Quality Check: Isalee
First Published on Chaleuria
Rising steam filled the room, and eyes began to sting. Zhang Zhun blinked and met Chen Hsin’s eyes across the table by accident. His gaze seethed with a feverish hunger, as if he wished he could devour Zhang Zhun this very instant and swallow him whole. Zhang Zhun looked away, letting his gaze fall upon the steaming yuanyang hot pot1 between them. While the spicy mala2 broth on his side was already bubbling from the heat, the clear stock on the other side remained tepid and far from boil.
To Zhang Zhun’s mind, the two halves before him – one red, one white – were just like Chen Hsin and himself. On the surface, he was lukewarm and hesitant while Chen Hsin seemed to have hit his boiling point a long time ago. But Zhang Zhun knew better: in reality, the pot furiously churning with oily bubbles was himself; the one still fumbling around in naïve confusion was not him, but Chen Hsin.
Earlier that day—
After locking themselves in the washroom on the set, the pair gazed at each other for a long time in silence. Then, making the first move, Chen Hsin stepped toward Zhang Zhun and tried to touch his eyes. “You cried… last night?”
Zhang Zhun slapped the hand away and averted his head. Unable to touch the other man’s face, Chen Hsin slid his fingers downward instead, winding down the curve of Zhang Zhun’s jawline to encircle his slender, vulnerable neck. This time, Zhang Zhun acquiesced to his touch. Chen Hsin’s hand continued moving; it caressed the dip of Zhang Zhun’s collarbone, roamed across the taut planes of his chest, and reached the warm softness of his belly. Then, seemingly seized by an inexplicable impulse, Chen Hsin grabbed Zhang Zhun by his belt buckle and yanked him close. In that very instant, Zhang Zhun was hit by the most bizarre, unbelievable feeling that Chen Hsin was about to get on his knees. He shoved the younger man away at once. “You’re out of your mind!”
The force of the push sent Chen Hsin crashing backwards against the shower. The metallic showerhead, knocked loose from its holder, arced through the air and fell head first onto the tile floor with a resounding clatter. Chen Hsin stilled. He remained unmoving for several moments, his head drooping, and Zhang Zhun began to doubt his own judgment again. He stepped forward, wanting to help, but Chen Hsin’s hand darted towards him out of the blue and seized his collar. Glaring at him with large, glistening eyes, Chen Hsin declared, “I’m not afraid!”
Zhang Zhun knew exactly what he was referring to: the dangerous ways in which they tested each other’s boundaries, the desperate passion with which they clung to each other in the darkest corners, and the derisive eyerolls that haunted them behind their backs. He tore Chen Hsin’s hand away from himself. “But I am!”
Chen Hsin straightened, fuming in aggrievement, but Zhang Zhun did not give him the chance to speak. Jabbing a finger at the door, a mere prop temporarily installed for the set, Zhang Zhun continued, “None of this is real. This is all fake. We’re in the middle of filming!” It was evident just how terrified Zhang Zhun was of losing himself, of being discovered by everyone else. “The director, the cameras, your girlfriend… They’re all waiting outside, just beyond this door!”
The weight of Zhang Zhun’s words felt too much for Chen Hsin to bear, and wetness welled up behind his long, narrow eyelids. “F***!” Biting hard on his own lips in hurt and anguish, he swore again, “F***!” At last, as his mind began to clear, Chen Hsin saw how reckless he had been. The memory of his own unthinking rashness just moments ago – of everything he had done to Zhang Zhun – made his heart ache to the point of bursting. Pain tore through the core of his being in a way he had never known before. It was as if he and Zhang Zhun had become one, only to be ripped apart again with the fall of a single blade, lifeblood draining helplessly from their wounds.
Tears fell from Chen Hsin’s eyes. As they rolled down his cheekbones, he wiped them away without thinking and stared at the wetness on his hand in confusion. He never cried. When comprehension eventually dawned on him, he averted his gaze in bitter shame, too mortified to look Zhang Zhun in the eye. “What the f***!”
Zhang Zhun did not expect to see Chen Hsin cry. A throbbing ache started up in Zhang Zhun’s chest, as if a razor blade had been buried in the flesh of his heart. “Chen… Hsin?” Zhang Zhun gripped the younger man and wiped away his tears lightly. Like a petulant child, Chen Hsin shied away from his touch. He dodged again and again, until Zhang Zhun enfolded him into his arms and fitted their bodies together. Being taller than Zhang Zhun, Chen Hsin bent his head and tucked his face into the crook of the older man’s neck. There, Chen Hsin shed his tears without a sound, venting his emotions for the first time before someone other than his own parents. “I… I’m a f***ing wimp, aren’t I?”
“No, of course not.” Zhang Zhun stroked Chen Hsin’s back slowly with the calming touch of a big brother or a mother. “You’re just confused. This film has confused us both,” he soothed as if he were speaking to himself as well.
“I can’t stand it. I can’t hold it in anymore.” Even as he enjoyed Zhang Zhun’s gentle care, Chen Hsin lost himself in the rising swell of his own fear. He did not understand how he could have fallen so far in the relationship between them. It had started with him calling ‘first dibs’ on everything; but now, here he was, little better than a stray dog that had rolled over and put its belly on display. He was so vulnerable that he seemed pathetic even to himself. “I just want to be with you!”
Chen Hsin’s declaration cleaved through Zhang Zhun’s chest and drove deep into his heart like a wedge. I want to be with you – this was the simplest of sentiments between a man and a woman, understood easily through a single smile or gaze. Yet, the two of them had to struggle with every shred of their being – strain till they were hoarse with despair – just to make sense of those words. “What do you mean,” Zhang Zhun asked, “when you say that you want to be with me?”
