With and Without Her

With and Without Her


I lost track of time somewhere between the day of flying and the layover at the bar of the Taiwan airport. When I shuffle through immigration and baggage claim and out the doors of Noi Bai International Airport I am met by the warmth of a Vietnamese evening. The heat here is not blanketing but encasing, coating, lingering. I see Long waiting across the street and we meet in the intersection. There is no awkwardness or distance, a year apart cannot undo the years of connection, the many nights spent in that rundown metal shell. “Temporary housing” they called it. Years later it still stands idly at the foot of the campus. There is a hug, a greeting of old friends, the mandatory post flight small talk, and eagerness to get on with it. I follow him to his scooter and climb on the back of it behind him. The peeling leather seat is hot from the sun. I toe down the metal footrests and press my knees against his hips. 

“You want a smoke?” He asks.

For much of the ride to Long’s house I clench the leather seat beneath me. The traffic at first feels violent and senseless. Rows of scooters coil and snake across intersections and between cars. Pedestrians cut through traffic across rusted pre-war bridges. Long doesn’t understand my anxiety. He has been home for too long to worry about traffic laws and right-of-way. He has no fear, speeding between trucks and onto sidewalks. We ride into the moving shadowed streets of Hanoi’s Old Quarters. The gasoline smell of the freeways has faded and the vibrancy around me takes my attention. Classical European buildings are nestled against each other, faded and overgrown, wrapped in neon signs. We stop for food in an alleyway. Long leaves his scooter under the supervision of two old women in pajamas sitting in chairs on the sidewalk.

Later that night we are at his family home. I unpack my bags and find the mementos of us. First, a faded silver ring I took from the apartment. Then, two tickets to a Father John Misty concert in Brooklyn. Finally a three photo roll from a photo booth at Coney Island from a day months before. I have brought them with me because despite the desire to get away I couldn’t go entirely without her. It has been four flights and she is still with me; I imagine that even without these physical reminders she would still linger. I had cut the photo roll down to fit into my wallet. In the first photo we are pressing against each other, her head resting against mine. Her tooth gem peaks out from under her lip. I smile with my eyes closed. In the second photo I am kissing her cheek and her hand is against my neck, her long hair takes up most of the frame. In the third photo my head is resting against her chest, my grin is childish and my eyes are closed again. Her chin is turned regally, intentionally, and her hand holds my chin. 


That Summer day, a year before, at Coney Island she wore an American flag bikini and a white pleated skirt. I wore jean shorts and her dad’s old shirt. In the three years we were together we had told each other we loved one another almost daily since I sleepily said it first, in that hot East Village apartment bedroom. That night the air conditioning broke and we lay sweaty and naked in front of a broken fan. There had been many nights together between then and Coney Island. We left the photobooth and I told her I loved her again. She walked down the boardwalk in front of me, looking back and smiling as I watched and followed. I remember her red hair glowing in the sun and the light refracting off her earrings. She turned heads when she walked; her steps were rehearsed and proud. In one hand she held a frozen margarita, in the other a camera. I carried her bag for her so she could move more freely.

Later we left the boardwalk and went into the water. Our matching tattoos, illustrations from the Old Testament, pressed against one another. I held her from underneath and pulled her closer to me. With her back to the beach she was framed by the patterns of umbrellas and tacky colored swimsuits on reddening bodies. Behind them are the ferris wheel and rides of the theme park. The cold water seeped between our warm bodies. We had so much to say. Floating together in the water we talked about the first time I had kissed her in a pool back in California. It felt like we could never run out of memories, and I believed there was nothing I could say that she would not understand.


In Long’s house there is much to say, but limited means of communication. Long translates the best he can, but the chattering of aunts, uncles, brothers, and grandparents makes it hard for him to get one question out before another overpowers it. Phones are passed with Google Translate. I try my best to answer slowly, simply, using gestures to get my points across. I am overwhelmed by the crowd and laughter, but happy. There is a relief in being welcomed. I am encouraged to engage; even futile attempts at conversations are satisfying. The house smells like incense and roast duck, but the funk of dorian fruit from the altar upstairs hangs in the air. Long’s father made his money selling tempurpedic mattresses in Southeast Asia, and he can afford a big table and wooden chairs that scrape across a marble floor. The whole family is sitting around the table leaning in, shouting. After a while we realize the best way we can bond is to drink together. We get so drunk that I pass out, and I am carried upstairs by Long and his cousin. His dad falls asleep on the couch. His grandmother is also carried to her room. In the morning I wake up with the print-out from the photo booth clutched to my chest.


