Looking back on long-lost love
by Nghiem Huyen Vu
|Illustration by Dao Quoc Huy
I had a friend much younger than me, beautiful and seemingly well-off. She had a love that lasted for about ten years, but circumstances dictated that it would never work.
"He studied at Harvard, tall and handsome with a strong face and bright mind. Like you, he was a man of knowledge who was able to explain everything to me, but he was more handsome than you and made much more money," she said to me.
"It happened in the dry season of the first year of the Millennium when I returned to Sai Gon after seven years," she told me. "I had settled down in this bustling city. You know, I loved him, my first love, my student love, so much so that I had to leave Ha Noi and my family to go to the South, but in the end, he did not marry me. I returned to the North and married a building engineer. He is a good man and provides for me and our daughter. Years later, I was invited to a wedding in Sai Gon, and because he was busy, I took a friend with me.
"My girl friend took me to stay at her brother's house, a single man named Minh who worked in the City. He worked around the clock as a trader, sometimes in Thailand, sometimes in Singapore. He had a large house but it remained empty the majority of the time, so he often asked his lover's brother next door to stay overnight. A small world I know, but he turned out to be my student sweetheart!
"He was ten centimetres taller than you, and looked imposing," she continued. "I loved him most for his composed manner and his voice. I spoke with a bold voice, sometimes yelling in the listener's ear without knowing what I wanted to say. But he spoke with a voice that was modest but brief, quiet but echoing, a voice that could captivate any audience.
"After the wedding, Minh returned home and organised a tour for us to go to Dam Sen Theme Park. The four of us took two motorbikes, and I travelled with my old flame. I was a chatterbox by nature, and that day, I talked more than ever, while he just chipped in with a few thoughtful words."
As usual, I listened to her attentively and was only able to get a word in edgeways when she paused for breath. When she told me about her and the guy on the roller coaster, she seemed so excited: "You know, I closed my eyes tightly, yelled and then I embraced him."
When Christmas came, she returned to the South with her girl friend. They stayed at Minh's house again, and of course, the guy was there again. Minh was busy, so the guy played host to the guests and joined them for dinner each night. For 20 days, they shared happy evenings together.
"We talked about a lot of things and the guy listened with a generous smile. He told us about his studies abroad, his work in the management section of the City's telecommunication agency…. He talked but his clear and sincere eyes were always riveted on his listeners. His natural and confident attitude seemed mesmerising me.
After one meal, my girl friend cleared the table and I started the washing up. All of a sudden, I dropped a crystal cup and it smashed into pieces. I was about to pick up the broken shards but he grasped my wrist, saying:
"Be careful or you'll cut yourself!"
My body started trembling and I felt my heart start to beat faster. His touch started to spread all over me and I wondered if it was merely a sign of his concern or something more.
In modern family life today, women are rarely cared for by their husbands. Even a good husband like mine thinks that his job is to make money for the family, and it is only natural that a wife should repay this by running a good home. Many women with a lot of children have never tasted what the word ‘happiness' means. And yet, the guy had paid attention to me, just in case I cut myself."
Then she flew back to Ha Noi where the cold spell had just finished. On the way home from the airport, she saw on either side of the road the fields being sown with rice seeds. She knew a new season was coming. Arriving home, she scrutinised herself, and a young married woman with a pretty face looked back at her from the mirror. But then she noticed the extra weight she was carrying. She had been at home for all those years looking after her child and keeping an eye on the house. She had made friend with television and stereo, while all the housework was taken care of by the maid.
She knew she had to get her former slender body back. From the day she split up with her first love, she had paid little attention to her figure. Now in the mirror, she was startled by her full body, and the next morning, she went to the fitness shop and bought a training machine.
Her trips to the South became more frequent, deciding to go for any excuse. Whenever she felt worried, she heard the tranquil area calling her, and with her husband away on business all the time, she felt lonely.
"You know, he meets me at the airport and carries my luggage for me. He compliments me on my clothes and seemed to notice that my hard work in the gym was having an affect".
On one trip, he organised a party with a lot of friends, and she was the special guest. They shook hands with her and complimented her on her beauty, then raised toasts to her. She became overjoyed and self-confident. A talkative lady by nature, she started talking and became the centre of attention, but all she really wanted was to sit next to him so she could talk with him and feast her eyes on him. She ignored everyone else and basked in the warmth that was emanating from his eyes. They spoke to each other openly and frankly, and the time flew by.
