A NIGHT OF LOVE
As I awoke the sun was already high, its light filtering into the room through the shutters. I got dressed, walked to and fro, and started singing to see that life was not too bad: my song would reach the neighbouring houses to signal to the girls to come out. Well, any twenty year old chap wanted to see his reflection in a girl’s golden eyes. Honestly, I did not know any girl in the vicinity, my only acquaintance being the family next door, my landlord who lived downstairs and the wife of my friend who left the place a couple of months previously. She was a very special friend of mine, indeed.
I got into the habit of singing the days she was still here. The couple introduced me to the landlord. After that, the husband was away, teaching. At weekends, he stayed home with his wife and kids. To come back to her… She was from Huế, the place referred to in this popular poem:
" On the way to the examinations students from Quảng Province stop dead
And plant themselves in front of the lovely girls
They just could not go away- -this is Huế Capital".
She got herself a prophetic name, Thu. The vale of tears seldom fail to reach girls with such names as Thu,(1) Lan(2) Thủy(3), Loan(4), and Tâm(5). They are beautiful and men are mad about them. I was memorized by her lulling her first born child one early afternoon,
"As you get abroad a car, make sure to give your seat for your friend. Watch for her to sleep, and let her do all the complaining." My poor heart almost melt at this.
I had always strived to keep my good name in the eyes of my friends. I got away from a friend’s house as soon as I learned of his absence. I could only bring myself to leave messages in desperate cases.
If the wife was alone, I started complaining it was too hot, and opened the window..
I was no stranger to Thu, being a friend a long standing of her husband. I had meals at my friend’s house very often. Apart from her excellent cooking, I was deeply impressed by her admirable courtesy and her warm friendship. She felt free to confide her family affairs to me. Due to her gambling husband, she had to come to seek the help of her own father. She even showed me a letter from his former husband reproaching her. Of course, she was not to blame. The story began like this: Thu met and love my friend first. Her parents urged her to get married to another man, because her lover was too poor. Finally, they managed to live with each other, with a girl from his first marriage.
In my secretive fashion. I was also attracted to her lofty sadness. Oh, her sad lullaby in the first nights. I was here- my room only seperated from her by a wall with a door- caused me to forget everything, everybody, even my current sweetheart. In one visit, she bluntly told me she had had enough of hearing my praise Thu’ s cooking in Huế style. I confessed having groped toward her room in a paroxysm of passion.
I once said to Thu, "When I am in front of a girl from Huế, I cannot help feeling a sort of expectancy that tingled every nerve of mine. Are you aware of your admirable beauty? In the future, would you be my matchmaker- I need someone like you. It is very sad for me that you have no sister and my life is so miserable!"
It was a statement devoid of implications, but she blushed, trying to hide it with a smile.
One night, her daughter was in near come due to a serious fever. Standing in the yard, Thu call my name, "Nguyên! Nguyên!"
After I succeeded in bringing her baby back to life, I raised my eyes only to meet her glance which made me blink. I realized we had been in love, but neither ventured to declare first, the gulf between us being as wide as hell.
Throughout more than a month, her image returned obsessively to torment me, especially when I awoke in the dead of night. I tried to keep myself in line by recalling an incident involving my dear mother. That day, a partisan(6) came to her bed, attempting to rape her. As my mother screamed for help, he was force to flee, but only after threatening to shoot off my entire family. In a way, I likened Thu to my mother. Alas, my sex drive was just too strong for me and I had to take hold of erotic books by someone like Schroeder-Devrient or H. Lawrence.
After so many nights when I was not really awake or asleep, drifting between the two, I succeeded in controlling myself, rejecting another adventure. Luckily for me, Thu had to move to her husband’s parents, no longer able to support herself. Meanwhile, her husband went on glambling…
In her absence, I walked in the street in torment every night. Nam, the hero of a novel by Khái Hưng(7) kept coming to my mind.
I desperately wanted to have a lot of money, a house of my own and no one to spy on me. As of now, I was full of nothing but misery.
And one night, after chaining my bike to the foot of a tree, I began my customary stroll from the Bến Thành Central Market to Tự Do St, and back to Lê Lợi St. As I neared the Eden Cinema, I caught sight of a woman, dressed in peasant style, sitting on a bench at the other side of the park. I walked to her, sat on the bench, seperated from her by a little space. I found her quite attractive and young. It was she who broke the silence which ensued, saying distantly, "Darling, could you tell me how far it is from here to Phú Nhuận?"
I could tell immediately from her accent that she came from Quảng Ngãi Province trying to size her up. She could be a woman looking for work or street walker. On the European-looking streets of downtown Saigon there were plenty of them operating secretly. Some dressed in a weird manner, some walked leisurely in company of a little girl. There was practically a myriad of ways of parading their goods and giving green light to prospective customers. Oh yes, you got to have on you the necessary money. Fortunetaly I got enough money for a night of love.
