Rabbit

By JADE SONG

Hu Tianbao waves to asphalt and sky. The bumper of his mother’s car has long since exited the drop-off zone, yet he still stands moving his arm in the building’s entrance doorway. Left right left right dawdles his hand. A farewell to punctuality. He’s alone, everyone else already nestled in their classrooms, reciting poems.

He turns away from the outside air and drags his heels down the hallway, scuffing the linoleum floors, dreading his new laoshi, who will hate him because his classmates will love him. Every laoshi has their own method of punishment—his previous had been gentler, tolerance high enough to wait for his fourth joke before dealing out her discipline of making him stand in the corner. Wobbly legs were bearable—brutality, not so much. Gossip has informed him that his new laoshi is more sadist than teacher. He resolves to escape using his reliable method of knee markings if the torture becomes outrageous. He’s always been able to pass the grade exams and move upward to the next—though not by his own scholarly smarts: he’s learned to write whatever Chinese characters he was supposed to memorize onto his knee. When he’s upright, his shorts’ hemline falls with gravity, hiding the notes. When he sits ready for the test, he crosses his legs and scooches the cuff up, able to read the answers on his skin.

He would’ve been content to stay behind in the first level if it weren’t for his mother, who squeezes him in delight whenever he recognizes a Chinese character on a sign or a menu while they shop around Chinatown. His mother has so few true sources of joy that he cannot bear to let her down. So he cheats for her. Lets her deceive herself into believing he’s succeeding in fluency. Allows her to drag him every Sunday to this makeshift Chinese Language School, the only one around for miles, parents driving in from three different states to dump their young burdens. The school borrows the facilities of a shabby community college, so underfunded that the air conditioning is broken in every classroom, made more suffocating with the number of children stuffed inside far exceeding the fire code’s allowed head count. But the volunteer aunties running the school do not mind—they grew up without fake cooling, coming of age in villages with big character posters quivering in Red Guard fanaticism, rather than in American classrooms adorned with fading posters bearing meaningless slogans like THIS IS WHERE IT STARTS and LOOK FORWARD TO A BRIGHTER FUTURE. Air conditioning would only bother their creaky bones.

Hu Tianbao finds classroom #322. Swallows. Grabs the knob, twists, pushes the door open. Steps inside.

He’s fifteen minutes late. The tardiness is an affront to Huang laoshi’s strict sensibilities, as is the devious smile stretching across his cheeks, the chaotic sparkle in his eyes. She senses this handsome boy will lead her students to trouble if she does not muster her authority.

“Stop! Introduce yourself!” she commands.

Hu Tianbao faces his classmates, smug—he won’t bow to any laoshi’s demands, especially not in a language he’s faking his way through. He winks, at ease in the quick reputation he has established. Every student titters back, except for one boy, sitting in the third row. His demeanor unamused, his posture immaculate.

Hu Tianbao frowns, eyeing the stoic boy—he’s never met a student he cannot make smile.

Distracted, Hu Tianbao is unprepared for impact: Huang laoshi slaps his back with her ruler. His body jolts up—he quickly forces his limbs to settle down, and rearranges his face from shock back to smirk. With her ruler, she jabs between Hu Tianbao’s shoulder bones. He grinds his teeth to hide the twinge. The students wince in empathy.

Huang laoshi pushes him toward the empty seat next to the boy of stone. “Go sit! Tu Shen will teach you how to study.” She raps his back twice more in the same spot she’d struck him.

Hu Tianbao swaggers over to the empty seat, grinning at Tu Shen, who remains impassive.

Hu Tianbao settles into his chair, leaning forward so his throbbing skin does not touch the backrest. He stretches his long legs, tapping his foot close to Tu Shen’s, who immediately retracts his. Hu Tianbao frowns. He believes his charm unbeatable. He scans the indifferent boy for hints on how to make him react:

Tu Shen’s nose is gently sloped, ending in an upturn, a peak Hu Tianbao reminds himself to flick later, when Huang laoshi isn’t watching.

Tu Shen’s lips are a deep red, slightly swollen, as if he lathers them in ChapStick, then sucks the moisture off directly after.

Tu Shen’s eyes are slanted upward with a monolid, the same shape as Hu Tianbao’s mother’s. She moans about her eyes, joking how she’ll vacation soon to Seoul for her well-deserved double-lid beauty operation, as if they could afford it. Hu Tianbao has never understood these jokes. He thinks his mother is the most beautiful woman he’s ever seen. He wishes he looked more like her—and like Tu Shen.

His mother says he inherited his father’s round, double-lidded eyes. He wouldn’t know. His father left a long time ago.

