It was semester break. The apartment block was almost exclusively made up of university students who, like Dao Wen himself, were from abroad; everyone had gone home for the holidays. Well, almost everyone.
Dao Wen was glad for the short walk down the staircase to the basement’s laundromat. He hadn’t showered or brushed his teeth in three days. If he wasn’t wrong, it had been five days since he’d changed his clothes. Or was it six? He’d been in a haze recovering from the worst case of food poisoning he’d ever experienced.
The back of his throat still tasted sour and he was cautious, almost afraid, if his stomach had settled fully. Not being able to fly back home for the holidays had been painful enough but if the churning and cramps came back, he was going to give up and let it all go.
As to be expected, the basement was empty. One out of the two washing machines had broken recently. However, it wasn’t as if he was short on time or had a place to be. He could afford to sit down and wait for a while longer before having to brave the walk back up.
Dao Wen set his plastic basket of clothes atop the washing machine—the working one—and popped it open. His muscles groaned and ached when squatting down to throw in all his dark clothes and netting bags into the drum. He almost spilled the detergent when measuring it using the cap.
Once the washing cycle started, he sat down on the plastic chair in the corner and leaned back, shutting his eyes. He was so out of it that he didn’t zone back in until he suddenly heard, “I think your cycle has finished.”
His right leg jerked in a half-hearted kick and his head snapped up. The light swam back into his vision and he blinked while raising his hand. If his body weren’t so weak, he might’ve been able to jump out of his chair a little. As of now, it hurt just to open his eyes.
The person standing at the end of the stairs was unfamiliar. Dao Wen was relatively sure they couldn’t be a resident in the apartment.
The words they said registered in his head and Dao Wen stumbled out of the chair, almost falling as he hurried to reach the washing machine. He still hadn’t washed his light clothes yet and he needed the dryer for his dark clothes.
“The other washing machine is broken,” Dao Wen said, struggling to his feet and turning around. “I’m sorry, I still have another load but you can go next. I—I—”
“It’s fine.” The other person’s voice was calm and cool, smooth like the surface of a pool. “I don’t have anything to wash.”
Dao Wen was sure that was a lie to try and make him feel better but when his eyes focused, lo and behold, the other person’s hands were empty. There wasn’t a basket or bag of any sort in sight.
“What are you here for then?” he asked before he could help himself. He put his hand on top of the washing machine to steady himself. The world was already moving too much when he stood still.
“Quiet. Some alone time.” The stranger shrugged and tucked his hands into the pockets. Black jeans, grey shirt, dark green windbreaker; it was still hard to keep track of his undulating shape in the dark. “Do you live here? Most people have gone back for the holidays, I assume.”
Dao Wen nodded but he dipped a little too far into the motion. His leg buckled and he vaguely felt pain bloom across his knee when it hit the ground.
His back hit the washing machine where the coolness of the metal seeped through his shirt and chilled his skin. Sweat prickled across his temple and face, crawling across his neck.
“Woah.” He was vaguely aware of the presence in front of him, the stranger trying to prop him up better. “Are you alright?”
“Fine.” It came out as more of a gasp while Dao Wen fought to get his tongue to work. “Just—Just need a moment.”
The stranger’s name was Yong Shuo.
He didn’t live in the apartment block but his friends rented units here. He’d dropped something off for one of them before coming down to the basement.
Once he was well, Dao Wen knew he was going to be embarrassed over being seen in this state but he couldn’t think, much less worry about the future. He couldn’t put up much of a fight to the act of kindness either.
For what it was worth, Yong Shuo didn’t seem to mind helping to do the laundry of someone he’d just met. The sickliness played a huge part in the pity factor.
Nonetheless, Dao Wen was grateful. A few minutes before the dryer for the light clothes was done, his phone rang. He couldn’t be bothered to get up and go out somewhere more private before answering it.
“Hi, Dao Wen.” Her voice was a calming balm to his ears. He sat up a little straighter, stumbling through his fuzzy thoughts. “How are you doing? Have you gotten better?”
