To Hung’s grandma, who had raised him as her child and like me, loved him unconditionally and went through the pain of losing him.
Chapter 1: Home, the little snake and the step mom
Chapter 2: Leaving home, the youngest aunt and my dad
Chapter 3: A new job and a thug
Chapter 4: The new friend
Chapter 5: Love at first sight
Chapter 6: Meeting relatives
Chapter 7: It’s not love
Chapter 8: Love enemy and reconciliation
Chapter 9: Separation
Chapter 10: A sudden decision
Chapter 11: Shanghai is so glittering
Chapter 12: New friends
Chapter 13: Reunion
Chapter 14: Refusal
Chapter 15: What do you think if I kiss another girl?
Chapter 16: Living together
Chapter 17: Mistake and forgiveness
Chapter 18: Freedom
Chapter 19: I don’t want you to suffer alone
Chapter 20: Going to Paris together
Chapter 21: The incident in Switzerland
Chapter 22: I don’t deserve you
Chapter 23: The truth
Chapter 24: Missing the Paris date
Chapter 25: The last letter
The final chapter
Thank YOU who encouraged me to write this memoir about what happened between us. Thank Ms. Sao Bui who proofread my memoir and, with me, prepared for its publishing like preparing for the birth of a real baby. She corrected so many of my mistakes. Thank Thu Huyen and Anh Tuan. As picky readers, they showed me many shortcomings in the book. Thank my dear friend Le Phuong, who was always with me when I needed and encouraged me all along the way. Thank an anonymous friend who supported and proofread my memoir. Finally, thank young author Thai Cuong who gave me the most sincere comments. Actually, thank all who gave me sincere comments. You all gave me the motivation, the effort to finish this memoir.
Writing this memoir means all the emotions I hid for many years resurface. There are not enough words to write about him and his love to me.
“Suddenly I saw a girl sitting there alone, getting lost in the book, smiling, sobbing for hours and completely being ignorant of what happening around her. Right from that moment, I strongly like that innocent girl”.
“I quietly watched her for hours, I smiled when she smiled”.
“Will you marry me? Will you move to Paris with me?”.
Time flies brutally. His warm, familiar voice is still transmitting through the air. It’s like I just woke up after a ten- year sleep.
Love is a wonderful gift of life, yet it can also be a painful experience. Every adult in this world must have deeply loved someone and must have thought it’s impossible to separate from him or her.
Home, the little snake and the step mom.
I used to have a home, because my dad was there.
I used to have a little pet snake, yes; a pet snake and I loved it so much.
I am of a mixed race: Vietnamese and Chinese. My dad was a big Vietnamese man. By one of his old time photos, I could tell he was a handsome and attractive young man. He was also a good guitarist and singer.
He moved back to Vietnam from Russia when I was a little child.
Two years later, my dad remarried another woman. My stepmom was tall and had very light skin, a long hair, sharp eyes and pinky lips. I was so happy because it meant from that time I had a mom. I had been dying to call someone “mom”. Only those who had no mom would understand how much I was longing to be loved, to be hugged, to be scratched on my back in the hot summer nights. Yes, I then had a mom, but it was not a mom exactly like my imagination, the imagination of a little child.
My stepmom gave birth to a boy. He was so lovely and smart. I loved my stepmom more, a sincere, whole-hearted love, because she gave me a brother-friend.
My dad and my stepmom called him Quy. They loved him so much. To me, he was handsome and lovely. Every time I saw my stepmom nudge him, I quietly watched them with a yearning, because my stepmom never showed that love to me. I wished she gave me only 10% of the love she gave him. But it was impossible. Every time, I wanted to call for my real mom loudly, I wanted to know where she was, I wanted to ask her why she abandoned me.
At that time, I did not understand why my real mom was not with me.
The children in my village often told each other: ”You shouldn’t be her friend. She sleeps with a snake. She has poison in her body. If you are with her, you will be mute”. Why did a child like me have to hear these brutal words? Why did I feel like an outcast? Every time they pointed at me and said those words, I wanted to cry out loud. I looked like them. What was wrong with having a pet snake? Why did they treat me like that?
I had a pity for myself. I was so lonely.
Later I found out that I had had a wrong expectation of my stepmom. After living a while with my dad and having a child with him, my stepmom started showing her hatred to me. Yes, it was hatred. It was so obvious.
Once my bicycle hit a pet cat street vendor. The man yelled: “Look where you are going”. I got goose bumps all over my body: “Oh no, I am so sorry.” He kept yelling: “Catch my cat. If it runs away, you die”. Ignoring my begging for forgiveness, he held me hostage.
Hearing the commotion, the villagers gathered around. Seeing me, they gave me a contemptful smile: “Oh, that bad luck girl. Call her dad”.
I was there, a lone child, in the middle of the staring crowd. Yet there was not a single one Samaritan.
My stepmom came, but not to my defense. She yelled: “The bitch. Even your mom disliked you so she abandoned you. Why don’t you run away like her?”
I was shocked. I even doubted what I just heard. My stepmom was on their side for my innocent accident?
After that, every time I made a mistake, she repeated that same curse. She knew to hit me exactly where it hurt. If it was not for hatred, how could she be so cruel to me?
Then to a certain point in time, I could no longer swallow my pain and fought back: “Mom, leave my real mom alone…”. She would use a face towel to hit me many times. And she yelled: “There, I have been raising her, now I only say some words yet she argues back. Where are you, her dad? You the un-educatable girl”. Without waiting to listen to my side of the story, my dad would hit me right away. When the only dad I dearly loved hit me, I felt the whole world betrayed me.
So many times I suffered the injustice imposed on me.
I was just a little girl without a mom, a guardian. I could only keep silent. As the popular saying goes: “There is no bone in a pancake. There is no love from a stepmom to a step daughter”.
Who could I blame? My mom had lived with us but then she had run away, leaving my dad and me behind. What had she thought when she abandoned her little daughter?
The only one who did not abandon me was the little snake. It was a gift from God. I had saved it from a cock that had almost killed it by pecking it non-stop. It was as small as a chopstick. It just got a new smooth skin. Sometimes I tied a bow to the snake; it liked it so much that it coiled around my ankle. Every time I was not happy, it seemed to know, it crawled to my hand. Caressing its cool skin melted away my sadness. From a chopstick, it grew up to a one-meter long rope. It just wandered around in my room and slept on its own bed after a meal. Many times I released it to the garden, hoping it would go back to the wild. But it just stayed there. “Why don’t you go away? I am tired of you”, I told it. Its round, glittering eyes looked at me as if it begged me not to abandon it. “Ok, ok, but whenever you want to leave me, just go”. It seemed to understand me and crawled back to my room.
Aside from my snake, another one never let me down: books. They were my family members; they were my friends, my love, my happiness and my teachers. Thanks to reading a lot, I had an open mind. Reading about less fortunate lives in stories, witnessing miserable lives around me, I tried to have an optimistic view of life.
I got lost in every poem I read. To me, literature was a fantasy world that I could live in, dream, fly and find happiness. Among the poems I read, my most favorite one was the first few lines of the poem “A Vietnamese girl” by To Huu.
Who are you? A girl or an angel?
How old are you or are you ageless?
Your hair or a cloud or a stream
Your glancing eyes or lightning in a stormy night
Your flesh or iron or bronze
Every time I read those lines, my sadness went away. Because the poet glorified the strength of an invincible Vietnamese girl and I was one. I felt a connection between me and those lines, or those lines encouraged me to be that strong brave girl, standing up against the storms of life and finding freedom and happiness at last.
Leaving home, my youngest aunt and my dad
I was seventeen years old, the age of poor judgment, spontaneity, over-sensitivity, not enough self-control and being prone to vices. It was also the age of adolescence. The way of thinking was less childish and more mature.
That was the age of dreams and ambitions. I thought more of my future, my life path.
I quietly prepared to run away from home. I left a note under dad’s pillow. It said: “Dear dad, I am sorry for leaving you. If you go look for me, I will go to where nobody can find me. Just let me return by myself”. I knew my disappearance would break his heart but life under his home was too suffocating, too much stressful for a young girl like me.
The following day, when nobody was home, I contacted my youngest aunt. I cried and told her my circumstance. I asked her to shelter me.
“Alright, calm down, I will come to pick you up”.
“No, let me go by myself”.
“But there are too many dangers on the way…”
I hung up.
After having got her address, I gathered my backpack, my passport, my ID card, some clothes, some books and left at night with my bicycle.
90km was the distance between my dad’s home to my aunt’s. I started my bike trip at 8:00pm. My body was still full of bruises from my dad’s rod. But the pain in my heart was more serious than the body wounds. I rode my bike like I was racing. Occasionally, I stopped for directions and watched night scenery. I saw many homeless people on the way. But I was not very different from them now, I had no home. Wiping my tears, I continued my trip with many unanswered questions….
By 9:00AM the following day, I arrived at my aunt’s house, an apartment in downtown area. She was my mom’s youngest sister, named Duong Y, living by herself. I rang the door bell. Seeing me in such a bad shape after an 11-hour bike ride without rest, she hugged me and cried. “You are here, at last, come on in”.
Her apartment had 90 m2 of living area, 2 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms and no division between the living room and the kitchen. She led me to the bathroom with warm water in the bathtub and had a bath towel ready. “Take a bath. I already prepared your breakfast. Then get a good sleep”.
I nodded and said thank you.
From that time on, I lived with her. Life was much better with her. I got many cheerful advices. Sometimes, she gently scolded me about miscellaneous things like these:
“You should drink lemonade to reduce weight. You would look ugly if you are overweight”- “If you look ugly, it is your fault to everybody”- “Don’t forget your sunscreen when you go out”.
And I would argue back:
“My dear aunt, everybody belongs to everybody. Obesity has its own beauty. Beautiful appearance is just skin deep”. I pouted yet inside I was very happy with her complaints.
She looked unhappy: “When I was young, my mom reminded me every day to take good care of my skin. Thanks to her wisdom, my face still looks fresh and I still keep a lean body”.
“Oh, in my opinion, inner beauty is more important than outer beauty”.
She smiled: “Your optimism is good. But remember, in a flower shop, customers always look for the most beautiful flowers to buy”
I chucked: “Pitiful for them. Beauty does not last long. Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. A real flower connoisseur will not cut a flower then let it die in the vase”.
She shook her head: “Your thinking is just like that of your grandpa. He would never let me cut a flower to put in a vase”
“To be beautiful and make people love her is just a woman. To be ugly yet make people love her, that is a queen”
“Only loser says that”.
Those kinds of argument cheered up our home with warmth and love. But I would always be the one who admitted defeat: “Yes, dear aunt, I agree”.
Just a few days later, my dad came. Seeing his familiar beret through the peeping hole on the door, I shivered. I stood silent. I made a signal to my aunt not to answer him.
Seeing my bewildered face, my aunt went to the door to check.
Then we looked at each other, worrying. The door bell rang again and again.
Finally I said: “No, I don’t want to meet him”. Then I went to my room, shut the door tight.
My aunt opened the door for my dad.
“Hi Tina’s aunt” he said and used all his senses to detect me. In his beautiful eyes, worry and anger mixed.
“Oh, my brother-in-law, what is your visit for?”
“I am sorry for coming without warning to disrupt your weekend. I am going to make it short”. Then he brought up the issue.
My aunt smiled as if nothing happened. “Please have a seat”. She gave him a cup of tea. “You know what I am here for. I want to see my daughter. She is here, isn’t she?”
My aunt drank tea then replied calmly: “Yes, she is here. But I can’t let you see her and she doesn’t want to see you either”.
My dad got angry: “How can you have the right not to let me see my daughter?”
“I am her aunt; I have the right to protect my niece! If you don’t want her to treat you exactly like my sister did then you go home”.
“Shut up”. His voice got loud as he lost his temper. “My daughter can’t be that kind of heartless woman like your sister. This is comparing apples and oranges”.
“Comparing apples and oranges? You are so funny. Do you know what you mean? If Tina is not like her mom, who would she be like, your current wife? Yeah, she is like your second wife, she has played well the good wife/good stepmom role to you and Tina has played well the role of a step daughter who suffers brutal physical abuses, unfair treatment. The only difference between my niece and my sister is she has much more tolerance than her mom”.
“You don’t live in my family. How can you comment on my wife and on the way I raise my daughter?”
My aunt smiled sarcastically: “Mountains can change, personality can’t”.
“What do you mean, stop playing words with me”
Seeing her former brother-in-law lost his self-control, aunt Duong Y smiled dryly:
“You are quite selfish; you live for your own interests. Did you ask yourself why my sister had left you? Did she like to live where you like? I don’t want to bring up old stories, neither to hurt your feelings. But a person like you should taste a little bitterness. If my niece were exactly like my sister, she would have left you long time ago”.
My dad kept quiet for a while. Bitterness showed on his face after hearing what his former sister-in-law said. His voice turned deep with regret:
“I know I did not treat my daughter fairly. But she is my blood. It is totally my fault for what happened. Please have pity on me, let me meet her, she is still too young, too immature. She may fall into life’s dangerous traps that all of us don’t want her to”. He wiped his tears with his handkerchief.
My aunt was so much loved by my grandpa, so she understood his feeling. She looked at him. Nevertheless, he was her niece’s dad. She told him more understandingly:
“Brother, my sister before was like my niece now. The more my dad looked for her, the further she ran away. Youth is prone to mistakes. Let your daughter figure out her life. She needs adversity and challenges to overcome to fully mature. Let her live with me. Sure you are sad not having her in your home. But let’s not make her run away even further”.
“All parents love and care about their children. Let me see her. I’ll try to convince her to go home. If she really wants to stay with you, I’ll let you take care of her”.
“No, not now, not this time. Again, I don’t want her to be a missing person like my sister. Let it be. She already told you she would see you again when time was right”.
My dad seemed to understand finally. He gave up and gave his business card to my aunt: “Duong Y, this is my phone number. Keep me updated about her. Take care of her on my behalf; she is still too young to be independent outside her home town”.
