THE WRITERS POST
VOLUME 9 DOUBLE ISSUE
JAN & JUL 2007
Nowhere to go
A SHORT STORY BY
NGUYEN HUU TRI, short-story writer, professor, translator, interviewer and
editor. Nguyen Huu Tri made his name as a writer with the
publication of “Thang Ngo” (1992), a collection of Vietnamese language
short-stories, which was followed by “An Trua, Nghe Ke Chuyen Tinh”, another
collection of stories published by Van (1999). He lives in
Bill held his wife's hand, their fingers interlocking listlessly. They were strolling in a deserted park on a Friday afternoon. It was mildly cool toward the end of autumn. The withered leaves were clinging feebly to the tree branches just like dying people trying to hang on to time. The last sunrays flickering through the sparse forest were languidly beautiful but immensely sad, unlike the brilliant rays dancing on a lake in the morning in spring.
After returning from lunch with some colleagues earlier this afternoon, Thanh got a call from Bill. He said he would pick her up when she got off work later, without telling her what they would do or where he would take her. Thanh agreed on his request and did not care to ask any further.
Bill came at the appointed time. They exchanged a few words after they both had gotten in the car. Then Thanh just sat quietly, her head leaning against the passenger seat. She stretched her legs forward and kept her eyes half-closed, hoping to relieve her weariness. There can be no idle hands in this civilized country. People work all day long with continuous exertion and do not just sit around doing nothing and get paid. Besides, without any apparent reason, Thanh ran out of things to say to Bill. She let Bill take her anywhere he wanted. She was wondering whether there was anyone out there that agreed with her: Why are there moments during which our soul is so torn to shreds that we just do not care about where we are drifting in this life?
Bill and Thanh were walking leisurely on the narrow paved road running along a crystal clear creek. They were walking side by side, yet each one was in a different mood. Whenever Thanh felt so down, it was then that she found her romantic personality coming back. Thanh thought to herself: "What are you thinking about, Binh? What kind of loose thinking is on your mind? God is really harsh to me. He engraves the word ‘romantic’ onto my soul, but He sternly refuses to bestow on me the literary talent. If I were a writer, I would write a novel just to dedicate it to you. The novel would be titled ‘Our Love Story’. How does that sound to you? It doesn't matter the title is just a clicheù. Our life's story is definitely unique; no other love story is like ours, don't you think? It’s really too bad I'm getting old and forgetful! I'll ask my best friend Hoa to write it for me. She has admitted that she is by no means romantic, but strangely enough, she has a legendary ability to write and has published poetry and short stories. Obviously, not every poet or writer is romantic, but somehow I just think about it that way. As you have known, Hoa is very good at fictionalize real life; she also has a special talent for telling stories, using the colloquial language in a very attractive manner. As for our love story, she knows it by heart. This is partly my fault because I've told her everything about us. Then without our permission, she has gone around and tells our story to other friends, considering herself as our blood sister. She says that she wants everyone to admire our secret trick for keeping happiness. Other than that, she always considers ours as the greatest love story of all."
* * * * *
Once, Thanh --who
else but my closest chum Thanh-- was not only a dreamlike beauty but also the
best student in our class. In spite
of her utterly magnificent beauty and talent of a model, she never showed any
sign of arrogance, unlike commonplace people like you and me. It was probably because she was a born
person with few words. Moreover, it
was interesting that she herself wasn't aware of her beauty. In school, she was well-liked among female
teachers because of her grace and modesty.
