Saturday, 14 April 2012

Forgiven?

Chapter 12

Throughout winter and into spring, my search for employment was becoming desperate but was nothing more than an exercise in frustration and futility. My lack of fluent conversational French was a severe handicap and the little French that had been learned in high school was totally useless for everyday use in Quebec. My pronunciation may have been poor, but the blank stares people returned when I tried to speak in French told me trying was a waste of time. 

"If I had only known about the election! I would never have returned here." I silently lamented to God. 

No one else would have listened anyway. I had no one else in my life.

Montreal was supposed to be my home city. Quebec was supposed to be my home province. Instead, through an election I had wanted no part of and had been ineligible to vote in anyway, I had become an outcast. I was now a detested and unwelcome language leper.

"Who decided that it was a God-given right that Quebec should be French and French only?" I angrily demanded in silence.

My feelings were a mixture of seething anger and resentful bitterness as I cursed the results of the Quebec election. Never did I want and never did I ask for any of the changes. They were thrust upon me, and many others in Quebec, to make life feel like hell some days. For the first time in my life I truly wondered about what it must have been like to have been Jewish and living in Europe during the 1930's. Past events in Europe were no longer merely tragic chapters in history books. Those events had been people whose lives had been turned upside down and destroyed. They too never asked for those upheavals; disaster was just thrust upon them in spite of what they may have wanted and hoped for.

"Could something similar happen here in Quebec?" I wondered searchingly. 

Almost the entire neighbourhood was now up for sale and life-long neighbours were anxiously wanting out of Quebec in a hurry. The name Toronto was no longer a dirty word in the minds of many English Montrealers. Small wonder; this was not a hockey game. No one was going to shake hands and go home after sixty minutes of play.

To fill many idle winter hours, I turned to buying, selling and trading postage stamps through classified advertisements placed in Linn's Stamp News. Within weeks numerous replies came in from all over the United States.

About two months after the first advertisements appeared in Linn's Stamp News, I began to receive letters from people in Indonesia who were interested in trading stamps. I started corresponding with one lady in Surabaya, however, soon realized that she was more interested in exchanging letters with me rather than trading stamps. In one letter to Phi Bang I mentioned that I had started writing letters to a lady in Indonesia. Within a week Phi Bang replied telling me that she thought writing to someone else was a good idea. That was not the response I had been hoping to elicit from Phi Bang.

In early April, about a week after receiving Phi Bang's latest letter, she called. I was not home and Phi Bang did not leave a telephone number where I could reach her. Phi Bang’s call was quite a surprise because she had never called me on the telephone from Tennessee before. I was very curious to know what she wanted. Two choices were before me. Either wait for her to call again or try to find her and call her.

After making numerous requests to directory assistance, I finally obtained a telephone number for the ladies dormitory at Lee College. I telephoned Phi Bang but if she was surprised to hear from me she did not betray the fact. Perhaps she had been expecting me to contact her. Maybe she would have been surprised if I had not called her.

"My dear, I want you come to visit me at Lee." she said, sounding as if it was urgent that I go.

"When do you want me to go?" I asked, astounded by her unexpected request but grateful to hear it.

"Next week. Friday is Lee Day." she replied.

"Yes, I will go." I confirmed while trying not to sound excited; in truth I felt as if I was walking on air.

"You must take airplane to Chattanooga. I  meet you at airport. Cleveland not far from Chattanooga." she explained and then added, "My house not here and you not able to stay in ladies dorm."

"That I understand." I said.

"You can stay at Holiday Inn. That is near Lee. Also not expensive." she suggested..

"Phi Bang, I'll call the airlines first and then I'll call you back to let you know my travel arrangements." I vowed.

After a winter of sporadic letter writing, Phi Bang had finally asked me, practically begged me, to visit her in Cleveland. Of course I only too readily agreed to her request but at the same time wondered what had prompted her sudden change of heart. April had been colder than usual for Montreal and every day so far had felt as if winter was relentlessly hanging on. After Phi Bang's unexpected invitation that frigid April day certainly felt like spring again.

The following morning I visited the bank at opening time and promptly depleted what remained in my account. The airline ticket was less expensive than I had expected, but I did not know how much staying in Cleveland was going to cost me. I was going anyway. All or nothing; that simple really because I was using all I had with nothing held in reserve.

Cold weather and the end of winter still ruled Montreal but late spring had long since arrived in Tennessee. The countryside was green with everything in blossom. A most welcomed instant change of seasons.

Entering the airport's concourse I was expecting to be met but was uncertain about who would be there. A year and a half had passed since the last time Phi Bang and I had seen each other and, while trying to be realistic about my hopeful expectations, I was anticipating that many things would be different. I kept reminding myself that people change over time but I did not feel that I had changed or my life had changed all that much. My life had changed though, I just did not want to and admit it.

A small crowd was waiting to welcome relatives or greet friends but I did not see Phi Bang. I searched the faces in the groups but could not spot a single Asian face among them. I figured it would be best to wait, let the crowd diminish and then look around again. In a matter of minutes everyone was gone.

Chattanooga's airport is tiny compared to Montreal's Dorval or New York's Kennedy. Aside from me, and the few airline employees on duty who now appeared to have nothing to do, the waiting area was deserted. Not being met was quite a let down, but then again, my arrival in Pittsburgh eighteen months earlier had not been all that different either. Phi Bang was definitely not at the airport and I was unsure about what my next move should be. I went outside to look, just in case she had been waiting for me to go out. The sidewalk outside was just as vacant. Catching sight of a sign that read "Welcome to Chattanooga" I muttered aloud, "Yeah.... some welcome."

Disappointed, I wandered back inside the terminal and sat at the end of one of those rows of molded plastic seats joined together which were no doubt designed to make any waiting uncomfortable. And wait I did. Twenty minutes gone. I rationalized that Phi Bang was probably stuck in traffic somewhere. Thirty minutes gone. Maybe the traffic was really bad. Forty-five minutes down. Perhaps she had mixed up the arrival date or time I had given her. An hour down, but no, Phi Bang had correctly repeated the arrival date and time back to me. She knew when I was expected to arrive in Chattanooga. Waiting was agony and I had no idea why Phi Bang was not here.

Becoming uneasy about the time that had already elapsed, I visited all the open ticket counters and managed to scrounge enough quarters from the airline personnel who were willing to make change for my bills so I could make a telephone call to Lee College. I was relieved to discover I had kept the dormitory telephone number and had brought it with me just in case. I called the dormitory but no one there could locate either Phi Bang or Mai Lien or anyone who may have known where either of the two may have been. The telephone operator kept interrupting my call asking me to deposit more coins into the telephone. Meanwhile I continued begging the ladies on the other end of the line to try to find anyone who could give me an answer. Finally my supply of coins was exhausted and when the time was up, the time was up. The operator mercilessly cut me off and the line went dead.

At wits end, I conceded it would be best just to wait it out and try to do it as patiently as possible. I had brought a book with me to read but attempting to read was a waste of time. Taut from waiting and the stress of the unknown, I kept watching the main entrance doors and glancing at the clock.

About two hours later Phi Bang finally arrived with a friend.

"Phi Bang! You cannot imagine how pleased I am to see you again." I exclaimed, at that moment relieved to see someone had finally come for me. 

During the flight I had been trying to decide how to greet Phi Bang upon our reunion but her late arrival upset any plans that may have been formulated. I extended my hand and Phi Bang just smiled back at me in the same manner as the first time we met on the porch of her house in Pittsburgh.

