The Closed Umbrella
[HCMC]This is the life we lead: the people we meet when we arrive in a new place all leave before we do. Their tours end and they must go somewhere else. Or their spouses get good jobs at prestigious universities and they must relocate. Or, you know, it’s a tough life and they decide to just go home. One of these will apply to each and every one of Sunshine’s coworkers. They’ll be replaced, one by one, by new people while the overall population remains the same. It isn’t all about the job, of course. It’s the whole expatriate life: this cycle also effects the scholars and teachers and NGO aid workers we befriend, along with the reporters and musicians and dignitaries. We must make our new friends fast so we can get as much time as possible with them, knowing that we’ll feel a little sad whenever they, sooner or later, leave us for somewhere else. The replacements are the flip side. These are mostly those coworkers and cultural expatriates who arrive after us. Many of these replacements are the people we will have to leave behind when we go off to our next place. These thoughts were in my head on Friday during one of those little after work parties jauntily referred to as a Happy Hour. This gathering had been organized by a woman who would be leaving at the end of next week. This woman was the first person we met in Hồ Chí Minh City, our sponsor, the coworker who picked us up at the airport. That was over nine months ago now.
If this all seems particularly melancholy, well, we’ve gotten pretty used to it. This is just the way things are. Added to this, everyone is so busy doing what they do here that it’s pretty difficult to manage relationship-building things like dinners and double dates. So when I say we have to make friends fast, I should add that we also have to make this happen with little material and brief maturation. By the second time I see someone at a party we’re either already friends or not, and I already know it. There isn’t really enough time for much indecisiveness about this, and that time is ticking away. I know why I was thinking about this: we’d finally received the long list of possible jobs for our next tour. From this list, we will have to select a number of positions to bid on, one of which will end up being our two- or three-year third tour abroad. We were hoping to receive this list at the beginning of the week, right after we returned from watching the Miss Universe Beauty Pageant in Nha Trang, but they strung us along until Friday afternoon. Sunshine emailed me the list as soon as she had it. I’d planned on going to this Happy Hour party—one more chance to hang out with our sponsor—but the job postings drove all that out of my head. It arrived in my inbox as a jumble of unformatted text, pasted from a spreadsheet. At five o’clock I had barely looked over the thing. I’d been concentrating on reformatting it into something legible. I had a brand new plan: I was hoping to get to the point where I could actually read the thing by the time Sunshine came home from work. I got a phone call about the Happy Hour instead. It was frustrating: after waiting all week for this job list, I had to abandon it for the office party I’d also been waiting all week for.
I grabbed my favorite umbrella and made my way through the monsoon to Sunshine’s office. Outside it was thick and bright, breezeless and humid at that point perfectly between rainstorms when the water is being sucked back into the air. I never even opened my umbrella, no drop ever fell, but I was still trickling into my damp clothing by the time I arrived at the Happy Hour party. I hadn’t had the kind of weather I’d planned for; I’d had the kind an umbrella could not protect me against.
This was another “Hail and Farewell” party. That first friend we made, that woman who rescued us from Tân Sơn Nhất Airport during our first few minutes in town, was not the only coworker slated to depart. A handful people will be leaving over the next two months. That’s the farewell part. As for the hail, I met three new people at this very party. That’s just the way it is. In with the new and out with the old, mostly in that order. One of the women I met will be taking over Sunshine’s job in October oh-nine. How weird is that? And since the theme of this party was to meet new arrivals and catch some last moments with those nearly departed, well, I must apologize: it was a theme mostly preempted by that new list of next tour job positions finally becoming available. We spent a lot of Friday’s party talking to those who were just like us: here for another year and hypnotized by the eleven hundred and twenty job opportunities that had fallen into our laps earlier that afternoon. These new arrivals wouldn’t be bidding on another post for a year, those leaving had already done this bidding long ago. They could not be a part of our Christmas.
All of these Happy Hour parties take place in the office. One of the bosses was mixing up Dalat strawberries and rum in a blender. I discovered an almost half-full bottle of Irish whisky among the two dozen or so fifths of imported liquor sitting on a filing cabinet. I was really excited about this. I haven’t actually seen any Irish whisky in Vietnam. The few restaurants listing it on their menus invariably tell us they are out when we try to order it. From this moment on, I ignored the berry rum smoothies from the boss’ blender (and the weird Chinese beer in the office fridge). I concentrated on the Jamieson. It’s pretty strange to be drinking in someone else’s office. Parties seem a little more surreal among the fuzzy maze of movable cubicle walls and photocopiers. It always feels like a birthday or maybe the last day of school. Here and there the identical plastic desks were decorated with photos and vases and cups full of pens, along with whatever else might fend off the otherwise characterless and homogenized anonymity of a cubicle. Whisky went down well here, between those bulletproof interview windows and these perky little workstations.
