by Jin Renshun
Translated from Chinese by Xujun Eberlein
Each day at dusk, from six to eight, the third table by the window was reserved for Kang Joon-Hyuk. Occasionally he brought friends – perhaps employees – with him, but mostly he came alone, magazine in hand, to read a few pages before the dishes were served. He and Chun Feng spoke every day, but nothing beyond her asking what he’d like and his ordering of dishes, followed by a few pleasantries of the “Thanks,” “You are welcome” sort.
One day Chun Feng forgot to put the “Reserved” sign on the table. By the time she realized her mistake, the table was occupied by two middle-aged women who chatted nonstop from the second they walked in. They ignored Chun Feng’s apologies and requests.
“This is where we’re sitting,” they said. “We’re not going anywhere.”
While another waitress handled their order, Chun Feng went outside to wait for Kang Joon-Hyuk. “I’m really sorry,” she bowed to him, tears spilling forth. “It’s all my fault.”
“Did I cause you any trouble?” he said. “You stood in the wind for so long, for such a little thing! It’s me who should apologize.”
Entering the restaurant, he said to the proprietress, “The service here is really impressive.”
“The customer is god,” she said, smiling. She personally brought Kang Joon-Hyuk to a relatively quiet spot. Eyeing Chun Feng approaching with the menu, she told Kang Joon-Hyuk, “Chun Feng is a university student. She only works after classes.”
When Chun Feng brought Kang Joon-Hyuk his order, he asked about her school and her field of study, and whether she liked them. As they talked, he had to crane his head halfway, and she had to stoop a bit to answer him. Feeling a bit silly, he threw her a smile, and lowered his eyes to his food.
A few days later, the arctic currents brought heavy snows. Chun Feng was waiting for the last bus when a silver Audi stopped in front of her. Kang Joon-Hyuk opened the door, calling to her, “Let me take you home.”
“No need,” Chun Feng waved the offer away. “But thank you.”
“With this much snow, the bus won’t be on time,” Kang Joon-Hyuk said. “Come on in.”
The car’s interior was like a warm and cozy room. Only then did Chun Feng notice that her hands and feet were frozen. The cold crackled through her joints like electricity, leaving them numb and tingling. Shivering a little, she said to Kang Joon-Hyuk, “Sorry to trouble you.”
“It’s nothing,” Kang Joon-Hyuk said. “Is your work hard?”
“It’s not bad,” Chun Feng said.
“A relative of mine runs a restaurant like this in Seoul,” Kang Joon-Hyuk said. “Some college students also work there, even two Chinese students. They all complain how hard it is.”
Chun Feng said she started the job the previous summer. The restaurant faced a square with fountains; at six each afternoon the fountains began to spray, accompanied by music and lights. They set up places for coffee outside, the plastic-resin furniture brightly colored, a fresh bouquet and fishbowl on each table. As part of the cityscape, the outdoor seating was often photographed for local papers. She was shocked to see her own picture in the newspaper for the first time.
“It’s really fun chatting with you,” Kang Joon-Hyuk said when Chun Feng got out at her campus. “Oh yeah, wait a minute…”
He opened the glove compartment, took out a small bag, and handed it to her. “A friend gave me this little gift, but it’s something for women, I…” He spread his hands.
“I couldn’t accept this,” Chun Feng pushed it back.
“Just think of it as doing me a favor, all right?” Kang Joon-Hyuk stuffed it into her hands.
Back in her dormitory room, Chun Feng saw the word “Dior” printed on the bag. In it was a bottle of limited-edition perfume labeled “Addict 2”. A Chinese label was glued over the perfume case’s French inscription, the characters arrayed like a poem.
She held the perfume bottle under a lamp and studied its pink color. Silver sequins sparkled on the bottle, as though an endless fine snow were falling in the little world inside. She sprayed it once; countless fragrant particles danced around her body, swirling into her with each breath, down to the bottom of her heart, and soaking her in sweet scent.
Reciprocating for the perfume, Chun Feng gave Kang Joon-Hyuk an apple when he came for supper the next evening. She opened the apple like a teacup before him. The hollowed-out fruit was filled with diced pear, orange, hawthorn, kiwi and apple coated in honey.
Gazing at the apple, Kang Joon-Hyuk was quiet for a long time.
