Hiding Her Truth
When I was growing up, I never thought that having my cousin dress up like a boy was anything abnormal. It just was. I suppose that I must have found out at some point in my early years since I wasn’t born knowing the truth, but I don’t remember that moment.
In fact, the entire Pi clan knew this truth . . . I still can’t figure out why it was okay for us to know when no one else could. Regardless, the entire family had bought into Yanuo’s parents’ fears and conspired to keep Yanuo’s gender a secret. No adult in our family thought to question Yanuo’s parents . . . or to point out that the fortuneteller was clearly a conman . . . or that they were doing something horrible to their daughter. No one said a thing
I didn’t worry about any of this back then. I just knew that Yanuo and I were the same, but she was a boy in the world’s eyes. I could only call her my Ge but not my Jie. That is, if I wanted to; I didn’t want to. So, I called her Yanuo instead. She was my protector. She was my friend. She was my Yanuo.
When Yanuo was 10, I instigated a rebellion. I had seen her staying at home every day, while I went off to school. I saw the unhappiness on her face when no one else did. Yanuo was always quiet. She never protested. She never spoke out. And that pushed me over the edge. I convinced Yanuo that it would be okay for her to dress up as a girl for just one day, promising her that no one would know. She was so afraid, but she did it. It was only her luck that Yanuo saw someone drowning and saved his life. Even though we raced home afterwards, we were caught.
Her parents were angry. And they were hurt. Yanuo was especially quiet that day, curling into a little ball as she listened to them scold her in hurt tones. They weren’t yelling, but they made her feel as if she had done something terrible.
The next morning, we awakened to find that her family had left the home like thieves in the night. There was no further information, only a request that we not look for them. I lost my best friend that day. I didn’t see Yanuo for years after that.
Do I blame that little boy for us getting caught? As a little kid, I did.
Imagine my surprise when I found out years later that Yanuo had saved her future husband, thereby ensuring her own happily ever after.
How badass is that?
. . . . . . . . .
“Sh—,” Xiao Jing quietly murmured, as the turbulence increased, throwing her off her feet. She grabbed onto a passenger’s seat, smiling apologetically down at the woman before moving on. “Sir, I’m going to have to ask you to take your seat,” Xiao Jing politely instructed another standing passenger. “It can be very dangerous if you move around while the plane is experiencing turbulence.” Nodding her thanks at his quick compliance, she moved on with her check of the plane.
They were three hours into a nine hour flight headed from Egypt to Thailand. Since it was the red eye, most of the passengers had expected to be asleep right about now and the turbulence was keeping them from their rest. She had had to pacify a lot of grumpy passengers over the past half hour.
Hearing near silent whimpers from the front seats, she swiftly walked over and saw her minor charge, Sammy, crying in his seat. The eight-year-old was traveling alone, and she had the responsibility of handing him over to his grandparents at the end of the flight.
Kneeling down beside him, she tried to soothe his fear. “It’s okay,” she murmured, patting his knee. “It’s just a little weather. We’re going to fly through it in minutes and everything will be calm on the other end.”
“How do you know?” Sammy asked plaintively, moving away from her comforting touch in rejection. “It’s so scary. Look at the dark clouds.”
“I’ve been flying in these planes for years,” Xiao Jing murmured proudly. “And everything has always been fine, just like it’ll be fine today.” She smiled at the child, hoping that her words would work.
He shrugged his shoulders skeptically, looking down at his fingers.
“Hey,” Xiao Jing said, “What’s wrong?”
“I’m a boy,” Sammy said in a stifled tone.
“I can see that,” Xiao Jing said, her brow crinkling in confusion.
“I shouldn’t be such a scaredy cat,” he explained in a whisper, a red flush appearing on his cheeks. “The boys at school always make fun of me when I get scared.”
“Hey!” Xiao Jing protested. “Don’t be embarrassed. This is scary. Even grown people get scared.” She paused for a moment, but there was no response. “Sammy?”
“Excuse me,” a male voice interrupted from behind her, “Could I please pass by?”
Xiao Jing got up, moving to the side so that the child’s seatmate could get into his seat. The plane tilted slightly before righting itself. She quickly grabbed onto the back of Sammy’s chair trying to steady herself. She felt a warmth at her waist, realizing that the other passenger had grabbed her. Nodding a silent thanks, she moved aside so that he could get to his seat. Rubbing absently at her waist, wondering why she still felt the imprint of his hand there, she asked, “Is everything okay, sir?” She saw him rubbing at his forehead, where a red bump seemed to be developing.
He nodded, rubbing his hands together absentmindedly. “The turbulence caught me by surprise, and I hit my head on the bathroom door as I was exiting,” he explained ruefully.
“Would you like me to get you ice?” Xiao Jing asked, concern flashing across her face. She got up, but his words stopped her midstep.
“I’m fine,” he smilingly replied. “It’s not a big deal.” Hearing the quiet sniffle from the child sitting next to him, he asked, “Is everything okay, little man?”
Xiao Jing knelt back down, patting Sammy’s hand in sympathy once more.
Sammy nodded in reply to his seatmate’s question, his eyes bent down, staring away from the man. Xiao Jing caught the male passenger’s eyes, trying to signal an explanation of Sammy’s behavior. She looked outside and then down at the little boy, making a scared face. Would he even understand, she wondered to herself in despair. But, surprisingly, she saw a flash of understanding appear in those warm brown eyes before he looked back down at the boy.
