Claire Polders grew up in the Netherlands and now roams the world. She’s the author of four novels in Dutch, one novel for younger readers (A Whale in Paris, Simon & Schuster), and many short stories and essays. Recurrent themes in her writing are identity, feminism, social justice, traveling, and death. She works on a memoir about elder abuse, a speculative novel, and a short prose collection.
Seven is the Hour of Water
1 stands for luck, or dare I call it fate?
We meet in embarrassment. Many months and seven countries ago, during the first weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic. You’re wearing a T-shirt printed with the hotel logo, so my husband and I, recent arrivals in a country we don’t know, mistake you for a staff member exiting the lobby to receive us. When we ask foryour help communicating with the cab driver who only speaks Vietnamese, you tell us you’re the chef and owner of the hotel restaurant where we will eat so many excellent meals in the months to come that I will lose count. Although it’s not your job to assist us, you help us anyway and smile your American smile, half-genuine, half-obliging, a smile that can part clouds. I imagine us in your eyes: Another pair of clueless tourists and/or two potential customers in your gorgeous seaside town.
Hội An, I will later learn, means “peaceful meeting place.”
2 means trusting the kind stranger
The world closes its borders in March and my Dutch embassy urges me to fly home: The Vietnamese government can be mercurial in times of trouble and the virus is a major threat. My husband, however, wants to stay. There’s nothing waiting for us in Northern Europe, no home, no office, no children—we’ve chosen to be free. And wouldn’t we rather quarantine in a place where we see the sun every day?
What I want to do remains unclear to me. My situation seems unmeasurable. Am I right to be scared for our safety in an environment we don’t know? How likely are food shortages here if Americans in their land of plenty already complain about empty shelves? Who am I in this strange new world?
My anxiety rises like the temperature. Military helicopters circle overhead. My thinking is sluggish, as though drugged by fear.
I speak with people far away whose counsels are at odds. Leave! Stay! Leave! Stay! Who to believe? I seek answers from you who knows the land better and speaks the language.
Will you remain a resident in the hotel if we go in lockdown? How much food do you have in stock? Will you keep cooking for us no matter how long the crisis lasts? Can we negotiate a healthy menu? An affordable rate? Will the locals keep selling you their fresh produce?
You remain patient, unflustered, as though you’re asked to reduce this type of stress from patrons all the time.
Of course, you’ve already seen what I will only witness in the months to come. How the ubiquitous rice paddies will change from green to yellow and get harvested. How the billions of rice kernels will be dried in the sun on orange tarps on the asphalt and dirt roads. How the coconuts will fall from the trees, the mangoes, the jackfruits, too many to eat. How the salads and herbs you pluck from the gardens grow back within weeks.
The name of your restaurant is “Mùa,” the Vietnamese word for seasons. You draw inspiration from nature’s revival, the riches of the Earth.
You look at me calmly and say, We will not go hungry.
3 is not a three-body problem
Weeks pass in quarantine and we spend time together every day. We are three readers, three curious food lovers, three music enthusiasts. Between courses of garlic-fried maggots, apocalypse curry (which you named after the pandemic), and lotus-seed loaded fermented rice, we discuss sci-fi trilogies and listen to Frank Ocean. We are travelers who can work anywhere and consider home a changing concept, a feeling instead of a place. Although none of us care about fashion, we all end up hiring the same kind tailor for a set of custom-made linen clothes.
Is that how we become friends, through what we share?
But true connections don’t come cheap. The process must be more challenging.
The three of us, we are two men and one woman. Two eager customers and one top-notch chef. Two Americans and one European. Two white people and one person of Chinese-Vietnamese descent. Two people striving for authenticity and one performer who likes to dispel the world’s worries with jokes.
You and I, we don’t get mad at my husband when he changes the topic once again, squirming away from anti-mask protests and BLM, from the discomfort each awakening brings about. Maybe we accept that he has his own way of not falling apart by the ugliness of life. Maybe we, too, want to be dragged into play at night, be lifted by laughter.
At times we find a miraculous balance between great anger and personal happiness, between injustice and friendship. The three of us, we get drunk on togetherness and when the moon leans in from outside, we nearly dance. Most mornings, though, when the dark news trickles in, we shake our heads in incomprehension. If there’s so much beauty in the world, how come we live on a globe of cruel idiots?
4 stands for admiration
You are the sparkling joy of a boy who plucks mangosteens from the tree and marvels at the texture, the sticky residue the white flesh leaves on the skin when his thumbnails pierce through the purple peel.
You are the honest sullenness of a teenager who withdraws from others to find safe ground in his own moody reflections; fake joviality is not your style.
You are the creativity of a chef who, in absence of a better tool, takes off his shoe and hammers its wooden heel gently against the wine bottle’s bottom until the cork pops out.
You are the subtlety of a political scientist who probes his own positions over and over rather than finding a soapbox from which to proclaim his truths.
You are the enigma of a sphinx who knows she must reveal herself to connect with others yet wants to keep the more mysterious parts of herself tucked underneath her wing; you dispense stories about your fascinating life in small, enchanting doses.
5 is a negotiation between who we are and who we could be
You ask, What did you mean by your text last night?
I interrogate my memory, draw a blank, and check our exchange on my phone. It’s about breakfast and I had written, Seven is the hour of water.
I say that I meant I never eat early in the morning. Before eight, I only ever drink water.
For a moment, I see disappointment on your face. Then it’s gone, like a wave washing away your footprints on the sand. You laugh sheepishly.
I thought it was some spiritual wisdom, you say. It sounded intriguing.
I feel empty-handed, having no spiritual wisdom to dispense. At least not in such neat aphorisms. Unless the wisdom hides in the unintentional poetry itself. Or can come to light in a longer, layered text. I agree that the phrase is a promising title.
Let me work on it, I say.
A promise to a friend is a challenge worth taking.