“I’m doing fine. Good.” He spared a glance at Yong Shuo, sitting at the other side of the room. “I’m doing well. The symptoms have stopped.”
Yong Shuo remained silent but at those words, his head snapped up. Dao Wen conveniently ignored this.
“You should try making porridge. I’ll send you an easy recipe but order delivery if you’re unable to cook.”
I’ll keep that in mind, mum.” Dao Wen hadn’t eaten much at all in the past few days. He’d eaten toast a few times but hadn’t stuck to anything close resembling eating three meals a day. “Thank you.”
“Stay healthy so everyone can see you for the next semester’s break. Call and message whenever you want to, alright?”
“Okay.” He wished he had the strength right now to mirror the smile in her voice. “I’ll try to do that.”
“Take care. I love you. Goodbye.”
“Goodbye, mum. I love you too.”
The physical fatigue and exertion came back once the call ended. He slipped his phone back in his pocket and sat back, only to be met by a still inquisitive gaze.
Despite this being a first impression, Yong Shuo was an interesting figure. Dao Wen thought he knew a fair bit about him already.
His voice was measured and sounded like ripples across a vast lake. He was willing to help someone he’d just met and not just do their laundry but stay with them the entire time. It was now that Dao Wen could get a better look at him.
Tousled dark hair swept to the side, dark eyes that shone as a new curiosity flickered in them.
There was a question burning in those eyes. He could see there was a demand in them, not necessarily a big one. It was daring, almost playful. Dao Wen wasn’t scared.
As if it were the most normal statement to make, Yong Shuo said, “I want you to accompany me to my grandfather’s birthday celebration.”
Dao Wen fell back into his usual routine once his health was back to normal. The other washing machine got fixed the next time he needed to do his laundry. There were a little over two weeks left before the classes started, so he had the apartment to himself as well as all the time in the world.
He met Yong Shuo a couple more times in the upcoming week and the day before the grandfather’s birthday celebration, they agreed to meet at Dao Wen’s apartment.
“You didn’t have to buy dinner.”
“It’s the least I could do,” Yong Shuo replied, pushing the box of fried chicken over. Dao Wen opened the fridge and pulled out the lemon-and-lime flavoured soft drink bottle. He pushed a cup of it towards Yong Shuo.
He took the chair opposite Yong Shuo and started on a chicken drumstick. “How old is your grandfather turning?”
Dao Wen nodded. “Should I bring anything as a present?”
“No need. My relatives and extended family are going to stuff the house to the brim already. Please don’t.” If Yong Shuo didn’t sound so desperate, Dao Wen might have laughed.
“Is your family really alright with me going? Don’t lie if they don’t know.”
“I’ve told them. It’s a fairly casual thing, so don’t get too hung up over what to wear.” Yong Shuo took a swig from his cup and set it down with a loud thud. “Also, I didn’t mean to eavesdrop on that day when your mum called but we were both in the basement—”
Yong Shuo looked up from his food. “I take it you’re close with your mum.”
“She’s like every parent out there.”
“Wants me to believe that I’m a one-in-a-million, always tells me not to forget what a wonderful person I am.” He chewed slowly on his next bite. And then out of nowhere, he suddenly added “My father left when I was seven, so growing up, she took on a lot of things for me.”
A muted spark flickered in Yong Shuo’s eyes.
Dao Wen was going to curse himself for talking too much but Yong Shuo said, “I’m sure she’s really proud of you.”
“Yeah.” He smiled softly. “She is.”
Yong Shuo insisted on helping to throw the trash out if Dao Wen did the dishes.
“Thanks for agreeing to tomorrow on such short notice.” Yong Shuo said before leaving. He paused, then said “I’m really glad that someone wanted to come with me.”
Dao Wen held up his arm encouragingly and made a fist. “I’ll try not to mess up and be awkward.”
Yong Shuo might have smiled.
“Don’t worry,” he said before turning to leave. “You won’t.”
Dao Wen hadn’t seen a house in a while. He usually stayed in his apartment, went to the university campus and occasionally went out to eat with his friends at the end of the day.
