The Museum of Fear
Su called Lac by telephone, informing her that she was coming to Paris by train for some fun during the ''All Saints'' holidays. Prepared for the occasion, Lac suggested that they go to Holland together for the experience. They hadn''t met for two years, but Lac still easily identified Su''s healthy, plump figure from the stream of passengers exiting the train. She hurried to take the ''basket of articles'' in Su''s hands, for Su was her ex-neighbor in Vietnam.
“How are you?” she said. “Are you feeling well after the long train ride? If so I will take you to visit Paris!”
Su held Lac''s hand emotionally, viewing her as a family member. She was very intelligent and Su was lucky to have her here after arriving. She was an excellent councilor.
The two of them left the train station, went down to the subway and returned to Lac''s dormitory. “You''re already old. Why haven''t you gotten married yet? Why do you continue to study at this age?” Lac suddenly asked. “How old are you already this year?”
“I have just turned thirty-three, which is not at all old!” Su said not angry. She knew all the ways everyone in the district where she had lived in Vietnam tended to tease her. “If I don’t continue to study, young people like you may leave me behind”.
“I thought that one of the overseas Vietnamese men here and there would certainly already have picked you up!”, Lac smacked her lips. “Who would expect you, an older lady, to be without sexual desire? As for me! I have no desire.”
This time Su angrily said, “who ordered Lac to bring up that sad memory!” But Su also asked herself if she would ever have sexual desire. How could she meet a man? Su was afraid of boys, but she was not afraid of anyone who had the stature of a handsome young man, educated, generous, courteous, polite, and subtle. Su would accept him immediately, but there was nobody that wanted to introduce somebody like that to her. All put, she was unable to find a kind husband within the group of overseas Vietnamese that would look after her. Anyhow, she also carried the reputation of a University Department lecturer!
This girl, Lac, was terrible. Night and day she always demanded that Su get married so she could be the bridesmaid. In just a little while she had been so dynamic, funny and talkative that every person in the district called her ''ALIVE''! Little by little, though, the calling died out and she gradually turned back into Lac.
Lac had already studied abroad in France for two years. Whenever her pal came she also demanded to be a matchmaker and find somebody for Su. She would ask people here and there, “do you have a handsome boy, well employed, prepared to succeed, listens to music, and follows respectable interests ........ Her response made Su very annoyed and she didn''t want to meet with her any more. “What an existence”, Lac dared to say. “I study now in a manner, directly speaking, like a group of westerners, so that I don’t waste time. To tell the truth, you have a very pleasant face, but a body like a ''short winged bird''. Past thirty already, but what is your value? You are like the clothing here that has been displayed with the announcement, ''reduced brand-named goods, large price cuts of 70%''. I think you are lonely and don''t yet know what the aroma of a kiss is at all like, so I have become a matchmaker for you, but how so ''bored'' I see you!”
Su was angry at Lac for over six months when she received the news that she had won a scholarship to go to France for advanced studies towards earning her Doctorate''s Degree. Because of that, she had to get in touch with Lac so Lac could show her how to pack up and offer her experience with making papers to go out of country and how to travel by airplane. Su just had a few hours transit wait at the Paris Airport. Lac asked her friend working at the airport to welcome Su and show her how to take the ''in country'' plane down to Lyon.
After many months now far from home Su was piteously depressed, so it was fortunate that she had Lac to call by telephone to chat with and to console her. The feelings between them were fine until the time Lac offended Su when she arrived in Paris to have some enjoyment with Lac.
Lac lead Su into her room. Su knew before hand that one of them must take the bed and the other must lie on the floor because the room was only five square meters. Lac was generous, “I''ll let you sleep on the bed tonight because you have just traveled by train, but tomorrow we''ll do the opposite. You are not afraid of a sore back because... fat protects it with a lining.”
Su endeavored to laugh, “Ha! Ha! You tyrannize me a lot. Being fat like this I can bear the cold well. Someone like you, Lac, is a small shrine of a bamboo tree!”
“Thin is the fashion, lady!” Lac retaliated. “Westerners here are exceptionally fond of me.”
“In that case, do you have a boy friend yet?” Su asked. “You are ten years younger than me today, all of twenty-three already!”
“Yes I have!” Lac searched in the table drawer and took out a picture of a young man with a straight nose, azure eyes and hair floating like a cloud – a very handsome boy! Why don''t you be a matchmaker and get me some young man like that!” Su said.
