Fish Sauce - A Short Story

 I laughed when she said we should update our passports.

"Don't you think you're being a little paranoid?"

Jules had blushed and shaken her head, embarrassed. "Maybe. I don't know. Something just doesn't feel right."

"What? Like we're going to jet off to Paris on a moment's notice anyway?"

"No, I guess not. But Canada, maybe? I don't know. I just want to be able to move freely if it comes to that."

I had hugged her and playfully mocked her some more and we ended up going out for tacos with the kid.

My choice. Tacos were my favorite. She preferred Vietnamese noodle bowls. I hated those—something about that fish sauce they always came with was just too sour. Salty and sour at the same time.

But Jules never complained.

It wasn’t really an invasion, not really. There were only a couple dozen or so, hardly enough to make a dent.

Sure, there was a lot of commotion at first, a lot of activity and interest. But then it became sort of normal. With so few of them, there wasn't a big chance any of us were going to run into them. At first all of their contact was with the military, then the politicians. Occasionally we would see their silent, stoic forms on the news—a paleness that almost glowed, even next to our own pasty-faced leaders. We worried for a while about the kind of impact they would have on our day-to-day lives and then the years went by and it seemed like no impact at all. They were all still holed up in Washington in windowless conference rooms working on whatever treaties made sense to the muckety-mucks.

Nothing changed.

We all just collectively shrugged and went about our business. I still went to work, spent my eight hours a day clacking away on the computer. The kid had school and band practice then summer camp.

But Jules liked to remind me that change can happen slowly. It's not always a seismic shift—sometimes it's the slow simmer of a pot of water on the stove—it's just a still little pool of water, a placid surface... until it's not.

We heard rumblings about D.C. for a while. But the news stories were inconsistent. Sometimes newscasters talked about an uptick in gang activity. Sometimes they mentioned protesters. Some conspiracy theorists mentioned that our government was being taken over slowly but surely. But plenty of times we saw interviews with locals saying it was all just a bunch of hooey—fake news from fake newscasters trying to get ratings.

But Jules always looked at their eyes. "They're scared," she said.

"What are you talking about? They are nothing but smiles," I said, gesturing at the screen. And they were. All rows and rows of perfectly symmetrical, perfectly white teeth.

Jules shook her head. "They're smiling, but their eyes aren't crinkling. It's forced." Her lips were a tight, grim line.

I looked at their eyes too, but I didn’t see it.

Jules did update her passport. And the kid's.

On July third we had our own blowout. We were in the kitchen. Jules was making deviled eggs, mashing the yolks into a bright orange paste. I was day drinking with my feet propped on another kitchen chair and watching her do all the prep.

Far too many tanks and military vehicles in town she had said. Too many for the parade, it makes no sense. She wanted to go. She begged me to go. To her brother's place in Seattle. And then maybe on to Vancouver if I could pay for an expedited passport renewal.

"We just bought 5 pounds of brauts for tomorrow, Jules. Are you kidding me?"

I might have called her hysterical.

Thinking back on it now, thinking of the expression on her face, her spoon poised over the mayonnaise jar, I can almost see her making the decision. As if we were mountain climbers tethered together and we started going over the edge into an icy crevasse. That look she gave me—was I going to pick into this ice or not? Are we climbing back up or not?

I don't know what she saw in my face that afternoon, but she cut the rope.

She and the kid were on a plane that night.

The first curfew made sense after a smattering of riots on the fourth—what kind of dummies break storefronts on their own businesses? Those fires only hurt your own neighborhood you know.

Then the military set up a border around town 'for our protection' and I was grateful. Get these hooligans contained.

My internet and phone service went out on the third day. They never did explain that one.

On the fourth day, a polite young man in uniform came to the door. He had a clipboard and a checklist in one hand and his pen hovered at the ready in the other. I could see the empty field across the street behind him—golden and warm in the summer sun. The tiny silhouette of a bird swayed on top of a single long stem. The air smelled like dry grass.

They were just looking for help from concerned citizens. Did I know of any 'agitators' that might be causing trouble for everyone else? How well did I know my neighbors?

He smiled broadly and waited for my response. I looked at his eyes. No crinkles. "I just keep to myself," I said while I shook my head 'no.'

The water is boiling, Jules. You were right. You knew that the heat was slowly turning up. Nobody knows where this is headed, but I am surrounded by water and it is all boiling. The sky is boiling. The ground is boiling. Everything is boiling and I can see that it has been boiling for so long and I just didn't notice.

I hope she made it to Vancouver. There's no way of knowing.

Maybe someday when everything goes back to normal, she'll come back. Maybe she’ll forgive me. She and the kid will watch funny cat videos on their iPads and laugh together. Jules’ laugh will burst out of her mouth uncontrolled—her head will throw back as if on a hinge and then she’ll cover her mouth embarrassed at the rawness of it.

And then maybe we'll go out for tacos. My choice, not hers. That fish sauce is just too sour.