The Kiss from the Past
The summer that year was golden sunny. The sky appeared blue, with radiantly bright flowers
blooming all over. Taking advantage of a training course in Paris, Le went to the south to live with Julien''s family for a week. Julien drove Le to their home from the railway station of the crowed city of Saint Etienne. The village of Saint Joseph was situated half-way up a mountain. The car had to wind around some really sharp bends, which made Le groan because she was suffering from car sickness. A window was formidably carved in front of the stone house and several magnificent flower baskets were hanging there. Julien stopped. He got out of the car and helped Le stagger into the house. Her face was deadly pale. She fell into Julien''s mother''s arms, and with a terrified hoarse voice asked for permission to faint.
Le knew Julien when he was still a young man full of dreams, searching in Vietnam only because he had been jilted in love. Julien said that he had been secretly in love with a Vietnamese girl whose name was ''Autumn Water'', but Le guessed that it was ''Thu Thuy'' (which means Autumn Water in Vietnamese). After learning that she had become engaged to someone else Julien traveled the path to Vietnam alone with a broken heart. That year he was only twenty-three and Le was a first year college student at the School of Medicine. Once when Le went to the bookstore she accidentally met the skinny young man, wearing a simple shirt with a dark elastic band, and turning the pages of a French book, completely engrossed in its contents.
“Hello! You are French, aren''t you?”, Le directly asked, not taking any verbal precautions. “I am studying French! I would like to practice with you.”
“Hello!”, the skinny young man said without very much enthusiasm. “I don''t like to have to speak French. I want to practice Vietnamese with you”.
“That''s also OK, so we can teach each other”, Le enthusiastically said. “Have you been in Saigon very long yet?”
“It also depends on whether you are attractive enough or not!”, the frenchman provokingly declared, still answering in an indifferent voice.
Le unbelievably looked at the foreigner. Realizing that she had been offended she turned away and left. Le was pulled back as she exited the door.“I was only joking!”, he said. “I have lived in Saigon for a long time. When I run out of money, then I''ll go back to France! And you?”
That evening her grandfather bewilderedly saw Le leading a ''western boy'', and asking if perhaps he could live with them. Seeing Le''s enthusiastic eyes and the legitimate reason of wanting to study French, he happily accepted, but he said the reality is, “the young man must pay for his food and laundry!” The price was so cheap for a clean room. Julien was already definitely ''secretly excited'', but he continued to walk back and forth in the neat house, apparently thinking. The elderly man left and went outside in the yard to water the plants, leaving his grandaughter alone and excited about the agreement of the western boy she had picked up.
Finally, Julien went out to a short alley and got some fresh air. Smacking his lips he said, “your home is really centrally located, but is in a quiet area. It is convenient for my work.”
Le believe that in a few more days Julien moved in, and suspect it was about two hours that her grandfather gaped open mouthed at seeing the small stooped skinny boy laboring to carry a suitcase on a bicycle saddle arrive and ring the doorbell. Le, restraining a laugh, looked at Julien untie the elastic band fastening the suitcase and said, “greetings, you have come to our humble home.” Le then gracefully inclined her head and said , “my grandfather and I are pleased to have you as a member of our family” (in French).
Julien made a radiant bright smile. He tried to restrain from congratulating Le for ''speaking French so literature, no need to practice more’ After struggling to carry his suitcase into the room, Julien thought he was in a dream in the middle of the day.
But just a few days later Julien knew that everything for him had a price. Le raised his head to wake him up early, demanding that they practice some vocabulary about physical exercise and vegetation together, so he again felt dizzy because of the sports and vegetation.
During the summer, when she didn''t have to go to school, Le lead him everywhere as she pleased. Each of them rode by bicycle, leaving Saigon, entering Cho Lon, and going to Ba Chieu. When they came home tired out her grandfather had their meal prepared and waiting for them. While they ate Le continued to torture Julien non-stop. There were times when Le would suddenly roll over sick, which made Julien joyfully brighten up. But just having escaped the grandchild, he would fall into the hands of the ''AWFUL'' grandfather. The old man had been educated in the French schools during the time of the French colonization, so he spoke fluent French, conjugating the verbs carefully, and made Julien consternated. He discussed the literature of Racine''s time and politics. He talked about all the technology revolving around the Concorde Airplane, even speaking about it in a thoroughly detailed manner.
