|Illustration by Dao Quoc Huy
by Di Li
One fine afternoon, two clients turned up at the psychological clinic of Professor Cao, the most talented counselor in the city.
"Hello, I'm Dr Cao. What can I do for you?" asked the old physician, smiling broadly.
"Good afternoon, Sir! I brought my wife here to get treatment for her delirium," the tall young man with intelligent, panicked eyes replied politely.
At once his young pretty wife, plain without make-up to cover her sorrowful and pale face, spoke up: "No, Sir. It's I who have brought him here to have his hallucinations cured."
"Ok… ok…! But on principle, I'll have to talk with you both separately. First, follow me inside please, young mate," he told the crest-fallen husband.
The husband followed the expert into a small white room where two chairs were placed in the centre facing what looked like an X-ray machine with a large display.
"What are your wife's symptoms?" asked the psychologist.
"When she gets up early in the morning she's not quite herself, furious and ferocious," he answered. "She rolls her eyes at me and her hair raises horribly. In the evening, things are totally different: she looks gloomy and unhappy. When I ask her about it, she doesn't utter a word, bursts into tears instead. Only rarely does she become herself again. In my opinion, she suffers from some sort of multiple personality disorder. Worse still, from one moment to the next she thinks she's a glamorous lady, or an eloquent orator who can address a large appreciative audience for hours. Sadly, she believes that I have mental troubles. Time and again, she's overcome by the idea that I've got a concubine with a lot of children. That's why I allege that she suffers hallucinations," he added.
As he walked back into the waiting room with the husband, the expert invited the man's wife into the office.
"So what's wrong with your husband?" he asked her.
"Sir, he's shown many curious symptoms," she told him. "He always hides himself at home with his things. All day long, he's almost taciturn and doesn't contact anyone. Whenever a stranger comes over to our place, he feels uneasy. Oddly enough, he usually complains: ‘How can I take any more?' If any of his tools are missing, he flies into a rage. He often wants to kill himself too. I think he has become so dull-witted that he can hardly understand others," she concluded.
After pouring her heart out to the old man, she sobbed and sobbed. "Just stay here and wait for me for a few minutes," the doctor said to her sympathetically.
All of a sudden, the wife felt cool, as if the air conditioner had just been switched on. A few seconds later, the door flung open. To her surprise, one of her high school classmates, who she had only seen a few days ago, walked into the room. All the girls in her class, including herself, had had the hots for him.
"What are you doing here?" she asked him.
"I've come here to invite Dr Cao to attend our symposium. What about you?"
"Er… I'm in the wrong place, actually. I thought this was a dentist office," she lied.
"Are you busy now?"
"Yes… oh, no… sorry. No, not at all."
"What do you say to a hot cup of tea somewhere nearby? We can plan the schedule for our reunion."
At the cafe, he pulled a chair close to her, then added another spoonful of sugar to her cup of coffee. "You like it sweet, don't you? But my dear friend, be careful or you'll gain weight," he advised. She was so bewildered that she spilt some coffee on the table. He quickly grabbed some tissue paper for her to clean it up.
"Any girl would be lucky to have him. He would be a perfect husband to help out at home, unlike mine who always wants to sleep a little longer while my hands are full every morning. Then after breakfast it's even worse as he grabs his briefcase and hurries out the door, leaving everything a mess without even saying goodbye to me," she whispered sadly to herself.
"So how's work?" he asked her abruptly, startling her a bit.
She told him about the rat race in her office, the debates at yesterday's conference and about the fact that her department head was jealous of an award she just received from her company's new boss. He attentively listened to every word as if he was swallowing them whole. Time and again, he gave her a few insightful comments, as if he might have read her mind. In the meantime, she remembered her husband's quiet behaviour at dinner when he came home very late, smelling strongly of beer. When she cried about it, her wicked spouse stared at her angrily. She imagined that if she had chosen this old friend as her husband, he would have always returned home early, given her a burning kiss and asked her if she was tired after work before revealing a pair of tickets for a newly-released opera whose heroine was played by her favourite actress. Lost in her beautiful dreams, she nearly choked on her coffee.
