#6. The ‘Murican Syllables
I and the wild little pros – I meant, thing, arrived at Ca Mau bus stop in a wintry early morning. The station’s parking lot was so empty it made me wondered about the loneliness of men on the run, finding the meaning of life. But none of that bullshit now, because this wild little pros – I meant, thing, was dragging me, in his most gentle and careful way, towards a lonely taxi parked along a lonely road. I said, “Is this what they mean when they invent the word solitude?” And he whispered, “I’m amazed that you know the word ‘solitude’.” This wild little pros – I meant – Oh, to Hell with what I meant. This wild little thing. There. This wild little thing put a campfire to the core of my existence, danced around it, and left it there to burn me alive. He vexed me to the point of no return. I had no return. We got into the cab. The driver spat, “Where you going?” And while I was still hanging around the campfire and the returning point, the wild little thing laughed:
“I don’t know, uncle.”
“You know, this is my first shift.” The middle-aged uncle retorted. He meant he would give us a strong punch to the face if we joked with him. But I didn’t care. I was sitting there, too busy marveling at the car’s interior, the seat, and the nauseating sweet smell blooming around me. So this is what it feels like, I thought, to sit inside a cab. This is what it feels like, I repeated and smiled stupidly.
“Sorry, uncle. It’s been an awfully long time since I last spoke with an intellectual. You see,” he pointed at me, “compare to this thing here, anyone is an intellectual.”
“Who do you think you are talking about you wicked – ” I growled, sprang up to my feet. And to prove that he was right, that I was an idiot who had nothing good in him but strength and force, I hit my head on the car’s ceiling. Again. The driver looked at us warily in the rear-vew mirror:
“You okay? Where are you guys going?”
He must have thought that we were suspicious because I saw him reached out for his phone. The wild little thing saw it, too, but he was in no hurry. He was not a criminal. I was the criminal. That was the small, trivial difference between us. The trivial difference that was a crack in the bottom of the ocean. I wondered if all trivial differences were like this – like the crack, and the crack ran deep, you know – and they were the only things that stood between humans, and built up walls that divided us into the plot of ‘us versus them’. That was too big a question for my little brain, for I cannot use my brain the way those noble scholars use theirs. I am a criminal. But who let me become a criminal? How did I become a criminal? I happened to kill a worthless, disgusting man, who under other circumstances will also be considered a criminal. Why am I the one getting caught? Ah, this is this country’s marvelous justice and its slaves, running in wild circles to catch hold of anyone showing them vulnerability. These thoughts ran wild within me, and consumed my whole being, as the driver’s hand moved closer and closer to the intercom. I’m done, my mind screamed loudly in the claustrophobic space. But not the wild little thing. He quickly stopped the driver’s hand while I was staring blankly ahead, and winked:
“Now calm down, uncle. We are as harmless as a child. See, this thing here doesn’t even move a muscle. He just sits there, and whatever you say, he listens. That’s all he does. He may protest a little, but he kills no one. Now, we just arrive here by the early morning bus, and my mind’s a bit foggy. I’m sorry if I cause you irritation. Didn’t mean it that way. How about you take us to a good, cheap hotel? He doesn’t like noise – his brain, you see, is not very well functioning – so it’s best if we can get to a good, cheap hotel in a remote area. How about that, uncle? Do you feel better now?”
“You sure you are not – ?”
“No. No, we are not. Don’t worry now. We are not.”
He reluctantly started the engine, still looked at us constantly through the rear-view mirror. To assure him that “we are not” whatever he thought we were one more time, I gave him a big, strong affirmative nod, and he seemed good to go. In my astonishment, I inched closer to my little frame of bewilderment and whispered between gritted teeth:
“Is that your magic trick? Making people listen to your whims.”
“Do you want to see more?” He winked at me. His winks were getting on my nerves. I growled in a low voice:
“Told ya to not count me in on your bullshit.”
“Isn’t it a bit too late? You are already in my bullshit.” He flashed me an all-teeth smile.
“But seriously, how did you do it? He listens to you. The bus driver also listens to you. Everyone seems to listen to you. Where did you get that?” I ignored his provocation. It was best to ignore his provocation, especially since he always provoked me with a wicked sense of amusement. I ain’t giving you that, I thought, not me, I ain’t giving you what you want. He looked at me intensely with his round, innocent eyes:
“You want to know what I did?”
“Yeah. I want to see if I can also do it.”
“You really, really, want to know?” He leaned closer, his face was just a few inches from mine, his breath reeked of mischief and bad news.
