Fiction

Focus on me



When the world spinning around

When life puts you to the ground

Think of nobody but me,

Hear nothing but my sweet plea.

When the sky starting to fall

When it’s too much to stand tall

Look at me and think of us

I’m your strength and hapiness.

Life

The notebook in the back pocket

When I knew you, you were still so young, barely 20. You were this handsome young man that ran his fingers through his hair to style like a freaking model. You had so many interests and so many ambitions. You talked about passion and affection often. And you always carried a notebook in the back pocket of your jeans.

You were a writer. You were a poet. Inspiration could struck you anywhere so you carried around a notebook. We were in a hallway, we were at a concert, we were at a construction site, you pulled out your crumpling notebook and noted something down. You never let me read what was in it. You never let anyone read what was in it. Or may be you did. May be you let the girl that slept with you, curled up next to you in the cold nights of Illinois read them. May be they had that pleasure.

I told you one day, if you were about to die and I was still there, if we were still in each other’s lives, I would just like you to leave me that notebook in your will. When you’ll die, I’d get a chance to learn about you even more. The irony, I know.

It had been years since we got to be each other’s best friend. We moved too fast and we lived too far. I couldn’t wait to get out of that college town as soon as I graduated while you stayed for a while longer. But you also left, to the glamorous city of Angels. You have a career now. You make good money. I wonder if you were still that young kid deep inside? If you were still carrying a notebook around?

Life

Piano

When I was eight, mum brought me to a keyboard teacher in the neighborhood. I remembered the breezy nights walking over to class, hand in hand with her.

After a year of learning, the teacher thought I should have a keyboard at home to practice. I didn’t have one. I remembered mum and dad took me to the instrument store to get a keyboard. They asked my teacher to come with us since he knew more about keyboard. He helped us pick out one. Mum asked me to test the keyboard over and over. She asked me multiple times “Are you sure you like this one? Try it. Make really sure you like this one.” She counted cash, one by one making sure she had enough to pay for the keyboard.

I got decently ok with playing the keyboard. Then life got in the way. We moved multiple times. I had exams. My parents got too busy to take me to keyboard classes. I abandoned the musical hobby.

Years later, we moved in with my aunt and uncle’s family, forming a big family unit living together under one proof. They owned a piano. Not just a keyboard, but an actual piano. The keys were shiny and heavy. When I pressed on them, I could feel the weight of the bars in the back pounding down to make music. It was magical.

Then, I could rode my own bicycle to places. My parents didn’t have to take me places anymore. Mum wanted me to take piano classes again. She told me to go learn play for fun. Basically, it was musical illiteracy eradication. She didn’t expect me to play for concerts, or master the classicals. It was just for fun.

I always appreciate her for that. I’m nowhere near being musically talented or especially good at piano. But I know how to play piano. And that’s the ability to create music. It’s turning nothing to something. That’s beautiful.

Fiction

Flash Fiction: New Toy

I don’t write fiction often. But there’s one thing for sure is that I love flash fiction. I always adore the ability to say more in fewer words. The 1000 word limit is that exact sweet spot. I haven’t written one for a while and I forgot all about it until I was inspired by a great post by IssababyCreates. So here’s a little flash fiction, answering the discover prompt: New.




New Toy

Tim turned on the light. It flickered for a few seconds before settling into a dim crepuscular shade.

Tim took a satisfaction sigh after placing his new toy on the shelf. He adjusted it a little to the left so it looked in line with the others.

Tim dropped himself down on the squeaky couch while throwing off his shoes towards the door. He popped a cold beer and chugged a big gulp. Three shifts back to back for the last few days wiped him out. Jacob’s son was sick again so he had to fill in. Yeah right, that alcoholic was probably just hung over, or drowning himself in cheap whiskey somewhere. Tim had no time to go back home. Even his precious toy, which he spent hours to obtained during the weekends, had to spend the last few days sitting in the cooler in the trunk of his car. Good thing that his toy was still in pristine condition.



Ding. Ding. Ding.

It was time. Tim jumped up from the couch. He threw the dirty plate into the sink making a loud clashing noise to the other dirty plates that were already in there. From the cabinet underneath the sink, he pulled out a black leather bag. He was not a leather guy. The thing was just too expensive but this bag was the old man’s. This bag was not a work bag. He would just look like one of those rich jackasses from uptown. But it was a perfect tool bag for doing his side stuff. Leather was a decent material. If any dirt or liquid got splashed on it, a simple wipe would clean it all. Nothing would seep through. Convenient. That’s why he bought himself a pair of leather gloves as well. Since he was doing this side thing more and more often now, he thought the gloves would be a worth while investment.

