Cliffhanger

Last month my friend Jess announced, “I’m going to a festival in Barcelona and I’ll be doing MDMA for five days straight.” I pictured her covered in henna tattoos, lit on Molly, dancing on a moon-kissed beach. The romancing of her life and drug use was jarring—in part, because I’m sober and also because, it’s just not my life anymore. I’m a mother, I go to work, I do my dishes, I drink tea, and go to bed early. After 18 months of sobriety and nearly two years of diapers and schedules and routines, rocking my daughter to sleep nearly every single one of those nights, this scene, her destination and its impact, felt so otherworldly.

When the words settled a bit, I thought, “Oh yes, I remember.”

dancin
Throwback, me dancing, summer 2011.

I remembered doing MDMA on the beach, the feeling that nothing else mattered, but the flash, the sensations of a moment. There were no mornings or tomorrows, just those screenshots of fleeting faces and images, sound bites of laughter, a rush that could never be sustained. I had done it, all of it, and even though, it was behind me, I could still feel it, taste it, touch it, and hold it. And because Jess knows me, she knows that there was no need to give me the censored version. She told me about rooftop sex parties, blackout Tinder dates, and the other adventures of a single twenty-something, living in Berlin.

Jess is a full decade younger than me (9 years and 11 months, to be exact). We met in Berlin a few years ago after she moved to Germany from a small town in Iowa. Despite the age gap and life changes, we’ve always sustained wide overlay in our interests and tastes—writing, film, books, television, and travel. Most notably, we share that painful, dull ache, the spell of wanderlust and searching that drove us to leave home in the first place. We’ve had countless and ongoing conversations about becoming expats, leaving our friends and family, and really, how much life would have been easier if we could have just stayed home.

Why couldn’t we be those types who were happy to stay put?

It isn’t lost on me that Jess is living my old life. She is a freelance writer, sailing overseas, bouncing continents, crossing borders, weather patterns, and time zones, hitching and unhitching to the lives of others.  There is such chaos and momentum to her journey, I can almost feel the energy when she comes back into town. It is a manic life, one that feels so vivid in my memory. Some days you are overflowing with so much love, energy and experience,  you are going to burst and others, you worry, you will never find land, you will always be searching, and never have what it takes to just be where you are.

The month after we met she was in a drunken bike accident and I went to visit her in the hospital. I brought her snacks from the Spätkauf,and cheap magazines and old books to keep her occupied. With a severe concussion, the doctors kept her in the hospital for nearly a week. She never told anyone from home or her parents what happened to her and it was the first time I remember worrying about her, but more remembering exactly how that felt to be alone in a foreign country, alone in a foreign hospital.

I had my last drink with Jess sometime in early 2016. We were at a shitty Irish pub in the touristy part of town. She was drinking cheap red wine, I was drinking cheap white. Though I told myself, just one or two glasses that night, we probably had 6 or 7. And, even after I tripped on my platforms in the middle of Friedrichstraße, we thought it was a good idea to find a club. We stumbled around for a few blocks until I realized I was too drunk to keep wandering around aimlessly. Also, somehow it did still occur to me, I had a four month old baby to take care of in the morning. Jess jumped on her bike and swerved away.

bike

It was a life I had to say goodbye to, and I did.

We flew to Sicily last week, both escaping for different reasons. Jess was looking forward to a kind of sober, detox weekend with me, and I was looking for an adventure, a break in the parenting doldrums. We bought cheap flights to Catania, took a bus to Teormina, on the Eastern Coast of Sicily and rented a budget AirB&B in the center of town, with a hard bed and a windy air conditioner. From our private balcony we still had a wide, striking view of the Mediterranean from the town built into the island cliffs. We had a simple plan– hike, swim, write, read, and eat Sicilian food.

Our friendship sometimes feels like worlds and time colliding—who we are, up against who we were and who we will become, like the seas that smashed against the rocks. There was part of me that worried—would she get bored of me and my 11 PM bedtime? Or worse, would I be tempted by the fantasy of my old life, the freedom and the booze and that feeling like true escape was only a cocktail away. It was the first sober vacation I had taken away from my daughter and my husband, so even though I felt comfortable being around alcohol, I wasn’t sure how I would react to being thrown into proximity of an old me, the semblance of my old life—no responsibilities, no one to wake up to, the romance of travel and nostalgia co-mingling in a dangerous way.

