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

Saturday, 21 April 2012

Change Comes Slowly

Chapter 13

"I believe that no matter how badly your heart is broken,
the world doesn't stop for your grief."
(author unknown)

Following my visit to Tennessee, I half-heartedly continued my search for employment. More than six months had elapsed since I had left Vancouver and my unemployment insurance benefits would soon run out. Searching for a job was frustrating at best but my lack of adequate conversational French was a millstone. Whether or not I had any education at all or was willing to work at just about anything for minimum wage did not seem to matter to prospective employers. If I was unable to speak fluent French then I was rejected as worthless.

My last interview had been with one of Canada’s well-known department stores and that interview was nothing less than a remarkably rude case study in how to destroy a persons’ self-respect. After responding to a newspaper advertisement, one of many which I had answered, I had managed to arrange an interview. With a spark of optimism, I arrived at the store’s head office about ten minutes early and was promptly told to have a seat and wait.

After an hour of silently waiting, nothing happening and no one coming for me, I finally asked when I would be able to meet with the person who had called and asked me to come in. I was shocked to learn that the person I was supposed to be meeting with was not in the office and was not going to be in. No effort had been made to either cancel the appointment or have someone else conduct the interview. 

A meeting was hastily set up with the Assistant Traffic Manager, however as soon as I was ushered into his office he promptly told me that the department was short of people and he was just too busy to waste time with an interview. He asked me to leave. Saying nothing at all, I walked out of the office. Desperate for a job I kept my mouth shut but inside I was seething with anger. Anyway, I did have the final say and vowed never to set foot in or shop in any of the company’s stores again.

Failing so far to find employment, I spent several days revising my composition, “Sketches of a Vietnamese Girl in America” to make a serious effort to have the work ready for entry into the national music competition for young composers. Pleased with the new cadenza and coda, I followed up with a second movement structured around a few musical idioms that I had played for and discussed with Phi Bang during my visit to Tennessee. After the changes were completed I made a recording of the revised work and sent the cassette to Phi Bang for her comments. 

Ever hopeful but somewhat doubtful I mailed in my music opus and application just ahead of the competition’s closing deadline. Two weeks later an acknowledgement letter arrived to inform me that my submission had met the entry qualifications.

I heard nothing further from the music council or Phi Bang. I cared little about the music composition contest but Phi Bang’s silence was distressing. We were drifting apart again but another trip south was out of the question. Since returning from Tennessee I thought that Phi Bang and I had drawn closer together again, but now realized that nothing had really changed.

Following a lengthy rest upon the proverbial shelf, I dusted off the music notation books and resumed working on the F minor piano sonata. The first two movements had been completed months earlier in Vancouver but the finale was incomplete. Brooding over Phi Bang’s silence made it too easy to pound out a fast paced conclusion in the home key. Dissatisfied with the ending, I re-wrote the final movement and added a coda that modulated from the darker sounding tones of F minor into the more optimistic timbres of the relative major key. I wanted to conclude my opus on a positive note with loud chords of hope instead of dark knells of despair. Perhaps I really was an optimistic pessimist struggling once in a while to shed the image of simply being a pessimist.

My grandfather died in June, a month short of his 89th birthday. Alzheimer’s Disease is a silent invisible, insidious final earthly antagonist. Death was my grandfather’s release from the horrible mental anguish that the dementia of the disease had mercilessly inflicted upon him throughout his last year.

Oh yes, I felt deep sadness and remorse but I had no tears to shed knowing my grandfather would no longer have to painfully relive tragedies from his past. Profound, poignant episodes made lasting impressions about my grandfather and about the hated disease. Even though his younger brother had been deceased for nearly twenty years, my grandfather diligently searched the house for him one afternoon. Later my grandfather wept brokenly, as if he was hearing the news for the first time when my grandmother gently tried to remind him that his brother was dead. No more noisy midnight episodes of ranting about desperately having to go out to meet non-existent trains at a non-existent train station. Trying to explain that the station had been torn down years earlier in a village many miles away could not arouse my grandfather from the disease inflicted delusions. No more futile searches for woodpiles out back. Although my grandfather had been repeatedly reminded that the house was heated by an oil furnace in the basement, he searched for non-existent woodpiles nonetheless.

