Then there came the day they were face-to-face with Bryant Chang, a character whom they all thought they would never meet. At least not under the circumstances they were in. Though it made sense. And it wasn’t too impossible. Yet it was just that they didn’t see it coming. It all occurred one afternoon in March when Joanne went with Wallace and Ehlo to Novia’s shop. It was around closing time. And it had been about almost a month since some of them met Novia already so they’d been familiar with her and had often asked her to hang out with them. It had become routine for them.
When the three of them entered Novia’s shop, they spotted Novia by the register, talking to someone. She soon saw them and waved them over. They exchanged a look before heading in that direction.
“Hey, you guys,” Novia greeted them–with her usual friendly smile. “Meet my cousin, Janine.”
Janine–the girl whom they spotted talking to Novia since they entered–turned then. And that was when Joanne gasped.
“You’re Yan’s co-worker!” Joanne exclaimed, not being able to contain herself.
Janine smiled, nodding. “Hey, it’s a small world, right?”
Joanne nodded in agreement. “Small indeed.”
It was also then that Wallace and Ehlo shook Janine’s hand while Joanne stepped forward to reach for Novia’s extended hand.
“I heard them talking about you and your sign,” Joanne said after all formalities were taken care of. Yes, it was Joanne’s first time meeting Novia–although she had heard a lot about Novia from the others.
“Oh?” Novia responded, scanning Wallace and Ehlo’s faces.
“It’s hard not to be curious,” Joanne continued. “I mean after all these years.”
Novia nodded, understanding.
“So, we were here because his girl wanted to invite you to dinner…again,” Ehlo rattled out casually, scanning the shop still and only looking at Novia after he was done with the previous words. “But I guess you already have some other plans.”
Novia turned to Janine then. “Do you mind?”
Janine looked like she was thinking it over. Then she turned to Wallace and Ehlo. “You guys want to go together? The more the merrier, right?”
Wallace studied Janine a bit before answering. “It wouldn’t hurt. You’re Yan’s co-worker after all. I don’t see any harm. Even if you’re not, it’s always good to gain a friend.”
Janine had on her mischievous smile then. “Sure.”
“Hey, you two ready to go?” A voice asked then.
They all turned around to see a guy walking in. He had on a surprised look when he realized Wallace, Ehlo, and Joanne were there. But his shocked expression turned into a friendly one soon after. He even offered them a friendly smile as he reached the counter.
“Hey, I didn’t know we have company.”
“You’re Bryant Chang!” Joanne blurted out at last.
Yes, he was Bryant Chang.
Bryant smiled but didn’t show traces of arrogance like those local celebs they knew over the years. He just nodded after that smile.
“My brother,” Janine clarified as Bryant turned to Janine to wait for her side of the story.
“He’s your brother?” Joanne asked, still not believing it–though Janine just said that like seconds ago.
Janine nodded, eyeing Joanne suspiciously. It wasn’t like she wanted to, but she realized Joanne’s reaction was a bit too strange. Not just because it was hard to believe her somewhat famous brother had a family outside of his mini fame world, but it was like Joanne was showing some source of hostility toward Bryant. Then she smiled, having figured it out. Or at least she thought she had it. “I know, you’re one of the anti-fans. His culinary skills aren’t perfect. I’ll bet his techniques didn’t work for you, right?”
Joanne wrinkled her face then. She was confused. She had no idea why Janine had come to that conclusion. But before she could speak up for her strange behavior, Ehlo had already gone hysterical from laughing. At least that was when she noticed Ehlo’s hysterical state. Because Wallace was actually thumbing Ehlo on the back because Ehlo had ended up coughing from all the laughing he did.
“Huh.” Joanne uttered, giving Ehlo a dirty look.
“I apologize,” Wallace spoke up for both Ehlo and Joanne. “It’s complicated.”
“It’s okay,” Janine spoke up for her side of the group. “I’ve seen it all. Not all, but a lot.”
“It’s not what you think,” Wallace clarified, smiling. “You’ll know later.”
“So, dinner?” Novia asked, looking from one party to the other.
“Sure,” Wallace returned, still smiling.
Bryant was the confused one but as Wallace was hauling Ehlo out the door, Janine explained it to her brother. And interestingly, Joanne had dropped back to help Novia with closing. In actuality, she was eyeing Bryant with much suspicion still.
About an hour later, they finally found a restaurant they could all agree on. It wasn’t like they were picky. But half of the places either were too crowded because of the hour or because some of the people had made a big commotion upon seeing Bryant. It was strange, considering how chefs weren’t as recognizable as say those actors. Yet perhaps it was just their town after all.
“Finally,” Joanne mumbled after settling down at a chair between Wallace and Tony.