And, to his surprise, Tu Shen has long hair in a low ponytail, held by a blue hair tie—Hu Tianbao has never met another boy with hair like his own. He’s proud of his hip-length mane, having grown it for years without deferring to scissors or razors, preferring to keep his hair down so he can proudly flip it behind his shoulder after cracking a joke. Hu Tianbao only ties his hair up when the classroom temperature reaches stifling. He’d use the red ribbon scrounged from his mother’s dresser, which now encircles his wrist, to allow his neck to breathe.

While Tu Shen steadily recites Chinese characters, Hu Tianbao taps his pencil’s eraser against the desk surface, beating an uneven tune that captures the attention of every student except Tu Shen.

Infuriated at the disregard, Hu Tianbao slouches, but immediately straightens up when his back touches the chair—in the fight for Tu Shen’s smile, he’s forgotten his aching skin.

 

Allowed one thirty-minute break halfway through their six-hour lesson, the students mingle in the atrium lit by the dusty skylight. Hu Tianbao rests in the contortions of an arrow point, his butt pressed against the wall far from his classmates as he slumps forward, avoiding pressure against his feverish back. He detaches from his peers like a Bian Lian Sichuan Opera star’s face as soon as they step out of the classroom. He cannot relate to those who will never stray. His classmates will follow the rules, whether set by their parents, their laoshis, or their bosses, and they will never deviate, while Hu Tianbao understands that he will swerve drunk off the road of good filial deeds. Though he is young, he already feels it—a tugging in his gut to stomp on laoshi’s table, rip up his homework, dance on his desk and then belly flop onto the floor, simply for the sheer rush of feeling something. Anything.

He closes his eyes, presses his tailbone deeper into the wall. He rolls his shoulders back, wincing as the tender skin stretches.

Then—

The atrium silences as if a drape has dropped onto a cage of twittering birds. Confused, Hu Tianbao opens his eyes and looks toward his classmates, wondering if Huang laoshi emerged from her classroom to scold them for their loud delight.

Instead he sees Tu Shen, the Boy He Cannot Make Smile, walking toward him.

The classmates barely dare breathe as Tu Shen passes. How could anyone make a sound in front of evolved perfection? He even walks the same way he sits: back rigid, neck erect, chin stuck high, hair coiffed straight behind his shoulders, neither frizz nor strand out of place. 

Tu Shen halts directly in front of Hu Tianbao.

They look at each other.

Hu Tianbao breaks his gaze first, looking down to see water dripping from Tu Shen’s slender fingers, condensation from a clutched ice-cold plastic water bottle purchased from the vending machines.

Tu Shen holds the bottle out.

“For you,” he says. His voice is hoarse, low-pitched.

Hu Tianbao shivers. His stomach cartwheels.

Tu Shen’s right cheek lifts. The corner of his lips curve upwards. Small, but there: a smile, one millimeter high.

Hu Tianbao’s heart whoops. Victory.

Tu Shen places his left hand upon Hu Tianbao’s shoulders and gently steers the pliant boy around to face the wall. He gathers Hu Tianbao’s hair into a ponytail and swipes it around his shoulder for unfettered access.

Tu Shen begins to roll the icy bottle in the valley between Hu Tianbao’s shoulder blades.

The stinging subsides as Tu Shen continues to roll the bottle across his skin, over his shirt. Soothed, Hu Tianbao brings a hand up to the wall to brace himself. He stifles a hum of contentment.

 

The boys spotlight each other through difference: Tu Shen is as still as a tree trunk, solid, unmoving, while Hu Tianbao is chaos personified, hyperactive like the tree leaves above, swaying in the wind, twitching when random thoughts sprint through his mind. Linking arms after class, Hu Tianbao chatters away in the ear of Tu Shen, who responds with a quiet yes or no.

They exchange hairpieces, promising to keep the other’s safe. Tu Shen wraps his blue hair tie around Hu Tianbao’s wrist. Without it, Tu Shen’s hair curtains forward, and Hu Tianbao represses the unfamiliar desire to brush it away so he can properly examine how Tu Shen’s cheeks have now risen two millimeters higher at the sight of his blue wrapped around the other boy’s wrist. Instead, Hu Tianbao unwinds his own red ribbon and wraps it around Tu Shen’s neck, knotting between the collarbones. He jokes that his red hair ribbon was fated to become a red string necklace. Tu Shen’s ear lobe blushes as red as the ribbon.

The other students ignore them out of fear. Separate, each boy intimidates; together, they overwhelm.

Huang laoshi suspects Tu Shen is secretly giving the correct answers to Hu Tianbao—it’s impossible that Hu Tianbao aces the weekly quizzes without help. In the laoshis’ lounge, converted from the college’s algebra classroom, Huang laoshi despairs how she has been trying to catch them in the act of cheating, with no luck. She insists she will keep trying. The other laoshis applaud her efforts.

