Chapter 18

Jacky makes sure to get an ‘okay’ from Joanne before driving into the familiar streets of Joyce’s house. He knows he has to take the chance of approaching Gino. He has promised Joanne to not lose his cool no matter what. He cannot guarantee the outcome – success or unsuccessful, but he has to try and sort out matters with Gino – even if just once.
As Jacky parks at the spot across the street from Gino’s place, he makes sure no one is around, except for Gino, before getting out. Wouldn’t want that ‘skunk’ to be around, he thought.
Gino comes to the door when he rings the bell so he doesn’t have to explain his presence to Gino’s aunt and uncle, which is a relief. He doesn’t want to waste anymore time. At least he doesn’t feel like socializing at that moment. He wants to get to the point and get out.
“What do you want?” Gino asks in a hostile tone.
Jacky is prepared for such a response. He doesn’t want to disarm the expression Gino’s sending him either. He stares straight at Gino – unmoved. “I need to straighten out something with you.” Though that sounded as lame as ever but he doesn’t want to phrase it too direct either – in case anyone else is within earshot.
Gino’s still blocking the door – and observing Jacky. “What is there to talk about? Like saying stuffs like you’re sorry or I misunderstood? Isn’t it a bit too late now? What I needed to say, I already said it to Xiao Qiao. There’s no point for us to talk.”
Jacky gestures his hand casually. “It wouldn’t do you any harm this time.”
Gino finally moves away from the door and leads Jacky into the house and down a hallway. Jacky realizes that Gino’s leading him to the backyard. Not really, more like a den to the side of the house. Is it a good idea? It doesn’t matter. Any place would do. He’s prepared.
“Go ahead,” Gino says when he shuts the screen door behind them.
“I heard from Qiao Qiao what happened,” Jacky begins, knowing he should use Qiao Qiao’s full nickname and not say ‘Qiao’ to cause any further confusion or possible misunderstanding. Like there isn’t enough of that already.
Gino still has on his cold stare. “And? You’re going to tell me that’s not what happened, right? Or are you going to shield the truth from me by making up another story? Like you guys have been feeding me all of those fictions from the beginning.”
Jacky wrinkles his face, but maintains his composure. “It depends on what you have heard from others. I want to understand how you came to the conclusion that you did. I don’t want a ‘he says, she says’ recount but from what you know.”
“Clara helped me uncover truth from the start but I didn’t believe her until she found evidence of your relationship with Xiao Qiao.”
“That we’re friends?”
“More than friends, secret lovers to be exact.”
“Produce the evidence then.”
“The letters you wrote to her and she replied to you.”
Jacky wrinkles his face again. This time, it is out of confusion – and not hostility like before. “What letters? You mean Clara broke into our system at work and read our e-mails? Or our personal e-mail accounts?”
Gino’s irritation grows on his face. “Hand-written mails.”
“Sorry to disappoint you, but I don’t write those to her. At least not off work. We can talk about anything, why write letters?”
“You think I would believe you?”
“Then let me see the letters.”
“It doesn’t matter if I show you or not. You’ll deny it anyway.”
“We’re not getting anywhere with this. If you think it’s the truth, why don’t you show it to Qiao Qiao so she could go after me too? Scared it’s fake and that you’ve mistaken?”Jacky doesn’t care for cautious words anymore. He’s done giving Gino a chance.
“She’s too blinded. She believes any excuse you come up with.”
“Spoken like a true expert.” Yes, his sarcasm has risen also.
“If there isn’t anything else you want to say, then I have other things to do.”
“You know why she quit?”
“Because she’s getting married with you.”
“My co-workers were joking. We even told them to stop the nonsense rant. Or perhaps you failed to hear that part.”
“Isn’t it too much of a coincidence that you both should quit at the same time?”
“Ever heard of good friends who advance and withdraw together?”
“Sounds more like lovers.”
Jacky could see Gino’s challenging look. “You’re treating this like some game that you need to win. Do you think I’m that big of a threat?”
“You’re just diverting the fault away from yourself and making me look bad on purpose.”
