by Phan Duc Nam
Tuan sometimes enquired after his friends family because he used to be their matchmaker.
Tuan met Dung before Toan. During his wedding, Tuan saw a black-eyed girl and asked his wife Thuy:
"Who's that beautiful girl?"
"She's my cousin. The daughter of my aunt."
"Is she married?"
"Not yet. She is nice, but choosy. Do you want to….?"
"To matchmake for Toan! What do you think?" Tuan smiled.
"I was also thinking of doing so, but I'm afraid that Toan is also fastidious in marriage."
Toan was Tuans bosom friend. He was still single even though he was over thirty.
"I was born in the year of the horse. That's why I am quite carefree," Toan said.
"You're quite choosy when it comes to this matter," Tuan said.
"That's right," Toan nodded. "At my age I have lost enthusiasm for marriage, you know!"
"I dont think so. At your age, try to get some girls. Your financial situation is all right now."
"I'm an artist, so I've got a lot of chances to meet girls. Of course, a young, beautiful girl who also has a clever mind is the best."
"What a guy you are! I'ts difficult to get such a girl, you know. You might as well get the head of a female doctor and place it on a models body."
"That's why I always talk with older girls and spend time with younger girls."
Tuan smiled, shaking his head. Toan continued:
"I'm just kidding. Marriage is a long-sealed fate, you know. It's quite easy to marry a girl for the sake of marrying, but it's difficult to have a well-matched wife. To tell you the truth, I would like to marry a country girl who is beautiful by nature, without any make-up, and who has an intermediate level of education."
"I get you," Tuan nodded in agreement.
Seeing the beautiful Dung, Tuan immediately thought about Toan. After the wedding, Tuan invited Toan to visit his wife's home village. Sure enough, one month later Tuan was informed that Toan had proposed to Dung, who had agreed at once.
On the wedding day, in her simplicity, Dung looked so beautiful by Toan's side. After half a year of being married, Dung was still so shy that she dared not embrace Toan whenever he drove her on his motorbike to the market or to visit a friend.
"My wife is such a simple country girl, but I like it," Toan said to Tuan.
"Are you sure?" Tuan asked.
Yet, at the end of the day, Dung left Toan after they had two children.
"Is it because of you?" Tuan asked.
"Probably… It is difficult to learn how to live a miserable life, while it's easy to enjoy a happy life, you see! Pleasure spoils people."
"What do you mean by that?" Tuan asked, looking at Toan.
"Dung started wearing make-up and she looked increasingly unfamiliar and ludicrous."
"Why didn't you persuade her not to?"
"I did, many times at that, but she seemed not to understand it. I realised that we no longer had anything to share, neither material nor spiritual. Its better to free each other. It's so painful, but it just has to happen once."
"No, you can't do it. What about your children?"
"Ill bring them up. If Dung wants to do it, I will supply everything to them. But I care too much for my children," Toan said, bending his head.
"Maybe what I say will hurt you, but do have sympathy with me. I think you didn't marry Dung for love. You wanted her to depend on you. Is it because of that that Dung wanted to free herself from you?"
"You're quite clever!" Toan said, nodding in agreement. "At first I thought I loved my wife and I made money to guarantee happiness. To my great surprise, I had to pay the price for this money!" He stopped for a moment and then continued: "You know, I have a friend who is also an artist like me. He married a dancer, disregarding the warnings of his friends and relatives. Yet, out of the blue sky, she was a very gentle wife. He was very lucky."
"You must be very sad!"
"Yes, I am not so much sad for Dung, but sad for my failure to judge things correctly!" Toan sipped some more beer and continued. "Give her an inch and she will take a mile, you know! I fear that Dung will have a miserable life. Money cannot buy happiness, can it? Money will only help us live a less miserable life!"
Lying next to where they were having beer was a middle-aged man who was looking at them. He seemed to want to make friends with them. Suddenly he got up and said in a low voice:
"After finishing, would you please give me these empty cans of beer?"
"OK," Tuan nodded. "You look so happy."
"Such a life!" the man answered. "You should enjoy happiness whenever it comes to you."
"Will you enjoy some beer with us?" Toan said.
The man said "Yes" without any hesitation and came closer to them. Tuan felt a little bit uneasy at the mans spontaneity.
"Thank you," the man said. "Are you talking about something happy today?"
"Only sad!" Toan said, turning to Tuan. "My friend here is a journalist, so if you have anything interesting to say, do tell us…"
"Oh, you are journalists. I am very honoured to meet you… I'm Tu Phe."