Alone in the church, I chose to meditate in the pew at the very front. Yes, the pew before the communion table and directly beneath the pulpit, the pew that no one ever sat in during a church service.  Perhaps that pew was reserved for angels, but a more likely reason was because no one wanted the minister to see restless fidgeting and lack of attention during his sermons. The middle; I always chose somewhere in the middle. Never up front and never right at the back; just somewhere in the insignificance and anonymity of the middle. Anyway, that day was the first time I had ever chosen to sit in the front of the church and believe me, I was no angel.

After instinctively studying the patterns of the carefully crafted woodwork on the walls and ceiling and after watching the top branches of the trees waving and beckoning from outside the windows, I finally stared at the lifeless form in the open casket and reflected, “Grandpa, there are two things I wish I did learn from you; first, how to milk the cows and second, how to slaughter, clean and prepare a chicken for a dinner. I know it sounds odd to speak in God’s church about killing, particularly at this time in the presence of your remains, but I will always feel that I did not learn all I should have learned from you. I will always believe there was so much more you could have taught me especially if I had been listening more attentively.”

Failure to learn and failure to pass on knowledge must surely be one of the great tragedies about life and death.

My grandfather’s death forced me to face reality and reluctantly come to terms with the slow disintegration of my dreams. Presumptuously, I had always expected to return from western Canada prosperous and successful. Instead, I was unemployed, almost broke and I felt like a dismal failure. Returning to live the Megantic Mountain highlands was never going to happen.

Worse, my dream of spending my life with Phi Bang was withering and fading away and there was nothing I could do about that either. The unwanted changes were unstoppable and unavoidable. Time was mercilessly eradicating the little I so desperately wanted to cling to.

A week later my music submission in the music composition competition was returned to me by mail. The judging had already been accomplished and winners selected but my name was not on that list. Also accompanying my returned manuscript was a rejection letter from the CBC. They too were not interested in my music.

In three and a half years much had changed in the West Island and most irksome was the migration elsewhere of most of my friends and acquaintances. Eventually I crossed trails with a high school friend who had not made that one-way trip down Highway 401 to English Canada like so many others had done following graduation. 

I had been looking forward to an evening out to unwind and talk over old times but sometimes events just do not unfold as anticipated. 

“Look around this place!” Jim exclaimed as he slowly surveyed the nearby tables, rather, the young ladies seated at the nearby tables.

“Yeah, I did, but what about it? I remarked rather flatly. 

This brasserie, watering hole, pick-up joint, or whatever people want to call it now was well known through l’Isle de l’Ouest.

“My boy, I’m not talking about the décor. I’m talking about the decorations.” Jim replied, looking like a kid in a candy store.

“What decorations?” I wondered aloud.

“The women! Look at ‘em! This place is full of beautiful young women…a garden of opportunity just waiting to be plucked.” Jim explained.

“I’m not looking for any opportunities, and besides, it wouldn’t be right.” I answered.

“Just for a moment try to forget that serious religious stuff of yours and look.” Jim suggested impatiently.

“Jim, don’t drag religion into this” I implored.

“Why not?” Jim asked.

”Religion without belief doesn’t mean anything.” I replied.

“So?” he asked while gesturing with his hands.

“I’m a Christian.” I stated.

“What’s the difference?” he asked, sounding unconvinced there was any difference

“Christians are taught by Jesus not to look at women as objects of lust.” I said uneasily.

“Are you going to tell me you never look at a woman without lust?” Jim asked, defying me to argue this point.

“No.” I answered, now wishing I had left the subject alone.

“Then what’s the point of religion?” Jim asked, sounding as if the subject needed no further discussion.

“I don’t know but there has to be something more to life than this.” I replied, at the moment feeling uncertain about what I believed or believed in.

“Something more? This is what life’s all about. This is why we’re here!” Jim answered while turning his attention to a young lady at a neighbouring table.

