Jane Messer

Some Woman Doing Crazy Dancing

Delayed at Melbourne airport more than three hours they’d drifted between chairs, food vendors and the duty free shops. Eleni had used these hours of forced cheer to worry that if she put aside injury or death, the worst that could happen was that Josh and Lucas wouldn’t enjoy themselves and would blame her for the rest of their lives.

They were twins. Lucas was sturdy and curly-haired, Josh skinny and black-haired. In the long check-in queue at the airport, Lucas had turned to her and whispered, ‘Everyone’s Asian, Mum.’ She’d said, ‘That’s because we’re going to Vietnam.’

Before she’d paid for the tickets, talking through the proposed itinerary to the boys, Josh had said, ‘But there’s a war there, Mum! The Vietnam War.’

Eleni had nodded. She could see how that misunderstanding could happen, the phrase still very much around them, in the zeitgeist. ‘That war ended more than fifty years ago.’ She laughed a little. ‘As if I’d take you somewhere where there’s a war!’ Wasn’t she taking them away from the conflict, the war between their parents?

She’d never been anywhere in southeast Asia herself, other than stopovers at Changi Airport. She thought of her flamboyant friend Dionne, who’d applauded her choice of destination, but whose very admiration had suggested risk. She had then felt a panic that any mother alone with two ten-year-old’s might feel at embarkation. Horrified with herself for choosing to be adventurous, and for the responsibilities that lay ahead to please and keep them safe.

On boarding, the stewards seated them efficiently, and the seats were not as uncomfortable as Eleni had expected.  Steaming white cloths were handed out. Listening to Abba’s ‘The Winner Takes It All’ playing over, and over again, on the airline PA while they waited to taxi out, Eleni’s anxiety that she had made a grand error of judgement taking herself and the twins to a developing Asian nation eased slightly.

Long before she’d met their father Rick, she had been standing with her parents for what felt like hours at the Manhattan ferry terminal. Amongst the great mass of people, crowded together in the vast, dark hangar without toilets, refreshments, guides, or explanation, they’d inched forward step by step to the ferry that was to take them across the water to Stanton Island. Her father Konstantinos, a post-war child refugee, had turned to Eleni and said with a wry smile, ‘This is what it’s like being a refugee! You don’t know, not when, or exactly where. You shuffle and wait.’ Her mother Maria flicked her hand and said, ‘No, this is much slower.’ Sombrely pleased with her joke.

Now, tidying her seat pocket which was bulging from phone, glasses, wipes and iPad, Eleni said to Lucas, ‘Did you know that Connor’s mum was born in South Vietnam?’ Connor was Lucas’s best friend. ‘She sailed to Australia on a crowded small boat with her parents and brothers, across vast seas. It was a very dangerous trip.’

‘Was Connor on the boat too?’ Lucas asked.

‘No. Linh came as a child in the 1970s. I think she was nine.’

‘Will there be snorkelling?’ asked Josh.

‘No, lots of bicycling though,’ she said, which cheered them up no end.

The Travel-With-Kids agent had suggested Fiji, Vanuatu, Hayman Island and Club Med Noumea. These were the places favoured by other single mothers, the travel agent had told her. But Eleni had no intention of raising resort children. She’d wanted to come to Vietnam with the boys so they could all know it better. There was so much history between the two nations. Vietnam was also affordable and, Linh had assured her, child friendly.

This was her first holiday since the separation, the clincher that it really was over, the whole kit and kaboodle of marriage dumped, unrecyclable, ammo disgorged. Rick had left the family home six months earlier complaining that their marriage had plateaued, with her feebly protesting that love was companionship, her morning hair dishevelled, her nightie ragged and unappealing. They were standing in the bedroom. Rick had woken and dressed early. She’d whispered, trying to keep her voice down to not wake the kids, ‘That’s what usually happens after fifteen years, things plateau.’ Stalemate, she knew, was a weak defence.

And now here she was having the adventure of a lifetime with Lucas and Josh. Rick had paid for the trip, generously sending them far away. Later in the year, much to Eleni’s surprise, worse, producing an anguish that would wake her each night in great swathes of nausea, Rick would fly to the Gold Coast with his younger, equestrian girlfriend Claire and the boys, to spend buckets of money at a five-star resort; scuba-diving, powerboating, at theme parks and other child-thrilling activities. Eleni would be saying to her friends that he’d probably paid the girlfriend’s fares, and hoping he didn’t kiss her in front of the boys or lie naked with her on hot nights when Josh came in overheated from a nightmare. But probably, there would be air-conditioning. Probably, Josh wouldn’t have a nightmare, of if he did, he’d suffer it bravely until morning. Vacillating alone between horror and worry was the aftermath of the plateau.

