First Published on Chaleuria
Fang Chi hung up, feeling somewhat stifled. He took off his glasses and got up from his seat to open the window on the southern side of his office. He had just spoken with Zuo Linlin on the phone – a ballerina with bright eyes shaped like slightly elongated almonds that curved charmingly upwards at the corners. She was fair, had a dimple on her cheek, and liked to smile. One could always catch the refreshing scent of citruses or mint on her long luscious hair, and her tall, slender figure was a perfect fit with his physique.
She was also his ex; Fang Chi frowned at the thought.
They had met in the States and dated for over a year – an impressive record for Fang Chi. Together, they travelled all over America – skiing in Colorado, sunbathing in Florida, and horse-riding in Texas – until he returned to China for her sake…
His secretary knocked on the door and called to him with a gentle, detached voice, “Dr. Fang.”
“Come in,” he answered, turning around.
Secretary Feng opened the door, donning a light blue dress for the day. “It’s time for your third appointment for today. Mr. Lin Guoqiang is here.”
Fang Chi nodded in acknowledgment. “Tell him to wait for another ten minutes.”
Exhausted, he closed the window and returned to his table. A single sheet of paper lay by the phone, completely covered with detailed notes of his conversation with Zuo Linlin. Right in the center was a single name circled in red: Gao Zhun1.
Her current lover.
Fang Chi put on his glasses again, propping his chin against clenched fists as he recalled her complaints on the phone, “He’s not being himself. He is… a sensitive soul, very gentle and… artistic. I mean, he is elegant… sophisticated…”
“Mm.” Fang Chi had absolutely no desire to hear about just how good this man was. “So, what’s bothering you?”
“He doesn’t sleep.”
Fang Chi picked up his notepad. “Do you know why he isn’t sleeping?”
“He seems to be afraid of the dark. Sometimes he gets nightmares.”
“He’s stopped driving out of the blue, and even refuses to set foot in the parking lot.”
Car – Fang Chi noted the detail down and marked it with an asterisk. “Was he involved in an accident?”
“No, he wasn’t. He doesn’t shop or go to the movies with me anymore. He keeps breaking cups and stares into space while watching TV…”
“How long has he been like this?”
“Over a month. Charles, I’m really at my wit’s end. I wouldn’t ask for your help otherwise…” There was a quiver in her voice; she sounded as if she had started to cry. “I want this relationship to work… I want to stay with him, I really do. I’m willing to do whatever it takes!”
“Anything else?” Fang Chi prompted in irritation.
After a brief pause, she continued, “He drinks, and he might be… I mean, I found a bottle of sleeping pills in the wine cabinet this morning, and it’s missing a third of its contents.”
“He’s never drunk before?”
“Not much. He’d drink some red wine and take about two months to finish a bottle. I took a closer look at the cabinet after I found the pills — it’s now completely stocked with new wine.”
Alcoholism. Drug dependence. Fang Chi stopped writing as a thought flashed through his mind, “How are things between the two of you?” To satisfy his somewhat cruel curiosity, he prompted further, “In all aspects of your relationship, that is.”
“We’re… okay. He comes home directly after work. We talk and cook together.” She paused. After some hesitation, she finally broached the subject that piqued Fang Chi’s interest, “… I tried initiating, but he never responded or reciprocated.”
Inactive sex life. Fang Chi underlined the note twice with a heavy hand before continuing, “What about his relationship with his friends?”
“Given his profession and position, it’s hard to have any real friends. But…”
Two days ago, she said, he got into a fight with a colleague over some disagreement. Aggression? Fang Chi put down a question mark beside the point and moved on to ask about his family. According to Zuo Linlin, he came from a single-parent family, raised by his mother, and it was his brightness that ensured his continued success in life as a high-flyer.
“Charles, I’ll get him to see you. Today, if possible.”
Fang Chi pressed his lips together and ran his fingers through the curls that fell over his forehead. “My last appointment is at 2:30 p.m. Tell him to come after four.”
Thus ended their first call in three years after their breakup, leaving a bad taste in his mouth. As a psychotherapist, he knew exactly what he was feeling – jealousy, a negative emotion. He made a living by dealing with human feelings, after all, working out of a 200-square-meter clinic in downtown Shanghai, struggling to cope with an overwhelmingly long list of patients with the help of a single Freudian couch and an expressionless secretary.
Three brisk knocks on his door again. “Dr. Fang, will you see Mr. Lin now?”
Fang Chi raised his eyes from the sheet before him. His gaze swept across the fastidiously white wall and the inspirational quote printed on its unnaturally bright surface: If you want to change the world, begin by changing yourself. As his features finally settled back into his habitual expression of clinical judgment, he turned his eyes slowly toward the door. “Please enter.”
Throughout the rest of the day, patients continued to stream in and out of his clinic to lay out their myriad struggles for his examination: dysfunctional marriages, depression, social anxiety, and communication disorders, just to name a few. When his last weeping patient for the day finally left his office, it was already 3:42 p.m. Fang Chi removed his glasses and rubbed his eyes. He glanced at the clock on the wall as he heard his secretary walk towards the clinic entrance in her heels. Clearly, he was here: Gao Zhun, the man for whom Zuo Linlin broke up with him.
He was early by more than fifteen minutes, suggesting that he was an earnest and meticulous individual. Possibly blood type A. Fang Chi began crafting a list of questions for him. When he got to the fifth question, laughter suddenly rang out on the other side of the door, a tinkling, joyous laugh from his secretary. This is perfectly normal for an unmarried girl like her, Fang Chi thought as he tried to continue writing. Yet, two lines later, he found himself throwing down his pen, unable to continue any further.
He had absolutely no interest in offering Gao Zhun any form of consultation. Alcoholism, insomnia, absent-mindedness – like he cared about Gao Zhun’s problems! Why would he? Why should he? As Fang Chi struggled to rein in his rioting emotions, his secretary knocked on the door, “Doctor, Mr. Gao is here.”
Fang Chi snapped impatiently, “Can’t you tell that it’s not time yet?”
She was about to say something in reply when a low, warm voice interrupted her. “It’s alright, Ms. Feng. I was scheduled for 4 p.m. I will wait.”
Fang Chi felt a burning rage flare into life within him. He crushed the list of questions and binned it. Putting his glasses back on, he turned towards the door and called out, “Please come in, Mr. Gao.”
The door opened with a flash of blue from secretary Feng’s dress, and through the open doorway stepped a well-poised man dressed in an impeccable suit. He was not tall, shorter than Fang Chi by half a head, and had short hair that was well-combed into a sophisticated look. Equally sophisticated were his visibly expensive suit, with its provocatively fitted waist – yes, ‘provocative’ was the precise word that came to Fang Chi’s mind – and the commemorative Hermès tie that completed his look. Clearly, this was a man with a generous income.
“Good afternoon,” Gao Zhun spoke up first with little expression on his face. He had a deeply memorable face with large feminine eyes and narrow lips. His jaw fit snugly against the collar of his shirt, and palpable tension pervaded his entire body.
“Good afternoon,” Fang Chi replied, smiling out of a professional need for rapport-building with his clients. “Please take a seat, Mr. Gao.”
- Gao Zhun: The same Chinese character, “Zhun” (准), is used for the given names of both Gao Zhun and Zhang Zhun, highlighting the parallels between the two of them.