Chapter 17: Let’s Play Make-Believe

So, Mr. Nha, do you still stand by your statement that there is no relationship, whatsoever, between you and Mr. Hai?

I look at the officer’s eyes. Today, the one interrogates me is the old detective. You always know it is trouble when it comes to old detectives. Too many pains, or too many experiences, or too many deaths. They have them all under their belt. So I swallow hard, and try my best to be the criminal that I am. Because after all, what does it even matter now? But Hai, oh, Hai – he is a whole other story.

Yes, sir, I say, there’s no relationship, whatsoever, between us.

And as the words escape my lips, I know I am screwed. Because the salt and bitter taste of tears has already befallen on my lips.

Hai came home from his usual day shift, soaking wet. These days, the rain had become some sort of a routine to me. I saw the rain, and I knew it was the end of Hai’s shift. I heard the rain, and I knew Uncle Hai was rushing back home on his old, feeble legs. I count the raindrops, and magically, I knew we were safe. Nothing can touch us, not in the rain that was flushing the whole country away.

I was fanning the fire in the kitchen and enjoying the contrasting warm of the clay oven when Hai walked in with his dripping wet shirt. He stood there, staring at me. His eyes were deep like the hollow at Uncle Bay’s house. I tried to think of something else other than that damn hollow, but Hai’s eyes had captured me, tied me up on a cross waiting for the toll of my death.

“Have you heard about Uncle Tu Ri’s son?” He said while rubbing his eyes tiredly.

“I heard enough of it.”

“How much of it?”

“’bout his missing son.”

“Well, turns out the son wasn’t missing all these years.” Hai leaned his back on the hard wall, chewing the cashew on the countertop, “Hey Nha, ever think of getting rich?”

“And do what? I can’t enjoy ‘em all when I die.”

He snickered, then cracked out laughing. The kind of laughing that makes your legs weak with sorrow and sufferings. The kind of laughing that turns you into a pile of bitterness. The kind of laughing that says, I don’t accept any of it, but here we all are.

“That’s true,” he said, wiping tears from his eyes, “That’s true. After all, we will end up dying.”

Then he stayed silent as if he is contemplating some very deep and intellectual question. The one question to rule out all questions, stuff like that. He’s always been the more intelligent between the two of us, and his train of thought is –

“Say, Nha, if we know we are all going to die anyway, why do we keep on pushing? Why do we keep on living? Why do we keep on hurting each other?”

Weird. His train of thoughts is straight out weird. The kind of weirdness that you can never get used to, because right at the moment you think you get it, it slips out between your fingers like sand.

“I don’t know,” I replied, half annoyed at the hard carrot and half annoyed at the fact that I had to cook instead of him. No one wants my food, but, “Do we have any other choice except keep on living?”

“We can straight out die.”

“That’s way too easy. You listen here,” I stabbed the knife onto the chopping board and turned to face him. But what was on his face at that time crushed my heart to pieces.

“I don’t want to die, Nha,” he said, the fire in his eyes was already dying though, “And I don’t want to live, either. What am I, Nha? If there were really choices, have I been wrong right from the start?”

Then he proceeded to smile. A soft smile, like the touch of a withering petal in the stormy night. He didn’t cry. After all, he never broke down in a tsunami style of crying. No, that was beneath him. All he ever did was –

Okay, I have to stop you there. It seems that, from what you are telling me, Mr. Nha, you and Mr. Hai seems to share a more personal relationship. Is that why he helped you with your escape?

I look at the old detective. He has already stopped writing on his notepad since the first sentence, Mr. Hai and Mr. Nha shared no personal relationship. I smile.

I can imagine it, he says.

Imagine what?

Mr. Hai’s smile.

How can you imagine it without seeing it from the star?

The old detective lifts up his pen and slowly scratches the only sentence on the notepad away.

Because, he says as he writes new sentences on the paper, Mr. Nha, perhaps you are unaware of it, but you are wearing the same smile now. The smile of

Defeat. That was what we were and what we will always be. Hai changed the topic.

