Sunday, October 22, 2017

A Convincing Love

It’s late morning on a Bangkok Saturday. People are out shopping, but the rush is out of the atmosphere. The air is torpid with weekend and rain. The BTS trains are only about half full. One year since the king’s death and everyone is in black; whole train cars, mothers, children, teenagers all in black, but its Saturday, so some of them have gotten creative with it. A girl with a pageboy is wearing black gladiator sandals that tie up to her knees, a few women wear sheer black scarves, spilling over their shoulders, falling over their hair; the guys are mostly in polos with the Thai numeral for nine: the number for the king.

Under the station, impervious to the impending rain, the symbol-shaped woks are sitting on gas-ring braziers, cupping opaque oil, shivering with bubbles. There are piles of spring rolls and fried tofu next to them and yellow and red paper flags for the Nine Emperor Gods Festival. The sidewalk tiles are loose and clatter with under the weight of pedestrians walking, pushing strollers, jogging, teetering.

A foggy music is playing somewhere. The sky is headache gray and piling up like comforters kicked to the foot of a bed. Motorcycles thrum by and focus my attention for a moment before it spills back over the scene, utterly bored.

I’ve got too much stuff awkwardly crammed in my pockets, as I often do when traveling. My cellphone snags on my passport as I take it from my pocket. A few coins fall out, catching on the lip of the phone’s protective case. I press the button, it’s already 10:40. I go in to the bookstore and put my books on the counter. I’m supposed to be in here to sell only, but while they’re totaling my buy-back price, I find a book and take it to the counter. I’m half-way through through a Dostoevsky. They always start to depress me a few hundred pages in when the protagonist’s mortal defense starts to crumble, pulled down by the unnecessarily, but implacably evil world.

I use my credit to buy the book and a coffee and still get about 3 dollars back. I sit at the table in the front of the store. It starts raining hard outside. I look up from the book and watch the rain.

When I was younger and very awkward with girls, my favorite place for a date was in the bookstore. The books gave me something serious to talk about. We could go to a bar and I’d flounder for conversation. If we went to the movies, I’d bitch through every cliché, rolling my eyes enough to look like a cartoon who’d just gotten off a roller coaster. In most restaurants, I’d only drink coffee and—before the ban in 2010—smoke like a chimney. I wasn’t really pleasant to be with anywhere, but, in bookstores, I felt I was at least tolerable.

I was always trying to get my dates--if you could call them that-- to read Calvino. It seemed like I never met anyone who’d read him. I’d wave If on a Winter’s Night...around and complain that it was better than Marquez, which, was only true because it didn’t get the credit Marquez did. I used to go nuts if I met anyone who liked Confederacy of the Dunces who hadn’t read the Quixote. “Who cares which translation it is?” I’d whisper-shout. “I’ll buy it for you now if you promise to stop reading whatever you’re reading now and start this.” And I’d jab at the book with my index finger like an itinerant preacher with his bible. Sometimes, I’d switch topics and take my ire out on the bookstore. “What? Only one Iris Murdoch? The hell kinda’ place is this?”

I felt confident without a drink in my hand. I didn’t even have to smoke. I’d pile my dates up with White Noises and Remains of the Days and, best of all, it was like a glimpse into the future. If they were amused or even tolerant of my bibliophile rants, they won me over. They didn’t even need to buy a book. No one I met had much money back then. But maybe they’d write a title down to check out at the library. Probably very few of these books ever even got checked out, but it was the patience that impressed me, that and the ability to spend an hour or two in a store buying nothing, just talking, or, for my dates, just listening.

A lot of the bookstores are gone now. Powell’s is still in Portland, but that place swallows me. I could never curate it. I was too amazed to do much more then gasp and plop down on the floor with a stack of books. The other independent bookstores have given over to a lot of what they used to call ‘sidelines’ which is all the crap which used to be secondary in bookstores—you know, Edgar Allen Poe action figures. ‘Emily Dickinson is my homegirl!’ t-shirts. Gifts non-readers buy for readers. These have gradually taken over as I guess most readers go online where the variety is.

Overseas, there are a few used bookstores left. In large cities like Bangkok, enough reading material has accumulated over the years to lead to some interesting collections and generally the prices at these places are reasonable enough. These places often serve as bastions of the more eccentric expats—the ones who’ve avoided the bars and spend their retirement looking through boxes of cast-off paperbacks with brittle yellow pages, trying to remember if they’re read Fathers and Sons before. Mostly they talk to whoever is at the counter.

I’m finishing my coffee, watching the greasy Bangkok rain, wondering what I’m going to do with the rest of the day before my flight home when the bell above the door rings and a guy comes in with a girl. Their voices carry above the rain, the espresso maker and the old soul music set to a perfect background level. “Oh, shit it’s gone!” The guys says. “Oh well. We’ll have to find something else.” The girl is speaking much quieter. I can’t hear her responses to his outbursts. From the corner of my eye, I see him grab a book. “This? This is Dan Fucking Brown! Yes, that Dan Brown! Well, Angels and Demons would be the place to start, but The Da Vinci Code is, well, the DA VINCI CODE." He says this like a cue for a high-five. "What’s it about? You know, Catholics mostly and, uh monks.”

My focus is still on the window, but I can’t hear the rain. I can’t even see it anymore, I can see only Tom Hanks, with a flashlight, in a tunnel, looking for, ‘uh, monks.’ I’m biting my tongue to keep from laughing when the guy suddenly yells out “David Baldacci” and goes tromping (there’s no other word for it—like through the pumpkin patch) to the other end of the bookcase. “He’s fucking brilliant! You don’t know Baldacci?” Alright, we’re gonna’ fix that.” but before the guy can say anything about Baldacci’s oeuvre he’s tromping off again, groping for another book, like someone pulling a box of cereal off the shelf at a supermarket. “Hey, what about Janet Evanovitch she writes these murder stories—scare the hell outta’ you! Like, you never know who’s going to die...” The girl says something in response to which he announces, “oh no, that’s someone else!”

The couple bounds to the back of the store and up the stairs to ‘mystery’ and ‘sci-fi’ and all I can think is that it was like watching some terrible spoof of me at my most earnest, years earlier. I try to reconcile myself to what I’ve just heard, but I keep thinking about his synopsis of Da Vinci code: ‘Catholics and, uh, monks,’ and I can’t avoid the conclusion that this guy is a fraud and this is some kind of ‘ways to pick up girls’ technique.’ As upsetting as it is to see this grotesque performance, it takes me back, for a moment, to a series of bookstores, back when I used to sleep in my clothes and never wash my hair, when I worked in a bookstore and spent most of my free time in the university library or the diner down the street.

I knew nothing of the world then, but earnestly believed books could furnish any information I needed. Maps did not impress me then; they weren't tangible the way stories were. If I could read about places, I didn't need to visit them. 

I finish my coffee, watching the rain, on the other side of the world from my memories, thinking of the snow, the cafes, the cigarettes, the watery American coffee I drank by the pot. I begin to feel thankful to the bastard and his Dan Brown for stirring up the memories which sometimes, I feel I am on the precipice of giving up forever.

