The latecomers were coming by in a rush, climbing the stone steps to the iron door where a fat lady usher stood, urging everyone to go inside.
At eight sharp, the iron door slammed shut.
The usher stepped aside and cast a faraway vacant look into the night.
There were only a few people left in front of the theatre:
Some peddlers, a young man in military uniform straddling his bicycle with his feet lightly touching the ground, a young girl in a bright pink jacket walking back and forth, and me.
I wasn’t walking back and forth because I wasn’t nervous.
And I wasn’t nervous because I wasn’t waiting for anybody.
I was just unhappy because I couldn’t afford a ticket to hear a famous Russian pianist, an artist I greatly admired.
It was late February, just after Tết, and it was cold and drizzling.
The streets were filled with yellow lights.
The young man left on his bicycle.
The girl lingered, waiting for the man who was supposed to come.
I stood by the iron door, hoping for an angel in the form of a music lover to give me one of his extra tickets.
The girl didn’t have a hat on, and the ends of her curly hair were marked by dew-like raindrops, reflecting all different colours in the lights.
I didn’t look at her long.
I didn’t want to make my interest so obvious.
But when she walked past me I saw a pretty, thin white and graceful form.
A straight nose and deep eyes.
I was absolutely sure she kept two tickets in the handbag she carried by her side, and I asked her for one.
But she said something I wasn’t expecting.
“Do you want to take a walk with me?”
I was twenty-eight, an amateur writer and an amateur romantic, and I was in love with an amateur singer who was becoming more and more well-known after a string of competitions and concerts.
She was pretty too, but there was one thing we did not share.
She didn’t like classical music.
And so I always went to the Municipal Theatre alone, even though I had to go to all those concerts of hers that I hated.
The girl in the pink jacket was a little confused when I had a hard time giving her an answer.
But in a few minutes, we were walking side-by-side down Tràng Tiền Street and around Hoàn Kiếm Lake.
The city was beautiful and quiet.
After some moments of silence, I said:
“You’re waiting for somebody, but he hasn’t shown up, no?”
“I’m waiting for my husband,” she said.
“This happens all the time.
It’s no problem.
I’m used to this sort of thing.”
“And to get even with your husband, you’ve decided to go for a walk with me, a total stranger.”
She didn’t say anything.
I felt awful for what I had just said and I didn’t say anything either.
She was strange, like something out of a work of fiction.
She wasn’t easygoing or adventurous.
There was something very pure about her, and very serious.
Why did this married woman ask me to take a walk with her?
Did she want something?
Who was she and what did she need from me?
The truth was I was very happy just to be with her, a beautiful Hà Nội girl.
I didn’t spend too much time agonising over any of these questions.
We dropped by Thủy Tạ coffee shop and had ice cream.
It was 10.30 when we got back to the theatre.
I offered to take her home, but she refused.
Then she held out her hand and I touched it.
So small and soft and warm.
It was the first time I had touched anything like it.
All this time together and you haven’t asked me one stupid question.
I like people like that.
And I like you.
If you come to the theatre again, I’m sure we’ll meet.
So goodbye and thank you.”
She went and stood at the corner of the theatre and a moment later, a black sedan came by and took her home.
She was a strange girl without a name.
And I was just a strange man without a name as well.
We did talk about some things.
She told me her husband was an important government official, twenty-five years her senior.
Her parents forced her to marry him.
The fact that she didn’t love him didn’t bother her so much as the fact that he made her feel so low.
She came from a well-educated family, but her husband didn’t understand her.
He didn’t respect her or her work.
(I asked her about her job, but she didn’t answer).
When we said goodbye, I felt completely in love, even though we hardly knew that much about each other.
A week later, I saw a production of Giselle staged by a French director at the Municipal Theatre.
And there she was, not in front of the theatre but right on stage, Giselle, a woman who had to suffer so much before she could find happiness.
The playbill said her name was Lệ Trinh.
She had graduated from the Soviet Union’s most famous ballet school in the very city I had studied in years before.
I was amazed and moved and I kept my eyes close on that magnificent goddess throughout the evening.
This woman had actually asked me to go for a walk with her just a few days before and I had actually touched her hand.
After the performance, I stood out of sight in front of the theatre and I saw her, in the same overcoat, with the same tall man in a black suit taking her to the same black sedan.
