At a quarter past midnight, Tao Xiaodong’s phone pinged.
Tang Suoyan: Happy birthday, Xiaodong.
I’m home, don’t worry.
Tao Xiaodong responded: Don’t stay up too late, Yan ge.
Tang Suoyan: Not sleeping yet
Tao Xiaodong: Nope, soon though.
Tang Suoyan replied: Goodnight, then.
Tao Xiaodong returned the regard.
They hadn’t called each other all day, just the two messages that Tang Suoyan sent in the morning and in the evening.
Tao Xiaodong didn’t say much to him, either.
He was too busy.
The next day, Tao Xiaodong opened his eyes to see Tao Huainan sprawled next to him, asleep.
When he lifted the quilt to cover the boy, Tao Huainan awoke, saying in a groggy voice, “Happy birthday, Ge, stay safe.”
“Thanks,” Tao Xiaodong reached out and mussed the hair at the back of the boy’s head.
“Go back to sleep.”
“Egg.” Tao Huainan offered the red hard-boiled egg he had cupped in his hand.
“Ku ge got up early to cook this.
Roll bad luck away.”
Smiling, Tao Xiaodong asked, “Do I roll it now While lying down”
“Get up and roll it.” Tao Huainan beamed.
“I can help you roll the egg if you get up.”
It was a tradition in their family, that they would roll an egg down the birthday boy’s body to roll away any negativity from the year before.
Tao Huainan rolled the egg with utmost solemnity and, when done, kept it in his pyjama pocket to eat later.
Chi Cheng had gotten up early to prepare a bowl of longevity noodles for him as well, which Tao Xiaodong slurped up.
His birthday didn’t feel any different to him.
At his age, most people would be indifferent to birthdays, unlike children bright-eyed and bushy-tailed for lavish feasts and new clothes.
He had nothing to look forward to, now.
Translated by luckykoi
Xia Yuan hadn’t managed to catch Tao Xiaodong for a while now, not for the lack of trying.
Now that Tao Xiaodong was celebrating his birthday, it was impossible for Xia Yuan not to badger him.
This guy was a partier, especially back in university.
Indeed, some time had passed since he last met his friends.
He had devoted all of this time to dating, such that even his close friends assumed that he had gone on another trip.
Tao Xiaodong didn’t have the good grace to admit that he hadn’t been travelling, just that he hadn’t sought them out.
The parlour was closed for the day.
There was no sense in having some stay back to work when others were out having a ball of a time.
Fuck money, let’s party.
Xia Yuan had arranged the location—a clubhouse belonging to a friend which ceased the day’s operations for them to use as they pleased.
His old crowd had also come along, as well as a few fellow tattoo artists in the same city who Tao Xiaodong was homies with.
Xia Yuan slung an arm around his shoulder the moment he spotted Tao Xiaodong, a wide smirk on his face.
“Where’s your beau”
Tao Xiaodong shook his head.
“Huh Why not” Xia Yuan raged.
“Why isn’t he coming”
Tao Xiaodong said, “I didn’t tell him.”
“What’s up with you” Xia Yuan tsked.
“Are you not willing to introduce him to everyone”
Xia Yuan was positive that the person he was picturing couldn’t be far from the truth.
Believing that Tao Xiaodong was feeling contrite what with the other person being a touchy subject, he sighed dramatically.
“You don’t have to feel bad, that’s water under the bridge.
Bruv, we don’t let such things get between us.”
Tao Xiaodong hadn’t considered that at all, but since it was brought up now, he went, “Who cares about your pathetic history, please.”
Xia Yuan mulled over it for a bit but ultimately refused to relent, deriding, “You even said that it was tasteless for me to make a pass back then, but now it’s okay when you’re the one doing it”
Tao Xiaodong sheepishly recalled that incident.
“It’s still up in the air.”
“Don’t say that, I think your chances are good.” Xia Yuan pictured the other’s demeanour; it rather suited Tao Xiaodong.
“You’ve got natural chemistry.”
Tian Yi came to the entrance after parking and overheard the tail-end of their conversation, asking, “What natural chemistry”
Xia Yuan had a loose tongue.
“Your Dong’s non-existent love life is about to enter blooming spring.”
“Who No way.” Tian Yi was dead certain.
“How can you know something when I don’t”
Unable to take any more of this, Tao Xiaodong went in first.
University had left the duo a little touched in the head, and it seemed to him that they hadn’t gotten much better since.
Those from the store were younger and weren’t familiar with this crowd of Tao Xiaodong’s friends, so they didn’t mingle with them, having fun off on their own.
