|Illustration by Doã Dung
by Nguyen Huu Tai
As usual Tue got up for the second time when it was nearly midday. Every morning after cooking breakfast, watering potted flowers, tidying the house and kissing her husband James goodbye before he went to work, she drank a glass of limonade to detox her body before resuming her unfinished sleep for a few hours.
She made a call to her mother, who still lived in Viet Nam.
"Today I'm very well," the mother said to her daughter. "I can eat two bowls of rice and a dish of soup made of bitter melon stuffed with minced pork. What a delicious meal! Try to return home to visit me frequently, my dear daughter," she added.
"So you've eaten a lot more than me. Well, don't forget to take herbal tonics and do morning exercises regularly, Mum. I'll come back home at Tet." After that she surfed the internet for information. "Nothing new!" she claimed sadly, and then played a piano piece. She stopped halfway before taking a seat on the sofa. It was there she was lost in thought.
Over the past eight years, she had led the bored life of an expatriate woman. While her friends had been enjoying happy days beside their husbands and children, she rarely stayed in Sai Gon for being busy taking a rat race in the career of an assistant to a foreign director of a ceramic and porcelain company with continual trips, domestic and abroad, to get orders for his business. At the age of thirty-five, she remained single! Luckily for her, during a trip to the US she met James, an Italian-born American with a soft voice and a good sense of humour, during a dinner at her friend's house.
Falling in love with him, she took him home amid lots of unfavourable remarks by both her close friends and neighbours.
"Does she really love him or does she only likes the great fortune of that foreign guy, twenty years her senior?" one of her neighbours asked herself.
Meanwhile, her mother observed, "I find him OK. If you really love him, you'd marry him as soon as possible. Otherwise, if you fall in love with him only because of his great fortune, you'd lead an unhappy life later," said her mother.
Leaving Sai Gon for America, giving up her well-paid job of thousands of dollars per month and abandoning her intensive trips here and there, she felt a bit regretful. Worse still she was not allowed by her husband to drive his car. What's more, she had neither a bank account nor relatives and friends on this foreign land. She was compelled to resign herself to the boring routine of a housewife who was unable to do any meaningful work but to look after his large garden, and she found her life all the more miserable. In the meantime, James remained to hold dear the classical values of a Westerner, gentle to his spouse and devoted to their conjugal life. He did not want to let his better half join the rat race among people of different races and ethnicities, although he was the boss of these employees.
Evenings passed, seasons passed and months and years passed, too, but her sorrows stayed with her. Her only joy was that every year she could stay with her mother in her motherland for a few weeks during Tet.
Once one of her close friends from Viet Nam came to visit her and stayed with her.
"Formerly, you were as quick as a flash, but now you look like a sick chicken. Why is that? Why do you have to accept such living conditions?" she asked Tue, shaking her shoulders. "You'd better take your lover to Viet Nam to live. If he doesn't like it, come stay with me in Sai Gon and work for me. Frankly speaking, I can't stand your current deplorable situation," she went on.
Putting on her jacket, she stepped into the courtyard. Now, it was the end of autumn. The poplars in the woods around her house had been shedding their yellow leaves. Only barren twigs and branches could be seen. Everything had been prepared for Thanksgiving. Looking at the thick layer of dead leaves on the lawn she felt a bit frightened. Autumn passing slowly meant winter was drawing near with snowstorms, six long cold months on end with dreary days while she just hung about at home. She was also afraid of the mornings after the rain, when the mass of dead leaves drenched with rainwater appeared in the courtyard. Being unable to stand that situation for long, she tried to pick up a broom and piled them up in heaps.
"How do you have to carry out that heavy job? Why don't you hire a jobless guy for that work? A charge of a few hundred dollars is nothing to us, you see," James told her.
"Yet, it means quite a lot to my mother at home. Isn't it a good idea to get a little present for her instead?" she whispered to herself.
