First Published on Chaleuria
They left the gallery slightly after ten. The movie theater was nearby, and there was already a crowd by the time they arrived. Worried that Gao Zhun might be spooked if strangers brushed against him by accident, Fang Chi subtly shifted his body from behind to shield Gao Zhun from the milling crowd around them. They had a choice between two movies: one was a romance, while the other was a horror flick. “It’s been a long time since I last watched a horror film,” Zuo Linlin exclaimed with great excitement, “let’s pick the horror!”
Seeing the fear that flashed across Gao Zhun’s face, Fang Chi immediately suggested, “Let’s go for the romance instead. I prefer something more light-hearted.”
“But Charles, I seem to remember that horror films are your favorite.” She lifted her gaze, her eyes narrowing just a bit as the apples of her cheeks shifted a little – a clear sign that she was up to no good. Fang Chi knew her too well. Sure enough, she beamed as she turned to Gao Zhun. “What do you think?”
Gao Zhun’s eyes flitted from Zuo Linlin to Fang Chi. He was so pale, and he seemed so pitiful as he deferred to her. “Since Dr. Fang likes them…”
They bought tickets for three consecutive seats at the end of the row. Upon entering the theater, Gao Zhun was the first to make his way down the narrow aisle. After he sat down in the furthest seat, right by the wall, Fang Chi slipped into the next seat ahead of Zuo Linlin. She was stunned for a moment, but soon recovered and sat down happily in the outermost seat – she figured that it was his way of keeping her to himself by separating her from Gao Zhun.
The lights went out as the dragon seal1 appeared on the screen. Darkness descended all around them, and Gao Zhun’s breathing grew erratic. Fang Chi sensed the change and felt him stiffen in his seat; his body became completely rigid, as if he were bound by an invisible rope. The opening credits soon gave way to a shot down a narrow alley with no end or opening in sight. Only the sound of measured footsteps rang out in the dark. Bit by bit, Gao Zhun shrank towards Fang Chi; they were so close that Fang Chi now felt the other man’s icy breath on his ear. Suddenly, a bloody hand appeared. Thud – the accompanying sound effect echoed in the theater, and Gao Zhun curled up on himself. Fang Chi immediately reached out in the dark and grabbed his hand.
Almost at the same time, Zuo Linlin slid a soft hand onto Fang Chi’s thigh. After allowing her hand to linger there for a while, she sought out his other hand and slipped her fingers through his. For reasons he did not comprehend, Fang Chi felt sickened by her touch. He tried shaking her off by reaching for a drink, but her hand found its way into his grip once again. Gao Zhun’s hand, however, was quaking so hard that it began slipping out of Fang Chi’s hold. Fang Chi had no choice but to secure his grip by locking their fingers together – just like the way Zuo Linlin had locked his other hand with hers. He leaned towards Gao Zhun, offering his shoulder to the other man as he pressed their cheeks together. “Close your eyes,” he breathed against Gao Zhun’s skin, “lean on me if it gets too much for you.”
Then he caught the wet gleam in Gao Zhun’s watery eyes as they glistened in the dark, and Fang Chi was no longer capable of thinking. He raised the armrest between them and wrapped his arm around Gao Zhun’s waist. Instantly, like a kitten or puppy frightened out of its wits, Gao Zhun buried himself in Fang Chi’s embrace. Fang Chi felt the palpable warmth of Gao Zhun’s body against his own.
“What’s wrong?” Zuo Linlin glanced over at their side, displeasure written all over her face.
“I have to take him outside,” Fang Chi explained as he stood up with Gao Zhun in his arms. “You stay for the film.”
Thus, with all eyes on him, he wrapped his arms firmly around the beautiful man and stumbled his way out of the theater. Once they were outside, he was careful to avoid well-lit places that were far too bright. He finally stopped behind a rectangular pillar at the side of the corridor and loosened his hold on the other man bit by bit, as if he were tearing off a chunk of his own flesh.
Gao Zhun’s lips trembled. Hidden under his lashes were eyes that had lost their focus and pools of unshed tears. Clasping Gao Zhun’s hands in his own, Fang Chi called out urgently, “Look at me, Gao Zhun. Look at me!”
Yet Gao Zhun seemed oblivious to Fang Chi’s voice as murmured pleas welled up from the depths of his throat, “No, no… let me go… please, I beg you…”
Fang Chi realized that Gao Zhun’s trauma had been triggered. As direct consolation was seldom effective on patients who were consumed by traumatic memories, Fang Chi changed tactics. He switched to a less direct approach that allowed him to influence Gao Zhun’s behavior through psychological suggestions. “You want me to let go?” he asked, loosening his grip a little and pretending to back away. Gao Zhun reacted instantly. He grabbed Fang Chi’s hand and peered up at him in panic as he called out his name for the first time, “Fang Chi… Fang Chi!”
“Yes, I’m here,” Fang Chi answered with a calm smile. He returned Gao Zhun’s grip with one hand and kneaded Gao Zhun’s chest with the other. “Everything’s fine now. Take a deep breath. Follow my lead.”
Fang Chi’s breathing was slow and even. Gao Zhun began to match his rhythm. Together, they stood in the darkened corner like a pair of stranded fish struggling to keep each other alive2 – each breathing against the other, in time to the other. Standing by the entrance of the theater, Zuo Linlin watched on in disbelief.
When Fang Chi finally noticed her, he assured her in a calm and matter-of-fact tone, “We’ll go back into the theater soon.”
As she was about to reply, however, she felt a sudden, inexplicable prick in her chest. Instead of going along with Fang Chi, her response came out cold and contrary, “I’m starving. Let’s go for lunch now.”
