Hush, baby, hush

Beethoven – Moonlight Sonata – First Movement

The date is 28th of April. The weather is nothing but hot and humid. We step on the first stones to cross to the other side of the mountain. The bus left us by the grassy roadside, where the old and rotten wooden board with the wasted words, “S. Village Station,” hang lowly by the bushes. There you go, the bus driver said, Here is as far as I will go.

And thus, back to where we are, the first stones to cross to the other side of the mountain. The weather is nothing but hot and humid.

I wonder if this is the same place S. ended up. I wonder if he had gone down the same unpaved, rocky road. I wonder if I look any more closer, the three of us will find his cold corpse somewhere amidst the growing greens and the buried rocks, staring at us with his empty eyes, his flesh rottens, his bones showing through the decaying skin.

It’s been three months since S. started his investigation into the disappearance of young tourism in the S. village. And he is nowhere to be seen.

Hey man, you hear anything? M. says, tugging on Z.’s sleeve.

What? Ain’t nothing to be heard in the forest?

No, for real man. Listen carefully. There’s something in this forest man. It’s familiar. It’s like – It’s tugging on my mind, I can’t figure it out but it’s familiar. It’s like –

I stand straight up, inhale deeply, and look around. A faint melody rings in my ear. It sure sounds familiar. I close my eyes, trying to dig through the foggy my memory to find out what it is. Weird. I usually can pull out the name of such classical tune. Blindingly stepping in the direction of the melody, my feet seem to glide on air, and when I come to, I really did glide on air.

Man, you okay there? Z. comes up to me, followed by the heavy footsteps of M., who is shouting that there is something gripping firmly onto his feet.

Yeah?

You were walking like you were on air.

Oh?

I sit up and look down. Under my feet is –

Shit, man, they are human corpses. Everywhere. Fucking human corpses, M. shouts, falling on his back.

Ah, now I remember. The melody. It is Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. The first movement.

Beethoven – Piano Sonata No. 17 “Tempest”

The date is 28th of April. The weather is nothing but hot and humid. We come to S. village when the sun is coming down and settling itself under the mountain. There is no one going out to meet us, of course, because there were no appointments made for the three of us to go out here. The shops are all closed, except for some night diners and a few motels. It seem the modern age has left this town alone for quite sometimes. The electricity is scarce and the wireless network is almost nowhere to be found.

Man, this place gives me the creeps, Z. shuffles the bags on his shoulders and whispers under his breath.

Don’t mention it. You will remind me of the pile of corpses out in the forest.

Hey, I say, tugging on M.’s sleeve.

What?

Is it still on?

What is still on?

The human skin. Is it still on the bottom of your shoes?

Man, you sick or what? M. shouts at me and walks in anger to the first motel in sight.

You shouldn’t have said that, Z. walks by me and sighs heavily, The man is traumatized enough by the scene.

Yeah? I know, I say, But I keep on having that vision.

What vision?

That if we keep on looking, closer, we might have found his corpse.

Whose corpse? S.’s?

Yeah.

Don’t be so negative. The man might still be alive. I mean his GPS is still on and stuff.

Yeah.

We walk to where M. is standing, negotiating with the motel’s owner. I keep thinking about what Z. said. During those three months of disappearance, S.’s GPS was always on. That’s how we knew he ended up in this shithole place. But that was it. Only the GPS. No news. Not messages. No mails. We got nothing else from him except the little shiny red dot on the screen telling us where to find him, dead or alive.

So really, Z., how can I not be negative?

Hello, are you the new tourist here?

I look over. By the stone wall, there is a group of three (or four, I don’t know, it is getting dark, and I don’t even know why they are still outside at this hour of the day) students. Among them, the one to speak up is this shy, timid little boy, who must still be under eighteen. The darkness of the night heightens the deep shade of bluish-green of his dark, ravenous hair, and the dimly lit street lamp lights up his pair of quizzical eyes. I don’t think I have ever seen such beauty in a boy his age.

Sir? Are you the new tourist here?

Let’s go, Y. He’s dumb.

Yeah, let’s go.

But he looks strange, the boy called Y. says to his friend, like he’s lost, Y. turns to look at me as if to make sure of what he just said.

Yes, I am a new tourist here, I reply, But I come with my friend, and I am not lost.

He tilts his head to the side, takes a closer look at my dishevel figure as my friends start to come around, and smiles. Not a usual smile where I often see in the city. I guess it’s different in villages.

Man, is there something wrong?

I look at the boy’s smiles and again, blindingly say, Nah.

The boy’s half-moon eyes glisten at my simple statement and coincidentally, both him and my friends say, Are you sure?

Yeah, I say, Pretty sure, though I am not sure who the answer is pointed to: the boy or my friends.

Okay. See you later, Mr. Tourist.

Okay.

M. stares at the shadow of the boy as he walks away with his group of friends, laughing; his eyes squint at the black costume like the color of S.’s coffin that I always see in my dreams.

Be careful with the boy.

Why? He’s just a boy.

Don’t know. He just gives me the creeps.

Like the corpse forest?

Man, don’t bring that up.

Sure.

You don’t understand what we are putting ourselves into, do you?

What do you mean?

Like you are lost.

Since when?

Since S.’s been gone.

Yeah.

Dude, there’s no certain proof that S. died.

Yeah.

Anyways, he sighs heavily, Don’t get involved with that kid. He’s weird. Or better yet, don’t get involved with anyone in this village.

Yeah.

I walk inside the motel. The rooms are all lay out for us with new bedsheets and welcome drink. Tired and worn out after a day of climbing the mountain, I changed my clothes and lie down. Between the darkness of my eyelid and the strangely yellowish light of the street lamps outside the windows, I keep thinking of the boy’s figure as he stood between the shadow and the light. He stood there, tilting his head to the side, his dark eyes glistened, his smile lit up on a forest of corpses. Behind him is the figure of S. on the electric piano inside our tiny apartment. He’s playing something by Beethoven, his favorite composer. Both the boy and S. ask me, Are you sure?