The garden was large, the towering hedges were trimmed and the flowers were in bloom. The driveway to the garage was two car lanes wide. He tilted his head back up, noting the large, curtained windows and the houses’ two-storey height.
Dao Wen remembered why he was here and shook his head. He looked to Yong Shuo, who was staring at the ground. That wasn’t a usual sight.
“You live here?”
“No. I dorm with the university.”
Before he could ask further, Yong Shuo straightened up and marched towards the door. He flipped open the hatch to the doorbell and jammed the button. Exuberant and luxurious light spilled out the doorway, bathing them in the lavish glow.
Dao Wen blinked to clear his vision. A lady in an elegant red dress peered at them.
Yong Shuo raised his hand in a frozen wave. “Hi, aunty. This is my friend, Dao Wen.”
“Hello,” Dao Wen managed. He resisted the urge to hide behind Yong Shuo. “Thanks for letting me be invited.”
Although it was directed towards Yong Shuo, he still caught the lady frown. Dao Wen’s mind lurched and sweat momentarily crawled up the back of his neck. Dao Wen must have told his family, right? Unless…
“Come in and greet your grandfather,” the lady said at last. “Also, Yong Shuo, your father is here.”
One good thing was that there were so many family members that staying out of sight wasn’t too hard. The main problem was that all these family members tended to notice a completely unfamiliar face and he couldn’t avoid everyone’s questions.
Dao Wen sat in a mostly empty room. He’d eaten some rice, steamed chicken and spinach; there was certainly an impressive spread of more food he could try but he didn’t want to infringe as an unexpected guest. Most importantly of all, he hadn’t seen Yong Shuo.
He wasn’t sure if he wanted to see Yong Shuo after this, ever.
When he got back to the apartment, he’d eat some bread if he were still hungry. Yong Shuo had driven them here in his aunt’s car but Dao Wen could walk a short distance to find the bus stop or hail a taxi. It was definitely going to cost him but he could afford it.
And since he was better than inviting unexpected guests or just leaving unannounced, he was going to at least tell Yong Shuo that he was heading back. Dao Wen got up from the velvet chaise and headed out to the busier rooms. Hopefully, Yong Shuo would be easy to find—he wasn’t the one who deserved to sit somewhere alone and sulk.
He dodged a few young children, ducked past a group of men and women holding wine glasses and threaded his way around the group of teenagers on their phones. Yong Shuo had been wearing a white shirt and dark blue jacket. People here were mostly wearing red, so it shouldn’t have been too difficult to spot him.
“Do you know how rude and disrespectful it is?”
Dao Wen froze, taking a step back. The door to the room in front of him had been left a crack open. He pressed his body against the wall and listened.
“I’m sorry.” That was unmistakably Yong Shuo’s voice.
“Sorry doesn’t cut it in these situations. I expected you to be better than this.” Dao Wen recalled the lady at the door mentioning something about Yong Shuo’s father. Was this other person him? Speaking to Yong Shuo?
“I’m—I’ll do better next time.”
“Year after year, you continue to humiliate me in front of our family. You must really not know how embarrassing it is because year after year, you never change. It’s shameful.”
Dao Wen flinched even though those words weren’t directed at him.
Yong Shuo’s voice was a bare whisper when he mumbled, “I’ll remember that next time.”
“And what if there is no next time? You keep on saying that. You know tonight, your grandfather is only getting older and you dare to believe that you’ll have a second chance? You take everything for granted.”
“I didn’t want to be alone this year,” Yong Shuo cried out. It was terrified and scared. “I didn’t want to feel lonely and I wanted to avoid this. This happens every time I see you.”
“This? Yong Shuo, I haven’t even talked about all the other things you’ve messed up.” The last sentence wasn’t loud but it pounded in Dao Wen’s ears like a roar. “All these years and you’ve never treated me as your father. You’ve never once been grateful to me.”
Dao Wen pushed the door open.
Yong Shuo’s father shared a lot of features with his son. The eyes and nose were the same, and the mouth was as well. However, it was only on the surface level that Dao Wen could see any of those similarities.
