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Together Forever - Chapter 3


Published at 2nd of March 2016 11:24:44 PM

Chapter 3

Are You Truly Real? (1)


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When he arrived, Tong Yan was still beside the bus stop, sitting on the railing surrounding the flowerbeds alongside the street and staring, lost in thought, at the road. She had long since passed the age of trying to blame fate or people, or letting herself fall into despair and give up hope on herself. It seemed Gu Pingsheng’s words years ago truly had affected her. “In this world, you have the right to choose anything. The one exception is your parents. You cannot choose them and you cannot give them up.”

His face suddenly appeared before her eyes, and it was looking down at her.

As she raised her head to look at him, he was already handing her a bottle of icy-cold water. “It’s really hot today.” Taking it from him, she noticed that there was some water on his palms, which should have rubbed off from the water bottle.

He pulled out a package of napkins and handed it over to her, motioning for her to wrap the bottle as she drank from it. “I took my friend’s car and I’m not very used to it, so I drove rather slowly.” The whole time as he spoke, he was smiling.

Right as he was about to open his mouth to say more, Tong Yan had already broken out into a little laugh. “Let’s agree first. You can’t ask me why I need to borrow money.”

Gu Pingsheng put on an expression of great surprise. “Student Tong Yan, I’m trying hard already to avoid that topic. Can’t you tell?”

“I can.” Tong Yan gave him a meaningful look. “I was just worried that Teacher, you’d keep trying to think of so many things to say to ease the awkward atmosphere, so I thought I’d just say it out bluntly.”

She had originally intended to get the money with Gu Pingsheng and then head straight to the bank to deposit it, but to her surprise, Gu Pingsheng handed her a card and directly told her the PIN. “There’s ten thousand yuan here. Take it for now.”

She looked up at him, somewhat startled. “I only need six thousand. That’ll be enough.”

He smiled, “I had assumed, since you said you needed to borrow six thousand, you likely had calculated in all your living expense money into that already. I don’t want you to come back to me three days later to borrow money to buy your train ticket and then, when you get back to Shanghai, you can only nibble on mantou [plain, steamed bun][1] everyday to get by.” He was joking, but he had indeed spoken the truth of the situation.

Tong had no choice other than to stretch out her hand to take it from him and say, “When I’ve saved enough, I’ll pay you back right away.”

However, immediately after she said this, he pulled the card back. “I don’t have anything to do today. I’ll take you to the bank to deposit it.”

Later, Gu Pingsheng not only accompanied her to the bank but also very insistently volunteered himself to take her home.

When Gu Pingsheng stated the words, “teacher’s home visit,” she froze for an entire minute downstairs of her home before finally gritting her teeth and resigning herself to the reality that “good words are required of mouths that ate favours of food and tied are the hands that accepted favours handed to them[2].”

 

Since it was an old apartment building, it was not part of any so-called community compound.

It was a free-standing, five-storey building adjacent to the road, and right outside its entrance was a main street and a bus stop. Every time Tong Yan sat by the window and gazed out at the cars coming and going, she would admire herself again for her own foresight. It was fortunate that when the property values had first started to soar, she had taken the deed of this place and put it away. Otherwise, sooner or later, her dad would have secretly sold it, and then, she and Grandmother would not even have a home to live in.

She sat by the window, peeling cloves of garlic, one by one.

Grandmother had once been a primary school music teacher, but because her school later was merged into a centralized one[3], when it came time for her retirement, she did not actually have true, recognized teaching qualifications. As a result, her old-age pension amount was very low. This, though, did not affect Grandmother’s passion for teaching. The whole time since Gu Pingsheng stepped through the doorway, he had very patiently explored the advantages and disadvantages of “education based on personality types and learning styles” with the elderly woman.

From time to time, Tong Yan would sneak a glimpse of them before continuing with lowered head to peel the garlic. Without being aware of it, her hair had slid down in front of her eyes. She stretched out a hand and tucked the hair behind her ear, but her fingers happened to brush against the corner of her eye. Because there was garlic residue on her hands, this brief contact was enough to cause tears to stream down, and she could not stop them even if she tried.

 

“Need any help?” He walked up to her.

Seated there on a small stool, Tong Yan raised her head to look at him, her eyes glistening with tears.

Gu Pingsheng paused, dazed for an instant.

In this moment, the scene before his eyes and the night that they had first met each other seemed to completely superimpose themselves upon one another. The only differences were, at that time, her hair had been a short, ear-length style and perhaps because of her young age then, her eyes had been even bigger and brighter. But the only thing that could be found in those eyes had been an intense feeling of despair — that form of despair that had nothing to do with death and parting but was simply due to hopelessness in life and reality.

