2. Guan He’s Secret
People will like a pretty girl and they will respect a strong girl. When a girl becomes both pretty and strong, she will be invincible.
For the entire winter break, my life was a mess. The only normal thing I did was go and pay Teacher Gao a new year’s call.
Teacher Gao already knew that Zhang Jun had been divided into the slow class, she also knew that my mid-semester exam results had slipped dramatically so she was feeling quite sad. She told me that although she had taught many students, she still thought that Zhang Jun and I were the most special out of all those students. As a teacher, what she feared the most was seeing students who were clearly naturally talented waste themselves.
She wasn’t worried about Zhang Jun being divided into a slow class, she said that Zhang Jun’s mind was stronger than many adults. On the surface he may seem like he doesn’t care about anything and go with the tide but inside, he is very attentive towards himself and wouldn’t be affected by other people’s interferences.
However, she was very worried about me. On the surface I looked stubborn and cold, it seemed hard for me to be influenced by others but actually, I was very sensitive inside and easily affected by the world’s interference. My grades sliding down quickly was enough to prove her analysis. She said that she didn’t hope for my middle school exam to be exceptional but I had to at least make sure I could be able to get into a top high school.
When I left Teacher Gao’s house, Zhang Jun was just parking his motorcycle outside. He was bent over with his head lowered so he didn’t see me. I increased my walking speed, wanting to quickly walk past him.
I didn’t stop but I paused for a bit, not sure if he was calling me.
I turned back, unsure.
“Ge Xiao Fei is very intelligent and also very strong, she will be able to get through it.” He was standing beside his motorcycle looking at me.
Only then did I confirm he was talking to me. I felt that in an instant, all my unhappiness was welling up in my eyes.
He seemed like he wanted to say a lot but finally, he said, “Don’t be too upset.”
I was scared that the tears will fall if I opened my mouth so I just nodded then turned and left.
I felt a pair of eyes stare at me as I walked so I picked up the pace wanting to quickly escape it.
The new semester started, it was our last semester of middle school.
Although Xiao Fei’s matters caused an uproar, with her disappearance, everything quickly turned back to normal. Especially during classes, the boys running on the field would be red in the face, energetic and vigorous, the girls would laugh as they eat ice cream, sharing gossip with delight. I didn’t need to listen to know what they were talking about. Because, two years ago, I was one of them. Different people yet forever similar teenage lives, forever similar stories.
Sometimes, I find it really hard to believe, a person disappears just like that but this world is still revolving so vigorously, can’t it feel our sadness?
The earth won’t stop spinning for anyone. This is the most truthful phrase and also the most cruel.
Zhang Jun got a new girlfriend called Chen Yi Nan. She was a talented girl in our school and had once been the president of our school’s radio station and the editor of the school newspaper.
We’ve talked before, after I participated in a few speech competitions and won a few awards, she came to invite me to join the school’s radio station but I politely declined.
She is currently a third year in high school in the arts stream. Her grades for Chinese literature were extremely, extremely good.
Chen Yi Nan had no similarities with Zhang Jun’s previous two girlfriends. The only similarity they shared was that they were all older than him. Everyone was taken aback back the news, unsure as to what part of Zhang Jun caught her eye.
Perhaps it was because of Xiao Fei and perhaps it was because I was numb but I didn’t have the slightest feeling of heartbreak. I only thought that Zhang Jun seemed unable to stand the slightest bit of loneliness, the girl beside him always came and left, how long would this one stick for?
I started to diligently read Agatha Christie’s novels. In the puzzles she laidout, I searched for clues to nail the murderer. As Xiao Bo was preparing hard for his gao kao, he was hardly ever in the karaoke bar so I didn’t go to there much either. Everyday, after school, I either went home or to the library.
My life became very peaceful but in Guan He’s eyes, I was giving up on myself. She worked hard in attempt to get closer to me but because of Xiao Fei, I had already locked the doors to friendship and I rejected her kindness.
But no matter how cold I was, she always pretended not to notice. She urged me to do my homework, to listen in class and to study well. She would come and find me to play and whenever there were classmate meetups, no matter how big or small, as long as she went, she would drag me along too. She reminded me of a Christian nun, trying to save me from the devil.
I was helplessly pulled into her friendship circle. In this circle, there was our class monitor, Li Shan, the poet, classmate Song Cheng and the pale and frail Wei Wei who we called Old Third because he was the third. There was also Wang Hao, the English class representative who was currently staying at his sister’s house.
Guan He worked hard to make my life bright and colourful but I worked hard to cold and calm.
Song Chen was annoyed by me from early on and didn’t like how I kept an expressionless face all day so he asked, “Why don’t you smile? Don’t you know that ‘if you smile, you’ll lose ten years’?”
I told him, “Do you know why it’s ‘if you smile, you’ll lose ten years’? Because you smile too much, you’ll grown wrinkles easily and become old. When someone asks for your true age, they’ll be surprised, wow, it turns out you’re actually so young.”
Song Chen was speechless, although he was talented, he couldn’t beat me in the logical thinking field even if he was riding eight horses.
Even though he didn’t see eye to eye with me, with Guan He’s cover, he couldn’t do anything.
Guan He wasn’t overly enthusiastic but she definitely wouldn’t give up on me either.
