Chapter 20

The middle of November brings forth a busy schedule for everyone. Luck strikes Jacky around the same time since he manages to pinpoint a job that he finds suitable for himself. Connections are the best and he isn’t ashamed of it at all. He learns of the interview sessions through his friends, but the rest of the procedure is up to him. He needs to gain others’ trust before he could enter. It’s not like someone just say one word and he’s done. That’s where he draws the line. He needs to meet the requirement, stepping up to the challenge.
As Jacky is on his way to tell the others of the news, he bumps into James at the flower shop. Unexpected, considering how James would have no reason in coming their way. Yes, James would visit them occasionally, but now? James seems to be focusing madly in the business at the restaurant – though business is actually fine to begin with. He needs a distraction and Jacky knows better than to interfere with James. But what kind of brother is he if he doesn’t as much as try to get James out of the kitchen – even if only for a few minutes? However, James keeps turning him down when he tries to lure James out somewhere with the rest of the group. Jacky feels extremely helpless and somewhat on the end of hopeless. Yet, standing in front of him today is a James talking energetically to Joanne’s father. It’s like they’re in on some secret he couldn’t and shouldn’t step in. It’s like if he were to step in, the whole image would dissolve in front of his eyes. It’s like it’s an illusion he has been hoping for too long that he has somehow conjured up without knowing.
“Excuse me, sir, are you going in?” A voice asks behind him.
Jacky turns around to see a girl staring at him. He manages a nervous smile and steps forward to open the door. He lets the girl pass before entering himself.
“Well, look who is here,” Joyce teases him immediately – her smile bright on her face like she has been carrying after claiming that she has finally recovered.
Jacky lets out a smile and turns to the counter. Mr. Zeng sends him a wave while James finally turns to him.
“Hey, Little Bro,” James calls out, his smile still apparent.
“Hey,” Jacky returns, not knowing what to say – still.
“Mom and Dad are back,” James announces, his voice and expression still cheerful. “You know what that means.”
“Gathering tomorrow night?” Jacky guesses, gesturing his hand casually.
James nods, confirming Jacky’s hypothesis – though it was a brainless one, routine even.
“So I guess this could be called our little reunion,” James continues. He turns his attention to Joyce at that time. “And a celebration for us single people gaining our freedom again.”
Yes, James knows of Joyce’s breakup with Gino already. Jacky could almost feel the irony of the situation since he had joked once about Joyce wanting to be his sister in law. And now that they’re both single at the same time, he silently wonders if it’s a sign. Not a sign of fate but a sign of mockery. Of something he desperately wants to joke about but is suddenly lost for words at the moment. What should he say to ease the situation? Though James means it as a joke and he’s almost sure that Joyce is fine with it, but he couldn’t help it. His mind is in no state to joke at that very moment.
“I guess I will have to put everything aside to greet Uncle and Auntie back, huh?” Joanne’s voice says behind him.
Jacky turns to see a smiling Joanne. He slips a hand around her shoulders, still staying silent.
“How was the second meeting?” Joanne asks, her attention still on him.
“It went well,” Jacky utters, finally finding his voice. “I got the job.”
“Something else to celebrate about then,” Joyce chimes in.
Jacky observes the scene in front of him in silence once again. He honestly wants to ask about the situation but he doesn’t dare to. He doesn’t want to break through the layers and layers of pretension everyone’s putting up. He doesn’t want to crush the efforts everyone’s placing in to comfort others around them. Now that he’s up front and center, he finally understands. Yet he can’t seem to bring out that cruel side of him to end this conversation. He wants to drown into this deep pool of sorrow welling up inside everyone a little longer and appreciate them for who they really are. Lying doesn’t hurt other people, it hurts oneself the most. He finally understands that phrase. How much longer could they endure it? How much?

