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A ShortSt ory by Than Toe Aung
i as Li ndert Edi t ed by El i n Li nn Ht et CoverArtby SaiHt
Copyright © 2016 by the author, all rights reserved. Cover image contributed by Sai Htin Linn Htet for nonprofit purposes.
This is a free eBook. You are free to give it away (in unmodified form) to whomever you wish.
This story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, places, and events are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons—living or dead—institutions, or locales is purely coincidental.
The Other Side of the Coin By Than Toe Aung
1 “Allah is the greatest. Allah is the greatest. I testify that there is no God except Allah. I testify that Muhammad is the messenger of Allah. Come to prayer. Come to prayer.” The muezzin from the Bengali Mosque in downtown Sule is broadcasting azan for the Friday prayer. Nwe Sein Wai stands waiting patiently in front of the mosque while Thiha prays inside. As she waits for him to finish praying, she looks up at Sule Pagoda, puts her palms together, closes her eyes, and pays homage to the Lord Buddha. A few minutes later, the prayer is finished and people start to come out of the mosque. Soon Thiha emerges, removing his prayer cap. When he sees Nwe, he glances around, and taking advantage of the cover granted by the flow of worshippers from the mosque, he gives her a stealthy kiss on the cheek. “Stop it, Thiha! I hate it when you do that in public,” she says, blushing. “Don’t worry; no one saw,” he replies with a mischievous grin. “And I’m sorry. I just can’t help it. It comes out of habit.” “A habit that you picked up with a lot of other girls before me?” “Don’t be silly. You are the first girl I’ve ever been in love with.” “Liar!” she says with a laugh. “It’s okay if you don’t believe me,” he says just as a noisy bus roars past. 1
“Sorry. What did you say?” “Never mind. Let’s go eat something. I’m hungry.” “All right then.” It was a rainy evening when Thiha first met Nwe Sein Wai at their English language class. The class had just been dismissed, and he was about to head back home. He had an important family dinner he had to go to, but he didn’t have an umbrella with him, and the rain was pouring down heavily. Suddenly, he felt a tap on his shoulder. He turned around and saw a girl raising her umbrella. “Do you need a lift?” she asked in English. A lift? He thought. It’s an umbrella, not a car. But then he understood what she meant, and he went along with her. She escorted him to the nearest bus station. On the way, she spoke to him in English, and he replied in kind. He sensed that she wanted to practice her English, but he didn’t know why she chose him. It was not as if he was one of the best students in the class. His spoken English was only so-so, though he was a strong reader. When they arrived at the bus stop, she said goodbye and walked away. He didn’t get to know her name, nor have a chance to tell her his. Still, the memory of the encounter stayed with him. Thiha soon found out that she was a close friend of one of his best friends, Min Thant, who told him that her name was Nwe Sein Wai. After the “ride” she gave him in the rain, he tried his best to get closer to her. She spent most of her time in the library, so Thiha began going there too, even though he had rarely ever gone to the library before he’d met her. As time passed by, they began meeting each other frequently at a coffee shop, where they would hang out before their class started. They often talked about their family lives, their experiences at their universities, their crazy friends. Sometimes they’d giggle over the silly antics of a couple sitting at 2
another table. Then they would go to class together. Now that they’ve been meeting regularly for several months, some people in their class think they are a couple, but most do not, since their appearances are so distinctively opposite. Thiha is brown, Indian-looking, hairy, and a Muslim. Nwe Sein Wai, on the other hand, is light-skinned, with the features of a typical Burmese lady, and a Buddhist. They get a lot of attention when they are together in public because of the racial segregation and religious tension between Muslims and Buddhists. The majority of Muslims in Myanmar look Indian, like Thiha, and Buddhists tend not to like Muslim guys dating Buddhist girls. However, Thiha and Nwe Sein Wai never explain themselves to others. When they are asked if they are a couple, they brush off the question and laugh. After their English class, Nwe attends a painting class nearby while Thiha waits for her at their regular café. They usually hang out after Nwe’s painting class finishes at eight. It’s easier for them to be together in public at night; because it is darker and there are fewer people on the roads, they don’t have to worry about getting nasty looks—or worse—from strangers. Only under the cover of night can they truly be themselves with each other. When they go out together during the daytime, they avoid holding hands or doing anything that would give the impression that they are a couple. After class is over and night has fallen, they usually take a walk to the banks of Inya Lake, where there are a lot of couples on dates, strolling together or sitting and chitchatting. Since the dim lights from lampposts are the only lights around the lake at night, the couples enjoy a level of freedom they could not have during the day. When Nwe and Thiha are tired, they sit side by side on a bench along the shore and enjoy the scenery of Inya Lake. Sometimes they continue to talk about whatever comes into their minds. Other times they just sit silently beside each other, doing 3
