The streets of Danshui were always crowded and busy but during the holidays the congestion increased to the point of paralysis. The abundant attractions made It a favorite destination of Taipei residents trying to escape their frenetic urban lifestyle. From here they could take a tour boat to the ocean, visit historical museums or take a charter to many small towns along the North Coast on the way to Keelung. But, the one thing essential to the Danshui experience was eating the diverse selection of delicious food available from the many vendors on Old Street.
In the fall season, the weather is much more congenial compared to the sweltering summer when walking even a short distance causes one to sweat profusely. Now, the sun is distant enough so that there is no need to worry about damaging UV rays or burned skin. It only enwraps the body in a warm comfortable overcoat.
Qian walked through the arched entry in the flowered wall that led to the campus square bordered by tropical coconut palms. In the center was a Chinese rock garden near a man made lake surrounded by benches for people to sit on and enjoy the beauty of nature. This time of year made it a favorite place for young couples to come for relaxation and social interaction.
He was surprised at how many students were still on campus considering that is was Friday night and the end of the school week. Some were rushing hurriedly to the library, presumably to do research for a project nearing the completion deadline. From the basketball court, he could hear the roar in response to scoring plays.
Possibly the primary cause was that students chose to live on campus for various reasons. The distance from Taipei required a very time consuming ride on a bus or MRT subway. Or perhaps the students wanted to escape the smothering confinement of parental supervision and to spend more time with their peers because they didn’t have to work to support themselves. The first taste of freedom is more exhilarating even than the excitement of embarking on a college education that presumably will lead to lucrative employment later.
While pondering these mysteries, he had aimlessly wandered into the garden area. He had always enjoyed the beauty of the meandering paths with red lacquered fencing on both sides and arbors spaced at intervals far enough apart to give privacy to couples sitting on the wooden benches. In such a serene and aesthetically designed setting, the lovers’ motions took on an almost poetic display of harmonious interplay.
He thought it ironic that the University’s effort to create an exquisite aesthetic element for the campus was undermining the school’s primary function; providing the business world with highly qualified graduates. And tonight the beckoning of the gentle fall breeze had filled the garden to capacity. All the couples were absorbed in each other, totally oblivious to the outside world; except for one. In contrast, those two seemed to be involved in a mild conflict which immediately caught his attention.
After a quick glance, he recognized Yan-Luo. She had the same perfunctory, uncomfortable expression on her face that he had witnessed two weeks ago when he first met her. The man was obviously self absorbed in his own agenda to notice or even care about her state of mind.
He didn’t know why but he decided he didn’t want to get involved with her and started walking away. But, it was too late. She had already seen him and started walking in his direction, calculating a trajectory that would make it impossible for him to avoid her.
“Oh, you are here too. Hello Qian!”
Qian was so surprised at the intimacy of her tone that he stopped abruptly. Yan-Luo affirmed the implied familiarity by taking Qian’s arm in hers and moving close to him as if they were a couple.
“I’d like to introduce you to Yu Wen-Guang, a member of the applied arts faculty. Wen, this is Yin Mo-Qian, the president of our drama club and an electrical engineering major.”
Wen-Guang wondered why he had been introduced as if she did not want Qian to misinterpret why they were in the garden together. He wondered why she was apparently trying to create the impression that they were totally unattached and really wanted clarification as to the nature of their relationship. After a few awkward moments Wen-Guang greeted Qian. “I’m Pleased to meet you Mr. Yin.”
He was embarrassed by the situation and especially since it was becoming obvious that his expectations for their relationship obviously were not hers. Qian noticed his flushed face and attempted to provide him with an opportunity to save face.
“If you are interested, you are welcome to join the drama club.”
Yan-Luo became very irritated when she heard this and gave Qian an angry glance and pinched his hand sharply. “Oh yes, I had forgotten that our class was about to start. Let’s go together. Wen, I have to go now.”
Although she had not explicitly declared her relationship with Qian to Wen, the display of intimacy made it clear that he would have very little chance to become involved with her and no choice but to abandon his pursuit of her affections.
Qian and Yan walked away in silence and no one spoke until they passed through the gateway to the garden. “So, where are we going?” Qian asked.
She stopped so abruptly that Qian nearly dragged her to the ground before he could halt his forward progress. But she was too self absorbed to notice because she had not been prepared for the outcome of her plan to get rid of Wen-Guang. And now, she had to somehow extricate herself from this new dilemma. She also hadn’t noticed that she was still holding Qian’s hand and quickly let go of him.
She was puzzled by the fact that when they came face to face again they could not exchange five words and yet she felt a sense of security with him that she had never experienced with Wen. It felt so natural for them to be close. So natural that she couldn’t recall if she had pressed Qian’s arm against her breasts when she grabbed him. Her face became instantly flushed with embarrassment.
Qian was at a loss to know what she was thinking and was slightly annoyed about being manipulated. Seeing her blush was, to him, an indication that she probably felt guilty about using him to get rid of a date she didn’t want to be with. Then he remembered the first time they met and found it amusing that they had met two times and both times ended with her speechless and blushing. He wasn’t aware that a faint smile on his face had replaced the frown. Finally he broke the silence.