Tim turned off the light and locked the door behind him.





Key jingled. Tim slammed the door behind him as fast as he could. He slid down slowly to the floor, blocking the front door with his own body weight. Tim was out of breath. A police car cruised by his window with its siren blaring. Shit! When the red and blue light shined through his window, he unconsciously sucked in the air, trying to not make a sound.

The patrol car passed by and no more loud noises from the street. Tim bit by bit gathered his breath. He peaked through the window a little before finally switching on the light. With the leather bag was still in his grip the whole time, he rushed towards the sink. Tim pulled out a Clorox box underneath the sink and wiped the bag vigorously. He threw wipe by wipe dirtied of blood into the trash. Finally, he used one last wipe to clean his leather gloves before putting the glove into the bag and stuffed it underneath the sink again.

Tim pulled out a ziplock bag from his pocket. Carefully, he transferred the thing from the bag into an embalming liquid jar. The thing was a bit too long. He couldn’t close the lid fully. And this jar needed to be closed tightly or else it would make his whole apartment smell. That bitch was tall. He should know this would happen. Grabbing a tong from the counter, Tim tried to curl down the fingers a little so the middle one could fit neatly inside the jar.

Tim took a satisfaction sigh after placing his new toy on the shelf. The first one was a delayed display, but it did feel nice getting to put two new toys on the shelf in one day. He adjusted it a little to the left so it looked in line with the others. The palm should all face the right angle so the nail polish could shimmer when the light hit.

Life · Travel

Long Distance Relationship

The moon was 238,900 miles away from the Earth.

That’s far.

But people said “I love you to the moon and back” all the time.

They would also say “From New York to California is too far.”

“Chicago to LA is too far.”

So how far would be too far for you? How much you are willing to try for love?

I have never been a fan of long distance relationship. I assumed it was hard so I never did. Always honest to myself was one of the things I always try to do. Still, I knew many of my friends tried, failed and a few of them even succeeded. Long distance relationship, like everyone already knew, included phone calls, Skype, text messages, missed promises because of “things coming up”, surprised delivered gifts, the whole usual thing.

Then I met a guy when I was traveling. I couldn’t remember his name now or even how he looked like. I just met him near the train station, decided to take a walk with him. There was always something about not being at home that encouraged people to do things they wouldn’t normally do. It wasn’t much of a special conversation, just the usual “what do you like to do in your free time?”. Until I told him, I was just visiting. I wouldn’t stay here for long. And he told me an idea of his definition of long-distance relationship that I’ve never forgotten.

If he liked me, he would be willing to have a long distance relationship, because distance wouldn’t mean much if he moved to where I lived. He would just move. He told me. All the girl needed to do was loving him. He would arrange his life to move to her.

You would drop everything? I asked

A career could be built anywhere if I am capable. True love doesn’t come by often. If I think it’s worth it, I’ll move. He told me.

He probably just bluffed to impress a girl he first met. Or he actually meant it. I remembered what he said till today not because I thought it was romantic or I hoped someone would do that for me. I remembered because after he said that, I had so many questions.

Was that the right thing to do? Would it be better to leave a career to go after love? Would it be better to go after love because career could be made anywhere? Was the guy a hopeless romantic? Or it was actually what people should do?

I couldn’t tell whether or not the decision was a good idea. But I respected the decisiveness. When a relationship became long distance, both sides knew that it would be long distance. Wouldn’t having a decision made better than just dragging out?

Life

Coffee and steamed milk

I love coffee. My brother likes coffee. My parents like coffee. Coffee runs in our veins.

In the morning, mum would wake up early to make coffee, a big batch so everyone could have a cup and she could have two. Vietnamese coffee was not make with a coffee machine. You didn’t pour tons of grind onto a filter paper and press a button. To make a big batch of Vietnamese coffee, you took a small amount of grind, made a batch then waited to make another. We used a phin, which was a little manual espresso maker.

Credit: Phuc Long Cafe

The smell of coffee lingered in the air, always waking up memories. When I was little, kids were not allowed to drink coffee. I just sat there watching dad and mum drinking it. Then I got a little older, after begging, mum would let me take a sip here and there. The time came when I was allowed to drink coffee, just freely allowed. Then I dived into the deep end.

