The Gulf of Love
A Rick Beck Story
Editor: Jerry W.
After a while I grew accustomed to Ivan being gone and I stopped expecting him to come home.
When Ivan came home unexpectedly, things got tricky. It was even trickier now. My life had its own momentum. With Ivan came turmoil.
I had too much responsibility to let his absence be the most important thing about my life. I needed a game plan if we intended to stay together.
“Find your brother and come home, Ivan. It's been long enough,” I said. “I don't want to be waiting for the rest of my life for the man I love. It's time to set some limits on this thing.”
“I'm close. I don't mean people close. I'm closing in on where Boris is. I can feel it as clearly as I feel him. When I was in Vietnam in 1976, I stood on the ground where he was wounded. I felt his presence. I felt him struggling to stay alive.”
“You were there? How the hell did you manage that? We bailed out of Vietnam in '75,” I reminded him the official version.
“After finishing my last assignment, that was in '76, they gave me Vietnam. It's what they promised me in 1974. I agreed to work for them if they didn't put me in jail. They agreed to let me go to the battlefield where Boris was wounded once I completed my mission. That's how I know the Russians are real. They kept their word.”
“1974 is the year you stopped coming home,” I said disagreeably.
“I was in Southeast Asia. It's where the work is, but they kept me away from Vietnam for a long while. I learned to speak fair Cambodian. I can hold my own with Vietnamese now, and my French is good. You'd think you are in France over there. If you can't find a language every one speaks, you speak French. Everyone speaks their native language and French,” he explained. “So I learned French.”
“French Indochina! The French owned the place,” I said.
“They did until Dien Bien Phuu taught them different,” Ivan said.
“We talked about that once. How the Vietnamese got rid of the French. How did you learn all those languages?”
“Men I was assigned to,” he said. “I've been over there most of the time since 1974. I wasn't able to get home from there. It's why I do come home any time I get close to you.”
“Assigned to?” I asked, wanting to keep the ball rolling.
“The work I do for the company, they do the same work,” he said. “Having someone watch your back is a good idea over there. Having a local working with you helps. They know the lay of the land.”
“Company? We keep going around in circles but you don't give me any details. How am I supposed to know what's going on.”
“It's how I keep you safe, Clay. I know you don't understand, but meeting you out here, where no one sees us, is a safety device. Your not knowing anything about what I do means you can't ask questions about what I do. It's best to listen to what I tell you and accept it as the way things are for a while longer.”
“You don't think... your people know you headed for home as quick as they lose track of you? I'd think that would be exactly what they think,” I reasoned.
“Think but don't know and can't prove. I'm back on the radar before they know I'm off the reservation. This is what I do, meet people who don't mind talking as long as no one else is listening. We talk without the fear that someone is going to show up to find out what's been said. My people aren't the only people in the game.”
“You're a spy?” I observed, saying what I'd been thinking.
“003 and a third I ain't. I'm an asset, Clay. I go where people are talking and I listen,” Ivan explained. “I don't carry a weapon or beat the information out of them. I listen to people who want to talk.”
“You don't record the conversations?” I asked.
“That wouldn't be polite. It would be embarrassing if someone decide to pat me down. A recording device is worse than a weapon.”
“One wouldn't want to break protocol,” I said.
“No, one wouldn't, and getting caught doing it might be unhealthy. On the other hand, I'm an asset because I can recite verbatim a conversation with someone who has useful information. I report these conversations to my superiors. That's all I do.”
“You should have been a straight A student in school,” I said, not remembering his memory but remembering he was way smart.
“Remembering requires listening. I listen to the conversations, because it's my job. I didn't listen so much in class, because it was boring.”
“Sounds like you're spying,” I reiterated.
“That's harsh, Clay. I'm doing things for my government I never thought I'd do, but they had me by the short hairs. I don't think a prison uniform would become me. Then there would be no visits home for ten years.”
“I see your point. Why do people feel so free to talk in front of you? I didn't think Americans were highly thought of in that region.”