Unfortunately for her, the day before yesterday, she fainted while she was gathering the thick layers of wet leaves together. "Am I too old and weary to do this? Is it necessary for me to exchange my health for money?" she asked herself again and again.
Tue opened the phone directory to the White Pages to look for an eligible person.
Nguyen's Lawn & Landscape Services 301-773 - xxxx
The Vietnamese name attracted her. She picked up the phone and called.
"Excuse me, are you free to collect the dead leaves on our courtyard today?" she asked.
"Only after midday, ma'am. Is that OK?" The warm answer in the Sai Gon accent made her feel fairly pleased.
"OK, this is my address. Ring me up when you get here." "Well, my name is Khang. See you this afternoon!" All of a sudden, she heard a call echoing from the gate of her house.
Standing in front of her was a young, good-looking man.
"Sorry. I'm a bit late." "No problem! How much do you charge?" "Two hundred dollars. Is that OK?" he replied after going around her building.
"OK, come here, please," Tue said.
He took off his jacket then put it on a low branch. After that, he picked up his apparatus then began blowing the leaves up into big heaps.
"I'm very thirsty. Could you get me a cup of water, please?"
Looking at the huge piles she asked him, "How long have you been doing this job?"
"Over six years, ma'am."
"Regrettable! If only I had known you earlier, I wouldn't have had to do it by myself."
"You've done it by yourself? Wonderful!" he said.
"How beautiful and large your garden is! Last week, before the leaves stayed yellow on the trees, your building must have looked like a palace in a fairy tale."
"Not really!" His praise made her smile happily.
"How long have you settled down in the US?"
"Nearly fifteen years, ma'am."
"Where did you live in Sai Gon?"
"Near Ban Co Market."
"Oh dear! My company was very close to that place," she exclaimed. "Every day I had lunch there. A lot of tasty kinds of food! It is likely that we met each other there," she said in a joking voice.
Finding her in a good mood, he was pleased, but he could not conceal his bitter smile.
"So far I haven't come back home for ages. I don't know whether those foods are still available!"
"Why not? Every year, I return home to visit my mother. Surprisingly, I only cling to my mother inside our place. Therefore, my habit of enjoying good lunches has also been fallen into oblivion."
"As for me, once I promised to take my child home to visit his paternal grandmother," he told her.
"Yet, I always broke my word. Over 10 years have gone by. My mother just waited and waited. She also reproached me a bit. One day, I rang her up to suggest that she should come here to be near her grandchild and me, but she said no on the grounds that she had to look after our ancestors' graves. And she was afraid of the terrible cold of this country, too! What I can do is to suffer a bad reputation of impiety to my mother," he admitted.
"Well, how many children have you got?" he asked her.
"None at all! My spouse doesn't like children. So we stay alone."
"So much the better. No fear of being busy!"
"How could you say that?" she exclaimed. "You're so different from most Vietnamese people I've met. 'Oh dear, why is that?' 'Who'll take care of you at the old age?' 'Who's to blame? You or your husband?' and so on and so forth!"
"I think it's very commonplace. If we've got a few children and can't make them honest people, it's a sin." "Your statement sounds rather bitter. Now, tell me about your living conditions, rather than those of others, please," she requested.
"Roughly speaking, I've got no free time to talk about other people's matters. What I've just told you is my real situation. That's all," he insisted.
"That means that..." she stopped abruptly.
"My wife and I have led a separate life for six years. The kid has lived with me."
"Sorry for having reminisced your sad story!"
"Not at all! I've nearly forgotten them all."
"May I ask you a delicate question? Why don't you get married again? You don't want your child to be uncared for, do you?"
"I can manage it. That's enough. Otherwise, I don't wish my son to share my affections with another person. Now I'm like a wounded bird. 'Once bitten, twice shy,' you see. Moreover, fraudulence is commonplace here and there."
"Poor you! Such a handsome and wise man as you, you remain taken in!"