Yes, Tony had caught wind of Bryant being there so he made an excuse to show up as well. They found it really strange but didn’t question him, considering how they see no harm. Not to mention how Esther wasn’t around either. She had to go somewhere with one of her co-workers so she couldn’t make it in time. She had promised to meet up with them later that night.
“Sorry,” Bryant said as he settled down between Janine and Novia.
Janine had settled down at the seat next to Yvonne. She was still studying Joanne from time to time, still pondering about Joanne’s behavior toward her brother.
“So, how does it feel like to be a local celeb?” Tony asked, getting right to the point.
Bryant let out a nervous laugh. “I’ve never experienced such things before in the past.”
“Welcome to our town,” Tony returned, his smile mischievous.
That was also when the waiter came to their table and they ended up ordering drinks first. After the waiter was gone, they returned to some random conversation once again.
“Stop staring, girl!” Ehlo blurted out suddenly.
The others turned to give Ehlo a look. Yet he wasn’t threatened.
“I was talking about Qiao,” Ehlo clarified, pointing the straw in his left hand toward Joanne.
Joanne scowled at Ehlo, not caring if she was acting childish.
“Qiao,” Wallace interfered, placing a hand on Joanne’s shoulder.
Joanne dropped her fierce look and turned her attention to her cell phone instead.
“Sorry about that,” Wallace apologized–like how he did at Novia’s shop earlier. “She’s usually not like that.”
“You have to excuse the poor kid,” Ehlo took over where Wallace left off. “She can’t cook to save her life, so you know, it gets a tad sensitive when we brought up that topic the other night.” Ehlo gave Bryant a look then. “Yeah, we were talking about you.”
Joanne was trying her best to ignore them, but she couldn’t stand it anymore when Ehlo was being so direct. She got up from her seat and excused herself. She wasn’t going to the restroom.
“I’m going to look for Jacky ge,” She said before leaving for good.
“That kid sure is touché, huh?” Ehlo noted after Joanne was out of sight already.
“What’s wrong with her?” Janine asked, looking at Wallace–and had somehow established along the way that Ehlo’s words were too suspicious to rely on.
Wallace shook his head. “Don’t worry, it’s probably…”
“What’s wrong?” Yvonne asked, realizing the change in Wallace’s expression.
“We’re such idiots!”
“What?” Ehlo jumped in, his face all wrinkled up. “Just because you’re an idiot doesn’t mean you have to drag me into it.”
“What happened two years ago today?” Wallace asked, ignoring Ehlo’s insult.
“Two years ago today…” Ehlo mumbled, tapping on the table as he tried to decipher the code. Then he turned to Novia–who was sitting next to him. “What’s today’s date?”
“Thursday,” Novia answered, her expression both puzzled and concerned.
“March 20th,” Janine provided, seeing Ehlo’s eyes scanning the atmosphere still.
“March 20th…” Ehlo said, still tapping on the table.
“I’m sorry, we have to go,” Wallace blurted out, getting up and grabbing Yvonne’s hand in the process.
“Me too,” Tony said, getting up as well. He turned to Bryant, Janine, and Novia then. “Nice to meet you three but yeah…”
“What’s going on?” Janine asked as she and the other two got up from their seats as well.
Ehlo was still mumbling about the date.
“You’re killing us with your rate!” Tony blurted out in Ehlo’s direction.
Ehlo got up at that time also, offended by Tony’s words. “I can’t help it if…” Then Ehlo remembered. “I’m such an idiot!”
That was when Ehlo raced after Wallace and Yvonne who had left the restaurant already.
“I’ll take care of the bill,” Tony said, considering how he was the only left among his group.
“We could do it,” Janine objected, still puzzled about the development.
Tony shook his head. “Can’t explain much, it’s personal, but I’m serious, this is my treat for meeting you all.”
After those words, Tony left as well. The other three exchanged looks among themselves, not knowing what to make of the strange encounter either.
Of the parties chasing after Joanne, no one succeeded in stopping her. They had to meet her at the site. But what was strange was not seeing Jacky there with Joanne when they arrived.
“We’re sorry,” Wallace spoke up when he was standing next to Joanne.
Joanne turned to see Wallace, Yvonne, and Ehlo.
“Sorry, kid, you know me,” Ehlo spoke up next, his voice apologetic enough.
“You know him longer than me,” Yvonne said, offering Joanne a smile. Wallace had told her the reason for their abrupt departure on the way over.
Joanne shook her head then. “It’s not your fault. I was being unreasonable.”
Wallace stepped forward and placed a hand on Joanne’s shoulder. “No, you weren’t.”
Wallace knew he was lying, but he understood too well of Joanne’s situation.
“You guys don’t have to stay with me,” Joanne said. “You still have to go pick Angela and the others up.”
Joanne had looked at Ehlo when she said the last part. Yes, the Chang siblings had decided to stay at their hometown since the lunar new year and wasn’t due back until this afternoon.
