Nhật Lệ usually went hiking alone. Her idea of a hike, however, was a walk through the city, where it was bright and lively. She loved nature and would like to be alone with it more often, but as a woman, she always had to hope that she wouldn't run into anyone who might want to harm her. But she didn't have to worry about that today. The pagoda visitors were organizing a day trip to the Chorin Forest, and Minh was with them. At their last meeting, she and Minh had talked at length about her mother, or what Nhật Lệ would like to know about her. The later it got, the more melancholy the conversation became. She told Minh how much it hurt her self-esteem and basic trust that her mother didn't want her, that she never seemed to miss her. She wondered how her mother could have allowed them to never see each other again.
"When she left, she left me with loneliness. I was never complete without her."
Minh didn't say much. He just kept looking at her and the ground until it was time for Nhật Lệ to leave.
As they were walking, they didn't speak. They all wanted to give space to the trees and the silence. Nhật Lệ's eyes followed the sun. The Tyndall Effect made the forest even more magical than it already was. She noticed that people walking around seemed much more authentic than those in museums. Although she loved the visual arts, she didn't like going to museums. Apart from the bad air in winter and the sometimes overwhelming size of the buildings, she was afraid of some of the visitors she met there. There was a certain posture that certain people took when they stood in front of a painting: Head tilted to the side, dreamy face, slight smile. When Nhật Lệ first noticed this, she wondered what was so romantic about the image of a crucified man. But then she followed the people with her eyes and noticed that they showed the same facial expression in front of each picture. She often heard older men explaining their interpretation of the paintings to their wives, loudly emphasizing why the artist was brilliant. "He was ahead of his time!" they would say.
"Are you feeling better?" asked Minh, suddenly standing in front of her. She hadn't heard him coming because she had been walking alongside the group for a while, lost in thought. Now he was standing in front of her, the sun shining in his eyes, and Nhật Lệ realized that she had never looked into his eyes before. Only now did she realize how brown they were. She thought of the desert and the sea at sunset. She could see her own face in them.
"Better, yes. Good, no. As for my family, I'll never be well."
It wasn't the first time she realized that people like her could never be completely happy.
A house full of houseplants
One Friday in July, they were in the kitchen cleaning up. He was washing and she was drying. As the evening wore on, she noticed his mental absence. She assumed he was thinking and didn't want to disturb him, so she kept quiet as well. Suddenly he asked: "What's it like to live outside?"
"Outside?" she asked, stopping her drying.
"Yes, life outside the pagoda. What's it like?"
There had been times when she had wondered if he had ever thought of that question, and there had been times when she had imagined he would ask her, but now that it was happening, she was surprised and overwhelmed.
"Hard," she began, "hard and scary." That was one of the reasons she always hid here on Friday nights. So she wouldn't have to face reality. To make life seem less hard and scary. "I hope you'll be spared all this," she added jokingly.
"What exactly am I supposed to be spared?" he asked. By now he was just holding the sponge and looking at her seriously. She thought about what she was afraid of, what he didn't know: The uncertainty of what to become - it's not enough to be, you also have to do something, preferably something you're particularly good at, but also something meaningful and fulfilling; looking for an apartment in Berlin; the fear of not belonging anywhere; falling in love, the absence of love, unrequited love; applying for a job; going to work; life coaches; self-promoters...
"And what are the beautiful things?"
That's hard to answer, she thought. He might think she was more involved in normal life than he was, but that wasn't true. She hid behind a wall, avoiding anything she didn't know, for fear of alienating herself or getting hurt. While he had grown up in the pagoda and had been raised as a monk, she herself had preferred to stay in a capsule because the big life was too uncertain for her. Maybe they would never experience normal life. He didn't want to and she couldn't.
"I can only tell you what is beautiful in my mind. Would that be okay?"
He looked at her, nodded, and she continued, "A house full of houseplants. You don't have to do anything all day except take care of the plants and write short poems about each one. When visitors come, they can take a plant and a poem with them. That's how you live, and if you're lucky, you'll find another person who wants the same thing."
From the look on Minh's face, Nhật Lệ could see that he was not satisfied with the answer. At the same time, she thought that he understood her at that moment. They looked at each other in silence and she suddenly felt completely different. She had been in bed with men before, but she had never felt so close to anyone.
