by Dac Nguyen
|Illustration by Dao Quoc Huy
That night the daughter, having said good-bye to her sweetheart, came home and sat down on the veranda with her head resting on the doorsill. She looked nonchalant. The father was typing on his old laptop. He slightly raised his head and looked at his daughter through the glasses dropping down the bridge of his nose. He could see the long back of the daughter, as slim as the tree climbing the door frame. Her ponytail, twisted into a bun at the back of her head, was seen shaking. A few locks of hair were flowing in the night wind.
When the daughter was in 11th grade, she brought her sweetheart home. That sucker was her classmate. He had hair falling down the back of his skull and wore fancy shirts, making him look like a South Korean singer. That sucker said to the father: "Good morning, dad!" as loudly as possible and the daughter gave him a long dirty look. The boy grinned broadly, feeling satisfied. After the boy went home, the father told the daughter to come nearer, saying: "Please, don't do anything wrong. At your age, you have to be careful. You've got to pass the university entrance exams next year, you know!" The daughter rushed to embrace her father, saying anything she could think of to reassure him: "Don't worry, Dad! I'm your offspring, you know!" The father caressed the daughter's back, asking: "But does he love you? Or do you love him? Or is it reciprocal love?" The daughter allayed her father's worries: "He's head over heels in love with me, Dad!"
But the daughter's school-girl love came to an end when she moved up to 12th grade. The daughter told her father that on the day she said good-bye to her boy friend, he cried. The father went to see the boy and even gave him some advice, telling him to just carry on his studies and love would come to him in the end. However, the father still feared that the boy would harm her. So he suggested that he take her to school, but she refused, saying that she didn't want to lose her freedom. One day the daughter came home late. The father was so worried that he finally got on his motorbike to look for her. At the crossroads, he saw the daughter running together with her friends, yelling and laughing noisily in the street. So he turned to go home, feeling reassured.
Later, the daughter's lovers came and went. Every time there was an engine noise in front of the house, the father squinted through his glasses to judge the boy his daughter had gone with. When the daughter came into the house, the father asked: "Is that a new boyfriend?" "No. He's the one who sat down and talked with you about the Three Kingdoms the other day, do you remember?" The father nodded repeatedly.
Each time she broke up with a lover, the daughter came home, but fhe ather only deigned a calm look. "What's up? Love sick?" The daughter pursed her lips: "No, not at all. I broke up with him – not the other way around." The father knew that his daughter was a tough girl. He knew that she took the initiative in saying good-bye to her lovers. It was nothing like the novel the father had written, where love was always touched with faint fragrance. Not so sweet. Not so warm. One day, while the father was typing a story, the daughter stood behind him, reading the story that smacked of love.
"When will I love a man so warmly, dad?"
"How can you when you have betrayed your love?"
"Dad, you'd better get a lover now."
"I can't. Even taking care of you is really difficult for me. So how could I care for another person?"
"No need for you to care for another person. Some people might like to care for you, you know!"
The father felt startled. "Who would volunteer to care for me?"
"Who knows?" the daughter said with a meaningful smile. Then she ran to the gate where her lover was waiting for her. The father was left behind in bewilderment.
And now the daughter was really betrayed by her lover. Never had the father seen his daughter in such weak form. Sitting down in silence by his daughter, the father pulled her head to rest on his shoulder and caressed her hair.
"Did you love him a lot?" he asked.
"I don't know, but I feel so sad, Dad!" the daughter said, sobbing.
The father realized then that he had never taught his daughter to cry. He had only told her that tears made people weak and maudlin. Tears made everything so confused and complicated. The father had taught the daughter to never cry in front of other people. The father had never taught his daughter how to cry and when to cry!
The father felt tormented thinking about these mistakes. He patted the daughter's shoulder and kissed her hair, whispering: "If it is arranged by fate, sooner or later you and that guy will come back to each other. If not, you should regard it as a beautiful love, an experience that teaches you how to love a man, you see?" The father smiled, looking at his daughter resting in his lap. Looking into the dark, he continued to whisper: "You know, you will learn soon that the man you love best is not the man who will stay with you for the rest of your life. Love is the most poetic when it isn't available, when it cannot be perfect, my dear."
"Don't talk like the characters in the stories you've written, Dad!" The daughter raised her head and wiped the tears from her eyes.
