Illustration by Đỗ Dũng
By Lê Minh Khuê
Tường was lying in his hospital bed. Vân had requested a premium room with only two beds for her husband. Now, he was lying there in deadly silence. As for her, she was still standing at the foot of the bed staring at him.
Tường was yet to pass the critical point, but he wasn’t in such desperate conditions as the day before. For the past two days, his body had been hooked up to a maze of beeping heart and brain monitors and breathing and transfusion devices that frightened onlookers. The equipment was removed little by little as his situation improved. His mother, a typical traditional woman from the central region who combed her hair in a bun behind her nape and whose cheeks had sunk a little, brightened up and stopped sighing.
Though her eyes looked as gentle as usual as they turned toward her daughter-in-law, Vân still sensed an interrogation coming.
“What did you do to drive him to this state?” the old woman asked.
“Why in the world did he race his motorbike to Hà Nội at midnight in such a cold drizzle? Did you call him home?”
“I told you I didn’t call him,” Vân replied.
“But what did you say to make him run out like that?”
“Nothing. I’ve never said anything to him. He has his own life and I have mine.”
The old mother looked up at her beautiful daughter-in-law in utter shock. In her ancient heart, it had never occurred to her that a husband and wife could have their own lives. She squeezed her son’s hand gently and sighed again. “I told you so,” she mumbled. “You shouldn’t have married a woman who lives so far away.”
Vân observed her mother-in-law. The old woman looked so lonely. She felt a sudden surge of guilt for having spoken those cold words.
“Mom,” she called the old woman with a smile. “As I often tell you, Tường has to take care of serious matters that have nothing to do with me. So I don’t want to bother him. Do you know I mean?”
“Alright,” the mother-in-law said, nodding kindly.
Vân turned to the other bed. A woman had fallen from the stairs, broken a leg and was waiting for further examinations before receiving a cast. Her husband, a taxi driver, seemed very caring. After he finished work in the afternoon, he brought his wife some food then laid down on her iron bed and fell asleep. The wife was reading intently on her phone. It was a peaceful sight. They didn’t pay attention to what was passing between Vân and her mother-in-law.
The young doctor on duty who was an acquaintance walked in to check on Tường. He told Vân in a low voice, “You need to be careful because there’s still a risk of suffocating. It’s good his mother is holding his hand.”
Vân looked at the man in the white blouse who had acted with kindness, a rare thing these days.
“Your shift is almost over. Why are you still here?” she inquired. “It’ll be New Year’s Eve soon!”
“I have to make sure your husband is safe first,” he replied. “Call me if anything happens.”
Vân nodded and walked toward Tường. She looked at the man who she had been living with for almost a decade without really understanding. She sneezed and asked her mother-in-law, “I feel tired. Do you mind if I get out for a while?”
“Not at all,” the old woman said. “Go get some fresh air. You haven’t slept for two days straight. I don’t want you to fall ill too.”
It was an expensive private hospital so there weren’t patients’ relatives lying around on the ground with all sorts of stuff in the hallway. The hallway here was almost empty. Once in a while some door opened slightly then closed quickly. Tường was lying in the ninth floor. As Vân looked at the city from the glass-walled hallway, small bursts of fireworks were blasted up intermittently from below by some children. Vân felt unaware of the passage of time that must have been making others astir. For the past few days, her world had been topsy-turvy.
A sense of discomfort suddenly surged up from inside. Every feature of Tường’s face appeared before Vân’s eyes in extreme vividness. She felt as if there hadn’t been any indifference between them for the past 10 years. Vân could see his eyes very clearly now. The eyebrows knitted in trouble. The nose looked straight. Two deep wrinkles circled the mouth, giving it a severe air. All in all these features made a kind warm face that Vân seldom saw in other men.
Vân walked toward a bench close to the wall. She felt worn-out. And touched. Then, like never before, tears gushed from her eyes. It wasn’t pity. Nor was it fear. She just felt as if her heart would break. Suffocating. Breathing was painful. She slowly sat down at one end of the bench. Lo and behold, at the other side sat the taxi driver.
Vân was surprised. “Why… are… you… here? I… thought… you… were…sleeping!” she said.
Her words were spoken in such a broken manner that she couldn’t even hear what she was saying. The taxi driver, a chubby friendly man who also worked as a tour guide, nodded his head in the dark. “Ah, you went out for a cigarette?” Vân asked.
She ran on without waiting for his answer: “My husband often smokes too. But he doesn’t smoke inside our house because we have an eight-year-old boy. I forbid him. Once, I threw his pack of cigarettes out of the door but he wasn’t offended. He just picked it up in silence and went downstairs to smoke.”
“I want to talk to you since we’re in the same boat. If we’re lucky and can get out of this hospital in a few days, we may not see each other again. I work at a beauty clinic. I help doctors tattoo customers’ eyes and lips. Many of our customers are men. I love my work. My husband works at a university. He isn’t a professor because I don’t see students visit him during holidays as they would if he were a professor. He hasn’t even received some imported wine as gifts. He’s a researcher. I don’t ask what he’s researching either because we’ve made a deal that we’ll respect each other’s career.