When the couple comes back downstairs, the guy’s expostulating with the girl about movie version of the Da Vinci Code. And what’s this? The girl’s got a bag. She’s actually bought something. I never got anyone to buy anything!

Not long after the couple leaves, the rain is pulled back like a shower curtain, still flinging a few wild drops here and there, but ceasing as abruptly as it started. I leave the bookstore. The sky is still gray like a dead tooth and there’s nothing but malls all up and down the street. I go over to a 7-11, buy a snack and sit in the stairwell with my book. It starts raining again and from down in the stairwell, the spatter of the rain on the sidewalk tile hits me like a light mist, gradually dampening the book, leaving a dry imprint of my fingers on the page. I take out my phone and my passport comes out with it again. I press the button on the phone. It’s 12:50. I go back to the wet book and wish I still smoked.  

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

What We Did to Spazzy

I was working out-of-town, about two hours to the south in the city of Nakhon Si Thammarat. It was a gray Friday afternoon and had been threatening rain all day but none seemed to be forthcoming. I was staying in one of those boring highway hotels which are surrounded by nothing but the outskirts of town, usually made up of auto mechanics and car dealerships.

I sat in my room, editing a paper for a coworker from the university. It was taking much longer than I anticipated, but I wanted to get it done so I could move on my usual out-of-town recreation: uninterrupted reading. I had a huge book I’d brought down on violence a friend of mine had been exhorting me to read for months and while the hotel bed wasn’t soft, it was at least capacious and had a decent reading light. It was Friday night after all.

When I finished with the paper, it was time for dinner. My boss from the Embassy had invited me to eat and I was glad for the invitation, given that, on my own, I would’ve found myself wandering up the highway in the dark, searching for a 7-11. Just across the road there was a tea shop of the variety common in the southern provinces. This one was done up in a ‘retro’ fashion and had old bikes and lunchboxes all over the place, but the tables and the tiles were undoubtably brand new, white and almost glowing. I got a small plate of fried vegetables which was quite bland and ate it with two orders of rice and chilies.

When we finished eating, we all went out into the parking lot for a moment. As we talked, the sky rumbled, but still nothing came of it. It was dark and the night had relieved the dullness of the cloud-congested sky. Outside a city, night looks the same whether the sky is clear or cloudy and the headache induced by the heavy gray weather, like wearing a damp sweater, began to fade.

I went back to my room and was about to settle into my book when I noticed a message on my phone. Gina had sent me a video of a little white and fawn-colored dog jumping up on our bedroom window (which is on the ground floor) and licking in the way gentle dogs do when they are excited. The text accompanying the video said something about how it was storming hard back home and this dog had shown up on our doorstep. She had a collar with a little bell and looked to be just out of puppyhood. I called home to hear the whole story. As often happens in these cases, Gina had tried to resist the dog’s charms, but her will was breaking down, as the dog, or Spazzy as we started calling her after her slightly manic behavior, was continually circling the apartment, going from our door, to our balcony and to our bedroom window and back to our door. “It must’ve been the storm that scared her,” I suggested, but Gina told me that it had been pouring rain but there’d been no thunder or lightening and in Southern Thailand in October, pouring rain was nothing unusual.

It’s as if she’s chosen me,” Gina typed (our connection hadn’t been good enough to talk and now we were texting). “Like she just decided that she wants to live here with us.”

Oh great!” I responded in mock sarcasm. I try to be cold on the issue of developing affections for dogs; I know what it leads to. It doesn’t take long before both parties are attached. Dogs are extremely good and wriggling themselves into our stray affections. We were only a month from our departure date and we had enough to do. I didn’t want to be encumbered with the emotional weight of leaving a dog behind as well. “Well, just don’t let her in the house,” I warned.

I already did,” Gina told me and I couldn’t blame her. I would’ve done the same thing. Who wouldn’t on a rainy night all alone when a little rascal chooses your doorstep for their temporary shelter. I sighed, but it ended unintentionally in a chuckle. I hoped this ‘spazzy’ would still be there when I got home the next day.

Saturday, there was a lot of traffic on the road and the weather was back to being dim and high up on the barometer. I was having reoccurring headaches, the kind that hit just behind the eyes. I sat at the back of the bus, trying to read, watching the dim jungle speed by thinking the varied shapes made it worse. North American deciduous forest (or coniferous) is much more uniform. When you speed through it on a car, it undulates, much like watching the ebb and flow of a tide. In contrast, the jungle lashes out in ragged banana leaves and exploding coconut palms. Its beautiful to walk past or bike through, but not at all suited for the rapid monotony of car travel. It’s like things keep jumping out of the horizon and exploding against the deep smoke gray skies.

I walked home from the station, glad for the air. As heavy as it might have been, it was an improvement over what I’d been breathing on the bus. I was happy no one ran up to me at the bus station demanding ‘where you go?’ It’s really no big deal, but imagine moving somewhere, living there for months and every time you drove up to your house, your neighbor popped out and approached you saying ‘Welcome, welcome to the neighborhood! If you need any help finding anything please let me know!’ Initially, you’d be willing to dismiss this neighbor for his or her eccentricity, but after a few months, you’d want to scream “I know where things are! Dammit, I live here!” As this is certainly the case for me, I was very glad to not be accosted by bus or tax touts at the station.

Gina was out when I got home and there was no dog in sight. I unpacked my things and showered, deciding how I would while away the weekend. I heard a little bell jangling outside and went out to look, but a family was moving in and there were bags and stuff all over. I didn’t want to go out and try to see if there was a dog around somewhere. I turned back to the computer. A tolerable-looking movie was playing in English at the movie theater. I checked the times and then fell into my recent vice of booking flights on the internet. I’ve probably got about 15 flights booked for the next few months. You’d think I decided to stop every place I could between here and California and then, with the flights, there are hostels and hotels to book. I’ve had to make a separate folder in my email box for all the things I’ve got booked.

Gina came home after an hour. I told her I hadn’t seen ‘Spazzy’ any where, but that I’d heard a jangling bell. “Oh, then that was her,” she responded in that tone of voice parents use to talk about their kids who are ‘a handful’ a mock impatience. The same way people who always talk about their job complain that it takes up all their time—it’s obvious that they love how it takes up their time. They wouldn’t know what to do with their time otherwise.

Almost on cue, Spazzy came running up. We’d been talking outside and she must’ve heard Gina’s voice. She came up, stopped, set her whole hindquarters waggling and proceeded toward us in this joyous fashion. I sat down to meet her and she was immediately all over me, whining at her own happiness.

After that, she stayed by our door. A few times she managed to sneak past us into the apartment, but it wasn’t too hard to lead her back out and she didn’t seem to mind being by the door. We keep our bikes at the end of the hallway, just about six feet from the door and Spazzy seemed very comfortable back there with our bikes. The hallways are all open air, so she was out of the sun, but it’s not like she was inside. Gina put a rug down for her and I put a cup of peanut butter out and a bowl of water, she never touched these things other than to lap at the water once or twice, more out of excitement that thirst. The rug came back in (after being washed) and the peanut butter was tossed out.