"I'm sorry so late." Phi Bang said, sounding very apologetic. 

Phi Bang explained to me that it was the last week of classes at Lee College and she had been waiting for her friend to finish a class.

"It doesn't really matter. I've had lots of practice waiting. After eighteen months what's a few more hours?" I commented with a laugh.

"I must wait for my friend Elsa to drive but I not know Elsa have a class at your arrival time. This is my friend Elsa. She will drive us to Cleveland. Not too far but also not near to Chattanooga. Come, we go quickly. I don't want to take too much of Elsa's time from study." Phi Bang said, offering an introduction.

Elsa's car was a Volkswagen and I was crammed into the back seat. From the outset of my arrival I had wondered how Phi Bang would welcome me. Was she going to welcome me with the excitement and warmth of a long lost love together again? Or was she only going to cordially but distantly greet me as someone she may have once cared for quite some time ago but longer did now? Phi Bang did ask me a few questions but so far she had acted rather cool and distant. During the drive from the airport to Cleveland she just kept apologizing to Elsa for the inconvenience of having to drive to the Chattanooga airport. Phi Bang's spoken English was still not perfect, but now, she did not seem to have any difficulty understanding me.

Cleveland is a small town nestled in the hills of southeastern Tennessee about twenty-five miles north of Chattanooga. The mountain ranges reminded me of Quebec's Eastern Townships. Cleveland is probably best known for Lee College; nonetheless, the small town did have two Holiday Inns. I checked into one of them.

I was hoping that Phi Bang and I would have time alone together to talk, reminisce, and become reacquainted with each other but she would not have time to visit with me now. Phi Bang had a part time job at the only Chinese restaurant in town and predictably she would be going to work shortly.

"Are you a waitress there?" I asked, assuming that she must have been.

"You not only person who cannot tell difference between Vietnamese and Chinese." she replied. 

At first her response seemed unusual but I recalled her question to me when we had been together in Pittsburgh.

"Phi Bang, this is small town America in a southern state. What did you expect?" I asked.

"Yes I know, but not understand. You wait here for me. I come visit you after work." she commented

Phi Bang remained with me only long enough to ensure that I was checked in to the motel. She then departed with Elsa.

Shortly before 19:00 there was a knock at the door. Expectantly, I was hoping the person on the other side of the door would be Phi Bang. No such luck because it was only the delivery driver from the Chinese restaurant. Phi Bang had sent over a dinner for me. 

The telephone rang moments later and Phi Bang apologetically informed me that she would not be able to see me tonight because she would not finish work until just before midnight. Afterward, she would have to make a rush return to the dormitory to arrive before the curfew.

Phi Bang called me on the telephone early the following morning to let me know she would have classes throughout the entire morning but that she expected she would be free in the afternoon. She also asked me to meet her at 2:30 in the waiting room of Cross Hall, the ladies' dormitory. I told her not to worry because I would find Lee College on my own and meet her there.

Hungry after spending the entire morning watching television, I walked over to the local fried chicken outlet that I had noticed yesterday when we drove through Cleveland. While waiting for my take-out order I observed that unlike in Canada, all the meal packages were sold as either white meat or dark meat separately but not mixed together. As I walked back to the motel I mused, "Yeah, this is small town America in a southern state alright. They even segregate white and dark chicken meat here."

At 14:30 I arrived at Cross Hall, announced my arrival to the housemother and waited for Phi Bang. After a long wait Phi Bang and May Lien finally came down. The three of us spent the remainder of the afternoon talking together while listening to cassette tapes of American style Vietnamese music. We reminisced about many of our previous special moments together in Pittsburgh. As the afternoon quickly passed I felt the awkwardness and strain of the last eighteen months of being separated from each other melting away. One noticeable difference was that Mai Lien could speak and understand English well and she had quite a few belated comments to make about my previous visit in Pittsburgh.

Mai Lien also had a part time job in the Chinese restaurant and both would be working there tonight. Phi Bang did not have to tell me because I had already guessed. My Thursday evening would be spent alone.

Unlike last evening, Phi Bang came over with the driver and with dinner. She could only stay a few minutes while she unwrapped some of the items she had brought for me.

"These are for you to eat. I'm sorry to rush out but can't stay. Mai Lien very busy at restaurant." Phi Bang said.

"Thank you, Phi Bang." I said.

"You not remember! Not good to say thank you too many times." she chided.

"Yes, I do remember what you said but I feel it is appropriate to say thank you to you now." I answered. 

What I really wanted to do was give her a hug, but I did nothing.

"This only dinner for you. You eat. This good for you. I call you later." she said, and then rushed back to the waiting delivery car.

As promised, Phi Bang telephoned later in the evening. She asked me to meet her at the dormitory early tomorrow morning so we could eat breakfast together in the cafeteria. Earlier, Phi Bang and Mai Lien had made several comments about the cafeteria food. All bad.

Friday was open house at Lee College and Phi Bang repeatedly reminded me that I would be able to attend classes with her. While I suggested it would probably be better for me to wait for her in the library when she was in class, Phi Bang was insistent that I accompany her. Reluctantly I agreed to attend her philosophy class even though I had no idea what subject material the class had been covering. 

After briefly reviewing work the class had covered earlier in the semester, the elderly professor closed his text book, placed it aside, silently stared at the class for a moment or two and then asked that question, "Are all men created equal?"

Silence was the only response. No one attempted to venture a reply. The professor glanced around the class, perhaps toward those he may have expected to say something, but still, it appeared that no one was going to willingly volunteer an answer. Had he asked any other question, I would have remained silent and been content to say nothing. But the professor had asked that particular question and I was not going to sit and remain silent. I wanted my chance and moment of fame to defend my opinion that all men and women were created equal in spite of their differences.

"Yes!" I answered out loud. 

My boldness must have astonished Phi Bang as much as it did me. She turned to look at me, as did half the class.

"Ah...we have a visitor!" the professor commented while looking over the top of his glasses toward me. 

Noticing that I was an unfamiliar face, he welcomed me to the class and asked, "Young man, do you believe that all men are created equal?"

"Yes." I said, repeating my answer.

"Why?" he asked.

"Because I do." I replied.

“Why do you believe your answer to be correct?” He probed further

“Because I believe all men are born equal.” I quickly answered.

“Born and created do not have the same meaning. For this argument, let’s stay with created.” The professor accurately pointed out.

“Well I still think they’re created equal.” I stated.

“Why do you think all men are created equal?” he probed. 

The professor relentlessly continued and cross-examined every answer I gave with another question. I was playing a losing chess game and helplessly watching my defending pieces being systematically removed from the board. Check.

"Ah yes...equal but not the same!” He exclaimed, sounding as if he had covered this ground many times before. 

He then asked, “If you consider the premise of equal but not the same to be equal, can we not then also consider the premise that the same but not equal is the same?”

“What?” I asked, now confused. Again, check.

“Is this not a contradiction?" he suggested.

I thought about the professor's fiddling with semantics but did not answer.

"Young man, let me ask you another question. Do you think the person born crippled has been created equal to the person born without infirmity?" he asked further.

"Before God, all will be treated as equal." I replied.

"That may be true but does not address a response to my question about created equal." the professor pointed out and then asked, "Do you believe that the sighted from birth and the blind from birth were created equal?"

As I was thinking about the question and what was going to be my answer, the professor added, "Before you rush to answer, however, think about this:.if I posed this same question to a man blind from birth, would he give the same answer you are about to give?"

