A ridiculous idea came into Huan's head: in order to get around easily in this city, he would need a compass. Whenever he went to his office or returned home, he got lost amid the high-rises.
These tall buildings, standing very close to one another, looked like a dense tropical forest. With large advertisements covering part of their glass windows in aluminium frames, the whole area appeared brilliant when the sun shone overhead.
Huan worked for a business on the 16th floor of the Pearl Tower, a humble building in comparison with the others. After leaving his motorbike in the wide car park, he had to follow a complicated labyrinth of pathways. First he turned right at the huge Sony ad, then left at the big Coca-Cola sign, then left again at the big letters KFC, then through the narrow, long arcade bearing large BP and Honda signs overhead, then left at Louis Vuitton, then right at Lotte, then left at Valentino before turning right and then left.
Regrettably, his compass might have come in useful that evening if a minor incident had not occurred. Before leaving the office, he was instructed by his boss to make two letters of complaint for close business partners. "OK, I'll try to finish the rough drafts this afternoon," he whispered to himself while still at work.
"Bang!" He bumped against a pretty girl on his way home. The head-on collision was so strong that the contents of the file in his hand were scattered widely like butterflies, whereas her documents were tossed upwards and floated to the ground around her wide-open handbag. As courteous people, they just stared at each other, picked up their papers and went away, each according to their direction.
After that, they looked up at the big advertisements for fear of going astray. "I guess these days we have to use ads to navigate," he said to himself.
Later in the afternoon, by chance, he met her in a cafe close to his building.
"Is this the beginning of a Hollywood-style romance?" he asked himself. He was sitting under a large multi-coloured parasol waiting for the tiny black drops of coffee to drip out of the filter. It was one of his favourite moments after a long day of hard work. Stretching out his legs, he felt very comfortable.
She was seated at a small table behind a glass of milk, under a similar parasol, very close to him. They were looking at different directions, but a few minutes later, they faced each other and a broad smile blossomed on their lips. Soon they shared the same table, for reasons unknown to nearby drinkers. Huan saw that her eyes resembled the round ones of a cat.
"Good afternoon, brother! Let me introduce myself. I'm an agent at an insurance policy company," she said.
"Good afternoon, sister," he responded. "Clearly, she's a marketing worker," he said to himself on the grounds that most of the girls with files in hand worked for advertising firms. "What kind of insurance?"
"Insurance is necessary for everyone, since safety is a must, you see," she went on.
"Maybe," he replied with an icy smile.
On such a boring afternoon, neither seemed interested in making the other's acquaintance. As a result, they both left after paying for their own drinks and made their own ways home.
Returning home, he discovered that his drafts had been lost. In their place were four sets of life insurance documents. What a terrible mistake!
What struck him most was that one set belonged to a man with his name. However, he had never bought any insurance policy, commercial or social, especially a life insurance policy. "Only those who think too much about life expectancy pay attention to this type of insurance," he said to himself.
He put all the papers of that stranger in his file. He had to find the insurance policy seller no matter what.
The next day, he left home early than usual. After leaving his motorbike in the car park, he walked slowly to the area of high-rises. Again, he turned right at the Sony advertisement, left at the Coca-Cola sign, and so forth. It was rush hour, and pedestrians and vehicles huddled together on the pathway. While trying to identify the faces of passers-by, he realized that most of them looked nearly identical in terms of clothing and gait; moreover, they all carried black attache cases. Therefore, two people having the same name was not a rare occurrence at all. Passing by Maxell, he smelt the peculiar odour of KFC products. All of a sudden, he saw her walking delicately in a fluttering yellow dress adorned with a few black-and-white stripes.
At once, he hurried after her.
She walked up a set of high steps, turned left and disappeared. He ran faster, then saw her yellow dress floating again. After that, she turned right. When he nearly caught up with her, he found her standing on top of a wall.
"Hey, hey, sister!" he shouted aloud. In a second, she disappeared again. In her place, he saw only a golden cat.
"I haven't made a mistake, have I?" he asked himself in confusion. Then he approached the animal. "Is that you, sister?" The cat stared at him. He asked the same question again, but in English: "Is that you?" The cat shook its head. "Strangely, it knows English," he said to himself in an astonished voice. "I'm keeping your insurance policy papers here," he told it. "Please give my papers back to me!" Sadly, the cat only turned round and darted away.
It took Huan a long while to find the way to his former place. After walking through a narrow arcade between two rows of high buildings, he saw two other cats lying in a high place beside the pathway. He turned right and walked further and further, turning left and right then right and left, and so on. To his surprise, he found the KFC and BP, then the Honda sign. Turning right, he reached Louis Vuitton. "Why are there so many wild cats in this area?" he asked himself, seeing all the felines loitering about. When he realised that they also admired the fashion displays in the luxury shop windows, he felt very pleased. Soon he saw them leaving the shops. To his surprise, each of them had an expensive thing: Valentino shoes, Versace dress, Gucci handbag, and so on. What's more, a few minutes later, he saw them drive away in Mercedes cars and offer passers-by insurance policies.
