Lost Abroad – A young traveler, arrives in a foreign land. His purpose unclear, he encounters an intriguing stranger in a dimly lit bar.
The sound of voices awoke him. Oliver’s eyes opened sharply as he jerked upwards, taken aback by the piercing light that he was made painfully aware of, the knifelike sensation wasting no time in terminating his blissful nothingness
He was in park, unlike any he had seen before. Strange rundown buildings and the buzz of rapid and indistinguishable voices surrounded him. He noticed amidst the hum of conversations a sense of something exotic, oriental.
Quiet voices turned him around. Vietnamese. He assumed? Two children stood a few meters from him. A young boy and a girl their feet dusty and bare, eyes wide with intrigue, plainly fascinated by the strange sight before them. ‘Wher-‘ his words fell short, trailing off into a dry and feeble rasp. Both children giggled, their gaze remained squarely on him. Slinging his bag over his shoulder he stumbled towards a fountain which some teenagers were gathered around not far from where he lay. He noticed other people lazing around the benches of the park watching him, some with mild fascination, others with a weary disinterest. Everywhere you go is the same he thought, good people, bad people, and the rest. He swallowed painfully, the tenderness of his throat quickening his pace. His bag cut into his shoulder, providing him with a brief distraction from his body’s desperate need of water. The bag was heavier than he remembered, but he had packed more than he needed to, he wanted to be as convincing as possible. He drank till content, gasping for air afterwards.
The group of Vietnamese teenagers watched him, chatting amongst themselves. One boy, handsome and quite muscular for his age kept his arm around protectively around his girlfriend, a cigarette burning at his side. The girls face shone with curiosity. Oliver looked longingly at the cigarette as the smoke teasingly drifted from the orange ember and into the warm, dusty air.
Oliver’s parents had always hated him smoking, ensuring him that would it lead to other bad habits. They used to hound him for it, the most common disapproval being ‘Life is too short. Why would you spend your money on something that will only make it shorter’ always with an incredulous look on their face like they couldn’t believe that their son could be capable of such evil. Life isn’t that short, he thought. There are few things longer. And even if it was, why would he waste his time and energy denying himself of something he loved. People spent their money on all kinds of stupid shit. Since a young age Oliver had admired writers like Oscar Wilde, carrying many of the author’s sentiments quite closely. He mustered a dry smile and motioned towards the boy’s cigarette. The boy shook his head and grinned, leaving Oliver to turn around, frustrated. He gazed back towards where he had woken up, expecting to see the two bright eyed faces still watching him. But the children were gone, disappeared amongst the dusty frenzy of a makeshift soccer game, the focus an empty plastic bottle. He rubbed his head, noticing that one of the boys was proudly wearing his navy blue American Eagle baseball cap. Chaotic and bare footed, they cried and played innocently, dust and laughter drifting and floating upwards, dissolving in the sunlight.
Cigarette smoke cleared his lungs, washing down the cold beer he clutched in his hand, his sweaty palms welcoming the coolness of the temporarily icy glass. 10,000 dong, which to him meant about 50 cents Australian. Certainly made things easier. He took another long drag on his cigarette, the smoke drifting up into the rafters of the bar, not losing its form, becoming one with the haze that hung in the dimly lit bar. Not so bad, he thought, spirits on the rise. A child playing with doll, on the floor near from him clutched her mother’s leg. Blank faced she looked at him. He looked away. The bar had a distinct smell that was entirely new to him, it’s odour seeping into every nook and cranny, soaking itself into its patrons clothes as if to mark them as one of its own. Soft Vietnamese music could be heard and he took a deep breath beginning to feel more like himself again.
