Viet Nam News
By Nguyên Hương
She didn’t know why she decided to tell the truth that day. Was it because she wanted their relationship to be real? No, no one believed the social media could breed anything real; she herself was proof of that. She didn’t willfully plan to deceive anyone but still lied to have fun and blow off steam.
Perhaps it was because she was getting tired of having to re-read whatever she had typed earlier, since she couldn’t remember all the lies she’d told, and if she accidentally said something inconsistent, she would have to come up with explanations. And perhaps because it rained. On sunny days she felt like evaporating inside the ten sq.m room that she rented, and on rainy days, the spattering sound directly pierced her ears.
She couldn’t sleep so she stared at the chink under the door to see if the rainwater had overflowed into the room.
“I apologize,” she typed. “I’m not a college student. I’m a tailor but not a good one either. I work in a factory, just assembling parts.”
She paused, then continued, thinking that since she had started confessing, she should make a clean breast of it:
“Actually I did study in college for one year. Then, stupidly, got knocked up. My son is already four years old. Luckily my landlady is kind. On days that I work night shifts, she picks the boy up from kindergarten and gives him dinner too. I do housework for her in return. So, goodbye.”
After typing “goodbye,” she intended to quit social media for good, but just as her fingers reach the sign-out icon, the words “I apologize too” popped up on the screen.
She felt a stab of pain. There we go, the other has been lying for fun too, she thought. All right, let’s hear what he has to lie about, one more time.
“I’m not an agricultural engineer,” he typed. “I tend cattle to earn a living. To be accurate, I take care of dairy cows.”
He continued: “I used to be very lazy. My parents got angry and threatened to kick me out, so I went away for years. Now I know right from wrong though. Am saving money to visit my parents and say sorry. I also plan to borrow money from them to buy a couple of dairy cows and then one day… but no, I shouldn’t say too much lest I am not able to reach my goal.”
She held her breath and read every word he said one more time. It sounded like he was telling the truth this time, just like her.
“Am just afraid you’ll look down on this cowherd,” he said.
No longer lying, she read his sentences again and again, and felt that life was much more interesting. She imagined dairy farming. Get up at 3.30 in the morning to remove the manure, wash the cows, then milk them. Each step must be done impeccably in order to deliver the milk to the factory before 6 am. Afterwards, there is grass-cutting and other work.
“Little Tý could freely drink fresh milk here,” he typed.
She read and re-read this sentence. What could he possibly mean…?
She let her imagination soar. In the morning she would get up and stand in the kitchen, boiling fresh milk. Since little Tý liked sweets, she would add a lot of sugar. Then she would wait for the milk to cool down and pour it into a bottle and put the bottle into the refrigerator. Here, at her place, she went to a store at the street corner everyday just to buy for a milk carton for little Tý rather than a whole pack, because little Tý would just drink the whole thing up without saving a drop for the day after. She imagined little Tý raising the bottle and gulping it down with full satisfaction.
She asked whether they used milk to make butter and cheese as she’d saw in foreign movies. He sent a tight-lipped smile emoticon and typed: “Not yet. Or why don’t you learn to do it? Are you willing to live in the countryside?”
This question seemed to convey his intention clearly.
She told him her family had an avocado garden. The fruits were delicious. Right at the beginning of the season, when the fruits were just fist-sized, some friends would already ordered ten kilograms to be used as gifts. Every season her family could harvest the fruits several times. Throughout the season, people called everyday. When they were told that a batch was already reserved for earlier orders, they insisted on depositing money for the following batch, to ensure they would get some of the fruits. Her mother said their avocado garden was a godsend because somebody had tried to plant the seeds of their fruits elsewhere, but the fruit didn’t taste as good.
He asked, why are you only talking about your mom but not your dad?
Oh, she said, because my dad died prematurely, and my mom brought me and my older brother up by herself. Single mothers in the countryside are vulnerable in many ways, and with her illegitimate pregnancy adding to it, she’d almost collapsed. After listening to her confession that the baby was already six months old, her mother broke down and cried. But the person who threw her out was her brother. When one’s father is gone, the older brother fills his place, that is the custom.
So she left her dorm and never returned. In retrospect, she knew she had been too reckless, but at that time, she had nothing else to fear. She just wanted to run out and crash into life, not bothering about consequences.
“Suppose there is a man to walk beside you now, will your brother take you in again?”
This question was also asked on a rainy, sleepless night. Little Tý tossed in bed and flung off the blanket. He threw his eyes wide open and asked “Is this mommy?” then closed his eyes again and clasped his arms around her neck, just like every time he dozed off at the landlady’s house while waiting for her to return and pick him up after her night shift.
She wanted to say yes, very badly, but she doubted if the other would really love her child.
Yes, he had already mentioned several times that little Tý could freely drink fresh milk at his place, but…
“I don’t know,” she typed.
9 pm, and it was time to go home. Typically she would just go home right away, but that night she’d been told she would receive a bonus, so she decided to drop by the night market. Though she was yet to touch the cash, she already wanted to go shopping. When she was happy, she loved to go to the market. After buying a pair of shoes for little Tý, she hesitantly looked at a light blue-and-gray striped shirt and felt a sudden surge of passion for it. As she walked away, she kept turning around to look at it. She called him and asked, “What is your shirt size?”
Mingled with his reply, she thought she heard little Tý’s voice: “Is this you mommy?” She laughed at herself for having such a wild imagination. She wrapped the shirt and worried if the shirt’s color suited him. She had never met him. His shirt size she could ask, but it would be too embarrassing to inquire about his skin tone.
