‘Where they don’t talk about love’ by Devi Asmarani

Short story selected for the 2013 New Asian Writing Short Story Anthology

They are sitting at Carlo’s Pizzeria downtown, sharing a thin-crust Margherita pizza and a pitcher of beer between the four of them. Having downed a few vodka-orange back at the dorm, they are in a chatty mood, engaging in a sprawling conversation punctuated by the occasional boisterous laughs.

Even Mandy is less than her sarcastic self tonight. In fact, she is uncharacteristically animated, telling stories of her hillbilly uncles in the country. She speaks with a slight southern accent, but now she is impersonating herself in a thick country twang, the ways she sounds when she’s speaking around her family at home.

“Took me years to train myself to talk like this, and I thought I did good when I came here. Then I go home, and I’d be hearing myself talking, and I’m like, whoa… how did that creep back in?”

“I guess we can’t take the country out of you, Mandy,” Mia teases her, exaggerating a fake southern drawl.

She has been to Mandy’s home which is about a two-hour drive from town. Mandy’s mom, Ruby is a perfect specimen of a chain-smoking blue-collar southerner who looks way beyond her age. Ruby’s accent is so thick, Mia often only gets 70 percent of what she says. But Mia loves her bluntness and the way she relies on Mandy as some sort of moral and intellectual authority—in a kind of parent-child reversal role she’s still not accustomed to. Plus, Ruby seems more sincere and kind than anyone she knows

One of Mandy’s uncles referred to Mia as “oriental”, and spoke to her so loudly, she couldn’t figure out whether he thought she was deaf or didn’t speak English, but she didn’t mind (no point in impressing on them that she scored nearly a perfect in TOEFL, and that her SAT score was on the national’s 85 percent top range). Mandy took her to a country bar where everyone was dancing the two steps and all the men wore cowboy hats and boots, even the Mexicans—especially the Mexicans.

Mia loves Mandy and considers the girl her American best friend. They met at an International Club meeting on campus of which Mandy was one of the only two American members. They were soon drawn to each other because the other female members were mostly bookish Chinese and tongue-tied Japanese, a group that was hard to permeate. (Later Mandy admitted that she joined the club because everything else about America bored her. She majors in three languages, English, French and Spanish, and speaks the two foreign languages fluently. And she plans to leave the United States as soon as she graduates). By the time the two met, Mia had stopped talking to her only other compatriot in campus, after the latter was warned by her born-again Christian American boyfriend that Mia might corrupt her with the drinking and party habit. So much for the bond of nationality, thought Mia.

Mia loves Mandy’s fierce intellect, her sharp tongue, and the way she tells her as it is (‘I love you perek,’ Mandy would tease Mia with the Indonesian word for slut that she had learned from her). Mia doesn’t quite love Mandy’s dark moods, but understands and tolerates it, for Mandy has her share of battle. She’s on a lot of medication for the rheumatoid arthritis she’s suffered since childhood. Some days Mandy wakes up in pain, and on these days she often decides to spend the whole day in bed reading, not even bothering to call in sick to her classes. Still, she never gets anything less than an A.

Now Philip pitches in. He’s talking about his last trip back home where he had to eat a boiled duck embryo in its shell. His cousins taunted him, ‘You’re not a real man until you tried one of those’.

“Ew, did you?” Mia asks.

“Hell yeah! I gagged a lot before I bit into it, but it actually didn’t taste so bad,” Philip says.

“Shit, I’d be throwing up like a motherfucker,” Danny says, shuddering.

“I’d be like, call me Susan, man, I don’t mind. Just don’t make me eat that shit.”

They laugh, but know that it is impossible. No one would accuse Danny of being a girl, even if he refuses to eat some horrible poultry embryo. He’s an Alpha male—a beautiful one too. Mia teases him and calls him “Dan the Man” when they’re fooling around. She knows he digs it without a trace of irony.

They met at Club XIII a few weeks ago. Mia was dancing with Mandy when someone tapped her shoulder, gave an impressive pearly smile (which really shined under those lights), and joined them on the dance floor. He asked if he could guess her origin. Shoot, she said then. He guessed the Philippines, and he was wrong, though not too far off. Then he told her he would be back, and left shortly before returning with an Asian guy.

“Philip, this is Mia,” he introduced them to each other. “Philip is a master at this thing.”

