The vanilla apple tobacco mix is delicious. The hummus, grape leaves and falafel are not. It’s the worst Middle Eastern food I’ve ever had, but Lara and I keep eating between drags.
“Hookahs in Nashville. Didn’t see that coming.” Lara passes the mouthpiece to me and exhales.
She’s right. I don’t remember one hookah bar in the city ten, maybe even five, years ago. Lately, they’ve been popping up like coffeehouses in the nineties. Lara and I are pretty new to the social smoking scene, but I’ve already decided I like it. There’s a certain tranquil, connecting rhythm to accepting the mouthpiece, inhaling, exhaling, offering the mouthpiece.
And I like the looks of our hookah. It’s a regal machine with its golden ashtray tapering into the emerald stem and the royal blue water chamber at the bottom, ornate with floral patterns. The mouthpiece, emerald as well, is fashioned into billows and spheres that are as much about grip as aesthetics. The tin foil sealing the tobacco in the bowl at the top and the black-gray hose sprouting from the grommet on the side are utilitarian breaks from the hookah’s overall luster. Still, I can’t help but think the contraption is the most beautiful water bong I’ve ever seen.
“This one’s dedicated to ORCHIDLUV87.” Lara is reading from the large, flat screen television against the wall. Random messages scroll right to left in ticker fashion below music videos for songs with Eastern melodies and Arabic lyrics. At least once during each song, an ad with a phone number fades into the upper left corner of the screen asking viewers to send text dedications for fifty cents per message.
I relax back into the cushion of the long couch against the wall next to our table and wait for ORCHIDLUV87 to respond. We go three more rounds with the hookah before it comes.
ORCHIDLUV87: luv u vespa_boi_420! MUAH!
Lara leans toward me with her arms on the table. “Hey, you know… I’ve got something else we can smoke. But we’ll have to go somewhere.”
“Don’t you use that for your pain? By the way, how is that?”
“I do, but I don’t mind sharing. It’s the same. Neck, shoulders. Sometimes worse; other times better. Always there.”
“I can’t eat anymore of this hummus, anyway.” I drop the mouthpiece on the table. “We can go back to my place, but it’s a wreck. I still haven’t unpacked.”
“You’ve been back for a month. At least.”
“I don’t know. Maybe I’m not ready to be back.”
Lara shrugs. “I don’t care what your place looks like.”
We pay and Lara follows me home in her car. When we get there, I pretend to use the restroom so I can clean it up some before she needs it. When I come out, she’s sitting cross-legged on the floor with her back against the front of my couch. I drop down next to her and grab the remote from the coffee table.
“When I got back, I mysteriously had all these extra cable channels.” I flip through the selection. “My bill’s the same.”
“Aqua Teen Hunger Force!”
I put down the remote. “Yeah, that’s one I didn’t have before.”
Lara rummages through her backpack until she finds some rolling papers and a small plastic bag half full of leaves and stems. She rolls a perfect joint in less time than it takes me to replace and fill the filter in my coffee maker. She lights up, takes a drag and then offers the it to me.
“Nah… That’s all right. I don’t want to use up your medicine.”
“It’s okay. Really.”
After I look at her without accepting, she takes my hand and positions my fingers around the joint. “I want you to relax.”
I hold the end of the rolled paper up to my lips and draw a breath, watching the other end come to life with the fragmented cinder glow of charcoal waiting to die in a summer grill.
We pass the joint a few times without speaking. Then I start to feel chatty.
“You know, years ago, when I first tried weed, someone told me about how sometimes you’re more sensitive to touch when you’re high.”
“Yeah?” Lara drops some ashes into a soy sauce dish on my end table.
“So, one night I had been home alone smoking while watching TV and eating a pizza.”
Lara raises an eyebrow. “That’s a little sad.”
“Yeah. Well, I started thinking about the whole skin sensitivity thing. Then I found myself staring down the jagged crust end of a slice I barely could remember eating. I thought, ‘You know, this crust might feel really good if I rubbed it across my lips.’ So, I did.”
I stare at the joint in my hand, thinking of the pizza crust. When I don’t hear Lara for several seconds, I look over. She’s fallen to her side on the hardwood floor and is doubled up with her knees against her chest. She’s laughing so hard that she’s making no sound. Finally, she sits back up after what seems like, but I’m certain isn’t, fifteen minutes.
“So, how did it feel?” Lara asks between giggles.
“Pretty good. No. It felt fantastic.”
Lara snorts, hands me the joint and coughs a little.
“You really haven’t unpacked,” she says, pointing at the suitcases on the floor across from us, next to the TV.
