by Nguyen Dang An
I met her for the first time at a bus stop in Rome.
It was an afternoon in autumn. The sky was blue and the sun bright, but there was a cool breeze. Crimson violets on the sides of the road were fluttering like butterflies. I cannot forget the image of petals catching in her long black hair and her pretty yet sorrowful eyes.
She was an Asian, possibly Vietnamese, I thought. I tried to find ways to make friends with her, but she always shunned my advances. Each time we met, she looked at me with those distant eyes.
I was on the right side of forty, but still single. My father was an army officer in the former Sai Gon administration. Before 1974, I was sent to Italy to study in order to dodge the draft. After graduating from the Rome University of Architecture, I stayed on in Italy, became a naturalised citizen and opened an office in the centre of Rome. I had met and befriended a lot of girls. Some were overseas Vietnamese, some Italian, some from other parts of the world, but for some reason I had never settled down, or ever felt like it, until I met this young woman at the bus stop in Rome. I was captivated by those coal black, yet sorrowful eyes.
I was on a crowded bus. Passengers were pushing and shoving. And then in confusion she stepped on my foot in her high-heels. I cried out in pain. She turned quickly towards me. Her beautiful black eyes had a look of surprise.
Her Hue accent was gentle and lovely. Even though my foot still hurt, I smiled.
"Oh, it was nothing, lady."
She looked down at my foot, which was bleeding. She looked suddenly frightened. "Its bleeding so much. When the bus stops, I will bandage it for you. How careless I am!"
When the bus stopped, we got out. She led me by the hand to a nearby stone bench and helped me sit down. She then opened her handbag and took out some cotton wool and a bandage – perhaps she did this kind of thing often!
"My name is Ton Nu Da Lan," she said in Vietnamese. "I am from Hue."
"I am Tran Trung Hieu. I come from Quang Tri. I am your neighbour."
We became close friends after that. Every few weeks we would go for a walk in the park or meet in a local coffee shop. As the days went by, we grew closer and closer; we might even have been in love, but the subject was never broached.
In Rome there is a bridge where couples often meet called Ponto Milvio (the Milvian Bridge) that spans the poetic Tevere (Tiber) river that runs through the centre of the city. Couples often come to hang padlocks on the lampposts and railings as a sign of their undying love.
I held Lans hand as one day we walked to the bridge with our padlock ready. Thousands hang there. I fastened the padlock to a lamppost and she took the key and threw it into the river. In so doing, we were cementing our love, as countless other couples had done. It was then that I confessed to her that I'd loved her from the first moment I saw her. She hugged me tightly and kissed me passionately. Happiness had finally entered my life.
"You're a handsome, healthy and talented man, so why have you chosen me?" she said in all seriousness.
"It is not that I've chosen you, but that you and I were together in a previous existence."
"Will you love me forever?"
"I will love you forever, and if you agree, we will organise the wedding immediately!"
"I want to live these days forever. I want you to promise me one thing, do you agree?" she asked, smiling.
I nodded. "I want you never to ask me about my past."
She was hiding something that was too hard for her to speak about and share. I nodded my consent, but felt excluded and unhappy.
I have a French friend named Jean Henry, who is a famous portrait artist. One day he took me to a studio near the Trevi Fountain. It was a spacious studio with an extensive lighting system. About 20 artists were standing in a semi-circle before easels of different sizes. I was taken aback by the sight. A bearded man appeared on the stage and said: "I would like to introduce you to an Asian model named Ton, who will pose for you."
I looked in the direction his finger was pointing and saw a nude woman. She had a rose in her hand that was held up to her alluring white breasts. My eyes became blurred. It was her, the one with the sad black eyes. In great confusion, I knocked over an easel. The sound startled her and then she recognised me. The rose fell from her hand and she fled to the back of the stage. The hall was abuzz, and everyones eyes were on me. Jean slowly and silently walked towards me. He righted the easel.
"Do you know her?" he asked in a low voice.
"Yes," I said, nodding my head. "She is my fiancee."
"What a pity!" Jean shrugged his shoulders.
After that, she disappeared without a trace. I looked for her everywhere. I was devastated. Out of the blue, one Sunday afternoon, the owner of a nudist art club phoned me and asked if I could come and see him. When I met him, he gave me a piece of paper with the message: "Go to see her now, or you'll never see her again." An address was printed underneath.
