Deep in the Act
First Published on Chaleuria
Grabbing Gao Zhun’s wounded hand, Fang Chi asked in a tone filled with displeasure, “So, you’re saying that you did this to yourself?” The large abrasion on the knuckles of Gao Zhun’s right hand had begun to bruise, and a livid purple showed through the reddened flesh.
“I broke the mirror in the toilet at work.”
“There is a technical term in psychology known as ‘psychological reversal’,” Fang Chi began to say, the harshness of his glare reflecting the genuineness and extent of his rage. “Others may hurt you, but you inflict even more harm upon yourself in the worst ways possible.”
Gao Zhun dropped his head and replied cautiously, “I won’t do it again.”
“Tell me about this colleague of yours.” Fang Chi released Gao Zhun’s hand and sat back in his chair.
Seeming somewhat reluctant to talk about this particular person, Gao Zhun’s response was rather vague, “He’s a subordinate, not a colleague. Just another kid.”
Fang Chi lifted an eyebrow. “What’s he like?”
“He specializes in sculpture, and is very talented. But his father – who is my business partner – doesn’t want him to become a full-time artist. He wants his son to take over the reins from him in the future, so the kid has begun shadowing me recently.”
All of a sudden, Fang Chi recalled an incident that Zuo Linlin once mentioned to him. Some disagreement between him and a colleague which escalated into a physical conflict of some sort. “Has there been any friction between the two of you?”
“Yes,” Gao Zhun sighed.
“Pretty much the same as what happened this time,” Gao Zhun replied, his face colored with embarrassment and distress. “The problem… probably lies with me.”
Self-blame. Fang Chi noted it down his book.
“It wasn’t anything specific, really. It’s just that… his presence gives me a lot of pressure.” Gao Zhun locked his fingers together; their tips began to turn white from the sheer force of his grip. “He’s very tall, and very well-built. Sometimes, he would sling his arm around my shoulders out of the blue. You know about my fear of physical contact – especially when it comes from someone as invasive as he is. I told him not to touch me, but he… I feel that he does not respect me at all.”
“What do you mean by that?” Fang Chi probed. “In what sense does he not respect you?”
“He… he would give me frights from time to time.” Gao Zhun blushed, as if he was unwilling to appear useless before Fang Chi. “He’s still young, so he is probably just doing it for fun. But I… I really can’t take it at all.”
Watching as Gao Zhun dug his fingers deeply into the flesh of his palms, Fang Chi was seized by a sudden sense of agitation that sharpened into an urge to pry those hands apart. “How about this? Let’s…” He paused, momentarily confounded by his feelings. “Let’s try out an exercise. It’s called the ‘empty chair’ technique.”
He stood up and moved his chair so that it was facing Gao Zhun directly. Then, he stepped away to observe the proceedings from the side, at a distance from Gao Zhun. This seemed to calm him down a little. “Try imagining that your subordinate is sitting in the chair before you, and tell him everything you’d like to say to him.”
Somewhat bewildered, Gao Zhun kept turning to look at Fang Chi in confusion. Every one of his glances added fire to the agitation roiling within Fang Chi. “Stop looking at me,” he instructed, pointing at the empty chair, “focus on ‘him’ and talk to ‘him’.”
“I don’t like him. I have nothing to say to him. I… can’t I talk to you instead?”
Mustering every last bit of willpower, Fang Chi positively forced himself to refuse Gao Zhun’s request. “In that case, try verbalizing how much you dislike him. The aim of this exercise, after all, is to give you an avenue for relieving all the unspoken feelings and thoughts pent up within you.”
“Well… Justin,” Gao Zhun braced himself and began stiffly, facing the empty chair. “I’ve already told you that I don’t like being touched. Every time you hug me from behind, it makes me very… uncomfortable. I hope you will learn to be more mindful of this in the future.”
His tone was indeed that of a superior to his subordinate. For reasons he did not understand, Fang Chi felt himself disliking this man already – this Justin. His mind became flooded with images of Justin invading Gao Zhun’s personal space and crossing his boundaries: those straightened shoulders, that tiny waist, those panicked flighty hands – all violated by that young man’s touch… Fang Chi abruptly returned to his senses, assailed by the sudden realization that he had just allowed himself to be carried away like a rookie fresh out of college.
