First Published on Chaleuria
039 – Love and Peace
“Stay strong! A true man has ambitions and goals! Darkness before his eyes is not darkness at all.” The gym teacher had gotten tired of squatting and sat down on the ground, too. He glanced down at the time, then blew his whistle.
He Zhao had just lifted his body up. Hearing this, he had to lower himself again. He hesitated a moment and found that he really couldn’t continue staring at a certain little friend of his. If he kept looking, he probably wouldn’t be able to complete even ten push-ups. So he turned his head away and his Adam’s apple rolled involuntarily.
This time, He Zhao didn’t stay down too long. He hastily finished the push-up.
Now that the two had averted their eyes, He Zhao stared attentively at the floor of the indoor court, as if flowers would sprout if he looked long enough. Then Xie Yu asked him, “How many?”
“Ah.” He Zhao couldn’t think properly and he had not been paying attention to the count at all. “I don’t know. You weren’t counting, either?”
Xie Yu had turned his head away, and was looking up and to the side. There were several exposed beams on the roof of the indoor court, and above that, glass panes arranged in a grid. Xie Yu paused before saying, “I didn’t count.”
“Probably more than ten.”
As He Zhao finished speaking, he found that he couldn’t keep staring at the floor. His gaze drifted, slowly coming to alight on Xie Yu’s neck; the line of it was surprisingly beautiful, and in the end he said—whether to himself or Xie Yu, who knew—“… Just bear with it for a little longer.”
All right, he could do that.
He’d bear with it.
When Xie Yu had first lain down, he had really wanted to raise one knee and send this guy flying. He maintained a cold expression, feeling very foolish. His mock exams had been right there and instead of doing them, he had come to attend this absurd gym class.
After he calmed down, he started to think about who he would kill first after he got up.
Luo Wenqiang, who had dragged Xie Yu to gym class on pain of death, was currently training at the quad. For some reason, he felt a chilly wind at his back. He rubbed his arms and wondered how the weather could cool so quickly.
He Zhao usually liked to play pranks, but even he was quite restrained at a time like this… Xie Yu got the impression that He Zhao was aching to run away, as though he was tensed to jump up at any second, but was restraining himself.
Xie Yu wasn’t sure if the heartbeat he heard ringing in his ears was his own or He Zhao’s—especially when He Zhao lowered his body and the two were chest to chest for several fleeting seconds.
Xie Yu watched the ceiling beams and faintly felt that something wasn’t right. Or should he say that this feeling—that something wasn’t right—had been around for a long time, but it was especially strong today.
A wild beast had long since taken up residence in his heart, and while it ordinarily napped quietly, today it was charged with excitement and started wildly roaring. It was unnerving, but at the same time… very thrilling, somehow.
The gym teacher had started the exercise out counting, and somewhere in the middle he had replaced the count with the whistle. Some of them couldn’t help thinking he was trying to surreptitiously make them do a few more. They were still complaining internally when the gym teacher blew on the whistle again and then reported, “Twenty! Very good, keep going!”
A student expressed his doubt. “Teach, only twenty? I feel like I’ve done thirty.”
The gym teacher didn’t flinch. “Student, you’re imagining things.”
Whether it had been twenty or thirty, the two groups of students were thoroughly unable to continue.
Even though each of them had another male student still lying beneath them and the slightest relaxation of their wrists would cause a tragedy, it still beat the torture that was doing push-ups. One of them bowed his head and said, “Know-It-All, I can’t endure any longer.”
Wan Da: “How can you say you can’t! Is your life’s mission so easily defeated by fifty paltry push-ups?”
“…I really can’t do any more.”
More and more students crowded around, making a ruckus. Aside from those who had been playing badminton, another huge group had arrived, both from the year above and the year below. Liu Cunhao took the opportunity to slip in, too. “Damn it, you all… are very ardent.”
Xie Yu put one hand to his forehead. He felt a headache coming on.
“Can we not linger here watching the show, friends?” He Zhao turned and said. “Especially you, Liu Cunhao. As the class chairman, could you please protect the dignity of the students in our class 3?”
As if the students in Class 2.3 still had dignity left. It had all been lost long ago.
