Our worry aside, we continued with our race to see who would accumulate the most CDs and tapes. My personal effort paid off handsomely as I became the envy of the Vietnamese community in Phoenix. Nhat the Collector, Nhat the Fan. Friends were welcome to listen to my music, but I would not part with any CD or tape. One can never be sure of those things, you know, it’s best just to be a little over-protective, rather than be generous and end up with a few CDs missing. I was also concerned that I would lose in my race with you, and that just wouldn’t do at all. I had to show my angel that I had all the current music of the other angel. It became an obsession with me, and by the time 1998 rolled around when Ngoc Lan announced she would stop singing, I had collected almost 700 songs, from the very old to the newest. There were some songs you had that I did not have and vice versa, there were many I had that you didn’t. In the end we helped each other complete our respective sets, and while we were not yet suffering from “withdrawal symptoms” at Ngoc Lan’s announcement, you were the one who recognized “something bad” about this news.
When I began to have Ngoc Lan withdrawal symptoms a year later, we had begun to drift apart. Looking back I am tempted to say that it was because our angel was no longer with us, weaving her golden thread to keep us bound together. At the time, it was just us, drifting apart, with not much to say to each other…
As I struggled with life without either of my angels (although the voice of one continued to fill the void in my apartment). You know how when you’re breaking up with someone, you don’t want to be reminded of that person, and Ngoc Lan’s voice was that constant reminder. Yet, I listened to her again and again, and her voice continued to bring me comfort. “I am hopelessly devoted…In my eyes you are everything…,” she told me, “and your heart has again found joy,” she continued. Instead of running away from our memories, I listened to Ngoc Lan, watched her old videos, and smiled at the sweet memories her songs evoked. Songs about my angel, songs about a great romance, songs about bittersweet farewells… Those songs taught me to have no regrets, for whatever happened you and I shared in the short time we had more than others shared in a lifetime. I couldn’t, and wouldn’t, forfeit one angel when another disappeared from my life. Ngoc Lan gave meaning into my otherwise bland existence, and it was, I believe, at this juncture, that I became Ngoc Lan’s True, Great Fan. Yes, True and Great Fan. I still searched for songs I still had missing, and I only had myself to compete against. Slowly, I told myself, I would have the most complete collection of Ngoc Lan’s songs. While, even now, I am not positive that I have all the songs (my collection stands at 694), I think that I have reached “Master” level, something like a black belt of “Ngoc Lan Musique collection”! Once when I told a friend that I was Yoda of Ngoc Lan’s world of music, he looked at me with pity. I think he wanted to scream, “Nhat, get a life!” Or maybe it was a look of envy, when he knew he could never catch up with me, the one with all the original CDs and tapes, and with a small fortune spent on my angel.
As I alluded to earlier, in 1999 I started to have withdrawal symptoms. I had, if not all, a great many songs of hers, but I needed to see my angel, I needed to know she was all right. Her being all right would fix my world, I felt. So I made contact with you. I tried to be cool and kept to the level we both felt comfortable in. You were now my friend, but you had no way of knowing you were also my lifeline to this glorious time filled with Ngoc Lan. We talked for a while. You told me you’re still getting Ngoc Lan’s new posters, still listening to her music and finding out all you could about Ngoc Lan. You heard Ngoc Lan was returning to the stage soon. You promised to keep me posted as soon as you heard anything.
When you called me in 2001, it was to tell me, “Oh dear God, please come quickly, Ngoc Lan is gone. Please come, oh please don’t delay… ” I thought it was some kind of awful joke you decided to spring on me. The sky was falling down. I felt nauseous. I walked out into the angry sunshine of Phoenix, unable to breathe. My chest felt tight and my face felt drained of blood. My brain was probably also deprived of all nutrition, because I felt light-headed. I needed to sit down, collect myself, even pinch myself to make sure this wasn’t just a very bad dream. How I wished it had been a dream…
Southern California once more became witness to the two of us clinging to each other for support. You, lifelong fan who had loved Ngoc Lan since her humble beginnings (you once told me proudly you “discovered” Ngoc Lan), me, die-hard fan who didn’t know he’d become a fan until the collection started bursting out of his shelves (you once observed that I was like an addict whose passion sneaked up on him until he was completely and utterly helpless and without resolve to fight.) The romantic, angelic, and highly-addictive voice once again filled that public space that was a cemetery. During the somber ceremony, I thought with bitterness that this was the ultimate slap in the face. A disease which rarely strikes Asian people struck the most beloved talent of all times. I seethed inside, anger mounting within me. You looked at me, bewildered, “Are you all right?” I realized that I hadn’t really checked to see how you were holding up. Now that one angel was already gone, I wanted to make sure my other angel was OK. One look at you told me you were not, but you would not leave the cemetery, you would not leave Ngoc Lan, until it was all over. We went over to mumble our condolences to Ngoc Lan’s parents. They said something intelligible, numb with grief. We left still hanging on tight. Months later, someone asked me how I felt that day. I said that it felt as though a part of me had become detached, had left my body, leaving me empty, drained, no longer feeling. But strangely enough, the feelings I had: numbness, dizziness, short of breath, etc… were nothing compared to the sadness that came slowly in days and months to come. To me, the full acknowledgement of my loss began sinking in slowly, until the sadness, like some kind of tree, began firmly planting itself inside my mind.
Someone on the website used an excellent word: Melancholy. That is what describes me, post 2001. “Lonesome”, “lost”, and “loveless” is how I feel. I still listen to Ngoc Lan’s songs. From my mp3 player, she’s still urging, “Love each other…” The day will come when I will find a love that will set my world right again. For now I am satisfied with living in this state of unfulfilled longing. I have no choice. Really.
The other day a mutual friend told me that you still only listen to Ngoc Lan. In writing this, I dare dream that I am Ngoc Lan’s greatest fan, although deep down I probably must cede this “crown” to you. You who love Ngoc Lan for over 20 years, who would have given your own life to save her, you’re her greatest fan. Here’s an essay to you, Ngoc Lan’s greatest, silent fan.
Dedicated to Ngoc Lan & Trinh,
“You two rocked my world”