This story originally appeared in the Michigan Quarterly Review’s Fall 2004 Issue Viet Nam: Beyond the Frame. This story and more from the issue are available in our archive
Translated from the Vietnamese by Qui-Phiet Tran
Before accepting a position at Douala, I had filled five pages with these lines: “Loneliness is inevitable. You have to live with it, accept its consequences calmly and gladly.”
Hai had sent me by express mail a letter in which she bitterly criticized my “foolish decision” to move to Douala. I didn’t reply to her until I had settled in my condominium on the third floor of a high-rise there in the capital of Cameroon. You can locate this African nation, which extends no more than 500,000 square kilometers, by running your index finger on the map of Africa along the Atlantic, next to the Gulf of Guinea. Douala is a tiny red mark on the map, like Saigon, which has now disappeared from all the maps, once was.
I have known Hai since my childhood. She is the only close friend overseas that I am still in contact with after my escape from Vietnam by boat. While living in a refugee camp in the Philippines I wrote Hai to give her an earful: my depression and hardship at home, my frustrated dreams, my dangerous escape. But I could not bring myself to say a word about my half-year-long affair with Thang. Actually, it was aborted right after it began; but I had romanticized it, had been clinging to it while knowing well that it was like a shirt that was never worn, a grave that had no cadaver or coffin. In the end, I agreed to go to Cameroon, not only because I needed money, a lot of money, but also because I wanted to punish the other part of me—the lovable, romantic, wild, and untamable.
By going to Douala I plunged myself into my new loneliness which, though more terrible than my previous one, could, I hoped, make me immune from suffering. If I lived in a strange place, completely isolated from my fellow people, I would become a walking stone, or vanish without a trace. Many Vietnamese refugees have left this world in this manner. A hidden reef that ripped a small boat apart, a band of beastly pirates, an accidental storm, or a suffocating loneliness all mean the same thing: they can take away a person’s existence on this earth. In a flash, X comes, X goes, as if X never existed; I never existed.
Going to Douala is going down into the abyss of loneliness. Going to Douala is plunging into the center of a storm.
With such an attitude, I didn’t know whether I should be excited or unhappy when I arrived in Douala and ran into the Ton family. A court clerk under the French colonial government and a French citizen, Mr. Ton had lived with his wife in Douala since his retirement. With their modest pension, the Tons couldn’t afford to live in Paris. All three of their sons married Frenchwomen, so they couldn’t live with any of them. Besides, their sons’ scarce visits made the old couple feel they were no longer important. A Frenchman, a former colleague of Mr. Ton’s who had a major share in a canned food company here, sold the Tons his little townhouse on the bank of the Sagana River at an incredibly cheap price that might pass for charity.
Because the Tons were no longer in the hustle and bustle of life, the most they could do for me was give me a chance to speak Vietnamese with them every now and then. Besides, they were too old to share any joy or sadness of mine. I remained unchanged in my almost absolute loneliness. Except in Sybil’s presence.
When I came out of the bathroom one day, Sybil was there. Sitting in a mahogany armchair and holding a book with a deep purple cover, she was absently gazing out the window. Without turning around to see me, Sybil started reading slowly from her book in a low voice: “She told herself, I was young, I demanded nothing short of perfection. But then, she thought, that is not quite the case. But it comes to the same thing; to me, the men were not charming for long.”
I sat down on my bed, took the towel off my head, and rubbed my wet hair. Sybil didn’t say a word, nor did I ask her to tell me when she had arrived. Her sudden appearance had become a routine occurrence. Facing the window, Sybil continued her reading. a few occasions Sybil attended these parties, working herself, as in a frenzy of self-discipline, into a state of carnal excitement over the men. She managed to do this only by an effortful sealing-off of all her critical faculties except those which assessed a good male voice and appearance. The hangovers were frightful.”
I slumped onto the mattress with a sigh. Having worn myself out working ten hours on end, I could appreciate these very private moments I was spending with Sybil. Being with her, I seemed to be snaking my way across a winding path, in and out the doors separating dreamland and the real world.
“Unlike you, I can’t drink or get drunk. I can only submerge in the pain of self-punishment.”