Despite my happiness at this new friend, I was concerned. In three weeks we’d be moving out and this dog was becoming very attached to us, as we were to her. All weekend, we felt guilty going anywhere. Spazzy would follow us out to the street, trot after us a little and then sit there and watch out bikes disappear into the distance with a forlorn look on her face. Over the years, I’ve learned to ignore such looks. But I’ve also learned I am an emotional person and that I don’t forget the dogs I meet, no matter how incidental. A good portion of our conversation at home revolves around stray dogs we’ve met in places like Uruguay and Romania. Sweet, frolicsome dogs who acted as ambassadors, posed for pictures and made the places they lived so much more memorable. It only takes a few hours to get attached and Gina is even worse, for her, it’s a few minutes and she’s sold, already talking about future baths she’s going to give the dog. So while I liked having Spazzy around, I saw how our relationship was complicated.

I’d also been in a similar situation in Armenia when a dog had befriended me and as a result, I think he was killed. There’s nothing more heartbreaking to me than when an animal has come to trust all of humankind through the actions of an individual and then willingly goes to the slaughter thinking all people must be as loving and gracious. This scenario also casts such a treacherous light on humanity in general, it’s difficult not to feel sick. For example, listen to the story of Lucy the Chimp. The lesson from this story is: Any animal who comes to trust people who is not also protected by them, will be killed by people. We were unable to protect Spazzy, after all. She wasn’t our dog. We couldn’t take her with us, I already had 15 flights booked and no apartment to go back to. What could we do with her? We loved to see her every morning and it was comforting to peek out the window and see her sleeping by our bikes, but we couldn’t protect her. We weren’t even willing to let her in our apartment for more than a few minutes.

All weekend Spazzy hung out by our door. We’d leave the apartment and she’d go wild with excitement. We’d bend down and say hi before taking off on our bikes, leaving her standing in the middle of the street, watching us go that forlorn way dogs do—looking at you like you’re never coming back. But when we returned, she’d come running down the stairs of the apartment to greet us, beside herself with joy and butt waggling. I was happy to note that the people who cleaned the apartment, didn’t seem to mind that she was there. They’d smiled at her and even put out some rice in a place where she’d find it. When I went to pay the rent Saturday evening, the security guard chuckled and pointed to the dog. Talking to the landlady, I was charged with the impossible task of explaining (in Thai) that the dog was not ours; She’d shown up on our doorstep one night, but we cared for her and enjoyed her company. I didn’t want to give the impression we were keeping a dog (forbidden in the lease) but I didn’t want her to think we were anything but happy with Spazzy’s presence. I repeated the only Thai words I could to articulate this sentiment: suay (beautiful) and di (good). The landlady smiled and nodded her head, not understanding a word.

Sunday morning, I went out to hang up the laundry and Spazzy followed me to the back of the building. There’s a banana tree growing back there and a plot of dirt about 12’ x 6’. While I hung the clothes on the rack, Spazzy frolicked in the little bit of the natural world our tile and concrete apartment complex provided. She dug into the dirt in that scrambling way dogs do, so that you think they must be after something until they stop and look up at you with a big smile as if to say ‘that was fun, huh?’ before returning again to the digging.

When I came back in, I suggested getting a leash for Spazzy. She’d obviously attached herself to us and it seemed cruel to subject her to a life of lying under our bikes, listening to our voices through the window. Occasionally permitting ourselves to be seen as we went out, taking our bikes and her house with us. She could come with us when we went to walk in the evenings at least, but Gina reminded me that if we got a leash for her, she’d be our dog, but, as far as she was concerned, she already was our dog; it didn’t matter what we thought. We took our walk that evening without her, but she was there wagging her tail when we got back and it was hard to feel bad about anything when she welcomed you back so graciously every time.

...

Monday is my longest day at work. My afternoon class doesn’t start until 1:30 and goes until 4:30. At 5:30, I have an after-school reading group and this week we were going to the library to donate books I’d ordered. Before my afternoon class, I sent Gina a message, asking about her day and how Spazzy was doing. She told me that when she’d come home Spazzy had been gone but had returned after about an hour, her little bell jingling as she came up to the door.

When I’d finished everything and was finally preparing to go it was nearly 7 pm. The campus was soaked in the oily blackness that follows a rainy evening. The frogs sang in the swales of trees and swampy areas of campus. It would’ve been peaceful, but a lot of students were out on their motorbikes going to eat and the sound of their engines tore at the blank calm of the night. I was packing up to leave when I noticed a text. 20 minutes earlier, Gina had written: Dog catchers are here :( I started writing back immediately and then had to stop. What could I say? We couldn’t tell them to go away, could we? She wasn’t our dog. I edited my message of action into one of condolence, but added that if they seemed like they were going to euthanize her, to put her in the house and say she was ours.

The bike ride home, is usually my favorite part of the day, but I was distracted by the zooming motorcycle lights coming out of the wet darkness like multiple trains chasing me out of tunnels and the thought that some bumbling dog catchers were probably enacting all kinds of misery on Spazzy and my girlfriend at the moment, as I knew Gina wouldn’t just be able to let them take the dog. I had also just read about Tillerson’s refusal to recognize Kurdistan’s independence referendum and I was feeling upset to think how easily humans betray each other; how, underneath the veneer of brotherhood and cooperation, it’s really all about selfish motives. This Darwinian precept is really quite awful when you think about it. I guess some people have no problem stepping on the faces of others to get to the top and then, from the top, they rule us. We submit to them via the ‘weakness’ of ourselves being unwilling to step on anyone’s face. ‘What a lousy way of doing things,’ I thought, riding through the rubber plantation, listening to the frogs, hearing the motorbikes come racing, burning through the darkness after me.

I got home and my heart sank to see that the space by Gina’s bike was empty.

The apartment seemed empty when I came in. Gina was in the spare bedroom. I knew the situation must’ve been painful for her, but I almost didn’t want to hear about it. I already felt sad with impotent anger at the inherent selfish nature of humans. Gina sat down and told me what happened with tears still in her eyes.

These guys were total morons, like dog catchers from an old comedy waving their nets around and falling over. They came up here and started jabbing at Spazzy with a stick. When she ran out to the backyard, they got chucks of concrete from somewhere and started throwing them at her. I went to the back window and told them to stop, but they just grinned moronically at me and chuckled. At one point, one of them tried to grab her and, of course, she tried to bite him; they’d just been hitting her with a stick and throwing concrete at her. She got away and ran off. These guys were so inept, you wouldn’t’ve believed it. They went looking for her. They couldn’t find her. They even wanted to come in here to see if I had her. I was so happy. She’d gotten away! I kept thinking, ‘yay, Spazzy! Run!’ and then, her bell tinkled. I thought she’d run off but she’d been hiding way back behind the banana tree. Those morons never would’ve found her if it wasn’t for that damn bell on her collar but when they heard it both they practically jumped up and made an ‘ooooh’ noise. You could almost see the lightbulbs lighting up over their dim features.”

She stopped to wipe away the tears that were sliding down her cheeks. I didn’t want to press her, but I was so indignant, I almost needed to know what they’d done. “Bastards,” I muttered.

