I meet her at a rooftop bar. She has the perfect seat, overlooking the entire city. She gets up to greet me. My instinct is to go in for a kiss on the cheek, but I stop myself as she offers her hand. I take it softly in mine, feel her delicateness and offer her assurance that I’m deserving of her attention. I’m late, I’m underdressed, but I’m ready at least to be charming.
“Hi, I’m Phuong.”
“Nice to meet you. I’m Ethan,” I smile.
Phuong is quite gorgeous. She looks exactly like her Tinder pictures: round face, kind eyes, warm smile, perfectly manicured hair and nails. She wears a black sequence dress that reveals her shape, but in a sophisticated way. Her posture is straight, her smile perfected, her gaze trained. I’m self-conscious. I’m wearing a white tee and jeans. My hair and face are scruffy. I should have left the apartment earlier, shaved, worn my button-up shirt at least.
“This view is incredible,” I say, focusing on the setting around us.
It’s probably one of the fanciest places in the city, the streetlights and skyline stretching out below us and beyond as the sun sets.
The waiter asks me what I want. I order a Johnny Walker Black Label on the rocks.
“Oh, a whiskey!” she says.
“Yep, that’s my drink.”
Soon enough it comes.
“Cheers! How do you say cheers in Vietnamese?”
“Dô, Vô, Một hai ba, yo!”
I try to repeat it, try to hear the rhythm of it. I'm sure I butcher it. Until this second I haven't attempted a lick of Vietnamese. She sips her cocktail. It has a parasol in it.
“What are you drinking?”
“Yeah, that’s the name,” she giggles. “And it worked, because I met you,” she smiles.
I smile back and raise my eyebrows, acknowledging the flirtation.
“So you’re from New York?”
“Wow, that’s amazing. Is it amazing?”
“Yeah, it’s great. But in a way, it’s just another big city.”
“I would love to go there…”
We smile. The subtext here is that I can take her to New York. I feel the whiskey down my throat.
“What sort of stuff do you care about?” I ask her.
“Oh, not much.”
I wait for her to elaborate, but she doesn’t. She just smiles. She doesn’t seem awkward or embarrassed at all.
“Are you studying? Working?”
“Yeah? How’s that? What sort of work?”
“I’m a secretary at a law firm.”
“Ah, that sounds nice.”
“It is – it’s very nice :)”
She seems quite pleased. I can picture it. She probably takes her responsibilities very seriously, believes in the culture of the firm, feels good and powerful wearing these sexy dresses and fashionable suits each day, looking the part perfectly.
“Good for you.”
She seems so sweet, so feminine. I’m attracted to her. My mind starts wandering in that direction. I want to see her shoulders, to slip off her dress and see more skin. What’s she like in bed? Probably reserved, docile, passive, obedient. I imagine her head tilted back, mouth open. I have to hide that I’m thinking this. I let it out just slightly, through my eyes.
My thoughts meander toward other things, worse things: aggression, subjugation, dominance… Unbalanced dynamics, power, history, war, rape, pillaging. Somehow I’m imagining her now as a sexual conquest, not like in my dating life, but like so many girls surely were in Vietnam when Americans invaded. It’s actually quite hard to picture her like this, harder still to relate to it. It’s not what I want – my modern egalitarianism comforts me. But still, the sexual machismo in me remains sympathetic to some amount of dominance. I can hear Jane in my head, comparing Tinder to sex tourism, this girl as some sort of prize for colonists. Damn it, Jane! This isn’t real. I’m tripping. This is just a nice local girl. Ethan, focus. There’s a dialogue in here, somewhere that’s first-date appropriate, perhaps about history and cultural dynamics. Find it.
“I’ve been studying the American Resistance War while being here,” I tell her.
She makes a face, a slight cringe in her eyes, her mouth slightly frowns – it’s the one slight break in her otherwise impeccable dating appearance. This is probably the single topic I should consider off limits, but I’ve already gone and said it.
“It’s crazy to think back on the relationship between our countries.”
“Like how different the perspective is from each side, you know?”
She just sort of looks at me blankly, like she doesn’t know at all, like it’s barely even occurred to her, or perhaps just that she considers the topic taboo. She won’t budge. I shouldn’t push this.
“Do you study history at all? Does this subject interest you?”
“Maybe a bit…” she offers with the smile of a salesperson.
“It’s weird because now I live in Germany, and thinking of that country’s history is especially interesting, since the whole world sort of agrees how terrible it was in the 20th century.
“Yeah, I mean, you know: the World Wars?”
“I don’t know about them.”
“What? I mean surely you know Hitler.”
“Hitler? Maybe I’ve heard this name.”
“Adolf Hitler? You’re not sure?”
This is unbelievable. I try to stop my jaw from dropping to the floor, to maintain respectable appearances despite my dismay. It’s not her fault she doesn’t know this history. I sip my whiskey, unsure of how to explain this, or how to abandon the topic entirely.
“Well, he was just this guy who took over Germany and then tried to take over the rest of Europe and the world. He’s known for being really evil, especially because he killed so many people. Jews, specifically.”
Somehow this is what we’re talking about?! What am I thinking?!
I relax in my chair, drink, let go of my hold on the conversation, which leads to her asking more benign questions. It’s nice, pleasant. She’s better at this. We talk about basic things: pets, families, siblings.
A waiter brings us dinner menus. Everything is expensive. I ignore it, intimidated.
“Can I take your order?” the waiter asks.
“I’m actually not quite hungry,” I say, hoping it’s okay.
He speaks in Vietnamese to Phuong. I watch them talk. I can’t tell what’s going on, but it’s awkward and I want it to stop.
“He says if we aren’t going to order, we have to go inside because this table is reserved for dining guests.”
