When old Mr. Me retired here, in this always warm southeastern Asian country, I had a house by the beach and May Linh and Lily, and Maggie later, came to live there with me. They were in the nude all day, by contract, and things were swell. I really thought then I had reached, or better yet, created, my own paradise to spend my last years, far away from an unforgiving world the way it is.
And I was happy there in my shotgun house, and the swimming, and the food, and the warm weather, always, and all three of them, great great friends in a way. To my eyes, they were equally beautiful, regardless of their different age, from young Lily to middle-age Maggie and older May Linh. I really thought that was it, that I wasn’t going anywhere anymore.
I had started and lived many lives in my life, but this was it and it was the best part of it, the reward from the aliens for having tried for so long to be mister good guy and I was kind of proud with myself, especially considering that everything was based on a fair contract. Christ I had the best roommates in the world! So I wasn’t going to move anymore, in fact I was hardly getting out of the house.
Well, that’s history; paradise, any paradise, can’t resist fire. Once fried, there nothing left of paradise. That’s how they got Sodom and Hiroshima and so many other places that we don’t even remember their names. Maggie was dead, the house gone in smoke, Lily on a one-way ticket to the US, so there was only May Linh and old Mr. Me left and, after a night in a motel in the suburbs of the capital, we were leaving going to her place up north and, I guess, this was yet a new life starting for old Mr. Me.
That goes to show how much of your life you can predict, even if you made it your own.
May Linh and I got up early. We had a continental breakfast and I had fun with that, telling her for example of Dixie’s breakfasts. Indeed, what would May Linh know of grits? Coming out of the capital, soon the roads weren’t that good and there was junk tires all along the way, trucks tires, car tires, motorcycles tires, buffalo tires. There wasn’t so much traffic anymore but buses and trucks, their drivers going fast and crazy and I’d give them plenty of space when I’d see them coming.
I had to be careful on the road, especially in this country where driving is bedlam, but I had driven many times before from the capital to my house by the beach, all the way south so I felt comfortable enough. Foreigners were not even supposed to drive here! For their own safety I guess. I used to have a license though.
Anyway, it was a long ride and I enjoyed being in the car with May Linh, even if we didn’t talk very much. It was a great ride now that I think of it. My last ride of this kind, and I had many of those, when you just drive on because the destination is far and you see the country change and cities and villages pass by and you just drive on. I crisscrossed Europe and America this way. It’s hard to explain, I wasn’t supposed to be doing this Asian ride and I was doing it because of tragedy, but once I got going for this unexpected last time, I did enjoy driving cross-country again, especially with May Linh with me.
We stopped for lunch in a dingy place in a dingy village and it was delicious. Meat and veggies. And it made me think that I was eating a lot more meat now that I wasn’t eating mostly May Linh and Lily’s catch of the day, when they were diving almost every day and bringing food right out of the see. Well, I was now more on a meat diet I guess.
So we were having lunch together with May Linh, on our way to her place, chitchatting and there was, all of a sudden, an air of ‘normality’, for lack of a better word, to our relationship. There was suddenly an incredible air of ‘déjà-vu’, at least for me. Indeed, I realized, we were acting just like would an old couple coming back from the capital after visiting the kids. And maybe that’s exactly what it was, just a normal guy with a normal woman driving home. I did feel this sense of ‘normality’ for a second.
Well, we were maybe not exactly normal I guess because we were stopped by the police, twice, these guys being just as curious to see a foreigner driving as they were ready for easy cash. Although I didn’t understand the words, I knew they asked me for my license, including my local driving license. Even if I’d speak their language, which wasn’t the case at all, how could I explain to these guys that all of my papers had burned down in the great fire of my home? And that this was the reason why I had a brand new passport? Which, of course, didn’t have a visa on it because I didn’t think that going to the authorities and try to explain the burning and Maggie’s murder would be a good idea so I hadn’t bothered to get a new visa.
I occurred to me that I couldn’t prove to the cops that I was legal in this country. So I figured it was best to let May Linh do the talking and that made them more comfortable as well. Then I gave them cash at May Linh’s request, not asking question. I was glad almost all traces of the beating had disappeared from my face; when driving, the last thing you want is a road-block cop to get suspicious about anything. In any case, I don’t know what May Linh told them but they didn’t harass us and they were happy with a token fine that didn’t cost much.
In occidental countries, when you travel, you have government’s radars and police doing the exact same thing, collecting money. Well, it may not be exactly the same to be robbed by bandits or robbed by shareholders or government but, whatever the purpose, in the end, to go from here to there somewhere on this planet does cost you money anyway. The funny thing is, it just costs about the same amount, in proportion, whether here or there. Bandits and cops and governments always know with terrible precision just up to where they can racket you without much protest. So I didn’t make a scandal and those guys waved us off smiling and you knew they’d have a story to tell their wives coming home that night. It happened twice in one day, like driving on a toll-road.
May Linh’s town was not too far from the Chinese border. After driving in the plains along the coast, at one point we turned west and started to climb the mountains. No more paved roads and the dirt roads were difficult sometimes, mostly because of water, either river or rain. The scenery was incredible though, splendid, with thick forests, and all of sudden rice paddies in terraces, then there would be a valley to go through and we would climb again, go through a mountain pass and there would be more valleys, more terraced fields, more jungles. There was something still pristine in this mountainous countryside, the world 2.0 hadn’t reached here yet. It was incredibly quiet and serene. I could feel the air was cooler as we were going up.
