Quality Check: Isalee
First Published on Chaleuria
Chen Hsin was driven off in a nondescript Buick, wearing the shades and mask prepared by the film crew. He was sent not to Ocean Star, but the Grand Hyatt two streets farther down, and Xiao-Wang accompanied him all the way until he checked into his new room. Chen Hsin was feeling rather terrible; there was a throbbing pain in his swollen left ear, as if a hand had pinched hard on his lobe and never let go. No shots were taken of his left profile throughout the day; Chen Cheng-Sen had to make readjustments to the camera positions and angles, and the old fellow was positively livid with rage. After entering the room, Xiao-Wang drew the curtains for Chen Hsin and asked, “What would you like for dinner, Chen-laoshi? I’ll get it for you.”
Chen Hsin gave a perfunctory answer before heading off for a bath. As he pulled off his sweater in the bathroom, the fabric brushed against his ear, and he swore through gritted teeth at the searing pain. Xiao-Wang was about to leave when he heard the angry exclamations. From the other side of the door came the young man’s query, “Would you like me to get some meds as well, Chen-laoshi?”
“No, it’s fine,” Chen Hsin replied, feeling like a thorough loser and a pathetic fool who had cut off his nose to spite his face. He turned on the shower. Just as he was about to stick his head under the water to wash his hair, a message popped up on his phone with a ping. He picked up the phone for a glance; it was a succinct text from Zhang Zhun, consisting of only three simple words: [Hotel. Room number.]
[Grand Hyatt. Room 16 –] Chen Hsin began tapping out his reply; by the time he reached the digit ‘6’, however, he could not help but feel that he was being silly. A few taps later, he was calling Zhang Zhun back instead. The dial tone rang in his ear for a very long time before his call was picked up on the other end. “Hello,” Zhang Zhun answered, sounding rather tense and nervous. “What are you calling me for?!”
Zhang Zhun was angry. For reasons he did not understand, Chen Hsin found it rather fascinating to hear the other man in such a state. In spite of himself, he let out a rakish laugh. “Grand Hyatt, room 1638,” he drawled in a low voice, leaning against the black and gold mosaic tiles on the wall. “I’ll be waiting for you.”
His invitation was greeted with silence on the other end, and the noise from Zhang Zhun’s surroundings became audible to Chen Hsin. There was quite a bit of yelling, probably from reporters. Amidst the noise, Chen Hsin heard his own name, as well as phrases such as “farewell to singlehood” and “getting married.”
“I’m hanging up,” Zhang Zhun said at last, though he showed no signs of doing so.
Chen Hsin was confounded and at a loss for words. For no other reason than to prolong the call for just a little longer, he blurted out, “I’m hurting so bad.”
As childish and petulant as the outburst sounded, it hit the bull’s eye for Zhang Zhun, and the older man softened up at once. “It’s alright. I’ll be on my way.”
“It really hurts. I touched it just now when I was taking off my clothes. It was so painful… I only managed to stand the pain because I kept thinking about you, y’know, as if my life depended on it.”
What a f***ing glib tongue he had, Zhang Zhun thought. Yet, when he spoke up again, his voice seemed to take on an edge of embarrassment instead. “Yeah? Risking your life for something like this? Can’t be that serious,” he replied; there was fondness in his tone, and a smile in his voice. “It’ll be fine once the swelling goes down. Make sure to keep it dry.”
Chen Hsin felt the stirrings within himself as he listened to the older man. He glanced at the running shower next to him and reached out to turn off the tap. “Come on and hurry over, then,” he urged with a shameless lilt, “as fast as you can.”
“Alright. Got it.”
The call ended. After that, Chen Hsin rang Xiao-Wang up to tell him not to come back. Take-out in hand, the young man doubled back in confusion and headed towards the Ocean Star instead. Since the two hotels were in close proximity, he ran into Zhang Zhun on his way back. Surprised, he called out to the man, “Zhun-ge!”
Zhang Zhun was in a rush. Caught off-guard by the sudden greeting, he started at the unexpected sound. Then, upon realizing who it was that had spotted him, an unnatural expression came over his features. Unable to see much in the dark, Xiao-Wang continued rather densely, “You’re heading out this late, Ge?”
“Uh, I’m just going to grab something to eat.”
“It’ll be better for you not to wander around,” Xiao-Wang reminded him, trying to be helpful. “This area’s crawling with reporters because of Chen-laoshi’s alleged marriage!”
Despite the harmlessness of Xiao-Wang’s words, Zhang Zhun was stung by the passing remark. “It’s fine. I…” Zhang Zhun dropped his gaze. “They’ll never notice me.” Just then, a car sped by the two of them, and the bright headlights swept across Zhang Zhun’s face. In that fleeting instant, Xiao-Wang became the sole witness to the cold, consuming sorrow that had settled on the older man’s lashes and set into the hair at his temples.