"I cannot answer this question." I replied, humbled, unable to dispute his argument and embarrassed by the corner I had backed myself into. Checkmate.

"Class, I suggest to you that all men are not created equal." the professor said.

None of the students ventured to put forward any argument either for or against the professor's statement. For the remainder of the class I said nothing else, quite willing to listen and to be no more than the visitor I was.

After the class was finished, Phi Bang asked me, "Why you argue with professor?"

"Because he asked that particular question." I said.

"Why?" Phi Bang asked me.

"We are equal even though we are different." I answered.

"You are only visitor today. You not study in this class before. You not know subject material. The professor is very clever and know many things." Phi Bang commented.

"Yes, but that does not mean the professor is correct or that I am wrong nor does it mean that I agree with him. Anyway I could not argue against his points." I conceded.

"I not understand why you argue with professor." Phi Bang reiterated.

"My mother is a Macdonald." I replied, knowing full well that Phi Bang would not have any idea what that was supposed to mean. 

While growing up I had always heard that the Hebridean Macdonalds were known to be particularly obstinate.

"McDonald? I think we eat in cafeteria today. We go there to find Mai Lien. I already ask her to wait there for us." Phi Bang commented.

Mai Lien was already holding places for us when Phi Bang and I joined her in the very busy cafeteria. Phi Bang and Mai Lien were definitely right about the food. It was awful. Why the cafeteria was so busy was a mystery. Anyway, Phi Bang faithfully promised to send over more food from the Chinese restaurant. I wondered if Phi Bank and May Lien worked at the restaurant so they could avoid cafeteria food.

Following lunch, if the food could be called lunch because most of the gunk remained on our plates, the three of us wandered over to the library. Phi Bang was anxious to show me the college's library. Although this was her second year at Lee, Phi Bang was amazed by the library and genuinely awed to see that so much knowledge could be housed under one roof. Phi Bang once remarked she had never seen any library like this in Vietnam. Like a loose child in a toy store, Phi Bang quickly and excitedly flipped through pages of various books on just about every subject she could think of. Finally she selected a huge volume about American cinematographic history. The three of us studiously peered at numerous photographs of scenes from various movies, some of which were familiar. Phi Bang and Mai Lien both seemed to possess a familiar broad knowledge about American films and famous film actors. I was surprised they knew as much as they did, which was more than I knew.

At 2:30 Phi Bang had to leave to attend her last class of the day. Following the class she would have to go to work. Phi Bang and Mai Lien had a brief discussion in Vietnamese and then Phi Bang informed me, "Tonight, Mai Lien work at restaurant."

"Oh?" I replied questioningly, wondering what this was supposed to mean.

"We can go to movies tonight." Phi Bang said sounding hopeful.

"I thought you had to work." I commented.

"Yes. I leave restaurant early. Mai Lien take my place there." she added.

"What movie is playing?" I asked, surprised by this sudden change in Phi Bang's schedule that had always seemed to be inflexible.

"Not know this week. Last week was A Star Is Born. That is a very good movie. I'm sorry we can't see." Phi Bang commented somewhat wistfully.

"Very sad story." Mai Lien added.

"I don't know. I haven't seen the movie." I admitted.

"You will like that movie." Mai Lien suggested.

"I don't really know. Barbara Streisand is not one of my favourite entertainers." I intentionally revealed.

"Tonight, not A Star Is Born. Not know name of movie tonight but actor is Burt Reynolds." Phi Bang said.

"Now that may be a movie more to my liking." I responded with a show of enthusiasm.

"I must go to class now. You wait at outside cinema at 8:30. You can walk there from motel. It is very near. Cinema is in plaza next to motel where you stay." Phi Bang hurriedly informed me as she quickly collected her books from the table.

"Phi Bang, I will see you outside the cinema at 8:30." I said to reconfirm.

I watched Phi Bang quickly cross the library and disappear through the doorway. As soon as she was out of sight, Mai Lien began asking me questions. Mai Lien did not waste time with small talk. She got right to the point.

"Why you come here?" Mai Lien asked while looking at me intently.

"I came to visit Phi Bang." I replied, surprised by her question.

"Yes, I know you come visit Bang but not understand to know reason." she added.

"Phi Bang asked me to come here and I wanted to come.” I answered.

“Yes, but what is reason to know?” She asked. 

“I want to know if there is a future for us." I admitted. 

"How you can know what is the future?" Mai Lien asked curiously, almost as if she was expecting me to reveal some hidden ability to know the future.

"I don't know, Mai Lien. I don't know the future any more than you do." I answered.

"After last time visit, after you leave Pittsburgh, Bang tell me you want to have marriage with her." Mai Lien indicated.

"Yes." I confirmed, then asked, "Were you surprised?"

"No. Not surprise really. Bang not understand why you only write in letter but not to talk. Now is a long time since you visit at Pittsburgh. I think maybe not ready time for you to think serious about serious subject." she said.

"I haven't given up." I confirmed.

"How you can feel love for Bang but for long time not together? I not understand how you can feel any love inside." Mai Lien continued. 

"Faith hope and love, the greatest of these is love." I replied, remembering that verse in the Bible. 

"Love is that one thing I never can feel or understand to know. Inside me there is nothing." Mai Lien stated while pointing toward herself.

"I don't understand what you mean." I commented cautiously, surprised by both her comments and questions.

"Not know what is love or how feel love. I cannot cry any more tears. Not for any persons. Inside me... there is nothing." Mai Lien reiterated while again pointing toward herself.

"Mai Lien, are you are trying to tell me something? If so, then I don't understand where this is leading." I stated.

"How can you know there is love after long time? How can you feel anything inside? How you can feel love for Bang?" she asked. The expression on Mai Lien's face betrayed a genuine need to know the answer.

"I don't know how to answer your questions." I replied.

"In Vietnam...long time before come to America...I have friend who can tell me he love me, but I never can feel anything for him. I want to feel love but there was nothing to feel inside. When together, he would hold me, kiss me but I not feel anything. When he was gone away I cannot cry any tears for him. I cannot return feeling for love. I can never feel love for anyone. There is nothing inside me to feel love." Mai Lien explained, revealing a bit about herself and her past. 

She almost sounded as if she truly wished she did not feel the way she did.

"Perhaps you have not yet found the right person for you." I suggested, not really knowing what to say to her.

"Do you find right person for you?" Mai Lien countered.

Hesitating first to think about how to answer her question, I admitted, "Yes...I want to say yes. I truly want to be able to say yes as if there is no doubt at all within me, but I can't. Sometimes I just don't know what Phi Bang thinks of me."

"You must think about future for you. You must be ready to meet a time for sadness when that time for sadness comes to you." she said. 

"That's where we differ. My hope is for happiness in the future." I replied. 

"When I leave Vietnam, I cannot cry any tears for my dear country. I was so sad for that day but there were no more tears to cry. Inside, a part of me was died forever. But now, I must think about what is the future for me and study to prepare for better time." Mai Lien revealed.

"Mai Lien, I haven't thought very much about studies but I can assure you I've often thought about the future. I have often thought about a future for me that includes Phi Bang in it." I declared, wondering if my remark would flow back to Phi Bang.

Mai Lien looked at me thoughtfully for a moment then smiled and said, "Maybe I cannot call you brother today, but you are always dear friend from Canada. You must think about time to study. You must think about what is the future for you."

"I've heard this advice before." I commented. 

