"He won't come back. Marry me!" Mr. Diễn asked my mother when he met her at the garbage dump. "I would take good care of you and your baby!"
My mother smiled desperately. Mr. Diễn had been making advances toward her for years, although they had never had a real conversation. The fact that she was out taking out the garbage and the surroundings - a former cemetery - made her uncomfortable, but that didn't stop the awkward neighbor from asking her to marry him.
"I am married, Diễn," she replied, slightly annoyed. "Please stop sneaking up on me!"
Then she walked away, leaving him standing there as she always did. She had known he existed for as long as she could remember. He had wanted to be with her since he was an adult. With her and no one else. Everyone knew, even my father when he was still around. But no one took it seriously.
In the thirteen years I lived in Vietnam, many men had expressed interest in my mother. But it wasn't just men who enjoyed talking to her and her company. Most of them confided in her about their personal affairs and asked her for advice. My mother always kept their secrets and never spoke ill of anyone. It was only the romantic advances that she refused every time. It was always the same words: "I'm married!" She would say that over and over again, even at times when she had no contact with my father. Even when no one knew if he would ever return. The longer my father stayed away, the more Mr. Diễn's hope grew.
Mr. Diễn was a quiet loner who rarely smiled. In fact, I had never seen him smile or laugh. If he saw me somewhere, he would say to himself: "Take care of yourself!" or "If another child bothers you, let me know!" or "It's hot, why don't you wear a hat?" Sometimes he would ask me about my mother, even though she lived only ten meters away from him. Once he asked if my father had written to us. I just shrugged my shoulders.
Back then, whenever I saw him walking somewhere, lost in thought, or sitting by the side of the road, I wondered if he was ever bored. He was always alone and rarely seemed aware of his surroundings. He seemed like a foreign body in Hà Nam; a piece of the puzzle that didn't fit in anywhere. Although he was never anywhere else.
In Hà Nam, people who walked around or sat on the side of the road for no reason were considered lazy and held in low esteem. It was common that one would only be respected if one was constantly engaged in meaningful activities. At the very least, you should always look busy or exhausted, so people knew you were getting something done.
As if his regular walks weren't enough, Mr. Diễn was quite tall by Vietnamese standards. In Hà Nam, wicked tongues claimed that people were tall because they slept a lot and did little. Tall people were also mocked for being tall because they used a lot of cloth for their clothes. "Dài lưng tốn vải" was the saying. Young men like Mr. Diễn didn't have it easy in Hà Nam. They were the center of gossip - usually. But Mr. Diễn was left alone. No one ever talked about Mr. Diễn. It was as if he was invisible.