For beauty's sake

Sunday, 2019-03-10 09:45:31
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Illustration by Do Dung
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While the masseuse’s deft hands caressed Duyen’s hair and face she, with her half-closed eyes, felt very comfortable thanks to the fragrant cosmetic products on them.

“I might be a good-looking TV presenter one day thanks to my curved upper eyelids and lust eyes,” Duyen whispered to herself. “Make-up is nothing but a game: it might make women look better or worse. My bushy eyebrows will look thinner and more gracious and my skin will turn smooth and soft. Surely, my husband will be greatly surprised. It might even make him end his love affair with his girlfriend,” she went on.

Over the past three years, he had been dating that girl, three years older than their daughter, who was now a junior in university. He might have been Duyen’s husband but he belonged to that pretty girl. With this fresh and fair complexion Duyen hoped that she could make her husband his former self.

While the nimble fingers of the masseuse were sweeping over Duyen’s glossy hair, she remembered her happy days in the wake of their wedding ceremony when their love was blossoming.

* * *

When Duyen’s parents learned that their beloved daughter had fallen in love with a young man of the same age, they were totally against the union as he was a country boy who had just graduated from banking college.

“Young married couples similar in age usually have lots of trouble when they get old,” said one of her close aunts. “At an old age, while women’s sexual desires weaken, men remain horny. Therefore, a lot of men take another path: running after new women,” she said.

“Oh my dear aunt, I think otherwise. For me, love is sacred and eternal,” Duyen objected.

In defiance of the opposition and obstruction of many a member of the family, they made up their mind to get married.

* * *

Over the past twenty years, Duyen’s spouse had remained a junior member of the banking branch, whereas she stayed the same – a public servant. During that time, life went by without any major problems. Most of her free time at home was spent on daily tasks for the family and washing clothing for her husband. She hardly had enough time for herself. However, she did not complain to anyone about her hardships.

Now in retrospect, she found that all her exertions that had been dedicated to him, especially her frequent waits for him to arrive for dinner, seemed meaningless.

Her solitude in the house was due to another reason. Her daughter was getting ready to graduate soon near. Therefore, she needed to be in frequent and regular contact with her study group in preparation for the final exams.

* * *

“Keep your eyes shut for a few minutes, just a few, lady, so that the gel on your eyelids dries and stiffens,” said the masseuse. “Open them only when you’re told to do so. In the meantime, inhale deep then exhale slowly to relax yourself a bit,” she went on in a soft voice. After that she tried to remove the freckles on Duyen’s face. “After using this skin care lotion, you’ll have a more sensitive complexion that men love,” she added.

“Thank you very much,” Duyen responded to her witty advice while letting her do her thing.

“This evening, after saying goodnight to his girlfriend and coming back home late as usual, my darling will be greatly amazing when he discovers my new youthful appearance,” Duyen whispered to herself. “He will feel repentant for having given me up so cruelly over the past three years,” she went on. “Then he will hug me tightly to make up for his recent wrongdoings, while our daughter is carrying out her field work together with her classmates in the distant northwestern region. Spending a week by each other’s side, both of us will enjoy lots of happy moments like our early days. Surely, he will stay beside me forever and ever to cherish my thoughtful care for him.”

If she had been honest, Duyen would have to admit it was unlikely her dreams would come true. He remained absent at dinners. He left their cosy nest early. He usually spent his holidays in places far from home. Worse still, once he did not stay at home during the annual death anniversary of his father-in-law with all their close relatives, as he was going fishing. Poor her, that fishing day was a lie!

* * *

“Lady, my work has finished,” said the masseuse who had been treating Duyen. “Oh, my God! You look ten years younger! To improve your appearance further, now I must take you upstairs to the department of ladies’ wear so that you can choose some suitable gorgeous items of clothing. You will really be the dancing queen. Well, have a good time at the dance,” she wished Duyen a pleasant evening before saying goodnight to her.

Leaving the beauty salon, Duyen thought her husband would be greatly surprised, in the same way as her daughter might be. At first, she intended to ring her up but then she deemed it unnecessary for her little girl usually paid more attention to things ancient or rough, so finally she dropped her mobile into her bag.