"You look very happy with your wife. Are you ever unhappy together?"
"Oh, it's quite normal not to be happy together sometimes, you see! But not with this woman because we have lived together only for three months"
"Is that so?
The man nodded and smiled unaffectedly.
"This woman is my third."
"The third?" Toan was startled. "So where are the other two?"
"Already divorced!" the man replied with a deadpan face.
"Have you got a lot of children?" Tuan asked.
"Oh, yes, a lot. Six in total. But two of them died already. Two of mine are now under my parents care, two of hers under her maternal sides care. We are completely free!"
"You are sort of happy-go-lucky people! So, how do you make your living?"
"With the river!" the man said, pointing to the river. "At four in the morning, I am on this bank; she is on the other side. We do our morning exercises while picking up discarded empty cans, nylon bags and all sorts of things that have been discarded by this city."
"It sounds interesting!" Tuan burst out laughing. "Do you go far?"
"What about your daily meals?"
"We cook ourselves to save money. It's quite simple. We set up an improvised cooking place and cook something to eat. Sometimes, when we are a bit richer, we go to enjoy cai luong (reformed opera) or go to a restaurant to enjoy what everyone else does!" Tu Phe gulped down the beer.
"I wonder where you live when it rains."
"When it rains, we take refuge under the bridge."
"Do you think you can carry on living in this way?" Toan asked. "Aren't you worried about your situation?"
"Sorry if I ask you: when do you think you will die?" the man asked.
Toan was taken aback. He shook his head:
"It's very happy to live such a carefree life like yours! But have you ever thought about what will happen if you fall ill one day?"
"Anyone can fall ill and die, you see! Everyone is in the same boat, I think."
They kept silent for a moment. All of a sudden, the man said:
"Let me tell you this. My parents were very rich. So I relied on them and became a spoiled child. I played and gambled all our property away and became a poor person. Somehow I got back on my feet and thrived. My life was full of vicissitudes at that time. And it is very strange that when I got rich, a lot of people came to fawn on me and when I got bare hands, they pitied me. That's life, you know!
And now I feel bored with life. I think it is determined by fate whether you are rich or poor. A lot of bad guys are rich and a lot of good, talented guys are poor. So come what may, I think it is best to be a relaxed person."
"You're a relaxed man now, I think?" Tuan said.
"Yes. Today I am lucky to get beer from you."
"You must be lucky all the time?"
"Not all the time, but once in a while. You know, these sailors stole things from boats, wrapped them in nylon bags and floated them onto the river. They signaled me to pick them up and divided the profits fifty-fifty. It was a happy time for me. Thank you for the beer," the man said, leaving.
That night on the way home, Toan said to Tuan:
"This couple lives an irresponsible life. I find them to be miserable people,"
"Yes. When my father was still alive, he often said: When your body and mind are relaxed, you are a happy person!"
Now, sitting by the river and sipping some beer alone, Tuan remembered his dear friends. Toan had left for France to study cinematography. He wondered if Dung was crying in the dark somewhere. What about the life of the junk dealer? He had not seen him again. Where did he live now? They were pitiful people. Tuan was still thinking about many things when he heard:
"Would you give me that empty beer can?"
Tuan got startled and turned around to see the man.
"You look so worn out these days!"
"I am sick these days," the man said, heaving a deep sigh. "And what about the other guy? Where is he?"
"He is on a business trip. Do sit down! Oh, where is your wife?" Tuan said.
"She left me."
"How long ago?"
"Do you still want to hear any more of my stories? You know, the afternoon after we met, she won a lottery. Then she took all the money and went off with a young guy. I was so unhappy. But lets forget it. That's life!"
Tuan sat in silence, listening to the man. He felt so bored with life. He pushed a can of beer to the man:
"Do drink it."
"Thank you, but I am ill today, so I can't drink. Give me the empty one only, please."
"Do take it," Tuan said. He paid for the beer and gave the change to the man.
"Thank you," the man said, his eyes welling up in tears.
"Feel better, old man!"
The man smiled.
"Yes. Optimism helps us to keep on living. I'll get another wife, you know! There is a woman selling guavas who looks at me with love."
Tuan burst out laughing and shook his head. Life was so exciting! He watched the man go until he was completely wrapped in darkness.
Happiness was like a shadow. Money was like a cold breath that shrouded that shadow. Tuan had to go home now, immediately, even though he had picked a quarrel with his wife in the afternoon. His daughters eyes seemed to light the way home for him.
Translated by Manh Chuong