It’s not quite the Lunar New Year Tong Yan was expecting. Finally, we have a full picture of what happened on the fateful night that Gu Pingsheng’s mother left the world.
Chapter 19.3 – During That Season of Time (3)
Pingfan’s mother patted her on the shoulder. “It’s okay, it’s okay.”
Tong Yan did not even know what had happened; why would she need consolation? But within her, she had the foreboding feeling that something very bad had occurred upstairs. This sort of conjecture was quickly confirmed. When the sound of footsteps coming downstairs was heard, she and Pingfan’s mother simultaneously raised their heads. Alone, Gu Pingsheng stepped down the staircase. On his forehead was a very obvious gauze pad that someone had hastily applied for him.
White gauze applied on with white adhesive tape.
So white it was a horrible sight to see.
She stood in that spot, almost stupidly, watching as he came down, walked toward her, and came to a stop in front of her. “Yan Yan, let’s go home.”
Tong Yan stared into his eyes, suddenly unable to speak. In the end, she simply gave a nod of her head and without asking any questions, followed him toward the front door.
A moment ago, when Gu Pingsheng was walking down those stairs, the lighting had suddenly seemed starkly white and cold. It called up in her memory the “him” from their first meeting long ago, an extremely young man sitting on the floor, his back leaning against the snow-white wall, his one arm draped across his knees, and his hand holding a thin sheet of white paper.
At that time, it had also been this same feeling.
The expression in his eyes when he looked at her was as if the entire world had nothing to do with him. Only she and he were the same.
For reasons unknown, her heart began beating at an increasingly faster rate, as if it was releasing the shock and fright from earlier on.
Normally, from their home to workplace, they only needed to take the bus. Therefore, other than that time she had taken the metro here late at night to find him, it had been many years since she had truly ridden it.
Today, however, they opted to take the metro.
It was not a work day, and there were not too many people. The train car they were sitting in even still had some empty seats. Their seats were on the far right of this particular train car, and leaning against its wall, she every now and then would allow her gaze to wander over to him.
Gu Pingsheng sensed her eyes on him. “Just now, there was some unpleasantness between Grandfather and me. His spirits have not been very good these last couple of years, and his temper has been a little bad.” He finally pointed at his own forehead and in a rather resigned tone, said, “Luckily, the house is always prepared with these things, and luckily, as well, there’s Pingfan, the still-not-graduated doctor.” His tone was very casual as he downplayed everything.
It was more or less as she had presumed. Wordlessly, she gazed at him, and only after some time did she say, “Was it because of me? Earlier, on the way over, Pingfan said that your grandfather is sick. It’s been so long and you never mentioned it all this time. Back when you were teaching in Shanghai, you would frequently say that you had matters in the family. Was it because of your grandfather?”
She ran through the timing of everything in her mind. They had all overlapped: her family matters, his own matters, and the matters in his family. Basically, it had been one successively after the other …
“He doesn’t like me?” Tong Yan asked another question.
The metro train happened to come to a stop at that moment. It was a transfer station, and many people, with large and small bags in hand, flooded onto the train car.
No matter how noisy his surroundings were, he still only ever remained within his own envelope of silence. He fixed his gaze on her. “Yan Yan, this whole thing has no direct relation to you, personally. Because of what happened with my mother, Grandfather is very much against relationships between teacher and student, and sometimes his reaction is a little on the extreme.”
None of the answers were very unexpected. That was, aside from the wound on his forehead.
Fortunately, since the two of them were heading on vacation, Grandmother had risen early, left the house with them, and then went to Tianjin. Otherwise, when they returned home, it would only lead to another scare.
Possibly for the reason that he had once been a doctor, Gu Pingsheng kept a simplistic first aid kit readily available at home. Following his instructions, she step by step helped him treat his wound. Listening to him caused her heart to quake, and though the wound was not considered deep, that purple-red cut still caused her heart to ache dully when she looked at it. With her head down, she asked him, “Do you need to go get a tetanus shot?”