“They’ll understand,” Ehlo reassured Joanne.
And it was like Angela wanted to prove Ehlo’s words, she showed up with Nic and Achel then. She had also brought a bouquet of flowers with her. She sent Joanne a light smile as she stepped over to place the flowers on the tombstone.
“Thanks,” Joanne said, returning Angela’s smile.
It was also then that Nic nodded while Achel stepped over to give Joanne a hug.
One week later, Joanne was seen standing at the bridge separating both sides of town again. She wasn’t waiting for Jacky or anyone. It was just one of her usual routine to stand there and reflect. She wasn’t paying attention to her surroundings. Not really. She only wanted to let her mind drift. But then Bryant appeared to rupture the atmosphere. He didn’t mean to, but he couldn’t help approaching her when he recognized her from their first encounter. It was indeed an unforgettable encounter.
“Hey, you all right?” Bryant asked as he approached her. He had lowered his voice on purpose, not wanting to alarm her.
Joanne, slightly startled out of her trance, turned to her left to see Bryant smiling at her. She didn’t expect to see him there. But she soon realized the reason why. He had some grocery bags in his hands.
“What are you doing here?” Joanne asked.
“Just on one of my strange adventures,” Bryant answered, his smile somewhat playful.
“Grocery shopping?” Joanne pried, knowing it wasn’t just a normal shopping trip.
“Ingredient hunting,” Bryant elaborated, his smile still playful. “I’m new in town after all. It’s normal to go explore and learn about the culture here.”
Joanne nodded in understanding then. She turned to face the traffic below them again, her hands on the banister. But not long after, she turned to him again. “I’m sorry about last week.”
Bryant shook his head. “It’s all right. I know it’s hard to stay calm when others are making fun of you. Even if Ehlo’s your friend.”
Joanne shook her head then. “It’s not that.” She looked straight ahead before speaking up again. “That day, I actually didn’t want to go with you guys, but I was just curious about meeting Novia at first. Then I thought Jacky ge would come so we could go together, but he didn’t…”
Bryant waited, sensing that Joanne wasn’t finished.
“That day two years ago was when my boyfriend died,” Joanne continued, finally turning back to face Bryant.
Bryant’s smile turned off then. He didn’t expect that. Not from such a young person like Joanne, still so full of life. How could she have gone through such a painful experience? Yet he knew he must speak up. “I’m sorry.”
Joanne shook her head. “It’s okay. I should be apologizing. I shouldn’t have let my moods affect me. I was so rude. If he’d known I was so rude to others because of him, he would be very disappointed.”
“I’m sure he would understand,” Bryant reassured Joanne.
Joanne didn’t say anything. She turned to look at the horizon ahead before letting go of the rail. Then she turned toward the direction that led back to their side of town. Bryant didn’t say anything either. He followed her as they were making their way across the bridge.
“So, you can finally roam around without the locals tagging you?” Joanne asked when they were almost on the other side.
Bryant smiled, knowing Joanne needed the change in topic. “Yeah. I’m still trying to get used to it. It’s not like I’m some actor.”
Joanne had on an amused smile. “Welcome to our town. You should’ve seen the times they tagged Tony.”
Bryant had on a curious expression. “What does he do?”
Joanne gave Bryant a look–like it was too strange he didn’t know. Yet she reminded herself that he just came to this town recently. She quickly told Bryant, realizing that Tony must have left it unknown on purpose. Or was it because how Tony had left that day as well to chase after her?
“Wow,” Bryant commented after Joanne finished with her tale.
Bryant nodded. “It’s like all the talented people are gathered in this town.”
Joanne shrugged. “Who knows?”
Her smile turned off then. It wasn’t because of Bryant. She had spotted Jacky walking toward them with a girl. She hadn’t expected that. She should have seen them coming but because she had been focused on Bryant so she didn’t see them until she finally faced front again.
“Jacky ge,” Joanne called out.
It was also then that Jacky’s smile faded. He was also giving his undivided attention to the girl hence not seeing Joanne and Bryant. Now that Joanne called him, he finally realized of her presence. And her disapproval stare. Or it seemed that way to him.
“Who is she?” Joanne asked at last.
Before Jacky could answer, that girl marched forward with a bright smile on her face. She even extended her hand to Joanne. “Hi, I’m Lynn, Jacky’s girlfriend.”
Joanne didn’t care to take her hand–and didn’t even have time to reconsider either. Her eyes snapped toward Jacky as soon as she heard the last word. Jacky was fidgeting and seemed reluctant to step forward. Among the four of them, Bryant was the only one feeling awkward as the situation dawned on him. Or what he thought was the case.
© Friday, April 18th, 2014
Posted: Tuesday, July 1st, 2014