nothing but gazing at the lake and the bright lights across the water. Thiha likes to take out his earphones, put one in Nwe’s ear and the other in his, and play their favorite music. Nwe lays her head on Thiha’s shoulder, closing her eyes and enjoying the music and the cool breeze coming across the lake. “Do you love me, Nwe?” Thiha asks her out of the blue on one such night. There follows a long silence. She is resting her head on his shoulder but doesn’t say a word. Then she starts laughing softly. “Hey, why are you laughing?” “You know, you are a naughty boy.” “Why’s that?” “Because you don’t just ask a girl if she loves you!” she says, her cute smile forming. “You’re supposed to tell her that you love her. That’s how it is.” “But that’s not how it’s done in American movies,” he protests. “They hardly even say ‘I love you’ when they’re beginning to date each other. They start off with ‘I like you.’ And anyone, boys or girls, can say it first.” “Then go to America! This is Myanmar,” she replies. Thiha picks up a small flat rock and throws it at the lake. The rock skips across the surface of the water three times before it sinks. “It doesn’t matter who says it first, does it? But I’ll keep that rule in mind for future reference.” “Why for future reference?” she asks. “Why not now?” He gazes at the lights shining on the other side of the lake and feels the breeze rubbing against his face. “When people say they love someone, it always leaves me thinking about what they really mean by that. Or do you think they even know? Sitting with you right here makes me feel unreal. It’s the same sort of unreality as seeing a light after living in the darkness 4
for a long time. You might be afraid to hold onto that glimpse of light, but you also don’t want it to fade away.” “I think you love me,” Nwe whispers. “Why do you think so?” “Because I love you too.” “Then explain it to me, please.” “I can’t. That’s the beauty of love. You feel it but it’s difficult to explain.” He looks into her eyes, searching for something. Her lips are half open and half closed; the curve that forms on her lips when she smiles is perhaps his favorite thing about her. He can feel her slow breathing as his face nears hers and smell the sweet fragrance of thanaka on her skin. He gives her a gentle kiss on the cheek. She has the sweetest scent of anyone he has ever been close to. A few drops of rain fall, and before they notice, it begins to pour. The other couples by the lakeside get up and run for the nearest bus stop, where there is a small roof for waiting passengers. “Do you feel like walking back to the dorms?” Thiha asks. He usually walks her to her dorm, and then he takes a bus and goes back home where he lives with his parents. “In this rain?” “Yeah.” “Why? I have a class tomorrow. I can’t risk getting sick. We don’t have an umbrella. You know I can catch the flu very easily.” “I know, but . . . but I’ve always loved walking in the rain. I mean, the world is a noisy place, full of people clamoring for attention or bustling from one place to the next. But when the rain comes, they all disappear. It’s as if the signal between the outside world and your ears is cut off. As if the rain is saying, ‘Shut up and listen to me, you lousy people!’ All you hear 5
is the sound of the rain falling, and it puts your mind at peace. I always love to look up at the sky and feel the raindrops coming down on my face. It’s the best feeling in the world. Maybe you should try it, too.” She looks at the couples running toward the bus stop for shelter, and her brow furrows as she considers her decision. “Okay then,” she says. “I’ll try it. But only this time. And you’re responsible for taking care of me if I get sick. Deal?” “Deal. You have my word on that.” As the rain continues to come down, they walk side by side, holding hands. Soon they’re both soaked through. Nwe looks stunning with her Burmese traditional dress clinging to her skin, revealing the perfect curves and edges of her small, beautiful body. Her face is covered in droplets of water instead of thanaka, and her lips are turning pink in the rain. “I want you to carry me in your arms, Thiha. I have always dreamt of a day that my boyfriend would carry me in his arms and take me home,” she says as they walk. “No. People will look at us. We will get a lot of attention.” “Come on. It’s raining so hard that no one is on this entire road except us. Or is it because maybe you just aren’t strong enough to carry me?” she teases. All of a sudden, he takes hold of her and lifts her into his arms. “Woah!” she says, to her own surprise. “That’s my man!” She closes her eyes and leans back in his arms, feeling the gentle touch of the rain as it pours over her face. “Now I know why you like this so much,” she says. She parts her lips, and he lowers his head and kisses her. Under the cold raindrops, she holds onto his neck, kissing him back while he carries her slowly through the rain. The rain does not stop falling all night long. 6
