I had dropped off the face of the earth. There wasn't a blessed soul who knew what had become of me. But that was fitting, I thought. They had all stopped knowing where I was long before I actually left, and the fact that I wasn't there in person anymore made things tidy in my mind. Neither friends nor family could place me on a map if they tried, and very soon after I left I stopped wondering if they cared. I didn't think about them at all anymore, except in moments of bitter, wounded irony that came upon me without warning.
Lee Marvin once said, "I was born under a wandering star." And so I was. I fixed a mark in the eastern heavens where some ancient, celestial waypoint lured my restless feet. Traveling to China, I taught for a year before moving on to India where I did the same, all the while making tracks through the dark, illimitable jungles and countrysides that lay between. They aren't as vast as they once were, but still there's breadth enough for a man to lose himself, and god knows I did my best.
At first I thought the freedom I felt when I arrived in Asia was because I could be anyone I wanted to be. I wasn't confined by western societal expectations. If I was strange, if I did anything different, it didn't matter here because whatever you did was already so far from anything anyone else was doing. Your mannerisms, your peculiarities - everything - was written off entirely. To them, you were just a foreigner, and all your eccentricities were marked down to your foreignness. There were a plethora of excuses for everything you did, even down to the language barrier, and so nothing mattered. People were generally only too happy to excuse your oddness, though I often felt I strained that incredible leniency. But after a while I began to learn that I had been wrong. I wasn't free because I could be anyone I wanted to be, but because no one knew who I was. It was a subtle difference that changed everything.
I'd always had a friend in Joseph Conrad, and bits and phrases from his fathomless novels scurried about my mind as I sat before waning campfires and listened to the jungle insects drone. I was Lord Jim; I was Charles Marlow; I was every white man who didn't belong, who had no place or people, who fled to the wilderness and jungle because its tangled depths were less formidable than the civilised world in which he lived. I've always had a fascination with jungles, I don't know why. I grew up in the desert, though I did spend a good few years running around haunted forests in Ohio and Kentucky. There's something in those black trunks, towering eerily overhead - something in the gloomy hollows and cavernous alleyways that calls to me. In the stifling heat, the oppressive closeness of the leaves and grotesque, ensnaring vines, I feel my blood pounding, hear the pulsing of primordial drums, and something primal tells me that this is right.
There had once been a girl. There was always a girl. She appeared in my life suddenly, like a flash of lightning - searing, blinding - and just as suddenly vanished, taking with her all the light and heat I had so long sought. A burning trail across my mind that flickered brilliantly and then dissolved, fading in pieces like the fragments of a happy dream after waking. But I didn't know myself, I didn't love myself. How could she? And so she left, the roots of her warmth and passion finding no purchase in my callous heart, as desperately and vainly as I tried to nurture them. It had left me more cynical towards the world than I had ever been, hopelessly suspicious of every new face, fearing to find again that terrible loss. But she wasn't why I was here. In truth, I had always been here.
As I sat eating a bowl of rice with eggs so fresh I watched the hen lay them, I was joined by another traveller. He told me his name was Tucker, and offered to pay for my meal. White faces are few and far between in the expanse of the orient, even in our international world, and I initially cursed the blundering luck that brought him across my path. I didn't come to Vietnam to meet the lurid faces of my vagabond race.
Ban Canga, I think that's what it was called - on the banks of some swollen, diseased, yellow river. It was early August, and the huddled little shacks drooped sadly under a steady afternoon rain. Silent mules and wretched looking oxen paired by rotting yokes struggled through the muddy streets that were quickly becoming streams. I sat at a makeshift bar beneath an awning made of straw and grass and banana leaves, breathing in the steam from my rice. The owner of the little hut stood with his hands behind his back in the doorway, his impossibly narrow eyes looking like no more than large creases in the patchwork of folds that ran over his wizened face. His wife sat in the corner, her hands folded over the tattered robes above her fat belly, a glowing wood stove flickering faintly in the darkness. She stared vacantly at the floor.
Tucker had propped his battered Osprey pack on a makeshift stool, keeping it off the muddy ground. I nodded to him when he introduced himself and sat down, and continued to eat my meal without acknowledging him further. He managed something in Vietnamese and the man looked to his wife and shrilly barked an order. She warbled back to him and dramatically heaved herself up from her cushions. As she began fumbling about with ancient black cooking pots, Tucker turned to me. I could feel him regarding me for a moment, before he turned his back to the hut and rested his elbows on the counter. He looked out into the street.