“Garlic.” Seeing the sudden still look in his eyes, Tong Yan, in contrast, actually grew panicked. “My eyes were just stung by garlic, that’s all.”

He, too, was momentarily taken aback. Grandmother hurriedly brought a wet towel out from the kitchen and handed it to Tong Yan, but in the end, Gu Pingsheng was the one who took it. When the elderly lady returned to the kitchen to continue cooking, he was already crouched down and wiping her eyes for her. She did not have the chance to refuse before she was closing her eyes amid his actions.

A very light, gentle touch combined with a warm towel carefully dabbed and cleansed around her eyes.

“It’s good now,” he said.

Tong Yan opened her eyes and then suddenly felt slight embarrassment. “Thank you.”

Before, in their dormitory’s chat sessions, they would always say that you should never find a boy from the Faculty of Medicine to be your boyfriend. He would be accustomed to seeing all areas of the human body and the boundaries that should exist between males and females would be very blurry to him. Therefore, it would be easy for him to fall into cheating or something along those lines… But she had interacted with Gu Pingsheng for five weeks, and besides noting that he did not have any taboos about physical contact between the opposite sexes, she did not find him to be a person who was casual about physical intimacy.

She grabbed a handful of garlic. Such senseless and ridiculous thoughts. She did not know why those thoughts had even crossed her mind.

 

This was Tong Yan’s third time eating with Gu Pingsheng… Halfway through her meal, she discovered that Gu Pingsheng had eaten a lot of plain, white rice, and she suddenly wanted to laugh. While Grandmother was in the kitchen ladling out some soup, she quietly said to him, “Teacher Gu, northerners’ cooking tends to be salty. Sorry about that.”

He gave her a little smile. “It’s not a problem. Could you pour a glass of iced water for me, please?”

“We don’t have any that’s iced,” she chuckled. “We don’t use a water dispenser in my home. It’s all water that’s been boiled already.”

The result, however, was that she had just poured a glass of water when Grandmother came out carrying the soup.

Seeing Tong Yan setting down a glass of cooled water, she at once chastised her in a serious tone, “Haven’t I told you since you were young that you should not drink water when you’re eating?”

Tong Yan immediately pointed at Gu Pingsheng. “Those of them who’ve come back after living abroad all have this habit.”

She did not dare say that the dishes were salty, otherwise Grandmother truly would bring them all back into the kitchen and completely re-make them. Gu Pingsheng very cooperatively went along with what she said, offering an apologetic smile as he picked up the glass and took a large drink of water.

When Grandmother went out to the park to feed stray cats, only the two of them were left in the home, and she did not know what she could have Teacher Gu do.

The living room only had that one small couch. Was she going to have to sit there side by side with him and watch television dramas? Or read? This teacher’s home visit had not had a specific purpose to it at all, so she did not know what she was supposed to have him do.

Gu Pingsheng merely sat there and appeared to be looking at the old photographs that were beneath the glass top of the coffee table. Due to his height, he seemed more like he was sitting on a child-size toy sofa. “I’ve only lived in Beijing before for half a month,” he suddenly spoke up. “There are many places that I haven’t been to yet, such as the Great Wall.”


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Tong Yan’s eyes brushed over the photograph he was looking at. It was one of her when she was a little girl, hands on her hips, standing atop the Great Wall.

A black and white photo. And her hair was done up in two little pigtails that stuck upwards.

“Then, Teacher Gu, you can take advantage of this vacation time to go around to a few more places and have some fun.” She very much wanted to take a book and cover up the photographs beneath the glass top. “From Beijing, there’s three sections of the Great Wall that you can go to. One is Badaling. This one you for sure should not go to during a National Day holiday. There’ll be as many people there as you’d see at a temple fair[4]. Then there’s the one at Mutianyu. The view there is better than Badaling, and there aren’t that many people there during the holidays, as well.”

Gu Pinsheng nodded. “And the other one?”

“The other?” Tong Yan prudently cautioned him, “Juyongguan [Juyong Pass], you absolutely should avoid. It’s so steep you need to use your hands and feet to climb it. So exhausting you could die. The previous two are about ‘walking’ the Great Wall. Only Juyong Pass is about ‘climbing’ the Great Wall.”

She had not expected that Gu Pingsheng was the type of person who, the more you warned him not to go, the more interested he would be in going. And since he expressed a great enthusiasm towards Juyong Pass, Grandmother was also very hospitable and instructed Tong Yan to accompany her Teacher Gu to climb the Great Wall.