2 At the age of sixteen, Thiha had joined the Myanmar Maritime University, hoping he would one day become the captain of a ship and travel around the world. His dream collapsed when he finally realized that his high school marks were insufficient to get into the major necessary to become a captain. He ended up studying electrical engineering, but he was never interested in it. It was just the result of the backward educational system forced on him by the country’s military rulers. They couldn’t care less about anyone, he thought to himself, let alone students and their dreams. He would have liked to study abroad, but he didn’t have the resources, and even if he did, he wouldn’t have known what to study. So he continued studying engineering. Oftentimes, he would skip his classes and play soccer or computer games with his friends. That’s when he met Min Thant, on a day both of them were cutting class. They were in the same major, they had similar views, and they were similarly dissatisfied with school. It was Min Thant who introduced him to English novels, and soon Thiha had a true passion in his life. Thiha loved and enjoyed English to the same degree that he hated and was bored by engineering. Though his English wasn’t great, the desire to be able to read more difficult books and to speak and write fluently pushed him to study the language harder and harder. English might just be the door to his dreams, he thought. Soon after he started reading books in English, the urge to try out writing his own stories made him create an online blog. He started writing poems and short stories and posting them on his blog, and soon he was getting messages from strangers who told him they really liked his work. Some of his poems and short stories were chosen for his university 7
magazine. He won prizes in a few small local contests. Still, he didn’t feel that he was a good writer. “Sir, here is your black coffee.” He is lost in his thoughts when the waitress arrives at his table. “Oh, thank you,” he says. The radio in the café is playing Once Upon A Time by Percy Faith at a low volume. It’s funny, he thinks. If he hadn’t met Min Thant, he might never have gotten into English language literature, and then he never would have realized that he had a passion for writing. He takes a sip of the coffee and feels the warmth along his throat. The subtle savor of the coffee gives him a quiet sense of joy. He comes often to this small café. The theme of its decor is that of Rangoon in the early 20th century. The walls are full of paintings and photographs, a dim yellow light above each of them. One of the photos shows a group of Indian men posing outside of an old colonial building. Some are standing, some are sitting, some are facing each other, but they all have a common facial expression indicating neither happiness nor sadness; they are simply blank. The painting to his right shows the eyes of an Indian girl peeking through her sari, just like in Bollywood movies. Below the painting, it reads, Welcome to Rangoon, 1906. Next to his table there sits a white man wearing shorts and a t-shirt. An American, maybe. Beside him is a small black suitcase with airline tags still tied to its handle. The man is totally absorbed in a newspaper and doesn’t seem to care what’s going on around him. He is reading an article with the title More Dead in Rakhine State Sectarian Violence. The article is not very long, but it seems like he is reading some parts of it twice, word by word, in order to grasp it fully. Caught up in observing the man and reading over his shoulder, Thiha suddenly remembers he has to pick up Nwe from her painting class. He 8
checks the clock on the wall; it’s almost eight. He takes one last sip of his black coffee, grabs his jacket, and leaves in a hurry. Nwe is sitting at the bottom of the stairway that leads to her classroom, absorbed in one of her textbooks. When she notices Thiha approaching, she looks up at him and narrows her eyes. He puts his palms together, as if praying for mercy. “No. That won’t do, Thiha. You are late—don’t expect forgiveness so easily,” she says. “What can I do to make it up to you?” “Hmm, let me see. You deserve a serious punishment.” She thinks for a while. Finally, she scratches her head and says, “Well, today’s your lucky day. I can’t think of anything. Just buy me an ice-cream.” “I will buy you two ice-creams.” “Deal,” she says. “You know, you are such a childish girl.” “It’s your fault you love a childish girl.” “You’re right,” he says. “My bad.” As they walk down the street together, they notice a man coming toward them from the opposite direction. He is walking three puppies: two black barbets and one brown bulldog. They are not walking in sync; the two barbets walk from the right and the bulldog from the left. The way the bulldog walks is clumsily cute. Sometimes he walks ahead of the other two, and other times he falls behind, then looks confused when the other two change their lane and block his way. “Thiha?” says Nwe. “Yes?” “I know it’s not part of Islam, but do you maybe think reincarnation might be real?” 9
He smiles and shrugs. “Why do you ask?” “I was imagining that in another life I could have been a puppy. Do you think that’s possible?” “Nwe, if you were a puppy, I’d want to be a puppy too.” “That’s sweet,” she laughs. “But you wouldn’t have to become a puppy. I’d just want you to buy me and keep me with you forever.” “I would do that,” he says, watching the little bulldog hurrying along after the other two puppies. “I’d be happy to.” 3 “There’s something that happened before I met you that I’ve never told you about,” Min Thant says. “You never met my elder sister, did you?” “No, but I saw her once. It was before you and I were friends, at the beginning of our first year. She came to our class to bring you something. I remember how beautiful she was; all the guys stared at her. Didn’t you tell me she went abroad to get her PhD?” “I did. But listen—that’s not what really happened.” “What do you mean?” asks Thiha. Min Thant lights a cigarette. “It’s a long story,” he says. “I’m listening.” For a while Min Thant is silent, staring out into the darkness. The two of them are sitting beside a highway road on a large, flat rock they use as their personal couch. They come here often late at night and enjoy watching the occasional highway bus passing by, leaving an echo in its wake, and then the tranquility of the highway when there are no vehicles running. The light from the lampposts makes the road and its surroundings a stuttering yellow. The highway is mostly empty at this time of night. 10
