The first time I arrived at his home to teach him Vietnamese I was mildly surprised at the dreamy looks found on the faces of the male deities in the numerous copies he had of paintings from the Renaissance.
He lived in the compound that my girlfriend Cam had rented out to him last year. It was an old villa surrounded by a large flower garden. On the lawn in front of the villa stood a clumsily-sculptured stone statue of a young Hue lady.
"Long ago, Cam’s paternal grandfather fell in love with the beauty of this ancient capital," I explained to Stephano one day. "In order to have a souvenir from that romantic but unsuccessful love affair, he sculptured her in stone and placed it amid the green," I went on. Thanks to this love story, the ugly-looking sculpture soon became attractive and mysterious to the locals.
"For us Westerners, there’s nothing eternal in the strictest sense of the word. Romantic notions like that are no longer relevant," Stephano remarked sadly.
"Why’s that?" he asked me in a curious voice one evening after class.
"The stone statue has been standing there too long. For Asians, we believe that after a very long existence, inanimate things like this sculpture become endowed with a soul like human beings. I can’t stand how it looks at me."
Later, I ran into Cam.
"Three tutors have come here to give him Vietnamese lessons, but they all took leave after a short time. Oddly enough, you’ve managed to conduct this course for over one year now," Cam admitted delightedly. What’s more, this morning he talked to her in Vietnamese: "Good morning, Ms Cam! How are you today? Are you going to the pagoda because, to Vietnamese Buddhist followers, the fifteenth date of the first lunar month is the day to worship the Buddha and deities?"
To put it frankly, my success was due to the fact that most of my lessons were given to him in the open air, during our strolls either in the garden or in the street.
"Miss Nhu, do you know that we Italians are said to have a flair for being either artists or sailors? I’ll belong to the latter for I’m greatly interested in adventures," he said to me one evening while we were walking side by side in the garden. I told him that I had known about his fellow countrymen’s inclination to be adventurous when I was a little girl, thanks to the narratives told by my parents about Marco Polo in the 13th century, who succeeded in making a breakthrough across the invisible and mysterious curtain of culture that separated the Occident from the Orient.
"Well, Miss Nhu. Previously, I thought that Marco Polo went away to look for wealth. But nowadays, I believe that he was attracted by hallucinations about another world," observed Stephano.
"You see, eventually he had to leave China, empty-handed on a sailing boat," I remarked.
"But he was quite happy because he returned home with a beautiful Chinese princess," he said emphatically.
I laughed at his mischief. In fact, that Oriental beauty was not for him. He took her to another kingdom where she became the queen.
"How crazy our Marco Polo was!" Stephano said, looking at me meaningfully. "If I had been him, I would never have let her fall into the hands of another man," he added. I blushed because at the moment I was with him in a small sampan on the Perfume River in the dreamy city of Hue.
Strangely enough, to both of us French was a foreign language, yet we had succeeded in exchanging our opinions on such a delicate matter quite easily.
On Saturday afternoons, there were no classes. That also meant that no strolls would take place between us. I went to the dancing club, exclusive to the fair sex. Many times, Stephano had gone there to look for me. To his surprise, he always found us females dancing together without male partners.
"Is this a lesbian club, may I ask?" he said to me one weekend.
"No, no. Far from it!" I replied, laughing. The main reason is that we young women are afraid of the bad behaviour of bad young men," I explained.
That afternoon, I danced slowly with my best friend Suong.
"How silly you are!" she said to me. "Having clung to that handsome Italian guy for over one year regardless of how other people think, what are you still afraid of? Sooner or later, he’ll return home to his Western skies." I was taken aback: her comment was quite correct.
"You’re still single. However, Suong and me and the others are all married," Cam interrupted. "If our husbands find us dancing with Stephano here, our pastime will come to an end at once. Well, there’s no school today! What has he taken you to this place for?" she asked me. Suddenly, I recognised that he obviously had an exclusive right to accompany and protect me. But when was he entitled to do this?
Once Dad told me the story of my four deceased aunts – three of them had died young – while he was sitting in the veranda, paper fan in hand, pointing at one of the four stupas in the garden.
"The smallest one’s dedicated to your Auntie Sau. One day after her wedding, the bridegroom’s relatives took an earless pig to us as a gift to say thanks. A pig with its ears cut off meant that the bride was no longer a virgin," Dad said to me. "After that she stayed single until her death. That’s the reason why her shrine is that small in comparison with the three others, dedicated to your chaste aunts," he concluded.
