Quality Check: Isalee
First Published on Chaleuria
Every now and then, stray cats could be seen sauntering through the jazz bar. Chet Baker’s “My Funny Valentine” wafted lightly through the air, and Gao Zhun leaned against the man next to him, losing himself in the piano music, the crooning voice, and the soft wave of tipsiness lapping at the edge of his senses. The man, bespectacled and refined, was exactly his type. And though the stranger could not seem to keep his hands to himself, Gao Zhun did not mind it much; he found the roving touch quite pleasurable, in fact.
“Shall we?” Gao Zhun heard the man ask. He lifted his chin and peered up at the stranger in scrutiny, but just as he was about to say “yes”, someone yanked the man away from behind. It was a familiar figure dressed in faded jeans and scuffed sneakers.
Then, the newcomer grabbed Gao Zhun by the arm and pulled him off the bar stool as well. Gao Zhun had no time to respond; all he could do was stumble forward as the man locked an arm around his waist and pushed him towards the door.
“Hey!” the bespectacled stranger shouted after them, indignant yet not quite daring to move from his spot.
Gao Zhun’s captor paused in his tracks and looked over his shoulder in disdain. “He’s mine!”
As soon as they were outside, however, Gao Zhun shoved the man away. “Who are you calling yours?!”
The man’s phone began ringing. “Zou Yun here,” he answered the call, flagging down a cab at the same time. “What’s up?”
“This is the third time, Zou Yun!” Gao Zhun continued, haughty and relentless. “Get out of my face and stay the hell away from me!”
But as the cab pulled up by the curb, Gao Zhun allowed himself to be pushed first into the vehicle. He even gave Zou Yun’s address to the driver, without thinking, when asked for the destination. It was not as if he had a choice about remembering where the man lived; he had been spending his last few nights there, after all.
Zou Yun’s call soon ended. Not daring to speak, he tried to sneak an arm around Gao Zhun’s shoulders – only to be shoved away once more. He reached for Gao Zhun’s hand instead, but the older man rejected his touch. “Well, I…” Zou Yun began in a pathetic mutter, “I was just afraid you’d be taken advantage of…”
“But that’s exactly what I want.” Gao Zhun’s temper flared as soon as he heard the other’s voice. He was not quarrelsome by nature, yet he found himself always teeming with rage around this thug of a man. “Why the hell is it so hard for me to get my way?!”
“Even so, you gotta pick the right ones.” Zou Yun broke into a placatory smile despite the harsh scolding. “That guy back there? He’s just a pretty-face with specs, clearly up to no good. Besides,” he paused, thinking, “I’ll betcha he’s nothing but a heartless player!”
Gao Zhun was stunned for a moment. “So you’re the one who gets to decide for me?” he fired back viciously. “Get out of my face!”
When the cab arrived at the now-familiar neighborhood, Gao Zhun got out at once and slammed the door behind him. Zou Yun scrambled to pay the fare. Then, rushing after the older man, he ran down the unlit alley and grabbed Gao Zhun’s hand in the dark. So deep was the night that all was pitch black around them; this time, Gao Zhun did not shake him off.
They made their way back together, only to find that somewhere on Zou Yun’s block, a burst pipe had been leaking all over the ground floor. Just as Gao Zhun was about to step into a puddle, the other man scooped him up in his arms and carried him across the ponded area. So thoughtful and affectionate was the gesture, it made Gao Zhun’s head spin a little – and he hated the feeling. “Put me down!”
“Your shoes are way too expensive,” Zou Yun replied with ease, “unlike mine. I wouldn’t even feel a thing tossing these out.”
Once they entered the building, Zou Yun led the way up the narrow stairs to his apartment on the third floor. The homely aroma of cooked beans wafted through the air as he opened the door. “The bean congee’s ready,” he said, heading straight for the kitchen. “Would you like some?”