Philip looked at Mia, and paused for a moment as he studied her face.

“Indonesian,” he said.

“Filipino,” she guessed back.

Philip was brought to the States from Manila by his parents at age 7, so he’s pretty much American, while Mia is only in her third year in the States. They talked for some time at the bar, but both knew that would be as far as their connection would go that night. She has learned that here in small-town America, there is an unwritten rule that when two fully integrated Asians meet (and she considers herself one), they would not be attracted to each other in the company of their non-Asian peers. It may sound like reverse racism, but it isn’t—just another one of those social survival tricks.

Danny was amused by their instant connection, but soon took over the conversation and seduced her with his aquamarine eyes and his James Dean’s lips on which a Marlboro dangled at just the right angle. He is strawberry blond and 5.9 with what would be described in a magazine article as chiseled jaw lines. He plays in a rugby team and aspires to move out west to become a professional player. That he plays rugby in a football-crazed country earned him some brownie points in Mia’s eyes.

That night Danny went home with her. They rode in Mandy’s two-seater. Mia sat in his lap, as he recited her full name repeatedly, exaggerating its tongue-twisting aspect. Mandy rolled her eyes at his obvious attempt to be cute, but laughed along. It’s hard to be bitter to someone as good looking and charming as him.

“He’s just too gorgeous to be true,” Mandy said the next day over lunch at the cafeteria, as Mia recounted her passionate night with him.

“I know! Can you believe it?” Mia said wide-eyed and giggly.

They make love, but they’re not in a relationship—that much she knew—for neither one has ever made a move towards making it exclusive. Once when Mia was helping Mandy with her groceries to her dorm room, she saw Danny walking with Kerrie, who lives on the same floor, presumably bringing her laundry basket. She didn’t greet him, for she had a feeling he had seen her and pretended not to. Mia thought, ah, well, I guess that means I can see other people too—though she doesn’t.

As the quartet continues their conversation at the pizzeria, a busboy comes to clear the next table. Mia, in one of her ebullient moods and seeing that they are still on the subject of ethnicities and origins, turns to the busboy unexpectedly.

“And where, may I inquire, are you from, sir?”

It takes a moment before the guy realizes that it was he who’s being addressed and it takes him even longer to digest that question. She repeats the question in a simpler form this time. Still, he looks to his right and left first, just to make sure, before answering it in a thick accent, “Vietnam.”

Being tipsy and full of good intention, Mia replies cheerfully, ”Oh, Vietnam! I love pho!”

The others on the table laugh, not at the busboy particularly. Still, there is always a touch of insensitivity to these alcohol-enhanced group laughs.

“Jesus, Mia, could you be a little less subtle? Or were you really being ironic? Which would be kind of mean.” Philip scolds her in jest.

“What? I meant it!” Mia says, slightly blushing.

The guy walks back to the kitchen, taking a load of dirty dishes with him.

“I bet you his name is Nguyen,” whispers Philip as the guy disappears from their sight. Mia elbows him. She can feel Danny brushing his leg against hers under the table.

***

The next day as she is pulling in the car lot of her apartment complex, she sees the guy, the busboy, getting out of a car too with another Vietnamese-looking man. He is skinny with a pointy face and a set of cautious-looking eyes, while his friend is shorter and smiley. They look like they’re in their late 20s.

“I didn’t know you lived here,” Mia says, “But then again, I only moved in a week ago.”

“Hi,” he says, abruptly, and looking as if he’s going to say something else but comes short.

“I’m Mia,” she extends her hands.

The guy introduces himself as Thuan, and his friend is Nguyen. Philip was half right after all. The two work in the same kitchen at Carlo’s.

It is a medium sized complex divided into three parts. The main building is a strip of duplex inhabited mostly by elderly tenants. Across the parking lot is Mia’s unit, above a recently vacated house that faces the street. Her unit faces the side at the main building, looking more like an attic that had been turned into a small flat. A flimsy aluminum door opens to a narrow and claustrophobic stairway, leading to a lonely hallway and her solitary flat.

There’s no ceiling in her flat, only an inclined roof with the highest point being the kitchen and the lowest point right above the headboard of her bed. It’s high enough for her to sit and read a book before going to bed, but not enough for some of the more acrobatic bed stunts that Danny likes to experiment. The two Vietnamese live in a separate building behind Mia’s unit also across from the main building. It’s on the second floor above a storage area.

