Monday, 26 January 2015

A Weekend In North Hatley


Summer 1978...

Sleep was impossible. My thoughts kept returning to the letters from Indonesia that were arriving almost daily. More correctly, my thoughts kept returning to the person who was writing these letters to me. Pulling the photo of Kie out of my billfold I wistfully looked at her and silently wondered, “Could you possibly be the one God has chosen for me?”

Writing letters to Indonesia was occupying a great deal more of my time and I too was writing almost daily, wondering where our letter writing was leading. As I lay awake looking at the ceiling, counting the tiles and mentally arranging and rearranging the squares into larger squares and shapes, birds outside squawked and chattered, noisily sharing their morning gossip. A while later I heard a train in the distance. The steel on wood route of CP Rail’s Sherbrooke Subdivision was several miles away, but the throbbing sound of diesels carried far in the stillness of early dawn. The distinctive thudding song of passenger locomotives was unmistakable and I knew the train was the westbound Atlantic Limited faithfully following its rigid course between Sherbrooke and Magog.

After what had seemed like long enough, I finally crept out of bed to peek at the clock in the kitchen; a few minutes before 06:00. The carpeted wooden floor creaked, tattling about every step I made. Rather than needlessly awaken anyone by further stirring around and not wanting to waste any more time inside studying the ceiling, I ventured outside and walked down the steep hill to visit the lake. Standing at the water’s edge I recalled my previous visit to North Hatley.

A few years had passed since my last visit to North Hatley and Lake Massawippi. In late December 1972 I had traveled to Sherbrooke on CPR’s Atlantic Limited and my friend Jim met the train at the railway’s venerable red brick station. Thermometers that night were reading nearly minus thirty degrees Fahrenheit. Regardless of the cold temperature we intended to welcome in 1973 by celebrating, and we visited Jim’s neighbours in a nearby cottage. We began what remained of our late evening by drinking tequila, licking salt, biting into lemon wedges and puffing away on stinky stogies while sporadically playing hands of cribbage. Night quickly faded into a blur and I passed out into oblivion.

The following morning I awoke but could not recall anything about the previous evening. Scraping away part of the window’s frosted coating I peered at the sparkling white world outside. A light powdery snow had fallen sometime during the night and an erratic zigzagging trail of footprints across the open fields testified to our inebriated trek back in the wee hours of the morning. I stared at the footprints but could not recall anything about the night before, not even the bitter cold. Either luck or God’s intervention kept us from losing our way or passing out and freezing to death in the cold. I really do not believe luck was involved.

Jim’s family no longer resided in North Hatley but not much else had seemed to have changed during the intervening years.

Restless aspen and poplar leaves usually rustle incessantly from every little breeze that disturbs them but this morning the trees were silent. The lake’s entire surface was still and mirror like. This particular morning was the only time I had ever witnessed the lake’s surface absolutely flat and motionless, and truly a scene of tranquility in a hurried and impatient world. A most welcomed moment of calm to soothe my restless thoughts.

My brother had left his rubber dinghy and oars at the beach. Fortunately for him the dinghy had not been stolen but that moment I was glad he had neglected to put it away. Placing the inflated rubber conveyance into the lake, I climbed in and rowed out a considerable distance from shore.  Farther out I ceased rowing, pulled in the oars and allowed the dinghy to drift freely. Although light out, the sun was not yet peeking over the hilly horizon. After several minutes of aimless floating, I returned the oars to the water and rowed until almost crossing the lake to the stony cliffs of the opposite shore. Silently I drifted while scanning the tops of the cliffs for signs of wildlife.

Again my thoughts returned to events from the past. In summer 1972 Jim and I had visited North Hatley for a weekend escape. Jim had been itching to cruise the lake in his new boat, which was really an ancient cedar-strip punt powered by a beat-up looking six horsepower motor. That Saturday morning was cloudy and the darkening sky almost shouted a warning to us that a summer storm was blowing in. Undaunted, the two of us set out in the boat for downtown North Hatley to pick up a supply of vittles for our weekend stay. The inward cruise was uneventful with the wind on our backs. Minutes into our return voyage, however, a deluge of heavy rain driven by strong winds struck. We were quickly soaked. Defiantly, I puffed away on my faithful pipe and persisted in spewing out smoke and cinders in spite of the driving rain.

In spontaneous foolishness, I stood up, placed one foot on the bow, pointed toward shore and trying to imitate an old salt, hollered, “Land Ho! Land Ho!”

“What on earth are you doing?” Jim yelled.

“We’re not on earth, we’re on water!” I yelled back.

“You know what I mean.” Jim answered, barely loud enough to be heard over the sputtering motor and driving downpour.

“I’m practicing in case we get lost.” I answered, and again yelled, “Land Ho!”

“How the hell can we possibly get lost in sight of land?” Jim hollered back.

“Ya see! I’m good at this. Land Ho! Land over starboard bow!” I yelled again.

“That’s port bow.” Jim retorted.

“I stand corrected.” I admitted.

“Sit down you damn fool.” Jim hollered again. He swung the boat around toward shore, changing his heading almost into the direction we had come from.

“Land Ho! Over port bow!” I yelled once more.

“That’s starboard bow this time.” Jim corrected loudly.

“No Cap’n. It’s port bow this time. Our port’s over there.” I stated while pointing toward shore

“How do you know?” Jim questioned, sounding somewhat surprised.

“Easy! My trusty pipe’s gone out.” I explained.

“What’s your pipe got to do with where we are?” Jim asked.

“The first pipe lasted as long as the trip into town, so the trip back should be about as long.

“Bilge!” Jim retorted, making the word sound like a profanity.

“I’ve been out here on a boat before and I recognize those points of reference on the far side.” I confessed, while pointing toward the stony cliffs.

“Yes, I’ve been out here before.” I muttered wistfully, awakening from my reverie and returning to the present.

Lake Massawippi’s tranquility and the quiet beauty of mountain scenery were conducive to meditation and contemplation. Again my thoughts returned to the young lady on the other side of the world. Regardless of the fact that Kie and I had never met or seen each other in person I was slowly, and even somewhat reluctantly, beginning to realize that our letter writing had become deeper, far more than only a casual acquaintance and friendship by mail. At least to me it was. Not wanting any part of another journey into disappointment, heartache and despair, I seriously pondered whether or not I was reading too much into her letters. Repeatedly questioning my feelings and probing my deepest thoughts about what was happening, one question I could not answer kept persistently gnawing, “Why is she spending so much of her time writing to me?”