But Hu Tianbao, the fun-loving child who takes pride in wreaking havoc on organized lives, took one look at Tu Shen and understood instinctively that he would never be able to, nor would he want to, corrupt Tu Shen and drag him into any of his schemes. He prods and teases Tu Shen in class for entertainment, but he would never descend into foolish cruelty.

Tu Shen knows Hu Tianbao too. He knows everything—including the secret notes on Hu Tianbao’s leg. But he neither looks down on nor shames Hu Tianbao for cheating—he understands how Hu Tianbao’s heart is stronger than his brain. The type of ​​heart that Tu Shen so desperately wishes he himself could carry. A type of heart he had tried to learn from books and classrooms before realizing that it was innate for certain people. A person he is not, and the person Hu Tianbao is without effort.

 

One Sunday, Hu Tianbao and Tu Shen are alone in the bathroom during break. Their bladders emptied, they wash their hands at the sink. Hu Tianbao cups his hand under the stream to splash Tu Shen, who dodges, complaining about Hu Tianbao’s unsanitary tendency to not use soap. Tu Shen pulls Hu Tianbao’s hair in retaliation, and Hu Tianbao flails his arms, trying to grab Tu Shen’s hair as payback. In the commotion, Tu Shen’s hair tie loses traction and falls to the ground.

He bends and reaches for his hair tie when his hand meets Hu Tianbao’s. Knowing Tu Shen does not like germs, Hu Tianbao had also hurriedly tried to pick it up before the five-second rule elapsed.

Their fingers intertwine.

Eyes meet above their noses: one nose bumpy from a break years ago, after falling from his bike, hurtling down a hill; the other, perfectly straight, unblemished.

The boys lean in and meet their lips. A kiss. The first. Instinctive, for both, to share this. They have already shared so much. What more could be of soft lips, hot breaths, teeth scrapes? The sharing of saliva is not an intimacy like the knowledge they hold of the other.

The bathroom door flies open, banging against the far wall.

The boys do not jump. They do not separate. They do not hide. These behaviors would indicate that what they are doing is wrong—and to them, it is right. Natural. An assuage of a gentle curiosity. Just a kiss.

The kind of intuition drawing people to a certain genre of music, a line in a poem, a patch of sunlight on the ground.

When they do part lips, it is because there is a witness—a glaring, heaving, sweating, screaming witness, whose intrusive gaze they cannot deny. Despite the interruption, Tu Shen’s cheeks are raised not one, not two, but three millimeters.

Huang laoshi does not need a ruler to see his smile.

She screeches, coherency lost in her rage. Slaps the hand dryer, the sound of struck metal reverberating across the bathroom.

The boys flinch, finally realizing that perhaps there is something wrong with what they were doing, though neither of them understands why.

Huang laoshi’s spindly hands reach Tu Shen’s hair first. She grips hard, threading the black strands around her fingers like a fork slicing through spaghetti. His head jerks back. His scalp on fire, he yelps, which encourages Huang laoshi to pull him harder, away through the bathroom doors, his feet dragging against the tile.

Away from Hu Tianbao, still in the bathroom, now alone.

How did the ending arrive so quickly? he wonders.

The anticipation, so long. The giving, so short. The losing, so endless.

He stares at nothing, his gaze on the empty air where Tu Shen’s hand had just been flailing. Tu Shen begging for Hu Tianbao to pull him away from Huang laoshi. To help.

Hu Tianbao did not help. Did not take Tu Shen’s hand. Did not pull him away from Huang laoshi like his limbs were ropes of tug-of-war. He can still hear the echo of Tu Shen’s cries, but he does not regret his failure to act. He did not want to cause Tu Shen any more physical pain.

Hu Tianbao leans down and picks up Tu Shen’s forgotten hair tie off the floor, a small wet spot on the blue fabric, either from the sink or from Huang Laoshi’s spit. Hu Tianbao rubs at the stain furiously with his thumbs, until he cannot tell if its disappearance is from his efforts or if his fallen tears have offered camouflage.

 

“It’s okay. Really. I don’t care—I just care that you’re okay. Are you?”

“I am.”

“Huang laoshi overreacted.”

“It’s fine.”

“Bao bei, are you sure you’re okay?”

“Yes,” says Hu Tianbao. He notes humorlessly how he has started copying Tu Shen’s minimal speech habits.

His mother squats and looks at him, eye-level. She cups the back of his head, caressing his hair, an act of comfort rendered painful, reminding him of how Huang laoshi had so callously treated Tu Shen’s hair.

“Did she hurt you? Hurt your friend? I need to know so I can report her.”

