#4. Thang “Khung”‘s Story*

My bus departed at one in the morning. We drivers always joked with each other about the girl left at one in the morning. We said it was the devil’s bus, ’cause there’s always something that happened to her. After all, the thirteenth hour, right?

The week before that day, Viet “Ba Tam” drove her through the roundabout. Straight through it. It was a bloody mess. Thirteen people died. A nice number. We asked ourselves, Why not one? Why not fourteen? Why must it be precisely thirteen people? And to make it more strange, Viet, that motherfucker, was alive after all that mess, only lost a leg. He wasn’t exactly lucky, but I didn’t have the privilege to sympathize with him. I’ve got my own life to take care of, and an extra life of a child to feed. So I told him, Man, I’m sorry for your loss. He said, No worries, man. I still got one leg and two arms left. Better than being dead, don’t you say? I said, That’s true. I’m glad you’re alive. I am not, the motherfucker said. It eats at you, you see, he said, this thing that sings in your ears every day, that if you had died, maybe those thirteen people were still alive. And you would prefer that? I asked. Yeah, I guess, he said, I would much prefer that.

After all, conscience, right?

The thing that sings in your ear every day is what kills you. I didn’t tell him that. I guessed I experienced that constant singing voice a little too often. Far too much for a lifetime. What if things had been different? It said. But things would never be different, and the teething regret truly made me prefer to be dead. Not at the expense of others’ life, though. So I jumped on the bus and prayed to God that the long drive would be safe. Don’t you kill my passengers, God. They have a home to return to. But if You want to kill me, well, that’s another story.

About five minutes before the departure, there came these weird people. Two grown men wearing casual clothes. They were no different from all the other passengers, now that I think of it. But you could smell the weirdness on them. You could smell something fishy. Maybe because they were wearing masks. But the other passengers also wore masks. I asked them, “Where’s your ticket?” The younger one showed me some wrinkle pieces of paper. They looked like real tickets. So I let them in. I did against my better judgment. Maybe because my better judgment always brought me shit.

It was a long trip. We were heading to Ca Mau. The night seemed to be dragging on extremely long. Everyone was sleeping. Except for the two weird men. The older, strong one was looking blankly out the windows. The younger one had earphones stuck to his ears; his head moved sluggishly to the rhythm. Must be a romantic love song. Then the young one glanced at me through the mirror. Damned, I thought, here it goes. Maybe the bus was cursed. Those thirteen dead people’s fault. If there were fourteen people, maybe this thing won’t happen. He went up to my seat, took off his mask, and flashed me a dazzling smile.

“How long ’til we arrive at the first station?”

“Pretty long, boy.”

“How long, exactly?”

“’bout two hours. You in a rush?”

“Me? No. I think this is an awfully long trip.”

“Every trip is an awfully long trip when you in a rush to the destination.”

“That’s some life wisdom.”

“Us drivers always have some life wisdom in our pockets in case of emergency.”

“Like now?”

“Kinda.”

He leaned on the pole, not wanting to go back to his seat anytime soon. He looked like he was thinking hard about the life wisdom I just spat to his face. Five minutes into silence, and he was ready to fire his next question:

“How long ’til we arrive at the final destination?”

“You mean Ca Mau Bus Stop?”

“That’s what I meant.”

“Maybe in about six to seven hours.”

“That sounds like forever.”

“Yeah, so you may want to go back to your seat and sleep for a bit.”

“You don’t want me here? Am I distracting you?”

“No, but she may get jealous. You never know what a woman will do when she get jealous.”

“You mean the bus?”

“That’s what I meant. And possibly my wife.”

“Men are also pretty bad at handling jealousy.”

“I never get jealous when someone rides her.”

“You mean your wife?”

“I meant the bus.”

He went back to silent. I think what I said was a little bit too hard for him to chew. Because it was also hard for me to chew on the notion that someone would be riding my wife. But I didn’t tell him that.

After all, jealousy, right?

“But have you ever get jealous of your wife?”

He asked me, his round eyes blinked in the act of innocence. Boy, we all know there’s no innocence in you. Certainly not in me. I don’t have the time for your shit. But I can’t tell him that. God knows the passenger’s complaints are thriving in Inferno these days.

“She’s a one-man woman.”

“But have you?”

“What’s it to you?”

“Curiosity, I guess.”

“You should go back to your seat. Bumpy road.”

He didn’t move. I thought he enjoyed getting on people’s nerves. My nerve. A life-long weariness came over me, and I can’t help but think, A, here it is, the curse of the bus departing at one in the morning. I tried to focus on the road, but his question kept bugging me. Have you ever get jealous of your wife? I thought about her. It’s been a long time since the last time she was the main cause of my chronic headache. Don’t get me wrong, she’s a fine girl. Like a timid river – not the kind you can find everywhere in Nam, not the typical kind – she’s the river that only a lucky bastard dying of thirst in the desert can find. A rare one. She cured the bastard. She cured me. There was a time in a not-so-distant past, on a not-so-distant desert, her love quenched my thirst. But this wasn’t some good old love story.

“She’s a fine woman, that’s what I think.”

I spoke and felt the words flowing out of my tongue like some bad taste medicine. The young boy jumped unexpectedly. He was nodding off, leaning unsteadily against the pole.

“Excuse me?”

“I said she’s a fine woman.”

“The bus?”

“My wife.”

“Oh.”

“I loved her. And I think she did love me for a while.”

“Loved? Do you still love her, then?”

“Hard to say. ‘Cause she’s not here no more.”