"Sorry for smoking," he said before putting out his cigarette.
"How elegant he is!" she said to herself in sharp contrast to her husband who, as a chain-smoker, usually tapped cigarette ash into a tea cup or a rice bowl. "I'll give up smoking for your health," her husband had promised many times as he tossed his half-consumed pack of cigarettes into the waste paper basket. He was also messy, with all sorts of random junk spread around his room.
"Let's go canoeing this afternoon, shall we?" he suggested. "I remember that used to be your favourite sport when we were at school," he went on.
"Oh, we were just young," she replied hesitatingly.
"You talk as if you're an old woman. In fact, you're still young and could pass for a senior in high school," he teased.
She half-closed eyes in pleasure. "So gallant!" she observed in a low voice. "My husband often leaves me alone with my colleagues on Sundays. He has changed a lot indeed. Or maybe he has a new mistress?" she asked herself.
On a duck-shaped boat, her ex-classmate asked her, "Do you remember what kind of day it is today?"
"I give up."
"Oh well, my prettiest twelfth grader! It's your birthday."
She nearly burst into tears. "Maybe this is the very man of my life," she whispered softly. "Quite different from my spouse whom I once asked, ‘Do you know what today is? To which she received a confused look in reply. Half an hour later, he replied awkwardly, ‘It's anti-drug day, isn't it?'
She felt all the more blissful when her friend knelt down at her feet and asked, "Would you marry me?"
In her dream, they soon got married. On their first day as a married couple, she found him both strange and familiar, beyond her imagination. Early in the morning he implored,"Let me sleep a little more, dear." Worse still, he stared at her with his glassy eyes then hummed a polyphonic jazz impromptu. He returned home at midnight then fell into a drunken sleep in the bathroom. During the day he was glued to the TV. Day after day, he became more taciturn. He even slapped her once when she was looking for something in his drawer. On another occasion, she heard him praising a plain colleague of his office, "Frankly speaking, you look like a senior in high school…"
A few minutes later, the husband was elated when he saw his wife walking out of the office with the psychologist. "Try to keep yourself calm under his experienced treatment, my dear," he said to her in a low voice. Hardly had he finished the encouragement when the door flung open and he recognised the new trainee in his office. With curly hair flowing down over her innocent-looking face and her dreamful eyes, he silently called her Mimi because she looked like an amiable kitten.
"Mimi, what are you doing here?" he asked.
"I'm Dr Cao's niece. What about you?"
"Er…, I was looking for my doctor's office."
"What's the matter?" she asked in a worried voice.
Obviously, she was a gentle and kind-hearted girl, quite different from his wife, who on holidays invited a group of talkative girls over, totally strange and fully made-up, whose main topic of conversation was to defame their husbands and a few newly-acquainted handsome youths.
"My uncle's hands are full," she told him, pulling back her beautiful hair to reveal her lily-white neck. "What do you say to something to eat?" she suggested. "I'll order you something special," she added. "With pleasure," he nodded his thanks.
"I'm going to work out a few procedures for next week's symposium. What do you think?" he asked her.
She uncapped a bottle of beer then cleverly poured it into two mugs after drying them completely with several tissues before placing one in front of him. She also served him some chicken with pepper and coriander. Her rose skirt fitted her body very well. Her sleeve, which was edged with lace, often touched his hands which tickled him pleasantly. He imagined Mimi, in a provocative night-gown, standing by the bed and giving him a hot cup of coffee before going to sleep. He dreamt that early in the morning, she welcomed him with a tray full of his breakfast favourites: a fragrant hot cup of coffee and a delicious bowl of chicken soup. Then she buried her face in his chest to ask him whether he needed a foot massage to ease his tension. These dreams all contrasted with his wife's morning habit of offering him a simple bowl of tasteless instant noodles with a little pimento sauce.