Then he left.
I heard their conversation entirely. I grabbed my chair’s arms tight, suppressing my emotions and telling myself “Be determined. Don’t cry. Don’t follow dad home, otherwise you are a victim of mistreatment again”. But my tears kept falling and falling. I pulled up the yellow, patterned window blind and held tight the window bar, quietly saw him off. He walked slowly in the fierce summer sun of Hanoi. The tall trees with large foliages along the street stood still. As if they felt guilty not to shade the poor father enough from the sun.
Yet whenever I thought of that unforgettable afternoon, I felt upset with him. One afternoon, I rode my bicycle along the same road from school to home. Big and tall trees stood along both sides of the road. Farther along were green tea hills. I attentively looked at green tea hills. Some tea leaf pickers were singing and laughing. Water from the waterfalls slowly flowed into golden rice fields. White storks and swallows crisscrossed the sky. What a hot but romantic golden afternoon in the country side. I was like a daydreaming girl in a fantasy land. My bicycle plunged into a ditch. My sleeve was torn as it was hooked into the handlebar. My hands got bruised, the left brake wire was cut, the rim curved. I brought my bike to a repair shop but I had to wait for an hour before my turn. I came home in a bad shape, yet without asking why, my dad scolded me right away.
“Look at yourself. The more you grow up, the more you are like your mom. Bitch”
And he hit me like hitting an enemy. My whole body got bruises and scratches.
I hated him so much because those poisonous words tore apart my heart. I hated him and had pity for myself. Why was I born? If I was like my mom, it was not my fault. They chose to give birth to me; I did not choose to be born. Why was God so unfair to me?
I went to my room crying as I did not want anybody to see me cry, even my dad. When I was in my room, I realized my dad trashed my room. Everything was out of place: books, souvenirs, stuffed animals and even the blonde Russian baby doll. And my little snake lay motionlessly. “Oh my God, my little snake. My best friend. Wake up. What’s wrong with you?”
That night, using torchlight, I buried him near the hill, where bamboo trees rattled in the wind. The night in the village was so peaceful and quiet. But I hated this place. I hated my home. I swore I would go far, far away from this place.
I wanted a harmonious life. I wanted to love and to be loved, like the bamboo shoots around the bamboo tree base. But it was just a dream. “Little snake, it’s quiet mountains and forest here. Rest in peace. In your next life, when you will be a human, we will be sisters. Farewell, my only friend”. I stayed at its grave in half asleep state until the dawn.
A new job and a thug
I didn’t want to be a financial burden to my aunt. I looked for a part-time job to cover my own living expenses and to pay for future tuition fees.
My aunt worked for a Chinese import/export company in Hanoi. Before, when I was still with my dad, she visited me a few times, she even asked my dad for letting me to live with her, but he refused and even forbad her to see me. She had to resort to visit me at my school. So she was so happy and surprised to see her dream come true unexpectedly. It was a comfort after her long period of loneliness.
When she saw the Help Wanted section of the newspaper that I had left on the dining table, she was not happy. She said: “I have you only, nobody else. Now you live with me, I will take care of you completely. The only thing you need to do is to prepare for the university entrance exam. If you really want a part-time job, I have a friend who needs a helper for his internet café, 3 shifts a week. You can work there. You will learn interpersonal skills. I take care of your living expenses and tuition fees. This is a cell phone that I can contact you when I need”.
I happily agreed and thanked her.
The following day, she took me to the internet café.
The owner was a man in his forties. He was tall and slim with a kind face, wearing a black sport suite. He cheerfully shook my aunt’s hand and my hand.
“This is Tina, my niece” she told him then turned to me: “This is uncle Vinh, the owner I told you about”.
“Good morning sir. Just call me Tina, uncle”.
After a short while, we got more comfortable to each other. He mocked me: “Your name is as nice as your face. You look like you may become my daughter-in-law”. I blushed…Both of them laughed.
I thought: “big city people are quite cheerful”.
I started working. Day after day, I tried to forget unhappy things back home. Every day I reviewed lessons then I went to the library to read books. If I was very happy, I played Audition dancing on the computer or played games with online gamers. Many times I read books until almost dawn. I knew that it was the only way I could make my dream come true.
At the internet café, most customers were university students. I did not remember anybody. I only needed to know how much they had to pay for using the service.
City boys were different from village ones. They played more and flirted with girls more aggressively. I was bothered by being chased after quite often. I always wanted to keep a distance with them. Not because I was snobby but none of them was decent enough to me. After a while, I got used to their flirting, as a cost of doing business. I set the bar high. My boyfriend should be fluent in some foreign languages. Why? Because I wanted to travel around the world with him.
One day, when I was checking the café’s ledger, in came a man. Seeing me, he smiled: “Girl, do you know you are sitting on my chair?”
“What an arrogant guy. Where is he from?” I thought.
But I calmly looked at him and replied: “There are many chairs over there. Which one you like so I can turn on the computer?”
He stared at me and raised his voice: “You are not listening. You are sitting on MY chair”.
I did not understand what was happening. “Oh my God, he is a thug. I am not lucky today”.
But as customers were king, I controlled myself . I stood up and said “If you really like this chair, I let you use it. Now you pick the computer, I will bring the chair to that place”.
He stared at me again then walked out, got on a big orange Yamaha motorcycle and sped away.
I was still surprised at his attitude. My aunt was right. I needed to learn how to deal with people. It was a good lesson. He was not a real thug, otherwise worse things might happen.
One hour later, Mr. Vinh the owner dropped by. At the same time, the young man came back. Now I had time to have a good look at him. He was tall with broad shoulders, probably due to weight lifting exercise. He had a Mohawk warrior hairstyle with black bold clothing.
He greeted Mr. Vinh : “Hi Dad”.
I was shocked. In retrospect, I was really stupid.
The new friend
Long, the son of my boss, was a third-year student of University of Foreign Languages, majoring in English. He was the one whom my aunt mentioned quite often. He was 3 years older than I was. His family was well-to-do. His dad was my aunt’s company colleague. His mom worked at Vietnamese Artists Association. The internet café was their side business.
He looked at me with apologetic eyes: “I am sorry for what I did in the morning. I am impressed with the way you reacted to me. You deserve to be aunt Duong Y’s niece”.
His apology removed all my antipathy toward him. May be he intentionally did it to test my reaction, my customer service skill. He could be an interesting guy.
He started the conversation: “I have been told you are preparing for university entrance exam. Have you chosen a school yet?”
“Yes, I have”.
“If I can be of any help, please tell me. I am happy to”.
I smiled and thanked him.
From that day on, we became friends. Every weekend night, he came to play Audition, to chat with me and to teach me English. For my 17 years, he was my only friend, aside from the books. We watched movies and plays then we replayed the roles of what we had seen.
Summer in Hanoi was wonderful. Royal Poinciana flowers’ flames flickered in sunlight. It was the season of dracontomelon, tamarind and large shadows of terminalia catappa trees. But summer also reminded me of the home town, of the lonely feeling when I saw my peers play on vast grassland. They played hide and seek or they swam in the ponds, in the base of the waterfalls. Some nights, from the third floor, I looked down at the soccer field of the village. Frogs croaked noisily. Fireflies flashed on duckweeds. Farther afield, wood fires flickered, the smell of roasted sweet potatoes and roasted corncobs floated in the air with the sounds of music. Also the sound of flute from the village choir. I desperately wanted to join them but they wouldn’t let me.
“Tina, wake up, you have a telephone call. Today is the hottest day of this summer, they say.” Her call woke me up.
I yawned while answering the phone. The cheerful voice on the other end: “It’s me. I pick you up in 30 minutes. We are going to Khoang Xanh-Suoi Tien in Ba Vi”. To get away from the crowded city in such a hot day made me so happy. I took a quick shower then waited for him.
“Wow, you are so punctual”. “Get on”. I obeyed him right away. After one hour on the big motorcycle, we arrived. The scenery amazed me. “Oh my God”. Long asked: “Do you know the legend?”- “I don’t, tell me”. Long smiled and pointed at the waterfalls:”Many interesting legends are associated with this place, for example, the battle between the Mountain God and the Sea God or the bath of Naked Angels at Hoa waterfalls. So I often come here to see if I can catch any Naked Angel”. I joked at him: “Yes, I am the angel. But today I am not taking a bath. I am waiting for the Mountain God, your enemy”. Long smiled: “You could be a comedian”. I looked at him admiringly: “Thanks to you I know those legends”. Long put his arm around my shoulder: “My pleasure, dear Miss Angel”. We watched the waterfalls and boarded the Swan boat.
I often tagged along him on his bike to the countryside where we walked through the rice fields in the orchestra of the cicadas. Once, at the base of Long Bien bridge, Long tried to repeat the sound of the cicada like a crazy man.
My aunt liked him very much, she often told me: “Long wants to learn Mandarin Chinese, you teach him that then he will teach you English in exchange”. My aunt is a fair person. She did not want us to owe anybody anything.
Once Long gave me flowers as a gift. I asked “Why flowers?”. He smiled: “Today is International Women Day. I am giving flowers to my mom so I give you as well, to help the flower seller. To me, you are the nicest sister”. I was so happy to hear that, because I considered him my older brother.
Long was hard-working, knowledgeable. He read many books of the writers I liked. His parents were well-off but he wasn’t too reliant on them. He tutored English to cover his own living expenses.
He was not like the other city boys who were courting me. I found they were annoying, shallow-minded, playful, and too reliant on parents. They did not read books but spent more time on pursuing girls or spending money on wasteful stuff.
To Long, I did not have to keep a distance like them. He was a special person, a true friend that I was lucky to have.
Love at first sight
As I was born in the village, sweet potatoes were part of my childhood and also my favorite food. In the countryside, they were plentiful and of little value. Yet in the city, you had to pay for it. So every night, I saved my stomach for the roasted sweet potatoes sold by a street vendor.
The best time for roasted sweet potatoes was winter. Warm, sweet and good smelling. A simple yet so comforting thing. To me, it tasted better than much more expensive foods.
One rainy night, I was waiting and waiting for the sweet potato vendor to pass by and finally I realized she was sitting across the street. I had Long keep an eye for the internet shop so I could cross the street to buy the potatoes (he did offer to go buy them for me but he didn’t have the skill to pick the good ones).
I had neither umbrella nor hat. Putting a plastic bag over my head, I dashed to the other side of the street. But the traffic light turned red. I stopped at the intersection then felt like the rain stop suddenly.
Looking up, I saw a grey umbrella right above my head. I turned sideways to say thank you but could not utter a word.
Oh my God.
What a handsome man! He who was holding an umbrella over my head was about 1.75m tall with brown hair, clear soft eyes, high nose and dark eyebrows. He was wearing a white crew neck T shirt showing his muscular chest, black jean pants and Nike shoes and holding an English book with the title “Philosophical Studies”. He looked both an intellectual and a movie star.
While I still stayed speechless, the light turned green and he said “Let’s go, girl”. I just followed him without a word.
But inside me, my heart was pounding.
Was it “love at first sight” ?
“Where are you going?’ His voice was deep, warm and music to my ears.
I stuttered: “ I .. I … buying the sweet potatoes. Um..it’s here…Thanks.”
He smiled: “Okay, I go home now”.
He opened the door and looked at me: “So you are across the street from my home. You can keep the umbrella and return it to me later. Make sure keep yourself dry and warm”.
His voice was so warm. It even warmed up my heart. Then suddenly winter seemed not bad at all.
“You are so good. What is your name?”
He smiled friendly: “Hung. And yours?”
“Tina. I am so glad to know you. Thank you so much. I return it to you tomorrow”.
“Oh you the potato-addicted girl, you don’t care about the heavy rain?” The potato vendor smiled happily. “Oh, I am addicted to your sweet potatoes already” Both of us laughed. Suddenly I looked up and caught Hung staring down at me from his second floor window. I blushed, paid for the potatoes then returned to the internet shop.
That night, I could do nothing but thinking of Hung. My mind was fixated on his image. I realized that my love story was like my mom’s. To take shelter from the rain, she went into a bar. My dad was playing guitar and singing in that bar. She loved him at first sight too. Was I repeating her love story?
I considered myself a strong-minded girl, why I fell for him so quickly? Only the first encounter made me dream? What kind of black magic did he have on me?
As I looked like I was lost, Long asked:
“What’s wrong with you? Are you being haunted? Are you catching a cold?”
As if being woken up by his question, I smiled: “Yes, I was just struck by a thunder lightning, almost dead. I am lucky to get back here”.
He made a sign of giving up desperately: “Oh my God, you are acting so well. Ok, finish your sweet potatoes, I go home to do my homework then come back to pick you up at closing time”.
“No, let me go home by myself”.
“No, it rains tonight. Let me take you home for safety’s sake”.
“Oh, what a big deal. Only 500 meters from here to my place”. I pouted.
“Starting tomorrow, I will be busy for my examination. No more time to see you. So let me do it tonight”.
Not to give me anymore time to talk, he ran away with his motorbike.
Just like he said, he came back for me two hours later. He really touched my heart.
I never before thought so much of someone like I did with Hung. Lying in my bed; I couldn’t wait for the following dawn to return him the umbrella, so I could see him again. I wanted to know his Skype account, his Facebook account. I wanted to know more about him. My curiosity about him kept me up all night.
Normally I would wake up early in Sunday morning, jog a few loops then have breakfast and go to work. But I woke up even earlier that morning. The sky was clear, the air was fresh. The sun was rising slowly like a fireball. I headed straight to his house with his umbrella in my hand. When I got to his house, I realized he was ready to leave for outdoor exercise.
He smiled: “Why the rush? Why did you wake up this early?”
I felt disappointed inside: Oh, he is not looking forward to seeing me.
“Are you going to jog? Where? May I join you? I don’t know this neighborhood well because I was just back to our homeland”.
I was overwhelmed with joy. Oh my God, he wants to jog with me?. I asked myself and gave him a thumb up.