“There’s no one around but us at this point, do you think I would care for such a show? And if I want to put the blame on you, I could be saying that you and Clara are having something behind Xiao Qiao’s back. And that you two are trying to put the blame on her so you could be together…”
“Enough!” Gino points to the screen door at that time. “Get out!”
“So you could point fingers at others but I can’t accuse you?”
“This is my house.”
“Yes, it is. But does that mean you’re right?”
Gino points to the screen door again. “Just get out.”
“She quit because of you.” He keeps his voice leveled on purpose.
“Do you think I would believe you?”
“Believe it or not, but if you keep listening to Clara, you will regret it one day.”
“I will regret it more if I don’t leave here as soon as possible. If I stay here any longer, I might end up believing you guys again and get pulled into your manipulations again.”
“It’s funny that you’re letting Clara think for you nowadays.”
“Leave her out of it. She’s just concerned for me.”
“Then why can’t you think of me coming here today as being concerned for Xiao Qiao?”
“You’re concerned for her all right.” Yes, Gino had picked up sarcasm as well.
Jacky sighs out, looking around and about the view surrounding him for a few seconds before turning back to Gino. “I was a jerk at first and was acting strange toward you because of Qiao Qiao too. So I would understand if you misunderstand me and Xiao Qiao. But do you think it’s unfair to end everything after so many months?”
“People break up all the time. it’s not the end of the world. And this time, it’s because I do not want to get hurt.”
“You’re being deceived, but not by us. You..”
Gino cuts him off, his expression more intense than ever. “We’re going around in circles. And I already told you twice that I will not fall for your traps again. Now leave…”
Jacky knows there’s no point talking to Gino. Clara has been prepared. If only he knows what traps those are. But he knows he can’t go after Clara or she will strike again. He isn’t afraid of Clara going after him. He doesn’t want her to target Joyce. He doesn’t want Clara to hurt Joyce anymore than she already did. Jacky lets out a sigh at last, defeated. But he must say his last words. He clears his throat once before speaking up again. “If you honestly believe what Clara’s feeding you, then it’s your choice. But do you honestly think that Xiao Qiao’s such a deceptive person? Or does everyone around her have so much time on their hands to weave such a story to lure you in? Who do you think we are? Why would we work so hard to get your trust? It’s because we care for Xiao Qiao. Would she go through so much to deceive you when she could just find other targets to make fun of? Why does she have to waste her time if what you’re saying is true?”
“You…”
Jacky doesn’t let Gino kick him out. He reaches for the door handle and exits the house without looking back. He has done his part and he knows it was a weak attempt. But at least he had tried. He kept his cool – or most of it – like he promised Joanne. And that’s all it matters.

*****

One afternoon – like any afternoons before, Joyce could be spotted walking aimlessly around places of the past. And just like any afternoons before, the silence that lies ahead is even more torturing than any words being said – either out of comfort or confrontation. Yet that same lingering, conflicting feeling continues to exist in the air. An autumn air that reeks of memories and ironies.
Joyce feels incredibly lost at that moment. What is this? Hollow? Loneliness? She couldn’t be sure. She walks absent-mindedly through the familiar streets of the past. Everything’s still the same. The only difference is she’s walking alone. Although Jacky and Joanne are still a distance behind her, but she still feels this deep, unexplainable emptiness within her. What has happened to the cheerful, carefree Xiao Qiao? What happened to the optimistic Zhao Hong Qiao who isn’t afraid of obstacles? What happened to the girl who welcomes challenges like a breath of fresh air?
Jacky and Joanne remain silent the whole time they’re following Joyce. Their faces display the same worried expression. Is Xiao Qiao going to stay strong and be able to put this behind her? Jacky and Joanne turn to look at each other at the same time. Jacky slips his right hand around her shoulder and gives it a reassuring squeeze. Joanne gives him a light smile, but the smile disappears into a fatigued expression. Jacky’s hand returns to his side as they continue to follow a lost Xiao Qiao.
Joyce finally stops at a bench in front of the park – the place where she and Gino had their first date. It was also the place where Gino broke up with her two weeks ago.
Jacky and Joanne step forward and sit down with Joyce.