The place where she lived was half an hours walk away. She lived in a tall building near the park. The building looked like a giant ship. I pressed the doorbell. Shortly afterwards, I heard footsteps approaching from behind the door and then they stopped. The door did not open.
"Listen, my dear Lan! You cant just hide. Open the door, please!" I said.
After a while, the door slowly opened. She did not look at me, but instead turned away and walked inside. I ran after her and turned her around by the shoulders so I could see her face.
"Look me in the eyes Lan. I love you, you know that. Don't break my heart any more," I said. I tried to embrace her, but she pushed me away.
"I wanted to prolong as long as possible the time that we were in love, and I savoured every moment. The simple happiness of being human. But it seems my fate is to be unloved. I do not deserve you."
"No! We love each other. We need each other. You and I have locked our love forever on the Milvian Bridge. You threw the key into the river, so nothing can drive us apart."
She blinked her dark wet eyes.
"Im afraid that when you know the truth about my life, you will be disappointed," she said, now openly crying.
"No! You are a beautiful model. You are as bright as any work of nature. As an architect, I understand your beauty very well."
"You do not understand me. A model can do nothing for those artists who do not know how to look or be creative."
"Please, I beg you! I can't understand why you are behaving like this."
"Wait here for a few minutes and you will understand the bitterness of my life."
At 12 oclock, I heard scratching and knocking at the adjoining door. Then I heard high-pitched screams. This went on for about half an hour, and then there was silence. All this time, she just sat there, burying her head against my chest and sobbing softly. She then signalled me to follow her. She raised the bolt and opened the door to that spooky room. I was shocked. Before me stood two skeletal kids, grinning stupidly; fingerless hands were stretching out to Lan.
"Be good, my dear sons!" she pleaded.
Lan then led them through to the living room. I followed dumbly, like a machine. Lan wordlessly invited me to sit down opposite them.
"Now you know everything," she said. Excuse my lack of trust. I could not tell you. I plan to move to Milan tomorrow in order to be far away from you. I'm surprised you came."
I recovered myself. I felt great compassion for her, and wished to share her sorrow. She had dark circles around her eyes. I guessed she had had many sleepless nights. I got up and sat next to her and touched the hands of the boys.
"I want to share this with you," she said uneasily. "I used to be a student at Hue Universitys Faculty of Letters. I had two classmates Ngo Chau and Phung Tuong, who loved me. In my heart, I liked Chau better than Tuong.
When we were in the third year, the war broke out. Chau left for the liberation zone and I never heard from him again. Tuong and I carried on with our studies and our love blossomed. After graduation, Tuong was recruited by the army and I stayed on to teach. A year later, Tuong returned from the Khe Sanh battlefield and we began organising our wedding. "This boy," she said, pointing to one of them, "is mine and Tuongs."
She continued. "After the complete liberation of the South on April 30, 1975, Chau returned in triumph and joined the military management committee in Hue City. Chau came to see me. Joy was mixed with sadness. We recalled our student days.
"Before leaving, he said that Tuong had served in the opposition army and that he had to report to the military administration committee and go to a re-education camp for three months. He added that he hoped the months would pass swiftly so that husband, wife and son could soon be reunited.
"The three months passed slowly. When Tuong came home he was taciturn. He often visited Chaus house and even slept there from time to time.
"On one occasion, Chau said to me, sounding worried, that Tuong was undergoing a very complicated psychological change and that I had to support him as much as possible.
"I said that maybe the re-education camp had uncovered a hidden mental illness.
"Early one Saturday morning, I remember it very well, Chau knocked at my door. Speaking hurriedly he asked if Tuong was at home. I said that I thought Tuong was with him.
‘Oh, God! Something wrong is happening,' he said. ‘Give your son to your neighbour to look after and come with me, quickly!'
"He drove hurriedly, I didnt know where. Chau seemed very agitated. Tuong had been at his house the whole day. When Chau had returned home, he found that Tuong had cooked a lavish meal with brandy. While they ate, Tuong had recalled numerous stories about the three of us. Then he mentioned that he had visited Khe Sanh, where there were a lot of deformed children. He had also mentioned that he had been one of the former Sai Gon soldiers who had guarded the Agent Orange depot in Khe Sanh. While eating, Tuong had asked Chau to look after me if he ever died. Then he said goodbye to Chau and set off for our home. For a few days, Tuong spent time with our son and me, but he seemed nervous. At one point, he told me that Chau was a noble and brave man, and pointed out that he had gallantly accepted our love.