“She may be why you’re here but I really don’t know why I’m here.” I answered while discreetly pointing toward the other table, knowing that our beliefs would always disagree.

“Tell me, how can you you believe in God? How do you even know if there is a God?” Jim asked, now sounding more curious that derisive.

“Jim, there are some days when I really don’t know, but I believe in God nonetheless.” I answered honestly but reality in my life seemed to be less about God and more about waiting for another letter, letters that never seemed to come soon enough.

“I think I’ll stick with my Garden of Eden here.” Jim commented.

“Well I suppose you’re in the right place if you want to look at women that way.” I answered uncommitted and unimpressed by Jim’s remark.

“Is there any other way to look at them?” He asked somewhat sarcastically, defying me to tell him there was some other way to look at a woman.

Looking around the room again, I did not see the garden of opportunity that Jim saw. All I could see was an intimidating sea of unknown faces. Oh yes, my friend was absolutely right. This place was filled with beautiful women. Some were laughing, a few looked bored, others were shouting and trying to be heard over the deafening, thumping disco music, many were smoking cigarettes and most were downing beers as if a serious drought was coming. As far as I could tell though, those beautiful ladies were accompanied with boyfriends, partners, husbands or whatever. Regardless of what the relationships may have been, I really did not want to tangle with any of those someone elses. 

“Well, what are you waiting for?” Jim asked and then added, “Surely your religion allows you to talk to a woman.”

“Jim, this really isn’t my style.” I answered.

“Style? Forget style. All you gotta do is connect with someone. And that’s it!” Jim said, sounding like a pro offering advice to a rookie.

“I meant coming in a place like this is not for me.” I clarified

“Man, you really need to relax and loosen up.” Jim said, sounding a bit more sincere.

“I always envied you." I said.

"Me? he asked.

"I always thought you are one of those happy-go-lucky people who have everything given to them without ever having to ask.” I admitted.

“Really?” Jim answered, with a hint of genuine surprise.

“Yes. Really! What happened between you and Janet?” I questioned, trying to change the subject and hoping that Jim would shed some light on why he and Janet had separated after more than two years of living together.

“I wasn’t ready to settle down.” He replied flatly, sounding as if their break-up had been no big deal.

“Why not?” I asked.

“Things were great for a while but then she started talking about settling down and buying a house.” He revealed.

“What’s so bad about that?” I asked.

“You wouldn’t understand unless you’ve been there, Women are funny that way, you know.” He answered slowly, and for an instant sounded philosophical.

“No, I don’t know.” I confessed.

“Women have different needs.” Jim stated.

“What needs?” I asked naively.

“They want to run your life. They want you home all the time. All they think about is settling down, buying a house and then having children. I couldn’t take the pressure any more. I’m only twenty-three and I’m not ready for that scene.” Jim replied.

“Then why did you get mixed up with Janet in the first place?” I questioned out of curiosity.

“Older woman. You know how it is.” He said.

“No, I really don’t know.” I admitted.

“She was twenty-seven, divorced and had a six year old daughter when we met.” Jim revealed.

“Why on earth did you want anything to do with a divorced older woman with a child if you didn’t want the responsibilities? I asked, wanting to know the reason.

“I didn’t know she was divorced and had a child when we first met. When I found out, I thought I’d give it a try.” Jim admitted.

“Did you meet Janet at this place?” I asked on a hunch.

“Yeah. How’d you guess?” Jim wondered aloud.

“Just a lucky guess, I suppose.” I replied, thinking it simplest to leave my explanation at that.

“Yeah, I guess it was a lucky night for me to back then.” Jim added, sounding wistful.

“So now you’re back here again looking for someone else?” I asked, like someone who had just put the pieces of a puzzle together.

“Yeah. That’s life.” Jim replied, shrugging his shoulders as if what he was doing was no big deal.

“Jim, this place isn’t for me.” I muttered and quickly glanced around the room again. 

