He never felt better than on the third day without food. Days one and two were brutal, yes, because of that burning sensation, that festering sizzle to the innards; when throwing up was like regurgitating one of those metal scum scours that was strangely intangible, the coarse fibres catching in the throat. But day three felt good. Good enough, in fact, for him to finally get some work done.
So when his Ma came to visit with Bho Kho and black rice pudding on one particular day three, he was less than enthused.
“Please Thien, please. Just eat-”
“Enough Ma. You know where this is going. Enough!”
She shrunk, suddenly lost for the words she’d been accumulating all month and Thien repented, felt like a guilty school boy again. “Why don’t you stay for another coffee Ma. Just one more, okay? Then you gotta go.”
“Coffee? You’re not going to eat?”
She was right. He’d probably lost eight kilos in the last few months but how could a mother understand? Especially a Viet mother. Admittedly, it was difficult to explain to anyone. He consoled himself with Hemingway, hunger is good discipline and you learn from it. And as long as they do not understand it you are ahead of them. The words in his head were like tonic, even like food in his mouth, and with renewed strength he was able to see his mother off at the door.
“You’re killing me,”
“Enough hysterics Ma,” he tried to push a copy of Down and Out in Paris and London into her hands. “If you wanna understand, here.”
“Don’t you dare give me that rubbish,” she said, in Vietnamese, then left.
Thien swept the Bho Kho off the counter and into the bin. He had a half mouthful of the pudding and though it was good, regretted it immediately, then set down at the table by the window, pen in hand. He sat there for a while, eventually becoming dizzy and tired. He thought of it in this way, and wrote it down: finding the right words was like being stooped over a barrel of hot treacle, elbow-deep, wading-groping for silver coins in the sticky black muck. One day, his mother would understand. He was trying to make the world a better place, a place more bearable, and he would use his silver-white words to do it.
He fell asleep and dreamt he were the fists of Holden Caulfield, battling the hypocrisy of the world.
When Thien awoke by his window hours later, the fierce morning sun had singed an angry red diamond into the side of his face, the shape of a slanted window. He touched it tenderly. “Ah fuck,” and wiped the drool from his chin.
Mimi would have something for it, aloe vera or moisturiser, something. The others, there were eight of them crammed together in that share-house in Cabra, all international students (the pathetic poverty-stricken type) were always so stingy. They wouldn’t lend him anything. Mimi was good. And trusting too, she always left her door unlocked.
Thien crept into her room and went through the drawers. There was no cream for his face, but he did spot an old-fashioned camera; not of the soulless, digital megapixel variety, but the kind that still required development in a dark room. He pocketed the camera and went downstairs to buy a roll of film.
The following morning, day four of the hunger, and he succumbed to a little of Mimi’s cornflakes. Thien sat by his bedroom window which looked down upon the neighbouring property. Through the large glass bay doors of their house, he spied the family, no not the family exactly, but some sort of gathering nonetheless. Five or six women were seated in a circle on an assortment of mismatched chairs: cheap plastic deck chairs, dining chairs, even a cushioned milk crate, cackling and pushing needles through dimities and sheets of colourful cloth. Little black children would dart in and out at regular intervals. It looked like their refugee church group. Thien snapped away.
A week later, he was outside smoking a doobie. The lady next door caught sight of him and came shambling over, her silver-white teeth flashing, the wind snatching at her hijab and tossing it behind her like the streaming tail of a kite.
“Teee-yen,” she cooed breathlessly, gathering the fabric around her. “You are the one. You are the perfect one. My children, Sa’diya and Sarah, they need the English tutor for school.”
“Yes, yes. For the classroom. The AMES tutor they send, she is no good. She treat my children like they is stupid. My daughters are too advanced. You are the perfect one, you must teach them.”
“No, no. You don’t want me. Besides, I’m busy.”
“You are not busy?! I see you all the time, all the time at the window, staring, staring. And you writing those story all the time. You must have the good English. I cannot pay too much, but there is something. Maybe dinner too, with the family.”
“No, no. I’m sorry Hadiyah. I’m busy.”
She looked at him embarrassed, “oh okay. I see you are very busy. This is okay,” and she handed him a flyer, “you tell your university friend, if they want the extra money, they can give English tutor. But only ask the good one. The clever one, like you.”
Hadiyah hurried back over the road, bobbing and waving idiotically at him as she retreated into her house. Thien glanced over the flyer.
“Fifteen dollars an hour?” he muttered to himself, “not bloody likely.”