Garden By The Window

13 Tháng Tư 202311:00 SA(Xem: 2308)
Translated by Khanh Doan

GARDEN BY THE WINDOW

 

I

 

Dear sister, do you still remember the time when our family lived in Cau Giay, in the suburbs of Hanoi?  It was fifteen years ago, you were 16 years old, already learning to make up, but still hung around Mom and Dad.  I was then just eight.  Yes, eight.  Linh, the girl next door, was ten, two years older than me.  You still remember Linh don’t you?  You used to make her wear a blue hood and call her “Blue hood girl”.  Then you put a red hood on me and called “Red hood girl”.  Mom and Dad, and even you wouldn’t allow me to play with anyone else but Linh, because she was sweet and well mannered.  Whenever I ran and jumped hard, Mom, Dad and you would frown at my dishevelled appearance. I would be scolded:

-       What a tomboy you are!  Why don’t you take Linh as a good example?  She’s a girl like you but with such gentle and sweet manner.

Whenever I spoke or laughed too loudly, I would be scolded the same:

-       What a tomboy you are! Why don’t you take Linh as a good example?  She’s a girl like you but she always speaks so sweetly.

Everybody in our family appreciated Linh.  As to me, I would hang around Linh all day long. Linh had only me as playmate, and I would play only with her.

Don’t you remember when Linh’s father had to move to Thanh Hoa because of work, neither of us could imagine we would be apart.  One week before that, Linh’s parents kept mentioning their “going away” to Mom and Dad in a very sad voice.  I never put any thought to it, though.  I had no idea what it meant to be apart.

Then one day, Linh and I were playing with our dolls in a corner of Linh’s living room, I noticed all the furniture was gone.  The clock that used to be on the wall was also gone.  The only things to be seen were four or five suitcases piled upon each other.  Linh and I were pleased, because less furniture meant more room to play.  In the evening, Linh’s parents came to see Mom and Dad, saying things like “It breaks our hearts seeing the two girls playing with each other.  We wish we could move not too faraway. We would ask your permission to bring your little girl for a while with us, to spare them both parting sorrow.”

The next morning as usual I ran to Linh’s house, but the door was locked.  I called Linh, but no one answered.  Not until then did I notice the nickel-plated lock on the front door.  Mom came to gently take me home.  She said:

-Linh left with her parents at 5am this morning, my dear.  What would you like for breakfast? Some milk bun perhaps?

To Dad she said:

-       The train has probably reached Phu Ly.  What time do you think they will arrive at their destination?

Dad said:

-       Not until 10:30!

I ran to Linh’s house several more times that morning, but the nickel-plated lock remained there.  I threw myself onto the bed, facing the wall.  Mom said softly to Dad:

-       She misses Linh, poor girl!

I felt a choke in my throat.

Mom asked:

-       You miss Linh, don’t you?

All tears, I failed to answer, just pressed myself against the wall, tightened my lips so as not to burst sobbing.

Mom sat down, moved me away from the wall and into her arms.  As I sobbed onto her shoulders, Mom quietly smoothed my hair.

It was a gloomy day, full of clouds and very windy.  Dad came to me, patted my cheeks and said:

-As you grow up, you’ll go through more parting scenes, my dear.

I didn’t really understand what Dad meant, but certainly started to fear loneliness then on.

(Later, I heard from you, through Linh’s parents’ letter, that she also pressed her face against the train seat back and cried all the way from Hanoi to Thanh Hoa.)

“There will be more parting scenes with our loved ones in life.”  Such was life. I came to face this truth as I grew up.  On your wedding day, dear sister, you left us and have been travelling here and there ever since with your husband.  There was time when we met only once a year.

Since then, there had been several times my heart was struck with loneliness after some partings, but I had to admit I felt it most deeply, most painfully when I parted with Linh. Those sorrows that came later were like flowers, but the first goodbye was the trunk itself.  Flowers bloomed then wilted, leaving the trunk to grow taller, even seen from afar.

 

II

 

Two years after Linh’s family left, a new family moved in.  They became close to us, but they didn’t have daughters, just an adult son named Dam, who was even older than our brother Minh, and was one year his senior in the University of Medicine.  I’m not sure you still remember Dam.  As to me, I always had respect and affection for him.  He was tall, really tall, with fair skin and wavy hair.  Once, from his height, he bent toward Minh, passionately claiming that in fifth year of medicine, he would be allowed to perform surgery, he would do it with utmost fervor and dedication, as he considered this mission of saving lives an art form in itself.  Till this day, brother Minh often recalled Dam’s conclusion:  “It’s not Art for humans’ sake, but humans for Art sake. In this life, Art is indispensable!”

After two years Resistance, on the day brother Minh took us from Tuyen Quang to Thai Nguyen to be with Mom and Dad, don’t you remember, dear sister, we met Dam again at an eating place on a hillside, by the river.  He was having boiled eggs then and offered us some.  He eagerly advised us to have boiled eggs for snacks because they contained lots of vitamins A and B.  Again he bent toward us and talked about surgery.  His gesturing was full of grace.  His dream of surgery had come true.  Because of hardship situation during Resistance, though only a fifth year medical student, he was allowed to operate, and he did it with great expertise.  He proudly concluded: “Medical students in Vietnam surpassed others in the world in terms of surgery practice.”