Now, don't you dare to think about gay and lesbians, since we have
none of that kind of unusual "sickness" in
--sorry Teacher, this is the kind of language that we students use behind your back; also, you weren't that much older than we -- went out on the limb to win the beauty's heart. He was courting her, but she shyly and politely turned him down. He knew that I was close to her, so he turned to me and asked me to "beg" her. To please him, I did try to, but she told me that she by no means thought little of him. Yet, she felt that there was some unexplainable thing that had built a dividing wall, the Great Wall, between them from the beginning. In fact, this man was quite handsome and was a very charming teacher in the classroom, even with dry subjects like physics and chemistry. I knew that every night a great many girls, seemingly including me, quietly wished he would marry them so they could serve him. Now, listen carefully: I am only saying "seemingly!" Anyway, I completely failed in this match-making effort! This man did not give up; he turned to a classical method by beseeching his parents to go ask the young lady's hand in marriage. At that time, he was still optimistically beside himself with joy: He said, ‘Well, maybe, there is no love at the beginning, but after a few kids, love will come in no time.’ However, how unfortunate his fate was! That traditional approach did not bring about any concrete result, partly because Thanh's parents were quite "modern" and did not have a heart to force a marriage on their daughter.
Another rather calm summer vacation passed indifferently. When the new school year began, our defeated hero was nowhere to be seen. At first, we thought he had been transferred to another school. We couldn't imagine that he was so lovesick that he quit teaching and joined the army. He probably wanted to take his lonely heart to all the four tactical military zones so that his lovelorn melancholy could subside gradually. Hearing this news, Thanh said something quite ungraceful. Can you believe it that she said, ‘I have no idea he loves me that much. If I had known that, I would have said yes to him.’ Can you see? Thanh is the type of accommodating people like that! As for me, I would advise her to politely turn down a few dozens of courtiers just to benefit the Army Recruiting Service. Anyway, after that science teacher it was a medical student's turn.
Well, this future doctor wasn't any less infatuated with Thanh. Hearing rumors about this beauty, the guy was plowing a long way on his "vespa" to our school at exactly the end of the day. He slowly followed her bicycle almost to her home. Then he came again the next day and rode his motorcycle leisurely behind us. Suddenly he launched his vehicle forward and passed us like an arrow. When he was about twenty meters ahead of us, he tuned off the engine and put his motorcycle on the sidewalk. Then he stood there in the middle of the street and stopped Thanh, who almost fell off her bike. One hand on the handlebar, he used the other hand to raise lightly the conical hat hiding half of Thanh's face. Following was an unusually reckless declaration of love: ‘Thanh, I honestly love you! I love you above everything else in this life! I swear I have never loved anyone else as much as I love you. I can't go on living without your presence in my life. I'll marry you some day. Just say yes and I'll wait for you until tomorrow, the day after tomorrow, next week, next month, seven or ten more years. I'll wait for you forever. If you refuse, I'll kill myself...right now...and right here.’ Thanh was utterly confused and embarrassed and did not know how to react. He followed up his advantage by storming her with promise after promise, just like an overconfidently passionate singer on the stage that couldn't care less what the audience is saying about his performance. Thanh kept nodding after each of his utterances. At that moment, I thought Thanh was losing her mind or something! Later on, when I asked her about this, she blushed and shyly said, ‘Didn't you see? His bobbing hair makes him look like an artist...his brown eyes were so dreamy... I really couldn't stand it because he is so adorable and so handsome.’ For Heaven's sake! So what was happening then was real! Indeed, a loud thunderbolt struck right where I was standing, but I did not see or hear anything. How whimsical God is! He bestows that thunderous sound for only two people at a time.
In no time that
medical student and Thanh had become a beautiful couple, and the lovers were
always happy side by side. At times,
Thanh seemed to forget that I existed in this life, yet I never blamed her
because I loved my friend. As a
matter of fact, I quietly wished that their love would blossom to a happy
marriage. But --this eternally cruel but-- one day, after the young man went
Well, I'll tell you
what: Thanh is not only beautiful but
is also famous for being a "man-killer." In high school, a great many boys fell for her, but they all
ended up in a dead end. Later on, in
this US of A, when Bill first met her, he ignored the whole universe. For him, it was a deafening thunderbolt, a
frenzied love, a dizzying infatuation.