Among them, only Da Huang was acquainted with these people as well.
Everyone in Tao Xiaodong’s social circle recognised Da Huang.
At the table, Da Huang called for attention with a raised glass, thanked everyone for taking care of Xiaodong, and downed the liquor in one shot.
Xia Yuan was indignant.
He had organised the party, yet the first toast got stolen away by Da Huang—he could not let that stand.
At once, Xia Yuan raised his glass, pretty much echoing the same sentiments.
Now, Tian Yi wasn’t having it either, scrambling to his feet.
“All of you, back up.
Xiaodong and I go as far back as middle school.
Who knows where you guys were while we were getting into street brawls.”
After these three consecutive shots, there was another who wanted to hop up but the people around that guy yanked him back down.
“Chill, stay seated.”
They’d already downed three glasses at the outset before the party got into full swing.
From the looks of it, everyone was getting wasted tonight.
Xia Yuan had called for a huge party; no one was going to be let off lightly.
It was all guys around the table, and the conversation over drinks was jarring to the ears, inappropriate for polite company.
“Hey, the waiter is around, quiet down for a bit.” When the waiter came in to serve the food, someone called them to stop.
The waiter was a boy in his early twenties whose face was burning from their conversation.
He smiled and swiftly retreated.
“Look at how you’ve scared the kid stiff, can’t you guys have more class.” Tian Yi, a straight male, fished out his phone and texted his wife: Honey, they’re so obscene.
His wife replied: Nobody can beat you at that.
Tian Yi tucked his phone away.
Since she had laid it out, he shouldn’t be playing with his phone while others were talking.
“Don’t say that in front of my Dong.
You guys have partners to blow off steam with, but how many years has he been a bachelor now” Tian Yi, sitting next to Tao Xiaodong, patted his thigh.
“Deep in the night, oh how he burns.”
Tao Xiaodong’s bachelor status was an undying topic.
Tao Xiaodong didn’t refute it, either.
He didn’t talk much today, simply reclining in his seat and listening to their chatter.
“Just check out the calluses on your Dong’s hand,” someone said.
The crowd of dirty grandpas took the topic and went to town with it, stirring **.
Tao Xiaodong laughed along with them, the radian on the corners of his eyes crinkling with a charm of a man in his thirties, past his youth but not yet on the decline.
At the age of carrying responsibilities, overcoming many obstacles, flush with experience and with success.
But there was still a drive in his eyes, a youthful spark that set him apart from the indifference of the worldly wise.
—an age best slowly savoured.
“Don’t try to shame him,” Xia Yuan, on the other side of Tao Xiaodong, cleared his throat, then leaned towards the birthday boy.
“My boy Dong is seeing someone now.”
Lashes lowered, Tao Xiaodong smiled and said “I’m not.”
“Don’t be shy.” Xia Yuan regarded himself as partially in the know.
“None of you have got anything on the guy that Dong bagged.
Just look at yourselves.”
Tao Xiaodong said, “I really don’t have anyone.”
The table began jeering.
“If Dong really had someone he’d long be flaunting the guy instead of letting us roast him.
I bet he still doesn’t have anyone.”
Nodding, Tao Xiaodong smiled faintly, “Yeah, there’s really no one.”
Alcohol dulled the mind, but also afforded clarity.
Where Tao Xiaodong sat, through his close friends before him, he could see every step he had taken across the years to get here, thereby seeing with clarity what type of person he was.
The two of them were fundamentally different.
The disparity between them was too wide and he was delusional not to have seen it rightly.
The moment one coveted something, desire would naturally turn into delusion.
Some things were out of his league; they were not his to have.
He could really, really want someone, but the other might not share the sentiment.
How could one settle for less when it came to matters of the heart Don’t be delusional.
The drink had gotten to his head.
He kept changing his mind every other minute; his thoughts were spinning.
His vision was blurry and his ears were ringing.
The alcohol from his glass slid down his throat through his gullet, burning all the way down.
“Back when I said I had a crush, you said that he didn’t have eyes for me, that we’re not from the same world.” Xia Yuan had always had a penchant for moping over his White Moonlight when imbibed with drink, and it was even harder for him to come to terms with it now.
“You sure are slick, Dong, pulling a fast one on me like that.”
“Mm,” Tao Xiaodong quietly murmured, “I was delusional.”
“What do you mean you were delusional, you minx!” Xia Yuan denounced him, “You were hiding so many tricks!”
Tao Xiaodong said at once, “Not enough tricks.”
His brain had twisted into a knot that he couldn’t unravel.