Outside, it had begun to rain like hell: sheets and torrents were falling so loudly we could easily hear it through that thick security glass. It was difficult to imagine leaving. I still had an umbrella, but it just wasn’t that kind of rain. It was the kind that rises over the sewer grates, drops tree limbs along the streets, and blasts right up underneath umbrellas. That Happy Hour party lasted longer than anyone really planned because of the weather. We stayed on and on, cozy in those office spaces well away from the rain. When the weather finally let up and we left, we all felt like we should apologize to the guards on night duty. I had not sucked down the entire under half-full bottle of Irish whisky. And although I made the joke, I did not stuff the over one-fourth full bottle into my pocket.
Outside it was misty and cool, the new rains had left it breezy. There was a pervasive drizzle, but I never even opened my umbrella. The coolness felt good on my face and hands, and if I arrived damp it was at least something I was used to by now.
The rest of my night doesn’t begin to blur until well after dinner. Our friend from the first paragraph invited us over to her house for takeout. It was the first time I had seen a place in her apartment building; it is always a treat exploring the housing pool. She had done a really good job with the decorating. I was surprised that, with just a week left in Vietnam, she still had all her stuff. She was in that stage of moving when it becomes important to give or throw away whatever stuff possible. We got to rummage through her DVDs, her shelves. Open bottles needed to either be drunk or poured out down the sink. Movers will not ship opened bottles. We all decided to order Indian food, which arrived about a half an hour later. A half an hour after that, Sunshine declined to go out on the town. There were interesting things to do, looking over our new list of possible jobs, researching interesting new places on the internet. This was her plan, and had been my own plan before the strawberry smoothies and Jamieson and white wine and whatever that Vietnamese apple flavored stuff was. But my plans had changed with my loss of judgment. I did not decline to go out on the town. Sunshine went home and I went clubbing.
My memories are still not too blurry at this point: four of us hailed a cab right outside our sponsor’s apartment. There was some confusion as to where we’d decided to go. Someone asked the cab driver to take us to an Irish bar with a name rather like “Sheraton” while someone else, confused, gave him directions to the actual hotel. Once we’d realized our mistake, we cut our losses and ended up in third place, a trendy curvy wood-and-brick barroom hosting a loud multinational band. The lead singer was French, and sung many French and Spanish ballads at a whole new speed. He also covered the Ramones. The dreadlocked guy was probably a kiwi or a yank, and he covered Oasis and Nirvana and Green Day. Occasionally someone would dance up from the audience and sing a song: a Filipino karaoke star, a African American rapper. It was all too flat and archetypical (or just typical)—sitcom cameos dropping in on the Huxtable family, relying on creative shorthand: an appearance-driven dimensionality based in audience expectation. But the sound thumped, the band was energetic, and the crowd was more or less dancing happily in that restricted hopping and swaying type way fitting, I guess, the closed-in space.
The problem with Vietnamese bars really is my own problem: I do not speak Vietnamese. There are always English menus where drinks are helpfully listed. But there is no way a two-sided piece of folded cardstock can possibly be comprehensive. Predicting this, most bars also list their well and shelf liquors on the menu too. If you know how to mix your drink they will make it for you, just so long as you can explain how to do it in Vietnamese. I cannot. If the drink I want isn’t helpfully listed (remember? A manhattan with Irish whisky instead of bourbon, shaken, up), I must make do with what is available. Friday night, after everything else, I ordered a long island iced tea. Everything else was too sweet: mai tais and singapore slings and cuba libres. Since a friend and I had sprung for that first round, I was later treated to a second long island iced tea I hadn’t planned on having. Complicating this, that second round also included a surprise shot, supposedly a lemon drop. Imagine a lemon drop: one hundred proof vodka and lemon juice and sugar, so alcoholic they are frequently served on fire in their little shot glasses. One of the things I really love about Vietnamese bars is their tendency to pour really long drinks. At this loud, sweaty, hip bar they only charge an extra ten thousand đồng (about sixty cents) to keep pouring a whole drink instead of stopping at a little shot. Little, if any, attention is given to the complex system of comparative alcohol-by-volumes which usually dictate the relative sizes of large and small drinks. This is why we all ended up with our regular drinks in our left hands and lemon drops in our right. Everybody else had beers and I had a long island iced tea and we all had these economy-sized lemon drops served without ice in a sugar-encrusted martini glass the size of a goddamn party hat.
(At one point, trying to choke this volume of sickly sweet lemon stuff down, I sneezed. This also reminded me of a sitcom. Flammable lemon and sugar flew everywhere in a comical spray. This is about when things started to get sort of blurry.)