Now and then, a few cars pass by at high speed, their engines roaring like hungry monsters before they vanish and their noise gradually fades away. “It was a Sunday evening,” Min Thant says finally, puffing on his cigarette. “I still remember it clearly. I was studying in my room after a long shower, listening to jazz. Percy Faith and His Orchestra is my favorite from the 1960s. If I’m not mistaken, My Coloring Book was playing. My sister came to my room and had a long conversation with me, not like any we’d had before. “We had always been close to each other. People say that two siblings who are a boy and a girl cannot be as close as siblings of the same sex. Wrong. I was closer to her than anyone else in my family, even my parents. She was the closest person I had in my life. We shared a lot of secrets. The conversation we had that Sunday was just the longest and deepest of many we’d shared over the years. “There was nothing we didn’t talk about. Love, our crushes, books, music, sex. You name it. There were no secrets between us. She used to tell me about the boys she had sex with. And taught me how to take care of a girl during sex. Which positions girls like—mostly which positions she liked, of course. And she told me those stories of hers with such candid intensity that I could feel what she was feeling. I could see what was going on inside them vividly. She was that good at telling stories. She also told me about the girls she had sexual relationships with.” “Hold on a second,” Thiha says, “She also had sexual relationships with girls?” “That’s right,” Min Thant replies. “She was bisexual.” “I never knew that.” “Nobody knew that, except for me and the girls she had sex with. She had never come out to anyone else. Mind you, it’s not because she was 11
ashamed of being bisexual. It’s just that sexual orientation, just like religion, was a private matter to her. And she felt that people couldn’t understand her, except for me. That’s why we were so close. That’s why she kept no secrets from me. That’s why I was the one she came to that Sunday night.” He pauses, staring at the cigarette between his fingertips. “So what happened?” “It was around seven in the evening when she knocked on my door,” Min Thant says. “She asked if she could talk to me. I had a few class assignments to finish before the deadline, but I said yes. I had a strange feeling when she came into my room. I can’t describe it precisely. She brought a bottle of wine and two glasses, and a mixtape of all of her favorite music. She asked if I could play her CD, which I did. The first keys of Yiruma’s Kiss the Rain came on. Then River Flows in You. Then Fairy Tale. Then Kevin Kern’s After the Rain. Then Pastel Reflections. The music kept changing as we kept talking. I don’t remember what we talked about exactly—the music is clearer in my memory, for some reason—but we were deeply absorbed in our conversation. We were sitting on the balcony in front of my room, dangling our legs over the edge, holding our wine glasses in our hands, talking endlessly. When we remembered to check the time, it was already half past four in the morning. She said she had to wake up early and didn’t want to bother me anymore. Then she said she loved me. I was a bit surprised. I mean, we both knew that we loved each other. But we never really said it out loud. It was like the only secret we kept from each other. But now she was revealing it, like all of a sudden she was saying, ‘Hey, I give up. I love you, brother.’ I didn’t know how to react. I just smiled and gave her a kiss on the cheek. I told her to wait for a second and I would take out her mixtape and give it back. But she told me to keep it. She said she was going to make a new mixtape, so she’d like me to keep 12
this one. Then she said goodnight to me and left my room.” Min Thant finishes his cigarette and throws it away. “I woke up around half past nine that morning. I took a quick shower and then I went to the kitchen to make some breakfast. Then I wondered if my sister was home or if she had left already for class. I wanted to know if I should make breakfast for her as well, so I went up to her room to check. The door was open and I saw her sitting in her chair. I could only see her back. She was sitting down facing toward the window as if she was looking at something outside. I said her name, but she didn’t respond. I took a few steps closer. And I realized she was not breathing anymore. Her wrists had several deep cuts and her arms were covered in blood. There was a pool of blood below the chair. A razorblade lay on the floor nearby. I looked at her face, and her expression was peaceful. She was smiling slightly, as if she was having a pleasant dream. I held her tight in my arms and cried, and I couldn’t stop crying for a long time.” “I am so sorry,” Thiha says. “No, it’s all right. I am sad that I lost my sister. But I don’t feel sorry for her. I am glad she was brave enough to choose the decision she wanted.” “I’m not sure if I understand what you mean by that.” “You know, I see suicide as a natural way of choosing one’s fate. We all have to make choices in life. If we cannot choose where we were born, in which family we were born and in which era we were born, we should at least have the right to decide when and where we should die when we don’t think it’s worth living anymore. It’s about taking control of your own life. Death will happen to all of us whether we like it or not. You choose death when you want. Or death will choose you when it wants. It can be up to you, if you want it to be.” “That’s an interesting way to approach it. A lot of people think that 13
