#13. Are We All We Are?

It’s been three nights, and Hai hasn’t come back.

He sat persistently at the guest table in uncle Ba’s funeral, morning ’til night. And as if sitting was not enough, he proceeded to be muted. People laughed at him behind his back. They said uncle Ba must have done something to brought this Statue-of-the-People to his death celebration. And boy, was it quite a death celebration. The whole village came. The funeral band plays cheery songs nights and days. People talked, and it was funny how their talks drowned uncle Ba’s wife and daughter in an ocean of static noise. They bowed before the guests like string puppets, and the monk’s chant was their signal to move. Why did he commit suicide? The village speculated in their heartless murmur. The commotion went on for three nights straight.

That didn’t matter much to me. A few more death won’t kill anyone. The only thing on my mind was Hai’s absence in the morning meals and the dinner talks with uncle Hai. But nevermind, nevermind.

Uncle Hai went home every night from the funeral at uncle Ba’s home with weariness on his shoulders. “He just won’t budge,” uncle Hai said, “and he stubbornly sits there like a dumb, stupid rock waiting for someone to kick him awake.”

“Can I go and kick him awake?”

“If you don’t mind going to jail. Dumb, stupid rock.”

The funeral ended on the fourth day. Uncle Ba’s casket was brought to the tiny cemetery that was dedicated to the heroes of the war he spent his last days fighting. Hai walked along the procession, I heard Ms. Nam said. He blended in so naturally that people thought he was part of the mourning family.

“Will he come back after it ends?”

“How should I know, uncle Hai. You have such a peculiar son.”

Ms. Nam went home, leaving blooming anxiety hanging above our neck like a Guillotine. I walked out of my hiding place, sat on the wooden bed in the front room, and patiently waited for Hai’s footstep on the earthy trail in front of uncle Hai’s house. I remembered how my ma said in her prayers when she lighted the incense every night for our ancestry, Great Ancestors, bless us. Now I didn’t know if my Great Ancestors would help me bring home a lost male prostitute or not, but They might have plenty of free time on their hand. And what’s one more silly job to the free Great Ancestors? So I sat there and prayed. Great Ancestors, please bring Hai home. Please don’t let him drown himself in some unknown river. Please don’t let him die.

Turned out my Great Ancestors did have too much free time. That night, Hai came back.

He sneaked into the house at the stroke of midnight. His dirty shirt reeked of burnt incense and alcohol. He caught me sitting there on the wooden bed, and before I could utter a single word of worry, the cheeky brat sneered, “What? Another flood down here? Why are you sitting there like a damn useless statue? No one needs that.”

“Sure no one needs that. And no one needs that attitude of yours. How about some damn ‘sorry,’ kid?”

“This kid doesn’t know how to say sorry. You know what they always say. Sorry comes a little too late.”

He laughed, then sharply inhaled to hide a sudden sob. But I heard it. I heard it in the trembling, quivering voice that he used to whisper in the cold darkness of the night.

“And I will only apologize to you when you lay in that black casket. Nha, oh, Nha, I am not allowed to regret.” Then he crouched down and burst into tears. The first time since the beginning of our journey.

“What happened, Hai?”

“Nothing. I just fucked up real big this time.”

“And what did you fuck up?”

“What’s the point in telling you? Will it help? Will it magically make everything better? You are a criminal, Nha, for fuck’s sake. You can’t even save your own life.”

“Hai,” I patted his shaking shoulders. He shook my hands off and tried desperately to move away from my firm grip, “Don’t do that, Hai. Don’t do that to yourself. Oh God, what have you done to yourself?”

“Let me tell you a fairy tale about the elevator,” Hai sat down beside me, still tried his best to not touch me. Or my hand. Or my skin. Or any parts on my body. His voice sounded like a breeze on the hottest summer day, “Do you want to hear a fairy tale about an old elevator? Have you ever been inside an elevator?”

“No. What’s inside it?”

“The elevator always has this sentence on the wall, ‘If the light is flashing, help is on the way.’ I’ve been to many elevators. And once, I thought to myself, Oh man, what if help is not on the way? What if the light is broken, and we are trapped inside that fifty square foot casket? And by the time the rescue comes, we are all dead.”

“Surely they wouldn’t let that happen.”

“It never happens. The elevators I’m in all arrive at the destined floor safely. But that’s not the point, Nha. The point is, there are some people trapped inside their own elevator with the light flashing, and the rescue never comes.”

“Like you?”

“Like the man in the fairy tale about an old elevator. He was my customer, a very odd one. You know how in our profession, love is a taboo. The man sought exactly that. He was seeking for the taboo. His life was a taboo itself. He was married to a wonderful woman. They had a son and a daughter. Now isn’t that what people always call a perfect life?”

“And what do you mean when you say he was seeking for the taboo?”

