Chapter 41: A Meeting at the Noodle Shop
When Jiang Zhengkai arrived at the noodle shop, A-Jiao was already there waiting. Of course, she wasn’t just going to wait there in boredom. She put in her usual order of a bowl of hand-cut noodles, a saucer of paste, and half a serving of khapse. The only difference today was that she ate incredibly slowly because she believed the person she was waiting for would eventually appear.
As soon as he walked in the door, Jiang Zhengkai saw A-Jiao sitting at a table eating her noodles. “You’re here, too, Miss Ren?” Jiang Zhengkai asked with feigned surprise.
“That’s right, Officer Jiang… I mean, Brother Jiang! You’re a regular here, too? How come I’ve never seen you here before?” A-Jiao smiled at Jiang Zhengkai as those shallow dimples once again emerged on her face.
“I normally come here late at night,” Jiang Zhengkai answered truthfully. He then pointed at the chair across the table from A-Jiao. A-Jiao naturally nodded in approval, so Jiang Zhengkai sat down across from her. This man and this woman had both secretly planned and hoped to run into each other in this noodle shop, but they also both acted as if their meeting was purely a chance event. Perhaps those in love were just that sweet and shy.
“Why aren’t you eating, Brother Jiang?” A-Jiao asked as she finished eating her own noodles. She looked up to see Jiang Zhengkai spellbound by her face, so she bit her lips in embarrassment with her face turning a bright shade of red.
“Oh… yes… eat!” Jiang Zhengkai stammered. He buried his face in his bowl and started inhaling his noodles.
“You don’t look like someone who would like eating noodles,” A-Jiao said quietly as she looked at the way Jiang Zhengkai was eating with a smile on her face and tenderness in her eyes.
“Really? Yeah, you’re kind of right,” Jiang Zhengkai answered as he continued shoveling noodles into his mouth, “I used to know a… girl. She liked eating noodles, so I grew to like it as well.”
“Oh, hehe, so it’s like a love me, love my dog situation?” A-Jiao was so overjoyed by his response that she almost laughed out loud. So the reason why he kept on coming here was because of me! Still, she had to pretend she knew next to nothing about him, “You must be talking about your wife then?”
“No.” Upon hearing A-Jiao say the word “wife,” his face suddenly grew ashen. A-Jiao’s words reminded him of Su Jing and his daughter. His memory of them will forever be a festering wound in his heart.
“What’s up? Are you upset?” A-Jiao was a bit shocked by Jiang Zhengkai’s expression. She was afraid she had said something wrong because she didn’t know about what had happened to Su Jing. Had it been before, she absolutely wouldn’t have minded being Jiang Zhengkai’s mistress. Even now, so long as Jiang Zhengkai would have her, she would still be happy to oblige him. If a woman has had the experience of being a prostitute and is somehow lucky enough to meet a man she truly loves, she wouldn’t care how it would look to the rest of the world. What’s big the difference between a wife and a mistress anyway? All she wanted was to be with someone she loved.
“Oh, no, it’s ok. You just reminded me of my past,” Jiang Zhengkai replied. He looked at A-Jiao’s expression of concern and felt a slight bit of pity for her. “My wife died. It happened five years ago.” This was the first time since Su Jing’s death that Jiang Zhengkai has acknowledged the fact that she had died. Previously, he had always considered her to be still alive because she was still alive in his heart.
“Oh… sorry, Brother Jiang… I didn’t know…” A-Jiao lowered her head as she spoke with her eyes fixated on the floor. She could feel her heart beating fast: thump thump. Perhaps it was because of nervousness, or perhaps it was because of excitement. Presumably, what she was feeling wasn’t sadness but rather joy.
The two of them fell silent for a while. Eventually, A-Jiao raised her head again and looked at Jiang Zhengkai with pursed lips. “So… the person who brought you here was your girlfriend?” she asked. She wanted to know where she stood in Jiang Zhengkai’s heart.
“Umm… I guess… I guess she was my friend,” Jiang Zhengkai chose his words carefully, “But… she looked a lot like you!” He sat there and carefully scrutinized A-Jiao’s face. They look so alike! Even those shallow dimples when they smiled are the same! Except A-Jiao had darker eyes, I think? According to his recollection, A-Jiao had pitch-black eyes, but this woman had noticeably lighter-colored eyes. They even contained a hint of blue if you look closely enough.
“Why are you staring at me…” A-Jiao asked as she blushed bright red again. She lowered her head to hide her face. She knew Jiang Zhengkai was trying to find features that would set her apart from herself. She was sure Jiang Zhengkai would eventually find some differences between her two personas. However, she didn’t know if Jiang Zhengkai was capable of seeing through her disguise.
