Việt Nam News – By Nguyễn Hữu Tài
Quân walked in, drew shut all window curtains, threw off his clothes, then strolled around the apartment. It was early and the kids were still at school. He had at least several hours to relax before the apartment was crowded and he would have to flee.
The three-room apartment was too cramped. Sometimes he visited his friends and found them residing in huge houses that cost several hundred thousand to one million dollars, had nearly 10 bedrooms, five restrooms and orchards laden with fruits which made him so envious. If only he had such a house. In the morning he would sip a cup of coffee. In the afternoon he would go home from work and cut the grass and fertilise the trees. At night he would set up a hammock to lie in and look at the stars. He wouldn’t have to fret and pound on the restroom door to hurry whoever was inside.
Yet real estate prices in California were skyrocketing. He heard the Chinese were flocking here with their piles of money to buy properties, pushing prices sky-high. Just the previous week, their landlord had emailed to notify them of an increase of 200 dollars in monthly rent. If they didn’t like it, they could just leave. There were plenty of people still waiting to rent their place since the area was so popular. Thus they bit their tongues. No wonder Quân seemed to see more and more homeless people lining the streets of Los Angeles every day on his commute.
No matter how much he wanted to, Quân could never afford to buy his dream house and pay all monthly installments, taxes, insurance, repair services and countless other fees. He only had a seasonal job. On unemployed months he worried himself sick. If he bought a house and couldn’t pay his mortgage, the bank might come to take it away and he would be on the streets. What about sharing the cost with Nhung? Between them they had a marriage certificate, a boy and not much else. So he thought carefully, and had to be content with living as a tenant.
When he was 23, he went home after hanging out with friends one night to find his mother waiting. She asked softly and sadly, “Do you want to go to America? Your aunt knows a woman who can marry you. She is a single mom, and a decent person so you won’t be deceived.” Unconsciously, thoughtlessly, he nodded then jumped into bed. The following day when he woke up, his aunt from America was calling to settle everything, an air ticket for his wife-to-be had also been bought. It was too late for him to back down.
It should be a good thing though. Not everybody in this village had the luck to go to America to make his fortune. His neighbours always looked with starry eyes every time somebody from America came home to visit, boasting that life over there was great, and that money would rain down on you from the trees. If you were out of work, the state would feed you. The state would also take care of your children until they were 21. It was exactly what he wanted. Instead of helping his parents take care of thousands of richly fragrant rambutan and durian trees, worrying about low yields, poor crops and wholesalers who drove hard bargains, he would live a carefree life without restraint. He could drink out all day and night without his parents nagging. He could freely buy a gun to stick inside his belt to confront belligerent teenagers. And the best thing would be to speed along the highway like in a Hollywood movie without being stopped by the police.
Thu hugged Quân and sobbed when she listened to him discuss their future. Though he was a true gangster, with his childhood sweetheart he was very gentle. “Don’t worry about anything honey,” he said. “It’s just a fake marriage and I don’t love her at all. Please wait for me for a few years. When I have a green card, I’ll divorce her immediately. When I have citizenship, I’ll go back to the village to wed you. Every year when I have free time, I’ll return to visit you.”
Quân said goodbye to all-day-and-night parties, drinking bouts he indulged in while guarding the orchard, motorbike races, machete fights with other village boys and all the people he loved to depart for America, to find his dream. The gate to paradise was opening wide.
However, reality wasn’t as splendid as Quân thought. The money his parents gave him was used up to buy a pickup truck and pay for a few months of rent. His aunt had to worry about her own children so wasn’t much help. Less than seven months after he arrived, she followed her husband to Florida for a more affordable retirement. The only one who he could ask for help was his wife. Nhung treated him impeccably. Even though the money she got from their fake marriage was illegitimate, it made her life as a single mom easier.
Quân couldn’t live on Nhung’s goodwill forever. Nor could he shamelessly pester his parents back home for more money. It was time for him to find a job. Quân knew he didn’t have enough patience to work in a nail salon, even though being a nail artist could easily fetch a pretty penny. His couldn’t-care-less attitude and hot temper wouldn’t sit well with other nail artists. He couldn’t run around wearily serving food as a waiter in a restaurant for some meager tips either. Nor was he strong enough to work as a farm hand in orchards. And with zero English, he could never find an office job. Nhung said, “You can work with my cousin in house repair. The work is uncertain, the money is unstable, but you can still earn a little to care for yourself and help me pay rent. Whenever you’re ready, you can move out.”
One stormy night, the lights went out. After nursing her child to sleep, Nhung went into the kitchen to clean up. As the saying goes, first make friends, then make love. Quân’s effervescent virility couldn’t be suppressed any longer. Like a mayfly, he darted into the kitchen. Under the lightning that flashed from the faraway horizon, the two groped each other.
And countless other times afterwards. Lust felt like drugs, even though Quân didn’t love Nhung and Thu’s exquisite face appeared every time he had sex.
One night, as usual, Quân fumbled his way into Nhung’s room. Nhung was also waiting for him. Yet this time she didn’t let him touch her. “I’m pregnant,” she said. “It’s two months old. I just went to the doctor’s this afternoon.”
Quân’s bloodshot face because of drinking instantly turned white. He tremblingly leaned against the deadly cold wall. No…no…it couldn’t be, he thought. I’ve come to America to have fun, make money then take my sweetheart here to build a happy family. I can’t destroy my bright future just because of a fetus being born out of a stupid moment with a woman I don’t love.