You know,” she continued, ignoring the tears, “those people that just moved in came down and they were speaking in Thai, but I know they were saying she’d peed up there somewhere. If she would’ve peed anywhere it would’ve been here! It’s like they all wanted to come out against her.

The bumbling dog catchers went to get her again with rocks and I yelled from the window at them to stop. I couldn’t stand to watch them hurt her anymore. I went out and she ran right up to me. I bent down and she jumped into my arms. The poor baby. She was shaking and I could feel how fast her little heart was beating. She was so scared.” She broke off again here to wipe some more tears away. God, it was heartbreaking. Why did this shit always happen when I was at work? She continued.

I carried her over to the landlady’s office. She had her sister on the phone, the one that speaks English. She kept asking if Spazzy was our dog. I told her she wasn’t, but that I wasn’t going to give her to these guys if they were going to kill her. They’d already treated her so terribly, it wasn’t hard to imagine them just clubbing her down somewhere. They really seemed to have no regard for her life at all. One of the oafish dog catchers kept saying something like ‘my home, my home’ and pointing to her and then to himself. This was the same guy who’d been throwing big chunks of concrete at her a minute ago. I mean, c’mon; she’s a small dog! If one of those pieces would’ve hit her she would’ve been dead already! He reached out to grab her away from me and, of course, she tried to bite him. I showed him. I said, ‘you’ve got to pet her; you’ve got to make her comfortable with you.’ But you could tell he was afraid of her. Just as afraid of her as she was of him. He wouldn’t even touch her.

They hadn’t even brought a car with them. Some dogcathers, huh? I mean, who comes to catch a dog—assuming your going to have to take it somewhere after you’ve caught it—on motorbikes?”

Did they have a little cage or something?” I asked.

No, they didn’t have anything.” We both shook our heads. “So the dog catcher leaves and I stay on the steps to the office with Spazzy, petting her and she started to relax. I would’ve taken her and run, but the other dog catchers were all still there and the landlady. Spazzy was all splayed out on the ground, letting me rub her belly when the guy who left, came tearing in with his truck, skidding around all over the place. I guess his manhood had been insulted and so he thought he rev his truck to make up for it. I’m like ‘way to go, moron, I just got her all calmed down,’ God, how stupid can you be? Spazzy was all freaked out again. Totally scared and not wanting to get anywhere near this guy.”

So did they take her?” I butted in, impatiently, hoping that maybe Spazzy had gotten away again.

Yeah, I had to put her in the back of the truck. I kept hoping she’d jump out and run, but she just stood there, looking at me. Waiting for me to help her and I abandoned her.”
You didn’-

Yes I did! She came to me that night for help and look what it got her. They drove off with her in the back and the entire time she watched me, like she was hoping I was going to save her somehow.”

Neither of us said anything for awhile, unable to think of anything but this picture. She’d looked at us every time we’d ridden off on our bikes. We knew the look well.
I coaxed Gina out for a walk after her story and I ranted and raved. There are times when it’s not possible to tolerate humanity much less appreciate it. Religious people must find such moments very trying. It was eating me up, too, but there was nothing I could do. We bought a beer and walked through the night, trying to understand the point of it all, all the pain and suffering. What’s it for? So we can claim a reward for enduring it at the end? So we can learn from it? So we can perpetuate it? Those options are all nauseating. Spazzy’s removal ostensibly to keep the apartment clean and orderly, America deciding Kurdistan’s fate to keep it as an Isis-fighting pawn, the guy in my neighborhood who grimaces every time he sees me all these things were conflating in my mind. I could see no good in the world not seriously tainted by the ubiquity of human unfeeling. Luckily, we entered an area where some ficus trees hung over the road and were dangling their roots all over the place. There were no motorbikes racing by in that moment so we could actually hear the frogs chirping. I listened and walked through the bead curtain of hanging roots and I told Gina that what happened couldn’t possibly have been her fault. It was a lousy scenario, but one that couldn’t have been prevented. Experience has taught me to be wary, but even I didn’t see it coming. There’s stray dogs all over here. No one seems to mind them. The king, the king that everyone loves so much even wrote a book about a stray dog saying, ‘you know what’ these animals have dignity, too. Treat them accordingly.’ Who’d think you’d even have to write a book like that! Anyway, even I hadn’t thought about trying to get Spazzy another place to live. It was pleasant having her around and we’re people, frail like everyone else. “They probably only drove to the other side of town and dropped her off. I wouldn’t be surprised if she turned back up tomorrow,” I exclaimed and we turned back home for the night.

Every morning on the way to work (which is ‘on the other side of town’) I look for her in the face of every dog I pass. At night, when I come home, I look for her at the end of the hall by our bikes. Even right now, I am listening for her bell and I’ll listen until we leave.

Good night, Spazzy.












The title of this entry is a reference to another story of animal abuse, famous as anti-vivisection propaganda. "What We Did to Rodney" 

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Memorials





The main thing I’ve noticed is that we’ve gotten tired of our clothes. I was surprised how easily I adapted to wearing shorts and flipflops everywhere, feeling like a white hairy giant every time I had to sit down somewhere and my whole leg was there on display, looking like something like that could be used to sneak past Polyphemus. Even my feet have hobbit-esque tufts of hair on them. I wonder how the people here sitting next to me can keep from staring when a yeti in Adidas shorts plops down next to them on the bus. But when the high hits 90 degrees every day, you can’t argue. I go to work wearing long pants and a button-up shirt and wrench the sodden outfit off the minute I come home, stripping down to my underwear, which is all I wear for the rest of the day. Initially, it was a little awkward sitting down to dinner, but conventions such as wearing a shirt to the table were eventually flung aside. In a place that is always warm enough to make you sweat—even at dawn—there’s no point in covering yourself unnecessarily. It’d be like pulling the blanket up to your chin on a hot night just because it’s there.

Apart from the occasional Skype call, nothing intrudes on our dishabille world and, to better adapt, our clothes have become more and more absurd. In public, I wear undershirts so thin they have a pellucid quality to them, like smoke in the light of a projector, cottony and profuse yet insubstantial. My shorts make it about a quarter of the way down to my knees to allow for as much surface area as possible for the feeble breezes to cool. I never wear shoes; there’s no point, all I need is something to keep the sole of my foot from being shredded by the streets so I wear my rubber bath sandals everywhere which has resulted in some thorny calluses. Gina, at some point, went out and bought a few pairs of an item she calls jazzy pants which are billowy and patterned; each leg like a separate dress, disclosing a foot at the bottom, orphaned by its parent leg which, under the yards of fabric is nowhere to be found.

For months, we strode around wearing these ‘clothes’ strangely, without embarrassment. I have always preferred a comfortable cover. Something cotton and densely woven: jeans, shirt, sweatshirt, jacket, beanie, shoes + socks. Gina is the same. Often, we’d meet after work in the States to find we were wearing the same pile of denim and flannel, but on a chilly gray day, with the fog blowing in from the ocean, what could be better than standing on a rocky outcropping overlooking the kelp and wave troubled Pacific, holding a hot cup of coffee with your hat pulled low and your free hand deep inside a jean pocket to keep off the cold.