Lifelong residents of the area had told me that the lake’s depth at this point was probably about 300 feet. I was not going to dispute that fact. In spite of daylight and the water’s clarity, it had that deep darkness appearance. Whether 30 feet or 300 feet, if the dinghy was punctured and suddenly deflated, then I would be in over my head. As I lay back and relaxed, my hands splashed into the water. The cool surprise made me recall the story about Jesus and how he had walked on the water. No one, as far as I could recall from all that I had learned or read, had ever made such a claim. The account about Jesus walking on the water appealed to me because it was far too preposterous to be an exaggeration. The story had to be complete truth or a complete lie, but could not be anything less in that gray area between the two extremes. The choice was either believe or disbelieve but there was no middle ground.

While aimlessly floating about in the dinghy, I continued to contemplate my written relationship with my unseen friend in Indonesia. Finally I realized that first I would have to absolutely certain in my mind about how far I was prepared to go with our relationship before asking or expecting anything from Kie in return. If developing our relationship meant traveling to the far end of the earth to Indonesia to be with her, was I prepared to go? Yes, I was. I would never be content to go half way by only silently thinking about going. If deepening our relationship meant ignoring traditions, breaking long-established unwritten rules, and defying all conventional wisdom, was I prepared to do it? Yes, I was ready. If our relationship meant charging ahead with nothing other than a blind faith and trust in God, would I do it? Yes, that is exactly what I would do no matter how foolish my actions were going to appear. If the future or our relationship meant marriage, was I ready for it? Yes, I wanted her.

I wanted all or nothing at all; no uncommitted gray middle ground. In exchange I was prepared to give all or nothing at all; again, no uncommitted gray middle ground. For the first time in my life I was absolutely certain about what I wanted out of life and with whom I wanted to spend the rest of my life. I was also acutely aware that my vision would all be for naught unless my friend in Indonesia was prepared to want all or nothing at all and join me. This risk was great and the stakes extreme but I believed the reward to be far greater. I was ready to give everything, convinced that I had at last found the far end of the rainbow.

While I had a clear picture in my mind about how I wanted our written relationship to develop, and while I had chosen to attempt to overcome an almost impossible barrier, I really did not know whether or not my never seen but often thought about friend felt any of the same feelings for me. I had never asked Kie directly or indirectly about what she thought or how she felt about our written relationship. Many times I asked myself, “Am I reading too much between the lines?”

Was my imagination slyly filling in blanks in spite of my best efforts not to allow it? Thinking about probing further and actually asking Kie if she cared anything for me was making me uncomfortably anxious. The palms of my hands were wet from perspiration, not lake water, and this was in spite of the fact Kie was half a world away. If the expression, “Once bitten twice shy” actually had a meaning, it did then. I did not want to be bitten a second time but I did not want to shy away in fear either. Wrestling with the very real possibility of being completely wrong and then having to face and live with the disappointment of failure and rejection kept me restless with indecision. Uncertainty and indecision are like listening to diminished seventh chords that resolve into more diminished seventh chords. Afraid, I selfishly craved for a single instant of absolute certainty in an uncertain world.

The sun had quietly appeared over the southeastern horizon and I realized that I was going to be sunburned very quickly. Also, a light breeze had come up unnoticed and the lake was no longer as calm as it had been earlier. I rowed the dinghy back across the lake and returned to the cottage. I was hoping that a cup of fresh coffee and possibly a hearty breakfast would be ready and waiting for me.

Dad was up and had already made the morning pot of coffee. He had also driven into downtown North Hatley to pick up a copy of the Montreal Gazette from Earl’s. Dad always starts his days with the Gazette and, as expected, he was sitting in a chair reading his morning paper. Many people take their work home from the office to work on during evenings, but Dad is probably one of those lucky few who can actually claim that he has someone else deliver his work to his home free of charge so he can look it over the next day after the work has been finished by someone else. Then again, I suppose employment with the Montreal Gazette did provide that unique benefit, except during vacations when Dad had to go out and buy his paper like everyone else.

Leaving Dad to his paper, I sat alone at the dining table and pensively stared through the window toward the grove of elderly cedar trees growing on the steep slopes of the ravine beside the cottage. On the outside of the glass barrier, a large black spider was patiently and motionlessly waiting in the center of its web which had been strung and spun across the upper left corner of the window frame. Inside, a blue-tailed fly noisily buzzed and persistently bumped against the same pane, oblivious to the deadly danger hanging on the on the other side. An eighth of an inch and nothing more, however, to the fly the glass was in impenetrable barrier. To me the glass was fragile and could have been shattered on a moment’s whim. Life is fragile and that which separates life and death is equally fragile.

With only a broken television to watch or constantly crackling radio to listen to, the cottage was certainly a peaceful place to spend the weekend. The relaxed atmosphere readily encouraged undisturbed daydreaming. Wistfully, I was wishing and hoping that one day I would be able to share a weekend here with Kie, not as my far away unseen friend in Indonesia, but here as my wife. Yes, here in North Hatley at Lake Massawippi. Yes, I was certain as I was ever going to be that I wanted marry Kie, but I had never once written to Kie to reveal to her how I felt about her. Opening my briefcase, I pulled out the latest letter and photograph of Kie that had arrived yesterday. As I read Kie’s words again and stared at her picture, I was certain that she had similar feelings about me.

“Can it really be possible?” I silently wondered, remembering only too well how wrong I had been about Phi Bang.

Returning Kie’s letter and photograph to the briefcase I removed a note pad. Hesitantly, I began writing to Kie, trying first to describe the cottage to her, and then trying to describe the mountains of the Eastern Townships, the town of North Hatley, Lake Massawippi and finally CP Rail’s rarely utilized route along the lake. Also, I shared with Kie some details about my morning float in the dinghy but deliberately did not mention all that I had been thinking about out there on the water.

“More than a month has passed since my visit to Pittsburgh, and by now you will know about those events. What you may not know though is that I don’t think that I’m the same person I was a month ago. I have walked away from what used to be my dreams. I do not feel any hurt and pain that always comes when everything dear is suddenly torn away by forces beyond our control. I know why too. I let go because I did no longer have the same dreams or wishes. I haven’t for a while now. I believe my visit to Pittsburgh was going back to bury what had already died.