Was Mai Lien merely offering me her own opinion or was she relaying a message from Phi Bang? I did not know but Phi Bang and Mai Lien did seem to place a great emphasis on the importance of studies to prepare for what they believed would be a better future.

"I'm so sorry but I must excuse also to go to class. You can stay here at library and look in more books." Mai Lien suggested.

"Yeah...okay. I'll stay for a while and make my own way back later. Mai Lien, please remind Phi Bang that I will be waiting for her outside the cinema at 8:30." I implored, hopeful that Mail Lien would pass my reminder on to Phi Bang.

That evening I waited just outside the cinema doors as we had arranged earlier but there was no sign of Phi Bang. Had I travelled all the way to this little town in Tennessee only to be stood up on what supposed to be our first evening together? While impatiently waiting and enviously watching a seemingly endless parade of couples going in, I was undecided about whether to buy the tickets now or wait until after Phi Bang arrived. I was also aware that she may not have been able to arrange time off work, but even so, our plans had been made and I was to meet her here at 8:30.

"What do I do now?" I silently asked myself, almost begging to hear an answer. 

Now after 9:00 and the first of the features was under way. People had stopped arriving and I was conspicuously here alone and very conscious of that fact. If the person selling tickets was aware of my plight, there was no acknowledgement. Standing here alone must surely have been a tragic scene that others had played out before me, to be stood-up, left waiting and wondering. Nonetheless, I continued the vigil and scanned the nearby streets for a car headed in this direction. Close to the point of giving up, a small delivery car from the local Chinese restaurant arrived and Phi Bang hopped out.

If Phi Bang was aware that she was quite late she did not betray the fact. She did not offer me any excuses or an apology. All she asked was whether or not I had purchased the tickets while waiting for her. I hadn't. We then tried to buy two tickets only to discover that all had been completely sold out for the entire evening, which was not surprising considering the flow people that had I had watched go inside earlier.

"Why you did not buy tickets?" she asked, sounding rather annoyed with me.

"I was waiting for you to arrive." I answered.

"You were supposed to buy tickets." she stated, sounding even more annoyed.

"Phi Bang, I did not think that you were going to come." I replied.

"I tell you before I will come." she said insistently, and stamped her foot on the ground in frustration.

"You told me that you would be here at 8:30 and not 9:20 which it is now." I argued.

"You know I must work at restaurant. Very busy tonight. I can't always go at time I want to go. Now we can't see movies." she pointed out.

"There’s always tomorrow." I commented while looking at her feet.

"Tomorrow is Saturday. That will be Lee Day. We will go to Lee College tomorrow." Phi Bang reminded me.

"Well what do you want me to do now? There are no more tickets and we can’t get in." I said.

We could have remained there, continued arguing and let the situation degenerate into a battle, but we did not. After a few more moments of heated debate about who should have done what, when and where, we agreed it would be best to go to my motel room to use the telephone.

"We go to your room at motel and I will call Elsa. She will take me back to dorm." Phi Bang said, sounding upset and insistent that she wanted to go back to the dormitory.

"Phi Bang, I’m sorry but I really did not think that you were going to come." I repeated. I was also going to comment about her late arrival at the airport the other day but said nothing.

"I go back to dorm now." she stated, but sounding a little less insistent than before.

"Alright, if you wish." I said compliantly, not wanting to make matters worse by making Phi Bang any more upset with me than she already was.

This little town had no other movie entertainment so far as Phi Bang knew. As we walked, silently at first, we began talking to each other again.

"Maybe I think again about go back to dorm." Phi Bang said, now sounding as if her thoughts were elsewhere.

"Phi Bang, I did not really want to see the movies anyway." I admitted.

"Why you not say before?" she asked, sounding surprised.

"I really just want to spend my time here with you." I said, as we reached the corner of the motel parking lot.

"Yes, I know maybe I come late, but I come." she said, now sounding somewhat conciliatory.

"When I was waiting I actually thought about buying tickets." I admitted.

"Not change anything now. There is always tomorrow for another movie." she commented.

By the time we arrived at the door to my motel room, Phi Bang had decided that maybe she did not want to go to the dorm.

"You have to dial the motel operator and ask her to connect you." I said, picking up the telephone receiver and handing it to her anyway.

"I not call Elsa. Maybe we talk now." Phi Bang suggested while placing the receiver back on the telephone.

"We can watch T.V. if you wish." I offered.

"Not the same as movie." Phi Bang replied.

"Yeah, I know." I added in agreement.

Phi Bang looked around the room out of curiosity and then commented, "I never go in motel room before with a man. In Vietnam it is not a good thing for a proper lady to do."

"Well, it’s not the best thing for a lady to do here either." I stated.

"Yes, I think such." she commented

"I’ve never had anyone visit me in a motel room before." I stated rather emphatically. 

"I think such also." she said, sounding as if she had no doubt. 

"We can leave the door open if you wish. I don't have a problem with doing that." I suggested.

"No. You not need to do such. This is not Vietnam. Not afraid or worry. My dear, who can know or to care what we said or did?" Phi Bang said.

"I care." I replied.

"Yes, I know. I already call my father in Pittsburgh and told him you come to Cleveland to visit me." Phi Bang revealed.

"You did?" I repeated questioningly, surprised that she would have done that.

"Yes. He not worry because he says that you are a good person to be trust." Phi Bang added.

"Then I will not do anything to change his opinion." I said.

At certain times in life situations come along that have all the makings of being a complete disaster but quickly turn around and actually become blessings that were disguised. That evening was one of those times and I was grateful for it. From the moment I had arrived in Tennessee, all I had really wanted was just to spend some time alone with Phi Bang, without interruptions or distractions, so we could talk to each other. Strangely enough, I was also uncomfortable being alone with Phi Bang because I was well aware that I was not a person who could easily open up and speak to her from my heart or convey the true feelings on my mind. 

How does one just sit down and try to explain about all that has occurred after being separated by distance for the last eighteen months? How does one explain one's feelings about some of the hurts or perceived hurts to the person you think you know but perhaps do not really know but nonetheless want to spend your life with? If there were answers then I did not know what they were.

Phi Bang sat on the couch facing the television set. She was going to turn on the Television, but after getting up, she decided not to. I sat on a chair at the table.

"I think maybe we talk and not watch T.V." Phi Bang suggested again.

"Okay, what do you want to talk about?" I asked, hoping to find out what Phi Bang was thinking about.

"I want to talk about typing letter you send me.” She stated.

“Okay.” I answered, wondering where this discussion would go.

“Why you write such angry letter with hurtful words?” Phi Bang asked, looking somewhat pained.

“It was a mistake. My mistake.” I quickly answered, hoping she would accept my answer and let the matter go.

“When I received that letter I not know how to say to you anything.” she said.

"That was last year." I said, somewhat flustered by her direct line of approach and surprised that she would choose to persist in asking about an incident between us that occurred quite some time ago.

"Yes, I know, but we never talk about it before in letter. I not know how to write in English to explain my feeling." Phi Bang said.

"You didn’t write to me for such a long time. You didn't even write and tell me that you were studying in Tennessee. Finding out that you were in Tennessee was a shock." I said.

"Yes, I send you card with Lee address after I arrive here." she stated.

"That was a good-bye card!" I exclaimed.

"Yes. A time to think only about study. Not a time to think about love." she replied.

"I was more hurt and upset by your silence." I replied in defense.