 

Juyong Pass section of the Great Wall of China (image credit)

Since entering university, apart from her physical education class, she basically had not engaged in any other physical activity. On such a steep stretch of the Great Wall, after climbing for less than ten minutes, she was already unable to walk anymore.

An elderly man and woman, each carrying a backpack, calmly and easily passed her. The gray-haired old woman turned back and smilingly addressed Gu Pingsheng, “Young man, why aren’t you holding your girlfriend’s hand and helping her along. I think she’s physically drained.”

Tong Yan only felt that this voice was floating somewhere above the heavens, and before she could even grasp the essence of what had been said, Gu Pingsheng had already taken her hand in his.

So unexpected. Her heart silently quivered a couple of times. She utterly could not keep up with the pace that reality was moving at.

Instinctively, she lifted her head.

Because he was facing the sunlight, Gu Pingsheng’s eyes had squinted together slightly, but still, they carried a smile in them. “If I had known that it would be this steep, we would have gone instead to that Mutianyu you had mentioned.”

Panting, and with the heavy beating of her heart sounding in her ears, she gasped out, “Yeah… I… I told you this place was ridiculously steep. I… I’ll be fine… fine climbing by myself.”

The sun this day was especially strong. Where was the feeling of a golden autumn day? The sun was obviously even fiercer today than during the height of summer. While she was speaking, beads of perspiration followed the curve of her chin and dripped down onto the dark gray stone blocks.

Gu Pingsheng motioned for her to take a rest, and immediately, Tong Yan leaned her body against the stone wall to her right.

The mountain breeze brushed against their perspiring skin. It was very pleasant. Both of their palms were sweaty. Their bodies were cool, but their palms were getting hotter and hotter. Tong Yan was growing increasingly uncomfortable as her body would feel waves of coolness and then waves of heat, but she dared not move her fingers in the slightest.

After a long while, her entire arm was feeling numb, and she finally turned her head to the side to glance at him.

Gu Pingsheng happened to be looking at her as well. “Rested enough? Let’s go. Once we reach Banshan [“Halfway Up the Mountain”][5], it’ll be better.” And then, in a very natural manner, he started the climb upwards with her hand in his.

Tong Yan did not even have a chance to protest and could only focus her efforts on trying to keep pace with him. As he was much taller than her, this meant he was half-pulling her in their ascent, and naturally, his hand was gripping hers tightly. Halfway through the climb, he even switched to use his other hand.

All around them, they would occasionally pass by people who were stopping to take a rest. Two or three stone steps away, there was a couple, and the girl’s voice drifted over to them. “Look at how strong and fit that guy is. How come you’re so useless? You’re not even climbing up as fast as me…” For the remainder of the hike, Tong Yan was rather preoccupied as she climbed up. They should be so far apart, but suddenly, the distance between them seemed as if it had been shortened.

 

When she at last stepped up onto level ground, she immediately pulled her hand back from his. “Teacher Gu, would you like to drink some water?” From her backpack, she pulled out two small bottles of water and had just handed one to him when she heard a text message alert tone.

Pulling out her mobile phone, she took a glance at it. It was the class prefect from when she was in middle school: I called you. Why didn’t you answer?

Tong Yan wearily replied to him: I’m in Beijing. At Juyong Pass. A phone call will be charged long distance plus roaming. If there’s anything, text me.

Another text was quickly returned: Juyong Pass? Didn’t you climb that enough before? Hey, by the way, I saw Lu Bei today. Why was there a girl with him? I never heard that you guys broke up?

 

Are You Truly Real? (2)

This beacon tower where they were was a rare section of level ground. Many tourists were gathered in small groups and resting against the wall while taking photographs in all sorts of different poses. Gu Pingsheng twisted off the lid on his bottle and took a drink of water. “Want me to take a picture of you?” When he finished saying this, he pulled out a light and thin, credit-card sized camera.

Quickly, she typed off a three-word reply: We broke up. She then put away her mobile phone and in a very dedicated and dutiful fashion, stretched out her hand to take the camera. “Let me take one for you. It’s your first time here.”

While the two of them were each still politely relinquishing the chance to the other person, two middle-aged, foreign women suddenly cheerfully offered in English to take a photograph of the both of them together.

This was the first time Tong Yan had ever encountered a situation where, without even asking, someone had already volunteered themselves up to help take a picture, and was somewhat astounded by this. She glanced at Gu Pingsheng, but he merely smilingly handed the camera to one of the persons and said thank you.

When they had taken the camera back, she swept a gaze over it and very much had an urge to delete the picture.