I remember the melody instantly this time. It was Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 17 – “Tempest.”

Yeah, I reply, and ever since S.’s disappearance, I cry on the motel’s cheap pillow like a 3-year-old child again as if I had found his arms amidst the decaying arms of the corpse forest. As if I had found his eyes, still staring sweetly at me, amidst the eyes sockets and the anonymous skulls. As if I had found him, dead, but still him, in my embrace, in our tiny apartment. And he was still there, forever there, playing Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 17 – “Tempest.”

(unfinished)

#slow dance

Let’s keep it on the level

When I walked away from you

I turned my back on the devil

Turned my back on the angel too

Leonard Cohen, On The Level

Inspired by a true crime story in Binh Duong, Vietnam.

Please sit down, the investigator says while pulling out the white-grey chair. An overwhelming power and authority exudes from his eyes. I will figure this out, his eyes say, I will force you to spit out the truth.

Why, thank you for your kindness, I say as I slowly descend down the white-gray chair and place both of my hands on the (also) white-grey table in the darken room.

Say, do you need a drink?

Why, no, but thank you, I look at him, smiling. A smile that, to me, is gentle enough, and to him, suspicious enough.

Alright then. Let’s start the interrogation. I think you already know all of these procedures, judging how you are a lawyer yourself. Do you need me to repeat them?

No, that should be unnecessary, officer. Please continue onto the interrogation, I say as I keep the same smile that through years and years of practice and put to good use, has been pasted on my face like plaster.

Alright, the officer says as he releases a tired sigh, I will start with a common question. How do you know the victim?

How do you know it’s me? He says on our very first date. We are sitting at a table out on the cafe’s veranda. His hair is reflecting the sunlight right back to my eyes. He smiles sheepishly; the initial confidence he had when we first met a few days back, in the university’s hallway, has gone.

It must be you, I say, smiling back as a way of returning the gentle favor of his smile, It would be inappropriate to say this, but I just knew. It was love at first sight, and there can be no one else but you.

Love at first sight, you say?

Why, yes. We were quite young, reckless, and stupid then. But I guess the terms “love at first sight” would still be appropriate to this date. What else can you explain that feeling, officer?

The officer jots down my words, scratches down a few words, then thinking back on my answer (or something else, how could I know a person’s mind?), he rewrite the exact same words that he had scratched out.

How long have you been married? he asks.

Marriage? I say, not at all surprise. After all, isn’t marriage the bitter end to any nice, warm, happy love story?

I think it’s time. You passed your bar exam. I graduated and had a decent job. There’s no better time than now, he says. His excitement is blatantly shown on his face as he kneels down on one knee.

How do you know? That there’s no better time than now? I ask.

Then how do you know? That there’s no better time than now? He says. His hands, which are holding the ring box, are trembling.

Why, 30 years, I guess, I reply, carefully looking down on the white-grey table. A perfect reminiscence look presents on my face which the officer quickly catches on.

You miss him?

Of course I would miss him. What else should I feel? He was my partner, my only love, my soul. Yes, officer, of course I would miss him.

Then why didn’t you report when he went missing?

Divorce?

I can’t be with you anymore, he says, his arm wraps around a young girl of around 20 years old, You were right, he smiles, all of my assets are now under his name, I found my love at first sight.

He often went on his multitude of business trips. They always range from 7 days to a year. How should I know if he was missing or just simply on another of his business trip?

Alright, the officer sigh with tiredness, Here, look at this picture, do you know this girl?

Why? What makes you choose him? I ask the 20-year-old-or-something girl as we sit face to face in a bursting cafe. The same cafe I had my first date with him. But what does it matter now?

I didn’t choose him, she says, He chose me over you, she looks at me, her eyes sparkle with the shade of green on the money paper.

He chose you over me, you say, I repeat, then giggle slightly. She looks at me quizzically, not quite understands my calmness and my somewhat happy demeanor.

Say, I lean over the table, Why don’t we make a parting party? A parting party so that I can properly say goodbye to my soul?

A witness say that Ms. A, the person in this photo, had been to your house the same night she went missing – together with your husband. Do you have any knowledge of this?

Mr. Officer, I touch the photo slightly, the girl in the picture is smiling with a bottle of vodka in her hand and some strange guys in the background. I can hear the loud music and the seizuring lights in the club as this picture was taken, Mr. Officer, I was on a business trip during that exact same week. I trust that you do have the knowledge of my alibi?

In here it says that, he quickly turns through the pages of a document that proves my innocence with the certainty of a champion, You were on a one-week business trip. The witness says they met you that exact same night when your husband and Ms. A went missing. You stayed with the witness until late at night, discussing the points in the witness’s merger.

Yes, that is exactly what happened.

A perfect alibi, I would say, the officer closes the document and looks at me. The look that says the war is on.

Why, officer, it would be inappropriate to call it perfect, I says, my eyes facing his with a casting shadow of sadness and grief, He went missing while I was away, and it is documented in black ink on a white piece of paper, I stop and smile bitterly, It would be more appropriate to call it a fact. A sad fact, of course, but a fact nevertheless.

A fact? He repeats, You meant to say that it was not your intention to purposefully be away while your husband invited his lover over? The officer puts his hands on the white-grey table and leans over to my personal space, menacing and authoritative.

I thought you were on a business trip, my husband of 30 years says in surprise. I wonder if he had been by my side for the entirety of those 30 years, or if I had been living together with his light shadow on the surface of being married.

I can only be here for a while, I say, I forgot that I had a business trip and I invited A here for a parting party.

A parting party? He snickers, You are peculiar as always.

Yes, as always, I say, all smiling. It was 2 in the morning. The grandfather clock in the dark corner of the living room strikes two times. The night outside is as deep and unfathomable as the final act of my plan slowly comes to fruition.