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The first morning we woke early and hiked up to the Chiesa Madonna della Rocca, a 500 stair climb. We did switchbacks on the trail, and in our conversations, alternating between the terrains of our lives. I talked about family life, whether or not we wanted a second child, how to balance career and artistic aspirations with child-rearing. She talked about a recent Tinder date, what country she is going to go to next, and more pressing, her brother’s recent Facebook post that confessed he was suicidal. We were similar in that way, still feeling connected to home, worrying about other people a lot, yet still so far away that we felt helpless. Our conversations gave us some distance, the distraction of the other, and differences between us,  offered perspective on our own lives.

I should be more accurate in painting a picture of Jess. Despite her proclivities for a secret and bawdy nightlife, she maintains a fairly productive day life. She is brilliant and bookish, graduated 4th in her high school class and got a full scholarship to college. She is a novelist, a professional romance author who writes a novel a week for a client-publisher. I’ll repeat that—she writes a novel a week. Her books are top-rated on Amazon and she has a widespread following in her pen name. I want to say, despite her exploits, she is successful, driven and grounded in a way that I never was in my twenties. She can also be shy with a soft, childlike voice that requires you to lean in. Though I know she is bright and worldly, it is easy to dismiss her as passive, because of her stature, her kind eyes, and her uncanny ability to just sit and listen.

“You’re a good listener,” I told her while we were at dinner, sitting on one of the tile squares, next to a church set against the backdrops of the Sicilian cliffs and the Mediterranean skyline, “People might take advantage of that,” I said, worried that maybe I already had.

“They do,” she said with an upspeak, seeming to accept this simple fact about who she is, in the same regretful way she once said to me, “I’ll always be the small cute girl, not the sexy one,” even though she is.  Jess can pull off the string bikinis and chest baring V-neck onesies that would make me feel old, naked, and silly. Later that night, two American men passed by us, glanced down at her, and, assuming we didn’t speak English, one of them said to the other, “Are you looking at what I’m looking at?” It was one of those things you giggle at because it’s uncomfortable, and common, and dealing with the crudeness of men is always a form of female bonding.

In the morning we took the cable car from city center and decided to hike out on one of the jutting rocky peninsulas from the beach. We walked to the edge, climbed a steep path and then crawled over the railing to get to the first inlet. We got to the first peak and looked out, the waves crashing below us, before we decided to keep going up. I managed to move fast, nearly skipping through the first part of the climb, but then I had to stop. It was steep and vertical, requiring some skill, the right foot placement, finding a well-fingered grip. I looked up at the ascent in front of me, then down at the jagged rocks below, the waves crashing, the crevices of rock and patches of water, none safe for landing.

Jess was already over the ridge when I heard her yell, “It’s nice up here.” I paused, wondering if I should keep going or just turn back. The sun was reflecting from the rocks in front of me, the winds whipping my hair, the sound of the waves crashing over the rocks below. I thought about my daughter and some fears took over–maybe, I couldn’t afford this kind of lifestyle, these types of risks. Just in time, I stopped thinking and started moving, keeping my gaze in front of me, pulling myself up, one step, one wedged foot at a time. When I finally launched myself over the highest rocks, I stood tall, looking over the sea from a flat rock.

Both of us had some nervous energy so we sat down and I told Jess a story I recently heard about these two hikers in California who strayed from their trail. They kept going further and further up, thinking they were on the right path, edging around these narrowing cliffs until it got dark, and they finally had to stop. Stuck on a rock and waiting for the sun to come up, the one hiker heard his friend slip and just as he woke to catch him, he was gone, without a sound. All night he told himself that his friend must have survived, he was just waiting for him below and he continued to call to him, talk to him through the night. The next morning he hiked down and found his friend’s body at the bottom of the trail.

It was a harrowing story, but what I remembered most was that after he reported the accident, the cops wouldn’t drive him back to San Francisco and he had to hitchhike home. The woman who picked him up said something like, “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.” I don’t know if that last part is true, but that’s what I remembered, and that’s the story I told Jess.

She was wide-eyed and for the first time since I have known her, she looked terrified, “I want to get down now, I’m scared.” I was scared too. I knew we went up too far, and we had already climbed over barricades to get where we were and there wasn’t a clear way down, and that going down would be a lot harder than going up.