In Aesop’s fable about the sun and the wind, the two are trying to see which is more powerful by betting which can make a man take off his jacket first. The wind rages which causes the man to pull his jacket tighter to himself. The sun shines and, in its warmth, the man takes of his jacket. I have lived on either side of this contest, only the sun in this current version is vindictive as hell, and plans to rub the wind’s face in his victory by making the man shed everything. I’ve borne all this with great patience, but after a while, one gets tired of looking like a castaway from a beach volleyball tournament: sunglasses, tanned knees (knees fer god’s sake!), beet red and leathery face. There is no beach where I live; there is nothing but a strangely denuded city, which, for lack of tree cover, bakes in the sun. If it wasn’t for an overzealous appreciation for uniforms (school children, university students, civil service—almost anyone who is expected to be some place on time every day wears some kind of uniform) everyone would be wearing clothes like ours, shorts and flipflops. I accepted it as a necessity, but after months of vertigo induced by looking down this long column of hair that holds me up from the ground, I got tired of having no choice and had to admit my vanity, or at least my desire to moderate my own clothing choices. I got tired of wearing the exact same thing. Gina readily agreed that what is unaccounted for in tropical latitudes is that one wears the most comfortable, lightest thing available. There is no reason for additions. Clothing becomes a stark and utilitarian affair—like tying the same loincloth on day after day. After a while, the snug memory of pant cuffs over socks or a cozy scarf seems ridiculously indulgent, a bit like going out in public with an electric blanket wrapped around you, connected to a portable generator. Sometimes, I just sit and imagine the coarseness and weight of a sweater. I close my eyes and wander through autumnal forests, crackling with frost and press closer to winter fires, appreciative, for once, of both the warmth of the fire and the chill of the night.

We went to northern Vietnam anticipating cooler weather; Hanoi is the only city in southeast Asia that sees anything like a winter, but we were too early and while the city wasn’t as hot and sun-baked as southern Thailand, the temperature never dropped below 80. So rather than focus on the drastically different climate, I was left to consider the socio-cultural dimensions of the country which still blazed with yellow hammer and sickle motifs and red flags, like the flames of some all-encompassing bonfire.

Coming from the airport at night, we drove under a series of arches decorated with Soviet ears of wheat and slogans of prosperity I couldn’t read. It felt like an element of the past had somehow broken through and arrived in the present. Traveling the former Soviet Union, one sees the occasional reminders of communism, faded red stars, rain dissolved states of straight-jawed heroes of the people, but its all buried under the sheen of emergent capitalism, pushed aside to clear a space for a new billboard. Vietnam was the only place where I’ve ever seen the two ideologies so well-entwined. Obviously, in the time I was there, I had no more than a very superficial look, but all the salient elements of communist rule were present. The word ‘people’ or ‘people’s’ was visible on almost every government building, school children wore red bandannas around their necks and people who didn’t seem to be soldiers wore military-style clothing, olive drab with lots of pockets. But free trade seemed to be flourishing. There were no state-owned stores and plenty of people seemed to have their own little business selling ‘Good Morning Vietnam’ t-shirts and assorted knickknacks to tourists or at least tea and beer on the sidewalk.

When we first arrived there wasn’t much traffic. In the old quarter, there were a few motorbikes looping through the intersections but the streets were generally quiet. We were given a room in our hotel with a fake window. A small pane of glass looked out on a narrow shaft that had been artificially lit up and decorated with fake plants. At night, it didn’t seem too bad when all light is artificial; I closed the curtains so that light wouldn’t pour into the room and got into bed.

I woke up about nine hours later with the disorientation that comes of waking up in complete darkness. I tried to roll over and go back to sleep, but I was undeniably awake. Gina was still asleep and I slunk out of the room to get some coffee. When I opened the door, I felt like the natural light flooding the stairwell was going to blind me. I staggered along the wall to the elevator, squinting my eyes as tightly as I could, but even the small amount of light was making wringing such copious tears out of them, I looked like I had been sobbing all night. I felt my water to the elevator, hoping that no one would see how absurd I must’ve looked, acting like I’d been woken up by a bucket of cold water. I gained the elevator at the same time as a young, well-rested looking couple. I explained to them that my watery eyes and general bewildered look was the result of having no windows in my room. They couldn’t sympathize; their room had plenty of windows, but, they added, it also faced the street so it was very noisy. It was a hard decision, but, in the end, I think I was happier having a cave rather than a well-lit room flooded with the frenetic sounds of the Hanoi streets. When I first arrived in Thailand, I was impressed at the lack of honking despite the number of motorbikes and the chaotic traffic patterns. Gradually, I had come to take the relative silence for granted. Plenty of teenagers had their mufflers taken off and loved blasting down the street at all times of the day leaving a long wake of engine noise behind them. Maybe no one honked in Thailand, but it was still pretty loud. Hanoi, by comparison, was a cauldron of sound. Surrounded by the heavy, damp, white-washed concrete of colonial buildings the sounds of the streets crashed into each other like hot air rising from a chimney. Motorbikes tooted their horns at pedestrians, cars honked at the motorbikes, ladies walked by with bikes laden with goods, proclaiming their wares with loudspeakers, people laughed and tea glasses clinked. The traffic lights changed from one color to another heeded by absolutely no one but us and a few other tourists naively waiting on the corner for a chance to cross. It was incredible to watch so much traffic weave through itself so effortlessly. Some people driving through the green light, others driving through the red, but everyone with the right-of-way. I watched the multi-directional traffic and realized that it would never work in the US because we wouldn’t have the patience for it. Everyone was moving, but no one seemed to be in a particular hurry and, more importantly, there was no sense of ‘my turn.’ A notion westerners are instilled with and come to treasure at a young age. We cling to ‘my turn’ for security, even while we seek to usurp the ‘turns’ of others. Even when there’s nothing to possess, occidentals unconsciously box off what’s around them and place a value on it; fifth in line is better than eighth in line. One space becomes more valuable than another. We stop at the red light and wait, but when the light is green again we are impatient if the car in front of us doesn’t move immediately. We want to get out ahead. In Vietnam, the people were able to go through the red light only because they didn’t seem to care much about getting ahead. The looks on their faces were imperturbable. They moved forward not to attain a goal, but simply because they were endowed with motion from birth and knew there to be no alternative. Red and green lights make no difference in Vietnam because the people seem to understand that crossing the intersection offers no great reward or punishment. It’s just another step somewhere between birth and death. It has no value. There is nothing to gain by getting ahead of the traffic, nor is there anything to lose by falling behind. You go only because you have no reason to stop.

This didn’t stop me from feeling nervous stepping down from the curb into the torrent of horns and exhaust. It was like gradually lowering yourself into a turbid river after the monsoons when its full of green tangles of vegetation plunging along like small islands on the face of the swirling chocolate milk-colored water. Your senses are blinded by the warmth and buoyancy of the water. You hop toward the other side, feeling the rushing current pulling you further downstream. Your footing is loose and precarious. When you gain the opposite bank, you’re much further down from where you started and the river continues by, indifferent to your crossing, pushing the tangled branches and the dirty gray fish down to a great estuary. On the other side of the street, I’d look back into the solid mass of traffic, unable to understand how I’d been able to cross it at all.

