Me and Him and Chris on Northbound 101

Lo Kwai Cheung

Artwork by Ellen Blom

Huynh has an uncanny penchant for predicting the future; uncanny in that his predictions are completely unpredictable. Sometimes if he brushes up against a person, or simply passes nearby, he will know what will happen to them in the next few minutes, or in the next hour. But it's always something trivial that no one besides me would pay the slightest attention to, something so insignificant it's hardly worth mentioning.

We were at some hamburger joint having lunch, and he was unwrapping his fish fillet sandwich when he suddenly said in a very serious tone: "You'll wanna watch that left-shirt pocket of yours." I immediately looked down but didn't see anything out of the ordinary, and by the time I looked back up, our conversation had leapt to the cover of the new Bazaar we'd just bought, and the mysterious warning about my pocket became history, so to speak, or so I thought, for just as we were getting up to leave, I carelessly dribbled some catsup on my right-shirt pocket. In a flash, the past came back and stared me in the face. You said left-shirt pocket, I said, shooting him a look. So how come it landed on the right? I guess he has trouble telling his left hand from his right.

That incident notwithstanding, I didn't think it likely that his predictive powers would influence our trip. The wind and rain were going at it pretty hard. My Corolla was heading north on Highway 101 through Northern California, at the less-than-highway pace of fifty miles per hour. One one-thousand, two one-thousand, three one-thousand...I counted to myself as the silver-gray Taurus in front of me passed a lamp pole up ahead. This is something I learned from my California driver's handbook, that if you want to maintain a safe following distance, you should pick a point in the road ahead and as soon as the car you are following passes it start counting as I did to make sure that your car doesn't reach that point before you get to three one-thousand. If you can keep that distance, the book says, you'll have plenty of time to do something about it if the car in front of you should suddenly stop.

As I'd never actually found myself in a life-threatening situation, I wasn't really sure if the three-second rule would be effective at the rate we were going, but I was fairly certain that the fellow who'd invented this rule was convinced that time operates in a linear fashion. Subjected to the continuous movement of space, time was indeed becoming thoroughly spatialized as we advanced from this point to that. This idea goes back to Aristotle, no? That time is linear. But seeing that we live in a postmodern age, does the three-second rule still hold? I wondered. Perhaps my suspicions were the product of my own linear thinking, but since my way of thinking traveled along the same lines as the book's, who was I to question the rule? As my mind raced over the possibilities, the rain continued its deluge, and Huynh continued to ignore me in an effort to keep a lid on his temper. Our relationship tends to get that way every now and then, like newlyweds who, for no particular reason, fall out over some minor incident and end up giving each other the silent treatment for several days.

I love the feeling of driving a car, of sitting behind the wheel and seeing the world reduced to a landscape on a windshield, of being able to transport yourself to some other landscape if you don't care for the one you are in. I remember reading a science fiction story about a married couple driving home from the suburbs who had been warned by a friend not to roll their windows down under any circumstances until they got to their door because the universe he had created still had a flaw or two. As to who this friend was, and how on earth he had managed to create a whole universe, I haven't the foggiest recollection. But to make a long story short, the friend said what he said, and naturally, stories being what they are, the couple ignored his warning and rolled down the windows and discovered, to their horror, that everything, the road they were driving down, the sunlight and the scenery, all the people they had seen along the way, were simply images on a screen, that there was nothing beyond the windshield but an empty void.

Of course, I'm not stupid enough to roll my window down in the pouring rain, but if the scenery outside was entirely fake, and I was of a mind to roll it down, I'd just as soon have the reality inside the car disappear with the reality outside. For the fact is, the best thing that could possibly happen to us would be for Huynh and my relationship to have never existed. Huynh began thumping the back of his hand against the car door, making a really annoying sound. I didn't fall for his trap; I knew he was only doing it in the hope that I would tell him to stop and, by being the first to break the silence, inadvertently declare our cold war over. Sometimes I worry that his penchant for predicting things enables him to know what I am thinking. On the other hand, seeing that his powers are limited to reading the future, I figure that if I can just keep my mind fixed on the past, to wallow, so to speak, in memories, there is no way he can follow my train of thought.

