Warm hues wash out dilapidated storefronts and crowded sidewalks, the sun shining down on throngs of motorcyclists, the pulsing and purring of traffic, engines expelling exhaust, the air thick and full of buzzing culture shock. Vietnam. I'm in a taxi like a whale, forage fish swarming it, shoals of them at every angle, agile, revving, honking, whizzing by, death-defying teens and elderly alike, moving in schools of camaraderie. Everything is red and yellow and brown and shabby and exciting.
I forget the dull pain of immigration, the dilapidated interior of the airport full of scotch-taped Comic Sans notices, long queues of tired people and general oppressiveness. I forget the incessant waiting, the moving of money through labyrinthine bureaucracy, the authoritarian architecture of windowless banality, my own financial insecurities. I forget the particular knot in the middle of my back, forget the stress. I'm done with travel. Now I'm traveling.
The shrill taxi radio blares through Saigon. It ceases as we reach Jane's place. She's there to greet me. “There he is!” she says with a big grin. We give each other a big hug, hold it, each trying to fit our excitement into it.
We walk up to Jane’s AirBnB; it’s modern and luxurious. I’m impressed. I drop my bag down by the couch, drink some bottled water she offers me. We chat inanely – the content doesn’t matter at this point – just the relating. We could take the conversation in any direction, but there’s no rush. This isn’t an hour-long meet-up for coffee. It’s a weeklong stay. 10 days. The way we start talking – the cadence and intonations – matters more than what we actually say, and I don’t want to jump too eagerly into a major topic. I just want to relax and take things in for a second. Jane reads me. I stand up, look out her window and take a deep breath.
I exhale as a woman walks on my back. We’re in a dark room now, getting massages. We each let out sighs as our limbs are pulled and bodies cracked, our musculature worked by experienced hands, the room full of natural soundscapes. There’s so much physical evidence of stress and anxiety in my body. That specific knot in the middle of my back has been worsening for who knows how long and it’s such a true pleasure to have it addressed. She digs her knuckles in, massaging it with intense focus. I moan. I wish she’d stay right there, work it all the way out, but she continues to the rest of my body, which also feels good. There are still more knots – small, tight, stubborn ones. I definitely want more of this.
Jane treats and then takes us to this cool place up the way, a hidden bar down an alley called Pasteur Street Brewing Company. It’s a microbrewery started by expats, flush with waxed birch wood and salvaged beer taps, a place I feel like I’ve been in before, in Chicago or Seattle or Brooklyn. It’s relaxed, dim, the afternoon light muted, the stools not quite comfortable but cool enough to pretend.
“Cheers to Ho Chi Minh City!” I say.
“Cheers! Nobody calls it that, by the way – It’s Saigon,” Jane tells me with a wink.
We drink, talk about the beer as beer drinkers do: the notes of spice and orange and oolong and whatever else. I myself am happy with cheap domestics. This craft sampler is good, but somehow wasted on me.
Jane tells me about her dissertation on propaganda art of the 1960s, about being here to research it. “Grant money, man – the best way to fund a trip,” she says.
The bartender gives me the wi-fi password. I don’t plan on being on my phone, but connecting brings me comfort. I open Instagram.
“So what are you up to these days?” Jane asks me. “Are you working on a video project? Have you been exhibiting?”
“I had a show at a little gallery in Berlin.”
I want to confess to Jane that the gallery isn’t very impressive, that sales were weak, that I feel like giving up pretty often. But I also have an urge to sell myself, assure her that things are good, that my career is solid. I describe a dual channel video loop of establishing shots I had created.
“How’s life back in Chicago? Everything smooth with Justin?”
“Yeah, smooth enough.”
“Yeah?” I give Jane a slanted look, ready for her to crack. She spills.
“I want a baby!”
“And Justin’s not on board or what?”
“The timing is never right, or something…”
“Right, that’s what they say,” I agree.
Jane stretches, seems exasperated. I have a feeling she has this conversation often.
“We don’t have to talk about it.”
Suddenly my problems seem less significant. I want a family too, but I totally relate to Justin – I don’t feel ready. Of course, as men, we don’t have to worry as much. I still would rather give birth to a successful career. Time, nonetheless, is scary.
For a moment we’re quiet. The silence expands and suddenly I feel a sort of dread: I prioritize convenience over work, leave my equipment at home so I don’t have to carry it around when I travel. I leave town instead of being productive, take this trip instead of advancing my career more traditionally. In Jane’s silence I hear every judgment from my parents, my friends who expect more of me, my business connections I fail to email, the galleries I could approach, the life I could have if I would just live it. Instead I’m here, nowhere. I chug my beer as if it can bury my anxiety, try to drown my own disappointments. I get a bit despondent and tell Jane a little about Annie as I order us more drinks.