Hu Tianbao laughs, an empty sound, and his mother recoils. She’s never heard her joyful son make joyless sounds. “Of course she hurt me. But how can you report her? It’s not a real school.”

His mother leans into her heels, rocking as she frowns. “I don’t want you to go back.” She gathers him into her arms.

Hu Tianbao holds his breath and buries his face into her shoulder, trying to suffocate himself. It hurts too much to be conscious.

He shakes. He cries. Then collects himself enough to ask: “Will you take me to see him?”

His mother chooses her words carefully: “I checked the emergency contact list. They didn’t pick up the phone when I called, and the address they listed is in a different state. It would take a few hours to drive there.”

Hu Tianbao hiccups. “Please,” he says.

He lifts his head. He sees his mother’s red eyes, blotchy skin.

“Please,” he says again. He may cheat, and he may cause trouble, but he rarely asks for such difficulties from his mother. He knows how hard she works. At her job, at being a mother, at being a person on her own. Driving him several hours will cost money, time, energy.

He does not want to ask for too much.

Though efforts of the heart are never too much.

 

The car turns off the road into a suburban neighborhood. Each house veers into mansion, much bigger than his own.

His mother coughs. Hu Tianbao unsticks his cheek from the glass, looks at his mother with softness. How he loves her. How she loves him.

She bites her lip. She is ashamed.

“I don’t know Tu Shen de ba ma. They—they might not be as—as open.”

“What do you mean?”

“They might not understand.”

Their car’s GPS announces: You have arrived at your destination.

She parks in front of a house with a small, bubbling stone fountain in the front yard, edged with tailored hedges obscuring the first floor and touching shaded window bottoms on the second. A columned balcony hangs regal from the third.

Despite the excess, the house appears warm to Hu Tianbao, because Tu Shen lives inside.

“Don’t worry. Tu Shen won’t turn me away,” he says impatiently, already unbuckling his seatbelt with one hand, eager to embrace the boy he misses. He pats his left pocket, where Tu Shen’s hair tie nestles.

“Wait—” his mother grabs his arm as he clicks open the car door.

Hu Tianbao is out of the car and halfway up the concrete path before she can finish her warning.

The front door is double-paneled, made of heavy-looking solid wood, and its opulence, with decorative grooves and bronze knobs, abates his excitement—this is the type of door, the type of barrier, that demands subservience, politeness. Not revelry.

Instead of banging, or charging through it, like every muscle in his body desires, he rings the doorbell, just once.

Nobody comes.

He rings it again, and again, and again, trembling, but nobody comes, and he presses again, and—the door swings open with a force so fast that Hu Tianbao leans forward like he’s been sucked in.

A lady with a slicked, strict bun on the top of her head peeks around. Long red nails wrap around the frame, decorations Hu Tianbao has never seen on his mother, who wears an easy-to-handle bob streaked with gray, nails uneven and bitten.

Hu Tianbao scrambles through his thoughts—perhaps they had come to the wrong address?

“Hello” —he tries desperately to recall the polite Chinese phrase to address her, but in his panic he cannot remember anything but laoshi, incorrect— “I’m looking for Tu Shen. Is he here? Do you know where he lives?”

“My son does not want to see you,” she hisses. “Leave!”

“Tu Shen is your son?” Hu Tianbao sticks his foot through the threshold so she cannot shut him out. “Please, just tell him I’m here,” he begs, and places his palm on the door, pushing. “My name is Hu Tianbao. I go to school with him.”

“Leave!” She opens the door wider, and Hu Tianbao glimpses a winding staircase, stacked bookshelves, closed doors, before he stumbles forward, his foot and palm losing their hold. She shoves Hu Tianbao, who falls backward onto his tailbone, ejected.

The door slams shut.

A sensation on his upper arm. He dimly registers a grip helping him stagger upright.

His mother has joined him. She had not witnessed the evil but had heard the hate, and had come running up the walkway to see her son bruised and sprawled.

She wonders if she should ring the doorbell, demand an apology on Hu Tianbao’s behalf.

But perhaps she should let both boys have their peace. It would be better, she supposes, for Tu Shen to listen to his parents rather than risk any more harm.

They are young, and she believes the young forget.

The hand on his shoulder steers him away.

Away from the vicious elegance. Away from the once-warm architecture, now monstrous. Away from Tu Shen.

Back into the car. The seatbelt clicks protectively over his body. His mother drives. Outside the car window, the mansions jeer their farewell.

 

Years later, Hu Tianbao is twenty-eight and empty. Nothing he’s tried so far—not the women, the men, the theys and thems, not the poppers sniffed at 4 a.m. as techno beats drop in warehouses, not the yearly promotions, not the clatter of empty baijiu bottles onto his tiny kitchen floor—has managed to recreate the fullness he’d found as a child attending that dingy Chinese Language School. Sometimes he wonders if his brain had conjured Tu Shen in search of comfort, like a child would with an imaginary friend. But he knows the boy must have existed, because he can still picture those red claw tips.

