Returning Home (2)
I took a deep breath as I took in the icy wintery scene on the other side of the taxi’s window. I had reached my hometown. I didn’t think I would ever set foot here again, but my mother’s request made me come back. She wanted me to return to Jian’s family once again.
I opened the car door and looked up at the old villa before me, feeling dazed. When my father had first bought it, it had been for the stunning scenery, clear waters, crisp air, and the small grove of willow trees. It had exuded a vision of timeless beauty. Until now, the stucco wall exterior had only been repaired once, and the roof was still made up of the same old-fashioned red tiles, thereby keeping an aura of simple and unadorned historical beauty.
Spring flowers bloomed throughout the garden, their delicate blossoms tying up the bewitching scene into an almost uncontained magnificence. The house reminded me of an older woman who had retained an ageless beauty, leaving spectators mesmerized. However, gazing at it all, I realized that the scene before me which I had loved so much once before, only felt strange to me now.
Pushing the iron gate open, I walked until I was under the house’s eaves and reached for the doorbell. I did not have my own key. A moment passed before an old lady opened the door slightly and peered out, looking me up and down. She gave me a measured look.
“May I ask who you are looking for?”
“I’m looking for…,” I paused. “Mr. Jian.”
“Mister is not home,” the old lady said and moved to close the door when a low voice called from inside the house.
“Mother Lin, who is it?”
My hands started to tremble, but I couldn’t help but laugh.
A slender figure came to the door, his expression wary but unsurprised.
Picking up my luggage I walked right past him into the house.
The old lady servant looked up at the man puzzled.
“Mr. Xi?” She asked.
“She’s uncle Jian’s daughter,” he responded.
Daughter. I narrowed my eyes laughing inwardly.
Feeling a light touch, I startled looking down at Xi Xichen’s hand as he reached over to take my luggage. I stared down at it, marveling at how fair it looked, fairer than the average man’s hand.
“Your hand is very pretty,” I blurted out.
Xi Xichen gave me a funny look and I turned my head quickly looking for an escape. Spying the stairs, I headed for them, remembering that my room had been on the second floor. However upon opening the door, I saw that it wasn’t as I had left it. Several toy cars and building blocks, amongst a myriad of other things, were scattered about on the floor, bed and desk.
“Looks like Yulin is quite fond of your room.”
I swiveled my head round to look at who had spoken behind me.
“Yulin?” I asked Xi Xichen who had followed me upstairs with my luggage.
“Your younger brother.”
My chest suddenly felt very tight and it became hard to breathe.
What possessed me to think I could spend Christmas together with my aunt?
“Do you want to sleep in the guest room?” he asked, his voice cold and measured.
“Guest room?” I smiled tightly, grabbed my luggage from his hand, and marched back downstairs.
Xi Xichen quickly grabbed my hand from behind, stopping me in my tracks. A shiver snaked its way through my body from head to toe.
“Let go!” I said, twisting round.
“Where are you going?” he asked. “Back to France?” His voice had a curious note of urgency.
I slowly pulled my hand out of his. “Don’t worry. I’ll be returning back to France soon, but not now.”
He looked at me silently with his cold unreadable gaze.
I turned around to leave.
“I will come and see him tomorrow.”
“Your father should be back soon,” he replied, his voice calm. “You can wait here.”
“No need,” I answered.
This conversation was making me keenly aware that although I had lived in this house for seventeen years, I was only a passerby now.
“Not to mention,” I continued, “that it’s already late, and I have to find a place to stay.”
He hesitated, and I counted three seconds, before he finally said, “If what you mean is that you only want to stay in your own room, then I can simply ask someone to tidy it up for you.”
“What?” I snorted. “Which part of my words has led you to think that? Put away your conceit.”
He took a sudden step closer to me, causing me to subconsciously step back.
“You…are afraid of me.” He said it as if affirming it to himself.
I glared at him.
“You are so funny, Mr. Xi,” I said, and I stormed to the front door.
“By the way, Xi Xichen,” I abruptly turned back round to face him from the entrance and smiled. “Do you have to display such an arrogant attitude?”
Before I could note his reaction, I turned back round and walked out.
An unexpected flurry of snowflakes greeted me as I stepped back outside. I walked over to the bus stop I used to use in high school and waited for the first bus to come. I climbed on, not caring where it went. It rumbled forward with a peculiar noise as I walked down the aisle, noting the few passengers aboard.
Picking a seat I looked out the window. It was nearing dusk, and the street lights on both sides of the road had started to light up, their warm glow penetrating into the bus. A solitary snowflake floated in through the open window and landed softly on my cold cheek.
I have a younger brother that no one has ever thought to mention to me. Did they deem it unnecessary, or were they purposefully avoiding me like they would a snake?
“Miss, this is the last stop.”
The driver’s voice invaded my thoughts, pulling me back.
Gathering my luggage, I slowly stepped off the bus and looked around at the desolate place before me. I didn’t expect this city to still have grim-looking areas such as this. Making up my mind, I took out my phone and finally called Piao Zheng.