He’d said that the dairy cows he took care of lived inside, not on pasture, so perhaps his skin wasn’t exposed to sunlight and thus wasn’t dark, so it might look good against light blue and gray.
She reached her room and stopped abruptly at the door. A swarthy young man and little Tý were assembling a toy robot. Scattered on the floor were the toy’s box, a rumpled piece of metallic wrapping paper and a bow-shaped ribbon.
Little Tý seemed impatient with the man for not knowing how to work the robot. He scratched his hair and said:
- Don’t have any clue. Aren’t children’s toys way more complicated than they look?! It’s easier to take them apart than put them together…
The landlady glanced at him tactfully and said:
- I wouldn’t have given a stranger the key to the room, ordinarily. But he brought a can of milk. I was afraid if he had to wait too long, the milk would turn bad and you would blame me.
She blushed and eyed the ten-liter can at the corner of the room and turned towards a huge pot that was steaming with milk. The landlady said, teasingly:
- It’s my pot. Don’t forget to compensate me with a glass of milk. I’ve never drunk fresh milk this way in my whole life.
All the tenants in the house were invited to a glass of fresh milk. Smiling neighbours walked back and forth past her room to look at the plain yet wise young man who judiciously introduced himself with a round of sweet, redolent fresh milk.
She flushed becomingly, asking:
- Why didn’t you tell me earlier so I could change my shift?
- A surprise is more fun. But it was strange that when you called, little Tý knew it was you and even shouted “is this you, mommy?” So I had to turn off the phone quickly in case you found out. There would be no surprise then. Aren’t you pleasantly suprised?
What a stupid question. Of course I am, she she replied in her heart.
Yet the shirt’s colour clearly didn’t match his skin tone. Tomorrow she would return it to get another one. Right, since he was here, she would ask him to tag along. He could try the shirts on and they would know right away which one looked good on him.
Throughout the journey home she fluttered in an entangled mess of gladness and anxiety. But awaiting her was another surprise.
Her mother’s joy on seeing her boyfriend holding little Tý’s hand was just her mother’s being herself. Her older brother seemed to have forgotten that it was he who had thrown her out. Her sister-in-law was busily happy too, but for a different reason.
A wealthy man from the city had come to buy land to build a farm. Neighbors all around had already signed contracts to sell their property, leaving only her family’s house and avocado garden behind, sandwiched between several gardens that the rich man had amassed.
Though her family’s land was small, a high price was being offered because it lay in the middle, cutting the wealthy man’s potential farm into two halves, while he wanted to command an uninterrupted swathe.
Her sister-in-law glanced at her boyfriend and little Tý, and said:
- The man has returned many times, offering higher and higher prices but mom keeps rejecting him. She says she wants to keep her parents’ house and the avocado garden. What a way to think in this age... But now that you two and the boy return, mom may think again because she misses you very much and must want to sell the land, to have some money to give you so you can invest in cows.
Her brother flicked his hand and retorted:
- Why do you want to trade a city job for the hard work of raising cows in the countryside! You should save the money in a bank and live off the interest.
Her mother sighed:
- That’s why I don’t want to sell. With only cash and no useful employment, we would squander the money and even cultivate bad habits. Just look at our neighbour. They only sold their house and garden last year, but now, they have to borrow money from here and there just to get by.
Her brother got cross, brushed off butt and walked away, not returning until the next day. He returned, lost his temper, then left again.
She didn’t know what to say. On the trip she had tremblingly prayed that her family would accept her boyfriend as their son-in-law, then prepare a few trays of food to treat neighbors for the occasion. Yet, in front of him, who after all was still a stranger, they kept arguing tensely without any decorum on whether or not to sell, embarrassing her. She wished they’d scolded her like she had told him instead, so that she could show him her family had a sense of propriety. Other issues could be discussed later.
This time her brother stayed away for three days and three nights straight. Her sister-in-law asked her to take care of their 16 months old baby in order to go look for him.
After one whole day of searching, the sister-in-law returned dejected. She cried out loud to her mother:
- Everything is lost! The man dared your son to gamble not on money but on avocadoes and land. They bet one avocado tree a game. If the man won, he would get that avocado tree as well as the area on which the tree grows, and if your brother won, he would retain his bet plus an extra meter square of land. Your son was a fool. He was no match at all. He has already lost 90 avocado trees. Mom, if you have any strength, you could go to the casino to fetch him, because your son would just slap me if I protested. The man is asking for a final game. If he loses, he will return all 90 trees, but if he wins, he will get this house too.
Her sister cried even louder, adding, “It’s your fault mom. If you had agreed to sell, we would have got the money at least.”
In the morning, her mother woke up and looked bewildered.
Her boyfriend had become a son-in-law without an initial culinary ceremony. He discussed with her the possibility of taking her mother to his place. He had been lodging at his employer’s house, but now they would rent a room together. And then… and then…
As she packed up her mother’s clothes, she thought she still hadn’t seen the wealthy man’s face. Only a guy who introduced himself as the wealthy man’s representative showed up and informed them that since the man knew avocadoes could sell well, he had generously decided to let them harvest the fruits this one last season as a gesture from the heart.
Then the representative turned to look at her sister-in-law who was tearfully packing up her own clothes before taking her child with her back to her parents’ house. The representative added: By the way, a complex zone will be built here. Construction will take several years to complete and men will be needed as guards and women as cooks.
Translated by Thùy Linh