I did not know how my smile appeared. When I looked at myself in the mirror, I found myself to be just like the other kids, that’s all. One certainty was that I had been brought up with great love and care, all to my heart’s content. When I grew up and came of age, I could easily conquer any girl, provided that my attentions went to her. Therefore, my mates said that I was a bit of a Don Juan. At school, numerous pretty girls became targets and I always came away with flying colours.
For Khanh, things did not seem so simple. She had never been my plaything. As a senior in our secondary school, she paid less attention to her looks than her peers. What’s more, she frequently wore poorly tailored dresses that did not match her well shaped body. However, most of us schoolboys watched her passionately whenever she passed by, for she had shoulder-length hair, pale cheeks, a charming face and the eyes of Mother Maria. Every morning, when she passed the school gate, satchel in hands, and then along the corridor, we usually walked the opposite way in order to admire her beauty. Meanwhile, she went straight ahead. Whenever she cast a quick glance at us, we felt as if we had been lifted to heaven.
There was an artistic festival at school with a dance that evening. Half of my class enthusiastically joined the gala. I danced as well as I could – which was quite graceful. Most of the female students wanted to be my partner. Usually, males invited females to dance, but here things evolved contrarily for me: I was always invited to dance by the war girls.
"Cuong, let’s dance the bebop," or " Hey Cuong! Waltz with me," or "Would you mind dancing the cha-cha-cha with me, Cuong?" or "Might I dance with you?" and so many other tempting invitations were showered on me. Whereas Khanh just sat silently and paid no attention to the dances. That evening she wore a white maxi-dress with long sleeves and a high collar. Her complexion was lily-white. Although I was busy dancing with my female classmates, I snuck some glances at her. In her eyes, I detected the burning flame of youth.
"Hey Cuong, I defy you to have a dance with Khanh," shouted one of my chums.
"Which Khanh?" I asked mischievously.
"Don’t be silly! Khanh the Nun, of course. She’s standing alone over there."
"I’m fed up with her negligence."
"Don’t feign, mate! You don’t dare to invite her, do you? Where’s your courage?"
I dashed towards Khanh out of arrogance. To put it frankly, I was a bit nervous while I was approaching her, although I had detected the flame of love in her eyes.
"Thank you! I can’t dance," said Khanh, stepping back a little.
How could I surrender that easily? I seized her hands boldly. The band was playing the tune of the Unchained Melody by Alex North.
"This is a slow dance. I’ll teach you how to do it," I said.
"I don’t want to dance," she refused.
I pulled her again. Unexpectedly, she pushed me violently and shot away.
I stood dumbfounded amid the laughter of the boys. Silently, I left the party out of shame while the words of the song resounded behind me, I need your love. God speeds your love to me.
"What a brazen guy!" my friends said.
"Looking at your face, I feel a bit frightened," Ha said to me one day.
"Your face’s attractive, but a bit cold. It seems to hide something mysterious I can’t figure out. It’s that of the Count of Monte Cristo."
I was taken aback. I never thought that she could be so sharp-tongued.
Those days three of us – Ha, Khanh and me – boarded in Hue to take some college courses. Ha and Khanh resided in a nice and cosy room of a vacant villa under the custody of the Da Nang-based agency of Ha’s father, who was then its head. Meanwhile, I lived in the dormitory of the campus together with a few simple, kind-hearted former classmates coming from needy families. On Saturday evenings, Ha usually made cakes for us, her former co-villagers, to eat. She knew that we often went hungry, for the frugal meals at the canteen just didn’t do the trick.
To be frank, it was very difficult for me to become Khanh’s close friend. She was always reserved and kept me at a distance. None of us dared to touch even her fingers! Ha was poles apart. She often talked loudly like us male students, sometimes with arms akimbo.
"I’m not sure if any guy is bold enough to marry you," I said to Ha.
"Of course, you can’t imagine because my would-be husband must be better than you in all respects," she answered, grabbing at my hair.
Being away from home, I eked out my living by teaching dance at night, contrary to most of my classmates, who became either governors or governesses. Those days the dance movement was in full swing. I asked Ha to attend my dancing class. She agreed enthusiastically. Nevertheless, after many a lesson she remained rather clumsy. I laughed whenever we danced the waltz or the tango because she twisted my hands mercilessly.
"Why hasn’t Khanh come to class to practise with you ?" I asked her.
"Because she was threatened by her parents from her childhood that men are wicked devils. If she kisses males or holds their hands she will be driven to Hell. Dancing with young men and embracing them might make her faint, I thought."
"Sheer nonsense!" I said.
At last Khanh came to my dancing class. At first, she stood outside watching us dance. I told her to stand in line. Hardly had I held her hands when she turned, shooting away.
