Nguyen Thu Phuong
He recognised her at once,
though she was a rather stout woman now, different from
the girl he knew before. Fifteen years was time enough
for a lot of things to be done and undone. He found
warmth in her eyes, the black sad eyes that looked tired
now, and could also see that she was moved. She smiled
the same familiar reluctant smile.
"I never expected to meet you here," he said.
"Nor did I. But I have thought of you for years."
Her words were sincere and, it seemed, even remorseful.
"How's life now?"
"I'm married and have two children. Life is normal,
like that of other people. Nothing worth mentioning. And
what about you?"
"I have nothing worth telling you either."
They paused and looked around. The music at the wedding
was noisy and exciting, mixed with people shouting out
congratulations. He wanted to ask her why she'd not
brought her husband and children along. But decided
against it on second thoughts. He himself had come
alone, without his wife and children. He brought the
food for her and poured wine into her glass in the
manner of an experienced ladies' man. He drank a lot of
beer without flushing. His capacity was great. Thanks to
the beer he became more loquacious and alert, much more
than when he was sober, or fifteen years younger. Then,
as if by accident, he placed his hand on her knee under
the table. As she did not push it away or show any other
reaction, he whispered in her ear,
"You are wonderful."
She smiled. He saw that the smile expressed the
confidence of a woman who knew very well that she was
attractive. A diabolic self-confidence.
"I have not been able to forget you for the last
"I still keep the poems you wrote for me, your love
letters, and the notebook in which you wrote down the
lyrics. My God, your handwriting was so beautiful. And
the old hair pin, and other presents. All these things
I've wrapped carefully and put into a small,
"What does your husband say about that?" he asked
in surprise, his heart filled with emotion.
"He is not the kind of man to get jealous about
trifles. He knows I am a romantic woman, and treats me
so well that I always feel grateful. I should not have
dreamed about old flames, right?"
She must not know that whenever he had a quarrel with
his wife, he blamed himself for a lack of determination
in getting married to her. Whenever one's present
relationship lacks happiness, one often thinks of missed
A friend in his early fifties had advised him
"A man who has taken on the responsibility of being a
husband and a father, should know how to release the
valve in order to regain balance in life. The best way
is to create a secret corner. You only have to conceal
it from you wife,".
He had not been faithful, he only tried not to be a bad
man. Women had gone through his manly life, obscure,
leaving behind no deep memory. But the image of his
first love had often come to mind. Her half-smile, her
sad black eyes, her sun-tanned complexion, an intact
primitive beauty without any make up, any artful
"We should leave this party soon," he said softly
after the fourth course was served.
She nodded obediently and stood up presently. Then she
left the room, relieved and calm as if she had waited
for that moment. He, for formalities, lingered for a
while, then stood up as well, giving a perfunctory
salute to his neighbours. She was posing for a
photograph with the bride and the groom at the gate,
diplomatically intimate. Then she made for the park.
Elbowing through a crowd excitedly toasting each other,
he caught up with her.
"Do you remember this place?"
"Why not, it is a memory of our past life."
"For the last fifteen years I have been coming here
to sit, watching it change hands, be dismantled,
repaired and renovated...."
"That's surprising. I also occasionally come here, by
myself, to think of you. But why didn't we meet even
She remembered everything he reminded her of, as their
past returned like a distant echo. Unable to control
himself, he took hold of her hand, pressed it softly and
caressed it. Then he raised it to his lips and kissed
it, overflowing with emotion and desire. An experienced
man was fully conscious of his desire, and knew how to
"Wait a minute", he said and made his way to the
back of the cafeteria.
Then he used his mobile phone to call a close friend in
his fifties. When he returned to the cafeteria, he paid
the bill at the counter and went to where she was
sitting. In the most natural voice he said, "Let's
go, my dear" and was pleased to see she followed him
at once without asking him where to.
