In October, Nhật Lệ fell ill. Although she was plagued by exhaustion, headaches, and body aches for most of the day, she continued to work from home. Not being very efficient, she took forever to complete her tasks. One day her father called and she was so distracted that she told him in one sentence that she had changed jobs, was now sick, and was still working. He was determined to come and see her.
"No, no, no! You don't have to! I could have the Corona virus. I don't want to infect you!" she protested.
"I've had three shots and I've already had Covid. I'll also wear a mask the whole time and keep my distance. I'll also bring my air purifier."
"And what about your work?" she interjected, hoping his sense of duty would stop him.
"I'm on vacation. Don't worry about it. I'll be with you in an hour," he said calmly and hung up.
In the midst of unfinished business and physical discomfort, she still had to tidy up the apartment. After all, she didn't want him to see her like this: The laundry rack was full, the dishes hadn't been washed, there was dust everywhere, the bedclothes needed to be changed... Just as she was about to put the vacuum cleaner away, the doorbell rang. She put on her mask and opened the door. Her father seemed to be packing for a long stay. She sighed to herself and let him in.
"You're nothing but skin and bones! Don't you eat enough? What's wrong with you?"
"It's not so bad, Dad. Unfortunately, I still have to work."
"Work? Did they make you do that? How can you work in this condition? Your eyes are all red. Your face is as pale as the wall. You look like you could fall over at any moment."
He then unpacked a delivery bag and placed the contents on the table next to her laptop.
"Eat something first, then I'll call the on-call doctor. We'll put you on sick leave so you can rest properly."
Nhật Lệ knew it would have been pointless to argue, so she dutifully ate the soup, drank the ginger tea he had prepared for her, and rubbed eucalyptus oil on her temples as he had recommended.
That evening, they sat on the sofa watching Interstellar. Suddenly her father stopped and asked:
"Why didn't you ever tell me you changed jobs?" At first, Nhật Lệ pretended not to hear him, then she looked at him and looked away. He waited patiently.
"I never know how to say anything to you. I've never learned how to talk to you. Sometimes I'm afraid of hurting you or disappointing you, just with who I am or what I do."
Her father looked at her and shook his head: "Nhật Lệ, you could never disappoint me. Hurt me, yes, but never disappoint me, okay?"
Five weeks passed without Nhật seeing Lệ Minh. When she was feeling well again, she wanted to surprise him every day, but then she always had to work long hours, and in the evenings she didn't have the energy to do so. On weekends, she had appointments with either her father or Ada, but she was often so exhausted and slept too late that it wasn't worth the long drive. If Minh had a cell phone or a computer, she could have written to him, but as it was, it was like he only existed in her head. During the time she couldn't talk to him, she had started learning Vietnamese through YouTube. The first thing she wanted to do was write him a letter or a poem. He'd be so surprised and impressed, she thought. As she realized that she didn't have access to her roots, but longed for them, she regretted the years she had missed learning about them. She realized that she had spent her whole life trying to suppress the fact that she looked Vietnamese because she didn't like feeling different. When she entered high school, she began to distance herself from Vietnamese food or clothing to avoid being ridiculed and ostracized. She stopped visiting Vietnamese friends or speaking the language. She always felt she had to choose one of two identities: Vietnamese or German. Hoping to be accepted and liked, she chose the German identity. But she remained an outsider.
In early November, Ada quit her job. In the whole company, she was the only one Nhật Lệ liked to be around. In that short time, a friendship had developed between them. The thought that she would soon be gone made Nhật Lệ very sad.
"We'll keep in touch," Ada said.
"It is not the same," Nhật Lệ replied.
For Ada, it was her first job out of college. She never really wanted to go into marketing, but as a humanities graduate like Nhật Lệ, she had to take the first job offered to her.
"When it comes to that, Berlin is a tough place!" Ada said.
Now, after only a year, she moved to an NGO, but had to move to Cologne.
"That way I don't have to feel guilty about contributing to the end of the world every day."
Nhật Lệ was worried when she realized there wasn't much for her to do at the company without Ada. The work itself was exhausting and grueling. She either didn't have access to other colleagues or didn't want to get involved with them, especially the male colleague who had offered her a massage too often. If only she could do some good with her work, but the opposite was the case. As Ada had put it, she was contributing to the end of the world. And she was the first to risk going under.
