“WWWhat are you?”
“I am Buddha. Listen carefully, Le Hoang An. There is a girl named Nguyen Ngoc Nhi who lost her senses of taste and touch after an accident when she was very young. I believe she deserves a better life. Therefore, I’ve decided to give her one of the senses she’s lacking.”
“Unfortunately, to maintain the balance of nature, someone will have to give up one of their senses for her. I went through a selection process and you stood out as the perfect candidate. Nhi will come find you 108 seconds later. Within 108 minutes, you have to show her how the two senses work so she could choose one to keep for herself. If you don’t finish this mission, be prepared to lose all your senses. Got it?”
“What the fu-”
. . .
Now all of this is stupid as hell, An knows, and he’s definitely not religious. But a girl really did knock on his door very soon after, introduce herself as Nhi and tell him the same story. An would love to kick her out to claim that he’s not that dumb, then maybe stop by the hospital to get some tests done. The amount of vodka he’s consuming these days probably does cause hallucinations or shit like that. Nonetheless, there’s a tiny bit of him that’s afraid. What if he really just has two choices: either losing a sense or losing all senses? If he lost one, yes, he’d be like a freakin’ handicap, but An could not imagine losing five. That little possibility scared the shit out of him so bad that now he’s actually doing what Buddha — SEE, WHAT A JOKE! — told him to do.
“You’ll be alright. I’ve lived for 10 years without two senses. Besides, the swap might not even be permanent. Maybe it just needs to happen now for some greater good-”
“Greater good? Doesn’t he feel bad? Don’t you? Hey, I’M INNOCENT.”
“Yea,” Nhi nods in agreement. “But if you don’t help me choose, it’s gonna be worse for you right?”
An stares at the girl in disbelief — damn it, she knows that too! — as Nhi sits down on the floor and starts eating the bag of cookies under his coffee table. Those cookies have been left open for a while now, he hopes they already go bad. Ha!
Nhi raises her eyebrows, gesturing An to sit down. For a split-second, An thinks he appeared pitiful towards a girl who basically has 3 out of 5 human senses. He kicks the thought out soon enough to think of a strategy. After all, he still has an ability to affect her decision right? What he could do is deciding which sense he wants to keep, then talking Nhi out of claiming it.
Well, that’s the plan. The thing is, he hasn’t decided which sense to keep yet.
“There are bright sides to every situation. Food at my orphanage tastes better when I don’t know how it tastes like,” Nhi says. Apparently, she doesn’t mind entertaining An’s curiosity about her life. “Therefore, it’s not about the food, I just think of our mothers who always make sure we get fed everyday. Unlike other kids, I always finish my meals.”
An can’t come up with a response. To him, to every normal person, if food has a meaning then that meaning depends on its taste. Isn’t that how we label memories? An thinks of times his father complained about the food his mother made. His mother was never a good cook. She had always wanted to be more than just a home cook.
An’s tongue moves from between two rows of teeth. He should have remembered his mother’s last meal, but he doesn’t.
“Hey, tell me what it’s like to feel a touch,” Nhi nudges his shoulder.
“Touch?” An scratches his head lightly. “It’s like, when you hold something in your hand, you can feel if it’s smooth or rough. Or hot, or cold. Or..when something hits you, you feel pain.”
Nhi reaches for his hand and An surprises himself by not pulling away. She examines how their fingers intertwine, filling all the spaces in between, in a manner so religious, An doesn’t feel like interrupting the process. Her fingers are thin, cold and small. So small, he thinks that if she ever makes a fist, it won’t have more force than a snap of his fingers.
“Your description sucks more than those Wikipedia pages,” Nhi says. Then she tilts her head and asks: “How about you telling me which sense is more important to you?”
“Me?” An tries to read her expression. Having the plan in mind, he forms his sentences slowly, playing down the importance of both senses just in case. “Well, you already have the most important senses that are sight and hearing. As long as you learn what’s dangerous and pay more attention to your skin, you can be fine without the sense of touch. About taste…it’s the constant reminder of reality. You know what they say these days: “You are what you eat”. So if you can’t afford to go to restaurants or buy good wine, it’s pretty useless.”
What a terrible liar, An hears a voice ringing inside his head. Funny thing is, he wasn’t lying. An hadn’t cared about what he ate in years, and the only pleasant touch he can think of experiencing is his head crashing a pillow every night after a long work day. So why does it feel like a lie and who is he lying to, exactly?
Nhi laughs, so he thinks that she thinks he is pitiful. He does feel bad, kind of.
“You’re right,” Nhi says, nodding several times. “When Buddha came to me and said he’s gonna give me a sense, I was so happy. So fucking happy. But now that I think about it, what do I have to look forward to anyway?”
“Why do you sound so calm though?” An asks. “Like you don’t really care, whatever. And you are weirdly positive.”
“Because that’s how I decided to be. I mean, dude, come on, this is not even close to a worst-case scenario. You know how much prepared I was before I came here? I literally looked for an exit when I entered your room, just in case you tried to kill me or something. That’s how a normal person would act when he is forced give up one of his senses for a stranger right?”
Her laughter is pretty loud so he joins her, laughing. Until An thinks there is something so troubling about their situation, and laughing about it doesn’t untie the knot. At first, he started the conversation out of fear that he could lose all the five senses. But he seems to be in a different place now, and An is still trying to process what that means. He looks at Nhi, who’s still grinning, and half-smiles before wiping the smile off his face.
“An, have you ever had sex?”
“…No,” he replies. Thinks briefly of an ex who stated that he had “trust issues”. “I’ve dated girls before, but never went that far.”
“You know, I’ve always thought of sex as the climax of touch. But maybe I’ve fantasized too much upon the idea that when I actually do it, the experience is bound to be disappointing.”
The shower startles both of them. An stands up to open the window, mindlessly letting raindrops fall onto his floor, thinking he would wipe them up later. He hasn’t done this for a long time, opening the window. Is it summer already? An reaches out his hands, watches the water splash onto his palm and knuckles. The smell of old cement, the old lady’s cooking on the first floor, the dry leaves from last winter on the rooftop, everything soaks into his nose at once. He wonders how many minutes he has left as a person of 5 human senses, and also, if Nhi has made up her mind.
“Hey,” An feels surprisingly calm the moment he calls her. Nhi sits with her bony knees pulled into her chest. When she looks up, he finds her so fragile under the afternoon sun. “The food at your orphanage won’t be that bad, even when you know it’s bad. Like you will know how bad it is, and it might depress the hell out of you, but you know it’s made out of love. It’s you knowing that it’s bad but still means something, is what makes it good, you know?”
The girl stares at him for a very, very long time. An feels like time is infinite. Then Nhi says his full name loud and clear, “Le Hoang An,” the voice weighted, not loud but somehow he could hear her very clear. His name in her throat sounds like a magic spell, like someone has drilled a hole inside his head to let the voice sneak in, calm and quiet.
The circle of light surrounding her figure is unmistakably familiar.