Old Mr. Me was now living, without a contract, with May Linh up in the mountains of this southeastern Asian country. I was still giving her money every month though and it all went into her school. And in a way it was nice just to be the two of us although May Linh couldn’t be nude all day. We never mentioned Maggie’s brutal disappearance and we got news from Lily once in a while. She had found a job in Chicago, working in an office downtown for an export company.
Then, as weeks went by, routine fell upon us and it was no surprise. Now May Linh was very involved with her school and she would go there in the morning. I would get up long after her, the house would be warm, smelling of coffee. Which I know was made for me because I was the only one drinking it. Then I would take a shower and hang around the house, smoking and having coffee on the porch when it wasn’t too rainy or too cold. There would always be food ready for me.
Then I’d go down to the market and to town just to do something. Now that I wasn’t swimming every day, and eating meat, I had gained some weight. May Linh too, a little bit. We both were losing our tan rapidly. Sometimes I would walk to her school, which wasn’t far. The school consisted of only two shabby rooms. May Linh always seemed happy to see me. In the morning, she was herself teaching English to young adults, men and women, mostly women. In the afternoon, after the official school day was over, kids would gather, for free, at her English school but she had teachers for them, most of the teachers being former pupils. I knew that, according to local standards, she paid them well.
Like I said, she always seemed happy to see me showing up at her school but I didn’t want to disturb or bother her and I didn’t want to scare the kids so I seldom went there. But when I did, it was always nice. A few times, we had lunch together, a few times we even came back together. And that’s with those little things that you know the universe is again looking for balance and routine and monotony are setting in.
May Linh would usually come back around 4 or 5 pm and first get busy in her garden. I would often go there with her, just to watch her. The garden was surrounded by walls and somewhat intimate so when it was nice enough, May Linh would take her clothes off, or some of it, just for the two of us. She would work in the garden and I would watch her, smoking and drinking beer, and she was beautiful, to my eyes at least, and I wished again that I could be a painter, Gauguin, Delacroix, so I could paint her, in her lush vegetable and flower garden, squatting in her rubber boots, pulling bad weeds. Those moments when May Linh would undress were very rare though, because it was winter and also because often people came by the house, the kid having started with my car a little taxi industry for the neighbors.
Once it got dark, May Linh would take a shower and, although this bathroom had nothing to do with the nice and big Swedish one we had before, THERE at least I had a chance to look at May Linh’s nude body at length and sometimes I’d get in the shower with her. We didn’t need to speak, we both liked it and it was nice and she was still using my razor to shave her legs and I thought that was so cute. Then I’d prepare for her a glass of white wine, with ice cubes in it the way she likes it, and then she’d play the piano. And I’d settle on the front porch and listened to her, looking at the mountains, and even the kid never came in when she was playing. The whole neighborhood was resonating of beautiful music, sometimes sad, sometimes joyful, and it was as if even the animals and the trees were listening, as the cool night was falling from the peaks.
To break the routine, the kid would sometimes, like once a week or so, take old Mr. Me on tours in the mountains, sometimes far, sometimes not. He was driving and I’d sit next to him. He took me to different villages; there were so many different people, ethnics, it was amazing, a mosaic of people. They always seemed to know the kid there and he always had something for them in the car and I had no idea how they were in contact with the kid for him to bring to them the stuff they needed. This really puzzled me but the kid somehow always knew exactly what to bring.
The scenery was also incredibly varied, rice fields, tea plantations, cereals, sometimes poppy fields, etc. We even saw wild elephants once. Within only a few miles sometimes, or after a mountain pass, and you were in a totally different place.
One day, he took me up on a mountain and we stood at the edge of the forest, invisible. “Look,” the kid said and he gave me the binoculars. I looked in the direction he told me, adjusted the sight and there I saw them, a column of guerilla. God damn! They were far, on a crest, walking in line among tall grass, one behind the other, like the Masaï in Africa, or the Apaches in America and, I thought, they believed no one could see them. Well the kid and I could see them for one, but I was pretty sure satellites were seeing them as well and soon there would be drones all over the place. It reminded me, again, that this planet was not a safe place really.
Other times, the kid showed me, from afar always, columns of mules carrying stuff, and I guess it was either drugs or weapons being carried. The kid liked the idea that he, and his people I guess, could jump borders at will.
“Only for as long as they’ll let you do it,” I said.
“Yes. It’s true but it’s ok for now”, explained the kid, “they let us do it because they don’t want the Taliban to have a monopoly. But you’re right, this world that looks so wild today will disappear soon. Anyway, it is never the poor peasants who really benefit from this business. That’s why my family moved away from the main areas of poppy growing and came down, close enough to stay within the network but far enough from the main troubles. That’s also why I decided to grow something less dangerous and why I’ve got to find a way to become legal.”
The car wasn’t made for riding those mountain’s dirt roads and I was often impressed at the skill with which the kid handled it. Sometimes only he could see where to go. Me, I’d only see jungle and I was lost. After coming back, the kid would clean the car right away and really good and you couldn’t tell where that car had gone.
One day, he decided to take me to a remote village and warned me that we couldn’t drive all the way there. So, after a long bit of driving, we had to walk, climbing, a very long way through the forest, for several hours, carrying backpacks. Well, he carried most of the load but I still had to carry something. He had told me we would spend the night there – I had left a note to May Linh to let her know – and now I understood why. It was a hard trek and I was panting and needed to rest often but it was a beautiful day and I was somewhat happy to be able to do such a trek still. It reminded me of old memories, of when I was young.
