by Vo Thu Huong
|Illustration by Dao Quoc Huy
When the door to the cold gyno-obstetric room closed, I noticed Giang's sorrowful look directed right at me. My eyes brimming with tears, I lay down on the couch covered with a white bedspread.
"The first time?" the old obstetrician asked me softly, pushing her glasses a bit higher up her nose.
"No! It's the second time," I answered timidly.
"Why are you crying like that?" she asked me again with compassion. Yet the pang of pain remained.
Indeed, what did I have to cry about? The first time I cried when my stillborn five-month-old twins were removed from my belly. Sadly, we had already thought a lot about possible names, one boy and one girl. During that period of time, my husband would often buy a bunch of violets, arrange them in a crystal vase then place it on the window sill.
"It's okay, my darling. We'll have other babies," Giang said, hugging me tightly.
"You won't leave me, will you?" I asked him.
"Don't be silly. I love you more than myself. How could I have the heart to give you up?" he asked me, eyes filled with tears.
I dropped off to sleep in his warm arms. One midnight, upon waking up, I was frightened when he was absent from my side. He was sitting at the window and smoking silently in the dark. Street lamps shed dim light on his hair, which was turning a bit grey.
After a week in silence, I gradually became surly and bad-tempered. While he maintained his calm, my maid, a distant niece of mine, found it unbearable. "To be honest, I could find a job elsewhere," she said. "As for you, if you don't change your attitude quickly, you may lose your husband, let alone your two unfortunate stillborns," she added. I was frightened to death at her harsh words. From one extreme to the other, I fell into a period of long sighs, sudden bewilderment and total silence.
Time is indeed the greatest cure for all that ails. All my sufferings and losses were soon wiped away. Scores of oriental herbs, given to me by my mother-in-law, helped me recover my strength beyond her expectation. My pale complexion turned fine and rosy. I looked forward to being with child again after a long convalescence.
"Are you sure that you're okay now, darling?" asked my husband.
"Sure!" I replied.
I soon found out that I was eight weeks pregnant. When it didn't develop properly, I had a safe abortion thanks to the clever hands of a hospital obstetrician. "Unfortunately, it wasn't viable," she said to me in a sad and sympathetic voice.
I again resorted to herbal medicine to ease the pain by falling into unconscious sleeps. It wasn't until my face turned swollen because of the oversleeping that Giang found my sleeping pills under my pillow. Silently, he picked them up and dropped them all into the rubbish bin. He laid down next to me in the bed, embraced me tightly, and sighed. This time, his warm hug did nothing to fill the vacancy inside me. Again, we were driven to an unfavourable situation: less talk and less contact for fear that it might remind us of our lost children. My husband was so thoughtful that he didn't bother me by watching TV, as he was afraid that the image of a baby might push me deeper into my abyss of distress.
When I walked down the street, a lot of women shook my hands or put their hands on my shoulders to comfort me with their sincere enquiries.
"My dear, how could such a terrible thing happen?" one of them asked. After hearing the questions so many times, I just replied bitterly, "It's all due to my poor fate, that's all."
After that, nobody asked me any more. On the contrary, they just looked at me sympathetically. As the days passed, I became more and more indifferent to their concerns.
At home, cooking the same food in the same ways did nothing to chase my sense of cold away. I remained silent.
Once Giang joked, "You're abiding by the ‘three-no's rule' while eating: no laughing, no talking and no coughing, aren't you?" I did not reply, just urged him to eat faster because my back ached due to my two previous abortions. Sadly, these dinners were unable to tie him to family affairs any longer. Many nights he told me not to wait for him for dinner because he was busy at the office and would be late. He returned home after ten o'clock, watched a soap opera while having dinner alone with a broad smile on his lips. We shared silent meals together only on Saturdays and Sunday. I have a vague recognition of the empty ambience that was reigning over our small family.
One day, at seven in the evening, I got a call from one of my colleagues.
"Hey, my dear. I've just learned that your husband had an extravagant dinner with a pretty young girl in a luxury hotel," she warned me.
"Don't worry! They're only business partners or colleagues," I answered calmly.
"You don't want to ask him about their relationship?"
"No, never! I've always understand my husband more than anybody."
"Well, good for you! If my husband did something like that without telling me before – hand, I'd give her a good thrashing," she said. Surprisingly, Giang always had dinner at ten o'clock at home, as if nothing serious was going on. Actually, I did have reservations about his activities but I didn't tell anyone.
When I looked through his mobile phone, I didn't find any messages, chats or plans for rendez-vous. I also knew that he got home three-hours late because he was very busy at the office before going on a long business trip to Ha Noi. I found no evidence to doubt him. On the whole, I was unable to be unreasonably jealous. We had both promised to never be unjustly jealous.
To celebrate our anniversary, I booked two tickets to Da Lat for a relaxing weekend. He advised me to put it off until another time, since he had just scheduled a work trip. He did not know that I had been very anxious about the trip, so I was unable to follow his advice.
He left home in the afternoon while I began my journey in the evening in a travel agency coach. Throughout my conjugal life, I had realised that nothing was more boring than going away without my husband by my side. Yet, under these circumstances, staying alone at home was much worse. As I lay idly in my seat as we passed through the countryside, I realised I had forgotten to ask him where he was going on business.