suicide is just the ultimate symptom of depression.” “I used to think so, too. But hey, when life throws you in different directions, you gain different perspectives.” Min Thant takes out another cigarette and lights it. “To be completely honest with you, I have a plan to kill myself when I hit a certain age and have done all the things on my list. Just like my sister, I don’t really care about living. I live just because there are things I haven’t finished yet, and death hasn’t come to me before I’ve chosen it.” Thiha is quiet for a while, then he says, “There is a quote I really like. Not that it’s related to our conversation here. But want to hear it anyway?” “Sure. Go ahead.” “Life is unfair. That’s why we watch movies, why we read novels. The only place we can find justice is in our own imagination.” “I like it. Write it down for me when we get home.” “Sure thing. By the way, can I ask you something?” “Shoot,” says Min Thant. “How come you and Nwe are such close friends? From what I’ve noticed, she doesn’t have many male friends, except you. And you two are so close.” Min Thant looks at Thiha with a frown. “She’s never told you before?” “No.” “We’ve known each other since we were five. We were neighbors, and our parents were close friends. We played together. We went to school together. We did almost everything together. When our parents bought something, they always bought a pair. When my parents bought shoes for me, they also bought a pair for Nwe—a girl’s version, but the same design. Nwe’s parents did the same. Even my sister was in on it. When she was only twelve, she made us wear a pair of matching wedding clothes she’d 14
made for us and took pictures. My sister could use a sewing machine with great skill, even at that age. She wanted to be a designer back then. And of course, we looked very cute in her wedding clothes. She would invite her friends home and make a mock wedding for us. I think everyone expected we would grow up loving each other, become a couple and get married eventually.” Min Thant pauses and looks at Thiha. “Does what I said bother you? I’m sorry if it does.” “No. Not at all. Don’t worry about that,” Thiha replies. “Since it was what everyone expected of us,” Min Thant continues, “we did try dating each other when we got to high school. Since we saw each other every day and we were together most of the time, normal goto-the-cinema-and-have-dinner-afterwards dates were nothing special for us. If that could be called dating, we had been dating since we were little. So, we tried something different. We would go to my room when my parents were not home—or her room when her parents were out—then we would cuddle and make out on the bed. We never had sex, though. We never even took off our clothes when we made out.” “Then how did you break up?” “We never broke up. Because we were never in a relationship. We were just trying to see if what other people believed was true for us. Two months after dating like this, we realized it wouldn’t work. We could never think of each other as more than a close friend, or a brother and sister. It was just a weird feeling. Even when we made out, she would giggle when I kissed her. When she started touching me, my whole body would get all ticklish and I would jump out of the bed, laughing so hard I couldn’t breathe. We always ended up going out to eat street food at the night market or lying down next to each other and watching the movies we liked.” 15
Thiha is quiet for a moment before he says, “Thanks for telling me all this.” “No, I’m glad you asked me. I don’t think she would be comfortable telling you about all this. It’s better to have this kind of conversation guyto-guy, you know?” “Yeah, it makes sense.” “Hey, do you want to drink something? I’ve got a six-pack of beer I haven’t touched at my house, and I’ll make a juice for you. What do you say?” “Sounds good to me.” The lampposts scatter yellowish light dimly along the road as they set off toward home. The whole environment looks like an abstract painting. A highway bus passes occasionally by, but otherwise the night is silent. 4 It is not too crowded at the café where they are sitting. They have been here since their evening English class finished. Since there are only a few customers, the waitresses are sitting at an empty table at the back, giggling and chattering as if they will never run out of things to talk about. “Thiha, can you promise me one thing?” Nwe asks. “If it’s a promise I can keep, I will,” Thiha replies. “I just want you to promise me that you won’t turn into one of those broken-hearted alcoholic drama kings who can’t get over a girl like me if we ever break up. I don’t think I would be able to handle seeing you like that.” “I won’t. Trust me. I know I will have far more important things to deal with.” 16