The line rang once before an angry voice picked up.
“Why didn’t you answer my call?”
“Piao Zheng, I’m lost.”
Soaking in a hot bath, I could feel my strained nerves start to loosen up and melt away. It was almost trance-inducing and it wasn’t until I heard a knock on the door that I realized I had dozed off to sleep. Stepping out of the tub, I quickly toweled off then reached for my pajamas and walked out feeling cozy and clean.
Piao Zheng stood waiting for me outside the door and said teasingly, “I thought you were playing suicide in the bathroom.”
“You think too much,” I said smiling. “I’m tired, I need to sleep.”
“You knew you were tired and yet you still went to that terrible place?”
I wasn’t sure if the terrible place Piao Zheng meant was Jian’s house, or the bus’ desolate last stop.
When I took too long to answer, Piao Zheng sighed and said, “I have changed all the sheets and duvet covers in the guest room for you. Is there really no way to cure mysophobia?”
“You just need to treat me like someone who loves to stay clean, okay?” I snipped.
I walked away a few steps, then turned back around.
“Don’t you have other questions to ask me?”
Piao Zheng seemed to ponder this for a bit, before answering “Don’t forget to pay your lodging fee and food expenses when you check out.”
I responded by turning around and leaving.
The next morning, a sound coming from the other side of my door woke me up. It was small and intermittent, but even the sound of a book’s pages being flipped through was enough to rouse me from sleep. Cracking open the bedroom door, I spied people in the living room and stood very still.
A tall thin man with a handsome face stood a couple of feet away wearing a simple and casual, beige outfit. He looked at the picture of an elegant young master. His eyes flicked upwards, and upon seeing me, widened in surprise. His hands trembled, dropping all the papers he had been carrying to the floor.
Ye Lin and I had known each other since our first year in middle school. We fell in love and were in a relationship for six years. Once upon a time, his presence could easily affect my mood, but he no longer had that ability.
Recovering his composure, Ye Lin quickly replaced his shocked expression with one of his famous cynical smiles.
“When did you return?” He bent over to pick up the papers he’d dropped on the floor.
“We truly are no longer friends huh, since you won’t even tell me when you come back.”
“We were never friends in the first place.”
“Is that so?” His tone was both languid and ironic.
Piao Zheng sidled up to me.
“Why don’t you go sleep a bit more?”
I sighed at Piao Zheng’s unintentional innuendo. Ye Lin glanced back and forth between us, before settling his gaze back on me again.
“I didn’t expect your relationship with Piao Zheng to already be this close. It seems that I am the ignorant and inexperienced one.”
“This has nothing to do with you,” I said flatly.
My relationship with Piao Zheng was not something many people knew about. We were not deliberately keeping it secret, but we were also not going out of our way to set the record straight.
Piao Zheng scratched his head. “Ye Lin-”
“Piao Zheng, I’m hungry. Do you have anything to eat?”
Piao Zheng glanced at me.
“Yes, wait just a moment.
He had understood my meaning, like he’s always done, and dropped the subject without clarifying the matter. He turned and walked away towards the kitchen.
“What are you doing here?” Ye Lin said, glancing at Piao Zheng’s retreating back.
“I don’t have a place to stay,” I answered.
I walked to the table and poured myself a glass of water, taking a sip.
“Don’t tell me that your Jian family is too big to have a vacant room for you to stay in,” he said.
My hands trembled and the glass I still held almost dropped.
“If you’re not really thirsty, don’t drink too much water,” he said frowning at the glass I still held. His face then transformed into a sudden smile. “After staying in France for six years, I finally get to see you back here again.”
I raised the cup back to my lips, and sipped again, ignoring him.
“I always thought that you would stay there,” he continued. “Why did you come back? Does the eldest daughter of Jian’s family want to use her finished studies abroad to serve her motherland?” This last sentence was said in a dissatisfied tone at my continued refusal to answer.
I sighed inwardly. If I didn’t answer him, he would continue to badger me with questions.
“I still haven’t graduated yet.” I finally answered, choosing the most non-essential subject to address.
“Do you still want to go back there?”
He studied me for a minute, then tossed the file in his hand onto the table.
“Tell Piao Zheng that I remembered something I had to do, so I left early.”
I didn’t much care for his capricious attitude, but I also hadn’t intended to send him off in a huff.
“Good?” He repeated after me. He stood silently for a moment, then walked towards the door. Upon reaching it, he suddenly looked back and said, “Oh, by the way. When you are free, come and have a meal with us. Yali misses you very much.”
He opened the door and shut it behind him as my glass slipped out of my hand and crashed to the floor.
Piao Zheng came rushing to the kitchen doorway and stopped. He looked at me and the broken shards on the floor.
“I’ve stayed in touch with him occasionally. Right now he wants to buy a house and has taken a fancy to the ones under our real estate company, so he’s been visiting more often.”
I stayed silent, and Piao Zheng walked to the table with my breakfast, then reached back into the kitchen for a dustpan and broom. He came over and bent down, sweeping up the pieces.