“Being nondescript, especially in the places where I'm an asset, I blend in with the locals. Dark hair, dark eyes, small frame. It's how you'd look if you were from there.”
“Not that small,” I said, patting his hand.
“And that makes me an asset to you,” he said, smiling across the table at me. “That's if you're into that sort of thing.”
“Oh, I am,” I reassured him.
“All the more reason for me to come home and stay out of prison when I can.”
“Absolutely,” I said. “You were saying what an asset you are.”
“When I tan, I'm colored similarly to most of the people in Southeast Asia. No one looks at me twice to see if I accomplish that with a little bit of sunshine. When I rattle off a few well spoken words in their language, I'm in like Flynn,” he explained. “Maybe Bruce Lee.”
“I bet you are,” I said. “Did you learn Kung Fu?”
“No, I neither have the time nor the desire.”
“Better stick with Flynn then.”
“I am tall, which isn't typical, but it isn't rare either. I'm just one of the guys and I sure do listen good. I speak when spoken to and I don't ask questions. Being a good listener, as I am, and people liking to talk, as they do, makes me a real big asset, not a spy. I wouldn't know how to spy on anyone.”
“Yes, and you're a big asset to me too, except when you aren't around, which makes it hard, because no one has an asset that big.”
“It can't be helped for the time being, Clay. I'm here now. You can make me feel bad about it if you want or we can make the most of it. We have a little more time.”
“Yes, but action without purpose is pointless, my love. I need to know where we're going, Ivan. I want to know you're really coming home to stay and be an asset to me again. If this just a pit stop along the road of life, I want you to tell me.”
He watched me, listening to what I was saying. We hadn't moved from where we sat down with our sodas, after my call to Pop. We'd started to get somewhere, but we'd started before, and when we were done, I still didn't know where I stood. I'd do my best to avoid that outcome this time.
“Can I have another root beer? This is my favorite brand. You can't get good root beer over there. It's all crap. Tastes like medicine. Another root beer and I'll get you up to date and you can judge if I'm on the way home to become your asset sooner than later.”
I came back with two bottles of root beer and a specimen jar filled with ice. He laughed. I sat down with my Pepsi. He wasted no time getting down to business.
“They gave me Vietnam after I finished my last assignment. I didn't tell you because I didn't want you to worry. They brought me someone familiar with where I wanted to go.. It's where he agreed to take me after learning why I wanted to go there. I wanted to see the battlefield.”
“How convenient. Isn't being in Vietnam dangerous?” I asked.
“It isn't healthy for Vietnamese who helped the Americans keep Vietnam divided for so long. They were punished. Sent them to reeducation camps to get their minds right.”
“What we have here is a failure to communicate?” I said.
“Actually, they're communicating just fine. The country was reunited. The people are back to being peasants. The bars, brothels, and such that made the country into little America are gone. Anti-government activities aren't allowed.”
“They threaten to send them to America if they don't behave?”
“Very funny. The man I was assigned to knew the battle where Boris was wounded. We went there so I could be where it happened.”
“That must have been weird,” I said.
“That's one word for it. We met a family of farmers on our way there. They reluctantly agreed to talk to me. They were peasants from a nearby village. They strongly suspected I was an American.”
“That must have been some meeting,” I said.
“Yes, it was. You could see the suspicion. They didn't look me straight in the eye and they mostly looked at their sandals. Once they understood that I was an American, there was a lot of bowing. It was best not to lie to them. They're quite perceptive people.
“Being American isn't particularly beneficial in Southeast Asia these days. I suspect they looked at me the way the Aztecs may have looked at Cortez.”
“You saying we're the Conquistadors? Quite an image. Didn't they destroy the Aztec?” I asked.
“We killed millions of Vietnamese, all in the name of peace of course. We left the country and our allies in ruin, not unlike the Conquistadors did. And conveniently, the winners write the history, so we get to hear how glorious the battle and how heroic the warriors.”
“No doubt they'd have made a movie about it if they'd invented electricity sooner,” I said.
“When the people in power decide they need to teach someone a lesson, you best look busy.”