Then we said goodbye.  None of us expected that, one month later Dam would die in an enemy bombardment at mountain pass Khe, in Vinh Yen province.  Since then, whenever we had boiled eggs, I remembered him, always with respect and affection.

Why was I writing about my childhood with Linh and a little about Dam?  Because I recently ran into Linh.  Was that unexpected encounter happy or sad, bright or gloomy, open or restrained?  I couldn’t tell exactly, dear sister, please just move on with my story.  At seven and eight, I continued to be blamed for my tomboy nature, that was for my “talking like a boy, running like a boy …”  But you know too well, since I turned ten, I changed into a gentle girl, and this new trait would go to extreme, making me a shy girl, probably at my own expense.  As to Linh, she also changed, but in a totally different way.  She grew up to become very articulate and smart.  Even when speaking to men, she was the one to lead the conversation and invite others to join in. I knew some very shy men who could still talk comfortably with Linh with no sign of hesitation, just because she was always true, open, emphatic and very witty in her sayings.  She was not only good at starting a conversation, but also at understanding what others said, wanted to say but couldn’t, or express it only partially.  Dear sister, Linh was only 2 years older, but I had the impression even when I was twice her age, I would never be as smart.  Was it because she had travelled extensively?   Travel makes wisdom!

Three years before, when Linh was an English teacher at a high school, she got a scholarship from the Education Department to attend a Professional Development Course in US.  She studied for seven months, and on the way home, she visited Paris for two weeks.  I didn’t see Linh again until last year.  We met at the University of Letters.  She was then a third year student and getting ready for her Bachelor exam, majoring in English.  When we met each other, we were happy and moved to tears.  Right after, we saw each other regularly.  And thanks to us, parents of both renewed their contact and truly enjoyed talking about the good old days.  Many times Linh confided a love relationship of hers to me in detail and showed me lots of pictures.  With Linh, as with others, I listened more than talked. Especially with Linh, I was always feeling a bit inferior, for I had no travelling time like her.

Then something happened that would lead to something serious, dear sister.

On that day, I met “My Prince”.  I know the term sounded archaic, but let me use it when writing to you, because each time I said it, I could imagine myself holding him and being held in his arms.  I did not need to mention his name or describe him.  Just know that he came into my life like a tornado of light and went away with my entire soul.

On that day, Prince drove his friend Hung to the University of Letters to pick up Thi, Hung’s fiancee, also my classmate.  When they came, the class was just finished and it started to rain.  Male students hurried away, only we girls remained – there were about ten of us – waiting for the rain to stop.  Thi introduced the two men to us all.  Hung told Prince:

-       It’s raining too hard.  Shall we wait a while?

Prince looked at us all then said playfully:

-       Who would leave such lovely company, let alone when it’s raining?

The conversation started merrily right away, for everyone tried to find words to tease the young couple Hung-Thi.  Sounds of laughter were non stop and louder than the rain.

Seeing Hung looking at the rain through the glass window, one lady said teasingly:

-       Hung is probably counting the rains drops.

Prince promptly continued:

-       And “love abounds like raindrops”, don’t you agree, Hung?

Hung said with wide gestures:

-       I expect all medical military members to marry into this university.  I started the tradition.

Turning to Prince, he urged:

-       You should find your bride in here.

Prince replied:

-       Why not?  But I need a matchmaker among you all.  Military Medical School and University of Letters are like Tan and Tan nations with thousand-year long ties.

We all broke into laughter though a little embarrassed.  In the ensuing conversation, I learned Prince was a fifth year student of the Army Medical College, majoring in surgery.  He was a lieutenant military doctor in the Military Company of Bien Hoa.  Since he had a private car, he was able to commute everyday between work and home.  He lived in Saigon with his uncle’s family.  His parents still lived, but in the North.  After the Geneva Agreement, that divided the country, he had to move South together with his school fellows while his parents promised to join him later.  However, they failed to do so because, due to their old age, the idea of moving did not appeal to them.

The shower was reduced to a drizzle.  Prince invited everyone to get in his car so he could take each one back home, but the ladies who lived nearby declined the offer then left right away.  Remaining in the car were Hung, Thi, two other ladies and me.  He was supposed to take Thi home first, but he got an idea:

-       It’s only 9:30 now.  I suppose you all have no classes on Saturday afternoon.  So why don’t you come and have a look at my farm near Binh Loi bridge, only 12 kilometres from here.

As everybody remained silent, apparently in agreement, he seemed pleased and concluded:

-       You all need to get away from Saigon from time to time.  You’ll realize the beauty and expanse of sunshine and wind in the countryside.

 

III

 

As we hit the road, Prince explained:

-       You may think this car is mine, but it’s not the case.  A friend of mine recently ordered a new car, he then passed this one to me at 30 000 dong, to be paid in 10 months. I have used it for three months, thus only paid one third of its price.  Actually, with my current income, I can’t afford driving a car, but the Colonel Director of the Military Medical School was aware of my daily commute Saigon-Bien Hoa.  He gave me payment card for gas and even for car repair.  Such is his flexibility!

I said jokingly (only then did I find the courage to joke with him):

- Then, this is a semi-government car.

- You are right.  Usually a car is an ornament to a person, but today, thanks to you all, ladies, my car is greatly adorned.

He hastily released the pedal at Thi’s request.  As the car passed by her house, she wanted to get in to drop her books and bring along some fruit she readily had at home.  Thi’s home was a pretty big villa at the end of Pasteur Street. A pebbled path lined with flowers and fruit trees led to a two-storeyed house.  Outside was a gate with a small sign “Beware of ferocious dog”.