"You not think about my feelings, my hurt. Too much to study. Too much difficulty to live in this place, to learn English and read textbooks. I not know how to write to tell you. I not want you to be angry. I not know how you think about me." Phi Bang revealed.

"My thoughts and feelings for you have not changed since our time together in Pittsburgh." I said, now realizing that I should have been far more understanding about the many challenges Phi Bang had been struggling with.

"Yes, you tell, but you not say anything to me from your heart. You speak like such cold person." Phi Bang commented.

"Phi Bang, I wish I never wrote that letter to you." I muttered.

"Do you think I am a bad person?" she asked.

"No. Not at all!" I stated emphatically.

“Also, you tell post office to return other letters to me. Letters with my promise for you. I not understand any reason for such.” She said, betraying no hint of emotion in her voice.

"I was still upset with you at that time." I admitted, and then continued, "You don’t know what it was like, waiting and hoping, week after week. No letter, no word. Nothing at all from you." I replied, recalling how depressed I had felt during spring season in Vancouver last year.

"Yes, I not understand about such but also you not understand about me and my thought." Phi Bang argued.

"You’re right about that. I didn’t understand. I didn’t have any idea what to try to understand. You never wrote to tell me your thoughts and feelings." I answered, pointing out to her what she had said to me a few moments earlier.

"Yes, but not know how to write in English to explain my feeling for you to understand." Phi Bang said once more.

After pausing briefly to reflect, I commented, "I suppose you could say it was a big misunderstanding."

"From movie I know that is supposed to make someone laugh but I not understand why funny." Phi Bang replied.

"It wasn’t meant to be funny, only to point out what’s obvious." I said.

"Are you angry with me?" Phi Bang asked.

"No. I’m grateful just to be here with you." I answered.

"Is there a time for us now?" Phi Bang asked while turning to searchingly look at me.

"Yes, I hope so. That’s why I came here." I answered while looking at her.

"I want you come here last year to Lee Day." Phi Bang said.

"I didn’t know about that. You only told me after." I replied.

"Yes, I know. Vancouver is so far away. I not want to ask you." she admitted.

"I would have come anyway, but I won't visit without an invitation from you." I said.

"Last year I was so sad at Lee Day. All my friends here have family or friend to visit." Phi Bang recounted.

"This year will be different. I have come as you have asked." I declared.

"Yes, I know. Tomorrow I will show you chemistry lab. That is my favourite place to have class and study." Phi Bang stated, now betraying traces of excitement, and then added to remind me, "But study time will be so long and for many more years. I not change my thought about study."

"Okay." I commented and said nothing else. 

I did not want to hear any more about studying, at least not now as far as I was concerned.

"Why you sit over there on chair?" Phi Bang asked, suddenly changing the subject.

"Because you are sitting over there." I answered.

"Come and sit with me. We can watch T.V. together." she suggested.

"And what will your father say?" I asked.

"I will not say to him about this visit here." Phi Bang stated.

Leaving the chair, I moved and sat down on the opposite end of the couch from Phi Bang.

"Why you sit there? You can sit beside me." Phi Bang offered warmly as she gestured for me to move closer to her.

"What do you want to watch?" I asked and handed her the motel's television schedule.

"Not know. Never watch. Always too busy with homework from class and study for exams." Phi Bang revealed. She tossed the schedule on top of the coffee table.

Moving over beside Phi Bang, I held her hand in the same manner as I did when we sat on the bench in that cemetery in Pittsburgh. Saying nothing and staring at her hand, I also recalled the time on the bus when we looped through downtown Pittsburgh.

"You hold me! You place your arm around me like this." she said, taking my arm and coaxing me to place my arm around her shoulder. 

"I don't believe this!" I thought incredulously and then said, "Phi Bang, I have never done like this before with anyone, not even my former girlfriend." I admitted, somewhat surprised by her action.

"Yes, not surprise to know. You are so cold person." she commented, and then moved a little to rest her head upon my shoulder.

"You may be right, but I may also be afraid." I replied.

"Afraid of what?" she asked, sounding surprised by my comment.

"I don't really know." I answered. But I did know. I was afraid of the situation I found myself in.

We sat together in silence for a few minutes. Phi Bang resting against me was a wonderful feeling, a physical closeness to Phi Bang that I had long secretly craved and desired. She suddenly sat up and turned to look at me.

"Do you like to kiss?" Phi Bang asked.

"What?" I exclaimed in surprise and then added, "I don't know."

"Where do you kiss?" she asked while looking right at me.

"I don't know. I’ve never kissed anyone before." I admitted shyly.

"I think such. Where do people in America kiss?" she asked.

"I suppose you mean white people?" I asked.

"Yes." she confirmed.

"I don't know. I suppose on the lips." I answered, probably sounding less than certain.

"That is what I think you will tell me but I don't like kiss on lips. If for me I would like to have kiss on neck. I think it’s better to have kiss on neck." she said. 

Phi Bang then leaned back and rested her head against my shoulder again.

"What!?" I stammered. Stunned by her candor I wondered, “In Vietnam does a kiss on the neck have the same implication as in North America?”

"Your hand is wet." Phi Bang commented, noticing that my hand was perspiring.

"Yes, I know. So is the other one. My hands are always moist when it's warm and right now it's hot in here." I commented.

"I can remember last time in Pittsburgh at train station. I wanted to give you kiss but I was too shy to do." Phi Bang said.

"Phi Bang, I was thinking the same thing at that time and I often wished that I had done differently there." I admitted.

Phi Bang took my wrist, placed my hand against her leg just above her knee, and then quietly said, "You can kiss me now."

"On the neck?" I asked nervously, and felt my stomach tighten.

"Yes." she said softly, almost whispering. 

Phi Bang looked away and tilted her head just enough so that her hair fell behind her shoulder and away from her neck.

For a moment that seemed like a lifetime, I looked longingly and desirously at Phi Bang while she waited for me to act. In three days of my arrival here, Phi Bang had me where I had only wanted her in my wildest dreams. My values and desires were locked in a battle that kept me in a constant, charged state of anxiety. The gentleman within me was clashing with the animal within me. Everything that I desired, wanted, hoped for and dreamed about, was within my reach and was now being offered to me. Yet, this unbelievable moment in time could not be reconciled with my beliefs. Simply put, we were not married. Oh yes, I could have changed the outcome of our relationship and probably our lives at that moment, but I did nothing. Many may have called it fear, it probably was, but I have always believed what held me back was something else, perhaps God.

"I think we better turn on the T.V. This is not the train station in Pittsburgh." I mumbled, sounding somewhat distracted while continuing to look at Phi Bang with desire.

"Yes, I know." she said softly while looking at me.

"Phi Bang, there are times when I wish I could know what you are thinking." I said, while looking at her.

"You not ask. You not know" she remarked enigmatically.

"I don't always know what questions to ask you." I admitted. 

Looking searchingly at Phi Bang and saying nothing, I was confused. Had I been afraid to kiss Phi Bang because she was Vietnamese and I was not? No. Was I afraid to make that first step or last step across the racial barrier between us? No. Was I afraid because events had moved so quickly that I was not ready? Maybe.

"You must not be too cold and afraid." she said but Phi Bang did not ask me what I was thinking about.

"I don't always know what to say to you." I replied. I did know, but I could not bring myself to tell her. 

Yes, I wanted to hold her, kiss her and more. Not as a girlfriend but as my wife. I was also afraid that I would not have been able to stop if we had started.

"Your hand very wet" Phi Bang commented.

