Nguyễn Xuân Hoàng
(in the office of Văn Magazine, 1972)
Don’t ask what I’m doing or where I’m at this hour. Right now, while writing these words to you, I’m sitting in an office of a literary magazine on Pham Ngu Lao Street. That street, which houses many printing presses, newspapers and publishing houses as you probably know, is a small street full of dust and cars. On my desk there is a letter from “a-playwright-who-creates-but-never-directs” but I don’t understand a thing. Maybe he has confused me with someone else who goes by a similar name. Those similar names! How many names similar to yours and mine that exist in this world? And you, my Vy, should your name be written with an i or y? Y not i?
While these words are being written, the type setters have just finished setting and laying on my table a short story by the author of Rừng Mắm. The ceiling fan is turning at its slowest speed and rain is pouring outside. Rain explodes like the scream of a hunted man moments before his death. I don’t know why I’m partial to this kind of rain, a profuse rain rotting heaven and earth. Mad rain, wild rain; rain plunging down like a vast basket without pity or regret.
And you? Is it raining where you are? The rain that falls at the beginning of the dry season becomes cherished streams. The rain always makes me long for you. Long for those days when you used to sit behind me on my silver Lambretta. Your love-breath warmed my spine, thawed my cold heart, chased away sad clouds that had long darkened my life. Joyful ceaseless rain; ocean rain, forest rain, plateau rain, highland rain. Rain bloomed within me a belated love; rain poured into you its adolescent passion. Rain full of hope rain flooded our lives.
Yesterday, news from the central battlefront told me the war has gotten worse; a friend of mine died, his remains gone. This morning, the highland sent news that another friend of mine has passed away. The news brought tears to my eyes. So many people my age are facing death, why am I still sitting safely here? And why do we have this love? Perhaps I’m an unlucky lucky person; lucky because I’m alive, unlucky because I have not yet lived.
Isn’t it obscene that we talk about love in a time of death? I’ve often thought the closer you get to love, the nearer you go toward death. To love is to die. Facing death, people always desire life. What is life if not love? A circular argument, don’t you agree?
Vy darling, even now I still can’t picture the place where you live. That city from high up had kept watch over my adolescence, listened to my breathing, seen me fall in love, witnessed those payback fights on Doi Cu, pulled me into Huyen coffee shop from midnight until dawn. And now, picturing your footprints on the red road under the downpours makes me long for you. From your open window each morning can you see the top of the Langbiang Mountain? What book are you reading? And which unfinished letter are you writing me? I’m thinking of you, your breath, your angelic face… It’d be so sad if my imagination ever loses its ability to conjure you, the very ability to enrich our love, infusing it with more colors ….
Do you still remember all the restaurants and coffee shops that we’ve visited: a fancy place, a hole-in-the-wall; movies we’ve seen together — passionate, violent, or gentle and dreamy; melodies we’ve heard together one night, seductive, haunting. And your breathing that expands my heart; your body in my dazed embrace.
Yes, there are times I wish that we were trees, grass or animals; we’d love like beasts in the wild, defying the God of Hopelessness. Just like animals, we’d play in the forest, lie underneath the cool shades of trees and sleep blissfully on beds of dead leaves. Just like grass and trees, we’d take our time to grow. The wind would raise us, the sun and rain would make us resilient. The bright golden circle of dawn would awaken us every morning, the bright red evening sun would take us home, the stars, the moon, would shine on our love.
Vy darling, it is now ten o’clock. Morning in a magazine office. The printing press rumbles on. The typefaces are wet with ink and water. The rain has stopped. The sky is transparent and the sun is blowing its hot breath on the city where I live. Perhaps the shady streets where we used to walk after a storm have been flooded, the vault of tamarind trees that extends all the way to the front gate of Saint-Paul Lycée may be resplendent with raindrops that used to trickle on our heads after every shudder of the wind. Now I no longer remember how many cigarettes I’ve lit up today but I know I’m thinking of you.
Vy love, do you remember the way the Japanese advertise their special products? Anywhere, anytime, just the two of us. Yes, just the two of us.
Tomorrow, I will be readmitted into the hospital. The symptoms of my old illness have resurfaced and are plaguing me. My friend said: “You won’t die yet. Don’t be scared. Living is hard, but dying is banal.”
This morning, the street in front of the magazine office looks spotless after the rain. But my mind is still jumbled with visions of you. Longing for you, for long spools of hair that strangle my life, for quiet brown eyes, proud button nose, your voice that’s wondrously sweet. Your smile that permeates my dreams, your long supple legs, full breasts, hot breath, quick, shy, unsure hands …. But I fear we won’t see each other again, ever. Between you and I lie many rivers and mountains, abysses, valleys, oceans and skies. Even fog, lightning and thunder. Nights and days. Confucius, morals and values. And…
Why do we write? Words and meanings are simply useless when people no longer want to read each other.
Don’t you agree?
Nguyễn Xuân Hoàng
*If translated literally, the original title “Bất Cứ Lúc Nào, Bất Cứ Ở Đâu,” would be “Anytime, Anywhere,” but English colloquialism reverses the order, to “Anywhere, Anytime.”
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