“No,” he chuckled, “the object that hit me was very clean, and when Pingfan treated it, she was very clean and sanitized about it as well.”
She made a pout with her lips and carefully secured a white gauze pad over his injury. “My beautiful one, your face has been marred. But trust me, regardless of what your appearance may become, beautiful one, I will never find you repulsive.”
Saying this, she leaned in and gently kissed that layer of gauze on his forehead.
She changed the position she was in and took a seat. Face to face, the two sat with legs crossed, he looking at her and she staring back at him. In between them was a first aid kit that had not yet been closed.
Because she was to meet his grandfather today, Tong Yan had specially put care into her dress and adornments. She wore a delicate, blue hair ribbon and her long hair flowed over her shoulders, framing her face so that it appeared even slimmer. Her complexion was milky, her frame slender. She had always been one who, no matter how much she ate, would not grow chubby.
“Yan Yan, you are very beautiful today,” he said very slowly.
Her eyes curved into crescents as she smiled, “To be one of the school’s master of ceremonies, you have to have the makings of a beauty. I’ve just have been by your side all this time, so the radiance of my beauty has been temporarily overshadowed.”
He stretched out his hand, bent his finger, and flicked her on the forehead. “So that means, in the future, my daughter should be very beautiful.”
Tong Yan unabashedly nodded her head vigorously. However, she immediately became a little disheartened as she looked at him and said, “How come it’s been so long but we still haven’t conceived a baby? …” She was, after all, still young, so when she mentioned this, she nevertheless felt very embarrassed and straightaway stuck out her tongue lightly, unable to carry on any further.
“It’s because of me,” he stated forthrightly.
Tong Yan’s mouth fell open in an “ah,” and she stared wide-eyed at him. “Your aftereffects from SARS also include not being able to have children?”
He paused in surprise, then suddenly broke out in a laugh. “Don’t let your thoughts go the wrong way. I just didn’t want you to have to bear such pressure, so I’ve been using contraceptive measures.” Before Tong Yan had recovered from this, she felt a weight on her head. Reaching over, he patted her lightly on the head. “We’re lucky that was the case. Otherwise, if Grandfather found out today that you were pregnant before getting married, I reckon he probably would never see us again.”
The weight was lifted from Tong Yan’s mind. The topic, though, had returned back to the unpleasant situation of today. Setting her elbow on one of her knees, she propped her chin on her hand and looked at him. “It’s no big deal. So many things have already happened and passed. This is just ‘another thing,’ that’s all.” She took the words he had once told her and repeated them back to him. “You said before that these things need to be resolved, and it is just a matter of sooner or later.”
He smiled, “You are a good student, indeed.”
Their flight to Saipan for their vacation was at night.
The original plan had been, on Lunar New Year’s Day, to have dinner at the home of Gu Pingsheng’s grandfather, then return home to get their luggage and rush to the airport. The timing of their arrival would have been just about perfect. Now that this incident had occurred, the entire daytime of Lunar New Year’s Day was unoccupied. Tong Yan changed out all the window curtains and bed sheets to new ones and then, without stopping to rest, began to do the laundry.
It seemed as if only in such busyness was she able cease thinking about what happened this morning.
As she stood beside the washing machine with nothing to do, she decided to take out their clothes that they normally did not wear and soak them in a washtub. Using this way to fill her time, she managed to exhaust an entire bottle of laundry detergent.
The messages coming into Gu Pingsheng’s mobile phone had not stopped the entire time. She could roughly guess that Pingfan was discussing with him their family’s matters. While her mind was thinking too much on everything, Gu Pingsheng suddenly came to the door and handed the phone to her: “Pingfan wants to wish you a happy Spring Festival.”
Wiping her hands dry, Tong Yan took it from him.