As Thi speedily opened the gate and stepped in, Prince asked Hung:

-       How closely guarded! Not to mention the aggressive shepherd dog! I wonder how our Kim Trong Hung manages to see the beautiful Kieu.  Kim Trong of the Nuclear Age indeed!

Everyone contributed a mocking voice to tease Hung, while he turned a deaf ear, quoting a well-known poem:

Firmly latched gate and closed door,

Wall covered with fallen flowers, and no sight of the loved one.

Thi showed up, with a bag laden with fruit.

Prince said:

-       Here comes the loved one.

The car hit the road again.  Behind the wheel, Prince resumed conversation with Hung.  This time the topic turned professional.  Prince mentioned his performing a ceasarean case.

Hung asked:

- What case was that?

- Case of abnormal shoulder position!  The woman has been in labor for three hours before she was brought to hospital.  By then, one part of the baby’s arm was out, mother’s heart rate was 100, baby’s irregular and up to 160.  Amniotic fluid turned blue because of feces.

Still driving with his eyes on the road, he talked about the uterus incision that saved mother and infant’s lives.  The nurses (I wondered if they were beautiful) took great care of the baby with oxygen cylinder and artificial respiration.  Five minutes later he was able to cry out, his complexion turning from grey to pink like any other newborns.

During his narration, Prince sounded like a different person, with a passionate and grave voice, completely oblivious of us all, his passengers at the back.  He was definitely a young man in love with his profession.  Exactly like Dam.

He finally asked Hung:

-Do you know how long it took me to complete that operation?

-One hour and a half, Hung answered.

He shook his head with a brighter expression, rectifying:

-From the anesthesia phase to the uterus suture, suture of the peritoneum, catgut suture of the abdominal muscles and linen suture of the abdominal skin, it took me in total exactly one hour and five minutes.

-Wow!  Good job!  Hung exclaimed.

I looked at his hands on the steering wheel.  He was good with his hands, cheerful in character, so his patients on the operation table probably felt less worried.  How noble those hands that operated, that bandaged so many wounds.

I suddenly asked him:

-       You are certainly very good at surgery, aren’t you?

He answered:

-       Actually I’m not yet qualified for surgery, only for assistance.  My professor was confident enough to allow me to practise under his supervision.

We went past the Bang Ky bridge for a while when he stopped his car:

-       Would you wait a minute? I always stop by this place to buy saplings for the farm.

Suddenly Hung picked up a picture dropped at his seat and laughed loudly:

-       Wow! Who were those beauties in this picture with you?

The world seemed to turn upside down to me.

I heard him laugh in his carefree way and said:

-       Right! They are all of perfect beauty.

The picture passed from hand to hand while he was explaining:

-       Oh, that was cramming time before our final exam at year 4.  Those guys were my room mates.  We all lost weight miserably.

The picture came to me last.  I saw four young men in pyjamas in a study room.  He was wearing white pyjamas with blue lining.  His long hair covered his eyes and he looked a bit thinner.

When I gave it back, whether purposedly or accidentally, he looked at me for a while with a flickering smile on his lips before crossing the road to enter the nursery.

The rain had completely stopped and the bright sunshine started warming up the car.  On the long road, vehicles of all sizes sped by, leaving some dust and warm smell of gas.  Spring air seemed drunk in me.  Was it drunk in him too?

He was passionate about his career of choice, just like Dam in the old days.  I used to look up to Dam, and respect him as a great friend of my older brother Minh’s.  For Prince, a man at most five years older than me, I didn’t feel such distance, but the same respect.  He was like a ripe fruit within my reach.  I didn’t have the courage to look straight into myself because I would be ashamed to find I had started dreaming about him and me as a couple.

From a loudspeaker nearby, I heard a familiar song.  I recognised it as a song named “The wolf and the doe”, which Dam used to sing to entertain me.  Surprisingly, the lyrics translation in Vietnamese had turned it into a love song:

Human life is full of sorrows

Love relieves us of sorrows.

The love lyrics put into an old lullaby brought in a simple yet gentle emotion. When Prince got back, Hung Thi and the others were talking about Elizabeth Taylor becoming a widow because her husband died in a plane crash, and the Persian King divorcing Soraya because she was childless.

Prince held his head in his hands, pretending misery:

-       Alas, within a month two beautiful women were struck with tragedies.  How can one find joy?

Our conversation was getting merrier  as the car rolled on.  The song refrain chased us as a last reminder:

Human life is full of sorrows

Love relieves us of sorrows

 

IV

 

When we turned onto a narrow dirt path leading to the farm, he explained again:

-       You may think I own this farm, but it’s not the case.  Originally the French Army bought this land to establish a training camp for the Vietnamese Army.  However after the Geneva Agreement, the government of the Free South requested total withdrawal of the French legionnaires.  I bought this land of 22 500 square metres and am still waiting for registry officer to survey the boundaries and make taxation decisions. Only then will the land be mine officially. Currently a poor family was living on it.  They were entitled to profits from land cultivation and animal breeding which they started at their own expenses and labor.  He paid them 1500 dong a month for the care they gave to the farm.