“Sorry girl, I thought you would stay asleep till the afternoon.”
I felt a little dazed, and after a moment said, “I think I’ll go wash up and then eat after that.”
“You know, Ye Lin is not actually as cynical as he showed,” Piao Zheng continued. “He is nice to others.”
I knew this to be true, but six years can dilute all, even feelings that I had thought would last forever. How he actually was had nothing to do with me. I smiled and said nothing.
In September of my first year of middle school, my mother had sent me to register for my classes. Summer at that time was far less hot than it was now, and the wind sweeping through the treetops was cool and refreshing. Also, in my memory of that time period, my mother was very beautiful and gentle.
I had stood in the long aisle outside the Academic Affairs Office waiting for her to come out. My grades were always a bit low due to recurring health issues, and I remember always attending fewer classes than others. I had occasionally missed some exams as well.
The reason why I could register with this middle school was an ode to the power of money. I had at first felt ashamed to use money as a way to get into a good school, but my parents didn’t care, so I gradually too became numb to it.
“It seems a female student has also bought her way in.”
A voice laced with sarcasm had spoken into my ear.
I had turned my head to see who it was, and was met with a pretty, eye-catching boy. He had soft hair, fair skin, shiny black eyes, and an overall nice face.
“I’m talking to you. Don’t you hear me? Speak!”
Those nice eyes also had an impatient gleam to them.
“Are you deaf?”
I had been trying to form a sentence in my mind to answer him, but his patience was particularly low. I couldn’t help but grin.
“Why are you laughing?”
“You are so noisy.”
I scolded him. He seemed to have a pleasant voice, but it took on a strange pitch the louder it got.
He had looked at me incredulously.
“What did you say?”
It was at this moment that my mother finally came out of the affairs office, and signaled to me,
I’d waved goodbye to this strange boy and walked off to her.
This was the first time I had met impatient and arrogant Ye Lin. For the next six years, he would harass and intrude his way aggressively into my life, keeping my thoughts solely revolved around him.
I looked at my pale face in the bathroom mirror. If I could rewind time, would I still want those same six years?
The answer was no.
The bitter taste of loneliness after the sweetness of romantic accompaniment could corrode a person’s insides more intensely than sulfuric acid. If I had known the ending that would come after those six years, I would not have entered the game to begin with. The torture of losing something dear was had been too much for me to bear.
Fortunately, I now no longer miss what I had lost.
“Anjie, your phone keeps ringing.” Piao Zheng’s voice floated in through the door. “Do you want me to pass it in to you?”
“No need,” I called out. “I’m coming out now.”
Shaking away all the memories that had surfaced in my mind, I opened the door and took the phone from Piao Zheng’s outstretched hand. There were seven missed calls displayed on the screen, all from the same unsaved number.
Just before I was about to call back, it rang in my palm. I pressed the answer key and brought it up to my ear.
As I suspected, it was Ye Lin.
“Why didn’t you answer all my calls just now?” His tone sounded unhappy.
“What’s the matter?” I asked, not wanting to waste time. I had long ago made a promise to myself to keep the past in the past and move on. I didn’t care about him in that way anymore and decided it was best to keep a neutral peace. There was no need for any more unnecessary involvement between us.
“I can’t call you unless there is something important?”
It seemed he still liked to be pretentious.
“Is it still inconvenient to talk?” His voice dropped to a softer tone. “Is Piao Zheng next to you?” He asked in a probing tone.
These questions were all very unnecessary. I took a deep calming breath.
“If there’s nothing important, I’ll hang up.”
“Don’t you dare try hanging up on me, Jian Anjie!” His voice rose to a loud octave, and I resisted the impulse to pull the phone back from my ear. “If you dare hang up, you’ll find me immediately at your door to smash your phone!”
His voice had lost all manner of its previous teasing lilt. This sudden burst of excessive anger had actually startled me. Although I knew his soft tone at the start of the call was only a mask to hide his underlying dissatisfaction, I didn’t expect it to reach such a high level of hysteria.
“Then what do you want to say?” I was in a hurry to end this call, and I was no longer taking it lightly.
He suddenly seemed to realize his inappropriate outburst, and immediately calmed down.
“Sorry,” he said, his voice returning to normal. “I’m still downstairs at Piao Zheng’s house. Can you come down, I need to talk to you alone.”
“No.” I said bluntly.
I really didn’t want to get involved with him at all, and I was also never good at coming up with excuses.
“Good, very good. Jian Anjie, you always have a way of making me feel guilty!”. Without waiting for my answer, he hung up the phone.
The hand I was using to hold the phone suddenly cramped up as I lowered it from my ear. I stared down at the phone in my hand as I was flooded with the memory of the day we broke up, and the cold words he had said to me. The ice and snow of the coldest winter day in France could never measure up to those words. During that first year abroad, whenever I had thought of him, it had been accompanied by a sharp knife stab through the heart.
“France, United States, go wherever you want, as long as it’s out of my sight and as far away as possible!”
It was better for him if he upheld his words forever.