And was it his destined part
Only one moment in his life
To be close to your heart?
The nurse at the registration window glanced up from her computer.
“Um…I’m here for the, uh, check-up.” Xu Ping bent down and spoke towards the little opening.
“We have three plans, A, B and C. Which one do you want?”
“…what’s the difference?”
“Are you here for yourself or did your company send you?” The nurse sounded impatient.
It was an August morning, and the sun was already burning. The hospital lobby was bustling and buzzing with noise. The queues in front of the registration windows were long. The air conditioning was on, but it could not be felt because of the wide open windows and doors.
“Did you eat breakfast?”
“Plan B. Go up to the fourth floor after you pay.”
Blood work, urine sample, ENT, eye examination, x-ray.
The last step was a heart and lungs examination. Xu Ping walked into the room with his slip, and a nurse drew the curtains behind him.
Xu Ping took off his shirt. The doctor listened to a few spots on his back with the stethoscope.
“You name is Xu Ping?”
“Oh, hey. It’s your birthday today.”
Xu Ping smiled as his agreement.
The doctor replaced the stethoscope around her neck. “Your heart and lungs seem fine.” She eyed Xu Ping’s torso. “You’re just too skinny.”
Xu Ping looked down as he buttoned his shirt. “…Work.”
The doctor added a few more scribbles on the slip and stuck on a barcode sticker.
“Work-related stress is a problem for everybody now. Overtime everyday. A lot of young ones die from over-exhaustion. Sure, it’s nice to have money and wealth when you’re alive, but nothing is more important than health. Don’t you agree?”
Xu Ping looked at the slip, front and back.
“You should tell that to the bosses. How could we worker say no when they ask us to work OT?”
The doctor laughed.
“Work is for your boss, but the body is yours. Even if it’s not for you, you should take care of it for your family.”
Xu Ping paused and then smilingly nodded.
“All my exams have been done. What’s this slip for?”
“Take it to the front desk. The nurse will give you a receipt. Come next week with the receipt to get your results.”
The news of He Zhi’s promotion and his marriage to Chief Wei’s daughter broke within a few days, making this nameless officer the new star of the town. Overnight, he made many new friends, many of which he had never met before but who welcomed him as though they were old friends. All of a sudden, his schedule was full of various engagements, gourmet meals, expensive wine and beautiful women.
He Zhi remembered very well that he visited a big company in the city with the then-Captain Wang for an investigation after his recent transfer to the criminal investigation division. He was young then, ambitious and full of naive courage. Mr. Liu welcomed them into his luxurious office. He shook hands with Captain Wang, all smiles. Thinking he would be next, He Zhi held out his own hand, but the businessman turned to talk to Captain Wang as though he had not seen it.
The captain made a gesture for him to wait outside with the secretary. The moment the doors shut, he heard the captain say, “He’s new. Doesn’t know the rules yet.” He Zhi’s face immediately flushed red.
And it was the same Mr. Liu who approached He Zhi to clink glasses at a social gathering that his brother-in-law brought him to, and who told He Zhi at the end of the meal that they should meet more often in the future.
The whole world changed. Except maybe Xu Ping.
He Zhi was about to leave when Wei Ying called. It was Xu Ping’s birthday, and the two of them promised to eat lunch.
Wei Ying asked him some trivial questions on the phone. There were always lots of things to deal with when it came to weddings.
He Zhi listened on mindlessly. From their first meeting to the decision to marry, they had only been on seven dates. In between, He Zhi left for four months for the case in Fujian. He had a careless attitude towards the marriage to begin with. Wei Ying was younger than he was. She had a powerful father. She even studied abroad in England. Although she had average looks, there was a whole lineup of suitors for her. He didn’t dislike her, but he didn’t want to suck up to her, either. He was a man, and deep down inside he didn’t want to hurt a woman’s self-esteem, so he wanted to wait for Wei Ying to end this engagement herself. This was one reason he signed up for the Fujian mission. But to this day, the two were going to get married, and he still could not figure the woman out.
“Are you listening, He Zhi?”
“…yeah, go on.”
“Do you have any plans for lunch? I’m close by your office. How about we get lunch together?”
“I have plans with a friend.”
A second of silence. Wei Ying gave a soft laugh. “That’s fine. We can go another day.”
She didn’t sound upset at all.
“I’ve already arranged the time with the church, and my dad is still rounding up the guest list. And we should go for a wedding photo when you have time.” She paused before saying, “Oh, right. I saw an old couple’s forty year anniversary photo at the studio the other day, so I was thinking we should get photos of your parents and my parents, too. What do you think?”
He Zhi did not say anything. He was feeling a bit guilty. Wei Ying was handling the wedding all by herself. He didn’t help much.
“Aren’t you meeting a friend? You’d better go. I’ll call you later.”
She was about to hang up when He Zhi interrupted her.
Xu Ping sat in a small restaurant drinking complementary tea. The waitress brought some menus, but he left them on the table without a glance.