"Helluva day," he began, somewhat cheerfully. I mumbled an agreement. "You know, I've spent the last three years going through southern Asia, and I think Vietnam is my favourite." He spoke in a calm, English accent that I couldn't place. Or maybe it was Australian. It'd been so long since I'd heard a white voice, I found myself concentrating to even recognise the words. "The towns, they aren't so different, though," he resumed after a brief pause. "You may think you have a favourite, or even one that's worse than all the rest. But honestly, I don't think they're really any different, once you stop to think on it. It's the people that make the place, and it's the place that makes the people. And after these three years, I really don't know which has more of an effect on the other."
He spoke casually, almost to himself. I continued to eat my rice, thinking maybe he was finished talking. The woman had set a pot of water on the stove and began dropping in bits and pieces of things I couldn't place, from little assorted bags around the hut. The man in the doorway held a dirty thumb to one side of his nose and blew loudly through the other, then switched sides. I was initially startled by this charming habit when I first arrived in Asia, but in truth, I hardly noticed anymore. When you accepted that few cultures had the persistence of conduct and hygiene that prevailed in the West, it just stopped mattering. The air was dirty here anyway.
Tucker had started talking again and I hadn't realised it. I almost felt like I was eavesdropping as I resumed listening. "…feeling you get after spending some time here. A sort of…well, I guess a sort of apathy. Things stop meaning anything, don't they? In the States or Europe, everyone knows everything. Everyone is a part of everyone else's business, and we're so involved that it's become a carnival, it really has. We've got so little going on in our lives, and so many things to keep track of all that rubbish, that the trivialities lose perspective. Life loses perspective." He looked back at me, as if he were considering me for a moment. "But here… here there's nothing, and that's ok. There's never been anything here, not really." He waved his hand expansively towards the muddy street. "You think that's changed in a hundred years? In five hundred? What difference does it make? And we won't live to see it change any more than this. I find that a bit comforting, don't you? That there's a place in the world where nothing happens, and no one's fussed about it?"
I set my bowl down and looked at him. He wasn't going to stop, that was evident. "Look, Tucker?" He inclined his head slightly. "I don't know what the deal is with this place. I've been here for a year - well, I mean, in Asia for…" Had it really been four years? "Four years now. I haven't seen my family in that long, and I haven't seen any friends either. I don't know who the President is now, and I don't know if we're still in the Middle East. So I guess you're right, there's a lot of nothing here, and if you stick around long enough, you start to fill up with nothing." Were those my words? Had I just said that?
He watched me carefully, his green eyes open and perceptive. He had a thick brown beard, trimmed to within an inch or two of his face, and he wore his brown hair loose, stopping just at his neck. His face was tanned, and looked to be about thirty or thirty-five. He had an honest face, an expression of sincerity that was disarming.
"There's nothing so much eats a man as knowing he doesn't really matter." I stopped myself. I didn't want to tell him more, and I wished I hadn't said that much. "I need to get going," I said quickly, turning back to my bowl. He looked at me for a second longer then resumed his position staring into the street.
"What's the rush?" He said finally.
"What?" I asked.
"You have to get going. Are you meeting someone?" He asked flatly. It took me a second to understand. Was he really asking me why I wanted to leave? "I mean, if you're intent on mucking on through this rain, I won't stop you mate. It's just nice to see a Western face every now and again, ain't it?"
I gritted my teeth. He was doggedly congenial. "Yeah, I suppose it is." I said. The woman in the hut placed a simmering bowl in front of the man, with floating chunks of something. She noisily yapped at him and then resumed her position in the corner, settling down like some bloated, aged toad on its lily pad. Tucker looked at me and raised his eyebrows in a comical expression, feigning surprise.
He produced a worn metal spoon from his pack and then turned to his soup. He inspected it briefly with the eye one acquires for food in Asia. Testing it gingerly, and apparently satisfied, he picked up the bowl and began slurping steaming mouthfuls. We sat without talking for several minutes as the rain poured down a few feet beyond the little hut. The heat was oppressive. It followed you wherever you went, inside or out, and clung to you until every part of your body was continually soaked. Four years ago when I had first arrived in China, I had brought sweaters and jumpers and all the sorts of clothes I would have worn when I was in the States, but had since thrown them out or given them all away. I now wore a loose fitting white shirt that opened down to my chest. It dried in minutes, when given the chance.
