Quang Thân - Translated by Rosemary Nguyen)
After his divorce was final, Toan decided he would never marry again. He didn't tell anyone of his decision. He scraped together enough money to purchase an apartment in a run-down area of town, and after buying the bare necessities for his new home he was broke. But he comforted himself with the knowledge that from now on there would be no women in his apartment.
Women, to him, meant his ex-wife, the woman he had loved back when he was still ignorant about love, and married when he was still ignorant about marriage. When he first met her, he had lost sleep and lost weight thinking of her smile, with its two rows of even, white teeth. When she allowed him to kiss her, the sheer sweetness of it – it was his first time ever kissing a woman – was something he thought he would remember forever. Then came the day they took a trip to the countryside and got caught in a rainstorm which forced them to spend three hours sheltering in a dike watch station. He brushed up against her and was flabbergasted to find not the soft layer of silk he had been expecting but rather soft flesh trembling under some kind of strange wave that was rising all over her body. She demanded that he marry her after that night. She said she could not live without him. As for him, he tingled with desire every time he remembered what had happened in the dike watch station, and he wanted to do it again, and again and again. So he married her, and she moved into the apartment that his office had assigned to him when he was still single.
The first days of their marriage were wonderful. When he came home from work he would be greeted by the sight of dinner spread out on the table and his wife spread out reading on the burgundy sheets of their bed, sometimes wearing a nightie and sometimes nothing at all. Those days, he would ignore the dinner and fall on her like a chopped-down banana tree, overcome with passion.
Nowadays he no longer remembered such things, the kisses and the watch station in the rain and the nighties and the waves that rose up to quickly submerge him. All he remembered now was what he had come to define as woman. He remembered how she rifled through his coat for his old, faded wallet, then pulled out the scrawny wad of bills that was his monthly salary and wet the tips of her fingers to count each last bill. How her lips pursed when she looked at him sitting with his knees drawn up to his chest on the old armchair he'd mooched from his office. He shriveled up in his impotence, in his thankless profession and his pathetic job at an office where some earned over five hundred US dollars a month while his type barely earned over five hundred thousand Vietnamese dong. He remembered how she sprang up, almost contorting herself in her rush to get to the bathroom to diligently rid herself of what he had just given her as though she were flushing out some sort of unhealthy pollution. She told him she would never bear a child to such a useless man as he, and that she had been a fool to sleep with him that night by the dike. He remembered her cold, unconcerned expression when she started going out after dinner and staying out until the wee hours. Being a timid man who cared deeply about saving face, he never asked her where she went, not even when she stayed out all night. Finally, after a business trip to the Central Highlands that lasted seven months, he came home to his wife's barefaced declaration that she was three month's pregnant. "Do whatever you want, I don’t give a damn!", she said. He would always remember that statement. It was all he could remember now, that statement and her shameless, challenging expression. And how her face shone with the pleasure of her illicit affair.
He was glad that his new apartment did not have a woman.
This afternoon, just like every other, he was waiting at the bus stop near his office to catch the bus home. His ’81 Honda had been ‘sold into slavery’ for less than it was worth the previous year so that he could finish paying off his apartment. He had grown used to taking the bus instead of riding a motorcycle. Every afternoon without fail he caught the last bus of the evening. People’s needs are elastic, he realized. Suppose there were no bus and he was reduced to walking home, no doubt he would adjust to the daily walk as cheerfully as when he had switched from motorcycle to bus. He sat on the bus stop bench, mulling over this comforting little piece of self-deception, and telling himself that he was a thousand times better off using the government bus service than those poor chumps on motorcycles, burdened with their metal helmets and trapped behind their cloth masks, looking like so many miserable firemen as they battled the dusty roads and their fellow-creatures. He was so lost in his thoughts that he did not notice the woman holding a small child huddling at the other end of the bench.
It was a very cold evening, with a drizzle drumming wetly against the pavement. When he looked up and realized that he and the woman hugging her child were the only inhabitants of the bus stop, he felt suddenly flustered as though she were here at his invitation rather than chance. He flushed, partly for the cold and partly for embarrassment. He hadn’t been out with a woman since his divorce. In meetings at his office, he always stood up and moved immediately whenever a woman happened to sit next to him, whether she was young and attractively made-up or the old busybody who worked as the company gopher. He had never told anyone that he did not like to be near women. He only knew that, every time he had to talk to one or sit next to one, he would see and remember her and those casually cruel words she had said with such sinful joy.
The streetlights flickered on, spreading their deep yellow, high-voltage light through the mist of rain. The woman with the child scooted closer to him and looked at him imploringly.
“Can you hold him for a second? I’m afraid there might not be another bus after this one”.
“Where are you going?” he asked. “What if the bus comes?”
“I’ll only be gone for a moment. If the bus comes, you can just put him down on the bench for me.”