Tao Xiaodong took the cigarette pack next to Xia Yuan’s hand, shook one out, then lit it, biting on the stick.
The ember was glaring; Tao Xiaodong squinted.
“I’d asked you if you were interested in him way back but you didn’t ‘fess up, even putting up that holier-than-thou act.” Xia Yuan got more incensed the more he thought about it.
“You told me to stop bull**ting around and embarrassing you.”
“The way I see it, you’re the one embarrassing me.”
He prattled on about something or another; Tao Xiaodong didn’t pay it much heed, until a few words registered with him and he queried, “Since when did you ask me”
“Didn’t I ask you right off the bat At the start of the year!”
Tao Xiaodong’s reaction was delayed.
He rolled it over in his head and bit the cigarette, mumbling, “Who did you ask about”
“Fuck, still denying it.” Xia Yuan outed him, “Dr.
A voice abruptly carried over from the door; someone was being led in by a waiter.
He scanned a look around the table to finally hone in on Tao Xiaodong, then walked in that direction.
Tao Xiaodong gaped at him, startled.
Tang Suoyan was carrying a bouquet of orange gerbera daisies.
Tao Xiaodong had people on his left and right, so he reached around to present the flowers to the other, and Tao Xiaodong, slightly sluggish, reached up to receive them.
“Happy birthday.” Tang Suoyan was bending down marginally due to the way he passed the flowers over.
“A surgery delayed me, I ended up running a little late.”
Tian Yi, recovering, stood up.
“Senior, have a seat!”
Tang Suoyan didn’t refuse him but took off his down jacket.
Under that, he was dressed in a button-up; he’d come directly from the hospital.
He perched the jacket on Tao Xiaodong’s chair and said, “It was hard finding this place, even the GPS led me elsewhere.”
Xia Yuan tripped over the “Tong” at the tip of his tongue, stuck.
Even if other people didn’t, could he fail to recognise this guy The man was ever so remarkable all those years ago, and that was before even mentioning the mature presence he commanded now.
The dash of youthful pride was gone, replaced by innumerable assets.
After coming back to his senses, Tao Xiaodong hurriedly snuffed out his cigarette and stood up.
“This is Tang Suoyan.
My Yan ge.”
He almost dropped the bouquet when he rose to his feet; he hastily grabbed it.
Tang Suoyan directly took away his cup, still largely filled with drink.
With a warm smile, Tang Suoyan said, “I’ll drink a glass to my first time meeting everyone.
I don’t drink much, though, just this one to liven things up.
Don’t hold it against me.”
Tao Xiaodong tried to intercede, but Tang Suoyan stopped his hand.
When their hands lowered, Tang Suoyan pinched his palm and then downed the glass.
At this point, one had to be blind not to see this for what it was.
The inflection of “Tong” in Xia Yuan’s mouth flattened out midway to instead greet “Dr.
Tang Suoyan downed the glass and then took the seat that Tian Yi vacated.
He only recognised Tian Yi and Da Huang and had no impression of anyone else in this crowd.
Tao Xiaodong made introductions, and Tang Suoyan nodded with a smile after each one.
It went one round from right to left, ending off with Xia Yuan.
“This is Xia Yuan; Lao Xia,” said Tao Xiaodong.
Familiar with the name, Tang Suoyan smiled and said, “I often hear about you from Xiaodong, pleasure to meet you.”
Xia Yuan seriously couldn’t describe what he was feeling right now.
Tong Ning, who he had mooned over once upon a time, had been taken off the market by the same guy whom his best bro was introducing to them now.
Xia Yuan chortled, saying with a smile, “We keep crossing paths.”
Actually, Tao Xiaodong wasn’t quite over his surprise yet.
He hadn’t made mention of this rendezvous to Tang Suoyan, so Tang Suoyan’s abrupt appearance had turned his brain to wood.
He whispered, “How did you know where we are, Yan ge”
Tang Suoyan glanced at Tian Yi, “My junior told me.”
Tian Yi, sitting to the side, overheard this.
Tang Suoyan had gone to their department yesterday and they had bumped into each other.
Although Tang Suoyan had asked him about tonight, he’d assumed that it was just small talk—who would have expected him to actually show up!
He had known that they were acquainted and were on fairly good terms.
But now, what were the flowers he brought supposed to mean!
Tian Yi met Xia Yuan’s eyes from afar, and they held eye contact from two seats away, each more befuddled than the next.
Xia Yuan signalled with his eyes: What on earth is going on!
Tian Yi mouthed back at him: Hell if I know!