“Did you hear about Uncle Tu Ri? His son abandoned him. Happened just like that. Imagine him cutting off a rope with a scissor. A clean cut. Shoo. That’s it. That’s what he said to his father. Shoo. And guess what? Uncle Tu Ri was dropped out of his life like that same rope.”

“What makes him does that?” I asked, bewildered at the image of a rope hanging like a noose in front of Uncle Tu Ri.

“Poverty, Nha,” Uncle Hai said, “Poverty can make people do the things that they once thought they were not capable of doing.”

“Even if they are terrible things?”

“Especially when they are terrible things.”

He looked at me with strange sparks in his eyes. Of course, both of us knew the poverty that was perching on our shoulders too well. Poverty fed on our hopes and dreams, which died a little too soon, and the children who could never grow to be happy. The poverty on our shoulders got heavier each passing day, until it crushed our body into a splatter of blood and flesh. We were only the shape of the poverty on our shoulders. One may ask in the comfort of his blanket, “What is poverty capable of?” The answer was, “Many things.” Like the things that forced people to run away from their life of toil. But I loved my life of toil. A little too late for that; still, my mind wandered back to the poor village by the sea more often than the rain falling on this land.

I chopped the carrots on the chopping board and think about my Ma. She also had poverty weighing down on her shoulders. I remembered the times she made carrot soup for me and my sister. She always counted the carrot pieces and divided them equally between us, but we all knew that my sister would end up getting one or two pieces extra. While dividing the carrot pieces, she would say to me, “Don’t be poor, Nha. Wherever you go, don’t be poor.” I suddenly had the urge to laugh. I don’t have to worry about being poor now, Ma, and perhaps one of these days, I don’t even have to worry about being alive. I guessed I didn’t grow up to be the person she wished for me to be. Did I grow up to be happy? In the end, I was only the shape of my poverty.

I often dreamed that one of these days, I could build my Ma a proper house, and she could sleep with a warm, decent blanket. But my poverty fed on those dreams far too much, and the short-lived dreams only helped the shape of my poverty grow. So I stopped dreaming, and thought about living the day. But there were days like today, when it was raining, and we were safe, I dreamed about calling my Ma, and hoped that the poverty on my shoulders would not eat it up.

Okay, Mr. Nha, I am sorry but I have to stop you there once again. At that moment in time, did you know that your mother, for lack of better words, had died?

And just with those simple words, the old detective breaks me apart. Piece by piece. Atom by atom. Blood by blood.

No, sir, I say while the tears fall down like they want to flood my facade away. The facade of a hero. He is strong, of course, but he is more of a fool than a savior of anything, No, at that moment, I still hope that –

You still hope? Despite knowing that no one survived the flood?

The old detective scratches out a few more lines, adding some more notes. All the while, he never once look me in the eyes. I guess if sorrow ever were a person, he or she must be an ugly one. No one wants to stare at him, or her, in the eyes.

Yes, sir, I smile, I still hope. Despite knowing that no one survived the flood, I still hope.

Because we had nothing. And to the both of us who had nothing to lose and to prove, hopes and dreams were these extraterrestrial things. Too beautiful to be true, too hot that they burnt when you touched them. I laughed, and accidentally chopped my hand instead of the carrot.

“Look at you, genius,” Hai mocked, “What is inside that brilliant brain of yours, Mr. Einstein?”

“Poverty,” I said, holding my bleeding hand and ignoring his mischievous laugh, “and my Ma.”

Uncle Hai staggered, shook his head, and mumbled quietly, “You are in the wrong this time, kid,” and walked away from the trouble that Hai caused.

Hai stood there – his feet planted firmly in place by some sort of supernatural force – and silently watched me wrap the wound with a band-aid. After fumbling for a long while with the band-aid and the blood, I gave up.

