Deep in the Act
Quality Check: Isalee
First Published on Chaleuria
You – she made it clear that she was using the singular pronoun, not the plural. Every one of her words was an explicit reproach directed at Zhang Zhun, cutting him to the quick and filling him with shame. Panic rose within him; he had never been as desperate as he was now for Chen Hsin to return to the room.
Feng Yunting continued, “There are two halves here, one for you and one for me.” She tapped her chopsticks against the edge of the pot, her movements measured and deliberate. “I don’t care what you do with your half, as long as you stay clear of mine. Besides,” she paused and lifted her long tresses haughtily, “what could a half like yours amount to anyway?”
Zhang Zhun felt his blood freeze in his veins, too cold to be thawed even by the bubbling red broth swirling before him. He wanted to explain himself or to rebut her, but he seemed to have lost his voice and forgotten how to speak altogether. Stumped, he sat speechless as cold sweat broke out on his back.
The door opened again. “Yeah. Yeah, I know.” Chen Hsin returned, still talking on his phone. As soon as he stepped into the room, however, he sensed the abnormal tension in the air. Feng Yunting had resumed her look of doll-like perfection, flawless to the point of being fake, while Zhang Zhun’s face was white as a sheet. Chen Hsin realized at once that something had gone terribly wrong. “That’s enough. We’ll continue later when I get back.”
Chen Hsin ended the call and sat down at the table. “Why’s the fire out?” he directed the question at Feng Yunting, an interrogatory note in his tone.
“We didn’t want to run out of soup while you were away,” Feng Yunting replied, natural to a fault. She switched on the stove with one hand and reached for Chen Hsin’s thigh with the other. “We were waiting for you to come back.”
Not bothering with any pretense of politeness, Chen Hsin pushed her hand off his leg at once. Meanwhile, Zhang Zhun started to get to his feet. “The two of you take your time,” he said. “There’s something I need to tend to, so…”
Chen Hsin grabbed Zhang Zhun by the hand. “Eat a little more.” Zhang Zhun did not dare to shake off the younger man’s grasp. It would be too obvious, too telling, for him to pull away now; the more he tried to hide, the more he would expose himself. Chen Hsin tugged at his hand, almost pleading. “Stay,” he repeated, “and eat a little more.” All of a sudden, Zhang Zhun found himself hating Chen Hsin with all the bitter anguish of his own desperation to hug the younger man right now. His eyes reddened. He bowed his head and sat down once more, not daring to look in Feng Yunting’s direction at all.
Very soon, the pot’s contents started to boil again. Separated by the insurmountable divide between the two halves, Zhang Zhun picked at the red broth all by himself while the other two shared the white stock together. Yet, instead of keeping to his half, Chen Hsin reached across without warning and picked out some glass noodles from Zhang Zhun’s side of the pot. Feng Yunting saw what he was doing and rushed to stop him. “Honey!” She tried to pull back his hand. “You’ll upset your stomach!”
Chen Hsin shoved her out of the way. “It’s my stomach. I’ll do as I please.” He did not stop at a single bite. Willfully indignant, he continued stuffing his mouth again and again with food from the other half. Knowing full well what the younger man was trying to prove, and for whom his display was intended, Zhang Zhun started to lose control over his tears. Before a single drop could fall from his eyes, he struggled to his feet, snatched up his jacket, and fled.
Zhang Zhun dashed out of the restaurant, but did not make it far before his phone began to ring. He felt as if Chen Hsin was tormenting him out of his mind. Answering the call without sparing a glance at the number, he yelled into his phone, “What the f*** are you calling me for? Don’t you have the guts to get out here yourself?!”
His outburst was met with silence. Zhang Zhun slowed down without realizing it. Just as he was about to check the caller ID, however, someone spoke up from the other end of the line: “It’s me.” The speaker had a gentle voice that Zhang Zhun had not heard from for a very long time – not since that bedroom scene where he and Chen Hsin had gone completely out of line.
It was Xie Danyi.
This time, it was Zhang Zhun’s turn to fall silent. As he floundered in bewilderment, at a loss for what to say or do, she asked, “Are you alone right now?”
“Danyi…” Zhang Zhun breathed out her name in a daze. He swallowed before giving her the honest answer: “I was with… friends… a while ago.” The long street stretched before him into the night. Towering buildings rose in the distance, their brilliant neon lights sparkling in the sky, while modest roadside stalls stood nearby with their dim, hazy glow. Grease oozed by his feet into the drains. He began walking down the street all alone. As if muttering to himself, he asked, “How have you been?”