Then the jungle receded and we arrived in a whole new country it seemed. We were way above the 1.500m altitude, the kid told me, and I could see the peaks but there, we were all of a sudden in a hilly countryside covered with fields, cereals. And I saw the villages and we came out of the jungle and started down the path.
I had seen from afar women working in the fields but, as we came closer, I saw that they were bare-breasted. Christ almighty! They wore hats, scarves and long dark robes but their breasts were bare. And I noticed that their dresses were made purposely as to support and enhanced their breasts. Under the nice sun, their breasts thus looked like a live framed painting. It was incredible. It was beautiful. Young, old, all of them! Not shy, waving at us. That’s the way they were living. Jesus, finally a people who, through hundreds of years of evolution, had managed to preserve women’s beauty instead of flogging it.
Then we arrived at a close-knit village of thatched huts where obviously they were used to see the kid, although I could tell they were not from the same tribe, for lack of a better word to describe all these different mountain people. So we spend the night with a family and every woman was bare-breasted, cooking, eating, cleaning dishes, chatting and I couldn’t help but steal glances at my hostesses. The old man of the house said something and the kid replied and everybody in the room cracked up.
“What did he say?” I asked.
“He asked why I brought you here,” the kid said.
“So what did you say?” I asked.
“I told him I brought you for the women, that I knew you’d find them beautiful.”
“Woman, beautiful, yes, yes” the old man said smiling, missing teeth. I guess him and I understood each other.
“Yes, women beautiful,” I said.
Then the old man said: “May Linh, beautiful woman.”
At first I thought I didn’t understand but I did and, even the way he pronounced it, I recognized May Linh’s name. What the fuck!
“You know May Linh?’ I asked, stunned.
“Yes, yes” said the old man. And I could tell his old lady knew May Linh too. Christ! And how did they know that I knew May Linh? So that’s why the kid brought me here I thought. Then the kid explained to me the details and then I understood.
I remembered May Linh’s story, her dad owning land and being a good man having new liberal ideas, wanting to free the people, May Linh adhering to the party, all that. I wondered how the communist workers’ rhetoric could touch these agricultural people but, sure, I could understand how good progressive people would deem backward for women to walk all day exhibiting their breasts and would want to change that. Christ, considering the cruelty of the new leaders back then, no wonder May Linh felt repudiated and betrayed in many ways. And that explained, at least partly I guess, why she had agreed to sign my weird contract.
In the evening, a bunch of people came from the village and some of them had music instruments and they set on the porch and started to play. There was no TV, no telephone, no computer and hardly any electricity. These people were not spending their evenings ingurgitating moronic programs, murders, catastrophes, fear, fear, fear. Here, in the absolute solitude of those mountains, these people were not bored, quite the contrary, and they were very good musicians because they had plenty of time to practice. Thus May Linh’s passion for her piano!
Christ, it hurt to think that, other than to live on a reservation, like the American Indians, these villagers would soon be history. Now, they should be fearful. Not of war or destruction like many times before but fearful that their very way of life, their language, the breasts of their women will not be there tomorrow. Then what? Kids playing assassins’ creed?
The old man understood it and knew it was coming but he didn’t know what to do about it. Neither did I. So we both had to trust May Linh and those like her I guess.
The next day, we did the trek down the mountain under a downpour and it was not pleasant at all and I was drenched and tired and I was feeling cold and it was so long and there was no scenery, just sheets of rain pouring down on me. It reminded me of my youth, when I had to go to school under the cold rain, in the dark and how I hated it. While at my house by the beach, down South, the rain didn’t bother me because it was warm all the time and, often, the rain spelled relief. But not here, not that day going down the mountains, and I was thinking of these bare-breasted ladies: how were they doing in a rain like this? Well, they were probably inside playing or listening to music, waiting for the storm to pass.
The kid had to help me several times and when we stopped for lunch in a small thatched room in the middle of nowhere along the path, I wondered what got into me to go on such a trek. The kid had warned me though but, yesterday, I was quite happy with myself, climbing under the sun. What a great walk in the park that was and we were in no hurry. Today I was feeling miserable and coming down was tough, slippery and I fell several times and my knees started to ache. And I knew it was still a few hours before reaching the car. Christ!
Well, anyway we made it home and, once I was back and had taken a nice and hot shower, and put on dry clothes, I was feeling a lot better and proud again. What a trip! The kid told May Linh where we went. I saw her look into my eyes to see if I had understood something. She saw that I had. So she smile sadly and we hugged. Then I said: “No wonder you like to show me those boobs” and I smiled and she smiled again and it wasn’t so sad anymore and we hugged again.
Insidious routine was settling in though and May Linh and I soon developed a little ritual before going to bed. In the bedroom, shutters and door closed, she would take her clothes off in plain light and I had a last chance to look at her. But that would last just a minute or so and then she would come under the blankets. There we’d love our bodies together and we often had a quick French finger kiss, more rarely a nice gamahuche the way we liked it, or we’d make love once in a blue moon. With Lily gone, old Mr. Me was slowly but steadily losing power. But, next to her nude body, feeling her warmth, her generosity, I always fell asleep as if nothing could happen to me.
Iconography: Abstract by Ellar Wise
Original picture from great French photographer Jean-Baptiste Avril.