by Nguyen Hai Yen
|Illustration by Dao Quoc Huy
A message from a strange phone: "Are you still using your old phone number?"
What a question! It was obvious that he was still using it. If not, how could he receive this message? What a fool, he mumbled, and typed a quick answer: "How much did you sell that phone for?"
A few seconds later, his phone rang repeatedly. It seemed that his message had been read by someone at the other end. He quickly picked up the phone and repeated what he had written in the previous message:
"Did you sell the phone?"
It was silent at the other end of the line for some time, and then he heard a girl's gentle voice:
It was the middle of his holiday when his phone was snatched. He was quite annoyed at losing the phone because he had just bought it and filled it with all his contacts. He was advised by the operator from the switchboard to get a new SIM card and continue using his former phone number.
When he got the message, he thought it was the robber trying to extort a ransom from him, so he got very angry.
But at the end of the day, they got to know each other.
Nhien could not contain herself. She asked him if he was all right. She said with a hesitating voice that it was the first time she had used a private phone number for certain contacts. She said to him that every customer was harsh and angry, not only he. Sometimes she could not bear that stress and wanted to quit the job!
"Are you well?"
"How's your work?"
"Have you had dinner?"
"Do put on a scarf! It's very cold, you know."
Rain poured down all through the afternoon. He drove home from the company. At times he drove slowly to send a message, defying the danger on the way, defying the notion that something like that could only be done by teenagers, as he had often thought previously. Those short, dry words, without any love. He was not used to saying sweet words. He did not like expressing his emotions. He wanted to face things himself. He liked that nobody could guess his feelings: love or hate, happiness or misery. He did not even want Nhien to see into the heart of a man like him. Nhien was on duty, so she could not talk with him on the phone, though he was eager to talk with her – even to see a few sweet words from the phone number so familiar to him now. But a few moments later, when the gate of his house appeared through the curtain of pouring rain, he would switch off the phone, completely separating him from the outside world, even from Nhien.
He used to call Nhien his "little girlfriend". Can you tell me, my little girlfriend, how to use this service? My phone suddenly stopped working today, my little girlfriend, so how do I fix it? How many months had gone by since that fateful day, he thought? He did not dare to think about it. One day, he suddenly realised that it was not for his business that he kept in touch with Nhien. He even got used to sending messages to her, something he hated doing in the past. He felt empty when he could not hear her voice once a day. When Nhien talked with him, she was so gentle, so passionate, but also so childish. In her, there was the self-confidence of a young woman with a lot of personality, independence and eagerness for knowledge. These things seemed very different from what had existed inside him thus far. He did not like change. He was afraid of having to adapt to new things. Throughout his life, he had maintained certain habits. A man, he thought, must have principles and stick to them.
Now on the wrong side of forty, he seemed not to lack anything. A cosy family, a firm social standing, a middle-class life: all these made him seem confident and attractive to women. However, he was not eager for an affair. His marriage had lasted peacefully for 20 years – until the day Nhien entered his life.
Nhien was only a few years older than his oldest son. When she entered the restaurant with a phone in her hand, she looked embarrassed, turning around to seek him out. He knew it was Nhien. He felt so near and dear to her that when she went home, he was left behind in bewilderment. Did he love her? It was unbelievable. He was so confused. Having met her made him recognise one thing: his life had so far been monotonous, dull, meaningless. He had so far seen life only through the narrow door of his business calculations. He only thought about how to make more money from the cars he bought. The more cars he had, the more profit he would get. His bank account should get fuller with every day that passed. This, he thought, was what a man's life should be.
He loved cars. He loved the moments he was behind the wheel. He loved the feeling of being a master of speed, of the road. He planned to take the whole clan back to his home village during the Tet festival. He planned to buy another patch of land in a newly opened district. Everything he did was carefully planned out and logical. But where did his love with Nhien fit in?
He himself could not understand why he loved her. Was it because of her trust in him, or the tranquillity and pleasantness inside her? Or was it that Nhien lived a simple and kind-hearted life? He only knew that he had changed a lot. He stopped spending money like water when Nhien told him that a lot of people still lived miserable lives. He stopped yelling into the phone when Nhien told him that she was frightened by raised voices. He no longer thought that it was a waste of time and petrol to walk leisurely with Nhien in the afternoon rain.
After he met Nhien, he recognised how dispassionate he had been about life, about his fellow countrymen. Nhien was like a book that contained innumerable exotic and inviting things. She asked him if he had read this book or that book. He went home and rummaged through the bookshelf to get these books, realising he had not deigned to look at them for a long time.
Nhien had hatched a lot of dreams and plans, of which some were serious and some were funny and childish.
She dreamt of buying a huge pile of gifts for an orphanage she had visited on Sunday. Looking into her eyes, he understood that she wanted to do this with all her heart. So he did quick calculations in his head: how much would it cost to buy hundreds of gifts? Would they fit in the car?
The age gap did not prevent them from getting to know each other. They quickly became so close it felt as if they had known each other for a long time. Nhien saw in him the father figure she had lacked in her childhood. When he found out that Nhien's father died when she was still very small, he felt so bad for her that he went to great lengths to compensate for that lack. But she was still reserved. Physically, he did not dare to go farther than taking her hands – an act which still made him hesitate. When he looked at his own shrivelled hands wrapped in hers, he felt he had already grown old. Nhien was like a young tree growing in arid land. Everything for her was still dawn, still ahead of her. For him, it was getting dark, so he had no right to cover her brilliant morning sun with his own fading light. He should not be so selfish and cruel.
Nhien did not pursue anything for herself. She did not want to land him in an embarrassing situation. He recognised that Nhien had come to him for himself, not for what he had. She did not need what he had, or to be more exact, what he had was not what she was looking for. Now she was sitting next to him in the car. They left the suburban roads behind. Then the car stopped and she got out. He wished he could embrace her, console her. He wondered why at his age, he could not understand love, even though a lot of women had gone through his life before.
They sat together in a coffee house. It was their first meeting. It was deserted at noon. He told himself to be serious. He talked a lot. He said to her that his colleagues had been asking him why he looked so strange these days. His wife also told him that he had a strange look about him. All these things embarrassed him a lot. He wondered why he cared so much about Nhien. What was he doing? He had a baby daughter at home who waited every day for him to come home and pick her up. Yes, he loved Nhien so much, but….
Nhien suddenly interrupted him and said that she understood everything. She did not want him to feel obligated to see her. She wanted to be his little girlfriend, that was all.
He took Nhien home. It was a rainy afternoon, like many afternoons they had spent together. They were sitting there in silence. He wished he could read what was in her head, what was going through her heart. Was she confused? He was driving in silence. It was raining hard. He wished he were younger. All of a sudden, he wanted to cry. It was quite funny, he thought. Why did living far from Nhien make him want to cry? It was impossible to understand. He had once lived a fast life. He had enjoyed the beauty of a lot of young women. He had experienced a lot of things in life.
He drove looking straight ahead. How could he vent the pent-up feelings to Nhien that he had not even reconciled to himself? He felt so relieved when he decided not to trouble Nhien any more. He wanted to let her go on her own road. He knew that he loved her, but that love would harm her. He should not allow them to continue this relationship. Nhien said to him that it seemed to her that she had just lost something, but it was not clear to her. Right at that time, in his heart rose a strange emotion, the feeling that he was losing Nhien. He wanted to embrace her, to defy everything. But he only burst out laughing. He told her that she would feel as relieved as he at the end of the day.
It was the first time he lied to Nhien.
Translated by Manh Chuong