We still haven’t found out where your husband and Ms. A are, sadly, the officer stops his hands movement on the white paper, Would you also call that a sad fact? He looks at me. There is a burning fire in his dark irises. A fire that says he will dig through the dirt to find out the corpses of those two people. A fire that says he will tear down my facade.

A fire that says there’s no such thing as a perfect alibi.

Mr. Officer, can I go now? I say, my hands reaching across the table to touch his, I have an appointment in a few hours, and I have to report my husband’s missing to his company.

In the darkness of the basement, I slowly slice out the flesh on the two cold corpses and put them in the pot. I season the dish perfectly as always, of course, as their flesh would be flavorless without some salt and pepper. A few branches of dried rosemary and thyme would surely accentuate their betrayal.

I put the bones in the pot. The water is already sizzling and bubbling up. I stir the stew, taking my time while waiting for the bones to release their sweetness to the water. Leonard Cohen’s “On The Level” is on, and my dishes are as good and delicious as ever.

By the way, Mr. Officer, I smile and pull out my lunch box, I haven’t had the time to eat today. Would you care for some stew? My cooking has always been perfect to a fault.

Oh, thank you, he replies, holding the lunch box to his nose, This does smell delicious.

Of course, as always, I smile and slowly withdraw my hands. The fingers give the finishing touch to a slow dance between what is the truth and what might have been the truth.

You see, with murder, as with anything else, the main ingredient is patient, seasoned with a perfect plan.

Letter to M. #1

Dearest M.

I was out in the evening with my mother and I thought of you. The thought of you being here with me has never been gone. And with time as its strongest armor, that thought has put me through the sweetest torture I can ever imagine.

So, what’s up? Still good? Still pouring your heart out in all the poems and weird yet good stories? As I said, I would love to read your new works, but nevermind that now. After all, seeing you again is still a better bargain for me.

Hey, have you ever marvelled at how beautiful life is? For example, like this short poem here:

Didn’t know she was still alive, my mother says.

Who? I ask, and see a brief change of time on my mother’s face.

The brief change of time that destroy all the condominiums and office buildings

that are starting to surround the city

like lead poison.

The brief change of time that brings back piece by piece,

brick by brick,

dust by dust,

the neighborhood that my mother grew up in.

It certainly was not a happy neighborhood

as a pain expression clouds my mother’s face.

She was my friend’s mother, she says,

I wonder where all my friends are now: they all suffered a war

that they took no part in and never wished for.

It’s better than father’s friend, I tell her,

they all died.

Is it really better? My mother says.

There was a slight quivering undertone as if she meant to say

That I was wrong.

That nothing is ever better than death.

That suffering a war is, sometimes, not an honor.

Is war an honor? If it were not, why did so many leaders choose to start it?

My mother didn’t answer. She was lost

in the neighborhood where no one grew up to be happy.

Didn’t know she was still alive, my mother repeats.

And in that simple repetition, my mother brings back with her

the magic of life: we all suffered a war

and we all survived.

-Didn’t know she was still alive, Thanh Dinh-

I know it’s longer than it’s supposed to be but M., you have to forgive me. You know how I always, always, always drag the stories on and on. But yeah, I did meant to show you the magic of life.

The magic that says, No matter what we’ve been through, we will all survived.

I won’t say that life takes the better of us because life is, and always will be, taking the better of us. Neither will I follow Ernest Hemingway and his league in The Lost Generation. If we put luck on a scale to measure it out, I am sure I will be winning all over The Lost Generation. After all, I’m still alive.

Look at me. I’m being unfair. But what is fair, really?

M., will you one day look back in time, and be the one to say to me, eyes to eyes, Didn’t know you were still alive?

I hope you will. Just turn around, will you? Because I will always be here.

With love and regards,

T.D.

#Stories on the Street, part II

This is also a story from the same bun rieu store. I don’t know what word I can use to describe the sweltering hot bun rieu store (or stand) where the space it has can be called a restaurant, if only the owner decide to decorate it.

But there you have it: a little (useless) information about me – I love eating bun rieu at the same store (or stand), and I always listen to other’s stories. I wonder if some days, far in the distant future, someone would dig this piece of useless information about me up and threaten me. Stop spouting nonsense, they would say, you have too much luxurious free time.

Back to the story, I was just about to finished my bowl when a family of four came in. The wife was yelling with her loud voice, Father, not there, come here, steer this way. The husband was gently dragging the son behind him. They sat at a table not far away from mine (of course, how else can I listen to their story?).

Because of the wife’s loud voice, I turned around to look at them, and see what would ingrain in my brain for quite a long time that evening.

Both the wife and the child had Down’s Syndrome. The old father suffered from dementia. The only sane person in that family was the husband, who was busy taking care of his beloved ones.

I don’t want hind legs, she screamed, give the child the hind leg, he wants it.

The old father kept on staring at the table. His vacant stare seemed to be piercing through the wobbly table and opened up a time hole, where there were more better days than not-so-good days. Where, certainly, he had friends who care about him, and a beautiful wife who would lovingly hold his hand while ordering his favorite dishes.

But the time hole, no matter how enormous, cannot bring him back to those days. What he had, at that point in time, was a daughter and a grandson with Down’s Syndrome, and a son-in-law who was kind, but not loving enough.

The child kept on laughing and giggling interchangeably. I don’t know what he saw then – but whatever the scene, it was much better than a bun rieu store (or stand) that reeked of mam tom and was sweltering with the unbearable heat of a country whose the sun always favors.

There was little exchange of spoken words between them, really. And this story was not about them, anyways. It was about me.

I saw the husband standing there, using a tissue to wipe the old father’s saliva which was dripping down to the table, placing both bowls of bun rieu in front of his wife and son, not even cared about how his sweat was also drowning him in discomfort.

Then I thought about my mother.