*****

“Hey you,” Jacky greets Joanne at the doorstep like many times before when she comes over for their family gatherings, taking her hands into his.
“Tired?” Joanne asks, studying his face carefully – almost too careful.
Jacky turns back to the door and closes it behind him before dragging Joanne to a corner of the driveway.
“What’s going on here?” Joanne asks, her eyes as alert as ever.
“What happened yesterday before I came to your shop?” Jacky asks back.
Joanne swings their linked hand back and forth. “Nothing. James ge just came to visit and he told us about the gathering. Then you came.”
“He has been hiding himself in the kitchen for weeks now.”
“And?”
“How long are we going to let them play this game?”
“Them?”
“James and Xiao Qiao, who else?”
Joanne tugs a piece of loose hair strand behind her ears, looking down at the ground. Then she turns to him again. “When do you want to confront them?”
“Before I go crazy.”
“Tomorrow?”
“You’re fast.”
“I thought you want to be sane.”
“I knew I couldn’t trust you with getting the door,” James’ voice booms over them.
They turn towards the door to see James walking their way.
“Don’t you guys spend enough time together recently?” James says, his teasing smile apparent. “Come on in. They’re waiting for you.”
“Wait,” Jacky says, stepping towards James to prevent him from entering the house.
James turns to Jacky with a look like Jacky’s crazy. “What?”
“How long are you going to keep this up?”
“What?”
“Stop playing it like nothing happened. At least not in front of Qiao and me.”
“What are you talking about?”
“You’ve been hiding yourself in the kitchen for the past weeks after your breakup with Caitlin. Now you’re stepping out just like that? I think it’s better to see your morbid face than seeing your pretentious face.”
“Do you want our parents to worry? Let’s get in there already.”
Joanne tugs on Jacky’s arm at that time. Jacky turns to see her shaking her head. He sees the familiar expression she gave him many times before. He turns to the door to see James already in the house. He sighs out before stepping in also. Joanne follows him with an equally heavy heart.

*****

“Some changes are inevitable as we go through life,” Mr. Chu says casually as they all settle down at the dinner table.
Unlike many times before, they’re not assigned seats. The world did not stop when James broke up with his past girlfriends. Why the change in routine now?
“But what matters is the ones who stayed behind,” Mr. Chu continues.
Jacky exchanges a look with Joanne before surveying the table carefully. He silently wonders if his father is into philosophy now but doesn’t dare to ask either. What’s he afraid of? Disturbing the peace? When was he scared of that anyway? He’s not a coward. Or is he scared of himself? He knows too well how capable he is of rattling out words before he could stop himself. He knows too well.
“Let’s eat,” Mrs. Chu interferes, knowing too well that her husband’s technique of reassurance isn’t working.
Jacky nods as the others blurt out words of agreement. He takes a quick glance around the table again. He finally has his wish since James’ actually sitting next to Kristy. James is actually across the table from him. James is also stuck between Joyce and Kristy. Calvin’s sitting on Kristy’s other side. Is it him or has the table gotten shorter since the last time they met? He feels a tug to his left and turns to see Joanne’s concerned expression. He sends her a smile before placing into her bowl of rice a piece of her favorite dish.
Awkwardness continues on the rest of dinner. Jacky could see James attempting to pass food between him and Kristy at times. He could see Kristy’s nervousness each time. It’s like she’s afraid to bother James. There’s also the lack of conversation between several parties around the table. James – though chatting on excitedly with their parents – is not in any better condition than the rest of them. James attempts to drag Jacky into the conversation several times – to which Joanne has to constantly tug him in order to catch his attention. He honestly wants to help James play the part too, but he couldn’t. Their parents know very well what is going on. What’s the point of hiding? They make it through dinner and into the rest of the night somehow. But for how much longer?