“Those Masters of War are so predictable,” I said.
“And you wouldn't believe how many times over those masters can destroy the world,” Ivan said.
“You know this how?” I asked.
“When you work over there, it's a common topic of conversation. I work for the people who would do the destroying if they were told to. They collect information and they know exactly who they'd nuke.”
“That's more than I can wrap my brain around. You were in Vietnam and...? Feel free to fill in the blanks. I've never been.”
“We were standing outside this couple's hooch. It's some pretty rugged ground mind you. I'm taking it all in and my handler is doing his best to explain who I am and why I'm there, keeping it simple.
“He talks. They watch me out of the corner of their eyes, like I might be looking for a baby to eat. I'm not even hungry.
“They were listening carefully, being respectful, but they were plenty worried. Americans with Vietnamese men had paid them visits before. The conversation was getting us nowhere. So I step up, give them my most respectful bow, and I explain about Boris being wounded and he is now missing. I wanted to find him.
“I expected we'd be leaving any minute after that, but their demeanor changed. They weren't falling down with joy over me being there, but they got it. I wanted their help. It made a difference.
“The Vietnamese are nice people. Not to help a stranger would be bad manners. The couple talked among themselves. They seemed to be arguing. They talked way too fast for me to catch anything they were saying.”
“They'd been speaking Vietnamese a lot longer than you have,” I said.
“They had. Then they began bowing again, almost smiled, and we were invited in for tea. A lot of good business is done over tea in those countries. We sat politely waiting for the tea, after the woman excused herself to go make it. The husband excused himself, going back outside.
“Actually he went to get his son out of the rice paddy you can't see from their house. That's what they argued about. Did they want their son and the American in the same hooch at the same time? That's a guess, but we're working on the premise they want to help and the son was at the battle too where Boris was wounded. He might have information that could be useful. That's my read on it.”
“Small world isn't it?” I said.
“Yes it is,” he said. “Most of those people in the hills fought when the fighting came to them. There's an AK-47 in every hooch. Boris' unit was ambushed by North Vietnamese Army regulars. The couple's son worked as a scout for the NVA. Knowing the area he guided the NVA into an advantageous position.
“The mother served the tea. The father was back, looking relieved. The man I arrived with looked uneasy. He knew the father went for the son and no telling if he had that AK-47 handy. He suggested I show them a picture of Boris. While the couple looked at the picture, he watched their faces.
“I keep a picture of Boris in my wallet. It's one that would pass for me. It's quite effective. The couple looked at it closely. They looked at me closely. They didn’t need to ask why I was searching for him,” Ivan said.
“Close up there are subtle differences between the two of you,” I said. “In a picture no one could tell you apart.”
“They exchanged a comment I didn't get. Then the son steps into the room. He doesn't look any older than me.
“He says in English, 'I look.'”
“I handed him the picture and he looked at it. Then he looked at me. He hadn't heard any of the previous conversation. I don't know what his father told him. The mother brings the son a cup of tea and we sit in a circle pondering our belly buttons.
“'Brother?' the son asks in English, after he drinks some tea.”
“Yes, he was wounded near here in August 1968. He's been missing since then. I've only recently been allowed to enter Vietnam.
According to the map I have, your farm is close to where the battle was fought. We were on the way to the battlefield when we stopped.”
“He said, 'I remember battle. We fight two... maybe three day. I no fight. I scout. Know area. I take. Show where.'”
He was unemotional about it and I jumped at the chance to see where Boris was wounded. He was surprisingly open and informative. I wouldn't call him friendly. He didn't mind telling me what he knew. They were nice people.”
“I'd expect some hostility after what we did to them,” I said.
“They're glad we're gone. They've moved on,” Ivan said. “That was my read on it. As we walked the several kilometers, I told him what Boris' friends told me. He was wounded but alive. Their position was overrun. They withdrew and then returned. After a search, his unit withdrew. He was recorded as an official MIA.”
“'No prisoner,' the son said. 'I see prisoners. None look like you,” he said. 'I no look at dead.'”
