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The doorbell rang one brief, almost hesitant ring. Echoed by a second, longer and more sure.
“Daddy, there’s someone at the door!”
I jumped up, the sweet lethargy of the living room rapidly receding. The TV screen was talking to itself. A glance at my watch showed 10 p.m. A question was heard as naturally as anything.
“Who is it, Daddy?”
How would I know?
Dragging my feet and stumbling, I crossed the apartment. Who would risk a bet on the identity of the evening visitor? No idea, look through the spyhole.
It was in fact a lady visitor. A familiar face was illuminated by the light from the half-open door. I recognized her perfume and lipstick straightaway.
“What are you doing here?”
I admit my tone was not very friendly.
She twisted her fingers around the belt of her coat.
“Do you know what time it is?”
Strands of hair fell across her eyes. The smooth skin of her throat brought back memories.
“And I’m not alone, you know. What about your husband?”
Dark shadows passed across her face.
“We’ve had a terrible fight.”
“Ah…” (And as I am very loquacious, I added, guessing what was coming), “So?”
“He’s thrown me out.”
Said like an admission, in a sulky and irritable tone.
“Better to say you took the chance to pack up and leave.”
I said the first thing that came into my head, and she maintained her dignity, with no tears or sobs.
“I need you, this time it’s serious.”
“But, Lan, it’s just not possible, it’s just not… possible.”
We had always agreed on this, well, I had at least. And not now, at this very moment. It was an unspoken pact between us, friends, lovers, nothing more. When feelings get mixed up in the threads of my life, nothing good comes out of it. She knows that. This is just not possible, it really isn’t, I repeat in my head.
She is now standing very close to me; I am overwhelmed by the flowery scents of her perfume. Confusion and waves of anxiety fight for dominance in my head, and an inner voice preaches at me as it grows more distant: You always said, she was warned, it just isn’t possible, I don’t want to.
“Who is it, Daddy?”
The voice is that of my little girl. I can’t even bring myself to tell her that it’s just a friend who happened to be passing by.
The timer in the corridor shuts the light off. My daughter slips between us; she knows where the switch is, she’s used to finding it when she’s playing in the dark with her friends.
The threshold lights up once more.
“Oh wow! Look at all this luggage!”
I go out into the corridor. Her large brown bag and a wheeled suitcase that I have never seen are lined up along with other holdalls. I frown.
My daughter says “This bag is heavy”, and I am tempted to reply, “Leave it alone, Lan is going on a long journey”. But I stop myself and watch her.
Then a sort of general movement takes place, the bag is dragged inside the apartment. As if obeying a signal, Lan takes a firm hold of the suitcase and the rest of her luggage and falls into step behind my princess, as if being drawn through an imaginary doorway to the stars.
“What’s your name?”
“Lan, Huong Lan, that means scent of orchid in my country.”
“That’s beautiful!”
And to conclude the introductions, the front door is softly closed. A gentle click, enclosing promises of happiness within. And I am outside.
Sudden silence on the landing. There I am, in bare feet, soon plunged into darkness because the light is on a timer, just like my life. On the other side, the house seems to have a new heart beating in it. Surely they will open the door and welcome me in. Well, I think they will.
I ring the bell, one brief, almost hesitant ring, then another, longer and impatient.

Translated by Wendy Cross

149

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