words & images alexandra von arx
“Always take a real taxi,” she told me. “Motorbike taxis are dangerous.”
“Okay,” I said.
I stood on the curb outside the hotel and raised my hand. Almost instantly, a man on a dusty Honda Future squeezed between two freight trucks and a cluster of Suzukis and pulled up in front of me. In clumsy Vietnamese, I negotiated a fare to the airport. He placed my backpack between his feet and handed me a worn, cracked helmet that would have comfortably fit a small child. I swung myself onto the back of his bike and had barely lifted my feet off the ground when he kicked the bike into gear and we roared into the street.
In Saigon traffic motorbikes pour from alleys, hidden driveways, sidewalks, and front doors to join the circus of cars and trucks that flow across the roads in calculated chaos. The traffic patterns shift and overlap like the scales on a snake’s back. Horns blare and impatient vehicles block intersections like hair and dirt in a clogged drain. A miscalculation in timing leads to dismemberment. Distractions lead to death.
I sat up straight, squeezing the bike’s hot metal frame with my thighs and enjoying the feeling of having no control. I swayed with the turns and the jolts of acceleration. I let my hands float loosely at my sides and closed my eyes.
I flinched as a drop of rain splattered onto my forehead. Reacting as quickly and repulsively to the water as a cat to a bath, my driver swung the bike off to the side of the road. He tugged a large blue poncho out of his pocket and threw it over himself. He spread the excess material across his dashboard and tossed the rest over the top of my head. After checking that I was safely cocooned, he eased the bike off the curb and seamlessly backed into the melee.
The rain tapped lightly on the fabric stretched above my head, like a nervous dinner guest rapping at his host’s front door. In the soft light stained blue by the poncho, I studied the back of my driver’s head. Pricks of acne dotted the rear of his jawline. His ears were stained with dirt. The sleeves and collar of his knockoff Ralph Lauren polo were frayed. His triceps were muscular but his flesh hung loosely from his drooping shoulders.
A wet heat began to accumulate around me, trapped by the thick plastic. The smells of hot pavement and dirty rain and occasional pile of garbage were thrust up underneath my shelter and hovered near my head, trapped in the cul-de-sac of the poncho. Suddenly, a softer, gentler scent joined them: the smell of the sweat that was quickly evaporating from the back of my driver’s neck.
It wasn’t sickly, it wasn’t sweet. It was unmistakably alive. It was the smell of vibrancy, metabolism, life. Yet, there was something wrong about it. It was the smell that only his lover should be privy to as she runs her lips across his body while they are lying in bed together. The kind of smell that had floated through my consciousness as I awoke next to my boyfriend in the house we used to share. The smell of a trusting intimacy, a delicacy, a soft surrender.
A surrender that I had been victim to, that made that smell curdle in my nose and flood my eyes with waves of anger and fear and disappointment in myself, in my choices, in where I was and what I did. Embarrassment for that person I had been and what I had been fooled into thinking and the knowledge that I had been right all along yet wrong about everything else.
The bike stopped and the driver yanked the poncho from over my head. I looked up through the clouds of mist oozing from the road to the gray sky that was fracturing into a bright, dazzling blue.
“Airport,” he said.
There was no better word.