For a while I thought my visit there was a mistake, but now I realize the events of that strange weekend removed any doubts I may have been carrying with me. Now I am free from the past. I am truly free!

Kie, I can clearly remember that Sunday morning in Pittsburgh, staring at the ceiling and thinking about you. Strange in a way. I was in Phi Bang’s home yet I was alone and thinking about you. Anyway, on that particular morning I felt closer to you than I ever did to her. I suppose this is a sad admission to make about a past relationship. During those few moments of reflection I truly understood that our letter writing is different, far more intense and intimate than I have ever known with anyone before. Maybe that’s because you aren’t here in America running around in a frenzy of activity trying to retain a Vietnamese identity and trying not to become Americanized.

As I sit here writing and occasionally glance up at the cedar trees covering the ravine, I remember two little boys who once explored in here years ago. I laugh now when I think back to that time when Ted and I were quite small and we stumbled across a rather overgrown trail that led into the dark damp cedar forest. The two of us fearlessly followed the mysterious route which quickly led us to a small weathered cabin that we thought was deep in the forest. For a moment Ted and I had been convinced we had found an ideal hideout, until we opened the door and discovered what an abandoned outhouse was.

North Hatley is a beautiful place. Kie, I am certain that you would fall in love with this place if you like quiet places in the mountains. I was out on Lake Massawippi early this morning. My brother forgot his dinghy on the beach, so I borrowed it and rowed out dangerously far, across to the other side of the lake. Perhaps a foolish thing to have done but the morning air was still, and I had much on my mind to think through.”

I wanted to tell Kie about my feelings for her but I did not think now was the right time. I did not know when the right time would come or if there ever would be a right time, but I knew the right time would not be this weekend.

Following breakfast I again trudged down the hill to the lake intending to relax on the rocks at the beach. Upon reaching the railway, however, I felt a tugging from that irresistible lure of having to know what was beyond the distant bend in the iron roadway which curved out of sight around the sloped shoreline. Hooked, I detoured along the route of the Massawippi Valley Railway. The steel strips were nicely rusted from a lack of trains to polish them. Just as well there were few trains because the railway was the only land route along the shore. Rather than moving freight over the rails, I suppose CP Rail was earning more revenue by leasing parcels of shoreline to cottage owners who wanted legal access to the lake. Stepping on each consecutive tie, I short-stepped southward along the neglected railway to the little bridge across Brown’s Brook.

Leaving the railway, I climbed over several large rocks and found a reasonably comfortable seat, that is, if sitting on rocks can ever be considered comfortable. Had one of those rare northbound trains appeared, the Brown’s Brook Bridge would have been an ideal setting for capturing an attractive branch line railway photograph. No train came. My camera had been left behind at the cottage anyway.

Concluding my leisurely session of undisturbed meditation a while later I short-stepped along the railway back to the beach for a swim. After a few refreshing minutes of cooling off in the lake, I left the water, stoked my pipe with one of my favourite Latakia mixtures, sat on a log in the shade and watched a parade of boats leisurely cruising up and down the lake. I began daydreaming and wondered if a day could come when Kie and I would be together here, so that we could rent a boat and cruise Lake Massawippi.

Early evening was spent scavenging the beach to gather reasonably dry pieces of driftwood and dead branches. Satisfied that a sufficient pile of shoreline debris had been accumulated, I soon had a blazing fire going beside the water, just beyond reach of the waves. Seated on a large weathered log that had long ago shed its bark, I looked down at the vacant space beside me and thought, “Kie, this space is reserved just for you. If you were here with me now, I would place my arm around you, around your shoulder, so that you could gently rest your head against my shoulder. Could a moment together like this ever happen with us? With you, I somehow believe it could.”

In dream-like thought I watched the evening sky slowly turn black while sunset faded into oblivion. Unlike in the city, evening air in the mountains quickly cooled. The warmth radiating from the fire was comfortably pleasing without being offensively hot or smoky. The moon eventually appeared above the horizon and cast a reflection that glittered like a sprinkling of stars across the lake’s surface.

The fire constantly crackled and spit out sparks as clouds of smoke swirled skyward. Content for the moment I nonetheless desired to share hours like these with that once-in-lifetime special person whom I had always had a deep longing to find and be with. I was now convinced that Kie was that one special person I had always been longing for and searching for, and wondered, “How will she know? How will I tell her? What will happen if I do tell her? What will she say?”

I spent half the night on the beach sitting in front of the fire, holding my notepad and wondering what to write and say to Kie and how to share my thoughts and feelings with her.

“My dear friend, you once mentioned to me in one of your letters that sometimes at night you silently shed your tears because your former beloved is no longer interested in you. During these last six months I have read and reread your many letters and I cannot imagine why your former beloved would cast you aside. I can only assume that he must be a fool. Rather ironic that we are both in similar situations. Neither of us wanted by our former loves.

If reality was not so painful to think about, then our situations would probably be amusing. Two unwanted cast-offs half a world apart commiserating with each other. For me though, enough time has passed and she is no longer a part of my life. I don’t know if you feel the same way about your situation but I’ve learned that time does allow the pain to pass. It will be the same for you also and this I can assure you.

Kie, it’s very late now. My eyelids feel very heavy and my thoughts have run dry. I used to hate Mondays because they always meant another week of work. Now I’m impatient for Monday mornings because almost always I find your letter waiting for me in box 1092. Kie, if you want someone to love you, then I shall love you.”

I signed my letter, intentionally ending it this way. First thing on Monday morning I would mail my letter to Kie and then wait for her response.

Three years later...

In life, sometimes that which seems impossible does become possible... and yes, some dreams too do come true.

Summer 1981 and Kie with me in North Hatley.

 The Oddblock Station Agent

Friday, 27 April 2012

Dedication - 天使

This work is dedicated to

Tjoa Kiem Kie

An angel sent by God, to become that once-in-lifetime, 
one and only true love for a lifetime;
An angel who took away the heartache and hurt 
and filled that empty place in my heart;
An angel who brought only happiness that has 
made ordinary, everyday life a wonder;
An angel who came from the other side of the world,
for no other reason than because she loved me.

