Deep in the Act
First Published on Chaleuria
Notice: Starting from this coming week, DITA releases will be reduced to 4 segments per week, published from Thursday to Sunday. (Please look forward to Chapter 15.1 on 1 November.)
Fang Chi parked his car on the boulevard just outside Gao Zhun’s estate. Leaning against the door of his car, he lit a cigarette and waited. At nine o’clock sharp, Zuo Linlin and Gao Zhun appeared in the distance, arm in arm. As they began walking in his direction, Fang Chi waved and walked up to the gate to meet them. At the entrance, the security guard on duty stared long and hard at Fang Chi, but panicked and shifted his eyes away the moment Fang Chi noticed his gaze. Fang Chi recognized him: he was one of the guards on patrol duty that night. Feeling somewhat embarrassed, he turned away as well and looked straight ahead, pretending not to have seen the young man.
Zuo Linlin looked gorgeous today. Her long hair fell softly about her shoulders, her short dress was embellished with countless crystals, and her three-inch scarlet heels accentuated the shape of her long, slender legs, making her seem even taller than Gao Zhun at a glance. “Charles!” She ran up to him ahead of Gao Zhun. Partially throwing herself into his embrace, she clung to his shoulders and pecked him on both cheeks. When Fang Chi looked up, he saw the youth staring again; this time, he was gaping as if he had never seen such a scene before.
Fang Chi returned his attention to Zuo Linlin. He noticed that she was expressly dressed to please him. The earthy tones on her eyes, the dash of coral on her lips from the YSL Rouge Pur Couture 17, and the milk-tea-colored polish on her fingers – all appealed to his preferences. Sweet memories of their time together in the US were reawakened, and he fell into a momentary trance as the fond feelings washed over him.
Then Zuo Linlin stepped away from his embrace. Just like a cutaway shot in a film, Gao Zhun appeared in Fang Chi’s line of vision with the hint of a shy smile about his exquisite features. Today, he wore a casual blazer, paired with light wash jeans and chestnut-colored calfskin boots. He looked completely different from his usual self. “Good morning, Dr. Fang,” he greeted, in a tone so soft and velvety that it seemed as if a sweet had melted into his voice.
“You’re not wearing a tie.” Fang Chi could not help but smile.
“Well,” a note of complaint crept into Gao Zhun’s voice, “I’m just following orders. You’re the one who set the task.”
Inserting herself between them, Zuo Linlin cut into their exchange. “We’ll start with an art exhibition in the morning. It’s a ten-minute drive from here. Then we’ll catch a movie in the afternoon and end with dinner in the evening.” She peered at Fang Chi with her almond eyes, and her cheek dimpled as she broke into a smile. “Shall we take your car?”
Glancing at Gao Zhun, Fang Chi replied, “If it’s just a ten-minute drive, we might as well walk over.”
She pursed her lips at his response. “But I’m in heels.”
Noticing the troubled look on Gao Zhun’s face, Fang Chi suggested, “How about we call a cab for you, my lady? Mr. Gao and I can make our way over on foot.”
“Forget it then.” With a roll of her eyes, she slipped her arms through theirs, one on each side. “Be sure to support me properly, both of you. I’ll have you both serve at my bedside every day in the hospital if I fall!”
Arm in arm, the three of them walked down the boulevard together. Gao Zhun walked on the outside. The sun fell through the layered treetops and shone on Gao Zhun in a mesmerizing dance of ever-shifting speckled light. Tilting his head to the side, Fang Chi stole a glance at the other man. Zuo Linlin sensed his gaze and assumed that he was looking at her. The ‘discovery’ made her a little shy and very smug at the same time. Just then, Gao Zhun’s phone began to ring. He answered the call, “Yes, Justin.”
Fang Chi strained his ears to catch Gao Zhun’s voice. In a tone of resignation, Gao Zhun explained into the phone, “It’s not that I don’t want to take you on this trip. It’s just that Eason is a better fit this time…”
“Charles,” Zuo Linlin called to Fang Chi as she turned towards him all of a sudden. “Do you remember that day when we went to an art exhibition in New York? The weather then was just as fine as the weather today.”
On the other side, Gao Zhun continued with his explanation. “You’re overthinking things, Justin. It’s impossible for me to take you on every one of my trips…”
“That day, we passed by a café run by a Chinese lady.” Zuo Linlin leaned lightly against Fang Chi as she recounted their past, almost as if she were snuggling against his arm. “She said that we looked like the perfect match for each other… Charles, are you listening?”
“Ah, yes. Of course,” Fang Chi replied, though he did not hear a single word; his attention was focused on Gao Zhun’s conversation. Finding Zuo Linlin far too noisy, he tried to change the topic. “Who’s that on the phone?” he asked, despite already knowing the answer.
