Deep in the Act
Quality Check: Isalee
First Published on Chaleuria
Another Wednesday came around. Fang Chi had a conference to attend, so he cleared his schedule and turned down all appointments for the day – all except for one. Special instructions were given to his secretary to keep Gao Zhun’s appointment that afternoon. When Fang Chi dashed out of the elevator into his clinic five minutes past the scheduled time, Gao Zhun was already waiting, a troubled look on his face as secretary Feng tried to charm him into helping her put on a newly-bought scarf.
“Good afternoon, Mr. Gao,” Fang Chi said, visibly displeased.
Gao Zhun turned at the sound of his voice. In that brief moment, his expression seemed to come alive with an animated vitality. All traces of frustration melted instantly into a look of gentle coyness as he set eyes on Fang Chi, like a lone nestling which had spotted its returning flock in the distance, or a single drop of dew trembling under the touch of a loving breeze in spring. “Doctor,” he greeted Fang Chi with a light smile, “I heard from Miss Feng that you rushed back specially for my appointment. Thank you for your trouble.”
Fang Chi clearly felt the affectionate dependence that Gao Zhun was projecting onto him. “Please give me a minute, Mr. Gao. I need to have a word with Miss Feng first.”
He stepped into his office, put down his bag, and instructed his secretary to close the door behind her. Then, pointing a finger harshly at her, he warned her coldly, “I’ve told you before: keep your distance from my patients. Don’t let me catch you doing that again. Now get out.”
Feeling wronged, secretary Feng tried to speak up for herself, “I…”
He cut her off impatiently, “Mr. Gao already has a fiancée and he’s getting married soon. Get out!” He was already late by five minutes, and did not want to keep Gao Zhun waiting any longer.
Despite his command, secretary Feng remained rooted to the spot with her head lowered. He strode past her swiftly and opened the door for her, simultaneously putting on a smile for Gao Zhun as he welcomed the man inside. “You may come in now, Mr. Gao.”
Even though he sensed the tension between them, Gao Zhun said nothing and walked over. As he passed by secretary Feng in the doorway, Fang Chi placed a hand on the small of his back out of habit. Immediately, his body shuddered nervously at the brief contact. The sudden rigidity in his body did not escape Fang Chi’s notice. Although he had intended to reach for the remote control for the air-conditioning after ushering Gao Zhun into the room, he changed his mind after a quick moment of deliberation. He decided to carry out an experiment instead.
“I am extremely sorry, Mr. Gao,” Fang Chi apologized as he gestured towards the air-conditioner in the corner of the room. “The air-conditioning is out of order. Could you please bear with it just for today?”
It was 95 degrees Fahrenheit outdoors. Although it was already after four in the late afternoon, the sun continued blazing brutally. Despite being formally dressed in a three-piece suit and a wide tie for a partners’ meeting in the morning, Gao Zhun agreed without hesitation, “Sure.”
Fang Chi was also dressed in a suit, though it was nowhere as formal as Gao Zhun’s outfit. He shrugged off his jacket and laid it over the back of his chair before making his way over and sitting down again at the usual angle from Gao Zhun. “Let’s continue from where we left off at the last meeting. We were talking about the images from your past.”
Gao Zhun stared at him attentively, hanging onto his every word like a model student. Fang Chi supposed this was how Gao Zhun had always been when he was growing up – humble, docile, and an exemplar of excellence. “Mr. Gao, do you have any images of past failures that you could share with me?”
“Failure?” The concept seemed foreign to Gao Zhun. “I suppose I have had my fair share of ups and downs: poor performance in examinations, career crises and breakups – I’ve experienced them all, but not once have I ever felt like a failure. Would they still count?”
High self-confidence. Fang Chi took down a note in his records before asking, “Have you retained images from any of these experiences?”
Gao Zhun pondered over his question. “I remember one of my breakups,” he began after some thought, pressing his lips together in embarrassment. “Back in university, I was… poor and not much to look at. My girlfriend didn’t think much of me. She left me on a particularly fine day. I watched from the balcony of my dorm and saw how happy she looked as she flicked her long hair in the breeze.” He paused and laughed lightly before continuing, “My roommate was cooking braised beef instant noodles at the time. He let me have the entire pot in the end!”
