I was from the South, so I had trouble getting used to the dry and cold weather of the North. I grew to like Beijing because of Li Chuan. I was given the opportunity to go to Shanghai after I graduated — Shanghai was actually my real ancestral home — but I didn’t.
Sometimes, I felt that the entire Beijing was permeated with Li Chuan’s scent. We had been apart for so many years, thus, whenever I came across a Starbucks or could smell the familiar scent of coffee, my heart would pound out of nervousness, thinking that I would bump into Li Chuan again.
It was time to leave Wenzhou. I was reluctant to leave because of meeting Li Chuan again.
René said that when he took a stroll in a small town in Switzerland, the elderly would come and talk to him. He couldn’t understand, so he found a translator. It turned out that they only wanted to shake hands and wish him a good day. When a pedestrian didn’t know how to read the signs at an intersection, cars would immediately stop ten feet away. If the same situation happened in America, drivers would have shouted profanity right away, whereas people in Switzerland would smile kindly and wave at you to let you cross. “(English) Swiss people are freaky nice!”
Besides Li Chuan, the only Swiss that I could recognize was the tennis player, Roger Federer. I felt that Li Chuan’s smile was very much like Federer’s: It was very gentle, kind, humble, not super exaggerated, a bit reserved, and a bit timid.
On the night of victory, everyone went to the most extravagant restaurant to celebrate. We drank a lot. René drank half a bottle of Wuliangye, five to six others got drunk and couldn’t get up including Director Zhang. Only Li Chuan, who was under the strict supervision of Ji Chuan, did not drink a single drop.
Other than the waitresses, I was the only woman among all the guys. As a result, everyone treated me like their secretary. But I heard that Zhu Bi Xuan had to do the same. I had to make all the arrangements beforehand, including ordering the dishes and negotiating the prices for drinks. I carried the company cheque in my bag. Therefore, although I loved to drink, it wasn’t appropriate for me to get wildly drunk. I restrained myself very well and only drank a small glass of dry red wine.
After dinner, those who were unconscious from drinking were sent back to the hotel via a cab. Those who were still sober stayed in a KTV room and sang their lungs out. I didn’t want to be with a bunch of half-drunk guys and be their free hostess. Therefore, I told Manager Jiang that I was getting tired and was worried about getting air sickness, so I wanted to rest early. I then escaped.
I bumped into Li Chuan when I came out of the washroom.
“Are you going back to the hotel?” he asked.
“Do you want me to call you a cab?”
“No, I’m going to take a walk back.” I was wearing a short wool skirt and a shawl. Winter in Wenzhou was actually not that cold.
My eyes were still swollen like walnuts and looked like I would cry any minute.
He didn’t persist.
The front entrance of the hotel was a big revolving door that had a gold painted stainless steel frame. It was heavy to push. I thought for a moment and believed that it would be inconvenient and hard for Li Chuan to go through those doors. Hence, I said as we approached, “Wait, is there another door? I don’t like going through these doors.”
“(English) Claustrophobia?” he turned around and asked me.
He gazed back and forth and realized my intention. He walked straight through without stopping. I followed and pulled the doors slightly so that they wouldn’t turn as fast. His pace was indeed a little slow inside the doors, but he got out quickly, and I also followed him closely.
When we got to the open staircase, he said: “Next time, when we come across the same situation, let me walk in the front, okay? I am a man and the doors are very heavy, so it’s only right for me to push them.”
“Isn’t it ladies first?” I asked him back.
“If the doors are already turning, you can go first and I will follow.”
“You can’t be serious. What kind century is this rule from?” I wanted to laugh seeing how serious he was about it.
“It’s not a rule. It’s just trying to make it more convenient for you, no more than that.”
“Speaking of convenience, I think those who are able should be helping those who are not,” I rolled my eyes and talked back.
“Thank you for reminding me that I’m disabled,” he shut my mouth.
He finished talking and waved his arm for a cab. I watched him get in and then I got in myself.
“Didn’t you say you wanted to walk back?” he asked.
“I’ve been wanting to visit the Guan Di Temple that’s just in the front of us. Since it’s on the way, come with me.”