Some faces I thought I recognized from high school, except now, those kids in the lower grades were young adults. I grew up with these people. They were my peers. This was my generation and yet I felt so far removed from it.

“What happened?” I silently questioned while staring into the half empty beer glass I was holding and fiddling with.

I felt as if I had somehow missed a turn some place along the highway of life because I just could not identify with these very attractive but loud, harsh, brazen young women. Their nature was so very different from the gentle beauty and quiet, unassuming yet determined nature of Phi Bang. Confusion and despair overwhelmed me as I tried to reconcile the contradiction. I did not seem to fit into my world but I definitely did not belong in Phi Bang’s world. 

“Jim, I gotta get out of here.” I stated resolutely.

The disco bar scene was certainly not what I wanted nor could it ever offer me what I was searching for.

“What? We just got here!” he exclaimed, then suggested, “Stay a while. The night’s still young. Besides, we haven’t got started yet.”

“No thanks. I need to go.” I said, determined to leave, and then added, “Do you remember that time we walked for miles along the railway track south from North Hatley?

“Yeah, we sure walked far that day.” Jim replied, sounding a bit nostalgic.

“Well it’s my turn to do some serious walking to sort things out and I need to do it now.” I answered.

“Yeah. I understand. We’ll have to get together and do this again sometime.” Jim suggested with a tone of forced sincerity.

“Sure.” I remarked meaninglessly but thought to myself, “Yeah. Sure. Not a chance!”

Stepping outside was a relief. I hated disco music and the constant loud thumping that went with it. The sudden silence and cool late night air were soothing, inducive to reflective contemplation while walking. 

To me, life and people relationships always seemed to be an unfathomable, strange mysteries that were unsolvable. Jim and I had been close friends a few years earlier in high school yet we were so different. Maybe that was the reason we once got along so well but seemed to be like strangers now. Anyway, he had recently walked away from, had literally thrown away, that special type of relationship that others would have envied, that I too had longed to create with Phi Bang.

While walking I thought about Phi Bang and the words I would say to her in the letter I was planning to write upon reaching home. As I walked further, my thoughts turned to the question Jim had asked. How could I believe in a God who seemed so silent, so distant, especially since I felt that the more I prayed and pleaded to God about Phi Bang, the more distant and silent Phi Bang became? Truthfully, I felt that my faith was being tested to the breaking point.

Phi Bang had not written for nearly two months and I had no idea if she had remained in Pittsburgh, returned to Cleveland or went somewhere else. I thought about calling but calling her usually left me feeling even more depressed afterward. My fear was facing reality and hearing the truth in her words.

We battle through the same old drudgery by carrying on with the same routines day after day and nothing ever seems to change. But routine and drudgery are deceptive because things are changing. Day after day small insignificant events do occur, and while each on its own is imperceptible at its outset, they do add up to major changes in our lives. 

Change in life is like walking along a railway track and into a curve. The curve is unmistakable but pointing out an exact spot where the change in direction actually starts is almost impossible. Only when stopping to look back do we realize that a change in direction has already begun.

During the summer I finally found full time employment with a British-owned ocean carrier that was far more interested in my work abilities than my linguistic credentials. Working for a container transportation line was not the same as working for the railway nonetheless I was grateful to be earning a steady income again. 

Between semesters Phi Bang wrote sporadically but her letters stopped again in September when classes resumed.

The second week of November was not a week I would have willingly chosen for vacation, however, because I was the newest employee in the company I was now working for, I was left with last choice. 

CNR was offering a special deal to entice would be travellers to visit Toronto by train to see the CN Tower. A same day return ticket including a trip up the tower was only $29.95. Yes, I was enticed by that exceptionally low price. More than a year had elapsed since I had returned to Montreal from Vancouver on CP Rail’s Canadian and a visit to Toronto would be my first real train trip since then.

Travel was on CN’s famous turbo train. First heralded as a new, sleek, fast means to travel between downtown Montreal and downtown Toronto in less than four hours, the turbo train was now legendary for failures and breakdowns during revenue journeys. CN’s turbo train certainly was fast, knocking off four miles in less than three minutes, however, lateral jerking made walking in the aisle awkward.