“No one expected what happened today. My [paternal] granddad was truly hurt too deeply by what happened to my little [paternal] auntie. But yet, by such coincidence, you and TK were once teacher and student, too, so it’s not unexpected that he cannot accept this. I originally wanted TK to tell a fib in regards to this, but you’ve been together with TK for so long; you should know that he can sometimes be so stubborn that it’s quite annoying.” Gu Pingfan gave a resigned laugh. “But it’s okay. None of these are big problems. I will slowly work on the elderly one’s mindset and thinking.”
“Mm, I understand.”
“Yan Yan, I really especially like you. Honest. Since we were kids, TK and I have been particularly close. The first time I saw him, it was his first time in China, when he was five years old. Back then, his spoken Mandarin was really bad, let alone his Beijing dialect, and he had such handsome looks as well, so all the kids in our family didn’t like him. But as luck would have it, I was learning English, so I especially liked being around him, the fake American boy …”
She had never heard Pingfan speak of these things before and was somewhat surprised.
Gu Pingsheng leaned against the doorframe and watched her talk on the phone, not saying anything himself. Hearing an alert sound out from the washing machine, she pointed in that direction. Soon, he had stridden over, and following her gestures, he very unfamiliarly opened the lid and pulled out the window curtains that had finished washing.
“Sometimes he could be so annoying. As long as it was something he liked, he wouldn’t let anyone touch it at all and absolutely would not share it. But as you came in contact with him more often, you discovered that it was something you could accept because the number of things he actually liked was very few. For example, he liked to eat broccoli, and for the entire meal, he only ate rice and that one dish of broccoli. As long as you avoided it, you could eat however much fish and meat and the good stuff you wanted. He would only eat his broccoli and would not even bother looking at you.”
Tong Yan could not help giggling. From Pingfan’s words, she could imagine that when Gu Pingsheng was young, he must definitely have been a kid who was so annoying it was cute.
“So, Yan Yan, he loves you so much; that means you will undoubtedly be happy and blessed.”
Tong Yan answered with an “oh,” and joked, “As happy and blessed as broccoli?”
Pingfan also broke out into chuckles. “Definitely more happy and blessed than broccoli.”
Gu Pingsheng did not know why she was laughing and gazed at her in amusment. At once, Tong Yan pointed at the balcony, indicating that he should go hang out the curtains to dry. Waiting until he had left the bathroom, she at last asked Pingfan, “Is it really because of his mother that he’s refusing to wear a hearing aid?”
An unexpected silence fell over the other end of the telephone receiver.
After quite a long time, Pingfan finally replied to her. “He especially loved his mom. That’s why, in this lifetime, he may never forgive himself about that incident. I only ever heard him talk about it at Little Auntie’s funeral. That day, it was because he initiated an argument with Little Auntie and said some very hurtful words that my little auntie committed suicide.”
Tong Yan listened in stunned silence.
“My little auntie had a very serious mental illness and would frequently declare hysterically that she was going to commit suicide. Actually, each time, she would just be bluffing, doing it only as a cry for attention and care from people. That day, after TK had finished quarreling with her, he was in the room next door to her bedroom. He heard noises in her room but didn’t go to check, thinking the whole time that it was another melodramatic act. But who would have thought? It really did become reality.”
And hence, he was unwilling to let himself hear any more sounds — any more sounds of this world …
Pingfan afterwards said some more words, trying to comfort her. Tong Yan, however, could only think about his mother’s suicide. The complete truth of the whole story. She finally understood why someone like him, on that day of their first meeting, had involved himself in her matters and had actually raised his hand to strike a young girl who had no relation to him in any way …
At the time, had he not also been filled with extreme despair, treating her as if she was himself?
As she set the mobile phone down beside the sink, her mind was somewhat unfocussed, but she still continued stuffing the dirty bed sheets into the washer drum. The light and shadows in front of her seemed to shift slightly, and she looked behind her. She did not know how long Gu Pingsheng had been leaning against the side of the door, simply watching her quietly like that.
