16 sq.m

Saturday, 2018-12-01 17:26:36
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Although the rainy season had not yet arrived, the heavens were stingily concealing the sun behind an overcast sky. Early in the morning, the two rows of trees on the streets swayed lazily in the breeze.

It seemed that the trees had not washed their faces yet, standing nonchalantly against one another with drooping leaves filled with dust. Crowds of people moved in haste on the street.

It was Saturday, so there was not so much work to do in the office. In a sick voice I immediately phoned the boss to ask for leave, and the boss agreed in a reluctant way. Twisting and turning on the bed for quite a while, I switched on the TV, but there was only dull music. I rode my motorbike down the street to a crowded cafe. But the crowds made me feel dizzy, as if I had the flu. So I understood right away that my Saturday had been spoiled. The sky was so dull and the street was so crowded. I had to go back in the end. But to where? To where, except that 16-square-metre room?

***

I lived and worked in a 16-square-metre room. It had always been full of machines.

There were numerous machines: the black and white HP LaserJet 5M printer, the Epson Stylus Colour 900 printer, the ScanJet 4C, the Scanner Epson 1600 Pro, the Philco air conditioner and the PC and Macintosh computers, the Kodak and Nikon cameras, and so on and so forth. This was my design office, where I had to work my fingers to the bone without having the time to complain about fatigue. When I returned home, again I had to live in a 16-square-metre room where I had more than often switched on my outmoded PC. In the room there was also an old record player — which could be seen as a memento rather than as an object for use — sitting alone in the corner with a thick layer of dust and cobwebs. But I had a pretty brand new 17-inch Samsung TV and a DVD player that could play Chinese disks.

What else was there in this room? Still a lot more. There are many things in the life of a single man. And I had lived out my youth in this 16-square-metre room!

The sleepless nights made me think that I would have to take refuge from the world in this 16-square-metre room. I left the room early in the morning and came back to it late at night. I had exploited these machines and they had in turn exploited me. They had attracted me, stuck to me, squandered my money and health and time, whereas I had nurtured my loneliness and selfishness in this 16-square-metre room filled with machines!

***

"You’re very rich," my friend Goofy Nghe had said in a low voice so many times that I found those words meaningless. Thirty minutes before, Goofy Nghe had left his 16-square-metre room to wander the streets without stopping anywhere. The cafes were richly decorated, while the garden cafes were to the taste of those who had sad, pensive feelings. I understood my friend, as I myself had run away from my own room many times like that in the hope that the noises from vehicles or the quarrels of pavement peddlers could help make me feel busy. But it was only a "virtual" busy. I found that when I was on the street, I rejected everything. By doing so, I had gradually squandered my youth and killed myself outside the 16-square-metre room.

Goofy Nghe asked me: "Have you recently heard from Min?"

"No, not lately," I told him.

Min was one of my closest friends. We would meet each other once or twice a month, and the rest was communicated through the phone. With that miraculous machine, we could share our daily ups and downs. I remembered once or twice Min had come over with a languid and reserved attitude. He looked a little bit fatter in the belly from sitting at his computer and drinking beer. He looked around my room as if he were comparing his machines to mine.

"I have tasted the material life and found that I am becoming callous and frigid. Everything is meaningless!"

"It’s the disease of the man who tastes early success," I remarked, touched with envy.

"Do you think so? Success? For such migrants and immigrants like us, the expression, ‘If you have yet to buy land and build a house’, is a permanent obsession. I have now achieved the first part of that expression, but I already feel so dead tired of the word ‘success’."

"You’re so vague about it! You know there’s someone who has spent all his life to achieve the first part of the sentence, but he cannot. So you should be contented with yourself," I said. Having said this, I felt sad and a little bit hurt. Is there anyone who can be contented with oneself?

"Yes. But I have abandoned my painting job".

"Damn your painting! Computers can give you money, but nobody can sustain himself painting," I retorted weakly.

Our conversation continued without end. Actually, because there were no windows, my room did not have afternoons, so the concept of time did not exist.

"You’re so greedy!" Min said.

"Yes, you’re so greedy! My room is still darker than yours!" said Goofy Nghe. This made me think that I actually was greedy. He smoked again, leaning against the wall to exhale an eight-form circle. What a tragedy! He did not know that that eight-form circle had already handcuffed his life. But he did not feel regret.

"In life, someone has to depend on something, just the same as the male and the female depend on each other. If we separate them, the male depends on power while the female depends on sentiment. I depend on illusion and you depend on machines."

"To summarise it, we all depend on our rooms. None of us has got enough courage to live in the sun and among the clouds. We, the houseless people, are called the roamers, the homeless. You see, any one of us in the end will be put in a coffin together with our many other belongings. Nobody dares to lie peacefully in the sunshine. This is called the unhappy death of the homeless people."

Suddenly we became silent. We heard movement outside, but it did not dispel the stagnancy of the room. The sun’s rays and the wind were trying to peep into the dark room. Finally, finding the feeling of imprisonment unbearable, we went to a coffee shop.

In the nameless old shop with the voice of singer Thai Thanh blaring all over the place, we discussed music, cinematography, drama and literature. We avoided talking about how to get out of our 16-square-metre rooms.

I went home late at night. It was my habit that, immediately after I got home, I switched on the electric fan and then the computer to check my e-mail, receiving some designs from the net and then going to search and download some MP3 music. After that, I turned off all the lights and went to bed. At that time, the space seemed to appear. Yes, any time I turned off the light, the space appeared before me. It was a starry sky lying within my 16-square-metre room’s ceiling. The previous tenant had stuck tiny stars made of material that radiated fluorescent light on the ceiling. Every night, to lull myself to sleep, I looked at the "sky" to count the stars, but I had never been able to count all of them.

***

"Do stay with me tonight here!" When I spoke those words, I replaced the word "sleep" with the word "stay" to show my purity, but deep in my heart, I wished to use the word "sleep". She gave me a slap in the face, which made me see stars. Yes, she did "stay" anyway, but not to "sleep" with me. When she saw that starry sky, she cried with emotion. I lied to her that I had made that "sky" to make her happy. She was really happy and, together with me, she imagined a bright future. She said that in about three years, we could afford a house with many rooms like this room, the ceilings of which were like the starry sky.

"Our children will be born under a starry sky like this, because I don’t want to go to the Tu Du maternity hospital, and I will send for an obstetrician to be here," she said.

She talked like this until she fell asleep, leaving me lying awake, floating with her dreams and dizzy with happiness. So I had found love within this 16-square-metre room!

***

But one day she did not come to me any longer. My dreams had been ruined. "Betrayal" was not the right word to describe it. There were thousands of unforeseen partings in life, with so many explanations. I was so unhappy. I had to go back to my small room, sharing the noises made by the machines around me and looking at the starry sky before going to bed in the hope that one night she would come back to me. I tried not to lose hope in my 16-square-metre room!

My friend Min built a house and got ready for a wedding. He often phoned me, laughing and promising me that he would fund my upcoming painting exhibition. Every Saturday afternoon, I went to that small coffee shop, where that same sad voice of a Thai singer was heard all over the garden. Goofy Nghe sometimes stayed over, talking a lot about music, cinema, the theatre and literature. Finally, we discussed a more specific plan to open a design office. We would borrow money from Min, a good friend of ours. Every night, I had constantly planned my future within that 16-square-metre room!

Oh god, these 16-square-metre rooms have so many machines!

By Vu Dinh Giang/ Translated by Manh Chuong
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