The train was on time and uneventfully rolled into the sheds of  Union Station. Toronto’s sky was shaded Vancouver gray with a very low misty cloud ceiling. Toronto possessed a genuine drab gray November appearance. Streets were wet but at least the rain had stopped. This was my first visit to Toronto and I was not at all impressed. Toronto was definitely not a city I could fall in love with and ever want to call home. 

Nonetheless, Toronto was becoming a well-known destination name in English Quebec, and thousands of ex-Montrealers were now calling this city home. Yuck! Yuck for Toronto and a far bigger yuck for Quebec City’s Parti Quebecois government. A license plate I saw on someone’s car accurately reflected English sentiment in Montreal best: FUPQ. In spite of my intense dislike for the separatist government, I was already glancing at my watch and mentally noting the hours and minutes remaining until the departure time for the return train to Montreal.

CN’s concrete tower disappeared into the mist just like Jack’s beanstalk. Because of the low cloud ceiling, I could not see the ground and Toronto from the top of the CN Tower. While at the top, I wrote a letter to Phi Bang on the backs of several postcards that I selected from the gift shop. When my letter was finished, I mailed it from the mailbox at the top of the tower, Toronto’s highest mailbox. Would Phi Bang be interested whether or not I visited Toronto? Would she want to know? Would she even care? 

Yes, I did wonder what she would think, because I found living with the false sense of hope derived from denial easier to live with. After returning to ground level, I spent a lonely afternoon wandering around downtown Toronto and thinking about Phi Bang while waiting out the remaining hours until train time.

Arriving in Montreal’s Central Station was no different than arriving in Vancouver. No one was waiting to meet me. No one was waiting for me anywhere. Being alone but not wanting to be alone was the story of my life. All I really wanted was to find a happy ending. Later at home I complained to God about my failing relationship and wondered, “Does God really listen to the cries from our misery?”

God’s silence was unbearable.

No one can cross a language barrier, a racial barrier or a cultural barrier without making mistakes. To believe otherwise is folly. Mistakes are usually easily forgiven but foolishness is not. In spite of language barriers, in spite of racial barriers, in spite of cultural barriers, in spite of great distances in miles, human nature is the same everywhere. Differences between cultures, races and languages only influence the manner in which different individuals have learned how to react and deal with the idiosyncrasies of human nature.

We had few misunderstandings because of our differing languages or from errors made when confronting our racial and cultural differences. My failing was that I really did not understand human relationships, and in particular, I did not understand that special love relationship between a man and a woman.

Phi Bang drifted away because of the long periods of separation between our tragically short times together. Time apart was unavoidable. Our relationship, if there had ever really been one, fell apart because I was not communicating. Perhaps I had learned well how to read Phi Bang's letters but never learned how to listen to what she was really telling me. I may have been guilty of writing far too many pages of words to Phi Bang but never really speaking from my heart. My fear of offending her prevented me from learning because I did not ask her very many personal questions. The truth is that I feared what Phi Bang's answers may have been had I only dared to ask.

January 1978 was a cruel month and not only the frigid winter weather. The devastating reality that I utterly did not want to face and admit to myself was now here in front of me and could no longer be pushed out of my thoughts and ignored. I could no longer hopelessly try to believe and live a lie. Cruelly confronting me now was the pain and anguish of facing the truth that I had feared to even think about. Our relationship was over. I had nothing left in me to write. Nothing I could say or do would change Phi Bang’s heart. Our relationship was over. I could no longer deny and desperately cling to a hope that did not exist and may never have existed. Our relationship was really over. The despair of irretrievable loss was unbearable and grief overwhelmed me. I broke down and wept.

Even though I felt as if the world had come to an end, the sun rose on time the following morning. Winter days came and went undeterred by my misery and without any concern about how I may have felt. I did not want to give up hoping we had a future together but Phi Bang no longer wanted me. Her plans for her future did not include me.

