A little while ago I had a birthday. I’m 29 now.
That day I flew down to Saigon, so I’d have the authority to write about it. I had a month left to finish the book. I like the investigative aspect of it. Checking the map, listing the things I don’t know yet, then writing my interview questions.
When you’re in a new place, you should walk everywhere, and walk slow, so that you can slip under the surface of it. The game of the writer is a constant, anxious search for a new insight or angle that no one else has typed first. I’m bad at it. I miss a lot.
It was November, but Saigon is in the tropics, so it feels like the city sits on the rim of a volcano. I was drinking coffee on the street as traffic churned by and eventually witnessed a tableau that could wear the caption “Modern Vietnam.”
A fat tattooed guy, probably my age, cooled at the light in an Audi. He was born here – which is usually a real bad toss of the dart – but he was born to exactly the right parents. Next to him, his girlfriend (or mistress, or side piece) was of such otherworldly, flawless beauty that it actually hurt to look at her. On the sidewalk next to them (and at the opposite end of the spectrum of existence) another woman in a rice hat held a man impossibly deformed by Agent Orange. His head was the size of a beach ball, his body that of a toddler’s. It hurt to look at him.
Backpackers were in the mix too. You can tell how long traveling couples have been together by their proximity. When the hormones are still in full effect, they walk next to each other and jabber and grin, because they’re the luckiest people alive. Then a year goes by and there’s a change in the magnetic fields and they start to drift. She leads and he trails by a few paces, blank-faced, like a POW being force-marched somewhere. A man who would like to be me, the bachelor.
Or would he?
I’m a free man but the price tag for that is being lonely in the margins. Sometimes there’s no one to talk to. I flew down to Saigon and its seven million people, but I didn’t meet any of them for the first two days. I would walk around, then write in the café until late and get back to the hostel dorm and everyone would be dead asleep. I was back in solitary confinement.
Finally, I found some funny people. A guy from Germany, another one from Japan, and a Filipina. I tried to sleep with the Filipina, because I try to sleep with any woman in front of me. The animal within me has not yet received the message that I don’t intend to reproduce.
We walked back to the hostel together one night. She said she was going to stay down in the lobby to use her phone, so the light wouldn’t wake up anyone in her room.
I got up to my dorm. I got up the squeaky ladder to my bed. I was drunk. I texted her: ill come down and keep you company
She texted back instantly: no im good
Smooth deflection – and in her second language, no less. But like all pretty women she’s had practice. By the mid-twenties they’re all shutdown corners. It’s a nice stiff-arm to your delusions.
It was Friday morning. I left the hostel and moved to a hotel by the Bitexco Tower. I could see the helipad in the air above my window. The room had stained-wood flooring and a bathtub and giant windows. There was a doorman in the lobby and the desk ladies wore the áo dài gowns.
I was there because from Sunday to Thursday, I write, but on Friday and Saturday I try to get laid, and you can’t really get laid in a hostel. I’ve stopped lying to myself. I made peace with the fact that I’m a monster. I like women, an endless supply of them. I look at Bill Clinton and Tiger Woods and see men of my stripe. It’s just an excess of the biological urge.
Conveniently, friends of my age are already divorced. My parents were once in love or something but today they savage each other on Facebook. If you don’t break up, you cheat. If you don’t do one of those two things, you still want to. If you put love on trial, how could it win?
All you can do is hope you’re good at being single.
I went to the gym and wrestled with my tribal ego at the museum with the photos of American soldiers shooting little kids. Then I had coffee and wrote for three hours, came back to the hotel at night, did pushups and squat jumps in the room, then showered. By then it was 11:45 p.m.
Game night. Being single, you don’t have that many games. You can last maybe about as long as an NFL player. Maybe more, if you take fastidious care of yourself. Maybe less, if you go bald.
I got down to the street but didn’t have a heading. I just sat and had a Tiger and read the Saigon Times and a guy appeared in front of me and began breathing fire. When he saw me watching, he asked for money.
A bunch of young people went into a club across the street. It was at this point when real life jammed to a stop and a simulation kicked in. From that second onward, nothing went wrong. I put down the paper and walked past the dragon and into the club.
She was blonde and in a dress that was tied off with a sash like a kimono. She was money. She had the socialite demeanor, complexion and posture. Like someone at Wimbledon in the row behind Prince Harry. She was talking to a guy when I walked in, and she looked over. I’m taller; I win.
What you do when you see someone pretty is you don’t approach. You point at her and wave her over. Come here. It comes off as a ruthless power move but inwardly your mind is sparking – what you’ve just done is ultimately surreal. It’s a Hail Mary pass.
If she comes to you, then the game’s over.
She came over. She was from Sweden. When I said I was American she gave me some lip about Trump (people are very predictable). To that I said: I’m really happy for Trump. It’s nice to see a rich white male finally catching a break. By that point it had been two weeks since the election – it had taken me that long to draft the perfect smart-ass soundbite about it.