Before, when Shen Yao was a celebrity-chasing fan, she had said that you should never stand next to a celebrity to take a photograph together because it was basically a real-life version of Beauty and the Beast. Now, as she saw the photograph of herself and Gu Pingsheng, she had that same feeling.

The name, Pretty Lady’s Bane was most certainly not given without reason.

Gu Pingsheng took the camera from her hands. With his back facing the sun, he examined it carefully and was very pleased. “This shot is quite nice.” It’s you, only, who looks “quite nice.”

“No wonder they say that… you should never stand next to a celebrity… to take a photograph together… Basically it’s a real-life version… of Beauty and the Beast.”

 

In the evening, as they headed back, Gu Pingsheng deliberately turned on the radio for her and told her to find a program that she liked listening to to pass the time. As she blearily started to drift off to sleep, she heard Gu Pingsheng call her. “Tong Yan, could I trouble you to please help me check my mobile phone to see who’s looking for me? It’s in the right pocket of my jacket.”


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She reached her hand over and slid it into the pocket, swiftly feeling for the phone.

One unread text message.

Tong Yan hesitated, then slid her finger over to unlock the screen before opening up the full message.

TK, I remember tomorrow is the anniversary of your mother’s death. I’ve declined all the family activities and gatherings for you. Don’t worry about anything and just rest. Pingfan.

Anniversary of his mother’s death? Tong Yan was utterly stunned. Tomorrow was her birthday.

Of course, Teacher Gu would certainly not know that. If her memory served her correctly, October 3rd of that year was the date of their first meeting in the Peking Union Medical College Hospital. So, his mother truly had passed away on that day.

“Who is it?” He turned his head to look at her.

Tong Yan raised his mobile phone up before his eyes.

“Thanks.” After glancing it over, he turned his head back and continued driving. Nothing out of the ordinary. From the look in his eyes to the expression on his face, everything about him was calm as always. When it was time to get out of the vehicle, he still insisted on accompanying her all the way upstairs.

The apartment corridors were all installed with sound-activated lights. The light bulbs on the third and fourth floors, however, were burned out. As the two of them walked up past the second floor, Gu Pingsheng deliberately slowed his pace. “Tomorrow, I’ll buy a couple bulbs and while it’s daytime, replace the ones that are burned out. Otherwise, if your grandmother is walking around at night, she could easily fall.”

She wanted to tell him that he did not need to, but all around them, it was dark, so even if she said anything, he would not be able to see it. As the two of them approached the turn in the stairwell corridor at the fourth floor, finally, from the light cast down from the fifth floor, they could see each other’s face.

She halted her steps and said to Gu Pingsheng, “Teacher Gu, you can just leave me here. It’s really late, and you should go back to rest.” She remembered what he had said a moment ago about changing the light bulbs and quickly added, “I’ll go buy a few light bulbs tomorrow and just ask the neighbor next door to help change them out. There’s no need to trouble you to make another trip here.”

The light from the fifth floor was reflected in his eyes as he merely smiled and replied, “It’s no problem. I don’t really have anything going on tomorrow.”

 

All of a sudden, a very light sound was heard from the floor above. Tong Yan instinctively lifted her head, and Gu Pingsheng, following her movements, also turned his eyes up to the fifth floor.

Someone was leaning against the wall, silently watching them. His face and features were the same. Even the place that he waited was the same. Before, he had also been like this and had always liked to stand here to surprise her.

At that time, the love between them had not been difficult or tiring. Aside from having to avoid the preying looks of the school teachers, nearly every memory was a sweet one. In those days, the most widely talked about stories of early-age dating[1] in the school were the ones of her and him.

One was the chosen student of their school’s high school campus, selected for fostering and development of her high potential; the other, the middle school campus’s most problematic student.

It was one of the most common sights on the school bulletin board: on the left side, the good news announcement of the award she had won in a certain competition, while on the right side, the notice of the disciplinary penalty given to him for fighting… In the beginning, he had always stood at the front entrance of the school to wait for her, but later, because his grades had been too poor to be admitted into the high school campus of the school, he had ridden here on his bicycle everyday, over a long distance, to see her.

“Tong Tong.” At last, he opened his mouth to call her name. Everyone called her Yan Yan, but he was the exception who felt that he should be a little special.

Tong Yan seemed as if she was startled out of a daze, and resignedly, she glanced over at Gu Pingsheng. “Bye Teacher Gu.”

Gu Pingsheng smiled, “See you tomorrow.” After saying this, he turned and walked back downstairs.