*****

Jacky and Joanne walk outside to watch the stars like once upon a time after the guests are dismissed from their house. He steps aside to make way for the others as he could see Calvin stepping outside also.
“Tough night, huh?” Calvin says, gesturing his hand nervously.
Jacky nods. “We put you in a hard spot, huh?”
Calvin shakes his head. “Maybe not.”
Jacky waits for Calvin to elaborate.
“Maybe because I’m treated as family so I should feel honored?”
“Only you could find a way to be so optimistic.”
As Jacky and Joanne walk with Calvin to Calvin’s car, James and Kristy step outside behind them. James stops in front of the door and gestures casually.
“This is it, huh?” James says, still maintaining his friendly attitude.
Kristy nods, glancing briefly around before turning back to face James. “I…”
“What’s going on? We weren’t good hosts tonight, right? Sorry about that.”
Kristy shakes her head. “No.”
“Then…”
Kristy lets out a sigh and turns to James again – a sense of courage presents itself on her face. “I want to tell you that if you ever think of reconciling with Caitlin or need me to go straighten things out with her, I’m there. I don’t want to be the reason for your breakup. I meant it was all a misunderstanding. Nothing happened and you guys just ended like that and…”
James has placed a hand up to stop her. “It doesn’t matter anymore. Don’t worry about it.”
“I’ll never forgive myself for it.”
“It will happen sooner or later regardless of anyone’s interference. I’m fine now, can’t you see?”
“Even if I’m not someone as important, but I’ve known your family long enough. And you. Do you think you can fool us?”
“You know what?”
Kristy wrinkles her face into confusion upon seeing James’ sudden smile.
“I’m teaching someone a lesson.”
Kristy waits for him to continue, not wanting to interrupt – and because she wants to observe him more carefully.
“Jacky.”
“Why?”
“Can’t you see him all devastated?”
Kristy nods.
“He’s always running his mouth. If I let him see me in this state, he might knock off his rant in the future when I date again.”
Kristy still has on her wrinkled up expression. Yes, the confused look.
James winks at her. “I’m fine. I’m serious.”
At that time, Joyce steps out into the night and witnesses the two staring at each other.
“Working up your charm already, James ge?” Joyce teases him.
James turns around to see Joyce’s expression. The same expression he often sees on Jacky’s face when Jacky’s about to strike. “You better not start.”
Joyce’s smile returns to its normal, harmless state. “You’re back.”
“Good night,” James utters before turning back to his house.
“Good night,” Joyce repeats, turning her attention on Kristy.
Kristy smiles and follows Joyce down the path.
If only Jacky knows. James’ acting has surpassed another level.