For a long while, the young man remained speechless; as if he had lost his voice, Xiao-Wang found himself unable to utter a single word. Zhang Zhun was the first to break the silence. “Go on with your business then,” he said, lifting the corners of his lips. “See you.” Brushing past the younger man, Zhang Zhun continued heading towards the Grand Hyatt. Without knowing why, Xiao-Wang remained rooted to the spot, turning again and again to watch the other man’s figure recede into the night. The longer he looked, however, the less he knew why he was looking. Shaking his head in bewilderment, he resumed his walk back to the hotel.
The Grand Hyatt, too, had its fair share of visitors. Zhang Zhun cut across the foyer, made his way to the sixteenth floor, took the left turn upon exiting the elevator, and stopped at the first room on his right. The door opened as soon as he pressed the bell, and an arm reached out from the unlit room to pull him through the opening. Just as he had expected, a kiss was waiting for him beyond the door – hungry and wet. To step into an unfamiliar room, to submit himself to pitch-black darkness all around, just to be together with another man… all of this had been unthinkable to Zhang Zhun in the past. But now, here he was, offering up his lewdly curled tongue as bait, begging Chen Hsin to bite down for a taste, and churning their mouths into one hot mess as soon as teeth sank into flesh.
The kiss deepened, and their breaths became a chaos of erratic gasps. Yet, no matter how much he sucked and licked, Zhang Zhun’s thirst remained unquenched; this was not enough, not nearly enough. All he knew from experience was how to make out with women, and his pent-up frustration drove him crazy. Spurred by instinct, he rushed in with every bit of his strength to seize the upper hand, to take control of it all – but Chen Hsin would not give in. Desire thickened between them, and each fought in earnest for dominance over the other. Then, Zhang Zhun touched the swollen ear by accident, and Chen Hsin’s pained yell brought their tussle an abrupt, unsatisfactory end.
The lights came on. Having put quite the dampener on the mood, Zhang Zhun turned away in shame. However, it did not take long before he turned back once more in worry. “Let me have a look,” he said, blushing as he drew closer to Chen Hsin. The younger man, on the other hand, seemed rather sullen and showed little enthusiasm as Zhang Zhun tiptoed to examine his ear. “What’s wrong?” Zhang Zhun asked, sensing his unhappiness.
Chen Hsin shot him a sideways glance. “Haven’t we talked about this before?” He gripped Zhang Zhun by the waist. “I get first dibs in bed.” In the next breath, as if to illustrate his point, he pushed Zhang Zhun against the wall and brazenly pinned the older man to the surface with his body. “I want to be on top.”
A vague understanding dawned upon Zhang Zhun, and his expression took on a look of ambivalence. “What’s all this talk about top and bottom? It’s not as if either of us is a woman.”
“No, I mean,” Chen Hsin muttered between lustful pecks on the man’s lips, “when we finally get in bed…”
Zhang Zhun shoved him aside. “Do you have nothing but trash in that head of yours?” he snapped in a show of anger before taking out a packet from his pocket and sitting down on the bed. “Come here.” Chen Hsin did as he was told, sat down beside Zhang Zhun, and began sneaking peeks at the man out of the corners of his eyes. The packet in the older man’s hands turned out to be a pack of ear studs. The clean smell of alcohol wafted into the air as Zhang Zhun opened the bag. “I dug up some platinum ones for you,” he explained, tipping the contents into his palm. “You’ll heal faster if you wear one of these.”
Zhang Zhun had worn them all before, and Chen Hsin’s curiosity was piqued. “Platinum, huh…”
Zhang Zhun noticed how the younger man’s hand seemed to be itching to reach into his pocket. He also saw the hint of embarrassment that made it falter. “What is it?”
“Hm?” Chen Hsin tried playing dumb.
“What’s in there?” Zhang Zhun asked, pointing to his trouser pocket.
A blush burst over Chen Hsin’s face. “Don’t laugh at me…” he began bashfully as he fished out a tiny bag containing a pair of ear studs: two rather ugly and malformed hearts. He mumbled, “These were all they had…”
Zhang Zhun stared at the hideous studs, his eyes widening in surprise. “Where did you go to get your ear pierced?”
“Remember that small plaza to the left of the film site? There was a tiny store on the street further down.” The more he spoke, the less confident Chen Hsin seemed to feel. “The store owner told me these are made of silver…”
Zhang Zhun did not know what to say. “Getting an ear piercing is fine and all, but why in the world would you buy something like this?”
“I…” Chen Hsin turned his head to look at Zhang Zhun in all seriousness. “I wanted us to wear matching studs.”
Chen Hsin looked so dazzling with the eagerness in his eyes that Zhang Zhun almost agreed at once. The words were already on the tip of his tongue, but reason prevailed in the end. “No,” he replied, “they’re too ugly.” Chen Hsin said nothing; he lowered his head and fiddled with the bag, feeling somewhat dejected. The very next moment, however, Zhang Zhun stood up and straddled his thighs. Resting a knee against the edge of the bed, he tipped his own studs into Chen Hsin’s hands instead. “Pick one.”