Deep in the Act
First Published on Chaleuria
In the center of his office stood two black chairs placed at an angle from each other. Fang Chi began to make his way around his work table, but as he took his third step he caught sight of Gao Zhun’s expression – he was staring at the closing door in absolute terror.
“Mr. Gao,” Fang Chi called out experimentally.
Visibly spooked, Gao Zhun took a step backward in fright. This single panicked step was all Fang Chi needed to be sure that the other man was indeed unwell.
“Please take a seat, Mr. Gao.” Fang Chi sat down first with his pen and notebook. Suddenly interested, he watched Gao Zhun’s every move with a pitying eye, staring as the man sat down gingerly and rested his vintage leather briefcase carefully against the leg of the chair. “Is this your first time seeking professional help?”
The door clicked shut; Gao Zhun swallowed and remained silent. The scent he wore wafted pleasantly through the air. Observing him up close, Fang Chi noted his exquisite taste, excellent breeding, and appearance of perfection. “Mr. Gao, let’s take it easy since it’s your first visit. We’ll keep the conversation casual so there’s no need for you to be stressed about this.”
“Understood,” Gao Zhun replied gently. His gaze fell lightly on Fang Chi for a brief instant before flickering away again.
“What is your line of work, Mr. Gao?”
“More specifically, what is it that you do?”
“I manage the pricing of artworks and creative design products. I have absolute control over prices in the regions within ten longitudinal and latitudinal degrees from China.”
“You majored in the fine arts?”
“Arts management, actually. I dabbled in printmaking.”
Gao Zhun seemed to relax a little as he talked about his work and education; they were, after all, areas of personal success for him. But Fang Chi noticed how he remained fixated with the door. He watched with an astute eye as Gao Zhun furtively stole surreptitious glances at the door out of his peripheral vision. Claustrophobia? Fang Chi jotted down a note.
“Are you dating Linlin?”
Gao Zhun paused in surprise. “She is my fiancée,” he replied, his expression entirely normal.
The term – fiancée – annoyed Fang Chi. He nodded in response. Evidently, Gao Zhun was unaware of his relationship with Zuo Linlin; she did not tell him at all. “Were you resistant to the idea when she suggested that you pay me a visit?” He forced himself to smile against his will, assuming an air of toughened carelessness as he added, “Generally speaking, most people dislike the idea of seeing a therapist.”
Unaffected by Fang Chi’s mood, Gao Zhun rubbed the tip of his nose with his right index finger. “She cares a lot about me. She said that you were a friend of hers, so I thought that it would be good to make your acquaintance.”
His gesture was a common sign of hesitation. Like a high-schooler observing his crush, Fang Chi scrutinized the other man and knew for sure that he had lied. “She mentioned that you have trouble sleeping.”
Unexpectedly, Gao Zhun’s tone sharpened. He replied, almost tauntingly, “Don’t tell me that you’ve never had trouble falling asleep, Doctor.”
Defensiveness. Fang Chi broke into a smile, “Of course I have. On such occasions, I usually play some music or watch some TV. How about you?”
Gao Zhun’s face stiffened. His thin lips moved a little. The red, narrow tip of his tongue darted out to lick at the corner of his mouth. “I… drink a little wine. In my profession, you need plenty of sleep and can’t stay up too late.”
“I see…” Fang Chi dragged out his voice on purpose. “Have you tried any sleeping medications?”
Though he was not looking at Gao Zhun, he felt the weight of the man’s unblinking stare. The air seemed to thicken under the pressure of the invisible tension between them, but Fang Chi had nothing to fear in this silent, intangible battle. He was adept at manipulating silences to his advantage. Gao Zhun, on the other hand, soon began to falter, his large pretty eyes flickering evasively from side to side. Finally succumbing to the pressure, he heaved a deep sigh and closed his eyes. As he lifted his lids again, he asked, “May I have some water?”
Fang Chi put down his writing materials and got up. As he pressed the button on the water dispenser, Gao Zhun replied lightly, “Yes.”
Fang Chi seized the opportunity to press him further, “How long has it been?”
He handed the cup to Gao Zhun. Gao Zhun clasped his hands around the cup but did not drink a single drop. “About a month.”
How should one describe the expression on his face now? It was filled with fear and loneliness, utterly lost in despondency. Although Fang Chi was sure that he had seen such an expression before, the precise words eluded him in the moment. “Did the medication help?”
“… No.” Gao Zhun slowly loosened up, his waist leaning backward to rest against the back of his chair – a sign to Fang Chi that he could take the discussion further. He slowed down the pace of his speech as he leaned forward gradually, his voice taking on an encouraging tone as he coaxed, “What happens when you don’t take the pills?”
Following his lead, Gao Zhun replied, “I get nightmares.”
“Tell me more about your nightmares. What are they like?”
“It’s always the same dream. I…”
He was about say, “I would walk into the parking lot alone,” but he cut off the utterance forcibly. To stop himself from continuing, he even clamped a hand over his mouth to suppress his speech. Fang Chi watched as cold sweat beaded on Gao Zhun’s forehead and streamed down his face – there was no doubt that he was in tremendous agony.
For Zuo Linlin’s sake, Fang Chi should have pushed him further, aggravated him even more – but he did not. Instead, he reached out with a hand in an attempt to support those thin, shaking shoulders. However, Gao Zhun did not give him the opportunity to get close; like a woman in the throes of hysteria, he threw the contents of his cup at Fang Chi to avoid his suddenly outstretched hand.
The situation became awkward. “It’s alright,” Fang Chi reassured him, suppressing a wry smile.
“S… sorry… I’m sorry…” Gao Zhun apologized over and over again. Fang Chi shot him a cursory glance and was surprised by the wetness in the corners of his eyes.
“Were you scared?” he asked.
Gao Zhun’s denial was immediate, “No, nothing like that. It’s just… you were too close.”
After thinking for a moment, Fang Chi got to his feet. “Let’s give it a try.”
“What are we trying?”
“Let’s try to determine how much personal space you need, and what would be a safe physical distance for you.”
Gao Zhun tried to laugh off the suggestion, “Stop messing around, Doctor. We’re both men…”
Fang Chi had no desire to continue sidestepping the issue; he did not want to go around in circles with Gao Zhun anymore. “Mr. Gao, I am now convinced that you are unwell.” He paused for effect before continuing, “And I can confidently assure you that I have the means to resolve the issues you are facing.”
Gao Zhun was gazing at him attentively now, head tilted upwards, lips slightly parted. This was the reaction Fang Chi wanted – he wanted full cooperation from Gao Zhun. “I can help you manage your insomnia, alleviate your fears, improve your interpersonal relations, and return you to your optimal, high-functioning state again.”
Visibly seduced by Fang Chi’s words, Gao Zhun asked with some urgency, “What do I have to do?”
“You need to trust me,” Fang Chi replied, locking gazes firmly with Gao Zhun.
Gao Zhun’s reply was immediate, “I trust you!”
Fang Chi shook his head. “First, you need to tell me the truth.”
The fire went out in Gao Zhun’s eyes. The proud line of his neck drooped listlessly as he wrapped his hand habitually around the Patek Phillippe timepiece on his left wrist. He seemed fragile and brittle as he mustered the effort to respond with difficulty, “Give me some time…”