At fourteen I fell in love with a man, a writer, older than me by thirteen years, already with a family. He resembled a young Anthony Perkins, that guitar-playing wanderer who roams the forest and happens upon the doe eyes of Audrey Hepburn in the foliage. At twenty-one I lost my virgin body to a person who specialized in the old lục bát verse, older than me by fifteen years, also like Anthony Perkins, also with a wife, an army officer with an overbite, penetrating eyes and a voice that stirred emotion like Nguyễn Đình Toàn in his radio program Musical Themes that ran Thursday nights at 11pm. After that worthless memory, I continued to have romantic relations with various married men, each one further from my generation, completely driven by circumstances, in no way planned. Following the officer was an aging writer devoted to new Romanticism, meaning he had a gift for description of narrow and elaborate twentieth-century spaces and detailing the surreal mental states of ageless characters. At this point, the objects of my love changed nationalities. Verdelli was cultural attaché of the Italian Embassy in Saigon, older than me by seventeen years, with a wife, two children. A statue with Mediterranean skin, a voice like Julio Iglesias, and a complete collection of Modigliani and Buffet, unfortunately all reproductions. It was the swanlike necks of women in those paintings that drew him to mine. I eventually grew tired of the shadows that haunted such adventures, and in sober reflection now, I can see the products of Western trends at that time. I left the city for the lonelier countryside because I thought I was mature enough to be away from the messiness of big cities. But it was in the countryside where I encountered yet another writer, older than me by twenty years, with a wife and a flock of children to raise. As it happens, this man was a great love, even with nothing attractive about him except for his silence. It was that mute thunderstorm of his that captivated me like nothing else.
In the middle of that thunderstorm, I decided to make a family with an undergrad student, younger than me by two years, the only unmarried man among all the men I had known; but of course, in the end it was me who turned him into a man with a wife. The marriage was supposed to be an escape, but it sheltered me for barely a year, perhaps because I was so used to those haunting shadows of a third person―I couldn’t manage without them. All these men I mention, with the exception of this last one who became my husband, had one thing in common: they could sit with me until the end of time without ever indecently proposing something more. The time of my virgin body’s surrender to the lục bát officer was nothing more than an accident on both sides; I had just finished reading Francoise Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse and he had imagined me as Odile from André Maurois’ Climats.
But what’s the point of picking back through this rubble of memory? I’m currently swaying on an express train called Thalys on my way from Gare du Nord in Paris to Amsterdam. The train has already passed through Brussels, Antwerp, Rotterdam, Den Haag, and Schiphol, and is about to enter Amsterdam’s Central Station. I’ve given up trying to imagine the family I’m to meet and the town of Hoorn where I’ll stay for two weeks. Đỉnh had been among those carrying ceremonial gifts to the bride on my wedding day: the only encounter I had with the relatives of the husband I would soon divorce. April of ’75 had sent everyone roiling in all directions; I would never have suspected that twenty-four years later I’d be invited to spend the holidays with Đỉnh in Hoorn, twenty miles north of Amsterdam.
He and his wife are there to welcome me at the station. They are gushing with warmth. Đỉnh’s hair has grayed and he has grown a belly. Đỉnh’s wife is heavyset, with a kind and untimid manner. They stop by an Asian supermarket on the way home from the station and pack their car with who knows how much food. Seeing Đỉnh stagger back to the car shouldering a heavy bag of rice, I do not have the feeling that I’m in the middle of a tulip-metropolis.
The family resides on a newly-developed block toward Enkhuizen. There are no bare red brick walls, no white window frames, no such iconic features of Dutch homes. The two rows of houses painted in bright and cheerful colors seem out of place with the overall aesthetics of the town, while children with different skin color play together along the paths between houses. It was a Dutch ship that had rescued Đỉnh’s family along with fourteen others who fled the country by boat from Vũng Tàu. They were brought to Hoorn, where more Vietnamese people started to cluster over the course of ten years, growing a small shared community. The smell of Vietnamese food clings to every item in the house. I am uncertain about using the familial pronouns of address or not. Đỉnh’s wife prompts me. “Auntie, just go on upstairs to take a bath and get yourself ready for dinner with the gang. Let me get the kids to show you to your room.”