He had been full of anticipation on the plane, but had drunk more than expected and despite the sleeping pills he had taken, was unable to fall into any sort of worthwhile slumber, replacing his excitement with bouts of dizzying nausea that reminded him of memories he had tried many times to forget. He left Saigon airport, his fragile state overwhelmed by the intensity of the place. The heat, the people, the noise. He vaguely remembered getting on the back of a motorbike, briefly fantasising about getting his own. Tearing down the coast of Vietnam like a modern day Che Guevara, revolution and the wind at his back. The next thing he was in the park. Not exactly the way he imagined day one going. His parents would laugh. They would be worried, they always worried. But that’s the way it’s going to be. He reflected. Alone. The heavy feeling in his chest, told him that he wasn’t being dramatic. This time it was real, repeating the word once more for good measure. Alone. He forced a chuckle which came more naturally than he expected, cementing his liberation as he waved down the bar maid for another drink. She brought it to him, ignoring his thankyou, apathetic, her face stony and worn. He sensed she had lived a hard life. He could not say the same. Not in the same way she would have. He knew he had had his battles, his anguish. And he knew that while they were set in the safety of the first world, they were perfectly real, perfectly raw. Surely? But who was to blame? Himself? His parents? The world? His surroundings, his reality, had been the problem, he was only trying to find a solution. For everyone’s sake.
Spotting a stubbed out joint on the counter he glanced around. A few elderly Vietnamese men played cards, drinking rice wine. Two sat alone, fidgeting over something he could not make out. Surprisingly one of the men seemed rather peaceful considering the grimy surroundings and his uneasy compadre. A few older ex pats sat motionless, so still and expressionless it was almost calming. Satisfied perhaps? Their drinks sat amidst empty cigarette packets covered in scribbled asian writing. Perhaps that was contentment. At times he felt exhausted, so drowned in cynicism, that he could not bring himself to judge these men let alone pity or condemn them. He was still young and could only imagine the hardships and anguish one could face amidst a life, long and drawn out.
His mind was bright yet jaded, full of curiosity but exhausted nonetheless. Could contentment be a perfect state of peace, of nirvana, or simply the humble surrender of our ambition to the tribulations of the world? Happiness seems distinctly relative and wholly dependent on one’s expectations of themselves. And is this happiness within reach or is life simply a cruel and passionate chase of something intangible and unattainable? Must we all just let go? Or is the notion of content being a destination the greatest illusion of them all, could happiness be nothing more than a bi-product of a life well lived? He scribbled a brief version of the notion in his journal, non-challantly lighting the joint like he had rolled it.
A tin money jar sat arms length from him, war enthused communist images splashed across its metallic surface. Bright red and yellow. A tank fronted by a determined man holding a gun in the air was the forefront of the image. His expression was serious yet his honour and pride came through, easily discernible. A man willing to fight, no matter what the cost. And all in the name of peace and prosperity. The Bayonet of his gun pointed gallantly towards the sky tilted towards a radiating yellow star in place of a sun. Beside him were a man and a woman arms raised above their heads, holding the hammer and sickle in their hands, arms crossed with one another, demonstrating their unity. Unconditional and unwavering. It would make a perfect souvenir. He dismissed the thought from his mind.
‘Beautiful ain’t it?’ A deep voice echoed from a few seats down the bar where a large man sat, noticing Oliver’s fascination with the tin. His clothes were old and worn, his skin not dissimilar. The sound of his voice hung suspended in the still smoky air of the bar for a moment, wholly sonorous with an unmistakeable tinge of solemnity. Thick accent. American. Oliver looked up slowly, acknowledging his comment, while remaining ostensibly indifferent, forcing himself to give nothing away. ‘The American War’. As it’s known around here anyway. He drank. ‘Gotta admit they did pretty well huh? The Red and yellow. Powerful. The hammer and sickle. The big star. Not bad is it? Kind of thing you could really rally around.’ Moments passed, the sound of a backfiring motorbike punctured the silence. None of the patrons seemed to notice.
‘Yeah well I guess it was pretty important to them. Lives at stake.’ Spoke Oliver cooly and carefully. ‘He chuckled. We’re no better. A little more clever maybe. Less to lose I suppose.’
‘You fought then?’
‘Me? ..Fuck no.’ His voice confident but careless, catching Oliver’s attention.
‘And how did uncle Sam feel about that?’ Spoke Oliver with more disinterest than required, more than he actually felt.
‘Well fuck, how do you think he felt? The land of the free. Just don’t disobey. Especially for the ‘African American.’ He made a sarcastic quotation gesture like he was talking about a fictioned alien species, rolling his eyes and turning to face the bar. He downed the rest of his drink with ease. They sat with silence for a moment.