We ran through Lenin Park and took a rest on the bench. The view seemed different today. The breeze of the changing season gently shook the yellow leaves of the very old trees. Temperature was pleasant. Hung asked: “You are not native Hanoian, aren’t you? You have a nice accent. Where are you from?”
I joked: “I am from Fruits Mountain”. He laughed like crazy: “You come from the same place with the famous monkey in Journey to the West novel? I like you. I like your sense of humor”.
“Like me only? No, I don’t like you. I LOVE you. At first sight”. After saying that, I felt immediately that I was too frank. He blushed and said nothing. To break the silence, he invited me for a breakfast.
To me, no free lunch. I replied frankly: “We go Dutch. I don’t like someone pay for me”.
My answer embarrassed him, so he said nothing. We went to Pho Hang Trong (Drum Street) to eat Moc soup. We looked at each other more than we ate. Our eyes constantly met. “Tina, you are a very special and interesting girl. Where is your home? What school are you going to? Do you have a boyfriend?”
I answered each and every question: “I work at the internet café across from your home. I am preparing for university entrance exam. I have no boyfriend. What university I will tell you later”
“You keep a secret? You are interesting”.
“And how about you? Do you have a girlfriend?”
He smiled: “Nobody now. But a dozen in the past”.
I choked badly on his reply. “Oh my God, that many? A dozen but now nobody. Bad karma. You reap what you sow”.
He laughed: “You are so funny. You are scolding me but make me laugh”
“Time for me to start work. Please finish breakfast”. I urged him.
About an hour after I had opened the internet shop, Long came. He bought me sticky rice and soya milk. As usual, I paid him but he refused. “Dear nun, this poor monk can’t take money from you, as this money is donation from public. Have a good day”. He sped away to school.
That noon, Hung dropped by my internet café but he quietly observed me from outside while I was chatting with online gamers. I liked to learn from other gamers’ experiences.
After a long while, he came in. “Hi, any vacant terminal?”- “Sorry, all taken. Do you want my main terminal?”. I didn’t know why I was so accommodating to him. “No, I can wait.”. I gave him a seat next to me so we could chat.
We looked at each other with happy smiles.
“Tina, you have such a beautiful smile!” – “Thank you. People say that too”. He laughed crazily again. “You are just back from Trau Quy area? Why every time you laugh like …”
“Like a madman? Because you are the only person in this world that can make me so entertained. But Tina, listen!”.
I was counting money but his calling startled me: “Yes?”
“Why don’t you ask anything about me?”
“I don’t know what you mean?”
“You never asked me where and what I am studying?”
“I know your name. I know your home is across from my workplace. You probably are studying politics. You probably are 22 or 23 years old”. I rolled my eyes.
Hung smiled: “Not quite correct. I don’t live here. I live in France. I am 24 years old. I am both studying and working. I am in Master Degree of Architecture program. My company in France sent me to Vietnam to check on their works here. This is a good chance for me to visit my grandparents. Today is only my fourth day in Vietnam. I will return to France in 2 more months...”
I quietly told myself: oh, he is overseas Vietnamese, that’s why he had so many girlfriends in the past. I must be a low priority for him. I don’t have much time left to conquer him.
As one customer left, I told Hung: “There is one terminal for you now. Send me message through Skype” – “Ok, what is your Skype name, Tina?” – “Mine is too long, it’s better I know your Skype name then make friend with you” – “Phamquochung, no space”.
We started chatting on Skype. He asked: “Are you Gaidattotandotrai4phuong?” (my Vietnamese nickname means “Girl from founding father’s land conquers men from all regions”)
“Hic, what an arrogant nickname”.
“Tina! What you told me this morning, was it real? I believe it was”.
“What was it?”
“That you loved me at first sight”
His question made me feel I was a fool to have said that, because I brought him into a delicate situation.
I thought for a while then typed: “I truly love you”.
“Tina, then we should start dating, because I don’t have much time left in Vietnam”.
Reading this message, my heart started pounding.
Was he serious or just taking advantage of my love?
But what he said was actually what I wanted to say, so I felt no more barriers to go ahead with his suggestion.
“Ok, we should start dating”.
“What are your requirements for me, Tina?”
“Are you mad? Why requirements for love? If I love someone with requirements, I will stop loving them when they no longer have those requirements”.
“So can we date tonight?”
Our love story started like that.
That night we had a walk around Hoan Kiem lake, we drank lemon tea in the cool air of the changing season. Young leaves were sprouting on the trees. The scenery was so romantic, it made your heart miss a beat…I loved Hanoi, I loved falling leaves, I loved walking beside the man I loved and enjoying the sweet melody of the changing season.
Hung put his beige dress jacket on my shoulder: “Now you are my girlfriend” – “Right, you are holding my hand. Yesterday we were still strangers”. We looked at each other as if we were longtime lovers. He murmured: “I loved you at first sight too, when I saw you in the library last Monday”.
According to him, that afternoon he woke up late due to jet lag, he went out for late lunch and for some books. The rain fell; he took shelter in the library. There he saw a girl losing herself in the book, smiling, sobbing, not giving a damn about the world around her. She was reading “Pride and prejudice” by Jane Austen. He liked her since then.
He attentively observed her for hours, smiled when she smiled. He followed her to the internet shop. He heard the girl make an appointment with some guy, so he rushed home to take a bath before returning to the shop.
“I crossed the street just in time when you reached the intersection. When you were stopped by the red light, I ran to you with my umbrella. Oh, my God, your glance at me squeezed my heart. The umbrella was just a perfect opportunity for me to make friend with you”.
“You are such a cunning guy!” I softly scolded him. Hung smiled and hugged me tight. His hug was so warm; it reminded me of my dad’s hug every time after his physical punishment so I suddenly felt bitter. I was born under a bad star. Yet I still missed him and his melancholic guitar.
“What’s wrong Tina? What are you thinking of?”
“Oh, my bad past. But I am forgetting it”
“The past is unforgettable. Whether it’s good or bad, it helps us grow mature and stronger. I want to know everything about you. I want to share every joy, every sorrow with you. So help me know more about you”. I never shared so much about myself with anybody else before him but to him, I told him everything, how much I liked reading, Formula 1 racing. I could watch racing cars for hours.
“I am of mixed race Vietnamese and Chinese. I can speak Mandarin Chinese fluently. I learned it from my aunt, from self-learning and from watching Chinese movies. I am reaching 18 years of age, I like Mass Media study, I am preparing for it. I like rice noodles and Italian spaghetti, never get tired of them.” I stopped a bit then continued my rant: “My dream is to see my F1 legend Michael Schumacher; I want to look at myself with a hat on. I want to travel around the world…”
Hung kissed my forehead: “Alright, alright…You meet the right guy. You can do it. You and I will do it”.
He was so chivalrious. He gave me the mental wings so I could fly.
I put my head on his shoulder: “Now tell me your story”. We sat on a bench by the lake. The lake grimaced with every wind. Like us, some couples were enjoying themselves. Street vendors, either women or children, were soliciting.
Hung began his life story: “My grandma said I was like my mom. I like sweet and sour pork ribs. My mom passed away when I was still young”
I held his hand tight.
“My dad remarried a painting artist. They live in the U.S. now. My dad wants me to move to the USA but I don’t like it”
“I had attended a university in the U.S. but far away from them. After graduation, I returned to Paris to live with my paternal grandma. She is a Vietnamese study professor. Thanks to her, I still keep my Vietnamese language skill. I love Hanoi, my mom’s hometown. My heart belongs here”.
Then he hugged me but stared at a walking couple with a son. His eyes looked hurtful but I knew that he could not reveal that pain at that moment. But I didn’t press him to say it, as we still had a lot of time ahead.
One week after dating Hung, I decided to tell my aunt about him. She looked at me heartily: “Love and be loved, but not a blind love like mine”. I felt both love and bitterness in her voice. But I had no doubt that she really wanted me to be happy.
“Tell him to visit us”. She failed in her love so she truly wanted me to avoid her mistakes. The following weekend, I presented Hung to her. My aunt gave him a sincerely warm greeting. We gave him a Chinese dinner. To my experienced aunt, Hung was polite and trustworthy.
Hung invited me for a dinner at his maternal grandparents’ house as well. That was my first time having dinner at a strangers’ house. I felt as if they were my in-laws, hence a bit worried. Hung gently encouraged me: ”Don’t worry. They are very mild-mannered”. He held my hand tight when we entered the house.
His grandparents greeted me politely and happily but his grandma seemed quite stern. She was not happy when she saw Hung washing the dishes but me just sitting there enjoying dessert.
She asked me: “Do you come to your friends’ houses often?”
I answered politely: “No, madam. Hung is my first boyfriend and this is the first time I am in a non-relative house”.
She smiled: “Smart girls, when they visit their boyfriends’ houses, they would help with house chores like washing dishes”.
I answered: “Thank you grandma for telling me. Although I am not good in cooking, but in future I will help him every time he cooks”. She seemed to be surprised and unpleasant with my frank admission. Hung witnessed what happened. From the kitchen he came to hold my arm and said: “I love this girl because she is unique herself, like you grandma, the woman I most admire”.
His tactful statement neutralized the tense moment between his grandma and me. Especially when his grandpa told his grandma: “Yes, darling, long time ago, I loved you because you were you, unlike anybody else” then he turned to me: “Be yourself, dear”. Everybody laughed after his intervention. But I felt embarrassed for not being helpful to Hung and thankful to him for saving me from his grandma’s disappointment.
We have dated for 2 months. We visited our favorite museums, cooked the dishes we were best at, read romances and wrote amorous words to each other as if we have loved each other for many years. He knew my size in clothes and shoes. Every 2 weeks, he gave me a pair of shoes. He liked to give me walking shoes as he wanted me to stand comfortably on my feet, waiting for him when he was away.
It was almost time for him to return to Paris. I wanted to give him something. Not my virginity because it was not the right time yet. After a while, I went to the night market to buy him a scarf, because it was cold in Paris that time. I wanted to bring him warmth physically and mentally.
It’s not love
While I was dating Hung, I almost forgot about Long. He was busy with his study so he didn’t have time to see me. One day I told Hung to meet me at the internet shop after he had finished work.
“This is my first gift to you, also my first gift to a man. Hope you like it”.
“Oh my Lord, I am so lucky to have it. But my most precious gift is you yourself”
“Same here, you are my better half. Thank God we met”.
Hung hugged me and smiled. I could clearly see emotion and happiness on his face.
“Open it”- “Now?” - “Yes”
“I am so excited. I never opened a gift in front of my girlfriend”
He saw the grey wool scarf. “Thank you, I like this color”.
He hugged me. Right that moment, Long showed up.
Long looked at us with his eyes in letter O shape and his mouth in letter A shape.
Long asked Hung crudely: “Who are you? How can you do that to her?”
Hung looked at Long calmly: “Hi Long, I am Hung, Tina’s boyfriend. Tina told me a lot about you. I am 3 years older than you are. Glad to meet you”
Long looked at me. I nodded to confirm what Hung said.
I saw tears in Long’s eyes. Was he happy for me because I found love?
“OK, I got to go now. Tina, I want to talk to you tomorrow”
Hung looked at me with inquiring eyes:
“You and Long have some private matter? I feel he loves you … what is it between you and him?”
I replied anxiously: “As I told you before, he is like my older brother and he is also my only male friend in this city”.
He quietly hugged me tight: “I am not only your boyfriend, but also your future husband”.
“Hah hah had, you talkative guy. Who will marry you?” I replied shyly.
The following early morning, Long waited for me in front of the internet shop with red eyes from lack of sleep.
“Hi, did you wait for me long?” I opened the door and asked him: “What’s wrong with you? You are looking like a hungry Dracula. What happened?”
He pulled me inside, closed the shop’s door. I was surprised: “What?”
“Is he your boyfriend?”
“Then what am I? Where am I in your heart?”
“Yes, you are in my heart. You are my best friend, you are my older brother”
“No, I LOVE you, don’t you feel my love? I love you when you smile, I love you when you get mad. I love everything about you”
I smiled: “What are you talking about? Stop acting. I know you’re good at acting dramatic role”
“Look at me. I am serious. I am not acting. I am happy with you beside me, whenever you need me. Why did he appear all of a sudden? What you are feeling is not love. Real love needs time. Not because he told you he loves you at first sight then you love him back. I don’t believe in instant love. Is he overseas Vietnamese?”. I could see Long was losing control.
I was surprised: “Are you mad?”
“Right, I am mad. I am mad to see you belong to someone else. Is your love blind?”
Not letting me answer, Long pulled me toward him and kissed me.
I pushed him away. My tears fell. I slapped his face.
That was the first time I was disappointed for what he did.
“I never loved you as a girlfriend. I never did. To me, you are an older brother, not a boyfriend. There is a difference between the two”
I was frank in a brutal way: “I don’t want to lose our friendship. Please treat me like your younger sister”.
Long knelt down to my feet. He forcefully scratched his brown hair: “I’m sorry, really sorry for what I just did. I lost. I lost your love. This is not how I wanted our relationship to end. I am a fool. I misread your feeling to me. Why is it ending like this? I don’t believe it”.
Long ran away from the shop. Feeling uneasy, I focused my eyes on him till he completely disappeared. I told myself: “Long, one day you will meet your real love. I am sorry, love must be mutual. I must devote my full heart to Hung. Him and him only”
Love enemies and reconciliation
That was my day off, I went to grocery shopping. Hung liked sweet and sour pork ribs. I was going to cook for him.
The cell phone in my backpack rang. It was my aunt on the other end.
Her voice was shaking…I was worrying my dad had come for me. But surprisingly, she said: “No, Hung is in hospital right now”. I did not understand: “Are you sure what are you saying? This morning I talked to him, I told him to come have dinner tonight. Why do you know he’s in hospital but I don’t know?”
“Long’s mom called me. Long came to Hung’s house to beat him up. Hung is in Vietnam-Germany Hospital and Long is in police’s custody now. I don’t know so I am calling you. Did Hung not call you? Don’t let anybody get hurt because of you”.
