I’ve heard it said your mind is at its best when you are in a new place. Dropped suddenly in a new town, a new city, you see your surroundings with fresh eyes. Your memory is stronger. You are alert to all stimulus and sensory information. Maybe this is because instinctually you know you are on foreign shores and you must survive. Maybe you’re not so bored as you once were. You walk unfamiliar streets and the world you see is alive. You hear the sounds of the city and smell food cooking and feel the rumble of buses and trains through the concrete, and you move with a different sort of purpose. Question is, do you allow yourself to be swept up with the current and carried off downriver or do you find a cave in which to hide—a safe place to last out the night.
Cassidy wanted to see Vietnam as much as she could before her return flight, but she had $30 to last the month. The plan became: hide some, look around some. Luckily, Cassidy had family in town—an aunt and a cousin, both in Toulouse for the month at their summer estate. Over the phone, Cassidy’s aunt Bian gave her the address of her apartment in the Thao Dien neighborhood and said the security staff would let her in. Bian promised to get in touch with them immediately after the call and vouch for her favorite niece whose visit she was so hopelessly crushed to have missed.
Cass caught a motorbike taxi to Thao Dien and for three weeks lived in her family’s lavish top floor apartment. Cassidy’s aunt Bian and cousin Buu had the entire floor, the wall-length windows bordering all four sides with sweeping views of the city below and the Saigon River. Cassidy’s aunt, the CEO of a multinational bank, had done well after the war. The apartment was modern, sparsely furnished but tasteful. Art hung on the walls, paintings by artists Cassidy knew about from school. In the front room stood a sculpture by Rodin.
“An actual fucking Rodin,” Cassidy said aloud upon entering the room for the first time, realizing suddenly she had been surprised to the point of talking out loud, talking to no one alone in a room, alone in a top floor high-rise apartment full of an actual fucking billionaire’s actual fucking dragon hoard.
Cass slept until noon each day in her cousin’s king-size bed and awoke to sun streaming through the wall of glass. She began her day slowly. Breakfast by one of the big windows. (Fresh food was delivered weekly upon arrangement from Bian, who of course spared no expense.) Cass made hot chocolate to start. Then espresso. Orange juice. Baguettes with fig or apricot jam or a jambon-beurre or an omelet with gruyere, peas, cream sauce, and mushrooms. Cass ended breakfast with a few beers (her cousin Buu’s favorite, Biere Larue) and a glass or two of bordeaux, then a joint from Buu’s stash.
Next, a shower—drunk and high with the glass walls tall before her.
She stood in the shower for what felt like years, letting the water hit the top of her head and stream down her neck and back, staring out at all the life sprawling so far below her in the city.
After the shower, another glass of wine, another joint, then an elevator ride to the streets below. Cassidy found the Thao Dien neighborhood full of restaurants, bars, cafes, and shops, but she had no money for that, so she walked. She walked through the gray, crowded streets and she walked down alleys with lush, fragrant greenery spilling out over their black iron wrought gates.
Still high, she looked in shop windows at croissants and rows of glazed pastries and she watched families eating at dumpling houses and her stomach tightened and goddamn she was hungry. Food wasn’t an option until she reached the apartment again, so she walked to stave it off. She walked along the river and watched the tanker ships move slowly like floating cities. She sat under palm trees on the esplanade and smoked cigarettes she bummed and sometimes she nodded off, if only for a moment.
When it rained, she took shelter under the awnings of shopfronts with other pedestrians and eavesdropped on their conversations about new businesses coming to the area and soccer matches on TV and who’s picking up which kid from which place and did you buy the roasted duck or where did Lihn go after work because it definitely wasn’t the movies.
At nightfall each day, Cassidy walked back to the apartment, got stoned out of her mind, and made big, elaborate dinners from her aunt’s well-stocked kitchen. Crepes. Bún riêu soup without seafood. Bánh xèo with peanut sauce and button mushrooms. Confit de canard with mock duck. Leek gratin.
After dinner, TV and sleep.
Sometimes on television Cassidy would see what felt was a familiar face—a face from back home, from her past, and for a moment she would miss San Diego and her job at the retirement center. She would think of her tiny apartment in Golden Hill, her friends—me, Petra, Tyler, Joey Carr, Maggie, but then that feeling would be gone, and she would stretch out on the bed which felt as vast as a wide, bright seashore and fall into a quiet and dreamless sleep.
Cassidy had one dream she remembered during those four weeks—blue sky, free of clouds, the sun blazing white-hot in the center of it. Then, almost too small to see, something like a gray smudge coming from behind the sun, a shadow at first, then the black fingers, then the hand, then the arm of a man as big as the universe, reaching around the side of the sun, reaching out toward her, the black hand growing larger. Larger. LARGER.