Julien was uncomfortable with the man and his grandaughter like this .... Why not practice French together? What will entice him to come home? Almost always close to each other for several months, Le was willing to teach Julien Vietnamese, but never stopped being uneasy as to why he liked Vietnam to this level, ‘to stay, but be unwanted‘, with no tangible purpose.
“Because in a past life I was Vietnamese”, Julien offered as the solution,. “I want to reserve my time in Vietnam for my work.....”
“What work?”, Le bewilderedly replied. “I don''t see you doing anything.”
“Do you follow, ''possessing'' me from dawn to dusk?”, Julien said angrily, “without leaving me any tranquil time to work?”
“But what work?”, Le jerked her legs impatiently. “What work?”
“Writer!”, Julien suddenly avowed.
Le gaped at Julien. He burst out laughing and bowed his head embarrassed, knowing that he didn''t have the appearance of a writer. Le teased the ‘writer’for some time until he became crazy and chased her all over. Le promised that she would make a plot for him to compose, “but you must make me the model for the woman''s personality!” Julien said frowning, “so who would want to read my story? The woman''s personality would be a female frog, croaking night and day, torturing everyone until they were deaf in both ears. With an ugly frog with a round fat buttock like that only an ''ABSURD'' name would be suitable. “What could I call it, ''Autumn Water’?” Le gave out a cry of retaliation, “so it''s more worthy than a southern personality who is a shrunken lizard, thin as a rail, like you!”
For six months they were next to each other in an empty, but noisy home because of many quarrels that didn''t separate them in victory or defeat. When Julien was summoned back to France by his parents, he lost his chance to tell Le that he loved her. She had laughed at the person, without ever declaring her love for the writer who still didn''t have a single written work in print, and that at the end of the month owed food money to her grandfather. Up till now Le was very young, and so also was Julien.
The sun had already risen high. Le rose up and saw a sweet streak of sunlight pass through a crack in the narrow window. She opened the window and looked out into the garden. Charles was watering several patches of tomatos, and the fat cat, ''Titi'', was rubbing against his leg coddling himself.
“Hello miss!”, Julien''s brother merrily called out. “Did you sleep well? Have you seen the patches of beautiful tomatos I have planted yet?”
“Hello!”, Le clumsily took her hand and stroked a band of hair she hadn''t had a chance yet to comb. “Let me change clothes. Then I''ll go out to the garden to pick tomatos with you!”
“Fast!”, Charles said excitedly. “If not, the greedy cat, Titi, will eat up all of the tasty tomatos!”
Le rapidly went into the bathroom. When she walked out, Julien''s mother gave her a glass of fresh country milk that was just milked from Lucien, the cow, that morning.
Charles shouted out Le''s name again. She ran rapidly out to the garden with a resounding smile. While both of them were sitting and pecking at the sweet graceful lot of lovely tomatos on one secret bush, Julien came rushing up unexpectedly. He raised Le''s hand for her to stand up, then told Charles that today he had planned to take Le to the top of the ''Virgin Mary'' hill. Charles did not object as he winked and wished Le to enjoy herself. Then he stood up holding a hoe and continued to take care of some of his tomato beds.
Le followed Julien, walking up the worn shady green path lined with shade trees. Each moment they both ascended further up the high hill. This time was really an effective period. Having met Julien again after being separated for ten years, Le realized that he had entirely changed. Ever since Julien had said ‘so long’ to her grandfather, his grandaughter and the quiet empty home in Saigon, they had written to each other. Julien lamented that he missed Vietnam a lot, and Le groaned that his absence made the house even more spacious. But already some letters were answered more gradually, or they only connected with each other on special occassions such as Christmas or New Year, as it suited them. A card, some short lines of news. Julien had planned to return to Vietnam many times to look for work, but now Julien had a girl friend and she didn''t want to go to a distant country. Last year, when Le informed him that her grandfather had passed away, Julien sent his condolences and let her know that he had become a pilot with a not very famous aviation company. He often took charge of several flights between different European countries. Julien avowed that he still hadn''t stopped remembering Vietnam and hoped that one day he could fly the long stretch of road from Paris to Saigon.
