Moscow, February 1874.
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When Vinh stepped off the train in Moscow, he gained the attention of everyone near him. The stares of the people were something he was used to at this point, and when people leaned over to whisper to one another about him, he knew exactly what they were saying even if he didn’t speak their language. To say he stuck out in comparison to the people he was surrounded by was nothing short of an understatement.
His skin tone was darker compared to the pale Russians, his hair was much longer than any male’s he came across, and the way it was styles different, his clean-shaven face was something that also made him different than the Russian men who had full beards and mustaches. However, his clothes were often what caused him to gain the attention he did. The bright red silk and the gold embroidery contrasted greatly against the dark blues, greys, blacks, and browns of the Russian masses and their wardrobes.
Many of the Russians around him whispered to one another, wondering how the man was not frozen stiff. Silk, to say the least, was not favored during the cold winters, and Vinh was learning that the hard way as he did not pack anything warmer. When he was in the Mediterranean, his silk was wonderful at keeping him cool, but now in Russia, he wished he took the advice of the tradesmen he spoke to in Austrian-Hungary territory. He realized now he shouldn’t have dismissed the man as a conman and should have taken the friendly advice.
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Train rides bored Richard, and he made it known to his friend who sat across from him, reading. The Frenchman slumped in his seat, stretching his feet ahead of him and raising his arms above his head until he heard his back crack and then relaxing again. He looked out the window at the growing snowfall. Richard hated the cold and why he was in Russia now was because of the American that sat in front of him.
”Don’t be a baby,” Jensen said as he flipped the page in his book, not paying much attention to his friend. He was now happy they spent the extra money on a private cart because undoubtedly Richard’s tantrums would have caused them to be removed multiple stops ago if anyone was around to witness them. “You agreed to come with me.”
”Only because I didn’t know what Russia was like.”
”You can’t judge a book by its cover.”
”When we’ve traveled for hours and have had to stop a million times because of snow.”
”It snows in France.”
”Not nearly as much as here. At least we don’t have to worry about your wi-”
”Jensen,” a voice yelled, and the door to the private cab opened.
”Can we just leave her in Siberia?” Richard mumbled, crossing his arms over his chest as he looked out the window, refusing to look at the woman who interrupted him.
”Yes, Tiffany?” Jensen sighed, closing his book and looking up as his wonderful wife, who brought nothing but joy to his heart and soul.
”What is taking the train so long?”
”I don’t know, Tiffany. Do I look like the operator?” Jensen reached into his pocket, pulling out some rubles, and handed it to her. “Why don’t you go to the dining cart and get some food and maybe a glass of wine. It will make the time pass. We are almost there.”
Tiffany huffed, showing an evident dissatisfaction with the answer she was given, but she took the money and left, slamming the door to the cab behind her.
”I hate your wife,” Richard stated as soon as the door was closed.
”You and me both.”
”Why did she come with you anyways?”
”She hates me, but she doesn’t hate the people I know, and the fact that we are going to meet the emperor and rub elbows with high society here makes her mouth water at the idea of how much money she could make.”
Richard sighed, knowing that there would only be a few minutes of peace and quiet before Tiffany made her inevitable return. He leaned his head back against the seat and looked out the window before telling Jensen to wake him up with the train arrived in Moscow.
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When it was finally time to leave the train, Jensen and Richard wasted no time looking for Tiffany before grabbing their bags and exiting the cart. The cold winds of Moscow clawed at their skin, causing Richard to hide in the scarf that was wrapped tightly around his neck.
”Where is your devil spawn of a wife?”
"She will get off the train eventually. I spoke with her earlier to tell her where we were staying, but she told me she didn’t care.”
"She will find her way.”
”I’m not so sure about that. She doesn’t speak Russian,” Jensen laughed.
"Serves her right.”
The duo started to make their way through the crowded train station, hauling their bags behind them as they made sure not to slip on any hidden ice patches. It wasn’t until they walked farther along the platform did they see someone who caught their eye.
The two men stopped, looking ahead of them at the man who stood before them as he looked around the train station, attempting to find his footing on where to go.
”He’s Asian,” Richard said, like many people in this time, Richard had never traveled outside of his given area. Europe and America were the only places he had been to, and even then, his travel in multicultural America was limited. Still, he was able to see different walks of life and people while there. “Have you ever been to Asia?”
