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How could I have loved him like that?
She stared at him in the green glow of dawn. Still sleeping soundly, he was both strange and familiar to her, like a waxen effigy. That face. The curve of the nose, those earlobes. He was the same man, the same flesh, that had once been a beacon inside her. Now, he no longer radiated life, love.
The man rolled over, his beard grazing her cheek. Repulsed, she sat up.
Odd, how his beard has thinned.
She stared at her husband again. Bewildered, she slid her back up against the wall. Outside in the corridor: footsteps, the clatter of a pail on the ground.
"Who's making such a racket? It's not even dawn!" a woman's voice shrieked. It was that harpy, Tong, who terrorized the building.
"Sorry, sorry, the handle of my pail just broke," replied a timid, male voice.
Tong didn't reply. Professor Le descended the stairs, the shuffle of his sandals fading in the distance. Then all was quiet again. It was about four o'clock in the morning; the city hadn't awoken, yet already the dawn rays spread through the gardens, filtering through the streets. A poisonous light, late spring's potion of fog and sun.
She shuddered as her husband's head emerged from the covers. Like a wooden statue in a museum, inert, utterly alien in the pallid, murky light.
Liar, hypocrite. To think I was once madly in love with him.
They had met during hersophomore year of college, in the suffocating heat of a June morning. Nguyen had been assigned to teach literature to her class. Most of the students were young women. Educated, romantic, they had a sense, early on, of their own worth. And they were all curious about their young professor, known for his prodigious intelligence, and dreamed of attracting his attention. Nguyen was medium height, with sparkling eyes, jet black hair, and a confident voice. But he was a bit aloof; he didn't so much as look at the girls in Linh's class, who were renowned for their beauty and talent. He used to stand in front of them in his crudely cut suit, hands smeared with chalk dust, fingers stained with ink, oblivious to the dandruff on his jacket, or the top button missing from his shirt. Everyone was captivated by his passion for the classics. He would lecture on the Italian Renaissance, the progressive aspects of capitalism, the flaws that had shaken the foundations of feudal society, the power of individual aspirations—all the noble forces that promised to lead mankind up the luminous steps to a more humanist culture. Linh was in awe of the range and depth of Nguyen's knowledge. His aloofness only fanned the flames of a love that she had felt from the moment they met. She had been nineteen years old at the time. Beautiful, gentle, she dazzled men. The previous year, on the advice of an aunt who had raised her since childhood, she had become engaged to a neighbor boy who had fallen madly in love with her when she was sixteen. Linh's fiancé was handsome enough, soft-spoken, and eager to provide for her. If she hadn't met Nguyen, her life would have followed its due course. But she had met him and to be with him she had endured her family's rejection, the snide mockery of the neighbors, and her ex-fiancé's hatred and contempt.
My God, I loved Nguyen more than my own life.
If she hadn't fallen so madly in love with him, she might have led a rich, comfortable life. Her fiancé had promised to wait for Linh to finish her studies to marry her. But his family had already given them a big house filled with expensive furniture made of precious wood, the kind of comfort and luxury that most people only dream of. He was always switching motorcycles when he took Linh out. He wore smart clothes and dressed her up in all the latest fashions. When she broke off her engagement, Linh had to work nights as a seamstress to repay her aunt for the returned wedding gifts. Exhausted, she would often fall asleep between classes, even in the middle of conversations with friends. How many times, on those icy winter nights, as she studied, had she felt hungry, craved a bowl of cheap Chinese noodle soup or a pork sandwich. But instead of going through with her planned marriage, she had waited for Nguyen. During their early years together, she had grown accustomed to hardship, to meals of not much more than pickled vegetables.
Yes, I loved him with all the love a woman has to give.
She remembered all their trysts in the empty classrooms. How one summer, in the shade of a tree, he had explained Dante's Divine Comedy, saying in his deep, serious voice: "Why are you always surprised that events change people, the course of their lives? Stop thinking of them as saints. Saints only exist in the imagination of primitive man. Today, people are intelligent enough to know that great men are thirty percent talent and seventy percent vulgarity. That's why they suffer when their interests are at stake, make mistakes in judgment, in their actions."