I also knew I fucked up telling her that story and decided I owed it to her to go first.

“Don’t worry,” I told her, even though, my legs were quivering.

I gripped a rock with my right hand and turned around to begin my descent, carefully each place to hook my fingers into the rocks, to jab my toes into the hallows and crevices, calculating the loose stones and debris. I wrapped around the bend and could no longer see Jess but kept focused on my feet, my grip, the space closing between me and the ocean. I tried not to think, just move each hand, each foot, one at a time, slowly moving closer until I hit the granite below.  Still 20 feet above the sea, I caught my breath, the heat burning my cheeks, and shoulders.  It seemed so long ago that I was up at the top looking down, already just a memory, as I looked up to see Jess, on the same bend, slowly, steadily, making her way back.

Before we left the beach that day we decided to cliff-jump from the same rocks. It seemed intentional, less reckless somehow, to go down, rather than up. From the ridge I could see the bottom of the ocean through the green water below, exactly where the rocks formed beneath the surface, the negative spot, clear to the bottom where I would need to land. I kicked off my shoes and stepped towards the edge, waves of adrenaline coursed my stomach, my limbs, and reached my fingertips. I could see the peaks of the mountains we climbed the day before, the cross on the ledge, the layers of town that folded into the distance, the crowds on the beach splayed before me. And in those seconds my feet between rock, air, and water, I was alive.

Cliffjump
Photo credit to Jess.

I had to swim around the island to crawl back up to the rocks where Jess was waiting. She was eager but hesitant. Her shoes were off and she was standing at the ledge, “I want to jump but…” she stepped back, “I just need a minute.”

“Just go, you’ll be fine,” I told her, “It’s clear, I promise.” She stepped to the ledge and back again, “Just go,” I urged her again, “You will be glad you did it.” I tried to think about what I would want to hear, what I would want someone to tell me, to give me strength and comfort about what lies ahead.

Jess reminded me of where I had been, but also all of the chaos, mishaps, fails, pains and recoveries that got me where I was. There is an insecurity in youth, and it lies in the not knowing, the standing on the cliff, before you jump, before decisions begin to stack up behind you. There was nothing I could say, nothing to save her from life or protect her from mistakes, or regrets, or the pain that would inevitably come. It was all there in front of her, and I knew it would be beautiful and wonderful however it happened.

“Jump, I tell her. It’s more dangerous up here than it is down there. Just go,”  I said. It was the only thing I could tell her, that I knew to be true. It’s always harder before the decision, before the fall, before you know what happens next. She looked out over the water and up at the cliffs, and without saying a word, she jumped.

Life is always an easy metaphor for life.

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A shot of Catania from the windows.

On the flight home our seats were a few rows apart. We were still texting when the plane took off and she was jittery about a boy she likes.

“You’re a strong girl,” I texted, “You can handle both love or heart break.”

I have to stop myself, from sharing too much, from telling her too many stories, trying to impart my many ideas about life and my experience. And there’s always a chance that I’ll tell the wrong story, or say the wrong thing. I want to tell her to be reckless and free as long as she can, but never to ignore her suffering. I want to tell her to please, please, please love her body exactly how it is. And, don’t waste time with waste of time guys.  I want to tell her to forgive her parents and try to love them exactly as they are. I want to tell her to enjoy the excited and scary feeling of not knowing how a romance will turn out because someday, you’ll miss that mystery. Mostly, I want to tell her not to worry about what will happen next, that everything will be okay, that none of this matters, but all of it matters.

I want to be reassuring somehow and give her words she could hold on to, but I know I can’t save her, and I shouldn’t. I know that really, there is nothing for me to say. There are no words to explain youth.

This beautiful and unknown, this life, it is hers to unfold.

