That first three months had been months of silence. Not a lack of noise. The noise was ceaseless. Voices in a language she didn’t know, with its astonishing range of tonality. The dips and rises and cutting off of breath that indicated, not emotion, but meaning itself. Then there were the mechanical sounds. It was as if every moving part had to have its say. The air conditioner groaned and rattled, the fan squeaked its revolutions like a small tortured animal that suffers but never dies. The pipes that hissed and clanged with trapped air, the water pumps that thrummed and throbbed, the incessant drips of taps whose washers had turned brittle and crumbled. Outside her window, in the narrow alley below, the motorcycles growled and gunned and backfired and beeped for no reason other than to indicate its thereness. The inane and tinny tunes every four-wheeled vehicle played while reversing. Grating, biting, synthetic renditions of Jingle Bells or The Lambada or Je T’aime. Songs unmoored from their original context and appropriated to serve as traffic safety measures.
In that dark and stifling room, Christina lay naked and sweating on her rented bed, a grotesque thing painted pink and black with a clock the size of a large pizza set into the headboard, ticking away hours of insomnia.
She imagined a corpulent man behind a metal military surplus desk in a flyblown office in Hanoi choosing regulation melodies for the purpose. Brown water stains on the foam ceiling tiles, curling linoleum on the floor, ashtray overflowing and stained teacups evaporating their contents in the heat. Across the room, a harried, nervous woman summoned post-haste from the music conservatory, seated at a cheap Chinese keyboard offering musical suggestions.
“What about that one?” she asks, after having plinked out the opening verse to Saturday Night Fever.
“No, that’s too peaceful. Try again,” he replies, lighting another cigarette, closing his eyes and tilting his head heavenwards. “Can’t we find something more irritating?”
She thinks for a moment, pushes the sweat-damp fringe of her dark hair aside and breaks into the chorus of Barbie Girl.
“That’ll do,” he says, and leans forward to add the title to his list of regulation vehicle reversal melodies.