The Oddblock Station Agent


When we wish to do so, we can recall and relive in our minds some of those critical moments in our past and wonder how the outcomes might have been altered if we had only done just one thing differently, however, we can never go back and try to live those moments of life again.

We cannot avoid life’s decisions and the pains or joys that may follow. We have no choice but to live with our decisions as well as the consequences. The harsh reality of life is that happiness does not always follow sorrow. The balm is that sorrow does not always follow happiness.

Wisdom is knowing the difference between giving up too easily too soon and the futility of fighting against the will of God. Misery and heartache come from not being able to distinguish between the two.

The increasing distance of advancing time allows us to colour events; to see memories as they were, if they ever truly were, and to imagine how events could have been had they actually occurred. With the passing of decades fact and fiction become impossible to clearly distinguish but then again recalling a story rarely requires colouring only within the lines. A word of caution though: doors closed should always remain closed.


Nonetheless life's realities are that the years will continue to pass, people we knew will have changed, our memories will fade and our lives will go on until we are finally called home. 

The Oddblock Station Agent

Crazy Weekend in Pittsburgh

Chapter 14

Phi Bang had promised she would meet me on time at the airport but remembering the wonderful reception I had received last year at Chattanooga’s airport, I was wondering if anyone would be waiting to meet me in Pittsburgh. I was prepared to wait nonetheless and had packed a book to read. Much to my surprise, Phi Bang actually was waiting, accompanied by a gentleman. I was quickly introduced to Mr. Vu who would be providing all of our transportation during the weekend. 

Pittsburgh's airport is quite a distance out of the city and as we were driving along the interstate highway, Phi Bang noticed the hillsides were covered with a variety of wild flowers. In a spontaneous outburst of exuberance, Phi Bang asked Mr. Vu to stop the car so she could get out and pick some flowers. From Mr. Vu's reaction, I am certain he was as astonished by the request as I was. Phi Bang kept pleading and insisting we stop so Mr. Vu reluctantly relented and yielded to her request. By the time the car was stopped we had already passed the embankment. 

Following an animated conversation in Vietnamese between Mr. Vu and Phi Bang, Mr. Vu placed the car into reverse and backed along the shoulder as oncoming traffic blasted their horns at us and whizzed by. Our accommodating driver was concerned about getting a ticket from the police. I just wanted to get out before someone ploughed into the rear of the car and killed all three of us. As the car slowly backed along, Phi Bang kept talking about how much she liked flowers and how pretty they were going to look on a table in her home. Profusely perspiring, I was thinking that flowers are also popular at funerals.

Mr. Vu must have backed up nearly a quarter of a mile before stopping. Phi Bang hopped out of the car, climbed the hillside and started picking flowers. While Phi Bang was outside, I asked Mr. Vu, "Have you ever done anything like this before?"

"Never!" he replied emphatically.

"I didn't think so but I was curious to know though." I deadpanned while trying not to sound too nervous.

Phi Bang was taking her time and Mr. Vu, clearly agitated, kept beeping the car's horn. Closing my eyes in disbelief I thought to myself, "This can’t be happening." 

I opened my eyes again. Yes, this ridiculous situation was happening. Phi Bang had climbed half way up the fairly high, steep slope and seemed oblivious to Mr. Vu's almost constant honking of the horn. In due course, Phi Bang returned to the car very pleased with the assortment of wild flowers that she had collected. Mr. Vu sped off before she could change her mind about going back for more.

Our first stop was at someone's home to join some sort of meeting that was already in progress. For more than two hours every word spoken was in Vietnamese because everyone was Vietnamese except me. Once in a while someone would apologize to me, but the talking went on and on anyway. 

"What am I doing here?" I wondered over and over, feeling very out of place as the reality of our different worlds struck me.

Eventually the meeting was adjourned and we quickly departed.

Our next location was an older brick building that was obviously someone else's home, however, one of the windows had the word "Thuat" painted across the panes in large red letters. I thought about asking what "Thuat" meant but I did not. While struggling to extract myself from the rear seat of the Volkswagen, Mr. Vu proudly informed me that Pennsylvania's champion Ping-Pong player resided here. Naturally, I assumed that Mr. Vu might have been exaggerating a little. 

Anyway, the largest room, which I expected would have been the living room, had nothing in it except for a ping-pong table. The mantle over the unused fireplace was crammed full with every type of trophy, medal and award imaginable. All the awards, and I do mean all, were first prizes for winning Ping-Pong tournaments. I read some of the inscriptions and dates on the awards. The person living in this house really was the state champion and definitely a contender for the United States championship. I thought it strange to realize that Pennsylvania's state champion Ping-Pong player was a refugee from Southeast Asia. 

"Will he one day be sent to Hanoi as an American Ping-Pong diplomat?" I pondered as I continued reading inscriptions.

Our next visit was at the University of Pittsburgh. Another meeting was in progress in one of the halls inside one of the campus building. From the doorway I saw hundreds people seated in rows of chairs listening to people speaking. Again, everything going on was entirely in Vietnamese. Phi Bang suggested that it would be better for me if I waited elsewhere while she went in to listen to whatever it was that was going on. She mentioned there was a piano where I could practice for the evening's performance and I welcomed her practical suggestion.

On the far side of the building was a smaller hall. The entire outside wall was windows with French style doorways that opened to a courtyard. In spite of the elegant architecture, the room looked like a student lounge, filled with tables, chairs and well-worn sofas. Phi Bang pointed out the grand piano in the far corner and suggested that I practice while waiting for her.

Phi Bang had not been paying attention because someone was already very busy practicing Liszt's Concert Etude in D flat major. While Phi Bang and Mr. Vu talked to each other in Vietnamese I turned to watch the person who practicing Liszt. The lady was Asian so I assumed she was also rehearsing for the evening's event.

Immediately I realized if someone else was planning to perform Liszt's Concert Etude then I was definitely way out of my league; incapable of performing any musical work of that caliber. Discouraged, I pondered again what I was doing here in Pittsburgh and questioned why I had been crazy enough to agree to Phi Bang’s request in the first place.

Phi Bang hurriedly apologized and left with Mr. Vu. I sat on one of the couches in the far end of the room and listened to the lady practicing Liszt. While she was able to flawlessly play the beginning I noticed she was having some problems with the technical complexities of the work. Curious, I arose and walked over to the piano.

