Tuong was the new man at the turtle breeding station. His journey to that place had been a long and strange one.
After finishing secondary school and passing the entrance examination to the Fine Arts College, Tuong had matured into a handsome man, tall, with an attractive oval face and eyes like a dove's, framed by long lashes. A friend of his, who took pride in his ability to interpret people's looks, once told him: “I'm afraid a man with liquid, shadowy eyes like yours will be immersed in unhappiness.”
Tuong was not surprised at his friend's words. He had been orphaned when he was still a teenager: his father killed in action in Cambodia in 1978, his mother dead of a brain hemorrhage two years before that. He had been left alone in a tiny room on the second floor of a decaying building. But he refused to move in with any of his relatives—he had enough money to support himself from his student scholarship and his parents’ insurance money.
He had first met Chi at a classmate's birthday party. In the midst of that raucous, bragging group, each striving to prove he was more artistic than the other, Chi and the friend she
brought with her stood out—they seemed sincere, decent, and kind. After she'd learned that Tuong was an art student, Chi asked him to draw some pictures she could use as teaching aids for her class. As he listened to her speaking about her work as a teacher, Tuong found his interest piqued. The very next day, just as he had started to draw pictures for her, she came to his house with a roll of paper.
Tuong threw himself heart and soul into that work, and Chi happily brought the results to her class, inviting the artist along as her special guest. He stood next to the window and watched her with the children. He was delighted when she held up each of his drawings, one by one:
“What is this, children?”
“The tramway, teacher.”
“And this one?”
“A tiger, teacher,” they'd answer excitedly.
Tuong drew picture after picture for Chi and her students. He fashioned collages, made colorful posters, and used cardboard boxes to create puppet shows based on traditional tales. For weeks, he stood silently at Chi's window, watching his work being eagerly received by the students. He and Chi became more and more passionate about the project, and before long they began to feel the same way about each other. Soon they felt as if their lives centered only on each other and Chi's students, felt as if they were the only inhabitants of their own universe.
Then one day, her face distressed, Chi came to Tuong and said: “Someone told my mother about us. She's furious. She threw a fit and told me I was too young to be in love, and that
you didn't come from a good background. She told me never to see you again, ever.”
Tuong was devastated. He had been so caught up in passion and rapture that he simply couldn't imagine anything going wrong between himself and Chi. Now the world had caught up with them. Whoever betrayed them to Chi's mother must have squealed at some length: she knew both of his status as an orphan and that he was an itinerant artist with no other job, hardly someone who could provide Chi with a stable and happy family life. Hell, he thought, that must have been what worried her mother, not that nonsense that her daughter “was too young to be in love.”
Chi's mother was a trader in cosmetics who ran a large distribution warehouse in downtown Hanoi. She had another man in mind for her daughter: Loc, a commissioner who worked as a middleman between the traders and the shopkeepers. She was very fond of Loc. He wasn't so handsome, but words poured out of his mouth sweet and neat as a dance. More importantly, he really knew how to kiss up to the shopkeepers. He was always ready to waste hours gossiping about what was happening in the neighborhood—from the fight between two jealous women, to the bitter and tawdry love affair between a fifty-year-old professor and his twenty-year-old student, to the fatal accident near the guardrail over the railroad tracks. Moreover, he was just as ready to spend money on theater tickets. In the late afternoon, he would help Chi's mother close and lock up the warehouse, then would hire a cyclo to take them to Dai Nam theater to watch “Miss Sita,”
or the cai luong1
“Once I Was in Love” or to the movies to see the sentimental film “Love and Tears.” Watching Chi's mother take out her handkerchief and wipe her eyes, then discreetly blow her nose, always made Loc happy. It was worth the price of the tickets.
Chi's mother sang Loc's praises to Chi as often as she could: “Loc is so smart, so hard working, so generous. Anyone who married him would be happy for her whole life! He has a Honda Cub motor scooter, a Sharp VCR and color TV, and so many other things he hasn't even taken them out of their boxes yet. What a wonderful young man!”
Chi was well aware both of Loc's generosity and his cunning. Once he had come to her house smiling hugely and bearing a large plastic gift bag in one hand and a bouquet of flowers in the other. He handed her the bag solemnly, then whisked around the room looking for a vase in which to deposit the flowers.
“What is this, Loc?” Chi had asked, wide-eyed.
“I wish for you the best of luck in becoming a year older, and I wish for you and your family good luck in your business and the continuous making of profits so you can enrich yourselves the more.”
Chi was amused at his manner of speaking, and surprised at his words. “Who told you that today was my birthday?”
“Why, Mama of course.” Loc put the flowers down and ran into the other room, calling out loudly: “Mama, didn't you tell
me that today was our Chi's birthday?”
