by Hanh Van
Since the moment Thuong left home, exactly two years, three months and sixteen days had elapsed. The last time her husband had seen her at home was March 27. That day, he got up so late that he only brushed his teeth quickly, washed his face without shaving, put on his shirt and nagged her for failing to wake him up in time. She kept silent. Hardly had he reached the threshold when she accidentally rushed out and hugged him tightly.
He felt uneasy, afraid that he might be late for an appointment with one of his foreign business partners. Had he known that it was his last moment to enjoy her love, he would not have released her arms so hurriedly, even though he might then lose this golden chance for entering into an important joint-venture contract.
Sadly, she disappeared without saying goodbye, leaving no clue for him to look for her later on. That evening, he was engrossed in carousing with his close friends, returning home at midnight quite tipsy. When Hoang, one of his friends at the party, urged him again and again to go home, he just laughed and laughed, fondling the chubby cheeks of the flirtatious girl sitting close to him.
"Poor hen-pecked husbands!" he solemnly declared in an intoxicated voice. "How stupid you were when you signed the Marriage Certificate! Putting your signatures on them means that you've provided your spouses with the legal right to be jealous to their hearts' content, you see."
"Good idea! Long live freedom! Long live free love affairs!" the girls of easy virtue chimed in. The low-cut blouse of his female partner helped drive away his sleepiness in an ecstasy of delight.
Of course, he did not know then about her disappearance. He also forgot that, on many occasions, he had preferred his honey's soft voice to those of these charmless teenagers.
At home, he was unaware of her absence. He felt a bit uneasy as he drunkenly opened the door. After that, he fell into an unconscious slumber.
The next morning when he woke up, he felt vaguely that something unusual had happened. There were no slight footsteps, no familiar sounds coming from the kitchen, no noise of a shower in the bathroom. No, nothing at all!
Getting up, he walked up and down to search for her. Sadly, she was nowhere to be seen. He rang her up. No reply! He opened the wardrobe: all her belongings remained there. "Maybe she's out and will come back in a few minutes," he said to himself. He heaved a sigh of relief.
One day, one week, one month, then two years elapsed. He just waited and waited in despair. If she had left a brief note or something like that, he would not have been this confused. He tried to find out the reason for her going away. "Kidnapping! No, nothing of the kind!" He made a phone call to the editorial staff of the magazine The Family, where she had been working for years.
"She submitted a petition to our boss to stop working here," the person who met with him answered. "You certainly knew about this in advance. What a question!" He cast a doubtful glance at him.
"What sort of love affair did you indulge in?" Hoang asked him in a reproachful voice. "You've been in love with her for such a long time, yet you don't know her former address?"
"So far, I've lived a very simple life," he told Hoang. "My notion about love is equally simple. If we succeed in leading a harmonious life together, that's OK. What's the use of a Certificate of Marriage? It might make a lot of troubles for us in the future."
"Is her way of life really similar to mine?" he whispered to himself. In fact, he had never heard any narratives about her childhood. Nor had they discussed their future wedding or the gender they wanted for their first child. Perhaps she did not want to interfere with his cherished idea about freedom or smear his sacred beliefs with talk of the weddings or Marriage Certificates that most young ladies of the age of consent usually dreamt of.
Anyway, he felt fairly pleased with their current co-habitation. Never had he thought that such a legal document could also have an omnipotent power: to prevent half of a married couple from disappearing abruptly and groundlessly as she had done.
"There's nothing tying me to her. So why have I tried to look for her?" he asked himself. However, he remained on tenterhooks. In reality, he wished to meet her to ask her why she had run away so stealthily. That was all.
Racking his brain for hours, at last he remembered the school she had attended as a child. From the information at its archives, he went into her dossiers, one after another, and finally managed to find the locality she used to live in.
According to the local registry, her given name was Thuong. It was a remote poor hamlet. Her place was nothing but a shanty. Her father was a lame young man with an icy look. She left home right after her mother's death and never returned to her native village. Everything began when a group of filmmakers came to her village to make a documentary called "Loving Nest". Its aim was to discover extremely poor but very harmonious clans and support them.
At first, the film party was told that Thuong's family satisfied these two standards. They reached her place after walking for hours through the forest and across the stream. The head of this household was a wounded soldier with a lame leg who had returned home in the first days of peacetime. Welcoming his homecoming were his wife, now with child because a hostile platoon head had raped her, and two young children: one boy and his elder sister. Rumour had it that a big loan or a decent-looking house, even both, might be provided to them. Unfortunately, after the detailed interview, what they hoped for would never come true.
