlene Johnson.

It doesn’t matter that she misses Charlene, misses her with a yearning that has grown fierce and lean from feeding on silence. What matters is that Della has spent the past thirty years trying to erase the one thing she and Charlene have in common.

Della was twenty-two years old when she returned from Vietnam, twenty-two and broken already. Because while she was in country, she accidentally discovered the secret of life. Every day since then she has worked to forget it.

It was only a year of her life, one year that took place ages ago. Yet the experience still flutters against her heart. It’s like a moth that has gotten tucked away into a box of sweaters. Years later you reopen the box only to find that the moth has chewed the sweaters into shreds, then vanished in a smear of dust.

“But why a nurse?” Abby had once demanded, peering down from the heights of adolescence from which she could see that everything Della did was wrong. “And why Vietnam, for God’s sake?”

How many options did Abby imagine a working woman had in those days, when the women’s movement was just a rumor, ridiculed on the evening news? At seventeen, Della had known exactly what her choices were. She could, like her mother, spend her life in restaurants. She could learn to cut hair. She could be a secretary, or a teacher. But that would take years of schooling, and Della could barely afford a semester.

What’s more, something within Della longed to heal and protect. She wanted to earn her living in the service of life itself. She wanted to be a nurse.

The bargain had seemed simple enough at the time. The Army paid for two years of nursing school. In return, they owned her for three years. And where did Abby think the military sent its newly trained nurses back then—to Berkeley, perhaps, to care for the injured protesters?

No ma’am, it was first stop, Long Binh; next stop, Cu Chi. Last stop, forget about humanity and hold on to your sanity.

If you can.

Della believes Abby never would have made such a bargain. She probably would have been an antiwar activist, flinging tear gas canisters back at the police. Abby has a life that allows her to make choices, even mistakes, secure that there will be a margin of safety to protect her.

But no one could provide Della with that kind of life. So she began her adulthood sweating in a war zone, surrounded by carnage and courage and pure brutal stupidity. Della knows that if she thinks about it too long—if she thinks about it at all—Vietnam could rise from the dead, obliterating the sun with its powdery wings.

The letter begins to rattle in her hands, and she notices she’s trembling. It’s only fear, she tells herself. Fear is an old companion, and she understands its many moods. This is not the spiky panic that follows a loud sound late at night. It’s the deep cold dread that sometimes grips Della when she begins to realize exactly what she’s in for. She felt it after Abby was born, the first time she faced three a.m. with a screaming infant she could not comfort. She felt it the day her husband moved out. And she feels it now as Charlene’s letter throws its thin light on all Della has been refusing to see.

She recognizes herself, a trim woman with hazel eyes and chestnut hair dusted with gray, finally ambushed by her own history. Her own anger. Her own nostalgia. Her own bloody shadow, and her nation’s. Her own Vietnam.

Lynn Kanter is the author of the novels The Mayor of Heaven and On Lill Street. Her short stories and essays have appeared in several anthologies. She lives in Washington D.C. and works for a social justice organization.

Her Own Vietnam  explores the lifelong impact of war on a nurse who served in Vietnam, and now struggles to make peace with her history as the nation prepares for a new war in Iraq. The author, Lynn Kanter, didn’t serve in Vietnam; in fact, she marched against the war. But through Internet research and scores of personal conversations, she discovered a hidden subculture of women veterans whose experiences informed and inspired Her Own Vietnam. The novel is now seeking a publishing home.

Photos courtesy of Freeimages.co.uk


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