by Truong Van Ngoc
"Will you stay with me tonight? Don't go home. I have a story to tell you."
My best friend from secondary school nodded. After several months of living here, I'd grown used to Son listening to me more than my own family did. He had always shared everything with me, so I had called him to come and see me because I now had something very important to tell him. To tell you the truth, only now would I know if he was truly as close a friend as I thought he was.
"Tell your story already!" – Son urged.
"Calm down! Here it is. Do you remember Hue?"
"Yes, I do. But you said good-bye to her right after graduation, didn't you?"
Yes, it was a long story. I had been looking for her for 13 years without any news, any glimmer of hope. Thirteen years was long enough for me to rethink a lot of things I had taken for granted. I felt so repentant when I broke up with Hue, despite her desperate, hopeless attempts to cling to me. The guy inside me at that time was damned selfish and bad. I had been haunted by that parting moment for all these years. I still remembered those two eyes of hers: silent, imploring. Sitting behind me on the bicycle to the railway station, she said nothing. The morning sun was a pale yellow, the train's siren rose in a long shriek and the wheels screeched against the rails. In a short moment, the train was out of sight, leaving me standing still amid the sea of humans on the platform. Had I done the right thing?
Then I got married. My wife was better than Hue in every way. I became rich and powerful and felt completely satisfied with my life. I got a big belly from all the beer and good food. All of my real friends, who always told me what was true rather than what I wanted to hear, were replaced by fawning admirers.
Everyone thought of me as a happy man. However, you know, everything has its price. After six years of marriage, it turned out that my 3-year-old son Tit was not, in fact, my son.
But I had to keep silent about it. There was the family honour to think of, not to mention the money and promotions at stake. My father-in-law arranged long business trips for me with the deputy chairman of the management board of a big economic group, and I set off gladly.
Yet, every time I went on such a trip, I refused to go by the company's car and instead took the train. I wanted to recapture the carefree feeling of my life as a student. My hometown was in Yen Bai Province. Once, as a student, I took a train there with Hue. It was a long distance, so she buried her face on my shoulder, her hair falling onto her pale face.
"Hue, my hometown is far from yours. Do you still want to go there as a daughter-in-law?" I asked her.
She shook her head and then nodded, falling into silence. It was the first time she had gone with me to my hometown.
"This girl looks sturdy and her cheekbones are a bit high. She will be your husband, not your wife, my dear son," my mother said.
"Good heavens! Leave them alone. The new generation is quite different from ours." My father smacked his lips.
The second time she came to my hometown, she whispered:
"I've gotten used to it, so I don't find it so far anymore. Is it difficult to be a daughter-in-law in Pho Lu town?
"It depends," I replied.
She buried her head in my chest.
"Or will you be the son-in-law of…?"
"Oh, yes. That's good, but do you think you can provide for me?"
Hue felt a bit ashamed, looking up at me. For the first time I saw the sky reflected in her gentle black eyes. Those eyes pulled me in.
I accompanied her to her hometown, also by train. The girls in the coastal area were brown-skinned, solid, and rough, but they were honest. Her house was near Do Len railway station, so it only took ten minutes to walk there. Only her mother lived there. Her father, she had once told me, had disappeared in a storm while fishing. Her mother gave me a cautious welcome.
When the night fell, she whispered to me:
"Mother said that it seems like you come from a rich family. You look very high-maintenance." I almost burst out laughing, but she continued: "We are only two and mother has had to work hard all the time to raise me, so please don't pay attention to her words. I think at the end of the day, she will understand you."
I spent a week in Do Len that summer. I waded into the field to harvest rice and cut firewood. In the evenings, I carried a heavy basket of meat pies to the railway station for Hue and her mother to sell.
"Well done, my darling!" Hue said, smiling.
"Could you bear working this hard just to earn a living?" her mother asked me.
So now I was back in Do Len for three days to do survey work for a construction project. The construction site was covered in debris, so I stayed at a lodging house nearby. For the whole night, I heard the trains coming and going, and the honking cars speeding down Highway One. But I'd got used to noise by working at construction sites for years, so I usually slept well no matter how loud it was. However, I couldn't sleep tonight. I twisted and turned the whole night. I was haunted by Hue's eyes. I kept reliving the moment we said good-bye. I felt remorseful and tormented for having lost the girl I had been head over heels in love with.
I found no trace of her house where it had once stood. In its place three lodging houses had now cropped up. It had been 20 years since the night I left her. Time really flies.
All of a sudden, there was a knock on the door. A girl appeared, clearly a prostitute. I spent the night with her, as I had often done when on business. She fell asleep next to me, but I still could not sleep. I got up and opened the window and started to smoke. Out there in the street, a train was pulling up to the station. I missed her so much: her dark eyes, her fragrant hair.
"You can't sleep, can you?" the girl got up and said.
"That's right," I replied. I paid her and told her not to come back the next night.
The last night before I left Do Len I heard a knock on the door. It was a girl who looked about 16. She stood shyly in the doorway. I was working on my laptop and did not pay much heed.
"Should I take a bath?"
I looked up and caught very familiar eyes. I wondered if I had met her somewhere.
"Yes, do take a bath and come over here," I said.