The apartment has a private staircase to the third
floor. They left their motorbikes with the caretaker,
and climbed up the battered and mossy staircase. She was
smiling as she recalled old stories, continuing from
those that she'd related in the cafeteria and on the
way. And she had not made any query about their
destination. She was well-versed in world affairs and
reasonable. These are virtues a woman should have, he
thought. In addition, she still retained the romance of
youthful days. The perfume she wore wafted into his
nostrils, making him long for her. He wondered,
fleetingly, if his desire did not mean disrespect, when
in his mind, she had such a noble and pure image. But
this was going to be a happy ending, he reassured
himself. It was the climax of love, so different from
When they reached the apartment, he took out of a
battered flower pot a small key. The first impression of
the room was untidiness. Before she could comment, he
softly closed the door and carefully bolted it after
having found the switch to turn on the light. Then, in a
very natural way, he moved to the table that had no
chair, where back issues of magazines lay scattered. He
rapidly tidied up the mess, grumbling about the mess his
friend had created. As he cleared the table, he found a
box of "OK" condoms. He glanced at her and put it into
his pocket. Then he went to the kitchen. He found a pile
of instant noodles and an unopened bottle of mineral
"I wonder whether it is drinkable," she said
He nodded yes. While she drank it like a kitten which
was not thirsty, he had the opportunity to contemplate
her. She was wearing a "decent" brown dress,
fashionable and fit. But it was a bit older style than
her age warranted, in contrast to his checked shirt and
a cream pair of trousers, and a gaudy cravat his wife
had bought for him, making him look very dashing.
Having drunk the water, she looked in vain for a seat.
She had to sit down on the double bed. The bed was old,
but covered with a flowered bedspread. She was still
holding her handbag in her hand. He came up to her, put
his hand round her waist like in the past,
"Do you know that you are very lovely?"
Her black eyes softened as she looked at him. Suddenly
he embraced her passionately and was about to kiss her
lips. It was a long time since he had kissed a woman.
But she swiftly glided out of his arms. Then she took
out of her handbag a packet of chewing gums. She tore it
open and put one into his mouth, bursting into a laugh,
a resounding, thoughtless laugh.
He sat chewing, deep in thoughts. She was like a cup of
cappuccino - sweet, fragrant, deep and a little bitter.
He had taken a short cut in his attempted conquest, but
her experience made it difficult. As he thought thus,
she came to him, her face indifferent, and began to
loosen his time. Then she unbuttoned his shirt, gingerly
"What do you have in your pocket?"
Mischievously she put her hand inside. And what she
managed to get out made her blush. He shook his head,
trying to deny it, but entreated,
"Let's turn off the light, dear!"
She laughed again. But now her black eyes had lost their
sadness and were filled with mischief.
"No, I want to look at you in broad daylight."
Having unbuttoned the shirt, she placed it on the table,
and he was embarrassed now. But she started to loosen
the belt. He stopped her,
"What are you doing?"
He was at a loss. The beers guzzled down at many
parties, the absence of exercise, sitting too long at
the office, made him lose his boldness as he stood naked
in the light before a woman who was not his wife. And
suddenly, there was a gap between them.
After a while, she slowly said, "My husband certainly
does not want me to be involved in these adventures."
"Your husband," he heard his own voice as it
dragged out, sarcastic and scornful. " If you are a
faithful wife, why didn't you tell me off from the
start, why did you follow me here?" He reached for the
shirt and put it on again.
"I am a mother of two children, I am no longer the
wonderful woman of our first love."
Her voice confessional without any hint of
"Please forgive me. But I need to be disillusioned. I
wanted to get rid of your beautiful image that obsesses
me. It is only in this way, that I will be able to
forget you forever...."
"Disillusion with love. Does this depend only on
downgrading of the physical body and appearances after
so many years of change? Is that all you needed in me?"
He smiled with derision.
"Aren't you interested in the soul of a man who
always thinks of you?"
She lowered her head, and spoke in an undertone,
"Please don't blame me. I have attached my fate to
that of my children and my husband. I love them."
His voice was weary as he answered,
"I can't blame you when you have said so. It is my
fault. I have courted a lover who is not bold enough to
She did not say anything else, quietly leaving the
He sat motionless for a long time after she left, his
heart cold. Finally, he stood up and went into the
bathroom to wash his face. In the mirror on the soiled
wall, he saw the face of a well-fed, stupid man with
haggard eyes. His shirt was wrinkled and unbuttoned,
revealing his bare chest. His complexion was weathered
and his body, not yet old, bore clear signs of
laissez-faire and negligence. It was not believable that
this was the same body and complexion that had been so
radiant, youthful and full of life fifteen years ago,
ready to be exposed to a crowd of curious people. There
was some contradiction and injustice here, an inverse
proportion between the body and the soul with the
passage of time. He was suddenly filled with self-pity
Finding a cigarette in his pocket, he struck a match to
light it and blew out the smoke. And how old was her
husband after these fifteen years? What was he like when
he took off his clothes? And if she had found him with a
different body and complexion, would she have still told
him that she loved her husband and children?
The mobile phone rang in his pocket. He took it out and
saw the number of his crony.
"Have you found the key?"
"Oh yes, I am now in the room."
"Fine, have a good time."
Translated by Hoang Tuy