“Oh my God”. I pushed away the shopping cart and took a motorbike taxi to the hospital. I was worrying and wondering. Why did Hung not let me know? As Long was a martial artist, I worried for Hung’s safety. I was talking to myself softly:
“Long, you are a bastard. You learn martial arts for defending yourself, not for attacking others. Your teacher must have taught you that. If Hung is in danger, I won’t leave you alone”.
When I arrived at the hospital’s gate, I saw Hung walking out with a bruised face and his arm was in a splint. I raced to him to hug him. Hung just smiled: “I am okay. Don’t worry. How is Long? Is he OK?” – “Look, why do you worry about the guy who beat you up? He is in police station now”.
Hung brushed my head: “It’s my fault. It’s I who punched him then got hurt when he told me he kissed you but you rejected him”. I was in disbelief: “Are you so jealous?” – “Yeah, I deserved this beating. I should thank him for his love to you and thank you for your love to me”. He kissed my forehead.
I looked at him, felt his forehead then compared to my forehead. He seemed not to have a fever, but I felt he was not normal. Might be he was hit in the head so he was not thinking straight?
Hung still smiled and lifted my chin: “Look at your dumb face. Get a taxi. I am ok, I know what I mean”.
I almost scolded him for not calling me about the incident. But then I realized he was okay, so that was not the point anymore. I hugged him tight from behind. Everybody around looked at us curiously. The security guard said: “Hey, keep moving. You guys are blocking the way. Save hugging for home”. I blushed. Hung held my hand tight and smiled: “Here comes the taxi. Go home dear”.
When we got out of the taxi, Hung’s grandparents ran to us. Grandma hugged Hung tight: “Oh my grandson, look at your face. We were just out for a short while yet bad thing happened right away. Karma!”. Grandma looked at me with a very sharp glance. I was scared of that kind of glance. It was so much like my stepmom’s glance when my dad was not home. That glance brought me briefly to my dad’s house, where I was so lonely that I had to live in a parallel world: my diary. Once my stepmom read my diary. She brutally commented on my dream of travelling around the world: “Poor you. Dare to dream that pipe dream”.
Grandpa’s voice broke up my flash back to the past: “Tina, stay here for dinner with us”.
Hung answered on my behalf: “Sure grandpa. She likes grandma’s cooking. She often praises grandma’s cooking skill”. He hugged his grandma and gave me a wink. I thought: “What a liar! When did I say that?”. Grandma looked at me kindly but with some pride: “Today I make fish soup with stuffed bitter melon. What do you want to eat? Please have dinner with us”.
Hung gave me a signal to accept her invitation.
“Okay grandma, I am happy to. I will help you and learn to cook your dishes”. Grandma nodded happily. Grandpa looked at Hung smilingly. Looking at them, I remembered the movie Alliance Prepares for The Battle.
After dinner, Hung wanted to wash the dishes but I stopped him because his arm was still in the splint. “Let me”. Hung looked at me with puppy eyes: “Oh, I dare not let you do it alone”.
But his grandma insisted on doing it herself. Learning from the previous experience, I helped her with the dishes and the cleaning up as Hung had a visitor.
“Looks like you guys are a good match. You are smart and a quick learner”. Grandma’s voice became softer and her look became kinder.
“My Hung is in your hands in the future”. Oh, this statement comforted me so much. She was my ally now, not my obstacle anymore. She accepted me and our relationship.
It was Long who was Hung’s visitor. He came to apologize to Hung. After I was done with tidying the house, I saw them chatting to each other like no bad thing ever happened between them.
“Well, they are really civilized people as capital residents are known for”. I thought. In my countryside, people don’t make peace that fast. I did not join them as I did not want them to feel uncomfortable with my presence.
“I really apologized for what happened this morning. I lost my self-control. Thank you for your forgiveness”. Long looked straight in Hung’s eyes and his voice sounded very sincere.
Hung patted on Long’s shoulder: “Alright, it takes one to know one. I have a high regard for you. I am not sure what I would do if I were you” then he smiled: “Your anger makes me feel how lucky I am to have Tina’s love. It’s not easy to see the girl we love belongs to someone else. But when our love is deep enough, we realize that we can sacrifice if it makes our beloved girl happy. I thank you for what you did for Tina. When I am away, Tina really needs a good friend like you. Please don’t abandon her”.
Having regretted losing control, now seeing Hung’s mild manner, Long even felt more embarrassed: “Don’t worry. I will be available when she needs me and I will love her forever too”.
I felt uneasy when I heard Long said this. He shouldn’t have said it. Could we still be friends if he loved me more than a friend? How would Hung feel when Long said so?
Hung kept quiet for a while then answered Long: “I have no right to stop your love for Tina. It’s your choice. But I believe the love between me and Tina would never change”.
His answer touched my heart. He trusted me, he trusted our love. Having witnessed his gentlemanly reactions to Long, I was so proud of the man I loved.
Like any party must end at one point, it was the time for Hung to return to Paris. Hanoi at the end of the fall season was so peaceful. I followed him to the airport. Tall, big old trees along the boulevards were still asleep with their mist-laden leaves. We had breakfast on the fourth floor of Noi Bai airport. Early morning sunrays were trying to penetrate the windows. Hung stared at me: “I am sure that those flights will be the witnesses of our future trip around the world”.
I held his hand tight: “Sure. In the future, I won’t let you go alone like today. I love you”. He looked at me, kissed me on my cheek and murmured: “I love you”. We went to the Passport check area; Hung hugged me and promised to return to Vietnam soon.
I focused my eyes to his footsteps. A few tears rolled down my face. Then I stared at the VN6111 airplane until it disappeared completely in the sky. I suddenly realized that to love somebody meant to give that person the power to hurt you. My heart was being squeezed with sadness and deprivation.
He was with me for only a short time. But I was so happy. I believed his love for me was sincere. When he arrived in Paris, he called me by Skype. I felt relieved he arrived safely. Since when did I care for someone more than I did for myself?
“I am safe and sound. How are you? Have you had your dinner yet?”
I observed him carefully. He looked tired after the long flight. “I’m fine. I had my dinner. Why didn’t you rest first before calling me? You look tired”. He smiled: “No, calling you first”.
This man gave me such a warm feeling in spite of not being beside me. Since that date, I received his letter every week. Love made me more mature. Dreaming of a home with him, of our future, I tried harder to improve myself.
A sudden decision
“Auntie, please tell grandpa and grandma I want to go to school over there so that I would have a better future”. My aunt looked at me with a big surprise. “Oh my Lord, your grandparents must be very happy. It’s the way to go. They will take care of you”.
Since childhood, I had no contact with my maternal grandparents, because of my disappointment to my mom. But now I was more open-minded. I shouldn’t have been prejudiced them. Life was the sky; I needed a pair of wings to fly higher and farther.
I called Long to say goodbye. Nevertheless, we had had a good friendship with many sweet memories. Since the incident between him and Hung, I avoided him. Because I couldn’t give him what he wanted from me, I thought it was better not to see him anymore. But now I was about to leave Vietnam and might not return. He had taken care of me and had been with me when I had been very lonely.
He came when I was packing. He took me to the airport. Winter in Hanoi was so depressing, especially when the cold wind howled. Trembling in the puffy winter jacket, I looked at the cloudy grey sky. I felt it was like a dome that trapped people inside and sucked the oxygen out of the air. In the same time, strangely, I felt it had a serene beauty. How wonderful nature was. It gave us free sightseeing.
Long asked when I would return to Vietnam: “Does he really deserve your leaving Vietnam?”
“Yes, he does” I looked at his eyes: “I believe in my decision. Marriage is pre-arranged by God. It takes two to tango. As long as we fight hard, we can achieve our goal”.
“OK, I respect your decision. I wish you the best. Whenever you feel tired and can’t continue your journey, please remember that there is someone waiting for you in your homeland”.
I was moved by his unfazed love for me. But my heart had no fault not to love him. I looked at him pitifully: “Long, don’t wait for me. He is the right man for me. I can love nobody but him. To me, you are forever my best friend with the best memories between friends. I believe one day you will meet the right girl whom you love”.
But he was stubborn: “No, I love nobody but you”.
“You are a fool to love someone who doesn’t love you”. I wanted to stop the useless topic, so I cut him off: “Now it’s time I go”.
“May I hug you as a sister?” Long suggested.
I hugged him and thanked him.
“Have a safe trip. Text me when you arrive”. His eyes were so affectionate. But I wished that one day, the affection from those eyes to me would be gone.
Shanghai is so glittering
Pudong international airport was so big. Arrivals area was crowded with people. So many waving hands, so many bouquets waiting to be given to arriving passengers. Benches were full. Children were crying or half asleep in the arms of grandparents and parents.
“Cousin, we are here”. My cousin shouted when he saw me. Xiao Wei, my cousin, had visited my aunt Duong Y and me in Vietnam a few times. The fourth aunt was there, I had never met her before, but she looked like grandma and aunt Duong Y. Grandpa’s hair was turning silver. He visited me once a year. He was always self-composed, loving and respectable. Grandma hugged me, her voice was warm: “Oh my beautiful granddaughter, you are so grown up now”. She looked so kind-hearted, very different from my long time memory, when my dad had taken me away from her arms.
An Audi A4 sedan came. I was delighted: “What a beautiful car, Xiao Wei”. My cousin smiled: “I bought it to pick you up”. The whole family laughed. I felt a genuine warm welcome from them.
Finally I returned to where my mom had been born, miles and miles away from Vietnam. I never dreamed of being welcomed so warmly by whom I, for a long time, did not want to see. Shanghai was so glittering. People could feel the hustle and bustle of the world class city by looking at its streets. Huge stores, bright signs and lights. Very different from my humble Hanoi.
“May I open the window for some fresh air?’. Xiao Wei smiled: “Sure”. I opened the window and inhaled deeply. No, I was not dreaming. I was being in a far, far away place. Shanghai was friendly and hospitable. It was not like in the movies I had watched.
“Tina Yuan, how do feel about Shanghai?” Xiao Wei asked. “It’s very different from what I imagined” – “Can you explain?” – “Oh, it amazes me with the modernity of skyscrapers, the interesting designs of winding bridges and streets”. He praised me: “Oh, your Mandarin speaking skill has improved a lot. Later on, I will let you see the whole city. You will want to stay here forever”
The house still looked the same like before when I had visited it long time ago. But the people in it grew older. Small bits of memory were flashing back. That day, my dad and I had walked through that gate in a cold winter with our timid steps. My dad had taken me here to beg my grandparents to let me see my mom. But my grandparents had said she was not here. When my mom had left my dad, she had said she would have never seen my dad again. My grandma had wanted to have custody of me. She had offered some money to my dad as a compensation. But my dad had got angry. He had refused the money: “You guys can visit her, but I will never set my foot here again”. Then he had taken me away from my grandma’s arms.
We had returned to Vietnam with our hearts broken.
Now looking through the living room, I was surprised to see many antiques, including a collection of race cars of famous international racers. I asked my grandpa whose collection that was. He happily answered: “Mine. I like car racing, I like F1. I have many other collections. I will let you see each and every of them”. I looked at him admiringly. He enjoyed my admiration. “Next year I will take you to a real car race” – “Really? It is my dream. I am looking forward to it”. The old saying seemed to be true: “Like grandpa, like grandchild, like father, like child, one way or another”. Now I understood I got the car race gene from my grandpa.
My grandparents had a housemaid. She told me politely: “Your room is ready, please follow me”. I followed her. It was my mom’s room before on the second floor of the villa. It was about 30 square meters. There were many photos of her in cheongsam dress. I realized I looked like her a lot. She had many photos of Tom Jones, the famous Pop and Rock singer from Wales. She also had many martial art novels and health science books. What my aunt had told me about my mom was correct. She was a nurse of small, slender figure. Yet she was strong spirited and independent. Especially she had a cute smile. She liked dancing, smoking, drinking. I believed I inherited from her the small build and the strong personality.
I could see a small garden with a fish pond from the room’s window. It was cold in December in Shanghai, only 1 or 2 degree Celsius. I suddenly missed Vietnam, Hung, my dad and my aunt Duong Y.
Every night, when the breezes caressed my room’s window, my childhood memories flooded my mind and my heart. My dad told me he had begged my mom to stay, but she had left anyway. Maybe there was no more love between them. May be they did not match each other. Or other reasons that I did not know. But here and now, in a far away strange land, I missed him dearly. He did treat me like a little princess. He did hit me, scold me, but he did not abandon me like my mom did.
It was my fault to have left him. I would redeem him in the future. My tears rolled down. I was just a small girl, yet I moved farther and farther from my home town.
My maternal grandparents loved me a lot. They took care of me as if I were a child. Grandma often told me stories of the war, of the period when China was occupied by Japan. She witnessed the murders of her parents, aunts, uncles and the oppression to Chinese people by the Japanese army. She said: “How easy it is to cry, in front my granddaughter”. I held her wrinkled, green-veined hand. The war was brutal, it had been over for many decades but it still hurt her badly every time she remembered. The losses were so huge that she never could forget. I told myself my generation was very lucky not to know about war.
She treated me like a child, everyday she read a short story in Chinese to me. She taught me how to cook, to paint and to play piano.
Every child enjoys lullabies and fairly tales by their mom, my half-brother was no exception. My stepmom took care of him whenever he was sick. When he reached school age, my stepmom spent time to help him with homework. When he made mistakes, my stepmom gently hit his hand with a ruler, never yelled or physically punished him.
I was both jealous to my half-brother and scared and hateful to my stepmom. But now I was loved and well-cared for by my grandparents, my thinking changed. I thanked her for taking care of my dad and my half-brother. She must have been jealous to see her husband love someone else’s child. Not every woman loved her stepchild.
My cousin helped me enroll in English language faculty, Donghua University. He wanted me to join him in television journalism career.
I started my first semester. The first day, I wandered around the campus in the bitter cold, covering my ears from the cold wind. Finally, I found the Foreign Languages building. I realized all the students were foreign students. Sitting beside me were a white girl with curly hair, a high nose and a chubby Asian man with black hair, monolid eyes.