Jensen nodded, “China, once.”
”Is he Chinese?”
”Do you want to go ask him?”
”No, that seems rude. I didn’t just walk up to you and ask if you are American.”
”Richard, you did. That is how we first met.”
There was a silence between the two of them as Jensen raised an eyebrow waiting for his friend to admit that he was correct, and that was how their first interaction took place.
”It seems you are correct about that,” Richard finally admitted and watched as Jensen dropped his bag and walked over to the Asian man.
”Moscow is cold than you expected,” he said to the man in Russian, assuming that he understood but quickly came to realize the man didn’t know what he was saying. “English?” he then asked in the given language, and the man nodded. “Moscow is colder than you expected,” he finished, repeating the same statement thinking that it still had the same effect as before.
"It seems that is the case. I realize now I should have researched more about the weather here.”
Jensen took off his jacket, draping it over the man’s silk clothing. “This will suit you better than silk.”
”What is the kindness for?”
”My grandfather says to get in good graces with fate before you make business deals.”
”You are a businessman?”
Jensen nodded, acting like it was a typical question he was asked. But in the back of his head, he was starting to wonder where this man was from that he had never heard of him before. He was a Rockefeller. Everyone knew who he was. “Where are you from? It’s not often we have someone...well don’t take this the wrong way, who looks like you in Europe.”
”Vietnam. And don’t take this the wrong way, but we don’t have people who look like you from where I’m from,” the man replied with a smile trying his best to joke with the stranger. “Vinh Pham.”
The duo were then trapped in an awkward moment as Jensen extended his hand to shake Vinh’s, but Vinh was halfway into a bow to Jensen. Things only got more awkward when the men noticed the motion of the other and tried to copy it only to reverse their positions and then settled for an awkward bow while shaking hands. They knew they were getting strange looks from the people around them, but who would look at them after the scene that just unfollowed.
”What are you doing in Moscow?”
”Same as you. Business.”
”Hopefully, we will cross paths again, Mr. Pham.”
The man nodded and returned the remark before departing when he found his guide, who was there to meet him and escort him to his hotel.
Richard approached Jensen, and the two watched as the mysterious man walked away from them and disappeared into the crowd.
”Richard, have you ever heard of a place named Vietnam?”
”Didn’t Marco Polo explore there?”
”Do you know anything about it?”
Richard shook his head. “Why are you asking me all these questions? How am I supposed to know? Why do you want to know?”
”Don’t go getting yourself in trouble.”
”I never do.”
”And the sky is red.”
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The weather was no warmer the next day. In fact, it felt colder to Vinh against his skin as he huddled in the coat he was gifted. Moscow was as polar opposite of Vietnam then he could have imagined.
He watched over the scene before him. People of all ages were gliding across a large patch of ice on shoes he had never seen before.
”Ice skating,” a voice behind him said, and Vinh turned around to see Jensen standing there, a cigarette in his hands, but he didn’t smoke it until Vinh turned around to look back at the ice.
”It seems rather childish.”
”One has to find pleasure in a depressing frozen tundra one way or another.”
”How did you find me, Mr. Rockefeller? Are you stalking me?”
"You stick out compared to everyone else.”
"Why? Because I am Asian, and everyone here is as pale as the moon on a clear night?”
”It is because you are still wearing my coat from last night.”
"I haven’t found one I liked better.”
”It looks nice on you. Would you like to try?” Jensen asked, motioning to the ice in front of them and then to the clerk who begged customers to buy skates from him.
”Only if you promise I won’t get hurt.”
”What is the fun of anything if you don’t risk getting hurt?”
”I suppose you are right.”
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"Can I offer you a smoke?”
”I am starting to get the odd suspicion that you are following me, Mr. Rockefeller,” Vinh said as he looked over his shoulder at the man who stood above him. Jensen sat down on the sofa next to Vinh, and a playful smile was on his face. “And you can’t say it is because you noticed your jacket. That excuse wouldn’t do you well here.”
Jensen looked at the man next to him, and he was right; Jensen could not use the excuse he previously had. He tried to play it off and offered Vinh a cigarette, and again, he was met with the man’s quick wit.
”First the British and French bring opium to China and now the Americans want to bring Nicotine to Vietnam.”