Our first morning, after a particularly viscous cup of black (đen) Vietnamese coffee which tastes sort of like it’s got vanilla or a little maple syrup poured into it, though not entirely in a bad way—we went down to Lenin park and walked absent-mindedly over the half-moon bridges, along the warm, misty-covered lake and under the dangling roots of the Banyan trees until we began to feel hungry and walked back to the Old Quarter. On the way to the restaurant, we passed St. Joeseph’s Cathedral, built by the French in the 1880s with a soot-darkened facade soaring up to a point over a small forecourt, it’s the most European feature of the entire country and homesick tourists flock to it. Either because it seems such an aberration or because we can’t help but to be drawn to what’s familiar. The shape and color of it, however, have a funereal aspect, which I guess is appropriate in a church, but seems out of place in an otherwise tangled and loud city. I couldn’t help but to marvel that it hadn’t been torn down the minute the revolution declared victory. A colonial religious building was the antithesis of a national communist rule and yet, somehow it had been allowed to survive. I expected the narthex would give some clue as to why the church had been left standing, but before entering the cathedral there was nothing but the usual dusty prayer books for sale and an attendant asleep on a glass case of rosaries.

In the afternoon, we went to the Hoa Lo Prison, which had been built by the French, if the history placards were to be believed, with the express purpose of executing Vietnamese insurrectionists. After the French left and the Americans came in, the revolutionary government maintained the prison for American POWs, although there was less information about this, perhaps because it only seems to have housed about 20 pilots who crashed over northern Vietnam. This was about as close to the Vietnam War as I was going to get. While most of the other museums noted the American War (as it’s known in Vietnam), the French and the horrors of colonialism still seemed to be the primary focus of the country’s ire. The struggle for independence had been so long and arduous, the war which followed it was just like another campaign. Ho Chi Minh died in 1969 and while Northern Vietnam continued fighting, I think it was more from impetus. The documentation of everything after 1969 seemed to be disinterested, like a period which had to be acknowledged, but didn’t have the same ‘new dawn’ nostalgia to be glossed over with. Of course, all the information was biased. In the Hoa Lo Prison there was no information about the American POWs other than that which related to how well they were treated. Pictures of basketball games, Christmas decorations and the wrapper of a care package which had been sent via Moscow were all on display as were pictures of the POWs and quotes about how much they’d enjoyed themselves while in captivity, like they were writing home from a summer camp. I found it interesting how a single building could house two such opposing viewpoints. On one side of the exhibition, the Vietnamese had been tortured, confined in appalling conditions and beheaded by the French and on the other side of the building the Americans had been treated to all kinds of entertainments with none of the deprivations, despite being in the same building. I noticed it gave no mention of where the Americans stayed, probably because all the cells had been used up to showcase the atrocities of the French.

In the end, even a notorious prison museum is like a visit to any other attraction. There’s a gift shop at the end. Where you inevitably stand and try to make sense out of all you’ve seen. I stood there, feeling the keen disappointment of knowing this was as close as I was ever going to get to the war I’d grown up hearing about. Even if I spent months in Vietnam, went down south, crawled through the old Viet Cong tunnels and held the discarded mine casings under the patter of rain on the banana leaves, everything was going to be an attraction with an admission fee and a guide. In other words, a fake, a reenactment, a Disney World animatronic soldier, blinking in that false, robotic way mouthing the words ‘war is hell.’ To make myself accept this reality, I bought a bunch of stuff in the gift shop. The weight of the postcards, t-shirts and refrigerator magnets in my backpack was to be the closest tangible connection I’d have to the war which had been such an impact on my dad’s life. There was a place in the prison to burn incense, which Buddhists do when praying. Before leaving, I lit one, placed it in the holder and watched it smoke for a while, profoundly aware of how little I knew.

When we got back to our hotel that evening, as usual, the staff jumped up to open the doors for us and inquired how we’d spent the day. We told them we’d had a very nice time exploring their city and museums (without saying exactly which ones) and they gave suggestions for the next day’s entertainment. They obviously hoped we’d be ridiculous enough to want to venture out into the countryside so we could foot the bill for a bus-boat-bus combo out to an island paradise, but package travel has never appealed to me. If I can’t get to a place as a local would, I imagine, I don’t have much business being there. “Besides,” I told the hotel staff, “we live in Thailand; I don’t care about beaches.” Once the staff realized we weren’t going to budge from Hanoi they dropped their mercenary hints about islands and emerald rice paddies and talked to us about their city. Over the five days we were there, we talked quite a bit and although the staff was always slightly obsequious, we managed to have a few nice conversations about Hanoi without talking unnecessarily about the traffic.




ii. Buying a Coat

Everyone at the hotel spoke English quite well. Most of the staff had obviously studied the language at a university level. Speaking to them, I realized I probably knew more about them than I was aware. They didn’t seem to be much different than my students in Thailand, Paraguay or Armenia. They had studied English to get this job, they considered good, which, back in the States, we wouldn’t have exactly regarded as the apex of achievement. The hotel workers all seemed to be new; they were all young and friendly. They jumped up every time anyone walked through the lobby. Just in case there should be a question, the full attention of the staff was assured. I’ve always felt a little awkward about being waited on but I try to ignore it and tell myself it’s just part of the world economic model. There’s no point in feeling guilty for what you’ve got; it can’t be given away, not in the way you’d like, anyway. As I always do, I tried to repay the staff’s humility with my own humility. I nodded at their nods and made an effort to reply to their chitchat with a smile even when they stood between me and the first cup of coffee in the morning, my face was clammy with all-night airconditioning, my eyes bunched up and leaking against the shock of sunlight. The staff went so far as to compliment me on my civil behavior, saying I was ‘nice’ as if it were a quality other guests lacked. I found this disconcerting. Because I know that people consider not being nice to also be part of the world economic model. Almost anything can be justified when you take a broad enough view. I never told the staff that it was impossible for me to act rudely to them because I’d been seeing their faces every day in classes for years and I knew they’d been good students. Consequently, I couldn’t help but to think they deserved something better than a small hotel lobby and someone as shabby as me as a customer...and that’s how I feel about travel in general, unless I’m in Scandinavia or New Zealand, some place where I know the clerk makes more a year than I do, has better health care and a view of a fjord or a sound from the lobby windows.

Outside our hotel, in the Old Quarter, was a blend of Vietnamese and tourist life. There were still plenty of Vietnamese squatting around zinc braziers drinking tea, smoking and chatting; many of them actually wearing those conical straw hats no one else looks good in. They still sell them as souvenirs and not only the hats but t-shirts, coffee (‘weasel’ and otherwise), lacquerware, jade and knock-off North Face jackets. Why they have come to be purveyors of the latter, I have no idea. There didn’t seem to be any other brands being bootlegged in such profusion. No Columbia, no REI, no Arcteryx, just North Face. Literally every corner in the Old Quarter has a shop selling only North Face apparel. As Gina and I will be leaving SE Asia soon—heading to cold mountainous places where reception clerks make more than me and then on to a December in the Midwest— it seemed prudent to buy one of these knock-off coats. I’ve never seen winter coats for sale in Thailand and, if they had them, they’d be a luxury item as, in the southern part of the country, they’d be completely superfluous. Something only people who could afford distant vacations would ever need. Despite being fake, the coats looked alright so we thought we’d buy one; I dreaded this, knowing these stores were only here for tourists and I have an irrational fear of looking like I’m gullible and going into any store for tourists is, by definition, a gullible thing to do.