He sat in the cab confused, so he didn’t say anything. I told the driver, “Mr. Driver, please stop and wait for us at the front of Guan Di Temple.”
We arrived at the Guan Di Temple in less than ten minutes. Li Chuan and I got out of the car. It was a small temple but had good incense for burning. There was a row of big red lanterns in front of the door. In the middle, a wooden statue with a broadsword in its hand stood there. He had a serious expression, a long beard, and looked mighty and powerful. There were four big characters on top of his head: “Righteous Bright Heaven Earth.”
The knee high door sill made it difficult for Li Chuan. He had to lift up his prosthetic leg with his hands in order to get in. We stood before Guan Gong. I lit three incenses and paid my respect. I then asked, “Li Chuan, have you heard of ‘Romance of the Three Kingdoms?’”
“Yes, I have.”
“Do you know about how Liu, Guan, and Zhang sworn together?”
“Li Chuan, I want to become sworn brothers with you.”
“What?” he couldn’t believe his ears, “What?”
“I, Xie Xiao Qiu, want you, Wang Li Chuan, to be my sworn brother.”
He was puzzled, “Why?”
“You know that in our current state, being brothers is better than being colleagues.”
He shook his head, “I don’t understand.”
“The reason is very simple. If we are colleagues, we can turn into lovers at any time. You definitely don’t want our relationship to go that route, right?”
He nodded, “That’s right.”
“That’s why being colleagues is not the best way to resolve the issue,” I stared into his eyes, not letting him look elsewhere, “But, it won’t be the same if we are brothers. Brothers cannot become lovers. If we do, we would be committing incest. Neither you nor I would want that, right?”
He looked at me coldly and did not answer or say a word, trying to figure out what I was up to. I didn’t mind and continued luring, “Thinking back in time when Liu, Guan, and Zhang sworn allegiance, they used a black cow and white horse as sacrifice for the ceremony and swore that even though they were not born on the same day, they would die for each other on the same day. Every time I watched that part, I was especially moved by it.”
Li Chuan frowned at me as if I was from outer space.
Anyway, I stuffed three incenses into his hand and swore in front of the wooden man:
“The heaven above and earth below as witnesses and Emperor Guan before us, I, Xie Xiao Qiu, and Wang Li Chuan are sworn brothers starting today and at this hour. From now and forever, we will share our fortunes and hardships. May the gods of heaven and earth attest to what is in our hearts. If we should ever do anything to betray our friendship, may the gods in heaven strike us dead.”
That’s right, everyone. I repeated the content of a Wuxia novel. I had read too many Wuxia novels, so I could not pinpoint which one it came from exactly. I felt that the problem between Li Chuan and me could not be resolved with modern methods, so I could only use ancient ways. That was why I chose this place: ancient temple, ancient statue, ancient incenses, and ancient censer. We time traveled to ancient times under the candlelight. From olden days to now, many people had often been acting in their love relationships. I on the other hand, was acting for love. Think about how tiresome it was for me.
I finished my emotional speech, but found out that Li Chuan had tilted his body and was laughing at me coldly.
“I’m a man and you’re a woman, so may I ask how we’re supposed to be brothers?” he asked as he pinched the incenses and put them into the censer. He wiped his hand with a handkerchief and was about to leave.
Li Chuan was gentle on the outside, but stubborn on the inside. Once he had decided on something, there was no turning back.
“Wait!” I tugged onto him, “this was why I brought you here. As long as you become sworn brothers with me, I promise, from today onwards, I will only be a man and not a woman in front of you. You and I are buddies like man to man.”
He squeezed his eyebrows until a big “v” appeared between them, “Man to man?”
“I know that there are many types of relationships between two people. Love is only one of them. To us, it can become very important or become not important at all. If we eliminate this layer of relationship, we will be much more at ease. Like the saying goes, ‘the wind and tides are calm as long as you can endure it, whereas your bones will shatter into pieces if you push forward,’ so why not take a step back and see the vast world, what do you think?”
I licked my lips and didn’t know how I came up with those words. In all honesty, I did not want to be promoted so soon.