A week later, Kang Joon-Hyuk took Chun Feng for steak. The waiter who served them was a middle-aged man with a serious look on his clean-shaven face. He wore a black suit with a white shirt, his back bolt upright. He extended both arms to Chun Feng as if preparing to waltz. At Kang Joon-Hyuk’s gentle prompting, Chun Feng took off her jacket and handed it to the man.
The waiter held Chun Feng’s cotton-padded jacket like a matador, retreating two steps before turning to leave. Chun Feng followed him with her eyes. How ugly her jacket looked – after several washes, its red color seemed like old paint beaten down by unrelenting sunlight. The black and white scarf she’d knitted herself hung over the jacket like a person hiding her head in shame, exposing only a lock of hair.
“I’ve never been in a restaurant so fancy,” Chun Feng said to Kang Joon-Hyuk.
Her mind was still on the waiter. She knew how waiters gossip behind a customer’s back.
The waiter soon returned, softly requesting their order. He laid the menu before them as if it were some important document.
While reading the menu, Chun Feng stole a glance at the waiter, wanting to know if he was judging her jeans and knock-off Nike shoes.
“Perhaps he has noticed my perfume,” she secretly guessed. She hoped so. The perfume was the only thing doubtless presentable on such a luxurious occasion.
Kang Joon-Hyuk ordered a number of dishes, asking Chun Feng’s opinion out of courtesy: “Is that all right?”
“Of course,” she smiled.
The steak was wonderful, its grilled fragrance almost dizzying.
“No wonder people burn incense to worship the Buddha,” Chun Feng said. “The pleasures of scent go straight to the heart, far beyond just satisfying the appetite.”
“You are so adorable,” Kang Joon-Hyuk was amused. He hesitated before saying, “Your boyfriend must be infatuated with you.”
“I don’t have a boyfriend.”
“How come?” Kang Joon-Hyuk said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if a hundred men are after you.”
“What are you talking about?” Chun Feng flushed, “I’m only an ordinary girl.”
“You’re gold,” Kang Joon-Hyuk looked into her eyes, as if stressing some truth. “I can’t believe none of the men around you see this.”
Chun Feng chuckled. She had indeed once been pursued: they ate hamburgers and drank Coke at KFC, and chatted about Hong Kong movies and Japanese manga. On the way back, he had boldly taken her hand, his sweaty palm damp and sticky. She let him hold her hand for a little while and then drew it away.
“Is there a man you like though?” Kang Joon-Hyuk asked.
Chun Feng liked Pei Zicheng – she liked him so much that flowers bloomed grasses grew nightingales sang butterflies danced bees hummed, all in her chest. But so what? Half of the women on campus liked him. She’d never dreamed that his eyes would pick her out from several thousand girls.
“Our gym class once had a yoga teacher from India,” Chun Feng said, gesturing with her hands. “His skin was dark, eyes big, eyebrows curled upwards, his body as flexible as dough – he charmed us all.”
“A man described as a doll,” Kang Joon-Hyuk laughed. “Don’t know if he’d be happy or sad to hear that.”
When they were leaving, Kang Joon-Hyuk said to Chun Feng, “Next time, you take me someplace you often go to eat, okay?”
“You wouldn’t be interested in the places only poor students go,” Chun Feng said.
“Don’t underestimate me,” Kang Joon-Hyuk said. “I was once young, too.”
Chun Feng brought Kang Joon-Hyuk to a barbecue place by her campus gate. Its name, “The White House”, amused him: “What powerful backing!”
The tables and chairs were wooden, worn from use, with filthy seat pads wrinkled like rags. The customers were mostly students. A few men who looked like migrant workers were also there, drinking beer without glasses, straight from the bottle.
“When you toast with beer bottles, it has to be bottleneck to bottleneck. It’s called ‘slit-throat friend’,” Chun Feng told Kang Joon-Hyuk. She went to some lengths explaining the ancient story behind the term “slit-throat friendship”.
“A fascinating story,” he said. “Could we have a bottle as well?”
Chun Feng asked a waiter to open one, used a tissue she brought with her to wipe the bottleneck clean, and then passed it to Kang Joon-Hyuk.
At first Kang Joon-Hyuk ate little. Slowly he got used to the environment, and then ate several skewers of unpeeled baby potatoes. He asked what Chun Feng’s parents were doing, whether she had siblings. Then another question: “What is your dream?”