“Le! Do you need to rest a little?”, Julien stopped and offered. “It''s still about one kilometer more to reach the hill''s summit where there is a statue of the ''Virgin Mary''.”
“I agree!”, she said. Instead of only waiting, Le sat down leaning on the foot of a tree beside the road. The scenery was very beautiful! Really tranquil, quite different from animated Saigon.
Julien sat beside Le. The two of them listened attentively to the sound of the birds chattering and breathing unbroken clear air with their tense thoraxes. From the time that Julien lead Le home he only exchanged views with her a little and saw her as a friend of the family, but not as someone special to him. Le knew Julien had been renting an apartment and living together with his girl friend in lively Lyon for several years. He could not invite her to his private home, so he took her to his parent''s home. He asked for time off to have time to spend with Le, but every evening he drove to Lyon to visit his girl friend.
Strangely, Le was not angry because she was left behind, but to the contrary she saw the appearance of him paying attention to his girl friend as really loveable. Surely his girl friend was very pleasant, and Le also unexpectedly realized that Julien was very sentimental with his parents and brother, different than with bands of selfish young western men here.
“Why do you live by yourself in such a large house?”, Julien voiced. “I often want to return to my apartment to look at your grandfather''s garden plants. There I wrote several short stories for the first time .....”
“Why did you give up your dream of becoming a writer?”, Le said, turning to see Julien concentrating, “but I like you this way more, a pilot, how stately”.
Julien burst out laughing. He endured Le''s obvious radiant eyes rushing to the ground, then lifting up back to the road, over her private orgasm. Ten years before, Le would not at all, in any circumstance, imagine being ‘turned on’ over the skinny weak young man carrying a small suitcase filled with books and strapped to his bicycle. How time had awesomely changed him! Julien appeared self-confident, with radiant eyes that were both hard and soft. His wide well developed chest swelled behind his shirt, and his arms were solid. Le concentrated on admiring his soft dark brown hair, a halo of intelligence, his eyes sparkling with the color of a chestnut seed. His mouth was a little small and grave looking, and his chin stuck out properly. The Julien of ten years later appeared in a manner that made Le clearly feel attracted to his external appearance, which made her ''rock the island''.
“Why haven''t you returned?”, Le whispered. “Grandfather and I had been reminded many times of you.”
“Having graduated from the value of a walk, if I returned to Vietnam what work could I find there….?”, Julien asked.
“But I will not let you into the house if you bring your girl friend”, Le said.
Julien shook his head and laughed, “throughout all of the past ten years I haven''t had a single girl friend to share my passions of Vietnam with. For that reason I should have a Vietamese girl friend....”
“I haven''t lived alone always after my grandfather died”, Le sighed, “I divided the house in two and left a foreigner rent one half. That district then was very splendid .....”
“Surely in the past you belittled me as unstable and without a future. Every month it seemed that I waited for my family to send me money, and I were skinny and very wreched, right?”, Julein said, trying to produce a big smile, but his voice sounded a little bitter.
“I loved you very much ....”, Julien said.
“Is that so?”, Le smiled. “I never believed that Julien truly loved me. In those days I didn''t yet know what love was. I thought you were romantic, so very lovable. That''s all ....”
Julien smiled vaguely. These days Le certainly knew how to speak more gently, properly and gracefully than the shrewish girl that Julien knew. Twenty-eight years old, owning a house in a district near the center of the city, and having acquired an important position with a foreign company, Julien was certain Le had very shining desireable eyes, but she worriedly looked at him and said, “how can I look for someone to love me and not because of my house?”
Julien stood up and pulled Le''s hand, saying, “we should continue up to the top of the hill where there is a statue of the Virgin Mary.”
The two of them walked abreast, side by side. Le placed her hand in Julien''s hand. The higher they went, the more difficult is was, so he had to help her keep her balance. Finally, the two of them arrived at the spot. Julien slowly gathered some wild summer flowers, then took a strand of grass and fastended them together into a bright radiant bouquet and handed them to Le.