‘But what about your country?’ Oliver queried daringly, almost mockingly, taking a drag to avoid making eye contact. He tensed a moment then relaxed and drank, his confidence surprising him. A little more baiting than he was going for. He remembered he was stoned. The man glanced at him then looked away. They sat in silence for a while, smoking their cigarettes, nursing their drinks. Oliver was growing restless. Had he played it too cool, too apathetic. Acting like a man who had seen it all and was merely waiting for someone to really snare them with something of worth?
‘It is a nice symbol.’ Spoke Oliver, admiring the hammer and sickle. ‘Now the west’s unanimous symbol of tyranny. Dictatorship. You control the media and you control the masses.’ He paused a moment. ‘Control pop culture and you’ve got everyone else. The winners get the honour of writing the history books.’
A discoloured tattoo was sprawled across the man’s forearm amidst scars both old and new. A symbol he had never seen before, resembling a type of cross with two birds flying upwards and around it. Two words were scribbled at either ends of the cross. Names perhaps. The man looked up, his faded eyes showing a spark of interest. Restlessly repositioning his feet on the small bar stool, obviously not made for people of his stature, he snorted.
‘It’s not about who wins son. Don’t ever think your taxes mean they’ll treat you like one of their own.’ He said bitterly, ordering another a drink, his words slightly slurred. He reached for a cigarette to no avail, tossing the packet aside. Oliver offered him one of his and the man solemnly accepted nodding his thanks while staring into his drink. The dark brown liquid mulled in the glass, thick and ominous. Glancing down, the dark man noticed Oliver’s backpack, neatly packed and still with the luggage stickers from the airport sprawled across the front. Uninitiated. An FNG. He felt a shiver of resentment as he saw the man contemplate his backpack for a moment. He didn’t want to talk about himself. To explain why a Young Australian was ruminating in a dingy bar in Vietnam, exuding a stoicism that would likely suit a veteran of war and asperity. His story, while tangible and utterly gruelling, would somewhat compromise himself, trivializing his observations and more importantly his introspections, especially in a place like this.
He remembered back to the day he had left. His parents dropped him off at the airport and had spoken some words of endearment to him, the undertones of caution unmistakeable. They had been unable to hide their pride, long awaited. Their relief. He was going to Vietnam to begin an internship with a well established journalism practice. Writing, learning, researching, experiencing. His younger brother, adored and admired by all had done something similar the year before and now it was his turn. He was leaving his past, his mistakes behind him, following his work, his passion. None of this was true of course but it was the only thing that would satisfy his parents. He remembered the veracity in which he convinced them of the esteemed internship, enthusiastically announcing that they had finally gotten back to him after sending them his portfolio over a year ago. He had no trouble lying. It was almost easy, scarily amusing. And it made them happy, put their minds at ease, finally. Everyone got what they wanted. Leaving them felt like a lifetime ago. 3 days and counting.
‘So why didn’t you go?’ He asked quickly, ending his bout of reflection, ensuring the conversation wouldn’t turn to his own life. The man looked up, drunk, eyes wobbly, face darkened with lines and creases.
‘You really want to know? Or you just making conversation with some blackie in a bar? A story for the friends and family.’
‘I really want to know.’ Said Oliver as genuinely as he could, putting out his cigarette and turning on his stool to face him. He waited expectantly, intrigued.
‘It wasn’t just because of my skin. Sure it didn’t help that the people telling us to go and fight for our country hated us just as much as the commies. To fight for a country that didn’t want you. Against people I’d never fuckin met. But it was so much more than that.’ He turned to face Oliver his eyes lit with a passion he had not yet seen. ‘It was the fuckin 60s, we we’re hippies, it was a time to say fuck you, let’s try peace. And it worked for a while, we told them no fuckin’ way we’d be pawns in their domination scheme. There was a time where they thought they wouldn’t be able to find the soldiers to go.’ He drank. ‘But that wouldn’t go, so the propaganda started’ he said now more defeated. ‘And the rest is history. Armed fuckin monkeys, lining up for a paycheck. Fucking tragedy.’
He threw his glass down angrily, spilling a bit of his drink. He looked a little surprised at how much he had said. The way he had spoken revealed more than Oliver anticipated. The pain in his voice and his expression spoke volumes about him, his life. A good man, unhinged by the world. It’s evil. It’s prejudices. Submitted to insanity and eventually defeat.