“All right. I believe you,” she says, and gives him a smile. “Do your parents know we are dating?” he asks. “No, not at all.” “Do you think they would approve of it if they knew?” “No, I don’t think so. You know how things are. You’re a Muslim. What about your parents?” “They don’t know, and I don’t think they would approve of it either. They’d rather see me dating a Muslim girl that they’d arranged for me. They might even kick me out of the house if they found out.” “Buddha! Sounds like I’m big trouble for you.” “Sweet trouble, I’d say.” “Shut up!” she cries, laughing. Then she goes suddenly quiet. “Thiha,” she says. “There is something I want you to know. I know we’ve been dating a long time, but I can’t have sex with you. It’s not that I don’t want to do it with you. I mean, I love you. But we Burmese people see having sex before marriage as something immoral, something disgusting.” Thiha picks up the coffee cup in front of him. His mouth moves as if he is about to say something, but he hesitates and takes a sip of coffee instead. Finally he says, “It’s all right. I grew up here, you know, I’m Burmese too. I know how it is. I just want you to know that I don’t love you just because I want to have sex with you. To me, sex doesn’t always have to be part of love. We don’t have to do it if you don’t want to. I love you and I know you love me too. That’s all I need.” “I’m glad you put it that way. And of course, by saying ‘Burmese’ I didn’t mean that you are not Burmese. It’s just when we use this term, we always see the majority Burman people who are Buddhist and light-skinned. I don’t like this about our society and its people,” she says, playing with the coffee cup in front of her. “They—and by ‘they’ I mean the majority of 17
Burman Buddhists—tend to perpetuate this notion that being ‘Burmese’ means being Buddhist, Burman and light-skinned. A Muslim person who looks Indian like you will be conveniently put into the category of ‘foreigner,’ even though you, your parents, and your grandparents were born here and you all are as Burmese as the rest of us.” “And what’s worse,” she continues, “is that people take pride in being born Burman and Buddhist. Since I was young, I was always told how precious and glorious our Burmese culture is, and that we Burmese girls have the responsibility to conserve and protect it. Whether I agree with it or not is a different subject. But I definitely don’t want society to point at me and treat me as a disgrace because I choose to have sex with my boyfriend before marriage. Maybe I’m too institutionalized. I don’t know.” “I know how you feel,” Thiha replies. “We have the same way of thinking about sex in Muslim society, too. I won’t touch even an inch of you if you don’t want me to.” “Except for kissing me in public when we meet? No, I don’t want you to stop that.” She giggles, then becomes serious again and looks at him intently. “Can I tell you a secret?” “Please do.” “I love it when you look me straight in the eye and start kissing me softly. I love it when you put your arms around me when I feel cold. I love the feeling of warmth and sense of protection. I love hearing your steady heartbeat.” “The feeling is mutual, Nwe. I love holding you tightly in my arms, the silken feeling of your skin against mine, the curves of your body under my hands.” “Oh, we’re just a pair of hopeless romantics, aren’t we? But maybe we’d better cool ourselves down just a bit before we get carried away. Why 18
don’t you tell me about the taboos in Islam regarding sex?” “Ah well, if you insist, my proper Burmese lady. But seriously, in Islam both sex before marriage and sex with someone who is not your spouse is considered sinful. So most true followers of Islam wouldn’t have sex before marriage or outside of marriage. And mind you, I am a virgin, too. I have never slept with a woman.” Nwe squints her eyes at him. “Really?” “Never once, not with anyone.” “Now that is a surprise! I thought you’d have some sort of experience with sex. Is it because of religion? Is it because you’re being religious?” “No. It’s not that I am following religious rules or something,” he says. “It’s just that it doesn’t matter to me whether I am a virgin or not, or when I should lose my virginity. If I’m in a situation to have sex with someone I like before I get married, I might sleep with her. Or if something like that doesn’t happen, I might not have sex with a woman until I get married. I just don’t care too much about virginity the way some men do. “But one thing I am certain of for sure is that I would never go to a prostitute just to have sex. To me, love doesn’t have to include sex but sex has to include love, an emotional attachment along with the physical. That’s why they call it making love. There is a big difference between making love and just fucking.” Nwe takes a sip of her coffee. The music inside the café fills the gap. Now it is playing You and Me by Ben Rector. “I love this song,” he says, singing along quietly. “I have all of Ben Rector’s work. And this is my favorite song.” She smiles. “You are such a music geek. There are so many musicians whose songs you know by heart and I’ve never even heard of them. I bet you were a musician in a previous life.” 19