She rolls up on her knees and slides the largest suitcase over then drops back against the couch. I try to hand her the joint, but she’s busy unzipping the luggage and rummaging through the contents like it’s her own backpack. She holds up a flattened, yellow rose.
“We visited a school and the children gave each of us a rose,” I explain.
“I thought there were laws about bringing plants back from other countries.”
“I wasn’t sure I could get it through customs in LA. The agent who searched my bags picked it up, asked me where I had been. When I told him ‘Vietnam,’ he gently placed it back in my suitcase and told me to take care not to damage it.”
Lara smiles, puts the rose back and rifles through the bag more.
“What’s this?” A pair of square, cardboard glasses with one green and one red lens falls out of a magazine-sized book she lifts from the clutter.
“I bought that in a gift shop in Huế. It’s a 3D picture book of Hội An, a town we visited earlier in the trip.”
Lara puts on the glasses and thumbs through the pages, pausing occasionally. “Is this where your father was?”
“He was farther south during the war. Near Saigon.
“It’s like floating through the city in a dream. Look.”
I trade Lara the joint for the book and straighten the glasses against the bridge of my nose. I turn the pages slowly, moving through black and white images of street vendors, rooftops and children, all deeper than the page and with a green red aura. Ladies in conical hats are forever squatting on sidewalks behind the basket of fruit they were selling. Boats float motionless on top of the same water that stands with no current beneath the Japanese Covered Bridge on another page. Missing are the hundreds of scooters, bicycles and motorbikes that fill the dusty streets of Hội An during the day and early night. But I can hear the engine sounds, passing with a buzz and stirring of wind, and the nonstop sound of horns, staccato and insistent. The ghost sounds bring a feeling of motion to the moment-trapping photographs. It’s subtle, but I feel it and I’m having trouble keeping it from resonating beyond the book, past my shoulders and into the room.
Maybe she feels it, too, or maybe we’re both just relaxed, but Lara and I lean against each other, shoulder to shoulder, and extend our legs in front of us with our knees raised and bent. Lara pushes against me a little.
“When I leave, I want you to do something for me.”
“What’s that,” I ask.
“I want you to take a long, warm shower. Really feel the water on your skin.”
I think about this. Then I think about how we’re so close that I can feel Lara’s blond curls against my ear and neck. I can still taste the lousy hummus, but now it’s mixed with that of the pot. The apartment smells like a carnival. No, more like a street festival. After what feels like fifteen minutes, but I’m fairly sure isn’t, I answer, “Okay.”
Lara hugs me as she lifts herself off the floor. She checks her backpack and zips it. I get up and follow her to the door, mumble a goodbye and wave as she walks to her car.
After locking the door, I walk to the bathroom and turn the hot and cold handles of the bathtub faucet. I drop my clothes where I’m standing and adjust the water until it’s hot, but bearable. After starting the shower, I step into the tub and pull the curtain closed. I grasp the towel rack and lean forward so that the hot water hits my back.
My skin is aware of every drop landing with a split-second electric pulse that sends a thousand charges through me. I shift my grip and posture until I can rest my face against the frame of my arms, relaxing my body even more. I close my eyes and sleep is a threat, but the steady, warm spray of water on my back keeps me awake enough to save me from falling.
I feel the steam rise around me and my arms become the circular pillow of a massage bed at a hotel in Huế, where the masseuse, whose name means “Rose,” straddles the back of my legs. The unrelenting beating of the water becomes her cupped hands, slapping my back just hard enough to keep me from completely dozing off. I hear her imitate the occasional, rogue snore that escapes me. A stream of water runs down my face, along my upper lip, and I feel a tissue gently pushed against my nose with a sweet, soft “Excuse me.”
I don’t remember shutting off the water. I don’t remember stepping out of the tub. I stumble into my room and onto my bed. I hear the traffic outside – I always can – but tonight it sounds like nothing but motorcycles on the street in front of my apartment. “Maybe there’s a convention,” I tell myself. I lie on my back and close my eyes. I start to sleep, but the motorcycles outside keep sounding their horns. Continuous, short bursts, fading in and out as they pass.
When I open my eyes again, Rose is standing over me. She pours perfumed oil from a bottle into her palm, rubs her hands together, then over my chest and stomach. The ceiling fan is turning, but I don’t remember switching it on. When Rose is finished, when I’m finished, she leans across me, her black, straight ponytail falling on her shoulder, and softly kisses my cheek.
I can barely hear myself when I thank her.
“Không có chi,” she whispers.
As sleep finally takes me, I see Rose lift her finger to her lips.