The girl took a bath. Through the dim glass I could see her beautiful silhouette. The sight of that body stirred up something inside me. I felt that I had seen it somewhere, but where?
That night I spent with Hue. She'd taken a bath by the well and I'd stared endlessly at her body, bathed in moonlight. Oh, good heavens! She was so beautiful. The Creator had given her such a beautiful body. She looked like a masterpiece.
The girl emerged from the bathroom.
"Will you take a bath?" she said.
"O.K. Please sit down. I am Hao, Duong Dai Hao. So what about you?"
"My name is Hoa."
"Tell me something about yourself. Where do you live? Is it far from here?"
"My mother once told me when I was still small that she had once lived here, right on this patch of land."
"What did you just say? Your family lived here. So what is your mother's name? Is it Ha Thu Hue? Is your grandmother Dau? Where does your mother live now? Why are you here?"
"Do you know my mother?" The girl looked up in surprise. "My grandmother died when I was a tenth grader and my mother was living with my father in Ha Tinh. I was so sad. My father scolded me all day while mother kept silent. I finished my senior secondary school education and stayed at home as father requested. I had to do everything around the house. I hated it. I ran away with my friend for about 10 days."
I couldn't believe the girl was Hue's daughter. But those two eyes, that face and mouth… They were identical. Fortunately I had done no harm to her yet. I embraced her and told her everything I had had with her mother. The girl listened attentively, sobbing. She began to call me "uncle". The next day, I got permission from the owner of the lodging house to take her back to Ha Tinh.
I took Hoa in secret to Ha Noi, bought her a small house and helped her continue to review her lessons for university entrance examinations. I tried my best to do everything for her.
On the day we met, Hue reminded me it was the death anniversary of her father. It was the last time I went to Do Len before we graduated from university. The train was slowly pulling up at the Nam Dinh railway station when I saw a well-dressed guy pickpocket the woman next to him. Luckily I caught him red-handed.
I arrived at her house at midnight. Hue welcomed me at the door, wearing a thin nightgown. We had a beautiful night together. The whole world seemed to have shrunk into this small room. Her mother had gone to see her relatives about 20km away. I was so happy. I loved her. I vowed to stay faithful to her for the rest of my life.
I stayed in her house the whole next day. I busied myself helping her and her mother prepare for the death anniversary of her father. In the evening I took the night train back to school. I sat waiting in the lounge until, exhausted, I fell asleep.
When I woke up, I found that my knapsack was gone. What could I do now? I had nothing left. I had to go back to her.
Upon arriving at the gate, I saw the lights in the house were still on. I carefully tiptoed inside.
I could not believe my eyes. She was in the arms of a strange guy. I flew into a rage and turned immediately to go. I ran for what felt like forever. Oh, God, she had betrayed me! I was heartbroken.
Hue was very surprised at my changed attitude towards her after that. I did not explain and did not let her explain either. After the graduation ceremony, we said goodbye. I was determined to break off relations with her.
When I worked as head of a production section, I met a guy from Do Len. So I asked him about Hue. I found out that the guy I'd seen that night was her father. It turned out that after having heard the news that her husband had died, her mother had an affair with a married man from the next village and got pregnant with his child. Her father had not appeared openly because of this incident, but Hue did not tell me any of this.
After finding out the truth, I went immediately to Do Len. At the house, a strange woman greeted me.
"I bought this house about three years ago. I don't know where the old owners are now," the woman said to me.
I stood motionlessly and wondered if I could do anything now. I wanted to see her to apologize… It was also a great surprise to me that she had conceived a child from that night we spent together. For nearly 20 years, Hue and my daughter had been suffering a lot. And now I had found both of them and had saved my daughter from a sordid life. I lived alone now, but I felt so happy.
Yesterday, when I was walking in the public garden, my phone rang.
"Dad, I have passed my university examinations. Can you come home with me now?"
I was so happy that my eyes welled up with tears. You see, my daughter took after me. When she found out that I was her father, she jumped for joy and embraced me, calling me "Dad". But – this is quite an awkward favor to ask – I cannot take care of her now because of my disease. Please take this saving book and use the monthly interest to cover her studies and living expenses on my behalf. Please hand these two letters to my parents because I want to ask their pardon and thank them for bringing me up. Please try to arrange everything so that no one knows I died of HIV, particularly my daughter Hoa.
Having heard this, Son shouted at me:
"No, you must live! You must not surrender your life so easily! I will find a way."
I received an e-mail from my daughter: "Dear Dad, I think you must be sound asleep at this hour, because I am ready for my first lecture at university. Try to keep calm and I hope your treatment goes well. No matter what, you will always be my dearest father in the world. Uncle Son has just come and brought me a lot of clothes and books. He also said that you are getting better. I hope I will see you soon…"
Indeed, after two months, my ailment had partially gotten better. Reassured by the fact that people diagnosed with HIV can live on for another 10 years and more, I did everything the doctor had asked me to do. Suddenly I missed my homeland so much. I missed my daughter and everybody at home.
The north of California was icy cold in winter. Snow was falling outside, looking so beautiful. I felt agitated, looking forward to my journey home...
Translated by Manh Chuong