Memories of hatred linger long, longer than those of love.

He tells himself adulthood has no time for real love anyway.

An adulthood he has now rejected. Gone are his biweekly paychecks and retirement funds and healthcare plans. What will come instead? He does not know. He does not care. He is unemployed by choice, to the relief of both himself and his mother. Better to quit than to be fired. He had not quit dramatically, by throwing his desktop out the window or by fucking the boss and the boss’s wife—two paths quite likely, as throughout his life he has had the tendency to sever relationships by fucking around and fucking those he should not fuck. He had simply emailed Human Resources that he would not come in the next day.

Now, instead of typing at the keyboard, Hu Tianbao’s fingers flex over his passport. He’s traveling, doing that sort of soul-searching thing that certain kinds of people in their late twenties can do, though Hu Tianbao isn’t deluded enough to think he’ll find himself—rather, he’s found too much and seeks to lose.

Hu Tianbao winds strands of his hair, still long, around his finger as he strolls down Jingan Road. His mother had texted the temple information and address accompanied by three emojis: the rabbit face, the kissy face, and the prayer hands—she had just learned how to use emojis and tended to go overboard. She urged him to visit, talk with the uncles, and obtain a Love Talisman in the hopes that a partner blessed by the Rabbit God himself would find him.

The worshipping process had been peaceful, the uncles kind and welcoming, the temple cozy with piled fruit plates and red lamps. Nevertheless, he had felt uncomfortable around the other men there, all desperate for a partner to appease their loneliness. Hu Tianbao was lonely too, but not enough to kowtow to a mythical gay rabbit deity for companionship. He had shown up at the temple because his mother had asked him to, and because he was getting bored with his typical sightseeing routine of visiting a market and then a nice vantage point and then a nightclub. He had been in Taipei City four days, having already visited Beijing, Shanghai, Xi’an, Chengdu, Chongqing, Seoul, Busan, Gwangju, Jeju, Tokyo, Osaka, Fukuoka, Singapore, and more, and though he would never have the hubris to claim these cities and countries were the same, he did feel as if everything was beginning to blend into a distinct flavor of rot.

He frowns. He had purchased paper money and had thanked the uncle for the blessings, but he does not feel any different than when he woke up. He rubs his pointer finger with his thumb in his left pocket where he usually keeps it, a fidgeting habit from his childhood. Hu Tianbao takes out his phone with his right hand, thumb hovering over the keyboard, where a cursor waits for his entry. Ruminating on where to go next, he does not pay attention to where he is going. The left side of his body collides into another passerby’s shoulder, jolting his hand out of his pocket.

“Hey!” Hu Tianbao sniffs. “Watch out!” He curses himself for using English, forgetting his terrible Mandarin when flustered. Annoyed, he returns to his phone, shoving his left hand back in his pocket, when he realizes the hair tie he normally keeps there, wound around his fingers like a lover’s braid, is gone.

Hu Tianbao whirls around, desperately scanning the air to see if the wind has blown it away, but there is only the typical Taipei neighborhood skyward view: electrical wires, metal window barriers, dangling plant leaves growing atop apartment balconies. A few feet ahead of him, the person he had knocked into is bent at the waist, picking up something blue—

Hu Tianbao rushes over. “Hey! That’s mine. Please. Give it back,” he huffs, stretching his hand out and wiggling his fingers below the man’s chin, which is tilted down, examining the found treasure.

“No, this is mine.” The man stands straight. His posture is perfect. His knuckles clench white around the hair tie. He wears a tailored, expensive-looking suit, which contrasts his long hair, tied back in a ponytail. A slight breeze blows, loosening two bangs. The strands twirl gently around his face, framing his features into a familiar painting that tugs at Hu Tianbao’s gut, a whirlwind of colors mixed with gentle precision by a hand that could only be the Rabbit God’s.

“A long time ago, I lost it.” The man’s words catch in his throat. He coughs, loosening pent emotion. “I didn’t think I’d find it again.”

Hu Tianbao stares. He would recognize this man anywhere. Any time. Whether the hair tie is in his hair or in his hands. Whether the cheeks are raised or horizontal. Whether they are ten-year-old boys engulfed in a Chinese Language School scandal or twenty-eight-year-old men standing on a street in Taipei.

 

They sit in a noodle shop a few streets away from the temple—Tu Shen’s suggestion, which had shaken Hu Tianbao out of his frozen, speechless surprise. The shop features hunched backs, slurping sounds, deep vats, and an auntie who shoves a bowl of warmth into their hands. It is Hu Tianbao’s favorite kind of restaurant—the kind where chaos is unorganized and unafraid.