“You don’t plan to cook the soup with your blood, do you?” Hai asked tentatively, as if he was standing on the thin border separating an apology and forgivenness.

“Yeah, do you want to help or nah?”

“Nah,” Hai said.

Then ever so gently, he picked up the mess that was my hand. He unfolded the fingers, found the cut, then proceeded to disinfect it and wrapped it up nicely in the neat, white band-aid.

“I thought you said ‘Nah’,” I said, laughing as I watched him focused on my wound with all his attention.

“I meant I won’t help you with the soup,” Hai said as he pushed my hand away, “Not that I won’t help with your wound, since I am partially at fault here.”

“Wait,” I said quickly, fearing that he had changed from the mood of a patron saint to the mood of Lucifer, “Recently I have been listening to this song, but I don’t know the title,” I twirled my bandaged fingers in between his and tugged gently so that he would come closer to me, “Do you mind telling me?”

“Telling you what,” he laughed in his childish and mischievous way and finally gave in to my twirl-and-tug strategy. I don’t know why I am always the wrong one in the arguments between us, “Sing it to me then. Sing it right and I might remember.”

“You might remember?”

“Yes,” Hai said, staring straight into my eyes. The sparkle of hopes and love filled his glistening irises. He pulled my wounded hand gently so not to hurt it, but strong enough for me to followed his lead, “Yes, I might remember.”

So, Mr. Nha, what was the song’s name?

I’m sorry, but that detail is not relevant to the case.

Of course it is relevant, the old detective twirls the pen in between his fingers, We can judge how deep your relationship with Mr. Hai based on the content and the title of the song.

I sit there, silently look at the old detective as he continues to ignore the forceful suffering in my stare. Then, I lean back on the chair, wipe my face off all the remaining remnant of tears and sorrow.

No, sir, I say softly, No, I don’t remember the title of the song.

Hai looked at me with a curious stare. We were in a tug of war. Whose hand gave in first to the gentle force and the invisible border between love and nothingness would be the loser. And it’s fair to say that I tried my best. But who can ever win against Hai?

Who can ever win against the one they –

“Alright, the song goes like this,” I shook my head indulgently, and stared down at his quizzical stare as I tried to mimic the sad voice of the female singer, “Ngày ấy em như hoa sen, Mang nhiều giáng hiền những khi chiều lên, Ngày ấy em như sương trong, Nép bên bông hồng, mượt trên cánh nhung.“[1]

Hai giggled at my fail attempt to be his beloved singer. I felt my heartstring being pulled each time his soft giggle fell on the drums of my ears. A bud of happiness slowly bloomed in the pit of my stomach and turned my whole being into a bundle of fiery torch. Then, just as I began to immerse myself in what I thought was his happiness, Hai lifted up and asked me,

“Your song, do you know the full lyrics?”

“No, but I only meant to -“

“Good, ’cause the next verse goes like this,” Hai cupped my face in his hands and fixed my eyes onto his, “Nhưng năm tháng vô tình, Mà lòng người cũng vô tình, Rồi màu úa thay màu xanh, Người yêu xa bến mộng, Đò xưa đã sang sông, Dòng đời trôi mênh mông.”[2]

He dropped his hands, mumbling a quick goodbye, saying he had a job to do, and left me hanging in the midst of his own sorrow. Oh, Hai, my dearest little prostitute, my dearest little companion, my dearest friend, my dearest –

Lover?

The old detective, for the first time since the beginning of the interrogation, look at me straight in the eyes. It’s as if he had decided that this fact, this label, this name that people put on casual relationship, was what he needed the most amidst the pile of emotions I had just poured out in front of him.

I don’t know, I say, cackling up at his small word, Do we really need a name for it? After all –

“Nha, I will work the nightshift starting tomorrow.” Hai said softly in that gentle voice he used to lull me out of my madness on the day of the flood. We both knew what he meant. But I was too much of an idiot, too much of a coward, to stop him from what he planned on doing.