These bootleg jacket shops were all about the size of a large closet. The merchandise fondling you instead of the other way around. The sleeves of the coats velcroed to your shirt as you passed and held on, ensnaring you. Of course there were no prices marked anywhere and asking only produced the usual confusing tactics. One shopkeeper would lead me in one direction, and another would corner Gina at the other end of the store. The coat I’d touched or brushed past would be tossed in a bag as if my contact with it were enough to make for a legally binding agreement and a price would be given as if it were the most iron clad thing in the world. These prices all seemed fine to me, but the fear of looking gullible made it impossible for me not to try a little bargaining. I’d seen a truck unloading bails of these coats in front of a store one night, tossing them off a truck like they weren’t even worth touching. I knew the value of them couldn’t be very high. Hanoi gets chilly in the winter, but it doesn’t get winter coat chilly but each time I tried a price the clerk seeing that I wasn’t going to be an easy sell, would lose enthusiasm and each time, I walked out empty-handed but feeling like I needed a coat more than anything in the world. If you ever want to understand the power of commerce go into a store, spend an hour looking at something, talking about it and then leave without buying it, then go another store, locate the same item and repeat. Do this three or four times. The object will hassle your thoughts until you buy it, barging in like a realization of an oven left on. If you can manage to do this without eventually buying the item or driving yourself crazy, you’re stronger than me.

Friday night, we went over to the Hanoi Social Club for a drink. The cooks in the place are under-privileged youth given the chance to study culinary school and the building is three stories of cozy attics and balconies. The place had an expat air, not so touristy, people were reading something other than guidebooks, no one was wearing those conical straw hats but the only Vietnamese around were the workers. We sat on the third floor balcony enshrouded in plants and a mist of rain that had been falling all evening. I ordered a coffee and bourbon which, apparently, no one ever does. The staff kept coming up to ask me how it was. Watching me drink it with incredulous looks like I sipping a glass of strychnine. When I told them they should try it, most of them surprised me saying they weren’t old enough to drink yet. I checked, Wikipedia says Vietnam is one of the only countries that has no official drinking age.

Sufficiently relaxed after the effects of a warm boozy drink in a rain-tapped wooden building, I paid the check determined to finish the coat business. We stopped into the first closet-store we reached, run by a woman just past middle age, friendly with an ingratiating smile. Gina wanted nothing to do with my efforts to get a good price. She indicated the coat she wanted and, after shaking her head at me for a few minutes, went to wait outside. I continually paced up and down the narrow store, taking in the 100s of coats with a sweeping glance as if to say ‘and you only have these 800? Aren’t there anymore?”I continually took down coats I had little interest in and put them on, just to look like I hadn’t decided. The woman had already tried to bag up a coat for me but I prevaricated and tried to act like I wasn’t even sure I wanted a coat to try to get the price down. “Hmmm,” I said out loud to myself. “I could probably just wear a sweater and a few plastic bags, the effect is basically the same.” The owner wasn’t having it and she watched my buffoonery with a smile, standing next to the coat she’d already bagged, knowing I was going to buy it when I was finished the bad acting. When I finally bought the coats, the owner laughed. It seemed she’d enjoyed it too. We’d had an interaction beyond the usual seller and purchaser exchange. I came out with two coats in a huge bag. Gina was waiting on the stairs of a nearby building. She’d been waiting a while. She didn’t see why I’d haggle over a price that was already ridiculously low, fake coats or not. I told her it was the principle of the thing, feeling like the lead in an old black and while movie. The light rain, the dim streetlights, the tangles of powerlines, the old balconies covered with older rattan chairs and the hammer and sickle everywhere only increased the sense of noir. The women in straw hats and long shirts wheeled the bikes they used to sell produce home for the night and I walked along toting an anachronistic bag of puffy, fake Goretex coats.
...

In the morning, we walked to the Citadel. The light rain from the night before had started up again and the tangles of powerlines and dangling banyan tree roots were all steadily dripping into the streets; awnings hung bead curtains of rain drops before the store fronts. The mist was largely insubstantial and didn’t fall so much as it hung in the air except in a few places where it coalesced and dropped, but in a lazy way. We stopped into a cafe down a sidestreet that had been recommended. The place had the same wooden, lamplit solemnity we’d encountered the night before at the Hanoi Social Club, but was tucked into a space not much larger than a bunk bed. The kind of place where patrons sat so close to each other, you feel obliged to speak almost at a whisper, which is great for the general atmosphere: all murmurs and the shrill gurgling of the espresso machine steam wand. A Japanese couple across from us occasionally snapped a picture and studied the guidebook open across their knees. It rained hard for a few minutes and the whole place went quiet to listen, or perhaps because it couldn’t be spoken over without using indecorous volume.

We walked to the Citadel, passing the entrance to the military museum where three or four rickshaw drivers were hanging out. It must’ve been a heavily touristed area, but in the rain, it was hard to tell. There were only two Japanese tourists milling around and a few rickshaw drivers who immediately sidled up to us with menus of places they could go and became a confusing mass of jabbing fingers. They jabbed at me, at the rickshaw and at ‘Snake Village’ on the menu which probably would’ve sounded tempting if I hadn’t read that this was just an area where they have a lot of places where you can order some kind of live cobra drink. They chop the head off the snake, drain the blood into your glass of rice wine and give you the heart, still beating, as a chaser. I tried to tell the jabbing fingers I was vegetarian, they swung around at this and jabbed at me like I was the Pillsbury Doughboy. The rickshaw drivers seemed to enjoy touching us; I couldn’t be sure if it was part of the tout or if they were just curious. Gina said they were trying to get a peak at the tattoo on her back by lifting up her shirt. I didn’t see this because one of them kept running his hand over my beard and, when he tired of that, playfully poked me several times in the stomach and ribs. Did they believe westerners liked this treatment? Who knows, perhaps we do. I certainly wasn’t offended and I got in a few stomach pokes myself. For a moment, the whole thing was in danger of devolving into a big ball of grabass. Somewhat symbolically, this all took place opposite a massive Lenin statue, built in the Soviet style with a paved forecourt about ¼ the size of a city block. Eventually we managed to extract ourselves from the jabbing fingers, excusing ourselves to go see Vladimir Ilyich.

The guidebook said the Citadel was free, but since it’s publication in 2014, a ticket booth had gone up. The price was negligible, but I still balked for a minute, wondering if it was worth it. The rain was falling harder again and we took refuge in the little museum about the French occupation surrounding the ticket booths, pointedly examining each item, reading each placard to kill time, listening to the rain falling on the thin roof of the place and looking around in the absent way people do when they’re waiting for the rain to stop.