I was reflecting thus when she repeated her question. I said it was far away and she inquired about my profession, my whereabouts, and the like. I told her I was looking for work and right now I had an empty belly. This really broke the ice. I almost pictured our sallying forth, arm in arm. But, I was afraid of shattering my reputation with the neighbours by bringing her home at this late hour. My landlord knew I was single with a handful of acquaintances. I had only a sweetheart visiting on Sunday afternoons. Yet, I was dying to go to bed with her, a few hours sleep would make me forget my dudgeon.
I tried to size her up again, inviting her to have something to eat or drink. I searched the good looking face for a sign of approval and found it. We got up. It was then my courage soared and I had her hand and was feeling the returned pressure. I left my bike at the parking area outside Bến Thành Central Market for the night, then we walked to a near deserted Chinese soup shop where we could talk freely. After the soup, we ordered black coffee for both. Her good drinking manners were to me proof of her class. She talked well, too, exceedingly well.
I asked her to decide whether to go to her relative’s house in Phú Nhuận
or come to share the bed with me.
She said sternly, "That could do no harm. We’re in the same boat, you know. Let’s go, dear. It must be good to talk to each other while it rains outside."
Her answer cause me to stiffen. Was it possible she left the same as I did? My thoughts were turned to my career as a writer. Having no regular salary, I lead a sort of life more unstable.
I said to her I was now embarking in the humblest sort of journalism collecting news tips and earned very little money. Not able to pay the rent, I had to depend on the landlord’s generosity. So it was entirely out the question to go there. A hired bed under the verendah in the bus station area would not do either, because of the threatening rain.
So we had to go a hotel. I begged her not to ask me the place and give me the honour to fix up.
As she okayed, I seemed rather nervous and thoroughly undecided as to what sort of woman she was. A small incident in the Chinese soup came to my mind. The waiter took us as montagnards because of our dress. He charged us nearby double. With a calm and dry voice, I told the man at the counter to see the matter through. With a broad grin, the like Chinese boss made a lame excuse. I murmured to her, " This man cheated us, darling." Started, I found out my real self at this moment. I told her a lie other bastards. I was just trying to lure a gullible woman into my trap
As I broke a piece of bread to hand her, she burst into tears. A strange thing or she was not a virgin when we make love. (I had always been of the position that virgins were not for me). Then she went on, "My husband was a Communist cadre. He chose to go North following the partition of the country. Unable to earn my living at my hometown I wanted to have my chance at
At this point I suspected she could be an enemy agent. This did not stand some scrutinizing. Anyway, I was definitely not the sort of fellow the Commies were after. Anticipating my wonder she said, "Don’t get me wrong, dear. No, it’s not that I’m not weeping because of what happened last night. Listen, did I tell you about my experience with my husband. Well, we lived with each other for over a year. We got no child. I got married to him simply because my family wanted to pay a debt for gratitude. Really, getting married to him or another chap did not make any difference to me. I was too young then to have a sober idea. I was troubled not longer after that. He only tried to smile to me immediately before we were to bed. After that, he turned away from me, sleeping like a log, his mouth watering… Only rarely did he talk to me. I got the feeling he took me as a dumb house thing. This is precisely why I remained in the South. For some time I’ve been out of work. I met you when I got very little money left. I tell you, you’re not better than him. At first you made me feel on top of the world, but once the act finished, you’re cool and calm again. I warn you, it won’t be long before you want me and you’ll try to be kind. I intend to allow you just once. I wept because I remembered my husband. Once I swore to him I would remain faithful to him forever. Imagine what he said? To him, it’s old hat. He did not think it mattered much whether I was loyal to him or not. He said I was like a rice bowl and many could use it. It did not bother him a bit. What he wanted was rice, yes, rice, because it’s good. I rejected his idea completely. I swore he was the only one to use the bowl. But, I have betrayed him. Had he know this, he would have been indifferent. But I’m badly shaken. Don’t misunderstand me, darling. I’m very fond of you.."
She wept louder. Awkwardly, I asked her name. Shaking her head, she said, " Look, my name is… It’s no use trying to know my real name. I did not know myself ". Now I began to see her in new light. What a poor observer I had been! I handed her another piece of bread. She took it, saying, "Remember, darling, I’ll not allow you…after this, because of hygiene and for your protection, too. You want me again? Sure, you do. I know men to well. Mind you, I am not too concerned about this. You’re a man and I’ m a woman."
I found she was morally straighter than I was. I got educated, but what I learned did not help me delve into her real self. Ashamed, I lost any desire.
When she said she wanted some more bread, I gave it to her, staring at her stealthily. Seeing she was about to finish eating I prompty served her a cup of tea. She smiled to me, kindly. After a gulp of water, she said, "Turn the light off, darling. Have a good sleep. Make sure not to grunt when I waken you…" I noded, without a word. I was tossing about, unable to close my eyes for a while, before I slept. I heard someone calling my name as if in a dream- Was it a ghost girl? Then someone touched my shoulder. Oh, it was she, for sure. I made love to her, considerately this time. I did change quite a bit . I recalled a picture of Colonel Townsend holding Princess Margaret in his arms at the stairs, with the caption, À vos ordres! in French magazine. Of course, this was taken before she got married to the photographer.