As for her, Thanh wrote to me the following lines: ‘Fate had led me to
meet Bill and we love each other passionately. Bill has a very "Oriental" soul amidst a society
dominated by money. He often thinks
deeply about the meaning of life among a huge crowd of people with blond hair
and blue eyes that almost always go after money and worship a materialistic
life (to be fair, the people with brown skin and black hair as well as those with black skin and black hair are no exception). By
the way, Bill also has an Oriental body because he is not bulkily big
like most Americans. On the contrary, he has a lanky build and is only half a
head taller than I am. Side by side,
we match perfectly (hope you don't mind a little self-praise!). He also has bobbing hair like that of my
unrewarding former lover and his dreamy eyes are a bit bluer. He's from a
wealthy family (his dad owns the Domino sugar company) but he is very idealistic. Bill wants to quit school and volunteer to
go fighting in
Since he met Thanh, Bill made up his mind to "Vietnamize." Naturally, the main reason was that he would like to communicate in her mother tongue because he loves her. Other than that, Bill somehow felt disappointed and lost confidence in his own homeland. Thanh told me that from the day Bill witnessed the violent assassination of President Kennedy...and a few years after that the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. ...and then the train carrying the body of Robert Kennedy crossing this beautiful America while crowds of people waving farewell to another lost hope...and also from the moment he saw his best friend and one of his cousins, both under eighteen years old, coming back from the war silent like stone or wood in the flag-draped coffins...since he directly faced those circumstances, Bill realized that not every story ends joyfully and peacefully, not every life comes to a "happy ending" like those in a fairy tale. Without any apparent reason, he felt that his generation has been shamelessly deceived. He wanted to be on the spot to find out the truth and to witness what was actually happening at a place half of the world away from his native soil.
Bill began his "Vietnamezation" by eating all kinds of Vietnamese dishes which he liked a great deal and which he said were the best in the world. Besides familiarizing himself with the Vietnamese cuisine, he started learning the language and with the then small number of overseas Vietnamese in the States. As for the Vietnamese culture, language and literature, he was determined to excel over Thanh. During the summers, he attended Yale or Southern Illinois University to learn Vietnamese. He was quite sad for having to live away from his lover during the summer months. However, because he wanted to transform himself into a real Vietnamese, he had to resign himself to go away. As a result, in no time Bill had become a teacher to Thanh in those areas.
To be a true
Vietnamese, the first thing Bill did was to introduce himself to new
Vietnamese friends as Bình, Phaïm Thanh Bình. Phaïm was the last name of Thanh's mother. Bill wanted his name to be a human
attachment and a prayer for the suffering
That year, Bill brought Thanh home during Christmas to introduce her to his family. The gal said to me she was very nervous although Bill had assured her many times how understanding his parents were and how genial his grandmother was. The gal told me that the first time she met Bill's parents, his mother seemed a little cool and did not receive her with great warmth. But later on, Thanh found out that she was composed of character and a woman with few words. Bill's father, on the other hand, seemed to like "the future daughter-in-law from the beginning. He praised her beauty and said that Thanh was smarter than Bill, making Bill wear a long face. Bill looked exactly like his father, except that he had a smaller build. Bill's grandmother hugged and kissed Thanh with a smacking noise, showing her earnest pleasure. She pampered Thanh so much that Bill said he would force compensation for if Grandma spoiled her. It was the warmest and most peaceful Christmas that Thanh had during those years away from home.
Bill graduated two years ahead of Thanh. After the commencement ceremony and the party was over, that night the lovers stayed up all night drinking coke and coffee and told each other one more time their true hopes and dreams in life. They were talking not only as lovers but also like two close friends that could not bear a single day without seeing each other. Thanh told me that she enjoyed sitting on the floor with her hands on Bill's knees to listen to his interesting stories. It was at sunrise when they decided to let Bill join the Peace Corps and go overseas for two years. This period of time would be a challenge to their love. They would have a chance to find out whether it was true love between them or it was just a nebulous and passing feeling.
