The corridor of the charity center for infectious diseases waited for my steps every Saturday afternoon. The door of Dr. Hoai’s office, however, did not wait for me, Dr. Hoai, to open, but in the past three weeks, it had been opened ahead of time, and the row of chairs for patients had been extended since the new nurse had turned up. I purely knew her name by the letters embroidered on the upper front of her white coat; I, yet, was unable to decipher the blended sentiments in her eyes above her mask which she had not lowered or removed. Even though it was the center for contagious diseases, most of its patients were destinies with HIV infection or AIDS. Endeavoring to persuade her to get rid of her mask under her eyes even for a while, when the check-up session was over last week, I said to her:
“I don’t find in you any fear of patients with infectious diseases. You put on gloves only when you clean the ulcers, but why have you never parted with your mask? The patients with HIV infection are jolly sensitive to the behaviors of our white coats.”
She again answered me with silence and turned to putting away the medical devices. Such a scene was today being replayed in front of me. Still with her mask on, she was tenderly excising the necrotic tissues in a patient’s ulcer. Bizarrely, though, she communicated a bubbly gaze to me as I flowed into the room.
“The patients say their diarrhea appeared to have half gone. They sense some magic in your remedy.” Her voice was apparently swimming in the ocean of joy.
“Once patients don’t perceive the illness as the full stop of their life, they will leave it behind. If only …” My stare was drifting aimlessly.
“If only what?”
I was still wavering to say “If only the shadow of the disease were not hanging over their existence” when her gaze floated away with her question, which stirred my memory of a girl coming into my life few years back.
… My friend and I were completing the report of the patient we had just sent to the department of internal medicine when the door of the emergency ward swung open for a stretcher on which a little girl with cyanosis and a little red foam at the corner of her mouth was lying, and by which a girl was stammering in panic: “Come on, Trang, don’t slip into a coma, please, don’t, here come doctors. Doctors, please rescue my sister!”
The little girl was hastily transferred to the emergency bed, to which dashed oxygen cylinder. The initial dose of digitalis was transfused into her flattening veins. Her older sister’s eyes were gluing her apprehension on the glass of the emergence ward. Her younger sister’s eyes had not opened yet, but her little heart regained the regular beats. I swiveled towards the girl’s eyes outside and practically unconsciously strode towards those gloomy eyes.
“Has my sister woken up, doctor? Will she recover?”
“She has not come around, but left the acute pulmonary edema behind.”
“Thanks, doctor!” Her voice conveyed a sort of serenity.
“Don’t call me doctor. I have not been a doctor yet. I am the last year medical student. Hoai is my name.”
“Yes …” She abashedly lowered her voice.
Days later, I did not meet her eyes scrutinizing through the glass of the emergency ward any longer as Trinh, her younger sister, had got over her acute pulmonary edema and had been relocated to the department of internal medicine. We occasionally came across each other on the corridor of the hospital and she was not yet used to addressing me by my name, but the wrong title “doctor”.
“Has Trinh’s dyspnea diminished?”
“Yes, she is lying with her head held less elevated, doctor. No, sorry, … Mr. Hoai.”
I did ask her what she did or whether she was studying, but she, at all times, evaded my stare and my question. Certain embarrassment drifting in her eyes discontinued our dialogue, so that what my gaze could do was to pursue her steps fading at the curve of the corridor.
Holding the remaining material from my professor’s lecture on kids’ heart diseases I had assisted him with at the Cultural Club, I was taking a leisurely walk on the pavement of Tao Dan park, and listening to the placidity of the night stirred from time to time by rustling leaves and street vendors’ cries. To explore the whole depth of the scent of the night, I traveled in the opposite direction of the hospital. My steps were getting disillusioned when finding the fragrance of the night was impaired by streetwalkers’ cries. Scarcely had my steps turned round when a girl sprinted to me: “An excursion in bed with me? Even a shot, please!” A familiar sort of embarrassment in her voice suspended my steps, and the imploring voice was hers.
“Doctor … Mr. Hoai.”
I was chasing her and chasing the tears oozing in her heart. Her race would not have paused if my steps had not abruptly fallen off the beat, followed by the rustling of the sheets flying off my arm. She and I together gathered the sheets as if reassembling the fragments of her life. As soon as the last sheet boarded her hand, my hand scooped hers and her gaze veered to hide her tear-soaked eyes.
“Do you cast contempt upon me?” A wave of bitterness squeezed into her voice.
“Is it for your younger sister?”
We were quietly sauntering along the pavement. The two girls had not uttered the word “Dad” for ages and were in their mother’s funeral few weeks ago. The days when her mother were with them, Trang’s only destinations were her pals’ sprees leaving Trinh, her little sister, being by her mother whose shoulder was sagging concavely under the convexly sagging picul-stick weighted with the two baskets of rice noodles. After a vending tour in the rain one day, a severe fever invaded their mother’s body and deprived her of her last trace of vitality dragging her into the multiple week coma. Trang still left the care of their mother to her younger sister. One evening when Trang was in the middle of her joke with her buddies in Tao Dan park, she came across the skinny figure of her younger sister jumping on the motorbike behind a man and vanishing. Trang was running away from her pals for her mother’s bed. Her tears, her true tears, were cascading on the sins she was now conscious of, and her tears were speeding at the same rate as her race towards her younger sister when Trinh virtually tumbled through the half-opened wooden door.
“Trinh, my big peccadillo, all my big peccadillo, I dare not ask you for your forgiveness.”