They made friends with me, asking my name, age and origin. I told them I came from Vietnam, my name was Tina and I was 18 years old.
The Middle Eastern students burst out : “Oh, you are from Vietnam! The land of brave girls. They fought and kicked out invading American soldiers”.
On hearing that, I felt so proud of my fatherland. I looked at them and realized they were good looking in beards and turbans and white costumes, exactly like the characters in the story “Alibaba and the 40 thieves”.
I told them they were good in world history. They said: “Since elementary school, our parents and teachers told us about brave Vietnamese people, poor and simple life, yet they defeated strong, powerful enemies”. They asked me: “You still hate American government, don’t you?”. I smiled: “Yes, we Vietnamese are brave and united. We suffered huge losses in the war. But now we live for the future, not for the past. We want to live in love and peace”.
I turned to the two classmates beside me: “Can you introduce yourself?”.
The female one answered with a heavy- accented English: “My name is Stacy. I come from Russia, same age as you. Glad to meet you, you are beautiful”.
The male one: “My name is Min Min, I come from USA but I am Chinese. I am 20 years old, I have a younger brother who is attending school in Paris”.
I was happy: “Paris? My boyfriend is in Paris. What a coincident”. I saw something in common between me and Min Min.
A fantastic day! I got 2 new friends. Stacy was beautiful and friendly. Min Min was open and cheerful. Our friendship has lasted ever since.
After classes, we went to the library. Sometimes we skied and every weekend, we went to dancing bars. Stacy was tall and beautiful. Every time she did make-up, she looked like a movie star who impressed even me, a female. Min Min danced like crazy every time he got drunk. Both of them drank heavily, once they slept on the sidewalk until the following morning. They were truly international students, free from any control.
It was not fun to have long-distance love. Even though we could talk frequently by phone, we still needed a physical touch. Even Hung was busy, he called me every day. My English language and Mandarin language skills helped me integrate into life here quickly. That compensated for lack of Hung, so life was not bad.
My first Christmas in Shanghai, Stacy called me. I knew that she and Min Min must have had a plan.
“What are you going to do tonight?”
“ I am waiting for your plan”.
“I’ll call Min Min and we will have dinner together. What do you think?”
I agreed. A short while later, Min Min called me.
“Stacy already told you right? But I have one more idea”
“A theatre play after dinner?”
I agreed too. As long as they wouldn’t be drunk, then it would be a nice Christmas night.
As soon as I hung up the phone, the housemaid knocked the door:
“My lady, you have a parcel from France”.
I looked at the parcel. It was from Hung. Inside there was a greeting card and a gift.
“My dear Tina,
I don’t know what to give you for Christmas.
My photo? It may be ugly.
The flowers? They will wither.
A poem? Not ready yet.
I can only give you some notes.
This is the first Christmas I miss someone crazily.
The lovesickness is hurting my heart.
I count time every day. It takes so long till my vacation time.
Some months of separation are like some years to me.
I want to hug you tight.
Kiss you on your tender lips.
This is my first Christmas gift to you.
Use it often so you miss me often, sweetheart.
I love you.
Your big teddy bear”
I opened the gift. It was a Chanel perfume bottle. I was not really into make-up, nor perfume. However, because this was his gift, I would use it every day. Actually, this Eau De Toilette aroma was quite sweet and attractive, just like our love. I rolled on the bed, holding his card and his perfume bottle, closing my eyes, wishing he were her.
My first Christmas in Shanghai was good. Spending quality time with friends and getting a gift.
But even a greater joy: Hung informed me he would take some time off to visit me in Shanghai. The small creek of happiness flooded my heart like a lake. I was counting the days till I would see him again.
That day in the airport, throngs of arriving passengers streamed out. I had waited for him anxiously for 2 hours. Finally I saw Hung, still handsome and in good shape. He looked nimble in jeans and a shirt, one hand holding the suitcase and another a rose bouquet.
He hugged me tight and caringly asked: “Did you wait for me long?”. I was honest: “2 hours already”. Hung teased me: “Oh, someone is more anxious than I am”.
I pinched him: “Yeah, it’s good you know that. Are you tired? Are you hungry?”
“How can I not be tired and hungry when I see my energetic girlfriend?” he teased me and laughed foolishly.
“I’m hungry. Let’s have dinner then go to the hotel”. I said.
Hung booked a hotel near my school. We had Siamese duck vermicelli for dinner then went to the hotel.
Hung looked at me: “I take you home. Your family is waiting for you”
I told him calmly: “I told my family I have a sleep over tonight. I want to sleep with you. I want more than just kisses”.
Hung blushed a bit then looked at me lovingly: “Are you sure about your decision? You won’t regret, will you? I respect your decision”.
“No, I give you voluntarily. The biggest regret is not to spend tonight with you”. I told myself. My hunger and my love for him overwhelmed me. He was here, in front of me, honest, gentle and beautiful. I couldn’t afford to miss one minute with him.
That night, in the hotel room, the white color of window curtains and bed sheet framed the window of multicolored neon lights of Shanghai. Shanghai glittered at night like a fairy tale. We drank red wine in the black leather sofa. The feeling of being in a room alone with a man aroused me. Hung sensed my feeling. He kissed me gently. Free of prohibition by wine and aroused by sexual desire, I responded to him eagerly. We explored our bodies. I unbuttoned his shirt, one by one. His athletic chest looked so sexy.
Thuong, the tattoo of my Vietnamese birth name appeared on his chest. Shocked by surprise and happiness, I cried out. I felt extremely lucky. I caressed the tattoo of my name on his soft skin.
“Why did you do that? Since when?”
“Since the day you accepted to be my girlfriend. I want you to be with me forever”. We looked at each other. I saw love in his eyes. Hung undressed my T shirt. Then unlocked my bra. He carried me to the bed. We were not aware of anything else but us. I wanted time to stop.
“Are you hurt?” Hung asked when he saw blood from my hymen on the bed sheet. He wiped blood on my genital area. He kissed me with a guilty look: “I am a bad guy. I should have done this after our wedding, not before. I am a bad guy…”
“You fool. I gave you my virginity voluntarily. I never talked about our marriage”.
“I am sorry. I love you”.
Hung said sorry all the time, felt guilty to me all the time. But I was happy and trusted his love completely. I did not feel I lost anything. What I gave him was from my will and my love. It was beautiful and sacred. I did not want my virginity to become a liability to anybody to keep him hostage. It was pure love. It was natural.
I wanted my whole life to be like that. Wake up with him, have a bath with him, cook with him, watch car race with him, hear him say he love me before and after sleep. That was all.
I took Hung to many temples and pagodas of Shanghai. I didn’t belong to any official religion but I respected all of them, as they all advocated for good deeds.
“This is Jade Buddha temple. Let me pray inside”. He followed me anywhere I took him to.
Hung asked: “I don’t see you burn incense?” – “No, burning incense is not good for the air. I want to protect the environment”.
He was caught by surprise. A moment of silence then he replied: “You are so right. People go to temple to burn incense automatically as a habit. But not many people think that way”.
“What do you pray for, can you tell me?”. He asked me again.
His face looked so lovely that moment. His brown eyes were both beautiful and childishly curious. “I pray for world peace and for everybody be healthy and worry-free”.
“Why don’t you pray for our happiness?”. He didn’t understand. Most of the time, a girlfriend or a wife would pray for long lasting love or marriage. But my prayer had nothing of that. “You fool” I pinched his cheek. “Buddha has no power to give you that. He is not God. He was a human like us. But he gave up his family and his throne to find solution for human’s miseries. He can only give us inner peace”. I told him simply what I understood about Buddhism but he listened intently.
“Thank you. I am so lucky. You are not an average, run-of-the-mill girl. You don’t think small”. He murmured: “My prayer is to have you all my life”.
We took Shanghai Metro trains to explore Shanghai. To the street food area near Chi Lu Fu market.
The most memorable thing about Hung’s trip to Shanghai was the street food area.
“Why do you cover your nose all the time? You look ridiculous”. I couldn’t help laughing at his grimacing face. This area was full of traditional Chinese foods and he couldn’t bear the strong smells.
“Ump, quite stinking smells” – “Stinking? Attractive, mouth-watering to me”.
“Wow, stinking tofu. I love it”. I bought it and chewed it non-stop but Hung still covered his nose. I teased him: “Open your mouth, I feed you one piece”.- “Oh no, no”. I force fed him but he spat it out. He was just like many foreigners who couldn’t bear the smell of stinking tofu but in fact, it was just like durian fruit. Either you hated the smell or you were addicted to the fruit. His face was so funny that I couldn’t help teasing him.
To compensate him for my tofu trick, I took him to another food stall. As he did not speak Chinese, he let me order the dishes.
When he saw duck meat plate, he was happy. But when he tried it, he was shocked: “Why just duck heads and duck tongues?”. Ignoring what he said, I held the duck heads with my gloved hand and ate fascinatedly: “Yum yum, so delicious. Try it”.
He just stared at me. “Why don’t you eat? Why you keep looking at me? It’s a specialty, try it”. I fed him the duck head but he avoided. I pretended to be offended. Finally he ate it but closed his eyes. “Why do you close your eyes?”-“Because it’s spicy”.
I ordered him some conventional foods that he could eat. I also introduced him some dishes that were very popular to locals.
We wandered along Shanghai waterfront and took a boat tour along Huangpu river. I asked Hung: “Summer here is like a picky lady, isn’t it?”. Hung seemed not to know what I meant. “Because it’s hot and humid, sometimes a shower comes all of a sudden. It’s easy to get sick” – “Oh, is that so? Or…you come to live with me in Paris?”. I grimaced to show him my discontent. He smiled: “To me, Shanghai is a nice lady. I like it since you moved here”. I patted his cheek: “What a wheeler dealer”.
Hung pulled a ring from his wallet and inserted it on my finger. He explained: “This is my engagement ring. This is a bank account with my name so you can invest in it. This is a sure-fire investment. Your return is a husband who loves you forever. Will you marry me? Will you move to Paris to live with me?”
His sudden proposal scared me: “No, I am not ready. I love you very much but I just want to graduate from university before I make the next move for my life. I don’t want marriage before I turn 21 years old”. My parents’ love was so intense and so quick but their marriage also ended so soon. I did not want to repeat the same mistake.
He seemed to be embarrassed: “Oh, poor me. My proposal is turned downed”.
“It’s your fault. You are so rushed”. I hugged him and smiled: “Alright, alright. I accept your ring. Thank you, it’s beautiful”. I comforted him while rubbing the ring. Marriage was not in my mind for now. I was still too young. I loved him and wanted to be with him but a wedding was still not needed yet. Hung hugged me: “I am sorry. I will wait till you turn 21”. I teased him: “Next time your proposal should come with beautiful flowers and a romantic surrounding or I refuse again”.
We visited many other attractions in Shanghai. Hung did not repeat his proposal. I knew he was somewhat disappointed and I felt guilty about that.
I introduced Hung to my 2 friends Stacy and Min Min. We had a grill dinner on the sidewalk along Huangpu river.
Min Min got drunk. He murmured something to Hung. Hung seemed to be unhappy but said nothing. I was not sure what it was but obviously Hung looked uneasy. Suddenly, I felt regretful that I had introduced him to Min Min. I wanted the time he was with me was a perfect one; I wanted no worrying wrinkles on his forehead. I asked Hung what Min Min told him but he didn’t tell me.
That night, we were sleeping when my phone rang. I was too tired to pick up the phone but Hung woke me up: “Tina, you have a phone call”. I was lazy: “You answer it. Who is calling this time of the day?” But he said: “No, it’s your call. Could be an important one”. The phone kept ringing. I picked it up, annoyedly. It was Min Min under the influence of alcohol.
“Where are you? Are you mad? I have a boyfriend already. What is the point of loving me?”
“You have no right to forbid me to love you”.
I realized it was useless to reason with a drunkard so I hung up on him. But I could not resume my sleep. Hung looked at me in silence. Finally I felt asleep in his arm.
The following morning, Min Min called me to say sorry: “I was drunk last night, so never mind what I said, please forgive me” – “Ok, I don’t mind a drunk person. Concentrate on your study. See you this afternoon at school”.
Now I knew why Hung seemed uneasy the day before. He was jealous as Min Min told him he loved me. But Hung did not show any upset to me. Sometimes my man was hard to understand.
What do you think if I kiss another girl?
That was the second time I saw him off at an airport. It was a beautiful day; the scenery along the way touched everyone’s heart. Hung was right. Shanghai was a girl with dual beauties: traditional and modern. Lovers would find Shanghai to be a perfect place for love. One more time he left me while I still didn’t yet have enough time to tell him all I wanted to tell.
Hung kissed me non-stop as if he was hungry for love. “Wait for me, I’ll come back soon”. I stood there watching him until he was completely out of sight. I thought: “I’ll wait for you all my life and if you won’t return I’ll go looking for you”.
After that, my life flowed quietly. Aside from school, I did some volunteer works and acted in some TV programs. Just minor roles but they still made me happy. Exploring myself and confirming my own potentials made my life more meaningful.
Hung’s birthday was coming; I wanted to give him a surprising gift. I rarely gave gift to people so it was hard for me to pick a gift for him. “He must be happy to see me on TV”. I thought so and felt happy that I chose a right gift.
That night, the phone’s ringing woke me up. It was Hung. “Yes, it’s me. Why are you calling so late?”
“Do you really need money that much to play sexual scenes with other men? Stop doing that, I’ll send you money”.
I was shocked by his harsh tone. What did he just say? I thought hard for a moment then knew what he meant. He was talking about my TV movie acting. I shouted back angrily: “I don’t need your money. It’s my part-time job. They are just my co-workers. How could you say that to me?”
“I am not happy. I felt hurt. What do you think if I kiss another girl?”
“What the heck! You bastard”. I hung up on him. I did not want to argue with him. How could he be jealous when it was just my acting job?