Nguyen had toppled Linh's most revered idols from their pedestals, but he himself had taken their place. Linh found confidence and strength in the slight smile that curved his lips, in its hint of irony. In the depths of his eyes, she sensed the experience of a compassionate soul.
Linh shivered. Memories of her passion for him flooded back. One evening, in the darkness of a movie theater, he had stroked her fingers. They were watching a film, Robinson Crusoe. His caress had bewitched her, and he had whispered into her ear: "Robinson is a hero from a bygone age. Being a hero now is much more difficult. There's no quest more complex, more perilous, than a man's struggle with his own soul."
Startled, she remembered staring at him in the darkness, how his eyes had sparkled, tender, and yet distant. The beauty of the intelligence in his gaze: those eyes, like two mysterious flowers floating on water. She had squeezed Nguyen's hand, secretly yearning to smother it with kisses, to tell him that she adored him.
They had lived blissful years together. Then, one day, she discovered the lies he had published in his articles, the contempt of his colleagues, the jokes that circulated after his trips, the reason behind the promotions and salary raises. "No quest is more complex, more perilous, than a man's struggle with his own soul": The person who had uttered these words had compromised himself. The man with the sparkling eyes, the pensive, gentle air about him, had submitted, surrendered. He had shattered everything she had believed in, killed their love in a single blow.
Linh couldn't explain how it had happened. Terrified by the pain of this lost love, by a future that threatened to evaporate, she latched on to the secret hope that she could preserve the peaceful, happy life they had shared. But the lucid, skeptical woman in her knew she had already left Nguyen. Now that she saw him clearly, her hatred was tainted with disgust, like the revulsion she felt when the stubble on his chin grazed her skin.
Wretched liar. How can I still share your bed?
Nguyen rolled over, stretched, and yawned. Linh turned away, and looked outside. She noticed that the flowering tree in the front yard was grimy, covered with dust. It is a horrible moment when you suddenly see your own home as a filthy, miserable hole, when your idol is torn from the altar's sacred darkness, no more than a piece of moldy wood in the harsh light of day.
"Linh, sweetheart, is it light out?" Nguyen asked sleepily.
"Probably," Linh replied.
Nguyen opened his eyes and smiled. "You still want to argue, don't you, my complicated one?" He reached out an arm and clasped his wife's head against his chest.
"Let go of me."
"What's the matter?"
"Nothing, but I want to get back to what we talked about yesterday."
"Again?" Nguyen smiled fondly at his wife. "Let's not talk about it. It's not worth it. The world, success, failure, truth, falsehood—let's leave all that on the doorstep, outside our home. Here, there's only you, me, and our little Huong Ly."
Nguyen kissed Linh, nuzzling his head in her bosom. She noticed that his hair had started to go white. How can a man have white hair at age thirty-two?
When she fell in love with Nguyen, his hair had been black with iridescent blue highlights, like bird feathers. Each time a lock of hair fell on his forehead, he would brush it aside with a slow sweep of the hand. Linh liked that gesture. How many times, waiting in front of the university gate, had she seen him run his hands through his hair that way?
Nguyen took her in his arms. Ever since they had lived together, his love had only deepened.
"Man needs a family like an animal needs a burrow," he said. "Bears take shelter from the winter cold in caves, sucking grease from their palms to survive. We're no different. When I want to forget life's hardships, all I have to do is shut the door, take you and Huong Ly in my arms ..."
She pitied him, but winced in disgust. His face seemed so old, wizened, wretched. She closed her eyes to blot out this vision. Suddenly, she asked him, "Why are you so hot? Are you feverish?"
"No. I'm as healthy as a bear, and I love you."
Linh pushed his hand away violently, but he took her in his arms, passionate, insistent.
"Stop it, Nguyen, it's daylight," Linh snapped.
"There's no day and night here. This room is a world apart that belongs to us alone."