"I know." I said, and abruptly removed it from her leg, realizing my hand was still resting where she had placed it. I felt embarrassed.

"It's late. I must call my friend to come. If I am late to go back to dorm after midnight, then the house mother will call my father to tell him." Phi Bang said, betraying no trace of emotion in her response.

"Does that mean you will become a pumpkin after midnight?" I asked.

"Not understand." she said while giving me a puzzled look.

"You don't know what a pumpkin is?" I asked.

"Yes, I know what is, but not October now. Not know why you say." she commented.

"Cinderella. But I suppose you don't know that story." I said.

"Yes, not know." Phi Bang replied.

"You better call your friend to come and pick you up. While we're waiting for her to come, I'll tell you about Cinderella. It’s a child's story." I said, and then an instant later started laughing upon realizing my choice of words.

"Why you laugh now?" Phi Bang asked, confused by my sudden outburst.

"After you leave there won’t be any Cinderella for me." I indicated.

"Not understand." she said looking even more confused.

"It's okay. There won't be any glass slipper either." I added.

"I don’t understand what you are telling me." Phi Bang said, sounding completely baffled by my nervous nonsense.

"That's because you don't know the story. I’ll tell you after you call." I said. I then picked up the telephone receiver and handed it to Phi Bang.

"Elsa will come in ten minutes. Tomorrow you come to Cross Hall at seven o'clock. Then we go for breakfast." Phi Bang said to me after she hung up the telephone.

Moments later, Elsa's Volkswagen was outside the door. Just before Phi Bang opened the door to leave, I gave her a hug and said good night.

"Why you not do before?" she asked.

"Before, I did not think it would be safe to do." I answered.

"I not understand. You are such cold person and not speak from heart. We talk tomorrow." Phi Bang said, smiling faintly while she put on her cardigan.

"Good night, Phi Bang. I'll see you tomorrow morning at seven." I said as I opened the door for her.

After watching Phi Bang get into the car and disappear into the night, I slowly closed the door to the motel room while reflecting on what had occurred during our evening together. I hated myself for being unable to overcome my shyness, for being unable to open up and to let Phi Bang know who I really was and how I truly felt about her. Looking toward the undisturbed empty bed, I wondered whether to feel relief or sorrow, and then thought, "Phi Bang must think I'm crazy. How will I ever be able to show her my true feelings for her?"

Arriving at our agreed upon time the following morning, I was less than enthusiastically greeted by the housemother. The housemother was middle aged, somewhat stout, grumpy, and cross, but at least she did not speak with a heavy eastern European accent. And these were just some of her positive traits. She must have regarded every male visitor to the lobby as a threat to the integrity of her domain. No wonder the ladies dormitory was called Cross Hall. I find it difficult to imagine the building may have actually been named for someone called Cross. Anyway, Phi Bang was not here and the housemother refused to disturb any resident before 08:00.

Waiting for at least an hour after 08:00, Phi Bang finally came down with Mai Lien. Phi Bang apologized. She had forgotten to set her alarm clock. We strolled along one of the town's tree lined roads to a donut shop for breakfast because Phi Bang and Mai Lien absolutely did not want to eat in the campus cafeteria. As soon as we were seated on stools at the counter, Phi Bang and Mai Lien complained they were hungry but did not particularly like donuts. I particularly liked donuts but was not hungry. 

"I'm glad it's not plain cold rice for breakfast." I commented, cradling a warm cup of coffee in my hands and recalling our first breakfast together in Pittsburgh.

Phi Bang glanced at me for a moment, and then said, "I not like donuts for breakfast."

"American breakfast food not good." Mai Lien added, then wished aloud, "I want to have noodles."

"Why did we come here if you don't like donuts?" I asked out of curiosity.

"Not know. My friends and many students at Lee come here. Sometime I come also." she replied.

Nonetheless, Phi Bang and Mai Lien ate donuts and I had only a cup of coffee.

Following breakfast we meandered back to the campus. As she promised earlier in the week, Phi Bang enthusiastically and affectionately gave me a very detailed tour of both the biology lab and the chemistry lab. Her affection and enthusiasm, however, were for her favourite places of study and not for me. I had brought my camera along and captured some posed scenes of Phi Bang gleefully tinkering with beakers and test tubes.

"Did you come up with the right formula?" I asked.

"What formula?" Phi Bang asked, sounding somewhat puzzled by my question.

"The one the Beatles sing about." I mentioned deliberately.

"Not understand. Beetles in biology lab not sing." Phi Bang replied.

"I was thinking about the chemistry lab." I confirmed.

"Beetles not in chemistry lab. Anyway, not do any formula for beetles." Phi Bang answered.

Picking up an empty test tube from the holder and looking at it studiously for a moment, I then concurred with her findings, "You're right Phi Bang, there's nothing in here."

Replacing the empty test tube, I knew that Phi Bang had not understood what I was talking about. Last night was last night and whatever magic there may have been last night was missing now. My thoughts were about the song "Love Potion Number Nine" but obviously no love potion formula had ever been dreamed up in a chemistry laboratory. 

Phi Bang told me that Lee Day was one of the few days of the year when male visitors were allowed beyond the limits of the dormitory lobby, so she invited me upstairs to visit and see her domain. Her half of the room was decorated with several personal items of a distinctly Asian influence. On her desk were numerous photographs and postcards. Upon looking closer at the array of photographs, I discovered none were of me or the two of us together, only family. Twinges of hurt bit at me as the truth of reality pierced my delusions. I was not important enough to Phi Bang for her to keep a photo of me on her desk. Sometimes what is not said speaks louder than mere words. Anyway, relieved to see that there were no photographs of someone else, I said nothing to Phi Bang about my observations.

"Hey Phi Bang! Who is your visitor?" a voice called from the doorway.

Turning, I saw two Asian ladies looking in from the doorway.

"This my friend from Canada. He came to visit for Lee Day." Phi Bang replied.

"Aren't you going to introduce your boyfriend to us?" the taller lady asked with a tone of teasing in her voice.

"We go out now. Already late. We can meet at later time for introduction." Phi Bang answered coldly.

"How do you find boyfriend in Canada? Phi Bang, you must tell us your secret later." the other lady remarked sarcastically to Phi Bang as the two turned and walked away.

"Who were those two?" I asked out of curiosity after they had departed.

"Those sisters come to Lee as foreign students from Indonesia." Phi Bang indicated.

"I thought maybe they were other Vietnamese students here." I said.

"No. Only two Vietnamese students at Lee." Phi Bang replied informatively.

"You and Mai Lien, right?" I asked.

"I don't like those two sisters." Phi Bang hissed. That was the first time I ever heard Phi Bang make a comment, positive or negative, about someone else.

"Why not? I thought they were your friends." I commented, perhaps betraying some surprise.

The other pair of sisters was the only other Asian students studying at Lee College. I was surprised to discover that Phi Bang was hostile to the only two students whom I assumed would be most similar to her and Mai Lien.

"They are Chinese." Phi Bang remarked coolly, and added, "Always pretend to be friend but always not friend."

"I thought you said they were from Indonesia." I commented.

"Yes, from Indonesia, but I know they are Chinese." she answered, sounding as if she disliked the two sisters simply because they were Chinese.

"I don't know, Phi Bang." I confessed.

"You not know because you are not Vietnamese." Phi Bang replied.

Silent for a moment, I finally realized that the differences between Vietnamese and Chinese were probably no greater than the differences between English and French, so I countered, "Maybe I do know and more than you realize."