They find two free plastic stools at a table stocked with ladles of chili oil and smashed garlic. Hu Tianbao watches Tu Shen douse his bowl in spicy red.

Tu Shen looks up and returns the gaze. Hu Tianbao blushes under the close examination.

“Eat,” Tu Shen commands.

Instead, Hu Tianbao pushes his noodles aside and places his elbows onto the table, self-conscious of how Tu Shen’s eyes follow his movements.

“I’m not hungry. I’m just—shocked. It’s been eighteen years,” Hu Tianbao says. He squints, taking stock of Tu Shen, noting every detail that has changed since they were boys—a jaw whose lines strengthened as the childhood fat melted away, a faint mustache the razor had failed to tame above the smacking lips.

Their eyes meet again. Embarrassed, Hu Tianbao looks away, toward his noodles, untouched and soggy, swimming in a sad swamp.

How does one admit yearning?

“I missed you.”

Hu Tianbao whips his head forward. “You remembered me?” Hope, ever wild.

“How could I forget?”

“I looked for you,” Hu Tianbao admits. “Online.” Once, coming home alone from the club, he had looked up Tu Shen on Google, but nothing came up. The next morning, he had woken up with a throbbing hangover and proceeded to lie in bed, searching through every social media site and search engine, using every variation of Tu Shen he could think of with its possible English transformations. He too had transformed for a few years—from Tianbao to Timothy in high school, until returning to Tianbao again in college. Tu Shen, Shen Tu, Tui Shen, Too Shun, Sean, Shawn, Simon, Steve—no recognizable profile had ever shown up. Undeterred, he continued guessing wildly, careening through the English alphabet, even looking up Sebastian—from Shen to Sebastian—too broad a leap for language, not too wild for hope.

A smile on Tu Shen’s face. Not millimeters, but unmeasurable radiance. Full and real.

 “You live close by, in the neighborhood?” Hu Tianbao asks.

“No. But I’m familiar with the area.”

“Ah—office here?” Hu Tianbao hesitates, then plows ahead, because it is better to know sooner so his heart can die again—“or your partner’s apartment is here?”

The smile deepens. “No partner.”

Hu Tianbao relaxes.

Tu Shen continues: “I come here because I’ve been searching for you too. Not online, and perhaps rather not proactively, but—” Hu Tianbao watches a blush spread over Tu Shen’s cheeks—“sometimes I visit the Rabbit God temple. And think of you. I know it’s stupid. But I was lonely. And loneliness makes people—me—do silly things.”

“So that’s why you were walking there!” crows Hu Tianbao, his glee amplifying his voice, causing patrons to look over at him in annoyance. But he doesn’t care—the happy do not regard others’ judgments.

“Yes,” Tu Shen affirms, oil from the noodles causing his lips to sheen, so distracting that Hu Tianbao must shove his hands underneath his thighs in an effort to control himself. “I was on my way to the temple.”

“You were looking for me like I was looking for you.”

Tu Shen smiles again.

Hu Tianbao’s hunger roars its return. He shovels noodles into his mouth, polishing the bowl in minutes, tasting contentment.

After the last slurp, he drops his chopsticks. Pats his stomach. Attempts to return to talking. But hesitates, unsure how to begin. “Tell me—no—I—I want—” He stops. There is so much to ask. The simple: What have you been up to? The complicated: Do you feel empty too? Even the past: When did you know we were no longer just friends?

Words fail.

Instead—touch.

Hu Tianbao takes Tu Shen’s hand. The fingers are long, slender, and pale. Hairless. So refined compared to Hu Tianbao’s own: skin dry from the Phuket beach air, nails jagged from living out of a backpack.

Tu Shen’s fingers flex in Hu Tianbao’s grasp, curling like crescent moons. Then—gone. Retracted. Hu Tianbao’s heart plummets.

But then the fingers reenter his orbit—resting against Hu Tianbao’s forehead, brushing the strands of hair out of his face, tilting his chin upward. 

Tu Shen’s thumb dabs at the corner of Hu Tianbao’s eyes, where a dampness threatens.

“Don’t cry,” Tu Shen says. “I am here.”

 

They fall back into each other, as if no time has passed from the stifling American classroom to the buzzy Taipei streets. With a strenuous finance job, Tu Shen has to work every day, but Hu Tianbao does not mind. He is used to waiting for Tu Shen. He waited through the week for Sunday’s classroom, and he waited years for Tu Shen to reappear. Now he waits by the office building until Tu Shen straggles out, blinking at the shift from harsh office light to soft nighttime.

