Viet Nam News
by Hồ Anh Thái
A bottle of medicine capsules.
A tourist bag, Samsonite brand.
A shirt and a trousers hanging in the sideboard.
The guest who had been in room No 37 left only these things. At ten o’clock in the morning, the room-service maid entered after the guest had gone. A man. The clothes in the sideboard confirmed it. The trousers about 1,1 meters long. The shirt size 42. The man must be rather tall and well-built. A lingering male odor.
The black and white photograph must have been taken over twenty years ago. The West Lake. The other shore then seemed as far away as the other side of a bay, not as it does today, as narrow as a village pond. The young man and the girl look like two students. One of his hands is on her shoulder, lying tentatively. His fingers are half-hidden behind her shoulder, as if to demonstrate their close friendship while at the same time they seem about to fly off her from embarrassment. The girl also looks shy, as if she wants to stand some distance from him. Obviously they are just friends or maybe even lovers. But they are definitely not husband and wife.
The photo had been left on the night stand, next to a bedside lamp. The maid turned on the lamp and the faces of the two youths brightened. She seemed lively and natural, her cheeks elegantly dimpled. His eyes were damp with a vague melancholy.
Next to the photo was a small bottle of medicine – the capsules inside crackled when the bottle was shaken. The label was in a strange language and the maid could not tell what kind of medicine the bottle contained.
On the sofa was a tourist’s overnight bag. An airlines sticker had been wrapped around the handle, marked with a bar code and the plane’s route: Hồ Chí Minh – Hà Nội. The maid picked it up in order to clean the sofa. The bag was zipped up. Fully.
The above said things.
Plus a pair of underwear briefs hanging to dry in the bathroom.
A set of syringes.
Two un-used Insulin tubes.
The maid was startled to see the set of syringes. Then she regained her calm. It wasn’t heroin. The man had diabetes. And the syringe looked pretty good, not the kind scattered over bushes by the West Lake, just outside the hotel.
The photo had fallen on its side by the lamp pole, causing the couple to lie side by side in an awkward position. She was on top. He was at bottom. The maid turned the photo right side up. As she looked into the young man’s damp and soulful eyes, the maid flipped through her memories of her boyfriends’ faces. There had to be one with eyes like that.
Suddenly she startled again. Remembered. Yesterday at dusk, when she was about to leave after her shift, she passed a woman coming into the hotel. Her face was a bit familiar. The maid thought the woman was just one of the guests in the hotel and forgot about her. Now, looking again at the photo, she remembered that the woman she saw yesterday had two dimples on her cheeks. She was the very girl in this photo. Yesterday she came to meet this man.
In the rubbish basket there were two broken Insulin tubes. Three used condoms. The maid poured them into a big rubbish bin and took it away.
After dark, she found some extra work so she could stay on and see the man’s face. If she was lucky enough, she would see the woman again as well; the woman might come again to meet the man. Finally, though, she had to give it up and go home without seeing anybody.
The photo fell face down on the night stand, exposing the numbers written by ball-pen on the other side: May 2, 1982.
Two broken Insulin tubes.
Two used condoms.
All were in the rubbish basket.
In the corner of the bathroom, there were black ashes in which the twisted burned papers could be seen.
The maid washed the ashes away. Some pieces of papers had not been burned totally. They were from an old letter covered with girlish handwriting, done with a student’s purple ink. She could make out the words understanding and missing you. Parts of an invoice with several numbers that didn’t seem to signify anything. The maid put the unburned papers into the rubbish basket.
The bottle of capsules, the set of syringes, the underwear drying in the bathroom, the clothes hung in the mirror sideboard – all had disappeared. They must have been all packed up in that fully zipped bag. The guest must be checking out of the hotel. He must be returning to Hồ Chí Minh City.
After cleaning the room, the maid looked again at the young man in the photo. She had to confess to herself that she was attracted to this handsome man. She adjusted the photo vertically at the base of the lamp before locking the room and leaving.
