by Y Nhi
|Illustration by Do Dung
The woman read Q's letter several times then folded it up before putting a pair of glasses on top of it.
Suddenly, she realised that she was using the spectacles incorrectly, to some extent, because they were not the thing for sundries in the kitchen. She had five pairs in all: one with transparent plastic frames for reading, another with fake tortoise shell frames for watching TV, another with black frames for travelling, a pair with brown frames for kitchen chores and the pair had light metal frames which she left by her bedside.
In fact, they could be used interchangably because they all had the same prescription but she liked everything in the house to be in good order. In addition to her glasses, she also had dozens of pencils in all colours and sizes for different purposes: writing newspaper articles, marking special features, taking notes from interesting passages and erasing erroneous items and so forth and so on.
It drove her crazy when her children left their school books scattered all over the place, when they learnt lessons with a mouthful of sweets, when they misused certain expressions or when they wore their clothes or red scarves improperly.
Time and again, she was offended when her husband Lu used his pens incorrectly. Worse still, she always reproached him when he wore his shoes in the house instead of slippers. On such occasions, he just smiled broadly and tapped her slightly on the back with a humble apology, "Sorry, my dear Landlady."
Once, while tidying the mess on her husband's desk, she lost one of his newly-written articles. To her surprise, he told her that it wasn't a problem because he still had a detailed outline on his PC.
Oddly enough, he gladly accepted the strange kind of order required by his wife. He wore the clothes she bought him, ate what she cooked and after work he returned home ontime.
One day, one of her colleagues stopped her on her way home and asked her with a sneer, "Excuse me. May I ask you how you've trained your husband? You might want to write a book about this delicate matter. It might become a best-seller one day."
She didn't respond, or bear grudge against her. "Maybe she envies my clan's happiness, that's all," she whispered to herself.
One morning when her husband found her half holding her brown pair of glasses in bewilderment, he joked, "My darling, remember that you're at home, not in a Chinese herb drugstore." Surprisingly, she flew into a rage. "If I didn't act like myself, this home would turn into a…," she stopped abruptly. Actually, she tried not to make him angry with unpleasant words.
Lu was about to retreat into his study, as he often did with a view to avoiding her fits of anger, when he halted. "Why are you always torturing yourself like this?" he asked sincerely.
She felt confused at his comment and a pang of pain stupified her.
She opened Q's letter wide, put it on his desk then walked into the kitchen.
That was the place she liked best. It could be a 25-sq.m. room at her parents' house, a two-room condo, or a two-storey house. No matter where she was, she always tried to create a proper cooking area, tidy and clean. In her opinion, the kitchen was her shelter, even her realm.
While tidying the kitchen she wept bitterly. The impression that she had wasted her whole life in vain caused her pain and sorrow, so she let her tears fall as they would.
She placed a chair in front of her cupboard full of glasses and cutlery of every description then sat down. They were sets of things she had diligently collected for all the years since her marriage. In her free time, she just sat motionless to contemplate them and recollect the days, places even the manners that she had bought them.
The little white cups with a scarlet lining were purchased in Alma Ata during her study tour there. On that occasion, after enduring a long cold stretch in Moscow, her party of students were elated when they reached the warm, green and beautiful capital of Kazakhstan and were welcomed by its friendly residents. During one shopping trip, a shopkeeper offered her a fine little ceramic jug as a gift. An indigo-blue dish was purchased in Naples during a trip with her husband to visit a friend. The silver set of spoons and forks was a birthday gift from her elder sister's daughter. The brown tea-set was purchased in Hangchow during a trip to China before retirement.
The tourist party was composed of twenty-two members, twenty of whom were women. For this reason their guide led them to beauty parlours and spas, haberdasher's and jewellery shops. They were so impressed with what they saw that they nearly forgot about the rest of their trip.
"What! You don't like these shops, do you?" the gentle, dynamic tour guide asked her while she was wandering about the courtyard looking at the flowers. When she told the guide that she only needed a tea-set, she was taken to the street behind the haberdashery. She felt overwhelmed by all the things on display with all their colours and size. The salesgirl showed her items she might like in a continuous stream. Finally, she found something she liked. As good luck would have it, Lu loved it.