Even though they had lost their dignity, they still had a chance to save their push-up abilities. There were several first-year girls in the surrounding crowd—this was just like showing off for girls in the audience stand when playing basketball. Even if they were down to their very last breath, they had to display their physical prowess.
Wan Da watched with his own eyes as the guy who had just said, “I can’t any more,” suddenly lifted his left hand, curling his hand into a fist, and started doing one-armed push-ups. “……”
He Zhao had to stop and stare. “Wow. Impressive. Friend, can you win first place for our class?”
Liu Cunhao led the applause. “Fu Pei, do your best! Another fifty!”
Fu Pei’s whole body went taut. He grit his teeth and kept working.
Xie Yu had turned to look, too. After watching for a while, he asked, “Fu Pei? There’s someone with that name in our class?”
He Zhao was three push-ups away from fifty. As he lowered his body, he bent close to Xie Yu’s ear and said, “From the column next to us, second row from the back. When school started, Old Tang called him over to talk because of some online dating problem.”
Xie Yu searched through his memory but came up with nothing, and on his face hung the words, ‘No impression.’
“I knew you wouldn’t remember.” He Zhao pushed himself up, exhaled, and said, “Tell me. You’ve been in this class for more than a month. What do you know of us?”
From Xie Yu’s position he could see the knot in He Zhao’s throat; he followed that line of sight downward to the somewhat rumpled collar of He Zhao’s uniform shirt.
Fifty push-ups; he could not be feeling nothing. Besides, he was currently in a state of high tension and after doing the last push-up, he suddenly felt very exhausted. He rotated his wrist hard and fell down to one side, lying next to Xie Yu. He said slowly, “…Fifty. Your big brother’s impressive, isn’t he?”
Xie Yu moved himself farther to the other side and said, “Scram. My mom only gave birth to one child, and that’s me.”
Fu Pei was the most impressive on the court. He had done more than twenty one-handed push-ups and now he stopped to surreptitiously ask Wan Da, “Are there any girls looking at me?”
Wan Da couldn’t bear to tell him the cruel truth—that the whole audience, both guys and girls, were currently watching the two famous class beaus.
“If you think there are, then there are.” Wan Da patted Fu Pei’s shoulders. “You can get up now.”
The plan had been for them to switch positions so that the odd-numbered students were on top for another set of 50 push-ups. But the gym teacher hadn’t properly planned for time, and just as they were supposed to switch positions, the dismissal bell rang.
The gym teacher glanced at the stopwatch hanging at his chest and said regretfully, “Class is over. All right, class dismissed.”
The even-numbered students started to complain about their bad luck, while the odd-numbered students weren’t sure if they were supposed to be happy. After all, they had lain down for so long for nothing. But they weren’t really looking forward to doing push-ups on top of someone else, either.
After returning to the classroom, He Zhao and Xie Yu didn’t talk for the next class period.
The atmosphere wasn’t really awkward. Before, He Zhao would always start a conversation and chatter on, but now he had suddenly gone quiet. He occasionally said something, but the moment he began, he would lock eyes with Xie Yu and his brain seemed to short-circuit, so he couldn’t continue.
“What on earth do you want to say?”
After being disturbed several times—He Zhao would call his name, Xie Yu, Old Xie, Deskmate, in succession and then wouldn’t say any more—Xie Yu was so annoyed he was getting a headache.
He Zhao flipped open his English textbook and pointed at it, looking for a question to ask. “Which page are we on?”
Xie Yu said, “Chapter three.”
He Zhao made a noise of assent and went quiet again.
After this exchange, the two students in front of them weren’t sure what to do. They exchanged notes. They had a falling-out? A quarrel?
The note passed all the way to the class chair’s hands. Liu Cunhao remembered how lovey-dovey the two school tyrants had been during gym class, and while the English teacher was turned to the blackboard and writing example sentences, he looked down and wrote, Not at all. Last class they were still sticking together like glue.
Like a madman, He Zhao stared at his English book for a long time before remembering that he shouldn’t be listening in class—he should be on his phone.
So, Xie Yu, who always remembered to be on his phone every class period and was now chatting up a storm with Zhou Dalei, returned to his dashboard and saw that He Zhao had added a mood message: Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah.