*****

The last week of November comes forth as the days continue to speed by. Jacky is still oblivious to James’ plan. However, he doesn’t seem as anxious about the situation as before. His new job becomes his motivation while he lets his parents do the consoling bit. Contrary to their preplanned departure after two weeks, their parents are staying with them for the rest of the year. It seems like the Chu family are taking things more seriously this time around. Or perhaps it is because it’s one of those rare times that Jacky’s around at this time of the year. Jacky’s only concern – aside from his work – is Joyce. Yes, she has reassured them once too many times that she’s all right. But somehow Jacky’s not convinced. He continues to pull her into senseless activities after work. Dragging her along with them during gatherings at the Zeng resident or the Chu resident. Or just a normal hangout between the two of them – like they do at times when they both were still single. Healing is a long process. Or that’s what he likes to believe. He knows Joyce is not the type to severe all ties with a guy so fast. What if she says that she has given up on Gino? It seems too soon. Even if she knows him several months but it has allowed her to make the decision of ending her long time occupation and striving for the future. It must be something. The more Jacky doesn’t believe her when she tells him she’s over Gino. He doesn’t want her to suffer alone. They’re best friends. That’s what best friends do for each other – they stick around, not leave so much space until the point that they could no longer find each other or trust each other enough to share – even if it’s the most random story.
One day during the second week of December, Jacky arrives at the flower shop to find Kenny alone in the break room. He has given the shop a quick scan before entering the break room since he doesn’t want anyone luring around after business hours. He has made sure the door’s locked also.
“What’s with the box?” Kenny asks as soon as he sees Jacky.
“Old mails,” Jacky replies, tapping on the box and setting it down at the table.
Kenny walks over to him at that time – with a cup of coffee in his hand. “Want some?”
Jacky shakes his head. “I thought you have to work. What are you doing over here?”
“I switch shifts with one of my friends.”
“Oh.”
Kenny sits down across the table from Jacky, his hand reaching for the box. “What’s with all the letters? From work?”
“I just got it back from Xiao Qiao’s.”
“Oh?”
“Yeah, I can’t believe it was at her place.”
Kenny finally pulls out a stack of envelopes held together by some wool strings. “These?”
Jacky nods.
Kenny begins to undo the strings.
“You’re not reading that, are you?”
“Gotta see my brother in law’s masterpieces, right?”
“Those are Qiao’s.”
“The better, I could blackmail her with these.”
“She’ll kill you.”
“Sure she will.”
“Winter has arrived already…” Kenny pauses and turns to Jacky. “Is it going to be on the same bland tone?”
“Watch your words.”
Kenny shrugs his shoulders. “Defensive, aren’t we?” He returns his eyes to the letter in front of him. “Do you know what I saw yesterday? I attached a picture.” Kenny stops and mumbles randomly, skimming around some more before getting to the end. “Jo?”
Jacky nods, his expression still confidence. “Sure, why not?”
“I would’ve expected something like ‘Your sweetheart, Qiao.’”
“It’s supposed to be inspirational and serious, not cute.”
Kenny folds the letter and puts it back into the envelope again. “You guys are boring.”
“You wouldn’t know the half of it.”
Kenny has gotten out another letter – though he claimed boredom like several seconds ago. “This one sounds better.”
Jacky glances at the purple paper. “Spring is leaving us soon. So when are you coming back? It seems forever. But it’s okay. At least there are no delays in flights like in winter.”
Kenny snaps his head up from the letter he’s scanning with his eyes. “You memorized them?”
Jacky shrugs. “Sometimes I remember it from the paper color.”
Kenny folds the letter again – as if he’s more interested in the process and not the details. “How often do you guys write anyway?”
“I usually write ’em while I’m still around. Depends on how long I’m gone. Enough for her to read a day or two each. She replies as she reads. When I’m back, I collect the replies from her and give her a new set of letters.”
“Honestly, there are things called e-mails.”
“It’s the thought that counts.”
Kenny ties the string to the bundle of letters again before returning it to the box. “Whatever. And don’t tell me the whole box is full of letters.”
“Not really.” Jacky takes out a cup from somewhere. “This one, I got that one time for Qiao but didn’t give it to her.”
“Why not?”
“I thought of something else better.”
“Are you helping Xiao Qiao cleaning her house or something? And you dug up a bunch of stuffs that’s yours?”
Jacky shakes his head. “No. I just took it out of storage and ended my account there.”
“Then the letters…?”
Jacky knows Kenny’s probing but he has nothing to hide. “I got it from Xiao Qiao this morning since she was cleaning up her house last weekend and found them. I just tossed the stack in the box earlier when I got back to my car. I thought I bring it with me since James’ borrowing my car again.
“His is still in the shop?”
Jacky nods.
“What are you guys talking about?” Joanne’s voice questions them from somewhere.
Both guys look up to see Joanne coming in from the back door.
“What took you so long, sis?” Kenny asks, observing his sister carefully.
“I was talking to someone after I tossed out the trash. Let’s go, you guys. Closing tasks are done.”
“Look what he brought!”
Joanne wrinkles her face, sensing her brother’s up to something. She’s too familiar with that expression he’s wearing. “What are you guys up to now?”
“Love letters!”
Joanne turns to Jacky.
“It wasn’t my fault. He was reading it on his own.”
“And you didn’t stop him?”
Joanne is actually advancing on Jacky. Jacky reaches his hand out to stop her.
“I managed to avoid the inevitable,” Jacky defends himself. “He only read like two.”
“Why are you showcasing them then?” Joanne reaches for the stack of letters herself.
Jacky repeats his explanation to Kenny earlier for Joanne.
“Oh,” Joanne says at last, calming down. “I can’t believe you still have them. But you’re so careless, what if someone reads it and thought it’s Xiao Qiao’s?”
“Who in the world would think Jo is Joyce?”
“I did,” Kenny jumps in.
“You know her hand-writing,” Jacky says, turning to Kenny again.
Kenny smiles. “Lucky me. And of course I was joking! I knew it was sis’s hand-writing and her mushy style.”
Joanne reaches forward to attack Kenny for his smart comment. Kenny dodges, running away from her. Joanne doesn’t give up, chasing him around the room. Their voices and footsteps echo around the room, disturbing the peace they have earlier. Jacky couldn’t help but laugh. Yes, childish but he suddenly appreciates the Zeng siblings so much. They’re the reason why he always wants to come to the shop. He has a brother and a wonderful family yet it seems so different, so formal. Although his father’s entertaining gist has never failed but there’s something about the Zeng family that separates them from his own family. It’s the sense of carefree. It’s the natural force never disguising itself even if others are present. They do not care to maintain their reputation or face like his family. The fun of his family ends when it comes in touch with other families who they need to socialize with.
Though it seems like an eternity, but the essence of Jacky’s feelings of witnessing the Zeng siblings’ playful scene only last a few seconds. Maybe it has stretched to a minute. Nothing more. But before they realize it, they could hear the front door swinging back and forth. Jacky snaps out of his trance and rushes outside. The Zeng siblings are right behind him since they have heard it too.
“What’s going on?” Joanne asks as soon as she sees the door settling back into its place.
The chime’s still jingling loudly above them. Jacky could see someone’s back rushing down the right street corner.
“Who is that?” Kenny asks, having spotted the person as well.
“I don’t know,” Jacky replies. “But it looks like Gino.”
“You think that was him?” Joanne asks, looking from one guy to the other.
Jacky turns back to the Zeng siblings. “I swear the door was locked when I came in.”
“Yeah, we locked them. And you have the key of course.”
Jacky nods, wrinkling his face, trying to think. “Or was he here before and you guys didn’t check carefully?”
“What’s he doing here then?” Kenny asks, looking outside again.
“Looking for Xiao Qiao?”
“They live in the same neighborhood.”
“Or he wants to try his luck here since coming to her house is suicidal?”
Jacky shrugs.
“Maybe he realized that Xiao Qiao’s not here and he didn’t want to see us so he left.”
“Maybe.”
“Should we tell Xiao Qiao?” Joanne asks, looking from one guy to the next again.
“Let’s get out of here first,” Jacky says, making his way back to the break room.