“On the second thought, I think I’m better without that knowledge.” I drew back and stuck to the car windows. He was a prostitute. I was a normal man. A trivial difference.
“Aw, you are no fun.”
He laughed and withdrew to the other side of the car. The driver also laughed. The tension in the car slowly dissolved into this familial, fun atmosphere where everyone was family The driver hung his family picture on the rear-view mirror. I looked at it and my mind wandered. I had no father. And he had neither a father, nor a mother, nor a loving sister. So we settled back to a deadly silence. The driver hesitatingly took a CD out of his glove compartment. He contemplated the CD’s structure for quite a long time. His eyes bore holes on both sides of the poor disk. He then jerked his shoulders disgustingly at the thin object, and popped it into the car’s CD player. His actions made me thought that he hated the CDs with his guts. Oh man, I also hated my life with my guts. But I can’t jerk my shoulders disgustingly at it, and throw it away in some filthy garbage dump together with the banh mi I ate this morning. So I lived on. And probably I will continue to live on for a couple more days, until the cops smell something fishy here, and hang me, or do whatever they need to do to get me dead.
Then I heard the song. The singer’s words sounded like gibberish to me. So I looked to the wild little thing, to see if I could find the same thing on his face. He seemed to enjoy it. Now, how the hell could he enjoy this gibberish? I watched him, bewildered:
“So you understand the song, ha?”
“Yeah? It’s ‘Hotel California.’ It’s quite an old song. Ma’am used to play this song in her car, so I know it well.” He smiled at me. I thought I saw pity in his eyes. I did not know the song. He did. Another trivial difference on the wall built to set us apart.
“Ho what? What did you say was the song’s title?” I asked and was well aware of my own stupidity reflected in his dark irises.
” ‘Hotel California.’ Bet you don’t know it. It’s an American song.”
” ‘Murica again? Wherever we go, there’s a ‘Murican crouching in the corner. Whatever we do, a ‘Murican must be doing it better than us. They are bearing better children than us, getting better products than us, having better music than us. And listen to this gibberish nonsense. See. These ‘Murican – these ‘Murican syllables are trampling upon us, beating us to pulp, defeating us after the last real ‘Murican had gone out of Nam. These monstrous, weird syllables are killing cai luong. And tell me, tell me if that’s not the worst crime against humanity.” I snorted.
The driver nodded to my every word approvingly with a small, quiet “True, true.” The wicked creature full of mischief beside me stared back, astonished.
“So you can use big words when you want, huh? But I think ‘crime against humanity’ is not appropriate to use in your context,” he laughed in his carefree way, then looked back at me with real gravity in his eyes, “You think these syllables are killing cai luong?”
“They are. And I’ll tell you what – don’t laugh – I’ll tell you what, in this battle of cai luong and American songs, I, I’ll be the last standing soldier. Even more than that, I will be the bravest General, and slaughter all these weird ‘Murican syllables, one by one.”
“Oh, really, now? Look at you, Mr. Bravest General, with your big words and your slaughtering of the ‘Murican syllables. And what will happen, pray tell me, Mr. Bravest General, what will happen after you slaughter them all? Will cai luong live on? Will people prefer seeing cai luong in theaters to watching those stupid shows on TV? I bet you don’t even know what a TV is. What does it really matter, Mr. Bravest General? Because you see this is where we are – in this shithole of a country, in this poor man’s tattered tent – we are in Nam. This is Nam, and whether you slaughter all those weird syllables or not, this is still Nam. A shithole of a country, yearning painfully for the American Dream. We are all dying in the most glorious way.” The wild little thing bursted out like a young lioness who was ready to strike the final fatal blow on the breathless animal that was me. I felt the urge to crawl back to my corner of the car’s window and hide my face there to weather his tempest storm. Yet the stupidity in me was rising faster than whatever reasons I ever had, and I struck back:
“So what does it matter to you, then?” To which his eyes glistened with weird, broken lights.
“I see enough of them dying, Nha,” he smiled; his lips quivered ever so slightly, “I see enough of them dying. Whether they are ‘Murican syllables or cai luong, or just anyone living,I see enough of them dying. And when you see enough of them dying, you start to think, God, when can it be me? I will add one more useless body to the trillions of corpses underneath this earth to build a life for the livings. And you don’t want to live, Nha, when you’re faced with that mentality, you don’t want to live. You want to be buried eight feet deep. You want the pain to stop. You want it to hurt less. What do you have then? Let me tell you, Nha. Nothing. You have nothing. A big, rounded N-O-T-H-I-N-G that you look into, and you can’t even see yourself.”
