Friday, 27 April 2012

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.


end


The Oddblock Station Agent

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“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







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