Deep in the Act
Quality Check: Isalee
First Published on Chaleuria
“A scene?” Gao Zhun asked, his voice low and warm, a stark contrast to his showy appearance. Sometimes, when questioned by Gao Zhun, Fang Chi would find himself transported into a state of dream-like comfort as the mellow tones washed over him.
“For example, is there a scene that you find most memorable, which you recall most often?”
Gao Zhun’s brow twitched slightly, as if in recollection. “There was once…” he began, somewhat embarrassed. “I was seven or eight then. Another child made fun of me for being fatherless, and I hit him for it. At that moment…” – a look of shyness came over his features – “… his father came by. I was so terrified I couldn’t even move as he walked up to us, but he said nothing, not even to ask his son how he was. All he did was pat me gently on the head.”
He paused for a while before adding, “I suppose that’s how it feels to have a father.”
“What happened after that?” Fang Chi asked.
“After that, he scooped me up in his arms and carried me home.” Suddenly animated by uncharacteristic excitement, Gao Zhun gushed, “He didn’t even carry his own son. He only held his hand.”
“What did you do then?”
“I clung to his neck and placed my cheek against his.” Very quickly, his face fell again. “But Mother cried after he left.”
Fang Chi began to understand his curiosity toward adult males and his dependency on them. “What was he like?”
“I heard that he was a doctor,” – Gao Zhun glanced lightly at him – “a medical professional just like you. You are both very friendly and willing to help others in need.”
“What else?” Fang Chi pressed on, feeling a little stifled as heat began to creep over his face.
“Both of you are very similar,” Gao Zhun answered as he fixed his gaze on Fang Chi, his eyes clear and bright. “You are both tall, and you both have wavy hair. When I saw you at our last meeting, I knew for sure that you would be able to help me.”
Fang Chi fell silent then. He remained quiet for a long time as guilt emerged from the dark recesses of his soul, reminding him of the choice he made to torment the other man when he could have treated him with kindness. In the remaining time, Gao Zhun shared more about his family and personal experiences. Just as he began to talk about Zuo Linlin, Fang Chi cut him off to discuss the timing of his next appointment. Gao Zhun chose the 4 p.m. slot on Wednesdays.
When Gao Zhun was about to leave, Fang Chi came out of his office and walked him to the elevator. On parting, Gao Zhun flashed him a polite smile through the slowly closing elevator doors. As Fang Chi continued to follow the elevator’s descent on the number display, he was suddenly assailed by an intense newfound desire to understand and help the other man.
That night, Fang Chi received a call from Zuo Linlin in the midst of his research on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). She asked in a lowered voice, “So, you’ve begun treatment with him?”
“Yes,” he removed his glasses and replied with mixed feelings.
“He’s in a really good mood today. Couldn’t stop talking about you.”
Fang Chi laughed wryly. “What did he say about me?”
“Very positive things. He’s grateful that I knew you. Said that you gave him hope.” She spoke sweetly and just a little coyly, “Thank you so much for everything, Charles.”
“It’s nothing.” The bitter resentment within him reared its ugly head again. Frowning, he was about to hang up when she asked suddenly, “Charles, what exactly is his problem? Is he sick?”
Fang Chi paused. Although he could not be certain, he thought he detected a subtle, barely perceptible change in her since the last time they talked on the phone. “He isn’t sick, but something happened to him. I’m still not sure what it is, or what he is going through right now. Even if I’m sure, as his therapist, I cannot divulge the information. I have obligations towards him that I need to fulfill.”
He was answered by a moment of silence on the other end of the line before she spoke again, “Can’t you even tell me?”
She still remembered his weaknesses after all these years. Lacing the toughness in her tone with the barest hint of coquettish intimacy, she easily rendered him powerless with her voice. Fang Chi gave in, pinching the bridge of his nose, “Alright… I think that he may have experienced some kind of traumatic event. More specifically, I suspect that he might have been mugged.”
“That’s impossible,” Zuo Linlin interjected. “He can tell me directly about something like that. He wouldn’t need to hide it from me.”
“Perhaps he is afraid that you will look down on him.” Fang Chi slipped a bookmark between the pages and closed the sourcebook. He had just been reading about psychological adjustment following violent injuries. “Many men who have been victims of mugging experience discrimination by women. Given how proud he is, it would be very likely for him to feel it much more strongly.”
“Do people become insomniacs after being mugged? Does the experience make them break things, or get them hooked on sleeping pills?”
“Maybe he was beaten up, or subjected to some other kind of violence. We don’t know what he went through.” Fang Chi sighed before adding, “Besides, Linlin, this is just a guess on my part.”
Finally, she was ready to end the call. Fang Chi reminded her repeatedly not to mention their conversation to Gao Zhun. She promised. Right before hanging up, she told him tamely, “I can only rely on you now. Charles, you’re all I have left…”
On Friday, three days later, Fang Chi was on his way home from work in the evening when he saw Gao Zhun at the intersection between Jiujiang Road and Xizang Middle Road. He was dressed in a casual suit, and carried a relatively small cardboard box in his hands. He would stop every few steps to catch his breath, and it seemed that the box was much heavier than it appeared to be. Fang Chi cut across the lane and pulled up on the shoulder of the road. Rolling down the window, he called out, “Mr. Gao!”
As Gao Zhun turned around at the sound of his voice, Fang Chi continued naturally, “Get in. I’ll give you a lift.”
Gao Zhun started to take a step in his direction but froze immediately. The same panic-stricken terror flashed in his eyes as he turned down the offer, “I wouldn’t want to trouble you. It’s just a short walk home from here. It won’t take too long.”
The reaction jolted Fang Chi’s memory of Zuo Linlin’s comments about how Gao Zhun had stopped driving out of the blue, and even refused to set foot in parking lots. Reaching across the passenger’s seat, Fang Chi opened the door and said instead, “Leave the box with me, then.”
Gao Zhun accepted the new offer. He placed the box in the passenger’s seat and told Fang Chi his address. He lived on an expensive high-end estate that was indeed only a short distance away. Fang Chi pulled up by its entrance and got out of the car for a smoke while he waited for Gao Zhun. He looked up at the cluster of residential blocks, taking in their varying heights and the spectrum of lights shining from their differently-sized windows. He could not help but imagine Zuo Linlin lighting up one of those lamps in one of those numerous suites belonging to one of those buildings.
From a distance, Gao Zhun came toward him through the misty glow of the evening, the invisible sweetness of his expensive fragrance permeating softly through the darkling air. “Thank you,” he said as he walked up to Fang Chi.
Fang Chi stubbed out his cigarette. “It’s only a short drive into the estate. Would you like a ride?”
“I’ll be fine,” Gao Zhun replied. “Would you like to come in for a while? Linlin said that it’s been a long time since she last saw you.”
“Thanks, but no.” Fang Chi carried the box out of the car and passed it to Gao Zhun. “How have you been these two days?”
“I drank again last night because I couldn’t fall asleep… I had a nightmare around three in the morning, and I was afraid I’d wake her up,” he answered, heaving the box into his arms before bidding Fang Chi goodbye.
Just as Gao Zhun started walking through the gate, Fang Chi spoke up. “You can call me.”
Gao Zhun stopped in his tracks and turned around to look at him in puzzlement.
“You can call me whenever you get nightmares,” Fang Chi said, “even at three in the morning.”