“Why?” asked Sybil. There was a touch of anxiety in her blue eyes shining with intelligence.
“Because I am not play-acting or living a real life. I don’t love them, but can’t manage without them. I am the worst actor, always caught up in her own role and play.”
“Are you saying that I’m not like you at all?”
“I’m both like you and different from you. Like you, I have to block all my organs of perception and criticism in order to care for men. Like you, I also have physical needs. But whereas you look upon them with empathy and boredom, I accept them with resignation because I can’t find what I’ve been searching for. It’s the outcome, not the ultimate cause. But don’t you think our meeting point is the present, no matter where we started?”
“When I came down with a tropical flu a few days ago, I thought about marrying again if I ever found the right man. But I find the idea of ‘the right man’ so frightening and depressing I tremble each time I think about it. Is that how you feel now?”
“That’s right. Our suppressions are the same, but our actions are different. You are clear-sighted and able to make a choice. I am also clear-sighted but unable to make a choice. I’m trying to persuade myself to accept irrational things in order to avoid feeling that I am a perfectionist. In my experience what appears to be choice turns out to be coercion. Everything is awry.”
“I’m no better off,” Sybil smiled. “To alleviate my asexual complex, I have made a tremendous effort to be involved in three love affairs these last two or three years. Have you forgotten how I have to remind myself repeatedly that the mediocre poet and manager of Passion Lotion Manufacturers is actually a very talented man?”
“No, I haven’t forgotten him. He was furious when you said his poetry leaves much to be desired.”
“Since then I have had to praise his poetry. I have lived in falsehoods so long I no longer trust my judgment. I’m fortunate, though, to have had a chance to tell the truth.”
“Sybil, you were able to do what you wanted at the proper time. I’m not that lucky or capable. Buried in bad faith and not courageous enough to assert myself, I tend to wait for my ideal to become reality. In the end, I’m completely defeated.”
Sybil got up from her armchair and came closer to the bed.
“You feel that way because you’re desperate for something and too enthusiastic about life. You are both the most stubborn adult and craziest kid I’ve ever known!”
I held Sybil’s hand desperately.
“I wish either I had a frozen heart like yours or that I were as stupid as those with common desires in order to put an end to my journey.”
“Too late. Though we are walking hand in hand, your mind is somewhere else. Unless you give me everything and start over again.”
My grip on Sybil’s arm went loose.
“I can’t. I can’t do it. I came from the East. I need to rest up a while because my trip is too long. I need a home.”
“What did you say? I don’t understand you.”
“I am tired and have a headache. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Sybil smiled. I closed my eyes. There was a very slight sound made by the turning of the doorknob, then everything fell into silence. There was not a single trace of fiction or reality. There was only a solitary silence after Sybil’s departure. Night was falling outside. The streets of Douala were ablaze with lights. Far beyond was the dark purple Atlantic Ocean; the Sagana River would be bright again tomorrow, and I was lying still in the darkness slowly pervading my room.
The Tons insisted that I bring them to the airport to pick up Dinh. “He is my blood brother’s son, my favorite nephew,” Mr. Ton said. “It has been more than ten years since we last saw him. He wrote me that he just got a divorce and wants to live in peace for a while. I was told that in the States people divorce on a daily basis. It’s very strange. In our time that was very rare.”
Suddenly, I felt threatened. I came to Douala to escape from relationships with my fellow people, especially men. I feared and despised them. When I told Sybil this, she shrugged her shoulders. “You worry too much about them. Fear or contempt is another form of concern. It may also be a child’s attitude. The remedy to the problem is to stop worrying about others.”
“Do you know what I’m fighting?” I said, crossly. “Men and the die-hard social tradition! I fear men because they’ve been granted all kinds of privileges since they were born. I despise them because many of them are using their power to put us down. However, I feel sorry for them because they are dancing on the corpses of their souls, just like the primitives who ate their own people, then celebrated the occasion with their revelry. But this is not entirely true. Sometimes their aggression is merely used to cover up their weak character, and they are too lazy to reflect upon what they have been taught since childhood.”
“If that is what you’re fighting,” Sybil said, “my course of action would be the best.”
