Sunday night, while in the middle of making dinner (I have finished searing the calamari -from-the-market and have just thrown prawns-from-the-market into the sizzling wok with some garlic... salt and lime dipping mixture ready), the doorbell rings. I turn and can see through the door that it's Nam and his nephew, who is holding his sister's baby, Mina.
I turn off the gas (exactly what you don't want to do when you are cooking prawns) and run to unlock the inner door and then undo the padlock to the outer gate. Unlocking the castle is a process.
"Cam on!" I say. (Hello!)
"Cam on," greets the nephew. "My uncle want to know if you have a good new year."
"I did, thank you."
"My uncle want to know if you have a good time in Mui Ne."
"I did, thank you. Did your family have a good New Year?"
"Yes, we did. My uncle want to know when you go to school again."
I can hear the shrimp, still weakly cooking in the cooling wok. We already went over this twice last week.
"Tomorrow," I say, as if we did not already go over this twice last week.
Nam knows this part. "Half past seven?" he offers with a little grin. "Half past" is a term one of my students taught him. But Nam has been meeting me on the street at 7:00 for months.
"No, 7:00," I say, as if we haven't been meeting on the street at 7:00 for months. And as if he doesn't mother me when I am late.
"OK," says Nam. Then he has something to show me. It's a new cell phone. Remember, he lost his about two weeks after I "found" him. He has also lost three helmets. How, I have no idea.
"My uncle want you to know you can call him now. He will drive to me and I will call you and give him the message," Nephew says.
"That's very nice of you." My shrimp. I ripped their heads off while they were still alive, and they took so long to peel.
"He want to put your number in."
I give him my number, but he fumbles with it and he hands the phone to Nephew, who is holding Baby Mina in one hand and entering numbers with the other. Nam pantomimes to me that he doesn't understand this new-fangled technology, then he fakes putting a phone to his ear and he says, "Hello?" like, all I know how to do is answer this thing. I play with Baby Mina and tell them how delicious the boiled rice Tet cake was. My calamari is surely very cold.
Nephew translates. They discuss. "My uncle want to know do you want another one?"
"Oh, thank you, but we still have one more here."
His nephew calls me with Nam's phone. I save the number and enter Nam's name. There's an awkward silence -- no more fake questions to ask, all numbers exchanged.
"Ok. See you again," says Nam. He loves to say this. "Goodbye!"
As they turn to go, I thank his nephew for translating while I close and padlock the gate and lock the inner door and, finally, return to my wok. I am trying to decide if I should turn it back on or just eat the shrimp as is (mostly pink) when my phone rings. Guess who.
"Hello?" I say.
I hear laughter and then, "Hello!" More laughter, and then, "Goodbye!" Click.
I'm pretty sure Nam does not plan to prank me. And I'm pretty sure he felt a duty to come and call and bring wishes for a happy new year in English, as my driver/friend. Which is really nice.
As for the shrimp and calamari...well, they are cold and kind of limp. Not my best work. But if I want, I can get up early in the morning to buy more at the market, return the critters to the castle to refrigerate, and still be out on the street to meet Nam at 7:00. And - if I am late - Nam can now flip his new cell phone open and show me just how many minutes it is past seven. He knows how to do that, too.