My mother was probably the same age as this husband. She has two children: neither of them belongs to any proud category of life. A 30-year-old daughter who has no money in her account and no job to provide her with enough money. A younger, 25-year-old daughter who is good at everything above, below, and in between, but certainly not good at making her happy.

I am the 25-year-old daughter. A guilty criminal with a long history of committing suicide and self-harm. I always wonder why I am still here. Breathing. Living.

It must be because the love of my mother has overgrown the power of the Grim Reaper.

I thought about when I was convulsing on the hospital bed, needles in between and everywhere, my mother was the only one there, holding my hand, crying, whispering in my ears, Mother’s here. Don’t worry, mother’s here. No one is going to take you away from me. Neither the Grim Reaper or God can take you away from me.

Then I thought about my father. Whenever I take a trip to the hospital (I call it a trip because using the word “check-up” will not do anymore), he holds my hand in his rough, trembled palm and says, Call me after you’re done. Tell me how it goes. Let me know if anything happens.

I remember the other night, when I was convulsing on my mother’s bike as she took me to the family doctor. My father jumped at the call and sprung out of the house in the dark night, looking for the soul of his lost daughter. Where are you, I supposed he would ask, I already told you to let me know if anything happens.

That night, he stayed up later than usual. In my fever dream and my hazy sleep, I can still feel his gaze fixated upon me. Let me know if anything happens, I supposed he would say, again and again.

But father, how am I supposed to do that? How am I supposed to tell you what’s wrong with me when I don’t even know either?

I looked at the child, the wife, and the old father. I wondered if the husband ever felt tired and angry. I imagined he would ask himself, and sometimes, his God, that why must he be the only one suffering. Why must he take care of these people.

But then I saw his smile. I saw how he gently placed the bun rieu bowl in front of his wife, then turned to his father-in-law and wiped the dripping saliva on the old man’s blank face.

And in that brief moment, I thought I knew what happiness was.

Surely, without the wife, the Down’s-Syndrome-child, and the demented father-in-law, the husband would have an immense freedom to choose a different path. But can that path ever be happier than the path he is already on? Perhaps. Perhaps not.

The most important thing, to me, in that precise moment, is the unconditional love that withstands the powerful storm of Fate.

I thought about my parents.

About my mother who held me in her arms, fainting and breathless: she did not shed any tears, and kept on calling my name as my soul drifted away to unknown, scary land of darkness and cold.

About my father who stayed up later than usual, despite his insomnia and sleep-induced medication. He came to my room many times that night, quietly opened the door, and peeked in just a little bit to make sure that his daughter was alright. That no Heaven or Hell would take his daughter away right in front of his eyes. That though his legs are growing weak, his hands are shaking, and his wrinkles are everywhere, he will stand guard at the gate and fight each and every demon who tries to steal his daughter away.

I have talked about the sparkle of love in the previous “Stories on the Street,” but this is not that. This is something larger. More enormous. More immense. And there’s no border large enough, no box nor mould large enough to restrain its power.

It’s the selfless sacrifice for one’s love. You cry for its beauty. You laugh for that beauty. And as all the poets sing in their misery, someday, you might die for it. Yet, it will always be the core of your existence, and no man can ever live without it since the start of time.

The husband’s laugh brought me back to the store (or stand). Maybe he did felt tired. Maybe he did felt angry. But he can’t help it: he’s human after all. And he lives as every other human lives: he loves and faces the suffering of love with the readiness of a loyal, patriotic soldier.

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

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#Conversation

You look better than the last time I saw you, she says, your dark circle seems to be improving.

And here I sit, in the chair that is too familiar with me. I sometimes wonder if the chair would hate having someone sitting on it constantly. I wonder if it hates me.

The cushion is almost threadbare, and it forms a sort of human’s bottoms. No one’s bothered enough to change it. Certainly not the café’s owner.

I am not bothered enough to notice it, that’s all.

But surely you are bothered enough to sleep early, she smiles, and with that, it’s coming back to remind me the distance between us. And I just hate hate hate how the smile never conveys her true feelings.

How’s it going? I ask. It’s more a rhetorical question than a signal of personal concern. Because I know full well what her answer will be.

It’s going good, really. How about you?

Yes, it’s always going good. I stare at her unmoving eyes. She always fixated those pale blue eyes on my face. The pale blue eyes that refuse the temptation to be more than “it’s going good.”

What are you staring at? She asks, giggling. Even her giggling at my dumbstruck face is a rhetorical act, which is too familiar to her and too strange for me.

Nothing.

Come on, you just keep on staring, she tugs my shirt sleeve.

Yes, my darling, I keep on staring. Because where else can I look when the meaning of my existence is right there in front of me?

When’s he coming? Isn’t it past the meeting time already?

She withdraws her hand and pulls both of them back to a safe distance. The same distance between us: a hand’s length and an ocean apart. I keep swimming in that unfathomable ocean. I never succeed in finding the right shore, and I’m always drowning drowning drowning in those pale blue eyes.

He says he will be a little late, she replies timidly. An awkward silence comes spreading out like a deadly disease. I wonder since when this disease begins affecting me. The silence dissects my flesh, cuts my bones, and burns my nerves to ashes.

Hey, how about stopping this? I blurt out.

Stopping what?

Stopping this, I touch her hand slightly, closing the hand’s length distance between us. Yet, the ocean distance is still there. And as I expected, she inches her hands away. Each inch produces an unbearable tug on my heart string.

Why are you killing me this slowly, darling? Do have some mercy on me and kill me in a swift blow of separation. You can gouge out my heart, severe my head, and in that triumphant dead, I will keep on loving you the same. Longingly, tenderly, ardently.

You don’t have to come if you don’t like to, she says. Her words bring me back to the café’s noisy reality.

No, I didn’t mean that. I just say it without thinking, I reply, trying to create the same smile she uses on me. Then, realizing the embarrassing failure as I see the growing pity in her eyes, I quickly shut up.