The door burst opened suddenly, sharply letting a ray of light. It shone through hitting an unimpressed patron, squinting back behind a fog of smoke and incense. Oliver had forgotten it was still daylight out. The place had a strange atmosphere, liminal in many ways, suspending time like it was merely a choice rather than a constant flow of existence that was abided to by all without question.
Two young blonde haired travellers, followed by two females of similar age came excitedly through the door, their laughter interrupting the almost solemn tautness in the air that the patrons of the bar had seemed to agree on. The one at the front looked around amused, a little stunned. He said something to his friend, in German, still laughing. The other let out an over exaggerated laugh then ceased it quite unnaturally and replied in agreement with a quick phrase of German. Oliver was absorbed in the scene, present yet somewhere else entirely his thoughts struggling to focus, completely absorbed in himself, the bar, his high. He contemplated. How funny one is perceived to be at any given moment is often more dependent on your audience’s inclination and willingness to laugh, sometimes out of insecurity, a sycophantic urge, other times to keep the peace, preserve the mood. A sensation of distaste ran through him, but he denied himself immediately of even considering it as a feeling of jealousy.
He finished his beer and the barmaid went to fill him another without asking. The backpacker’s joviality masked beneath thick accents from foreign lands ensured they remained blaringly noticeable. Unapproving glances began to greet them from those with cared enough to look up, the boys still smiling, their playful demeanour held strong, firmly backed by the attractiveness of the girls behind him. One of the girls, blonde and slender looked around in something close to disgust, expecting something more galamorous no doubt.
‘I think we’re in the wrong place’ said the other girl quietly, obviously more aware of their presence in a place where they seemed unlikely to find whatever they were looking for. She was shorter than the others with light brown hair, unwashed and full of colour, draping around her face. Her features defined yet soft, imperfectly regal. Like a girl who was born royal blood but lived in ignorance amongst the commoners, an estranged princess. Her accent suggested French, Dutch perhaps? She had spoken German and spoken it well but she talked in a way that distinguished her from her male companions.
The large man sat, brooding deeply and with little effort, like someone who had great responsibility that had been abandoned a long time ago. He stood up and walked over to two of the old Vietnamese men, his heavy torso swaying gently but with great ease showing signs of a man who had spent many years drunk. They were seated on small stools, like one’s you would see in a children’s day care, positioned in the furthest corner of the bar. Oliver’s attention remained with the young travellers. Two of the expats, Caucasian, kept their glares steady, the young girls awkwardly acknowledging the hostility from the other patrons. The short brown haired girl’s gaze met his and she produced a smile, adorable and a little confused almost as if to say ‘What are you doing here?’ Oliver, returned the smile for a flitting moment, perhaps imperceptible, averting his eyes down toward his notebook, turning to a random page and forcing a look of concentration. His eyes unfocused, and then focused, the girls face still in his mind. He was light headed. Dark red ink, smudged in places, caught his eye and he squinted to read a scrawled poem he had written some time ago, it had a little tick next to it confirming it was the final draft. His eyes passed across it slowly and intently.
’The full moon kept watch, bathing a windswept plain in its pale luminescence.
The light, wholly effortless, ethereal yet powerful, reflected upon her dark hair, intertwining, their energies feeding one another in pure and blissful harmony. It is natural and nothing less than sacred, making all other beauty seem like mere imitation. And as cascades of stars delicately emerge, their origins unknown, dangling on invisible strings from the heavens, the realities of our nature become clear. Surrendering yourself to another may end the gruelling battle between the heart and the mind. But in its place grows a rare vulnerability, the declaration exposing one’s nakedness, utterly and with little hope of recantation.’’
