A small lighted cruise boat crawls around a bend in the canal. The murky brown water is shallow today and much of the garbage that’s normally concealed is visible. It floats here and there. Some is stuck to the muddy bank.
The canal’s water is bad but gives off no smell. That’s why I don’t mind sitting here. Other canals in Saigon emit foul odors. A few weeks ago, one of them inexplicably turned a vivid pink, then a blood red. I read about this in the news. Local residents were compelled to shut their windows on account of the smell.
The cruise boat is carrying a group of tourists who do not appear to be drunk. There’s no hooting or hollering. When it pulls roughly even with the bench I’m sitting on it stops. Someone on the boat, a tour guide I suppose, speaks to the passengers awhile. Then it pushes on again. I watch its lazy progress until it passes beneath a bridge and gradually vanishes around another bend.
Sometimes, while sitting here as I am now, I see people carry bags of fish they’ve purchased from the market to the canal and dump them in through gaps in the guard rail. When I asked Chuc about this she described it as a Buddhist tradition. By saving fish in this way, she explained, one acquires merit.
I wonder what she’s doing now. What are you doing now, Chuc? It’s been a long time but I do wonder. You may not be aware—I gave you no reason to be—but I liked you far more than most of the people who’ve wandered into and out of my life. I’m vaguely aware that, for the last year or so, a good deal more have wandered out than in. I’m not yet sure how I feel about this.
I sit without thinking awhile, watching the people and the dogs.
Many of them, the people, are jogging. The canal is a popular spot for joggers. I used to jog here. Now I only come when I need something. Like now, for instance. I’ve been sitting here on this bench since five o’clock. The time is now a quarter to six and the sky is darkening fast. He told me he’d be here at five fifteen. But then he’s never been on time. Not once. People in his line of work have that luxury. Their clients will always wait.
Behind me it’s noisy and growing noisier. The canal, on both sides, is lined with quán ăn—open air eateries serving cheap food and beer. These are beginning to fill out. The din of motorbike traffic and revelry is punctuated by street vendors advertising, with a prerecorded message and speaker, stir-fried corn and other delicacies.
At six twenty he turns up.
“Đi vòng vòng nha.” Let’s go for a walk.
We mosey along the winding canal, amorphous light dancing on its blackened surface, until we reach a fork in the footpath. One direction leads under a bridge coated in graffiti, the other to a seamy dead end. We take the other.
When we’re done he walks away and I stick around until I see him climb onto the back of someone’s bike and drive off. Then I make my way back to my own bike, which I’ve parked illegally on the curb. Then I drive home.
“What took you so long.”
Tom says this to me in an agitated but not desperate voice. Another day and it would have been desperate. The day after that, frenzied.
“You know how it is,” I say, and hand him the bag.
I move to the bedroom while he tears it open and proceeds to do his thing. I won’t return to the living room until I’m certain he’s finished. It’s not that he wants the privacy. It’s not that I’m ashamed of him. It boils down, as most things do, to me. This has been going on a long time. My part in sustaining it is considerable and, when I’m frank with myself, wholly self-serving. Tom is reliant on that stuff, and on me by extension. If the reliance goes, so might he. So you see, I prefer not to watch.
That night we get dinner at a Mexican place. Tom chooses a table on the patio.
We share a pitcher of margarita. Tom’s in good form. He has a healthy appetite. His eyes are bright, and his head is full of ideas. He’s going to begin painting again. Tomorrow he’ll go and buy new brushes, paints, and canvases. I do him the favor of not asking what became of the supplies he bought three months ago, just as I don’t ask questions when other items disappear from the apartment. The important things I keep locked away.
It may take a while, Tom tells me, but when he starts selling his paintings again, he’ll use that money, together with my teaching salary, to travel to Nepal. Don’t I know how much he’s always wanted to visit Nepal? Yes, yes I do. Wouldn’t I like to go there? Of course. Then let’s do it. Yes, let’s.
“Hell, I might even rekindle with Ngoc.” Ngoc is Tom’s estranged Vietnamese wife, whom he married for visa purposes.
I laugh good-naturedly and pour the remainder of the pitcher into our glasses. Leaning back in my chair I light a cigarette, prompting a reproachful glare from Tom. Cigarettes, he maintains, are a filthy habit. I take a couple of long pulls on it before flicking it into the street.
“Pretty night,” Tom says at length.
It’s true. Stars skirt a silvery quarter moon. A rare cool breeze is swirling amiably through the neighborhood. It freshens the air. It puts us at ease. It’s an ephemeral breeze, I know, but it’s nice to make believe for a moment or two that it can last.
Michael Howard’s essays and short stories have appeared in a variety of print and digital publications, including Mekong Review, Paste, Creative Loafing, The Forge and Hypertext Magazine. He lives in Vietnam.