She stopped playing and looked up at me. I then asked, "Are you planning to perform the Liszt Etude this evening?"

"No." she replied.

"No?" I replied questioningly, disbelieving what I heard but feeling very relieved to realize I would not be performing against her and Liszt.

“No.” she repeated tersely.

“What work are you planning to play this evening?” I asked, now curious why she was practicing the Liszt work if she was going to perform something else.

“None.” She answered, giving me an obvious look of annoyance.

“Why not?” I questioned, probably sounding surprised.

"I’m not the same as they are." she retorted, commenting about the Asian group.

“I’m sorry, I just thought…” I tried to answer, but she resumed playing the piano. 

I sensed from her answers that I was probably not the first person to have asked. Quietly, I retreated to the couch. 

Eventually the lady who had been practicing Liszt disappeared. I grabbed possession of the piano and struggled to prepare for later. The room was stiflingly hot and perspiration from my fingers was leaving muddy puddles on the surface of the white keys. Phi Bang stayed in the meetings and I felt abandoned. 

Late in the afternoon or possibly early evening, Phi Bang finally returned to collect me. Mr. Vu quickly ferried us to Phi Bang's home so we could eat dinner and rest a little before returning to the university.

I had been looking forward to seeing Mai Lien again as well as the other members of Phi Bang's family. Phi Bang's father was out of town; Mr. Vinh had enrolled in a university in Oklahoma and he was busy with studies. Mai Lien was in New York. Phi Bang was rather vague about the reason when I asked her why Mai Lien was in New York so I did not press further. Phi Bang's younger sister and eldest brother were also absent. Anyway, Grandmother was at home and she remembered me from the last visit, but as far as I could determine, Grandmother still could not speak a word of English. Phi Bang's three youngest brothers had grown and now spoke flawless unaccented English, sounding as if they had always lived in America. Two older brothers were young men rather than boys. I finally recognized that much had changed in the three years between visits.

Phi Bang's grandmother had already prepared our dinner, Vietnamese food that tasted as good as I remembered. Phi Bang reminded me that Grandmother never cooks American style foods. Well at least one thing had not changed in the three years since my previous visit.

Following what had seemed like a lengthy wait, Phi Bang finally came downstairs into the living room. Her hair had been tied into a ponytail and she was wearing a very pale turquoise áo dài, the traditional Vietnamese garment that can best be described as a cross between a shirt and long dress. Phi Bang was very attractive and the áo dài made her look very petite. I was almost expecting to see her wearing a nón lá, one of those conical shaped straw hats that I had seen Vietnamese women in pictures wearing. Phi Bang ignored me and disappeared into the kitchen. Moments later she returned and announced that we would be departing shortly.

When Mr. Vu returned to pick us up, he proudly announced that he had specially made and cooked several hundred wontons for snacks. Daylight was waning and we rushed back to the University of Pittsburgh to attend the event that everyone had been excitedly anticipating. 

Immediately upon entering the building, someone pulled Phi Bang aside, whispered to her and pointed in my direction. Following the brief, whispered discussion, Phi Bang returned. From the expression on her face I could tell that something was wrong. Using her not quite right English, Phi Bang started to talk in circles about the piano but never getting to the point. 

"There are two pianos but one is broken." she announced.

"Oh?" I responded questioningly, hoping to extract a little more information.

"The broken piano has a chair to hold it" Phi Bang added.

"Now what's that supposed to mean?" I questioned.

"The chair piano has a broken leg." she continued, "You cannot play the broken piano"

"What about the other piano? You said there were two." I questioned further.

"Yes, another one but the university will not allow to move" she explained, assuming I had enough clues to figure out the problem.

When Phi Bang wanted to be, she could be very direct and to the point, but at other times she could be strangely vague; now she was being very vague. This evening was not the first occasion when Phi Bang compelled me to try and figure out a situation by having me ask questions and then put her short answers together like pieces of a puzzle. So far, I was able to conclude one piano had a broken leg and was being held up by a chair. Somewhere else was another piano but the university would not allow the other piano to be moved to replace the damaged one. Finally, as if a light had just been turned on, I asked Phi Bang, "Are you trying to tell me that after all this, there won't be a piano for me to perform on?"

"Yes, no piano. Yes, another piano and yes the university will not allow to move so yes you cannot be able to play." Phi Bang said quickly in her confusing manner of mixing yes and no when she wanted to say no but said yes anyway, and then she added "Yes I don't know how to say to you but I’m so sorry."

Shaking my head, I found it difficult to believe I heard what I just heard. Not the news about the broken piano, rather the manner in which Phi Bang had explained the news to me. Phi Bang’s method had been a game of verbal charades if such a thing was possible.

"It doesn't really matter." I reassured her. 

While I felt as if I had travelled here to Pittsburgh for nothing, I was also feeling relieved because I was not going to have the opportunity to make a fool of myself in front of an audience. 

The large hall was dark and at one end were numerous round tables where most people were seated. Loud music was blaring and a few energetic people oblivious to the stifling heat, were already dancing. This event did not appear to me to be any different from a North American style high school graduation dance, except that everyone here was Vietnamese. 

Phi Bang selected a table and introduced me to the other people already seated there. After exchanging introductions and greetings I was then politely ignored as conversations continued in Vietnamese. She soon left the table without a word.

She spent much of her time flitting around from table to table constantly talking to people. I had been abandoned at the table with everyone speaking Vietnamese; I felt very awkwardly out of place. Finally noticing the damaged piano that had been unceremoniously pushed out of the way into a corner, the injured instrument, strangely enough, did not look all that much different from how I was feeling. With a broken leg and pedals badly bent askew, no one would perform on that forlorn piano this evening. 

Having heard more than enough loud music and weary of being ignored I went outside and wandered off. I sought a quiet refuge and soon located that hall where I had spent my afternoon. Two of Phi Bang's brothers already there watching the television at the opposite end of the room from the piano; they were oblivious to my presence. Sitting down at the piano I began to quietly fiddle with the keyboard not wanting to attract attention. Continuing, I eventually played through the composition that I had written for Phi Bang. Immediately afterward, the lady who had been practicing Liszt earlier in the afternoon entered the hall.

"I was listening to you play... it's very good." she commented after walking from the doorway to stand beside the piano.