I drank coffee in the morning to wake up. I drank coffee at night to stay up. I drank coffee in the afternoon just because I liked the taste. I drank espresso. I drank Vietnamese coffee. I drank Turkish coffee with cinnamon. And I made a killer, professional Italian latte.

Years of drinking coffee gave me enough knowledge to land a job as a barista without ever working as a barista before. That was how I learned to make a killer, professional Italian latte. Coffee would always smell like coffee, though some coffee was a little different with its little extra blend. The thing I learned from the job was hot steam also had a smell. I pours cold milk into a metal cup, stick the steam wand inside, turned the knob to let hot air ran out and I swirled the cup to make magic milk foam. The machine I used was a manual old school espresso maker. I had to learn how to swirl, move and hold the metal cup so the steam wand could puff up the right amount of air to the right spots within the milk to make it foamy the way it should. Starbucks used fancy automatic machine that could do all that with the press of a button and the barista wouldn’t have to learn how to steam the milk the right way.

When I first learned to steam milk, I got the milk too close up on the steam wand. It splashed all over. Then I kept it too far low, and the milk kept getting hotter but barely foamed up. I have learned to smell the hot steam. When the steam wand was above the milk surface level just enough to let me smell the clean, urging smell of hot splashing air, then that was where the wand should stay. I got through dozens times a day making the perfect steamed milk by smelling how strong the hot air could get. The one skill got me throughout my years of grad school.

Working 10 hours a day then school then homework, little sleep, long days were the days of my grad school. It was worth it, just tough. Now, every time I thought about those days of my life, I thought of the smell of hot steam air mixing with a faint smell of warm milk, and a strong coffee brewing in the back. I never knew how to describe to people how the hot steamed air smell like. I just knew it smelled like the good old days of working hard, being young and aiming high.

Life

All you need is a good teacher

My mum took me to an English center twice every week. My mum took me on the back of her scooter, going to school despite the weather. I really appreciated all her efforts. And I tried and I tried but I just couldn’t get it. By the end of the whole year, I still couldn’t use the basic simple past tense properly.

One day, mum thought of an English teacher she had a long time ago. We went to his old place which was not too far from our house. His neighbors told us he moved and gave us a new address. It took my mum a second to look at the address before she decided “Oh well, we’ll go where we need to.”

After a long ride, we got to his new house. Mum knocked on the door asking for Teacher Tuyen. He came out, recognized my mum almost immediately. I was nine, and he said he only taught adults, but he invited us in still. We had tea. While reminiscing about the old days, she managed to convince him to give me a shot with his classes. The whole ride home mum was wondering if putting me in a class full of adults was a good idea. She kept telling me if I didn’t feel comfortable, let her knew.

I was nine. I didn’t realize why mum worried about me being in his class. Then after the first class with Teacher Tuyen, I knew. He was tough. He was one of those old school teacher that was strict, precise and pushed you hard. He was the type that let you know clearly that if you wanted to be better then you should push yourself, else you could just leave. He hardly ever gave compliments, but when he did, you knew that you fully deserved it.

The first day of class, I came up to the classroom on the third floor. It was a small room with long tables arranged into a U shape around a big white board. It was impossible to get in the middle of the tables, if you were late, you sat on the furthest side and everyone would know when you came in. As the new kid, I sat on the table corner nearest to the door. Teacher Tuyen came into class, sitting in his big chair in the middle of the U-shaped tables, next to his ashtray. He smoked while speaking English. His voice, for a much older man, was loud, clear, authoritative and just perfect English. He called me to answer a question. I happened to use the right sentence format and tense. He nodded his head “Good.” Later, he called me again to answer another question. Not knowing any real basis of the English grammar, I didn’t know why my previous answer was correct. But I knew it was correct. So for this second time, I copied the way I formed my answer the first time and it turned out so wrong. I remembered Teacher Tuyen basically ripped me apart on the lack of basic knowledge. He stopped the class on the topic we were talking about, to launch a full on session about the most basic grammar tenses. And maybe, for the first time, after years of studying English, I was taught about grammar the right way. He taught grammar as if he was teaching maths: concise, formulative and applicable. Every sentence was broken down into a simple basic formula. All you need to do to get it right was to apply words into the bone formula structure. Voila! You had proper English. It was mind-opening. It has now been close to twenty years with ten years living in an English speaking country, and I still remembered exactly that first moment when I started getting the idea of the English language.

