#9. Hurtful Things Are Beautiful Things

I woke up to Nha sitting like a monument at the edge of the wooden bed. A champion of inconsolable sadness and grief. Except that he was not a monument. It’s just that somehow, he happened to sit there long enough to become one. My phone was still in his hands. The battery was long dead. A rooster crowed in the distance, and by experience, I knew it was time for uncle Hai to get to the paddies. Outside, the immense darkness looked like it was hiding cold corpses in its warm bosom. I patted uncle Hai’s shoulders gently, “Uncle Hai, it’s morning.” He curled up to his side and mumbled in his hoarse breath, “Is the idiot still awake?” And I said yes. Yes, uncle Hai, the idiot was still there, stiff and awake.

Uncle Hai moved sluggishly through his morning routine and went out at the first light. Standing on the doorstep, he turned his head to look at Nha once more, slowly shook his head, and walked into the misty dawn. I made the bed clumsily while my head was busy watching the monument’s feature in the subdued morning light. I dropped the pillow on purpose. Then I dropped the pan, the pot, and even the porcelain bowl. The crackling noise scared the roosters on the bamboo fence, and they quickly dispersed onto the earthy trail whimpering. Yet he still didn’t move an inch. What are you seeing Nha, I thought, what exactly is in your eyes right now? Not the cemented floor. Not the thatched walls. Certainly not the raggedy old clothes on the shelves.

The thing in his eyes looked a lot like darkness. Like last night when the rain was falling hard on the red glowy earth. Like cold corpses on the paddies. Like death. Too much death. I wonder what is the appropriate amount of death one has to see. How much death is “too much death”? And if you surpassed that death-seeing limit, would you become one, too?

I went up to him with a pack of cigarettes, “Care for a smoke?” He turned his head to look at me. But he never saw me. All his eyes can see in me is Tinh. A pretty little girl whose fate we did not mention.

“Can you charge the phone again?” He spoke softly. His faint, raspy whisper sounded like a rusty saw on my heart.

“And what are you going to do once I charge it? No one was there to pick up your call anyway.”

He smiled at me with whatever strength he had left, then his big, calloused hand gently touched mine. I supposed he wanted to hold it. To grasp it tightly as if my hand is the source of some nuclear power that could help him weather the flood. But the strength wasn’t there. His cold fingers just hung around my hand feebly in an attempt to stop the truth from ever reaching his ears. Then he halted and turned back to the phone in his hand, trying to turn it on, off, on, off. But the phone never responded.

“So that’s it, huh?,” he sneered, “Nothing’s gonna last. All of these humans, and none of them is gonna last.” He coughed to hide the pain in his voice, but the pain was overwhelming. I turned away to not look at it.

“Do you want to go back?” I said. Though I already knew that even if he wanted to go back, I will not allow it. Why? I didn’t know. Perhaps it was this small fire that he kindled within me the day I saw him on that street corner. Or perhaps right at that moment, I had committed the one sin that I should never do: falling in love with a person who showed a little bit of sympathy to me.

“And do what? Saving my ma and my sister from the pool of corpses? Or turning myself in and die before I’ve got a chance to see ’em?”

“Right. You killed the governor.”

“The fucking bastard. That’s who I killed.”

“You are not much of a patriot, are you?”

“Does being a patriot pay my meals? I have no father. I grew up eating dirt and rock. When I was eighteen years old, my ma said, “Why don’t you quit school so that your sister can get some education?” So I quitted. I sold my soul to the construction site. I broke my back on the steel frame, entertaining myself with the thought that my sister can go to school. She can be the first in my family to graduate college. She can get a white-collar job in a big city. She can finally escape the poor and the poverty that were haunting us for generations.” He smiled, his eyes were following the shape of some little girl in a remote countryside by the sea.

“And what happened after that?” I held his hand, warming the cold fingers.

“Then the fucking bastard came. He would drive his expensive car alongside her. He said she was his muse. Said she was more beautiful than the old witch at his home. She never told me that ’cause she knew I would beat the bastard to death and get myself some troubles. But I heard the news anyway. The talk of the town, you know. I went to every single person and said, “Don’t you dare say anything to her face. Don’t you ever dare.” I would beat ’em up, and if I were outnumbered, I would prey on ’em until night come and hit ’em with sticks and stones. But I can’t stop the fucking bastard.”

“So you killed him.”