*****

An hour later, they are all settled in the living room of the Zeng resident. Elizabeth is the only one not present this time – like many times before. She’s on another inspirational trip to work on the sequel of her previous novel – something she claimed would not happen. That’s life, always full of ironies.
“Here we are again, everyone,” Kenny rattles out dramatically.
“Quit being lame,” Joanne says, getting up from her seat.
“You gotta give me some credit, sis,” Kenny says, his voice on the edge of begging. He directs his attention towards Jacky at that time. “Hey, where’s the stack of letters? It would be plenty of entertainment for the night.”
Joanne turns around to give Kenny a dagger look.
“It’s in your car,” Jacky says quickly – as if afraid that Joanne will turn her dagger eyes on him.
“What letters?” Joyce asks curiously.
“The stack you gave me earlier,” Jacky clarifies.
Joyce nods. “Oh.”
“Did you read them?” Kenny asks, turning to Joyce. “It’s really something, huh?”
Joyce wrinkles her face at Kenny. “Of course not.”
“You missed out on the fun then.”
Before Joanne could deliver her words of attack at her brother, the house phone rings.
“I’ll get it,” Kenny exclaims, jumping to his feet – as if looking for something to do. Or maybe to escape from his sister’s grasp.
They watch as Kenny makes his way to the kitchen. His smile fades a few seconds later. The lines on his forehead increase as he continues to listen with the occasional “Okay” or “Yes” once in awhile. The others exchange looks among themselves while staying silent, waiting for Kenny to get off the phone.
“What happened?” Everyone asks at the same time, their expressions and voices mirror one another.
“Gino’s in the hospital,” Kenny replies.
© Tuesday, June 8th, 2010
Posted: Sunday, May 8th, 2011