Looking in the mirror once more before leaving, she found herself not quite herself. The grandfather clock on the wall struck seven sharp in the evening. Crossing the street, she entered a pavement food stall to have a bowl of chicken noodles amid the weird looks of others around. Obviously, this showed that she had lost her beauty over the past twenty years. Leaving her food unfinished, she called a taxi to a fashionable shop to get some more beautiful dresses. But on second thoughts, she changed her mind while the vehicle was on the move and got the driver to bring her home. Getting out, she looked around to see whether there were any souls in front of their houses nearby. Everything was silent. Now it was nearly eight o’clock.

She took out of the fridge some slices of bread, spread some butter and honey on them before baking then she drank a glass of wine. At this moment, the courting couple might be clinging to each other in a suburban guesthouse, she thought. On many occasions, Duyen wanted to go meet her rival to warn her to end the affair so her daughter’s mind would be at ease during her studies. Yet she knew she couldn’t do that. Therefore, everything stayed the same for a long time.

Not until eleven did Duyen’s husband return home with a tired look. She was acting as if she had been watching TV when he silently came to her, face to face. She tried a forced smile. “Do you recognise me?” she said to herself. He stared at her attentively and smiled. He stretched his arms wide so as to invite her for a dance like when she taught him how to dance in university. She felt rather upset. She tried to control her sentiments although she wanted to show them. It seemed to her that it had taken her quite a long time to find out what had been lost.

“What do you say to some music, darling?” she asked.

“Oh, music? We’ve learnt it by heart and now it still stays fresh in our hearts. Well, let’s start playing a few pieces of dancing music, shall we, my dear…”

In his arms she felt as if she was dancing with another man, strange but elegant.

“It’s taken us a long time not to dance together, hasn’t it?” she said.

Looking at the ceiling he tried to hide his emotion.

“Right you are! A very long, long time.”

She skipped just one beat. He pushed her against the wall for her to have a firm support, then stretching his arms round her waist and looking straight at her face, he said in a moved voice, “Over the past three years, I’ve turned into a different man with a special habit: eating only catfish skin and chicken rump that I had never tasted before. All was due to that young woman’s challenging words: ‘Unless you can eat up both of them properly, you’re but a little boy’. I have had to make acquaintance with those weird kinds of food day after day. Through countless experiments, I finally found them fairly tasty.”

“Poor you! I never realised that you led such a miserable life,” she said in a sympathetic voice, putting one of her fingers across his lips. “It turns out that you’ve been terribly tortured by her love-charm.”

Releasing his grip on her body, he went to the cupboard and took out a bottle of brandy then poured out two glassfuls. They drank them up in one gulp.

At the dinner table in the kitchen they chatted and chatted to each other in loving terms for a long while. He showed her his rough hands due to hard work.

“Come what may, you have grown up noticeably,” she remarked.

“In my heart of hearts, I have to see that you look very beautiful tonight. Furthermore, you’ve also matured markedly,” he replied.

After raising their glasses to wish each other good luck and health, he went on sincerely, “You look very stylish too. Also, you’re not so rigid as you were before.”

“Thanks a lot, my darling,” she said.

Then looking her square in the face, he added, “I’m quite happy with your new appearance.” His remarks lifted her to seventh heaven.

“Does he really doubt that I’ve got a new love affair when he finds me elderly and busy with trivial house chores, with my useless waits for his late homecomings for dinner, which I haven’t dared to disclose to anyone?” she asked herself. “Is his praise true or false? Anyhow, I’ve forgiven all his past wrongdoings. Could he become his former self so we can be happy forever?”

In the meantime he just stared at her, which he hadn’t done in a long time.

“I’m quite satisfied that you’ve changed a lot for the better,” he told her. “Frankly speaking, what I was most afraid of was that you would have ruined your life. Now everything will be plain sailing!”

After that he emptied another glass of spirits.

Duyen tried to control herself, to keep her teardrops from coming down. She had been waiting for his commitment to her that he was still in love with her. She burst into tears.

All of a sudden, he pushed her apart, slowly reached the bottle of spirits then poured out another glassful of spirits. He drank its whole contents in one gulp.

Looking at her again, he said in a serious but indistinct voice, “We…we…, oh no no..., I… solely… state that both of us… from now on… had better… take our own

By Ninh Nguyen/ Translated by Van Minh