“Come for beer some time,” said Nguyen, the friendlier one who seems to speak slightly better English.

“That would be awesome,” Mia says.

***

The next Friday Mia has an idea. She is going out with Mandy tonight, possibly to a frat party, and she wants to be intoxicated before they go to these boring parties. Danny has a rugby match and she knows the routine. If his team wins, he will likely get sloshed with his mates, and if he isn’t too drunk, or if he doesn’t meet another girl (perhaps that Kerrie girl), he will call her, or at least find her at some clubs where she may be hanging out. If the team loses, he will find her wherever she is and they will end up going back to her place, and possibly have the best sex ever.

Mia has an idea. She wants to get some drinks before she and Mandy go out. Their last fake IDs have been seized at a bar in Atlanta, and these days they often resort to the kindness of friends or strangers of age to buy them drinks at the store or at bars. Mia thinks of her Vietnamese neighbors. They must be old enough and surely they don’t mind helping her buy some liquor.

She walks up to their apartment and knocks on the door. Thuan opens the door and looks as if he is caught by surprise. She is a little surprised too actually, after half expecting that they might be at work.

“Hey, sorry to barge in like this. Is this a bad time?”

Thuan says no and asks her to come in. She takes a seat on the couch next to the door, her back against the glass window.  Their living room is about the same size as hers, but sunnier. It has the same cheap sofa, and looks as if it is barely lived in. Nguyen is at work, Thuan says in response to her question, adding that he just ended his shift.

“I see.” Mia says.

She asks him how long they’ve been in this town. “Almost 2 years now,” he replies. They were working in Los Angeles with some relatives before. She pictures the two living in a small room with a dozen other people there, like stories she’d read in magazines about immigrants. They must have a good life here, she thinks.

She is about to tell her purpose of coming, when he offers her a beer. Sure, she says, always unable to refuse alcohol, but wonders how long she will have to stay. Mandy will be arriving in an hour.

She sips her beer, thinking of ways to create a conversation. She has slowed her speech down to make herself sound less American, pronouncing words as an Indonesian who is less fluent in English would, for his benefit (thinking, for some reason, he may understand that better than an American accent), but a normal conversation is still a struggle on his part. She struggles even more to comprehend what he says. This makes her wonder whether she is too Americanized already, having only been here a year longer than them.

There is a silence, a long silence, and she is looking down at her watch, when he blurts it out.

“I lop you,” he says.

She looks up and thinks for a moment that she has misheard what she heard.

“Sorry?”

“I lop you,” he repeats it even more decisively.

She doesn’t know what to say, looking at him in disbelief, and for a split second presumes it’s a joke. Then she realizes it must be the language thing.

“Oh, no, no, no, no, no,” she says, chuckling politely.

“You don’t love me. You don’t…. you, you don’t even know me,” she waves her hands at him in a playful dismissal.

“Yes, yes, I lop you.” He rises from his seat towering above her across the coffee table, making her feel completely uneasy.

“I think I have to go,” she leaps to her feet, making her way towards the door, but Thuan is there already, unexpectedly fast, blocking the door with his body.

“I have to go now, my friend’s coming, you can’t keep me here,” she tells him.

“Don’t go,” he says.

“Don’t go,” he gestures her to sit back down.

“No, I have to go,” she raises her voice. “Let me out, please!”

He won’t, and he repeats the fact that he loves her. Putting his index finger to his mouth to urge her to be quiet, he leans in closer towards her. By this time in full hysteria, she starts screaming and banging the glass window with the side of her fist.

“Let me out!”

“Help! Help!”

She realizes the futility of this. Nobody lives downstairs, the only people that may be at home are in the apartment building 50 yards across the parking lot, and they are mostly senior citizens who she doubts will even hear anything. Still, she keeps pounding at the window.  Looking bewildered, he tries to calm her by approaching her even closer, only to send her into a massive state of panic. She backs away, her voice is getting hoarse from the screaming and for a moment she stops. They look at each, measuring the threat they pose to each other.

After some time, finally he says: “OK, OK, OK!”

He raises his hands, palms facing her like those villains in movies that have to show their bare hands to the police who are pointing guns at them.  Then he unlocks the door for her and steps out of the way. She looks at him, and makes a mental calculation of how fast she needs to run past the door and down the metal stairs before he can catch her. She read somewhere that some predators like to give hope of getting away to their victims, before catching them again.