Tu Shen takes Hu Tianbao to food— edible warmth—and with each dish comes a new serving of Taipei glitz and calm, the old and new, the neon lights and temple recesses. They welcome the day by dipping youtiao into soy milk; they shovel mounds of scallion daikon pancakes into their mouths under awnings of street stalls; they lick the drippings off stinky tofu sticks, giggling as the sauce dribbles down their chins.

With stuffed bellies, they look to fill their minds. They peruse exhibitions at the Fine Arts Museum, Hu Tianbao darting past each artwork to the next, Tu Shen meandering to understand each artist’s meaning. Tu Shen loves tea, so they visit the Ping-Lin Tea Museum, and though the building is beautiful, Hu Tianbao whines after an hour about how he would much prefer to drink something more stimulating. They leave and go to karaoke, where Hu Tianbao, intoxicated, gives Tu Shen his own private show, gyrating as he belts out Teresa Teng’s “Goodbye My Love,” but with his own edited lyrics: instead of zai jian, he sings ni hao. Hello.

Hello, my love. I will love you with all of my heart.

 

They cross Daxi Bridge, busy with tourists and cyclists. The two men stop in the middle, standing side by side. Hu Tianbao leans forward against the railing and gazes out toward the landscape—it is too dark to see much past the riverbanks, but he knows the tapestry is there, the way he knew Tu Shen was there, thinking of him in the years they spent without the other.

“What are you looking at?” Tu Shen asks.

Hu Tianbao turns to Tu Shen. “You,” he says.

Tu Shen smiles with both cheeks. He points upward. “My mother was a professor in folklore. She would recite tales whenever I couldn’t fall asleep. One of my favorites was a Chinese story about the stars.”

“Tell me.”

“Once, there was a cowherd man named Niulang and a weaver woman named Zhinu. They fell in love, but it was forbidden—”

“Why weren’t they allowed?” interrupts Hu Tianbao. “They are man and woman.”

Tu Shen shrugs. “I don’t know. There were stricter rules back then. Besides, who’s to say they were only man, only woman?”

He continues: “They were banished to opposite sides of the heavenly river—what they call the Milky Way. They were only allowed to see each other once a year, on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month. A flock of birds, free to fly, would use their bodies to form a bridge, so the two lovers could cross the river and reunite.”

“One day a year?”

“Yes.”

“That’s no time at all.”

“It would be enough to sustain me until the next,” Tu Shen responds.

The two men stare up at the sky. The heavenly river is hidden, the night black—not the black of a chasm, but the black of the ink in Chinese landscape paintings. What is seen is as important as what is not. A black creating worlds. A black offering infinity.

Hu Tianbao aches to traverse their tender quiet with a kiss—then a passing cyclist interrupts first, ringing the bike’s bell.

“Would you rather be the cowherd or the weaver?” Hu Tianbao jokes. “I’ll be whichever you don’t want to be.”

Tu Shen chuckles.

“That’s a beautiful story,” Hu Tianbao says quietly.

“Yes. My mother shared many.”

“Your mother—” Hu Tianbao hesitates. While they’ve video-chatted his mother, who was ecstatic at their reunion and texted every morning, wishing both a prosperous day with a sun emoji and a kiss face emoji, they have yet to talk about Tu Shen’s. Neither has mentioned her until now.

“I haven’t talked to her in five years. She tried contacting me when she came for a lecture at NTU. I ignored her.”

Hu Tianbao reaches for Tu Shen’s hand. “You can use my mom as a replacement,” he offers.

Tu Shen’s face crumples, and Hu Tianbao feels awful. After so many years searching for Tu Shen in others, hadn’t he realized by now that substitutes were never as lovely as the original? “I’m sorry,” he says, collecting Tu Shen into his arms, resting his chin on the top of his head.

“No, I’m sorry. About everything.” Tu Shen wipes his eyes, the tears representing his regrets, each laced with yearning for what he had lost in those years since.

“It’s okay,” Hu Tianbao whispers. A puddle spreads on his shirt, above where his heart rests. “It’s okay,” he repeats. “We’re together. We found each other.”

Tu Shen sniffles, his crying subsiding as Hu Tianbao strokes his hair.

“Let’s not be the two lovers,” Hu Tianbao croons into Tu Shen’s trembling ear. “Let’s be the birds. Free to leave, free to return.”

 

They visit Joy Mountain to make new memories. The area is beautiful, but they do not take notice—rolling hills flatten into monotonous backdrops when set against a lover’s dynamic face; vivid skies pale in comparison to complexions of desire; fresh air does not clear lungs like inhaling another’s breath in bed.