But Li Chuan was dazed and confused from my long speech. I continued to persuade, “If you and I become sworn brothers, I will have a ‘closure.’ I promise I will immediately start a new life and start finding a new boyfriend. And then I will fall in love, get married, buy a house, have a baby, be filial to my husband’s parents, buy pension, and live happily in a perfect family.”
He gazed off as he listened to me. After a while, he asked, “You promise? Can you really promise?”
“Of course! You think I’m lying? Who did you think Grandpa Guan (Emperor Guan) was? Grandpa Guan was known as the great demonic leader of all three kingdoms. If I lie in front of him, I’d be afraid of being struck by lightning.” I gave a big pat on Li Chuan’s shoulder, “Li Chuan, you Swiss have always been generous and straightforward. You should be more frank and stop giving your culture a bad name, okay?”
For the sake of this old Chinese tradition, he behaved and followed me and swore in front of Grandpa Guan.
“Starting today, you are my big brother. You have to cover me, okay?”
“No matter whether we are brothers or not,” Li Chuan widened his eyes and said in a serious manner, “I will always cover you. (English) You can always count on me.”
Li Chuan wasn’t Christian, but he had the same symptoms as all foreigners who love Chinese culture. He loved our culture so much that it was like an obsession. For example, he praised our buddhist architectures highly; whenever he came across a religious ceremony, he would devoutly pay homage, afraid that others would take him as a foreigner.
He said those words from his heart, and it made my heart pound. Those were not words that you could easily hear from a lover, a friend, or a buddy. The following words came out from my mouth out of emotion. It was definitely not “the moon representing my heart”:
“Li Chuan, you should go back to Switzerland. Don’t worry about me. Like the saying goes: ‘all men are brothers,’ you just need to remember to drop me an email every now and then.”
He looked at me surprised, “You’re…letting me go back to Switzerland?”
“Mm.” I breathed in the cool air, and my nose started to burn as my heartstrings were about to break. I decided to be more cheerful and kindly send him off, “You were the one who wanted a new change for the New Year, weren’t you?”
He stood there for a second without a word. He finally responded with “Mm” after a while and said, “Let’s go.”
I gave him a hand at the door sill. He didn’t reject me. When we were about to get into the car, he suddenly said, “Xiao Qiu, can you not turn manly so soon?…you should at least give me a grace period.”
I looked at him with my heart hurting, “Li Chuan, do you feel more at ease now?”
He didn’t respond.
We had a good night’s sleep.
We packed our belongings the next day and got on the return flight. We arrived in Beijing two hours later. Friends and families were already waiting for us at the arrival terminal. Everyone hugged each other and returned to each of their homes.
René and Ji Chuan connected to another flight to return to Switzerland directly. Li Chuan said that there were still a lot of designs that he needed to follow up on since the Wenzhou development had just started, therefore, he had to stay in Beijing. We walked together and had planned to ride a cab together, but the moment we got to the exit, someone called my name.
I looked around and saw that it was Xiao Guan.
We hadn’t seen each other for a long time, so I couldn’t believe that the person standing in front of me was Xiao Guan. His skin was tanned, and he was wearing short sleeves despite it being winter, which revealed his arm muscles. My image of Xiao Guan had always been a man who was successful and stylish, definitely not a muscle man. However, I could sense his joyfulness and excitement from the holidays. He was wearing tennis clothes, and was carrying a big tennis bag on his back which he then placed down beside.
“I just came back from a tennis game, so I came to meet up with you. This must be the famous Mr. Wang Li Chuan,” he reached out and shook hands with Li Chuan; he was enthusiastic and experienced.
“Xiao Guan. I’m from Jiu Tong Translation. Annie’s human relations is still with Jiu Tong’s human resources, so….you and I are both considered to be her boss.”
“Nice to meet you, Mr. Xiao.”
“Director Jiang, Director Zhang, and I are very close. Besides translating, we also have other collaborations. I’m also in the real estate business. This is my card.”
Li Chuan put down his suitcase and cane in order to accept the card with both hands.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t bring any business cards. I’ll give it to you next time,” said Li Chuan.
“I heard that CGP won the bid for the Wenzhou development project?”
“Yes. Mr. Xiao sure is quick to find out the news.”
“I used to work at the state press agency. Congratulations! How was Annie’s performance?”
