I nodded my head
He paused for a few seconds and said, “Okay then, I’ll take the subway home.”
“I’m going to go then.”
I turned around and slowly walked forward with both my hands hidden in my jacket’s pockets. One side felt hard with the bottle of snake oil while the other pocket contained the Origami crane lying softly in my hand. After a few steps, I suddenly heard someone called out my name. I swung my head around and saw Xiao Shan running after me with fat smile and neat row of white teeth on his face. “I forgot to say to you ‘Have a Happy New Year Tomorrow.’”
Today was New Year’s Eve. I finally loosen up with a smile. “Happy New Year.”
I stood there watching him turn around to leave, disappearing into the mad rush of the crowd. He strode with great speed. Even though the sky was gloomily depressing, I still felt a beam of sunlight in between the clouds shining on him, illuminating a glow. It allowed me to trace his silhouette even in the mix crowd of people
I wander in the streets for a long time that day and didn’t return to uncle’s house until dusk when the sky had already started to darken. Once inside, I saw Uncle’s wife cooking while he helped her in the kitchen and my younger cousin slouching on the sofa watching TV. My sense of alienation grew even more poignant against this cozy family atmosphere. I went to the kitchen to greet my uncle and his wife, and then silently returned to my room.
When I took the Origami crane out of my jacket’s pocket, it was already crushed with wrinkles. I tried to flatten out its wings by sliding it within the pages of my diary. I didn’t feel like writing in my diary, so I just used a pen to write today’s date on the paper crane.
“Happy Birthday, Tong Xue.”
In my heart, I uttered those words to myself. The sound of the TV in the living room roared loudly coupled with the indistinct sound of a car driving by my bedroom’s window, which faced the street of this residential district, disrupted my surrounding with a mix of bustling and indiscrete broken noise. For the first time in sixteen years, I had to spend my birthday alone. There was no cake, no presents, no good wishes, and no warm smiles from my parents. From now on, I would have to spend all of my birthdays alone like this.
When school resumed, our Merchant of Venice group lost to the Romeo and Juliet group in a slim margin of votes. The girl who played Juliet was Li Zixian . True to her namesake, she was elegantly refined in manner and physique, a real beauty with a generous heart. She was the model student of our English class and once represented our school to take part in the Municipal English Speech and Debate Competition for secondary schools. Some said she was the “flower of our school” (meaning the most beautiful girl on campus), but there were quite a few beautiful girls on campus, so it was difficult to label in absolute term who was most beautiful. But her performance as Juliet excited the whole class in loud cheers. It was utterly speculator. She completely stole the spotlight away from the boy who played Romeo. Later, the English old lady consolidated the strongest performers into a group and reorganized all the players to completely act out Romeo and Juliet. Xiao Shan became Romeo and Li Zixian retained her role as Juliet. After its official release, this play stirred quite a sensation since it was filled with handsome boys and pretty girls and their elegant articulation in Standard English. For the next two years, it became the school’s must-have performance on its menu to entertain visiting guests and school liaisons.
The name “Zi-xian” is derived from two of the characters in the Chinese proverb “zi tai xian ya” which means elegantly refined in manners and physique.
The chilblains my face healed. Despite its rank odor, the snake oil was quite effective since I saw good results after a few applications. Before I used up the bottle, my chilblains had already disappeared. The class seating arrangement changed once the new semester started. Xiao Shan no longer sat behind me. He still capitalized on his time to play basketball in between classes. He also had packed schedule of extra-curricular activities: Romeo and Juliet rehearsals with Lin Zixian, training for the Olympiad competition… Since I was going to become a senior next school year, I devoted all my time in studying. Occasionally, I would still ask Xiao Shan to borrow his English notes because his handwritten notes were neatly organized and legible. Quite a few people in class asked him to copy his notes.
Math was my favorite subject, because I was the math teacher’s (Lao Ben) favorite student. And the student whom Lao Ben felt most helpless about was Xiao Shan. Even though Xiao Shan had excellent grades, he was also a disobedient student. Whenever Lao Ben gave a math example, he would always ask Xiao Shan and me to go up to the blackboard to solve it. We always used a different method to solve the exact same math problem. I always gave the safest solution while Xiao Shan’s solution was always the simplest. To save time, he always used the most audacious steps that others least expected, like the risky and dangerously edgy sword techniques in the wuxia world. As for me, I tended to follow standard procedures with the lowest risk of errors. Lao Ben loved to watch us compete simultaneously in our math solving techniques. Whenever I solved a math problem faster and better than Xiao Shan, he would always openly praise me with a smiling face. If Xiao Shan answered the problem faster than me, he would stand on the side with his hands clasped behind his back and watch me write out the steps to the solution in a vigorously spirited speed, as if he was one of the old eccentrics in a wuxia’s fiction fearing his discipline would lose the battle to an opponent. Actually, I also loved to solve math problems with Xiao Shan, both of us standing side by side and shoulder to shoulder in front of the blackboard. The sound of the sharp scraping sound of chalk against the hard surface, the image of other person’s rows of calculation gradually flashing before the corner of our eyes, this whole experience created a sense of intense camaraderie and rivalry to launch forward and pleasant sensation sprouted out of my chest. I was always mentally determined to beat him, but we mostly ended in a stalemate. Even in the few instances where a winner emerged, he won more often than me.