"Thank you, but really, I’m not very good at performance. My interest in music is analytical rather than interpretive." I answered.

"Are you studying music here?" she questioned.

"No, I'm only a visitor." I admitted.

"Oh. I thought you were involved with the Vietnamese group over there." she said while pointing in the general direction.

"I'm supposed to be but I had to get away from that awful music." I admitted.

"Don't you like Vietnamese music?" she asked.

"It's not the music. I just hate too loud of anything." I replied.

"You really don't like loud music?" she questioned further.

"No." I confirmed emphatically.

"Neither do I." she admitted, and finally smiled.

"Are you a music student here?" I asked.

"No. I’m studying astronomy." she replied.

"Outer Space! Now that's quiet." I commented.

"No. Out there's not quiet." she countered, correcting me while pointing skyward.

"Perhaps you should be studying music. Your interpretation of Liszt's Concert Etude is quite good." I commented.

"Thank you. I’m surprised you know the work." she replied.

"I can even tell you that it’s the D flat Etude, the third of a group of three concert etudes that Liszt composed. The other two are not well known and are rarely heard today." I added.

"You seem to know more about the work than I do." she remarked, sounding somewhat surprised.

"Not really, but at least you can play the work. I can’t." I admitted.

"I can play it but I know it’s too difficult for me to play properly." she conceded.

"Practice. It’s always the same story. Practice." I commented, almost sounding like a music teacher.

"Only up to a point. After that, a performer has to be gifted." she remarked.

"You’re probably right." I concur5red with a laugh and then added, "I can only improve my playing of a musical work up to a certain point, but never technically perfect."

"What piece were you just playing? she asked.

"Sketches of a Vietnamese Girl in America." I answered.

"I don't know that piece." she stated.

"I'd have been surprised if you did." I commented with a laugh.

"Why?" she questioned.

"It was one of my own compositions." I revealed.

"Really?" she remarked with surprise.

"I wrote it for that lady you may have seen me with earlier today." I detailed.

"Is she your wife?" she asked.

"No. Just a friend." I stated.

"She must be a special friend." she commented.

"No. Just a friend I’ve known for several years." I replied.

"Would you play your work again so I can hear all of it?" she requested, sounding as if she was genuinely interested.

"Alright, I will. Actually I came here to Pittsburgh to perform for that Vietnamese event, but the piano was damaged when it was being moved." I said, and then proceeded to play the work.

"It's definitely not Liszt." she commented after I removed my hands from the keyboard.

"Is that good or bad?" I probed.

"It's good. I clearly hear the Asian influence in your music but it sounds so unhappy." she critiqued honestly.

"That's the feeling I wanted to convey in the music." I confirmed. 

"But why sadness?" she questioned.

"1975 was a difficult time for her... fleeing from Vietnam and all that." I explained.

"And what about now?" she prodded.

"I would have to say neutral." I replied and then stood to vacate the piano bench and change the subject, 

I gestured toward the unoccupied bench and then said, "Now I'd like to hear you play the Liszt etude again."

"Fair enough." she said, took possession of the piano, moved her hair behind her ears and then jumped into the Etude.

Her performance was not flawless but I thought her interpretation satisfying to listen to; a genuine rendition rather than a pretentious familiar manner that some well-known performers seem to toss off the work with. 

"Wow!" I said with amazement when she finally removed her hands from the keyboard. 

"Thank you." she replied. 

"When I heard you practicing this earlier today, I thought you were going to be performing in there too. I was nearly in a state of panic thinking that I would be mixed into a group of performers far superior to me." I admitted.

She laughed at my admission and revealed, "You didn't need to worry. I'm not Vietnamese.

“Are you Chinese?” I asked, because I was curious, thinking that she was Vietnamese.

"Yes, but I'm from the Philippines." She answered.

"You mentioned earlier that you were studying astronomy." I commented.

"I'm in my last year here." she said, sounding slightly negative about it.

"You don't sound very enthusiastic about it." I noted.

"When I complete my studies I can’t stay in the U.S. and I don’t want to return to the Philippines." she stated rather strongly.

"Isn't that your home?" I questioned.

"What can I do there with a degree in Physics?" she asked rhetorically.

"I don't really know." I said just to say something.

"It's late. I must get back to the dorm." she announced after glancing at her watch.

"Here!" I said, and handed her the copy of my composition.

"No. You don't need to do this." she replied.

"I insist and besides, I have the original and more copies at home. If I don't hand these out, no one else will do it for me." I pointed out then suggested, "One day when you've had enough of Liszt, you can try this one."

"Thank you for your kindness." she said.

"No. I should thank you." I countered, grateful to have had someone to talk to for a while.

The lady from the Philippines said good-bye and departed. A quick check of my watch confirmed I had been missing from the other hall for more than an hour. Seconds later I noticed another of Phi Bang's brothers peek into the room from the doorway and then immediately disappear. Perhaps my absence had finally been noticed.

Phi Bang rushed in and was very apologetic about all her flitting around. She then asked me to play the piano work that I had composed for her. “Sketches” was also the work I had chosen to perform, had there been a performance. When I finished playing, Phi Bang insisted we return to the other hall where the dancing and other activities were going on.

Blue with cigarette smoke, the room was uncomfortably and chokingly hot but most people were dancing anyway. After several minutes of sitting at the table, listening to the singing and watching other couples dance the tango, Phi Bang suggested we get up and dance too; I recalled she had once mentioned that she liked tango music. I declined.

Undeterred, she kept asking me to get up to dance with her, unwilling to believe that I really did not know how. In spite of my protestations she badgered me non-stop. I finally gave in to her just to prove my point.

Attempting to dance the tango was a disaster. Unable to lead and unable to follow Phi Bang's lead I repeatedly stepped on her toes. Frustrated, Phi Bang gave up and asked me to sit down. She finally acknowledged that I really could not dance. 

She had stopped flitting around everywhere and arranged transportation for us back to her home. Hopeful that we were finally going to have some time alone for some serious talk, I was in for another surprise. Phi Bang and Mr. Vu were simply dropping me off. She was going somewhere else, supposedly attend another meeting, but that was okay with me. If she wanted to go back and find someone else to tango with, that was okay with me too; I had endured enough of being the hot potato.

