by Le Van Vong
When a couple gets a divorce, they show up at court, where they blame each other and detest each other bitterly. But it was different for us. I still loved him and he still loved me - as much as in the first days we lived together. However, we had to say good-bye to each other and go our different ways. It seems unbelievable, but it was the truth. It was a stark truth and I myself found it so strange because our divorce was not like any other divorce in the world.
Yes, our divorce was quite peculiar, quite special. Peculiar because we still loved each other, but we were compelled to take leave of each other. Naturally, we had to undergo a lot of mishaps and sufferings before we came to this miserable ending. He had his own misery and I had mine. But it happened anyway….
I was 23 that year, a new teacher at a junior secondary school. The school was not big, with only 11 classrooms. It was over one kilometer from my home. My students' learning capacity was almost the same. They learnt the lessons well, but were quite playful. Every morning, I went to teach by bicycle and after three or four hours, I felt time flew too fast. In the afternoon, if there was not any lesson, I could enjoy the whole afternoon at home. Life at that time was quite agreeable with my monthly salary. We young female teachers often went to the cinema or held a small party. There were six of us girl teachers. Three of us had the same name, An, and I was dubbed "French An" because I was as big and white as a French girl. We all looked pretty and were admired by young guys. We were the six flowers of the provincial city. I had a lot of boyfriends and some of them had spoken the word "love" to me, but I had no idea what it really meant yet.
On the morning of the first Tet day, before going to celebrate Tet with my friends, I dropped in to wish my aunt and uncle a happy new year. Their house was not far from mine. When I came, I saw Hai and his wife there already; there was also a soldier I had never met. He was introduced as Hai's comrade-in-arms. His name was Cuong. I sat down on the empty chair next to Cuong and learned that he was on R&R for one month. This was his first holiday after the complete liberation of the South of Viet Nam. He looked thin, with blue lips and pale skin. Possibly it was the result of his living many years in the jungle and having malaria. Cuong talked enthusiastically with me. He looked friendly. I listened to his stories with eagerness. My aunt, uncle and the Hai couple had moved into the next room to have a private talk. Mr Cuong and I sat in the living room. He was self-confident and spoke with a convincing voice. He was a quite different man from my boyfriends.
After that, Cuong visited me several times. Every time I saw him to the gate, I knew my arrogance had been conquered. I felt in love with him. Actually it was more sympathy than love. Cuong did not understand it. He was surprised at what had happened. Then he recognised it and he made up his mind to ask for my hand. Nobody in my family had any opposition. But my girlfriends were very surprised.
"Are you mad? Have all the young guys in this provincial city died? Why do you want to marry such a bony man?" a girlfriend of mine said.
But I turned a deaf ear to their words. His days off were coming to an end. I asked my parents to allow him to come and ask for my hand in marriage. It was my character. When I wanted something, I was determined to get it at all costs. Moreover, I strongly believed in my decision. Before our wedding day, Cuong asked me:
"Do you need to think about it again? It seems like your friends have talked a lot about me."
"I don't care what they say. I'm following my heart!"
"I am afraid that I can't satisfy your desires because I am a soldier,"
"I love you because I love the heart of the soldier and I will find my happiness in it!"
"You will have to put up with loss, you know!"
Hearing him speak this way, I felt angry:
"You're talking about loss like you think this is a transaction!"
Cuong said nothing then. He embraced me tightly and I felt his warmth being transmitted to me. He kissed my lips quickly. It was the first kiss of my life.
On the wedding day, he still wore his military uniform. He looked simple, while my boyfriends wore fashionable suits. But I felt proud to say that our wedding was the most prominent wedding in the provincial capital city. It was filled to capacity. Sitting by his side, I felt his warmth being transmitted to me. As his brother began his opening speech, he came down with a fever. His hands were trembling, trying to grasp the edge of the table. His teeth began clinching together. I also felt that I had a high temperature and I hoped this time would be over as quickly as possible.
After the wedding, Cuong returned to his unit. Our time together was short, but I could not keep him for a few more days. It was the military order. My better half was always by his side. Wherever I went, I thought about him. Even in my dreams, I found myself being caressed and loved by him. Then I went to visit Cuong that summer. His unit was garrisoned in Sai Gon. He looked quite healthy and his malaria seemed to have ended. His white skin looked rosy and his eyes glinted with health. We loved each other head over heels. For two months, we were always by each other's side. I went to the market once or twice a day and bought good food for him. I felt secure and assured about his health.
