by Nguyễn Lan Anh
Lying on the bed of a rest-house in the vicinity of Hà Nội, Nguyên was waiting for his pretty partner to come for a chat. She was an attractive girl in many aspects: rosy lips, firm breasts, white complexion and slim body. Yet she was very taciturn.
He remembered that after an eight-hour party in a suburban rough-and-ready restaurant, he followed his half-drunken friends to a well-known bawdy-house for an orgy across Long Biên Bridge over the Red River. It was then approximately 2 o’clock in the morning. In fact, this bridge was closely connected with a greater part of his miserable adulthood. His poor mother who one day went to the maternity hospital on Lò Đúc Street by pedicab to give birth to him without the presence of her dears all around except for her old mother, who had been told that the expectant mother was quite alone in the nursing home. When a baby boy was born, the old grandmother named him Nguyên in the hope that the little child would lead a better life than his mother.
In Nguyên’s childhood, he was very familiar with Đồng Xuân Market. Next to it stood a smaller one, the Long Biên greengrocer’s, where his mother ran a little stall of fruits and vegetables. Every day Nguyên left home in Thanh Hà alley before noon with a set of mess tins full of food for his mother in the small market place. Usually, he availed himself of his free moments, while she was having lunch, to go a large alluvial ground emerging in the middle of the river (called Bãi Giữa), which was formed annually in the dry season. It was there he played with the kids of other traders like his mother and enjoyed the fresh air amid the green expanse of maize and reeds.
* * *
It’s small wonder that Nguyên regarded Bãi Giữa not only as his paradise but also as home to special figures. Trương was one of them, with some different features. While Trương was good at courting girls, Nguyên usually blushed with shame in front of young women. Another peculiarity was that all members of the former were bare-headed, no matter what kind of hair they wish to wear during summer or winter, long or short.
Once a week, Trương’s whole family left their Linh Đàm condo by bikes to arrive at the Bãi Giữa to swim, then sit motionlessly for meditation until late in the afternoon. Trương’s wife, 10 years older than him, had an unfortunate destiny. Her husband died young of drug addiction before the AIDS period and left for her a weak son. She was said to be a well-known cover-up girl whose photos were carried in a report in City Life magazine by an American journalist. Also at the Bãi Giữa, there was a married couple who were the talk of the town with their special love affairs: from their so-called elder sister-younger brother relationship at first to the complete opposite later. The husband was Bẩy and his spouse Nhàn. Belonging to the homeless stocks as jobless people, they came to each other and settled down there in a simple hut with a little dog, a brood of chickens and a kitchen garden amid a large stretch of plants and reeds. It was at this shanty that Nguyên and his gang often had noisy parties in the open air.
When their carousals were over, they reached the bawdy-house, each of them accompanied by a young girl to enjoy pleasures. Nguyên also had a partner for himself like all the others, but with some different traces.
Today, he drank a little more than usual. Staying on the bed, he stared at his bed-fellow. She wore a low-cut dress and had her hair bound into a chignon. A few minutes later, she let it flow down to her back then lay down beside him.
“Switch off the light, please,” he told her in a soft voice.
Immediately, it went out.
“Oh dear! It’s too dark for me to see anything. Switch it on again, will you?” he told her.
The dim yellow light seemed to make the room warmer and safer for both of them.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
Instead of replying, she burst into laughing jokingly. “Your name please?” he repeated his question angrily.
“Any name is ok, say, Lan, Hương, Ngọc, Kiều, Mỹ, Diễm and so forth and so on,” she answered calmly.
“Your real name, I mean!”
“You can choose any of them. Well, I’m very tired. Why do you keep asking?”
In the dark, he saw her unzipping her dress slowly, revealing her white body. For the first time in his life he could contemplate a naked woman with his own eyes. His looks swept over her attractive body for a long while.
“Why do you practise this shameful trade?” he asked.
“Because I’m badly in need of money,” she answered.
Some minutes later, she told him in a soft voice, “Let me undress you, ok?”
He did not say a word. He just let her strip off his clothes, except for his trunks, and then he lay closer to her.
“You’d better say what you want to do to me! Quickly!” she urged him after a moment of silence. “I wish everything to start right now and then to finish fast. Or, do you just long for a chat?”
She looked extremely anxious.
“Why? This whole night is still ahead of her!” he thought to himself. As for him, he was of two minds: whether to sleep with her, or just to chat about this, that and the other. At the moment, she lay on her side, facing the wall where there was a very large mirror. “Is she sleeping?” he asked himself.
His eyes kept hovering on her naked body. In fact, up to now, this was the second time he had seen a female body: the first one was that of his mother, when she fell so ill that he had to cleanse her on the bed. “If only I had a little sister… I’d swear that in my lifetime, I’d do no harm to any women,” he whispered to himself one day. Now it was the second time he had seen such an attractive figure with his naked eyes. He did not know why his father had not admitted that the baby really was his own product in a stealthy love affair. His wicked father denied everything before abandoning his sweetheart when she declared that she was with child. As a result, she just wept and wept for many nights on end in repentance and reproached herself for her credulity. “Did Mum have a deep hatred of him when he gave her up so cruelly?” Nguyên asked himself.
* * *
While Nguyên’s hands were gently roaming over her body, she turned back and said to him in a serious voice, “Now, what else do you wish?” Immediately, she stripped his trunks off, before standing up and walking to the bedside table and picked up her purse. He observed her calmly. What made him wildly excited now was the figure of a naked woman waltzing round and round.
“Maybe, it’s his first time coming to this place,” she whispered with a sympathetic smile. His eyes remained half-closed while his hands kept on sweeping over her breasts gracefully. Angrily, she lifted his hands away.
“Get out!” she shouted loudly. Her words made him totally shocked.
