Quality Check: Isalee
First Published on Chaleuria
Filming wrapped up at three in the morning. Zhang Zhun was back in his room, about to get into bed after washing his face, when the doorbell rang. His movements stilled; he remained rooted to the spot, with a leg resting on the edge of his mattress. The ringing continued for a full minute or two. Then, no longer able to stand the noise, Zhang Zhun answered the door at last.
It was Chen Hsin; as soon as the door opened, he eased himself through the crack in the doorway and slipped into the room. Zhang Zhun did not stop the younger man. “We need to be up again at half past five,” he said. Before his eyes, Chen Hsin kicked off his shoes, unabashedly stripped down to his underwear, and dove under the covers. Zhang Zhun shut the door, somewhat afraid of moving any closer to his bed. “Aren’t you going back? She…”
“We broke up.” Chen Hsin rolled onto his back and pillowed his head on his arms. “I’m a happy single now.”
A change came over Zhang Zhun’s expression, like a stone skipping across water with a trail of shallow eddies in its wake. In a blink of an eye, however, even the slightest trace of disturbance was gone. “Even so… we can’t,” he replied with unease. “Filming resumes in a bit.”
Yet, despite his words, Zhang Zhun walked over. An oversized t-shirt lay on a nearby chair; he picked it up and pulled it on. Without any warning, Chen Hsin dragged him into bed with a sudden yank on his wrist and pinned him down, face to face, with his own body. “C’mon, is this really necessary?” Chen Hsin tugged at the t-shirt, his gaze sweeping down the clothing to rest on the loose boxer shorts underneath: stripes with stars. “You…” he began, eyeing the exposed skin at the base of Zhang Zhun’s thigh. In the next breath, his hand delved into those shorts and grabbed. “You like going commando, hm?”
Indeed, Zhang Zhun wore nothing under his shorts, and Chen Hsin helped himself to the naked buttcheeks without ceremony. Zhang Zhun fought against the groping hand, twisting so hard in Chen Hsin’s arms that it became impossible for the younger man to hold him down any longer. Chortling and panting with effort, Chen Hsin released him at last. “I don’t have a girl anymore. Can’t I feel up your ass just a little?”
Blushing furiously in silence, Zhang Zhun turned to switch off the bedside lamp. Then, lying down with his back towards Chen Hsin, he ordered: “Sleep.”
Obeying the command without fuss, Chen Hsin settled into bed and lay still. But such good behavior lasted less than a minute; in the next breath, Chen Hsin reached out to wrap his arms around Zhang Zhun from behind. Holding him tight, the young man nuzzled against Zhang Zhun’s shoulder and clasped the older man’s legs between his own.
Too sweet – the sweetness of it all could make one tremble. “She said nothing?” Zhang Zhun asked.
“Nope,” Chen Hsin replied, his voice deep and mellow as if it had drifted over from afar. “No one could ever stand a scumbag like me.”
“Did she cry?”
“She wouldn’t. I swear, women are way tougher than men.”
Zhang Zhun fell silent. Chen Hsin reached into the t-shirt and sought out the flesh on the older man’s belly. After several caresses, he pulled up the shirt by its hem and tugged it off. Attempting to put up some semblance of resistance, Zhang Zhun breathed lightly, “No…”
“Alright, I get it!” Chen Hsin huffed in frustration. He kept his word this time; he tried nothing else besides folding the older man to his chest in a quiet embrace. Zhang Zhun was almost lulled to sleep when a question sounded in the dark behind him: “Do you… find it odd that we’ve become like this?”
“Of course.” Zhang Zhun spoke as if he were discussing a novel or a film. “It’s too odd. Bizarre, even…”
“How did this happen?”
“When you feel like calling it quits,” Zhang Zhun said, turning to look at the younger man though he could not see clearly, “let me know.”
Chen Hsin felt gutted all of a sudden, as if his chest had been torn wide open, as if someone had gouged out his flesh but no blood flowed from the gaping hole. “Okay,” he replied, “I’ll be sure to let you know.”
Zhang Zhun nodded. In the deep of the night, all was dark except for the faintest wisp of light caught on the single drop of wetness in his eye. Propping himself on his arm, Chen Hsin leaned over and sipped the droplet away.
At twenty minutes past five, someone began knocking on the door. Squinting, Zhang Zhun gave Chen Hsin a nudge. “Wake up, Xiao-Deng’s here.” Then, still bleary with sleep, Zhang Zhun got out of bed to answer the door. The younger man rolled over before getting up as well and heading for the bathroom.
“Ge, I pressed the bell for so long that it went mute!” Xiao-Deng stood in the doorway, looking innocent and dashing as he leaned his shoulder against the frame. “It’s too early for the restaurant to be serving any breakfast. We’ll head up to room 3815 instead and get some bread to eat on the way.”
“Got it.” Zhang Zhun was about to close the door when Xiao-Deng caught the sound of running water in the bathroom.
“Ge, is someone in there?”
