#5. The First Conversation

“What did you tell him, you snitch?”

Nha asked me, his teeth gritting while his left hand squeezed the bone out of my right arm.

“Nothing much. I said I was running away with a murderer. I said that the same murderer threatened to kill me. And I also said the murderer I was running away with was the same one the government was looking for. That’s all.” I grinned, looking at his pale face. His dark eyes were glowing ferociously with burning anger. For a moment, I enjoyed the thought that he was going to kill me this time.

“I know you are no good, you damn prostitute.”

“Ay, ay. This damn prostitute brought you here without getting caught, remember? And this damn prostitute can kick you to Hell any moment. What a fine ‘damn prostitute’, eh?”

He wiped his face, his grip on my arm loosened a little bit. He turned his head left and right, looking for a man, any man, in uniform. There was none, except for the bus drivers who were drinking their bitter corn-coffee at a small corner – but their uniform did not give off a dangerous smell. He dragged me to a hidden corner near the men’s washroom. Amidst the blooming ammoniac scent, he gritted his teeth again, as if gritting his teeth was the only way for him to speak softly.

“Now tell me what youtoldhim. And don’t joke around. I killeda man, Hai, and I may very well kill another man now.”

“What does it matter to me? Whether you kill me or not does not matter shit to me. You’re gonna end up with a death penalty anyway. Why should I care?” I asked him, putting on an act of innocence because I knew it would get him mad. Getting people mad was your proudest specialty, Madam Lieu always said to me in her exaggerated way.

“What do you want? You damn liar, wicked call boy.” He turned his head quickly again. We were getting the other passengers’ attention, and that’s not a good sign. I licked my lips, speculating a way out of this dark, smelly situation.

“You see, Mr. Gentleman, if you could just drop your damn prostitute and wicked call boy, and maybe ask me in a nicer way to sit down and tell you what I told the poor driver, then we wouldn’t be attracting unwanted attention. Now what do you say?” I winked at him, trying to suppress the trembling anxiety threatening to pour out of my throat.

He stepped away. I can see all the cogs and wheels in his brain working in full capacity, calculating and weighing every sweetened word I said. Then he dragged me away from the dark corner, pushed me down in the most gentle way possible on a crippling chair, and flashed a crooked smile at me:

“Now do you care to tell me what you told the driver, please?”

“That’s better.”

“What did you fucking tell him?” He leaned closer. I believed if he gritted his teeth for another sentence, his teeth would pour out of his mouth like a waterfall.

“Now rest easy. I asked him how long would it be until we reach South West of Nam, and he was in the mood of telling me a story so we chatted a bit. That’s all. Not a single word about you.”

“Not even a single letter?”

“What did you expect? You are not that important. At least, not to himOr me, for that matter.”

He moved away, gritting his teeth again on what I said. Our bus driver was looking at me from the far corner of the gathering, smiling and waving his cup of coffee. I waved back energetically at him with both hands, grinning ear to ear. He was a sweet man, and all sweet men had bad luck in love.

“Did you seduce him?”

“Hell. No. What did you take me for? Seducing a man on the run? What am I? A special kind of idiot?” I retorted, then shouted out to the waitress asking for two mugs of sugarcane juice.

“So what did he tell you? Was it about, you know, criminal stuff?” He licked his lips. For a moment, he looked like a child stuffed inside a giant’s body. I laughed again as he sat there, all tensed up.

“I told you it was not about any of that. He was telling me about his life. His love life to be exact. He married this fine woman, you see, and they expected another child and what not, and the child died, and the woman went to America, and that’s that.”

“‘Murica? Is he going there, too?” He took a sip of sugarcane juice from the dirty plastic mug and wiggled his brows.

“Perhaps one day. Perhaps never. He is waiting for his wife to contact him. They did divorce each other, you know. Well, she’s as good as gone now but hey, there’s always something else to love after your wife left you, isn’t there? Love and all that stuff. What a mystery.”

“I tell you it’s the ‘Murica that’s haunting everyone in this damn country. They say even the street lamp would go to ‘Murica if it has two feet. What’s so good about ‘Murica?”

“Viva la American Dream. Easy money with a penthouse and a Bentley. What more can you ask for?”

“And will you not sacrifice somethin’ for it? I tell you everywhere’s the same. ‘Murica or no ‘Murica. Us poor people always have the same fate wherever we go.”

“And maybe you can’t hide from the hound as easy there as you can here, am I right, Mr. Gentleman?”

“I say, he better finds another fine woman. He may as well fare better in that business than this whole waiting business.”

“Oh stop it. You don’t know what love is.”

“And you know what it is? To wither away in a tattered house waiting for one person’s footstep in the midst of a flooding rain? No, I would rather not. You know what I believe in?”

“What? Not killing people for joy, I hope.”

“I believe in this.” He rubbed his forefinger and his thumb together, flashing his crooked smile. “I believe more in what these thin sheets of paper can bring us than your so-called marvelous love stories. And that’s that.”

I felt something choked inside my throat. The sugarcane juice was tasteless. I thought the lady over there did put too much water in it. Well, Nha, I stuttered, then I stopped. What can I tell him? That money is not everything? That money will not buy you happiness? Those sentences sounded too cliché coming from a damn prostitute who would sleep with anyone for money like me. So I stopped and silently stared at him. I wanted to tell him that he will realize. He will realize that money is nothing but a fine monster disguised as your best call girl. It robbed you of everything else and it brought you nothing but a moment’s revelation. And when it’s gone, you are nothing but an empty shell. And what’s worse, there will be no one else there for you.

“No one. You’re a corpse jumping out of a skyscraper on a cold, dark winter day.”

“What did you say?”

“Nothing. Just some useless reminder.”