That was my first acting job, I was happy and proud. Not everybody coud be on movie, even though it was a minor role. I posted just a short trailer on YouTube for Hung to see to get his congratulations. But I got a harsh reaction instead.
How come a person like Hung could hurt his girlfriend that way? Why was he not proud to see me on TV? Could he be so narrow-minded and selfish? I couldn’t sleep the whole night. What he said kept replaying in my mind. Did he think I desperately needed money to do so? Did he think he could spend some money on me to keep me like a soulless object? Finally the dawn broke out. I remembered it was my test day so I hurriedly washed my face, brushed my teeth then rode my bicycle to the school. Luckily I was not late.
After the test, in spite of invitation to go out by Min Min and Stacey, I went home. Last night I turned off my cell phone. When I turned it back on, a dozen messages came. “I am sorry, I was wrong. I should not have said that, I was wrong. Please answer my call”- “I go crazy because of blind jealousy. I can’t bear seeing another man touch you. I may die.”- “I promise not to ever treat you like that again”-“I think about that again and now I support whatever you like to do”-“I am sorry, I was wrong. Turn on your phone please”.
I called him.
His sad voice on the other end: “You don’t quit on me? I called and called and called but your phone was still off”.
“I am sorry for what I said last night. I went to school and left the phone home. I am sorry for yelling at you. I love you”.
A moment of silence then he stuttered: “I was very … very…”
“I was very drunk…”
“No, it was my fault, I am sorry”
Hung raised his voice: “No, you have no fault. I am just narrow-minded”.
I sobbed: “A day without you is a dead day. I don’t live normally without you, do you know that?”
“I love you, love you Tina”.
After the incident, we understood each other more. I knew that I over-reacted and I was lack of understanding him. I was selfish; I did not consult him about what I was going to do. We blamed ourselves many times. Long distance love made us lack the mutual trust. We needed to be more open-minded and to trust each other more.
After that incident, I declined to do any more TV movies although Min Min asked me a few times: “A director in Mass Communications faculty needs a female acting as a university student. You want it?” – “No, I won’t do movie acting again”. He was surprised as he had high regards for my acting skill. But I was firm in my decision: “You wouldn’t understand, Min Min”. I walked away while he was standing with a sad puppy face.
I quit the movie acting job not because Hung forbade me to. I didn’t let anybody decide what I could do. I simply felt it was no longer appropriate for me. I did not want Hung to feel insecure. Both men and women needed trust and security when in love. I also learned a lesson. We needed to understand the person we loved. We needed to put ourselves in their shoes. We needed to sacrifice more or less. And because I did not have a real passion for acting, quitting it was not that difficult.
Hung informed me he was going to move to Shanghai to work for a French company here. I was so happy. We would be together every day.
His company rented an apartment for him, just 10-minute walk to Shanghai port. It was 200 square meters, 2 bedrooms, 1 home office, a kitchen and a large living room. There was a piano in the living room. Seeing the piano, Hung pushed me into a chair. He played “Fur Elise” by Beethoven, my most favorite piano piece.
“Hung, may I move in with you?”. He looked at me with a surprise. He seemed not to believe in my bold decision.
“You and I will talk to my grandparents. I am living with them. I don’t want to do it without their agreement otherwise I hurt their feelings”. Hung agreed.
As Hung didn’t speak Chinese, I had to do the translation. He asked their permission to let me live with him and he would take care of me.
My grandparents were sad to hear that. But they knew it was Hung who helped bringing me to them. My grandpa told me: “This is your home, you can come back anytime. I wish you a happy life, unlike your aunt Duong Y. Youth doesn’t last forever. Live up to the challenges. I am proud of you. Take care of yourself”. Right, my aunt had a broken marriage. They had studied in Russia together and had been together for 9 years before they moved back to Shanghai. They witnessed a fairy tale wedding, but then later it turned into a nightmare for their youngest daughter.
Hung held my grandma’s hand: “Don’t worry grandma. I will take care, protect and treasure your granddaughter”.
Hung helped me with packing for my move to his apartment. My grandparents were looking like I was going to a faraway place. I hugged my grandma: “Grandma, we are so close to you. I can meet you anytime you want to see me. And you can come over to our place whenever you want”. My grandma hugged me and sobbed.
In the West, it was normal for young couples to live together before a marriage. But here we were in a country with the longest tradition and the strongest social prejudice. Yet I had the guts to live together with a man before our wedding and our marriage. It was a great challenge I had to overcome.
Our life together was so happy. We explored China and its different regional cultures together. In winter times, we skied with Stacy or invited Stacy to come over for dinner.
Stacy liked one-night stand loves. Every time Stacy met Hung, she said: “You are lucky to have a loyal girlfriend”. I looked at Stacy: “I am lucky too to have an ideal man like Hung”. Hung looked at me: “We are lucky to have each other”.
In three years living together, the most wonderful thing about him was every Friday evening he went home with a beautiful red rose for me.
We almost had no argument. Sometimes I went home late from the bar, I slept on the sofa, Hung had to change clothes for me and carried me to the bed. The following morning he always left a note for me, reminding me to drink lemonade he made for me to avoid the hangover.
His wholehearted care made me more dependent on him. I was self-reliant but was easy to fall for that. Probably due to French culture, he was romantic and chevalier. Many times watching him cook, looking at his beautiful profile, I thought how lucky I was to have such a perfect man.
Mistake and forgiveness
Stacy told me: “Somebody is waiting for you in the corridor”.
“Yes, she said your name”
Humph, who was looking for me in class time? I walked out with surprise. This kind of meeting gave me anxiety. If it was someone who knew me, they should have called me first.
“Hi a girl from a fictional novel”
In front of me, a tall beautiful woman, red lips, light skin, big round double-lid eyes. She was wearing expensive clothes: a long black skirt, black boots. Her face looked snobby, a high nose and a teasing smile. I thought she was talking to someone else but no, just she and me in the corridor. A tough person, I thought. She was wearing a white fur coat. I was allergic to that kind of coat, as I knew people killed animals to make it.
“Hi, are you a new student?”
“Do I look like a new student?” she talked to me in a bossy manner: “Are you living with Hung? I thought you must be an outstanding girl”.
Then a mocking smile: “I am surprised to see Hung left Paris for a quite normal student like you. He overrated your beauty”.
I grimaced. The first time I had met such an arrogant and aggressive person. I regained my calmness. I thought: “What is this woman talking about? What is the relationship between her and Hung? It doesn’t matter. I trust him”.
Suddenly she moved closer to me. “After his first visit to you in Shanghai, on his birthday night, we slept together in a hotel. Did he tell you that?”
What did she just say? I was paralyzed by what I heard from her.
She continued: “Listen, the girl from fiction. Hung loves you because you are so much like his mom. She liked the same novel you read when you first met Hung”.
I was extremely upset. Why had Hung told her about me but he told me nothing about her?
I got back my self-control. I pointed my finger to her face: “You go away. Go. Disappear from our lives”. She stared back at me: “Oh my God. I couldn’t imagine Hung loves a fierce girl like you. How dare you point at me?”.
I got mad: “Shut up. I don’t know who you are. I don’t know what you are to my boyfriend. He did not tell me anything about you. You fuck off”.
I approached her and raised my voice: “Do you want to be in a wheelchair for the rest of your life? My patience has a limit. Go!”
She seemed to be scared. She realized I was tougher than she thought. She disappeared just as quickly as she came.
Hung just got home from work. I said nothing to him. We had dinner as usual but the meal was too bitter for me.
“Are you tired? What’s wrong?”
“I’m ok. A strange wind blocked my ears”.
Hung didn’t know what I really meant: “I’ll find some vitamins for you tomorrow”.
After dinner, he washed dishes while I took a bath. He asked: “My sweetheart, don’t you wait for me?”
I ignored his question.
After my bath, he repeated his question.
“I don’t like it today”.
He smiled: “Who? Who dared to upset my girlfriend? I will draw his face on a paper then shred it”. Then he laughed foolishly. It was his style. He liked to say stupid things then laughed. But this time I couldn’t laugh with him.
“Today I met a girl that I don’t know her name”. I looked at his face to see his reaction. “She told me you slept with her after you had come back to Paris from your first trip to Shanghai. Were you drunk that night? Did you think she was me? Were you afraid to lose me that night?” I asked him bitterly.
Hung’s face turned pale. He knelt down and hugged my legs tight as if I was going to run away: “I can’t live without you. No apologies would be enough.”
“Oh, so you did sleep with her?”. I couldn’t bear his admission of guilt. I fell to the floor with bitter tears.
“Yes, Van Anh (her name) and I spent a night together. It was my birthday night when I saw the YouTube video clip in which you kissed your co-actor. I was drunk and so crazily jealous. I was angry with myself. I believed it was my fault not to provide you enough so you had to do that to survive. I couldn’t control my jealousy”.
Hung stopped for a while then continued: “She used to be my university classmate. I considered her my close friend, so I told her about you a lot...”
I clenched my jaw and looked at him bitterly: “Keep going. I am listening”.
Hung sat down next to me, hugged me and held my trembling hand: “I drank too much that night and woke up in the bed with her by my side. I did not remember how I ended up in the hotel the following morning. Van Anh told me we had done nothing wrong, I had been too drunk so she had had to take me to a hotel to spend the night because she hadn’t wanted to take me home in such a state. But after that night, I had no more contact with her. Many times I wanted to tell you about that incident but I didn’t have the courage. I worried you may not forgive me. I worried I may lose you. I would rather keep it a secret than hurt you”.
Having heard his confession, I didn’t know what to say. What a painful feeling to know the man you loved slept with another woman. I thought: “You are a bastard. I want to slap your face very hard. Being drunk is not an excuse for you to sleep with another woman”.
But I couldn’t say it out.
Anyway, nobody was free from mistake. Just for me, he left the glamorous Europe to come here to watch me eat salted white turnip. He took care of me more than of him.
I was just a girl without beauty, talent or money. The only thing I had was an unconditional love. But his love to me was even greater. I couldn’t afford losing him just because of one night he spent with another woman. Losing our whole future together?
It did not matter what fictional novel I came from. What he brought me was real, tangible and touchable. He must have been feeling worse than I did. He was being tormented by guilt and remorse.
I hugged him tight: “I don’t want to take the past too seriously. This is our serious wound. Let’s forget it and restart our love”- “My one thousand apologies to you”. I could feel the sincerity in his eyes. My anger melted in that look. I told myself that to forgive meant to bring inner peace to myself. Not just for my inner peace but I loved him too much to not forgive him.
My grandparents held a party for my 21st birthday in their small villa.
“Sweetheart, we should come early to help them”. Hung was even more anxious than I was. I was watching snow-capped building towers of Shanghai. They looked like castles in fairy tales.
“Well, still 5 more hours till the start of my birthday party. Grandma said we could come any time before then”. I was feeling lazy to do anything. “How about we walk?” I suggested.
Hung looked at me warmly: “Well, if you can stand the cold, I happily obey”.
Wow! It was quite cold. To Hung, it was no problem, as he grew up with the snow. It was snowing. I grabbed snowflakes with my hand then I heard some clickings.
“I am taking photos of my girlfriend the day she turns 21. She is bearing the cold, walking under snow-capped Gingko trees”.
Hung liked to say cheap, novelish things like that yet they amused me. We ran and played in the snow until we reached my grandparent’s house.
My grandparents were Christians. They decorated their villa beautifully at Christmas. Hung was delighted: “Your grandparents’ house looks so much like in the West”. The house maid opened the gate for us.
In the front yard, familiar Christmas sights: reindeers, Santa Claus on the sledge. In the living room, snowflakes and bells were hung on big Christmas trees with gift boxes at their bases. Flashing multicolored lights created a festival feel.
“Happy birthday”, bursting firecracker sounds surprised me and Hung. Grandma approached me: “Happy birthday my granddaughter”. She opened the box. Inside, there was a golden necklace with a key engraved with my name. “This is your birthday gift. Our clan has its own tradition. Starting tomorrow, you are an adult. The key is for opening the door of your life. Think, make a decision then act. That is the way a mature woman does”.
Then she put the necklace around my neck.
“Now step over the 2 fire bowls”, she urged. I looked at Hung. Hung looked at me. We could see surprise in each other’s eyes. Why a family looked so westernized but also kept a weird tradition like this? So, they were westernized yet still traditional.
We follow the family’s tradition. I stepped over the first fire bowl. Grandma said: “The first fire bowl represents your family. Your family is your challenge, your priority. You must have responsibility to your family”. My cousin held my right hand while I stepped over the second fire bowl then my aunt held my left hand. My grandpa explained: “The second fire bowl represents you. You need to burn fiercely, to devote yourself to family. Never let the fire extinguish”.
Oh, the age of 21 was that important? I was really free to do anything?
I don’t want you to suffer alone
A few days after my 21st birthday, on the way home from school, I felt tired and nausea. After a visit to the doctor, I found out I was pregnant. The news was like a thunderbolt on my peaceful life. I asked myself why I was so imprudent. Why was a baby coming this time?
Yes, both Hung and I liked children, but not now. I was not ready to be a mom. We were still too young. I hadn’t yet graduated and Hung wasn’t yet well established. If I had a child, I must marry him. The financial pressure would build up on him. And me, could I be a mom at 21 years of age? I did not want my baby to be an unwanted child like I had been. How could I be a wife, a mom when I had no university education, no career?
That night I showed Hung the ultrasound scan’s result. Hung asked me gently: “What do you think?” I answered quickly: “No, I don’t want a baby at this point in time”.
Hung quietly went to our bedroom.
We did not talk anymore for the rest of the night.
The following morning, I walked along Huang Pu riverside and chose a quiet spot to sit down and to think. I was an unwanted child. I was born out of wedlock, as my mom hadn’t wanted to legally marry my dad. I was born in a biting cold, snowy Russian winter. My mom deeply hated the baby’s cry. She let my dad take care of me mostly; she was only interested in makeup and dancing. My dad was so busy with working and taking care of a baby. Probably my mom had been in a shocked and confused state like I was now.