“She’s dead?”

“No. She’s in ‘Murica.”

“So she’s gonna take you there? Isn’t that some blessed life?”

“Yeah. Some damned blessed life.”

He waited for me to go on, but it’s hard. I felt the unspoken words clammed tightly around my throat, soaking up my saliva like a sponge. My mouth’s as dry as that barren desert people always talked about on TV – the Saha-something. About one and a half hour ’til the first station.

“We were married after six months of dating.”

“Well, that’s quick.”

“I was afraid that I might lose her to somebody else. She’s a treasure. A river in the desert.”

“Then you must be a lucky one.”

“Yeah. I was.”

I licked my lips. Some memories from ancient times kept flooding back like a broken dam. For a moment, I thought I was sitting at the dining table in our poor home. She was fixing dinner. I was scheduled to drive the bus departing at one in the morning. She said, “When will you be home this time?” And I said, “I don’t know, darling. If you want, I will come home as soon as the sun sets its feet on the horizon.” And she laughed. Her laugh sounded like the ring of the cathedral’s bell at five in the evening.

“You know, we were poor. Our savings couldn’t save our first child when she was still inside my wife. And that’s what broke us.”

“But maybe you can have another child?”

“Yeah, I guess. Maybe next time, we will be lucky. Next time, we can save the child. Next time, we will be better. But why must it always be next time? Why not now? Why not saving our breathless corpse of a child this moment? This thing is called a conscience. You young people rarely get it. But it’s always there. I asked her, Why can’t you save her? After all, she’s in your womb, right? And she asked me, Why can’t you save her? After all, you are supposed to be making money, right? We never look straight at each other after that. ‘Cause all we can see in each other’s eyes is money. Not love. Not compassion. Not endurance. Straight up, cold, hard money.”

“Then what happened?”

“We stopped talking. Simple as that. I felt like the point of my whole existence was reduced to this small fetus covered with my wife’s blood. Like I was the cause of everything bad. You don’t know what that does to me. I stayed out more often. I was never home when she needed me most. And she never blamed me. I wish she did. At least, I can have a reason to hate her then.”

“And she left for Mr. ‘Murica.”

“Yeah. After all, money, right?”

About forty-five minutes ’til the first station. I started to lose focus on the road ahead, so I wiped my face, hoping to get rid of unnecessary emotions. The memories still came flooding in, and I sat there, let them wash over me in a tide of undying yearning.

“It was a rainy evening in October. She fixed me a meal, as delicious as ever. She looked at me, but I, a coward, I tried to look away. That’s when she said, I want to get a divorce.”

“A divorce.”

“She said it was temporary. I have a cousin who can help me get to ‘Murica, she said, but I must be divorced. She told me that after three years of the fake married, after she got to ‘Murica safe and sound after all the troublesome paperwork was done, she will come back. Then our family – me, her, and our daughter – can come to the dreamland together. Isn’t that wonderful?”

“Did she come back?”

“You guess. Been six years. No words.”

“That’s sad.”

“I don’t know what is sadder. Me knowing that she will never come back and wait for her anyway? Or our daughter not knowing that she’s gone and wait for her anyway? I often think that maybe the fake married she’s in is way happier than the real married she got. Maybe she’s rich. Maybe she’s getting two or three nail salons there. Maybe her husband has his own chauffeur, and she doesn’t need to worry about where to get money to save her next child. Maybe the unborn child stopped haunting her. I don’t know. There are just too many maybes.”

“That’s sad.”

We arrived at the station. I parked my bus near the gas shelf, announced that we were going to leave in fifteen minutes. I didn’t know what was more devastating, the memories of love I used to have, or the empty parking lot of the station in the foggy early morning. The boy wiggled his feet and walked back to his seat. In a brief moment, I caught his hand, and before anyone can come down the doorway, I told him:

“That’s not sad. She’s living happily, and that’s all I care about.”

He smiled. An I-know-what-you’re-talking-about kind of smile. Then he ran against the wave of people and shook the older man awake. The man grunted a few curse words, then silently followed the boy down the bus’s hallway.

I sat in my driver’s seat, watching people leave. The bullshit I said caught up to me quicker than I want to admit. I was not fooling anyone. I knew that was everything I cared about. I knew that I sometimes shared my daughter’s hopeful look when someone knocked at the door. That it was sad. Knowing that the one you love will never return, yet keep on waiting anyway is sad.

I was never designed to be a one-woman-man. I simply had no choice. Because the love for her sometimes grew higher than all the doubts and jealousy. Because when that love is at the lowest, the pain was enough to suffocate me. I’d rather live believing in her almost-non-existing return than kill myself over the fact that she will not be back. Not for me. Not for my daughter. “Uncle, you know what?” The boy talked to me as he climbed down the bus.

“Yeah?”

“My ma’am often tells me that it’s a fucked up world we live in.”

“And?”

“But for me, I always believe that after all, there will always be something left to love in this fucked up world.”

I laughed. The passengers started pouring out of the bus, going blindly to the rest area like moths finding the light. And the sky above us was bluer and brighter than ever. He’s right. There will always be something left to love. And one of these days, when I return home from the bus departing at 1 in the morning, she will be there. Fixing up a meal, tying our daughter’s hair, sweeping the floor. We will go back to the beginning, where there was no ‘Murica, no unborn children, no money. No separation that cut into our heart a festering wound that can never be healed.

After all, love, right?

*A/N: Khung is a Vietnamese word, which is often used to describe people with crazy, weird behavior.

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