Chi's mother was busy noting down all her expenditures and profits in a small notebook. She pretended to scold Loc, her voice just loud enough so that Chi could overhear.
“What a man! You didn't listen properly. What I told you was that Chi was in her twenties, still in the prettiest bloom of her youth. And from that you took it that today was her birthday! Does that mean you'll bring her presents like this every day?”
Loc, right on cue, showed his embarrassment by shaking his head forlornly. He was so sincere and honest; he had just made a mistake. Would the ladies please not be angry with him? Oh of course not, dear boy, Chi's mother simpered. You're just enthusiastic because you hold so much affection for Chi, isn't that it? As Chi listened to this dialogue, she felt both amused and pleased. Loc was ridiculous, but he was a sweet talker and he knew how to please people. When he talked to the cosmetic traders, he became the tough negotiator, but he knew how to turn on the charm with her. Who didn't like to be praised, to hear sweet compliments spoken in a soft, smooth voice? She nervously opened the bag. Her face lit up as she pulled out an adorable light yellow Hong Kong Sport T-shirt and a pair of Adidas sneakers—she'd been longing for these things, ever since she'd joined the badminton club. She thanked Loc and accepted the presents graciously—but also somewhat impersonally. The result wasn't what he had expected. From then on, while she did feel affection for him, it was the emotion one would have for a brother. Often, she would casually refuse his invitations to the theater. Why not? She hated the
sentimental operas anyway, and she didn't have to pretend with a brother, did she?
It was under these circumstances that Chi met Tuong and fell in love with him immediately, as if she had been waiting for him all her life. They were both passionate about art, about teaching, and about each other. And as soon as her mother found out about them, she immediately forbade their relationship.
“Listen,” she shrieked, “I will not allow you to fall in love with anyone right now. And if you keep going with that orphan, you'll drive me out of my mind and I'll marry you off to the first fool I find!”
Chi was afraid. Her mother could very well carry out her threat. But if she obeyed, she wouldn't be able to see Tuong anymore. Her mind raced. Finally she thought of a way to calm her mother down.
“It's Loc you'd force me to marry, isn't it?” she asked maliciously, knowing this would distract her mother from the subject of Tuong.
Her ploy worked, at least for the moment.
“Do you think he's that easy to get? Dozens of girls want him, but all he cares about is you.”
Chi had discovered her mother's weak point. If Chi showed any affection for Loc, her mother would purr, but if anything reminded her of Chi's relationship with Tuong, she'd go crazy. For weeks she scolded, ranted, and raved, finally telling her daughter she would commit suicide if Chi wouldn't break up with that man who “had attracted her with his witchcraft.” Chi and her mother had reached an impasse.
One afternoon, Chi waited for Tuong in front of the Fine Arts College. She was worried, but there was a cunning sparkle in her eyes.
“It seems we've raised a fox in our chicken coop, Tuong. I found out today that it was Xuyen who told my mother about us. Listen, this evening I'm going to ask her to come to your place,” she said slyly.
At dusk, Tuong waited anxiously for Chi in front of his house. Thinking of the cunning sparkle in her eyes, he felt a vague foreboding. Van, his downstairs neighbor, came out and teased him about his nervousness. She told him to go wait in his room; she'd bring Chi upstairs for him, instead of him hovering around here. Tuong was startled that even this young girl knew about him and Chi. How had they never noticed that so many eyes were watching them?
Chi and Xuyen arrived at a little past eight. Tuong reached out quickly to grasp Chi's hand. “Why didn't you come earlier?”
She stared at him coldly and slowly drew back her hand.
“I'm very busy, Tuong; from now on, please don't come to see me at my school anymore. I don't like it. You need to realize there are no special feelings between us.”
Xuyen stared at her, shocked, while Tuong visibly stiffened.
“So, goodbye then, Tuong,” Chi said. “Xuyen, don't we have tickets for the 8:30 show?”
Chi turned and left without looking back. Tuong leaned dejectedly against the door frame. The scene had unfolded just as Chi had planned, but to him it had seemed almost real. Perhaps that was why his heart ached now with anger and
sadness. As he watched Chi's shadow being erased by the harsh light of the street lamps as she moved away from him, he felt that vague sense of foreboding again, and he feared that their love would come to a sad ending.
Two days later, Chi, laughing merrily, came to meet him.
“Everything's fine. This morning, Xuyen told my mother all about the other night. My mother feels great now.”
From that day, Chi cut Xuyen out of her life without explanation. They avoided all the streets on which they might meet her, and they avoided other people who might know Chi. They would meet only at Tuong's or at the front gate of the Fine Arts College. But it was impossible to avoid everybody. One afternoon, they went to the August Cinema to see a new film. Suddenly a group of teenage girls on bicycles overtook them. As they passed, Tuong could hear their voices trailing behind:
“Miss Chi really is pretty.”
