In the very last days I was in the North, I came to visit my ailing grandmother and insane aunt. The neighbourhood is exactly the locale in Nguyen Binh Phuong’s fiction, which made me think about Macondo in Marquez’s.
As the hazy sun first appeared to warm the earth, I took some photos of the house and along with me some old dishes in vain to capture the past, or my memories of it I did not know.
Grandma gained notoriety as one of the most cantankerous women in the neighbourhood. She used to sleep so little that I had wondered how a person could live with such little sleep. Now she is ailing, confined to her bed, cannot feed herself nor articulate even a word, and she naps a lot. When my aunt has gone insane after a break-up, it must be her first love, Grandma turned pious, with which my Grandpa found uneasy. And then Grandpa had a stroke, Grandma was confused and then she blamed that must be his fault not believing in her gods, for which he was punished. A few years later, he died. I did not attend his funeral and so did not know the reactions of members in my extended family to the death. Grandma started losing her mind since, reaching her present status of health.
Although she does not remember a thing, she managed to ask “Who is that? Khai?” as I entered the house. I was reckless, unapologetic and cruel enough to not even say “yes” to validate the fact, and to ensure her, even though perhaps she cannot aware of, that it was a single golden moment in her lost memory, that in those miliseconds, synapses and neurons in her brain were somehow connected to successfully make her remember me, the one who lives with her less among her children and grandchildren, who just visits her once every few years, who, before one of my cousin left for Taiwan to work in a farm, lived farthest from her, both physically and emotionally.
The house was surrounded by a wall made of dried bamboo and strange thorny plants, now it is a brick wall hardly over my head. It has a unique, strong smell that I usually refer to as “smell of Grandma’s house”, in which my mom and all her siblings were born and passed their childhood. It was where we, I and my cousins, used to play along happily and where part of our childhood also passed. We used to go up hill to harvest tea leaves and be involved in tea production process.There were five of us: one was evil, one was angel. The Angel is of the same age as me. I thought I had a crush on him. I still remember in teenage years I lay beside him on my bed at home. At that moment, I wished I could have had enough courage to hug and kiss him. He is tall, handsome and well-built, his skin is white, as always.
In the garden, there are still plants whose names I never know but which I, as a child, brought home to grow among patches of peanuts. Yet the longan tree, under whose large canopy the kitchen, from which clouds of wood smoke belched out, used to be situated, was chopped down. And the large tank, along with the apparatus, once used for distillation, was no longer there. All that I love and that linger on my mind.
I visited the abandoned well, around which I loved to bathe, naked, and I would love to do so again.
My aunt used to be taciturn, barely saying a word, and now she talks excessively to herself, all of trivia, about which no one knows.
When I imagined myself living there with a writing table in the small room upstairs overlooking the garden with lychees, hawthorns, sweetsops and jackfruits, I also wondered if it was the last time I was there.
“Please don’t nap, Mom”, my mom told Grandma while feeding her.
Some tokay gecko still croaked as when I was a boy, here.
Patrick texted me that he wanted us to have lunch on Sunday and spend the afternoon together. And we both knew what we were going to do afterwards: drink and make love. I don’t know if he ever misses my body as I miss his. Or he is just scared to be lonely on a Sunday afternoon.
On the flight to Saigon, I stared at a male flight attendant, who, in blurred vision, I mistook as my namesake. He has a round face, dreamy eyes, easy and gentle yet winning smiles. And a ring on his fourth finger.
Today I sat opposite a young guy with long hair when we had lunch at a broken rice restaurant. We were staring and smiling at each other. I fantasised how he would be in bed, how I would kiss his neck, and et cetera. He left, and I jostled down his plate number on my mobile, just for nothing, as the same way I remembered the name of the flight attendant, as pinned on his white shirt.
In the dry approaching dusk, I filled my room with French music from a Belgian radio, while drinking and writing.
I met Patrick on Saturday night, right after I arrived in the city. The broad and radiant smile he gave me when we met up the stairs at my apartment evoked for me the memories of the time when we were on the island.