"You come here to dance, not to play. You must either learn or get out of the class," I warned her the next class. Surprisingly, she joined the line like an obedient little girl. I suddenly discovered that inside the cold and haughty appearance was a tamed mind, always willing to obey the teachings or follow the advice of her elders. Anyhow, here in class I was her instructor.
A mid-May shower abruptly came down. Today, my whole class went to the dancing bar. Khanh, the former girl whose hands I did not dare touch, was now in my arms. The band played Unchained Melody. I held my breath while I danced the waltz with her. Under the dim light, now blue, now pink, I said softly to her, "Khanh, I love you." Owing to the loud music, she did not catch my words, perhaps. Her looks seemed dreamier than ever. Again I repeated my courting whisper and drank from her eyes the virtual blissful beams, the happiness lying between the real and the nihilistic worlds.
Since then Khanh and I had always danced with each other. I tried to create for her a syndrome of dancing addiction that she had never known before. Then after a long time, I did not dance with Khanh any longer. Another girl with thick but inviting lips and long and well shaped legs in a black mini turned up at my dancing class. The newcomer looked more charming than Khanh. I danced with her all the time, now the bebop and now the paso doble. From any corner of the floor, I could recognise Khanh’s sad looks. When the dance came to an end, I told Lan, my new partner, to stop for a rest.
"You looked very tired. Let’s have a rest," I said to Lan.
"No! Go ahead. I’m not tired at all," she implored.
"But this dance is very simple, underneath your skills," I said, caressing her cheeks.
Getting her a glass of Coke, I approached Khanh. She turned away, glancing in another direction. Finally, she stretched out her hands for me to grasp. I waltzed with her in and out and round and round. Light patches spun on her hair and dress, too. Then she started sobbing.
"Khanh, let me kiss you on the forehead," I said softly.
"D’you know what kissing a girl’s forehead means?"
"No, I don’t care."
"It means forever," I said.
Her icy look melted away.
She stared at me, eyes in tears. I kissed her on the forehead and relished the fragrance of the fair sex. She placed her chin on my shoulder. At last, she had been conquered.
"You’re not afraid of Hell any longer, are you?" I asked her in a trembling voice.
"D’you know that when you dance with me, your smiling face looks like that of an angel?" she said to me, eyes getting brighter. "Where there exists an angel, that place can’t be Hell," she added.
That was the last time I did the quickstep with Khanh. Afterwards, I only danced with Lan.
Khanh no longer danced with anyone. She ensconced herself in an armchair under the dim multi-coloured light emitting from the ceiling, watching my footsteps going round and round the legs of my new female partner for a while. After that she went to the corridor.
"What’s the matter?" I asked Ha.
Ha did not answer but went away, whereas Khanh kept on sobbing. I took pity on her.
"I wouldn’t have been this unhappy if you hadn’t have kissed me on the forehead that day," she said, tears trickling down on her cheeks.
"You thought that I’d venerate you all my lifetime, didn’t you?" I asked, looking upwards and laughing. "How innocent you are! Everything that happened on the dance floor that day was merely for fun," I said.
She stopped crying. "It’s either me or Lan," she said. "You must choose."
One day I arranged to visit Khanh in her room. The two of us had the place to ourselves, but before I could kiss her, the receptionist burst in.
When Ha returned to the dwelling-place, everything went well. Khanh returned home while the exam season was in progress. Ha reproached me. "It’s none of your business," I retorted. Then Ha looked for the receptionist. "They only wanted to enjoy a moonlit night without lamps, that’s all," Ha explained to the old woman. "Why did you make such a fuss about it? How can Khanh be bold enough to come to class now?" she went on, criticising her.
"I’d have driven them out of this place that night," she said to Ha. "That day was the last date of the lunar month. How could they find the moon then? What else were they doing when they stayed alone in a dark room?" she added. "I’ve known your type for a long time," Ha said, pointing at me.
"Really? I’m afraid that that won’t do," I replied stubbornly.
Four days before her exam date, Ha went to Da Nang to bring Khanh back to the campus. Khanh came to class only one morning ahead of schedule. Bad rumours and teasing remarks showered down on her at random and eventually she could not stand them all. Only Ha took pity on her. I felt worried for Khanh too, but I could not give up my fight. Ha led me to their room: Khanh was there, hair unkempt and eyes closed.
"Khanh, I’ll stay outside, at the corridor, so that you both can talk to each other freely," Ha said to her roommate. I proceeded to Khanh. Her eyes were brimming with tears when she saw me. I looked in another direction. She nervously held my hands and placed them on her thin chest.
"Oh my God, I’ve been greatly worried for you! I was afraid that you couldn’t stand it," Ha confessed.