"Those two always try to make very good impressions with professor and faculty. You can meet them at another time tomorrow." Phi Bang commented, again betraying more than just a trace of dislike. 

She then changed the subject, "We go to movies now but first must find Mai Lien. She maybe come with us."

As the three of us slowly walked along tree-shaded sidewalks from the campus toward the cinema, I gently and cautiously took Phi Bang's hand to hold in mine. She did not object to my gesture.

"Phi Bang, I've been here for several days but so far I really don't know what your studies are leading toward. What degree are you working on here?" I asked, wanting to know what she was hoping to achieve.

"Not decide yet." Phi Bang replied.

"You haven't decided yet? This is your second year here!" I commented with surprise.

"So many subject to study. If I can take I want to study many. Maybe I study for chemistry degree or medical degree, but this university not offer. Also, my English not good enough. English always a problem for me. Scholarship end after this semester complete. Not know if I will have success for scholarship next semester." Phi Bang indicated.

"What will happen if you don’t receive a scholarship for the next semester?" I probed.

“Must return to home at Pittsburgh and find another college or university for studies.” she stated without emotion, as if this alternative had already been decided.

"Are you certain you will want to continue your studies somewhere else?" I probed further.

"Yes! Not expect to complete studies before I'm twenty seven." she confirmed emphatically.

Stopping, I looked at Phi Bang and, perhaps with more than a trace of surprise, asked, "Twenty seven? Why twenty-seven?"

"My plan is to study for seven more years. I not expect to complete degree before such time. May also be necessary for me to work for a time. After studies finish, then I can think about to have husband and family." Phi Bang replied, sounding as if she had already given the subject much thought.

Mai Lien looked at me but said nothing at all. She did not need to say anything. Maybe this was what she was really talking about yesterday.

Learning about Phi Bang's plan for seven more years of studies was an unexpected revelation. Saying nothing else, I silently thought, "At least Jacob knew what he could expect after seven years of hard labour for Laban." 

I had no idea what to expect or even hope for because I had not given the subject any thought.

"Do you think that is a long time?" Phi Bang asked after a moment of silence.

"I'm surprised. That's all." I answered. In truth, I was dumbfounded.

"Come. We go. Not stay here on sidewalk for talk." Phi Bang said, tugging at my hand.

Phi Bang insisted she wanted to make a detour through the shopping plaza and visit several stores. While we had been strolling the streets of town, Phi Bang did not seem to mind if I held her hand, however, while we were at the plaza and in the stores, she objected.

I took Phi Bang's hand again and again she pulled away. Surprised, I asked, "Phi Bang, is there something wrong?"

"Not hold hand in store. You can hold after." she said.

"Why?" I asked out of curiosity.

"Not want other people to see." she said.

"Why not?" I asked, still puzzled why the stores were any different from the streets or campus.

"Too much wrong talk about what can be seen." she commented.

I did not know who the other people were that she was talking about but at least I knew that Mai Lien was not one of the others.

The latter part of Saturday afternoon and Saturday evening were spent watching the movie features in the crowded cinema. Phi Bang and Mai Lien both loved the big screen and I knew from bits of previous conversations that both had been spending much of their limited free time here. Knowing this also offered me a possible explanation why Phi Bang may not have been writing to me all that often.

During the last year and a half I had on occasions wondered if Phi Bang had been dating others. I even thought about asking her but never did. Remaining silent and wondering was easier to live with than knowing what the truth may have been, especially if the truth may have been painful. Anyway, Phi Bang had spoken about her study plans with the same unwavering determination as she had done when we were seated on that bench in the cemetery in Pittsburgh. No. Phi Bang had not been dating others. Although I did not ask, Mai Lien had confirmed that much to me when we talked together in the library yesterday. Strangely enough, if Phi Bang had been dating others or had affections for someone else, then probably my nemesis would have been easier to deal with. Phi Bang's vision and unwavering determination could not be reckoned with.

Sunday morning’s arrival and wait at Cross Hall was an identical repeat of Saturday morning. Phi Bang finally came down to the reception area with Mai Lien and Elsa. Elsa immediately asked us if we would like to go to church with her. Although I wanted to say yes and go to the Sunday worship service, I waited for Phi Bang to reply first. She said nothing at all. Glancing at Phi Bang for some indication of her wishes, she smiled at me and shook her head very slightly to indicate she wanted to say no but did not want to have to actually say no. Elsa was busy talking to Mai Lien and did not appear to notice Phi Bang's gesture to me. Mai Lien did notice though and she said no to Elsa first.

Because Phi Bang did not want to attend church, I too declined Elsa's invitation even though a part of me wanted to say yes. In that instant I willingly betrayed all that I had always claimed to believe in and declared important in my life. The opportunity to reveal and proclaim my Christian beliefs to Phi Bang had been offered to me and I rejected it. Without the slightest of hesitation I denied my faith. That had been my moment of truth and I denied Christ just as surely as Peter had done. Worse, I made my choice deliberately and selfishly, hoping that Phi Bang would be less likely to push me away.

Following our late breakfast in the campus cafeteria, Phi Bang decided she wanted to take some photographs in the backyard garden of one university professor's home. She had visited the home and garden on previous occasions and insisted it was a beautiful place to take photographs. 

The backyard was indeed spacious and sloped downhill away from the house. A large pond occupied the far end of the lot, hidden beyond a line of elderly flowering trees. The sunny edge of the pond had been carefully crafted into a rock garden. The backyard garden was a beautiful, peaceful, secluded location. Phi Bang was right. The location was ideal for photographs.

The late morning sun was soothingly warm without being too hot. Phi Bang had been noticeably quieter than usual so there had been little conversation between us during our stroll over to the professor's home. After we had finished taking our photographs we rested briefly on the white marble bench beneath the trees.

Phi Bang wanted me to open up, talk to her and to reveal and display my feelings for her but I did not know how to respond to her wishes. I always felt there was an invisible barrier between us but I could not define what the barrier was or decide whether it was real or only imagined. Afraid of being rebuffed and hurt, too much effort had been wasted in learning how to hide and shelter my feelings. I did not know how to lower my defenses and reveal my inner thoughts and feelings to her. 

Mesmerized by sunlight glittering on the pond's surface my thoughts focused on a scene from my past, a scene that was uncomfortably too similar. Years earlier, my girlfriend and I had been sitting on a large stone beside Riviere des Prairies beneath the CN railway bridge. That location was also somewhat secluded and the afternoon's sunlight was glittering off the river's restless surface.

On that particular afternoon I had finally worked up the courage to try to explain to my girlfriend about my feelings for her and my desires for us. My words were not eloquent but I shyly revealed to her that I was impatiently waiting for summer vacation to arrive so we would be able to spend more time together. She was strangely quiet and noncommittal afterward. Two days later she wrote me a short letter bluntly informing me that our days together as a couple were over and, in fewer words, told me that I would have to find someone else. As far as she was concerned the time had come to say good-bye to our relationship and to each other. Devastated, I refused at first to believe her words. Denial was foolish and trying to change what was unchangeable was futile.

Yes, once in my life I had tried to reach out and share my deeper feelings and hopes for the future with someone I had cared for. At that time I was naively certain she was going to be a big part of my future but God undoubtedly had other plans and directions for me. Heartlessly I was crushed and thrown to the ground like a wasted piece of tissue paper. Would the heartache of living a lie have been any less painful?