“Sybil, in this colony where white women are extremely rare, you have a lot of men to choose from; therefore, it’s okay for you to befriend them or be indifferent to them. Either attitude is acceptable. As for me, I have only one choice: escape and punish myself. I’m a powerless exile.”
“I disagree,” Sybil said with a smile. “Aren’t you using your most powerful weapon now? It is your vocabulary and the way you put words together in order to create a world of your own.”
I fell into silence. In all our conversations I always feel intimidated by her and have to change my original stance.
I told the Tons that I would reply to them the next day, citing as my excuse that I had to check my schedule. That night, running into Sybil at the Yaoundes’, I told her about the Tons’ request and my refusal to help them. Except for the usual mockery in her squinting eyes, Sybil’s reaction was complete silence.
The next day I said to my two elderly friends, “I will take you to the airport.”
We, the weird trio, went camping in the clearing of a forest along the Sagana bank. It could have been a tryst between Alain and me if Sybil had not joined us. With Sybil’s company people might well have thought we were involved in free-for-all orgies. Actually, taking Sybil along was my decision. Alain had no idea. As for Sybil, she accepted my invitation with her usual indifference.
Alain and I worked at a food manufacturing company. Alain probably liked me because white women were rare here. Old secretaries with their sagging flesh didn’t interest him. As for Sybil, she was just like a phantom—now appearing, now disappearing. She didn’t speak French and Alain didn’t speak English. Besides, Sybil’s cold, intellectual beauty turned Alain off. He was the type of man who liked to demonstrate both his physical and moral strength. My petite body must have given Alain the impression that he was my hero. Morally, Alain felt he was very important because of his responsibility to protect me, a woman who had no home, no country, no relatives.
What Alain didn’t understand was, when looking into his eyes I saw neither him nor myself. Alain had a very beautiful mouth that I would surely love to kiss. Nevertheless, I had never let him kiss me. In all fairness to Alain, he was very patient. He had waited several years for this opportunity to be with me privately. On that day, however, I insisted on bringing Sybil along, although I realized it must be very strange for two women to go on a date with one man.
What was I actually doing with my life by forcing myself to live in a totally strange land and denying myself a normal sex life? What was I trying to prove? That I was a woman who should be respected? That I was still waiting for him, the right man who could bring me love and happiness? That I still believed in love? I decided to raise those questions with Sybil, particularly the question of love in Eastern culture, when we returned from camping. I liked to see her intelligent forehead wrinkle in deep concentration and her beautiful mouth, which was usually quick with words, hesitate in her answer.
We stopped and put up our tent at noon. Sybil disappeared while I was preparing lunch for the three of us. I knew for sure Sybil was gone as soon as Alain’s arms locked around me from behind. Before I could react, Alain pushed me against a tree, his strong hands encircling my chin, his lips pouncing on mine. One of Alain’s hands next relaxed its grip on my face and began to travel down my neck, breasts, belly, and the middle part of my thighs. Alain’s lust was violent and animal-like. From the deepest recesses of my soul I heard these burning questions. Am I seeking self-destruction by merging with Alain? Do I need a husband? Am I acting like a woman in need of a man? Am I trying to bury my past? Did I bid farewell to the East before going West? Where is my future? Is it more simple, pleasant, diversified, relaxed? I tried to push Alain away, gasping, “Look, Sybil is back.”
Alain stopped his passionate kissing. In a huff, he took to the woods with a sullen scowl on his face. Sybil was back with her usual smile. As I was feeling extremely lonely, I didn’t want to speak to her at that moment. Rather, I stood leaning against the tree, looking up. The scorching sunlight was pleasant as it filtered through the dense foliage of trees. Sybil stood behind me but I didn’t turn around. I began to sing like a madwoman. “I’m just like a flower fallen from its branches and you’re the butterfly that flirts and flirts. No doubt, my lord keeps his own wedded wife: why waste our brief few days over idle chat?” “O butterfly frolicking on beautiful flowers / O fish that gambols about before it nibbles at the bait. . . .”
A few lines from The Tale of Kieu, a solitary Vietnamese folk song sung in the middle of an African jungle. Douala. Cameroon. Who brought me here?