“Why do you want a westerner?” Lac teased. “That group demands that you sleep together a lot, but they never let you live together because they don''t want to get married.”
“Fear! Fear!” Su yelled out. “So you lost your virginity already huh Lac?”
“Not yet madame”, Lac scowled. “I loved him but I don''t want to tie the knot because he doesn''t have a suitable name to clear the way.”
“Others are afraid he is not a suitable age. You are afraid he does not have a suitable name?” Su replied.
“He is an Australian. He came here to make his doctoral degree dissertation about French literature. His name is Luke (pronouced as Luc in Vietnamese). I think that if in the future I were to take him to Vietnam. How many megaphones day and night in our district would continue to shout ''husband and wife Luc Lac''! I would certainly be embarrassed and hide underground. I would rather be Lac alone than very strangely ''Luc Lac'' with him.” (In Vietnamese Luc Lac is a verb. In the situation of a couple, Luc Lac means they make love a lot)
Su burst out laughing, “that''s monstrous! You are young and yet incorrigible.”
Lac also laughed. When they were at home Su was content to turn her mouth to tease Lac a lot. Su had studied well and was rather many years older than Lac, so Su taught Lac how to do her homework. The two of them played together intimately but Su, though older, was more naive, not a ‘monster’ like Lac. Su did not start life in touch with much! She really only liked to earn many diplomas. That was her passion. There were times when Su, rejected by Lac, cried ‘boo hoo’. Lac’s mother had to encourage her to apologize.
“You were much wealthier than me”, Lac said. “You studied abroad self-sufficiently, but still had enough money to buy a TV”, Su sprang up saying, “let''s watch. For many months now I have been despondent from rejection. Night and day I have embraced books, always studying. I should certainly get a reward for sorrow.”
Lac turned the TV on according to Su''s request. She held the remote control to select a movie. “Ha! Ha!” Lac exclaimed victoriously, “ I''ll let the lady watch this movie, about a perfect, talented handsome boy already!”
One explicit love scene was being performed. Two figures were embracing, squeezing each other, wrestling on the bed, clothing leisurely being thrown, noisily cascading down to the floor. Su''s blood ran hot! She wanted to watch, but was also embarrassed. “There is no value here, Lac, ''AWFUL!” Su groaned. “My mother had advised me that seeing these various scenes I should hide my face”
So Su put both of her chubby hands over her eyes to hide them as would a young child.
“Is it finished yet?” Su said. “Is it done yet? Why is it so long? Who can breathe hearing something so horrible?”
Lac bewilderedly looked a Su. She asked herself if Sue was teasing her or was really frightened. Who lives as a thirty-three year old lady, yet is shocked like a girl who has just reached maturity. Very offended!
“What has your gang been doing, Lac, for so long''”, Su asked impatiently.
“Making love, of course, as the gang tends to rapidly demand.” Lac pulled Su''s hand up hard, saying, “how odd that you are my pupil. Open your eyes and look around. Do you see anything?”
Sue blinked her eyes, “your gang is protected to the end, but listen to the rising goose bumps.” Su was not embarrassed by the way Lac passed judgment and said, “you have advanced with a wicked group! I will return to Vietnam and tell your mother. You dare say ‘making love” in a indifferent way.
(well educated girls in Vietnam never say ‘making love’. They must find another way, such as ‘sleeping together’ or ‘being close’).
Lac stood up, jerked her legs and said displeased, “I see Su really is without sexual feelings already, or is false deer bait, pretending to be afraid, but terribly joyful! Su, this is only an ordinary movie, cherishing, kissing, nothing more! Do you want to look at a genuinely erotic movie? A sex movie? Every Sunday night on channel M6, late at night after eleven o''clock, we have them. They are not very serious at all. They have a purpose, to let people see how to party. You are old already, so you should know about other people. You have studied for what? Two foreign languages, three college degrees, but perhaps you have been compensated for the matter. Now! Sexual desire is also a dignified scientific subject there, OK!”
“Silent you”, Su cried out with a disgusted face. She stood up and banged away at the door with her shoe to open it and leave.
“Where are you going at this hour?” Lac said panic-stricken.