Nhung looked up at him in disgust with red glowing eyes. And it was the last time she and Quân spoke.
Nine years passed.
The dream about an immense paradise where one didn’t have to work to have money had gradually faded away. Quân’s hands had turned callous after years of handling hammers, nails and wood splinters. His body was covered with tattoos of mythical unicorns, phoenixes, turtles, dragons, leaves and flowers and whatnot like a mafia boss. In Orange County he was widely respected for being able to play poker and cockfights, make bets and drink exceptionally well. He changed cars four times, and every year visited Viet Nam for two whole months, all of which transformed him into a tireless robot. Every morning when he woke up, he only thought about how to make a lot of money in order to maintain his reputation.
When Nhung’s son Andy was almost seven, his daughter back home in Vietnam had also turned six. Having her hair tied up in two bunches, his princess listened to him every day on the phone.
“Please speed up the paperwork,” Thu said. “Our girl is growing up everyday. She needs you. I can’t bring her up on my own. Will we have to live like this forever?”
Every time he saw Thu’s sad eyes, and heard his daughter’s laughter and his parents’ deep and persistent coughs in bad weather, Quân just wanted to cast everything behind to return. His family’s orchard was neglected, since there was no one to take care of it. “Your father and I have put it out to lease, for some rent every season,” his mother said. But how could he return after so many years in a foreign land, where new daily habits had stuck like roots deep into every vein and spread to every cell, making it hard for him to tear himself away.
Quân was a mere petticoat gangster who hungered for home at the sound of boiling rice.
After more than 3,000 days of separation, the love between him and Thu had become as thin as smoke. He only needed to take a deep breath and blow, and every sentiment would evaporate. He didn’t have the courage to tell Thu to forget him and marry somebody else. When their daughter grew up, if Thu wanted, he would take her to America to study and live with him. As for living the rest of his life with the one Quân had stopped loving, it would be unbearable. As for Nhung, Quân had always felt indebted to her for having not listened to him but kept the baby so that he had a son to love. But he didn’t dare to look at her in the eyes. Nor could he cry over spilled milk. They only communicated through text messages and notes stuck all over the fridge. Between him and Nhung there was an abyss through which no bridge could cross to connect their two hearts that had dried up toward each other.
Quân couldn’t stuff his head with all the questions that could be asked in the citizenship exam so the navy blue American passport always remained out of reach. He wasn’t confident enough to divorce Nhung, for fear he might lose the ‘reputation’ he had built throughout his manhood living abroad. Many nights he tossed and turned in bed, feeling he could neither return nor stay, standing stuck at the narrow threshold he himself created.
Night. A light rain was beating against the windows. Quân heard Nhung’s gentle voice from the kids’ bedroom. Suddenly he felt his face burning. Desire started gnawing inside him like on that stormy night of old. Quân stood up, pressed an ear against the wall. Nhung’s lullaby reading voice gradually lowered, then stopped. He heard her close the door, and slowly walk toward her room.
Quân knocked gently.
There was not a sound in response.
He turned the knob. The door wasn’t locked. Quân boldly pushed it open and walked in.
In the dim light, Nhung leaned against the wall, barred a pillow across her chest, and eyed Quân in amazement, speechless. Unconsciously, he stepped forth. Nhung looked utterly terrified. She wanted to scream but felt a lump rising in her throat. Quân plunged onto bed, hastily clasped her weak body in his iron-like arms. Nhung struggled in panic, trying to fling him away but didn’t dare to scream aloud, lest the kids and the whole neighbourhood would wake up. In his thirst, Quân rubbed his head against Nhung’s breasts, insolently touching her body. Nhung flung his hands away, and kicked him off her. She glared at him then turned on the light, scowled and pointed at the door. Even though Nhung loved Quân silently, his face kept haunting her for many years, even though her heart melted for him, all anger and bitterness disappeared every time she saw him sitting morosely by a bottle of wine at midnight looking faraway with wistful eyes, whenever she logged onto Facebook, and saw photos of Quân and his wife and daughter back home frolicking happily around, and remembered his “abort it!”, she felt a sharp pain as if crawled upon by ten thousand poisonous centipedes, and only wanted to chop him into pieces.
Quân wildly grabbed some clothes, and stuffed his Vietnamese passport into a backpack. He hesitated for 30 seconds before picking up a copy of their marriage certificate. He got into his car. Turned on the engine. Pressed the pedal as hard as he could. Flew to the freeway. Darted out to the highway. Red and green lights seemed to stretch away endlessly, twinkling and dancing before his eyes like thousand stars lightening up in the rain. Quân wanted to drive straight to the airport, leave his car there, book a one-way ticket back to Viet Nam, and never return to America again. Yet Andy’s bright smiles and “daddy, daddy” calls woke him up to harsh reality.
Quân knew he couldn’t live in that apartment for a second longer. Tomorrow when the sun shone brightly, how could he face Nhung again? How could he eat her food without recalling her scared eyes?
America was so big, the city of angels was so big, but Quân didn’t know where he would head tonight and on the following days.
He knew it was too late, but he thought, I must have a final word with Nhung, no matter how hard. VNS
Maryland, early summer 2018
Translated by Thùy Linh