“A Phở cocktail please? Thank you,” she smiles at the bartender.
“I thought we are getting drunk today”, he says.
“No,” she says.
“You haven’t changed.”
Phuong rests her elbows on the bar counter and props her chin in the palm of her left hand, before looking at Nam and nodding slightly. When she looks away, the corners of her mouth perk up a little bit.
“It’s alright. Not as challenging as the one in Singapore. I’m doing some coding for their new campaign this fall. They keep track of commitment hours seriously so that’s annoying sometimes, but the salary is decent. By the way,” his voice dropped, “I think some managers in Vietjet might be committing payroll fraud.”
“That’s too much for a new employee,” Phuong widens her eyes. “How do you find out about it though? Your job does not exactly involve reviewing documents. Aren’t you just supposed to put on the websites whatever information they gave you?”
Nam wraps his hand around the glass and takes a small sip of his whiskey.
“Let’s say that I am kind of close with our head accountant, and smart enough to pick up the pieces from what she knew.”
Phuong has no response to that, not right away. Throughout the short silence, an emotion almost forms on her face but fades away too quickly. The bartender’s interruption is well-timed. She thanks him for the cocktail, the muscles of her mouth starting to function again.
“Sounds like old times. You haven’t changed either, Nam. I won’t ask how the sex was then,” she says.
“…Right, because we’re not friends anymore,” he says, repeating her words. The statement sounded light before when she said it, a breath of relief; now it’s heavy on his tongue.
Some 80s song is played on speaker, a high-pitched American boyband Phuong adored in her younger years. That’s why she wants to come here; Phuong only likes bars and cafés that play her kind of music. She used to make Nam playlists back in college so he remembers that much.
“I heard you are moving to Saigon soon”, he says.
“Yeah. My friend is working on a community art project and wants my help. It’s not exactly a job since he has no money to pay me yet, but his idea sounds cool and I like working with him. I’ve been in Hanoi for long enough anyway. Moving would be nice.”
“Where will you be staying?”
“With my friend for the time being. He stays somewhere in District 5.”
“That’s really close to where I live. My apartment is in District 1,” Nam says. He pauses before continuing, “you can stay with me.”
“No,” she says, without either a thank-you or an excuse. At least they pass that level of comfortableness.
“Then, we should date.”
It feels like someone just shoved ice cubes into her mouth. Phuong could feel them melting down her throat, drop by drop, as she turns to face Nam, she does not do this often during the whole time they are talking at all, and “What?” she says.
“We should date,” he says again. “I’m bored of the girls I see at work who are more interested in my father’s son.”
“Find someone outside of your working field then,” she says, breathing out. “That way they wouldn’t know who your father is.”
“…Besides, the article about my award-winning software is still everywhere online.”
“I think,” he says, “I want to date someone who knew me before I invented that software.”
Phuong could have a thousand different things to say to that. But when she finally opens her mouth, the follow-up turns out to be, “someone like Ly, right?” The name stabs him in the stomach like a good old pair of scissors.
Two old friends stare at the liquor shelf in front of them for a long while. Fragments of green and yellow smash into one another in front of his eyes as the alcohol starts to kick in. He’s been taking sips more often as the silence continues.
“I heard from Thanh that you came to the funeral. Why didn’t I see you?”
“One of the cousins told me Ly’s family is small, so I figured you would be busy helping them. I know how long and complicated a typical Vietnamese funeral is. After all, you are still the closest friend Ly has.”
“…I was looking for you,” he says. “I met many people from our school and I was asking them about you.”
“I didn’t stay in contact with most of them after graduation. I helped Ly’s sister in the kitchen to prepare food for the guests on Thursday. …She…told me that the last person Ly spoke to was you.”
“Nam,” she calls him, hesitant, as if waiting for words in her head to form into a sentence. “How are you holding up?”
He tilts his head up to empty the whiskey. When Nam puts the glass down slowly, swaying it around his palm before settling it on the countertop, Phuong could barely hear the sound of crystal touching the granite surface. She almost reaches for his hand before pulling away, the gesture small enough for him to not notice. The mention of their dead friend hangs in the air. Phuong leans back on her stool, creating more space between them.
“You know the first time I met Ly?”
Nam looks at her, waiting, anticipating. Reminiscing is not Phuong’s habit, not with him especially.
“I was on my way to your room holding the last mixtape I made for you. As I stood in front of your door, I decided that I didn’t want you to listen to it anymore, so I was going to destroy the mixtape and ended it there. But I ran into a girl as I turned the corner. She was holding a stack of books and I ran into her, so the books fell from her hands onto the ground and I helped her pick them up. I realized I knew these books. You and I were in the library together enough times so I knew some titles in the reading lists for your philosophy classes. She even had the Kobo Abe novel you talked to me about some weeks before.”
Nam fixes his eyes on Phuong when she’s not looking. For the first time that night, his façade looks breakable.
“She smiled when I apologized. That girl had the most genuine smile I’d ever seen.”
Phuong asks the bartender to call Nam a taxi before leaving. She doesn’t let him pay for her cocktail.