One of the beautiful and unfortunate things in life is not knowing what tomorrow will bring or how long today will last. During an experience, we rarely think that we might miss it someday, so we rarely pause to internalize the moment. Only in retrospect do we regret, and so we invent hope.
If Nhật Lệ had known that there would be one last time with Minh, she would have looked more consciously. She would have asked him to show her his hands so that she could reach for them in her mind. She would have remembered the last thing he said to her. Maybe she would have asked him if she could go with him wherever he went.
For the first few months, she had thought her life had fallen apart. Although she never liked her job, she felt disoriented without it. She was now too weak and confused to pursue the hobbies she had always wanted to have more time for. Her apartment was no longer her home, perhaps it never had been. Minh had been her anchor, her caretaker. Now he had completely disappeared from her life, and she could no longer think clearly or walk straight. Sometimes she felt as if all she was was her heart, which had taken on all her weight. She missed talking to Minh. She missed the sense of understanding and security he had given her. She missed having a place to go to feel "normal" and safe.
She had escaped the world of work, but what would happen now? What would she do with her day when Minh was gone? In the meantime, she was sometimes glad of Toni's noise, because it always distracted her from her destructive thoughts for a short time. But then she didn't sleep, and the less she slept, the darker her world became. The shadow by her bed was now one with her.
During those days, her father often came to visit. He had thought of many things he needed her help with. They both knew that he was only there because he didn't want to leave her alone with her loneliness. She had told him about Minh. They talked about it for hours. Nhật Lệ cried in front of him for hours. She realized that she had never done this before. Even as a child, she had always held back for fear of making him sad.
Her father suggested a plan. If there was one thing he was good at, it was making plans. He wanted to help her find a new place to live.
"You have to get out of this mess," he said as he heard Toni's music playing loudly. Then he wanted to give her the gift of a trip so she could relax and clear her head. "You can't start a new path if you are physically and mentally unstable."
During those days, Nhật Lệ thought a lot about how she had avoided her father all these years. And in the end, he was the only one who stayed with her.
Nothing is final
In January, Nhật Lệ had moved and her father had met someone. Over dinner, he seemed hopeful.
"How are you doing with your newfound freedom?" he asked after they sat down.
"Incredibly well, of course. Everyone should be free. No one should have to work for money," she said theatrically as she looked at the menu. "You look happy! And healthy. That's very reassuring to me. There were times when I was very worried about you."
"I was worried about you too, but I don't have to be anymore."
Her father told her about his new girlfriend he met on Parship.
"Welcome to 2021," she commented jokingly.
She was pleased that he was no longer reluctant to use the Internet outside of work. When the waiter arrived, he, the world's biggest meat lover, ordered a vegan steak with mashed potatoes and beans.
"Father! What's going on here? In the old days, you would have grounded me for this."
Her father laughed.
"You were never grounded!"
Then he sipped his water and said: "I've evolved too. Yes, you can still do that at my age. Opinions change. People change. Everything takes time. Nothing is final!"
Nhật Lệ couldn't help but think of a quote she had learned from Minh: "Trăng có lúc tròn lúc khuyết. Sông Có Khúc, Người Có Lúc," which literally means: "The moon is sometimes round, sometimes crescent. Rivers have stages, people have moments". She thought it was beautiful, and not just because of the sound. She said it out loud and her father looked at her for a moment and smiled. They both felt the invisible bridge between them.
After dinner they went for a walk. Here and there there were still crusts of ice on the ground. Her father took her hand so she wouldn't slip.
"Just like old times," she said. Old times were more than twenty years ago. She didn't even know what his hands looked like now.
"Just like old times," her father repeated. Then they walked side by side in silence for a while.
"Do you think she ever thinks of me?"
She knew that he knew who she meant. Judging by the look on his face, he was relieved that she had finally brought it up. She couldn't even mention her mother as a child for fear of hurting her father.
"I think she thinks about you every day, just like I think about you every day, Nhật Lệ. You're probably wondering why she left? If it helps you, I can tell you about her, about what it was like. Maybe you'll find your answer there.“
They walked on through the cold. Her fingers grew icy with time, but she didn't want to let go of her father's hand, so she held on. He told stories until it got dark.