On the right side of the cupboard's interior lay ceramics from the famous craft village of Bat Trang, some of which she used to serve visitors. In her opinion, they were plain but not mediocre. At the far corner on the left, there was a transparent crytal bohemian vase, decorated with a delicate blue line going around its trunk, like a thin silk band. Lying there, it looked alien and mysterious, but attractive like an exotic item in a museum. That was Q's wedding gift.
The three of them - Lu, Q and herself - went to the same faculty at university. Strangely enough, she and Q became friends during their first days on campus. While Q was tall, pale and bold, she was thin, small, taciturn and modest. Other students found those contrasts intriguing.
The faculty's male students invented a so-called "Theory of Outstanding Qualities of Women" whose main features included bright eyes, dimples, a protruding tooth, a delicate gait, a doll-like chubby face, a soft voice, beautiful singing and a provoking smile, and so on and so forth. Her strong point lay in the long hair. Q said the examiners were puzzled by her perfection. So in order to maintain their theory appropriately, they declared that she met all of these attributes.
Therefore their two-member group was called a "Pair of Ladies." Because Q was there, their classmates were always talking to them. When a new member, Lu, joined their group, it was renamed the "Pair of Ladies + One".
As a good student, Lu always passed all his exams with honours. His reports presented at various scientific symposia were highly appreciated thanks to their exact data, coherent arguments and in-depth researches. His teachers and professors believed he was well qualified for a post as a lecturer at the university or in a research institute.
However, what struck everybody most was that Q fell in love with Lu. It was hard to imagine because there didn't seem to be much in common between them – a beautiful and smart young lady and a promising scientist. Rumour had it that Q loved the fame of a would-be outstanding figure rather than the man himself. At their malicious comments, she told them that they formed a couple predestined by God.
Paradoxically, while she took pride in the couple and was happy for them, she herself felt redundant when they were around and wanted to leave the group.
When she poured her heart out to Q, the lattter denied it point-blank. "Impossible! Without you, who'd defend me when Lu bullies me, who'd console me when I'm ill-treated. Anyhow the die is cast! You can't abandon us when we become husband and wife," Q insisted lengthily.
However, just before the wedding, Q fell in love with a French engineer working in Viet Nam as researcher of tropical forests. She gave up an association with Lu and her long-standing classmate and only planned for her trip abroad.
Before leaving, Q met up with her.
Wearing a smart blue polka-dot skirt, Q told her, "I entrust Lu to your care. To be honest, I'm not bold enough to meet him. Maybe I've made a disastrous mistake. Actually, Pierre's my lover!"
Yet, she didn't have the opportunity to visit or look after Lu for he had disappeared from the city without notice.
Two years later, she met him at a scientific conference.
For the most part he was the same as always. She almost rushed towards him at first sight but stopped midway. Lu came to her and gently placed his hands on her shoulders.
"How have you been?" he asked, smiling broadly as usual. Yet his eyes seemed ininterested.
Later, he paid a visit to her parents' house in the suburbs.
In the past, the three of them had been there frequently. Her mother used to cook such favourite dishes as wet vermicelli with snails, wet vermicelli with grilled pork, carp broth and trotters as pseudo-dog meat, and so on. While the two girls helped the elderly woman to prepare dinner, he just chatted, played chess or drank tea with her father. In his opinion, Lu was a decent young man.
But on this visit, the pair tried to let bygones be bygones. Still, Q seemed to be somewhere nearby, very close to them. Their unfinished accounts, inquiring looks and forced smiles made them uneasy. Therefore, her parents and she herself were amazed when Lu asked for her hand in marriage.
When it was only the two of them in the lounge, she confessed that she had fallen in love with him a long time ago. Now, she looked forward to a simple wedding which he fully agreed with.
During the first days of their reunion she put everything in order as an initial test for family affairs. She regarded order and regulations as an invisible but useful fortress to protect their lives. Meanwhile, he gladly accepted an existence with that protection for he was well aware of its motives. He almost never asked her why because he knew that if he did, she would only reply briefly, "Why not?"
As for her, she was satisfied with what she had created, together with his scientific achievements and their children's skills. She was no longer obsessed by Q's influences.
Nevertheless, when her children had their own families and she had retired on a pension, thoughts of Q returned again. Her image loomed larger and larger with every passing day.
Once she dreamt of Q quite pretty in her blue polka-dot skirt and waving her goodbye before vanishing into the air. On waking up, she still heard her peals of laughter, sneering and challenging.