 

Amid the sound of those footsteps that were gradually moving further away, Tong Yan mustered up her courage and proceeded up the stairs, looking at that person who was getting closer and closer… She did not know what to say, and the quietness was such that it created a sense of unease. At last, she could only ask perfunctorily, “It’s autumn and you’re still wearing short sleeves? Aren’t you cold?”

In that instant, Lu Bei seemed as if he had many things to say, but because of her laidback greeting, his brows and eyes quickly unfurled and relaxed. “No, not cold. Happy birthday.” He held out a silver box.

She did not take it from him. “How did you know I was back?”

“My family and relatives gave me too much stuff for the holiday celebration, so I drove over here and gave a few boxes to your grandmother.” While he was speaking, his hand was still holding up that silver box. “What are you planning on doing for your twenty-first birthday?”

In the end, when he left, she still had not answered this question of his. And his gift, she had not accepted, either. By the time she stepped in the door, Grandmother was already asleep, but the table lamp in the living room was still glowing, left on for her.

 

Sure enough, in that space that was already not very large, there were seven or eight cardboard boxes. With the light from the lamp, she began, one at a time, to identify the designs and logos on the boxes. There were fruit and drinks as well as vegetables. This building did not have an elevator, so he likely had carried these up by himself. Pulling out a pair of scissors, she opened up each of the boxes and began to sort and put everything away. An image even floated up before her eyes of him, trip after trip, clasping the boxes against himself as he trudged upstairs.

A person who had once been so very lazy had now become someone so fond of physical labour.

Just now, he had noticeably been smiling when he said goodbye, but yet his voice had sounded the same as that time long ago when he had sobbed uncontrollably.

She could not forget how that night, he had sat on the side of the road, crying like a little child who was only a few years old, but still, over and over again, he had said, “Tong Tong, don’t go to Shanghai.”

Everyone there at the bus stop, irrespective of child or adult, had turned to look at them with looks of bafflement. She surmised that none of them had ever seen a young man cry like so.

And she, half-crouched there in front of him, had not shed a single tear.

Sitting now in the living room, Tong Yan discovered that her face was wet. She picked up her mobile phone to glance at the time and noticed that she had received a text message without her even knowing when.

It was from Teacher Gu: How about tomorrow at noon, I take the two of you out for lunch? TK

She wanted to decline, but as she remembered the significance of what tomorrow was to him, she hesitated for quite some time and finally replied: Sure.

 

The following day, when Gu Pingsheng arrived, Grandmother was especially surprised and asked Teacher Gu how he knew that this day was Tong Yan’s birthday. Gu Pingsheng was also taken aback and looked over at Tong Yan.

“I normally don’t really celebrate my birthday.” Tong Yan could only explain it in this way.

The end result was that dinner that night was particularly sumptuous. When the Peking roast duck[2] was served, Gu Pingsheng, in very natural motions, wiped his hands clean and then personally wrapped up a serving for her. “Birthday girl, happy birthday.”

 


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Clockwise from top: Image credits 1, 2, and 3

She took it from him and took a bite. The sweet bean sauce, intermingled with the aroma of the roast duck, caused one’s heart to become warm. Very quickly, he had wrapped another one and while he was dressing it with condiments, he attentively asked Grandmother, did she like spring onions? What about minced garlic? Or julienned radish?

That expression in his eyes and tone of his voice truly were like those of a doctor — one of those warm, gentle doctors.

“Tasty?” he asked as he turned back to her. “Pingfan said the Peking duck here is better than Quanjude[3]. It’s my first time here also.”

“It is quite tasty.” She hurriedly picked up one of the pancakes and piled four or five slices of duck on it before rolling it up and handing it to him. “Thank you, Teacher Gu.” Perhaps because it was a holiday, the nearby tables all consisted of family dinner gatherings, and the entire restaurant had a happy, warm atmosphere.

It had been such a long time since she had last had this feeling. Although every time she came back she would bring Grandmother out for dinner, with only the two of them, there was always a sense that it was not lively enough, and in fact, the quietness seemed even more emphasized.

At the end, when the server asked them if they would like to take the duck carcass with them, Gu Pingsheng seemed to remember that Grandmother had the habit of feeding stray cats. He specifically asked the server to wrap it up so that the elderly woman could bring it back and let those strays have some meat.

 

When he took them back home that night, Grandmother very cordially invited him to stay for a while. “Yesterday, one of Yan Yan’s schoolmates brought over some fruit. I’ll go wash some and bring them over.”

Elderly folks all enjoyed exciting and lively atmospheres, especially the ones who had once been teachers.

Grandmother was busy in the kitchen washing fruits while, at the same time, chattering on endlessly. The general idea of her words was that Yan Yan’s schoolmate was so very kind and every holiday or festival, he would drive over and give her many boxes of various things as gifts.