”Nicotine doesn’t kill.”
”They said the same about opium.”
”We know better now.”
"Still not enough for me to take your word on it. And it smells. It makes you less attractive.”
”So you are telling me that if I stop smoking, it will make me more attractive?” Jensen asked. Before pushing the bud of his cigarette into the ashtray on the side table next to him.
”You like attention, don’t you, Mr. Rockefeller?”
”Only if it is from certain people.”
”And who might that be?”
”Jensen,” a voice yelled.
Vinh watched as the American sighed before plastering a smile on his face and turning to face the woman who approaches them. “Yes, Tiffany, how may I help you?”
”I want to dance,” she said, motioning to the dance floor where multiple couples were waltzing around to the sound of the orchestra.
”There are plenty of men here who would love to be graced by your presence for a dance.”
”They won’t’ dance with me because you are here.”
”Damn, the Russians do have class, it seems,” Jensen sighed as he hauled himself to his feet. “I will see you later, Mr. Pham,” he said before walking off with Tiffany as she dragged him by his arm to the dance floor.
”She sounds utterly miserable,” Vinh muttered, which caught the attention of the Frenchman walking nearby him.
”She is, and to think she is behaving here. You should see her when they are alone.”
”Is she abusive to him?”
”Dear Lord, they are abusive to one another. They can’t let the other yell louder than them, and they refuse to find a middle ground on anything. I wouldn’t be surprised if one of them ended up mysteriously disappearing one day.”
”You know a lot about them.”
”I had the honor of traveling out here with the couple.”
”Sadly,” the Frenchman chuckled at his joke before introducing himself. “Richard Valjean.”
”And what brings you to Russia, Mr. Pham?”
"I am not entirely sure if I am honest.”
”Understandable, does anyone know why we are where we are?”
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”Are you happy with her, Mr. Rockefeller?”
Jensen stopped abruptly, and a small chuckle left his lips as he turned to face Vinh, who stood across from him on the sidewalk.
”You’re wife. Are you happy with her?”
”Not in the slightest,” Jensen confessed, the smoke leaving his mouth being a mixture of the cold air and his cigarette.
”But you promised her till death.”
"And every day, I long for the warm embrace of it.”
”You don’t think death will be cold to you?”
”Nothing is colder than being trapped with someone who hates that you wake up in the morning just as much as you hate them waking up.”
"Marriage is supposed to be sacred.”
”Not for my family; it’s a business deal.”
”You are trapped, Mr. Rockefeller.”
”It seems I am,” Jensen took one last drag of his cigarette before throwing it onto the ground, the faint memory of Vinh’s distaste for the act. He didn’t want to disrespect him. Vinh watched as the cigarette smoke was snuffed out by the sole of Jensen’s shoe and with the chilled air further leaving to its death.
”And you are looking for an escape.”
”Indeed I am.”
”I rather in a who.”
”You do not seem to understand the society you find yourself in.”
”But you clearly don’t understand the reproductions of your actions if you go through with it.”
”I do. I’ll build a new society.”
”And who would you build that new society with?”
”You,” he said, looking the man straight in the eyes, “if you would do me the honor of.”
Vinh couldn’t help but give a small laugh. He didn’t expect such a statement from the man. Was he truly the crazy American Vinh’s mind had painted him out to be? “I never pictured you to be a dreamer.”
”I read too many romance books to not be one.”
”Never stop, promise me.”
”Only if you promise to remember me when I visit your country.”
”You say that like we won’t see each other again while in Moscow.”
”Just in case we don’t.”
Vinh then bid his farewell before starting to continue his walk down the icy sidewalk. Jensen began to walk also before he stopped, spinning on his heels and nearly slipping on the ice.
”Mr. Pham, I think I might die if I am not around you. And if I don’t die physically, I will surely become a shell of the man I am.”
Vinh stopped, his throat becoming dry for a second as he forced a chuckle out and turned to the American. “You give me too much praise; we just met.”
”I still haven’t given you enough.”
”And what will you do if you can’t be with me and you are stuck with your wife?”
”I will lay my head down on the train tracks and wait for the pleasurable release of death to kiss me like I so badly have wanted since meeting my wife.”
”Isn’t that overzealous in your eyes.”