“It’s not as hot here I guess,” I said.
“No”, May Linh said, “and today is a good day for the season. Once we arrive, the altitude will be 1.500 m so it will be winter.” She paused: “And I won’t be able to be nude all day long anymore. Anyway, beside the climate, we’ll be living in a small town, we’ll have neighbors and I couldn’t be naked all day even if the weather was warm. It gets hot in spring and summer but you’ll see, in another couple of hours driving, we’ll be in winter.”
I didn’t mention it to her but I had figured out on my own that she couldn’t be naked all day there. It was one thing to be nude all day in my secluded house by the beach where we lived like hermits, it’s another when there are people around you, especially people you know, especially in a country where people are so naturally prude.
I didn’t know how we’d get organized but I trusted May Linh though. And maybe we didn’t need a contract anymore…
After a last mountain pass, we came down to her town, nested on the hills surrounding a lake. She was showing me the way and I was driving slowly, a bit curious. Round the center of town, I could tell the French had been here sometime before, in the last century, in the past. It’s sometimes hard for old Mr. Me just to remember that, when I was born, Indochina was France. Algeria was France too as a matter of fact. And many other places. Just to think that Hong Kong remained a colony almost into the 21st century. Christ! Colonialism.
It seems like an old concept but it is still at work everywhere in the world, and there are many traces of it. Well, in this case, as we arrived with May Linh in the city she was born in, I was probably the only French guy in town but I could recognize the French influence, architecture for example, a house or a public building here, a church there, and I knew French people had lived here.
May Linh had me park by the market for groceries. She asked me if I wanted to go with her. I told her that after all this driving, I could use a beer and that I’d be waiting for her in the bar that was there. More precisely, I figured she’d know people in the market, or people would know of her, and, having just arrived, I wasn’t ready to answer questions or inquisitives looks. I figured I’ll have plenty of time now to go to the market with May Linh. So, at this point, having a beer or two just suited me fine, I was thirsty. It was cool indeed and I had to put my jacket on. But, as night was falling, it was still nice enough that I could sit outside on the terrace.
With May Linh gone, I looked at the people passing by and they were different than the ones I was used to when we were in the South. And here, they were even different among themselves. I could tell by the different clothes and features that there were many different ethnic people inhabiting this town. This was like National Geographic, I could see. And I remembered what May Linh had explained to me about Lily, that her father and mother were from two different ethnics and that was maybe why she had those weird eyes. Lily! She must have landed by now and, in Chicago, it’s winter for her too I thought.
Well, the locals in the bar were a bit surprised to see me show up but they didn’t care that much. They tried to engage a conversation but they didn’t speak English or French and I didn’t speak their language(s). Well, they understood enough when I asked for a beer. I had time for two pints when I saw May Linh coming back, her arms full of bags. And she had flowers, including few white roses. For her altar here I guessed. I went to help her and we loaded the stuff in the car.
Then we started driving again, slowly because there were plenty of people in the streets and we drove by the lake and then followed a street and then climbed up a hill, turning here and there on some badly paved sharp roads. Then there was an alley and, after maybe 200 yards, May Linh told me to park. A flight of stone stairs were leading to her house up there. Like all the houses around, hers was made of concrete, with tiles on the roof. I grabbed most of the groceries and followed her.
At the top of the stairs, you had to turn right and there was a concrete way to the entrance door. On your left side of this path, there was a garden surrounded by walls, and then the forest. The garden was so neat but I knew that May Linh hadn’t been here for about three weeks, so somebody else must be tending the garden. There was a little porch in front of the house, overlooking the city and the lake, with two chairs and a great view of the mountains that were now disappearing in night and mist. She got her keys out of her purse, opened the door and turned the light on.
On the way, I had seen many thatched traditional farms and house on stilts with straw roofs and I had somehow imagined that she owned a place like that. But no, not at all. Her place, although small by white man’s standard, was modern, so to speak. There was one big living-room with an open kitchen, two small bedrooms, and a bathroom with a small shower. Toilets you could tell had been added later. There was no heating system so May Linh immediately started the stove. There was hardly any decoration inside other than mirrors but there were carpets on the floor and the place felt warm and comfy.
May Linh took care of the flowers first and soon there were flowers in every room, I saw the white roses so I knew where the altar was, and all those flowers scent’s gave a sensual feel to the whole place. That’s why May Linh didn’t need decoration, just like in the house by the beach, flowers and mirrors were enough. In fact, right from the first day we met, we knew we both liked flowers.
She had bought ready-to-eat food so she set it up on the table while I went to get the rest of our stuff from the car, including the wine and beer. There was no TV and she turned on a small radio – classical music station of course. I could see where her piano used to be. She saw me looking at it and I saw a veil of sadness pass over her face, but just for a moment, as if she didn’t want me to see that she was sad. And to talk about the piano would have meant to talk about the house and Lily and Maggie and we were not ready for that yet. Just thinking about the piano was bad enough.
After dinner, we went to sit on her terrace. I could tell neighbors had seen that she was back, only this time she was with this strange old white man and Lily wasn’t there. So the neighbors didn’t dare to come and say hi. They would the next day.
So we drank, white wine for her, beer for me, and I smoked and we weren’t talking. The radio was quietly playing and I was looking at the mountains. Below, I could see the town’s lights and it occurred to me that I had never heard of this town only a few hours ago. Then I knew: “this is it, that’s the end of the road for old Mr. Me” I thought.
Iconography: Abstract by Ellar Wise