When the boy was asked about his dreams, he answered that he wished to become a doctor so that he might treat his father's pain successfully, especially when the weather was bad. Then they asked the girl. "I wish that Dad wouldn't beat Mum cruelly anymore," she said.
The answer of this seven-year-old girl in tatters laid bare the real conditions of her clan. Her mother was often tortured severely by the jealous husband, who was suspicious about her so-called "indecent assault" during the war.
After the little girl's declaration, the investigating group went away silently, accompanied by her father's grudge and his deep regret for unattainable things.
The account of that little girl made the abandoned young man remember the night when he watched an episode of "Loving Nest" beside his sweetheart.
"Can that family escape poverty?" his darling asked him. "Suppose they manage to get enough money to live comfortably, would their happiness last for ever?"
"Surely, they'd lead a happy life, like ours, I think," replied her lover.
She was like a tame cat in his caressing hands. Hardly had he kissed her when she asked him again.
"But why didn't they choose needy families that weren't happy? That way, they could get people in dire poverty out of destitution while bringing them blissful moments. That would make their programmes all the more meaningful."
"Right you are! That would help reduce the number of such cases, even though the number of poor clans in our country seems countless," he told her.
"Yes, dear, I think so, too!" she said in a soft voice. "I've been craving such an interesting job in TV! It would be so suitable for me."
It seemed to him that it was the first time she had dealt with such a delicate issue. As for him, he was not interested in such a wish. He took the remote control and switched off the TV. Both she and the electronic device turned silent. His action put an end to the topic that he did not like very much. He focused his mind on fondling her whole body with his clever hands.
Although she had not turned up again over the past two years, the flame of love kept smouldering in his heart. Her image seemed to appear in everything inside their house: her slippers under the bed, her coat on the clothes stand, her soft hat on her desk, her nice paper flowers arranged on the fridge in the kitchen, her velvet silk nightie on a hanger, and so on. All her belongings stayed in the same places as if she had only been away for a few days.
Many times, he rummaged about her piles of clothing in the wardrobe in order to detect what she had worn to leave home, but all was in vain. During the period of time they lived together, he had never paid attention to any of the clothes she possessed. Therefore, he was unable to identify the missing items.
Similarly, he remembered the day his honey vanished, but he had no idea about the first day she moved in with him. Curiously enough, we pay little attention to our happiness, yet we think deeply about our suffering! Once, one of his so-called freedom-loving friends argued with him, "Your place now looks like a museum. Why don't you set aside those old things to enjoy a more comfortable life?" He just laughed it off. Everything remained the same as it had been before, including the old lock, which he did not dare to replace with a new one even though it was no longer secure.
"She abruptly went away; nevertheless, she may return home some day," he whispered to himself.
The ringing sounds from his mobile phone startled him. Since her absence, these evening sounds always made him excited.
"Switch on TV Channel 6 quickly, my dear. I think your beloved Thuong will come out," Hoang urged him. He rushed to the large TV, but it was too late. The programme had just finished. What was left on the wide screen was the vague silhouette of a young woman in purple among the busy filmmakers.
He recognised her at once with both familiar and strange feelings.
"You've lost her. Therefore, you must look for her where you just spotted her on the screen," Hoang said to him in a bossy voice. Instead of the young woman who gave him up on March 27, in his mind's eye, he saw a blurred image that seemed more and more indistinct with every passing minute.
Perhaps her conviction had partly died out at the bus stop that day when she got into the vehicle to travel home alone in deep mourning after her mother's death.
Perhaps her expectations had dwindled when her eyes were drawn to a gorgeous white bridal gown in a shop window.
Perhaps her love for him had declined in the spacious kitchen, where she had waited for his homecoming in vain, then fallen asleep beside a tray of cold tasty food.
Perhaps her body had weakened gradually on the warm, soft flowery blanket and white mattress where he often left her alone at night.
And perhaps her patience had been exhausted when she stepped across the threshold after looking forward to his return in despair.
In fact, he had done nothing to prevent her from leaving. By now, he was so bewildered that if he set out on a trip to look for what had been lost, he would not even know what to do.
Perhaps Hoang could not find a way for his dear friend to retrieve the sweet lost freedom of which Hoang himself had only dreamt.
"I'll try my best to find my lost bliss in my own way," he said to himself at last.
Translated by Van Minh