Next, she served him a spring roll filled with crab, pork, vermicelli, bean sprouts and some spices. A few minutes later she told him, "I've got a proposal for you. You're the top expert in our office. You help me in my job and I'll type all your reports and documents. Is it a deal?" After listening to her reasonable proposal, he felt quite at ease. Resting against the back of the chair, he thought for a few moments. "Unlike my wife who is always harping on the same string with her tedious remarks, such as ‘I really don't know what you do at your office all day, because when you're at home you're always engrossed in your computer. Woe is me! Unlike me, my friend has led a blissful life beside her husband and children,' she nagged at him bitterly. Or ‘How happy my friend Hong Hoa is! This Sunday her husband will take her by car to Nha Trang for pleasure.' When he finished typing reports after hours and began to play music, she implored, ‘could you turn that off, my head is going to explode?" All this was contrary to her previous sweet remarks that he was both a successful businessman and a gifted artist, and that she had fallen in love with his intelligence, talent and skills. "She's changed a lot, indeed," he exclaimed. "Maybe she's found another man?" Those doubtful scenarios made him extremely furious.
At that moment, Mimi poured more beer into his big glass. "I got a couple of football tickets yesterday because I can only assume that you're a fan," she said.
"How wonderful she is! She not only honours my own hobby but also respects my private freedom as well," he whispered. It was the final match which attracted millions of sport-lovers all over the world. One day, while he was watching a qualifying match, he found a young courting couple with yellow hair on the display who wished to commit suicide. "Perhaps her only pleasure in life is to enjoy South Korean films," he said to himself. A few days ago, he got to work late because he couldn't find his socks. He searched in vain forever. On another occasion, his boss yelled at him because of a lost report which he later found in the waste paper basket. He must have thrown it away when he was glancing at her with desire.
"Go ahead with your story about the football match, please," she urged him. When he lost all the colour in his face, she became frightened out of her wits. "Let me put an anti-headache strip on your forehead, ok?" she said softly.
He burst into tears. "She's worthy of being my better half. She would open her arms wide to welcome me when I return home after work. She would hold my briefcase, put a handkerchief drenched with warm water on my forehead and criticize my boss amiably, "I hate your boss who has forced you to drink too much and to overwork as well," she would say.
He asked for her hand in marriage and she accepted immediately. Surprisingly, in their first days as a married couple, he discovered a lot he didn't know about her: her oft-told expressions that he heard over and over, her ridiculous welcomes to his home-coming in unkempt hair and in a rumpled night-gown. Worse still, she left him hungry for hours while she was engrossed in a Korean soap-opera, put his shirt in the vegetable compartment of the fridge, and invited loud male and female friends over on Sundays. Once he heard Mimi talking softly with one of the Sunday ruffians: "If only I had married you that day, I would have led a happy life."
Dr Cao was startled by two deafening screams. Both his clients stood up at the same time.
"Is he all right, Doctor?" the wife asked him first.
"We have returned to normal, haven't we, Sir?" he asked anxiously, holding his wife's hand, then dragging her away.
"But you've forgotten to ask me one thing: how I treated you," the old physician reminded them. Then pointing at the apparatus in the middle of the room he went on: "This is the latest in our modern information technology, which can create any virtual space as needed. For example, for patients who are afraid of heights, it could give them the impression that they are standing safe and sound on the balcony of a 20-storey building. As for patients who deal with hallucinations like you two, I can reverse the problem. Now I expect that you'll be able to make it, won't you?"
"Yes, we will, Sir. How much do we owe you," asked the husband.
When the doctor showed them the invoice they cried out: "What! Twenty million dong for a half-an-hour treatment! Is this a joke?" he asked, face turning pale.
"No, not at all," he answered calmly. "That's the total for your cure alone, not including the prescription charges and what you'll have to pay for the the therapeutic medicines and tonics. You could also look at the bill as a kind of medicine because now when you feel your troubles returning, the total will remind you of how much treatment will cost. Your problems will certainly fade then go away soon," he added.
Translated by Van Minh