It was his birthday today. He was waiting for He Zhi to have lunch with him.
The decor of the shop was not nice, and it was a small place, too. Only a few patrons were in at noontime. The owner’s wife stood behind the register counting money. A waitress wearing a coarse pink uniform leaned against the glass door staring at the endless stream of pedestrians. Restaurants like this probably numbered up in the tens of thousands. They took up space on every street and alley. People passed by them day in and day out, but nobody ever remembered their names.
Once upon a time, Xu Ping often ate at such restaurants with He Zhi. His friend had just graduated from police academy and landed a job of community patrol. After getting out of prison, he had found a job as a typesetter after switching several jobs. Neither of them had much in their wallets. Both of their jobs paid little, especially Xu Ping’s. This kind of restaurant was not the best in taste, but with its cheap prices and large portions it proved to be their best choice.
Their situation now was quite a bit better than before. Xu Ping was not exactly well-off, but He Zhi was definitely not lacking in the financial department. Xu Ping knew his friend was used to eating caviar and escargot, but he could not think of one instance when they had gone to a high-class restaurant for their birthdays.
He had known He Zhi for far too long. From the snot-dripping elementary years to today, almost thirty years had passed. How many people had friends for thirty years? People became older day by day, pressed harder into the mould that was society. They met new people every day, but they were your colleague, acquaintance, that person up the street, that person next door – they were not your friend.
Xu Ping glanced at his watch. He Zhi was late. Just when he took out his phone to give his friend a call, the glass door swung open. In walked He Zhi, and behind him a young woman in a sapphire blue suit.
Xu Ping was in shock for a second. He Zhi never mentioned that he would bring a plus one – a woman, too – but he soon made sense of it.
He stood up.
“This is my fiancée, Wei Ying.” He looked to Wei Ying. “My friend, Xu Ping.”
Xu Ping shook hands with her, and the three sat down at the table.
Xu Ping felt awkward, but he hid it very well. He blamed He Zhi for not warning him beforehand, otherwise he would not have chosen such a cheap place as the place to meet the future Mrs. He. But He Zhi didn’t look bothered.
He was looking down at the menu.
Wei Ying’s suit was of a simple cut, but the cloth was of fine quality. Her person was similar; she had average looks but had a quiet, calm aura about her that made her likeable. She was dressed in a high-class suit and used a high-class leather bag – Xu Ping could clearly see the criss-crossed C’s – but she sat on a tattered red plastic chair drinking the free tea, seeming very gentle and down-to-earth.
Xu Ping really wanted to kick his friend in the shin.
It was Wei Ying who spoke first.
“I don’t usually dress like this,” she said with a sweet smile. “I had a meeting this morning with a difficult client. This is my battle garb.”
“What do you do, Ms. Wei?”
“I manage an art gallery for a friend.” She opened her bag and gave Xu Ping a business card.
Xu Ping reached for his pocket but unfortunately found he had not brought his business cards with him. He spread out his hands.
The two broke out laughing.
After the mood lightened, Xu Ping started to chat freely with her about the weather, the news, the art gallery and the publishing house. He Zhi chimed in once or twice but listened most of the time.
The two stopped talking when the food came.
Wei Ying had excellent table manners. It was evident she had a very good upbringing.
Halfway in, He Zhi’s cell phone began ringing. He looked at the two before taking the call outside.
The waitress served a dish of stir-fry choy sum with mushrooms as accompaniment. It smelled delicious.
Wei Ying gave the dish one look before calling the waitress and requesting it be remade without any mushrooms.
He Zhi disliked mushrooms, but not even his mom knew.
Xu Ping looked up in surprise.
“You know he doesn’t like mushrooms?”
“…yeah, I discovered it once when we were eating.”
“How? He isn’t a picky eater.”
Wei Ying giggled as she pointed at her neck. “He has this vein here, and it jumps when he eats mushrooms.”
Xu Ping broke out in guffaws. He had not been this cheerful for a long time. He was still laughing by the time He Zhi came back to the table.
“What’s so funny?” He Zhi sat down.
Xu Ping gave his friend a hard punch on the back.
“We’re talking about your childhood stories.”
He Zhi lifted his brows.
Appearing rather excited, Xu Ping rattled off their stories about their childhood, the trouble making and horsing around.
He Zhi did not know what magic spell Wei Ying had cast on his best friend. Xu Ping wasn’t someone to open up to anybody this quickly.
He sneaked a look at Wei Ying. She was focused on Xu Ping’s speech but felt He Zhi’s eyes. She turned at the slightest angle and looked at him with questioning eyes.
Her nose wasn’t tall. Freckles dotted her cheeks. Her eyebrows were sparse. She was far from meeting the beauty standard, but her eyes were so very bright.
He Zhi felt his heart palpitate for a second, just a quick second, and he turned his face away.
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
ayszhang says: He Zhi is back! ^u^
Brother - English Translation by ayszhang is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.