After that she could not sleep for many nights. During such sleepless moments she found that a lot of things that didn't previously concern her take on new importance.
This happened one dreary evening when Lu was pensively engrossed in a tourist programme introducing the city that Q was living in. It impressed him so greatly that later he named his daughter Q Thu. When he stood by the window and looked out at the luxuriant canopy and the craggy house roofs, he hummed a few sad melodies composed by songwriter Trinh Cong Son.
Even the wicked remark by her former plain colleague resounded in her mind once again. Was it possible that it was she who had predicted her unfruitful efforts?
She tried to rest her mind so that she might analyse and comprehend the data pragmatically, after pruning away unimportant details or ill-judged reasons with the aim of overcoming her suspicions.
To be honest, she also succeeded in obtaining a lot of desirable things. Yet, what tormented her the most, and the most unanswerable question, was that she had never understood the real nature of her life over the past dozens of years. Had she really been happy? Had she really loved him? Or, was it merely the outcome of the ambition and selfishness of a woman?
As for Lu, was he happy? Did he really love her? Or had he just returned her favour, that was all. Had he lived with her for her sake, or for something else? He treated her gently and accepted her.
Getting involved in these complicated issues, she found it hard to lead an uneventful life as before. When she regained calmness of mind, she took pity on her husband. Now, although she believed him to be innocent, she could not help but be angry at him. To her surprise, Lu remained gentle and considerate. Time and again, he bought her presents and clothes. One day he brought home a box of Minh Long bowls and plates from the southern province of Binh Long, which he had never done.
One morning, finding that his wife looked very sad, he tried to cheer her up by telling her funny stories. "In India, there is a laughing club," he told her. "It's a place for anyone who likes to laugh to their heart's content," he noted.
However, when she sat alone when he was out of the house, she tried to remember everything. Perhaps, she failed to fully grasp his sentimental changes. "It's likely that he's found a special joy in his business. Or else, he only wants me to enjoy some untroubled moments," she whispered to herself.
Then one day, with his warm smile and soft voice, he told her that Q had been getting on well in her business. At her silence, he smiled cheerfully, saying that he had just got a book offered by Q's group as a souvenir. "It will come in useful in my work," he declared emphatically, which she had never heard after more than thirty years of co-existence.
Soon after, she received Q's letter informing her that she would return to the homeland some day.
Still, she did not want to disclose that news to him, as she suspected that he already knew. On the other hand, she was unable to keep silent forever. She left it open on his desk to find.
"What will happen to us in that encounter?" she asked herself nervously. "Anyhow, I'd tidy the house, get some more things and replace the old curtains with new ones," she said to herself.
While Lu was at work in his office, she went out to buy some new makeup. She spent a long while looking for a suitable lipstick. At last, she chose a dark brown shade.
In the next fashion shop, she decided to buy the dark red blouse she saw on the slim body of a mannequin with brown hair.
At home, while she was busy with her new purchases, she heard the loud noise of her husband's motorbike. Bewildered, she dropped a small bottle of perfume. Entering the house, Lu felt confused for a few seconds but did not say a word. Standing at the desk, hands resting on the back of a chair where she had placed her new red blouse on, he said, "Are you going to the airport?" She immediately understood that he was really saying "I'll welcome Q myself, alone." She shook her head slightly to avoid a sad reply. To the best of her knowledge, he saw her red blouse, smelt her perfume and realised a lot more.
She put the blouse in the wardrobe, cleaned the stain on the floor and put aside all kinds of make up; in a word, she tried to keep everything normal for when Q turned up. Besides, she did not want her husband to see her confusion and worry.
To her surprise, Q went straight to her place from the airport. Seeing the worry on Lu's face, she knew that it was merely Q's wish.
Q wore a white blouse and a pair of brown trousers. Her hair was neatly bound at the nape of her neck and she wore no make-up. Q rushed toward her. "You haven't changed a bit, my dear," Q said to her. "People here look younger than anywhere else," she went on. Turning around, she told Lu, "So do you, the same as always. Wonderfully, your hair is as white as before!" she added.
Crossing his arms over his chest, he said in a deliberate manner, "Anyway, we need something interesting for you. Well, take a seat, both of you please." It wasn't until that moment she realise that she and Q and were still standing in the doorway. She dragged Q down without a word. "Surprisingly, Q has changed a lot. Her shining oval-shaped face now looks a little haggard," she said to herself.