”It still doesn’t begin to describe how it feels.”
”How does your wife make you feel?” Vinh asked, walking over to the man as some bystanders watched them and overheard what was happening.
”Like a fishing wire is wrapped around my neck, pulling ever so slightly so that it burns and enough to suffocate me but not enough to kill me.”
”And you pray for the wires to release?”
”Or enough for it to finally kill me.”
”Mr. Rockefeller, how I wish I could live inside your head for a day.”
”I’ll give you a minute before you are waiting to commit such a shameful death like I want when I am with her.”
”I am leaving for Petersburg in the morning,” Vinh said. “I don’t speak Russian, and I need someone to translate for me.”
”I thought you had a translator.”
”I do not like him, and don’t you want an excuse to not travel back west with your wife?”
”That is true.”
”I’ll meet you at the train station tomorrow morning.”
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”You are throwing this all away!” Tiffany screamed from across the hotel room when Jensen told her that he was leaving for Petersburg in the morning with Vinh.
"I’m not,” Jensen said, trying to remain calm as he took a sip of his drink before placing it down on the table in front of him, his attention going back to his book.
”Yes, you are. You are being toyed by him.”
”I am not.”
”You are, and he is all you have thought about our entire time here!”
”Aren’t you happy I won’t be around you?”
Tiffany looked away from him. He had a point. But she also knew he was nothing to the Russian people if Jensen wasn’t there. She was too well known to get with any other men, and Jensen was so feared as well as respected that no one would cross him to have relations with his wife, even though the two didn’t like one another.
”He is pulling you away.”
”Have you ever thought that it is you who is pushing me away? We have hated each other since day one. You wish I were dead just as much as I wish you were. We hate each other, so stop acting like my leaving would hurt you. My money leaving you would but not me. You haven’t care about me since the day we met.”
”And you think he will care about you?”
”He does, and he means more to me than you ever will. I care more about a single strand of his hair than I do for your whole being.”
”You barely know him!”
”But I want to.” Jensen replied, gritting his teeth as he was trying to remain calm. He took another sip of his drink, hoping it would calm him, but it had the opposite effect.
”I know what you want with him,” Tiffany sneered. “And you two won’t be accepted in our society.”
”Then I’ll go to his.”
”Why? So you can be treated like a second-class citizen because of how you look and that you don’t speak their language.”
”I don’t care,” Jensen stated, placing his book down on the table and standing up, hoping to excuse himself from the conversation.
”You should care. You are a God damn Rockefeller; act like it. You are on top in the west, and you’ll leave it to go east! The east is backward and dirty-”
Tiffany was interrupted by the sound of a bang and the smashing of glass. “But it won’t have you, so it will be paradise!” Jensen screamed as he picked his hand off of the broken glass to show how it was now bloody, and the table was already started to become covered in the blood and smashed glass from Jensen. “Anything to get away from you,” Jensen yelled, utterly unphased by his bloody hand and wrist that had shards of glass sticking out of it. “Anything to get away from you because I am so close to fucking killing myself in a desperate attempt to get away from you.”
”Then do it, coward! It will make me the happiest woman alive!”
”And that’s why I haven’t yet! That is the only reason why I didn’t do it years ago!”
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”I heard what happened with your wife last night?”
”Richard gossiping again?”
”It seems we didn’t realize we were staying at the same inn during our time in Moscow. I heard the yelling from down the hall.”
”I hope that we aren’t a game that ruined your marriage.”
”I’ve never been one for games, Mr. Pham, and I don’t plan to start now,” he confessed as he looked away from the window and at Vinh, who sat across from him in the private train car.
”You have a spouse.”
”I have a legal obligation that with the right lawyer could be absolved.”
”Wrong, Mr. Pham. A spouse is someone you build a life with. A legal obligation is a liability.”
”Then what am I to you? You abandoned your legal obligation to come with me.”
”A mystery I have yet to unravel and a desire I have yet to fully come to understand.”
”You think of me as both a mystery and a desire?”
”Indeed, and I think you view me in a similar light.”
”You can test that assumption at your convince.”
”How does right now sound? I am traveling with a stranger after abandoning my wife, and you are still wearing my jacket.”
”A little rash, don’t you think?”
”Trust me, Mr. Pham, I am not thinking any of this through.”
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