She froze for a moment. Then, her tone changed as she answered his question, “Oh, it’s just one of his subordinates.” Her indifferent voice was laced with an edge of impatience. “Lately, he’s started calling all the time. I’m getting sick of hearing his name.”
A car zoomed past from behind, almost grazing Gao Zhun’s arm. The near-accident gave Fang Chi a fright. He took his arm out of Zuo Linlin’s grasp and made his way to Gao Zhun’s side just as the other man hung up. Flashing him a grateful smile, Gao Zhun switched places with Zuo Linlin with a hand on her slender waist so that she was walking between them again. But as they continued with their walk, Fang Chi grew more and more agitated. He could no longer stop himself from looking at Gao Zhun, nor could he contain his mounting irritation towards Zuo Linlin. In all the time they had known each other, he had never thought of her as talkative — until today.
Their destination was a modestly-sized, two-story gallery that stood on a street corner covered with ivy. There was an ongoing exhibition of human nudes created by two Korean sculptors. Fang Chi and Zuo Linlin went ahead to explore the works on display. Gao Zhun trailed behind them as he engaged the gallery manager in leisurely conversation; they seemed to be on friendly terms with each other.
“Do you still remember Texas?” Zuo Linlin asked, still hanging onto Fang Chi’s arm. “You used to dote on a little mare called Chacha. It’s been three years, but I still think of her often.”
Gao Zhun sounded cheerful as he discussed the latest trends and developments in art investment with the manager while keeping a polite distance from the other man. Fang Chi listened quietly to his voice until Zuo Linlin came to an abrupt stop. “I know you hate me,” she began in a lowered voice, not forgetting to keep an eye on Gao Zhun, “because you can’t forget me…” Knowing her own charms, she raised her fair chin suggestively to drive her point home.
Indeed, Fang Chi had not forgotten her. Seeing the tender length of her neck, he recalled the feel of her skin with vivid clarity. Behind them, Gao Zhun’s conversation with the manager came to an end. Through the silver glow spilling from the overhead lights, he walked up to them, fresh as a willowy stalk of bamboo. “The two of you go on ahead,” Zuo Linlin said, flashing a sweet smile at Gao Zhun. Then, turning to Fang Chi with a meaningful gaze, she added, “I need to use the washroom.”
Fang Chi caught the hint. How could he not? But there Gao Zhun was, gently peering up at him by his side — and Fang Chi found it impossible to move away. Not even a single step. “These sculptures…” Fang Chi began, feeling the dryness in his mouth and throat, “look rather unfinished.”
Numerous male and female nudes stood scattered all around them. Some were made out of burled wood, and some were made out of cracked ceramic. There was a certain roughness to them. Standing in the midst of such crude, unpolished figures, Gao Zhun seemed almost too refined, too delicate. “It’s an artistic style,” Gao Zhun explained in response to Fang Chi’s comment, “with Modernist influences.”
“You…” Choosing his words with care, Fang Chi asked, “Which human form do you find more attractive, male or female?”
Gao Zhun’s eyes widened in a childlike manner. Then he burst into laughter, clear as the clink of an ice cube against glass. “Back when I was in art school, we had to practice drawing human figures day in and day out. I got real sick of them, and it made no difference to me whether they were male or female. Even now, looking at you…”
He stopped. Curious, Fang Chi asked, “What about me?”
Gao Zhun lowered his head. “It’s an occupational hazard of mine. Don’t think too much about it…” His voice, bashful and uneasy, was so soft that Fang Chi could barely catch his words. “No matter how much clothing you put on, you’re as good as naked in my eyes.”
Fang Chi was dumbfounded. Blushing, Gao Zhun rushed to explain himself, “It’s not what you think. I mean… All I see are bone structures and musculature. Regardless of what you wear, or how much you wear, I am able to see a body’s physical form directly with a single glance…” His eyes wavered, unsure of where to look as he added, “You have a great physique.”
The atmosphere between them became a little awkward. Fang Chi’s eyes fell on the sculpture standing beside him: a clay figure of a woman with massive hips and swollen breasts. “Linlin has a pretty nice figure,” he remarked.
Gao Zhun responded coldly with a nod. Fang Chi seized the opportunity to probe further, “How are things between the two of you?”
Gao Zhun inhaled, looking a little hurt. “You must have noticed…” he replied, with a twitch in the corner of his lips, “we might be breaking up soon.” Fang Chi wisely remained silent and waited for him to go on. Indeed, after a moment of silence, Gao Zhun continued. “I can’t satisfy her,” he said, pausing as a quiver crept into his voice, “in all aspects of our relationship…”
Just as Fang Chi was about say something in response, Zuo Linlin returned from the washroom with a sullen expression on her face. She stomped up to them, and shot a glare at Fang Chi out of the wet, stained corner of her eye.