“At first I had felt bad taking all of it, but that boy would always just say that Yan Yan used to tutor him and had helped him out many times. And he would tell me that every year, his family would give him many things and if he couldn’t finish eating them all, it would be a waste anyway….”

Gu Pingsheng suddenly asked her, “The person waiting for you yesterday was your schoolmate?”

With a glance at the figure in the kitchen, Tong Yan fell silent for a moment before answering quetly, “It was my ex-boyfriend.” Once she finished saying this, she felt that her tone had sounded too dejected, so she immediately joked, “I used to be a student that gave teachers headaches. My early-age dating was well-known throughout the whole school.”

He looked at her, as if absorbed in thought. “Did I say something wrong?”

It turns out, feelings of sadness and loss are things that cannot be hidden.

Tong Yan gave a little smile. “Yup, you pulled up my sad memories. What are you going to do?”

She had replied offhandedly, wanting only to swiftly pass over this topic. She had not expected that Gu Pingsheng would very apologetically take a sip of water and say, “I’ll give you a piano piece. Consider it as my birthday present to you.” His gaze fell on the piano beside the window.

This was the largest piece of furniture in Tong Yan’s entire home. One of Grandmother’s former students had come back to China and had specifically sent this as a gift to her. In reality, with Grandmother’s mere skill level of a primary school music teacher, she mostly only knew how to play songs like “Yellow River Cantata[4],” “The Internationale[5],” or others along those lines, and those were already considered quite difficult, plus the opportunities to play them were not many at all…

Tong Yan stared somewhat disbelievingly at him. Then, she watched as he set down his glass, walked over, and sat down at the older-style piano by the window.

In this day and age, eight out of ten people knew how to play piano. Simply looking at the people around her, Shen Yao was a first round national pick piano player who had specifically been recruited into the school to be part of the school orchestra. Hence, this instrument had long since lost its ability to stir her.

Yet, when she heard Gu Pingsheng say he was going to play, it was still very unexpected. He could not hear, but he played very well. Unfortunately, she did not play and was not very knowledgeable either. But seeing him there, playing the piano, her eyes inexplicably began to tingle with tears. His world was one of utter silence. Regardless of how outstanding the music flowing from his fingers was, he was unable to hear any of it.

 

Are You Truly Real? (3)

When she returned to school, her dormitory was empty of people. Shanghai’s climate was humid. She had left for only seven days, but her clothing inside the closet all looked as if they had been sprayed with water. In the end, she had no choice but to toss them all into a plastic bucket and head to the laundry room.

“Tong Yan!” Outside the window, Ai Mi was gripping the metal security bars and excitedly calling to her. “I’ve got one piece of good news and two pieces of bad news. Which do you want to hear first?”

Last night on the train, Tong Yan had once again stood the entire night, and she was unbearably exhausted right now. Hearing these words, she only had one urge: to take the entire bucket of dirty clothes and smack it upside down over Ai Mi’s head. In the two years she had known her, so long as Ai Mi made an appearance, irrespective of whether it was “good news” or “bad news,” it was always news that meant bad things in store for her.

Sure enough, without waiting for her reply, Ai Mi continued to prattle on and revealed, “The good news is, for this year’s Welcome Gala, an open vote in the school was taken and the nominee with the most votes for male emcee was your faculty’s…” She deliberately dragged out the last vowel. Several girls standing inside the laundry room had perked up their ears to listen in, and now, they heard three words that made their blood boil with excitement. “… Great Beauty Gu.”

Tong Yan was astonished. “He’s a teacher. How can he host the Welcome Gala?”

“Why can’t he?” Ai Mi was grinning like a blooming flower. “Don’t forget, our new university president is known for being a maverick. Didn’t he even chat anonymously with students on BBS? A mere teacher of the Law Faculty of course can be sacrificed, then.”

When Ai Mi spoke the word, “sacrificed,” there were many layered meanings contained in it.

Poor Teacher Gu…

“What about the bad news?”

“Because of the specialness of Great Beauty Gu, the Students’ Union’s fine arts department decided that another experienced emcee needed to be chosen, and on top of that, that person needed to be able to work well and be in sync with Great Beauty Gu… And that person is you.”

“I resigned from Students’ Union after I finished second year.”

“Yup. That’s why the president sent me to come do so mental work and prep on you. You’ve emceed a Welcome Gala, the school’s Youth Talent Competition, and a school Christmas party. You have the most experience. Plus,” Ai Mi gave her a woeful look and said, “you know that an emcee has to be able to handle all sorts of bad things that crop up. Are you really going to be so cruel to make us find a rookie instead, and then Great Beauty Gu won’t be able to come in properly with his lines and will be humiliated?”