Fang Chi shot her a disapproving glance – a wordless reprimand of her unreasonable behavior – and turned back to wipe away Gao Zhun’s tears with the tips of his fingers.
In the end, as suggested by Zuo Linlin, they went for lunch before heading home. She picked a Korean restaurant that specialized in samgyetang3. While waiting to be served, the three of them stared at one another in awkward silence. Mired in self-reproach, Gao Zhun looked at Fang Chi apologetically. “I’m sorry for ruining your day. I’ll make it up to you next week.”
Fang Chi was about to console him when Zuo Linlin chimed in, “That goes without saying. Especially since it’s so rare for Charles to agree to an outing.”
She rubbed her chopsticks together, making a small shrill noise as metal scraped against metal. Gao Zhun remained silent in response as he took out his phone and lowered his head to stare blankly at the screen. Watching from the side, Fang Chi was certain that Gao Zhun had yet to recover from his panic attack. Those hands, he thought, were probably still cold – so cold that he wished to warm them up again with his own…
Caught off-guard by the sudden idea that crossed his mind, Fang Chi returned to his senses. Just then, the waitstaff began serving their appetizers. The dishes were so sour and spicy that a glance was enough to make a person’s stomach seize. Gao Zhun did not touch his chopsticks. After struggling for a while, he finally got to his feet, unable to bear it anymore. “I… I need to use the washroom.”
Gao Zhun left the table; Fang Chi and Zuo Linlin were alone now. She was gentle and lovely once more, glancing at him invitingly out of the lifted corners of her almond eyes. She was more charming and moving in her beauty than she had ever been. This was the moment of his dreams for the past three years: great food, soft haloed light, her company – what more could he ask for? Yet, right now, he was incapable of focusing on the scene before him. He burned with the constant urge to look in the direction in which Gao Zhun had left, driven to distraction by an alien restlessness that was far more intense than he could ever imagine.
Suddenly, his phone began to ring: I’d never want to see you unhappy, I thought you’d want the same for me…
He got to his feet in an instant. “I need to take a call.”
Without a single glance at the number, he cut off the call and dashed straight for the washroom. Rushing into the room, he panicked when he saw that Gao Zhun was nowhere in sight. He faced the row of stalls and called out, “Mr. Gao?”
From the furthest stall on the inside came the sound of someone fiddling with the lock. Perhaps because his hands were shaking too much, he took a long while before the door was finally unlocked. Fang Chi opened the door. There Gao Zhun stood, as lonely as an abandoned orphan, a finger pressed hard against his lips as if he was terrified that Fang Chi would make a single sound. In this very moment, Fang Chi wanted nothing more than to stab himself in the gut. Really – he really could not bear to see Gao Zhun like this. “I’m sorry I’m late.”
Gao Zhun pressed his finger harder against his lips. Fang Chi hastened to lower his voice, “Don’t worry. They can’t hear us.”
He reached out and cupped Gao Zhun’s wet, glistening face with care. In a barely audible whisper, Gao Zhun breathed, “Hug…”
“What was that?” Fang Chi asked, his hands gentle and light on Gao Zhun’s face as if he were holding a precious pearl or a fresh breeze in his palms. He did not dare to hold on with too much force. Sinking into the confines of Fang Chi’s palms4, Gao Zhun begged, “Hug me. Please…”
If there had been a veil between them5, it would now be easily torn down with a single breath; if there had been a wall between them, it would now have collapsed entirely into sand. Like a thief and a highwayman without scruples, Fang Chi scrambled forward to yank Gao Zhun into his arms and hold him close. Falling into the embrace, Gao Zhun heaved a long sigh – perhaps out of pain at the tight hold around his waist, or perhaps out of relief that the dust had finally settled.
“Save me…” he said.
- Dragon seal: This refers to the official seal of approval on a screening permit issued by China’s National Film Bureau. It is commonly called the ‘dragon seal/mark’ because the design of the seal resembles a dragon.
- The censoring process for films in China is very complex and involves several tiers of approval. The ‘dragon seal’ marks the final tier of approval, and is arguably the most important in the entire process.
- A pair of stranded fish struggling to keep each other alive: This is the central image in the Chinese idiom “相濡以沫”. The idiom is originally used to describe the deep bond between married couples, who remain steadfast to each other through thick and thin, helping each other survive even though they may be weak and powerless. Over time, usage of the idiom evolved to include descriptions of bonds between friends.
- The idiom was inspired by a story told by Zhuangzi, one of the most influential ancient Chinese philosophers.
- In the story, after a spring dried up, the fish living in the water became exposed to the sun. In order to survive, the fish kept each other wet with the moisture from their mouths, and by breathing moist air onto each other.
- Samgyetang: One of the most popular dishes in Korean cuisine, ginseng chicken soup. Although ginseng chicken soup can also be found in other East Asian cuisines, samgyetang refers specifically to the Korean version of this dish.
- Sinking into the confines of one’s palms: The description in the original text is reminiscent of an idiomatic expression in Chinese: “to be toyed with between one’s palms” (玩弄于股掌之间). The expression describes a situation in which a person is completely at the mercy of another. In this expression, the more powerful party is implied to be callous and whimsical.
- Although Gao Zhun is literally resting his face between Fang Chi’s hands, the echo of the idiomatic expression also suggests that he is willingly submitting himself to Fang Chi’s control and power over him.
- The original character for ‘sinking’ (陷) also carries the meaning of ‘being trapped’.
- A veil between them: The image of the veil is commonly used to describe social barriers between individuals, highlighting:
- how fragile that barrier is, and/or
- how difficult it is to see something or someone clearly because of the appearances/pretenses put up by the involved parties