“Where are we going?” he asked again.
To her, his smile was detestable. He had assumedly taken advantage of her and now acted like she had used him. With a glowering stare and a caustic tone she finally replied to him.
“I thought it was time for the drama class to start.”
How fickle women can be Qian thought; so gentle when you are useful to them and then hostile when their plans get derailed. He laughed thinking of how suitable she was to be an actor in the drama club and decided to chide her a bit.
“I thought you had withdrawn from the drama club. Now you are thinking of joining again?”
In reference to his recent invitation to Wen-Guang, she retorted with sarcasm. “I thought the drama club would welcome anybody interested in joining.”
He was confused as to why she was always so defensive and on the attack whenever they were together. He had only two encounters with her and had barely spoken to her and yet she acted as if he were a hostile adversary intending to harm her. He had never met such a person in his life but still in his heart he felt that she was a good person.
At the same time Qian was mulling over their acerbic relationship, Yan was puzzling over her uncharacteristic reaction to him. He was not at all a menacing or unpleasant person so there was no justifiable reason to treat him the way she did. And yet, just a few words from him would cause her to react impatiently. Even if he were a repulsive person, she should at the least respect him as her senior.
They continued on in welcomed silence until they reached the drama classroom door.
“Wait just a moment Yan.”
“You have to pay 50 Yuan for club membership dues.”
She took the money from her purse and put it in his hand then opened the door to enter. But, again he stopped her.
“What’s the problem now? I paid my dues.”
“Don’t give the money to me, give it to Xiao-Bo. Do you know who that is?”
Now embarrassed, she bowed in silence, took the money back and walked quickly into the classroom.
The main activity on the agenda for the day was a guest speaker from the drama department faculty. The topics presented were very engaging to the relief of them both because there was no reason for them to interact.
Qian sat off to the side in the back of the room and had a perfect vantage point to carefully observe the enigmatic woman that had piqued his curiosity. Her long hair obscured her face so he could only ascertain that she was very focused by watching her hand taking notes; moving back and forth on the desktop like the shuttle in a loom.
The receding autumn sun cast a comfortable warm glow into the classroom and a soft breeze was stirring the leaves creating a soft whispering song. Qian thought that it was nearly criminal to waste such a beautiful afternoon confined in a classroom but as president of the club he was obligated to be present at least in body if not in mind.
For a brief moment, the wind shifted and caused Yan-Luo’s hair to flutter in the breeze, revealing her smooth white cheek. Although he only had a brief glimpse of her profile, in that moment he had the impression that she was not especially glamorous. But her delicate white skin peeking through her undulating hair reminded him of a plum blossom swaying in the breeze.
He was fascinated by the classical charm of her beauty and waited anxiously for the wind to once again draw back the curtain of her hair to give him a second look. A sudden impulse to touch her cheek rendered him oblivious to the activities in the classroom. He was curious to see if it was cold like the pure crystal iceberg it resembled. And then he blushed with embarrassment feeling that he was not far removed from the motives of a lusty peeping tom.
“That concludes the introduction to present day drama. I have two more topics to cover when we resume after a short break. Could I speak to the club president?”
Jia-Yu sitting behind Qian tapped him on the shoulder. “The guest speaker is calling for you. What’s the matter with you?”
Abruptly jolted out of his preoccupation with Yan-Luo, he quickly raised his hand in the air and in a panic shouted,”Here I am!”
His face became hot and flushed as everyone in the classroom turned their gaze to him including Yan-Luo.
“Oh, there you are Qian. Are you feeling OK? You look a little uncomfortable.”
“I just have a bit of a headache. It should pass soon.” He hoped that he had convincingly concealed the real cause of his discomfort.
“If you are not feeling well after the class, perhaps you should see the doctor. Do you have any firm plan for the graduation performance? Have you selected a playwright or a play to perform; any suggestions?
Quite a few students graduated this past summer. I see a lot of new students in the club but not as many men. This limits your choice of works you can perform. I think you should make a decision in the next two weeks and then we can discuss your plan; the sooner the better.
Oh, I almost forgot to mention that my drama class will be giving a performance at the Datong Community Center next month. There will be producers and directors in attendance and if they like the show, some of the actors may be able to get auditions for professional productions. Attendance is free but the number of available tickets is limited so if you are interested, request the tickets as soon as possible.”
Her announcement created interest in the class and several animated discussions broke out and continued until the professor announced the beginning of the next topic in her presentation.
But Qian was still fixated on Yan-Luo, contemplating the reason she never wore dresses or sandals any more. He concluded that it was because of the embarrassment of their first meeting. Since then, he had never observed her wearing anything but jeans and sneakers; as was the case when he met her accidentally three days later.
He had scheduled tutoring sessions for twice a week starting at 8:00 p.m. On this particular night, he had arrived promptly at eight as usual and waited on the steps for the student to invite him in but no came to the door. He waited there for another 5 minutes wondering what had happened. Did the student forget? Did he move out in the night? No matter what the reason, it was at the least inconsiderate and at worst irresponsible to not at least leave a note explaining his absence.