Rick had met Claire over the internet, Eleni had found that much out, where connection was fast, close to instantaneous. Rick had said Eleni made him feel middle-aged. ‘That’s because you are middle-aged, Rick,’ she’d said, perplexed. ‘We were born in the last century!’

The same century that her baby uterus had produced the two eggs that later became the boys. Wasn’t she then, a heritage item, something Rick should have treasured?

Still on the Melbourne runway, watching the stewards point out the evacuation routes, Eleni bent her head to answer Josh who was whispering anxiously. Yes, they would be flying over the ocean, but they’d not need to use the rafts. Take-off would be soon. The boys had not been overseas before. Eleni wiped her hands until the washcloth was cold, massaging her cuticles, pushing the cloth in under her nails. Josh leant across her to see out the window, his long hair flopping into her face. Lucas kept wriggling and rearranging; she would be earning every cent that the trip had cost Rick.  The second worst thing that could happen was that she’d shout at them, ‘I wish we’d never come!’ She didn’t, however, wish she were still married.

Rick must have known this: that change is painful, but if you just hurtle at it, like running into the sea before summer has begun, you get used to the biting cold, and before the numbness has set in you’ve caught a wave and you’re congratulating yourself on your vitality. He’d rushed in; she’d been pushed overboard. She’d sunk like a stone-not-skipping, down, down, down those first months.

‘I feel so dried-up and used,’ Eleni had wept to a friend over the phone.

‘Water therapy,’ her friend had briskly recommended even though it was winter, and she’d been complaining about her heating bill.

So, on a sunny day in July Eleni had run across the cool, hard morning sand of one of the city beaches, plunging into the mighty cold ocean swell. Swimming beneath the surface, she turned onto her back and saw the sunlight shining brightly through. Wondrous brittle bubbles of air soared from her. When she’d broke through to the surface again, she’d felt a nip of joy.

Shepherding Josh and Lucas many hours of flying later to their connecting flight, Eleni was mother-hen. They bore the transit well, through customs and then bussing across the airport and through more checks, to another bus, a shorter ride, a new plane. Unlike back home in Melbourne, the boys were following her commands diligently. Once reached, their Ha Noi four-and-a-half star hotel wasn’t an extravagance after those thirteen-plus hours of flying.

Waking the next morning, Eleni quietly slid open the door to the balcony. She stepped outside and heard wind in the trees and string instruments. At the park across the road, dozens of men and women were gently moving through their tai chi exercises. Around them, on the streets that surrounded the long park, hundreds of people were riding to work. Motorcycles, cyclos and bikes wove around each other without pause. A bike laden with racks of eggs coasted by. Before they’d left Melbourne, a friend had explained that to cross a road here, you must walk without stopping. To stop was to collide. There would never be a break in the flow of bikes and motorcycles or the honking of horns and tinging of bells. So, you just stepped off and crossed.

That morning, insisting the boys each hold one of her hands, Eleni left the crumbling curb towards the park and walked through the flux of traffic, and arrived on the other side.

It was true of her marriage too, what her friend had said, that to pause was to crash. When Rick had complained of the plateau, she had argued that children like a plateau. Family life, she’d argued, is best on a plateau with gentle views, a light breeze, and that to even say the word ‘plateau’ was lovely, with its soft French vowels. Like the boys’ school reports, with the various satisfactories and showed improvement and consolidated well this term, wasn’t that true of family life too? It didn’t need to be brilliant, the best, top ranking. ‘No,’ said Rick. ‘Sorry, I’m truly sorry but I need more. You make me feel old, like I’m just going through the motions.’ Oh, the barb in that ‘you make me feel’!

She’d wept, less for herself than for Lucas and Josh. They wouldn’t be having the long, boring summers of childhood with both parents, and the snug winters. Before too long they’d be forgetting that their parents were ever together.

Late one night at a hotel in the mountains with the fog and mists swirling, Eleni heard a young woman in the room next door. Her voice was high, her almost-coming-panting a trill that sounded with stops and starts. The sound was a bit too high-pitched, but who was she to criticize? She lay wide awake, listening, then heard her door bedroom creak open.

‘What’s that noise?’ asked Lucas, the light from his travel torch waving around as he searched for her in the bed.

