First Published on Chaleuria
Gao Zhun’s choice of words was rather misleading; his routine for ‘freshening up a little’ was far more elaborate than Fang Chi had been led to believe. Leaning against the doorway of Gao Zhun’s bathroom, Fang Chi gaped in astonishment as he watched the other man apply all kinds of products to his face. The sight reminded him of how he used to wait for Zuo Linlin to get ready for their dates. “Is that makeup?”
“Skincare products. Collagen, toner, and the likes…” A little embarrassed, Gao Zhun explained in a lowered voice, “I was probably influenced by others in my profession.”
Fang Chi found it fascinating. “Does it make your skin real smooth?” he teased.
Gao Zhun became even more embarrassed. As he hesitated over the bottle of essence in his hand, wondering whether he should open it or not, Zuo Linlin answered Fang Chi’s question from the living room, “Of course it’s smooth. His skin is smoother than mine!”
Gao Zhun’s face reddened in an instant. He put down the bottle and snatched up a fragrance at random. After spritzing under his arms and behind his ears, he began fiddling with a small wooden box on the washstand. It was filled with neat rows of ear studs, bracelets, and rings. Fang Chi’s eyes fell on Gao Zhun’s hand. He watched as Gao Zhun fingered his accessories, transfixed by the sight of those tips running over the box’s contents in a light caress. A strange sensation stirred within him; his heart softened, and a featherlight itch began to spread from its core. “You…”
“Mn?” Gao Zhun looked up at Fang Chi as he put on his ear studs, the slight twist in his body pulling his glistening eyes, his cheek, and his shoulder into a mesmerizing angle. Right before Fang Chi’s eyes, the hard, metallic stud penetrated the soft, tender flesh of Gao Zhun’s earlobe. “Nothing…” Fang Chi replied. Then he swallowed. He did not understand what was happening to him – he did not understand why he had become so damned nervous all of a sudden.
Gao Zhun was finally ready. As he brushed past Fang Chi on his way out of the bathroom, he stopped in his tracks. Turning around, he suddenly leaned towards Fang Chi. When Fang Chi took a reflexive step backwards, he pressed in again. Then, as if he were leaning in for a kiss, he tiptoed and inhaled near Fang Chi’s temple. Electric shockwaves coursed through Fang Chi’s body. He stared at Gao Zhun in disbelief, and Gao Zhun stared back at him blankly with empty, hollow eyes.
“Are we still going out or not?” Zuo Linlin grumbled from the door with crossed arms. In his confusion, Fang Chi responded out of habit, “Have you gone to the loo yet?”
“Oh, right!” She put down her bag and strode towards the bathroom. “I almost forgot!”
She always used the bathroom before leaving the house; it was a habit of hers that Fang Chi knew all too well. He regretted it as soon as he uttered the reminder aloud and immediately turned to check for Gao Zhun’s reaction. Gao Zhun, however, was fiddling with his cuffs with his head lowered. He seemed not to have noticed the exchange between them at all.
Today’s outing was all about Zuo Linlin. Gao Zhun and Fang Chi followed her everywhere, keeping her company as she shopped to her heart’s content. Treating Gao Zhun like a delicate female who needed constant care, Fang Chi took on the task of carrying all of Zuo Linlin’s shopping. He did not allow the other man to carry any of the bags. Gao Zhun remained dispirited throughout the day; his mood never lifted. Assuming that he was still affected by the incident at work, Fang Chi did not pay it too much attention.
As the sun began to set, they went for a stroll by the river. Zuo Linlin was so close to Fang Chi that they looked like a pair of lovers. “It’s been such a long time since I last felt this happy!”
Fang Chi remained silent. Glancing at him sideways, she continued with a question, “You feel sorry for him?” She was referring to Gao Zhun. At this, Fang Chi turned around to look at the other man; Gao Zhun was trailing a few steps behind them. She laughed and assured him, “He can’t hear us.”
Noticing the appreciative glances that passers-by kept stealing at her, Zuo Linlin felt extremely good about herself. “He’s a selfish man. Do you really think that he loves me at all? He does not. To him, I’m just another addition to his collection, just like those chairs and paintings.” She brushed back her long tresses in a world-weary manner as she continued, “The only reason he relies on you is because he needs you. He loves no one but himself.”
“So?” Fang Chi asked.
“Don’t feel sorry for him,” she replied, batting her eyes at him, “feel sorry for me.”