During that change of seasons from winter to spring my despair abated but something had changed within me. Maybe the change was the numbing sorrow of irretrievable loss. Perhaps the change was because I had come to terms with reality and experienced the humility that follows devastating failure. My bitter lesson was also learning and understanding the humbling truth that my place in the order of things is so irrelevantly small and so microscopically insignificant.

Days came when I would ask those two haunting questions, "What went wrong? Did I miss something somewhere?" 

The questions no longer sound relevant because the passing of time and changing events had painfully taught me that they were not the right questions to ask. Knowing the answers to what went wrong did not matter anyway because the answers would not and could not have changed anything. Only God can change the human heart.

Of greater concern now were these questions, "Now what? Where to from here?"

Keeping reminders of the past visible does not help in letting go. By the end of April I had removed all the photos of Phi Bang from my desk at home and at work. Another chapter in my life was closing and I felt that same sadness as on the day I departed from Vancouver for the last time.

Opening up the mailbox every morning was no longer an erratic emotional elevator of anticipation then disappointment. I no longer felt distraught to find that Phi Bang's letters were not there waiting for me. I had learned to stop expecting them. Instead, and unexpectedly, I began to welcome the unsolicited letters from the other people around the world I had sporadically corresponded with previously when trading stamps. Perhaps I had become more willing to write to other people since I had given up trying to devote all of my writing only to Phi Bang.

During these last few months I also noticed that I was receiving letters more frequently from one penfriend in Indonesia. Theresia's writing style was completely different from Phi Bang's. Recalling Phi Bang's acerbate comments about the two Indonesian Chinese students at Lee College I concluded that Phi Bang must have been wrong. Her comments contradicted the impressions I had made from reading Theresia's letters, and she was an Indonesian Chinese. 

My new friend in Indonesia wrote from her feelings as well as her thoughts. I felt as if she was genuinely talking to me when reading her letters. She did not leave me guessing about what she intended for me to understand. While I did not want to admit it to myself, I found myself looking forward to receiving Theresia's letters. Even more surprisingly was that she seemed to be more interested in me than Phi Bang ever was.

One morning in June following months of unwritten silence from the United States, a letter with familiar handwriting was waiting in the mailbox. My heart jumped because I now had a letter from Phi Bang. Having already come to terms with my wounded feelings, I had begun to believe that my emotions had been tempered, but now, I did not know what to think. Agonizing over what the contents of the envelope were going to contain, I delayed opening Phi Bang’s letter until after I had returned home from work.

Phi Bang’s letter was short and to the point. She wanted me to go and visit her in Pittsburgh.

"Why now? Why after all these months of silence? I needed this invitation from you six months ago, not now." I asked myself, trying to make some sense out of this latest surprise.

Seeing Phi Bang once a year and then waiting endlessly for her rare letters to arrive was no longer the relationship I wanted.  As far as I was concerned our relationship was over.

That evening I talked to Ted. He thought that going to Pittsburgh was a great idea. As we talked on I eventually suggested that Ted come along so he could meet Phi Bang. He was interested and we made plans to drive to Pittsburgh.

As our departure date approached I was wondering if Phi Bang was interested in putting our relationship back together again. Even with this latest invitation from her, I was no longer interested in riding that emotional roller coaster again.

"How many times can the all the King's men and all the King's horses try to put Humpty Dumpty back together?" I wondered, realizing that our relationship had been akin to fractured eggshells.

I wrote to Phi Bang and let her know that I would visit her. I also told her that Ted was going to come with me and detailed our planned highway adventure to Pittsburgh.

Two days before Ted and I were to depart, Phi Bang telephoned me.

"I'm so sorry to tell you. I must ask you change your visit time to the next week." Phi Bang informed me.

"What?!" I answered, surprised by her request.

"My plan has changed. You change to the other week after next week." she said.

"Phi Bang, I can't just go and change time off work like that." I replied.

"I must go to New York for meeting. Not at Pittsburgh during week." she indicated.

"I can’t go to Pittsburgh the week after next. I can't just change my vacation." I stated, trying not to sound upset by this last minute change.