Lunch and Small Talk
When her team invited her to lunch the first week, she said yes, even though she was never comfortable in groups. While she thought most people found her open and interesting, she was terrible at small talk and often afraid of boring people or saying the wrong thing.
"What did you do before?" Ada asked her after they had placed their orders. Ada seemed very confident and was the most likeable of all to Nhật Lệ.
"I actually studied physics, but after graduating I switched to marketing and have been working there for the past two years," she replied shyly. "This is my second job."
"Why did you change jobs?" asked Moritz, sitting across from Nhật Lệ. She had been asked a similar question at her job interview and had memorized the answer. She babbled on about personal growth and how promising the new company was for her. She briefly wondered if this made her seem inauthentic, but it seemed inappropriate to explain that she had felt uncomfortable at her previous company.
"Was the old job in Berlin too?" asked Vera, with whom Nhật Lệ felt a little uncomfortable because Vera liked to touch her counterpart when she spoke.
"Yes, it was in Berlin too," Nhật Lệ quickly replied, hoping that the interview was over and she would no longer be the center of attention. But Ada took advantage of the brief silence to ask her the question she always found very difficult to answer: "Why did you study physics and work in marketing? Isn't it much better to work in science? It pays better, doesn't it?"
Ada was probably right in theory, but Nhật Lệ didn't get to find out. While writing her master's thesis, she had applied for almost every job. She wanted to work quickly to pay off her student loan, which she had taken out out of a desire for independence. She had accepted the first offer in Berlin: a marketing internship, which had now brought her here. Her new colleagues seemed pleased with her answer.
Over dinner, Nhật Lệ learned that Vera was married with two children.
"Are you married too?" asked Vera. Looking at Ada and Moritz, she added, "I already knew you two were single."
"No. I'm only 26 years old," Nhật Lệ replied.
"Well, but people get married relatively early in your country, don't they? It's kind of a status symbol there."
Ada gave Nhật Lệ a quick, meaningful look. Before she could respond, Vera asked: "Do you speak the language?"
"Speak yes, write no."
She thought about Minh and his book. A slight feeling of longing came over her, but she quickly repressed it.
When the leaves changed colors
When autumn came, Nhật Lệ realized that she had missed the whole summer. Since starting her new job, the only time she hadn't been in front of the computer was when she was visiting Minh or sleeping, but she hadn't gotten to sleep often enough. She had stopped counting how many unimportant meetings she had been to, how many search engine optimized texts she had written and how many graphics she had created. And all this just to make people want to consume even more. Nhật Lệ knew from the beginning that the job wasn't right for her, that she wouldn't enjoy the activities very much, but here she also realized that she wasn't very good at it. Everything she had created had been done without passion. Everything had to be done quickly. She had to get a lot done in a very short space of time. There was no room for creativity or emotion. During those days, she felt neither herself nor her work.
In the first week, Moritz said:
"At some point, I decided to go down this path, so I'm going to continue on it. A change always means that you have to start all over again. It's difficult to move up."
She had thought about it at the time and briefly adopted his point of view. She thought that perhaps he was right, that all things can only be good if you devote enough time and passion to them.
The days passed. Her neighbor Toni was still very loud. By now she went to bed so late that she was hardly bothered by the noise. The shadow in her bedroom still haunted her from time to time, usually between Toni's house parties and her falling asleep. By now, she was quite good at ignoring it. Work and the fear of not getting everything done before the deadline worried her more than the sad shadow next to her bed. The only time she hadn't felt exhausted and tense was when she was with Minh, but instead of every Friday, she only came rarely and irregularly. Minh didn't complain. He never commented on her absences either. He accepted everything, while she longed for the old days and suffered alone.
She had avoided her father since their last lunch together. He had written to her a few times suggesting meetings, but each time she declined the invitation with some excuse: she was tired and needed to catch up on sleep; she had a team event; she had other engagements... She felt guilty for not wanting to see him, but with the stress she was under, a confrontation with her father would have been of no benefit to her or him.
When she first noticed that the leaves outside had changed to warm colors, she also noticed that she had lost quite a bit of weight.