The other day I was shit on by a gecko. I was sitting with a friend at a Vietnamese pizza place, eating pizza that tasted very little like real pizza, and a suddenly a little turd blossomed on the crook of my elbow, like a hairless, slightly watery black mole that had appeared on my arm in one second flat.
Observing this, my Vietnamese friend tried to convince me it was a happy event. “That’s good luck,” she said.
“Sure, it is,” I replied. “For you. You weren’t just shit on.”
To be honest, I didn’t actually mind that much. It didn’t land in the pizza – not that I would have noticed. And, fortunately, it was a one-wiper.
Geckos are ubiquitous in Southeast Asia. They’re as common as South Carolina palmetto bugs, but less disgusting. Like their bigger cousins the garden lizards, they pretty much ignore you until you get within grabbing distance. Then they disappear in a frantic graygreen blur. They seem to pop in and out of existence like tiny illusionists. One moment they’re there, the next they’re not.
They’re also more playful than bugs, if you can call a dozen of them chasing each other around the sun-smacked walls of a café ‘playing.’ What looks to me like frivolty might actually be a life-and-death battle royale for mating rights or territory. Or a complex traffic control system in which they’re calculating critical pooping trajectories. Meanwhile, the big-brained primates below them are patronizingly attributing all this activity to random luck.
Once, in a guesthouse in Siem Reap, Cambodia, as I lay on the bed staring up at the ceiling, I counted thirteen geckos on the walls of my room. I didn’t realize there were that many until I spotted several and decided to do a full inventory. And who knows how many were hiding behind cabinets, curtains, and framed, slightly crooked paintings of the Angkor Temples at sunset.
That’s a lot of little reptiles to be sharing a room with.
I found that these guests didn’t unsettle me the way thirteen of some other creature on my walls might – rats, for example. Or cockroaches, or spiders, or even houseflies. Thirteen tiny snakes in my room and I’d have been looking for another guesthouse in a pounding heartbeat. But for some reason I was perfectly ambivalent about sharing my sleeping quarters with a baker’s dozen or more of Hemidactylus frenatus.
A superstitious person might have found some dark meaning in the number thirteen. Not being superstitious, I didn’t have to worry about that. “There’s no such thing as a black cat,” somebody suggested to me the other day, in a line that I loved, “only cat-shaped holes in the universe.” I’ve never been much of a believer in luck, or its supernatural cousins fate and destiny. What I believe, what I know for fact, is that a few billion years of evolutionary biology as both predators and prey have made our brains predisposed to attribute anthropomorphic forces to random, undirected events. It’s perfectly natural. But that’s all it is.
It’s not that I haven’t considered the more tempting alternative. But if God has a plan for everyone, how does He choose? How does He select who’s rescued at sea and who contracts ebola and dies in bloody agony? Or who becomes a Hollywood celebrity and whose Cambodian child is tortured to death in front of her parents by Khmer Rouge prison guards because her father is a teacher?
Maybe He has their souls draw straws. Random chance. It sucks to be an unfortunate soul, I guess.
Of course, there will always be people in the world who think it’s good luck to get shit on.
We all think like geckos some of the time. I know I do. The oldest parts of our brains are the parts we share with reptiles: the ancient, atavistic regions that are at the wheel of our central nervous systems and our behavior at its most primitive: aggression, reproduction, self-preservation.
These regions lie darkly at our brain’s center like a pit in a peach, deep beneath the fresh-off-the-showroom-floor thinking machine we know as the cerebral cortex, below even the relatively newfangled amygdala and hippocampus, wherein lie the levers for fear, anger, memory, and identity. They develop before any other part when we’re in the womb, and they predate all other gray matter in the fossil record.
Here, in the shadow-filled basement of your brain, that most primeval part of you still sends out reconnaissances – chemical emissaries speeding toward the hinterlands of limbic and neocortical borders like winged messengers, bearing dispatches from your brute past. Eat! Run! Fight! Fuck! Don’t forget to breath!
Down at the very bottom, our reptilian brains are the uncharted zones from which dreams bubble up and nightmares stalk. Here, we all chase each other around walls.
One Saturday night shortly after I arrived in Saigon, I found myself with a small group of friends in a local bar popular with the young backpacker crowd – not the sort of place I’d normally hang out, but they served beer, and there were no signs of a drunken brawl breaking out near me in the immediate future, so I stuck around. Pretty quickly I noticed a girl looking at me. She was sitting at the bar, alone and lovely, sending me postcards with her eyes: wish you were here.
Topped off with liquid courage, I walked over and took a seat next to her at the bar. Close-up, she was even more striking. Half-lidded, gently slanting eyes with lashes like wet palm fronds, a tiny faux dimond peeping from one side of a button nose brushed with freckles the color of warm milktea. A tiny mole bobbed in the ocean of her nape like a lost soul, caught in the perilous cross-currents of her bosom and her throat. She smiled shyly with that rarest of Southeast Asian gifts – perfect teeth – and the room lit up.
I can’t remember her name, but she was a hooker. I realized this about one minute after I’d taken a seat, which was about 60 seconds longer than it should have taken me. Beautiful girl, very well-dressed, speaks good English, sitting alone late at night in a bar full of lonely young tourists: in what world could this girl not be on the clock?
We talked for about ten minutes, but my interest nose dived after minute one. Seeing this, she made to intercept it.
“You live near this?”
“No,” I said. “I live in District 7. Long way.”
“Not too far. We go there?”
“No, I don’t think so. Thanks, though.”
She frowned. “You want go hotel room with me?”
“No,” I said, standing up. “You’re very pretty. I have to go.”
“We can only for one hour, if you wish,” she said. “Very nice. You like.”
