|Illustration by Dao Quoc Huy
by Khai Don
She and I would say farewell. That was why we were having dinner together. She sent me a text message: "Let's eat together tonight. I have something to tell you. Something important."
I replied while watering a withering decorative taro plant. I had not left the house for three months now. Her message was like a call from a faraway wild field. The idea of locking myself in for three months came to me one evening when I was kissing her on the neck in a cafe. It was raining hard. Sai Gon was turning over in fatigue. She was reading a text on her phone and then turned to me:
"So, my sister just told me that she wanted to kill herself. She has posted it on Facebook. Let me phone my mother."
The conversation lasted for a long time, but I did not care. I was tasting her thin shoulder and enjoying the fragrance of her hair. Why are women so fragrant, I wondered?
"My dear, what would we do if we didn't have a way to keep in touch? If I had not seen that status on the phone today, I would have repented for life. I could have lost my sister, you know!"
She finished her phone conversation and turned in deep thought to the window, asking me. We had been in love for three years. I met her in English class. When the class held a farewell party and almost all the classmates posted their pictures on Facebook, I found her smile exquisitely beautiful. So I added her as a friend.
After that question of hers, I prepared a careful plan for staying locked inside the house for three months. I once read a book about a man who got so fed up with civilisation that he went to live in a forest on an uninhabited island for three months. The author described how he prepared for it and I did the same, very carefully, although I did not yet have a clear purpose. However, deep inside me, I felt a longing to explore a foreign land. I phoned the company for permission to take a leave and they granted it without asking for any explanation.
I bought noodles and rice, enough for three months, and many cans of meat. I also bought toilet paper, soap, shampoo, water and the ornamental taro tree. That night I stood in the middle of the room loaded with all the things I had bought and texted her: "I am going on a business trip for about three months. I'll call you when I am back". She sent one message after another asking why, but I switched the phone off and slept.
On the first day when I woke up, it was already sunny. From inside the room I could see women going to the market. Remembering that I would not go to work this morning made me as relieved and comfortable as if it was Sunday. I went on sleeping for another three hours and then I cooked noodles. It was already two o'clock in the afternoon. Having finished the noodles, I sat by the window and watched the children going home from school and playing in the yard in the setting sun. I had 12 phone calls but did not answer. She had also sent me 25 messages. I sat by my computer and surfed the internet for six hours in a row, watching one film after another, and then slept again. I repeated this process for seven days and on the seventh day, I saw that the ornamental taro tree was gradually withering. There were only 15 leaves left on the tree. I quickly watered it and placed it near the ashtray so that I would not forget it. When I touched the tree, I felt useless and wondered what I had done these seven days. This was a meaningless time. I took a piece of paper, wrote two words on it and stuck it on the wall:
I sat in the bedroom and watched the sun set, signifying that another day had gone by. I fell asleep when it got dark. In a dream, I took my head off and placed it on the table. The head stared at my body, which was sitting on the chair in confusion, not knowing what to do with its arms and legs. I woke up suddenly. The back of my shirt was soaked through with sweat.
On the eighth day, I started to do physical exercises. I worked out for 15 minutes each day with high intensity. My whole body got sweaty. After that, I took a bath and watered the taro tree. I divided my daily rations evenly. While watering the tree, I discovered some buds. I recorded on the paper: "There were two new young leaves".
One day, I remembered the phone and opened it. There were 400 messages and 50 calls from her and two messages from my company boss. I did not read any of them. I was surprised that my relations in life were so scant. I had disappeared and two people remembered me in this world. That night, I had a dream that my body was split into two. I was lying on the bed and someone was covering my head with a white sheet. The other part of my body stood up and laughed at my face with a knife in its bloody hand, looking fully satisfied. Then it exhaled cigarette smoke on my face and walked out.
I woke up and found that tears had wet the pillow. I had dropped so much water in that dream. When I woke up, I snatched the phone to call her, but in fear, I threw it at the wall.
"No, she should come and fetch me," I thought. "We fell in love through a machine and communicate through a machine, so should I turn to her now through a machine?"
The battery had fallen from the phone, which had broken into three. I found that I was exhausted.
I started disliking food. I felt nauseated upon seeing rice. So I changed to noodles without meat. A few days later, I vomited after finishing the noodles. So from that day, I ate raw carrots, only one each time. I still felt well otherwise, so I did not pay much attention to my food. That day, I sat in the room and looked down onto the yard, guessing that a little girl would climb onto the rocking chair, while a mother would take her two children for a walk and they would go to the ice cream shop and buy something to eat. Some old men would begin playing chess. Life was passing by just like grains of rice running through one's hands.