With both hands full, I had to hook my umbrella in the front of my pants. I should have sent the umbrella home with Sunshine, but I’d forgotten. I knew I wasn’t ever going to get around to opening it. I was actually relishing the thought of walking home in the rain by this point. It’s my favorite umbrella, but carrying the thing around had become sort of a pain in the ass.
After another couple of songs, we left. One of our party decided to call it a night right then, reducing our group to three. This had been my plan, too. Walk home in the rain. But it wasn’t raining and out on the sidewalk someone suggested a nearby club and a cab was hailed and fine, whatever, I was having fun. Whatever it was I’d had planned at that point finally gave in completely to the different story I’m telling. It happened right there in the cab on the way to that club.
If the last place had been trendy and hip, this new place was slick and tony. They even charged an entry fee which was paid for me. They took away my umbrella and put it in a locker for safekeeping. There was no dance floor, but there was a wide spiral stairway radiating from the circular bar where people danced dizzily. Lights flashed. For a long time we sat in a booth. For a while we stood on the stairs. I remember that I swayed and hopped a little. The colored lights flashed on my hands. Hey, they had manhattans here, but no Irish whisky. Concessions were made. We walked on up to the second floor. We talked about important things. The people above me were in the same light as I had on my hands. It was bouncing back and forth. Dancing is good exercise. The banisters were steel, and I could let go with one hand at a time occasionally. I tlked about voodoo. The people up there would wave back. The music never seemed to change. I was eventually helped, more than I’d really like to admit, outside and into a cab by my friends, one of which was the first person I’d even met in Hồ Chí Minh City. I was slowly becoming shocked over being so drunk. I knew I was failing to hide the fact anymore, but I kept wishing I was invisible, less obvious, alone. I do not know who went home first, but I suspect it was me.
By the time I was in our apartment, things were coming back into some focus again. It was probably another hour before I went to bed. In the meantime, I took a little walk upstairs to the roof just to clear my head a little. I checked my email. I drank a lot of water. I tried counting up the number of drinks I’d had throughout the night, tried to figure out what had happened to me as a sobering exercise. There were the small smoothie and Dixie cup whiskies at the office party, a glass of wine at dinner paired with some sips of weird apple aperitif. There were the two long island iced teas and the two manhattans (those were really small if I remember correctly—hell, I drank ‘em fast enough). And oh yeah, there was that goddamn lemon drop thing. I know this sounds like a lot, but I ingested all this, with Indian food, over ten long hours characterized by some low energy hopping and swaying. I do not drink all that often anymore. I was expecting to get drunk, but not as drunk as I got. It seemed unthinkable to me that I had nearly blacked out. That I’d needed help walking down the swank club stairs to the cab. I went to bed embarrassed and perplexed. I just couldn’t understand it.
I woke up five hours later, took a number of aspirin with a whole bottle of water, then carried another bottle into the shower with me. It was a very long shower, in which I probably fell asleep, my head resting on a rolled-up, soaking wet bath towel. I didn’t really recover all that day, but that’s okay. I was ready to accept my punishment. At some point during Saturday I realized what the hell had happened to me the night before. I was still counting my drinks, one two three, trying to figure it all out when it occurred to me. I really don’t drink very often here in Vietnam. Not enough to have learned my new limits, that new point in the evening to say when. I had been following old patterns. When drinking, once the judgment goes, I used to count on habits of expenditure and volume of intake to guide me. I used to go out very often, and mostly I’ve handled myself with composure. But right now I’m almost thirty pounds thinner than I was nine months ago. This means that all those old limits and habits must be scaled in comparison. This is the sort of thing I’d never manage to remember after my judgment has gone away and my blood has already gone toxic with last year’s alcohol levels. As hungover as I was, though, I was happy to see it this way: it gave me something to spend the weekend slapping my forehead over, but also maybe even something to pat myself on the back for—what better reason to make an ass out of myself than all this newfound health? But at the same time I still felt awfully humiliated.
But what became of the original, intended story of my Friday, those plans I made and kept revising? Did that story slowly corrupt in the same way I did that day? Did it go off and end on its on once my plans for it had irretrievably derailed? Is it waiting to be picked back up at some later point in the weekend? If so, can I still come to the same conclusions and insights I might have on Friday, once I pick that story’s trail back up again? And if not, is this a bad thing? Friday was obviously founded on ignorance and dubious judgment. In a way, I’m glad that we didn’t end up making any career decisions on that day. What about my favorite umbrella? That one I can answer: I accidentally left it in that locker at the club. Frankly, it wasn’t the kind of night that could have been saved by an umbrella in the end, not that I ever opened it at all anyway.