“She was great. Thank you for recommending her to CGP.”
Xiao Guan waved his hand and smiled, “With Jiu Tong’s relationship with CGP, of course we have to give you the best. Is anyone giving you a ride, Chief Wang? I can give you a ride home.”
“Thank you, but it’s okay. I can take a cab.”
“I won’t hesitate to take Annie away then.” Xiao Guan grabbed my suitcase from me forcefully.
“No problem. Annie needs to go and relax,” Li Chuan said dismissively, “Goodbye.”
On our way to the parking lot, Xiao Guan said, “What happened to you, your eyes are so swollen?”
“They were stung by wasps.”
“Ha, you should have come up with a better lie. Where can you find wasps in the winter? Don’t tell me they’re swollen from crying. What was so serious that made you cry so hard?”
“It’s none of your business,” I wasn’t in a good mood and disliked how he wouldn’t let go of the subject.
“I emailed you, but you didn’t respond. Aren’t you holding up your boss too long?” He opened the car door and gestured for me to sit in, “Did you notice? I got a new car.”
It was an Audi sportscar and had the smell of real leather.
“Oh, really?” I didn’t remember what his previous car was.
“I’ve gotten two tickets already since I bought it.”
He then talked about his Audi for a whole 15 minutes; he talked about all its functions, standards, and compared it to other similar cars. I was completely bored by it.
“That Wang Li Chuan, do you and him know each other very well?”
“Not really. We’re just colleagues.”
“Is he easy to deal with?”
“I guess. I’m not so sure.”
“I have a project that I’ve gotten most of the funding for. I’d like to ask if he would be interested in investing in it. I’d also like to ask if he could be the designer.”
“You’d have to ask him yourself.”
“I’m not in a rush,” he said. He turned into a small street, “there’s a new Jiangsu restaurant that just opened. I heard the food is not bad, and I’ve been wanting to come try. My hometown is Shuzhou (Major city in Jiangsu) after all. Are you interested?”
“How could I ask you to treat me?”
“You don’t need to be so polite.”
We parked the car and entered the restaurant. I followed him, not feeling very excited. At first glance, the restaurant wasn’t big, but the decoration was very detailed. All the waitresses were wearing satin Cheongsam.
Other than Li Chuan, Xiao Guan was actually the second guy who took me out for dinner. I couldn’t help but think that men were just like women, there were all kinds of them. It suddenly reminded me of Li Chuan asking me to “move on,” so I repeated his words in my head: move on, move on, move on…
The menu came, and Xiao Guan asked what I wanted to order. I didn’t have any impressions of Jiangsu dishes, so I let him order. He quickly ordered a few dishes and drinks. I originally didn’t have any appetite, but I asked the waitress for some hot sauce to go with the sweet-tasting Jiangsu dishes.
“Sorry, I forgot to ask, where are you from?”
“Yunan? No wonder you like spicy. I can’t eat spicy at all. I’ll cough right afterwards. Last time I went to a friend’s place, his wife was from Sichuan. Their home was filled with the smell of chili, so the moment I walked in, I started coughing. I went out to the staircase and coughed half a day before I was okay.”
“I should stay far away from you then. I can’t live without spicy,” I looked at him smiling lightly.
“That’s why hot sauce is so great. I’ll remember to bring a bottle of hot sauce the next time we go out for dinner.”
His ego was so big, so I didn’t say anything more. To someone who ate spicy, “hot sauce” was a humiliation. I not only loved eating chili, I especially liked the chili from autumn; they were strong tasting and had a spike to them. They didn’t sting your mouth, but hurt your stomach.
He started talking about world news that happened this year, the trading market in America, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, crude oil prices, North Korea nuclear tests, Thai army changes, and EU’s policy towards China. He spent a lot of time talking about Saddam Hussein, and then he turned to talk about sports news: Italian football, NBA, Formula 1, and talked a lot about Tennis. I listened very hard and nodded my head very hard. It was great; it saved me from reading the newspaper. Why couldn’t I have met him while I was studying for my Master’s degree? That way, I wouldn’t have needed to review current events.