I hadn’t expected too much from the Citadel, but the grounds were much larger than I thought. The whole complex was studded with pomelo trees. Even the view in the rain looked festive with the jade green globes seeming to float everywhere just a few feet from the ground.

The Citadel was from the 11th century, but it was surrounded with buildings containing artifacts from much earlier periods of history as well as photographs of when and how it’d been used in the colonial and post-colonial periods. In the middle of the complex, Ho Chi Minh had built a nondescript meeting room tunneling down into several bunkers. These rooms with there large conference tables were nearly wallpapered in maps from the Vietnam War-era showing multiple red arrows converging on Saigon. There were so many of these maps and they were so similar, they looked monomaniacal—as I guess all war objectives are. We walked down the three flights of stairs to the airless bunkers. Even in the bunkers, there were only conference tables. I wondered if these people ever did anything but confer and draw arrows on maps.

In the back of the courtyard there was a temple, near the temple an area where it looked like workers lived. We walked up through the spindly pomelos on a worker calmly vomiting into what looked like a rose bush. I didn’t think much of it as, in Thailand, I hear a lot of vomiting. I hear it in my apartment building nearly every morning drifting from someone’s window and occasionally elsewhere near open bathroom windows. I can’t confirm it’s vomiting, but I can’t imagine what people would gag on in such an obstreperous way if not vomit; but my imagination prohibits me from too long of a consideration of why someone would vomit regularly every morning.

We went into the temple complex, climbed a steep and narrow staircase and popped into a nearly empty room through the floor. An elderly man was standing by an open window burning incense. The smoke and the rainy light on the stone were so peaceful it was hard not to feel we were intruding on something and we tiptoed past him. The shrine in the next room was off-limits to those, like us, wearing shorts. We took a look at the Buddha statue from the doorway and continued down another stone stairway, so steep it was easier to descend backwards. Back outside, even the gray, humid air seemed bright after the smoky somnolence of the temple. A man walking toward us stopped, turned toward the bush and began to vomit so copiously, it was hard not to watch. Gina noticed that he was carrying a case of beer, so I guess that explained it, still, you’d thinking puking was some kind of ablution given the number of people so calmly engaged in it so close to the temple.

We walked through the neighborhoods to the Ho Tay Lake, passing several of the boxy ministry buildings revolutions the world over seem bent on constructing. Its exactly these systematic buildings that make me leery of any revolutionary call to action. These places all look like they’d be at home with ‘Ministry of Love’ chiseled coldly into their brutalist facades. Many of the buildings had been abandoned and the emptiness had soften them. The sagged and dripped. They had notes chalked in Vietnamese over the doors that looked like they could be translated as ‘quarantine.’ Despite a neglected look—plants growing from the eaves, surfaces blackened with stagnated dripping water, chest-high weeds in the courtyard—an elderly man sat in a chair in the open doorway of one building, looking out over the street. There was a dog curled up on the stairs not far from his feet. I had to resist the temptation to wave.

A few blocks from the lake we passed a massive yellow-orange catholic church. The cupcake -colored building was constructed mainly in cylinders with large round windows and conical rooftops at various levels. It was surrounded by a high fence I could see no way into although people were walking around in the courtyard. We admired it as we passed by but saw no reason to seek out the entrance.

We were walking toward the English-language bookshop in the neighborhood near the lake when something odd happened. Two girls, both foreigners, tourists like us, came walking up the other side of the street. We were on the left, they were on the right, both of us walking in the same direction. The streets in this neighborhood were narrow, barely enough for two cars to pass each other and with all the vehicles parked on the side of the street they were made even more narrow. With the girls on one side and us on the other there was barely enough room for the cars to get through. I tried to walk faster, but I couldn’t seem to overtake them. When I slowed down, they seemed to do the same. I wanted to call out to them, to point out how obnoxious our situation was. But I didn’t know how much English the girls would understand, not knowing where they were from. We walked on in this obtuse fashion, taking up half the street, but never admitting to it which is a standard predicament of the tourist, being forced into rudeness, without being sure how to escape it. On we walked, taking up most of the street. “Get out of the way, we’re sightseeing!” I wanted to yell at the motorbikes swerving around us. Luckily we gained the bookstore before too long and ducked in to lay around in the airconditioning and read guidebooks about other places where we’d be able to walk in the middle of the street.

Our last day in Hanoi, we went into the art museum and after the first few rooms, we found ourselves confronted with the same objects of war and revolution we’d been seeing in all the other museums. Even in the art, peasants were arranged in an ideal way, open shirt collar, bulging muscles, scythe held aloft wrapped in a strong fist. Soldiers smiled in villages, helping the elderly to gain freedom. One sculpture was weeping for a lost son and in a painting, three mothers presented pictures of lost sons, but mostly the legacy of the decades of fighting was interpreted in a positive way. The style of art may have varied, but the story was told the same way. The soldier’s gun, the farmer’s hoe and the teacher’s book are held up together in solidarity, the building blocks of the new world. There was always a faceless aggressor. The French or American forces were never portrayed as anything more than a tank or a piece of wreckage with a flag stenciled on it. The soldiers were always brave, fighting for the people. There were no acts of aggression. No mention of the Vietnamese army in Cambodia or the Boat People fleeing reeducation.

After a few hours in the museum, we came to the last floor and I was giving each painting about three seconds of my time. After five days, my legs were continually threatening to dump me and my art-stunted brain on the floor. I wasn’t even thinking anymore. I’d seen so many stars, raised fists, olive drab in the foreground, fiery red and yellow in the background. From the revolution museum to Hoa Lo Prison and even here I’d been seeing the same theme in varied permutations and it was hard to find it novel even after a few days. Even the most creative endeavors were washing past me like the blurred lights of a city through a rainy taxi window. I probably would’ve walked out with this impression, an overdose on revolutionary iconography if it hadn’t been for the bronze.

When I was a kid, about ten, my dad took us all down to Washington DC to see the Vietnam War Memorial, or maybe my mom took my dad there and my brother and sister and I just came along for atmosphere; I don’t know. The main things I remember from the trip were the wet willies my brother kept giving me on the plane (he was sitting behind me), seeing Tales from the Crypt for the first time watching HBO in the hotel room and the bronze statue of the three soldiers at the Vietnam War Memorial. I was impressed with how soft and even damp the artist had made the soldiers. Their skin looked sweaty; their clothes ruffled and dirty and the guns they carried looked heavy. It was the first time I’d seen such realism and the longer I looked at the figures, the more I expected them to come to life. Years later, as an adult, I was in DC with an afternoon to kill. I went back to the statue and had the same feeling that the figures were going to move, perhaps because by then, I’d heard enough stories to animate them. I guess that’s why they’re there, to be effigies for everyone lost in the war. A face to manipulate with memory and find your friend, your brother or your dad staring back at you.

On the top floor of the Hanoi Fine Arts Museum, they had a similar bronze sculpture depicting North Vietnamese soldiers in the war. They looked just as real and, at the same time, just as blank as the soldiers in DC, ready to be filled in with the sentiments of the people, to be scapegoated or martyred, while remaining solid, incorruptible and molded of the same material as their counterparts back in DC.