The Corolla continued to "race" forward, the wind and rain barely impeding its progress. Up ahead it looked like it was raining cats and dogs. This rain ain't ever gonna stop, Huynh said to no one in particular. I didn't say a word. In the absence of an addressee and the likelihood of his statement having zero predictive power, I just let it float off in the air, which was by now simply dripping with moisture. This was not, of course, the first time I had acted as if Huynh did not exist. One time in San Francisco when he asked me to go apartment hunting with him in the Mission District, he kept me waiting for nearly half an hour, and I had to listen to some geriatric landlady go on and on about how great her place was. I couldn't understand why she was wasting her time lobbying me; it's not like she had to worry about not finding a renter. Maybe she thought Asians were more likely to keep the apartment clean. In any case, I got a little upset at being stood up. Obviously Huynh was the one looking for an apartment. I was just keeping him company. So why am I the one who shows up and he's nowhere to be found? Well, if your wife can't make it, she said, we can always reschedule for some other time. I'm sure the old lady was only trying to reassure me that Huynh's not coming was no big deal, but her remark really threw me for a loop, and for some reason I can't quite explain, I went right through the roof. My wife? How can "he" be my wife? Huynh does tend to put on an incredibly theatrical manner whenever he gets someone on the phone, and most Americans, who can't make heads or tails of a name like Huynh, are apt to get his gender turned around. I guess I got a little out of hand, for she looked quite shocked and started apologizing left and right and said, in an obvious effort to get back on my good side: Well, why don't you and your boyfriend come again tomorrow? Because I'd really love to rent this place to you. That really ticked me off; I got so angry that I put that woman right out of my mind and pretended she had vanished. And when Huynh finally showed up, I acted like he hadn't.

As we continued to eat up the miles, I could barely see a thing besides the highway flowing by in an unbroken stream. Who was the poet who said that driving down a highway is like pulling down a great, big zipper? I tried to translate that for Huynh once. He didn't seem to get it at first, but then he suddenly whooped with laughter. So what happens if the zipper opens and a giant penis pops out? Boy, I bet the traffic really piles up! Huynh is constantly coming up with these ghoulish ideas. I don't know if that has anything to do with his powers of prediction, but I do know I was getting pretty fed up with the way his jokes always seemed to revolve around sexual organs. I was positively losing my patience. And I knew he could sense my fuse was growing shorter by the hour, but for some reason he had the crazy notion that more of the same would somehow win me over. Maybe there is a reason for everything, but in this case it all comes down to one particular individual. Now don't get the idea I conjured him out of thin air, for his name is Chris, and if you really want to know what was driving me crazy, you need look no further than him.

To be sure, things had turned a little sour in our relationship, but which of us was most responsible for that I really couldn't say. The three of us—Huynh, me, and Chris—had actually gotten to know one another under separate circumstances, and for the longest time I didn't know Huynh and Chris knew each other, Huynh had no idea that me and Chris had been close for as long as I could remember, and Chris hadn't the vaguest notion that me and Huynh were practically inseparable; just three people who each knew the other two but didn't know they knew each other. In the beginning it was all perfectly normal; it's not like we formed some sort of Borromean knot, where if you removed any one of the rings the other two would cease to be attached. Nor was it one of those twisted relationships where you can't exist without the other. My education was such that I had always tried to maximize my freedom and autonomy and consequently avoided forming relationships that might conflict with that principle.

Nonetheless, certain little things had led me to believe that I was no longer myself. I think it may have all started one day after I had just polished off a heavy lunch and was waiting to drift off when something about Huynh's clothing gave me an uneasy feeling. It demanded my attention like those puzzles they have in the Sunday paper where you're asked to identify the difference between two apparently identical images. The trouble is, when you play this game in real life, you never get the chance to look simultaneously at the before and after versions of someone standing in front of you, but must rely upon your memory and familiarity to spot the difference.

What was different about Huynh was not some obvious contrast, such as seeing some black and white version of something that had originally been in color or even something as subtle as having triple cuff links on a sleeve instead of one. The change I noticed was a barely perceptible difference in the aura he gave off, some slight alteration in how he mixed and matched his clothes, a minuscule modulation in the rhythm of his walk and the way he carried himself about. He was wearing, if I recall, an exquisitely embroidered black form-fitting vest over an elegant white dress shirt that added a certain oomph to his gym-sculpted body. That's when I realized that Chris had left so deep an imprint on Huynh that it amounted to a kind of abiotic regeneration. Having been so close to Chris for such a long time, I wasn't sure if I liked the idea of seeing the old Chris in the new Huynh's arms.