Đào met Thanh at a poetry slam in Berlin. He had caught her eye as she recited a poem on stage about her relationship with the river in her hometown, the Nhật Lệ. He was crying. His eyes reminded her of the color of the river at sunset. At the end of the evening he approached her. She joked if he was hitting on her because they were the only Vietnamese people in the room. He laughingly replied in the affirmative, but added that he found her writing the most moving of all the speakers and wanted to meet the woman who wrote so passionately about sourdough. They drank red wine, laughed and talked all evening. They found out that they had both come to Germany to study - he had a degree in physics and was already working. She was going to get a doctorate in medicine. When she came home in the morning, she went to bed with her eyes wide open and a big smile on her face. The beginning of something new was in the air and she was confident it would be something great. Her body was tired, but her mind was wide awake, her heart was beating loudly, and she wanted to stay awake to keep the thoughts of the night alive.
They came together. It was a dreamlike romance. They had had other relationships before, but they had never been in love like this. Then she got pregnant, even though they had used double protection. She wanted an abortion because they had only been together three months and she wasn't sure if she ever wanted to be a mother. He suggested that they move in together and get married.
"Because of the pregnancy?" she asked angrily.
"No, not because of the pregnancy. Because of us."
They decided not to get married, but to have the baby and then put it up for adoption if she still didn't want it after the birth. In the middle of her pregnancy, she moved in with him. There, for the first time, she felt trapped by the confinement he and her womb had placed on her.
Nhật Lệ was born, but at that time she was not called Nhật Lệ, just the baby. Đào reminded Thanh of their agreement, as she felt no attachment to the baby and had decided in the final stages of pregnancy that she wanted to live childless. Meanwhile, Thanh had fallen in love with his newborn. He gave her an ultimatum. Either he and Nhật Lệ or Đào would lose him too. Đào left. He gave the baby the name of the river that appeared in the poem whose author he had fallen in love with. At that time, he believed that Đào would return. But she left the country, covering all traces.
For a long time, Thanh didn't understand why Đào didn't decide to live with him, but he learned that you don't get an answer to everything in life, and that the answers are usually different from what you expect. He also learned that you can't hold on to anyone, but the moment he let go of Đào, he too was free.
The One Who Carries Hope
About a year after Minh left, Nhật Lệ had a dream about him. The dream was light and short, and when she awoke she realized that she had not thought about him for a long time. It was as if it was his desperate attempt to remind her that he still existed, that she couldn't forget him. Outwardly, everything had remained the same since he had left, and yet a lot had changed. Meanwhile, she had finished reading "Truyện Tây Du Ký" - "The Journey to the West" by Wu Cheng'en. There was a Vietnamese quote on her mental wall that she couldn't get out of her head: "Không cha, không mẹ như đàn đứt dây" - "Without parents, you are like a guitar with broken strings". Being without parents, or rather without a mother, was one of the things that connected them. It was probably the most trivial but most formative mark Minh had left on her.
After he left, she had asked for his full name and googled it, but all she got was the meaning of the term. His first name was Bình Minh - Dawn. Perhaps he was called that because he was found at sunrise? Or maybe because his appearance - like a new day - was supposed to bring hope.
In the spring, she had decided to explore Berlin. She wanted to get to know the city in which she lived. Some days she walked for hours, only returning home when her feet hurt or she was out of breath. Along the way, she would often stop at the rose bushes along the way and inhale the scent of the flowers. She imagined waking up to that same scent when she finally had her room full of plants. One day. Maybe one day.
She had never found out where exactly he lived now, why he had left without saying goodbye or what she had meant to him - the pagoda only spoke of discretion when she asked about him. But with time, she had learned to accept that he was gone. And the pain he had left behind gradually took on other forms. For a long time she was lonely without him, but with time she felt more and more visible, because she had opened herself to him, because he had seen her.
In her dream they met for the first time. She was attending his lecture on letting go.
"How did you like it?" Minh asked when she introduced herself.
"I loved it!" She answered.
"Will you come again?"
She hesitated, then smiled and nodded.
"Yes, I may come back."
All this, she believed, had really happened. It had all really happened.
Then she woke up. His orange robe was still fluttering in the light before her closed eyes. She decided to go back to sleep.
"Thầy?" she called after him when he had already turned over, "Thank you for everything!"
And then very quietly, so that only he could hear: "Goodbye!"
- The End -