“I want to be an Olympic champion. I’m good at ping pong, swimming, and Chinese chess. If I weren’t born in this small place, if I’d had the chance to get into a sports school when I was seven or eight, and met some famous coach, I could very possibly have become an Olympic champion.”
He took her joking seriously. He listened carefully, nodding, “That’s quite possible.”
It was Chun Feng who felt a bit embarrassed. “My real dream?” she paused to consider, “is that some mysterious people at a mysterious organization somehow take notice of me, and choose me out of the millions. One day they come to me and say, ‘Please follow us’, so I follow them. Then I begin a completely different life, a legendary life.”
“What kind of legend?”
“I will only know when the time comes.”
When they returned to the car, before he started the engine, Kang Joon-Hyuk kissed Chun Feng. She sat hard against the seat, motionless. His kiss was warm and lingering, the residual taste of beer and gum on the tip of his tongue.
Kang Joon-Hyuk invited Chun Feng for tea at his residence. He lived in a split-level apartment with a view of the river. The river was covered in a layer of ice, the remnants of snow here and there resembled an ink painting.
Kang Joon-Hyuk gave Chun Feng a tour. The house was large and neat. He said a part-time worker came to clean three hours a day.
“Empty as a cave.” Kang Joon-Hyuk led Chun Feng upstairs. “Just after I moved in I had to sleep with the lights on.”
On the nightstand in his bedroom was a family photo. His wife had slender eyes and light brows, a woman seemingly kneaded from snow. Their son was Chun Feng’s age, half a head taller than Kang Joon-Hyuk, wearing a look of impatience. Their daughter was a replica of her mother. A big smile narrowed her eyes to cracks and unabashedly exposed her braces.
“Her name is Yeon-Hee,” Kang Joon-Hyuk said. “I once asked her, you are so ugly, what man would want to date you? She said casually, well, I can always have cosmetic surgery.”
After the tour, they went downstairs to have tea. The apartment used floor heating; with that, plus the sunlight through the floor-to-ceiling window, it was at least 28 or 29 degrees in the room. Even a sweater was too much, let alone a cotton-padded jacket.
“I have only men’s shirts,” Kang Joon-Hyuk said. “Would you like to change?”
“No need.” Chun Feng took off her jacket.
The delicate sweater she wore underneath was a gift Kang Joon-Hyuk had given her a few days before. As with the perfume, he had removed the price tag. The garment was a sensation in her dorm – every girl had tried it on.
Kang Joon-Hyuk put out a blue-china tea set on the coffee table. He carried the kettle over and adeptly washed the tea set inside and out. “To make ginseng oolong tea, the temperature of the water is especially important. Only high temperatures can free the spirit of the tealeaves.”
His choice of words made Chun Feng laugh.
Kang Joon-Hyuk poured the tea, calling Chun Feng’s attention to its golden tint under the rays of sun. “Isn’t it beautiful?”
Chun Feng said yes.
Kang Joon-Hyuk drank a bowl of tea and sighed contentedly. Under the sunlight his real age became evident: half of the new hair was white at the root. The skin on both his cheeks and hands was slack, but his fingernails were groomed neat and clean.
“Did you have to move here because of work?” Chun Feng asked.
“That’s indeed what I told my wife, I even put on a painful face and claimed to have no choice.” Kang Joon-Hyuk laughed. “In truth though, I’m happy living here. I don’t have to eat healthy vegetarian meals every other day, no one yells at me when I watch football games on TV, no one tells me how stupid I am to see horror movies, on Sundays I don’t have to dress up like a bridegroom and sing hymns in church, I don’t have to attend a big family gathering twice a month, and I don’t have to discuss my children’s schoolwork with teachers every month. When I’m drunk not only do I not have to shower or sleep on the sofa, I can throw myself in bed fully dressed as I please.”
Chun Feng waited for him to mention her, but he didn’t. So she said, “My winter break starts next week. When I go home, I can stay in bed until my mom comes to spank me, I can have fun in my sister’s flower nursery, I can play games with friends in internet bars all night, until I’ve got panda-circles under my eyes, then I go home to listen to my mom scold me while I fall asleep. I also often go drinking with high school and middle school friends, then karaoke after drinking, and every time someone sings themselves hoarse. Oh yes, we often light fireworks by the river, too.”