“No. it was solely a nightmare. I love you. I love our mother.”
Trinh said she had forgotten that night, but her trembling voice and body betrayed herself. That nightmare still lingered in her delicate soul. The noise from the wooden wall of the kitchen that night drew her to the trap of her fate. A pimp managed to squash through the opening made by his removal of a wooden panel of the kitchen wall. Her jaws were instantaneously locked by the man’s brawny hands.
“I will buy. Let me buy your virginity or I will rob it.”
Her tear-drops were chasing each other down her thin cheeks.
“If you scream, your mother’s eardrums will catch the happening and her heart will not be able to tolerate it.”
Her struggle to escape from the man’s assault was dwindling. She did not hear his menace, but heard her mother’s heartbeats irregularly fading.
“I will pay five hundred thousand dongs for your chastity. I will help find clients for you if you wish to earn money to have the best remedy for your mother. Enjoy sex, come on!”
She was no longer conscious that the strokes the man slid on her body was given by his tongue, his fingers or whatever parts of his body. His muscular mass was invading her body. Her bony frame was attempting to retain her soul rather than fix her positions repeatedly adjusted by the beast. Her condensed tears were freezing and so was her soul.
Since that evening on, Trinh spent few hours every evening finding clients in the dark Tao Dan park. She had money to invite the doctor, but her mother’s brain waves turned flat one evening, and together with her heartbeats, left her body. She collapsed as soon as their mother died. Her congenital heart disease further deteriorated.
Myriads of raindrops were perching on Trang’s hair stream. No sooner had we hidden ourselves under the dome of the bus stop than the entire length of the road was laminated by the film of rain, through which a twelve or thirteen-year-old raincoat girl was piercing.
“Would you please buy a raincoat?” The little girl asked timidly.and quiveringly.
“Yes, three please!”
I read the amazement in Trang’s and the little girl’s eyes as the number was put forward.
“This is for you, the little girl.” Her situation compelled her to sell these raincoats, but did not permit her to wear them. The little girl pierced back through the film of rain after the raincoat now shielded her body and part of her fate.
“You will get sick in the rain.”
“Thanks and many thanks, but the bunch of raincoats remains high. I have to sell them when it is raining. See you!” Her voice resounded back.
Our gazes pursued the little raincoat girl until her vanished behind the curtain of rain. Our gazes turned towards each other. Trang’s embarrassment clumsily pulled her eyes downwards. Her fingers tenderly brushed the raindrops off my sheets.
“Let me brush the raindrops off your hair!” I mischievously proposed.
“Those are the innocent raindrops, aren’t they?”
The raindrops were sinless. She apparently did not blame the rain for her mother’s death, but blamed herself. She blamed herself for her little sister’s suffering from the rain of life. There came a rain in her eyes.
“If only I had shared a large portion of my mother’s burden. If only my mother remained by my little sister and me.”
She did not know that her two words “If only” still lingered in my capillaries the subsequent years. I did not remember how many times I had returned to that bus stop, sat for hours, but not got on any bus. I merely waited for the rain and her figure to return. Without her, my poem could not reach the last stanza:
“If only the rain had not passed by,
Your figure would have not come to my mind
And my love would have not wandered every night.”
“Do you want to travel back to the hospital in the rain?”
The word “yes” was softly sent out from her juicy lips. We shared a raincoat and she had wrapped my materials in the other. I could sense her heart pounding almost as swiftly as mine. Her eyes looked as if counting the rain bubbles on the pavement and my eyes were counting happy minutes being by her.
Our journey along the pavement was suspended by the figure of the little raincoat girl in the dark of the wall in which a tall boy was coercing her childish body into his sex game. His hands were tormenting her immature parts in her vain struggle.
“Hey, boy, stop your filthy act!”
The chap apathetically drew his hands from under the girl’s pants and walked away. As soon as we reached her, she collapsed in my arms stuttering as if in the delirium: “Big Brother, don’t do that, please!” With the girl on my back, we sprinted towards the hospital.
Trinh, Trang’s little sister, left this world few days later and Trang left me quietly. That night, dozing in front of her little sister’s ward, she was shaken by an authoritative voice: “Baby, look, the dark corner there is a magnificent place for our corporeal pleasure.” Trang recalled that he had been the man who had once owned her body. “No, no!” Her scream could not be emitted from her larynx. She was being dragged along the corridor. “Will pay you twice as much as last time.” She was being dragged faster towards the end of the corridor.
“Release my sister!” Trinh was staggering after her sister, then tumbled. “Trinh, Trinh, Oh dear!” shrieked Trang, escaping from the man’s grip. Doctors and nurses were in the hasty steps. But Trinh’s heart did not pound again.
… My eyes turned round to meet the introspective eyes above the nurse’s mask. My legs were pulled by her eyes’ magnetism. I took off her mask hypnotically. It was Trang, whose hair I brushed the raindrops from and furtively left an awkward kiss on. I had been looking for her; I chose to study infectious diseases and together with social workers had been scouring the fates of the night for her.
“Trang, why did you elude me?”
She turned round, briskly wiping her tears.
“I did not elude you. I have been always pursuing you. I studied nursing and practiced in the hospital where you have been working. I volunteered to work in this charity center so as to work by you. Do you remember the little raincoat girl that night? She has been living with me and dreaming to be a doctor like you.”
I found her and found the last stanza for my unfinished poem “If only”. The nurse by me will not have the mask on constantly. She will not wear the mask of life any longer.