"What am I afraid of?" I asked her.
"I’m now at the bottom of the abyss, Cuong. What I’ve got here is you, you alone." Saying so, she hugged me tightly. "I’ll give you what I possess, because I haven’t got anything else to keep. Give me your hand and save my life, dear." Her eyes looked vacant, her lips were swollen and wet. I had been waiting for this moment for a long time. Precisely speaking, it was the moment she was completely defeated. Nevertheless, I did not need her offer. What I was badly in need of from her was her status of slavery, not her body.
"Well... you want us to enjoy the moonlit night again!" I said smiling.
Hearing that sarcastic comment, she shrank herself up.
"Now, please listen to me. There was no love lost between you and the guy that you spat at that day," I said to her coldly.
"Oh dear! Ha told me you were merely a rascal, but I didn’t believe it!"
"Yes, Ha’s right. I’m only a wicked man. Now my ambition has been fulfilled. Goodbye!" Saying so, I turned and walked away.
"May God forgive you. You’ve poured honeyed words into my ears and now you push me into this abyss," Khanh cried out with a choking voice.
I did not want to hear Khanh’s laments any longer. My love affair with her had come to an end. Meanwhile, Lan was waiting for me. The next week, she stole a considerable sum of money from her parents and went as far as Hoi An with me by motorbike. Three days later, she complained that she was unhappy with this boring old town, because here there was neither nightlife nor dancing bars. We travelled farther to the city of Da Nang. Staying in a hotel, I found life dull. I had an impression that I was running away rather than enjoying a week in love. As a fashion fan, Lan spent most of her time shopping. One morning, back at the hotel, she showed me a miniskirt with frayed edges.
"Is there any mini that looks more ragged?" I asked her.
Suddenly, I heaved a sigh. "I want to return to Hue," I told her.
"I find life here’s boring. What’s more, I’m afraid that I will be accused of having seduced you into leaving home."
"Sheer nonsense! It’s I who enticed you, " she declared.
That night, lying beside Lan I dreamt of Khanh. When I returned, she, in her white dress with a high collar and long sleeves, dashed towards me. I embraced her as if nothing wrong had happened between us. I danced the waltz with her according to the tune of the Unchained Melody.
When I woke up, I realised that my anger had gone. Now what stayed in my heart was my love for Khanh. Tomorrow morning, when I returned home to Hue, I would go at her home first. I knew that she no longer believed me. Notwithstan-ding, a rain would come down as it had happened to us previously. It would wipe away her sufferings and hatred and protect us.
When I knocked at her door then opened it, I found Khanh sitting motionless in an armchair, glancing at me with a radiant and benevolent look, without any trace of anger or hatred. To my surprise, her face seemed disinterested. I knelt down before her. That was the first time in my life I had done so. I stretched out my arms.
Later, Ha let me know what had happened that day when she stayed outside their room to prevent anyone from disturbing us so that we might chat freely.
"Sitting in the corridor," she said, "I watched over the meeting between Khanh and you while I was looking at the lawn in front of me. From the bottom of my heart, I knew that you treated her mercilessly, although I hoped that at last she would find a bit peace in your arms.
"When you had gone out, I entered the room. I found Khanh’s face deformed: she was no longer herself after only one hour. Without saying a word, nor crying, she was pacing the floor, from corner to corner. Her countenance looked calm as usual. Afterwards, she went out. About two hours later, she returned to our apartment with a small bag in which there was glass bottle containing some light yellow liquid," Ha said.
"’What did you get in that bottle?’ I asked her. ‘Sulphuric acid,’ she answered in a calm and raucous voice. ‘What are you going to do with it?’ I asked. ‘I’ve pondered over the matter very carefully. Now I’ve got a special mission: to destroy his angelic smile so that no other girls will be driven to Hell by that charisma,’ Khanh answered coldly," she said.
"In the end, she didn’t do it, but I watched her carefully that night. The next day she looked miserable. She told me that she couldn’t live without you. She even proposed that I marry you, but I said no," Ha said.
Ha emptied the bottle of acid on the floor in front of me. The tiles cracked. I stared at the broken tiles dreadfully. Under my eyes, those cracks were broadening, wider and wider, like the paths leading to the underworld.
One year later, I married Ha, to the surprise of everybody. Such a handsome lady-killer as me, how could I resign myself to marry a stubborn and plain girl like her? Many said that that was the paradox of love. Some other wicked people maintained that I was really a wise guy, for I could enjoy both Khanh’s innocence and beauty and Ha’s cleverness and enterprise.
Khanh’s legacy was quite heavy indeed. For many years after, Ha was a devoted wife. However, I knew that she was only a temple made of rudimentary bricks containing an alter to Khanh.
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