Su slowly said, “I don''t want to discuss this subject any more and that''s it, so I''m going to leave! I''m going to the bathroom and you are boisterously blocking me!”
Lac and Su walked through Amsterdam from morning until their legs were tired. Su in time saw many refreshing store attendants wearing spandex shirts stretched tight under their armpits and with sexy pants running back and forth. Lac also showed her many ''porno-demonstration'' shop signs filling the streets, explaining that later there will be a show here illustrating about ''That Thing'', which can be frequently seen.
“Do you want to watch to know about it?” Lac asked softly with a serious expression. “I also haven''t seen it yet. We should also know about the ''specialty'' here on our occasion of coming to Amsterdam.”
“You! If you don''t quit I will tell your mother. You are a disgusting child now”, Su said.
“If you don''t want to watch then OK”, Lac again teased. “May we go to the ‘Red Light’ district?”. I''ve heard the rumor that one can choose girls of any skin color. Attractive, from all different countries! Each girl stands provokingly in a mirrored showcase. Any gentleman can choose to walk in. It forces many persons to stand outside, imagining. Should we go? Let me know! No nonsense!”
Su ensued, “yes, I have heard the rumor that upon arriving in Holland one should go and see the various places here, but I am a ''university professor'', and you are from a respectable family. It''s a little unfortunate that you, Lac, have enticed me to come here to look. One day when we return to Vietnam you can tell everyone. Then, because of shame, I will not be able to stay in Vietnam any longer. I will have to leave our country home forever.
“If you don''t go then OK”, Lac pretended to block her. “After this you won''t ever have another chance to come to Amsterdam. Don''t regret it!”
“Is it odd”, Su said agitated, “that we are ladies!”
“My god! How are you a lady?” Lac said still provocatively. “Dutch ladies even can… violate men there!”
“You are terrible!” Su again screamed, making Lac burst out laughing contentedly.
“I only want you to open your eyes about other people. That''s all. I''m still young and will continue to live in Europe for a long time. I want to come here whenever I have some free time. I''m only afraid you will never have the chance to return.”
“Let''s go”, Su embarrassedly said, casting her eyes down, “but when you return to Vietnam you are forbidden from telling these many stories about me.”
Su looked directly there to see how many really beautiful girls there were in this disgusting place. What a waste. The girls stood, twisting back and forth, making various movements intended to arouse sexual desire, causing the pack of men to drool with lust. It turns out that outside of their degrees, businesses and occupations the men were excessively fond of this fearful activity. Su remembered when she once read a book by Proust that talked about the doctrine of giving birth. He analyzed everything about people''s desire that all originated from that need. She saw it as difficult to understand and didn''t believe it. After witnessing this noble trading scene, suitably luxurious and elegant with mirrors and curtains, suitably base and vile with this ''pay as you play cold love'', yet quaint to some extent.
Lac made no judgment, though she certainly seemed aware due to her habit every Sunday night of watching the films after eleven o''clock. At the beginning, before she was familiar with it, she also reacted. She didn''t make an uproar like Su, but she also felt strange. After getting ''hot'', then becoming bored, she saw that also as a need, such as eating, drinking, or studying, and that''s all!
Lac thought she must understand in order to prepare her mind, so that she doesn''t cry out panic-stricken like her mother on her marriage night, consequently difficult to fathom. Lac''s mother said that she was very afraid of her husband, though she didn''t hate him. She had never had an enjoyable sensation while sharing together with her husband. She only saw that as her duty. Therefore, after giving birth to two children she decided not to let her husband touch her. Lac''s parents were never happy. The two of them never divorced, but living together they quarreled like cats and dogs, always making each other wretched. And Lac''s maternal and paternal grandmothers gave birth to ten children, but throughout their lives as wives, the two of them never experienced the call of ''pleasure''. Also, because they were educated following the pattern of Su, they didn''t understand anything, so they continued to withhold. One life passed another. Lac saw that Vietnamese women suffer a lot.
“Shall we enter the ''sex museum''?”, Lac proposed again, with a solemn voice.
“Ok elephant, claiming to be an angel!” (A Vietnamese idiom that means: when you want to have an elephant, you think it’s great. But then you find an elephant is not enough and you continue to want something more like a beautiful angel like girl. In this context, Su first asked to see the ‘Red Light district’. Then she requested to enter the sex museum).