The farm was square shaped, 150 metres on each side, surrounded by barbed wire fences. In the centre was a rather large house with thatched roof and wooden walls, also square. There was a mixed smell of recently turned soil, rotten grass and fertilizer that indicated a healthy farm life.  Everybody followed Prince to two readily dug holes to plant his recently bought saplings: one mangoustine and one soursop.  The fruit trees were to be grown in four rows. More than half of the farm land had been arranged that way.  The group scattered toward the end of the farm, but I remained by Prince’s side.  He showed me the newly dug canals around the farm, a large pond by the entrance, and pointed at the water turned red because of too much alum. He planned to use cotton tree ashes as fertilizer for a year to rid of the alum.  He expected the water to be clear soon, and there would be lotus flowers and fish in it.

The father of the family just got back.  He greeted us nicely as “Sir and M’am”.  Prince hurriedly introduced me as classmate and visitor to the farm. We both went in to see about the guardian’s eldest son’s headache. He brought some aspirin and the two men tried both sweet and hard words to cox the boy to take medicine.

He shook his head, then turning to me and said:

-       First-borns in any family are usually that silly!  I’m a firstborn too, so sometimes I’m silly too.

I could only exclaim:

-Oh no, you’re anything but silly!

I continued to follow him to the yard, where he showed me the elevated area allocated for the kitchen.  We admired the four rows of fruit trees, including mango, plum, orange, soursop, mangoustine … that he recently planted.  I tilted my head to look over his shoulders.  I tenderly admired furrows of cassava plants a handspan tall, their young green leaves with red stems innocently moving in the wind.  Such was my feeling for him.

I tried to shoo away the prospect of being his wife, having pretty children, making white pyjamas with blue lining for them, exactly like the ones in the picture I saw.  They would have my beauty and his brain, they would be chasing each other under these rows of trees.  He would give me a look of happiness.  Would I ever do anything to displease him?

High above was the deep blue sky, below were waves of white clouds spreading like scales.  A four engine plane was flying amidst the clouds, like a fish after a good meal.  I wondered if up there they could see the two of us near the banana tree, dry leaves rustling in the wind.

I remembered some folk verses passed down from the olden days:

Rustling like banana leaves

Rumor spreads that, near the market, there was an unmarried girl.    

Others were coming back from the other end of the farm, each looking for folding chairs to sit by the veranda.  Thi fetched her fruit basket, then got busy peeling and cutting … A battery-operated radio blared out international news.  People around sounded regrettably noisy and merry, but I had to get used to it …  I could hear Prince voice among them.  He offered fruit to everyone while loudly claiming that, in his own opinion, Vietnamese girls were most beautiful at two moments: when they were crying and when they were having snacks.  While crying, they turned away, fearing to sadden others; that was their spiritual beauty. While having snacks, they nibbled daintily; that was their physical beauty. As he never had a chance to witness the first kind, he would enjoy the second kind now.

Thi teased him:

- You should find a girl of your choice, then ask her to shed tears so you can dry them.

- Agreed, he answered.  Our male clan is always crude and rough compared to your beauty clan.  And the only act that justifies our existence, shamefully, is that very act of drying you ladies’ tears.

Thi shook her head:

-Shameful indeed!

Prince asked Hung:

-Tell me, how many times you Kim Trong Hung have dried Kieu Thi’s tears?

Thi batted away the question:

-       Forget it! For a chance to dry my tears, he’ll wait all his life!

Prince smiled, then reached for the binoculars for a distant view of the farm.  Seeing me looking the same direction, he handed me the binoculars and said:

-        Look to the river bank, you’ll see a patch of green.  Those are Nypa palms, their leaves are used to thatch roofs.

Besides the palm grove, I also saw wild ixora bushes with red flowers.  As I lowered the glasses, I caught some mischievous smiles. Without noticing them, he went on:

-       Look at the white sails moving toward the field border behind the palm leaves.

I turned my attention to the binoculars again so as not to be embarrassed by those smiles.

I heard his voice right beside me:

-       The sails look like a fan to screen a beautiful face.

The music from the radio blasted out as if chased by the wind. I followed the sails. I couldn’t see the water, but a light feeling of joy overflowed my soul. I imagined seeing the river banks with its white sand.

I would say the farm excursion gave me an absolute good impression.  I could have found an imperfect moment, though.  That was when Prince was at the other end of the veranda with Hung. I had no idea what Hung was telling him, but it made him lower his voice to reply merrily:

-       Men are like trains starving for long journeys, each beautiful lady they met is a station. Each station is a pleasant picture of blissful rest, but this will not prevent the train from going on, so as to have the chance to stop at other stations.

Hearing that, I was ready to be offended. He said it very softly and didn’t think I could hear him. In reality, to me, no words from him could go unnoticed.  But I could ignore this small unpleasantry.  Men are usually careless and tactless about what they say, aren’t they, dear sister?

On the way back from the farm, the first stop was our house.  Getting off, I hurriedly said goodbye to everybody as if worried about the late hour. Actually, I just wanted to preserve the bright memory of that unexpected excursion.

Without me in the car, I was sure the rest would find words to tease Prince.

In the evening, I went to see a play with Dad at Thong Nhat theatre.  When the curtain raised, it opened a vast horizon and when it closed, its velvety pink spread in my joyful heart.  On the following day, I took my two younger siblings to a movie.  My heart melt with the blue sky and green vegetation, while anything grey and arid was rejected. Out of the cinema, the sound of airplane spread out with the late afternoon sunshine like a sound of joy enveloping the whole city.  On the following Monday, on my way to the university, I looked at the rows of trees along the boulevard as if they were endless pillars of a vast cathedral.

