Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Expat Mayhem

One of the middle-aged women was an American whose name escapes me, and the other a Dutch woman named Helena. They had spent their afternoon in an expat bar, plowing through a couple bottles of wine each. Needless to say, they were not in any condition to drive a forklift when I arrived in the evening.

Their drunkenness isn’t particularly noteworthy. It took me a long time to learn that heavy drinking is not just the purview of the young. My parents, while not teetotalers, are certainly not boozers either. If they have two drinks with dinner, the rest of their evening is spent in the prone position on the couch. If my father – god forbid – has three drinks, my mother purses her lips and begins purposefully striding around the house, picking things up and heavily putting them back down, fraught with tension as she convinces herself that she's married to an alcoholic. Needless to say, he usually saves such deviant behaviour for when she’s out of town.

At any rate, this is why it wasn’t until I was in my twenties that I discovered that older people drink as well.

But none of the older drinkers I’ve met have been anything like Helena. She was more like the young girls I saw every Thursday and Saturday night when I lived in a university town, clad in weird outfits, clinging to one another so that if one stumbled they all stumbled, and shrieking with over-the-top laughter every time this occurred, which was every four or five steps. This is irritating in 18 year-olds, but to see someone in her mid-forties act like this is a intriguing more than anything else. For about five minutes.

She lurched from her friend to me and mine. “Whassyername,” she slurred, clutching my arm in an attempt to stand up straight that almost worked. Grabbing her to prevent her from dashing her brains out on the tiled floor, I told her. The minute she was upright again, she got distracted by something and dashed away.

While she was gone, her American friend took the opportunity to get friendly with another punter. Really friendly. I glanced over to see them shaking hands; a second glance a couple minutes later revealed that her hand had slipped into the back of his shorts, in a public display of affection that I’ve never understood. Maybe it’s a territory-marking thing. A hand that close to a biological waste disposal system is going to ward off even the most committed competition. "Back off," it says. "We mean business."

I turned my attention away for awhile, thinking that the excitement was over. Far from it. She returned from wherever she’d gone, saw her friend canoodling, and gasped. Mouth agape, she ran over to me again. “Dave, what should I do?”

“What do you mean?” I genuinely was wondering. I was also wondering if I should correct her as to my real name, but quickly determined that this was not something worth dwelling on. I am familiar with the drunken goldfish memory.

“I think I will go over and say ‘excuse me that’s my friend.’”

This did not seem productive. “Well,” I tried to be tactful, “they are both adults…” As I said this, I had to hold in a snort. They certainly were.

I don’t think she liked my answer, as she abruptly left for the second time and made the same pitch – in a voice loud enough for me to hear, the deliberation of which I am unsure of – to another table. She certainly was intent on audience involvement in what was thus far a one-woman show.

Not for long. The exposition was done; it was time for some rising action in the performance. Enter the next character, at precisely the moment that I began to grow bored.

His name was Quy and he came with a gift - a tub of moisturiser for Helena. The way that she took it, thanked him, and then proceeded to ignore him suggested to me that he was in one of those black hole-esque unrequited love relationships, where he dreamed of the day that she would put her hand down the back of his drawers, but knew, deep down, that it would never, ever happen.

My hypothesis was quickly confirmed when he, realizing that Helena would not be speaking to him tonight, took the seat next to me, which had become a rotating stage for the evening’s players. He then launched forth with a dramatic monologue, telling me about, well, everything.

He told me about Helena and her drinking, he told me how he takes her out to dinner. He told me where he lives, his age, his job, how much money he makes. He set up his character in a heartbeat, with absolutely no prompting from me. Were a playwright or a screenwriter to do the same, he’d be laughed out of the theatre or studio for writing something so unbelievable.

Helena stumbled back, distraught. “Jeff, I called my boss and told her I have a migraine and can’t come to work tomorrow.”

“That’s not really a big deal,” I said. “I mean, at least you called her tonight, right?”

“You see,” she lurched (although that is a word that generally describes walking, I feel that is the only effective way to describe her speaking style) “in sales and marketing, it doesn’t matter if you don’t come to work, as long as you meet your sales quotas.”

A Dutch saleswoman in Vietnam? This was interesting, so I asked her more. Besides, I could have sworn she was a teacher.

“Oh no, I’m not a saleswoman. I haven’t been for seven years. Now I teach.”

“You’re a teacher then?”

“No, I teach.”

I furrowed my brow, and delved a little more. “Where do you teach?” She gave me the name of a language centre.

“So you’re an English teacher?”

“NO!” I teach English!”

“Okay,” I breathed in. “You teach English but you’re not an English teacher?”

“Stop making fun of me for not being a real teacher!” And she flounced away again, in a manner that strangely reminded me of Miss Piggy.

If that exchange made your head feel like it was going to explode, imagine how I felt.

Quy leaned over. “She’s 31 you know. Like me.”

By this stage I wasn’t questioning non-sequitors. I was just triaging and treating on a case-by-case basis. This was the Emergency Room, not Diagnostics. So I finally released the snort that had been building up all evening and said “Quy, she is not. She’s 45 if she’s a day.”

He nodded sadly. I’d pointed out that the empress had no clothes. “I know this.”

The empress came back, and Quy unnecessarily shushed me.

“You see,” she slurred. “I told my boss to fuck off so I’m probably fired.”

Was she kidding? She’d told me another version of events not five minutes previous. I’d seen short-term memory loss and poetic license, but never the two combined to such an extent. In a refreshing display of maturity, I decided that mentioning this would be counterproductive. So I decided it was time to go. I’d seen enough for one night.

Helena thrust her cheek out and demanded I kiss her goodbye. I obliged, dodged her attempt to take my glasses, and stuck my hand out to Quy. He hesitated until Helena disappeared, and then, as if to conclude the play, grabbed my hand in both of his and pulled his face up to mine.

Franticly, he whispered. “Listen, listen. I have car. You take my number. You find two western women, you call me, I drive us anywhere.”

Even for this odd evening, this was unexpected. I tried to explain that he was double-handshaking the wrong guy. It's a rarity for me to have one woman on the go; a spare is completely out of the question. I tried to explain this to him but he cut me off.

“No! You have ability! I sense this! I drive us to beach! Two hours no problem!"

It didn't look like logic was going to prevail tonight, so I said okay, disentangled myself from his now-clammy hand,took his number, and left.

But the offer still stands. If you’re a woman reading this blog, from Europe, the Americas, Australia, or New Zealand, and you find yourself in Ho Chi Minh City with a spare friend, towel, and day, drop me a line - the three of us and my man Quy, we're going swimming.

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