He couldn’t find it in his heart to refuse. Being incurious by nature, he did not ask her any more questions. He accepted the child she handed to him. It was a little boy with rosy cheeks, about a year old, sleeping soundly in a bundle of warm clothes that weren’t expensive but neither were they rags. The child’s breath, fragrant with milk, tickled Toan’s cheek. Toan gazed at him, feeling his senses awake and sharpen.
“If you’d just watch my bag, too…” The woman said, and ran off into the rain. He watched, and saw her arrive at the wall surrounding a playground. There she squatted, her shape merging into the long ribbon of shadow by the wall, and he understood what she was doing and why she had entrusted him with her son. Embarrassed, he was reproaching himself for having watched her when the familiar bus with its painted number 56 arrived. Seeing only one man holding a small child at the bus stop, the bus attendant thrust his head out and hollered “If you are waiting for this bus, hop on fast, mister!” Toan didn’t answer. He had a small boy in his arms, and a woman’s purse laying beside him; how could he leave them unattended on the bench? The bus gunned past the shelter, not bothering to stop. He watched it go, unconcerned. It would take him about a half hour to walk home, but in the cold weather he didn’t mind. Feeling the child stir in his arms, he tightened his hold and continued sitting there. He was not concerned for himself, but was beginning to feel concern for the woman. What were the chances she had the money to pay for motorcycle taxi?
“I’m so sorry, I made you miss the bus!”, the woman said when she returned and took the boy out of his arms.
“It’s no problem,” he said. “My house is near here, the walk home will warm me up nicely. Where are you heading?”
“I’m going to the Ha Dong bus station. I intended to spend the night in the waiting room there and then catch the early bus tomorrow morning to Van Dinh.”
“I’ll call a motorcycle taxi for you then, shall I?”
The woman gave him a look of panic, and he realized that she had no money. He should have known; if she had had money, she wouldn’t have been standing here hugging her child and taking her chances on the very last bus of the day.
“Er, no thanks,” the woman said quickly. “I’m frightened of motorcycles. We’ll just sleep here tonight, it’s fine. We’ll catch the first bus tomorrow morning.”
She’s putting on a front, he thought. How could she and her baby possibly get any sleep here, in a bus stop designed and built by some foreign company to advertise their products? It was nothing more than a granite bench with a pretentious, birdswing-shaped roof that kept out neither sun nor rain. And naturally there was nothing to shelter her from the bums that often used this place to pass the night and shoot their drugs. Why not bring her back to his apartment? He suggested this to her, and held out his arms to take the baby. But to his surprise, his invitation was met with vehement refusal. The woman was sure that she did not want to go with him, insisting that she would sleep at the bus stop as though the hard bench were a veritable paradise. Downcast, Toan left the bus stop and walked home.
But he couldn’t sleep. The rain was coming down harder every minute. He pictured all the terrible things that could be happening to a woman on a deserted bus stop bench in the middle of a rainy night. He searched around his apartment and found some cheap raincoats, some old and some new. At midnight, he walked back to the bus stop. The woman was curled up like a shrimp on the bench, her arms squeezing the child close to her as though afraid she might lose him. He was sure she hadn’t been sleeping, because when he stepped in from the ghostly silent street, she sat up abruptly.
“Oh, it’s you, I thought…”
If I were who she thought I was, he thought, what could she possibly do in this deserted street and interminable rain? He sat down beside her.
“I can’t let you sleep here.” he said decisively.
“You have to come home with me. You can catch the bus tomorrow morning.”
His voice was as authoritative as a member of a citizen’s patrol force who has been entrusted with the care of the homeless. As though he had signed a contract with God to protect these two wandering souls.
The women did not refuse this time. She handed him her child and walked beside him, holding up the ripped raincoat to shelter those rosy cheeks, peeking out from the blanket like two chicken’s eggs, from the slanting raindrops.
And so there was a woman in his house again. Not only a woman, but a child too. The first thing he discovered when the woman and child stepped inside was that, under the bright neon lights of his apartment, she was beautiful. An elegant, perfectly oval face and within, he sensed, a gentleness born of a lifetime of resigned submission. At least that is what he imagined. The second thing he discovered is that both mother and child were hungry. Although he did not watch when she turned away for propriety’s sake before unbuttoning her blouse to nurse the child, he knew she was struggling, squeezing and pressing on her breasts, and the little boy was still squalling. She grimaced miserably, impotently, her hands shaking like magpie. He knew that she had no milk because she was hungry. He heated water in his electric kettle, then tipped in a half-used can of condensed milk. At first she said that she was not used to drinking milk and anyway she wasn’t hungry. But when he told her that her milk would come in after only one glass (he was shooting in the dark with this, basing his promise on nothing more than his own untested and naïve reasoning), the woman grabbed the glass from his hands with a grateful, fervent look and downed the milk in one gulp.
“Will it really make my milk come in?”
“No question about it,” he said. “If you have another glass, you’ll have even more milk.”