“People light fireworks here as well,” Kang Joon-Hyuk pointed outside the window. “One night there was a sudden explosion, I thought there’d been an accident. I ran to the window and saw fireworks shooting up like water fountains from the snowy ground…”
Chun Feng glanced unconsciously out the window and discovered that, as they’d drunk tea and chatted, the sun had slowly turned golden red. It was as if a huge and soft carpet had been partially dragged away from beneath their bodies by an invisible hand.
Turning, her eyes met his.
“I will miss you when you’re gone,” Kang Joon-Hyuk said.
Chun Feng’s heart jumped. She tried her best to smile naturally: “I will miss you, too.”
“It’s not the same,” he said slowly, as if his statement itself were shaking its head. “They’re two different kinds of feelings.”
The next day, Kang Joon-Hyuk again invited Chun Feng out. They drank two bottles of red wine during dinner, and he opened another when they got home.
The heating in his apartment was too powerful. They had just walked through the housing estate’s yard, their scalps still numbed by the freezing air, and in a moment they were covered in fine drops of perspiration. Before going upstairs to change, Kang Joon-Hyuk pointed to a paper bag on the sofa and said he’d also bought her a set of leisure wear.
“The room really is too hot,” he said.
A moment later he added, “I didn’t mean anything.”
Chun Feng giggled.
He laughed, too.
Chun Feng took the clothes to the downstairs bathroom. She saw herself in the mirror, cheeks rosy, mouth curved, wearing only underwear. She saw herself in the bloom of youth. Kang Joon-Hyuk had once lamented, “You are only twenty-two; the whole world is yours!”
The clothes he had bought her were Indian style, fat lantern pants with a halter top, exposing the navel. There was also a wrap, but she did not put it on.
When she came out, he was already downstairs. The moment his eyes fell on her, it was as if he smelled a most pleasant fragrance.
“Thank you,” Chun Feng spread her arms and spun around.
Kang Joon-Hyuk gave her a smile and went to get ice from the refrigerator. Chun Feng discovered another family photo in a corner of the living room. It apparently had been taken during a family outing; the four of them smiling brilliantly, even the son. Kang Joon-Hyuk’s wife wore a straw hat adorned with a small bouquet of wild flowers. Her smile did not look as tender and innocent as it did in the photo Chun Feng had glimpsed in the bedroom. She now looked more like a general, calm and confident, with hidden ferocity.
“Drinking red wine in the deep of night always gives me the illusion,” Kang Joon-Hyuk poured into the tall wineglasses, “that I’m drinking blood.”
He drew her to sit down, looking into her eyes: “I am very sober right now. I’ve thought through everything I want to say. I hope you’ll listen carefully…”
Chun Feng’s body went limp, as if she was treading on clouds, but her mind was very clear, as though a video camera was recording everything before her eyes – every scene, every move made, every word spoken. She knew this moment would forever be engraved in her memory.
After the winter break, when school started again, Chun Feng had changed so much that she was like a newly-transferred student. Accompanying her change of clothing and appearance was a rumor that her mother’s house and its surrounding land – not a small plot – had been acquired for airport construction and her family had received several million yuan in compensation, a meat pie fallen from the sky.
The previous semester, Chun Feng had had to do work-study, but now the school dormitory was nothing more than a chicken coop from which she flew to live in her own house. Not only that, she also owned a car, a red Polo, with its headlights decorated like a woman wearing eye-shadow.
Although she drove a car to school, Chun Feng remained low-key at social events and polite to teachers. Perhaps aware of her new star status, she had a ready smile for everybody. In the days leading up to the school’s 50th anniversary celebration, she participated in volunteer activities.
Pei Zicheng also attended those activities. One day he sat by Chun Feng, and together they put various kinds of souvenirs into paper bags stamped with the school anniversary logo. Then Kang Joon-Hyuk phoned.
“There’s nothing in particular. I just miss you,” he said. “Do you miss me?”
“I do! So much I can hardly remember what you look like,” Chun Feng said.
“Little fox!” Kang Joon-Hyuk laughed. “We’ll see!”
Putting down the phone, Chun Feng saw Pei Zicheng staring at her. He threw her a smile: “Our cell phones are the same kind.”
Chun Feng looked. So they were! Both were Anycall chocolate series. Hers was cream, Pei Zicheng’s was black.
Chun Feng’s heart pounded noisily. A moment earlier when she had picked up a notebook and her hand unwittingly touched Pei Zicheng’s, her heart had already jumped. Actually, as soon as he had sat down beside her – no, as soon as he had appeared at the door, absent-mindedly looking around – her heart was already in turmoil.