Now she’s in front of you. One rule: Whatever you do, don’t be nice.
What’s your name? You look like a Gertrude.
How old are you? You look really old… you’re definitely older than me.
We kissed and my hands started following their programming and I felt that she didn’t have any underwear. We didn’t even talk about it, we just left. In the hotel I undid the sash with one hand and pinned both her wrists with the other.
She had shockingly white tan lines. And though she’s been traveling through hostels for months she still prioritizes the behind the scenes chore of waxing.
Four times. I kept flipping her over, pushing her legs up, trying everything, devouring her as she did me. She was perfect. I was still glad she had to leave at 8:00 a.m.
I’ve stopped feeling guilty for indulging. Because I didn’t ask to be here; I was placed, without my consent, on a rock in space, and after this I have nothingness to look forward to. For a full half of my cameo in existence I’ll be too old to have what I desire. Life is a bad bargain no matter how you slice it, and the joys that come with it are but quick blips.
This narcotic dance is one of said joys. I know I’m an addict, but if you have a little perspective, how can you not be?
Saturday was another dream. I put the Swede in a taxi and went to the gym. Then I prepped for my interview with a Vietnamese girl. I got to the café and found her to be a representative for Fossil. She had one of the watches. She had this little clip in her hair and a purple blouse. We brought our coffee out on the balcony. They were doing construction on the new metro line on the street below. Something about her accent just killed me.
I paid for her coffee as thanks for the interview.
“So, I owe you money,” she said.
“No, you absolutely don’t. You gave me so much helpful information, it’s the least I can do.”
“I feel like I do,” she said. “Do you want to meet later and have dinner?”
We got noodles and exactly one cocktail afterward in a jazz club up an alley. She got woozy; she weighs under 100 pounds.
“You’ll have to drive,” she told me.
“Where do you want me to drive you?”
It was 10:00 p.m.
“I’m not sure yet.”
“Let’s go watch a movie at my hotel,” I said.
I needed a visa run so I flew to Bangkok. My old roommate lives there and we talked for two days. We’re similar enough to be brothers. I never had a brother, and his brother is dead now, and so now we’re brothers. He’s the last person on Earth who would have my back, and I his; and yet we’ve still been locked in an unspoken competition for a decade. Success and milestones, etc. Right now I’m winning. But he’s in love. He’s the kind of person for whom love exists. I’m winning now; later on I’ll be the cautionary tale.
Wednesday I landed in Danang. It’s on the central Vietnamese coast and the US military used it a hinge from which to strike up and down the country. The pictures from that museum in Saigon were taken in the aftermath of raids launched from here.
I had a moment of almost unbearable happiness as I unlocked my hotel room. I couldn’t put a fine point on it, but I think it was the sensation of freedom. I wanted it forever.
I woke up in the morning and walked the whole city and didn’t see another expat all day. After dark I went to a pub I found on Google and had a hamburger and drank a lot of beer. It was Thanksgiving Day. I drunk emailed my editor to thank her again for the opportunity. She didn’t respond.
I went back to Hanoi for my friend’s birthday and tried ecstasy. You’ve been in love before, right? An ecstasy tab is like a year’s worth of that – perfect dates and text messages from them! – all crunched into one hour. The comedown is also analogous. Months’ worth of breakup, slammed into forty-eight long hours. I thought about killing myself for two days.
The Filipina texted me again as I was coming back up:
I regret not having you come down that night… I was too shy.
I think the revocation of rejection gives you a bigger swell than acceptance does. There’s something special about people admitting they were wrong about you.
The next weekend I was out and someone called my name. A white girl I thought I’d seen before. She looks like the actress from The Departed.
“Do you remember me?” she asked.
“We were married for a while, right?”
“We met in Seoul two years ago at trivia night. You stopped me as I was walking out and asked me for my number.”
“It’s you!” I said. “You never texted back. I’ve been distraught.”
“No, you never texted back,” she told me.
We both drew our phones to check the record. She was right.
“Maybe if you’d been more interesting, then I would have texted back,” I told her.
She punched my arm. “Wanna dance?” she asked.
Then she said, “Can you drive me home?”
The next morning a new housemate from Brazil moved in. We had met a few days earlier when she toured the house. I went to her room to say hi. She had her flag tacked up on the wall among pictures of her ironically touring the Rio favelas. She sat on the bed and offered me a smoke. I declined but took out my phone to add her on Facebook. We had a mutual friend.
“How do you know him?” I said.
“He’s my boyfriend.”
My instincts picked up on the voltage in the air. We looked at each other and then I knew who she was.
“He’s gone until February,” she said. “So we can’t tell anyone.”
Something about the accent just killed me.
“OK,” I said, and she locked the door.
It’s cool to be like this when you’re not lonely, it’s cool to be like this if you’re good at it. Most of all, it’s cool to be like this when you’re young. But time makes fools of us all.
So please, just a little longer. I know that change is the only constant. But just give me this for a little longer.