Vu Tran’s story, “Vagaries,” first appeared in Michigan Quarterly Review’s Fall 2004 issue.
The girl, when Chau first sees her, looks restless. She sits in the restaurant’s crowded patio under a table umbrella that shades her from the bright noon sun. One arm remains in an intrusive spot of sunlight and looks severed from the rest of her. Her parents, well-dressed and solemn, sit eating across the table, but the girl ignores her food, only plays with her necklace and stares inside the restaurant. The mother, her left arm in a cast, says something to her and the girl shakes her head. She takes a drink of water and chews on the ice cubes.
With four tables of noisy diners between them, Chau feels he is far enough away to watch her without notice. No one would blame an old man for staring. The girl is pretty, about nineteen or twenty years old, with fair skin and large, dark eyes that when they blink or wander seem to bloom from her placid face. Her pensiveness reminds Chau momentarily of his wife, who used to wear the same expression early in the morning when she stood by the window and watched morning traffic.
Chau turns away. An electric fan nearby buzzes faintly in his ears, stirs the muggy air. From where he sits in the white light of the patio, the restaurant’s dim interior appears inhabited not by people but by their moving shadows. He spots an empty table inside behind the fish aquarium. The aquarium, about a meter wide, rests on its pedestal near the opening of the interior dining room, just beyond the reach of the patio sunlight. Chau grabs his iced tea, his cigarettes, and saunters over to the table. Once seated he discovers a better view of the girl through the waters of the aquarium, not as clear as before, but now his view of her is his alone, framed and isolated as though he were looking at her through binoculars from far away.
The restaurant owner, a short, stout man who never seems to perspire, approaches his table. “More tea, Bac?” he asks. He begins filling the glass but then stops when he sees Chau’s old seat on the patio.
“The heat is too much today,” Chau explains. “But lunch was very good.”
The owner shrugs, smiling, and says, “Maybe the fish will be better company for you.” He finishes filling the glass and walks away. Ever since Chau’s wife died a year ago, the owner has not charged him for the iced tea with his meal—he must have guessed somehow. Chau has been coming here for lunch twice a week for six years, and even when his wife was still alive, the owner had never once asked for their names. This one complimentary act has been his only acknowledgement of their long patronage, the only indication that he knows anything about Chau’s life. Which is fine, Chau thinks. Someone once told him that anonymity is a safe loneliness…