Biên Hòa, Vietnam: 1969
After a week of trying to stomach the gnaw of a toothache, my father checks himself into the dental clinic on base. X-rays and an oral exam reveal an abscess rotting his back molar. The dentist refers to the defective tooth by a number and pumps a pedal to lower the chair in which my father is reclining. He explains anesthesia was expected to arrive weeks ago. The extraction will have to be performed without it. It’s a quickie, the dentist says from behind a lilac paper mask.
The extraction itself is effortless. It is the open, throbbing socket that nauseates my father. His tongue collides with the textured grid of gauze used to dam the blood. As he leaves the clinic in a haze, he gags on the taste of iron and fears swallowing the rest of his teeth.
In the barracks, my father stumbles into bed to sleep off the dizziness. Blood is beginning to shrink the gauze into a prune. He sets himself on his shoulder, careful to avoid choking when he loses consciousness.
Within moments, he is dreaming of walking home from the mess hall. Cloaked in quietude, he hears what sounds like an approaching aircraft. He glances up in time to see a hail of bombs spraying the base. A hundred feet ahead, his friend Marco erupts like a piñata. All that remains of him is two legs running into the night.
My father stirs himself awake. Clutched in his arms is a pillow soaked in blood. Disoriented and pained, he’s convinced he was injured by the barrage of bombs but managed to crawl indoors. This is where his life will end, he concludes. He tries to conjure the curve of my mother’s neck and breasts mid-laugh, the way she pronounces Manuel like it’s the name of an extraordinary planet.
A shriveled knot of gauze protrudes over his bottom lip like a sick cigarette.
Tokyo, Japan: 1970
My father and his buddy Gerald find themselves in the Shinjuku district of Tokyo. They are enjoying two days of Army leave with the duplicitous intent of buying their sweethearts fine jewelry and visiting strip clubs.
Gerald, a native Nebraskan, and my father consider themselves the most attractive men in their unit. They roam halogen lit streets, devouring new forms of technology with their eyes, uncertain what half the billboards suspended in the sky advertise.
My father announces that he needs to find pearls and garnets for his girlfriend, my future mother. Before his deployment, my father surprised my mother with a garnet pendant and a promise to return sane and sound.
Huddled around a window display of diamond earrings, vintage wristwatches, jade bangles, and pearl tennis bracelets, the two men consider their options.
Gerald isn’t sure about his girlfriend’s favorite stones. Does she prefer gold or silver, my father asks.
Gerald shrugs before admitting, “Me and Shana only dated a few weeks before I got shipped off to basic training…”
“You can’t go wrong with pearls,” my father stresses.
Through no coincidence, my father and Gerald share a birthday and were drafted through the selective service lottery. Bad luck marched them out of small-town America into countries they had only glimpsed on the backside of globes.
They duck into a ramen shop and sit side by side at the counter. Instead of chopsticks, they use porcelain spoons, but struggle to maneuver the noodles into their mouths.
“What the fuck are we doing here?” Gerald asks, dropping his spoon into the large bowl in front of him.
My father reminds him of the lap dances they’ll enjoy later that night, the treasure trove of gifts they’ll take home, but most importantly that they’re over 2,500 miles away from the enemy.
“Eat up,” my father says, because the least they can be is full.
Ursula Villarreal-Moura‘s writing has appeared in Washington Square, New South, Bennington Review, Hobart, Nashville Review, and LUMINA, among others. Her nonfiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and one of her stories was long-listed for Best American Short Stories 2015. On Twitter, she’s @Ursulaofthebook.