“I bet I was. Maybe a famous one who always got kisses from fangirls wherever he went.” “Whatever!” She laughs, then goes quiet again for a while. “You know, I’ve been thinking about something a lot. But I’ve never had a chance to ask you about it.” “You can ask me anything, Nwe.” “I’ve heard some Buddhist monks, especially the ones from the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion, saying that Islam allows Muslim men to marry up to four wives. And using that strategically, Muslims are trying to increase their own population by marrying four wives and having a lot of babies with each of them. They call it ‘Islamization.’ And they are saying that Muslims are using that tactic to outnumber the Buddhists and to turn Myanmar into an Islamic country. They say all those tactics are taught in mosques secretly. Is there any truth to that?” Thiha laughs softly. “If that were true, there would be no Buddhists left in Myanmar today. We would have ‘Islamized’ it already by now. How many Muslim men here have you seen marrying four wives and having tons of children? I’ve been going to mosques for my whole life, and never once have I heard Muslim leaders say any of the nasty things those Buddhist monks are claiming. The only thing that I hear them say is to be devoted to God, to pray five times a day, to take care of the poor. They say how Prophet Muhammad taught us to love others—believers and non-believers alike. I am not saying that there are no extremists among Muslims. Of course there are. Just like in every religion. But those extremists who are killing people in the name of Islam do not represent Islam. There are more Muslims than you could imagine out there who are so peaceful and humane that they put your mind at peace and make you heart melt when you talk to them. Sometimes we choose to see only what we want to see.” 20
Nwe rests her head on his shoulder as she listens. “I don’t know why people make up stories and spread hatred toward others. And it really irritates me when people keep themselves segregated from each other because of insignificant things like religion, skin color, and race. I mean, we are all human beings, after all. What’s the good in spreading hatred and distrust toward each other? I just don’t get it.” “I know what you mean,” Nwe says. “And I feel you. There are some people who hold so fervently to their extreme beliefs that they would do anything or say anything to enforce them—even if it means hurting or killing an innocent soul in the name of a religion or god. We all have such extremists in every religion. If the Buddha were alive, he wouldn’t approve of what those monks are doing in the name of Buddhism. I just want you to know that just like there are those extremists doing things that are totally opposed to Buddhism, there are also good Buddhists who are totally opposed to those extremists. They might be less visible, especially these days, but I want you to know that there are also true followers of Buddhism. And I’m glad that at least the two of us can talk about these things rationally.” “So am I. I’m glad I had a chance to explain this to you. So many people are naïve, and they believe whatever their so-called ‘religious leaders’ say. It’s very sad.” For a while, they don’t say a word. They both stare at the paintings hanging on the wall, lost in their own thoughts. 5 Nwe doesn’t learn of Thiha’s death until three months after it happens. It’s not that she has forgotten him, only that she has cut off all her 21
connections to the past and tries hard not to remember it. After they broke up, she got a job at an NGO in Mandalay and moved there, leaving her family in Yangon. I am a different person now, she told herself. Since then, she has tried hard to fit into her new world. She gets along with everyone at work. There are a few guys who like her and have tried to approach her, but she never accepts any of their overtures. When they ask her why, she just tells them that she is not interested in relationships, and that she is, in fact, asexual. “Think about it,” she says. “If we dated, you would want to hold my hand, kiss me, and eventually have sex with me. But I am not interested in any such activities. I prefer my hands free to move as I please. I like letting my lips have their solitude. I want my sexual organ to enjoy its privacy without being invaded. So let’s not ruin our friendship, and just enjoy it, huh?” Some of them back off, some of them keep trying and failing, and some of them give her a weird look and never talk to her again. Then one day, out of the blue, she receives a call from Min Thant. “I have got something to tell you,” he says on the other end. “How did you get my number? I didn’t give my new number to anyone in Yangon,” she replies. “This is a small world we live in.” “Look, I don’t want to talk to you. Tell me what you want right now, or I’m hanging up.” “Just hold on a minute. Don’t act like a stranger, okay? I was as good of a friend to you as I was to Thiha.” “Go on then, what is it that you want to tell me?” “I am now in Mandalay,” Min Thant replies. “And I want to meet you and talk to you, if that’s possible. It’s important.” “Fine. Give me a time and a place.” “Shweli restaurant near Mandalay Palace. Does tomorrow night at 22
eight work for you?” “I’ll be there,” she says and hangs up. She goes to her bed and lies down. She knows that it is too early to fall asleep, but she is not interested in doing anything else. She looks at the sky through the window beside her bed. There are no stars. No moon either. The sky is completely dark. Maybe the sky wants to shut out everyone else for a night, she thinks. “It all seems strange and incomprehensible to start,” Min Thant says when they meet. “I mean, of course he was devastated when you two broke up. But that didn’t last long. Soon he started to recover and before long he seemed to be enjoying life again. He began writing more and published his short stories. His stories were successful, and he started to get some real attention in literary circles, even the beginnings of a fan base. We hung out often, and he would ask me to proofread his short stories. He never dated again, though. When he felt he needed physical contact with a girl, he would go to a brothel. He would ask the prostitute to cuddle or make out with him. But he never had sex with the girl, which left them with a lot of questions. Since I sometimes accompanied him to the brothel, the girls would come to me for answers. ‘Is your friend mentally ill or something?’ they would ask. ‘Why is he here if he doesn’t want to have sex?’ I tried to reply as best I could, but I couldn’t give them a satisfactory answer. “He saved the money he made from publishing his short stories, and when one of them won a prestigious American contest, he used the prize money and his savings to travel to Europe. I lost touch with him after he left. I sent him e-mails but I never got any reply. I couldn’t contact you because I didn’t even know where you were. It was like I was left all alone in the world.” “I’m sorry,” Nwe says. 23
