On Thursday afternoon, after school, Tong Yan waited for Zhuo Xiang Ming at the school gate.
They’d talked twenty minutes ago. Zhuo Xiang Ming said that he would be a little late, and had Tong Yan wait for him at the tea shop in front of the school.
But at this point, there was a long queue in front of the tea shop, so Tong Yan was carrying his schoolbag in one hand, a lollipop in his mouth, and was waiting by the security box’s gate, listening to music.
Not far away, a car honked. Tong Yan glanced over; it was Tong Yang.
“Tong Tong.” Tong Yang called out to him.
“Brother!” Tong Yan ran over, “Why are you here?”
“No one’s home this weekend, you’re spending the two days with Zhuo Xiang Ming.” Tong Yang leaned over and opened the passenger side door. “I’m bringing you out to eat today.”
Tong Yan got into the car, pleasantly surprised: “Are you picking me up today?”
Tong Yang: “Yeah, what do you want to eat?”
Last week, when he went to the 21st district with Chai ManMan, he didn’t get to eat anything, Tong Yan always remembered it.
Tong Yang: “Good, hotpot it is.”
Tong Yan twisted in his seat, still excited, he wound his headphone cord into a jumbled mess, and Tong Yang said: “Seat belt.”
Tong Yan quickly responded: “Oh, I forgot.”
With candy still in mouth, he asked unclearly: “Just now, Brother Xiang Ming told me that he’s going to be late, did something happen, so he couldn’t come?”
“Eh?” Tong Yang said, “Zhuo Xiang Ming picks you up?”
Tong Yan: “Of course.”
Tong Yang: “He picks you up every day? In person?”
Tong Yan: “Yeah….”
“So free …” Tong Yang hurriedly said, “I was thinking about making you call the driver who picks you up, come, hurry.”
Then he dialed Zhuo Xiang Ming’s number on his cell phone.
Tong Yan was anxious: “You didn’t tell him? He just said that he was on his way, why didn’t he come…”
The call went through and Zhuo Xiang Ming said: “Tong Yang?”
Tong Yan: “Brother, are you on your way?”
“I’m almost there, just two more intersections.” He paused, presumably glancing at the caller ID, then Zhuo Xiang Ming asked, “Are you with Tong Yang?”
Tong Yan was even more anxious: “Tong Yang came to pick me up, he didn’t know you were coming, I …”
Zhuo Xiang Ming: “Are you going with him?”
Tong Yan looked at the streetscape passing by outside of the window, and could only mumble ‘Uh-huh’.
“Okay.” After a short pause, Zhuo Xiang Ming said, “I got it.”
Tong Yan: “I’m sorry brother, Tong Yang, he didn’t know that you were picking me up, we … we’re going to eat, you come too, OK?”
Tong Yang raised an eyebrow and glanced at him, but Tong Yan didn’t react, still apologizing to Zhuo Xiang Ming: “I didn’t expect this, I’m sorry.”
Zhuo Xiang Ming comforted him on the other end: “It’s fine, I’ll head back. It’s just ten minutes, not too far.”
Tong Yan spoke in a quiet voice: “Then, you’ll eat by yourself?”
Zhuo Xiang Ming made a sound of agreement.
Tong Yang coughed again, and Tong Yan ignored him.
He felt that he had done something wrong, but it seemed like it didn’t matter. He couldn’t sense whether or not Zhuo Xiang Ming was angry, so he felt very tangled. Zhuo Xiang Ming said gently: “Go enjoy your meal, but don’t come back too late. You still have school tomorrow.”
“Yes! Yes!” Tong Yan was excited that Zhuo Xiang Ming was now setting some rules for him, his guilt dropping a bit, “What time should I come back?”
How could Zhuo Xiang Ming know what Tong Yang was thinking? After thinking over it, he said, “Before eleven o’clock.”
Tong Yan immediately agreed: “Okay!”
Before hanging up, Zhuo Xiang Ming told Tong Yang: “Don’t let him eat anything too spicy, he’s had a small cough these few days, maybe it’s a cold.”
Tong Yang: “Yeah, I’ll remember.”
