Extract from The Rainy Season
Jesper and I share a cyclo, his friends ride in another. They shout
things to each other in Danish as we glide along. I inhale deeply
the now-familiar night air of petrol fumes and street sewage and
strange foods, as if it were a delicious and strengthening tonic; I’m
half-drunk and the billboards are flashing.
We clamber out. Apocalypse Now is scrawled across red neon in
the Coppola script. We walk into the packed, smoky, black cave and
it is like entering a time capsule from the late ’60s. The Doors’ ‘Break
on Through’ is playing so loudly the whole room is vibrating. I stare,
wide-eyed, at the white graffiti on black paint – messages from
made-up GIs with names like Jack-The Clap-Jenkins. Machine
guns and hand grenades are mounted behind the bar, and above
our heads, a painted chopper hovers upside down, its propellers the
spinning blades of the ceiling fan. Red paint drips like blood down
the walls. The whole effect is monstrous and crude and yet I feel,
at once, completely at home; like I have landed at last. I imagine
my father, twenty-one years old, walking into a place like this. What
might he have been feeling? A rush of adrenaline? Rage? Sadness?
Might he have been thinking of us? Of me?
Jesper orders a round of tequila slammers and we sit on rickety
stools sucking lime and salt.A large, grey-haired westerner balances
a young Vietnamese woman on his lap like a doll. I wonder if he
is a Vietnam vet. I try not to stare at him. Jesper shouts questions
into my ear: What is my career in Australia? Where else have
I travelled in Asia? The questions seem pointless but I shout back
answers and he lets me know that he’s studying economics and
hopes one day to work for the United Nations.
At the end of the bar there’s a pool table and a dance floor.
I notice a woman standing next to the pool table, wearing the most
full-on clothes – a red halter top, tiny Uncle Sam shorts and glittering
red platform shoes. She’s got blonde cropped hair and is deep
in conversation with a Vietnamese guy with a ponytail.
Jesper follows my gaze then shouts. ‘Do you play this game?’
I shake my head.
‘I do not play well either. Shall we play together?’
We play against the ponytail guy and the blonde. She’s American
and her voice, as we clarify house rules, is low and husky. She has
beautiful big eyes, like choppy green seas.
They beat us and we go back to the bar. A few minutes later,
she pulls up beside me and orders a whisky. ‘Honey, I’m having a
bad fucking day,’ she says out of the side of her mouth.
‘Really? I’m having a bad year,’ I confess. She knocks her glass
‘See that guy?’she points to her pool partner. ‘He’s just let me know
we can’t see each other any more because his wife saw us together
last week. Man, he never mentioned he was fucking married.’
I offer her a cigarette. She takes it and I light it for her. ‘I need
some air,’ she mutters.
I tell Jesper I’ll be back and, on an impulse, follow her outside.
I sit down beside her in the gutter. Her platforms glitter in the dark.
‘How long have you been seeing him?’
‘Three months. I can’t believe my fucking luck.’ I think she is
going to cry but then she laughs. ‘Ah, to hell with it, right? Surely
even I can do better than this.’
I laugh too. ‘Of course you can.’
‘I’m Suze.’ She puts out her hand and I shake it; it’s small and
She rolls a joint, nimbly, barely looking at her fingers. I ask her
how long she’s been in Vietnam and she says she’s been here six
months and works as a journalist at the Saigon Times. She came
to get away from shit back home in LA – a bad relationship, debt;
came to start over. She says she’s never chosen men wisely. We
laugh some more.
We pass the joint back and forth; I feel myself slowly melting
into the night, all the edges softening. I should be disorientated,
sitting stoned in a Saigon gutter with a kooky American chick, but
I feel at this moment, given everything, that right here is the best
place in the world to be. I tell Suze about Tim, and about Lisa.
I try to remember the exact wording of his fax because it suddenly
seems hilarious. It’s been a great five years, Ella, and I wish you
the very best – with everything. Like the message on a card when
someone is leaving for a new job. We laugh and laugh; it comes
spluttering out of me.
After a while we wander back inside. Suze introduces me to her
one-eyed housemate, Dave, a sub-editor at the paper. His good eye
is brown but the glass one is aquamarine. He tells me, with a straight
face, that it helps him keep perspective. We drink more, smoke
another joint. I haven’t felt this good in a long time; I don’t even
mind the way Suze calls me ‘honey’. At some point, Jesper comes
over and tries to join the conversation but he has become boring
beyond belief, and after a while he goes back to his friends.
‘Mrs Robinson’ comes on; I remember this music from my
childhood; blood drips down the black walls. My father is missing
but I am here – in Vietnam. We dance. We drink and smoke and
laugh and dance and I am happy and numb.
Just before dawn we go and have pho, me, Suze and Dave, slowly
sobering as the sun rises. A huddle of cyclo drivers are standing by
their vehicles, chatting and laughing. A woman walks past in the
half-light with two baskets of green mangoes swinging from a yoke
balanced across her shoulders.
‘I love it here,’ I say, lighting my last Boy Boy Boy. ‘I don’t want
to go back.’
I know it’s a lie. All I want is to go back, to the life I had, but
I know I can’t and that there is nothing before me but a gaping
abyss. Here, at least, I can take refuge in the chaos, in the disfigured
beauty of the city.
‘Don’t go,’ Dave drawls. ‘Stay awhile.’
‘Could I just do that?’
‘Why not, honey?’ Suze says. ‘This is Vietnam – anything’s