I told Sybil that I had received a letter from Hai. She had invited me to come to the States to visit her and to renew my contract with a food manufacturing company. She said that she would find me a fake husband—or, even better, a real one—so that I could stay in the States permanently, close to her in an area that had many fellow Vietnamese. She also wrote that she would treat me to famous Vietnamese dishes and delicacies. On New Year’s Day we would play Vietnamese cards. In short, according to Hai, we could almost recreate what we had at home a long time ago.
“Your friend must have loved her family life very much,” Sybil said.
“Perhaps so. I can’t imagine her as single. However, she seems a bit too afraid of her husband.”
“So how could she manage to show you around?”
“Oh, I’m sure she can,” I replied, somewhat stunned by Sybil’s question.
“Eh, you seem to desire a life like Hai’s,” Sybil said mockingly.
“I’m not that lucky. A peaceful life. A true love. These things are beyond my reach.”
“What’s love?” Sybil asked.
“I don’t know. I don’t know yet.”
“A certain chap might kneel down at your feet to pour out an endless litany of love that would be followed by marriage if things worked out well. Next, one would see the arrival of some children, which means the beginning of a tedious life that is more likely to end in a divorce. If you are not treading this road, you won’t be able to hold very long that illusory power of sexuality over men. That’s why I am so depressed.”
Sex. Brutality. Animal faces. Wrathful oceans. Rickety boats. Stupid men who robbed my human rights. Insecure love affairs. Floating corpses’ love affairs. Am I also a floating corpse? What else? Is it true there is no love on this earth? What about the stories? What are those millions of stories about?
“How are you going to cope with this problem?” I questioned Sybil, biting my lips.
“The world of the story. A deep soul calls for another deeper soul. A new region opens up another newer region.”
“A pack of lies. Why don’t you explain your own depression?”
“That’s my temporary weapon. It’s very useful. Keep it carefully.”
“Sybil, in the East people believe that women, wives, mothers are like oceans. They endure and forgive all wrongs committed against them. They sacrifice themselves all their lives. They are tight-lipped throughout their ordeal. They blossom even in the hearts of brutal men.”
“Bless your heart, young friend,” Sybil chuckled. “How clever Eastern philosophers are! They imprison you in rooms with tightly drawn curtains. Outside, these rooms look fantastic, but inside they are just like prisons that guarantee that dull saints like you have a stable life.”
“I don’t care about your despair, Sybil,” I said, dropping onto the bed, holding my head with both hands. “I’m not interested in becoming a saint either. I want to surrender myself to love, not to dogmas. I can’t stand aggression and domination. I believe only in friendship and understanding. There must be a place where this sort of thing exists.”
There was a touch of pity in Sybil’s voice.
“The many hardships you have encountered on your journey, the deadly wounds inflicted upon you, aren’t they enough for you to quit that search? You have beseeched me to impart to you my contempt for men and despair about life, that so-called intellectual monster. Well, my dear friend, you can’t leisurely enter my game while entertaining hopes of building a different world.”
Silence. It appeared that Sybil had left the room.
I thought about Hai. Her face was smooth and tranquil, like an unruffled, cloudless sky before a storm. Why is it that I am not like Hai? If I could give up my reactionary character, I would be just like Hai, like thousands of ordinary women on this earth. Surrender myself to my unfulfilled dream. Turn my back upon Sybil’s intellectual smile. I would then diligently cook, wash dishes, give birth to babies for my husband, obey him, beseech him to buy me diamond rings. And would not engage in any thinking at all.
I avoided Sybil for many days. When hearing her familiar knock at the door, I pretended to be asleep and didn’t answer.
Sybil must have been very angry with me because I was going out with Dinh. But neither Sybil nor I understood all the factors that led me to make that decision.
As Sybil would have put it, Dinh had a pleasant voice and attractive demeanor. But in order to like him, did I need to renounce my judgment and critical abilities? Not necessarily. I could substitute these for the Eastern mother’s love. He was a wounded animal. As for me, perhaps the wound had healed. Did that mean I had to be his nurse? Not quite. Before I recognized it, I was overcome by a craving to hear a compatriot’s voice, especially a man’s, one that was warm, passionate, and even violent. That was the consequence of my five-year isolation.
