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by Tran Thuy Mai After an interminable search for employment to bolster my paltry university grant, thanks to the recommendation of a film director friend of one of my buddies, I finally got an interesting part-time job as one of the men who escort beauty contestants down the pageant catwalk. It only lasted a few weeks; from the first day of training through to the finale, I couldn’t help but think: "What a great job; safe, well-paid and pleasant. Even with poor wages, it’s well sought-after." Through that golden opportunity I met her, a beautiful young girl with wide eyes, a bewitching smile, and curled eyelashes like a pair of butterfly wings. "May I have your name, please?" I asked her as soon as I laid eyes on her. "I’m Thuong, sir." "What do you do?" "I’m a freshman, majoring in international jurisprudence at the Ha Noi University of Law, sir." "Enough with the Sir! Just call me Brother Kim. So what made you take part in this beauty contest?" "Because... ‘cause of... erm..." she bit her lower lip and blinked her eyes but gave no answer. Her lips were both wet and rosy like those of my young sister’s three-coloured kitten. I stared at her in confusion. "Hey brother Kim!" she yelped suddenly. "What’s wrong Thuong?" "A few seconds ago, you grasped my hand so tightly that I couldn’t move properly." "Really?" I asked, startled. "Sorry! I didn’t realise." To be honest, I pitied her. She looked like she might fall over any moment; she was clearly unaccustomed to high-heeled shoes. And now she was reproaching me for my clumsiness. "I’ll never act that carelessly again, my dear," I promised. ***
Director Khoi was meticulous to a fault. I suppose, he could not have done otherwise while preparing for such a major event. Training a bevy of beauties, he could rapidly become overwhelmed unless he ran a tight ship. "Chins up, please!" he told them in a loud voice. "And your backs too! Never look down at your shoes while walking, remember that," he warned them. Vietnamese girls tend to look down by force of habit, originating from an old notion that "young ladies must appear graceful" handed down generation to generation. In order to reprogram them, he forced each to walk with a teacup balanced on top of their heads. "Don’t let it fall off!" he warned, menace in his voice. While they were working on their movements, US escorts had ample opportunity to contemplate their beautiful faces and shapely bodies, and comment at random on their ungraceful gaits. Twenty of them had passed the qualifying round. Twenty rare and exquisite flowers! Of course, each had her unique charms. After circulating the stage 20 times with teacups delicately balanced on their heads, they soon grew accustomed to upright postures, raised their long lily-white necks most exquisitely. Noting two girls with terrible postures, I felt compassion for Hai and Tri, the guys who’d have to walk with such ungraceful ducklings. Their next lesson was in the art of long strides, and this called for us boys to join in. With my right arm horizontally across my back, I held my left arm aloft to support Thuong’s right hand. Head held high and chest puffed out, I was filled with pride. To be chosen for this part was a great honour for us all; after all we had to meet certain standards: over 1.7m tall, a good-looking face, well-proportioned body, an eye-catching countenance and a sharp mind to match our fair young maidens. By my side, Thuong took long and graceful steps and I quickly realised that she was very smart. She immediately grasped the gist of her lessons and soon performed them flawlessly. "Oh dear, Brother Kim!" she suddenly called out, softly and nervously, lifting up her skirt a bit. I looked down and saw it was soiled and slightly torn on one edge. "What’s the matter with you?" I asked in bewilderment. "You’ve trodden on my dress." "Really? I’m awfully sorry!" "Never mind, brother Kim. I’ll mend it quite easily at home," she replied gently with a broad smile.