The End

It could be timing, or love or age or all three. In the end, we strive for a moment we can sit down and say, “I am happy. I have what I need, to stay put, dare I say… settle.” A friend recently sent me this quote: “With the adventurous lives that we live, the real challenge is seeing the adventure in stability.” After over two years of wandering and displacement, it seems I have finally found a comfort in “home” and love. With that, I have obtained an artist visa and decided to remain in Berlin to pursue my writing, life, and other endeavors. Continue reading “The End”

Relapse

My landlord went crazy sometime at the end of June. To tell the background of my summer homelessness would mean attempting to articulate the irrationality of human behavior. Does that sound vague? It was meant to be; partly to spare the landlord in question, and partly to spare myself the wrath of publicly declaring one man’s instabilities and mental aberrations. Though, I am not the type to spare my subjects, in this case, it is only necessary to say that, Craigslist is never good at belying mental illness, until it is too late. Continue reading “Relapse”

Stray Cats (Notes from Berlin)

My first floor Tucson apartment was infested with stray cats. At night I heard them scratching, screaming, fucking beneath the basement floorboards. They made stray cat nests next to the heaters and swaddled cat-babies in the alleys. The ghetto-living was punctuated by a shattered window next to my bed, which looked starkly into a dusty alley lined with desert weeds.

One morning, I awoke to a patch of sun and something else warming my feet. It was furry. When I moved, it moved. Within seconds, I felt the slow crawl of hunting paws first along my legs, the my belly and slowly onto my chest. Before I could wrestle with nature’s invasion, the stray cat put its face in mine and gave a long, almost grateful, “Meeeooooooooow.” After breathing her cat morning breath in my face, she pounced towards the window and made an escape before I had time to offer a cup of coffee.

Throughout that summer, the cat would return occasionally and she was, sweet for a stray, prowling for bowls of milk, or just a warm nights rest. Knowing the elements, I didn’t begrudge her.

Continue reading “Stray Cats (Notes from Berlin)”

The Writing on the Wall

I once dated a guy because he rode a Ducati. At least, it seems now, this was his most attractive feature—also, the one that makes the relationship seem appropriate upon reflection. It was college and Joe was my first real “motorcycle boyfriend,” so I took complete advantage of the fact that we were living in Tucson, saddling up for long rides through the foothills, snaking through the desert mountains at sunset. He was older than me (nearly 30) and always wore dirty jeans and a leather jacket. His hair was short and thinning, and it never occurred to me then, but as I remember, his face was perceptibly asymmetrical. Continue reading “The Writing on the Wall”

Fingerprints

On a sunny London morning, a woman careened towards me with a baby carriage, smiling and bouncing with happy. I had just spilled hot coffee down my arm and the front of my shirt. Often, my awakening to children and babies is forced—an occurrence delivered with high-pitched screams and tension, for me, most evident, while trapped at the airport. At LAX, I was waiting to board my flight to Sydney, when a family comprised of two sunken eyed, exhausted parents and three children entered my world: there was the eldest girl in pigtails, under ten, her brother, not over six or seven, and some version of a toddler (girl or boy, I didn’t care, the parents didn’t seem to either, belied by the deliberately androgynous haircut).

As in many travel situations, I tried not to be overwhelmed by natural, unavoidable annoyances—other peoples odors, amplified announcements, delays, lost baggage, and harsh lighting. The most affecting irritations are invoked by the ignorance of others: this is the kind that cannot be so quickly diffused or excused. In this case, the parents thought it a socially responsible idea to give their children toy instruments—one had a drum, the other, a recorder, and the youngest, some kind of electronic percussion instrument. The parents were oblivious to the eye-rolling directed at them, remaining not only unaware and slouching, but unsympathetic to the fact that no one, not even the most desperate, unmarried, Midwestern girl, thinks their kids are as cute as they do. When the little bastards got bored, they threw their instruments on the carpet and wandered towards the windows, pounding and pawing, leaving large greasy fingerprints that were made visible by a setting sun through the glass, the planes hovering distantly, in an otherwise beautiful shot.

When children are present, IQ’s plummet: speech, manner of reason, and appreciation for the general welfare of the public is irrelevant—normal social skills need not apply. I have heard from some mother-friends of mine that walking out of the house covered in bodily fluids becomes normalized. Parents are swayed only by acts that will potentially quell their screaming children and move as quickly as possible through each moment, each day. As my one divorced single-father friend once so eloquently explained, You give up your whole life to take care of these ungrateful little pieces of people.