It rained… it rained… She wakened me once more… All told , we were intimate three times… before the next dawn.
And so here I was, sitting still in the editorial office of the paper I worked with on a part time basis. Well, right in front of me was a female typist. Gee, she was a peach! She had on a soft dress and her long feet ralaxing under the table. Once, I would have devoured her by my eyes; this morning it was different. Looking right at me, she started a conversation to sympathize with my sadness. Many girls gave me a ring in my absence; the reason of my living alone… things like that. In another occasion, had she been that kind, I would have taken it as a very special favour. This morning, I felt indifferent, still troubled by the affair last night. Did she really care for me? O, how I wished she was a spiteful, untidy, narrow-minded woman! Her affection, her generosity really shook me, terribly. Now, everything became so serious. I considered asking her to be my wife. I was convinced such a marriage would be a success. But it was not easy to come to a crucial decision right now…
Should I come back this noon? For an awfully long time the nagging question remained unanswered. Meanwhile, I decided to cut off my relation with my girl friend. She was too much for me. I would rather get the woman last night than that thin and bad-mannered girl. Through her I found many traits of Thu. How could I forget her anyway? She was the sort of girl who was lovely even when she tried to say harsh words to you. What kept me from going to her in nights, when her husband was away? The door was opened and it took only a couple of steps to get to her bed from the rear entrance. We were deeply in love but neither of us had enough nerve. I had only myself to blame, because I was a man. Such an occasion did not repeat itself… I recalled handing her an envelope with a small sum of money saying, "I know you have no money left now. You’ve got to do me this honour. I might do something desperate if you don’t…" With that, of course, she surrended, with a smile. Oh, she was beautiful: glossy white teeth, pink lips, oval-shaped face, white skin, lovely eyes, appealing body, exquisite manners. A man could be attracted to a woman with any of these- She had all. And maturity, too.
That evening Thu’ s eyes were so kind I tossed about the bed; Otherwise, I indulge myself in chain smoking. She was by herself, the maid had returned home. But I dared not go ahead and missed the opportunity.
This morning such thoughts entered my mind, tormenting me. Tidying up her table the typist asked softly, " What’s the matter with you? You’re looking so miserable!" Startled, I looked around and saw most had gone. I rose up, counted the dough in my wallet; there were over one hundred piasters, enough for a lunch for two and two movie tickets. Within one hour the manager would tell the boy to come up to the room. Remorseful, I hurried to go to a bus.
I felt good again as the noon breeze blew into my face. Walking in the hotel, I looked around and saw the boy. I asked, " Is she still here?" Overjoyed at his positive answer, I ran usptairs, knocked at the door. I heard her distinct voice from inside. I exclaimed, "It’s me, darling. Let’s go and have lunch". As the door opened she clung to me kissing, "I thought you’ ve abandoned me. Dear, I do love you. As I heard the knocking, I thought the boy was going to ask me to leave. "
Really she knew of my opinion, but she did not panic. My pity for her swelled in my heart.
After lunch I was still indecided. I loved her, yes. But I also liked my care free life. I hated to lose her. Beyond any doubt, she was a perfect companion.
With calm, she said, "Dear, it’s time to say goodbye. I must look for work. I also want to see many relatives. Listen, dear. If you really love me, I’d like to know where I can find you later if I have a son. We’ll fix it up if by then we still care for each other. No, you need not say anything. Do as I say. But we go to the pictures first. Dear, let me give you a kiss."
Sadly, I listened to her. That afternoon at four thirty as I got aboard the bus, she still stood at the street with many good eating shops facing Đồng Khánh Blvd , waving to me. As to me, I dared not glance backward. It still remains in my mind, as if it was only last night. The woman did not come back. It seemed ages since we met, and I did not forget. What had happened to her? And the son? I had a blank mind this morning, about time to move again. Life was as it had been except for two things: the woman did not come back, the sweetheart did not return either. She got married because of my heplessness. My own voice reminded me of Thu and her husband and children in my faraway place. Oh, how I wanted to go see them! I intended to give them a few books and to tell them about the woman. And, to see my love again.
I went down the street, took a bus… On the road, I sank into a reflective mood. How are things going with Thu? Two years passed.. And I’m still single.
As the bus stopped at the town, I wondered whether I had enough courage or not. A wandering soul, I walked on the street. Dumb founded in front of Thu’s blue-painted house. I heard the children at play inside, but could not raise my hand to knock at the door… A half hidden frail silhouette appeared inside the yellow window curtain The woman of my life . She turned in my direction. All of a sudden- Was it because she recognized me?- she stood still, her eyes wide open, her mouth holding back a cry (What sort of cry? ) Abrupty, I turned away, my steps quickening.
(1) (2) (3) (4) (5) : Name's vietnameses ladies.
(7) Khái Hưng (1896 - 1947) the Vietnamese write .