The Daily

First Person

The Escape Artist

January 11, 2012 | by

Graham Greene stole the title of my memoirs. Rueful and proud, ringing of a boastful confession, imaginary maps, and the magician’s exegesis, his Ways of Escape would have been a perfect header for my career of flight—from reality, relationships, and, finally, the country. It is a series of escapes in which Mister Greene, who made so seductive the life of an exiled libertine, is not entirely innocent.

But he needn’t take all the blame. At least part of the credit for my fleet-footedness is due to a childhood spent shunting between single parents and rival school districts (or is it the other way around?). I was always arriving, never staying too long, and, with another departure constantly looming, my relationship to home became abstracted to fungible goods, dispassionate.

As an only child, I spent a lot of time by myself. But I never ran with imaginary friends, opting instead to invent imaginary versions of myself. I dreamed constantly of flying (by mastering the basketball double pump), climbed ficus trees, and read Dragonlance books. Their rogues and wizards enchanted me, wandering far from their homes, always in search of a tree city called Solace.

In the fifth grade, I asked the girl I was crazy about to go steady with me, only to call back five minutes later to explain that I’d had too many Jolly Ranchers, and, unfortunately, it was over between us. I’ve left every relationship since—be it of five months or five years—in a similar fashion. It really isn’t them. It’s me, and I have to leave all that I know to get rid of him, to start over. Like a writer in the movies, with a pile of crumpled paper in the bin beside him, I am forever beginning anew. This next draft is going to be the keeper—the real me.

Meanwhile, I’ve inherited my father’s method for home improvement: moving. At the end of my chapters I pull up stakes like a fugitive and purge everything, from beds to furniture to collectibles and clothing. A stack of my first-edition Gavin Lambert books now lives in a baby nursery in Culver City, an espresso maker is in Echo Park, and a few dozen ties are reentering circulation from an Out of the Closet on Fairfax.

Jobs are no different. At least four times I’ve gone home from a day’s work without a word, never to return. I’ve left schools, left my position as starting quarterback for a college football team, and left this piece a half dozen times. My distinguishing feature is a pair of taillights.

After the Dragonlace epoch, my favorite book was Camus’s L’Etranger, and I’m pretty sure that the takeaway there (aside from “beware of a bored man on the beach”) is that you can’t run away from your problems, cannot escape your fate. What I got from it, however, was an unceasing romance for displacement, a yen for expatriation, and the dream of living in sight of the Mediterranean, standing by the window, eating eggs out of the pan. From Camus it was a short step to Paul Bowles and to Port wandering into the desert with a ribbon of luggage in his wake. Then on to Durrell and Darley lost in Alexandria, huddling over his school papers, cataloguing the expat fauna. Finally to Greene and Fowler, the exiled sage taking lunch at the Continental, while the milk bar and Saigon blows up around him.

I escaped from my life into these stories and others. I dreamed of being an expat writer, lounging in a linen suit and panama hat, entertaining mountebanks and cutthroats in a dusty medina, attending costume balls at some far-flung embassy, dashing off dispatches on the espionage community with a gin and tonic in hand. I felt more kinship with these fictive characters than with anyone I’d ever met. But when I actually did end up on the far side of the world, in a borrowed room overlooking an open-air sewer, penniless and pathetic, there was no one there.

On my first night in Saigon I found myself wedged into the greasy, linoleum corner of a restaurant, the subject of the attention of a seven-foot king cobra. Less than two feet from me, and pestered by a “charmer” behind it with a long metal stake, the cobra was standing from its midsection, flaring it neck, and spitting to the deafening delight of a restaurant blasted on rice wine and something approaching vengeance (here I was, the first white man—the first American—they’d ever seen in there, on their turf, not far from Victory Boulevard ... scared stiff).

When I could bear no more—maybe the snake tamer saw it in my eyes—he snatched up the snake behind the head, and, with one deft movement, held it high, put a knife into its throat, and slit it down to its tail, spilling the blood into a bowl in front of me. Then he reached inside, pulled out the still-beating heart and dropped it into my glass of snake-bile whiskey (that’s a thing), where it puffed clouds of blood into the clear fluid.

I tossed the cocktail back, to the howling delight of the drunken crowd, and settled into my wobbly plastic chair, waiting to feel the second pulse in my chest. After a bottle of that snake whiskey, and a five-course meal of my slippery friend, our party descended on the nightclub called Apocalypse Now for a rowdy nightcap, or seven. Here, every yahoo from Seattle to Sydney is a pharaoh, attended by a cluster of cocktail waitresses, eight in ten of whom are prostitutes. I’m told it is Oliver Stone’s favorite haunt in town.