On the other hand, Gao Zhun continued to speak as he settled into the exercise. “Take that auction in Macau for example. I know you were excited because it was your first project, but I was your superior – still am – and what you did was completely out of line. You shouldn’t have acted the way you did. You can’t act in that manner. That’s the reason why I hit you…” Once he began talking, Gao Zhun found it impossible to stop. He started to relax as he exposed himself through such unrestrained revelations, and the sense of freedom filled him with an indescribable pleasure. “You did it again this time, at the Expressionist traveling exhibition. When we’re together… you treat me as if I am a woman!”
“Let’s pause here for a moment,” Fang Chi cut in. “Why would you say that you feel like a woman when you’re with him?”
Gao Zhun panicked a little. It was not his intention to voice those words aloud; it was an accident. “Be… because he is very tall and strong. He is probably the very image of what my mother would call a ‘real man’. Heavy frames are nothing to him. He can lift them up without much effort while I can’t even move them. He makes me feel… feminine.”
Feminine – this was a misleading and distortive expression. Fang Chi strode towards the other man. “Gao…” He caught himself in time – he almost called him by his name. “Mr. Gao, will you please tell me more about your understanding of masculinity and femininity?”
Like a student eager for his teacher’s praise, Gao Zhun was filled with apprehension at the thought of giving answers that failed to meet Fang Chi’s expectations. Fang Chi noticed his anxiety and rephrased his request, “How about this? I will give you a list of expressions. Please sort them out for me.”
This was the list he gave to Gao Zhun: responsibility; power; snow-white; seduction; tears; flames. Gao Zhun began to reply without giving it much thought, “Responsibility and power are masculine. Snow-white and tears are feminine. Flames should be masculine. As for seduction…” He hesitated before concluding in a tentative tone, “It’s feminine, I suppose?”
“There isn’t a clear or fixed answer for this exercise,” Fang Chi began to explain. “To begin with, it’s rather problematic to impose such rigid dichotomies on the list. Do you believe, for example, that women do not bear any responsibilities in society? Or that the beauty of female athletes is divorced from the physical power they possess?”
Gao Zhun was stunned; he had not expected such a response from Fang Chi. Fang Chi, on the other hand, had set his mind on deconstructing Gao Zhun’s preconceived notions about gender. He pressed on, “Caucasian men may have complexions that are fair enough to be described as ‘snow-white’, while ‘flames’ can also be associated with the flame red lips of women. Lastly, ‘tears’ are not an exclusively female privilege.”
Gao Zhun sat in utter bewilderment, unable to make sense of the words he had just heard. In a calm, unhurried manner, Fang Chi returned to the central issue he wanted to address, “Therefore, it is not a crime for men to be ‘feminine’. It’s okay to let yourself be, just as it’s okay for left-handers to be themselves. Any form of ‘correction’ is unnecessary.”
Tears started to fall from the corner of Gao Zhun’s left eye, rolling off the tips of his lashes and trickling quickly down the curve of his cheek. Gao Zhun did not realize he was crying until he unconsciously brushed his face with a hand and felt the wetness on his skin. He panicked. “No, no. Men and women – male and female – are different. That’s the way it is. That’s what everyone believes…” Even as he was speaking, he licked at his lip in agitation. “You may have a point, but I…” – he wrapped his hand around his wrist in agony – “there’s something wrong with me, or I would never dream of such things in my sleep…”
“What have you been dreaming of?” Fang Chi asked with great concern.
“I…” Gao Zhun stopped abruptly.
“Are these dreams the same as the ones you used to have?”
“No, no they aren’t.” His eyes flickered and avoided Fang Chi’s gaze. “These dreams are… very strange.”
Fang Chi sat down on the chair before Gao Zhun and looked straight at him. “Can’t you tell me about them?”
In response, Gao Zhun began to tremble, stubborn in his refusal to answer Fang Chi. Just as Fang Chi was about to give up, however, Gao Zhun suddenly said, “I dreamed that I had become a woman.”