It was by no means an indication of old age. On the contrary, it was a sign of despair, weariness and endurance. Sympathy surged inside her. She was choked with emotion. Her eyes were brimming with tears. Her worries, vaxations and reproaches all vanished in the air. She seized Q's pale and thin hands tightly.
"Well, I haven't seen you for ages!" she exclaimed.
"Actually, I've returned home several times over the years. I was so afraid of your anger that I didn't dare to contac you," Q replied sincerely. "In fact, I was at home when you married Lu. When I heard the news, I sent you a little wedding present. Do you still have it? I often imagined that you'd arrange white chrysenthymums in it, which you always liked best," Q went on.
She blushed with shame, because she almost never used it. "Frankly, it's still practically new, my dear," she answered evasively.
Lu retreated into his study so that the two might be free to chat.
"So what's your plan?" she asked Q.
"I've got a free week. I have a room in a hotel nearby. We'll enjoy a lot of breakfasts on the sidewalk and chat. Do you remember my favourite dishes?" Q said.
"Fried bean curd with shrimp paste, of course," she answered.
Q smiled heartily then hugged her friend tightly, saying, "You have such a good memory!"
"We'll relish all the best foods we used to eat. Pierre will arrive here on business next week with his boss. They have a plan to work with Lu's institute," Q went on. At her frown, Q told her, "I said goodbye to Pierre a long time ago, although we remain friends and colleagues."
"That's the Western lifestyle," called out Lu from his study.
She recognised the bitterness in her husband's voice. From the bottom of her heart, she knew that he had been looking forward to Q's home-coming, a romantic rendez-vous between ex-lovers and a promise as well, after a long wait in regretful, repentant and remorseful moods. Yet, Q seemed uninterested in, or unconcerned with, that matter. For her, Lu was an ex-classmate, that's all.
All of a sudden, she took great pity on her husband. "Come over here, my darling," she called out to him loudly. "We'll go to West Lake to watch the sunset, eat shrimp cakes and reminice about our sweet memories," she added.
"Agreed," Q acclaimed briefly. But Lu was clearly on tenterhooks.
West Lake was quite deserted. Its beautiful path usually bustled with heavy traffic, but when they arrived it was quiet as if welcoming only the three of them. Entering a favourite restaurant from the past, they chose a far-off corner close to the hand-rail going round the adjacent Truc Bach Lake.
The waves lapped against its shore with monotonous and sad sounds. Lu rested bot elbows on the rail and stared attentively at a small boat bobbing on the water.
While Q was perusing the menu to choose their favourites, she looked at her old chum: the same familiar features, except for noticeably thinnner hair at the crown of her head. She told Q that it may have been the shampoo that was making her hair thinner. "No, it's something else," Q said abruptly.
When Lu turned around, she discovered a deep line between her husband's brows and some wrinkles at the corners of his mouth. His face seemed to have grown older in just the past few days.
"No more talking, please. We're here to enjoy shrimp cakes, aren't we?" she interrupted their conversation.
"Good idea! Now let's let Lu choose, shall we?" Q declared and handed the menu over to him.
She perceived a look of surprise in his eyes when he said, "OK, I'm glad to serve both of you."
When the cakes came, they were cold and soft.
Lu rested his elbows on the table, fingers crossing one another, then pressed his chin against his thumbs in despair for the poor service and the tasteless food and vegetables. "I can hardly eat them," he said.
"Really? I think they're delicious," Q said. "In the foreign country where I lived, I was able to cook all kinds of foods, especially Western dishes, but it was difficult to make Vetnamese food because it requires delicate preparations and the necessary spices were rare there," Q added with a pleasant smile. Her dimples now seemed ugly, like two wrinkles on her thin cheeks. "When did you become so sharp-tongued?" Q asked him. He did not answer.
She thought about saying something but she managed to keep mum.
They sat silently in the dim flickering light of the yellow bulbs gently moving to and fro amid the dark green canopy.
The wind started to change direction. The lake loomed larger due to fog and smoke. The far shore was invisible.
The waves became stronger and faster. They jumped over one another when lapping against the shore as if they had wanted to swallow up the small restaurant.
"What will happen to us if this restaurant drifts?" she asked herself.
"It seems to me that we're on some uninhabited island," Q whispered in her girl friend's ear.
Translated by Van Minh