Two years passed by
rather quickly. The day Bill returned
from his overseas Peace Corps mission was also the day when Thanh graduated
from college. They decided that it
was time for Bill to "take a wife." This wedding showed how much Bill had become
"Vietnamized". He insisted
on wearing the Vietnamese traditional garb with a turban and prostrating in
front of the ancestral altar as well as before Thanh's parents and
grandparents. He begged his parents
to "give him in marriage" to his wife's home town of
After the wedding,
Bill's parents and his grandmother traveled around
A few years after their marriage, baby Minh was born. The little guy's loud crying brought them a brimful of happiness. One year after that, Thanh gave birth to a three-kilo girl. Baby Nguyet along with her chubby brother increased this small family's bliss as well as their relatives' delight. At about that time, I myself also got married. As expected, my flamboyant pilot husband and I enjoyed the monopoly of becoming Minh and Nguyet's godparents. By the way, it was Bill that chose their children's names after asking for Thanh's mother's permission. Bill explained that their names and their children's names all together meant to be a heartfelt wish for the Vietnamese people to be able to live in "moonlit nights in a peaceful country". Bill and Thanh agreed to stop having children for a while.
When Minh and Nguyet
became toddlers and started babbling, one beautiful Sunday, Bill and Thanh
invited some friends to celebrate their fifth anniversary at their home. On this occasion, I had another chance to
witness two romantic souls always hanging on to each other. On that day, Thanh gave Bill an unusual
gift: a small vial with some red
blood in it. She said that the blood
was from her heart and represented the intact love she had kept for
Bill. She plaited her long shiny
hair to make a necklace to which she tied the "heart" vial. From that day on, Bill wore the collar
almost everywhere he went. As for
Bill, on their anniversary, he also had a special gift for Thanh. It was an antique Egyptian coin his
grandfather had given him not long before the old man passed away. Bill had been taking loving care of this precious object all
these years and now he wanted to hand it over to Thanh. All our friends thought it was a very
uncommon gift that Thanh gave to Bill that day. When I asked her about the gift, she laughed at me and said I
was not reading enough out of laziness.
She said she was not smart enough to invent such a present. It was only because she had read a story
about the Indian princess Pocahontas, tribal chief Powhatan's daughter, in
Bill and Thanh's
happy life was passing calmly amidst the war. But the hard-to-please Heaven
would not humor human beings forever!
The upheaval in April 1975 plucked them out of their city full of
lovely memories. Thanh's parents and
grandmother refused to flee to
* * * * *
One Friday about six months ago, Hoa had just finished eating dinner and sat down to watch Chinese kung fu movies to kill time when the telephone rang. Thanh sounded a little strange on the other end.
“Is that you, Hoa? If you're not busy, come over to see me for a little while. There's something I need to talk to you.”
“Are you guys coming to pick me up?”
Hoa asked Thanh as usual, but she was struck with disappointment when Thanh answered curtly in a trembling voice:
“Take a taxi. Binh isn't home...he's gone. I'm waiting for you here.”
Thanh hung up before Hoa could ask any further. She wanted to call her friend back, but she had the premonition of something unlucky to come. For almost twenty years as a close friend, Hoa had never seen Bill and Thanh shout at each other, let alone become so angry that Bill had left the house. For more than a year now, Minh and Nguyet had been at college away from home; therefore, Bill and Thanh were also less busy than before. They were spending beautiful days together, just like when they first met each other. This was why Hoa was at a loss because of Thanh's telephone call. Anyhow, she should go see Thanh to find out what had happened. She knew very well that friends need each other when they are facing troubling situations. In their case, Hoa and Thanh had been taking care of each other just like blood sisters.
In an instant, Hoa finished putting on a little powder and a thin lipstick. She quickly came out of the house and took a taxi to Thanh's. Her friend looked very calm, which puzzled Hoa even more. Once in the living room, Thanh seated Hoa on a long couch and sat down next to her.