They had boxed meals for lunch. Pei Zicheng was surrounded by a ring of girls; Chun Feng sat alone by a window, eating an apple she’d brought with her. Kang Joon-Hyuk phoned again to discuss what to do for supper. The longer they lived together, the more clingy he became, though in the past he’d said he hated the way his wife kept phoning him about nothing.
Kang Joon-Hyuk said he and his wife were once deeply in love. She was at odds with her parents for years over the marriage. Their love was like dry kindling meeting a raging fire. His burned out first. His wife’s burned slower because she shed tears easily, and it was a few more years before her love turned completely to ashes. Those were painful years. Sometimes, waking up at night, he’d find his wife sitting beside and staring at him, questioning, “Who are you really? What gives you the right to hurt me so much?”
He had never expected it, either. His marriage oath was to treasure her like his eyes all his life. But after two children, everything about her that had bewitched him vanished. She turned into an ordinary housewife who took care of husband and children.
During the first few months of living with Kang Joon-Hyuk, Chun Feng was on tenterhooks whenever the doorbell rang. She worried his wife would mount a sudden attack. If she caught them, would she shout hysterically and throw dirty curses? Would she hit her? Which side would Kang Joon-Hyuk take?
But she never came, only calling occasionally.
During spring break, Kang Joon-Hyuk went back to Korea once. He returned in a bad mood. Chun Feng thought his wife had found out, but later she understood that Kang Joon-Hyuk had learned that his wife had opened a yoga sauna with a partner. The partner was a single man, a former gym couch ten years her junior. The way he clung to her was like son to mother. Seeing such a muscular man constantly whining almost made Kang Joon-Hyuk puke, but his wife smiled the whole time, very much enjoying the vulgar affection. When he pointed it out, she rebuffed him with a disdainful look: “If we really had something to hide, would I have let you meet each other?”
Even disregarding the man, the yoga house bothered Kang Joon-Hyuk. She’d decided on such a big investment by herself, even eloquently reminding him that the money was an inheritance from her parents, and she could spend it however she liked – not to mention she had kept half of it for their children’s education fund.
“So be it,” Kang Joon-Hyuk said. “She has her future, we have ours.”
The day before the school anniversary, the volunteers worked until nine in the evening. The campus dining room prepared a special meal for them. Chun Feng said she didn’t want to eat, she was going home. Pei Zicheng, too, said he had things to do. “Could I get a ride?” he asked her.
Quite a few girls turned their eyes to Chun Feng. “Okay,” she said.
“Special meal,” Pei Zicheng snorted in the car. “You could wring half a plate of oil from each dish.”
“You’re awfully picky, for a man,” Chun Feng said.
“A man needs to eat well all the more. Turn left at the next intersection,” He stretched his arms, hands locked together. He was tall, and his limbs seemed to reach out of the car. “I know an awesome place, their grilled beef tongue has no equal!”
The place was in a back street not far from Kang Joon-Hyuk’s office. On its door hung two drum-shaped white lanterns with red-blue taegeuk patterns. They lifted the door curtain and a sweet voice came from inside, “Welcome!”
The place was small, but clean. The thin slices of beef tongue shrunk on the grill with a shivering sound, as if they feared the cold.
“I brought my mother here once,” Pei Zicheng said. “She said any cow whose tongue was grilled like this must have said something it shouldn’t have while it was alive.”
Later he asked Chun Feng, “Are you always so quiet?”
“I’m worried about saying something wrong,” Chun Feng pointed to the grill pan, “and turning out this way.”
“The most romantic thing I can think of is to tell lies with you,” Pei Zicheng laughed. “Let’s end up that way together. Before we’re eaten, we can chat in the grill pan, say goodbye, and see each other again in the next life.”
Chun Feng lifted her eyes to look at him. His eyebrows were bushy and black, his double-layered eyelids unusual. His eyes were so bright that they drew out her soul like magnets.
“Who else have you brought here besides your mom?” Chun Feng put a slice of grilled beef tongue in her mouth.
“Why are you asking this?” Pei Zicheng glared at her, leaning forward.