“I mean…” Chen Hsin racked his brains, searching hard for an answer within himself, but he found nothing. He could say nothing. “I don’t know.”
“You want to get in my bed, hm? Have sex with me?” Zhang Zhun asked, stroking Chen Hsin’s hair. As if he had thrown caution to the wind and stopped caring about everything, Zhang Zhun added indulgently, “We can do it tonight.”
“No,” Chen Hsin refused. “I want more – far more than that.”
Zhang Zhun closed his eyes and exhaled a long sigh from the depths of his chest. “You’re too greedy…”
“Zhang-laoshi, where are you from?” Feng Yunting’s voice, sweet as a half-melted candy, interrupted Zhang Zhun’s reflection. She sat before him, side by side with Chen Hsin, her pretty head tilting to one side and resting on her lover’s arm. The clear stock had boiled at last; wolfberries, cinnamon, and sliced ginger tossed about in the churning milky soup as it bubbled with lively exuberance.
“I’m Sichuanese,” Zhang Zhun replied with a slight smile. “I like my food spicy.” He picked up his chopsticks as he spoke and began putting sliced mutton and beef into the mala soup. Watching Zhang Zhun through the steam, Chen Hsin’s attentive gaze seemed to have heated up as well.
Feng Yunting had no choice but to begin cooking her portion by herself. “It’s a pity that neither Chen Hsin nor I can take any spiciness,” she replied with a pout, looking rather disappointed as she put some spinach and chrysanthemum greens into the clear stock. “But, at least our tastes are similar enough for us to really enjoy our food together.”
Her words hung in the air, so ambivalent that it was unclear whether she meant anything by the remark. Lightly stirring the contents in his condiment dish, Zhang Zhun asked, “How long… have the two of you been together?”
“Pretty long!” Bright-eyed, Feng Yunting turned to Chen Hsin in high spirits and asked in her sweet, girlish voice, “Hasn’t it been almost a year?”
“Not that long,” Chen Hsin corrected her. “It’s only been a little over half a year.” Casting a guilty glance in Zhang Zhun’s direction, Chen Hsin added, “We’re both busy with work, and we hardly see each other once a month.”
“That’s what makes this relationship so special.” Feng Yunting put a piece of cooked tofu into her mouth. “It almost feels like true love!”
True love. The men glanced at each other, their eyes meeting in silence. Zhang Zhun was the first to look away. Anxious, Chen Hsin sought out Zhang Zhun’s leg under the table, hooked their feet together, and began rubbing his bony ankle against the older man. Zhang Zhun blushed – perhaps because of the food’s spiciness. “That’s good,” he mumbled, unable to lift his head to face Feng Yunting. “Things seem pretty good between the two of you.”
“What about you, Zhang-laoshi?” the young woman asked out of the blue.
Zhang Zhun’s hand paused. “I…” He had not wanted to talk about it. “I’m getting married soon, probably after I’m finished with this film.”
Feng Yunting’s eyes widened. “Congratulations!” she exclaimed, clapping her hands in girlish delight. “You must send us an invitation when the time comes!”
In contrast, Chen Hsin’s reaction was almost imperceptible. His face, warmed by the steam, now lost all heat and color as he sat in his seat, stricken like a child who had fallen from favor. Just then, he received an incoming call on his phone. Seeing that it was from Chen Cheng-Sen, Chen Hsin wiped his hands and answered the call. “I’m in the middle of dinner,” he snapped at the director, his tone blunt and harsh. “Yeah, I’m free to talk. Fire away.” He got to his feet, sullen expression on his face, and stalked out of the private dining room.
Without the friction from Chen Hsin, Zhang Zhun felt a slight chill on the back of his own foot. The mood in the room also dampened as their company decreased in number. “How did you manage to find time for this visit?” Zhang Zhun asked, trying to make small talk with Feng Yunting. “Was there a break in your schedule?”
“Zhang-laoshi,” Feng Yunting began instead, a change coming over her manners and expression, “why were you holding his hand?” She turned off the stove with a snap, adding, “I’m talking about last night.” Zhang Zhun was stunned. His mind went blank. She pressed on, her voice sharp and accusatory, “What were you going to do if I hadn’t shown up?”
- Yuanyang hot pot: A modern variation of the traditional hot pot, innovated in the 1980s. Originally known as the ‘dual-flavoured hot pot’, it serves two types of broths at the same time – one is red and spicy, while the other is white and rich in flavor. The dish makes use of a specially designed pot, which is divided into two parts in the shape of a Tai Chi symbol, so that the two broths form distinct halves just like Yin and Yang.
- In Chinese culture, the yuanyang (鸳鸯 mandarin ducks) symbolizes enduring love and marriage. This is because the species is often (if not always) seen in pairs, and it is believed that these birds remain faithful to their mates till their death.
- Since the yuanyang appears in pairs, it is also a symbol of the union between Yin and Yang. Thus, the expression is also used in Chinese culture to indicate the idea of fusion.
- E.g. yuanyang hot pot (two-flavored hot pot) and yuanyang/yuenyeung milk tea (fusion between coffee and milk tea)
- Mala sauce: A popular, oily, spicy, and numbing Chinese sauce, regarded as a regional dish for Chongqing and Sichuan cuisines. Its ingredients include Sichuanese peppercorn, chili pepper, and various spices, all simmered in oil.