"You'll hear good news when you get home, I'm sure of it," he said to me when seeing me off. I felt myself loving him ever more. I thought about our future child, who would carry the character of us both and who would be a string tying us together. I thought and thought with great joy. However, at the end of the day, nothing happened.
Happiness seemed to be lurking in the far distance, at the horizon. Exchanging letters made us miss each other so much. I was all alone on hot summer days and cold winter days, until he was transferred to the North and we could meet several times a year. Sometimes he went home; sometimes I went to visit him. But we still had no child.
We had been married for ten years. We both felt so impatient. We pooled all our money for medical treatment, but all was in vain.
"What happened to you?" my mother asked me. I looked very thin now. I had lost a lot of weight. My girlfriends all had children and their families looked happy. My friends tried to encourage me and advised me to visit the doctor. But I had no disease. The doctor even wrote on the examination paper: "Good fertility".
This meant that it was not my fault. I had nothing to do with my childlessness. So I placed my hopes on my husband Cuong. He had been hospitalised for two months in the military hospital in Ha Noi. In his letter, he told me that his sperm had died and he had to stay in the hospital for a long time. But he hoped he would be cured. If what he said was true, I felt so happy. I wanted to take the train to be there with him immediately upon hearing it. My husband would be cured and we would have a child. My ears were ringing with these words.
Then one afternoon, when I got home from school, I found Cuong lying asleep in the bedroom. He had just had a bath. He looked a bit thinner. I awakened him and said:
"Why didn't you tell me, my dear?"
"I didn't want you to have a hard time with me."
"What are you driving at?"
"Oh, no, I just thought…."
I found something strange in his voice, particularly his eyes. They looked so sad. I had a presentiment that he was hiding something from me, something very serious. I did not dare to look at him or ask him anything more.
"What did the doctor say when you visited him, my dear?" Cuong said, pulling me towards him.
I told him my health condition. Then he said:
"I think the problem comes from me."
"I want to know your health condition after your long treatment in the hospital," I told him.
Cuong released me slightly. He sat in silence, thinking hard. The sunset light from the window coloured his face yellow. I discovered black rings under his eyes. It seemed that misery had tormented him.
"Speak now, please!" I shook him hard.
"It's harsh, my dear!"
"Do say it. I can bear it, my dear!"
"I can't be cured. It's no use lying in the hospital."
"But…. what happened to you? What disease do you have?" I asked.
"I have gone through a lot of examinations, but to no avail. Doctors concluded that I cannot produce living sperm. They are all dead."
I felt it was not Cuong's voice. My eyes blurred. All my hopes went up in smoke.
After that, Cuong tried to persuade me to get divorced. He told me it was the best plan for both of us. My most beautiful years had been reserved for him. I had shared his weals and woes and now he did not want me to bear any more losses. He said that I should be the mother. I had the right to be a mother. I suggested we adopt a child, but he said I was capable of giving birth, so why should we have an adopted child? I said we could try in vitro fertilisation, but he did not agree. He told me that I had the right to be a mother.
"Be brave enough to get divorced, my dear!" he said.
It meant that he wanted me to be happy and he accepted his loneliness in life. At court, it was so difficult to describe my frame of mind. An immense sadness occupied me. But a glimmer of hope flickered in my mind. I could remarry.
One day, I was preparing the lesson for my afternoon teaching when my cousin Hai came. He was on a two-day R&R.
"I haven't seen you for a long time. Possibly more than one year?"
"A year and a half. I heard about you and Mr Cuong. There is no other way, you know!"
"I feel great pity for him."
"It's the life of the soldier. We have got a lot of diseases, even though we look healthy. Cuong wasn't the only one who got that disease in the battlefield."
"What? What disease did Cuong get?"
"He got exposed to Agent Orange while he was fighting on the Eastern Nam Bo battle field."
In the 1969-1972 period, Hai and Cuong were in the same platoon stationed near the Cambodian border. Cuong and his platoon mates had to carry ammunitions and explosives to the battlefields through the jungle destroyed by the enemy's spraying of toxic chemicals. Cuong was time and again contaminated with Agent Orange and this had affected his health until today.
Oh, my God! I had lived with Cuong for ten years, but not until now had I been able to understand him. I felt I had neglected his losses and suffering. I did not know that the disease had been gnawing him for all these years, but he tried to bear it by himself.
His life had been robbed by the war; he could not be a father. By leaving him, I left him to bear the pain all alone, while I searched for new happiness. What a selfish woman I was! Yes, I was a weak woman, but I would not let him enter the last battle by himself.
Translated by Manh Chuong