The phone call over, Tong Yan felt a moment of listlessness. Tong Yang drove the car while regularly sending messages to someone.
Finally, they reached the hot pot restaurant, and Tong Yan’s spirit woke up again. However, Tong Yang wouldn’t let him order the wickedly spicy menu, asking for mild. Tong Yan was so angry that he refused to eat, and the two of them butted heads, in the end, they settled on medium spicy.
“Is it easy for me?” The dishes were served quickly, Tong Yang swiped his phone screen as they waited for the pot to boil. “Go back tonight and say that your cough has worsened, and that I didn’t take good care of you.”
Tong Yan was still not satisfied: “Eating a few chili peppers won’t do anything.”
Tong Yang asked in a strange accent: “OK, can I be your master now?”
Tong Yan: “I’m my own master.”
Tong Yang: “Never would’ve guessed ……”
Tong Yan glared at him: “Why are you so weird?”
Tong Yang: “I’m weird?”
Tong Yan: “You’re not weird?”
The chili oil pot was boiling, Tong Yang lowered some beef and frozen tofu into it, changing the topic: “Your favorites.”
Tong Yan didn’t respond, after a while, he asked: “Why did you say I can’t have spicy food, is it because you’re afraid Zhuo Xiang Ming will say you didn’t take good care of me?”
Tong Yan’s face was drawn tight, and his two hands gripped the chopsticks tightly. Tong Yang adjusted the size of the fire as he spoke, “What ‘why’? What else? Didn’t he say to not let you eat anything too spicy?”
Tong Yan: “Didn’t you hear him say I have a cough?”
“What’s wrong?” Tong Yang moved some meat to Tong Yan’s plate, “Is it serious?”
Tong Yan put down his chopsticks and lowered his eyes, not looking at the meat he was given. He also folded his hands under the table, sitting still.
After waiting for a while, Tong Yang frowned: “What are you upset about?”
Tong Yan still didn’t speak.
Tong Yang was most worried about him becoming like this, he heaved a sigh: “Young master, where have I offended you again?”
He let out a long sigh again: “I rejected two dinner invitations to come here. I apologize to you; I shouldn’t have been weird. Don’t be angry, eat, okay?”
Tong Yan: “Do you think I’m making trouble for no reason?”
Tong Yang: “Never.”
He put more food on Tong Yan’s plate again, it was packed: “Eat quickly, it’s covered in oil, it won’t taste good when it’s cold.”
Tong Yan looked up: “Why didn’t you ask me about my cough?”
“Still this topic?” Tong Yang said helplessly, “Can I be concerned now? Little brother Tong Yan, do you have a bad cough? Do you want big brother to bring you to the hospital for a checkup?”
Because no one was eating, there were too many things in the pot, and it soon made popping sounds.
Tong Yan grabbed the leather sofa and said quietly: “Why haven’t you asked me about the rumors? It’s been six days since Saturday, you never called me, and neither did dad, why? Even my classmate’s mother knows about it, and my classmate said that her mother was worried that I wouldn’t want to go to school because of it. Why haven’t you asked?”
Tong Yang’s expression still hadn’t had time to change, he was frowning slightly, somewhat impatient because of Tong Yan’s quibbling. Now, he stared blankly, his mouth opened slightly, releasing a ‘ah’, but he said nothing.
“I thought you came over today because of that, but no, you’ve been constantly texting other people. If it wasn’t for telling me not to go home this weekend, would you even have come?”
Tong Yan didn’t want to cry, but the tears just flowed out, one drop after another. He felt pathetic and humiliated, but he didn’t wipe away his tears, staring at Tong Yang in that state.
Tong Yang: “I … because, I’ve been very busy lately, you know that big brother has a shortage of people over there, we’re especially busy … I thought that, because you’re with Zhuo Xiang Ming, I was confident he’d … Tong Tong …”
He reached out to wipe Tong Yan’s tears, but Tong Yan turned away from him.
“Dad … he’s been abroad all week, he’ll probably be back in four days or so.” Looking at Tong Yan’s tearful face, Tong Yang found it difficult to speak.
When Tong Yan was a little over four years old, his mother died of illness. At that time, Tong Yang was thirteen years old, and the responsibility of caring for his younger brother fell on him.