Xie Yu: “…Has he really gone mad.”
Before the sports meet, the uniforms the class had ordered arrived. Old Tang let them change into them to see how they looked, and then he brought an old-fashioned camera from his office.
The class uniform was a specially-made vest; they need only put it over their uniform. To decide what should be written on the vest, the class had held a vote and there had been all kinds of submissions: Together till the end of time, Forever young…
In the end, the voting session had turned into a massacre of who could be the most exaggerated and pretentious.
“I’m the best!”
“I am the best!”
It had dissolved into a quarrel so violent it could overturn the sky. In the end, Old Tang came over, and the literature teacher who had one foot over the line of middle-age bestowed three words upon them: Love and Peace.
He Zhao took the vest out of its packaging and shook it out. A simple rectangular shape, the words Love and Peace ostentatious on the back.
Xie Yu hesitated for a long time. He didn’t want to put it on.
But the most troubled of all was Luo Wenqiang; he couldn’t go to the boys’ bathroom to change into a dress, after all. He Zhao put on the vest and got Liu Cunhao and the others to make a human wall. “Don’t worry, bro. Just change.”
Xie Yu came back from the bathroom and Wan Da shouted to him, “Yu-ge, join us. We have an empty spot here. Help us fill it.”
“I’m not helping.”
“Zhao-ge, your little friend.” After the chilly Big Bro of the West Building had walked off, Wan Da whispered to He Zhao, “Can you keep him in line?”
He Zhao stuck his hands in his pocket, fingertips brushing against a piece of lollipop wrapping paper. He suddenly smiled and said, “I really can’t keep him in line… it’s more like he keeps me in line.”
For some inexplicable reason, the word ‘henpecked’ flashed through Wan Da’s mind and scared him so much he jumped. Thankfully, Luo Wenqiang had already changed clothes and was currently huddled in a corner of the classroom, completely desolate, and refusing to show his face, thereby attracting the attention of everyone in class. “If you’ve changed, then come out! Hurry up. Are you a man or not? Dithering around like that.”
He Zhao took two steps backward and stood next to his seat. Now that he had retreated, a certain massive creature curled up in the corner was fully exposed to everyone’s eyes.
Luo Wenqiang clutched at the wall. “…I don’t want to live any more. You all are cruelly tearing away any chance a pure-hearted young man has at teenage love. There’s no way I’ll be able to find a girlfriend in my three years of high school life now.”
He Zhao sat on his desk and smiled.
Xie Yu also found it funny, but his sympathy won out and he decided to save the last scrap of the gym rep’s dignity for him.
He Zhao, noticing, reached out to tap Xie Yu’s head. “Little friend, are you in a bad mood?”
“Little friend, your ass.”
Xie Yu couldn’t control himself, either, and almost laughed out loud. He said, “I don’t want to be too cruel.”
Tang Sen raised his camera. He stood in the classroom doorway and smiled as he snapped a photo.
It wasn’t a proper class photo; they weren’t lined up but scattered around the back of the classroom. Luo Wenqiang had cried for a long time, and Wan Da now handed him a mirror. He couldn’t keep crying and, in fact, he started laughing at himself, too. Xu Qingqing took pictures with her mobile phone and everyone else couldn’t stand up straight for laughing.
Let us freeze the scene at this instant.
The instant when everyone has a smile on their face; endlessly energetic and bursting with youthful vigor.
And the two boys in the last row.
Although we can only see their backs, they are very close together. Especially He Zhao, who is sitting on the desk: his posture is relaxed and open, audacious and lawless.
He Zhao’s body is tilted to one side, showing half his face in profile; his hand lies on Xie Yu’s head, fingers threaded lightly through Xie Yu’s hair, a faint smile on his lips.
And the back of Xie Yu’s head seems to have the word Cold written on it.
The dazzling brilliance of the sunlight trying to shine through the window was stopped by the curtains. Now a wind blows the curtains upward to reveal these two desks, forever misaligned. The blackboard, full of chalk-scribbled words, as well as all the students in class, are bathed in this radiance.
They wear vests in the same style with three big words on the back: Love and Peace.