"Don’t worry, Dad. Mr Stephano’s a serious man. He always behaves properly with me," I said, smiling.
Actually, Stephano usually stated, "When a couple fall in love with each other, how can they not want to express it physically?" Nevertheless, my female instincts told me that things did not seem so simple.
In an outing on Huong River during the full moon of April, I put a green paper lantern on the water.
"Do you admit that the green lamp on the water looks very cold and sad?" Stephano observed. "I’ll make it warmer," he added. After that he dropped a red lantern close to mine. Both flowed away quietly and slowly on the silvery river. All of a sudden, he hugged me tightly, for he realised that I was on the point of weeping.
"Dear Stephano, when will you go?"
"In August. Frankly speaking, I don’t want to go away alone. What about you?"
That night I accepted his offer of marriage.
On the fifteenth date of the sixth lunar month, Cam rang me up and asked me to go out with her to get some flowers. At the market place, flowers of all descriptions and colours were on display.
I was in two minds: mid-April, I arranged lotus flowers for Stephano; then came marigolds for mid-May; now something else symbolising the tropical summer should be chosen. To my surprise, Cam abruptly gave me a small parcel of thin white paper, inside of which were a few long, black strands of hair.
"This morning, I found them on Stephano’s pillow when my chamber maid was cleaning his room," she told me. "At once, I picked them up and wrapped them in this piece of tissue paper for fear that she would soon discover them. You see, such maid servants are all gossipers. If she knew about your affair, you’d be in trouble," Cam added.
"No! You’re wrong! I’ve never entered his room, let alone slept on his bed," I answered angrily.
The moon shed its silver light on the bony twigs of the jasmines grown along the lanes in the garden, whose lily-white flowers were sending off their sweet fragrance into the air.
Finding me in a white dress, Dad said to me surprisingly, "Where are you going at this hour of the night? Besides, you shouldn’t be in white, for it would be disadvantageous for you," he advised me.
"No problem, Dad!"
I reached Stephano’s house late at night. All was silent. For the first time I came and sat at the foot of the stone statue without anxiety. Suddenly, I heard the rumbles of an engine resounding from afar: he was returning home in his car.
In the moonlight, through her thin cashmere shawl I perceived the familiar face of a woman in black. Then we glanced at each other by chance. In bewilderment, I ran away, vaguely feeling Stephano’s footsteps approaching me. A few seconds later, I collapsed on a puddle full of moonlight, white jasmine flowers scattered over the lane. "Stephano, I’m bringing you some white jasmine flowers," I murmured.
In September of that year, I stayed indoors all day long like a hermit nun. Cam visited me.
"It’s stupid of you to let him go without binding him tightly with a marriage certificate," she reproached me.
"The black long strands of hair you picked up from his pillow that morning were absolutely not mine," I clarified at last.
"Who’s the woman?" she asked me indignantly.
I was silent.
The next month, Suong’s husband abruptly went to Italy to improve his professional skills for one year thanks to Stephano’s support. With her quick-witted mind, Cam soon found out the truth about the affair.
"Anyhow, I’m tired of it, Cam. Let bygones be bygones!"
By mid-April of the next year, Suong’s husband returned home from Italy. When I visited them, I saw them standing in the middle of the rubble waiting for a new house to be rebuilt. Suong dragged me into a hidden corner.
"You shouldn’t have treated Stephano that way. Under the circumstances, you should have forgiven him," she whispered.
I shook my head. In my heart of hearts, I thought that Stephano was not to blame. To me, he was a real seaman. My love affair with him was, in the final analysis, only an adventure.
Before leaving, Stephano came to say farewell to me.
"Can’t you see that I’m a sailor?" he asked.
I stared at him for the last time through eyes brimming with tears. I recognised the puzzled look in his dark blue eyes. For the first time, I felt nothing for him.
Since his departure, I have not heard anything from my Marco. Suong’s husband told me that he visited my Italian student once in his little house on the outskirts of Rome, with a small statue standing in the middle of a green lawn in front of his decent-looking building. When he asked Stephano whom the sculpture portrayed, the Italian answered sadly, "That’s a princess of my memories. Usually, I don’t believe in things like eternity. Nevertheless, so long as this statue remains standing here, it keeps on reminding me of the dreams and regrets that I had left in that far-away Oriental land."