Vietnam lacks much of the basic social infrastructure and capital assets of more developed nations, but one area where this country is fully invested is in its prostitute resources. There’s no shortage here of what expats euphemistically call ‘working girls’ to save themselves the embarrassment of having to consort with whores.
I’ve never been very good at sex without affection, and any small capacity for it I may once have had has vanished altogether in my middle adulthood. I also have zero tolerance for phony and feigned attention from other people, which is what these girls specialize in. Taken together, these qualities make me a poor target for the prostitutes in Vietnam, who are numerous enough to be able to populate a small country and set up a decent government, if they ever got together and did something about it.
Walk into most any club in Ho Chi Minh City frequented by tourists or expat foreigners, and the first thing you’re likely to notice is that you are a Star Attraction among the ladies, for whom Western = rich, caring nothing for the niggling distinctions we foreigners assign to levels of wealth or its lack. The next thing you’re sure to pick up on is that almost any given one of them wants to leave the club for your house or a hotel within minutes of meeting you. This can be heady stuff for a guy looking for an excuse to believe that he’s Special.
These are attractive women. Very attractive. They look like the same kind of girls you see at stylish, cosmopolitan nightclubs anywhere in the developed world: sleek as gazelles, hard-eyed, soft-bodied, purposeful, and dangerous, like sharp things swaddled in velvet. And they speak excellent English, at least compared to your Vietnamese.
The typical lizard brain is no match for weapons of this caliber. With their practiced hands they can slip right through the locked doors of your frontal lobe, knocking down traffic cones and pushing past the police tape at your limbic regions to lay a perfectly manicured finger right on the shuddering center of your most primitive defenses.
Yet just as, in our American pseudo-realities, there are gradients of western wealth, and many of us are aware of not even being able to see the lowest rung, so too are there gradients of interest in it here among women. There is the short-term interest, which can be lucrative in a hurry, underwriting stylish outfits and manicures and perfect teeth. But for at least as many, possibly more, there is the longer-term interest.
In the U.S., the American dream inspires millions of people to work themselves numb in the entrepreneurial ideal that anyone, no matter how humble or poor, can become a cigar-smoking, Mercedes-driving, suburban-home-owning millionaire. In Vietnam, achieving the American dream means marrying an American.
There’s a girl who works in the lobby of a hotel near where I live. The lobby also has a chain coffee shop with wifi and a small supermarket in it, so I’m in there a few times a week. I’m nothing special to look at: middle aged, receding hair, invisibly thin blond eyebrows, bags starting to form under my eyes. But when I started going to this coffee shop, every time I walked through the lobby this girl began pulling faces as if the video crew from Fashion TV had just walked in. It took me a while to realize this was for my benefit, because it’s been quite a few years since I could motivate that kind of activity, and even then it was as rare as a planetary transverse of the sun.
We became friends. Her name is Hai. She’s 22 years old, and she wears the long, flowing traditional Vietnamese tunic called an ao dai for ten hours a day, seven days a week, in the lobby of the hotel, escorting visitors to the elevator behind her. Hai can only speak a few words of English, and she doesn’t have a phone of her own, but she asked for my cell number anyway, scrawling it onto the back of her hand like a prayer inked in Henna.
Every once in a while, I’ll get a cryptic text message on my cellphone from one or another number I don’t recognize.
“You ok? Today you go to world 11am you me coffe ok? Hai.”
If I’m free, I’ll go to the coffee shop and Hai and I will sit awkwardly and fumble with our coffee and steal glances at each other like schoolkids, and I’ll crack bad jokes in English that she doesn’t understand, but she’ll smile anyway.
It’s a kind of courtship, I suppose.
If I’m not free, there’s no point in replying to the text message, because whoever the owner of the phone she borrowed is, he or she generally ignores any message I send, as if they have no idea someone had borrowed their phone. For all I know, Hai sneaks a complete stranger’s phone out of her pocketbook while they’re all standing at the elevator and dashes off a text message to me before slipping it back home as the doors open. She’s never offered an explanation, and she doesn’t speak enough English to understand me when I ask her about it anyway.
But one time, someone did reply. I’d received a garbled text message from Hai, whose broken English encryption I couldn’t crack, no matter how many times I read it. An hour so so later I replied with a quick message asking for more detail. I received a quick response.
“I do not know you.what you name?why are you know number telephone of me?”
I wrote back. “I replied to a message sent to me from this number. Did Hai use your phone to send me the message?”
The answer was fast and, it seemed, furious.“Dua vay thoi.ban hoc gioi tieng anh qua m kohieu.ban ko noi ten m ko noi chuyen dau!”
Whatever that meant, I decided to cut my losses.
“I don’t understand Vietnamese,” I wrote. “Only English. Sorry for bothering you.”
I got a reply immediately. “Where are you from? Im really sorry.I hope to understand to me.”
“I’m American,” I replied. “It’s ok, don’t worry about it.”
Almost as soon as I’d hit send, another reply arrived. “What are you doing?How do you do? How long have you been vietnames? Can I make friends with you? I was born vietnam.I am poor so I have to do part-time job in restaurant hotel. Did you have lunch?are you feel about people vietnam?do you marry?”
What human heart lay behind those words? Chasing something, anything, across the walls of her life. Blind, heedless, hopeful. Before I was even finished reading it, another text pinged my phone.
“I am name Loan and you?do you think about girl vietnam?do you teach the school?do you love someone?“
If you ever manage to catch a gecko, you have to take care with it. One of the most interesting things about them is that if they’re in a tight spot with a predator hoping to make a meal of them, they can drop part of their tail and scramble away while the tail continues flailing about, flopping madly as its owner watches from a safe, secret hideway. Eventually, after a long time, the tail grows back.
But it’s always shorter than it was to begin with.