Fang Chi laughed along with him. Clearly, Gao Zhun was entirely unaffected by the relationship. He was about to ask another question when Gao Zhun suddenly added, “We crossed paths again last year, by the way, and she courted me tirelessly for two months.”
“What happened after that?” Fang Chi asked.
“Nothing.” Gao Zhun’s reply was cold and simple.
At this moment, Fang Chi suddenly realized that the man before him was not as innocent and fragile as he appeared to be. He, too, harbored a streak of worldly malice within him. This new insight compelled Fang Chi to change his tactics.
“To be honest, I have been dumped before as well,” Fang Chi began his sharing. Such deliberate self-disclosure within reasonable means was a basic technique commonly employed by many psychotherapists. Fang Chi proceeded now with practiced ease, “Unlike you, however, I never managed to get over the breakup.”
Just as Fang Chi had expected, Gao Zhun became entirely focused on him, oblivious to the sweltering heat and the sweat soaking through his clothes as he listened with a look of genuine concern on his face. Fang Chi pushed on with his narrative, “She might be getting married soon…”
At this, Gao Zhun stirred. He was about to ask a question when Fang Chi cut him off abruptly, “You’re melting in this heat. Take off your jacket.”
Gao Zhun was stunned and his expression faltered as the same stricken fear began to show on his face. “No, I… I’m fine.”
“Take it off, and take off your tie as well.” With a friendly smile on his face, Fang Chi gestured invitingly to the wardrobe by the door. “There are hangers available too, so you don’t have to worry about creasing your clothes.”
“No, there’s really no need…” Gao Zhun replied, eyes flickering evasively as he crossed his arms. Fang Chi immediately recognized the defensive nature of the seemingly casual movement. Brow twitching slightly, he resumed his sharing. “Since we’re on the topic of failures, I thought I’d share something that happened to me when I was still studying in the US…” He let his voice trail off slowly before swiftly introducing his new topic, “I was mugged.”
Contrary to Fang Chi’s expectations, however, Gao Zhun did not react at all to the mention of being ‘mugged’. Was he mistaken in his assessment? Fang Chi was a little doubtful as he carried on with his narration, “It happened one night in autumn. I was jogging alone in the park near my school, and I didn’t know that I was being followed.”
Without warning, a sudden change came over Gao Zhun’s eyes. Like a spooked deer terrified out of its wits, he bolted right into Fang Chi’s trap. “He came out of nowhere from behind, knife in hand. He smelled… rank1. You know how overwhelming body odors can get with some men…” Fang Chi spoke slowly as he scrutinized Gao Zhun’s every move, registering the pained bob of his Adam’s apple and the tightened grip on his tie.
“Although I wasn’t at a disadvantage physically, I was too scared to fight back. I scrambled desperately to find some cash for him, but I didn’t have a single cent on me.” Shifting closer, he leaned towards Gao Zhun and continued, “He began to hit me. It went on and on. It was brutal. My injuries lasted for weeks, but at the time I was glad that a beating was all I got. I felt lucky to come out of the incident alive.”
Completely absorbed in the story, Gao Zhun stared unblinkingly at him with widened watery eyes, utterly petrified with fear. Fang Chi laughed deliberately. “In hindsight, I suppose things could have turned out very differently if I had resisted back then. Who knows, I might even have taught him a lesson instead.” They were barely inches apart now, and Fang Chi concluded his story in a near-whisper, “But I never dared to go jogging again. I started having nightmares. Even in the day, I was constantly haunted by the feeling of chills going down my neck, as if there was a blade…”
Sweat streamed down Gao Zhun’s face. Through his drenched shirt, Fang Chi caught a flash of the skin under his collar. “Won’t you take off your jacket?” Fang Chi asked again. When Gao Zhun responded with a shake of his head, Fang Chi continued, “The thought of telling anyone else was terrifying. I was scared that others would look down on me if they knew… It couldn’t be helped. Like all men, I could not let go of my pride.”
“What happened after that?” Gao Zhun asked, a tremor in his voice.
Tossing his hair lightly, Fang Chi pulled away. “I confided in my mentor, and his treatment cured me.”
At the mention of a cure, a sense of yearning came visibly over Gao Zhun. Fang Chi repeated for the third time within the hour, “The heat is too much for you. Don’t you want to take off your jacket?”
- rank: (adj) having a foul or offensive smell