*** I took her home to the small shanty-town flat she shared with a classmate. I admit I was a little taken aback: for such a pretty girl with snow-white skin and fashionable style, I’d assumed she came from a wealthy family and lived in some magnificent villa, not this series of shanties on the outskirts of the city. Ngoc, her square-jawed flatmate, opened the door to welcome us in. "Heavens!" she tutted when she saw the state of Thuong’s dress. "Are you brave enough to return this torn dress to the shop?" "Don’t worry. I’ll solve the problem easily," Thuong answered in a soft voice. At once, I knew my responsibility. Taking a needle box from Ngoc, I started to mend the robe. As luck would have it, I managed to render it almost as good as new. They praised me for being light-fingered as I finished up and washed away the stain. "Let me do it for you, Brother Kim," said Thuong, beginning to stand up. "How can we have the heart to watch a young man wash women’s clothes?" she added. Ngoc made a signal for her friend to let me be. Under the tap, the stain disappeared in a few minutes and I hung it on the clothes line to dry. "Brother Kim, you really are a modern young man, unafraid of trivial chores. The exact opposite of my father," Ngoc observed. "Nah," I demurred, "I just believe in the old saying ‘You’ve made your bed, now lie in it’, that’s all." I could tell Ngoc was fawning on me but as I saw it, all I was doing was helping out a friend. After all, from the sweat on Thuong’s face, I could tell she must have been exhausted by the day’s strenuous activities. "Thank you," Thuong said, giving me her towel. Eating a hot bowl of instant noodles, I glanced around her flat. It was very simple, beautified with paper cut-outs stuck to the walls, and was topped by a ceiling so low, I could touch it easily. The room was so hot that the electric fan made no difference. Strangely enough, despite living in this shanty, Thuong remained as pale as if she had been brought up in a wealthy family. "Did your mum send extra money for you to enter the competition?" I asked her. "She doesn’t even know," she replied. "Mum’s always telling me that beautiful women often meet misfortune. After all, ‘The nail that sticks out gets hammerred in’." Thuong added.
"Things are different now," Ngoc objected. "Beauty may bring in lots of money and if you win the title of Miss Viet Nam, you’ll have plenty to spare," Ngoc went on. "Actually, I’ve been really stressing out about all this," said. I glanced at Thuong; in casual clothes and without make-up, she was charming. In my opinion, she was the most beautiful of all the girls in the pageant. "Unless the jury are blind, this girl will surely win," I said to myself. *** Thuong sailed through the semi-finals which meant that I would continue by her side during the finals. The successful candidates had become more skilful on stage: no more stiff gaits on high-heeled shoes, no more shy looks and no more mumbling in front of the audience. All the clumsiness had totally disappeared and my Thuong was by far the best of the lot. For each session, I led her out onto the stage as delicately as if I held a flower, turned left at the stage’s corner, then released her arm so that she might pace to the centre alone. Out there beneath the spotlights, she made a few rounds, smiled gracefully at the audience, bowed her head slightly in greeting then retreated backstage where I awaited. But something was amiss. "Why have so many beautiful girls been knocked out; while others, less attractive, have made it to the finals?" I asked Hai, my colleague. He laughed. "Even a child knows the difference between right and wrong. But beauty is of a more intangible nature. It lies in the eye of the beholder and nobody can answer your question," he replied. That’s when it struck me that as time went on, Thuong could be eliminated at any time. And she was increasingly worried. "Unluckily for me, while other participants are well equipped with lots of expensive jewels, all I have are these cheap ornaments. I don’t know if I’ll make it through this struggle," she said as she poured out her heart to me one evening. Every day, Ngoc sliced cucumbers for her friend, and covered Thuong’s face with them for their nutritional value. Meanwhile, I prepared herbal lotions to improve her sleep. As for the money given to her by the organising board, it was spent on hiring costumes, and buying make-up, shoes, and all the pretty little things it takes to win. "You’re gonna win and you’ll make what you’ve spent many times over," I assured her, "just don’t forget me when you’re famous." "How can I forget you, Brother Kim?" "If you get the prize, please lend me some money to pay my school fees for next semester," Ngoc joined in.