“You know what, when we first met, Tường was just a student fresh from the countryside. I was a city girl and ran my own hair salon. I hired hairdressers and made lots of money. College students and instructors often had their hair done at my place. Tường too came often and quietly waited in a corner. Something about his quietness got to me. I took the trouble to wash and cut his hair myself. Then we dated, going out for coffee and movies. Even after our wedding I still wondered why in the world I’d married him. He was just a poor country scholar with no prospects. But we seemed fated.
“With his academic background, Tường could have gone back to his home province and had a good job but he decided to stay in Hà Nội with me. He often complained about his colleagues who weren’t as honest and straightforward as his country people. I was too careless to listen. And I thought such was life, life was hard. So I had nothing to rejoin him. Every day after he got home, he sat in the hallway and smoked.
“Oh, I can see now how wrong I was! Didn’t I love Tường? Of course I did. Very much indeed. If I hadn’t loved him, how could I have lived with him for 10 years? How could I have given birth to such a lovely boy? You saw my son yesterday. Yet, I just walked past my husband as he sat alone in the hallway. After my hair salon expanded into a beauty clinic, I became even colder. I made more and more money. I didn’t care about his researcher’s wage. One day he received a few million đồng in bonus at work and gave it to me but I told him to spend it on himself. Why couldn’t I have felt happy when my husband gave me money like any other wife? Oh, I was so wrong. I always told him his head was muddled.”
The taxi driver shook his head and seemed to smile. But he didn’t say anything. Vân found his reticence a bit strange because the guy was quite talkative.
She pressed on regardless: “On the other side of our street stands a great villa. It’s owned by a high-ranking official. He’s too smart to expose himself but whoever wants to see him has to do so through his wife. After every successful deal, this wife receives a thick envelope filled with money. Countless people approach the couple to buy this Government post or that Government project. Just looking at the way the man gets in and out of his car, the way his wife and kids put on airs and you’ll know how much money they have.
“The official’s daughter drives a Mercedes, wears a tight short skirt, acts like a lady and fools around with another official who is on the run after stealing hundreds of billions of đồng from the State budget. This chap is married but still has a fling with the girl. People talk but the father pretends not to hear. As Tường was telling me about them over a meal one day, he lost his temper. I’d never seen him so worked-up before. He pounded his bowl on the table and grouched, ‘Bastards!’
“He was really angry. His anger wasn’t simply some trivial fleeting feeling. He deeply resented the state of things and wanted to do something about it. I should have understood him then. I should have sympathised with him. Yet I just smiled smugly, ate my apple nonchalantly and told him to let off steam or he’d go berserk. I said life was hard and we couldn’t do anything about it. Officials were corrupt, so what? At least they had the balls to steal and get rich. Not like him.
“Now I can see clearly how disappointed he was. He stood up and went out to smoke. Afterwards he never told me such things again. I feel so regretful now. Every day when I went to work, I had to talk with people too much already. So when I went home, I was very tired. I often fell asleep quickly. One night, as I was still awake, I saw Tường twist and turn in bed. I just went ahead and slept. I was too lukewarm for sex. Some boys at my place told me men needed to release and recharge themselves. I knew it but didn’t make an effort.
“I regret it now. I didn’t treat him right. How lonely he must have been while living with me. I live near my parents and siblings. If something happens, I can always run to them. But his family is far away. When he feels sad, he can only talk to our son, who is small anyway. At work, he only has superficial relationships with his colleagues. So I’m his only friend. But I was too stupid to see that. I didn’t realise how warm he was, how much he’d sacrificed to be with me.”
Vân burst out sobbing. Her hands twisted and turned, her tears fell all over her sweater. The children down below kept shooting fireworks into the sky. It was only 10 pm. Vân no longer paid attention to the taxi driver who had been listening to her in silence. She told a few more stories then stopped short when the young doctor and a nurse ran out into the hallway. What was happening? Vân jumped up when her mother-in-law called. “I’m here!” she replied and hastened back to Tường’s bed.
The doctor was giving Tường’s heart some electrical shocks. The old mother grasped her daughter-in-law’s hand and both women looked at Tường’s ghostly white face in dread.
Vân mumbled, “Please God, let him live. I won’t ever make him lonely again.”
The doctor did something to his patient’s face and neck. Then a groan was heard. Some fingers moved. The eyelids stirred. The doctor took Vân’s hand and said, “It’s strange! His heart had stopped. I thought he’d gone. But he’s returned.”
Vân turned to the other bed in amazement. The taxi driver was still sleeping soundly next to his wife, who was also sleeping. They had no idea what was happening in this side of the room. The doctor breathed a sigh of relief and said, “Everything seems fine now. I’m still here. I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
Vân sat down on Tường’s bed. She pressed her tearful face on his forehead. Then she sobbed and shouted, “You wanted to leave me, didn’t you? It was you who had been sitting with me in the hallway, weren’t you? You intended to sit with me for a while then leave, didn’t you? I won’t allow you. Did you hear me all that time? Please forgive me. I was too stupid and selfish. I forbid you to leave me now!”
The mother-in-law eyed Vân in astonishment and tried to ease her grasp on Tường. She thought Vân was feeling so happy that she was losing her mind. “Calm down,” the old woman said. “He’ll wake up soon.”
Vân looked up and said, “You won’t believe me but his spirit sat with me for a long time. He intended to leave. But no man should leave his wife on New Year’s Eve, right?” VNS
Translated by Đỗ Linh