“Could you tell me how you two broke up? Thiha never told me.” Nwe holds her breath and releases a sigh. “It all happened suddenly. My aunt, who spied on me, told my parents that I was in a relationship with a Muslim. Their reaction was even worse than I’d have expected. They told me to break up with him immediately or they would disown me. For a while I’d felt that our relationship would have to end one day, so I decided I might as well end it then. I met him one last time, but I didn’t tell him we were going to break up. That night, before I left, I gave him a kiss on his forehead. And I never met him again after that.” She pauses for a while. “I never told him why, although I think he knew.” “How could he know if you never told him?” “We had had those kinds of conversations about our future before. We came from different backgrounds, different religions. Of course, it’s not that I broke up with him because I didn’t love him anymore. I did, but no matter how much we loved each other, if we’d have continued the relationship, both of our families and all of society would have ostracized us. I couldn’t risk that, not only for my sake, but also for his.” Min Thant doesn’t reply. Nwe looks out the window. A few drops of rain patter on the glass, and soon it begins to pour. Slowly, she says, “Sometimes in life you can love someone, and that’s all you can do. You can love them, but you can never be together.” After a while, Min Thant clears his throat and says, “Three months after he went to Europe, his family got a phone call from the German Embassy. They told his family that he was found dead. He hung himself in a hotel room in Berlin. Through some diplomatic procedures, the German government delivered the body to his family. They held a funeral and buried him. A week later, I received a letter.” Min Thant puts the envelope on the table and pushes it toward Nwe. “I brought it here for you.” 24
Nwe takes the letter and sees the familiar handwriting on the envelope. Please give this note to Nwe Sein Wai, it says. The letter is slightly crumpled, but otherwise in good shape. “Isn’t it weird?” Min Thant murmurs. “He sent the letter to my address, but it wasn’t for me. And it was the only letter. After being so close for so long, didn’t he have anything to tell me? I would like to think that maybe he wrote something for me in this letter. I thought about opening it and reading it. I tried to, but I just couldn’t do it. And the more I see the letter in front of me, the more I feel suffocated. This is why I searched for you and came to Mandalay as soon as I learned you were here. To give this to you.” He pauses. “Now that I have given it to you, I think I should be leaving. Contact me if you ever come back to Yangon. Don’t be a stranger.” “I won’t be,” Nwe replies. They both stand up. Min Thant gives Nwe a hug, then walks out the door. Holding the envelope, Nwe sits back down. For a long time, she remains there on her chair, like a statue. Then she slowly tears open the envelope and takes out the letter. The small and rounded handwriting of Thiha appears: Buy a black puppy with raccoon eyes if you ever see one. When I am done going through hell and heaven, I will ask God to reincarnate me as a puppy. Tears well up in her eyes, and soon she can’t control herself; she begins to weep. An elderly woman comes over to her and asks if she is okay, but she doesn’t hear a word the woman says; she doesn’t even notice her; it is as if the rope tethering her to humanity has been cut, and she has been set adrift in space. Her whole body is trembling and tears fall from her eyes. Outside, the rain comes crashing down harder; she can feel the vibration of the downpour in her bones, in her very marrow. She runs out of the restaurant into the rain, and she looks up into the black sky, the raindrops 25
falling on her face, stinging her eyes. At this moment, she, the rain, and her tears are all linked throughout her body and soul. She shouts into the rain as loudly as she can, unable even to hear herself, unsure even of what she is shouting: a curse, a prayer, a question, a plea. She yells at the top of her lungs until her throat is raw and her voice is hoarse, and still she continues, though she knows now it no longer matters, because there is nobody in this world of hers to hear her. Back inside the restaurant, Distance by Christina Perri plays on.
Acknowledgements I would like to thank Elias Lindert for his tremendous work in editing this short story, as well as being an amazing mentor, guiding me throughout the writing process, and helping me to become a better writer. I can't find the words for how thankful I am for this blessing. I would also like to thank Aung Kaung Myat and Sarah Heland-Schulman for proofreading the first draft of this story and coming up with constructive feedback, and Sai Htin Linn Htet for the amazing cover art.