“The nightshift, eh?” I continued chopping the carrots. Amidst the sound of the knive hitting the cutting board, I dreamed again of hearing my Ma’s voice. Then I dreamed of Hai. And of a happy conclusion that we can somehow draw from this mess miraculously.

We stood there, drown in our thoughts and the fervent hesitation that burnt our hearts on a stake.

“Well, I just want to tell you. So from tomorrow, don’t wait for me.”

“Yeah? That so?”

Hai nodded. He opened his mouth slightly as if he was trying to find some words strong enough to kill this silence wall between us. I can feel his gaze longingly traced the each and every lines on my face. I knew that with just one word, Hai will be able to escape from that dreadful tomorrow’s nightshift. But just like the static noise in the phone on the day I called my Ma, I maintained my silence.

“The static noise.”

“What?”

“You hear that? The static noise.”

“What does it say?”

“It says they are dead. The one-of-these-days we talked about the other day, remember? They are dead.”

Hai lowered his head. His long bang covered half of his face and hid his beautiful pair of eyes behind a curtain of darkness. The eyes that have been through mud, seen blood, and survived a war far too vicious for them. The eyes that I –

“I will wait for you, Hai.”

“Told you not to.”

“No,” I put the knife down and turned to face him. I mustered up whatever courage I had inside me at that time, and felt my voice trembling, “I will wait for you. No matter how late, no matter how dark, I will wait for you.”

Hai looked at me, bewildered. I smiled at his rare expression – a mixture of grateful, relieve, and most of all, fervent love. I wished I had not seen the love on his face, filled to the brim hope and passion and what not. All the things that I cannot give him. Not now. Not forever.

I pulled Hai to the front door pointed at the red brick porch.

“No matter what nightmares you encounter out there beyond the red brick porch, the moment you step inside these walls, you will be safe,” I held his shoulders firmly and kept an appropriate distant. Not too far to turn us into strangers. But not too close to tear our hearts  apart with an open wound, one of these days, “Because I will be here, Hai. I will always be here, Hai.”

He did not say a word. His face did not show the slightest reaction. But those eyes, oh God, those eyes. Those eyes are killing me, torturing me, burning me with my every breath. Don’t believe in me, Hai, please don’t believe in me. And just when I was about to let go of his shoulders, Hai smiled. His beautiful eyes sparkled like the shooting stars I so often saw on TV. “Thank you,” he said, “thank you, Nha.” And ever so lightly, like the touch of a feather, he kissed my fingers. And all of my reasoning faded away. And the sky was never bluer, the wind was never gentler. And I, I was never –

“Believe in me, Hai, please believe in me.”

“After all” what? The old detective turns my attention to the current flow of time.

I look at him, wondering in all of his detective life, how many tragic cases, how many sufferings, how many pains he had to go through to maintain this calm, detached, and cruel facade in the face of love. But no, after all –

Mr. Officer, after all, “love” is too small a word to describe the thing between me and Hai, I say.

And you still maintain that Mr. Hai is innocent.

Yes.

Do you know the weight of your testament? The old detective lifts his glasses up, as if that simple action will make me give up and do the thing that the coward me in the past would have done.

Yes, I do.

And despite knowing that, you still maintain your, for lack of better words, version of the truth?

I look at him. If I had had a father, I imagined he would have grown old like him. Wrinkles-filled face and age-old wisdom.

Mr. Officer, do you know what thương is?

He stares at me in silence for a while. Then he sighs heavily, tears the paper on the notepad, crumbles it up, and throws it in the trash can.

Yes, I do, Mr. Nha, he says, I do.

Then with that in mind, I wish to maintain my, for lack of better words, version of the truth.


[1] Translation: In those days, you are like a blooming lotus, filled with gentleness in the shadow of dusk. In those days, you are like the morning dew, hidden like gems between the rose petals.

[2] Translation: But the days are cruel and the human heart is also cruel. The blooming flower has now withered and died. You had gone away, the boat had crossed the river, and life keeps on moving.

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