Đỉnh’s two kids, a boy and a girl, both school-age, speak Vietnamese with a Dutch accent. I am suddenly aware of myself, standing there, planted in the middle of the living room at my ex-husband’s family’s house after twenty-two years of divorce. How strange life is.
It’s a lively dinner, for the most part filled with questions from Đỉnh.
“We over here heard nothing of your divorce. After ’75 everyone was just trying to watch their own back. My cousin’s side of the family were all Communists and we were the enemies who fled the country; we didn’t dare keep in touch. But recently, my wife went back to Vietnam to visit and found out that you and my cousin had had a daughter who won a scholarship to study Arts Plastiques at the Sorbonne. We also heard that you two called it quits not long after the wedding?”
For ages just trying to make ends meet, I hadn’t taken time to look back. Đỉnh’s questions are now pushing me in reverse: a bouquet of white daisies in one hand, the train of my wedding gown in the other, checking all the doors of the restaurant at the Continental, searching for one that led to a back alley. He had intercepted me: “Where are you trying to go? The bathroom’s over there.”
Caught in my runaway act. After the wedding, I stubbornly refused to sign the marriage certificate.
“It’s just a piece of paper, it doesn’t mean anything,” was my excuse.
“It does mean something,” he stressed every syllable, “at the very least it binds your legs from sneaking out the back door.”
Not even a year could pass before I tried making another escape. He smiled with naive certainty.
“Think you could manage on your own with that belly?”
I could manage. In those years when everyone was going hungry and my friends were all weighing the matter of a sea-crossing, I was able to secure a job at the library in the Health Service. I sent my daughter to daycare and worked nights decorating wooden shoes with an electric pen. When she was nearly school-age, my husband reached out to share something.
“I want to get married again.”
“So get married again. You’re still a healthy young man.”
“But I need you to sign an application for divorce.”
“We don’t have marriage papers but you want divorce papers?”
He lowers his voice, “Ours is a case of social marriage. Everyone knows I have a wife. Do you know how many guests we had to our wedding, plus all my family you met in Phú Yên? The local authorities will not recognize my marriage to another woman until I have divorce papers from my first wife.”
We sat together to fill in the application but stumbled over finding a convincing reason for our divorce.
“I probably couldn’t write: The scene of my wife sitting in darkness and lecturing about the absurdity of physical pleasure after every occasion of sex is unbearable to me.”
Obviously he still had a sense of humor. After much consideration, we agreed on a reason: conflicts over the child’s education. Poor child: only six years old and no idea she was the token excuse in the divorce of her parents.
The People’s Court of Phú Nhuận was a villa with a French-style pebbly yard, perhaps confiscated from one of the wealthy families who were among the first to abandon everything. The Honorable Trần Thị Bi, wearing a long-sleeve silk button-down and black silk trousers, was sitting behind a desk placed in the villa’s front room, which must have once been the foyer. To her left was a small room with nothing besides a piano. While my soon-to-be-ex-husband was talking privately to the Judge, I crept into the room, quietly closed the door, sat down at the piano, and hit a few keys at random until someone stormed through the door.
“SHHHHH! Don’t you know this is a courtroom?”
I stood with a shy smile just as I was called in for my turn to meet the judge.
My tidy legal marriage. When we were leaving the court, my ex-husband turned to me and whispered, “Let me come back to the house and clean it for you one last time.”
The two of us walked downtown, stopping for a drink at Le Givral before turning down Lê Lợi, the part of the street with bookshops that had once been the most bustling place for old books lovers. He bought me a brand-new boxed set of Wagner’s biography and collected works, a beautiful black cover with golden lettering, which even if I had the money for, would be impossible to find in any of the modern book stores at that time like Xuân Thu, Đoàn Thành Lực, Khai Trí, and so on. After that he walked me back and cleaned the house as he suggested.
A cackle springs from Đỉnh’s throat and then, as if overcome with excitement, he pounds his fist on the table.
“My oh my! Oh! Had I known, I wouldn’t have carried that ceremonial tray at your wedding! I see now how foolish I was, just doing whatever I was told.”
Đỉnh’s wife flashes a weak smile and reproaches him. “Auntie is just kidding around and you believe her? Indeed you are still foolish!”
“OK, no more questions,” I say. “Anyway, I am your ex–sister-in-law. After twenty-four years now I think I have the right to say what I want.”