That feeling lasted for a whole week, till the day I went to Hung Thi’s wedding.

 

V

 

Hung Thi reception was held at 8:30pm on a Saturday at the Military Officer Club on Thanh Thai Avenue, with a ball to follow.  Prince recognised me and was the first to greet me.  Right then, Linh joined us with other classmates.  Then, each one was drowned in the crowd of guests with their formal greetings.

When it was time for dancing, those who couldn’t dance stayed together in a corner of the hall.

I was surprised to see Linh, all smiles, join the group who received her with warm greetings.  Prince was among them.  Suddenly Linh seemed to stick with Prince.  Both of them seemed always face to face.  Linh always talked with lots of gestures, sometimes fast, sometimes slow, and so did Prince.  From time to time the group burst into laughter.  Impossible to stay in my corner, I started walking slowly in their direction, just in time to catch Prince’s last words:

-       Loving Hanoi, I love both its good and bad aspects.  I’m even grateful to the bads because I know they make Hanoi even more beautiful.

Linh seemed to pursue an unfinished topic:

-       But Paris does have a soul and a heart.  Those who know Paris can’t help longing for it.

So people were talking about capitals of the world.

Prince replied quickly with a smile:

-       And you? You obviously have a soul and a heart many times more lovely.  Have you caused such longing to anyone?

Linh retorted with absolutely no embarrassment:

-       That would be somebody’s quiet understanding. How could I possibly know?

That part of the room was a bit dark.  Linh turned on the remaining lights. Someone exclaimed:

-       Thanks Linh for giving us light.

Prince said in Vietnamese:

-Chính chị đã là ánh sáng rối, hà tất phải cho thêm ánh sáng làm gì!

Then, knowing Linh’s English major, he made an attempt to translate it:

-You’re Light itself … what the use … in having … anymore of it.

Linh tilted her head teasingly, then answered in perfect English.

These two, who were so comfortable with each other, were talking with no effort.  The band started playing. One couple after another went to the floor.  Prince and Linh made a couple.

Dear sister, I knew I was the most beautiful girl at the party, even more beautiful than Linh. But for men, beauty is not enough. I never blamed Linh for being flirtatious.  She was just naturally herself. But in this case, her nature put me at a disadvantage and got her the upper hand. I sat down on a low chair to conveniently observe them.

Some of the non-dancers started leaving.

The piece of music came to end, but Prince and Linh lingered on the floor for some extra turns. He lowered his head to say something and I could see Linh’s radiant smile in response – Linh’s smile was always radiant – then she nodded. They walked to the main door. He suddenly stopped at the fruit table, picked up a bunch of grapes and gave it to Linh. He took two big apples, but before he could get away, he was encircled by a group of old friends. They said something teasingly. I saw Linh laugh aloud, then run to the switch to turn off the light. Her voice was loud enough and I could hear her clearly: “I’m taking back the light then!”  After that, the two of them dashed away, chased by the noisy crowd.

I seemed to have lost my soul and proceeded to the door, as well. I leant on the veranda pillar, waiting for Prince and Linh to reach his car. Linh said something … he let her sit at the wheel.  The car moved on the road between rows of trees towards the suburbs.

I looked up in the sky. The moon had risen high and became smaller and sadder, like a little girl lost among the clouds. Thus, I walked on and on. At times, I looked up at the moon. At other times, I looked at my hesitant wandering steps. I brought my deep bitterness into the vast emptiness of the universe.

Prince gave Linh a bunch of grapes, a symbol of love.  There might be some berries missing, but the woman didn’t mind, for the bunch still looked intact. I lost the whole bunch, dear sister. I lost my Prince Charming … I lost my Prince Charming.

It was not hard to imagine the two of them driving in the moonlight, with ricefields speeding alongside. At some point, Prince would ask Linh to stop by a meadow …

They had so many things to say. They had so many ways to entertain each other. The green apples, the red grapes … they ate them eyes in eyes, without tasting them properly, for they were too busy enjoying each other’s company.

Dear sister, I was only a poor little girl.  Since Dad was promoted to Education Inspector, together with Mom and our little siblings, we moved a lot. When Dad was working in Hue, in fine weather, I used to wander along Phu Van Lau building, admiring the Huong river and revising my lessons. After I passed grade 9 exam, Dad was transferred to Dalat. I completed my high school years there. In Dalat, I quietly planted dahlias, my favorite flowers. I quietly picked some carnations to put in a vase in my study room. I loved both their scent and their color. I also got the prettiest pansies with the most unusual colors to press them between book pages. I always admired them at close range.

During one summer vacation, Dad took me to Nha Trang for a change. There, I chose to walk on the beach only when it was deserted. I enjoyed looking at foot prints left in wet sand. As I passed the final highschool exam, Dad was transferred to to Saigon. There, whenever I came to a meadow by the kerb, I always looked for shy-plants. I loved their delicate leaves and purple flowers.  I used to touch them lightly with my fingers, never my toes, to see them shyly close their leaves and droop. That was the time when I enrolled into the University of Letters and met Prince … then the wedding party …

You can see the whole scenario, your little sister was like this, and Linh was like that … I had really lost my Prince!