There were a number of experiences that Nhật Lệ wished she hadn't had, such as flying off the swing at the age of three because her neighbor pushed her too hard; or having to explain to the whole class why she couldn't write an essay about her mother at the age of ten; she also wished she hadn't had a notorious liar as her first boyfriend. But she had come up with explanations for certain things so she could deal with them better.
But one day she decided she wasn't going to let things just happen anymore. She no longer wanted to see her life as a series of events that happened to her and for which she had to find explanations later. She wanted to take action.
It started with stomach pains, which at first were occasional, then became more frequent, and finally just became a part of her. At the same time, she had the feeling that she could not breathe properly, her chest was constantly tense; exhaustion was the strongest feeling she carried with her every day. At first she thought it was the adjustment to the new job, but the fatigue, heaviness, and tightness in her stomach became more intense the longer she was at the new company. She felt trapped in a spiral. Fear prevented her from escaping the spiral.
One morning she was standing at the door of her office. She had been sick all the way here. Still, she forced herself to go to her desk, turn on the computer, and take the daily conference call. After the call, we began. Before she could hang up, she was startled by a clatter: the phone cord had tangled with the spoon in her coffee cup, sending the full cup crashing to the floor. She left the shards and stared at the dark brown liquid spreading across the light floor. Her name sounded in the background. She began to shake and sweat. She stood up, but was in danger of losing her balance, so she reached for the swivel chair with her right hand to sit back down. When she found it, she just held on to the back and started panting. She felt like she couldn't breathe, like she was suffocating. Meanwhile, some colleagues came and gathered around her. Someone grabbed her arm, another gently shook her shoulder. She heard words, but couldn't process them.
Then everything happened very quickly. She barely noticed as she walked into her boss's office and asked to speak to him. They sat down at the table where they had signed the employment contract and talked. Then she went out, said goodbye to everyone and went home. She lay down and fell asleep immediately.
There are a number of experiences that Nhật Lệ was glad to have had. Quitting was one of them.
One afternoon in November
It was early afternoon when Nhật Lệ woke up. The view from her window made it seem like spring, even though the year wasn't over yet. She felt the need to get out of the house, let the sun shine on her skin, and laugh with someone. Minh came to mind. She wanted to tell him her news. Her scary and liberating news.
After showering, she dressed and went to the train station. She was rarely in such a good mood, even though she felt physically weak. She began her story by saying that he would see her every day in the future and asked if he could practice reading Vietnamese with her. She had packed his book, Truyện Tây Du Ký. The text was very difficult to read, especially because the language was not suitable for everyday use. The only reason Minh gave her the book, she thought, was because it would teach her a lot about Buddhism.
She stopped in front of the pagoda and took a deep breath. It was as if she was coming home. Only now did she realize how much peace Minh had brought her lately. Since she had met him, she felt less alone. She went inside. Everything seemed normal. Since it was forbidden to speak out loud in the pagoda, she searched for Minh only with her eyes. She walked through the rooms, into the courtyard, into the kitchen, but he was nowhere to be seen. Then she decided to sit in front of the altar and wait for him.
Almost an hour went by without anything happening. By now her excitement was waning and she was beginning to worry. If only she could call him. Then an elderly lady, unknown to Nhật Lệ, came out of the back room. When she saw Nhật Lệ, she said: "A Di Đà Phật.“
Nhật Lệ returned the greeting. After a moment of hesitation, she asked the lady about Minh.
"Thầy Minh?" the lady repeated. "He is no longer here!"
At first, Nhật Lệ just heard "He is not here" and asked when he would be back. But the lady told her that Thầy Minh had returned to Vietnam. She didn't know why. When would he come back, Nhật Lệ asked again.
"Coming back?" the lady repeated. "He's not coming back!"
In the time Nhật had known Lệ Minh, she had never thought about the possibility that he might leave. She thought she could come to him every Friday, eat with him, and talk about life and the world. What happened now was not in her calculations. For a moment, she thought she was dreaming.
For hours afterwards, she refused to accept that he had left without saying goodbye. He had never warned her, never prepared her mentally. There was no sign that he was only temporarily in the pagoda. And now... how could she contact him? Who could she ask for him? What was she doing on Friday nights now?