He decided to ring the doorbell and if no one responded, he would write a note and just leave. When there was still no answer he suddenly became angry and instead of leaving the note, he fiercely rang the bell more out of retaliation than expectations of finally getting a response.
The noisy bell disturbed the neighbors and he heard the iron gate of the house next door opening. To both their amazements, Qian and Yan-Luo were standing face-to-face.
They simultaneously blurted out, “What are you doing here?”
“Are you stalking me?” Yan-Luo was obviously teasing Qian but he was in no mood for joking.
“You flatter yourself! What makes you think I am interested enough in you to follow you to this neighborhood? Do you live here?”
Yes, what business do you have with my neighbor?”
“I am tutoring Mrs. Wang’s son.”
“Oh… you are Xiao-Ming’s math tutor?” Her tone was softer and more civil now. “Her mother died unexpectedly and she left in a hurry to go to the south to make arrangements for the funeral. There was no way to get in touch with you.”
“When will they return?”
“She will come back in the next two days so the children won’t miss school and then return to the south on the weekend.”
“Well that solves that mystery! I think it is really inconsiderate and irresponsible to not at least leave note so I won’t waste my time standing outside the door waiting.” He turned around and started to leave but Yan-Luo ran after him.
“She didn’t want to leave a note outside the door for fear that a burglar would see it and rob her house. So, she asked me to…”
Qian turned and glared at her fiercely. She had never seen such an intense hostile look from a man before and was very frightened. She mustered all the strength she could and whispered a timid apology. “I’m so sorry to inconvenience you. It’s my fault that I didn’t meet you at 8 o’clock. I forgot.”
“You think a simple apology is good enough to make up for your negligence?” Qian didn’t understand why but he enjoyed seeing her at a loss for what to do. “Never mind, It isn’t a big deal. Let’s go have a bowl of ice cream together. Do you want to go out with me?”
Yan-Luo nodded in the affirmative.
“Let’s go then.” Qian’s demeanor was calm and exuberant now. They walked together to her classmate’s house to drop off some class notes and then they went to eat supper.
When they finished, it was already 10:00 p.m. and Yan-Luo didn’t want her mother to worry so she suggested that go to the ice cream parlor near her house to treat him so she could get home sooner.
“It’s already late and I don’t want your family to worry. I should walk you home now.”
“But what about the treat I promised you to compensate for not remembering to let you know about your student’s absence?”
“Next time. I know where you live so I won’t let you back out of your promise.” Qian was thrilled at the prospect of finally having the chance to meet with her other than by accident. He gave her a warm smile.
Obviously pleased she returned a bright radiant smile the likes of which he had never seen before. For a moment, he stood motionless frozen in time, enchanted by the tender look in her eyes. Finally, regaining his composure, he took a deep breath and walked her to her home, keeping as close to her as possible without causing her any discomfort. When they reached her door, they lingered for a moment then reluctantly parted.
Until this serendipitous encounter, Qian had somewhat dreaded Monday and Thursday nights when he had to travel across the city to tutor Xiao-Ming. But now he was impatiently waiting for his classes to be over for the day so he could see Yan-Luo again.
She had subsequently fulfilled her promise to treat him to a dish of ice cream and he, in return, insisted on buying her supper the next time they met. And so, the relationship progressed with the tacit understanding that they would meet each Monday and Thursday after his tutoring session ended at 9:30.
In order to avoid her mother’s suspicion, she always used the excuse of studying or chatting with a classmate so she could slip out and create a feigned chance encounter with Qian. After exchanging surprised greetings, they would walk together to a place to dine and chat until it time for Yan-Luo to return home.
Their differing curriculum schedules afforded them minimal opportunities to meet at the college. Even when they were together in an extra curricular activity, they avoided any sort of familiarity that would reveal their relationship. In order to be alone together, they devised a schedule of times and places where they could meet and be more intimate without attracting unwanted attention. Although this gave them an opportunity to develop a deeper understanding of and affection for each other, neither of them verbally expressed their feelings; being content to enjoy the immediate happiness, unrestrained by a long term commitment.
Yan-Luo’s father was a retired Major General of the Army and, as was typical of military fathers, raised his two daughters within a strict regimental structure based primarily on fear of punitive action rather than love. As a result, both girls were afraid of him and relied on the compassion of their mother to provide a consoling buffer against his harshness. In particular, he was obsessed with preventing any contact between them and any males of the same age. She and Qian both decided that in order to avoid the wrath of her hot tempered father, it would not be a good idea to introduce him to the family.
The college campus was close to the “Old Street” market and the pier along the Danshui River and that was the place they most enjoyed spending their alone time. They frequently took the ferry across the river to Bali to enjoy the scrumptious food and afterwards fly a kite or just sit together and take in the beauty of Guanyin Mountain.
But the most memorable moment for Qian was one particular evening when the sunset was exceptionally beautiful. The waning light cast a golden shadow over the city that resembled a classical impressionistic painting. For the first time since they met, he took her hand in his and he could feel the syncopation of their heart beats in his palm. At that moment, it felt like they were the only two people in the whole town or for that matter, on the whole island.