“Ex- but not expelled. We invited you here on holiday because we still see you as family. And besides, your daughter is still our niece. In the end, memories always become more exaggerated to be more . . . stylish.”
I know they imagined I was just having a laugh during our meal. And we did laugh. We drank German beer, ate Dutch cheese, and, for dessert, watched a videotape of Paris by Night 44 by Thúy Nga.
The two of them have taken two weeks off work just to care for me. Every evening they gather at the table to decide on the next day’s agenda of entertainment and excursion. Through the couple I meet a middle-aged doctor who gave up medicine when coming to Holland and turned to politics, an ethnically Mường Vietnamese man, formerly a member of the Communist Party, who now makes a living as an electrician and sings with a church choir three times a week, and the well-bred son of a communist general who had crossed the Trường Sơn mountain range to the South on foot but whose name I have now forgotten, who went to work as a laborer in Eastern Europe and then fled as a refugee to Holland after the fall of Communism there. So complicated. I keep silent most of the time, holding my tongue for fear of revealing my own political biases, not knowing which side Đỉnh’s family was on. I linger on in Hoorn, fascinated by the canals and duckweed shores and beautiful houses that seemed to be straight out of fairy tales rather than places you met this or that person. I need an unblemished reputation to come back and work in Vietnam, to be able to go visit my daughter next year without worrying about political threats to my life.
There’s one afternoon when the rain does not let up.
“OK, today we stay home and rest, save up some energy, and tomorrow we’ll go catch oysters in Oude Nieuwland. And then we’ll have oysters on the grill—so fresh! So good! And you can meet the whole Vietnamese community hard at work collecting shrimp and oysters in this civilized country. No need to be a bride in Phú Yên to have such an experience.”
“Sure!” I slip out of the house with an umbrella in hand and wander over to the small nearby supermarket, where I see the words KORTING in red. It is the season of discounts. With people on summer holiday, the stores are nearly empty and summer clothes are about to be put away to make room for fall fashions. The rain is coming down in torrents. I move under the post office’s awning to wait out the rain. From the parking lot marked PARKEER on the left, an old man opens his car door and hurries directly toward where I’m standing. He smiles as if to introduce himself then says something in Dutch. Smiling back at him, I point to my ears and shake my head to show I don’t understand. Thinking I’m deaf, he raises his voice and utters the sentence again, word by word. I say, “I don’t speak Dutch.”
He lets out an ah and then asks again in English, “Finding some shelter from the rain? It’s not supposed to rain this much in the summer!”
“Do you want to cross to the supermarket? I’ve got an umbrella and can walk you there.”
“No, no, thank you. I’ll stand here for a bit then keep driving. I just don’t like driving in this rain.”
I say that I agree, driving in the rain is dangerous. After that I’ve run out of things to say. The two of us look out through the thick curtain of rain. I glance over. The man is surely old. His hair is white, his arms and legs are somewhat lumpy, his skin is freckled, his bony collarbone sinks down between his shoulders, but his back is straight and he has a sense of fashion: orange dress shirt, ochre waistcoat, checkered red and brown jacket.
The Dutch must dress with the brightest colors in the West. Take a seat somewhere around Paris’s opera house to people-watch as the crowds emerge from subways after work and you will see gray tones all over. Everyone in Paris wears a serious expression and steps with long, fast strides—nothing like the people of Vietnam who, in spite of toiling away their lives, still laugh and chat and drink noisily and dress casually. Though most people in the West do seem to have a kind of breathless passion, with not a few couples in the heart of Paris kissing as if it were their last chance before the end of the world.
While my thoughts were jumping between Dutch clothing and French kissing, the old man has found an empty bench alongside the post office. He motions for me to come sit. It’s then that I realize there’s something amiss with his wrinkled face: an exquisite set of teeth, sparkling white and in rows straight as corn. Surely fake. Thinking back to the toothless mouths of some old Vietnamese men, I feel they are much more charming than those with some foreign object stuffed into their mouths, every night having to spit it out, put it in some chemicals, then snoring into the night between gum-clasping lips. The thought strikes me as ridiculous. The falling rain, the umbrella, sitting here theorizing about teeth. But that constant attention from Đỉnh and his wife had been getting on my nerves, and just sitting here, not doing anything, feels so satisfying. The old man stirs as if he has something to say. And sure enough, after a little while, he starts to talk.