Not every night for the next six months was the same. Sometimes I ate frog legs and did ecstacy instead. Sometimes I feasted on snails, drank negronis with the expats at Qbar, went to wine tastings, dinner parties, restaurant openings, illicit trysts, or just rode around on my cyclo, linen suit flapping in the wind. I was harsh in my judgments of the other expats, maybe because the banality of their existence broke the spell of my fantasies. “These are not the characters out of Justine or A Moveable Feast,” I wrote in my journal. “Imagine flying halfway across the world to end up in a bar which might as well be in Westwood Village with a bunch of stubby WASPs wearing plaid button-ups and polo shirts.” They too were escaping something or hunting for something: mercenaries and dropouts, men of action and of leisure, and only a few with any glamour at all. Of course, by my own estimation, I was fitting in well to the Indra’s net of my dissolute heroes. I wrote for hours a day at my favorite little café, associated with nefarious characters, awaited my recruitment for the secret service, and slept my way into tangled love triangles.

From college into my late twenties I entertained the fancy of becoming an actor—and even won an award at a film festival—but my character work in Vietnam was real, and, several months into this particular run, I started to get the feeling that it was played out. I’d been working as a consultant on the first haute-cuisine restaurant to open in Saigon and cultivating a Rick Blaine vibe, trapped in the last gin joint in all the world, but I began to realize that I had no war, and no Ilse.

My apartment was completely bare. The vast majority of my earnings from the restaurant had been spent on four suits I’d had custom-made to play my part. I had no furniture and slept on a futon mattress on the floor. All I had was a tea kettle, bootleg toiletries, and a potted plant that predated me. At work, things were bad. I’d never negotiated terms or countered an offer, so I was exploited miserably (to the tune of six twenty-hour days a week for three months). One day, I just walked. Without a spine, you learn to slither.

My closest friend in the country had always jokingly called me quỷ trắng, “white devil,” but now that I’d left the job I was suddenly evicted from my apartment for “having a colonist’s face.” Broke, terrified, and on the run, I started picturing worst-case scenarios—a lifetime at the prison in Midnight Express, chained to the world’s greatest fecal-fresco artist. I packed my entire life into four bags and, having forfeited my moped to the restaurant, took a taxi to a borrowed apartment overlooking an open-air sewer on the far side of town.

I locked myself in, watching stacks of low-grade pirate blockbusters to cool my steaming brain. Though my body remained still my mind went into free fall. I wanted to be done with the exhaustion of a lifelong existential crisis. As much as I wanted to be all these characters from fiction, I couldn’t bear to be any one, let alone myself.

For days I didn’t move off my mattress except to visit the bathroom. If I’d been on a vision quest then my Sioux name would have been Sitting Bulimic. Weeks went by like this. Finally, after a month maybe, I began to stir again. I rose and took stock. A return ticket I’d never intended to use was still somewhere in my baggage. Seven dollars, in coins—the very last of my money—was scattered about the floor. I’d lost almost everything, lost forty pounds, and jettisoned all that I owned. But the one thing I couldn’t shake, the one constant—dammit, Camus—was the one thing I’d been running from the whole time. Now, it was all I wanted in the world.

For six months I’d worn the suits and panama hats, I’d entertained mountebanks, mercenaries and dropouts, I’d achieved the expat’s weariness, taken local lovers, and dashed off dispatches with a gin and tonic in hand. I’d sat at the Hotel Continental where Fowler had sat and … I missed people. I missed my talks with the friends I’d dumped my Lamberts on. I missed the me I was in their company. I missed Los Angeles—the real Los Angeles, and not just Chandler’s or Wilder’s or Ellroy’s—and so, with the last of my money, I took a taxi to the airport and I escaped back home.

Chris Wallace is a writer and editor in New York.

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2 Comments

  1. Tom May | January 11, 2012 at 11:49 am

    Hold on there, Chris: the real Los Angeles IS “just Chandler’s or Wilder’s or Ellroy’s.” I was raised there.

  2. Cosmo Landesman | January 26, 2014 at 10:37 am

    Dear Chris Wallace,
    I really enjoyed your piece. Smart and funny and full of great lines – “without a spine you learn to slither”. It’s an entire 400 page autobiography written in a few thousand words. And it’s that rarest of things – a piece of prose that left me wanting more.

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