Before they all left, he came to a tri-coloured cat. While he was caressing its fine fur, its back moved slightly and it uttered some pleasing sounds. Furthermore, it rubbed its head on Huan's hands. "Which one do you prefer: clothing or accessories, say, a bag, a pair of glasses or a skirt?" The cat became angry and bit Huan's wrist strongly. It appeared to be a tomcat.
"A jacket, then?" Huan asked. It nodded. "Black or white?"
"A black one, please," the male animal replied in English.
After that, Huan turned round to a white cat with rose paws. "In your turn, what would you like?" he asked.
"A mouse, please."
Huan burst out laughing. "In my office if I was asked the same question, I'd answer ‘money' without hesitation."
"What shall I purchase for Nguyet today? Something costly from Louis Vuitton, perhaps?" She was his ex-girlfriend. She was very interested in fashionable clothes. "Since her last birthday I haven't bought her anything valuable at all because of the economic recession," he recalled. Over the past nine months, he had had no bonus although he had done his best for his company. "Why do I have to work so hard instead of enjoying everything in my prime of life?" he whispered to himself. He continued walking slowly, farther and farther ahead. He completely forgot the documents that he had to present to his boss.
His head felt empty. The wind was blowing so strongly that his ears started buzzing. He relaxed at a secluded place in the long, narrow arcade. By chance, he found a black cat lying near his feet.
"What are you doing here, my dear cat?" he asked.
"I'm lost in thought," it replied, looking at him scornfully.
"So, you're in deep meditation at this nasty place," he remarked sarcastically, laughing.
"Thinkers can be found everywhere," it said with a frown of disapproval. He nodded his agreement.
"What bores me to death is those who only think how to catch mice," it added. Again, he agreed with the cat's wise statement.
"Not to mince matters! We must be ourselves first. Well, you can go now," the cat urged him, then closed its eyes.
"Surely, it's in the process of thinking," Huan said to himself and left his temporary shelter.
Reaching Lotte, then Valentino, he turned right.
"Here's my Pearl Tower!" he exclaimed happily. "Today I was lucky enough to find the right way." He pressed the button of the lift. It stopped at the sixteenth floor.
As he entered his familiar workplace, several of his colleagues stared at him astonished, as if he had just returned home after a long trip abroad.
"What's the matter with you? Not very well today?" one of them said.
"Nothing of the sort!"
"You seem out of your senses!"
"Why are you so late? The boss has often asked us about your absence. What about the boss's instructions to you?" he went on.
"Lots of time is still left. Don't worry!" Huan told them.
"Oh no! Our working hours are nearly up, you see. We're about to go home."
The reason for Huan's argument was that the room still looked very bright.
"What a mess! It's unbelievable!" Huan exclaimed.
A few seconds later, everybody began leaving the office, one by one.
All the pathways in the section of high-rises were crowded with passers-by and vehicles. Strangely enough, they moved in an orderly manner although they were all in a great hurry. Staying away from the crowd, he went to his usual cafe by the roadside, very close to his office. Again, he sat down at the small table under the multi-coloured parasol and ordered a cup of black coffee. He glanced at the next table. "Will my yellow cat come here?" he whispered to himself.
However, beset by worry, he was unable to sip his coffee slowly as usual. "Why did I wander among the high-rises to chat with those cats for such a long time? Why was I so crazy that I lost my way due to those huge ads? Why didn't I feel hungry at noon?" he asked himself again and again. He wondered if there was a discontinuance of time here. Once, Nguyet was out of his mind for three months. She said that it was due to the discontinuance of time. "Scholarly women shouldn't be loved by men, for they often utter queer words to people of the opposite sex. For example: ‘The reason for my wrongdoing is dark energy.'" A well-educated woman with a PhD in physics, she usually showed more intelligence than he, a BSc-degree holder. She made his acquaintance only because of an uncharacteristically vague assessment: "He seems OK to me."
"Why have I idled away my precious time on such trivial things? What I must do now is find her and take back the two drafts of complaint, that's all." He reproached himself for wasting time. In order to redress his wrongs, he tried to look for that insurance policy seller, although he had faint hope of seeing her again.
Suddenly, yellow flashed among the dark colours of the moving crowd. After paying for his coffee, he shot away after her. Never in his life had he run that quickly. At the end of the street, the yellow figure vanished.
For failing to fulfill his task without any explanation, he was promptly sacked.
Rarely did Nguyet deal with marriage. However, one rainy day she succeeded in dragging him out of his solitude. Lying beside him, she made a heartfelt proposal.
"We'd better get married as soon as possible. Another Big Bang might come to this world some day. Or maybe a tsunami will destroy this entire area in an hour!" she told him.
"Oh no! I'm afraid that I might be in danger of lung cancer," he replied. "Moreover, I wish to offer you a Louis Vuitton handbag. As for our wedding, where can I get enough money for such a great event?"
u v u
After that, he left the cat city for good.
At home, he had another look at the life insurance policy, which he had previously only skimmed. Now, he could read the whole set of documents since he had plenty of free time. When he reached the last page, he burst out laughing: the signature was an illegible scrawl, identical to his.
"Am I this guy after all?" Huan asked himself sadly.
Translated by Van Minh