But he keeps the door opened and does not move, so she rushes outside, runs down the stairs and climbs her own staircase until she is back in the safety of her apartment, panting.

That night, when Mandy picks her up, she doesn’t tell her about the episode, being too embarrassed by it. Who would be stupid enough to come to the house of a stranger to get them to buy liquor anyway? Even if the stranger is a skinny, harmless-looking Asian. She also begins to question whether he really had any ill intention, or whether she was overreacting to his crude advance.

They go to the frat party and get bored. At Club XIII, Danny is nowhere in sight. Mandy drives her home a little over midnight, and Mia thinks of her Vietnamese neighbor again. She asks Mandy, without explaining why, to wait in the car and watch her until she gets in her flat and turns the light in her low-ceilinged bedroom before Mandy drives off. Mandy, being tired and missing her bed, does just that without questioning.

In the morning Mia wakes up a little earlier, having had trouble sleeping. She goes to the kitchen, makes herself some coffee and sits in her living room looking at the phone. She wonders whether she should call Danny and check if he picks it up, just to see whether he came home last night. But then again, Philip might pick the phone up. Or they might just switch the phone off. She lights a cigarette and continues to weigh her options.

Then there’s a knock on the door. And without even checking—her door has no peephole—she knows who it is. Still, she asks.

“Who is it?” She presses an ear against the door.

“It’s me, Mia,” she hears Thuan high-pitched voice, and realizes it’s the first time she hears him saying her name. It sounds strange now that being associated with him is the last thing she wants.

“What do you want?” She asks him, raising her voice to warn him of her dislike.

“I’m sorry,” he says.

“It’s OK—no problem—please go home now.”

He doesn’t, for she can hear him shuffling about in the narrow hallway. She stands next to the door for a few minutes, until she realizes, he’s not leaving.

Angered and slightly concerned, for she’s not expecting anyone to visit her today, she walks to the kitchen to find something to use as a weapon. She has only a bread knife, a cheap one she bought at the dollar store to slice baguette. At her old apartment, it was her roommate who bought and kept all the kitchenware, and she has not had time to shop for the apartment. Looking at its serrated edge, she knows that it won’t do.

She looks into one of the boxes that hasn’t been opened, the one containing books and other school-related stuff, and finds a pair of medium-sized scissor. She takes the scissors and carries it back to the living room, where she begins to practice some made-up self-defense move. She hides the hand with the scissors behind her back, then swiftly producing it, she stabs the air with the thick tip. She does this repeatedly several times.

He knocks on the door again.

“Go away!” she says.

“I am sorry!” he says.

“I know,” she says. “It’s OK, just go!”

He doesn’t budge, and she can feel his tense breathing, his rigid demeanor and his cagey gaze, even if she can’t see him. The guy says something in broken English, his words are disjointed and all the consonants seem to mix up randomly.  She catches the part about “mistakes”.

She feels a sudden wave of sadness for him, she hates herself for becoming an object of his affection, or whatever he was trying to express when he said he loved her.

“Just go home please; I have a weapon here. Or I’ll call the police if you don’t,” she says, getting desperate, but also knowing that calling the police would be her very last resort. She knows it won’t come to that.

He sits on top of the staircase (for some reason she knows this), as she sits back on the couch, occasionally repeating the scissors move. Ten minutes pass before anything happens.

Then his voice again: “I am sorry.”

She hears his footsteps down the stairs and she waits for a while to see whether he’s really gone.

There’s no sound.

When her phone rings, she almost jumps from the shock.

“Hey!” It’s Mandy.

“Oh my God! You scared the hell out of me.”

“Why?” She asks.

Mia doesn’t answer, and instead asks Mandy if she wants to go for brunch.

Bio;
Devi Asmarani, 41, is a freelance writer and author based in Jakarta, Indonesia. She was a journalist for The Straits Times and The Jakarta Post for over 13 years, and some of her recent works of fictions have been published in The Sunday Post (The Jakarta Post’s Sunday edition). Some of her stories can be viewed on http://thehalfnakedtruth.wordpress.com/. Devi has authored the  book Yoga untuk Semua (Yoga for All, Gramedia Pustaka Utama 2011).

Illustration by Alan Van Every (Featured image on the front page)

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