"I don't mean to pry, but what's your story mate?" Tucker asked, looking up from his bowl briefly.
I smiled, overcome with a feeling of irony. I set my bowl down. "You like to talk, don't you?" I asked flatly, resigning myself for whatever was to come.
He shrugged his broad shoulders. "Well I'm not about to pretend that you ain't here, if that's what you mean."
I conceded the point. "I dunno, really. I came to teach in China a few years ago, and then India, and then… somehow I ended up here." The words seemed strange, summarising so briefly and nonchalantly what had taken long, long years to transpire.
"And now?" He asked, genuinely curious.
"And now?" This question was even stranger. What did he mean, "And now?" I felt sincerely confused. I hadn't thought about it in such a long time. I had plenty of money saved up from my years of teaching, and when you travel by bus or bike or on your own two feet, you spend next to nothing. And what did a bowl of rice cost? I had gotten tired of teaching-it seemed so meaningless. After only a month in China it was patently clear that I was nothing more than a paid dancing white monkey, a Caucasian face to show everyone else how progressive and Western-friendly the school was. They didn't care what I did, what I taught, as long as it wasn't counter-revolutionary. I spent a month talking about Viking mythology to those little inscrutable brown faces, and the kids were as happy as if I'd been teaching them gerunds and past participles. It was meaningless, so I quit. India was no better.
I'd read Conrad though, and I knew of Jack London's adventures, and the thought of just getting lost somewhere in Asia was… well, if it didn't seem like exactly the right thing to do, it certainly felt like the only reasonable option I had left. I mean, what else was I going to do? There was nothing in America for me. Or at least, I had convinced myself that was the case. And I didn't think anyone missed me anymore, if they even had to begin with.
"I don't know," I said, unsure. "I guess…" I trailed off. What was there now? Did I know where I was going when I picked up my pack and left this little village? Thinking, planning, anticipating… it seemed alien. It felt like an intruder in my consciousness, a tugging sensation that pulled me by the hair up and out of the pit I'd been digging, forcing me to admit, to recognise… I didn't want to think about it. I couldn't. I stared at the cracked boards in the disintegrating bar top, traced the aging lines with my eyes. I followed their rifts and canyons and trails and imagined slipping into one of them, finding the darkness inside and filling it up. What is it to be as small as an insect?
"So… you're just going, then?" Tucker asked. I didn't respond, and he nodded slowly after a moment. "I see." He scratched his beard, and then sat pulling on the wiry bristles about his chin for a little while.
Something deep in me had moved. There was a touch of the cosmos that had been awakened, a faint feeling of eternity that stretched vast and limitless before my eyes. A future full of wandering and motion and meaningless movement, directed towards nothing and accomplishing nothing and filling me so full of nothing that I couldn't breathe. Subconsciously I reached into my pocket and took a hit from my inhaler. I held my breath, counting the seconds in my head. Tucker watched me from the corner of his eye, still pulling on his chin. What was this place? This little, green, rotten hole in the black heart of nothingness? In the heart of me?
I realised I didn't care anymore, that the piece of me which I had so long thought of as a tether to my world - to the white world, to the civilised world, to the world of my ancestors and all the countless generations that had built their towering philosophies and stacked their glimmering trophies high for the world to see - had snapped. I was drifting in an endless sea; a sea of loathing, of contempt, of self-doubt and resignation and damnation and self-imposed exile. Who was there that could possibly understand? My god, the gulf seemed terrible. There was nothing for me here, nothing in me here or anywhere, and I suddenly felt very cold.
I almost remembered what it was like, before - when the wheels of my mind had turned upon immense spools, spinning towards the summation of the universe, collecting, gathering, cultivating ideas. Now they wrapped themselves up in tiny thoughts, in common thoughts, in the here and now - they sent me plunging ahead, chasing blindly after the simple lusts and desires passed down to me out of my cold, northern heritage.