“You were with the North Vietnamese Army?” I asked. “'No, Americans call me VC,” the son said. 'Father VC. We VC village. We farmer. No VC.'”
“What did you call us?” I asked, wanting to lighten the mood. He looked at me and smiled. Then he laughed. He didn't tell me. “'War over. You go home. You American now.'”
“”You Vietnamese now. No VC,' I told him.”
“Why can't it be that simple,” I said.
“Because that would be simple,” Ivan said. “We like complicating things. Anyway, we were invited to eat with them. Good manners had us accepting their kind offer.”
“As we became more comfortable with each other, the son talked of Americans being seen in Cambodia and Laos. It's the first time I'd heard that. We were in northwest Vietnam. The other borders weren't that far. A wounded man could make it out of Vietnam if he wasn't hurt too seriously. That was good information to know,” Ivan said. “It opened up my mind to the possibility the NVA was between him and his unit. By going west, he'd have reached Cambodia.”
“Because of what I learned, I believe the Russian traders are real. When I went to Vietnam, my people put no restrictions on me. I was free to go where I wanted and do what I had to do. Of course the Vietnamese didn't get a say in the matter.”
“Nice folks,” I said.
“I don't need to know what my people do with the information I bring them, but they've always kept their word. I kept mine. It's good business,” Ivan said. “If I didn't do it, someone else would.”
“But not as well as you,” I said.
“No, not nearly as well as me,” he agreed, swishing the ice and root beer in his specimen jar.
He leaned forward on his arms to kiss me across the table. It had the desired affect. It wasn't going to take my mind off the questions I wanted to ask. I'd been waiting for years to get this kind of opportunity.
I kissed him back, moving out of range. Keeping my head clear.
“It's getting dark. We have time, and then I'll be on my way,” he said, letting me see he was ready to rock and roll if I was.
Being ready was no longer enough.
“You were saying there are people who have seen Boris?” I said with a measure of suspicion in my voice. “Let's talk about that.”
“The Russians,” he said, taking his seat and sipping his soda. “They've identified Boris to my people's satisfaction. They trade throughout Southeast Asia, but when people like the Russians do you favors, you give them plenty of latitude. They're excellent assets. It's how my people keep up to date on the ebb and flow in the region.”
“I don't get it. Why don't we just mind our own business and let the people in the region take care of their own ebb and flow? Aren't the Russians all commies, sworn enemies of the right and righteous?” I asked, having never heard anything but that since I was five.
“They're men making a living, Clay. Politics aren't what most people's lives are about. They have access Americans can't get. They hear things regular assets may not hear,” Ivan said.
“Maybe if we didn't kill so many of the people over there, we'd have more people who talk to us,” I said. “Questioning people at the point of a gun may not produce reliable information.”
“People like the Russians aren't beyond selling information. Since they know my people, they've probably done business,” Ivan said.
“Which brings me back to the idea that the Russians know your people. Your people want something out of you. The Russians conveniently happen to have what you want. Convenient.”
“Yes, but it's what this is all about. I've got to go where the information takes me. It's all I've got.”
“The Russians being our enemy, and with all the nukes pointed at each other, I worry about their veracity,” I said.
“Propaganda for the proletariat. All Russians are commies. The Vietnamese are gooks. We're just good old boys trying to protect our freedom,” Ivan said.
“You're saying it's bogus? The Russians really aren't commies?”
“The Russians are just people, as are the Vietnamese. They're like us, you and me. They'd like to live their lives in peace. Our governments aren't about to let that happen.”
“Why are we still over there? We left in '75. I watched them pushing helicopters off that aircraft carrier.”
“The people who watch the world for our government are still there. It just isn't men in uniforms. I'm living proof. We're everywhere, you know.”
“Kind of like crab grass,” I said.
“Harsh, Clay. We're protecting America's freedom.”
“I don't get it. Why don't we just mind our own business? Who are we to tell people what kind of government we'll allow them to have?”
“Fighting the Vietnam War here isn't going to accomplish anything. People who have power do what they do because they have the power to do it. It's not complicated.”