With a shake of his head, Gao Zhun began undressing. He tossed his clothes onto the special chair reserved just for him, then climbed into bed and dove under the covers, leaving Zou Yun to tidy up the mess as usual. Languidly, he flipped onto his back, feeling the sheets slide against his naked, fevered skin as he ached and hungered for men.
Zou Yun did not stay long in the kitchen. Instead of bringing Gao Zhun any porridge, he entered the room with a glass of warm water in one hand, and half a lemon in the other. After squeezing some lemon juice into the water, he held the glass to Gao Zhun’s lips. “Take a sip before you sleep.”
Gripping the other man’s wrist to steady his hand, Gao Zhun did as he was asked. But he showed no signs of letting go when he was done drinking. Pulling Zou Yun on top of himself without warning, he breathed against the man, “Wanna fuck…?”
“That’s all you ever talk about… Why’re you so obsessed with fucking, anyway?” Zou Yun fought off the grip, placed the glass at a safe distance, then sat down on the edge of the bed. “If you’re not gonna brush your teeth,” he pulled off his pants, “I’ll get you a piece of gum to freshen up?”
As he got to his feet again, he heard Gao Zhun’s cold retort from behind, “You’re asking me?” It was the older man’s comeback to his earlier question, he knew, yet he said nothing in reply.
And silence thickened between them like the calm before the storm. Gao Zhun braced himself, certain that the other man was about to lose his temper. Terror churned in his gut – but even so, he was ready for the fight. It had been a long time coming, and he had been waiting too long for this, far too long.
In the end, Zou Yun merely grabbed his pillow and blanket off the bed without a word, then moved to the sagging sofa to the side. The storm never came.
As the lights went out, Gao Zhun sat up in the dark all alone, angry and hurting like a monstrous, swollen fruit trembling in the gusts of spring. Pain ballooned in him, intolerably. Just as he was about to burst, to release the countless spores of festering rage and suffering into the night, Zou Yun began to speak. So soft was his voice that it was almost lost in the black, deafening void of the lightless room. “My first time… was with my platoon leader.”
The broken sofa creaked; the man had sat up as well, it seemed. Then a brief flame flickered – click – and a tiny glowing spot appeared in the dark. “I’ve never stopped hating him. I still hate him now,” the spot reddened all of a sudden, “but I can’t forget about him.”
Gao Zhun waited for the man to continue. Hidden in the dark, he listened quietly without the need to feign any sort of sympathy or indifference.
“I still remember the way he looked when he had his smokes, the way his cheeks dimpled whenever he smiled… and those legs, swinging from the bars in the summer…” Zou Yun recalled his past little by little, tasting the bitterness on his tongue, in the depths of his very soul. “It’s like… a plague of some sort, an infection that you just keep passing on… like zombies or vampires.”
Infection – what a terrifying word. “Got a smoke to spare?” Gao Zhun asked, wrapping his arms around himself.
Zou Yun shuffled over in his slippers and sat down on the edge of the bed. “I infected you,” he lit a cigarette for the other man, “and now you’re passing it on to others.”
Gao Zhun took a hard, deep drag, and broke into a violent coughing fit. The next thing he knew, Zou Yun was patting him gently on the back as if they were the closest family to each other. “How many have you infected so far?” he heard the man ask.
Tears filled Gao Zhun’s eyes as he choked on the bitter pang of that first breath of nicotine in his lungs. “One,” he rasped, “or maybe two…”
Zou Yun took the cigarette away from Gao Zhun and held it between his lips. “I’m sorry…” he muttered, kneading the man’s sweat-slicked forehead and nape, “so sorry…”
Gao Zhun wanted to laugh. Was he supposed to call it quits now that the other had apologized? Bury what had happened and just move on? Impossible. He would never forgive the man for the rest of his life.
Pulling the covers over his head, Gao Zhun turned away from Zou Yun, cold and detached. The man continued patting Gao Zhun through the blanket for a while. Then, after finishing his smoke, he returned to the broken couch for the night.