As I lay awake on my back waiting for sleep to come, I wondered why Phi Bang had begged me to come to Pittsburgh. Since my arrival I had been dragged around from place to place and felt like an inconvenience that had to be tolerated. Clearly I did not fit in with this group or their activities. The experience did provide me with an interesting perspective though. I was the visible minority of one in a close-knit community that really was a visible minority in North America.

Shortly after falling asleep I was awakened by the sound of someone knocking and banging on the front door. No one answered. 

"Am I alone in the house?" I wearily wondered.

The pounding persisted so I got out of bed and peeked out the window that overlooked the street below. Whoever had been at the door drove off in a car. I went back to bed.

A ringing telephone awakened me a while later. I waited for someone to answer it but no one did. The noisy nuisance kept ringing so I finally I got up, went down the two flights of stairs to the living room and answered it. The caller was Phi Bang. She was locked out of the house and she wanted me to open the front door when she returned. I did not know why a family member had not been awakened by the disturbance because the telephone must have rung twenty-five times from the time I heard it until I picked it up.

Phi Bang came through the door, glared at me and then angrily whispered, "Why you did not open the door before?"

"I didn't hear anything." I lied because I did not want to say anything more.

"We must talk later. Now is too late." she replied.

"Okay. Later." I whispered simply to be agreeable.

I did not know whether or not she believed me but she quietly accepted my answer. She disappeared into the kitchen and I climbed the two flights of stairs to return to the room where I had been billeted. As far as I was able to determine, no one else had awakened.

By daybreak I was awake for the day. The house was silent so I lay on the bed, stared at the ceiling, and again questioned why I had been foolish enough to come to Pittsburgh. No, I did not harbour any secret desires to try to re-establish our former relationship; that was finished. When I arrived here I did not know what to expect but I certainly did not anticipate being shuffled around like a piece of baggage getting in the way of someone's very busy schedule. In spite of the questions I had asked and the answers she gave, I could not figure out the purpose of the Vietnamese association. Whatever the organization was, Phi Bang was very actively involved in it.

Strangely enough, I was also thinking about Theresia in Indonesia. I was planning to write later and tell her about this crazy visit in Pittsburgh. I was also wondering what she would think. From reading her letters, I knew that she was not at all like Phi Bang. In fact, the more I thought about Theresia, the more I realized that she had those gentle caring qualities I had wanted and hoped to find in Phi Bang but were not there. Perhaps Phi Bang never possessed those traits, that only up until now I had been too foolishly naive to see differently. 

Phi Bang had changed since she first came to America and she had changed all the more since the last time I had seen her. This said, I could not quite place my finger on exactly what was different about her. Maybe the difference was nothing more than a change from being a late teen into a young adult.

Recalling a long conversation that I had with Matthew a few years back, he questioned me about why I never dated anyone and never seemed to be involved with anyone. I had tried to explain that I knew only too well what personality and traits I did not want in a woman I would desire to be involved with, but on the other hand, I did not know what I wanted or hoped to find. Nonetheless, I felt optimistically certain I would know if and when I did find the right person.

This past winter I slowly and reluctantly realized that Phi Bang was not the right person for me, and this visit to Pittsburgh had removed any doubts. Although unplanned, this visit was giving me a chance to make a comparison between Phi Bang and my friend in Indonesia. Unexpectedly I discovered the right person for me but she was not Phi Bang.

Eventually I heard people stirring downstairs and then talking. That was my cue to get up. While making the bed, I accidentally kicked something stowed beneath the bed and scattered the contents across the floor. My foot had struck a folder stuffed with hundreds of pages of writing together with various photographs. The content was entirely in Vietnamese and appeared to be Phi Bang's handwriting. I had no idea what those pages were but they were definitely not school material. 

Believing that I may have upset a diary and not wanting to intrude into her privacy, I quickly gathered up the contents. In the process, more photographs spilled out. All were pictures of Phi Bang with someone else but I had no idea who the other person may have been because the other person's images had been carefully clipped out of every single photo. The only thing I was certain of was that I was not the person missing from those photos. I replaced the photographs as best I could and returned the contents beneath the bed. I was astonished though. For someone who had been repeatedly telling me she was far too busy to write to me, a huge amount of writing had been done.

Following breakfast we moved to the living room and I was hopeful we could have a talk. Phi Bang picked up a cassette that I recognized as the one that I had sent to her last summer; a recording I had made of my F minor piano sonata.

"I don't understand your music or the thought. It's not me." she stated unexpectedly while looking at the cassette.

I did not respond to her comment. I never expected that Phi Bang would ever understand my music, but she was right. The music was not her nor was it ever intended it to be her. The music was me, my thoughts about her, my old feelings for her and my unspoken words to her; yes, all diligently thought out in music notation to represent what I had foolishly left unsaid too long ago. The music did not matter now because the work no longer reflected my thoughts or feelings.

"You are so cold!"  she declared, shuddering to emphasize the word cold. 

She had used this expression before in her letters but I had been slow to figure out what she actually meant. This was her way of telling me that she thought I was not revealing my true thoughts and feelings to her.

Phi Bang looked at me quizzically, placed the cassette into the tape player and then turned it on. For a moment I listened, arose, turned off the player, removed the cassette, handed it back to her and then said, "There’s no need to understand. Don’t even try."

"We must talk." she insisted.

"That's what I've wanted to do since I arrived here yesterday but we haven't had a single moment together." I answered.

"Yes, I know. I have been too busy this weekend." she replied.

"I can see that, but I still don’t know what your activities are all about." I commented.

"For Vietnamese community in Pittsburgh. Last night we try to raise money. For travel to activities in other cities." she explained.

"You don't have to explain." I said, realizing that I did not need to know.

"When you came here I was hoping we could be as before... but I cannot feel what has passed. It’s gone." Phi Bang admitted hesitantly.

"You don’t have to tell me." I interjected.

"I can't feel for you as before. The love has gone." she continued awkwardly, pointing toward herself in the same manner Mai Lien had done once before.

"I already know." I acknowledged quietly. 

Phi Bang’s words did not surprise me at all because I was only hearing what I already knew. Nonetheless I felt awkward listening to her tell me that she no longer loved me. 

"I'm so sorry. I not want to say to you." Phi Bang said, sounding contrite.

"You're not telling me anything I don't already know." I admitted calmly, hoping she would feel better that I understood only too well.