“My house is over by Ijsselmeer, not too far from here.”
“Being close to the lake in the summer must be nice and cool, but does it get cold in the winter?”
“In winter the water freezes and people come from all over to skate on the ice. Cold but fun.”
“At your age and still driving without a problem, you must be in great health?”
“I just drive around from my house to town and then back home. Still got my eyesight. But going by bicycle is just too much for me.”
“My mom says that the old usually suffer from one of four fateful misfortunes: forgetfulness, immobility, blindness, or deafness. She confesses she is lucky to have the fourth, which seems the least miserable; getting old, what’s the need to hear this or that. This year she’ll be ninety-six.”
“I just turned seventy. Lucky I’m not yet suffering any of the four.”
Just seventy years old? I consider that he’s aged quite early, surely a life of struggle. But why think about age if someone appears to be perfectly fine? I let out a yawn and cover my mouth. The rain is subsiding but I still haven’t made up my mind about what to do next. The old man asks, “The rain’s letting up, if you’re going some place close to here I can offer you a ride.”
I say I’m going to walk around the lake, then fumble through my bag for a set of recently taken photos.
“I took some photos around the lake a few days ago.”
He slides the photos one over the next, and abruptly stops.
“Oh, it’s my house!”
He lets out a joyful chirp, pointing to the third house on a block of romantic looking houses down on the path that runs along the water’s edge. The sun setting in the right corner of the photo reflects its fragile golden rays on the red brick walls, illuminating the flowers on the patio.
“Oh my!” I was head over heels for these houses last week when I stood beside the lake.
“But in high tides it’s a nightmare. The water licks at the doorstep and it feels like the house could submerge. If you want to come see it, let’s go.”
Buoyantly, as if I were just offered a job after months of unemployment, I take the umbrella and walk him to his car. He also seems excited with a little pep to his step, hands shaking the car keys.
“The rain’s over, don’t bother with the umbrella!”
The car smells of whisky. I tremble when imagining a car accident, two bodies of two different races, different ages; then, in order to get the corpses out, they have to cut the car in half. Đỉnh and his wife bewildered, wondering who was this old man that the damn ex–sister-in-law wound up coupling with in such a short stay. I’m sure they’d give up guessing. The car stops in a parking lot. We walk around to the block of houses I’ve seen before. The old man says, “It’s impossible to sit and enjoy yourself on those benches that are still wet. Come on in and have a cup of tea with me then go wherever you want to go.”
Was it wise? I don’t know anything about this man and vice versa. But him being seventy years old, what kind of games could he even play? I was stronger, I could hurt him. I could knock him over the head and then do whatever I wanted; in the dark of night I could push his body into the lake. And in winter, the water frozen, people would come to skate and discover a rotting corpse wearing a yellow waistcoat and a checkered jacket under the translucent ice surface. Thinking it over, it wasn’t just a mute thunderstorm that the sixty-year-old countryside writer was able to give me. The old man unlocks the door, then stands still, inviting me to enter. My eyes do a sweep of the room, looking for traces of other family members. I find none. I’d heard that many Dutch people have won the Nobel Prize, this old man must have won the Nobel Peace Prize. The room is neatly arranged. I’m surprised not to see more antiques in the house for a man his age. Besides one giant sound system and some enormous shelves stocked with tapes and CDs, the room appears furnished totally in white, a bit plain, but also formidable with fiery colored abstract paintings on two of the walls and lamps hiding in unexpected corners leading to more rooms of the house. Not inviting me to sit, he leads me out to the porch where we can watch the afternoon sun, heavy after rain, sinking delicately into the lake’s sparkling surface. It’s beautiful beyond words. We sit on the porch and sip tea; behind us, a CD in the living room echoes the dripping notes of a piano. It seems set up in a way, but it works.
I returned twice more to that porch at the old man’s house, then told Đỉnh and his wife that I would be extending my stay a bit longer than planned.
“Người đàn bà ngồi” © Trần Thị NgH. In Lạc Đạn và mười truyện ngắn (Stray bullets and ten short stories), first published by Văn Nghệ (California, 1999) and republished as Nhà Có Cửa Khóa Trái (Locked in) by Phuongnam Books (Saigon, 2013). By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2018 Kaitlin Rees. All rights reserved.