Say, why don’t we just leave?

Why don’t you stay for a little while?

He won’t come.

Then why bother coming here at all?

Does it matter? Do you want me to stay? Or do you want me to leave? Would his coming here be more comforting to you? Or would it not?

She bursts out all of these rhetorical questions. The questions I try to hide behind my disgusting gentleness. The questions I try to erase from our conversation whenever we have the chance to meet. The questions that hurt. The questions that wound us everywhere in between.

I bother, I tell her, I bother enough to come here, to listen to your silly talks about all your ex-boyfriends, your current boyfriends, and your future boyfriends. But –

But what?

Yes, but what? I think about the ocean distance between the two of us. I think about her clenched hands whenever she sits opposite me, talking. Her boyfriend sits on the left side of the table, she sits on the right side, facing me. The conversation is always boring. Oh, you’re working in that field. No, I’m not knowledgeable about it. Really, you read those kind of books? Working out is great. Yes, I can see the results on your body.

But what? I ask myself. But I am not bothered enough to take your invitation, to just pack things up and run away, to be free. I know that freedom might not act on the promises that it is giving us with sweet, honeycomb poison. Yet, there’s the hope, and there’s me and you, trying to fill the ocean with buckets of sand.

Let’s leave, then, I say, withdrawing my hand from hers, Let’s continue the conversation at another time.

I will bring a better person next time, I promise.

Don’t, I fix my eyes on hers, engraving every little details on her face to my brain, Don’t make the ocean bigger than it already is. After all, I am not bothered enough to care about the men in your life, I feel my throat burning with every word. They are making a revolution, and my rationality – my cowardice – is losing hold of the strongest forte.

Don’t bring them, I repeat, It’s you that I care about.

There goes my little declaration of independence. And the enemy – the pale blue queen – sits there on her throne, knowing my every move, smiles. Taken aback by the smile that resembles the blooming flowers of the first spring after the long, solitary winter, I accept my defeat.

Let’s give this a try, then, she says.

Give what a try?

This whole thing, she giggles, this you and me, she inches her hands forward. Her fingers wrap around mine, closing whatever oceans and mountains there were between us, Let’s give this sparkle of love a try.

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

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#Stories on the Street, part I

I sit on the wobbly chair, which is accompanied by an even more wobbly table, in the sweltering heat of a city that knows too many manufacturer and too few green space.

I sit there, eating the much beloved dish that the cold winter in Canada had robbed off me – bun rieu. There’s a whole lot of other things I lost in the cold bosom of Canada’s winter wonderland. And there’s also a whole lot of other things I gained from it. Not friends, it seems.

But back to the story. So as I was sitting there, breathing in the steam from the soup stove, the owner’s helper told me a little story. It went like this:

I am a divorcee, she said, It’s been 15 years since my divorce. She smiled shyly as if she was half afraid that people will judge her, because within this land people always judge other people. Of course, people are judging each other anywhere across the globe at any given opportunity. But here – this specific land of the glorious death and the blazing heat that blows rationality away – the people do so more often than anywhere else.

And so we are back to the story of this beauty of a divorcee.

I raised two children all on my own, you know, she said, I have a daughter and a son. It’s a tough job. I have to leave the younger one – the daughter – at my hometown. It’s a day’s journey from here – by bus. I never wanted it to be this way. I kept on thinking for a while, you know, that I was the one who robbed them off a loving father.

Then why did you divorce him? I asked.

She smiled again. The hidden pain of a middle-aged woman who has to be separated from her daughter when she needed her most. The sadness of an unhappy marriage that ended up hurting not only her, but her two little treasures. The ever-guilty-as-charged feeling bottling up inside her as she cannot do anything for her children.

My eldest child, she said, avoiding my question, He will be graduating from the law university this year.

She said it like a declaration of freedom. Freed from society’s judgmental eyes. Freed from a husband who may or may not beat her, but who surely did not love her, nor her children. Freed from the prejudiction that a woman needs a male figure in her life.

And that is the feminism that the women in this country have led. Far before it is an important thing. Far before the #metoo movement.

I look at her darken skin, her dark spots spread like firefly across both of her cheeks, her cheap clothings and her rough hands. This is the only absolute power that does not bring corruption but instead, it carries with it the strength to build a person up.

It builds her daughter’s future with every penny she has in her pocket. It builds her son into a future lawyer who may very well be the one who protects others’ daughters, wives, and the vulnerable ones.

And thus, her story is a story of success. She breaks through. She does not let the guilt of being free become the burden on her children’s path. She makes sacrifices along the way, surely.

But the love – oh, the love that will stem from that, the love that will pour down to many more generations, all of it, all of it. It will grow into a beautiful garden with the heavenly fragrance of being forgiven and being sheltered.

It’s the most amazing feeling, you know, she said and by so doing, brought me back to the story, when you see your children eat the food you made. ‘Mother, it’s the best dish ever,’ and their eyes have this sparkle, you know, a very specific sparkle –

Like love?

Yeah, like love, she smiled, this time, unhurried and so very endearing, it’s the sparkle of love.

And in that precise moment, I suddenly come to understand all these writers and song composers’ praise for mothers. All mothers, everywhere. Just like she said, it was that sparkle. The sparkle of love.

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

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#what are you thinking?

So, how are you feeling today?

The counselor in the white blouse asks. I find it hard to concentrate on an appropriate answer as his cheap, toned-down blue T-shirt creates an immense border. The border between trusting him and trusting me. The border between being saved and wallowing in the same sort of routines until the routines can’t save me anymore.

I’m fine, I replies.

It seems like you are thinking of something else. So, what are you thinking?

Yeah, he’s right. At the moment the reply comes out of my lips, I was thinking of how ridiculously thin and long his fingers are. Like a spider’s leg. Each joint on his fingers was protruding out. I imagined those long fingers wrapping around his lover’s waist, holding it, embracing it, loving it.