Waiting to board the ferry from Malaga to Melilla, I was stuck at a coffee shop guarding a pile of bags while my twenty-something travel buddies wandered around looking to find the ticket counter. I was stopped on the street by an Irish woman and her husband, also lost, having just given a confused, panoramic, sun-shielded glance of the pier. Both looked younger from far away than they did up close (skinny and smiling, even if falsely, signal youth). She had the kind of legs even Barbie would admire, slim and tan, wearing a short jean skirt like a high school cheerleader. They introduced themselves (“Sheila and Jim”) and we helped each other navigate entry, gather tickets, find the ramp and forge ahead with our bags. Lagging behind, I watched them holding hands and skipping up the ramp.

After boarding the ferry, I learned that the couple was in their mid-forties and had married late. They fell in love and both agreed they did not want to have children. They had traveled to Africa several times and were currently on an excursion to Chefchaouen to find some of the best hash in Morocco. They had done their research. Jim pulled out a notebook of literature on how to buy pot in Morocco, the illegalities, ways not to get caught and the best cities to find what you are looking for. They invited us to join them on their exploits, but we were headed 14 hours in the opposite direction.

Sheila and I bumped into each other as she was coming out of the bathroom and I had to ask, “Now, really, what is your secret? How did you get those legs?”

She laughed and said, “Everyone says that. It’s nothing really. I have my father’s skinny gene.” She asked me about what I was doing in Morocco and my travels. We talked rapidly and succinctly, each of us baring our own life story as though there were no other place to have this conversation, but in the hallway, outside the ferry bathroom on the Strait of Gibraltar. When she found out I had called off my wedding she said, “I think that is great. You know, there are so many young girls who just don’t even realize what is out there. They don’t even know what they are capable of. I decided very young not to have children, so it was never hard for me.”

Not that I am one of these “young girls” she describes, but the advice, support and confirmation was well-received. For the first time, I wasn’t being asked, “Don’t you want to be married?” or, “Why don’t you have children?”

Sheila was wild and hard, but also tender and motherly: when a button broke on my shirt, she kindly gave me some scissors and sewing equipment. When I broke the scissors, she smiled, and winked, then the lines on her sun-infused, freckled skin feathered when she refused the leftover Euros in my purse. Sheila and Jim gave us maps and led us off the boat, hailing us a cab and giving us instructions on how to get through customs at midnight.

A month later, I met an older woman on the train to Manchester traveling from the Grasmere Lake District in Northern England. She was returning to Spain to see her husband and children, striking me as lonely and overly gregarious, almost pushy, but proud to talk about her family. She told us about her daughters, one who had two children, and the other, a married lawyer who had made the decision not to have children at all. This was the only moment she ever looked sad, looking down at her hands that clenched tightly, “I fear she is missing on what is important. She may have her travel and her money, but what is it worth in the end?”

My parents try to goad me into the childrearing life-phase, explaining that, “No one is ever ready,” but it seems clear that some people are never ready and should not be populating this world at all. Recently, I stayed with a photographer friend in Minneapolis: early forties, single father, half-French, half-Mexican with beautiful tan skin, green eyes, and white teeth, like the grown child of a dentist. Ramon and I sat at the picnic table in his backyard, drinking wine while he showed me a photo album, spanning his college years through the present. Most of them were of girlfriends, including the mother of his child, and sundry models, one he introduced as a heroin addict who had since overdosed: “I have worked with the best,” he told me.

While he proudly explained that his daughter was the best thing that happened to him, the story was complicated. His model-girlfriend became pregnant only weeks before he intended to leave her and return to Mexico to become a filmmaker. For the first year, he played part-time father, coming in and out and contributing when necessary. After they separated, when his daughter was only two years old,  he was called by Child Protective Services because his ex-girlfriend overdosed and ended up in rehab.

He was later awarded full-custody, which sparked a subsequent legal battle after her release. While looking at photographs, he showed me what was once a crucial piece of evidence during litigation: a photo taken of his toddler daughter draped over her strung out mother, covered and colored in make-up. There was something beautiful and haunting about the way his daughter had applied the eyeliner and blush, as though she mimicked the drug addict mother with dark, sunken eyes and heavy, pouting lips. The two small bodies were entwined, the child’s head resting on her mother’s naked and skinny hip. This photo that told a childhood of stories, was blown up poster-sized and called Evidence A.

The photo itself became infamous and he was awarded full custody. I suggested it was art.

