#3. I Can Only Do Nothing For You

I opened the door to one of the most astonishing scenes in my entire life. My best boy was there with a man who looked a decade older than him. The old bastard carried every symbol of bad luck. Dirty shirt, torn jeans, callous hands, skin darker than my funeral dress. I could go on endlessly. But what’s most important were his eyes: they were painted by death. I saw him, and I thought to myself, What kind of monstrosity is happening here? Did my bell finally come tolling for me? And my best boy came to me, all smiling, he said, “Ma’am, he killed a governor.”

Yes, he said it with such pride and bravery that I almost believed killing a governor is the highest kind of achievement a man can get.

You can never imagine what that one simple sentence did to me. My best boy, who could do no wrong; who had never once violated my rules. He was casually standing there, looking straight into my eyes, and telling me he brought a murderer to my home. I said, “What do you mean?” He was grinning ear to ear. I repeated, “What do you mean, Hai?”

“I meant what I said. He killed a governor. Ain’t he a brave one, ma’am?”

“If he’s so brave and so proud, he should be in the police station now, not here.”

I saw the man trembled silently. Maybe because he heard the words police station. Maybe because the air con was on. I couldn’t care less. What I wanted at that moment was simple: For everything to be back to where it was before he stepped in. But boy, was it a naive idea! Nothing will ever be the same. Not Hai. Not the man. Certainly not me and my home and the other dozens of boys who were out searching for a good catch that evening. That’s how this whole show’s going to be. You’ve got to move on. Once you take a step forward, you burn the bridge. It’s as simple as that. So I asked Hai, my best boy, used to be, and always will be:

“What are you gonna do? You’re only twenty years old. I don’t want you in prison.”

He looked at the man, seemingly not listen to a single word I uttered. Maybe the darkness of death in that man’s eyes had drowned him, long before I came through the door. Maybe he suddenly turned deaf from all the “could’ve, should’ve, would’ve” people like us so often get stuck into like some damned fate. I lit up a cigarette, puffed it a few times, and tried to get his attention in vain:

“You don’t plan on helping him escape, do you?”

He didn’t look at me. He didn’t turn even a single muscle on that young, frail body of a boy who happened to face the old age despair a little too soon. He stood there like a monument the city erected as a lame joke in the name of celebrating the victory of April 30th. And I looked on with oblivion and confusion, wondering why, amidst all these troubles and hardships that I had to bear, do I have to celebrate this stupid monument?

And that is when I knew I lost him to something more substantial than what the rules and the savings all these years can give him. I lost a battle I was aware I could not win. He chose to leave. Nothing I do can ever change that.

“You know this is a fucked up world we live in, isn’t it?” I felt my lips quiver. My hand can barely hold onto the thin cigarette.

“… You don’t say.”

“What I’m trying to tell you is, I don’t care what you do, just get that thing off my couch by midnight.”

“Ma’am.”

“Just don’t get caught. And don’t get me involved no further than this.”

“Ma’am.”

“And don’t fall in love.”

He slowly drifted back to the reality of the dark living room. Outside, some old woman bicycled away, shouted, Who want some iced orange juice? Best orange juice in town.

“Love’s not for me.”

“Sure.”

“If this is about love, there will be a happy-ever-after ending where I live joyfully by the man I choose. This ain’t that. And eventually, if I turned out to be the luckiest of the damned, I can get this man to where he needs to be without getting caught, I can get this man to live another life, I can get this man to live an ending I once dreamed of myself. But after that?”

“After that?”

“Nothing happened after that. Because this ain’t a love story.”

“I always tell you it is a fucked up world we live in.”

“It sure is. But ma’am, you know what?”

“What?

“On the sunniest day of the hottest summer, I still dream of being the luckiest of the damned.” He smiled. The stupid smile of a special kind of idiot.

“You’re a dreamer.”

“Ain’t we all?”

“Just don’t fall in love.”

“Hear, hear.”

“And don’t get caught.”

“Yes.”

“And don’t get me involved.”

“Sure.”

And don’t die before me. I didn’t say it out loud. There’s an old saying, You can’t achieve what you’ve already said. What if it’s true? What if I tell him now, Don’t die before me, and he actually ends up dying before me? Lord, let my silence become his shield.

He moved to his room, packed all his clothes, and some small souvenirs the other boys gave him through the years. I thought he knew I would cry, and he was the type that can’t bear the outburst of a woman’s love. So I saved him the trouble. I held the sorrow in, like some life-threatening secret I never wanted anyone to find out. But the tears just kept flowing, and flowing, and flowing. I bit on my right hand, hard, and hoped that the physical pain would flood away the immense weight that was crushing my heart. The man on the couch breathed slowly as if he’s sound asleep halfway through our conversation. I puffed my cigarette one last time, whispered shakingly to the worn-out wooden cross hanging pathetically on the wall:

God, if I give you everything I’ve ever had, go back in time to atone all my sins, stand in front of Heaven’s gate as a virgin, can you pleasepleaseplease show that boy some mercy and turn him into the luckiest of the damned?

But there ain’t no God in that dark living room of the small dirty brothel. There was only a man, who had murdered another man, who was running away from all his sins like a coward, who was sleeping soundly and calmly on the couch like he did no wrong. And I was standing there in front of the cross, tasting the bitter taste of separation on my lips, trying not to think of an ending I already knew.

From the upper floor, I can hear my boy whistling. His favorite song was on at the loudest volume. Dù tình yêu đã mất, em xin được một lần nụ hôn chất ngất, như xưa mình mặn nồng, cùng với kỷ niệm của ngày xa cách đưa tiễn nhau đi. The singer’s forlorn voice rained on my ears like a shadow of a future I often saw in one of my haunting nightmares. I had an illusion that if I reached out and did something, it will not happen, and everyone will be happy in their place. But I didn’t reach out. I didn’t do nothing. After all, an illusion is just an illusion.

It broke my heart, sometimes, to think that that is everything you could do for the people you loved most: Nothing.

Translation: And even if love was lost, I beg for your passionate kiss one more time, like the love that once was ours, and the memories of our separation.

**************

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