The rain was falling harder than ever. Held back by the onrushing wind and the water accumulating on the road, the car struggled to advance. As I gripped the wheel I could barely see what lay ahead or hear the drone of the engine over the drumming of the rain on the roof. I wasn't even sure if the car was moving at all, for time had ground to a sudden halt as if something had thrown itself across its path, and in that moment that time became derailed, at the very instant that Huynh ceased his ghoulish babbling and became lost in thought, his image and recollection of Chris collided with my own, and, by some happy confluence of our two memories, at the very point of their convergence, the Chris that we had both been thinking of silently appeared.

Chris is not imaginary, but it was imagination and memory—Huynh's and mine—that enabled him to take on physical form, here, in the car with us. He's quite a handsome fellow, Chris, beautiful, even, with a straight nose and slender lips that give him the appearance of an amiable Buddha whenever he smiles, not that I've ever seen a real Buddha smile. He's one of those big, strapping fellows like the men they have in Northern China, so it must have been unpleasant for him to be scrunched up in the backseat of a compact car. It was certainly unpleasant for me (and strange, to say the least) that this unexpected rain should have churned up memories of Chris. Huynh tried to strike up a conversation and, being one of those people who loves the sound of his own voice, he quite forgot about our cold war tensions, though (as usual) he had no sooner started in on one topic than he was off on another.

Whether from some lack of development in my imagination or because of the bewildering deluge of Huynh's topics, Chris simply sat there without saying a word. This was, come to think of it, the one thing that had always been lacking in our relationship, that the three of us were never able to sit down together and have a real conversation. Perhaps it's something we simply can't imagine for all our similarities. Chris came from the Philippines, Huynh is Vietnamese, and I of course was born in Hong Kong. We each knew, without ever having to say it, that we were among the California aliens who had grown up in colonial societies deeply influenced by Western culture and thus had little inclination to return to where we came from.

Chris was as quiet as ever, like a still life, mute testimony to the flaws in our imagination. Though I didn't turn around, I could see him sitting there in my mind's eye, with his hands draped casually across his knees and his long, elegant fingers dangling at rest. Huynh kept up his cheerful banter, as if he hadn't noticed Chris's silence or imagined Chris to be one of those people who are happy as the day is long not to say a thing, or became that way whenever he was in Huynh's world, or—who's to say?—was some happy version of Chris that Huynh's faculty for prediction had brought back from some carefree future. In any case, this Chris was a world away from the one I recalled, but then maybe Chris couldn't help being different when he was in the presence of both of us, who, in our ineptitude, could call forth only a compromised version of Chris that struck by chance a happy if silent medium. It was then I realized that Huynh was not the only one that Chris had imprinted. Hadn't he left as deep a mark on me? My fussiness over little things, my fastidious taste in clothing—weren't we alike in many ways? Was this mere coincidence or had Chris managed to impose his thoughts on mine so thoroughly that I only imagined I was me?

I'm not sure why, but a chilling fear overcame me. It was as if Chris's materialization had brought to light some dark secret that I myself was only vaguely aware of and was so reluctant to face that I had buried it in a very deep place from which it had somehow escaped and now vividly revealed itself to Huynh. I stole a glance at him. He was as cheerful as ever. Was he pleased with himself for having exposed my secret? Or was he simply reveling in the world he had created?

The rain, which I learned only later had been the biggest Northern California had seen in six years of drought, gradually halted. The cheerless smoke screen that enables ghosts and apparitions to appear vanished along with them. Like a secret, Chris was now forced to sit quietly in his dark little corner, waiting, with infinite patience, for the next opportunity to be unearthed. By the time we drove onto the Bay Bridge the surrounding cars had switched on their headlights, and the distant sky had turned an equivocal blue. It ain't gonna' rain tonight, nosirree, said Huynh, who was clearly in a sunny mood. Was this another of his uncanny predictions or just the superfluous remark of one of those boring people who can't think of anything to say besides some innocuous comment on the weather? As we crossed that bridge, which was surprisingly dry, the car all but leapt forward as if anxious to reach the light that lay ahead.

translated from the Chinese by Steve Bradbury