"That's my fate, Lady! One winter evening, my wife phoned me that she was in California on business. Alas, that's the last opportunity we met each other!"
"Did you go in search of her after that?"
"Unnecessary! A few days later, she phoned me again. This time she said that she had got a date with her old flame. As a woman, you're certainly aware that once a woman wishes anything, nobody can stop her."
In reality, he was so far unable to forget Minh, his wife. Quang, their son, saw the light beyond their expectation. Both of them thought that the little one would be like a bridge that might connect them together. Yet, they were quite wrong. Her ambition to reside in this land in order to satisfy her American dream seemed so great that she made up her mind to follow him blindly to become his wife. He could not remember the fact that he had waited for her homecoming through many nights with Quang in his lap, and that they would never come true. Finally, he was fully aware that he must be a self-willed man and support the child until his adulthood. As for Quang, he had not sobbed his heart out either since then.
Six years came and went. Yet, she had not dropped in on them once at least to hug her dear little boy and to glance at her clothing that stayed intact in the wardrobe. Minh did not ask for a divorce so that both could go their own ways, either. As a result, her whereabouts were still unknown. Worse still, what happened to her, whether she was still alive or whether she was dead; all remained unanswered questions.
"To the final analysis, I know that I shouldn't instil bad things into my innocent child's mind," Khang explained.
Tue bent her head and looked ahead indifferently. She missed her beloved mother and Sai Gon very much. She wanted to give up this comfort zone so as to return to her former cosy nest, to enjoy a hot cup of coffee in the familiar refreshment stalls on the pavement of a narrow alley in an ebullient ambience. She wished to start everything again, to look for a minor job with a reasonable salary just enough for her former family in her childhood. But how could she evade the heresies of the narrow-minded humans in society? That remained a hard nut to crack. Moreover, James was totally not to blame. He loved her dearly and honoured her deeply. As for her, she respected him and was in love with him passionately. Come what may, James stayed loyal to America with all his heart and soul.
All of a sudden, Tue remembered Francesca, the Italian-born American young woman and the major character in The Bridges of Madison County, her favourite American movie.
"Am I similar to her?" Tue asked herself, as she led this isolated, confined life.
"Well, do you think that Minh is quite happy with her old flame?"
"I don't know. Besides, I don't pay attention to that matter either," Khang replied.
"Over the past years, she hasn't come back here to visit the kid, which speaks volumes for her satisfaction with her present life," he added.
"At least, she is bold enough to make decisions on her own. She's much better than I, who have been leading a deplorable life in this cold country..." she stopped short again.
Surprisingly, Khang was staring at her attentively. His eyes seemed very sympathetic. They were quite different from those of James, who only lived a peaceful, uneventful life.
The last rays of sun pierced through the barren branches and twigs, shedding light on their faces. Tue did not utter a word, neither did Khang. Each of them were lost in their own thoughts.
"Awfully sorry! Being busy chatting I've failed to tidy the front courtyard. Tomorrow, I'll resume my unfinished job," he said in a regretful voice.
"No problem! Stay here to have dinner with me if you aren't very busy," she suggested.
"Sorry, I have other things to do."
Saying so, he proceeded to his car and started its engine without looking back. The sun had sunk below the horizon in the western sky.
Tue went to the kitchen to prepare dinner.
"This evening, I'll cook some Vietnamese dishes and keep part of them for Quang when Khang arrives here," she whispered to herself.
"Don't think much about him. He's not an easy-going guy and I'm not a Francesca either. In Montgomery, there isn't any roofed bridge like in Madison," she said to herself.
She walked to a house corner to have a last look at her dusty suitcase. After that she looked over the window. By chance, she saw the last poplar leaves detaching from their twigs and floating in the air for a few seconds before landing on the green grass.
Some warm teardrops were trickling down her cheeks. Then they fell on the hot spring rolls in the frying pan, sending forth the fragrance of the delicious food of her far-away native land.
Translated by Van Minh