Yong Shuo’s face was never this hard-looking and stern. Where Yong Shuo’s eyes gleamed and glimmered, his father’s eyes were cold and smouldered. And right now, Yong Shuo’s eyes were wide and terrified.
Dao Wen couldn’t let this go on.
He needed to run. No, they needed to run.
He put on his best clueless voice, even though Yong Shuo could see through everything.
“I’m sorry. Yong Shuo, can you drive me back home? Now?”
Dao Wen was usually more cautious when driving a car he didn’t own but he drove Yong Shuo’s aunt’s car like he’d pay to have it repaired, remodelled and repainted. Yong Shuo didn’t say a word when they pulled up at the drive-thru.
“I want two servings of fries,” he piped up faintly, looking away from staring out the passenger seat window. Dao Wen duly added that order.
Yong Shuo finished his burger fast enough that Dao Wen knew he hadn’t eaten anything before or during the celebration. Dao Wen had just finished his own burger before Yong Shuo nudged his shoulder, offering to share the second packet of fries.
It didn’t take long to polish everything off. Dao Wen wiped his hands using the paper napkins and threw it in the empty brown paper bag. “I’m sorry if what I did will make things worse.”
“It’s always been like that, I guess. You don’t have to worry that you made it worse.”
“Okay.” Dao Wen wasn’t sure if he was choosing the right words but it didn’t feel good to leave the space between them empty. “Alright. I see.”
“I’m the one who should be saying sorry.” Yong Shuo’s voice was monotonous, all the life sucked out to leave a void. “I’m—I’m—”
Yong Shuo gripped the front of his own shirt and pulled on the sleeves of his jacket. He chewed on his lip so hard that it could draw blood. “I’m—I’m sor—”
“I know,” Dao Wen said quickly. He reached over to place his hand over Yong Shuo’s. It was cold and clammy. Dao Wen gave it a squeeze, as if trying to inject some warmth into the other. “It’s alright, I know what you mean.”
Yong Shuo’s gaze was far away. Anyone could tell he wasn’t fully there.
“I didn’t want it,” Yong Shuo mumbled, voice breaking on the last word. “I didn’t mean for it to go like that. I tried so hard to not do anything wrong, to conform and be what he wants. I didn’t mean to mess up and make you angry too.”
Glass shards rained over Dao Wen’s skin and heart.
“I’m not angry,” Dao Wen said slowly. Yong Shuo turned his head slightly towards his direction. “I was angry before. But I’m not anymore.”
A small eternity passed before Yong Shuo nodded. He took Dao Wen’s hands and curled his fingers, becoming the one doing the hand holding instead.
They stayed like that for a while.
Everyone was flying back soon, so while he still could, Dao Wen took the opportunity to use both the working washing machines at the same time, one for the light clothes and one for the dark clothes. It was quiet. He was reading a book when he heard someone else walking down.
Dao Wen looked up, speaking before his words escaped him.
Yong Shuo was cool and lovely in the fluorescent lighting. He’d rolled up the sleeves of his shirt, lines of his silhouette clear and clean. Those dark eyes had oh-so much hidden volume.
He shrugged. “I wanted to come down here for some alone time.”
“To brace yourself before seeing me?”
He got a soft huff in response.
“No,” Yong Shuo answered quietly. “I knew you might be here.”
Dao Wen looked over at the washing machines. “You’ll have to wait around until the cycles are done. I haven’t even put them in the dryer.”
“Couldn’t be better.”
Yong Shuo pulled up a spare chair and sat next to Dao Wen until the laundry was done.
Getting a table at a reliable restaurant was a start. Dao Wen looked at his phone and looked up, catching Yong Shuo staring. An embarrassed flush rose up his face but Dao Wen laughed, then smiled. Dinner was enjoyable.
There might not have been much they could do but it was pleasant walking down the street with Yong Shuo. They were so close they bumped shoulders with each step.
“How are you today?” Dao Wen asked, offering his hand.
Yong Shuo turned to him and took it, gently intertwining their fingers until their palms touched.
Written by: Zhen Yi