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An unplanned reunion, a birthday, a gift that stirred her heart…
Chapter 3.2 – 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.”
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.”
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 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 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.”
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. 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,” “The Internationale,” 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.
 早恋 “zao lian.” What I have called “early-age dating” is, in China, dating under the age of 18 and especially when still in school. It is generally highly frowned upon.
 烤鸭 “kao ya.” This simply means roast duck but the full name of this dish is 北京烤鸭 “Beijing roast duck,” more commonly known in English as Peking duck or Peking roast duck. Tender roasted duck with a thin, crispy skin is sliced into thin flakes and served with steamed pancakes, spring onions/scallions, and sweet bean sauce. There may be other condiments accompanying it, mainly vegetables and the most common one being sliced cucumber. The dish is eaten by spreading a pancake with a thin layer of sweet bean sauce and placing pieces of duck, spring onion, and any other condiments on top before rolling it all up together.
 全聚德. Quanjude Roast Duck Restaurant is a restaurant chain in China that dates back more than 100 years, since the Qing dynasty. The original Quanjude restaurant was established in Beijing and gained fame because of its Peking roast duck. To this day, it is still recognized as one of the top restaurants serving the dish. There are now multiple branches, some even outside of China, but the first Quanjude restaurant still exists at its original location.
 《黄河大合唱》”The Yellow River Cantata” was composed in 1939 for a patriotic Chinese poem written by Guang Weiran, which became the lyrics of the song. Its popularity is enduring in the country and is known widely by the Chinese people. It describes elements such as the Yellow River and the battles the people living along its shores had with it, as well as the fighting spirit of the people against invaders during the Chinese Sino-Japanese war.
 《国际歌》”The Internationale” is recognized as the anthem of socialism and communism. Originally written in French as “L’Internationale,” it is well known and has been translated into many languages.
Something is stirred in me whenever I read those last two sentences of this chapter. Sorrowful? Not quite, although there are hints of sadness. Perhaps regret? I can somehow feel what Tong Yan is feeling. I can’t help but imagine Gu Pingsheng, as his fingers dance over the keys of the piano, playing as he must have practiced and listened to himself do countless times long ago. But now, though his fingers still do what they did before, what surrounds him is only… silence.
Food for thought: Did you catch that Tong Yan was actually once a top student? Does it pique your interest as to why she is now an average one?
1 of 1 Prologue
8 of 66 Main story segments
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