She remembered her first time on stage, she had gotten her lines wrong, the microphone had not worked, and the audience had burst out laughing… The most hated incident was the time the performers had knocked over the background scenery flats. She could not even imagine what would happen if Teacher Gu, who could not hear, encountered these types of situations.

“So, for the sake of your master of ceremonies career, the last piece of bad news is, you can’t take part in the play’s rehearsal anymore.” Ai Mi let out a long sigh. “Yan Yan, I’ve done a disservice to you. You can’t even personally be involved in the play you wrote the script for…”

Tong Yan shook her head wordlessly. After some time, she nodded again. Her entire brain was focused on the matter about serving as masters of ceremonies for the evening gala and could not be bothered at all about some stage play right now.

“I’m done saying what I need to say, eh.” Ai Mi was very pleased that Tong Yan had not refused. “Tonight, five o’clock in the main auditorium, we’re having the first meeting. Supposedly your faculty’s Great Beauty Gu just arrived in Shanghai. Such a coincidence, really.”

As she reflected on those few days of interaction in Beijing and that Gu Pingsheng truly had helped her out a great deal, her heart ultimately softened and she gave in.

 

A significant number of people were already surrounding the doors of the main auditorium when she arrived that evening. People from all the various associations of the school were gathered there and conversing. Inside the main auditorium, the Students’ Union was holding a meeting, and these associations that were going to be participating in the various performances were all waiting to rehearse.

When many of the third year students who were also key people in the Students’ Union saw Tong Yan, they had gleeful grins from delighting in her misfortune. “Tong Yan Wuji, I already said it, our Students’ Union president, dear, respected Mr. Zhou Qingchen wouldn’t just let you off the hook. See? You’re back again.”

The evening breeze blew ever so gently. Everyone’s wicked cackles sounded out ever so delightedly. She put on an expression of misery on her face and stepped into the auditorium.

The university’s main auditorium consisted of two levels and could seat 3500 people.

Since it was only an internal meeting of the program committee and things were still in the rehearsal phase, the lighting for the seating area inside remained dim. Off of the stage, there were only twenty-odd students, but surprisingly, many teachers were present.

The instant she stepped in through the back door, she spotted Gu Pingsheng standing in the middle of several teachers. He still wore a simple, white button-up shirt paired with casual, warm-brown trousers. Because of the distance, she could not make out his features or expressions.

Imperceptibly, his presence caused people to unwittingly take notice of him.

Tong Yan suddenly felt this was remarkable. Within the last seven days, she had traveled from Shanghai to Beijing and back again, and Teacher Gu had done the same. They had had brief interactions in Beijing, and then, after returning here, he was still the teacher who stood upon the podium and she was still the student who was plagued with anguish over university physics.

“Tong Yan.” The main floor seating area was open and empty, so when this name was hollered out, the sound rippled through the auditorium and echoed continuously.

Tong Yan hurriedly walked down past row after row of seats until she was in front of the stage. “Teacher Du.” This was the supervising teacher for the Students’ Union, the one known as “Du Half-A-Beat” because everything he did and said was always slow by half a beat.

Tong Yan glanced over at Gu Pingsheng, but before she had a chance to greet him, she heard Du Half-A-Beat say to him, “This is the female emcee that we have trained up these last two years. She is very experienced and is also one of the top students in the Law Faculty.”

He merely smiled and replied, “I know. She is my student.”

Immediately, she went along with his words. “Teacher Gu, long time no see. Did you have a good holiday?”

Gu Pingsheng gave a nod and looked placidly at her. “Very good, thanks.”

“Oh, right.” When Du Half-A-Beat heard this, he at last realized with a start, “Teacher Gu, you’re a teacher in the Law Faculty. You happen to be teaching Tong Yan this semester?”

Gu Pingsheng nodded. “Yes. Such a coincidence. This semester, she is in my class.”

Behind the two of them, all the students and teachers had expressions of relief, as if a weight had been taken off their minds.

Gu Pingsheng’s specialness had made them feel, from the beginning, that they were making an unreasonable demand of him. But if the two masters of ceremonies had already had several weeks of interaction, then this certainly was as if Heaven had created this wonderful opportunity and intended on helping them achieve their desire. Later, after hearing an explanation from Du Half-A-Beat, Tong Yan finally understood why Gu Pingsheng had agreed to this. This year was the university’s 110th anniversary, and in celebration, the school was going to hold an evening gala, a concert, and a grand party and reunion of its exceptional alumni. Due to the significance of this particular year, the Students’ Union decided to combine the Welcome Gala with the university’s Anniversary Gala celebration.