Green apples, red grapes … they looked at each other while savoring them without remembering the taste … I wondered which pavement they chose to sit, where the moonlight chose to shine, where the wind chose to carry away their laughter.

 

VI

 

Should I give up and patiently wait for their wedding announcement and be Linh’s bridesmaid? Could it be so? I never forgot I was more beautiful than Linh.  At university, I did not bother to find Linh.  I did not sit at my study desk that evening, but beside the radio, waiting for a music program. I told myself if they played the love song on that excursion day, it would be a sign that I would reconquer my Prince.

How would I do it? Would he remember I was more beautiful and come pick me up at university? If not, I would be bold enough to pass by his house – I knew where he lived – just pass by!

But the love song was not on. The last one was to be “Moulin Rouge”. It was so sad, a lovers’ lament, two parting lovers proclaiming their never ending love.

Then came a day, one week after the Hung Thi wedding.  On that day I caught sight of Prince as he was getting out of a teashop on Tu Do street. He stopped for a second on the pavement as if lost, then took a step in my direction. Some mysterious force pushed me to walk toward him instead of the other way I supposed to go.  After a few steps I was so embarrassed … so embarassed, until he was up to me. He looked up and recognised me right away:

-       Hey, miss Huyen!

I stopped and said hello.

-   Where are you going? He asked in a gallant and caring way, but I needed more than that.

-   I wanted to buy something but couldn’t find.

-   Are you going home now?

-  Yes.

-  Let me take you home. I parked across the City Hall. Is it all right for you?

What else could I say but “yes”?

-       Let’s go back there, then.

I turned back to walk with him.  I had a floating sensation of being gradually washed ashore by waves after waves.

He asked:

-       What do you think of Hung Thi’s wedding the other day?

How could I forget it? I went silent.

Then he went on:

-       So much fun, wasn’t it?

For him, not for me! However I still said:

-       Yes, indeed.

He thought for a few seconds then asked a question that chilled me: 

- You know Linh, don’t you?

- Yes, she’s a close friend of mine since childhood.

- Is she also a student at the University of Letters?

- Yes, she will complete her Bachelor of Education by the end of this semester, majoring in English.  She previously attended a professional development course for almost seven months in the US.

I took the passenger seat next to him.  As the car took the road, he asked:

- That’s what I heard. But why only seven months?

-      Because it was only a professional development course.  Linh and her fellows took a three-month course in Austin, at the University of Texas. Then they flew to another state, probably to Rhode Island for more classes and methodology observations in various local universities. They spent the last week in Washington for meetings and writing comments and reports.

I suddenly smiled, which probably brightened my face. I went on:

-       Then the group had ten free days.  Linh left Washington on the Atlantic Coast, drove all the way to California on the Pacific Coast to meet Huy.

Prince asked:

-       Huy? Who’s that?

I answered most naturally:

-     That’s Linh’s boyfriend, who was taking a course at CalTech, California Institute of Technology.

-     A technology university?

-     Yes, Huy studied in Aviation Technology, majoring in Jetplane technology, I think.

I noticed Prince just turned into a less crowded road, thus for a much longer trip. Then, he asked:

-     So Linh had to rent a car?

-      No, she learned from friends’ experiences in the US and took a driving exam for international licence.  Then she bought a second-hand Chevrolet at only three hundred dollars. Second-hand but still in pretty good condition.  Then, while in Austin, Texas or in Rhode Island, or in Washington , she often organized excursions right in the state where she stayed or in neighboring cities. She totally relied on those perfect maps for tourists which would make it impossible to get lost.

He had been driving in totally different directions for a while. I pretended not to notice and considered it an impromptu city ride. He asked:

-       Was Linh by herself all the way from Washington to California?

I smiled – he was not aware of it – and said:

-       Yes, she was by herself.  Driving day time, resting night time, sometimes driving extra part of the previous night, or getting an early start of the following day. That was how she drove for six days till she reached California, covering over three thousand miles, passing many states: Kentucky, Missouri, Kansas, Colorado …

I did not forget to include some memorable details like her being chased and stopped by a police officer. It was midnight and the road was deserted, so she had been speeding to the max. Lucky her, the policeman did not have heart to fine a woman, especially a foreign one. He just reminded her not to overspeed, no matter how deserted the road was. When Linh was driving across the mountainous areas of Colorado, Utah and Nevada at night, she occasionally caught sight of some “DIP” signs indicating certain low places on the road. She would then lightly press on the brake for the car to fall then bounce upward again, like an unruly beast, while all the car springs vibrated under the strain.

Dear sister, I didn’t expect to be such a bright narrator, probably even brighter than the talented Linh. I wondered how! Don’t ask me how those details came to me in full and so vividly. They were what Linh told me, maybe once, maybe several times, but the picture I had for myself was of a student who, after reading the exam question, was using her utmost brain power to collect and make use of all the necessary facts she could remember.

I continued my narration about how those two met at CalTech, made a trip to Los Angeles, passing by Hollywood.  There was time when they spent a weekend in El Paso, a small province in the South, then drove across the border bridge to Juarez City of Mexico. Linh didn’t like the chaotic lifestyle overthere, especially its obvious lack of morality, so she asked to be driven back right away. They parted right in El Paso because Linh was too short of time. Huy boarded the train back to California. Back in Washington, after selling off her car, Linh still had a free day before flying to Paris for two weeks, then back home to Vietnam.