“You are always slow on the uptake, aren’t you? He was gay, Nha, a closeted gay man. He came to me on the weekends, paid me a heap of money, and spoke in his cold, thin voice, ‘Love me.’ And guess what? I never did. Our relationship was purely for monetary value. And it killed him inside because he didn’t seek for something he could buy. He sought for love. But you couldn’t buy love with money from a fake life and a fake career. So he bitterly compromised. He still ordered me to love him in the weekends because the illusion of love kept him burning for life. And I never did I never did I never did.”

“But what about the elevator?”

“It’s getting there. The part about the elevator. The funny part of the story. You know how uncle Ba committed suicide? That’s what he did. He did it in the cruelest way possible. The man had no heart. It was a nice, sunny weekend. Do you ever think how funny it is that people always kill themselves on nice, sunny days? The man came to me, and as usual, he told me to love him. And I said, You know how that is impossible. I also had no heart. He smiled and said, That doesn’t matter at all, Hai, doesn’t matter. That night, while I turned my back to him, naked in the sheets, he quietly walked out to the balcony of the hotel room, and jumped down.”

“The fucking nutjob.”

“Damn right he was. And you know what’s crazy? He left a note for me. Not for anyone else. Not for his wife. Not for his daughter. He left a fucking suicide note for me. And this part here is the funny part about the elevator of the story. He started the note with ‘Dearest Hai,’ can you imagine that? No one ever call me ‘Dearest Hai.’ He said, ‘Have you ever been in an elevator Hai? You know how the elevator’s wall always has the sentence, ‘Help is on the way.’ But help is never on the way, Hai, and we are all trapped in the fucking elevator.’ That’s why he fucking died.”

“And you think that’s funny?”

“And is it not? Have you ever seen anyone died because of a fucking elevator? But Nha, I could have helped him. All those weekends, all those thin, cold orders, and I could have helped him. If only I could give him a little bit of love, he wouldn’t die. You know how I carry the elevator-shaped casket inside of me? Perhaps I was the help he needed. Perhaps the help did come to him, and it was standing right outside his close elevator because the person in the rescue force couldn’t give him the love he died wishing for. And in the morning after his death, the thing I never did came closing in around me, built up the walls, the bottom, and the roof over my head. I became trapped inside my own elevator. And this time, the light is broken.”

Hai sat there, solemnly hanging his head. His hands were closely knitted for a while, then he relaxed them, and pinched the skin on their back. He pinched it gently at first, and slowly, the pinching became ferocious. He couldn’t stop until the back of his hands was full of blood and scratches and peeled skin. “Why can’t I save anyone, Nha?” he sobbed, his body was shaking and trembling as if his whole skeleton was going to crack. All he said was, “Why can’t I save anyone, Nha? Why can’t I save anyone?”

“I guess sometimes, we are all we are, and this is all there is.” And we can walk out of the elevator one of these days, Hai, we can simply walk out of it. But you don’t know it yet, and I don’t know how to get these words to you.

“Nha, can you promise me something?”

“What?”

“When the time comes, and we cannot run away to some far, distant place, can you at least promise me that you will see me on the other side of the war?”

“Isn’t that a bit of a heavy promise?”

“But can you?”

I looked at him. I knew that I was not the one he wanted to hear the promise from. But my promise was what he always needed. After all, life after death sounded pretty lonely when he was the only one on the other side of the war. Perhaps his loneliness grew too large, or perhaps the sadness of the yellow bulb reflected in his eyes was too beautiful, these words escape my mouth unconsciously:

“I promise.”

“And even the flood won’t corrode it?”

“It will. But I will try to find you once I am there, I can give you that.” Because we all know too well, Hai, that at the end of the flood, we will all die.

“You are one peculiar man.”

He laughed and lied down on the wooden bed. Uncle Hai’s snoring filled up the empty silence of the house. Hai patted the space beside him, and I sprawled out on the little bed with my big arms and legs. He giggled and curled up in a far corner of the rectangular frame. That night, he told me many fairy tales. The one about how the elevator man had promised him to count to a thousand days. They will celebrate their monetary-value relationship in a cozy restaurant and listen to Khanh Ly’s songs. But he died on the thousandth day, so Hai went out to the restaurant all by himself, ate a fancy meal, bought Khanh Ly’s albums, and blasted them in front of the man’s grave for many days straight. “That’s for all the troubles he caused. I never did love him, Nha, I never did,” he whispered in my ears, “Dù tình yêu đã mất,” he sang, “Em ôm trọn thương đau, nhìn bước anh đi. Đành phải xa anh – “* The song rang in my ears until morning.

After that night, Hai never slept again. Not once. 

*A/N: A famous Vietnamese song. The rough translation is: And even if love was lost, I hold on to my agony, watching you leave. I know in my heart that we have to be separated.

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