He looked at me, bewildered. I whistled some old tunes and remembered what Madam Lieu said, Don’t fall in love. Well, Ma’am, I’m not risking my life waiting for someone who will not return. And that’s that.

The passengers were moving slowly towards the bus and finding their seats with half-closed eyes. About thirty minutes into departure, they were snoring against the windows, against the poles, against each other, and against everything ever existed. But I, and the man-child next to me, were fully awake. We sat with a straightened back on the harden cushion seats as all decent human beings did. Well, not very decent, I supposed. It’s more like we tried to sit the way all decent human beings did and hoped that the bus driver would believe we were decent human beings.

“Say, do we look like criminals on the run?”

The man-child beside me whispered timidly in my ear, interrupted the virulent battle in my mind of what was decent and what was not. I could barely distinguish his voice from the loud snoring of the young woman a few rows ahead, so I asked:

“Say what?”

“I say, do we look like criminals on the run?”

I stared at him blankly with a newfound admiration and amazement:

“You really are a special kind of idiot, aren’t you?”

“What now?” He growled. Then seeming to remember where we were, he reduced the brutal growl to a quiet threatening stare.

“You – and me – do not look like criminals on the run, Nha – ” I whispered back, ” – Because we are criminals on the run.”

“Ha?”

Nha sprang from his seat, ready to jump at me, and like the idiot he was, he hit the bus roof. As if his incident was not the worst, he made it worse by waking everyone up with a loud yelping.

“Don’t worry, my companion was just having a bad dream.”

I explained while holding my laughter. His eyes were telling me that only one step further and I would successfully vex him to the point of making him throw me out the bus window. To this day, that was my proudest moment.

“Now sit down, will you?”

“And you are a special kind of annoyance, like my useless sister.”

“Oh, you have a sister? How old is she?”

“Don’t remember. Must be somewhere between fifteen and sixteen. Ma said she was reaching that stage – what stage was is again? – right, the stage where a girl is as beautiful as the full moon.”

“And she’s a special kind of annoyance.”

“A very special one. She just started her high school, I believe. And she got herself a bunch of friends, I believe. And no boyfriend, I believe.”

“Is there anything that you know instead of believe?”

For the first time, Nha looked straight at me. His dark irises reflected back the silhouette of my face. Something in those eyes told me that I crossed a line. And I sure did.

“Oh yeah? I do know something. You know what I know about her? I know she is innocent. I know she should be going to school and be protected by these damn adults around her. I know those same damn adults should be a monument of protection not only for her but for all children. I know the children have no choice. And they should.”

“Calm down there, buddy. You don’t want to –”

“I know she should be able to walk back home without fearing that some old perverts will jump on her and do her like an animal. I know she, and other girls like her, should not suffer the betrayal of the adults that promised to protect her no matter what. You know what I wanted to do the first time I heard the story? I wanted to beat the living out of that old bastard. I wanted to rip his head out, smash it against the cemented bridge, and make sure that he feels every. Single. Kind. Of. Pain.” Nha leaned closer to me with every word. His dark irises were burning. Although my silhouette was still there, I was not the one he saw. It was something else. “And I did.”

At his final words, he laughed like a mad man. Maybe he was going mad from the pain, the hatred, the revenge. Or the hopelessness when he held his sister’s cold body in his arms, knowing that he was the damn adult who was unable to save her.

His laugh was short; it sounded more like a curt, cold chop than a hearty laugh. Ha, Ha. Two syllables, dropping on my ear like burning iron. The laugh of us poor people, carrying a poor soul inside us, wishing simply to live. Not living a rich life. Not living the happiest life. Just simply live.

“She was ma’s girl. Growing up, I did not have a lot of new, trendy clothes. But she did. Anything she asked for, ma would give to her, adding to her growing demand a mountain of stuff – I believe – she doesn’t need. You know what I think she needs? I think she needs to know how to protect herself. She needs a destructive weapon. She needs to learn from an early age that these damn adults cannot do anything for her. That she shouldn’t trust the old and the wise. That the old and the wise will be the villain in her life’s story, not vice versa.”

He tried to finish his sentence in the most sensible way, but his small sobs got in the way. He held his nose and covered his mouth in an attempt to lower the noise, but he can’t breathe, so he hid his face behind my shoulder and bit viciously at my shirt. Everyone started to look at us weirdly, so I assured them that it was nothing, and he was just having another bad dream. It was not a lie. I believed he wished everything was just another bad dream, and he could solve it by waking up, getting ready to work.

“Shh, there, there. She knows you love her, doesn’t she?”

“And does that love change anything? Has that love ever been useful to anyone?”

He squeezed on my hands tightly, to the point of crushing my bones. His face dived deeper and deeper into my shoulder. One inch further and he would have suffocated himself. This idiot man-child. I lifted his face up, held him tight in my arms, and patted gently on his broad back, roughened by labor:

“Honestly, I don’t know,” I said, struggled to stay calm amidst the resurrection of a familiar ghost. “Honestly, I sometimes believe that we can all do with a little less love. But you know, how else can we survive?”

He went to sleep restlessly, his hand still squeezed my hand with a cruel force. I heard him drew in a deep breath from time to time, followed by a grumble, “I’m giving you 20,000 VND of course, now don’t cry, you silly.” You were the one crying just now, you silly, I thought to myself. As the sun started to get into its usual business, I drifted off slowly away. The strong, warm hand around my sweaty palm lured me into a weird dream. In that dream, I was back to the city, waiting for my clothes to dry on a thin thread, hearing Khanh Ly singing in the rain. She sang, And even if love was lost, I beg for your passionate kiss once more, like the love we used to have –

The sound of the city rain kept ringing in my ear. Ringing. Ringing. Ringing.

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

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