That last confrontation between Sybil and me drove me to a new decision: join the opposite front. I wanted to become Hai. I wanted to shake off my own reactionary instinct. I was like one who had so wearied of her current journey that she hurriedly hid away her useless luggage so that she could leisurely embark on a new trip.
“After each divorce,” Dinh said, “I understand better than ever that happiness lies in men’s respect for women. There is no such thing as conquest; there is only mutual understanding. When I love you, I disappear. There is no longer the I-Nguyen-Dinh, there is only I-as-one-who-loves-you-in-you. I will not love you because of me, but I will love you because of you. It seems that you are five women combined. Oh, if I hadn’t met you, my wound wouldn’t have healed. Now I can start over again. I am a brand-new person. Thank you, dear. Thank you for being such a wonderful psychiatrist.”
Oh God, Sybil’s smile came back to me again. Sybil, didn’t you know that hearing again the melodious voice of my country and enjoying the intimate moments of my life only made me feel more devastated?
A little fire seemed to be warming up my frozen heart. I began to wear makeup and buy new clothes. Dinh said to me, “You go with me to the States next month. We’ve known each other long enough. It’s time for us to get married.”
That same night, Sybil came banging on my door.
“Open the door. Open the door for me. Quick!”
Lying motionless in my bed, I yelled at Sybil in my trembling voice. “Sybil, I want to stop. I want to be Hai. Please leave me alone.”
“Don’t commit such a suicidal act.”
“It’s too late now.”
“It’s not too late to stop.” Sybil’s voice was gentle, sort of imploring. “Come back to me. We can still be safe in our lonely pride. Come back to me and we’ll go meet Kundera, Marquez, Gordimer, Atwood, and Spark. We’ll also make more friends. Please listen to me, my dear friend.”
“Sybil, I need a home,” I sobbed. You can’t replace that. How can you understand the tears shed in the South China Sea?”
A moment of silence. Or was it a moment of mourning? The knocks at the door grew weaker, then slackened off.
“That place is not your asylum. You will never be promoted to sainthood there.”
“Sybil, sometimes I need a friend who appreciates the folk song I sang in the woods near the Sagana.”
Sybil walked away in despair.
The cold night was weeping.
I paced to and fro in the lobby of an apartment complex, feeling happy to be an Eastern mother. I would be able to say gentle, comforting words. I would become Mother-Ocean. Having endured Dinh’s outbursts, I would be able to discover a new me. Only when I feel the pain of others can I forget my old wound. Sybil might not understand this, but at least she could not ignore it.
Dinh was mad at me for over a week. The immediate reason was ridiculous: it was the bouquet Alain had sent me and something I had said, which Dinh interpreted as “a grave insult to a man” like him. The remote reason was complex and vague. Dinh was upset probably because he didn’t like Sybil though they never met. “That woman,” he snickered in disdain when I mentioned Sybil in our conversation, “is so smart and talented she did away with her role as wife and mother.” I was stunned. It was clear that Dinh and Sybil were on opposite sides of a boundless river, and I was caught in the middle, almost drowned. I was swimming in Dinh’s direction. Sybil was looking at me, with arms akimbo. She had the confidence of someone who knew the truth. Did she abandon me or feel sorry for me?
Having thought over that question for a week, I decided to take a risk. Now that I had chosen a place opposite to Sybil’s, I had to act with honor. With great enthusiasm, I put on the coat that belonged to this patient woman, my loyal friend. I wanted to visit Dinh to tell him that I never looked down on him or pitied him. Because I myself had been at the abyss of despair and suffering, I wanted to tell Dinh that since our condition was tragic we ought to care for each other. I wanted to be Dinh’s friend. I wanted us to face each other without arms, without armor, without being enslaved by the prejudices of an imperfect existence. Perfection lies in our consciousness of it, not in truth. Granted that perfection is an illusion, we will recognize that illusion and care for each other even more deeply because we have lived in it throughout the past stages of our lives.
Those thoughts were parading in my head when my high-heel shoes caught in the crack on the cement floor in the lobby. My left knee buckled. I heard Sybil’s laughter behind me.
“Are you sure you can argue with Dinh?”