My relationship with Phi Bang was the only one in the years that followed that emotionally crippling incident and, fearful of repeating any of my earlier mistakes, I was loath to crowd Phi Bang in case she too would cast me aside. Sitting here with Phi Bang on a marble bench beside the water was hauntingly too deja-vue.

Finding that once-in-a-lifetime one special person and then falling deeply and passionately in love remained an elusive dream as far as I was concerned. Yes, I was here in Cleveland with Phi Bang but today I felt that something was missing. Perhaps that missing something was lost, or possibly thrown away the other night, but more likely though, that special love was never found. True reciprocal passionate love was something other people had that I could only envy from the distances of the sidelines.

True reciprocal unconditional love between a man and a woman is a gift that comes only from God, a remarkably wonderful love that compels all else in life to take second place. True love is a rare gift that is too often tragically taken for granted and squandered by fools who fail to recognize its worth. True love between a man and a woman given by God is far more precious than earthly riches because it can never be bought and paid for with money. True love cannot be demanded nor can it be ordained by men if God does not first consent to allow it. Finding one's soul mate must first be decreed by heaven and I knew that I was still begging for a decree from heaven.

"I want you to send letter for me to Vietnam." Phi Bang asked, unexpectedly changing the subject and awakening me from my introverted look back at the past.

"Why?" I asked, somewhat surprised by her request.

"In America cannot send letter or receive letter from Vietnam. American Government will not allow." she explained.

"Yes. I'll do it for you." I agreed.

"Tonight I write letter to my friend Lien in Tay Ninh. Do you remember my friend Lien Huong?" she asked.

"Yes, I remember." I answered.

"She give your letter to me long time ago to write." she said.

"If it wasn't for her we would never have met." I stated, reminding both of us of events that had unfolded to bring us together..

"My dear, I will give you letter and you can send by post from Canada." she indicated.

"Will you also be asking Lien to reply to my address in Canada?" I asked.

"Yes, I ask her to do such and then you can send letter to me." Phi Bang confirmed.

That simple request was the first time that Phi Bang had asked me to do something for her. Since Phi Bang's arrival in North America I had forgotten about Vietnam and Lien Huong. I was grateful to Lien Huong because if she had not given my letter to Phi Bang, then the course of my life would have been very different. Had Lien Huong survived the war? Did she still live in Tay Ninh? Phi Bang wanted to know and I would be playing a small part in finding out.

Phi Bang suggested we return to campus to visit the music faculty because she wanted me to perform for her. Phi bang seemed to know the exact location of every piano. She had probably planned this earlier.

Later in my motel room I was alone again. Early tomorrow morning would be our final hours together. I would be returning home to Montreal and Phi Bang would be commencing final exams the day after. Instead of turning on the television, I removed the Gideon bible from the night table drawer and flipped through the pages of the gospels. Curious, I wanted to find and read the accounts of Peter denying Christ three times. I had a nagging need to know the consequences because feelings of guilt about my morning decision were mercilessly gnawing at my conscience. 

The following morning Phi Bang and Elsa were about twenty minutes late when they arrived to take me to the airport. Last night I thought I heard Phi Bang give Elsa the wrong time for my flight departure. I said nothing but had wondered, "Does Phi Bang want me to miss the flight and stay longer?"

As we were arriving at the Chattanooga airport I saw an aircraft taking off and had a feeling that was the aircraft I was supposed to be on. At the check-in counter I was politely and sympathetically informed that I had missed the flight. I changed the ticket to afternoon flight and arranged for an airport taxi to pick me up at Lee College. Had I not been so low on funds I probably would have changed the ticket to a later date.

We returned to Cleveland to spend our few remaining hours together at the university campus. I thanked Elsa for driving us to and from the airport even though I knew she had done that for Phi Bang.

Phi Bang wanted me to play the piano again for her again so we meandered over to the music faculty building. The place was deserted. Classes were finished for the semester but no one seemed to be practicing for their exams.

We spent our remaining time together alone in the music building, trying to say good-bye without actually having to say the words good-bye. Removing a one-dollar bill from my pocket, I tore it down the middle. Phi Bang, surprised by my action, was aghast that I would tear a bank note in two. I offered one half to Phi Bang but she refused to accept it. Placing the George Washington half in her hand, I promised, "If you ever wish for me to return to you again, just send me this in a letter and I will come as quickly as I can. Phi Bang, I promise you that I will return to you if you send this."

Phi Bang looked at me, and smiled faintly but said nothing. Was she recalling her words to me in Pittsburgh? "Do not tell me promise about a time to return." 

"Phi Bang, I'm far from perfect but I do not blithely make promises which I do not intend to keep. If a day ever comes and I cannot return to you, then I will send you my half of this." I stated resolutely.

Phi Bang got up, walked over to one of the windows and looked out.

"Come. We sit here at window. You look down there to see when taxi come for you." Phi Bang said while pointing toward the front of Cross Hall and the place where the taxi would wait for me.

Phi Bang moved two chairs to face the window and then gestured for me to sit on one of the chairs. Saying nothing, I complied. Phi Bang sat beside me. An instant later she leaned against me and rested her head upon my shoulder. I hesitantly placed my arm around her shoulder and wondered if she would push me away. She didn't.

"Oh God, why now?" I muttered a few minutes later. 

I had glanced out the window and saw the waiting taxi. Our time together had run out.

Reluctantly, I stood up, walked toward the doorway, hesitated and then looked back. Phi Bang turned away from the open window and came toward me. She took my hands in hers, pulled my arms around her waist and said, "Hold me. Hold me like this."

Phi Bang did not wait for me to think about her request, melt and then comply. She let go of my hands, placed her arms around me and held me tightly. Reflexively, I tightened my hold on her for an instant. I knew I was at the edge of that barrier and I wanted to break through, but to do so would require more time, time that I no longer had.

Saying good-bye to Phi Bang eighteen months earlier in Pittsburgh had been heart wrenching, and afterward living through the agony of emptiness and despair had been almost impossible to bear. Simply knowing and dreading the feelings of emotional emptiness that were going to follow after saying good-bye to her this second time made leaving far more difficult.

Just before getting into the taxi I held Phi Bang tightly once more and whispered to her in Gaelic, "That gradh agam ort."

Phi Bang did not say anything at all, not even good-bye. She just looked at me.

Turning, I watched her from the rear window until she was out of sight. 

This part of the journey I truly hated and made me question what I was doing. I have no doubt that God had granted me this second visit with Phi Bang but what had God expected me to do with the few precious days of this second chance? 

Phi Bang still harboured deep feelings for me. I knew it. I could sense it. My longing to spend the remainder of my life with her was unchanged but regardless of my thoughts or desires, an immense sense of failure was all that accompanied me homeward.

"Did I leave Cleveland too soon? If I had extended my visit would the outcome of our reunion have been different? Did I mindlessly throw away this second chance?" I asked as these and many other unanswered questions nagged and tormented me. 

My feelings were a mixture of very little optimism and a whole lot of pessimism but in spite of the uncertainty, I was unwilling to surrender and abandon my desires and dream about notre pays du soleil.

The aircraft's nose lifted skyward and I closed my eyes to reflect upon our last moments together. Traces of Phi Bang's perfume still lingered on my jacket and I longed to hold her again, tightly and closely as in that last instant we had together. Fighting off tears, I besought God for answers, "Will we ever see each other again? Is there any chance at all that Phi Bang and I have a future together?"


The Oddblock Station Agent

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