"Stories come from life, you know."
"So do you love Mother, Dad?" The daughter now felt relieved enough to put this question to her father.
Do you love Mother, Dad?
The question startled the father. Did he love his wife? The woman who had a slim form and gentle look, who seemed to smile all the time.
Do you love Mother, Dad?
Their first kiss had made him tremble. It was a cold autumnal night. He kissed her lightly and embraced her in his arms, whispering: "Thank you." He felt her happy innocence, mixed with surprise. "What are you thanking me for?" she asked, burying her head on his chest. "You have accepted my proposal. That's why." That night, the wind rose, blowing dead leaves in small circles right where they were standing, arm in arm in silence.
Do you love Mother, Dad?
He tried to search in his memory if he had done his duty fully as a father for the family. He had had no affairs, didn't gamble, and had done nothing violent. If anything, he sometimes went boozing with friends, but his wife was very understanding. A marvelous wife he had. He felt he was very lucky to have her. But was she happy to have him? He remembered that his wife had many times stood with a sad face, staring straight ahead. Many times she looked so preoccupied.
But he did not ask her about it. He looked in silence at the back of her head, her hair tied in a bun with some strands falling down her shoulders. He did not ask her about it. In his sub-conscious, he felt that if he asked her, the peace in the family would be destroyed in a moment. He did not ask her about it. And then, he had no more chances to ask her when she died to save their baby. He did not have a chance at all to ask his wife: "Were you happy to marry me?" No more chances for him. Many, many years later, standing before her altar or visiting her grave, he only asked the strong wind: "Were you happy to marry me?" No answer. Only the cold wind of late autumn, rustling in the deserted cemetery. Even in a dream, his wife did not appear to answer the question.
Do you love Mother, Dad?
"I love your mother very much." His voice was choked. "I love your mother very much." He repeated it tormentedly, looking into the dark yard. His daughter took his shriveled hands, asking him in a faultfinding manner:
"You say you love her? So…." Hesitating, she continued to ask him: "So who is the one you truly love?"
"It's you. Don't you know that?" The father looked at the daughter, smiling affectionately.
"Of course, your love to me is beyond question! I mean ‘your love with that woman', Dad!" the daughter said, looking at the father with a seemingly angry look.
"You're joking. Do you think you can take care of me now?"
"Sure. So who else if it is not me myself? I wonder why Uncle Phong has not come to see us recently, Dad?" – Daughter smiled.
"Maybe he is busy. Life is more difficult today, so even a director must work harder, you know," the father said absent-mindedly.
"You haven't contacted him recently, have you? And he hasn't tried to get in touch with you?" the daughter asked with a hidden meaning. This question made the father feel a strong sense of guilt.
"Why are you acting so strange today, daughter? Does something go wrong with your mind when you are lovelorn?"
"Never, Dad," the daughter said, pursing her lips. Leaning on the father's shoulder, she whispered: "Soon I'll get married. If I marry a foreigner, will you live alone?"
"It's O.K. for me to have you and later to have grandchildren. I don't care about being alone, you know. I'll be very busy with my grandchildren and that's enough," the father said, smiling. They both sat there, listening to the wind howling.
"Let's get into the house or you'll catch a cold!" the father urged the daughter. But she seemed not to hear him. She remained sitting there, leaning on the father's shoulder, so he had to sit still.
"Dad... " the daughter suddenly said aloud.
"I want you to be happy. More than anything."
The wind was blowing, carrying with it humidity and cold. Dead leaves tumbled from the trees, making rustling sounds in the night. The father imagined that the man was coming to see him, bringing along the repercussions of a decade-old love. He had many times thought about it as his daughter grew up day by day in front of him. He had brought her up himself, trying to compensate her for her lack of a mother. The father's eyes were full of images of his daughter growing up and changing day in and day out. Her first call "Dad…. Dad…." and her first step toddling towards him made him happy. Now the daughter had grown up and become more mature, more determined, stronger. She would marry someone and he would have grandchildren. Life had moved on in that way.
"You'll find out later, daughter. You'll learn that you'll be more afraid of seeing a lot of broken happiness than looking for happiness for yourself!"
The father's words were in tune with the sound of the falling leaves in the rain. It was raining lightly and gently.
Translated by Manh Chuong