The stubble of her husband's beard grazed her cheek again. This time, the feeling of estrangement was unbearable. She let out a gasp. Startled, Nguyen lifted his head and looked at his wife's pale face. "What's the matter with you, sweetheart?"
Linh couldn't speak. Her eyes brimmed with tears.
Who would have thought we would reach this point? Nguyen thought. He tossed off the covers, got up, dressed, and pulled the curtains. A dazzling blue spring sky appeared outside the window.
"Don't go barefoot, you're going to get a sore throat. Your sandals are under the table," Linh said mechanically, through tears. Nguyen turned and looked at her. The beauty of her face still overwhelmed him. On their wedding day, she had looked exactly the same—young, radiant, a face that refused to submit to time.
Nguyen sat down in a chair, fumbling for a pack of cigarettes. "Go ahead, speak."
"Ever since this incident, you disgust me."
Nguyen lit a cigarette. Linh watched him and repeated: "You disgust me, do you understand?"
"But I don't understand."
Nguyen flicked the ashes from his cigarette into an empty seashell. "You've lost respect for me, haven't you?"
"No, no," Linh protested, but he at least had dared to speak the truth. She burst into sobs. Nguyen put out his cigarette. He wanted to console her but realized it was useless. He lit another cigarette. "Please don't cry, my love. You've got to stay calm to talk. I've lived in fear of this for so long. With a woman like you, this day would have come, sooner or later."
"So it's my fault?"
Nguyen shook his head. Before he could reply, Linh continued: "No, no, don't blame it on me. Listen, since last summer I've heard all sorts of rumors about you. And not from Trong, or Nam, or Miss Tram, or even Phuc. From people you wouldn't even think of, who I run into on the street. They snicker about the articles you wrote, about your loyalty to the editor-in-chief, your trips to Europe, the lavish ceremonies you organize everywhere you go. I'm no girl anymore, no starry-eyed Young Pioneer in a red scarf. I did my homework, through different sources. That's why I finally confronted you, because I wanted to know the truth. Oh, you had your explanations. You laughed. You mocked people. The slightest gesture from you—a nod of the head, a wave of the hand, an eyebrow raised—was enough to make me forget all the rumors. All you had to do was flown disdainfully and I was convinced it was all pettiness, jealousy, lies. I believed in your integrity; I tried to imagine the pain you must have felt, having to endure such slander. I believed in you all along."
Linh stopped, her voice choking. Tears welled up again, cascading down her face. Nguyen bowed his head. His hands were shaking. "It's my fault, and I know it. But to be fair, part of the blame is just life."
"That's a cowardly excuse. Say it, you acted like a ..." Linh stopped, unable to find the words, her eyes squinting in anguish. Nguyen took a puff of his cigarette and lowered his head. Staring at the floor, he noticed an overturned cockroach. The insect spun in circles on the flowered tiles, its feet flailing in the air. "Listen, Linh, I'm going to tell you everything. Not to beg your forgiveness, but so you will judge human beings with more objectivity." Nguyen threw his butt into the shell. He raised his head. Linh watched him, waiting anxiously for him to speak. Her eyes shone, clear and cold as crystal shards. But behind that gaze, those rosy cheeks, lay a naive, implacable soul. Nguyen shivered. He slowly placed his foot over the cockroach, and held it there for a few seconds before speaking. "I won't try to defend myself, as I did last night. I love you. I've always asked my colleagues not to discuss work with you. I didn't want to burden you with something you'd never accept. Now, it's too late."
Nguyen lifted his foot. The insect spun on itself, trying to gain momentum. "Can't you understand the psyche of a man who must provide for his family?"
"Psychology is no excuse for writing lies."
"Before we were married, I was a student. A free man. Aside from the time I spent with you, I read books. Week in and week out. All I needed for food was a bit of bread. Then we got married and Huong Ly was born. Life was fuller, happier, but more stressful. Suddenly, I was at the ship's stern, and I watched, terrified, as other families sunk all around us."