With such an occasion, it was no wonder they were able to persuade someone of Teacher Gu’s level to participate.

“Tong Yan.” Du Half-A-Beat personally twisted open a bottle of spring water and handed it to her. “Normally for this type of evening gala, we should hire a professional master of ceremonies, but the president’s wish is that we stay in touch with the people. So, the anniversary concert and alumni reunion party will be hosted by a professional emcee, but by giving the responsibility of the evening gala to the student body, the event will be more memorable.”

Tong Yan understood now. She had been duped into a trap.

Since she and Gu Pingsheng were to be the masters of ceremonies for that night, they needed to attend all the rehearsals, and this included appraising each association or private group’s program. The two of them sat in the last row and watched the stage from a distance. Aside from the evaluators in the first row and the performers on stage, this auditorium that seated 3500 people was empty.

Tong Yan took a sip of her water and inconspicuously tilted her head to peek at Gu Pingsheng. And then, completely unprepared for it, her eyes locked with his.

“Teacher Gu, have you emceed before?” she instinctively found a topic of conversation.

“I did when I was in the University of Pennsylvania. It wasn’t for the university’s anniversary celebration, though. It was a party hosted by the School of Medicine.” Gu Pingsheng’s eyes were on her as he spoke. “But that was a long time ago, when I was still a student in med school. And it did not have all these…”

“All these rules and restrictions?” Tong Yan understood what he meant. “Yeah, it’s a real pain. The university’s school-wide galas are getting bigger and bigger with each time. I feel like they’re practically like the Spring Festival Gala[1].”

As she finished saying this, she seemed to think of something and immediately began flipping through the program flow for that evening. Oh man, they were so dead!

Dismally, she tilted her head to look at him. “Yup, just like the Spring Festival Gala. We’ll be reading out all the various messages of congratulations and good wishes from alumni around the world…” The scene even floated up in her mind of the three lasses from her dormitory all chortling hysterically in the audience as she read those.

Gu Pingsheng also found it amusing. “If you don’t want to read them, you can give them all to me.”

She gave him a grateful smile and then continued to focus on studying the gala’s program for the evening.

After a little while, she suddenly seemed to remember something and tapped his arm.

When she saw Gu Pingsheng turn his head to the side to look quietly at her, she actually hesitated, but in the end, she still could not refrain from asking, “Teacher Gu, you studied medicine in Penn. Why, then, did you go back to Beijing to do your internship?”

“My mother, at the time, was a surgeon at Peking Union Hospital.” This was a seldom seen time where he actually was not looking at her when he spoke and had simply turned back to watch the stage. “Back then, I went there to do my internship only because I wanted to spend time with her.” He did not look at her again, which was a polite indication that this topic had come to a close.

Her head lowered, Tong Yan carried on looking through the event program, but after staring at it for a long time, she still was not able to remember a single word of what was written.

“Tong Yan.” Zhou Qingchen had appeared at some unknown time and suddenly called out to her. “Did I hear right? Teacher Gu studied medicine at Penn?”

With an “mm-hmm,” Tong Yan asked, “Why?”

It seemed this Students’ Union president was studying medicine, right? It seemed that’s what it was. But her impression of the University of Pennsylvania was limited to what Shen Yao repeated everyday about it, about some business school there.

“The number three-ranked medical school in all of the U.S.…” Zhou Qingchen’s face was flushed, and the look he had was one of a person who was about to meet his idol. “An illiterate like you would never understand. Tong Yan Wuji, do you even know how hard it is to get into Penn’s med school? In order for me, in a roundabout way, to accomplish saving the nation, I even have to first study some darn laws to get a visa before I can get into that med school… Hurry, let me chat with my future senior fellow schoolmate. Future schoolmates, you know.”

She was taken aback for half a second before she abruptly sat up straight, deliberately putting herself between the two of them. “I’m warning you, Zhou Qingchen, don’t you go harassing my teacher.”

She was now certain that period in his past when he had studied medicine was something Gu Pingsheng did not want to talk about. Therefore, she was determined that she would not allow Zhou Qingchen to ask anything that might bring up those memories. And so, after Tong Yan’s desire to “protect her own” had flared up for a full minute, Zhou Qingchen was finally driven away.

Gu Pingsheng happened to turn back right at that moment, and seeing a student glumly leaving, he asked, “Does he need us for something?”

Tong Yan put on an innocent smile. “No, he just came over to ask us whether we wanted to order boxes of takeout to eat.”



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