“From now on, never utter such insolent words to me,” he warned her, squeezing her breasts strongly.
Nguyên remembered that when he was 16 years old, his mother died. Instead of his father’s offended warnings, Nguyên only heard his mother’s soft voice, “Why are you often coming home so late, my beloved son? What would happen to us if I died suddenly without your presence?” said his mother. “You don’t take pity on me, do you?” she added.
“Mum, I’m always beside you. Never in my life have I gone far from you! Only around here Mum,” he replied, sobbing.
At the age of 16, when he completed the last course of the Senior Secondary School, he knew that, since he wasn’t very good at learning, his mother could hardly afford his tertiary studies. He felt worried about the future, with his jobless condition. All his life, he could never forget his mother’s sad, weary looks.
* * *
He got up and looked out of the window of the house of ill fame. He kept the door ajar to enjoy the fresh air. He breathed in deeply while sitting cross-legged on the floor. He looked for his pack of cigarettes, took one out and lit it. As a result, he coughed and coughed violently. Feeling uneasy, he threw it away.
He stared at the naked young woman still on bed.
“Do you think that I’m mad?” he asked her.
“I don’t think so. No problem!” she answered, taking out a cigarette, too. “Would you mind lighting it for me, please?”
“You’re a chain smoker, aren’t you?”
“Not that often! Only when I feel nervous. Hmm, tonight I’ll be an unwanted adviser on your sentimental matters. Don’t forget to pay me more charge, my dear partner,” she said in a cheerful voice.
For the first time during the night, he found her merry. Moving closer to her, he snatched it from her lips then let her body lie supine gently.
“Can I massage your eyes?” he suggested.
He rubbed them lightly. She seemed fairly comfortable with her half-closed eyes.
“Do you know that when I’m weary I only wish that some day my lover would stay beside me so that I might rest my head on his arm and that he would rub my tired eyes gently,” she disclosed her desperate craving for affection in a soft voice. “Oh dear, has my dream come true?” she exclaimed happily.
On the day when his mother died, he held her hands tightly. “Surely, you’ll be reborn better in the next life, so I don’t need to cry for your passing, Mum. I’ll pray for the Goddess of Mercy’s blessing,” he whispered to her.
* * *
By now Nguyên had stopped massaging his partner’s eyes. In her turn, she also rubbed his forehead amorously.
“My God! You grow whiskers, too,” she stared in bewilderment.
Nguyên remembered that when touching his chin, he missed his Dad a lot, with thick whiskers inherited from his ancestors. Moreover, Nguyên boasted his mother’s dreamy eyes. Outwardly, he looked quite strong, thanks to his body soaked in the alluvial deposits of the Red River for years. But inside, he was easily hurt due to his miserable childhood.
“How old are you?” she asked him with scornful eyes.
“And so far you haven’t known sex?” she said in a mocking voice.
“Not really! How do you know?”
“Because your conduct speaks volumes on that issue,” she replied. “Contrary to lots of inquisitive kids around here! They know a lot about carnal desires through street-walkers, you see,” she added.
“I don’t belong to their gang.”
“If that’s so, why did you come here? For a chat? How romantic! However, this place isn’t for that purpose.”
“At first, I also intended…”
“So, I’ve misunderstood you? In fact, I like you because of your a special smell of the riverine soil and wind,” she said dreamily.
All of a sudden, she leapt out of bed and kissed him passionately for a long while. Her brave act surprised him very much. In return, he also hugged her tightly then kissed her back very hard.
“How do you find it?” she asked.
“I like it that way,” said Nguyên.
He did not answer.
* * *
One week later, Nguyên returned to the place where he had met her before. He believed that she was just a green horn in trade. “Looking over her past record, I can turn over a new leaf with her,” he said to himself. One night he declared that he had fallen in love with her and would marry her provided that she would give up her current job.
“Think over my proposal carefully, my dear. If you’re willingly to live with me I promise that I’d do no harm to you,” he told her.
“You’re not shy about my past, are you?” she asked him.
“Not at all, of course!” he replied resolutely, holding her hands tightly.
“Now I’ll tell you this heart-rending story of mine,” she said to Nguyên. “One afternoon a 4-year-old girl living very close to my boarding-house tumbled down in front of me. Immediately, I helped her stand up and began to console her in a nice, sweet voice. Suddenly, a strange woman rushed toward me and dragged the poor little one away. ‘Thank you,’ she said in an icy voice with a contemptuous look. You’re quite different, my dear. Your sincerity and tolerance makes me deeply moved and extremely happy,” she went on, bursting out crying.
“I’m afraid that when I bear you a baby, you’d abandon me and make me bored to death,” she insisted.
“How crazy you are! I’m now quite alone and hard up. What I’m worried the most is that you’d lead a miserable life, that’s all,” he told her.
He made up his mind to set up a hut very close to that of the Bẩy-Nhạn clan. They turned a bit older. As for the Trương-Hoa couple, they had said goodbye to the meditation-training course at Bãi Giữa a long time before. Nguyên kept a small dog and a flock of chickens and grew a few vegetable beds. In the meantime, his wife eked out a living by looking after some peach gardens at Nhật Tân village for Tết to add some more money to their low wages. Then one day, he was told that his wife was with child. No doubt he was extremely excited. Never in his existence with scores of menial jobs to do like repairing bikes, carrying goods or cleansing toilets, and so on, could he dream of such happiness. “God bless us,” he prayed.
* * *
Many years later, at Bãi Giữa there appeared a little boy of two or so joyfully playing with several other kids of the same age amid the white clusters of reeds. Nguyên watched him toddling here and there in a merry mood before leading him to the places where he himself used to play.
When his little child came to know how to play hide-and-seek, Nguyên began teaching him the first basic lessons on love for parents and respect for the aged.
Translated by Văn Minh