Nguyen fell silent, his forehead creased with worry lines. "I don't want you to go without a new blouse. I don't want my daughter to long in vain for a pair of new shoes."
Linh turned away, her nostrils burning. Nguyen continued: "When I finished my studies, I was as zealous as a knight putting on his armor before battle. Maybe not as impassioned as you. But like you, I was determined to live with dignity and integrity. I imagined my writing serving the Revolution, helping in the fight for justice, extolling progress, denouncing the ugliness, the baseness that still poison our society. I wasn't alone. Many of my colleagues shared my ideals. But little by little, I came to see that the space and time that separated us from our aspirations overcame our willpower. They sent me all over to do reporting. Everywhere, people are eager to greet us, eager to vaunt their inflated, fabricated statistics. Everywhere, success is exaggerated; failure and defeat hidden. Everyone suffers from the same pathology. Our obsession with results and performance masks the reality, whitewashes the dangers that loom for our society. Who has the courage to stand up against old habits, rooted in our compatriots for as long as you and I can remember? In a society where individual rights don't amount to much, individual actions are swayed by the tide of the community."
Nguyen stopped for a moment, lit a cigarette. Huong Ly rolled over in bed, murmuring in her sleep. Outside, a bird let out a sharp cry.
"The first few times I wrote those articles I felt remorse, doubt. I rebelled and protested. Then I started to see that this cult of success served the interests of certain people, that they cultivated it with shameless lies. Each time someone gets a bonus, society is pushed further into the abyss. But to fight back and overcome them, you'd need an army, armored tanks, and missiles. I'm only a foot soldier; all I've got is a CKC rifle and a few bullets."
Nguyen pursed his lips as if to smile, but it never came. Linh watched her husband in silence.
"Little by little, I got used to the situation. What else could I do? I'm an intellectual, but I'm also a civil servant. And as a civil servant, I have to carry out my duties to get my salary at the end of the month. Life isn't perfect. What we believe in today may turn out to be false tomorrow."
"How skilled you are at consoling yourself," Linh sneered. "I don't even recognize your voice."
"It's all been for your sake."
"Oh really? Is it always someone else's fault?"
"Don't shout, Linh," said Nguyen, frowning. "People can hear us. We've always been the closest family in the neighborhood. I love you, I want to take care of you. But at heart you're still a college student. Reality for you is only written in romantic, purple ink. And you won't tolerate a single exception. You're as naive as a child and as intransigent as a queen. That's why I've kept things from you."
"Like what? The reality of your lies?"
"There are two realities: There's the reality of human ideals, and then there's the harsh reality of life."
"An honest journalist has no right to trick people, to confuse ideals and reality."
"But what if this suits everyone?"
"We don't live to please other people. We live by our convictions." Linh glared at her husband in silence, her cheeks scarlet.
"But I'm not the editor-in-chief, and you forget that ..." Nguyen paused, snuffed out his cigarette and lowered his voice. "Even in everyday life, who has the courage to tell the truth? In this building, we know that Mrs. Hong's child is ugly, deformed. He has a harelip, a sixth finger on one hand, a huge head on a wobbly neck. But to her, he's the most precious treasure on earth. You, who are so adamant, so uncompromising about telling the truth, would you be so brutal as to tell her: `Your son is a cripple?'"
"A child's not an industrial or agricultural product. He's not the result of a mode of production, a work method."
"But what a man believes in—his ideals, his aspirations—have as much value as his life. Sometimes, it is even more important than a child."
"You lied ... You make me sick," Linh rasped, her voice cracking. Nguyen started to reply, but stopped. Huong Ly had woken up and she stared at her parents, dazed.
A few seconds passed, then a woman's voice shouted outside the stairwell: "It's your turn to sweep the stairs today. Don't forget to return the duty roster to Mrs. Hong."
The rain wove silver threads in the window frame. Sometimes, on those final days of spring, a strange rain fell, a mixture of the Tet lunar new year drizzle and summer's sudden showers. Nguyen and Linh faced each other in silence across the table. Huong Ly was with her paternal grandparents. The couple hadn't spoken for days. They had nothing new to say to each other.