“Oh, I’m just… asking randomly.” She was a bit embarrassed, her body ducking back from his. “There are always so many girls around you…”
“Those weedy girls,” Pei Zicheng snorted. “I can’t deal with them. ‘Wildfire never consumes them, always reviving in the spring breeze…’” He quoted an ancient poem.
They laughed together.
It was near midnight when Chun Feng got home. She used her key to quietly open the door, and was startled to see that the kitchen was brightly lit. Kang Joon-Hyuk, wearing an apron, was carrying a pot of something to the dining table. Steam and the aroma of food filled the house.
“You’re back!” Kang Joon-Hyuk said smilingly.
“I thought…” Chun Feng was caught off guard. “Didn’t I tell you I’d work late? You should have gone to bed.”
“I just wanted to give you a surprise.” Kang Joon-Hyuk came to hug Chun Feng.
“I’m very dirty,” she jumped aside, wagging a hand at him. “I’m going to wash first.”
She went into the bathroom, washed her face and hands, and lifted her hair to smell it. She made sure all was well before coming out.
While they ate, Chun Feng felt Kang Joon-Hyuk’s eyes were like a vacuum, sucking in every trace on her body.
“Why are you looking at me like that?” she asked.
“Don’t bite your chopsticks when you talk,” Kang Joon-Hyuk stretched his hand toward her, but stopped half way. “They might stab your throat,” he said.
His nervousness made Chun Feng laugh.
Only when she went to bathe did she finally relax. She filled the tub with water, closed her eyes, and let herself sink. The scalding water made her tremble. Her mind went back to an hour or two earlier, when Pei Zicheng almost tore the clasp of her bra. He even turned on the light to admire her underwear, pointing to the lace and saying with a snicker, “I guessed from the start you were secretly a sexy girl, cold outside and hot inside."
She was so embarrassed and annoyed that she bit his shoulder hard, like branding a steel stamp onto his bronzy skin.
Chun Feng finished her bath and went to the bedroom. Kang Joon-Hyuk put down the novel he was reading, his eyes following her. “Look at you…”
“What?” Chun Feng looked at herself.
“So young, so beautiful,” said Kang Joon-Hyuk yearningly. “I’d exchange all I have for what you have.”
He drew Chun Feng into his embrace. She dodged backward: “I’m really tired today…”
“I know how to make you relax.” He sat up, removed her bathrobe, and massaged her shoulders. “You are only a volunteer, do you have to work so hard…”
“Your skin is so moist.” After massaging her for a while, he slid his palms flat along her skin. His lips approached hers: “I missed you all day.”
Chun Feng turned her face aside.
“What’s wrong?” Kang Joon-Hyuk gently pulled her back. “Why are you crying?”
“…You are falling in love with me,” Chun Feng sobbed. “You fool!”
“How rude!” Kang Joon-Hyuk laughed. “How dare you talk to me like that!”
“You really are a fool,” Chun Feng raised her voice. “It is very dangerous to fall in love with someone!”
“You’re quite right,” Kang Joon-Hyuk said. “Especially with a little fairy like you.”
“Be as rough as you can,” Chun Feng turned and pulled Kang Joon-Hyuk toward her. “Like I was your worst enemy.”
While Kang Joon-Hyuk was attending a meeting at headquarters in Seoul, Chun Feng went with Pei Zicheng to the suburbs. On the way, Kang Joon-Hyuk phoned, “You aren’t home?”
“I’m going to the bookstore,” Chun Feng said. “Buying books and looking for DVDs.”
“Of course not. I’m with the most handsome boy on campus.”
Someone was speaking to Kang Joon-Hyuk on the other end. “I’ll call back later,” he hurriedly hung up.
“It’s my mother,” Chun Feng said to Pei Zicheng. “She worries about me being on my own, and calls me all day.”
“I worry, too. How about I move in with you?”
“My mother would kill you.”
They arrived at a place called “Hanging Kettle” and bought tickets. The area stretched out of the Changbai Mountains like an arm. The night before it had rained. The trees were a lush green, filaments of white fog drifted between them. The air was chill, and their skin felt as if it were coated with iced wax. They walked along a stream, sometimes on this side and sometimes that. Several dozen trestle bridges marked their path, each one unique. When the stream ran into steep rocks, it formed a small waterfall, leaping down amid splashing white foam, as if numerous cats were jumping. Many rainbow trout swam in the water, their orange scales mingling with rippling reflections, it was quite dazzling.
“Don’t you want to take a picture?” Pei Zicheng asked.