“Sorry!” Jiang Zhengkai picked up his bowl and gulped a mouthful of broth. He did this to provide cover for his deeply nervous heart. “My friend had darker eyes than you though,” he said. Looks like this woman really isn’t A-Jiao, the thought reinforced itself in Jiang Zhengkai’s mind.
“Really?” the still-blushing A-Jiao raised her head and asked Jiang Zhengkai, “Brother Jiang, you must have liked her a lot, right?”
“Yes, I did,” Jiang Zhengkai nodded deeply. He believed with regard to this question, he had no need to lie to A-Jiao, or more precisely, no need to lie to Ren Ziyuan.
“Oh, I see. What’s her name?” A-Jiao asked in a most gentle tone, almost as if she were a little deer waiting for someone to show her tender loving care. She knew Jiang Zhengkai would say her name, but that didn’t keep her stomach from tying in knots. Perhaps women lived for exactly this kind of sweetness.
“A-Jiao,” Jiang Zhengkai looked at her and answered. Being with this woman has made him thoroughly confused. He couldn’t tell if the woman in front of him was A-Jiao or Ren Ziyuan. Myriad signs indicated that she wasn’t A-Jiao, but numerous feelings also indicated that she was A-Jiao.
If Jiang Zhengkai didn’t have any feelings towards A-Jiao, then it wouldn’t be very difficult for him to find out this woman’s true identity. But he did love A-Jiao, so he would rather believe in his own intuition and judgment than documentary evidence. After all, with Ren Ziyuan sitting next to him, his dream was still alive, but if documents proved that Ren Ziyuan wasn’t A-Jiao, then the dream would be dead. Was A-Jiao really back though? That text came from A-Jiao’s cell phone number, but where was she? Tangled, chaotic thoughts flooded Jiang Zhengkai’s brain.
“Where is she then, Brother Jiang?” A-Jiao couldn’t help asking when she saw the miserable expression on his face. She wanted to tell him the truth, but she was also afraid to tell him the truth. She was afraid that Jiang Zhengkai would think she intentionally deceived him. She was also afraid that Jiang Zhengkai would only think of her as a prostitute.
“I don’t know,” Jiang Zhengkai let out a gloomy chuckle, “She left and may never come back.”
“Really?” As A-Jiao listened to his words, she could clearly feel this man’s painful and passionate love. This is what she wanted in the first place, wasn’t it? Now that she had her answer, she wasn’t overjoyed by it. Instead, she felt suffocated by it.
“Agh, enough about that,” Jiang Zhengkai remarked as he saw embarrassment creeping back onto A-Jiao’s face. Did this woman like me? But what can I promise her? Absolutely nothing because I still love A-Jiao. Alright then, no need to keep building castles in the clouds. “Auntie Ma, check please!” he shouted as he took out enough money to cover both their meals. He was obviously buying again.
As they walked out of the restaurant together, Jiang Zhengkai asked A-Jiao, who was standing next to him, “Are you going home?” Under the crisp breeze of the night air, Jiang Zhengkai felt a lot more clear-headed than just a moment ago. He believed this would be the last time he would think of Ren Ziyuan as A-Jiao. They weren’t the same person after all.
“Uh-uh,” A-Jiao shook her head, “I’ve got another class to teach. Could you take me to the preschool instead?” A-Jiao raised her head and looked expectantly at Jiang Zhengkai.
“No problem!” Jiang Zhengkai crisply agreed. Even though he no longer thought of her as A-Jiao, that was no reason to turn down a lovely young lady’s reasonable request.
Jiang Zhengkai parked the car in front of the preschool’s front entrance. A-Jiao gazed at Jiang Zhengkai beside her and softly said, “Brother Jiang, I’m done here at 8:30. Can you pick me up then? And if you want, you can call me A-Jiao from now on!” She didn’t give Jiang Zhengkai a chance to respond as she immediately opened the door and quickly ran into the school building. From inside its halls, she turned around and shouted loudly at Jiang Zhengkai, “Brother Jiang! Remember to pick me up!”
Jiang Zhengkai sat dazed in his car as he mechanically waved goodbye to A-Jiao. He didn’t know how to turn this woman down. When he saw her silhouette, he again began to question if she was A-Jiao or Ren Ziyuan.
As A-Jiao’s silhouette disappeared into the night, he once again drove his car to Ju’an Estates. He lit a cigarette and gazed blankly at A-Jiao’s window. Perhaps the light inside would finally turn on for him tonight?
Dreams could be happy and sweet or sad and bitter, but Jiang Zhengkai’s dream was one of confusion and bewilderment. He felt as if there was not a single shred of truth in his dream. He wanted to live in his dreamland, but he was also afraid to live in his dreamland. He hoped Ren Ziyuan was A-Jiao, but he was also afraid the real A-Jiao would appear in front of him one day.