Zhang Zhun’s mind cleared at once. “Ah, I forgot to turn off the tap…”
Xiao-Deng stared hard at the older man, disbelief flashing in his eyes. “No, you’re lying!” He tried to budge his way into the room, but Zhang Zhun held him off with a death grip. Flushing with indignance, the tall youth pointed angrily at the older man. “Ge! Damn you…” He was truly enraged; even his eyes had reddened with fury. Forcing himself to bite back all the nasty words on the tip of his tongue, he spat out a single remaining accusation: “What’ll happen if Danyi-jie finds out? Have you ever thought about that?!”
Zhang Zhun’s lips moved in response. He pressed them together with some difficulty for a brief moment before they moved again. At last, he confessed, “She… knows.”
Xiao-Deng’s ears began to ring, as if the metallic plate of a cymbal had been struck right next to him, and a throbbing ache threatened to split his head apart. Zhang Zhun grabbed at him, trying to say something, but Xiao-Deng shoved him away. “This is crazy…” The young man stumbled away from the door and fled. “You’ve lost your mind, Ge!”
“Deng Zicheng!” Zhang Zhun yelled after his assistant from the doorway. The clock had yet to strike the sixth hour in the morning; all around them, the rest of the world was still asleep, but they were more awake than they could ever be. Chen Hsin rushed out of the bathroom without even drying his face. Water dripped down his cheeks as he shot a nervous stare at Zhang Zhun.
“He’s not going to tattle, is he?” Chen Hsin asked. Zhang Zhun turned towards him in despair and shook his head.
Room 3815. Chen Hsin and Zhang Zhun arrived rather late in comparison to everyone else. Xiao-Wang sat on the bed near the door, keeping watch over the remaining half-basket of bread, while Chen Cheng-Sen rested on the other. The director’s unkempt appearance made it clear that he had not slept a single wink. As soon as he saw the pair, he waved them over, “C’mere!”
An ashtray rested by the director’s hand, stuffed full of cigarette butts, while two working computers stood on the table facing him. Chen Hsin threw himself onto the bed beside Chen Cheng-Sen. “You pulled an all-nighter?”
“Stop exaggerating. It’s only been two hours,” Chen Cheng-Sen retorted, rubbing his eyes. Noticing that Zhang Zhun was still standing, the director shifted and made room for him to sit down as well. “Footage from last night. You two have a look.”
It was just a rough cut without any noise reduction or background music. On the screen, Chen Hsin got out of the haphazardly parked Volvo and strode across the night. The wind mussed his hair, revealing a clear brow and haunting eyes laden with the weight of countless unspoken words.
“Good expression there,” Chen Cheng-Sen remarked.
Standing under the hazy glow of the street lamp, Zhang Zhun waited with his thin tie aflutter in the autumn wind, as fragile as a fallen leaf. Then, as Chen Hsin came towards him, he began to unfurl bit by bit, coming back to life with every approaching step from the other man.
“What’s that in your hand?” Noise rasped through Chen Hsin’s voice, making it sound a little distant. Zhang Zhun uncurled his fingers in response: in his open palm was a single name card, crushed beyond recognition. The camera panned upwards, sweeping across his wrist, along the length of his arm, before lighting upon his face.
If Zhang Zhun had not seen it for himself, he would never believe that he could look like this… like a devotee in the throes of manic delirium, desperate to offer himself up for sacrifice, body and soul. Instead of filling him with shock, the sight onscreen overwhelmed him with shame. He clamped a hand over his mouth, far more shaken and lost than he had been during the review of their bedroom scenes.
“Zhang Zhun’s vibes are on point,” Chen Cheng-Sen observed, lighting a fresh cigarette for himself. “Very convincing,” he added; in other words, the performance was poignant enough to make his audience believe his feelings were true.
The footage cut to a long shot. Ancient trees stood with their dense crowns in the foreground of the deep space, while the two men walked down the path in the pitch-black shade. With a tilt of his shoulder, Zhang Zhun leaned towards Chen Hsin. A close-up shot followed: Chen Hsin grabbed his hand in the dark, and he returned the grip almost at once – tightly, trembling like a frantic sparrow with fluttering wings.
“Tell me about your dreams?”
“I don’t dare to…” Zhang Zhun’s voice sounded ethereal, almost unreal. Tears fell from his cheeks and dropped onto the lapel of his dark suit. Chen Hsin watched him with a gaze too complex for words. Then, holding Zhang Zhun by the shoulder as if he had already done it countless times before, the younger man drew him to his chest. “See? It’s possible for you to accept physical contact. You’re capable of overcoming your fears too.”
Zhang Zhun raised his head, the very image of a branded animal, and peered docilely at his master: “… you’re the only one.”
Chen Hsin cleared his throat, choking a little at the scene before him. The blush on his face had turned livid, and he could not continue watching any longer. Beside him, Chen Cheng-Sen shook his head. “There will never be another film like this. These feelings will never be surpassed…” Unaware that his cigarette was about to burn down to his fingers, the director concluded in a trance, “This is a masterpiece that belongs only to the two of you.”
Chen Hsin met Zhang Zhun’s eyes; they held each other’s gaze for a brief instant before guilty conscience made them look away again. Just then, Xiao-Wang called out from the doorway. Zhou Zheng was ready to send off the cars to the film site, the young man said, and the three of them were the last of the lot.
The scene mentioned in this chapter takes place in Chapter 8.2. There are some minor but significant differences between the two versions that give readers some insight into the relationship between the two plots. 🙂