He insisted that she have another glass. And wonder of wonders, her milk came in and the child was able to nurse his fill, then fall asleep, satiated, in her arms.
“You can put him down on my bed now and rest your arms a bit. I’ll make us some instant noodles. I’m sure you’re as hungry as I am.”
The woman said nothing. There was no point in any more polite refusals; she was in fact ravenous. But something much more important than hunger was occupying her thoughts.
They sat and ate at his writing desk. He found himself beginning to harp on her, unable to break his long-standing habit of looking for female shortcomings and diligently reproaching them.
“What were you so afraid of anyway? Why didn’t you want to come home with me? Did you think I was more frightening than the lowlifes that lurk around the streets at night? You see, if you had insisted on sleeping out there, your little boy might have starved by now!”
She looked at him with exquisite delicacy. After she had eaten, she was even more attractive. He suddenly realized that she was an educated woman. Now that she had eaten, she was even more attractive. He felt as though he were seeing a woman for the first time. He shook off the feeling, disbelieving it.
“I’m frightened of men, mister. Any time a man invites me to go somewhere or do something, I can’t help it, I get the shivers all over.”
“Oh really?” he said with a sour smile. “All my life, I’ve only seen men who’ve been ruined by women, never the other way around.”
“That’s possible,” she said with a world-weary and eminently sensible air. Then she added, “But in my experience, it hasn’t been the case.”
They realized that the apartment had only one bed and one blanket, and both were currently occupied by the little boy. So they continued to sit at his desk, neither daring to mention sleep. As is typical of women, she was the first to ask about his wife and children and general family situation. He trotted out the vague answers in the ‘answer key’ he had prepared long ago to explain his situation to his family and friends without casting anyone in a bad light nor revealing what he really thought about women. His voice sounded so sincere, she had a sudden urge to tell him her own story. At first she resisted, convinced there was no use in it. But as the night wore on, she begain to talk. How she had thought that she would never have the chance to be a wife and mother, living in her tiny rural village. How a man had come to her village and she had left her job as a teacher to follow him to the city. He was handsome, a good talker, and most dangerous of all, a real gentleman. She had never lied to anyone in her life and so believed everything he told her. They lived together in a little rented apartment and he promised he would marry her as soon as he had enough money to buy a more suitable place. She had believed they were a family, and that he was a talented husband and decent breadwinner even though she wasn’t allowed to wonder about or ask about how he earned his money.
Then their son was born, and he stopped talking about marriage. A neighbor lady told her, “All men are the same. As soon as you get pregnant, they want nothing to do with you.”
And then today…
As Toan listened to her, he recalled the day he returned home from Pleiku. He remembered how pale his wife was, and how she had retched with morning sickness from her three-month pregnancy.
“When I got back from taking my son to get his vaccinations, she was waiting for me in the apartment. Turns out, the man I thought was my husband had a wife and two children living just a few kilometers away, right there in the same city. She threw my bag at me, and I just grabbed it and ran. The only thing I was worried about was the rain. My son has just had his shots, and people say its really bad if a child gets wet right after shots. But I had to get far away from that place, as far as possible. I was afraid she would follow me, and worried about my son getting wet. So I took shelter at that bus stop… I lied to you I’m afraid.”
“But why are you smiling? Your story is hardly a laughing matter.”
“If I cry, I won’t be able to raise my son,” the woman answered simply. “Men are really something, don’t you think? She lived only two kilometers away…”
Several days passed. The man who was ‘really something’ didn’t show up looking for his woman and child. Perhaps he didn’t know they were here in Toan’s cramped little apartment. It was also possible that he knew, and had no intention of coming. Either way, it didn’t matter to Toan and the unfortunate woman. He didn’t worry about the fact that there was a woman in his house once again. All he knew was that he felt less anxious, and he didn’t have to eat potato chips and roasted peanuts to tide over his hunger, and that he no longer was haunted by the the images of a different woman pawing through his wallet while glaring at him in contempt, or pale and retching the day he returned home from the Central Highlands. He also abandoned the air of superior pride he had once felt in his life as a bachelor. He was glad he hadn’t told anyone about how he had felt..
One day, perhaps the thirteenth day after the day she had taken shelter in his house, he came home from work to find that she and the child were nowhere to be seen. There was a letter on the desk, written in the exquisitely precise handwriting of a village teacher. It said:
“I am so sorry, I know this is the height of ingratitude. But I want to go home. I cannot… I know what will happen if I stay, even though you’ve never mentioned it. And I cannot. Men still frighten me to the core. I do hope you understand. I and my son prostrate ourselves before you in our gratitude. Thank you so much for saving us and sheltering us…”.
Stunned, he looked at the dinner tray that had been prepared for him, and the neatly-folded pile of freshly-dried clothes arranged on his small china cabinet. He thought of how lonely he had been before, and he shuddered. For the first time in a very long time, he felt that he lacked a woman.
( Translated by Rosemary Nguyen – Seatle – USA)