He turned away and withdrew back to his corner of the car. I thought I saw something dribbling down the side of his cheek, something like tears. Then the sunshine came through, reflecting on his face the most innocent beauty of the muse who was the model for all those flying things in a church’s painting. And at that moment, I forgot about the arguments. I forgot that he was the most annoying wild little thing I ever met, except my sister. I forgot his weird magic trick of making people listening to his every word. The only left in my mind was his outburst of passion. For what? For the ‘Murican syllables, and all them dying. Good Lord, I thought, girls would all die for him, and yet, and yet –
“Oopsies, you gay?” The driver broke my wrecked train of thought, right when it started to get dangerous.
“No, sir. Oh. Yes, sir. But then, no. He’s gay. I am not.” I fumbled with my words.
“That was very nice of you. Outing me without me asking.” He interjected without looking at me.
“No worries, no worries. Everyone has the right to be gay nowadays, you know. Love is love and whatnot. I also have a gay son. It’s not like I don’t agree with his choice. But then, I only have one son, you know. He’s the one who bought me this CD. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t hate him. I just hate these English songs, right? I don’t understand a thing the singers sing. It all sounds like gibbering to me. You feel the same way, man? I say –”
The driver rambled on and on. About how his son came out to his mother, and she told him through a phone call (“Can you believe it? A fucking phone call!”). About how he tried to turn him straight for a whole year because he thought being straight was better (“For who? You know, it was all for me. What about him?”). About how he finally saw the pain showing on his son’s wrist with deep cuts and old scars (“I saw it and I thought, “Man, why can’t we love each other?” Why do we have to make each other suffer when life has given us enough suffering?”). He said too much. It’s as if he’s been waiting for us to come – for another gay man to come here, sit in his car, and listen to his struggle with his son’s identity.
” – At the end of the day, he’s still my son, right? No matter who he identifies as. No matter who he loves. No matter how he evolves into something larger than the world can define. He’s still my little son, who I used to carry on my shoulders. And I always will.” He laughed a proud father’s laugh.
“Uncle, I bet your son is the happiest son I’ve ever meet.” Hai leaned on the passenger’s seat and talked in that sweet, sugary voice.
“And he’s very handsome, too. He takes after me. His mother says it’s unfair, ’cause she is the one who bears him for 9 months. Women, you know?”
“It’s nice. Having a family is nice. Having you as a family is nicer, though.” Hai said jokingly.
“Come see my son, then. I live around here. You’re from the city right? My son loves all the city boys. He cooks very nice bun mam. He is cooking that dish today. I call it destiny, you know. You must come and try his cooking. I bet once you taste it, you will love him right away. I call it love at first dish, you know. I fall in love with his mother in the same way.”
The driver turned to look at Hai. His hands were still on the steering wheel, but his eyes were focusing solely on Hai, eagerly waiting for his nod.
“Aw, but I’m a bottom, uncle. Is your son a top?”
A motorcycle going in the wrong direction went straight for our taxi, cutting the awkward conversation cold and short. The too-friendly driver swerved the car to the left, stopped by the side of the road, and jumped out of the car. He cursed the motorcycle driver for fifteen minutes as he helped her get the motorcycle up. Then he taught her the basics of driving for another thirty minutes, using all kinds of hand gestures to show her the right direction. Inside the car, the taxi meter was still counting. Hai turned the windows down, screamed, “Uncle, the taxi meter.”
“Don’t mind that. It’s for show anyway. I’ll drive you to my house for free. Your father-in-law needs to teach this stupid girl how to live longer.”
I looked at Hai, silently questioned him if we should step outside and catch another taxi. He decidedly ignored my stare. People started to gather around the taxi driver and the girl. Someone urged the others to call the police. I nudged Hai, all the while wondering why I needed to wait for his decision. He opened the door on my side, put a generous amount of money on the seat, and we walked away.
Behind us, the driver shouted angrily, “Wait! See, you stupid girl, you turn my son’s groom away. Now, where can you find me another city boy that handsome and polite? I tell you, my son has been alone for –”
I stole a glance at Hai. He looked like he didn’t hear anything. Perhaps he didn’t hear anything, as he had his earphones on. He whistled the same tune I heard on the bus. I didn’t know what was haunting me, or what godly force was on my shoulder and pushed these words out of my mouth:
“Did you hear what he said? He said you were –”
Hai slowly pulled one of his earphones out and put it in my ear. There was no sound. I looked quizzically at him. He smiled, ever so gently:
“Not hearing is always better. Because then, you don’t have to dream of the happiness you could’ve had.”
From that moment, there’s sharp needle slowly, bit by bit, chipped away at my already-torn heart.
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