What was the point? What was the use in it all? I didn't want to be cliché. Anything but that. Anything but that meaningless repetition, that tried and useless sentiment, that hideous conflagration of pantomime and mimicry. Anything, anything but that. Anything at all! Let me die now, but don't let me be a meaningless repetition.
"You alright mate?" Tucker asked. I turned and looked at him slowly. His green eyes had turned gray, and he contemplated me from across a great distance. "You look ghost white! Lemme buy you a drink," he said. "I think I could use one myself." I nodded, only half aware. The man at the door stooped beneath the bar and rummaged through some clinking bottles for a moment, bringing up an earthen ware jug and two small clay cups. He poured something brown and watery into each of them, and Tucker placed a few coins on the counter. The man swept them up into his palm and after briefly inspecting them, dropped them in his pocket and resumed his station by the door, pulling on his lower lip and exposing a jagged row of yellow teeth.
The drink was foul, I remember it burning a nauseating trail down my throat and falling leaden into my stomach. "Cheers," Tucker said in a somewhat surprised tone after watching me. I turned to him vacantly as he downed his shot, making a grimace and gingerly placing the cup on the table. He had a calming effect on me, a quiet reassurance that, despite my aroused anxiety, inspired feelings of trust. I simultaneously resented his intrusion, and longed for it.
"So you never answered my question." He said after a moment.
I looked at him, uncomprehending. "Your question?" I asked stupidly.
"What now? What's your plan? Where are you going next?"
There wasn't a map to where I was going next. "I don't really know," I managed. I couldn't believe how this chance conversation had penetrated all of my pretences so effortlessly. Was everything so fragile to begin with?
"Really?" He asked, setting down his spoon for a moment. He looked away and nodded, as if to himself. "Well, I suppose there's no better place to just wander about than Vietnam."
"Yeah," I said, forcing a small laugh. It felt hollow, and somehow made me sick.
"You know," he said, resuming his soup noisily, "I'm on my way to Phu Bai… you're welcome to come. I'm hiking it from here to the next village, I guess it's a day's hike or so, maybe more with this rain. But I'd be glad for the company. A bus drives up there every two days or so, and then it's another day's ride to the city. Wanna come?"
I watched him go. We had finished the meal in banal small talk, or he did at least. I wanted to go with him, but I couldn't. I suddenly ached for companionship, any companionship at all, but something wouldn't let me. It would be abhorrent to the stirring restlessness I felt inside. I couldn't be two places at once, and I couldn't ignore this strange cacophony that whirred and jangled through the branches of my mind. And so I watched him go, watched him pick up his pack and pause, fixing his eyes upon me.
"Well, good luck," he said.
I pursed my lips together resolutely and nodded. It was all I could summon. Before he turned, a curious expression of knowing flashed across his face, and then was gone. But perhaps I misread. In any case, I wouldn't know what it meant one way or the other. I was so far from understanding my own kind that there was nothing which could pierce the shroud of my malaise.
He ducked as he left the awning, the rain having finally ceased. He walked down a grassy ridge in the centre of the road, slowly disappearing down that trackless, muddy avenue, leaving me right where he had found me. My heart stung momentarily at the fleeting thought that I would never see this man again, as long as I lived. And what was he to me? Who was he, that I should care? He was just a stranger - just another vagabond in a hopeless race of the same; someone who chanced to find me here on his own tireless journey - nothing more or less. He might have been any other person in the world, utterly replaceable, interchangeable.
I pushed my rice away, standing to leave, and caught the owner in the eye. He looked at me sourly as I hefted my pack onto my shoulders. He said something that sounded like "Where are you going?" I shrugged. He wrinkled his nose and said something else, but I couldn't make it out. I turned into the road and began walking, in the opposite direction of Tucker. The sun was breaking in spots through a jaundiced sky, and the twisted, narrow road ahead wound upwards into shrouded mist. Dark trees leaned in on either side, their dripping, stagnant branches waiting to embrace me.
I had a sudden, vivid thought then, as I walked away. I saw this sallow man in his shabby hut standing there, and imagined that he would be here until he died, slouched under the same awning, pulling on his lip, watching others for a few moments while they stopped off on this little road in the heart of nowhere. All the time, his repugnant wife on her lily pad, gloating there horribly in the darkness.
M C R
This work is copyrighted by the author, Garrett Sharp. All rights reserved.