“My God, what I am going to do?” I rubbed my belly, knowing that there was a living thing in there. “My baby, forgive me, I don’t want you to be like me, an unwanted child” – “My Lord, please help my baby to reincarnate in where my baby is truly wanted”.
As I was firm in my decision, I went straight to an abortion clinic. It was so painful. I had never cried in front of people before but that day I cried like a baby. The nurse held my hand tightly, comforted me: “It’s alright, be brave, it’s over”.
The physical pain was not as bad as the mental pain. I felt so guilty to Hung. I knew he liked children. But he couldn’t impose his decision on me.
On the way home, I kept crying, my eyes swelled. When I came home, Hung was lighting the candles next to the red roses. He looked at me caringly: “Did you cry?” He kissed the tears on my cheeks then his tears started flowing.
He quietly sat down in front of the piano, played “Fur Elise” by Beethoven in the flickering candles. The lovely piece soothed my soul. Yes, music was the reflection of emotions. Emotions were intangible, we could only feel them. It reflected the mysterious life and inviting desires. It soothed the soul, healed the wounds and reminded the memories. It encouraged us to positive thoughts.
At the end of the play, he opened the ring box and proposed to me:
“Marry me; you are 21 years old now. I want to build beautiful dreams with you, to walk with you on the path of life. You don’t want a child at this point in time; I respect your decision, but let’s overcome all life obstacles. I am sorry. Because of me, you get hurt. Please marry me”.
I sobbed: “I am sorry, I killed our baby, I am a bad girl”
“No, it’s not your fault. It’s mine. I am sorry for letting you go to the abortion clinic alone. Please promise me not to do stupid things like that again. We need to solve problems together. I don’t want you to suffer alone. I love you”. Hung raised my hand; put the engagement ring onto my finger. I felt so lucky to love him and to have him love me back.
Going to Paris together
“Good news for you”. Hung came home with a happy face. I was so curious.
He took out a passport from his briefcase: “Here is your visa for Europe, lady”. He winked.
“That fast? I thought it would have been a few weeks”
“Probably because this is a fiancée- class visa” he shrugged.
I pouted: “Are you sure?”
He knocked on my head: “OK, I am going to change our air tickets, we go back to France sooner”.
Our plane landed in international airport Charles de Gaulle at 5:00pm. The brilliant sun was still high in the sky. A beautiful Paris afternoon with blue sky and bright yellow sunlight. I never saw such a beautiful sky before.
Hung’s grandma opened the door for us. She gave me a friendly smile and hugged me lightly: “You are just as nice as your name. I have prepared dinner, you guys take a bath then we have dinner”.
I gave her a grateful look: “Thank you so much, grandma”.
Hung used to live here. Because of me, he had left her alone in the apartment of a glamorous Paris full of cars and little intersections. The row houses stood neck to neck in pastel colors. They created a special romantic look.
Paris reminded me of my beautiful Hanoi with tall, big, old trees and French-styled buildings. After dinner, Hung and grandma insisted that I take a rest and to leave the clean up job for Hung.
I stepped in Hung’s room, where he had lived before moving to Shanghai. I was delighted to see small photos of me on the wall. One was me eating a roasted sweet potato. One was me eating a roasted corn on the cob. Another was me daydreaming in the internet shop. On the backs of those photos was his writing: “My love”. I smiled to myself: “Bastard, he took photos of me secretly without my knowledge”.
I had a sound sleep, as I was tired and happy until his phone rang and woke me up. He was sitting next to me.
“Do you want to continue sleeping or to go out?”
I pulled open the window curtain. It was 8:30 but I didn’t see the sunshine. I asked Hung where the sun was and why he didn’t wake me up sooner, as I thought I had slept the whole night.
He laughed loudly: “Well, you slept for one hour only”.
“What, then why is still daylight outside?”
He patted on my head: “That is the way summer is in Europe. It doesn’t get dark until 10:00pm”.
Oh, I didn’t know. It was not like that in Shanghai.
“Do you want to see Eiffel tower by night? Between 9:00pm and 10:00pm, it looks beautiful with lights”.
“Oh, take me please”. I looked at him with puppy eyes.
He drove me to Eiffel tower. We parked our car then walked through a park. There were so many people, just like a huge outdoor party. They were lying on the grass, eating their dinner on the picnic sheets.
I had thought that only China was this crowded, but I was wrong. Far from my imagination about Europe.
Hung asked me to help him. I spread the picnic sheet on the grass while he opened the backpack to bring out fruits, cookies and soft drinks. Picnicking in the most romantic country of the world had been my far-fetched dream, now that dream came true.
At 10:00 pm, Eiffel tower was lighted majestically, the same could be said for our love and our dreams. Hung kissed me again and again and said again and again: “I love you Tina”. I kept my eyes closed to enjoy that magic moment: love and be loved.
We visited Hung’s old school, took the boat on Seine river, walked through streets lined up with street artists and painters, enjoyed pizzas and beefsteaks…”Oh my God”, I moaned. Hung was startled: “What’s wrong? Is it not good?” – “No, it’s soooo good that I almost bit my own tongue”, I moaned again.
“How is the ice cream?”
I looked at him with a smile: “Not as good as the one you made”.
“I am sure about that. I won the ice cream making award in college”
I had to agree with him on this. Three years living with him, ice cream was always in our fridge. Hung’s home-made ice cream was excellent, not too sweet like the commercial ones.
We went to a sidewalk café, drinking coffee, listening to French concert music, reading “Notre Dame de Paris” by Victor Hugo. We chatted small talks or non-sense stuff, yet felt so peaceful and happy.
“Paris is so attractive and elegant, sweetheart? It’s like a professional Don Juan”. I had a faraway look, sunlight plated everything with a thin layer of light yellow: “Yes, Paris is as gallant as my fiancé, no wonder it seduced me to come here”. Hung winked: “Oops, are you teasing me?”
“No, I am so proud. I want the world to know that I am a willing fish. I took the bait, so I am here. So, don’t let go of me”. I smiled and combed his hair. Hung said softly: “Follow me to a whole new world”.
The city and the people here were so amorous. Everything had a touch of love. It was hard for me to describe it. We were lucky to be a couple in love, strolling along the Seine river. Yet in out-of-way corners, you still could see poverty and homelessness. “Well, you know, everywhere, there are 2 sides of life”, Hung told me when I spotted a homeless man.
“You are right. I thought I could only see this in Vietnam or China”. In Paris’ Metro system, I saw many women beggars with children. Many young white men jumped over train’s gates to evade fares, right in this City of Lights of the world. There were so many homeless people on sidewalks. “Well, you know, there are many things you have to see with your eyes, not by reading the books”.
The incident in Switzerland
We had plans to travel many places in Europe.
First of all, Geneva, Switzerland, where International Federation for Human Rights was. This was my dream place since my high school years, because I always wanted to fight for human rights, for people who suffered social injustice. I wanted to be the voice for the underdogs. I wanted to save female victims of human trafficking.
I wanted to be the advocate for female victims of domestic abuse, for my fellow contract laborers who suffered labor standard abuses in foreign countries. Finally, I had a chance to see many countries’ flags flying in front of United Nations Office.
I told myself: I would try my best to have my voice heard here one day. Hung hugged me tight, encouraged me that my dream would come true in the future, as long as I kept my faith and my effort.
I believed that not just me, but many visitors would be amazed by Switzerland’s nature and scenery. The country gave the feelings of romance, purity, peace and wealth. The land of mountains, lakes, forests, pastures, pretty houses and electric trams running through small streets. I told Hung: “How lucky people are to live here”. Hung answered in a poised manner: “Swiss know how to take care and preserve their nature”.
We held hands together, walked along the lake shore to Quai Gustave-Ador and Jet d’Eau fountain, the symbol of the city. We watched white swans on the lake. Hung told me he often came here whenever he missed Ha Noi.
On our second day to Switzerland, we met Hung’s friends at lunch. They were quite friendly.
“This is Thai, my close friend. We have been friends since we were 4 years of age”
I looked at Thai cheerfully: “Hi, I am Tina, Hung told me a lot about you”.
“Hi Tina, in real life you look more beautiful than in photos”.
I smiled and thanked him.
He was a well-dressed, fashionable man with white dress shirt, black blue dress pants. A side-parting black hair kept in shape with gel, a pleasant smell of Calvin Klein eau de cologne; he and Hung were typical French men. They possessed self-confidence and inspirational energy to motivate people around them.
The other two were Danial and Eliza, his junior high school classmates.
It quickly became easy to talk to each other. Thai observed me carefully then said: “Girl, how good you are. You could make Hung give up Paris to move to Shanghai, the city that Hung never ever mentioned before”.
I smiled: “Well, I am not that good; it’s just that Hung fell so hard for me”.
Thai laughed out loud: “You are so interesting”.
Hung smiled: “Be careful Thai, don’t make me jealous”.
Everybody laughed out loud.
Right at that cheerful moment, an incident that shocked everyone happened. Even until now, I could not forget that terrible feeling. It haunted me every night, long after.
I frantically called his name.
An ambulance came. They did some first aid procedures on him; put him on a wheeled stretcher and took him to the hospital. It took a few hours for Hung to wake up. I didn’t understand the conversation between Hung and hospital staff, because it was in French.
I asked the doctor in English: “How is he? What happened to him? How is the exam result?”
The doctor replied: “He is fine, all results are negative and he just needs some rest”.
I was so happy; probably it was just that he was exhausted from too many sight-seeing trips with me. I needed to take more care of him; I would prevent him from overworking.
Two days later, Thai drove us back to Paris from Geneva. On the way home, they talked to each other in French. I was curious. Why did they not use Vietnamese language? But I was careful not to ask them. The more important point was Hung recovered. He might say something about me that he didn’t want me to know.
Returning to Paris also meant it was time for me to go back to school in Shanghai. But this time, Hung couldn’t go back to Shanghai, because his company wanted him to stay in Paris. He told me to return to Shanghai first, he would join me later.
I believed Hung, I believed in all he said. I went back to Shanghai. He saw me off at the airport. But I felt there was something in his beautiful eyes, something unspeakable.
I asked Hung: “What’s wrong? Do you have anything to tell me? You looked so tired, is it from work?”
He didn’t reply. I gave up: “OK, if you don’t want to say it, I won’t ask anymore. Take care of yourself, eat more and drink more water. Don’t stay up too late, it’s not good”.
“I love you, I love you”. Hung hugged me and whispered.
“Bye bye, I go inside now”. I entered the restricted area. Behind my back, he was following me with desperate, remote look eyes. At that moment, I simply thought he was sad because he couldn’t go back to Shanghai with me.
Waiting for my check-in, I planned for our future. I talked to Hung quietly and remotely: “After my graduation, our wedding. We will have beautiful wedding photos. I will learn French. I will follow you to Paris, or wherever in the world. We will visit my dad, my home village, a beautiful countryside with waterfalls, creeks, green fields and waving hills and winding unpaved roads. I am so happy Hung”. Away from him but thinking of our future, I was happy. We were separate for a while but the long term future would be good for us.
I don’t deserve you
I was back in Shanghai for 10 days but Hung only called me 2 times. I thought he was busy so I didn’t want to bother him. I was busy with school so I was somewhat carried away.
Sunday afternoon on day 11, when I was listening to “Fur Elise”, Hung called and informed me that his company still kept him in Paris, returning date to Shanghai was unknown. I was surprised after hearing that but even more shockingly, Hung said this: “Live your life and forget me, Tina, I don’t deserve you. I am so sorry”. He hung up right after saying that.
“What? What did he just say? Was it him?”
My hands were trembling. I checked the caller ID. Yes, it was him. Was it possible someone else who was using his cell phone?
No, it was his familiar voice.
Was love just a game? Just forgot him? Was I just his play toy for a while? Or was I just a stuffed animal needed in winter time only?
He did not deserve me? Not deserving me then why did he love me in the first place?
My head was spinning with too many questions. “How about my name was tattooed on his chest? How about he said he loved me more than the number of stars in the sky?”
I called him back. The phone was picked up but no hello. I shouted: “Are you kidding me? Call me back with Skype. I want to see your face when you say that. Are you dying when you said that? You can kill me with that kind of joke. Call me now”. He hung up. I went crazy.
I called again 2 times. No pick up.
I took a taxi to Stacy, 5 kms away. I used her phone to call him. No pick up either.
“Bastard! What did I do to deserve this? You said things that I don’t want to hear”. I called his grandma. No pick up. I called his friends. No pick up.
What happened? What happened?
Why did he want to dump me? Was it because of the girl from Paris who came to see me?
What a shock to me. I was confused, disoriented, panicked. I didn’t know what to do.
A few weeks later, Stacy moved to my apartment so she could be with me and comfort me. She told me let it be, but I couldn’t concentrate on my study. I went to Shanghai wharf to sit down, look at our photos and at the engagement ring.
We looked so happy and compatible. Why did he dump me now? I hated him for giving me an ambiguous reason to leave me. I hated him for giving me too many sweet memories. I hated him for making me love him. My youngest aunt was right. Both men and marriage were not trustworthy. When men left you for another woman, it was useless to beg them back. One year after their marriage and half a year after getting pregnant, her husband had an affair. The shock caused her to have a miscarriage. In spite of her begging, her husband left her for a younger mistress. She did not remarry anyone, as she lost her trust in men.
No, I was not my aunt, I told myself. I was a girl with ambition. I had to live for those who needed me in the future. I tried my best to keep me busy so I could forget him: I studied hard and joined many extracurricular activities and volunteer groups.
But it was so hard to forget him. Whatever I did, his image was in my mind. I was miserable. Shanghai winter came. The cold came from outside as well as from my broken heart.
Then I tried to think about it differently. Why didn’t I thank him for what he had done for me? Maybe he needed someone better than me? Maybe it was more practical for him to find someone closer to him?
I felt better if I thought that way. I would try to live well as he had advised me.