As soon as she had finished talking, a loud boom sounded overhead; the fireworks were starting to go off. The sky lit up briefly as a burst of pink stars sparkled cross the heavens. As the sparks dimmed and burned out, a new burst took their place in the sky. Everyone by the riverside stopped in their tracks to enjoy the display as groups of youngsters yelled out at the top of their lungs, “Happy Qixi Festival!”1
The fireworks blossomed one after the other, and their reflections burst across the surface of the river. The water and the sky seemed to have become one continuous canvas on which the fireworks painted their speckled splendor. Surprised and delighted by the spectacle before her, Zuo Linlin could not help but seek out Fang Chi’s embrace. As she began leaning against him, however, he ignored her and headed off towards Gao Zhun.
Gao Zhun was standing very far away from them now, all alone in a small plaza by the forest. All was dark except for the scattered yellow glow from the office buildings behind him. Fang Chi rushed over, weaving his way through countless pairs of embracing lovers with quickened steps. He was afraid that Gao Zhun would be terrified. The more scared Fang Chi was, the harder it became for him to see Gao Zhun with any clarity. The sky thundered with the sound of continued explosions, like a deafening heartbeat that resonated with the pounding in his chest.
Gao Zhun seemed to have noticed him. He stood trembling in the shadows, cast away from the light. Fang Chi knew that he was waiting for him, like a soul waiting for its rightful owner. He began to run. He ran up to Gao Zhun and said, between panting breaths, “Come. Let’s go look at the fireworks.”
But Gao Zhun did not move. “You’re not just friends with Linlin.” He spoke abruptly, in a voice as stiff and cold as the frozen surface of a lake – ready to shatter at any moment from the blow of an ice pick. Fang Chi recalled that moment of unnatural closeness between them before they left the apartment. He remembered the breath Gao Zhun took by his temple, and the way he looked as he fussed with his cuffs in silence: Gao Zhun had caught her lingering scent on him. He had recognized the sweet notes of citrus and peach from her scent, and guessed the truth about the once-intimate relationship between them.
“Is it because of her that you…” Gao Zhun adjusted his breathing before he completed the sentence, “… that you’re so good to me?”
Fang Chi was overwhelmed with helplessness. He was trained in psychoanalysis. He was well-versed in the art of equivocation, knew all about behavioral logic, and used psychological manipulation at will – but he was incapable of giving a perfect answer now. Right now, he was no therapist; he was nothing more than a common man. He asked in puzzlement, “Given how she’s treated you… why haven’t you broken up with her?”
“If I break up with her…” – although his expression was hidden in the dark, his thoroughly broken voice gave his feelings away – “will you stop caring about me?”
Zuo Linlin called out to Fang Chi from the riverside. He waved back at her and told Gao Zhun, “The two of you should have a proper conversation.”
He wanted to bring her over. He retraced his steps and was halfway back to where she stood waiting when he stopped in his tracks. Then, just as Orpheus gave in to his immense longing at the gates of the Underworld, Fang Chi turned around rashly and saw Gao Zhun receding into the darkness like a wraith. He drifted away, leaving Fang Chi with the view of a back stricken with despair and drained of all will to live.
“Gao Zhun!” Fang Chi yelled out of a professional intuition honed through years of experience, but it was not his damned experience that spurred him on now as he broke into a sprint towards Gao Zhun. It was an irrational, insuppressible impulse born out of an excessive adrenaline rush – a momentary madness. Gao Zhun responded to his call and turned at the sound of his voice. All of a sudden, the plaza was awash with light, and jets of water began shooting high into the air from the ground. They rose one by one, swishing loudly in the air as they formed a circle around Gao Zhun.
There he stood, in the center of the fountain, his face refracted and shattered in the glistening mist around him – an utterly devastated face drenched in tears, wrought with humiliation. Fang Chi was transfixed by the sight before him. It was the single most beautiful moment he had ever seen in his life – so beautiful that his heart seized and tightened painfully in his chest.
Gao Zhun opened his mouth, like a sinner awaiting judgment, and confessed with an unusual quietness in his voice, “I was raped…”
Fang Chi did not understand. He could not make sense of the words Gao Zhun had just spoken. On the other side of the watery screen between them, Gao Zhun wrapped his arms around himself as he completed his sentence, “By another man.”
An immense emptiness filled the air. Just as if God had pressed the ‘pause’ button from high above, the world went still and all was silent.
- Qixi Festival: This festival is also commonly known as the Chinese Valentine’s Day, since it celebrates the annual meeting of the Cowherd and the Weaver Girl in Chinese mythology. It falls on the seventh day of the seventh month of the Chinese lunar calendar.
- The Japanese also celebrate a version of the Qixi Festival, known as Tanabata. The myth of Orihime and Hikiboshi mirrors that of the Weaver Girl and the Cowherd. However, Tanabata is celebrated according to the Gregorian calendar rather than the lunar calendar.