Joyce turns to Jacky who’s sitting next to her. “Will I ever be able to put all this behind me?”
Jacky’s heart goes out to Joyce as he sees her pale, troubled face. What happened to the innocent Xiao Qiao? What happened to his best friend? Has the sorrow of lost love taken her away and only leave the broken pieces for him to pick up?
“I don’t know,” Jacky replies in the utmost sincere tone he could muster out. “I just know that I’ll be here every single day to fight along your side.”
Joyce’s eyes are filled with tears listening to Jacky’s words. Jacky grabs hold of her shoulders and hugs her to him. He lets her cry it all out. Aside from letting her cry away all the sorrows of the past days, he doesn’t know what else to do to make her feel better.
Joanne holds back her tears, knowing Jacky couldn’t handle another tearful girl. She swallows down the lump forming in her throat. She wishes a miracle would happen right at that moment to take all the hurtful feelings away from Joyce. She rarely believes in miracles. In fact, she stopped believing in any cosmic forces since her mother left. But she wishes for a miracle to appear right then. What happened to their cheerful Xiao Qiao? She looks towards the horizon ahead. The sun’s setting soon. This dreadful day is finally ending, but is it going to bring along with it Xiao Qiao’s hurt? Or will it just delay the pain until the upcoming day like many days before?
Joyce finally stops crying after what seems like an eternity. Jacky wipes her tears away with his hands. Joanne watches silently to see if there’s any sign of the old Xiao Qiao coming back. A breeze brushes past them, causing some leaves from the ground to stir up. Joanne’s vision follows a brown leaf being carried further into the park. Before the leaf could finish its journey through the park, it gets held back by a pair of feet. As the leaf hits the ground, Joanne looks up to see who the pair of feet belongs to. Her expression changes from forlorn to surprise. Has some mystical force answered to her wish?
Joanne turns to Jacky. She taps on his left shoulder lightly with her right hand. He turns to her to see her eyes staring towards another direction. He follows her vision line to see a guy standing a distance from them. Joyce notices it as Jacky’s face changes from peaceful to sternness. She turns to look into Gino’s eyes.
As Gino comes closer to them, the three stand up. Gino stops about a foot in front of them.
“I want to talk to Xiao Qiao for a bit,” Gino says.
“What is there to talk about really?” Jacky asks coolly, his expression mirroring his tone. “Aren’t you late for your plane already?”
“I’ll be okay,” Joyce speaks up, looking at Jacky.
Jacky could see that Joyce looks a little stronger than before, so he nods.
“I won’t be long, so don’t worry,” Joyce reassures him.
“Qiao Qiao and I will wait for you at the store across the street,” Jacky says, giving her a light smile.
Joyce nods.
Jacky turns to take Joanne’s hand as they’re making their way back where they came from.
As they’re walking, Joanne keeps her head down, staring at the ground. Jacky looks over to her to see her gloomy look.
Jacky tightens the grip of his left hand on her right hand. “Don’t look so morbid. Maybe things will change.”
Joanne finally brings her head up and turns to face him. “Young Master Chu, I’m not a 3-years-old kid. I know how serious things are.”
Jacky couldn’t help but smile despite the situation.
“What are you smiling at?” Joanne asks, puzzled.
“My Qiao Qiao has grown up.”
Joanne looks towards the street ahead.
“I’m serious.”
“If growing up means having to go through such heart-breaking events, I rather not,” Joanne says in a sad tone. “And it’s not even me. It’s…”
Jacky releases his hand from Joanne’s. He grabs hold of her shoulders and pulls her to him. He positions her head gently onto his left shoulder. “It seems like you need a two minute break too.”
Joanne could feel the heaviness in her head disappearing slowly as she lets herself go. She’s not crying, but she’s just letting go of all the negative thoughts and letting it escape from her mind – temporarily. It feels so good to have her mind become blank with no focus or strings attached. She straightens up a minute later. Jacky releases her also. Upon seeing her peaceful expression, Jacky smiles. He grabs her hand again as they’re crossing the street, heading to the store at the corner.
© Monday, May 5th, 2008
Posted: Friday, May 6th, 2011