Later on, my life stabilized. It was time for me to pay annual rent for the apartment he had signed a 5 year lease.
I couldn’t afford to pay the rent, so I planned to share Stacy’s apartment first then to find another one for me later. But when I called the rental office, they told me the rent for the remaining 2 years had been paid.
I was so surprised. Hung told me he was not sure when he would return to Shanghai so why did he pay the remaining 2 years? I felt something was wrong.
One quiet afternoon, while I was reading a book, my phone rang, the caller ID showed an unfamiliar number. I hesitated for a moment then picked up the call.
“Hi Tina, Thai is here. I am Hung’s friend and coworker. I drove you and him from Geneva back to Paris, you remember? I am coming to Shanghai to take over Hung’s work assignment”
The name Hung sounded like a stab to my heart. I had been trying to forget that name for many months. Somebody said that name, it made my heart racing.
“Hi, yes, I remember you. How is Hung?”
“Oops, you don’t ask how I am”
“Sorry, how are you?”
“I was just teasing you. Hung is not doing well. I need to see you”
“He is not well? What’s wrong?” I stuttered.
“I tell you when we meet. I am downstairs waiting”.
I grabbed my jacket and raced to the lobby to meet Thai. We went to a café by the river. I asked as soon as we sat down: “What’s wrong with Hung?”
“Hold on, let me order your hot chocolate. Hung told me you like hot chocolate”.
As soon as the waitress brought me my drink, I asked Thai: “Now please tell me what happened to Hung”.
“He is lucky to have a girlfriend like you, but I feel sorry for him” Thai hesitated: “Hung is dying, Tina”.
It was like I was struck by a lightning. I got goose bumps. My mouth was trembling as I tried to speak:
“Are you kidding me right? Is Hung here now? Is this his trick? I need to see him”.
Thai’s face looked somber: “He got brain cancer, final stage. He has only days to live”
I couldn’t believe what he just said.
“Really? Is that true? Since when? Why didn’t he tell me?” I cried out like a baby.
Thai didn’t know what to do. He held my hand: “Be calm. Hung loves you so much. He doesn’t want you to know as you will suffer, but I have to let you know. He has your photo at his bed. He worries that if he doesn’t put your photo there, one day he wakes up, with his brain disease, he may not remember you anymore. Hung said you were the best memory he ever had in his life”
Thai let me know how unlucky Hung’s life was. His dad had had an affair. His mom had committed suicide as a result. He had been only 6 years old when he had lost his mom.
“Then his grandma raised him after his mom had died” Thai pondered: “Hung likes to ponder his life by the river or the lake. He feels lucky to have met you, because you bring him great happiness. But life is so unfair. He has not much time left to live”.
“Thank you for letting me know. I am so inconsiderate to leave him alone in sickness. I am going to Paris. I want to be by his side, no matter how long”.
Missing the Paris date
Nine days of waiting for my visa to France were too long. In my 12-hour Shanghai-Paris flight, my tears rolled down non-stop. A blonde woman sitting next to me was wondering. She asked: “May I hug you?”. I nodded. She hugged me and patted on my back: “Jesus Christ is not abandoning you. He is just challenging you. Keep your calmness”. Then she gave me the tissue to wipe my tears.
Finally my plane landed in Charles de Gaulle international airport. It was not sunshine like my first time to Paris. It was raining hard. I took a taxi to Centre Hospitalier de Maison Blanche, the cancer hospital.
Hung’s grandma was waiting for me at the entrance, an umbrella in her hand and tears in her eyes. I hugged her in tears. She took me to Hung’s room. I wiped my tears. I did not want Hung to see my suffering.
I knelt down at his bed. I could no longer recognize him. Just a few months passed yet my handsome, athletic Hung before turned into a living skeleton now. I hugged him tight. My tears started flowing down again.
He looked at me and cried: “I am sorry, I am sorry…Thank you for coming”. Then he fell asleep again under the influence of pain killers.
But it was more like unconsciousness than sleeping. His arms were full of needle marks. His plump red lips before became chapped and almost bleeding now, breaking my heart.
His grandma looked at me gratefully: “Thank you so much for coming”.
I held her warm hand. I told her to go home and rest and let me keep watch on him.
But she refused: “No, I have to stay here with him. I have been like his mom since he was a child. He would be sad without seeing me”
I hugged her tight and looked through the window. The sky was dark; rainstorm and lightning were hitting the buildings of Paris hard.
Grandma and I kept sitting next to Hung’s bed, quietly. Then he opened his eyes and called my name.
“Tina, you look thinner now, but the waist gets better”, he tried to joke.
I smiled: “But you look whiter now”. He smiled back at me. I kissed his chapped lips and whispered: “I love you, I love you very much, my big teddy bear”.
Suddenly, he twisted his body and screamed: “Douleur! Douleur! Douleur!”. At that time, I didn’t understand what it meant because it was French, but I could see that he was in extreme pain. He was a brave, strong-minded man so if he screamed like that, the pain had to be killing. I ground my teeth; feeling like my heart was being stabbed.
I wished I could be a painkiller. I held his hand, whispered into his ear: “I am here, be tough”. The nurse came to inject morphine to him but it didn’t seem to help as he still twisted and turned.
“I am sorry to have let you suffer alone for the past few months. I am so stupid, so despicable. I only care about myself”. I tortured myself with that kind of self-blaming.
The sorrow I had suffered for the past few months was nothing compared to the physical pain and the desperation he had suffered. He didn’t want me to see him suffer so he didn’t tell me the truth but it was the guilty feeling of abandoning him for the past few months was torturing me. Why was I not smart enough to ask for more information about the Switzerland incident?
Only two weeks after I had arrived in Paris, I no longer recognized myself in the mirror. I lost so much weight due to lack of sleep. My eyes turned bloodied and puffy due to crying too much. I slept only 2 or 3 hours a night. I wanted to be with him at his bedside and to look at him as much as possible.
I remembered when he had been with me in Shanghai, sometimes I had asked him why he had not gone to dancing club with me more often and his excuses had usually been “headache”. Why didn’t I urge him to go to doctor for that frequent headache? But everything was too late now.
His hand moved a little bit in my hand. He woke up.
“Tina, I want coconut juice. Go buy coconut juice for me”
“Ok, wait here, I’ll go now”. After kissing him, I called Min Min’s brother who was studying in Paris, asking for where to buy coconut juice. He told me Sou Quan grocery store.
I took a taxi to get there and bought 5 coconuts and some fruits. When I got back to the hospital, it down poured. The hospital was still busy with people going in and out. When I got back to his room, he was gone. I asked the nurse where he was. She said he had been taken to emergency room. I ran to the emergency room.
Doctors and nurses were there. I asked: “Excuse me, what happened to him?”. A doctor in his fifties replied: “We are sorry for your loss. This must be very hard for you. We did our best but we couldn’t save him. Please prepare yourself”.
I shouted: “No, impossible, sir. What are you talking about?”
Hung’s grandma was there. She hugged me but looked very calm: “Granddaughter, be calm, let him go peaceful”.
“Why, why you kept it a secret, your illness?”
“Even when you die, you die without me being beside you”
“You bastard, you knew you were going to die so you tricked me to go away. You didn’t let me see the moment you passed away. You were brutal to yourself.”
“You’re despicable. I hate you. Why didn’t you drink my coconut juice then passed away?”
The pain made me go crazy. I shouted, I yelled. Everybody looked at me yelling in a foreign language that they didn’t understand.
Thai came back to Paris for Hung’s funeral. Hung’s dad and his stepmom from the U.S. also came. Hung looked so much like his dad: tall and handsome. He came to me, looked at me hurtfully: “Thank you so much. The time you are here must be so hard for you”. But I understood I was not the only one who felt pain. His grandma too, the elderly who had to see a young family member pass away, not the other way around.
I was about to leave Paris, to say farewell to the city of my love. We broke our promises. We scrapped our future plan. Sitting on his bed in his home room, the memory squeezed my heart. His scent was still lingering in the air. I hugged his pillow and cried. I would no longer see him again, hug him again, smell his scent again, hear his laugh and voice again. Quoc Hung, thank you for giving me sweet memories of the first love of my life, very sweet yet very bitter.
The final letter
After Hung’s funeral, I went back to Shanghai. I remember the 2 sentences in the poem “Tears” by Han Mac Tu. They reflected my feelings at that time:
“You are gone; half of my soul dies,
The other half gets lost”
I could feel fully the pain of losing someone we loved. The loss of the loved one could cause some people die of sorrow. But I didn’t want to go that route. I wanted to be strong. In the long flight from Paris to Shanghai, at no point my tears stopped falling.
Thai was with me in that flight. He witnessed everything.
When I and Thai got back to my apartment, Stacy opened the door and hugged me tight. “Be calm and brave. Jesus Christ blesses him. He is in heaven now, watching you”. Before leaving me, Thai gave me Hung’s last letter, when he had still been able to write.
I sat down in Hung’s home office. I opened his letter:
“My dearest Tina,
I don’t know how long I can live after writing this last letter to you. I guess not long, probably just a few more days before I am gone forever. I believe you will get angry at me after you read this letter, as I leave you alone in this world.
Thank you for coming into my life when I was most lonely. Thank you for making me feel what happiness really is. Thank you for showing me how to open myself up to be loved by someone. I am sorry because I am no longer with you to take care of you, to protect you when you need me.
I had thought that I had a very unfortunate childhood but then I realized your childhood was even worse. I am lucky to be loved by a girl like you. I feel very warm and safe when you are with me. You are a girl with strong personality and full emotions. It’s lucky to know you and to love you.
I asked Thai to pay the rent for our apartment for the next two years, until you graduate from university. I also asked him to give you 50,000 USD to pay for your tuition fees and living expenses for the next two years.
I know you are an independent girl, you don’t need my money. But you should be practical. It would help you achieve your goal easier. Men make money so their women can spend. You are my only woman. I lied when I told you I had had a dozen girlfriends before you. I only wanted to impress you.
You are my first, only and last love. Thank you for giving me the sweetest memories.
Please make our dreams come true. After your graduation, on my behalf, go where I have never been, do what I have never done, eat what I have never eaten and buy what you like. Live well then one day, someone would love you even more than I did.
I wish you happy and success. I will always follow you up.
I love you.
Your big teddy bear.
Pham Quoc Hung”
Hung was right.
It was hard to do many things without money. But money was not everything. Some things money couldn’t buy, for example, Hung. How could I buy him back to life?
The mental shock made me depressed, desperate, especially at night, when I looked at Shanghai by night through my window. Here he had used to hug me, to comb my hair and to whisper love words to me. It was summer now, life sprung up everywhere with flowers and young leaves. The city was sparkling. Couples were strolling on Shanghai wharf or embarking the boats. We had used to be like them. So many souvenirs left in this room. Why was God so unfair to me? To bury the sorrow, I went to night clubs alone to drink alcohol. Only alcohol could cloud my mind so I wouldn’t miss him. I lost myself. I was scared of the morning and the following day, because the following day would be the same as today. I was scared of waking up alone in the cold room. Time was brutal. It didn’t wait, it kept going. It forced me to look at myself. I read his last letter again and again. I was stupid. I knew that Hung would never come back to me. He wanted me to be strong. But what did I do? I was using alcohol to help me survive. No, I couldn’t continue this way. I had to turn his love into my strength to go on with life. Only by that way he would rest in peace.
Few days later, I quit school. I couldn’t live in Shanghai anymore. This city kept so many sweet memories that I couldn’t get rid of. I had to go to a faraway land so my old love flame would die out and my heart wound would heal with time.
The final chapter
I applied for study in the U.S. Luck smiled to me. I got accepted for admission in North Carolina University in city of Charlotte, North Carolina State. Schooling helped my pain go away slowly. My love with Hung seemed like a dream, not real, but I still could not escape from that dream.
He was my first love, he was unforgettable. Dream or reality, I still wanted to see him again. USA was beautiful and big, yet without him, it was not desirable to me. Everybody dreamed to live in USA, but it was not for me.
Almost a year passed, yet I could only think of Hung. I skipped over so many things and so many people. I remembered my dad’s song with his guitar every Saturday night in my hometown. He would sing again and again:
“I stand there, like a statue.
Wait for whom and look for whom?”
He had to be broken-hearted when my mom left him then his daughter left him. Folklore had it that the daughter was her father’s past-life lover. Yet we only talked over the phone, we didn’t see each other for a few years. Hung’s pass away gave me a chance to revaluate myself. I learned to grow up, to forgive, to give away and to value time.
I wanted to know how my dad lived after I had left him. I was so lonely in America. I felt I belonged to Asia, not America.
So I quit schooling in USA. I returned to Vietnam, visited dad and aunt. I worked as a translator for a foreign company. I did some TV shows. After living for over a year in Hanoi, I moved to Singapore to attend Mass Communications degree.
After graduation, I worked as a freelance reporter for some media companies. I travelled the world alone. I met some F1 racers that I had admired when I had been young.
Time flew. Ten years passed. I had some short loves and one short marriage. The loves were brief like summer showers. There were sweet memories, betrayals, violence, arguments, bitterness, hatred. Some were still my friends but some I didn’t wish to see them ever again.
As my life experiences got richer, I got more mature. I understood that men were all different. Each had his own look, character and personality.
My love experiences helped me know one important thing. Rich or poor, strong or weak, attractive or dull, but when a man really loved a woman, he still wanted to make his woman really happy. Each man made your life richer in a way.
Hung’s image was forever tattooed in my heart and my mind. I often thought of him when I sat alone. My life was full of obstacles yet I overcame them all. I gained from life more than I expected.
To heal a heart wound took a long time. One’s life was pre-arranged by fate. His death changed my way of thinking and my view of life a lot. I became more open-minded. I rejected hatred and jealousy. I returned to Paris to visit his tomb. The man I loved and never forgot was resting in the bright blue sky of Paris. Probably he was looking down at me, smiling in happiness.
© Hoàng Hải Hồ translated into English from "Lỡ hẹn Paris" by Tina Yuan