‘That’s just some woman doing crazy dancing,’ she said. It was a little true.

‘Weirdo,’ said Lucas, clicking the torch off.

In the mornings when the mists had parted, they hiked through the hills, through ancient villages, over creeks and along swine-tracks. The pigs were small and black, and the suckling sows led their young with teats hanging. Meters-long sticks of uncut incense dried on cane pallets in the weak sun. In a hut an old woman pointed to her chained monkey. ‘I want to free it,’ said Josh. ‘Let’s buy it,’ Lucas suggested.

After the twins were at last out of nappies there had been discussions between Rick and Eleni about having another child. Was that the first signpost that they’d plateaued? Rick had urged her to. He was soon to be promoted, and they could afford help this time. A few months passed, then a pregnancy, a miscarriage. And then another pregnancy, and another miscarriage. No more, she said to Rick. We have two healthy children. That’s plenty. We have everything we need.

Now, in this other country Eleni, was congratulated. Her fortunes were great; no matter that she had no husband, she had children, she was so young. ‘How old are your bebe’s?’ she was asked each day. The boys smiled, shrugged and scowled at the old peoples’ interest. One day their guide had the boys stand side by side, while he looked to each, examining height and attitude. ‘Which of you is the eldest?’ he asked. Josh pointed to himself. ‘Then you have the seniority, you’re the man in the family.’ Eleni had winced, that either of her sons should have that role. Three old women in black boaters and with their teeth painted black, stroked the boys’ faces, laughing with pleasure, saying ‘Hai!’ and counting two with their fingers. ‘Here in Vietnam the young care for their elders,’ she told the boys, as they suffered through the women’s attention. ‘Everyone thinks I’m very lucky to have not one, but two sons to do this.’ The reason they saw very few elderly men, she told them later, was because so many had died as young soldiers and civilians during the war. ‘They didn’t live long enough to become old.’ Josh and Lucas listened sombrely.

They rode bicycles from a quiet volcano down through villages and past rice paddies and across slow-moving brown rivers. They bought sticks of sugar cane split in half by a crouched woman wielding a large blade. The sugar cane was green and moist, and they chewed it while riding. Lucas fell off his bike into the weeds and got up laughing with the cane sticking jauntily out of his mouth. Elsewhere, they took a boat to floating villages. More exclamations as to Eleni’s good fortune.

They passed through coal-mining towns in the north, where the air was grey. Women squatted before mounds of coal three metres high, pounding the mountain into cakes the size of bricks. Children bicycled to school through the blackened, bleak air. The boys weren’t looking, focused on a game on her phone. Eleni vowed to herself she’d write to Rio Tinto and BHP to demand that they put pressure on the national mining company, but later forgot to do this.

Then, near a nine hundred year old village, they walked past a school where the impeccably uniformed children were playing outside. Some boys waved at Josh and Lucas, who hesitated and then asked with a look, could they? — and ran over to join in the game. Eleni sat down gratefully, turned her face to the sun and thought back to the hotel and the woman’s trilling pleasure, imagining someone’s mouth and words slipping along her own thighs, between her legs. Soon she opened her eyes to watch the boys running, kicking, exclaiming. Lucas and Josh would remember this game forever.

Not once had Lucas or Josh said they wished Dad was here with them. Where had they learned such restraint, such consideration? Eleni wondered if they talked about the divorce when she was out of earshot. They were twins who talked, after all.

On the last night when Josh was keeping Lucas awake with his chitter-chatter, she brought Josh into her bed. It was so big she had wriggled across it to get close enough to lie with her hand on his shoulder, to ground him. ‘Shoosh now,’ she said, ‘and think of kittens.’ Kittens, in all their possible variety, was her sleep-fix with him. And they’d seen so many young cats here. After whispering black and then after a pause, tabby, and then a slow ginger, he was asleep.

Eleni turned over and thought of the woman doing her crazy dancing, the undulating rhythm of her voice. Saw the monkey breaking free and skittering away into the trees. Stroked the smooth skin of her thigh, remembered they’d be on a plane the next day, then turned over once more and fell asleep. She was so very, very fortunate, yes, she was.
Jane Messer is a writer based in Sydney. For many years she was the director of the creative writing programs at Macquarie University. Her published works include novels, anthologies, short stories, radio plays, and scholarly essays investigating questions of work and mothering, literary representations of mothering, and German Jewish women’s history. She has published most recently in The Conversation, The Bangalore Review, and Life Writing.

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