“Not too well,” she answered lightly.
Zhang Zhun paused for a moment before apologizing, “I’m sorry…” His gut heaved and churned; he felt as if he was going to be sick.
There was a brief pause on her end as well. “Those friends you were with… Was Chen Hsin one of them?”
“He…” Zhang Zhun had never told her a single lie before; he never wanted to lie to her. “His girlfriend is here for a visit. We just had dinner together…” He must be out of his mind to be discussing these things with her, he thought, but he could not stop himself. “It was horrible…”
Through the phone came the sounds of Xie Danyi’s broken sighs. Her voice sounded a little distant from the phone now, and it became harder to make out what she was saying. “It’s alright. Stop thinking about it. Just let things run their natural course.” Her words, untouched by any personal emotion or resentment, were spoken like a truly caring friend. Zhang Zhun crumbled. All of a sudden, feeling raw and vulnerable, he found himself missing the scent of her body, the crook of her arms, and the small flowers she used to decorate their rooms.
“By the way, the weather’s getting colder where you are now. I sent you some thicker socks, so don’t forget to ask Xiao-Deng for them.” Her voice came close to the phone again, and Zhang Zhun felt its soothing warmth. “Also, remember to watch out for your old injuries.”
“Okay,” Zhang Zhun replied, docile and obedient.
“I’ve got some work on my hands right now, so I won’t be able to call often.”
“Will you come back?” she asked out of the blue. Zhang Zhun was stunned. She seemed to have mustered all her courage just to put the question to him. “When you’re done with the film,” she continued with a slight quaver in her voice, “will you come back?”
“I…” Zhang Zhun wanted to give her a definite answer, but he could not manage any in the end. “I don’t know.”
She accepted the response calmly. “Alright then,” she replied, sounding a little reluctant to part with him. “Keep in touch.” But just as Zhang Zhun was about to hang up, she hurriedly added, “I’ll wait for you. I mean… if you want to come back, I will be waiting at home for you.”
“Okay,” Zhang Zhun agreed without knowing what prompted him to do so. He put his phone away and continued drifting forward like the lost, despondent soul that he was. However, sensing that he was being followed, he snapped his head around and saw a scarlet spark hovering about ten meters behind him.
“I ran out after you,” a tall figure spoke out from the shadows. It was a man with wavy hair that covered his eyes and the slight whiff of a familiar HUGO fragrance about him. “You were speaking on the phone. I followed behind you, like one of those lousy, unwanted strays.” The spark fell straight to the ground and went out abruptly. “Four hundred and seventy-two steps in total.”
Zhang Zhun began running toward the other man – so impulsive, so true to himself – only to come to an abrupt stop right before him, unable to move a single finger. Despite the darkness around them, despite the fact that there were few people around, Zhang Zhun did not dare to move anymore – not to hug the man before him, not even to touch him. Standing close, Chen Hsin gazed down at Zhang Zhun, tracing his features in the weak gaslight glow from a nearby stall selling barbecue cold noodles. Even in the cheap, paltry light, Zhang Zhun dazzled with a brilliance of his own. Chen Hsin could not help himself. He gave Zhang Zhun a push. The older man did not fight back, so Chen Hsin pushed again and again until they were engulfed in the shadows of a tiny alley by the side of the street.
Everything felt so natural; this was everything that they had been yearning after all this time. Crushing broken plastic and rotting leaves underfoot, Chen Hsin pinned Zhang Zhun to the dilapidated brick wall of the old alleyway. The pungent smell of scallions and garlic filled their noses. Their lips, taking on a life of their own, melded as one, locked together in madness like there was no tomorrow.
Zhang Zhun seemed to hear the wind in his ears, as loud as if a train had sped by inches away from him. Then, through the deafening roar came the sound of Chen Hsin’s broken words, shattered beyond belief: “I’ll break things off… I’ll break up with her…”
As if he were reciting a spell, Chen Hsin repeated himself over and over again. In response, Zhang Zhun embraced the younger man with feverish passion, only to be crushed in turn by the uncontrolled brute force from Chen Hsin’s body. In this moment, they were willing to love, accept, and forgive each other with all their beings, even if it meant sacrificing their very selves.
“Do you know what Chen Cheng-Sen said?” Chen Hsin breathed. “He called me an immature fool.” Zhang Zhun’s fingers rested weakly by his lips; Chen Hsin took one of them into his mouth. “He said we’re finished, you and I. We’re completely done for.”