Finally, the party was over, and he stood up to say goodbye to his guests."
"You know, I felt younger, as if the emotions I had when I was younger were returning, and yet, sometimes I felt irritated at his protective gestures. By nature, an older woman wants to care and protect those younger than her as a mother or a sister, but he did not let me do that for him. He was so confident and dignified, and at times he wanted me to rely on him.
He invited me to a restaurant on the top of a tall hill. The City stretched out below us as far as the eye could see, with the Sai Gon River sparkling in the distance.
I wore a low cut red dress, but in my flustered state, I dropped the napkin, and was too embarrassed to pick it up
He quickly stepped in, saying: ‘Leave it to me, sister!' and retrieved the napkin for me. It was if he knew what I was thinking."
She began to take pride in her home. Fresh flowers adorned her vases every day, and she started to experiment with her cooking. Her husband, who usually paid little attention to what was placed before him at the dinner table, was taken aback by the tasty food.
She became more taciturn and gentler. Her behaviour was more composed, and she started taking piano and singing lessons. The house was filled with music.
On one occasion, she invited the guy to her home. Her husband took off the whole afternoon to receive the guest. When they had finished, they waved him off from the gate. Time went by, and their meetings became less frequent. He had started to think about his own future, with his mother constantly reminding him of his responsibility to get married".
I asked my friend if there was anything to the relationship. She said she did not know, and that was the truth, but when I saw her countenance change, I felt compelled to say something.
"He is a human being like us, not a saint. After your relationship with him was over, he never mentioned you. Please don't feel sad, but he no longer loves you".
I knew it would be difficult for her to accept. Every time she spoke about her love, she said that he was both a true man and an ideal lover. Possibly she had deceived herself or she had not recognised it? Possibly I was wrong. Who knows if there was any other reason? What I had just said to her was cruel to her, but I said the truth.
"I know it's difficult for you to hear what I have just said. Or is it ‘two in one'? He loves you, but he is a true man, so he does not want to hurt you, he wants you to be a perfect woman. In this case, he has to sacrifice a lot to keep away from you. I think it is time for you to snap out of this dream and think again about this relationship, even though it is not so easy for you."
She sat there in silence. A smart, mature woman, she understood what I had said. After her first failed love, she had experienced a lot of sadness in those ten years.
I pushed a glass of water to her and said:
"Don't think about it too much. There are people who think so much that they finally drop dead!"
She did not heed my off-putting joke. Having sipped some water, she said:
"I read a book about the vegetative life of a man. That guy is my vegetative lover."
I thought that would be the end of the matter, but when she returned from another trip to Sai Gon, she phoned me, and I guessed something was wrong. I met her that afternoon.
"You know, as soon as I arrived at the airport I received a phone call from him saying he would not be able to meet me because of work commitments. For more than ten years, he had never left me stranded at the airport. Whenever I arrived, the first thing I always saw was his smiling face behind that glass wall. Then he would take my luggage to a waiting car. This time, I had to take a taxi to the hotel. Having arrived at the hotel, I lay down feeling tired and hopeless, and slowly drifted off to sleep. I woke up to the sound of knocking at the door, He had come to take me for dinner, but he was not alone. He introduced me to a pretty, young girl, a friend of his sister's who had just returned from studying abroad.
We went to a Hanoian restaurant. He had already booked a room upstairs. The food in the restaurant was so familiar to me, but he had to explain each dish to his girlfriend. I was so tired that I could only manage a bowl of steamed rice with some spinach soup and pickled eggplants. The dinner was over quickly, and when I asked if I could return to my hotel, he did not insist I stay as he had done before."
She did not tell me about her frame of mind after she had returned to her hotel room, but I could guess.
"He has to have a girlfriend, you see! And this is only his sister's friend. What can you expect from a vegetative man except idle dalliance?"
"Yes, I know. He deserves much more than that. His girlfriend looks quite nice and I congratulate him, but I am sad," she said, trying to contain her emotion.
I could not find the words to console her, so I let her cry in peace of mind. I thought she would recognise the value of life, and more than that, my unswerving friendship.
Translated by Manh Chuong