I have a friend in New York, a few years shy of 40, who is unmarried and desperate for a child. Last time I visited her, we laid on our backs in her bed like crazy women, brainstorming how she could “accidentally” get her relatively new boyfriend to knock her up. In this case, the straightforward request would not do: he wasn’t ready and they weren’t married, though she felt her biological clock ticking inside her like a suicide bomb. The guy was also an overly responsible Wall Street type so it wasn’t like he was susceptible to any “fast ones.” We thought of the obvious: poking holes in the condoms or getting him drunk. When pressing other friends for suggestions, one recommended taking the used condom into the bathroom and pulling the turkey baster trick. Still, we found logistical, biological, and moral issues with this brilliant, but diabolical scheme.

This desperation is not unnoted. Children do become an extension of the self, even if unknowingly. It starts out biologically, then evolves, into general dependence and personal accountability, at some point sort of morphing into a kind of individual satisfaction though the inverse is also true. Considering the death of her child, I know of a woman who explained that even though she knew her son’s suicide was not her fault, she could not get over what felt like the death of something inside herthe  death of herself. The parent-child relationship is one I have yet to understand, though its beauty and tragedy, often confusing, cannot be shorted.

Recently I have been impressed by the simple, utter joy experienced by grandparents. I sat at a café in Vietnam and was approached by an older couple who were announcing the birth of their first grandson. Without knowing me, or speaking English, they treated me to breakfast and coffee (announced via our translating waitress). In Dublin, I met a man at the bar who bought a round for the bar celebrating the birth of his grandson, explaining to me that, “Der ain’t any greater joy than seein yar grandbabes.” My own parents are like reborn Christians, dizzy with devotion to their new grandchildren. Recently, at a hotel, I met a man at the bar who glowed when he announced his daughter was having twins, even though she was still in college and unmarried. There is no shame when welcoming new life.

Since my brief return to the States, I have had to confront the reality of the overwhelming place that children occupy in the world. This was a summer of family reunions, birthday parties, weddings, showers and birth announcements, introductions to newborns, and the harrowing sense that time is pushing all of us forward.  Grocery shopping, Interstate stops and suburbs remind me that the economy, culture and psychology of the world is directed at cultivating, socializing, and providing for the next generation. Why wouldn’t it?

My life is not amenable to children and I have not yet swallowed the rhetoric (women without children are selfish or sterile). Abandoning the Midwest seems like a good idea for now, where people like to procreate and mid-twenties pregnancy seems to catch like wildfire. Armies of families begin to form young, making it hard not to feel alone when everyone in your age bracket has at least two other bodies hanging from them.

Before I packed my car again and left for San Francisco, I was at a corner café/bar with a friend in Milwaukee. We were having mimosas in the afternoon before a thunderstorm forced everyone to huddle inside.  In close quarters, the owner handed out serapes to keep us dry.  While squeezing into a corner booth, we were approached by two children, a boy around eight, and his sister, probably five or six. This wasn’t the normal case of, “Jesus, where are your parents?” They were cute, funny, polite, and said things like, “When I grow up, I am going to be a rock star, a soccer player, or a restaurant owner,” (he had compelling reasons for all three). We talked about dinosaurs, favorite superpowers, fairies, vampires and children’s movies I hadn’t considered in years. Outside, the thunder crashed, the lightening lit the summer sky and the rain cut streams through the gutters and past the row of cars parked on the street. Until the storm settled, we played catch with a ball made of rubber bands, acted out dragon slayer scenes and pretended we were ninjas. Imagination transcends time and space…it didn’t matter where we were.

Though I am moving forward independently and perpetually feeling somewhat unhinged (for better or for worse), there is always the potential for new influences. Despite my reservations, I can embrace this one thing: channeling imagination and a kind of detachment from a world that has not yet jaded them, children make people happy…stupid happy, the kind of happy where you lose yourself, if only for a moment.

 

 

Cowboys in Asia

My first night in Saigon, I haven’t slept in two days. I am past the point of being tired—wired, where no self-medication will suffice. The host at the front desk says I look weary and suggests that I go to the spa, “Ahh, night massage. Good for you. Help you get rest.” After cramming my Germanic body into a sleeper bus (the ergonomics clearly unsuited) for over 15 hours and the trepidation of arriving in a new country, I didn’t hesitate and scheduled an 11:30 (PM) appointment.