"I did not tell Chau what Tuong had said.
"Do you know where Tuong is going? I asked Chau.
"I think he went to Khe Sanh last night. If we go quickly, we might be able to catch up with him."
Chau then handed me two letters, which he said he had found in his house. One was open the other sealed. The open one was for Chau, the sealed one was for me.
"In Chau's letter, Tuong had said that he wanted Chau to marry me, while my letter enclosed an application form for a divorce that he had signed. He said that he wanted a divorced because he had been contaminated with Agent Orange and felt that he could not bring me happiness. He asked me and my son to forgive him.
"Eventually, we reached the former depot where my husband had been stationed. A big crowd had gathered outside. Reporters were running here and there. There were even some international correspondents. "
"We found Tuong dead, lying on the ground in a field nearby. He was wearing the suit he had worn at our wedding. It looked brand new. On his stomach, lay a white board. On it, written in blood was the message: "Here is the place where the US set up an Agent Orange depot."
"It transpired that Tuong had disclosed to the media the location and time of his suicide. I ran to embrace him and cried bitterly. Chau was also in tears. He said: "Phung Tuong, why have done this?"
"Later, at my home, Chau tried to console my son and I. A year later, he asked me if we could live together, as Tuong had wished. I agreed, and soon became pregnant. When I told Chau, he was overjoyed. Eventually, I gave birth to this boy, she pointed to the other wretch. At the time of birth, Chau had said: "Phung Tuong! Can it really be the case that you and I have the same illness? What a shame for Lan!"
"Chau was always decisive. After the birth, he arranged for me to study in Italy, where he hoped Id be able to work and earn some money to pay for our children's treatment. Meanwhile, he put the two children in care in Quang Tri, where he gained permission to work so that he could look after his children and others who had been exposed to Agent Orange. A year later, he was killed in a car accident.
"I returned to Viet Nam to attend the funeral. I was heartbroken. I buried him next to Phung Tuong in a vast pine forest. I wanted them to be together forever. Before he died, Chau had requested his friends help to send our children to Italy to be with me."
"Now you know everything. Are you frightened?" she asked me.
"Frightened?" I said, dumbfounded. My family had suffered similar anguish. My only brother was also a soldier. He too had been exposed to Agent Orange. He had left a deformed son to be cared for by his father.
I lovingly embraced Lan and her two sons.
"Don't cry, Lan. I love you so much," I said, with tears in my eyes. "Instead of going to Milan, why don't you and your children move in with me tomorrow. OK?"
Lan did not answer, she just lay her head on my shoulder. Her tears wet my shirt. I did not go home that night. I ended up sleeping in her room. I took advantage of my time there to pack her things. It took me until midnight..
The next day, Lan and I officially became a couple. She later became pregnant. I was overjoyed. When she was in her fifth month, I took her to hospital for a scan. When the results came through, a female doctor asked me to follow her into an anteroom.
"Have you or your wife ever been exposed to toxic chemicals or have either of you lived in an area where Agent Orange was used?" she asked.
I became frightened.
"What do you mean? Is everything alright?"
"Please try to keep calm. We need to conduct further tests," she said softly.
I told the doctor that I had grown up in a region where Agent Orange had been used. She shook her head mournfully.
"It's impossible to draw any conclusions right now. While we perform more tests, you need to be strong. You must support your wife."
I took Lan home. My life was marked by misery and hope. I tried to be happy in front of Lan and played merrily with her two handicapped children. When she was away, I sat motionless for hours in misery. I thought it was time to tell Lan the truth so that we could decide whether she should have an abortion.
One night, Lan walked into the bedroom and saw me crying into the pillow in my sleep.
"Oh, my dear! Whats the matter?"
"I have been dreaming of the day when our baby is born," I said defensively.
"Good heavens! You scared me!" Lan said with a radiant smile and lay down in my arms.
In the depths of the night, I awoke. Lan's beautiful smile had bewitched me. I tiptoed up to the roof. There was a light rain. I could hear the cry of ravens in the ancient castles around. I had become used to their eerie cry, but tonight, I could smell death. I raised my two hands up to God.
I wasn't sure if God could hear me over the rain. I listened to the raindrops that were falling on Rome, as Da Lans tears of joy were falling inside my heart.
Translated by Manh Chuong