During all my narration, Prince listened quietly without a question. Only at the end did he make a simple comment: “Linh is a really good driver!”, then took me home by the shortest way.

Dear sister, I told him exactly what Linh told me, but I intentionally omitted the last part. I didn’t tell him that, five months later, Linh had a letter from Huy telling her he would remain in Caltech for further studies, with no fixed date of return. Linh understood the hidden message that it was the end of their relationship. As it was relayed to me, I kept asking Linh why she did not ask for further clarification. Linh replied with apparent bitter smile:

-       What’s the use, Huyen? Love is like the scent of flower. We don’t get it by begging for it. In love, lack of self-respect from either side would turn it into a pretty flower with no scent and no value. Huy may be actually staying longer, but I am sure he is dating someone else. What’s the use of asking him, Huyen?

That was a very noble attitude. The more I thought about it, the more I admired Linh. But now that I was sitting next to Prince, I tried to push aside her image off my mind. The car stopped right in front of my house. I opened the door, got out, then leaned on the glass window:

-Thanks for taking me home. It’s too late today, you might not have time. Maybe next time when you’re free, please be my guest.

At other times he would say something witty. But on that day he was reservedly formal. I guessed he was still overwhelmed by all the details I poured into him.

I removed my hand from the car, but bent down to say again:

-       When you have free time, please come and visit us. My parents always enjoy seeing their children’s friends.

Then I took a few steps away and remained standing on the pavement, waiting for him to drive away. Unlike the previous time, I was in no hurry to leave. He needed to be given time to have a good look at me, at the very moment when he was most himself. He would realise that I was more beautiful than Linh, wouldn’t he?

I was right. He did look at me for a while. Then, it was his turn to say goodbye with a smile. He drove on. Reluctantly.

 

VII

 

I had a vague impression that I was at an advantage, but did not expect it to show so quickly. Right on the next day, I was sitting with my back to the street, dressed in casual attire, and reading a picture magazine. I heard a light tap on the screen door. I turned back and recognised him and his car parked on the other side of the road. We exchanged some formal greetings while I fumbled to open the door. Once he got in and helped me secure the door, he had a long look at me and grinned:

-       I felt as if I just closed a bird cage.

I smiled back:

-       You are right. From outside, our house looks like a bird cage, a very square one.

He lowered his gaze, then added:

-       In which there is a pretty little bird.

Too shy to face him, I blinked and turned away.

He went on:

-       Most interestingly, by closing the door, I also lock myself in.

I was surprised at his bold advance. I remained silent, but looked at him with a light smile, showing I was not displeased. He sat down before I offered him to, and fixed a drooping rose from a vase. We talked and only then did he realised I had an older brother who had long been a doctor in Dalat and an older sister in Can Tho with her husband. Younger than me were a brother and a sister who would be home soon from school. He was sorry Mom was out that day and Dad was on an inspection trip to other provinces for several weeks. (Actually Mom was home, but knowing she was not the socialising type, I pretended she wasn’t home).

He made himself very much at home, walking around, admiring the bookcase and the painting on the wall by artist Duy. He then stopped by the window, drew aside the blue curtains and exclaimed with pleasure:

-       Look at that pretty garden!

I said I liked it too, for the simple reason I could see it from my window, as if it were all mine. He liked the mock-orange flowers with their tiny leaves, the young plum tree laden with fruit, the rose bed in full bloom, the morning-glory trellis with purple flowers, his favorite color. Then he came to a sudden conclusion:

-       Actually, the garden has no value in itself. It is beautiful because it’s right beside the house of a beautiful lady.

I gave him a bold look before lowering my head with a smile, for I thought he was then a fish on hook, joyfully dragging the float along the rippled lake.

He asked permission to leave. I truly wanted him to leave. With my feeble soul, I felt overwhelmed by too much happiness. Those were my thoughts as I followed him to the door. He stopped with a final whisper:

-       All ladies’ noble mission is to be sweetly and tenderly beautiful. I haven’t seen anyone fulfilling that mission better than the one named … Huyen.

I kept my smile, lightly shaking my head without saying a word. I turned back right away instead of following him with my eyes.

Dear sister, on that day, if I hadn’t met Prince as he stepped out of the tea house on  Tu Do street, if while driving me home he hadn’t asked about Linh, I wouldn’t have talked so much about her and I would have lost my Prince forever. From Linh’s point of view, those could be called chance incidents. From my point of view, I would call it  Destiny, which had favored me, a simple tactless girl. Don’t you think so?

Deep inside, I told myself I had a right to my Prince love because I met him first. However, I still admitted I was at fault with Linh in this battle. I did not create or re-arrange any details Linh had many times confided in me, but I was shrewd enough – could I say ”shrewd”? – to stop the story at the right time, so as to extinguish the nascent flame of love in Prince for Linh. And when I got out of his car, that shrewdness of mine was pushed to perfection when I remained standing long enough to allow my unique image to go straight to his heart and stay there until he reluctantly drove away. As soon as Linh’s flame snuffed out, mine started. The remaining heat from her flame only made mine more ardent.

