How to date like a normal person, on half a bottle of vodka.
I let my last class of the morning off early, telling them it was because they had done such a good job. The truth was though, I was increasingly nervous of the impending lunch date with Clarissa. Clearly the only way to deal with it was to sneak out to the shop and down a few drinks before meeting her.
The first sip of vodka nearly made me throw up, but the second and third were easier. Before long I had finished half the small bottle. I felt stronger. More able.
By the time I got to the restaurant, a cheap diner just off Bui Vien, she was already there. Smiling. I apologised for the delay and sat down, smiling back.
“So, how was the rest of your weekend?” I asked, picking up a menu.
“Oh you know, so so. I honestly didn’t do much at all. I’m kind of a homebody most of the time. You?”
“Honestly? I spent most of it in a bar arguing about music. Seemed like the closest thing to being at home I could think of”
She laughed in a way that made me fall in love with her even more. “So… you DO miss home?”
“I miss certain things sure. I miss my friends, the music… I miss English pubs. That’s kind of it though. I don’t miss much else. You must know what I mean… there must be a few things that you wish you could have here, right?”
“I guess so… I mean, they have loads of things here that are nearly right but… just… there’s always something missing.”
“Well, like mustard for example. You can get mustard here, good old traditional American mustard but… well, that’s kind of it. Even if you go to one of these fancy ‘gourmet’ supermarkets, the most exotic you’ll get is like… I dunno… Dijon or something”
“Dijon’s fancy!” I retorted,
“Fancy? Come on…” she seemed to stop herself slightly. “I take my mustard pretty seriously”
“I can tell”
The booze was starting to wear off, I felt like I needed to top it up so I got the waiter’s attention and ordered a beer. Clarissa ordered a coke.
“A beer? It’s like, half one…”
“I know, I know… but, I’m European, this is normal. The French drink wine at lunch… Wine!”
“Uh huh” she was smiling… I tried to change the subject.
“So tell me, what do you make of Crispin?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, he comes across kinda… off.”
“He’s got a weird sense of humour but he’s harmless. I think he’s threatened by you.”
“Threatened? How so?”
“I dunno, maybe he can see that I like you and…”
Time slowed down and my ears rang, blocking out whatever she said next. She liked me? She liked me!
By the time I could hear again she was giving me advice, “Just let him wear himself out and don’t react, he’ll be fine.”
“Sure, sure… that… Makes sense.”
“Look, I’m kinda busy this week but next weekend we should hang out sometime. Have been to the ‘fancy’ bars up in central District 1?”
“Uh… No. I pretty much just hang out around here, among the lowlifes and backpackers”
She laughed, “Yeah, I kinda guessed as much.” She was smiling softly , with pursed lips… but kindly. “OK, well, let me be your guide. I’ll show you where all the pretentious people drink.”
Over the course of the lunch I found out a lot about Clarissa… Her hopes and dreams, her passions and pet peeves… But the thing that stuck in my mind was her passion for people. She could talk about anything with some sort of energy but when it came to people… anyone… she came to life, a sense of empathy glowing in her face with a powerful luminosity.
I ordered another beer. She stopped eating for a second and looked at me quizzically, “So, you mentioned you write.”
“So what do you write about?” The intonation made it clear she had asked this question before. There was almost a sneer to it, as if she was sick of people who pretended to be writers. Hell, maybe she was. Maybe this bar was full of masquerading would-be literary giants.
I usually have stock answers for this kind of bullshit. Something along the lines of “ah you know, just whatever they pay me to write” but the way she asked cut through me and rankled my pride somehow. I felt compelled to answer with sincerity.
Turning on my stool to face her I said “This.” Deliberately.
“This?” She was still sneering, I started to suspect that she might be permanently stuck in a state of incredulity, the victim of a resting contempt face maybe.
“Yep. This is a story. Everything is.” I pointed to the crusty sex pat in the corner. “He’s a story”. I turned to the other side of the bar where a haggard traveller in his young twenties sat in some sort of narcotic haze, ”OK, that motherfucker right there. He’s definitely a story”
She smiled with a slant, as if she was in on my joke before I even told it.
“This is where you say you suppose I might be too right?”
“Well, I daresay you might be. You’ve not done much to justify such an accolade so far, but it’s early days I suppose.”
She winked her left eyelid with a deftness that could only have come from intense mirror-practice. I raised my bottle in a lazy toast. “Cheers”
“So you write about this? Why?”
“Well, why not? The way I see it, the shit that happens here is as good as anything you could make up. All it takes is a bit of focus and you can see all sorts of weird stories unfolding in front of you.”
“So you just watch these people go about their lives and…”
“And write about it. Yep. It writes itself really.” She looked around at the various teachers, retirees, bums and junkies that filled the bar and nodded.
“Yeah, OK. I guess I see that. What’s the point though? Who the fuck wants to read about these losers?”
“Well, I don’t know. I’d read about them though. Lowlifes are the most interesting subjects of them all… its like… take life drawing for example”
“Sure, naked people. You don’t want a svelte, tight body for a life drawing class… you want a fat, curvy, wrinkled body… something distinguished, weathered… something with detail to pick out”
She didn’t seem impressed by my metaphor. “You see, the more fucked up an weird the subject, the more interesting details you can gleam to paint a better picture. Same rules apply to literature I reckon.”
“You do, do you?”
“I do indeed. Furthermore, I’d venture that any one of the ‘losers’ as you so unkindly labelled them has more to say for themselves than any of the cretins at work.”
“Wow. That’s a bit…”
“Yeah OK, sorry. They’re not all cretins. I mean…”
She knew exactly who I meant. She was clearly struggling to stifle laughter.
I nodded. “…. I mean… Look. I don’t know him that well really. Shit, I only met him this week… but he strikes me as a kind of… what’s the word.
“He’s a cunt” she delivered the C bomb with exquisite poise and grace, especially for an American.
I was too shocked to even laugh. I nodded though.
As we paid the bill and got up to leave I suddenly felt the booze kick in. I was inescapably aware of a level of drunkenness I hadn’t banked on. I tried to hold myself together but as I left the restaurant I stumbled over and knocked over a motorbike. I reflexively laughed it off, clumsily picking it up off the ground.
Clarissa smiled at me but I could see something new in her face. Concern maybe. She smiled nonetheless though and said something like “See you in a few minutes” as she rode off, back to school.
I lit a cigarette and prepared myself for an afternoon of pretending to be sober. This was going to be painful.