One day, I forgot what the reason was but Guan He needed to go home and get something and dragged me along, wanting me to go and play at her house. After we went inside, I saw her er hu and asked her to play me a song so she played ‘Night on the Grassland’.
“I remember when you transferred to our class, you played this song.”
She was quite surprised, “You actually remember? This is my favourite song.”
I remember everything related to her. What did Gu Long* say again? The person who understands you the most isn’t a friend but, an enemy. Too bad Guan He is a good student and doesn’t read Gu Long or else, she should really watch out around me.
I asked her, “Who did you learn the er hu from?” Er hu teachers weren’t easy to find, at least I’ve never seen er hu classes before.
“My dad taught me. He loves this song the most and plays it really well.”
“Oh!” I nodded lightly, I saw the family photo on the wall of their living room, her dad was old and fat, his face was bulging with fat and I really couldn’t see him as the talented type.
She sat there quietly for a while then, she suddenly pulled out a photo album and flipped it open to show me, “This is my dad’s picture.”
I looked at it dumbstruck, unable to help but take a closer look. The man in the picture looked scholarly with delicate and chiselled features. Because it was a black and white picture, it made him look even more refined.
Didn’t this person change a bit too much? How could he have turned into the man in the living room picture?
I kept flipping through the album and after a while, I realised that they were all pictures of him when he was young, there wasn’t even one picture of him as a middle aged man, plus, in the family pictures, there was only Guan He and her mom and dad, her brother and sister weren’t there. Just as I was thinking about it, Guan He said, “My current father is my stepfather.”
“Did your dad die of illness?”
Guan He shook her head and lightly said, “One year when he went on a business trip, he was driving on a narrow road, there were two cars driving in the opposite direction and needed to pass him. He accidentally put his head out the window and neither one of the drivers saw. His head was pulled off.
I was absolutely horrified. This was the scariest death I had heard of. If I didn’t hear it personally, I would really want to fabricate a more common way of death such as liver cancer or lung cancer.
I only heard it once but for many years after, when I sat in a car, I didn’t dare put my head out the window. Even when I put my hand out, I would first look around. I can’t even imagine how big Guan He’s psychological shadow must be.
Guan He seemed to have been unable to speak out her mind without reservation for many years and once she started, she couldn’t stop, “My dad’s surname is Xia*, because he likes lotus flowers, he gave me the name Xia He, hoping that I could be as touching as a lotus flower and that my character could also be as noble and unsullied as the flower. After he passed away, because mom didn’t have a job, for the sake of raising me and giving me a good education, she married my current father and my surname changed from Xia to Guan.”
“Is your current father good to you?”
Guan He replied lightly, “He’s never mistreated me. He’s a lot older than my mom and his previous wife had passed away leaving him with a son and two daughters. As long as I am obedient and hard working, he wouldn’t specially make trouble for me. It’s just harder to get along with my brother and sisters, however, I’ve become used to it over the years.”
I started to understand where her maturity, her patience and reservedness, her perfect demeanour all came from. It was because she didn’t have a family, she was living off other people, her mother depended on another family to take on the burden of her living fees and study expenses so, when other children were still innocently acting spoilt, she was already learning how to get along with her step father, brother and sisters.
Guan He smiled, “Our classmates look at me and assume I’m living in an excellent household but actually, they don’t know that I could do many things since I was very young, I can make dumplings, wash clothes and clean the house. Most of my clothes are discarded from my sisters. My mom’s hands are nimble and she uses the sewing machine to adjust them for me and they become very pretty. I actually don’t have many clothes that are really mine.”
Because she was smiling, when her lips curled up, there was an unusual kind of strength about it. I said, “You’re pretty, you have a good temperament, it’s only because it’s you who is wearing the clothes that the classmates will take notice.”
Guan He smiled but I couldn’t tell if it was a mask or if she was truly smiling. She looked into my eyes and said, “Because I’ve had to watch a person’s every mood since I was small, I’ve become a very sensitive person. After we became desk mates, I’ve felt that actually, we’re kind of similar. It’s just that you can resist and do what you want to do.”
I looked at her dazedly. She smiled and held my hand, taking me outside. She half jokingly said, “Don’t tell anyone where my house is, I don’t need others to know that I’m Cinderella. I like to be a little princess.”
I nodded and solemnly replied, “I won’t tell anyone.”
Although I looked very calm on the outside, not even giving Guan He any comforting words, my coldness had shattered in front of her. Even Teacher Wu could feel it, of the entire year, the only person I was unable to say “no” to was Guan He. If I was the Monkey King*, Guan He was my golden hoop. No matter how naughty I was, Guan He would always have a way to make me obedient.
*[The Monkey King is the main character in the novel, Journey to the West and the magical golden hoop around his head was used to control him as it tightened and gave him unbearable pain whenever he was disobedient.]
I started to enter Guan He’s friendship circle. I would play chess with Li Shan, word games with Song Chen, Chinese chess with Wang Hao and bully Old Three with his girlfriend, forcing him to eat burnt eggplant and with every bite, he was forced to say, “Delicious.” After our class meeting on Fridays, we would all go sing karaoke……
Without realising, I had stopped drifting away from people in our year, instead, slowly becoming a member of Class(4). I had a group of people I could mess around with and every day, every week, we had activities to do, I had no time to be lonely.