I was Teacher Tuyen’s student for another 4 years. He was still tough, still being extremely strict, still yelling at students sometimes. But me, I rose to be his favourite student. Knowing him since I was nine, I spent a big part of my teenage years being his students. He taught me things in the classroom and lessons during our casual talks while drinking tea.

I moved to the US. But every time I came back home to visit, I always made sure to visit him with mum. Then one year, I didn’t come home and he moved. I heard he moved in with his son’s family so they could take care of him better. I lost his email address. Then I slowly lost contacts with him completely. When I met him, he was already in his 60s. And it has been close to twenty years from then. But I really hope and wish that he was still living happily with his family somewhere: lively, knowledgeable, healthy and energetic as he used to be.

Travel

Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street

I was waiting in line for a food truck when Martin called me telling me he would be visiting New York soon and that we should meet up. “Of course,” I told him.

Knowing Martin, before he even came, I already knew what we would do: drinking and seeing a play. I liked theaters. I even worked part-time at one for four years just so I could see all the plays for cheaper. But Martin, he was a true enthusiast. He chose a little different path career-wise later in life. But the Martin I met in college was a guy who did theater in high school, major/minor in theater at college, hung out with theater peers and went all out crazy for Halloween.

When Martin was in NYC, one day, he called me while I was at work telling me he won the Broadway lottery. Playing the Broadway lottery was one of the ways to get Broadway tickets for much cheaper. Since classic Broadway performance could easily be a couple hundred. I couldn’t believe Martin won the lottery within the 3 days he stayed in NYC. The pair of tickets were for Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. I watched Johnny Depp’s Sweeney Todd but never saw the original Broadway show.

The show was at Greenwich House Theater. In theory, a show that was not on Broadway street area of Midtown, was called an “off Broadway” show. But in my mind, as long as they were in the vicinity of Manhattan, they were Broadway regardless. For many classic Broadway shows, the theaters in which the show happened were specially designed and reserved for only that show for the whole period the show was running. Greenwich House was one of those theaters. It was dedicated only for Sweeney Todd for more than a year the show was in town. The building interior was designed to feel like a small, old school, run-down diner/shop. Without the faded small sign in front and the address printed on your ticket, it would be impossible to tell that the building was a theater. It looked like a normal house.

Pic credit: tdf.org

In front of the theater, there placed an old school barber chair.

The auditorium itself was set up like a diner/pie shop. There were big rectangular tables and audiences sat around the tables, not in rows like traditional theaters. There was no lifted stage. Everything was set up on the same ground level, giving audiences the feel of authenticity. I always thought that stage set up and design was genius. The tickets Martin won was top-notch. We got to sit right by the staircases. We were so close to it that if Martin stretched out his legs, they would definitely touch the stairs.

Why to See Sweeney Todd | NYC's Best Off-Broadway Show
Pic credit: Kickerbocker Hotel

The important point that made Sweeney Todd at Greenwich House stood out was that the show was immersive, making it more like an experience than just a simple show. Actors and actresses stood so close to you, you could hear them breathing, see their sweats and their clothes sometimes even brushed by your arms. In the middle of the songs, sometimes they would jump on audiences’ tables, running between them and yelling their lines at you.

There was a moment, an actor jumped on my table, in front of me and yelled at me “Do you? Do you? Do you?”. I knew it was part of the song but the fact that someone intensely yelled at you made me for a second confused about whether or not I should reply. I glanced at Martin for help and he shook his head real quick.

The singing was outstanding, needless to say. It was true Broadway. Martin was beaming with excitement watching the actors stomping on the stage and the tables. I could not stop smiling in amaze. When the performance was so close to you, you felt a rush no upstage performance could compare. I have seen quite a few musical performances, but Sweeney Todd at Greenwich House was still the best experience I had ever had with musicals. And I had Martin to thank for.

This post was a post for the Discover Prompt day 10: Orchestrate

Life

Poem: The Flip-Flops (Đôi Dép)

In high school, I was in a literature-specialized class. Needless to say, most of everyone in my class were girls. And what would a bunch of literature-crazed teenage girls like? — Love poems.

Not the poems we learned in class, the ones we liked were the ones we shared on little pieces of notes. They were the simple love poems that were raw, sincere and to us, utterly romantic. Till today, I remembered this love poem about flip flops, and how from then on, I have always found literature pieces with analogies of ordinary objects interesting. It was not the object of the story, but the ability to tell the story that made a difference.