“Sit down here. I've never seen anything this strange, so I just couldn't make head or tail out of it. This afternoon I left work early because of a bad headache and a little laziness. After resting a while, I felt better and had enough time to cook a very good dinner. I set up the table with some flowers, planning to have a dinner by candlelight for Bill tonight. When he got home, I was a little surprised because he left the car in the driveway instead of putting it in the garage as usual. I went to meet him at the door; he kissed me as usual and asked how I was feeling. When I asked him why he didn't put the car in the garage, Bill told me to sit in that arm-chair over there because he had something important to tell me. Can you imagine what he said to me?"
Hoa was following the story but hasn't seen anything as strange as Thanh had said. Thanh licked her rather dry lips and continued to serenely tell the story:
“I almost burst out laughing because I thought Bill wasn't teasing me. But when I noticed how serious he looked, I just kept quiet and listened to him. Do you know what he said? Even now I still don't believe my ears since this is something stranger than fiction.”
“Come on, Thanh. Just tell it to me quickly. You're making me very nervous. You normally don't beat about the bush like that.”
“As a matter of fact, he didn't say much. Basically, he said that we have been living very happily together, that we have had a perfect love relationship as husband and wife, and that the children would be successful soon but he did not want to continue this existence. Even at that moment, I still thought he was joking and I was still clear-sighted enough to realize today was not April's Fool Day. I said, ‘Bill, please, don't tease me like that; I'm scared.’ Bill said that he was not joking and wished that I would not be angry with him. I felt the need to ask him further to find out whether I had wronged him. In a sincere tone of voice, he said that I haven't done anything wrong and he himself hasn't faulted me either. He said I have been the most exemplary spouse in this life and a virtuous wife in the true sense of the word. At that moment, I decided to keep the situation under control. I smiled at him and asked, ‘Bill, is there the other woman?’ He swore that for the past twenty years, he has never cheated on me: ‘Up to this moment, I have never loved anyone else but you. If there were another woman, I would tell you the truth because it wasn't worth hiding.’ I said, ‘But I am completely at a loss why something this strange is happening.’ Bill said that he himself didn't understand his own action and he was wondering whether it was because life is so empty and boring or the heart has become wearisome. He then continued: ‘But do you remember that we once agreed that in this life even something we consider most improbable could still happen somehow.’ Then I made so bold as to ask him, ‘Bill, do you still love me?’ He didn't answer my question but only recalled an old story: ‘Do you remember, Thanh? Twenty years ago, when I asked you why you loved me, you replied that in the Vietnamese literature, there is an immortal statement: 'There is no way to explain what love is'." To tell the truth, I've found it very difficult to find any explanation; I can't distinguish the fine line between love and illusion.’
Thanh continued to tell that a while later, Bill packed some personal belongings and a few books in a small suitcase, kissed Thanh on the forehead and quietly left the house. Before leaving, Bill told Thanh that he would ask a lawyer to do the paperwork for their separation. He also said that he would tell Minh and Nguyet about this when they come home to visit. Their dreamlike and romantic love suddenly burst into frothy water, apparently for no reason. Thanh sounded vaguely sad: ‘I was looking at his car gradually disappearing at the corner of the street but felt that it was just a dream. I did not yet have enough time to cry; I only felt giddy in this staggering event, just like a legendary character was just transformed into a real person in the flesh and forcefully pushed into the cruel vicissitudes of human life.’
Hoa shook her head as though she wanted to chase away all that she had just heard out of her mind. For so many years in this life, she has never heard any weirder story. Ironically, this incredible story is something so real that has just occurred unmistakably to no one else other than her close friend. That night and the following days Hoa was staying by her friend's side. She knew for certain that even though Thanh did not openly bewail, Thanh couldn't help feeling excruciatingly painful.
* * * * *
Even though he left home suddenly, Bill did not neglect his responsibilities as a husband and a father. After having discussed with Thanh, he rented a beautiful apartment for her. Bill also moved to his own apartment in a different area of the city and sometimes called Thanh when necessary.