“You still believe he's alive after all this time?” I asked. “Why haven't we heard from him?”
“More than ever. I feel him more strongly now.”
“In late 1973 I got caught over there without any documents.
I had to do what I was told to stay out of prison. I haven't gone over to the dark side, but I've seen what they do. You might say, the company made me an offer I didn't dare refuse, Clay.”
“Tell me about the Russians. Where do they fit in? We're doing business with our enemies. It's confusing.”
“They're giving me two Russian traders. They've seen what they say are American soldiers in the vicinity of Vietnam; not in Vietnam.”
“Your people say,” I said.
“They promised to put me in touch with the Russians if I took one more assignment. I did that and I'm meeting the Russians in Cambodia three days from now. They claim to have seen Boris in a Laotian fishing village somewhere along the Mekong.”
“Fishing village? That's rich. I'm glad you trust them,” I said.
“it's almost over, Clay. I've paid my debt to the devil. Now I'm going to get my brother. Give me a year, but I doubt it'll take that long.”
“I'll keep my knickers on until the end of next year. I won't make any promises after that, Ivan. I've waited long enough,” I said. “Find your brother and come home. It's all I ask.”
“The Russians represent the road to Boris,” he assured me. “Then I'll be home. Realize Boris is missing from a U.S. Army unit. He'll have to deal with them before I can bring him home.”
He patted my hand. He'd said what he had to say. Our time had run out on this visit.
As much as I hated to see him go, he would leave soon. I recognized the signs.
As quick as I docked the Sea Lab, Ivan would be in the wind. There was no telling when I'd see him again.
“I bet Pop was surprised to see you,” I said, as I surveyed the bridge, ready to raise the anchor and get underway.
Ivan stood behind me with his arms around me. I set course for the cove. Daylight was fading. It was dark at the marina already but the light in the western skies over the Gulf remained visible.
The water was smooth as glass. We ran at three quarter throttle.
“I've got to be in Miami tonight. It isn't getting any earlier. I have arrangements to make.”
“You need to meet Dylan,” I said.
“You forget all those nights I was there while he was screaming at the top of his lungs. I've met your son.”
“He's nine years old. He doesn't scream any more. He is a big part of my life.”
His lips brushed under my right ear, sending chills through me.
“I'll meet him my next time home. I'll bring earplugs.”
“He's smart and he's at the center of my life, Ivan. You've been gone a long time. Things will be different when you come back.”
“We'll deal with that when the time comes,” he said, kissing the nape of my neck.
I knew what he wanted but he needed to get to Miami.
“He remembers you from when he was five. He woke up when you put him in his bed one night. He's asked about you.”
“A five year old doesn't remember some stranger he's never seen before,” Ivan assured me.
“He remembers you. Asked me who you were. The picture of us on my bedside stand told him who you were. He didn't ask why you put him in his own bed, but I wouldn't be surprised if the subject comes up after you two meet officially.”
“At five? He remembers that? I hardly remember that. At five he was already all arms and legs.”
“At five,” I said. “I told you he's smart.”
“Why is a five year old kid sleeping in his father's bed anyway?” Ivan asked.
“His mother is dead. I'm all he's got. If he needs to climb into my bed at night because he's scared or lonely, so be it. I don't want him feeling alone. He does what he wants to do.”
“Ouch!” Ivan said. “He still sleeps in your bed if he wants?”
“From time to time he gets in my bed. Not very often these days. I think he wants to know he still can if he wants to. I never say anything about it when I get him up to go to school. It's no big deal.”
“Because Sunshine left him before he knew her?” Ivan asked.
“I'd say that's at the bottom of it. Mama and Lucy give him all kinds of attention, but they aren't his mother,” I said. “I'm the one he wants to spend his time with and I have the kind of job that keeps us together a lot when he isn't in school.”
“How the hell high are we up here? I can see Cuba. It's right over there,” Ivan said, pointing southeast.