“They’d all be dead in a picture,” Chun Feng said. “They’ll always swim if I don’t take one.”
“That’s how you make me feel,” Pei Zicheng held Chun Feng’s hand. She lifted her eyes to him. “You’re always swimming around, you can’t be grasped, always poised to run away.”
His words stunned her; for a while she was speechless. She lowered her eyes to look at their intertwined hands; they were like two halves of a snap button meshed together.
At a pavilion along the path, Chun Feng took a traveling thermos and two glasses out of her backpack, as well as cushions wrapped in a plastic bag. They sat down, and Chun Feng took out tealeaves and snacks. “Oh my God,” Pei Zicheng feigned horror.
The last time, when Chun Feng came here with Kang Joon-Hyuk, his biggest regret was that he couldn’t drink a cup of tea while inhaling the clean fragrance of the trees and watching the rainbow trout swimming in the stream. “If I had a cup of good tea, this moment would be perfect,” he said longingly.
Chun Feng’s tealeaves were from Korea, brought back by Kang Joon-Hyuk. His hometown was itself a tea village. “This is called ‘bird-tongue tea’,” Chun Feng told Pei Zicheng. “A friend who knows tea says that, when you drink ‘bird-tongue tea’ for the first time in spring, when your tongue recalls the fresh and tender flavor of plants, it’s like you can hear skylarks singing in the forest.”
Pei Zicheng took a sip, and looked up at the treetops. Raindrops hung like crystal beads strung into chains, sagging with their own weight, as if they would fall to pieces any moment.
“Drinking tea like this,” he chortled, “it’s like we’re an old couple.”
“You think it’s funny?” Chun Feng was a bit annoyed.
“We’re practically senile,” Pei Zicheng said. “Don’t you think?”
Chun Feng sneered. “Do we have to run three thousand meters around the playground every morning to be youthful?”
“I’ll tell you what’s youthful.” Despite the tourists passing by, and Chun Feng struggling like flopping fish, Pei Zicheng dragged her into his lap, his ensnaring arms immobilizing her, his eyes approaching her eyes, the tip of his nose against her nose. She made several attempts to speak, and each time his lips sealed hers.
Unable to break free, Chun Feng closed her eyes, letting Pei Zicheng draw her out one mouthful after another, until she was empty.
When Kang Joon-Hyuk returned from Seoul, he’d become taciturn.
He would sit on the sofa for long stretches, not reading, not watching TV, not looking out the window, not even looking at Chun Feng, as if he had gone back to his days of being single. It made Chun Feng uncomfortable. He was so quiet that any sound she made seemed rude.
“What’s wrong?” she asked him.
“Nothing,” he said.
“Is something troubling you?"
“Life is always troubling.”
That night she made a move to embrace him. He held her in his arms, but nothing further. Chun Feng panicked. The body she snuggled with was like a piece of cast-off clothing; she didn’t know where the real man had gone.
Chun Feng was increasingly certain that Kang Joon-Hyuk knew about her relationship with Pei Zicheng. One day while she was eating hotpot with Pei Zicheng, a middle-aged man a few tables away kept taking her measure. She was not wearing her contacts, and she thought the problem was with her strapped vest. She didn’t realize he was a friend of Kang Joon-Hyuk.
He knew everything, but he said nothing. “Maybe,” Chun Feng thought, “he’s waiting for me to talk about it first, or to move out.”
But Chun Feng didn’t know where she would go. Back to the school dormitory? There was only half a month left before summer break. Besides, how would she explain it to Pei Zicheng?
Now Pei Zicheng always called her “wife” in front of others. He phoned her at midnight – Kang Joon-Hyuk was out at a social engagement – and asked her to drive to “The White House.” When she arrived, she found that his “extra urgent” request was that she drive him and three other boys home.
The four big boys almost burst her car. Their unfinished bottle of Korean Soju was passed around like a relay baton. They gossiped about another girl who had a car, “Driving during the day, being driven in the night.”
Their laughter was like a tsunami, crashing against her. No matter how fast she drove, she could not leave it behind.
The last boy she sent home was Pei Zicheng. In front of his building, he said to her, “Just wait here. If my parents are asleep, I’ll text you, then you come up quietly.”
“Okay,” Chun Feng said.