“Van was right—she's beautiful.”
“But a little thin.”
Tuong was amused to see his little downstairs neighbor Van pedaling along with this flock of high-school girls. They must have followed him and Chi for a long time, just to check out his girlfriend.
Once when they were together at Tuong's house, Chi said to him: “I don't like you hanging out with those so-called artist friends of yours. They're nothing but a bunch of phonies—all
they do is drink and gossip.”
Tuong lost his temper. “Look, don't criticize my friends. No one's perfect.”
The confrontation turned into a serious quarrel that led to Tuong angrily storming out of the house. As soon as he'd slammed the door, Chi grabbed her things and left as well. But they could only stand to be separated for two days. Finally, Chi swallowed her pride and came to meet Tuong at his college.
That reconciliation, however, did not change her feelings about his friends, and Tuong remained angry at what he saw as Chi's intolerance. He thought that his friends were great. They were creative people: artists, musicians, film makers. Being with them was sometimes inspiring, and sometimes just a hell of a lot of fun. After one glass of wine they could build palaces taller than skyscrapers—they had ideas, imagination…
But although he didn't realize it, Tuong was the only true artist among them, the only one with a good heart. Chi was right—his friends were braggarts. The ones who called themselves painters drank and boasted more than they painted. The musicians were no better. Khang, for one, could only play a few chords on a guitar. He used his rudimentary knowledge to compose banal advertising ditties, then would slink into the offices of various businesses and factories and try to convince the management to buy his songs. He finally succeeded in selling one to a department store: We sell what you do need or might/You're like family in our sight/We sell soaps and matches that light/And our clothes fit just right…
Later, he had another hit for a textile factory: I grow the mulberry tree/and work in the textile factory/I help make our homeland beautiful/for the colors of our fabrics/are like the colorful flowers of our homeland…
A typical night: While the group sat around drinking, Khang would relate his song-writing adventures, then clear his throat importantly and begin to sing, his tenor voice cracking and choking as if his throat were clogged with mucus. Meanwhile, Phung would talk excitedly about the films he had made in Haiphong and Hue. He always described himself as an “assistant director” even though he was really only a part-time contract worker for a film studio. If someone happened to mention the name of a young woman during the course of the conversation, Phung would declare bluntly that he had slept with her, and gleefully tell the group about secret points on her body, as evidence of his sexual prowess. His vulgar stories would weave into the eloquent voice of Du, “the barrel,” an actor who always played minor roles in the theater, including one as a “walking barrel” which had given him his nickname. Despite these credentials, whenever Du opened his mouth quotes from Shakespeare, Molière, Brecht, and Stanislavsky would pour out like water from a faucet that couldn't be turned off.
An outsider, stumbling into this crowd, might get the impression he had come among a circle of great artists, men who shared the talents and weaknesses that all great artists supposedly had. Actually they were corrupt sneaks who called themselves artists or writers or musicians so they could extract commissions and state grants, and cover up their various con games and rackets. They talked constantly about “the arts” and saw themselves as creative people in order to give themselves an excuse to live in what they considered a bohemian atmosphere.
To make up for their lack of talent, they dressed the way they thought artists were supposed to dress, striving carefully to look carelessly disheveled and filthy, exaggerating the personality faults and quirks they believed marked artists. But the real artists felt tainted by their behavior and had to struggle to overcome the stink the group left in other people's nostrils. They spoke of Tuong's friends as a heap of foul rags, a stagnant pile of garbage that someone had forgotten to clean up.
Yet Tuong didn't see them in this light. He was dead serious about his own work as an artist. But he also thought it wasn't so bad to be able to hang out with a bunch of guys who could give you a few laughs and a chance to relax. And besides—though this was a reason he seldom admitted to himself—he wasn't brave enough to try to associate with more well-known artists.
Then one evening the police arrested him. When he arrived at the jail, Tuong was shocked to find the whole gang there: Khang “the musician,” Du “the barrel,” Phung “the assistant director” and so on…as if, he thought, they'd decided in unison to make this cell their new gathering place. They'd been stripped of their artistic clothes, and of their cockiness and sophistication also. They acted like old jail birds. They fought, cursed, snatched up each others’ rations as well as the necessities their relatives sent them. Soon, listening to snatches of conversation that surfaced during their endless quarrels, Tuong began to piece together what had happened. A long time ago, his friends had put together a scam organizing phony boat escapes for people who wanted to get out of the country.
They'd managed to swindle their clients out of a good deal of property and money, so anxious were their naive victims to seek a life abroad. That scheme was the only true “masterpiece” that Tuong's friends had ever created.
Tuong was kept in jail...