“The bridge is twenty-four feet above the hull of the craft. The engine compartment and crew quarters are in a space eight feet high. The galley and the auxiliary lab are on the second deck and are another eight feet high. The third deck is the main laboratory, also eight more feet up to this deck with the bridge. We. We're maybe twenty feet above the water. Give me a nice view.”
“This thing is bigger than Dad's boat,” Ivan said, checking the instruments.
“Higher but not as long. Your father needs all that room behind him for the fish holds. We have one deck built on top of another. The bridge is the fourth deck. Our main purpose is marine biology, when Harry isn't using it to impress donors.”
“You sure have come up in the world, Mr. Olson. I remember that insecure fourteen year old kid who used to follow me around. Now look at you,” he said. “Captain Olson of the good ship Sea Lab.”
“I learned everything I know from you,” I said with admiration in my voice. “If not for you hard to say where I'd be.”
“You don't give yourself enough credit, Clay. I may have led you to the water's edge, but from the first time we went out on my father's boat, your future was in the sea. You got where you are without my help.”
“Hard to believe it was a straight line from there to here. One day I was pulling fishing nets on the Vilnius Two and now I'm a marine biologist working off the Sea Lab.”
“I'm proud of you. When I think of all I missed out on, watching you make something of yourself, I know it's time to come home.”
“Thank you, Ivan. That's a nice thing to say.”
At the entrance to the cove, I cut back on the throttles and the engines rumbled under us. The water gurgled loudly near the exhaust.
“I need to get dressed. I'll make you a promise. Once I find Boris, I'm going to make up for lost time. I'm going to make you so sick of me, you'll want me to take a trip somewhere. I'll never leave you again, Clayton Olson.”
It was all I could do to keep from collapsing in tears. It's the kind of thing I'd wanted to hear for a long time, but I wasn't a boy any longer. I'd wait. I had no alternative, but it wouldn't be easy.
“I wish you luck, Ivan. Find your brother and come home. We'll see if we can't put something back together again, but first you need to get your pants on.”
Ivan set my air tanks in the trunk of my car as we stood in the empty parking lot of the marina.
“You've really taken care of Teddy's car,” Ivan said, standing back to admire it under the light pole near the pier.
“He drives a Cadillac now,” I said. “He laughed when I offered to give it back to him. He owns a business in Orlando and has four kids.”
“That's right, he's Teddy Olson again. Carter did good,” Ivan said. “I'm glad Teddy caught a break. I thought of him when I heard Carter was letting the war resistors come home.”
“Yes, he did. Good men often do good things,” I said.
I held both of his hands and looked into his eyes as we stood between our cars. I stared at the man who had grown up in Ivan's skin. He was ruggedly handsome. He oozed manliness. The smell of him penetrated to my loins. Pure Ivan intoxicated me to the core and I did love him so.
I wanted to grab him, hold him, never let go.
His hands gently swallowed mine. We looked at each other like two teenagers back from our first date.
There was so much I had to say.
“I'd stand here all night just to smell you, but you've got to go. You've got places to go and fish to fry, and my son's waiting for his daddy. Good luck, Ivan. I hope I'll see you again.”
Having already opened my door, I slid into the driver's seat. He stayed next to my door, leaning those manly hands on the open window, unable to break the connection.
I needed to get away from him now. I wanted to escape. The tears weren't far from my eyes.
I fumbled with my keys to start the Chevy.
The worst days of my life were the best days, when Ivan came home. The entire time I knew he was going to leave me again.
It's a pain I lived with. I was resigned to it. This time it was even worse.
I tried to start the engine again, grinding the starter against the running engine.
He was still leaning on the car door window when I shifted into reverse, looking behind me.
I backed out and left him standing there. I was going to cry and he wasn't going to see it. The tears were flowing before the Chevy's tires hit the highway. I didn't look back.
My vision became blurred by the time I rounded the curve that pointed me towards home. I eased the car to the shoulder to stop.
I cried. It was ten minutes to the house but I'd be a long time getting home tonight.
Ivan came home today.
This is how it was when Ivan came home. He left me feeling empty. He left me feeling drained. He left me one more time.
I'd cried a lot of tears since the first time he left me.