“Ah, I see. Hm, well do you want to eat here, Phuong?”
“We can, yes,” she says with a suggestive smile.
“But what about maybe another place? It might be nice to see more of the city. It would be cool if you could show me a cool, hidden noodle shop or something.”
“Well, okay… If we don’t order now, let’s go inside.”
She hides a frown. I die in a bit inside.
We take our drinks into a lush, dimly lit lounge. I’m thinking about my budget, how I could stretch the cost of one plate here across an entire week of street food. The nicest dinner in town isn’t what I’ve bargained for, and I think Phuong has assumed otherwise. I realize the arbitrary nature of it – surely I’ve splurged on dates before. Why aren’t I doing that here, now, with a girl that clearly expects it? I’m in Vietnam, after all. But I’ve already failed.
We keep the conversation amiable. Phuong researches other noodle places. She uses Yelp. It’s exactly what I would do as a visitor and I’m a bit surprised, disappointed she doesn’t have an insider tip. We nurse our expensive drinks, delaying our exit.
Eventually we finish, now hungry. I apologize for wanting to leave, sensing she’d prefer to stay and eat. I pay, uncontested. We head down the elevator, the conversation lulling, down to the garage, where our motorbikes are parked. I can’t find my ticket. I’m flustered. I end up going back up the elevator to the restaurant, back to where we were sitting and find my ticket, while Phuong waits for me downstairs in the garage. I head back down, trying to keep my head up.
Then we’re on the streets, driving in tandem. Phuong, this perfectly dolled-up woman, wears a pink air pollution mask and giant motorbike helmet. This is the style, even though the air quality doesn’t seem any worse than Los Angeles. Maybe Vietnam just emulates China. The traffic is thick. We wade through it, wait at lights. Phuong still looks amazing on her bike, that tight black dress revealing each curve of her body. With her head and perfect hair covered up by a big space helmet, she looks a bit like a sexy robot. In the States, a girl who puts in this much effort would never climb on a bike. Surely she’d hail a cab, or just drive. That’s a cool thing about Saigon – even fancy girls ride their scooters. I like that.
The noodle shop is not what I had in mind. It feels like something you’d find in a mall, rather corporate. I’m disappointed that we’ve stooped from the sleekest place around here to such a mediocre environment. Surely she’s equally disappointed. The noodles, at least, are good. I hope she feels the same. What does she want? I think of amusing conversation.
“What superpower would you like to have, if you could have one?”
“You know, if you could fly or be invisible or something, what would it be?”
“Gee, I don’t know… I’ve never thought of this question!”
This sort of quirkiness doesn’t work with her. She’s not exactly curious. She’s more interested in selfies. I can enjoy that with her. I take pictures of her in this rather sterile restaurant. Somehow her spirits remain high enough – she still smiles at me and I believe it.
“Which hotel are you staying in?” she eventually asks me.
So now I’m pretty sure she wants to hook up – she certainly conveys sexual desire, prowess even. And somehow, despite my awkwardness, my disheveled appearance, my cheapness, my weird conversation, I haven’t blown it – my looks and nationality still outweigh my constant missteps, I guess. Perhaps in her mind I could still be this knight in shining armor – well, not shining, but still. I’m a privileged Westerner. It counts for plenty, I guess.
“Oh, I’m not in a hotel. I’m staying with a friend in District 2.”
Her eyes sink.
“How about you? Where do you live?”
“I live just outside the city, with my parents.”
Our moods both sink.
I pay the bill, again uncontested. American girls would at least feign splitting the bill before giving in, at least show some appreciation, usually. A thank you, at least. Perhaps they’d actually split it and fail to conceal their disappointment, or maybe they’d even be cool with it. Americans vary. Northern European girls would insist on splitting. I get the sense that Asians are the opposite.
We go outside. She quickly gets on her bike. She’s about to put on her mask and helmet. I want a goodbye kiss! Or a hug at least. I lean in.
“Woah, we can’t do that! We’re in public!”
She puts on her gear.
She’s gone in a flash.
Suddenly I’m full of emptiness. My insides shocked, in pain.
I don’t know why, but I decide to follow her. It all just feels so sudden. Obviously this isn’t how I wanted the date to end. And I think she feels likewise. Is there anything I can do? I’m thinking. Wow, my thoughts feel dark now. I suppose a more unhinged person might stalk her, just keep going, maybe even attack her, perhaps just force the weird aggressive energy outward. I’m surprising myself by thinking this. It could be a rape situation, let’s be honest. I recognize that. I’m put off by the thought, disgusted by myself. My stomach turns a bit. I slow down. What can I imagine that’s positive? We pull up next to each other at a light, as if by total happenstance, smile at each other coyly, and then she gives me a little nod, leads me to a park or a dark corner of the city and we give in to mutual unbridled passion without speaking another word. This is my fantasy. But I know enough about her to be sure she’s not up for it.
I stare at her and decide to speed past her, leaving her in my dust. What an odd expression of my frustration. She probably recognizes me as I disappear beyond her. She probably wonders if I recognized her, if I was following her or just going the same direction or what. I don’t know what I’m thinking. This is not a proud moment, if I’m being honest.
Phuong is gone. I keep cruising, speeding through the city. I think about her shyness, her embarrassment, the missing goodnight kiss. Is it true that she wouldn’t kiss me because we were in public? Now that I think about it, I really haven’t seen any public displays of affection since arriving – no kissing, no handholding or arms around each other or hugs even. Nothing. The only affection I’ve witnessed is girls on the backs of motorbikes holding onto guys. This is the only acceptable form of visible intimacy, apparently. Well, I want that. I want her on the back of my bike, holding on to me. I don’t have it.