- The Committed
In the morning, before we left, we presented my aunt with a gift from Indonesia, a package of luwak, one of four in Bon’s duffel. Civet coffee? she said, bemused. We were already savoring cups of coffee at her table, brewed in her coffee press from Arabica beans of her own supply. It’s an Indonesian specialty, I said. The civet cat eats the raw coffee beans. Once the cat excretes them, the coffee farmer picks out the beans. The civet’s intestines supposedly ferment the beans in a special way. My aunt burst out laughing, which rather hurt me, for luwak was very expensive, especially for refugees like us. We had been inspired by one of the Boss’ henchmen, who had approached us, the day before our departure from home, with three packages of luwak as gifts for his patron in Paris. The Boss really loves this coffee, the henchman said. His quivering nose, scraggly whiskers, and black pupils bore some resemblance to the features of the civet pictured on the packages. Boss asked for it special. Bon and I scraped together our money and with these scrapings bought the fourth package of luwak my aunt now held. Oh, the poor farmer! she said, wrinkling her nose. What a way to make a living. But—aware now of her potential faux pas—I’m sure this is delicious. Tomorrow morning I’ll brew us a cup—or at least, I’ll make one for you and me. She nodded toward me, as by tomorrow morning, Bon should be with the Boss.
Sober in the morning light, Bon thanked her for her hospitality and made no mention of the devil that had divided them the previous night, when he had seen the picture of Ho Chi Minh on her mantel. In his previous life as an assassin for the South Vietnamese army, he would have killed her for such a display. The fact that he could be courteous now was progress, a sign that the City of Light might have cultured him just a touch. We left her apartment and, following her directions, walked a block to the metro stop Voltaire, stopping along the way at a tobacconist’s to buy cigarettes and a pair of Cuban cigars to celebrate our arrival in Paris. I conducted the transaction in my grade school French, which was easy enough, for all I had to say was “I would like…” and “thank you,” aided by some pointing and an [End Page 107] obsequious smile. After having survived a Vietnamese reeducation camp located somewhere in hell’s inner circle, and a deserted island somewhere in the middle, and an Indonesian refugee camp in hell’s outer fringes, we had finally arrived in the most civilized of places. Here one could simply walk out the door and buy fresh fruit and vegetables at the market, or fresh bread at the baker, or fresh pastries at the pastry shop, or visit the tobacconist for Cuban cigars, which were outlawed in America (where I lived for a time). And whereas in America the average American was the product of an industrial supply chain that led to such girth and heft that he or she dwarfed us Vietnamese, in Paris the people stood at a more modest, artisanal scale. This was true regardless of whether they happened to be white, black, or that other shade I had, up till then, rarely seen in my life, the sand-beige of North Africans or Arabs. Physically, at least, I did not feel out of place as someone not white, or at least off-white, with the mixed heritage given to me by my French father and Vietnamese mother. The eleventh arrondissement was a more mottled version of the Paris recorded in postcards and movies, starring only white people. As with Hollywood’s rendering of America as a place populated mostly by white people, save the occasional servant, slave, or sad Indian, this monochromatic wish projection proved that a lie could become a truth for many people.
Even though I heard not a word of English, and saw no signs of tourists on the...