As soon as he had gone into the building she drove away. In the deep night’s streets, she was all tears and drove the car like a pinball. Arriving at her housing estate, she wiped her tears and looked around the parking lot. Kang Joon-Hyuk’s car was not there. She let out a sigh of relief, went upstairs, and opened the door. Inside was all dark. Not in the mood to even take off her shoes, she slumped onto the foyer floor.
Her cell phone rang. It was Pei Zicheng.
“You can come up now,” his lowered voice sounded ridiculous, “902. I’ve unlocked the door.”
“I’m already home,” Chun Feng said.
“Why did you go home? Didn’t we agree?” Pei Zicheng said. “Just come back. It only takes a few minutes with your car.”
“What am I to you? A chauffer? Or a prostitute?” Chun Feng heard her voice echo in the room, tinged with frost. “I’m not going to your house, I’m not going anywhere. I only want to be in my own home.”
“Who treats you like a prostitute?” Pei Zicheng’s tone had changed, too. “If you were a prostitute would I let you come to my house?!”
Chun Feng put her phone on the floor. Pei Zicheng’s voice bounced up like a ball. “What’s wrong with you?! There’s nothing I hate more than girls who throw tantrums.”
“I don’t want to talk to you anymore.” Tears covered Chun Feng’s cheeks. She bent her head to shout at the cell phone: “I’m turning the phone off…”
“Turn it off and we’re finished,” Pei Zicheng said coldly, stressing each word. “Don’t say I did not warn you. There is no turning back once the arrow leaves the bow!”
“Let’s not turn back then,” Chun Feng said, “let’s just finish.”
Chun Feng not only switched off the cell phone, she also pulled out the battery and threw it away. Her hands wet from wiping tears, she looked out the picture window. The moonlight was bright and pure, the broad leaves of elephant-ear reflecting it like a mirror. Kang Joon-Hyuk not so much sat up from the long sofa as walked out from the mirror. His face, first hidden in the darkness, slowly emerged. Chun Feng was dumbfounded.
They stood opposite each other. Chun Feng waited for his questions, curses, even blows from his fists. But Kang Joon-Hyuk went upstairs without a single word.
Chun Feng turned up the backpack she had brought when she first moved in. She searched both upstairs and downstairs, but could not find or think of anything that belonged to her. All her old clothing had been thrown out with the trash. The skin-care products were newly bought. She suddenly realized that she’d been living like a baby in Kang Joon-Hyuk’s place.
She found the perfume, the first gift from Kang Joon-Hyuk. She sprayed it once every few minutes. The room was filled with the assailing fragrance, so thick it might condense into dew.
“It’s midnight and you’re still not asleep,” Kang Joon-Hyuk appeared on the stairs. “Did the perfume bottle break?”
His tone was gentle. For a moment Chun Feng didn’t know what to do. She lifted the perfume bottle and sprayed it at him once. “Does it smell nice?”
He took a deep breath and sneezed twice.
“Go to sleep.” He began to walk toward the bedroom.
She didn’t move. He stopped after a few steps and turned, throwing her a look. “Why don’t you come?” He took her hand and led her into the bedroom.
At first they lay back to back under separate covers. A while later he turned to ask her, “What are you mumbling?”
“I’m reciting the label of that perfume,” she said. “Crisp, clean notes of bergamot, grapefruit, and orange mingle with fresh floral notes and ripe fruits, soothed with warm sandalwood and white musk…”
“You silly,” he laughed.
“That bottle of perfume,” she asked, “was it really a gift someone gave you? Or did you buy it just for me?”
“What’s the difference?”
“What do you think?”
“Just go to sleep.” He turned his back on her again.
“No one’s ever treated me as nicely as you,” Chun Feng said to his back. “It’s my fault that we’re breaking up. I deserve all your scorn and punishment. Really.” She pushed at him from behind, shaking his arm. “Yell at me. Hit me. Please. It will make me feel better when I leave tomorrow."
“Stop messing around,” Kang Joon-Hyuk turned and caught her hand.
Chun Feng started to cry, at first quietly, then letting go, ignoring all. Her tears and snot made a mess of Kang Joon-Hyuk’s pajamas.
“Alright, alright, let’s make peace.” Kang Joon-Hyuk pulled her into his arms with a long sigh. “You are young, I won’t bully you. But you also shouldn’t bully me because I’m old.” #
(Translated from Chinese by Xujun Eberlein, in Pathlight issue No. 1, 2012)