Cigarette butts and ashes piled up in front of Nguyen. His hands were yellow from the smoke, his tongue bitter. He couldn't even taste the tobacco anymore. He listened in silence to the falling rain, recalling the rainy season right before their marriage. Back then, the drizzle had lingered from one week to the next, leaving the streets boggy with mud. At the time, he didn't even have a raincoat. When he picked up Linh, he used to cover himself with a torn plastic sheet. They were young at the time—too young. Love had blinded them to life's deprivations and misery. For them, a few dumplings were a feast. Linh had been able to put a little money aside, but it had been stolen just a few weeks before their wedding. In the end, she fell ill from overwork.
"Make me a bit of rice porridge with some sugar. When Mama was alive, she loved that more than anything."
That was the way Link used to speak, stretched out on the bed, her face pale. His heart tight, Nguyen would find a tin lunch pan, gather whatever small change he had left, and go out to buy her a pho beef soup. Once he had forgotten to take the plastic sheet. Halfway there, it had begun to pour and Nguyen arrived at the pho vendor's stall. A scaling old mirror tacked to the wall reflected the faces of the customers. He remembered glimpsing himself in it: a pale, thin young man in patchy pants and an old shirt, rain streaming down his face and hair. He pulled his change out of his pocket, counting and recounting it to find enough. The owner tilted his chin in Nguyen's direction, "Hand me your bowl," he scowled. Nguyen felt his face burn as he set his mess tin on the table. Everyone ignored him and slurped their soup noisily. And yet all around him he felt dozens of eyes staring at him. These people were well fed, smartly dressed. For the first time, in a flash, he felt the humiliation of being poor. Never let yourself fall into poverty, never, he vowed to himself.
He had struggled, had done everything in his power to build a comfortable nest for his family. Linh's soft skin, her fresh, rosy cheeks, her shiny hair, her radiance—all this he had struggled to defend, to preserve. And now, suddenly, all this was slipping from his grasp, and precisely because he had been willing to do anything to hold on to them. He had published short, superficial articles and insipid, generalizing features. Only every now and then was he able to slip in a critical piece, one that reflected reality, though always within the authorized limits. This type of article would only really be allowed when society had evolved to a certain point. In the meantime, how was he supposed to make a living for his family? He couldn't just live for himself, blindly defending his ideals. No, Linh was just too intolerant, too unfair.
In the early days of their marriage, when Nguyen was still just a humble staff reporter, they both had only three changes of clothing. They used to store canned food in a chest they had cobbled together out of old crates. Linh never asked for anything. She lived happily with a bit of rice, watery broths masquerading as soups, and a few pickled eggplant. With her savings, she bought some fabric to make pants for Nguyen. She put aside the cigarettes she was given at various official ceremonies for him. Her shabby clothes clashed with her beauty. Yet she had never breathed a word about a single yearning, even a hankering for a pair of shoes, or a flowered blouse, or a stylish pair of pants. Their life of deprivation and their poor diet had left her skin sallow and discolored. Nguyen had seen it most clearly when she was pregnant with Huong Ly, and one day he decided that he couldn't bear it any longer. He couldn't afford to keep writing articles that never made it past the censor. So he surrendered, bent to life's constraints, conformed. At the time, it was easy for him to be successful using just a fraction of his talents. Materially, their life improved overnight. Linh welcomed this new existence as naturally as she had accepted past miseries, without resentment or suspicion. She had trusted him. Now, she condemned him and despised him. Nguyen looked over at her. She still had the same rosy, childlike lips, the same radiant, bewitching gaze.
Linh turned, just then, and glared at him, furious, disdainful. He felt his heart twist. Yet he knew at that moment that he still loved her madly, anxiously.
Excerpted from BEYOND ILLUSIONS by Duong Thu Huong. Copyright © 2002 by Duong Thu Huong. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.