Before my time in Vietnam I spent a few weeks in Paris. She was supposed to be with me

But our relationship had ended too soon. I was alone in the Airbnb with the queen size bed. I spent most of those two weeks without talking to other people. I pretended to be deaf on the street to quickly end interactions with strangers, and kept my conversations with the BnB’s host to sparse remarks. I retraced the routes we had walked together on your trip to Paris the summer before. One night I sat by the Seine at the foot of a large stone bridge. I watched the young and old couples above me as they walked across the river. I imagined their relationships, their stories. Had they met when they were young? First dates and anniversaries. Where would they go? I couldn’t know any of it, but I knew, painfully, that they were there, together. I chose not to hear their conversations, I let the silence crush me. 


In Vietnam I am sitting with Long on his balcony. The air is wet and hot. I am crouched on a plastic stool. He is across from me rolling a cigarette. I told him what had happened, about her.

“It felt like one day I just stopped knowing her. And it all just stopped working.” 

He looked up from the tray on his lap, “Like what she was thinking, or what she was doing?”

“Any of it, all of it. I don’t know. And now she’s moving out.”

“And what then? Just over?”

“Yeah, over.” I remember I couldn’t sit still. “And I just don’t know where to go from here, like what do I do. How is that something that just happens?”

 He tells me that he is sorry, that he thought we were going to get married. He tells me that I can be happy without her, that there is more to life t0han someone else. It isn’t what I want to hear, and he knows that. He tells me that I have to try to let myself feel better, that it is an active process and I need to stop doing it wrong. That is the right thing to say but I am not ready to hear it. I get angry but do not show it. I feel as if any admission of emotion acknowledges how much she has hurt me, and I do not want to be angry at her.

That night is another dinner with Long’s whole family. After we eat, the men are playing cards on the floor. I am winning more than they thought I would. Long’s uncle gets too drunk and accuses me of cheating. He shouts and moves in my direction. I stand up and begin to shout back. I ask Long to translate my insults and a threat. He doesn’t say anything. The cousins find it entertaining and join my side against their dad. I go to my room. Long follows me up the stairs.

I tell him that I don’t like being accused of things and want to be trusted. I tell him I wish I could have spoken for myself because I want my feelings and opinion to be heard. He understands what I mean. I tell him that I don’t understand why things are always my fault.


I recognize now that there is nothing exceptional about our experience. The breakup, division, of a young couple is ordinary, that all “high-school sweethearts” love within the confines of the same expectations. But, until our last night together, I believed in the impermanence of conflict and thought that we were infinite. Throughout the years we spent together I could not count the thoughts of her and with every thought of her there was me. Now, I imagine that I was an overconfident weatherman with a faulty forecaster. When I looked at our future together all I could see was blue skies, and I never thought to question the honesty of my assurance.


I remember a night together. The first Christmas I spent with her family. Her grandmother’s present for her was a bound collection of childhood photos. After her family left we sat on the floor of her room and talked for most of the night. We leafed through the red book and looked at photos of her and her parents when they were young. I saw her in her mother’s face and imagined how she would look holding my child. We told each other that when we married we would never divorce like her parents had. When we were together our conversations would fill a room. Rarely was there ever silence between us. That night we filled our life together with vacations to Europe and aspirations; we imagined little bonnets and first days of school. My future was a family home built on the foundations of those conversations.


Our last night together before I left for Paris she sat on our bed and watched me pack. We hadn’t lived together long enough to purchase a bed frame so she was below the large window that looks over a quiet Manhattan street. 

“That’s nice, it’ll look good on you.” She said, as I folded a shirt I had bought that morning and placed it in my suitcase.

“Yeah, thank you.” 

“I found a place. It’s in Chinatown. There’s good light and it’s close to the train.” She tugged on the duvet cover.

“I’m glad. When did you start looking?”

“A couple weeks ago.”


“Do you think I’ll ever see you wear it?”

There seemed to be nothing left for us to say. The silence solidified, it clogged the air and filled my stomach. Any attempt to bridge across got lost in the discomfort. It was as if she was miles away from me, I could no longer reach her, hear her speak, or feel her breath. Memories of us together were overwhelmed by the empty sounds of my future without her. I imagined a future alone, a future in silence. I left our bedroom without saying goodbye and drank a beer on the floor of the kitchen before going to sleep in the loft. I knew that the end was irrevocable; I was met by a sense of failure. In the morning I left for my flight.


In Vietnam I sit on a plastic stool in front of a restaurant with Long’s cousin Ko. Without Long there is no way for us to communicate. We pass a cigarette back and forth in silence. On the street there is a vendor in his boxers selling plastic toys. A group of tourists meanders down the road. The lights suspended on strings across the street flicker. Scooters skim past each other. Alleyways open up into food stands and street markets. I am able to see and hear it all. Ko and I feel no need to speak to each other, the simple exchange of the Marlboro is enough. I am completely removed from her. I think only about my surroundings. Ko stands and stretches, I copy his movements and we walk to the scooter. He lets me drive and sits behind me. I focus on the road and the city around me. I think only of our plans for that evening.

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