Here’s a little translation of the poem

Đôi Dép

Tác giả: Nguyễn Trung Kiên 

Bài thơ đầu tiên anh viết tặng em
Là bài thơ anh kể về đôi dép
Khi nỗi nhớ trong lòng da diết
Những vật tầm thường cũng viết thành thơ

Hai chiếc dép kia gặp nhau tự bao giờ
Có yêu nhau đâu mà chẳng rời nửa bước
Cùng gánh vác những nẻo đường xuôi ngược
Lên thảm nhung, xuống cát bụi cùng nhau

Cùng bước, cùng mòn, không kẻ thấp người cao
Cùng chia sẻ sức người đời chà đạp
Dẫu vinh nhục không đi cùng kẻ khác
Số phận chiếc này phụ thuộc ở chiếc kia

Nếu ngày nào một chiếc dép mất đi
Mọi thay thế đều trở thành khập khiễng
Giống nhau lắm nhưng đời sẽ biết
Hai chiếc này chẳng phải một đôi đâu

Cũng như mình trong những lúc vắng nhau
Bước hụt hẫng cứ nghiêng về một phía
Dẫu bên cạnh đã có người thay thế
Mà trong lòng nỗi nhớ cứ chênh vênh

Đôi dép vô tri khăng khít song hành
Chẳng thề nguyện mà không hề giả dối
Chẳng hứa hẹn mà không hề phản bội
Lối đi nào cũng có mặt cả đôi

Không thể thiếu nhau trên bước đường đời
Dẫu mỗi chiếc ở một bên phải trái
Nhưng tôi yêu em ở những điều ngược lại
Gắn bó nhau vì một lối đi chung

Hai mảnh đời thầm lặng bước song song
Sẽ dừng lại khi chỉ còn một chiếc
Chỉ còn một là không còn gì hết
Nếu không tìm được chiếc thứ hai kia …

The Flip-Flops

By: Nguyễn Trung Kiên 

The first poem I wrote for you
Was the poem about flip flops
When the missing had become so deep
Even the most ordinary items would make poetry

The two flip-flop have met since ever
It wasn’t even love but they’ve never separated
Shouldering the running about roads
Up the luscious carpets, down the dust together

Both walked, both worn, neither one was better
Both shared the stomping of people
Either up or down, would not go with someone else
This one’s fate depended on the other

If one day, one flipflop was missing
Every replacement would just be crooked
Even if they looked similar, people would notice
Those two weren’t an actual pairs

Just like us when one was not here
Stepping crookedly towards a side
Even if there was someone else
Deep inside, the missing would still be there

The inanimate flipflops were side by side
Didn’t need any swearing but never faking
Didn’t need any promising but never betraying
Every path both were there

Couldn’t be without the other in life
Though one was on the right, the other on the left
But I loved you for the opposites
Together because we shared the same path

Two separate lives silently walking side by side
Only stopped when there was only one left
When there was only one meant there was nothing left
If there wasn’t the other one.

It has been fun writing for the Discover prompt this month.

Discover Prompt Day 9: Pairs. https://wordpress.com/discover-wordpress/2020/04/09/discover-prompts-day-9-pair/

Travel

St. Louis Gateway Arch

Video credit: gatewayarch.com

I spent 5 years living in the Midwest and I’ve been to St. Louis many times. The Arch was one of those landmarks that sounded silly until you saw it with your own eyes. When you heard people said “the tallest man-made monument in the US”, you heard it but you couldn’t fully imagine it. When you stood underneath the Arch, in the beautiful park, on a sunny Spring day, you just felt grand.

I had to admit, I have never been inside the arch. And to be honest, I didn’t know you can be inside the arch until the 3rd time I visited St. Louis. I heard there was a museum exhibit inside which you could take a tram all the way up to the top. Sometimes, you could also get a package deal that included a cruise on the riverfront. Personally, I couldn’t find the connection between activities in that package.

I lived in New York City and had never been inside the Statue of Liberty. I have been to St. Louis many times and had never been inside the Arch. I believed architectural monumental should be taken in as a whole. How could you see the magnificent curve of the Arch if you were standing inside looking out through a window? It would just be nothing, but a simple very high window.

Years ago, I was doing a road trip with a friend to St. Louis. He worked in St. Louis before and he knew places. He took me to this park on the west side of the city. I couldn’t remember the name or the location of that park anymore. But from the top level of the park auditorium, here was the Arch in full view and glory. Nobody was ever there. You got to enjoy the Arch and the river all on your own. On a Spring day, with the wind blowing through your hair and the sun shining down glimmering the river, the view was nothing short of astonishing.