"I call you again after I return to Pittsburgh. Then you can make change for plan to visit." Phi Bang suggested.

"No. Don't bother. I won't be able to take the time off." I repeated to Phi Bang.

"I want you visit Pittsburgh." Phi Bang repeated.

"Phi Bang, call me after you return from New York. We'll talk about it then." I said flatly.

I said good-bye and then hung up the telephone.

"Who was that?" Ted asked. 

He had walked into the room as I was finishing my conversation with Phi Bang.

"That famous egg fell off the wall again." I muttered, probably sounding rather annoyed.

"What's that supposed to mean?" Ted asked.

"It means we won't be going to Pittsburgh Saturday." I said.

"Why not?" Ted asked, surprised by my news.

"Phi Bang just called and asked us not to go there.” I explained.

“Why?” Ted asked again.

"Her plans changed and she won't be there next week." I recounted to Ted.

"Well I can't just go and change vacation like that." Ted said, sounding somewhat irritated.

"You don't have to change it. I told Phi Bang we weren’t going." I answered.

"What am I supposed to do with my week off?" Ted asked.

"I don't know. I have the same problem too.” I said.

“We should go anyway.” Ted suggested.

"There's no point.” I said.

"We could see the city." Ted suggested.

“What for?" I asked, not expecting an answer.

"You're crazy to put up with her nonsense!" Ted exclaimed, sounding annoyed by my latest news. 

He left the room and I said nothing. Maybe I was crazy; maybe even "Beaucoup dien cai dau" recalling that expression May Lien had used.

A few more times Ted remarked that we should have gone to Pittsburgh anyway. He may have been right, but what would going to Pittsburgh have changed or proven? Probably nothing at all.

A week later I received another telephone call from Pittsburgh. Phi Bang wanted me to visit her the following weekend and she was very forward about her purpose. Seeing me again was not the reason she wanted me to go there.

Phi Bang wanted me to go to Pittsburgh to play the piano and perform some of the musical works I had composed. The Vietnamese organization she was involved with had arranged some sort of an event and, for reasons that I shall never know, Phi Bang had placed herself in the awkward position of having promised to find someone to perform on the piano. She was now in a spot and was begging me to help her out. Her pleading shoved me into an unwanted state of confusion. Part of me wanted to just say good-bye to her and hang up the telephone. Another part of me wanted to go and help her out.

Undecided and non-committal, I promised Phi Bang that I would call her later after thinking things over. I was still annoyed with her but did not want her to know.

The following day I gave in and promised Phi Bang that I would fly down to Pittsburgh early Saturday morning. Phi Bang was pleased with my decision and repeatedly assured me that she would meet me at the airport on time.

Friday evening was spent in the basement practicing the piano and trying to decide what works to perform the following evening in Pittsburgh. I had made numerous markings on the pages of the score to the first movement of Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata" but had not yet made up my mind about whether or not to play the piece. The first movement of the "Moonlight Sonata", seductively deceptive in its simple appearance, is far from simple to competently perform. The music is filled with awkward little passages just waiting to trip up the amateur and inexperienced pianist, both categories for which I was fully qualified. 

Once more I stumbled through my own composition "Sketches of a Vietnamese Girl in America". Hurriedly I rewrote the cadenza and altered the coda, hoping perhaps to add a little flair at the end of my performance. My work paled in the presence of a Beethoven opus so I decided not to open with Beethoven.

By the end of the evening I had decided against any Beethoven and elected to perform only my own works. My intention was not to show any disrespect toward Beethoven, but if I made mistakes in playing my own compositions, who was going to be the wiser? The final movement of the F Minor piano sonata had been completed and I was able to confidently play through the entire work with few fluffs. Deciding that the sonata would be too long a work, I rejected it also. 

By midnight my hands were too stiff to effectively continue rehearsing. Worse, I was just as undecided about what work or works to perform. I really did not have any idea what type of audience I was supposed to be performing for. Wearily, I packed all the musical scores into the bag and deferred making my decision until tomorrow.

The Oddblock Station Agent