He thought back to that night. A sharp pain entered his heart, not dissimilar to the feeling of a physical blow to the chest. It caught him off guard. He winced, fighting back the reflex to burst into tears. He clenched his fists doing his best to collect himself, heavy waves of emotion consuming and intoxicating him. He was drunk, tired, weighed down by the collective feeling of despair in the bar, which seemed blatant now that he had well and truly become a part of it. Though he knew little about poetry he had written his share at a time when it felt like the easiest thing to do, for the only girl that had ever really evoked these kinds of declarations from him. It had not worked out. She had chosen her life, her work. If it was meant to be it would have been, and it would be. He was not bitter about this, though he thought about her a lot and associated his memories of her, past and potential, with the feeling of aching despair he sometimes felt in his chest and eventually throughout his entire body. The memories remained painfully cherished, non concurrent with the rest of his life. Perhaps one day he would send her these poems, finished and unfinished, so that she too might feel what he did. She would realise what they had for what it was, despite her new memories and new loves obscuring their bond to a distant past. Perhaps he would give them to someone else. He imagined telling his newly discovered muse that he had written it just a few days earlier as opposed to years ago and with a different person in mind.
Oliver thought for a moment about tearing the page from his book, marching towards the girl who now reminded him of her, and gifting her the poem in a gesture of chance and affection. Seizing a moment that would lead to other moments. He inhaled feeling the weight of his mentations, tightly gripped around what he imagined to be his soul, his center. The heart or the mind? He reminded himself of something he had read and had kept close, drawing on in times of need. Thoughts are fleeting and merely passing. We are not our thoughts, despite the reflex of emotion, the past and present are illusions, real illusions nonetheless but we must exist with them in the present which is what there is and all there is. No thought is final. A nice sentiment, which had been a source of strength many times before. But the feeling in his chest pulled him back, taunting his attempts at Zen, absorbing him, pulling him deeper, reminding him of his follies, his flaws, perpetually arising whenever he showed complacency.
The man returned to his seat by Oliver’s side as the travellers turned to leave, clearly looking for a different place. The girl turned one last time and looked at Oliver, her gaze expectant. He thought she saw her mouth something close to ‘come with us’ but his eyes unfocused for a moment and he broke his gaze. The door shut closed, the light disappearing. The occupants of the bar returned to face their drinks resuming their humble brooding, harmonized by the absence of conversation in an almost reverent way.
‘She liked you’ muttered the man, drawing his fingertips around his tattoo, his skin weathered, like it had lived more than one life. He traced gently along the two words that were placed at the ends of the cross. ‘You should have gone with them.’
He ignored his comments, breathing deeply, collecting himself. Reigning in his emotions, his shame. A runaway. Disappointment. Destined for anything but oneness with the world. His mind was still with the girl. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6- He stopped there frustratingly. His efforts to control and reel in his mind failing, as he helplessly felt himself spiralling into the familiar darkness he knew so well. It laughed at him for thinking he could dismiss his feelings to mere passing thought which would come and go, intended only to deceive and stifle. He mulled on how much ones thoughts could wander, progress, both for good and evil, often evoking opinions, emotions and epiphanies in the time it would take to have a short conversation with someone let alone send them a message of any kind. And how much you could tell about a person from their eyes, from how they spoke rather than what they said. Words can be deceiving, so he had come to realise. Better off trusting your instincts, he bemused silently and with meaning.
Oliver had once had great interest on the philosophies of mindfulness. It had been a difficult time. He had learnt a few things, but deep down it was the knowledge that few peers had undergone or even scratched the surface of such cognitive explorations which seemed to grant him a guilt free, higher plane of thought. And thus a higher way of being. No better, no worse, but higher. He had seen a shrink for a few months, but he had resented her, leaving sessions in silent rage, wanting to rebel, to deviate from what she thought he was. The way she twirled her pen acting like she already knew what he was about to say, like she had come across ‘his type’ countless times and was merely going through the motions. The slow over deliberate way she talked, each drawn out word costing his parents a fortune, acting like her qualifications somehow made her a healer of all those blessed with the money to afford it. All coming from someone who looked like they lived a miserable life.
However, over the years he had also realised that one can only discern so much about one’s mind with that very mind. Objectivity is one of the hardest things to imitate and obvious prejudices and agendas are inevitable and laden amidst the twisting roads of one’s inward analysis. The reflection sometimes an arduous path, unstable, invoking questions of sanity, with few answers. Insanity being as likely as it was unlikely. Perhaps the most and the least important way people spend their time. There are those that think about thought and those who do not.