“I’m a coward. I never truly stand for what’s right. You see, the day the rally against the Party and that garbage Chinese factory happened, I stayed home. People were beaten by the police on the street, and I stayed home. I snuggled in my blanket, hiding from the troubles, trying to be what they want me to be. But Hai, the funny thing is, I can never be it. Unlike them, I have a heart. My ma and my sister were my beliefs. My sole religion. So when they brought my sister home on a stretcher, her face were black and blue, her clothes torn up, that was more than I can bear.”

Nha squeezed my hand. I pulled him closer and patted his shaking shoulders. Under all this pain, he was just a child, forced to grow up too soon, wear a pair of shoes that’s a size too big, carry the weight that should have never been his, or any child, at all.

I knew that child. Because I once was him.

“I told you I was a coward, didn’t I?” Nha continued the story. “I didn’t dare to go after the governor. People said they saw him riding her like the bastard that he was. But I dare not move an inch. Until one night, he came to my home, putting a hundred million dong on the worn-out table, and said, “This is for the girl. Now we are equal.” Suddenly, everything became crystal clear to my eyes, as if some sort of God’s light was shining upon ’em. I understood, as he was leaving, that my sister was not a sister to him, that he was buying his innocence like how he bought his position in the Party, that money is a damn monster. That we were never equal. Never at all.”

“And?”

“I followed him. In the pitch dark night, I ran like a wild animal after his motorcycle. I held it back with my bare hands. We stumbled out under the bridge. I remember screaming to his face, “You will pay for this. I will sue you.” And you know what he did?”

“What?”

“He fucking laughed at me. “I dare you to sue,” he said, “no one’s gonna believe you crickets anyway.” He pushed my hands away. But I didn’t lose my grip. I jumped on him the way I jumped on my strong prey in the night. I smashed his head to the ground repeatedly until that fucking laugh was washed away by the gush of blood from his mouth. Under that dark bridge, where his corpse laid there, weak and feeble, with all the power stripped off his breath, I said to him, “Now we are finally equal.” But he couldn’t say a word. I knew by the overwhelming sound of the crickets’ song that he was dead.”

Nha went back to silence. He looked at his surroundings, searching for the shadow of the family that once brought light to his life of toil. I remembered the bus driver’s sentiment a few weeks back. So his family was his small river in the barren desert.

I once had my own river. It’s just that before I can learn to love him, he died. He jumped out of the hotel’s balcony on a cold, dark winter night. Seeing his face smashed against the cemented pavement, I thought to myself, So this is how much living hurts.

“Care for an old fairy tale?” I said. My words were muffled by Nha’s shaking shoulders.

“What fairy tale?”

“So once there was a boy –”

In the silence of the early morning, I slowly told Nha an old story. About a boy growing up in a small orphanage. About the foster parents who enjoyed touching him a bit too much. About other foster parents who loved burning cigarettes on him far too often. About how he can never seem to find the right foster parents. About how he learned to smoke from the cigarette burns on his skin. About a man, who was married with two children, who promised him far too much and delivered far too little. About love. Especially love. A love he never knew he deserved. And it turned out he didn’t deserve it.

“Because right when the boy reached his hands out to feel the warmth, he was burnt. The scar this time was far bigger than all the cigarette burns he’s ever had.”

“You don’t say. Did the man turn into a number?”

“The same way your uncle Tam, uncle Ba, and aunt Bay turned into numbers.” I laughed into his T-shirt, “Apparently, he decided that jumping out the hotel’s balcony in the dark, cold winter night can bring him far more happiness than staying with a call boy who loved him dearly. And his wife. And his children.”

Nha stiffened. Then his shoulders dropped for the first time since the disaster. His large, clumsy arms held out for a while in thin air, and slowly closed in around my back. Just for a while, I thought, I will never regret this. Whatever this is.

“That’s why I know love can’t save anything. There was only hurt. Each small step on the cemented pavement in that cold, dark winter night hurt. The choice to live on hurts. Being able to love hurts.”

Seeing your loved ones turned into the cold, hard numbers on the white paper hurt.

And because we have to live on, we don’t have any other choice.

Nha was silent for a while. Then, as if my words had finally struck a bell in his cold, calloused brain – the brain of a man who labored far too much for far too few things – Nha snickered:

“Man, it’s true, eh? We are all dying. All of us.”

And that’s when I knew that one of these days, this man would be the end of me.

***********

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