"I try to find past feeling in my heart but I cannot find." Phi Bang revealed, now sounding very apologetic.

"What do you want me to say?" I questioned without emotion, I had no idea what she was expecting to hear.

"I not want you be sad and sorrowful." she answered, her face revealing genuine concern.

"I'm not." I confirmed plainly.

"I know you not talk from feeling, only from thought." she commented.

"For me that time has already passed." I admitted without a trace of emotion.

"You talk like such cold person... without feeling... not sorry about... for the end of love." Phi Bang stated emphatically, almost condescendingly.

Any other time Phi Bang would probably have been right in her assumption about me, but this time she was wrong. She did not know anything about my tears and anguish of last winter. I had already come to terms with my grief from the end of our relationship.

I had no chance to explain further or to even try. The doorbell rang and that interruption ended whatever chance for discussion we might have had. Mr. Vu was at the door. He was going to drive us to the airport but he was a few hours early. His arrival now was also the first time I realized that his interest in Phi Bang may have been more than that of just a friend. Suddenly I felt uncomfortable about being here.

Several hours later...

My time to go had finally come. Before leaving the bedroom and going downstairs for the last time, I removed from my billfold my half of the dollar note that I had kept with me since my visit to Cleveland. I had no idea whether or not Phi Bang had kept her half. Walking over to the little table beside the bed, I placed the torn banknote right in the center. Being the only item on the table, I was certain Phi Bang would discover the half-dollar some time after she returned home from the airport. 

"Will you remember this?" I wondered.

I turned away, picked up my bag and walked out of the room, feeling satisfied because I had kept my promise to return; but I would never return again. Phi Bang would know if she still had the other half of the bank note. 

While waiting in the airport for my flight, Phi Bang and I sat adjacent to the gateway and talked during those final few minutes. Nothing profound and not about the weather; just idle chatter to fill our remaining time. In some way, sitting here was an ironic reminder of waiting for a late train in this same city three years earlier but the situation now was far different. This time I felt no sadness within me. I was ready to leave and anxious to have the weekend over with.

Phi Bang said a few words in Vietnamese to Mr. Vu. Immediately he vacated his seat and wandered off leaving the two of us alone. She then turned toward me and asked, "Are you sad?"

Her question was unexpected and I may have hesitated slightly while carefully choosing my words, but I spoke truthfully from my heart when I answered, "No, I’m not sad."

Perhaps my reply had surprised her and then again maybe not. Again she asked me in her accented and not quite right phrasing of English, "Are you sad that I do not feel any more in my heart for you as in long time ago?" 

She paused and then asked, "Are you angry?"

The second time I did not hesitate in answering, "No. I’m not unhappy and no, I’m not angry.

“Why no feeling?” she probed, seemingly bothered by my placid response.

“Too much change over too long a time.” I said philosophically, revealing what I had confirmed over the weekend.

“I worry you speak from thought but not from heart and hide your feeling inside.” She remarked with an obvious tone of concern.

I laughed briefly in response and then recounted, “I still remember that time at Lee College when Mai Lien told me about someone she knew in Vietnam. She said she could not feel anything inside herself... she could not cry any more tears for him."

"Yes..." she uttered thoughtfully to recall, and then confirmed, "I remember she talk with you in library."

"Last year I didn't understand what Mai Lien meant, but now I do." I explained honestly; I truly understood that nothing remained within me to want to fight for and hold on to.

Phi Bang then asked me, "Do you have someone else?"

"No." I answered. 

"Is another person waiting when you go back?" she inquired.

"Only my mother or my father will be waiting to pick me up at the airport." I replied.

"Is another lady at there for you to love?" Phi Bang probed.

"No. There’s no one else in my life right now." I confirmed. 

I was not tied to anyone and no one was tied to me. I no longer had anyone special in my life but today I did not hurt inside admitting to being alone.

The call for boarding announced our time together was over. We left our seats and moved toward the gate. For a moment I stood and faced Phi Bang but said nothing. As the crowd pushed around us and shoved their way through the boarding gate, I put out my hand to shake hands and say good-bye to her. An open hand was all that I could offer to her and she took my hand in hers.

Phi Bang looked at me imploringly and said, "Please don’t be sad."

I smiled at her and replied, "Really! I’m not sad."

"I worry." she said.

"Don’t worry. I'm okay." I assured her and then let go of her hand.

Now was one of those rare moments when I was genuinely speaking to her in unison from both my head and my heart. No empty talk about one thing while silently wishing to say something different. After a last wave I turned and never looked back. 

I shall never really know, but in the brevity of those remaining moments I believe Phi Bang had finally asked me the questions she had really wanted all weekend to ask me. I did not feel even the slightest twinge of sadness nor aching inside to know that I had said good-bye to her for always. I knew that I would never see her again, but truly I felt no more sadness, nor bitterness, nor anger, nor even hatred as so often and so tragically a love lost can become. Our relationship was over and we parted as two friends who realized that our respective personal journeys through life must diverge. I believe this is the way Phi Bang wanted to say good-bye to me.

With everything stowed out of the way, I pushed back the seat and closed my eyes hoping to drift off into sleep while waiting for the plane to taxi on to the runway. I wondered if all the events that had occurred throughout the weekend had actually happened. They did. Too much activity had been crammed into so little time but tomorrow morning I would be back at work as if none of this had ever occurred.

I was also hoping that tomorrow morning would see another letter from Indonesia waiting for me in my mailbox. My friend in Indonesia was now writing to me frequently and I too was writing to her more often. Over these last few months I had shared with her some of the events in my life and about my unhappiness over the failure of my relationship with Phi Bang. I wanted to tell her about my weekend in Pittsburgh so that she would know I was now free. At this crossroads in my life I was grateful to have a friend I could talk to even if she was on the opposite side of the world.

Perhaps this visit to Pittsburgh was more for me than for Phi Bang, to remove any possible doubts that I may have still harboured within me. This unforgettable, bizarre weekend was a gift because now I was truly free. Free from any lingering doubts about Phi Bang, free from any "what ifs" and free to move on.

“Good-bye Phi Bang. Vins biet.” I whispered as the aircraft lifted skyward.


The Oddblock Station Agent


“The words good-bye or vins biet or sayonara or adieu or adios is so short but it makes people feel so long."

Vinh thi Phi Bang