I could only sigh.
I walked down the street, following the same path we had walked the other day.
The night sky was clear and marked with stars.
I stood forever by the Thê Húc Bridge on Hoàn Kiếm Lake, feeling the vague sense of love.
This love was quite different from the love I felt for the amateur singer.
It was a transcendental love, touched with a feeling of guilt.
She was, after all, a married woman.
A few days later, I went to the theatre for a Beethoven concert, which included the first and sixth symphonies and the Coriolan.
This time I had a ticket.
As I was entering the theatre, I saw her in jeans, leather shoes and a large woolen pullover.
She had run here apparently.
Her face was badly-lined and she was panting.
“Good evening, Lệ Trinh,” I said, trying to hide my emotions.
“You’re not with your husband tonight?”
We walked along the street and stopped by Thủy Tạ again for some coffee instead of ice cream.
We talked about our days in the Soviet Union and this made us feel closer.
But we didn’t say anything about our private lives.
I took her back to the theatre only a few minutes before her husband showed up to take her home.
In the following months, we had many walks together.
She let me hold her hand, but that was it.
Sometimes she asked me about my girlfriend and we talked about my relationship as casually as we could.
Did she love me?
Or was this just some rich beautiful lady’s game?
Sometimes, it was awful to be with her.
But I contained myself.
She was married, and that was that.
I kept a rose with me, but I never had the courage to give it to her.
Then for a long time, she wasn’t around, either on stage or in front of the theatre.
Something strange was happening.
I found out her husband had been arrested (God knows why) and was in some Central Highlands prison.
She had gone to look after him.
I didn’t hear anything more about Lệ Trinh afterwards.
Everything was gone, including my love for her.
I got married and had a child.
My life was smooth and I had nothing to complain about.
I went to the Municipal Theatre on a regular basis and enjoyed any number of concerts and ballets.
But I missed Lệ Trinh.
I felt sorry for what had happened to her.
I wondered where she was now and how she was doing.
One day, I got a letter from America:
I’m sure you don’t remember me.
I’m Lệ Trinh, the woman who walked with you so many times around Hoàn Kiếm Lake some years ago.
Her style was natural and honest:
Now that I am so far away from you, it’s a little easier for me to tell you these things.
I loved you!
I loved you so much on those days we went for walks together and on those days we didn’t meet.
I didn’t want to let you know these things, because I was married and you were still in love.
Though I loved you, I couldn’t forget that I was married and that I had a duty to the idea of marriage.
Besides, I couldn’t rob you from the girl who loved you and whom you loved.
Those days we had together were some of the happiest in my life.
Even though I didn’t love him, I devoted my life to my husband until he died after three years in prison.
I went to America afterwards as a refugee with some friends.
I have a husband and a child, almost everything, except love.
You’re my only love.
If I had any courage to fight the prison of society’s social principles, I would have come to you.
Now that I’ve written this, I have no other wish to disclose my secret feelings.
I didn’t want to and I tried not to write about these things, but I’ve failed.
Please forgive me.
Please don’t write.
There is no need.
It will only make me suffer more.
That letter was dated 1989, fifteen years since I last saw her.
In May 2000, I visited the States with my wife.
Going by the address on the envelope, I went to Lệ Trinh’s house.
I went alone, of course.
I didn’t want to meet her or talk to her.
I simply wanted to see the house where she lived, from afar.
It was a small house, as normal as any of the suburban houses in North Carolina.
It was completely shuttered, but for two windows covered with thin white blinds.
I walked in front of the house.
I sat on a tree stump on the front lawn, and smoked a cigarette.
Then I went back to my hotel.
I got a letter from America last month.
Only a few lines in a man’s handwriting.
According to the deceased’s wishes, I would like to inform you that my wife, Mrs Lệ Trinh, died on … of a heart attack.
She asked me to tell you that she did see you sitting in front of our house, smoking, two years ago.
John Nguyễn Văn Bách
This is the whole story of Lệ Trinh, which I am sure I would never have written if her husband had not sent me that letter.
I have nothing more to say, other than if I am ever in the States again, I will find her grave and place a rose on it, the rose I had never had the courage to give to her.
By THÁI BÁ TÂN (*)
(*) Translated by MẠNH CHƯƠNG