For three days, all the single passengers formed a group of their own while the married people and courting couples stuck together in pairs to enjoy their blissful holiday. I just huddled up to watch the others play and contemplated the views. In my opinion, Thanh, the tour guide, showed great concern for everyone in the vehicle.
A campfire was made on the Langbiang Plateau. As we got off the coach, all of us dashed toward the flame. When music started, many of them danced hand in hand around the fire. With a woollen hat on my head and a woollen scarf around my neck, I just sat watching the sparks dance joyfully in the dark. I felt like I was drifting away amid the thin fog and cold wind, although without Giang's presence.
Finding me sitting alone, Thanh approached me with two hot cups of coffee. Taking a seat on the ground, close to me and huddling in the cold, he asked me seductively: "Ngoc, why don't you join the dance around the camp-fire with everybody? You might catch cold all the way over here by yourself," he added.
"I want to sit here a little longer before joining in," I answered.
"Then I'll stay here with you," he told me.
We sat side by side in silence. The number of tourist groups around the camp-fire grew with every moment. Everyone sat close to one another to avoid the cold. All of a sudden, I recognised a familiar thin, bent silhouette. It was my Giang. My first instinct was to call out to him, but I held back and kept silent. He had arrived with a pretty young woman. I found myself walking toward them. Giang stared at me fixedly. A few seconds later I turned away painfully. It seemed to me that he had said, "Ngoc, listen to me. We're here for work, that's all." Meanwhile, Thanh was still by my side.
"Rest your head against my shoulder for a little while and you'll feel less cold," Thanh whispered to me. I did as he said, not because of the cold, but because it gave me the opportunity to weep silently amid the crowd.
"You can't hate him for that sight alone, dear Ngoc?" Thanh asked me.
"For me, it's enough."
"Maybe you're holding some kind of grudge against him?"
"Yes. I felt so angry that I tortured myself horribly to stay with him."
I returned home immediately. The house was no longer my cosy nest, but an icy place with violets in the window that had whithered for lack of care during our long absence. I left home before Giang returned.
After meeting several times, the guide soon became very friendly with me. He told me a sad story. His sweetheart Ngoc, my own name of course, had a road accident while they were preparing for their wedding.
Giang sent me a message saying that there had been a gross misunderstanding. When I told Thanh about it, he just advised me sincerely: "In my opinion, you should give him another chance," he said, embracing me tightly without any objection on my part.
Soon after that encounter, a strange woman showed up at my house. She alledged that she was Thanh's wife. She showed me copies of their Marriage Certificate and their son's Birth Certificate. Bewildered, I asked myself if this was just a joke or a serious mistake. But the documents bore all of the official red seals. It turned out that he was a liar. Furthermore, she remarked, "I see that you're the type of woman who will believe anything." To my surprise, she did not ask me to put an end to our illegal relationship! Maybe she could see it was very innocent just by looking at me.
Luckily for me, I felt the movement of the tiny foetus within me, or I would have fainted. I had never gone beyond the limit of a platonic love with Thanh. In that critical moment, I cherished Giang more than anything else in life.
In retrospect, I realised I had made a great mistake against Giang and our would-be baby, and that it was I who had driven him away from me. If I had overlooked my superiority complex and listened to his explanations, if I had not let myself get sucked into Thanh's lies, and if I had been more alert, I would have led a different life. Such thoughts were so grave that I did not know how to talk or apologise to him. Worse still, I did not dare to look forward to his home-comings.
I met with the pretty young woman who had been with Giang on the Langbiang Plateau to talk things over. Blinking like an innocent child, she said: "Now I'll be able to sleep again, my dear. And you too! Because you're going to have a baby and you need sleep to stay strong."
After that night on the Langbiang highlands, I'm sure no one would have believed that nine months later, she and I would meet each other again in the gyno-obstetric department. When she saw Giang lead me in, she identified me at once but it took me a few moments to place her and her face full of tears. I regretted that if I had explained my situation to her sooner, she and her husband may not have been separated from each other, and she would not have been alone at the doctor like this.
"What's the use of regret?" she consoled me. "That moment I was utterly furious and wouldn't listen to any advice. I was so obsessed by an imagined love affair that now I have to pay dearly for it. Without Giang's baby growing in my body, I would have terminated my life. When Giang started working in Ha Noi, he often talked with me until two o'clock in the morning and I knew that he told me the truth. But now, I'm ashamed of myself. Sadly, I haven't had a chance to make amends for my wrongdoings. I also feel that I can hardly talk to him any more, even today when I'm about to have my first child," she poured out her heart at length.
When she fell asleep, I went out to the pre-natal room and called Giang. "Come back to Sai Gon as soon as possible, my darling. Your new baby boy is about to see the light…," I urged him.
When I returned to her room, I saw a rare smile on her face, perhaps coming from a certain beautiful dream perhaps. Yet one real thing, not a dream at all, would be her smile when she realised Giang was on the day's last flight to get here with a bouquet of violets in his hands.
Translated by Van Minh