Now that my advantage was definite, I started looking back and realised how mean I was. The great thing in Linh was, though at time suffering from love lost, she still enjoyed life and people. She was not so mean as to taint life with her broken heart. Deep inside she was truly sad, but on the outside she was truly cheerful. Those two contrary feelings were equally true in her, and, probably because she could hide her inside sadness, her outside cheerfulness became undescribably attractive. Her complex soul was a lovely rarity. That was Linh, my friend since childhood, the one who when leaving, had caused me to lie in bed, facing the wall, then to burst in tears on Mom’s shoulders. That was Linh, the one who pressed her face on the back of the train seat to cry all the way from Hanoi to Thanh Hoa. But then, I managed to disperse those thoughts to remind myself again and again that I met Prince first, before Linh. With her beauty and her attractiveness, there were certainly plenty of suitors who would go down on their knees to offer her happiness. Offering happiness on their knees! Yes happiness! Oh, I wasn’t so sure to hold happiness yet. Just imagine Prince taking leave of me at one street end, then meeting Linh at the other end. He who had treated me with so much gallantry, would exactly treat others alike, especially when the other was Linh. He would stop his car, open the door to invite her in. Once together, they would be in heaven. They would play with words, they would play with sentiments, for they were experts in flirting. Who could say they would not stop at a fruit shop. Again there would be green apples, red grapes. Advantages could be easy gain easy loss. Who could say Prince would not run into Linh some day? Who could say he would come back to see me very soon? I wasn’t sure I was holding happiness in my hands yet …

 

VIII

 

I did not have happiness yet. I did not have to feel guilty with Linh.  If I had to do it again, I would have been even more unfair.

“Men are like trains starving for long journeys, each beautiful lady they met is a station. Each station is a pleasant picture of blissful rest, but this will not prevent the train from going on, so as to have the chance to stop at other stations.”

I thought I have forgotten that statement, but it was still resonating in my mind, more worrying than ever. Dear sister, I did not get hold of happiness yet.

Two restless days had passed. Everyday, as I got to the university, I always looked for Linh but never saw her. I wondered whether because our class hours were different or because she had a date with Prince. One afternoon. as I got home from class, the old maid told me:

-       A gentleman came and asked for you, then left his card.

That was Prince’s card with a few words written in slanting hand (that was the first time I saw his handwriting).

Huyen,

I dropped by for a visit but you were not home.

No problem. I will come back this afternoon. At 6pm, is this ok?

Best regards

6:00pm! At that time I was supposed to be at my uncle’s place at the end of Phan Dinh Phung street to help with my cousin Khang’s engagement party. Mom had been there since early morning. I would come a bit later. I would have the opportunity to put on some make-up. My beauty would shine many times while I could still let him know I was modest enough to make up only on special occasions. The Bruyere No 58 pink on my cheeks looked really nice, as if it were my natural complexion. And the Rose Camellia red on my lips was exquisitly bright.

As expected, he was on time, I was readily dressed up in my ao dai of the sweetest color. I pretended to hurriedly open the bird cage door while explaining the reason of my formal attire. However I still advised him to stay till 7pm, when I was required at the party. He got into the bird cage to make us a couple, and I was the one to close the door. He stood still next to me. Seeing him so, I was then absolutely sure he was mine, that I wouldn’t lose him again. I was at fault with Linh. I wasn’t being fair with her. Even though she did not know anything, I kept apologizing to Linh, and also to myself. I pleaded to Linh that she should cede Prince to me. I was a fragile soul who had terrible fear of being alone.  Losing him, I would be banished to eternal solitude.

I invited Prince to take a seat. I showed him fresh roses in a vase close to him. He smiled and admired them. I had the impression this time I was in control of the conversation. I was the one to lead. We kept talking while I pretended to look away. I knew very well he never took his eyes off me. Then he stood up and walked to the window. I knew he wanted to see the garden. He drew the blue curtains while I went to his side. He seemed to look attentively, but I knew well he had no mind to see a thing. Suddenly he turned round and got hold of my hands, looking both miserable and funny in a very serious way. In a panic, I struggled to release my hands. I told him in an extremely embarrassed voice but still very firmly. I forgot my own words, but roughly, I told him not to make such advances, because I could not let him do so. I would not unless he asked me for marriage. He hurriedly informed me that indeed this coming Saturday his uncle and aunt were to come and see Mom and Dad. But he had to ask me first.

Can’t you see, dear sister, that I did not wait for him, I was the one to mention marriage first! He held me tightly in his arms. If at that very moment he released me, I wouldn’t be able to stand on my feet. He bent down … and … kissed me. I seemed to have been waiting for this moment for a very long long time, many many lives ago. I did not know how long his kiss lasted, for I had lost all notions of time. I only knew when his lips left mine, I was able to stand firm on my feet, though still in his arms. I was even able to say calmy and softly to him: “Oh no, you’ve smeared away my lipstick.”

He answered, also softly: “But our love becomes brighter.”

He was always quick with replies. He released me from his embrace. Why so soon?

-       I’m leaving, my darling – I could hear him say so.  After my uncle and aunt had a talk with Mom and Dad on Saturday (he already intimately used the terms Mom and Dad) I will come and see you more often and we will go out together.

At this he hurried away, opened the door himself and rushed to his car. (I knew he also was very moved.)

I remained at the same spot. Though not lying in bed, I seemed to be in deep trance, with pieces of beautiful dreams in mind, like scattering petals soon to become butterflies. The curtains he had drawn aside to look at the garden by the window were out of line. A branch was moving … a rose seemed to dance … my hairdo seemed to be mushed … so was my soul … my lips still burned from his kiss …

Was I really the winner, dear sister?!

Was I really the winner, dear sister?!