Bill shook Thanh's hand and turned to ask her.
“What are you thinking about so deeply? Let's stop here for a little while.”
Thanh startled as if she had just woken up from a restless dream. They both leaned on the hand-rail of a small bridge spanning the shallow creek in the park. Bill hadn't said anything before Thanh felt a stinging pain in her heart as though someone was slashing it with a knife. She cast a quick glance at a flat rock near the water under the bridge. A long time ago, as lovers, they used to sit there and talked for hours, their feet in the cool clear water. One afternoon, in the deserted park, Bill asked Thanh to make love on that very rock. At first, Thanh felt bashful, but then her passionate love for him overcame her like a rising tide that pushed their bodies all the way to a perfectly blissful place. They were on cloud nine then, but now there's nothing left except withering memories. She felt her heart was writhing in pain because she suddenly realized that there are reminiscences in life that people would not dare to think about. Bill interrupted her thinking one more time.
“I picked up our divorce documents at the lawyer's office this afternoon. I would like to see you one last time to wish you luck from this day on. Let's be friends.”
Hearing Bill talk
about seeing each other for the last time, Thanh swore silently: "Shit! What difference does it make? Why do people insist on seeing each other
for the last time...loving you for the last time and such stuff? Could that “last time” change anything? Couldn't people just forget about it once
and for all? Bill, do you remember
one time in a restaurant in
Bill parked his car close to the sidewalk in front of the apartment complex where Thanh has been living. He got out the car and walked around to the other side to open the passenger door for Thanh. He took Thanh to the front door, kissed on the forehead of the life companion that would be on a separate path from now on. Bill said softly, "Please take care of yourself." Thanh got choked up a little and could only said, "Good-bye, Bill," her voice being vaguely sad. Thanh was about to ask Bill one more time whether he still loved her, but only a fading smile appeared on her face. Yes, why ask an unanswerable question?
After Bill had left, Thanh stopped by the mailbox to get her mail and then slowly went up to her apartment. Strangely, she was feeling completely relieved. She felt like a student that had just taken an exam and was waiting indifferently for the result. Thanh threw the bunch of letters on the desk and went to take a shower. Half an hour later, after making up, Thanh intended to take a taxi to see Hoa. She wanted to let her friend know that officially she will be a single person from now on. Thanh was looking casually at the letters. Among some bills, there was a letter from Hoa. She smiled at herself, thinking that Hoa probably played some kind of joke because Hoa could have called instead.
Thanh brought Hoa's letter with her. When she passed the little office near the elevator, the young secretary gave her a mechanical yet sympathetic wish: "Have a good time, Miss Thanh." Thanh turned around and smiled thankfully at her.
Thanh walked up to the traffic lights, intending to cross the street to get a taxi. While waiting for the light to change, she became curious and opened Hoa's letter. The yellowish street lamp shed enough light for her to read the hurriedly written words: "Thanh, try to open your eyes widely to read this. A few days ago, Bill called me up and told me he would love to marry me after your divorce. Can you imagine such a thing..?"
Thanh looked quickly across the street. The whitish digital word WALK was dancing vibrantly in the dark and foggy night. She looked up at the high and deep sky, imagining that she was a stray star feeling very lonely among hundreds of twinkling constellations. And in this immense sea of life, she suddenly forced a smile: "Where can you go now, Thanh?!"
NGUYEN HUU TRI
Words in italics are in English in the original story.
The Writers Post
based in the
Editorial note: Works published in this issue are simultaneously published in the printed Wordbridge magazine (ISSN: 1540-1723).
Copyright © Nguyen Huu Tri & The Writers Post. Nothing in this magazine may be downloaded, distributed, or reproduced without the permission of the author/ translator/ artist/ The Writers Post/ and Wordbridge magazine. Creating links to place The Writers Post or any of its pages within other framesets or in other documents is copyright violation, and is not permitted.