From the top of the hill they looked down at the small town of Saint Etienne, along with some flowers on the mountain side undulating in the wind.
“Would you really like to omit the family pillar”, Julien suddenly inquired, “if he were like my father? An engineer who worked his entire life in a factory, retired he only likes to work with trees and plants, loves his wife and children, and is gentle and trustworthy?”
“When I was a child I liked it that way”, Le sincerely said, “but I have lived without having someone intimate for so long now, so I have become very strong. I only need a man who is loveable, knows how to make me laugh, and has an attractive face!”
“It seems that you are describing Charles, my brother. “Is that right?”, Julien made a large teasing smile. “Charles is an architect, romantic, and an artist .....”
“It''s not Charles”, Le slowly shook her head. “I want to say that person is ........... YOU!”.
Julien''s reaction was unexpected. Both of them were sitting very close, and their lips were almost touching. Le, allowing herself to be attracted to Julien, opened her lips half way, anticipating. She kissed him with all the passion of a young woman to a seductive man, but Julien continued kissing Le in a graceful manner, as though she was still only eighteen years old and he was a dreaming writer.
Julien seemed to want to search for the past when they were spontaneous in the large house in Saigon. At that time he didn''t have even a tiny bit of allure about his facial form, and he also didn''t have any guarantee for his future life. Then Le, although energetic, was still sparkling clear and extremely naive.
Julien''s entire family took Le to the station to go to Paris, for the next day she was returning to Vietnam. His father drove. His mother sat close by with the cat, Titi, on her lap. Charles and Le clung to each other when the car went around several dizzy curves from Saint Joseph village, little by little, down the mountain. Last night Julien returned to Lyon because his girl friend was sick. He promised that in the morning he would arrive directly at the Saint Etienne railway station to see Le off.
She thought that was only a polite promise. He wanted to avoid her after the sudden kiss on the hill. Actually, as Le had predicted, when the time came for the train to leave Julien still hadn''t shown up, which made his parent''s efforts to call him by cell phone hopeless. Charles helped Le carry her small suitcase onto the train. He whispered, “when I go to Vietnam to visit you, remember to let me live in the old room that was Julien''s before, Ok?”
Le shook her head, approached his ear and answered, “no, I''ll let you stay in ..... my room!” Then she shoved him down with a mischievous laugh.
The train had started moving. Le looked out of the window and saw Charles smile and toss her a wind kiss. Le sat down in her seat, regretting that she hadn''t met Julien again to tell him she was still saving that room, only for him.
Le returned to Paris. She didn''t blame Julien for not arriving at the railway station to see her off, but she knew he was tormented. The next day she went out to the Charles De Gaule Airport, preparing to return to Vietnam, return to her hectic job, return to the home that was divided in two, but was still very large for one lonely person. Before the moment she entered the isolating room, Le suddenly saw Julien frantically looking for someone.
“Are you looking for me?”, Le went beside him and asked. “Why did you drive from Lyon all the way to Paris to see me off back to Vietnam?”
Julien clung to Le with joy. He didn''t say anything. The two of them continuously stood next to each other, hand in hand, until Le was the final passanger to board the airplane. She kissed Julien''s cheek ‘so long’, saying she would be very happy if one day he would fly to Saigon.
“And if you come together with your girl friend”, Le whispered, “I will also let you enter my home!”
Julien looked deep into her eyes and smiled, “thank you! Those days in Saigon I really loved you!”
Le nodded and smiled, “And the time on the Virgin Mary hill, me too ….” Then she turned quickly back to go.
When the airplane took off far into the blue sky Le wished that she had poured out entirely much more, but she knew those matters would have no meaning at all. Julien and she did not love each other except for one point in time.
Ten years later, had the kiss of a really masculine pilot, at the top of a hill, with the wind howling, covered with flowers, the sun shining, made her feelings choked with emotion only because she remembered? The value of a person perhaps flows in the opposite direction of time ......
Author: Duong Thuy
Translator: Elbert Bloom