I guess I’m fine, I say.

Has there been anything unusual lately with your mood swings?

No. I’m fine. Totally cruising it.

He sighs heavily with the weariness of too many emotional baggages that his patients pour on him. And on top of that is me – the most complicated case, the most stubborn villain, the worst of the worst.

Why are you always fine? He takes off his glasses and massages his temple with his thumb and forefinger. He shouldn’t put my appointment at the end of the day. The schedule puts a heavy toll on him and an uncomfortable awkwardness on me.

Why? What else can I be beside “fine?” Should I be in another state? A not-so-fine state?

You know that’s not what I meant.

Then what do you mean?

He sits there, staring intently at the blank paper in front of him. I guess like me, he is wondering whether he should just close my case for good or whether he should refer me to another counselor. After all, that always happens after – how many? – about 10 or so meetings.

This is the 11th meeting, and I’m still here. Of all the counselor I’ve met, he is the most stubborn one. Perhaps those long, spider-like fingers help him carry more baggages – more weight – than a normal person could.

I mean for you to be happy, he says as he lift his head up and stares at me. He has these large dark circle around his eyes, but those eyes are still shining. A bit too bright for me, perhaps. I keep thinking about the connection between those dark circles and his long list of patients. Do they just transfer their sleeplessness onto him like a sort of direct deposit or wire transfer?

I am happy as I am now.

But you won’t be happy if we take you off the pills, for the first time since the first meeting, his long fingers wrap around my shorter, thicker ones. The joints feel weird against my knuckles, And I want you to be happy without the pills.

He keeps his eyes fixed on mine. He looks more like a person without his glasses. My mind jumps down a dark abyss, where I am a cat who immediately curls up to a little bit of light and a little bit of warmth.

What are you thinking? He asks again.

Nothing. Just that how much nicer it would be if I am a cat.

Cats have their worries, too.

That’s too bad. I laugh, but he doesn’t.

We all have to suffer, he says, cats or human.

Then Doctor, why must we suffer? I stop laughing and look at him. What do I hope for, really? A be-all and end-all answer? A universal truth? What if there’s no universal truth?

There’s no universal truth, he says. Turns out I had spoken my mind out loud without knowing, There is only my version of the truth and your version of the truth. And though they do not collide – they don’t need to – sometimes, they mingle, and we should take some comfort in that.

He puts on his glasses and smiles. For a moment, I think I see my version of the truth flashes in his eyes, And being comfortable is nice enough.

Really, now?

Yes. So, what are you thinking?

We sit still in the small clinic for what seems like an eternity. It’s like time has stopped inside the clinic. I went in for my appointment in the morning. Now, if my watch is any trustworthy, it’s half-past one in the afternoon. And we maintain the same position: he sitting opposite me, staring at the blank notepad, me sitting in the hard plastic chair, staring at his fingers.

Let’s give it another try, he finally breaks the unbearable silence, When do you want your next appointment to be?

You mean you won’t refer me to another counselor? I ask, somewhat startled.

Why should I? He smiles, Would you prefer that?

I watch his face as his lips form a light upward curve. I think that curve is where my universal truth collides with his universal truth. Would I prefer what? And what does it matter?

I would prefer not to, I says.

I know, he leads me to the clinic’s door, Because cats or humans, they all want to be saved, you know.

I stop his hand on the doorknob, Then who will save you?

He pushes me through the clinic door with the gentlest force. Those long, spider-like fingers wrap around my wrist, You know, sometimes, I don’t mind being saved by a cat.

The door closes after me. And by that simple action, me and him – we go back to the start.

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

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#will you just decide

Gloria, will you just decide

Gloria, there’s easier ways to die.

– The Lumineers, Gloria

He throws the glass at me. It is the tenth time this week. I think it’s still nice compares to the last time when he throws everything at me twenty times in a week.

Get out. I don’t want to see you, he says.

So out of the room I go. I don’t know since when it becomes a habit for me. For us. He would either throw random things at me or love me senseless. And there’s nothing in between. So there will be his better days when I am a saint in his eyes and on his brain, and he will beg me for more love.

But there will also be days like this one, where I am a beggar, lying by his feet, begging for his mercy.

I go out in the cold, dark night. There are plenty of place I can stop by. Plenty of temporary lovers and temporary whores. Plenty of temporary families and familiar faces. And yet, staring at the starless sky with a blurry half-moon, I don’t want to go anywhere.

I want to tell him that it’s enough. That I finally had enough of his childish tantrums, his unreasonable mood swings, his crying, his laughing.

You won’t love me if you know who I am, he says.

Why? Who are you then? I don’t know of many men who have that power, I say. Flattering always works in my favor.

You won’t love me. You don’t love me now, and you won’t love me after. I just know it. Don’t ask me. I just know it.

Turns out he’s wrong. Or maybe he’s right in some parts. But for the most of it, he’s wrong.

I love him I love him I love him –

I crouch down on the front porch of his house, holding my head between my leg.

I love him I love him I love him, but –

I finally understand the fear of his previous lovers, who have all turned to some indestructible ghosts in his heart and on his mind. A fear which humans are not built to endure.

And by understanding it, accepting it, swallowing it, consuming it, I have lost so many things in the battle against a monster we cannot see nor touch nor wound nor kill nor –

I love him I love him I love him, and yet –

I cry, and suddenly realizing that he can hear it, I cover my mouth and push the fierce force from my heart onto the tears that are dropping on the concrete floor. I wish I had not crossed that specific bar on that specific day. I wish I had more control of my heart than just following fickling, impulsive passion.

I wish I had believed in the power of love less than the normal person would.

I hear the sound of the door opens behind me. I turn back, and here he is, my beloved angel, who G-d had forgotten to bless.

I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry, he says, all his tears and snots smear on my shirt and turn it into a darker color.

Never mind that. You are not at fault.