The ride is prearranged—on the back of a motorbike, through the night market and the back alley to a place called, “Entranced.” I climb off the back seat and return to the driver his weathered and cracked helmet. The tinted doors swing open to a bright waiting room with gold, green and pink floral wallpaper. I am greeted by an overly enthusiastic male and two soft-spoken women wearing long silk nightgowns, one slightly older, both half my height.  They bow,  the man hands me a cup of tea, and I am lead upstairs by the older woman who is now pulling me by the hand. Trying not to spill, I climb a winding dark stairwell, “Wat-cho step,” she tells me, anticipating the forthcoming trip on a piece of loose carpet.

On the third floor, she opens the door to a darkly lit room with four beds separated only by white linen curtains. There is steam unfurling from a bucket of hot stones and a loud fan that masks the sounds of honking motorbikes below. Before I can set down my purse, she points to me and gives me the directive, “You. Take off clothes.” She doesn’t look away and waits until my shoes are off, my pants are in a pile on the chair, and I am draping an arm over my chest, before she gestures to a bed, “Here.” I awkwardly climb on the table, lie down on my stomach and within seconds she is straddling me dumping oil from a jar on my arms and back. The massage is made up of quick, violent movements—fist pounding, lifting and dropping my limbs, cracking my toes and fingers, and a prolonged period of forceful kneading; in short, not relaxing–painful.

Wanting to leave, but having the suspicion that I had only been there about 20 minutes, I commit myself to the long haul, clench my fists and close my eyes. At some point, the younger woman enters and says something hurriedly in Vietnamese. The curtains are drawn closed around my bed and I hear the muffled sounds of a man outside. I recognize his American accent. The pitches of the women change, becoming more drawn out and sultry as they arrange his bed. I listen to him go through the same routine as myself, before he settles in and I am forced to endure the following conversation:

“How ohl ah-you?” she asks him.

He pauses and I can hear through his smile, “Forty six.”

After some hesitation, he asks, flirtatiously, “How old are you?”

“Nine-teen,” (giggles), then “You have fam-i-ry?”

“Yes.”

“You married? You have wife?”

I can tell he is reluctant, wanting to avoid this conversation, but answers, “Yeah.” (Silence, then heavy breathing).

I then listened to a series of questions that I can only imagine were answered by head nods and gestures:

“You like?”

“You want dis?”

“Dis, good for youuuu?” the last word drawn out and punctuated by a slight moan. There is only a curtain between us and I am trapped between sloppy banter and slurping sound effects until my own massage finally ends. I am thrown a towel and whisked away, past his curtain, to the steam bath room two floors up, where the woman demands that I take off my underwear and closes the door. Looking around at the rotted tiles, the air so thick I can hardly breathe, I leave my underwear in place, and cling to my towel. I refuse to sit down. I am suffocated and the entire experience is becoming, not just a waste of money, but unbearable.

Abandoning the remainder of my “spa package,” I decide I want to leave. I open the door and start wandering down the hallway and the dim stairwells, looking for my clothes and purse. I hear her from a floor below when she yells, “NO! You go back in room!” I realized they took me up there so they could finish what was started with the American. She is intercepting me, when she yells, “You come here!” pulls me down  a flight of stairs,  and pushes me into a room without explanation, slamming the door in my face. I look around and realize, I am now, locked in a bathroom, standing in a towel (and my underwear, at least) waiting for this American guy to get off.

Great.

I jiggle the door handle and start knocking. First softly, then I am pounding. After a few minutes, the militant older masseuse opens the door smiling, as if nothing happened, and I say, “Just give me my clothes, I want to get out of here.” She understands, not my words, but my tone, and leads me back to the room where I quickly get dressed and grab my purse. The man has already been escorted out. Again, she takes my hand, holding it between hers, “My friend, my friend, you like me? You give me tip?” I hand her a five dollar bill just to end it all. She hugs me and says, “You are so beautiful. You very pretty,” a line I am certain she has used before.

This wasn’t my first run-in with the sex industry in Asia. I went to “Soi Cowboy” in Bangkok, where the street is lined with strip clubs and brothels, the women free to rent for an evening, or plausibly, a lifetime. The women stand impatiently, lined up, smoking cigarettes with painted, pouting lips, and drooping fake eyelashes, faint peach fuzz belying the gender of the surreptitious ladyboy.