Beside her ear was the rumbling sound of laundry washing, its rhythm distinct.
And in this way, her gaze seemed to intertwine with his, unable at all to ever separate again.
“Just now, your big sister [cousin] said that you used to have a really bad temper. Why, later on, did your personality suddenly change?”
Discovering that she had already completely squandered away the laundry detergent, Tong Yan pulled out a new bottle from the cabinet beneath the sink. Then, she heard him say, “My mother passed away, and then very shortly following, I experienced a situation where I was confronted with life and death. I suddenly saw the light and accepted many things. Since my life was already so terrible, the only thing I could do was to treat other people well.”
As he spoke, he approached her.
After Tong Yan had set the wash cycle time and heard the washing machine begin its normal operations, she turned around once again and slipped her arms around his neck. “When I was on the phone earlier on, I remembered a saying. It was spoken by Mencius.” She eyed him with a look of playful mocking. “You know who Mencius is?”
He gave a low “mm-hmm.”
“Then you must have heard this saying before.” She put on a stern face and one word, one sentence at a time, spoke it for him to see. “Thus, when Heaven is about to bestow Tong Yan upon Pingsheng, it first exercises his mind with suffering, and his sinews and bones with toil; it exposes his body to hunger, and subjects him to extreme poverty; it confounds his undertakings. By all these methods, it stimulates his mind, hardens his nature, and supplies his incompetencies.”
Gu Pingsheng carefully watched her every word.
When she finished speaking, he smiled and, supporting her from the underside of her thighs, lifted her up so that she was like a koala bear, clinging to him as he held her in front of himself. “That saying is pretty good. But back when I heard Pingfan say it, it seemed like there were a few words that were different?”
Tong Yan poked his dimple with her finger. “Just remember my version. This is our family maxim.”
小姑姑 “xiao gu gu.” 姑姑 “Gu Gu” means paternal aunt, i.e. the sister of one’s father. The 小 or “little” added in front implies that she was the younger sister of Pingfan’s father.
 孟子 “Mengzi.” Mencius (372-289 BCE) is a famous Confucian philosopher.
 Reference: Legge, J. (1861). The Chinese Classics : With a Translation, Critical and Exegetical Notes, Prolegomena, and Copious Indexes. Retrieved from https://play.google.com/store/books/details?id=oJ49Fe-drvcC&rdid=book-oJ49Fe-drvcC&rdot=1. Tong Yan modified the very beginning of the saying. The original text is “Thus, when Heaven is about to confer a great office on any man, it first exercises his mind with suffering …” (James Legge, 1861).
Besides his sickness, Gu Pingsheng has seemed almost perfect. However, as we’ve progressed through the story, as layers are peeled back and we gradually get a bigger picture of life, we’ve seen how this man is plagued with guilt and is still unable to fully share things that have been too painful for him to recall, even with Tong Yan, the one closest to him. Refusing to wear a hearing aid is like a self-punishment — a punishment for not listening carefully to the sounds coming from his mother’s room that fateful day.
“Since my life was already so terrible, the only thing I could do was to treat other people well.” The warm, gentle man of today was bought with a steep price — loss of health, loss of his dreams and aspirations, loss of his mother.
Perhaps Tong Yan is the only one who can truly understand him. She, too, held her family situation — her gambling addict father and her mother who was a third party intruding on a marriage — in her heart. As she had thought, it was not that she was deliberately hiding thing from him but that some things needed the right timing to be spoken aloud for they were just too painful to bring up otherwise. And I suspect that is why Tong Yan has never probed further with him about what happened with his mother and is only trying now through Pingfan to understand, and why he has never asked about her family. It is mutual respect and understanding.
We will soon learn a little more about Tong Yan’s story on that day they first met and why she genuinely can understand what he is feeling.
1 of 1 Prologue
58 of 66 Main story segments
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