A child had no understanding of death, the most direct impact on Tong Yan was that the pheromones that brought his life a sense of security were no more. Tong Yang remembered, at that time, Tong Yan cried constantly. He’d cry until he was out of breath, cry himself to sleep, wake up, and continue crying.
But after he got used to it, he became very sensible. He didn’t cry, didn’t make noise, ate all of his food by himself, and never got himself dirty like other children.
Tong Yang liked this younger brother most of the time, but because Tong Yan was too small, he couldn’t play some of the big boy games with him. His friends rejected Tong Yan, thinking he would hold them back, so Tong Yang was helpless, and could only lock Tong Yan inside the house before going out, instructing him: “Behave, okay? Stay home for two hours, and big brother will sleep with you tonight.”
The round-faced and round-eyed Tong Yan looked up at him, his small, soft hands tugging at the lower helm of his jacket, nodding enthusiastically: “Brother, you have to come back quickly.”
Tong Yang emphasized: “I’ll be gone for two hours.”
Tong Yan most likely didn’t understand the concept of two hours, when Tong Yang locked the door, he ran to the window and waved at Tong Yang: “Brother, brother! Come back soon!”
Boys were always wild, Tong Yang stayed out from noon to dark, returning home after God knows how many hours had passed. The worker who cooked for them had already left. When he turned on the lights, he found Tong Yan hiding behind the door. He sat there, his hands folded between his belly and legs. His eyes were clear and black, and he looked at Tong Yang very pitifully, asking: “Brother, why didn’t you come home? I was very scared.”
Why didn’t you ask me about my cough? Why haven’t you asked me about the rumors? Why didn’t you come home?
Tong Yan hadn’t cried in front of him for a long time. Fragments from his childhood flashing in his mind, Tong Yang was stumped, unable to speak.
Tong Yang once again reached out to wipe Tong Yan’s tears, this time, Tong Yan didn’t avoid him. Tong Yang’s palm was all wet, but there were still some tears left.
“Eat something.” Tong Yang said.
But Tong Yan shook his head: “I don’t want to eat.”
He spoke very softly and a little hoarsely, but the distance was close enough for Tong Yang to hear it clearly: “What?”
“I’m not eating.” Tong Yan said, “I’m going back.”
Tong Yang’s annoyance rose up again: “Give me a break, Tong Yan. What is up with you today?”
He stood up and sat back down, the pot was seriously about to boil over, so Tong Yang simply turned off the fire. “Didn’t I give you an explanation? Why are you still angry?”
Tong Yan didn’t think that he was particularly angry, but he also didn’t want to stay with Tong Yang. Just like how, even though he was very hungry now, looking at the pot of over-cooked food, he still didn’t want to eat it.
“Take me back.” He picked up his schoolbag and turned away, but was dragged back by Tong Yang.
“Back to where?”
Tong Yan: “Zhou Xiang Ming’s house.”
“Now you call him Zhuo Xiang Ming?” Tong Yang suddenly sneered, “Just now, wasn’t it ‘brother, brother’? I understand, you and him are close. You couldn’t stand it when he blandly said ‘I got it’, let alone making him drive ten minutes in vain. And letting him eat alone? You especially couldn’t stand that, right? What am I? I’m an awfully cheap doormat!“
Tong Yan shook at the word ‘cheap’, and his eyes flushed again. He didn’t want to say another word to Tong Yang. His free hand was being held by Tong Yang, so he tossed away his schoolbag and pulled out his cell phone to call Zhuo Xiang Ming.
Tong Yang: Please, constructive criticism only
Weird- Hot and cold personality/Eccentric
Wild- to just want to have fun, and to shy away from self-discipline
I’m an awfully cheap doormat!- That whole rant was hard to translate, but I think I got it close enough. ‘Doormat’ = to show warm feelings but be meet with cold rebuke (idiom). And Jian/Cheap is a very harsh and mean word in Chinese. You don’t want to be called cheap.
It’s strange, I’m used to Chinese novels having stupidly melodramatic conflicts – murder plots, betrayal, sabotage- and here we just have a pretty realistic argument between brothers.