Neither are you.

I look at him, at the hazel irises that I have grown to love and hate with all my heart.

I told you twice. You won’t love me if you know who I am.

But darling, I am still in love with you, I tuck a loose strand of hair on his ears and cup his face in my hands. The blurry moon shines on his hazel eyes makes them look like a pair of jewels to me. Bright and shiny and not easy to find and never belong to me.

Really? You still love me now?

Yes.

Promise?

Yes.

Pinky promise?

Yes, yes, yes.

As he curls himself into my embrace, everything finds it place again, and we go back to the start of it all: the sweet moment before he throws the glass at me.

I wonder how long will it be this time? How long do I have to wait until his better days come around again?

Yes, there’s easier ways to die. And among the easier ways to die, I choose to waste my life on loving him.

**********

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#1. Strong

Hey, have you ever thought about dying?

There he goes spouting all of the nonsense shit that, through a miraculous gate, always gets from his brain to his mouth in the most inconvenient moment to me. I lie on top of him, look down on his face, and the lips that know far too well how to kindle a fire of desire and anger within a man’s heart at the same time.

I sometimes wonder if you can read the most basic situations.

Like what?

Like now.

That so?

He pushes my shoulders and, with a simple maneuver and settles my whole body back down the other pillow. I watch on as his nimble fingers draw meaningless circles around my chest as if this is the first time they know of the warmth on living human skin. As if this, too, will be the last time they linger on the skin of a being with a heartbeat.

Hear that?

What?

The beat. Ba-dump. Ba-dump. Ba-dump. What’s your heart rate?

Normally, 70 bpm.

Ain’t it a little bit too fast for that rate?

‘Cause this is not my normal. I catch his fingers, which are dancing dangerously on my ribcage, and kiss each one of them. Slowly at first, then faster, and swallow them whole. I look into his eyes, You are making it abnormal.

How so?

Can I kiss you yet?

No, but have you ever thought about dying?

He withdraws his fingers from my firm grip and looks into my eyes. An inquisitive pair of eyes. Too dark for the world. Too light for my desire. The moonlight outside the window shines its reflection on the dark irises. For a moment, I thought his eyes are the color of my mother’s beautiful silver bracelet. I can see the dazzling jewels decorating the bracelet shift slowly from their position in the past to his black pupils at the moment. Damn, I thought to myself, damn, honey. You are killing me.

Have you ever thought about dying? That pair of eyes gently asks me that question.

I am thinking of it now. Can I at least touch your chest? Please, my darling, can I at least touch your chest?

No, you have to answer my question first. He laughs as his fingers form a weak barricade in front of his flat, bony chest. I can break the blockade easily in a twist of the fingers, but the bumping of his heart makes me hesitate. Ba-dump. Ba-dump. Ba-dump. What’s his heart rate?

I already answered it.

When?

I said I’m thinking of it now.

Don’t be a child, and answer me.

I really am thinking of it right here, right now. Quit it, and just let me touch you.

I inch closer. The down blanket and the mountain of pillows between us grow larger and heavier to get through. Who the fuck thinks of putting this many pillows on our bed? Definitely not me.

I am also thinking about it.

Of what?

Dying.

I lift my head from the heavy blanket, but he turns his gaze away. Unconsciously, I keep begging him in my head. Look at me, darling, look at me. Only at me. 

We are all dying, you know. Each and every one of us. I wonder what your response will be when I die. I will lie here on the bed and say, Darling, I’m dying. And you will sit on that chair and say, Oh, don’t die. But will that ever stop me from dying?

What are you saying now? That won’t stop anything.

But you said it the other day.

When?

I was lying here, sad, and desolate. I said, Darling, I’m depressed. Guess what you said then?

I didn’t mean it.

Wrong. You said, Don’t be depressed.

I didn’t mean it.

Why? That cures me of my depression, darling. Do you think that heals me of my depression.

I’m sorry.

Why are you apologizing? I’m not punishing you. You know what, honey? Don’t be sorry. Hey, let’s have sex. Let’s do it then, the thing you love most. Touch me.

And I touch him. Despite knowing that I’m a bastard and the worst human among all the living humans in this world, I still touch him. My palms hesitate on his chest. The veins on my fingers feel the warmth of his skin, the layer of bones on his ribcage, and the heart that is slowly beating behind it. I feel like crying. I don’t even know why, but I suddenly feel like crying. This is a heartbeat. This is yet another heartbeat. And once my palms leave this place, I can’t feel it beating anymore. So I firmly set my palms there, and close my eyes. 1, 2, 3 –

What are you doing?

I am feeling it.

What?

The living.

He laughs and detach my octopus fingers from his chest. You’re weird, he says as he throws the down blanket on the ground and swipes the mountain of pillows down the bed. It always amazes me how he can do the things I can never be able to do.

Listen, that’s not what you should do.

He looks at me; his black irises promise an adventure of mischief and pleasure. His fingers slide down my chest, but they never really touch my skin. I quiver slightly as he bends down, his breath touches the hollow between my neck and shoulder. His lips fall on my skin like spring rain. The dead skin is itchy, but the softness is still there. Weird, I assume he will use the peach-flavor lip balm –

What are you thinking, darling?

I’m not – Oh, God.

The kisses move lower and lower, with the same tempo as my current heartbeat. Just when I think he will finally kiss me in the right place, the kisses stop.

What the hell?

I read a story the other day.

The fuck are you doing?

I feel like this is the perfect time to tell this story.

He straddles on top of me, and as my desire grows exponentially with every labored breath he takes, he lowers his pulsing chest onto my chest and whispers his goddamned story. The hot breath on my skin feels like fire, and my skin keeps on burning, burning, burning.

And I like this quote about the story, you know.

What quote?

Let’s see. So the sensei tells the student that he is a lonely man, so he is glad that the student comes to visit him so often.

So?