“What do you do on your spare time?” he asked. Seeing how I hadn’t said anything and was only focused on nodding and eating, he had no choice but to change the subject.
“Watching movies, reading books, sleep…”
“Do you watch ‘Xinwen Lianbo’ (daily news program)?”
His jaws almost dropped, “Never? You don’t care about events happening in the world?”
“No. I have narrow knowledge.”
“How did you get into graduate studies?”
“I was accepted on recommendation.”
“What do you watch on TV then?”
“I watch prime-time series like ‘Chinese Style Divorce,’ ‘Let’s Not Talk About Love,’ and sometimes I watch a bit of martial arts films like the funny ones from Stephen Chow.”
“Do you read the newspapers daily?”
“Yeah. I read Entertainment, Home, and Lifestyle. Just these three sections. I toss out the others.”
“How about magazines?”
“I’m a big fan of ‘Reader’s Digest.’ I also read ‘Family’ and ‘Romance.’ I sometimes read ‘Ancient and Modern Legends,’ but not every issue.”
“Who is your favorite author?”
“Annie Baby, Du Ruo, and Lan Lian Hua.”
“How come I haven’t heard of them before?”
“Oh, they are all online writers. They’re very popular. Du Ruo’s ‘Tian Wu’ (Heaven Dance) is highly recommended.”
“I never thought…that your taste in literature…hm…how should I say this? It needs improvement. I recommend Su Tong’s novel, ‘Wives and Concubines in Flocks.’ Every woman loves that book. Eileen Chang is also a good choice. Meng Meng likes Yi Shu and Lilian Lee.”
I quickly said, “Oh yeah, how are you and Meng Meng? Have you guys gotten back together?”
“Back together? That’s impossible. A good man never looks backwards.”
“Meng Meng is a good woman. She’s young, pretty, smart, and stylish. You guys look great together. Really.”
He took a sip of wine and smiled, “Please, there’s a book that said that there are two types of people in love. One is ‘sentimental,’ who only looks for their ideal type within their lover. Even if they are not successful, they will never give up. The other type is of the ‘narrative archetype,’ who enjoys the variations in life. Meng Meng is the latter type. I’ve already been passed by her before. How about you? Are you the sentimental type, or the narrative type?”
“I don’t know, I haven’t thought about it.” I wiped my mouth and said, “I’m done eating.”
He didn’t look too pleased because he hadn’t eaten much since he was occupied with talking. I on the other hand was listening while I was eating, so I was full very soon.
“I didn’t know you didn’t like to talk much,” he said, “Oh right, about that handbook, could you please work on it as soon as possible? They are waiting for it.”
“I need one week’s time, is that too much to ask for?”
“Of course not. Are you free tonight? I have a home theater with a great sound system. A friend of mine brought me a few new movies from abroad and a couple of them are coming to watch them. There will be guys and girls, do you want to come?”
“Sigh…I got a bit of air sickness still. Maybe another time.” I pretended to look like I was dizzy.
He examined me and gave a bitter smile, “Am I really not attractive, Annie?…I’ve never felt so frustrated in front of a woman before.”
“Not everything will be splendid in life.”
He asked the waitress for the bill.
He wouldn’t give up and asked, “Do you dislike dating guys or do you just not want to be with me?”
“You’re not hinting that I’m a lesbian, are you?”
“How could I be?” he looked at me and said, “Are you?”
I was completely speechless. I rolled my eyes and stood up.
He gave me a ride home; we were silent the whole time.
After I got out of the car, he rolled down his window and said, “Annie, I’m also the sentimental type. When a sentimental person meets another, sparks will fly between them sooner or later.”
He stared at me with his burning eyes. They were full of heat. Oh no, he had fallen for me.
I felt my guilty conscience, “Xiao Guan, I wasn’t in a good mood today. You can see that my eyes are swollen. Don’t take the things I said to heart.”
“If you’re not in a good mood, why don’t you come watch some movies with me at my place. You’ll feel better once you chat with others.” He didn’t give up and gave one last try.
“Thank you, but no thanks.”
After I got into my room, I closed the door and lay on my bed. I thought of what Li Chuan had said before, “If you get used to guys treating you this way, you will marry a good man.”
Li Chuan, it was all your fault.