They leap from ridge to ridge on the mountain trails like the men in their favorite wuxia dramas, their loose clothes rippling as they soar. They like the danmei genre, staying up late with their legs intertwined on their hotel bed as they gasp over jianghu melodrama.

Their muscles are sore, not from hiking, but from wild poundings of the heart—such inner beatings upon the body; a love so vigorous and strong.

On the last day of their vacation, Tu Shen, tired, trips over a rock, flailing for his balance until he slips and scrapes his back against a jutting rock. He insists he is alright, but Hu Tianbao forces him to rest at the first service station they find. Hu Tianbao buys a cold water bottle from the vending machine and rolls it gently between Tu Shen’s shoulder blades as he peppers kisses up and down his neck.

Tu Shen moans in pleasure, and Hu Tianbao, with his freezing hands and sweaty brow, feels himself climb the last step out of his inner abyss.

 

One day, after leaving the contemporary art museum, they enter the nearby Eslite. Hu Tianbao wanders around the English language section while Tu Shen browses stationery. Testing every variety available on the provided paper, he selects a simple, unadorned pen. 0.7 millimeters, ballpoint, black ink.

They leave the bookstore and descend into the metro. The train car is nearly empty, so they spread out onto the available seats, their thighs overlapping. When Hu Tianbao crosses his legs, the hem of his cutoff jean shorts creases upwards, revealing hairless skin.

Tu Shen takes out his new pen and hovers over Hu Tianbao’s knee.

“What are you doing?” Hu Tianbao giggles. “Are you trying to get me to cheat again?”

Tu Shen does not respond. He scrunches his brow, thinking. He had planned to write in both Chinese and English: 我爱你. I love you. But the character for love, 爱, feels insufficient—how can their love be written with only one character, one syllable? Their love deserves aching ballads, wanton poems, battlefield epics. And, in English, I love you exists only in the present. The future and the past are unspoken mysteries: I loved you, I will love you—did I? Will I?

For Tu Shen, Hu Tianbao is the loved, love, will love.

Tu Shen decides to write his message in the soulmate sense. He uses the sort of Chinese phrase that can only be in Chinese, the poet’s language, because its English translation comes off awkward and cheesy, but if he were to try, it would read as one long declaration:

You understand me, and I understand you, and we are free to choose, so we choose each other, and I loved you before I knew you, and I love you when you are here, and I love you when you are gone, and I will love you until you come back, my soulmate who knows me.

Tu Shen writes: 我毕生知己. Wo bi sheng zhi ji.

 

The date of Hu Tianbao’s departure for the European part of his backpacking trip arrives. He had bought the ticket to Budapest long before he met Tu Shen, in-advance discounts outweighing the possibilities of spontaneity.

Tu Shen does not ask Hu Tianbao to cancel his flight. Hu Tianbao does not offer either. They are not the cowherd and the weaver. They are no longer two young boys. They are the birds. 毕生知己.

The train speeds toward the airport. Tu Shen places his head on Hu Tianbao’s shoulder. He plans to drop Hu Tianbao off, then head back to the office, but, rocked by the transport’s gentle swaying, Tu Shen’s eyelids close. His head lolls to rest against the glass. He falls asleep.

Hu Tianbao looks at Tu Shen fondly and thinks about the promise he made to himself: Once his pre-purchased flights run out, once Budapest and Paris and London and Lisbon and wherever else he goes blur indistinct, he will return to Taipei.

Free to leave, free to return.

The train reaches the airport stop. Hu Tianbao touches the blue hair tie in his pocket, then reaches for his bag. He tries to stand, but his sleeve is caught between Tu Shen’s head and the window.

Hu Tianbao does not want to wake his lover. Tu Shen had done his best balancing time with Hu Tianbao without getting fired from his job, but Hu Tianbao still feels guilty as the culprit of Tu Shen’s exhaustion. It is better to let him sleep.

Hu Tianbao grabs his shirt and rips off the sleeve.

Free, with a now one-armed red shirt, he stands up and hoists the backpack onto his shoulders, stepping out onto the airport platform.

He turns back for another glimpse of Tu Shen. Through the train window, Tu Shen’s slumbering face presses against Hu Tianbao’s cut sleeve, the red frayed strands fluttering with each snore. Despite the awkward position, the relaxation settles nicely onto his features, like fragrant tea leaves burying into the bottom of a mug.

Then the train’s engine screeches, and the wheels begin to turn. Tu Shen and his cut sleeve travel away.

Only when the sounds of the train fully disappear does Hu Tianbao remember his flight. He turns and walks into the airport with perfect posture, his backpack hoisted high atop his shoulders.

 

Jade Song is a writer, art director, and artist. Her debut novel, Chlorine, was selected as a New York Times Editors’ Choice and will be translated into Chinese and French. Song lives in New York.

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