"Of course, I will. Nevertheless, I’ll have to set aside part of the amount as my donation to the poor." "We are the poor!" Ngoc yelled good-naturedly at Thuong. "Who else do we have to give it to?" I couldnt’ help laughing. "Don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched," I warned them. Suddenly, I felt a bit sad. Should she be crowned queen, she would be an important public figure, and rich young princes would chase after her. "Could she resist their snares," I asked myself, "and save herself for this pauper?" "What’re you thinking about?" Thuong asked me in a soft voice, startling me from my reverie. Moments after telling her not to day-dream, I was doing the same. *** Then came the finals. Inside the municipal opera house, spectators huddled together under the multi-coloured lights. The past few weeks of intense rehearsals had led up to this one shining moment. Ngoc wanted to see the performance live, but the tickets were too expensive. "Wait up for Thuong, and at midnight you’ll know who won when she brings home lots of prizes for you," I consoled her. In time with the music, first slow and then fast, I led my fair lady out from backstage into a palace flooded with brilliant light. Never in my life had I felt so excited. This night she looked more beautiful than ever in her evening dress made of white satin. At the right corner of the stage, I gently released her arm. Alone on the stage floor she gracefully waltzed in and out, as ethereal as a butterfly on the wing. I stared at her, holding my breath. While a well-known singer sang E. Toselli’s Serenata pending the outcome of the decision to choose the best five, Thuong sat motionless behind the wings of the stage, her face beaded with sweat. I took my handkerchief out of my trouser pocket and gently wiped it away. Around us, beautiful contestants paced to and fro in different costumes and colours, but I ignored them all. "Ladies and gentlemen! Allow me to introduce to you the final five contestants..." announced the compere. We escorts backstage stood up as our would-be princesses lined up side by side on the stage. According to the regulations of the organising board, those whose names were called would take one long step forward... "Nguyen Thuy Lien, Candidate No…; Lam Y Nhi, Candidate No…; Le Thanh Mai, Candidate No…."
To my surprise, Thuong’s name wasn’t called out! Beside me, Hai jumped up, whereas I remained tense. While the final five were stepping forward, and cameras flashed away, one of the organisers walked onto the stage to offer gifts to the unlucky losers. Thuong was nowhere to be seen. I was stupefied, thinking of her shame as she slunk stealthily from the stage. She was so beautiful that most of us thought she’d be crowned queen that night. Instead, she was out! Where was she now? Obviously, I had failed in my duties as escort and friend! I searched high and low but in vain. Eventually I left the building with a heavy heart, consoling myself with the a ray of hope: "Were she to take part in another beauty contest, surely I would be her prince." *** When I reached her flat, I found her half asleep on the bed, hair tousled. Her tiny flowers and brilliant hairpins were scattered all over the room, and on her crumpled dress sparkled a rainbow of confetti. Worse still, her Cinderella shoes were scattered upon the threshold. I rushed inside and found her sobbing violently. I sat down beside her, took her by the hand and shared her sorrow. "Thuong, stop crying, there’s a dear! What’s the use of regret?" I consoled her. "In my eye, you’re a queen, my queen..." Hearing this, Ngoc stopped tidying up and stepped out of the room. Suddenly, Thuong flung my hand aside then pushed me away. Oddly enough, her arms, which used to be so soft and weak when I touched them, were now filled with angry strength. "Were I your queen, what would I have got? What could you offer me?" she said in a sulky voice. I stood dumbfounded, stiff as if I had caught a cold in a strong draught. Was it all due to her unjust sufferings and loss of hope? Or was it a sign of her high-flying dreams? God only knew! All that was certain was she’d failed miserably and now she wept bitterly. "Why was I so stupid to rely on a student in dire poverty?" she wailed. "Had I been backed by a big wig, I would not have been in such a disadvantageous situation!" she added. Obviously, she was reproaching me for I unintentionally occupying a position better suited to a wealthy young man. In confusion, I stepped back further and further until I found myself outside her small flat.
I spent the next few months out of sorts, drowning in despair. As to my performance at the university that semester, I fared no better: I dropped from the top of the class to somewhere near the bottom and failed three classes. *** Four years later, I graduated with a B.A honours degree in banking. I was fortunate enough to be recruited by a foreign corporation for a well-paid position. By now, affording a ticket to attend the final show of a beauty contest was no longer an issue. The problem was that I simply had little free time for such frivolities. Besides, my interest in that vainglorious social game had been deflated. I had not seen Thuong since that fateful day. Later, Ngoc informed me that Thuong had become a fashion model, gracing the catwalks of the big city three times a week. Despite not winning that fateful beauty pageant, she’d risen to be a promising star in the world of fashion. Occasionally, I dropped in on Ngoc, now a plain young trainee teacher, and once, I invited her to a beauty contest, which she could never have dreamt of affording as a student. At the sight of scores of very young and handsome youths proudly leading their beautiful contestants to the centre of the stage, I felt compassion for those young men. "How many of them, with their naive and amorous hearts, when their last performance is over, will be heart-broken by these fragile romantic bonds?" I wondered.
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