He often wished for respite, shamefully envying those living in blissful ignorance, their emotions pure, untainted by cynicism and the knowledge of darkness that was impossible to unlearn.
‘Hey kid you got a cigarette?’ The man faced him, noticing the pain and unrest in him, oddly similar to the strain he saw each morning in his own face. ‘You’re a bit too young to be in a place like this? You should get out while you can.’ He said forcing a smile. ‘What you’re looking for isn’t here.’
‘Maybe it is.’ Mumbled Oliver, defeated. Moments passed. ‘Did running away ever solve anything?’
‘I guess you could say it solved a few things.’
‘Are you happier now?’ He looked down at the man’s tattoo, confirming that it was two names written inside the cross. ‘Where are they?’ He paused. ‘Your family.’ The man, remained somewhat absent, but the lines that gathered around his eyes indicated an unmistakeable seriousness.
‘I had a family.’ He said stopping in reverie. ‘But that wasn’t when I was happy.’ He forced another smile, this time it came more naturally, giving off the sense that he knew something that Oliver didn’t, some secret piece of knowledge, divine and esoteric. Oliver paused, something stopping his train of thought, he looked around the bar, the old Vietnamese men sat quiet and still. ‘Sometimes you just gotta play the hand your given kid. Not everyone is destined for the good life.’ His tone almost fatherly, hoarse from the liquor. Oliver turned to face him, and as their eyes met, both men shared a realisation. For the first time, almost instantaneously there was a mutual understanding between them, utterly profound and striking. A collective understanding, an uncanny feeling of connectedness, almost brotherly, recognising their shared struggle. The desperation. The emptiness they felt, they saw in each other, discovering more about one another in that moment than what they had let on to even their closest friends. An exchange of meaning, of understanding rather than words, simple and direct. Comforting. Relief.
They sat for a few minutes in silence, then he man reached into his jacket, producing his wallet and an old cigarette tin, glancing at Oliver. He placed a crumpled bundle of notes on the counter, giving Oliver a disapproving glance as he reached for his own wallet. Standing up slowly he folded his jacket underneath his arm, his skin dark and weathered like it had lived more than one life. Clearing his throat, he swayed towards the door and out of the bar, Oliver following closely behind him. It was still warm. The sun would begin to set soon and its rays of light, not as brutal as before soaked the two men in its heat as they squinted and trudged onwards. Oliver followed closely at his side.
They walked without speaking for some time, the racket of people and traffic turned to background noise, becoming one with the fog that hung, dark and cloudy around the city. They reached the bottom of a grassy hill and began to climb. When they arrived at the top they sat, watching over the city endlessly buzzing away in the distance. The man produced the small, old tin from his breast pocket, opening it. Oliver’s hands were shaking. He reached for his journal, flicking through the pages for what he knew he was looking for. Beads of sweat dripped off his brow, thudding onto the page, distorting the ink. The man’s hands were rough but comforting and gentrle in a way. He found the page he was looking for and looked downwards at the notebook, his free hand keeping the book flat upon his lap.
“The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it. Resist it, and your soul grows sick with longing for the things it has forbidden to itself. I exist only as a whole; my only claim is to be natural, and the pleasure I feel in an action, I take as a sign that I ought to do it.”
He had read it many a time, two quotes from authors he had long revered and admired. He read it slowly, twice over, as he always did. He calmed his breath, giving his companion a slow, meaningful nod of approval. He exhaled a sigh of relief that only the American heard, and lay back. The sun shone fiercely with a warmth that bathed his body to its very core, utterly and familiarly reassuring caressing his mind and soul as he drifted off into a deep sleep of pure and absolute oneness.
Robin the Hood
Closing his eyes forcefully he buried his face beneath his arms, clenching fiercely and with purpose, in the same way that one would hold on to their seat of a likely doomed airplane hurtling towards the ground. Tightly in the blackness he tensed every muscle he could and concentrated on the intoxicating nausea that seemed to render him utterly incapacitated, fighting the swirling dizziness that coursed through his body. He remembered this feeling well. Moments passed and he slumped onto his side and then onto his back. Calculated breaths of hot, distinct smelling air entered his lungs relieving his mind of the palpitating nausea that so rudely brought him to.