I also went to a karaoke bar in Chiang Mai which operates as a front, the women hike up their skirts and bat their eyes as we enter. I feel bad for them, they look bored, withdrawn, sex appeal sucked dry with their own disinterest, “Let’s have them come in and sing with us!” I suggest.

“If you want to pay $1000 bucks to sing with them, go ahead,” my friend replies. I decide it’s not worth it.

There are some cities that look better in the dark: Austin, Tucson, and New Orleans, I suppose, most desert towns, and the American south, generally. This is my experience in cities throughout Asia, where nightlife, incandescence and the glow of entertainment, hide the smog and dirt your feet will kick up in daylight.

One night in Ho Chi Minh City, I head out with an English guy I met over breakfast. We had spent the day at the War Museum, examining the Agent Orange formaldehyde fetuses and decide that drinking was a necessary antidote. After a few beers on a busy corner, we are carving our way through narrower streets with blinking signs, when he asks, “Want to go to a brothel?”

Here we go.

The brothel is lit in blue lights, and marked by the shadows of dancing women in tight dresses. They have surprising curves. There is a man getting a lap dance in the back. After some cursory broken English is exchanged, a few of the women who are unoccupied sit down at the bar with us and take a shot.

We compare breast implants (this makes them trust me).

I see that the woman behind the bar is crying on the phone. When she hangs up, I ask her if she is okay, what is wrong. She is clearing mascara from under her eyes as she tells me that the man on the phone was an American, from Pennsylvania. He got her pregnant 10 years earlier and was very, how should I say, unreliable, about sending any support money for their daughter. From what I gathered, he also has a double life going on in a suburb back home with a bonus round wife and three kids. I imagine middle-management sloth and pudgy children with names like Steven, Sally, and Grace. His wife has no clue that he has fathered a child in Vietnam or that he left this woman begging and tending brothel.

She is still beautiful.

After being in Thailand and Vietnam, I felt the increasing compulsion to protect Asian women from Western men. I start getting pissed that there are no international child support laws and (drunkenly) consider waging a campaign before the U.N. As it gets later, the white men start trickling into the brothel and I pretend we are at a normal bar, just to put them off. They do not expect a blunt, American woman to come up and ask, “Hey, where you from? How long will you be here?” No one wants to answer questions and they know I can see through them. I successfully force at least three back out into the street. I am not doing these girls any favors, but still, I feel accomplished.

After leaving HCMC, I am in Nah Trang, a beach town about 12 hours north. There is a divorced man in his late 50’s from Chicago working up a story about the younger Asian women he has bagged on his short trip: “I feel like I am dreaming,” he says, making me mouth-barf. He is short, bald and unattractive, the kind of guy, you know, couldn’t get it back home. I think, “You are dreaming, buddy. A nice poverty stricken, war wounded afterthought. Glad scarcity is working for you.”

We are both staying in the same hotel, so we cannot help the daily run-ins. One morning he comes stumbling into the lobby. His forehead is bleeding and is eye is purple and half-shut. He is dabbing blood from his face with a dirty napkin.

Before I even ask, he starts in, “I like nightlife,” he says, “I like to go out late, you know. Maybe I had too many drinks.” I ask him what happened. Apparently, after he left the “club,” he was attacked by three Vietnamese women who charged him, knocked him down and stole his wallet. I hide my smile when I turn away, thinking there was some poetic justice in this robbery.

When talking to a younger Vietnamese man, I ask him what he thinks the older white men parading around his country, with young Asian women dangling like bracelets from their forearms. He thinks it is gross, especially when the men are really fat (he makes gestures of a swollen belly), but also concedes that he is not in their position. He says he doesn’t know what it is like to be a poor, Vietnamese woman: “They just want better life,” he says, “They want car, house, someone care for them.”

Not to glorify the exchange, but, these women are hard-asses, not to be pitied. They have been tried more than I can imagine or ever will. They are not  helpless victims of culture, though they are the victims of poverty, which could force any of us into making different decisions, including unleashing some battery on an ugly, rich, fat white dude trying to get laid.

The Asian sex industry is not so foreign, like most differences once you examine them closely: to quote an American hero and our old friend, Puff Daddy, “It’s all about the Benjamins, baby.”