Noon. The Hour of Horse. The time the Water King takes the lives of the people who are still in the water. From the West Lake there was a clamor. People running helter skelter. A shout that someone drowned. It happened sometimes. The working maids didn’t dare to go out to see; they just poked their heads out of the windows. The canopies of leaves blocked their view. They yelled to each other, asking who had died, and when, and whether the corpse was face up or face down(*). Each one had a different version of the story. After all the noisy questions and speculative answers, still no one was sure if the victim was really dead or still alive. They only knew that the victim was a man.
The maid’s heart thudded. So strange! A premonition of an accident nearby. As if forced by something, she ran back to room 37, unlocked the door. The bag was in the same place – probably everything had been put inside. The photo flew down from the night stand. She hurriedly picked it up and only now she could see a paper on the night stand, next to the base of the lamp. Handwritten by fountain pen. Two lines.
No one would be blamed.
I have decided my fate.
The third line was a signature.
The fourth line was the man’s full name.
A heap of used pillow cases and bed sheets just taken out from rooms.
Next day. The maid was carrying the used pillow cases and bed sheets down to the front courtyard. As she was about to take them into the laundry room, the woman came in. She had two dimples on her cheeks. The maid had seen her so many times in the photo. She had walked out of the border of the photo and became this woman. Who apparently had not known what happened yesterday with the guest in room 37.
The maid felt sorry for the boy and the girl in the photo. She did not want the woman to find out what had happened from the receptionist. She would invite the woman to step outside.. She would tell her everything. The story is over. Finished. Please leave the hotel, auntie. If you want, you can look for him somewhere else. Otherwise, you if go into the hotel and ask for him, the police will come to question you and nose around for the details.
I know you. The maid said in short.
Really? Thank you. The woman said, as if she didn’t know what she was saying. Her eyes were dry.
I know you, the maid repeated when the woman had gone out of sight. In her wallet, the maid had the photo of the erstwhile boy and girl. When she had hurried to inform the hotel owner about the note in the room 37, she hid the photo for herself. She didn’t know why.
Room 37’s door was sealed.
A woman with a Southern accent.
Three handkerchiefs in the handbag.
The hotel owner.
That afternoon, the hotel owner told the maid to unlock room 37. With him was a woman just flown in from Hồ Chí Minh City. They broke the seal, opened the door, and returned the bag to the woman. Poor him, poor him, she repeated continuously. Tears streamed down from her eyes. As she was about to pat them with her handkerchief, she saw that it was already soaked. She opened her handbag and rummaged inside for another handkerchief. The maid stared, surprised that the woman had another handkerchief..
The seal was removed. The stains were scrapped up out and cleaned out. And then room 37 was ready for the new guest.
A bottle of medicine capsules.
A tourist bag, Samsonite brand.
Two shirts and two trousers hanging in the sideboard.
Half a year later. The maid opened the room 36 and entered. Shock. The same tourist bag, though the airlines sticker had been removed. One of the sets of clothing in the sideboard was the same – the maid remembered the size of the shirt and the length of the trousers. The capsules inside the bottle crackled when it was shaken. On the bottle was the same strange language so she could not tell what kind of medicine.
The maid couldn’t believe what she was seeing. But the photo lying at the base of the lamp confirmed it. In the photo, there was still the erstwhile girl and boy, but now they were with three other boys. The three friends were mischievously pressing the shoulders of the girl and the boy, forcing them to stand side by side to take the picture, while the two struggled to move away. It was the same damp-eyed boy. And the same girl with dimples on her cheeks.
I know you, uncle, The maid whispered to the man. As if he was standing in the room in front of her.
How can you know a man when you haven’t seen his face?
I know you. I haven’t seen you for a long time.
The man only smiled. Vietnamese can use a smile to cover any dilemma.
Today the maid would fabricate an excuse that her family had all gone to the country on vacation and she didn’t want to go home alone. She would ask for extra work to stay in the hotel. And she would wait until she could see the man who last time was in room 37 and this time was in room 36. She would not be shy about talking to the man. I know you, she would tell him.
The installation artist would remind the author of this story that the author has forgotten the set of syringe and the diabetes medication. And that he has forgotten the photo which is still in the maid’s wallet.
Certainly I have forgotten those things and others and some characters also. In installation art, materials and elements sometimes disappear without a trace. And the artist also disappears.
Translated by Hồ Anh Thái and Wayne Karlin
(*) The Vietnamese belief is that men died face down and women die face up in water