“You are not going to see it, so you will wait outside”
Lac looked at Su insultingly, “what are you afraid of. This is a museum, not at all a sex shop!”
So Lac didn''t know why Su quietly took money from her pocket, then snugly asked, “how much for one ticket?”
Both of them entered, following behind a number of Japanese women tourists. Su was not yet familiar with this. She hung her head just a bit and said to Lac, “it would be tragic if I met my students’ parents here. I would lose all my reputation. Anyway, I am a university professor!”
“Professor or president. They also have a need for sex”, Lac annoyingly threatened. “Every normal person is like that. Life is balanced. Whoever doesn''t have a husband or a wife is simply not normal! You pay attention to that, lady!” Lac pulled Su uncomfortably by her Achilles’ heel. (In this context, Su is an old lady without a husband and that is not normal in Vietnam. She considers that is her weak point).
Lac vehemently stepped into the museum, but she only saw some examples of ''That Thing'' that made her become panic-stricken, then try to laugh loudly in order to ward off her lack of sophistication.”
Lac again softly threatened, “if you come in here, but look serious and strict, making a scornful laugh, they will chase you out now!”
After walking out of the sex museum Lac appeared to meditate. Su only remembered one sentence at the end from the automatic machine that gave a commentary about some image recounting the history of sexual desire, so “don''t condemn sex because thanks to sex we all were born and are now here in this life!”
Both of them continued to walk into several souvenir shops and choose to buy a few items. Su liked several T-shirts that had pictures of windmills and some bicycles, but she saw them as too expensive so she hesitated to buy them.
Lac suddenly asked Su, “do you like this shirt? If so I''ll buy it for you.”
Su gingerly came up close and looked at the shirt, then suddenly exclaimed in the middle of the shop, “very horrible!” It turns out that the shirt had a picture of a man''s ''That Thing'' printed on it. Lac had decided to tease Su amusingly. Who would have expected her to have such a drastic and powerful reaction, which caused everybody to turn around and look at her strange trembling. Lac gave the shirt back to the place a bit clumsily, then went outside. Su with an embarrassed face scooped herself up and followed.
Lac only wanted to say, “terrified old woman!” Then both of them speechlessly and unkempt returned to the youth hostel.
It has been a long time since Lac and Su have been in touch, not because they were angry, but because they were both very busy with their studies. Su was so busy that she didn’t even send any email.
One time Lac had to go down to Lyon for something. Then she just remembered to call Su by telephone and ask if she would meet her at the station. Su also lived in the dormitory, but she was an inhabitant that had a scholarship, so her dwelling was much larger. She seemed to enjoy having Lac as a guest. Su was so hospitable that she invited Lac to sleep on the bed during the entire time she was with her. Su had no desire to take revenge by forcing Lac to sleep on the floor. Su had bought a TV several months ago. Lac mischievously asked, “do you watch any movies on channel M6 Sunday night yet?”
“Often”, Su replied very curtly, being indifferent to Lac''s rather unexpected question. “I have improved a lot! They have nothing wrong, just ordinary!” Su said still emotionless. “Those movies don''t at all belong to a shameful provocative form. They have a dignified purpose. Boys and girls who love each other have needs. They eat together, drink together and certainly sleep together!”
“Wow!” Lac said admiringly. “Is there a reason why that when you went to Paris, then to Holland with me you were brainwashed?”
“Yes!” Su pouted. “I am all of ten years older than you, so why did I let you teach me that lesson?” Then she mysteriously pulled Lac close to herself and whispered, “although I am very fat this way sister, that doesn''t make me not at all saleable. There was a young man in my same class coming from the city of Lille that has already declared his love for me!”
“Then do you plan to live together?” Lac asked doubtfully.
“Not just yet. It depends on many sensitive and subjective factors. Giving is also receiving, and receiving is also giving”, Su''s voice half joking and half serious confused Lac. “I am past thirty already, so it’s not important whether or not I lose my virginity. Only you are wiser in taking care of your virginity, yourself.”
“I know already”, Lac said gently distorting her face. “Even though I am consequently still a Vietnamese, I have recently reached out to Luke. I am no longer at all afraid to emerge with his name. Luc Lac, Luc Lac! It even sounds pleasant to the ear!”
The two of them hugged each other and laughed heartily.
Author: Duong Thuy
Translator: Elbert Bloom