That night I caught fever. I felt cold all over. I covered myself with two blankets and after an hour, the blankets were soaked with sweat. I crouched against the wall. My whole body was aching. I fell asleep. Then I found myself walking in a desert. From afar, I could see a band of people marching with their backs turned to me. I recognised her gait in that band. I called:
"Ka! My dear Ka!"
She turned to look at me in great surprise. A guy embraced her bottom and pulled her on. She smiled:
"Look at you! You are nothing but skin and bone!"
I looked at my hands right away and saw that they were shriveled and bony. I was in a great panic. Having awakened, I could see sunlight through the window. All of my limbs seemed to have gotten weaker and they looked quite weird compared with my body. Heaving heavily, I went to the window to look down onto the street. A street vendor was selling rice noodles and I wondered if she remembered that I used to be her frequent customer. The fever seemed to envelop the whole house. So I did not lie on the bed. Instead, I lay on the cold floor. All of a sudden, I remembered the broken phone. I dragged myself to it and tried to piece the three fragments together. It was O.K. but the battery had died. Then I deleted all the messages without reading any of them.
That night, I felt a bit warmer. I got lost in a piece of music with repeated drumbeats. I found myself walking in a forest, where I met a man wearing a T-shirt with a parrot on it. He laughed, his beard trembling, and I recognised him as the author of the book I had read the other day. We sat down together by the sea. When the wind started blowing, he went to the sea and climbed on a raft. He did not look back at me. I found that the whole island was very serene. I breathed deeply and smelt the sea. I woke up and heard a knock on the front door. I closed the bedroom door.
I drank two liters of water in the morning. The fever came and went for several days. I got so bad a fever that I could not go out to care for the taro tree. So I decided to take it inside my bedroom so that I could tend it easily.
From the day I separated myself from the world, I recognised that in this life, we had too many things. We needed to simplify things so that we could hear the wonderful movements around us more clearly. From the day I stopped eating, I found the light more miraculous. My eyes were very sensitive. One day, sitting by the window, I tried to count from one to ten. You know, when I reached ten, the last sun rays had died out behind the house. I could count the time in a way completely different from using the clock, computer, telephone or mechanical clock. The eyes could count the intensity of light. My ears were also keener, particularly when I got the fever and lay in the bedroom. I opened the window. At first I could hear only indistinct noises from outside. After several days, I could hear the little girl playing with the rocking chair and yelling with joy. I could separate that yell from the conversation of the mother of two and the ice cream seller. Finally I heard the talk of a couple of lovers:
"Do you love me?"
"Yes, I do. Otherwise why would I be here with you?"
"But I don't believe it, because maybe one day you will go out with another girl."
"If you don't believe me, I can't say anything to change your mind. But I promise, I love you with all my heart!"
Then they kissed.
She and I had had that same talk. At the end of the day, all dating and love for all of the human race was the same. Even the contradictions were also the same. The confidence was also the same. The suspicion and misery were the same too.
On the 89th day, I felt I wanted to die. I realised that I had slept for four days and the taro tree had gotten withered. A bad smell was spreading from it. When I touched it, all the leaves had become rotten. I did not move, just lay on my back and stared fixedly at the ceiling. Tears were flowing from my eyes. My ears were buzzing without being able to hear anything. I felt cold. I wanted to die. I cried like a child. I felt so lonely. Such a cruel tranquility! It was unbearable for me. I blamed myself. I did not want to be in this state. I reached for the phone. Her message read: "Will we have dinner tonight? I have something to tell you. An important thing". Suddenly I heard the knock on the door. I felt choked up with happiness: 89 days had gone by. The time limit of the book had expired. All right, leave it at that. I wanted to see her now. I needed her to be here and pull me out of this place so we could go back to normal. I sent her my message: "I am coming now. Do you need me to pick you up?"
But as soon as I sent my message, another message appeared. It was hers:
"What I want to tell you is that I'm breaking up with you. I've got a new boyfriend. Thank you!"
I looked at the message about dinner and saw the date. It was two days before. I lay on the floor and looked at the ceiling. I no longer felt like I needed anything: not the phone, not a computer, not the conversation down there outside the window. I remembered one paragraph from the book:
"The 89th day was the most difficult day. It was when I lost all emotional connection with the world around me. I did not think about who I was in the eyes of everyone anymore. I also did not find any reason to return. Why do I need to go back when I do not need anything? The farewell with reality is really the greatest pain endured by the jungle man. When you get used to voicelessness, you will be surprised to hear your own voice because you have only existed in the eyes or thinking of other people."
Remembering this paragraph, I felt a bit thirsty, so I went into the bathroom and turned on the water tap. Standing before the mirror, I had a great shock: There was nothing there.
I dropped the cup.
Translated by Manh Chuong