I stopped, took my shoes off, and went barefoot.
Standing before the Tons’ town house, I heard my heart pounding. Nonetheless, nobody was aware of my presence.
Dinh’s voice was coming from behind the wide open window. “Uncle and Auntie, don’t think that I need a comforter, or a wife. She can’t be either one. How can she comfort me when she’s so arrogant? How can she be my wife when her past is unacceptable? I wouldn’t dare marry a woman that smart because I don’t want her to be my teacher. But that’s not all, Uncle and Auntie. Through an acquaintance who has a friend in the States I’ve learned something about her past. Before she came to Pulau Bidong her disrepute was already very well known.”
Sybil’s laughter rang out like the peals of thousands of breaking glasses. Home. Shelter. Folk song. Fantasy. Now I know what that means.
With my feet bare, I dashed headlong down the street, out of Douala, Cameroon. Gone forever.
I was sick for several days. The tropical fever plunged me into delirium after delirium. Sybil came by to see me. Dressed in white, she looked so sad.
“Our debate is over,” she said. “Get well soon, and we’ll go see many new friends.”
I turned my face to the wall, saying nothing.
“You’re crying. Can’t you accept a life different from this one?”
I didn’t say a word to Sybil. It is not that pride kept me from apologizing to her. Quite the contrary, I was overwhelmed with love, respect, shame, and guilt. I didn’t respond to her because I was so unhappy. Time and time again my heart convulsed, and I almost stopped walking because of the pain. I knew I had to go somewhere, find somebody else, not Sybil.
The flight took me to my old hometown. The steps that led to the entrance of Toan’s house were wet with mist. I knocked. The door opened. “You’re back,” Toan said. We stood still for one minute. Several years had gone by, but Toan looked the same. He still had the appearance of a harmless bear.
“Come in, or you’ll get cold, dear,” Toan said. His arms were open wide. I threw myself into them.
I don’t remember how long this lasted before Toan gently led me to the chair beside the fireplace and made me sit down. He started making a fire, softly reciting a line from The Tale of Kieu: “Sometime, if ever you will tune this lute / or light that incense vessel. . . .” “I’m home to marry you,” I said. “My dear lady,” he answered, “I’m most delighted.” I went on without interruption, “I want to clean your house, wash your dishes, mend your clothes. In the evening I’ll cook delicious suppers for you. At night, you’ll nest your head on my lap and listen to my love songs. We’ll love each other with all our soul and body. We’re husband and wife, mother and sister, lovers and close friends for the rest of our life. Here nobody needs liberation since we are all equal, happy, and free to enjoy the love that comes directly from the human heart.”
Toan came close to me. Then quietly and with a smile he started fondling my hair. His love and compassion seemed to be coming out of the tips of his fingers. Tears were flowing down my face, warm as new life.
“You’re not real,” I sobbed.
“Because you never believe I am real.”
“Teach me how to love a man.”
“That’s very easy. I only need to open the door to a house that is already available.”
“How can we live together? Not on this continent, in that ocean, in that other world?”
“I’ve been waiting for you right here, all the time,” he said.
I still had to return to Douala to terminate my work contract and to pack up. Sybil had already left that city full of shining colors. She left on my desk a book with a dark purple cover, perhaps as a present and a farewell.
My last night in Douala, I wrote Sybil this short note: Sybil, there is only one solution: Erase the boundary between life and writing. . . .
I was writing Sybil while sipping a glass of Passion Liquid that a mediocre poet had given Sybil who then gave it to me. In order to ensure a good night’s sleep, I took a sleeping pill.
A blank page. A gulp of water. A sleeping pill.
A blank page. A gulp of water. A sleeping pill.
1. Muriel Spark, “Bang-Bang You’re Dead,” Open to the Public: New & Collected Stories (New York: New Directions, 1997), 52.
2. Nguyen Du, The Tale of Kieu. Trans. Huynh Sanh Thong (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983), 69.
3. Quoted from a Vietnamese folk song.
4. One of the uninhabited islands off Kuala Terreganu, Malaysia, used as a transit center for the boat people during their escape from Viet Nam in the late 1970s and the 1980s.
5. Nguyen Du, The Tale of Kieu, 39.