And then he says that he is also a melancholy man, so he asks the student why he wants to visit him so often.

So?

I’m a melancholy man, darling. He looked down at me. You don’t see it so often, but my melancholy is always there. I sometimes wish there is a way for you to see it, and perhaps you can take it away from me.

As he says that, I feel like his breathing grows fainter. It’s as if the warmth on my skin can disappear at any moment. As if I had been wrong right from the start. That I had picked the wrong side of the war, and thus, I had grown to be a man I detest. That he had chosen to follow the other route, and the promise to see me on the other side of the war was all a lie, because he did not pinky-swear on it. That we are children who grow up too quickly in a world that was not, and never will be, built for children. That his melancholy will be my melancholy someday, but the prophets do not tell me that yet.

I want to see your melancholy.

You don’t want to see it. He collapses onto my chest. Looking up close, his eyelashes fan out like the butterfly’s wings. You don’t want to see it. You only say that so I can let you embrace me.

You are wrong.

But I will always let you embrace me. He ignores my words. His fingers keep on drawing these meaningless circles, and I don’t know if I should be happy or sad. That’s how much I love you, darling. And that’s how much I wish for you to love me.

Why?

Because I’m a melancholy man.

He sits up. I can feel his bottom slowly slides down my waist, and it keeps going lower, lower, lower. My hands catch onto the rough, round buttcheeks, and squeezes them. He lets out a quiet sigh, then continues on his journey. The soft flesh bounces back against my palms, and I can feel it tighten up, then relax, then tighten up, then relax. It’s good, I tell him.

What’s good.

This. This is good.

Of course.

Of course what, baby? Of course, I am only after my own desire? Or of course, you are good because I’m not the only one you sleep with? Of course, I’m a simple man, and I can never escape the pleasure of the flesh?

This is what I never tell you. I look at him, bouncing up and down on top of my body. The downcast eyes, the tangled hair, the bony chest, the soft muscle on his stomach. All of it, all of it. This is what I never tell you, my darling. This is what will haunt me. This is my biggest regret and my largest comfort. This is what makes me chase after you, calling your name in the dark, again and again.

It’s good, darling. It’s good because you are alive.

You’re crying. Why are you crying?

Because you are beautiful.

That so?

Yeah.

But you don’t call a man beautiful.

That’s sexist.

That so? Stop crying. Come on, will ‘don’t be sad’ work?

I can’t live without you.

He stops his movement and looks at me. His eyes are like the eyes of an orphan who had stayed in the orphanage for far too long, and when all humans have abandoned him, a family comes up and says, Will you go home with us? Don’t lie, he says, that’s bad. Children shouldn’t lie.

That’s the truth. Although there is no universal truth, and my truth will never be on the same level as your truth, this is my declaration. I hold his face and make sure that he won’t avert his eyes. Look at me, darling. Look only at me. Because I can’t live without you.

That’s a lot of bullshit for someone who never thinks of dying.

He climbs down and returns to his pillow. His hand reaches for the lip balm on the nightstand, and he puts it on. The finger that just now was caressing my skin is on his lips, sliding back and forth, back and forth. He smacks his lips a few times, and when he finishes, the rough skin is now red. Not the cold-or-blue-or-whatever-it-is red that the femme fatale wears on TV. It is a pinkish-red, with a sheen gloss. And as he opens his mouth to let out a sigh, the plump lips part with a soft sound as the sticky balm refuses to let them separate.

Can I kiss you?

What’s with the sudden request?

No, but can I kiss you?

You do whatever the hell you want anyway.

Of course.

He looks at me; his brows furrow impatiently. His gaze stops at my eyes for a little bit longer than normal – the kind of normal no one wants but has to cope with anyways – then he smiles. You don’t have to smile if you don’t want to. I wanted to tell him that, but I didn’t. And as years go by, I am less afraid of what I have done than what I didn’t do.

Can a kiss heal anything, though?

He reaches out to the window panes and opens them. Outside, the stars are fading away, just like whatever we have in this room, this very moment.

You know, I heard a story.

What story?

That the stars that we see right now, they are already dead.

So?

Don’t you think it’s lonely? People only see them when they died shining. What about when they are suffering? What about when they are happy? Or when they have an exciting story to share but the only living being there is just rocks and dirt?

But we appreciate their beauty, though, right? Like right now, we can see that they are very beautiful.

I sit up, push him over, and lie down on his stomach. Somehow, my body is all heavy, and I just want to sleep forever on his warm belly. Amidst the drowsiness and the border of dreams, I hear him talking to me, ever so soft, ever so gentle. My darling, darling, darling –

Honey, it’s not about us. It’s all about them.

Honey, feel it? This is warmth. This is a heartbeat. This is living.

Honey, have you ever realized what a marvelous coincidence it was when we are the only living things in this vast universe of dying stars?

Honey, humans are beautiful.

But honey, oh, honey, humans are extremely lonely.

And honey, if God really does love us as what they say in the bible, how can he make humans such lonesome creatures?

Honey, honey, honey –

Honey, do forgive me. I tried, I failed.

I hear a loud bell ringing constantly, one after another. My head is all heavy, and my mind is hazy. It’s as if I’m dreaming about a world that would never be. I turn off the alarm on my phone. Then the one on my nightstand. Then the one on the boudoir across the bed. Then the one on the window panes. All the places that he used to touch and live and breathe.

It’s been one year since the day he tried to fly. But the Earth’s gravity was too strong, and instead of being an angel beside God, he was just a mess. A mixture of blood, bones, flesh, and my will to live.

I look into the dressing mirror. Who’s there? Is it me? Or is it him? It seems the monster who took him away from me has finally decided to possess me. But never mind, never mind.

The phone rings. A close friend of mine.

Hey, wanna get lunch today? I tried calling in the morning, but I failed.

I stare at my reflection in the mirror, and the monster in me asks him over the phone: Hey, have you ever thought about dying?

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

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