Read parts 2 and 3 below:
Lil’ Cassidy Nguyen disappeared one day. No calls. No emails. Our friends talked about it incessantly. “Incessantly” is a strong word, a word that leans toward exaggeration, but incessantly is the best way to explain it. Cassidy’s brother Duong filed a missing person’s report three days after she vanished. He called the cops. None of us could take that final step. (Duong could.) “Vanished,” that’s the word our friends used. It’s a word you don’t use often because it has an air of the mystical. Unicorns vanish in a rainbow mist after piercing the frozen heart of the Queen of Snow. Wizards vanish with a swirl of their long-fingered hands. But people? Regular people? Nah, they leave. They split. They skip town. They don’t fuckin’ vanish.
A month later I woke up to a loud, repeated knocking on the door of my apartment late one night—the kind of knock that’s never good. No one knocks on your door at (I checked this on my oven clock as I shuffled down the hallway from my bedroom) 3am unless something is very wrong or something is about to go wrong.
I shut one eye and looked through the peephole. Cassidy. Yup. The top of Cassidy’s shaved head (because she was in fact lil’) and the smoke from her cigarette trailing up through the dim porch light to obscure my view. Of course I opened the door immediately and of course I was overjoyed and relieved to see her and of course what she had to tell me came as a surprise.
We’ve all got a different version of what “home” is. Maybe it’s the house you grew up in. Maybe a city or a state or a country. For some of us “home” is a person, or a group of people, or a community or a scene to come back to when you’ve strayed too far and too long. Some of us are like Odysseus—forever fighting to get back home after drifting waylaid for half our lives. Some will never find home and some never had one to begin with, not one they truly loved. “Home” is a loaded word. Because if you want to come home but you CAN’T? That’s when the sadness of life will consume you. What do you do when you can’t have the thing you need most of all?
The idea of “home” can force us to long so deeply for that which we cannot have, it will verge on the masochistic.
There’s this quote I like and can’t remember who said it. Maybe a friend long forgotten or a scene from a movie—something about how baseball is a beautiful sport because the players are all trying to get home. I don’t cry often and care little for sports, but that quote gets me when I think of it and makes me think highly of the sport of baseball. Jim Jarmusch has that great line about baseball being beautiful because it’s played on a diamond. Maybe it’s part of that. A scene left off when people use the Jarmusch quote. If it is, they’re missing the best of it. There’s something about the return home that catches you in the chest, that derails you because we’ve all felt estranged from where or whom we came from at one point or another.
There’s another quote I like on the topic of home. This one is from the director John Cassavetes. “I try to find some kind of positive way to make the world exist like a family, make a family, not of us behind the camera, not of the actors, but of the characters, a world so that they can patrol certain streets, patrol their house, and they know their way home. And when they cease to know their way home, things go wrong. You somehow, drunk or sober or any other way, you always find your way back to where you live. And then you get detoured. And when you can’t find your way home, THAT’S when I consider it’s worth it to make a film. Because that’s interesting.”
When I opened the door and let Cassidy in that night and asked where she’d been, she told me “home” and I figured that meant her apartment in Golden Hill. She meant Vietnam.
Cassidy’s story began at the Viejas Casino a month prior, the night she met the actress Tan Le Pham and her husband Ben Curtis the LA real estate mogul. Pham introduced herself because of a misunderstanding—that Cassidy had tried to pay for their drinks. She hadn’t. Someone else had. A business acquaintance across the room. But the three got to talking over cocktails and when Pham and Curtis learned Cass had never been to her family’s home country, they decided they would take her.
Curtis was a veteran. Two tours in-country in the late 1960s. He met Pham as a young girl and came back after the war to bring her to the States. Cassidy told me Curtis said often during their conversation that he had “more money than god,” which made her feel as if she “had stepped into the wrong scene in a movie,” but soon she was drunk enough it didn’t matter.
The next day they flew to Ho Chi Mihn City.
On the 15-hour flight, in the sunny cabin of the plane, Cassidy was terribly hungover and stuck to water and coffee while Pham and Curtis continued to drink vodka cocktails. Five hours in, after bickering for ages, changing seats three times, and returning once again to argue, Curtis and Pham passed out and didn’t awake until the plane reached its destination.
Cassidy knew the first thing she needed to do once off the plane was ditch them, and she did, ducking into a crowd, moving along with the flow of bodies, leaving Pham and Curtis arguing at the curb under the hot gray sky.