“This is so scary,” he uttered, looking out the window. He shivered slightly, shifting uncomfortably in his seat. “The storm clouds look really dark, don’t they?”
Xiao Jing could see Sammy looking up, eyes wide with shock. She suppressed a smile, thinking how good an actor the man was.
“Tell me,” he said, suddenly turning to glance at Xiao Jing, “You have a lot of experience with this. I’m sure you’ve been on a plane many, many, many times. This will be over soon, right?”
Xiao Jing nodded emphatically, smiling down at Sammy. “I promise,” she murmured, ruffling his hair. Her hand brushed across the man’s, a spark lighting between them. It was so unexpected, that it caused her to jerk back in surprise. She fell on her bottom, her mind reeling for a moment. Shaking her head to clear away the thoughts racing through her mind, she quickly stood up.
“Are you alright?” he asked, standing up to help her.
She nodded a quick yes, not knowing where to look.
He slowly sat back down. “You know what I do when I’m afraid?” he asked, his eyes trained on her, before he turned his focus entirely to Sammy. “I look at pictures of my dog to calm me down.”
Sammy perked up at that.
“Would you like to see?” he gently prompted.
Both of them nodded, Xiao Jing unconsciously leaning closer to take a look.
“This is my puppy,” he said, holding out his phone. He swiped through some pictures for them, showing his dog in various play activities. Looking up at them with a smile, he revealed, “His name is Chubby.”
. . . . . . . . .
Yanuo and I met again years later. My family and I had moved to the big city, and somehow my parents convinced Yanuo’s parents to stop being such sticks in the mud. They grudgingly allowed me to become a part of Yanuo’s life once more. In order to do that, though, I had to promise to hide the truth. Remembering our past friendship, I agreed without a second thought.
Yanuo was still the same serious person. Still quiet, but not so shy anymore. She had gained confidence in herself, having begun fight classes at the local martial arts studio. She was learning how to fight and how to defend herself.
We began going to the same school. Her parents had relented on that, as well, trusting her to keep the secret now that she was old enough to understand their fears. Initially, we didn’t hang out that much. Yanuo would disappear during lunch. She was never in her class during breaks. We were two years apart, and it wasn’t easy to get to her. After a certain number of attempts, I just backed off, not thinking it worth the effort. Friendships could be fleeting to kids that age.
One day, while I was walking home, I saw Yanuo walking ahead of me. She was walking along, shoulders straight, seemingly confident in her own body. Other students raced by her, laughing, in groups. But she was all alone. No one else saw that. And no one saw her give sidelong glances to her schoolmates. But I saw it.
I began investigating and learned that Yanuo was popular with the girls because she was a flower boy. All of them had crushes on her, but they were not her friends. The boys were jealous of her popularity, and definitely not her friends. My mind began to deduce overtime. Since school began, Yanuo must have tried to be a part of this world every day, but could not succeed. She couldn’t join in. No matter how close, she could only ever observe and not participate. Yanuo was finally going to school, but the years in isolation had pretty much . . . isolated her. She seemed to lack the social skills that a normal child would have had at this point in their lives.
I was 13 at the time, and as selfish as children that age can be, but Yanuo’s yearning got to me. I swore to be by her side. Always. There would be no further rebellions. We were still young, and I would do nothing to give her parents an excuse to separate us again. I would take care of Yanuo. I would be her confidant, her friend. Years later, it occurred to me that, in order to be by her side, I became part of the problem. In order to be her friend, I helped to hide Yanuo’s identity.
I had become an active participant in entrapping Yanuo in that false identity.
. . . . . . . . .
Xiao Jing sat in an airport bar, waiting for the return flight home. The previous flight had ended without further mishap, the turbulence stopping after about half an hour, allowing most of the passengers to get their rest. They had landed an hour ago, and Xiao Jing had handed Sammy over to his grateful grandparents before heading off to change out of uniform.
She sat back in her chair, raising her arms above her head to stretch her body a little bit. It was near the end of a trip that had taken her all the way to the tip of Africa. This was the final leg. She could have rested for a couple of days before returning home, but she wanted to go back now and had happily traded with another stewardess for a seat on tonight’s flight. Rubbing at her eyes, she silently groaned at the fact that she had at least two more hours to go before she could even board the flight.
Since she wasn’t on duty though, she was allowing herself one drink. Sipping her margarita, Xiao Jing allowed her mind to wander. She still couldn’t believe it, marveling at the fact that Yanuo was going to be a mother. The two of them had spent years together, with her being Yanuo’s only confidant and now . . . she felt a pang in her heart. She took another sip, shaking her head. It was silly, but she missed that closeness they used to have in the time before Du Zifeng. Not to say that she wasn’t deliriously happy that her cousin had met the man of her dreams. She emphatically shook her head no at that thought. Six months into their marriage, the happy couple had found out that Yanuo was pregnant. It had been truly the cherry on top of the decadent chocolate cake. Yanuo was finally living her life on her own terms.
Raising her glass in a silent toast to Yanuo, she pondered on the truth that she wouldn’t be here today if it hadn’t been for Yanuo. Despite how she had been sentenced to such a circumscribed existence, once Yanuo discovered Xiao Jing’s desire to be a flight attendant, she had pushed and pushed until Xiao Jing applied for and gotten into school. And because of that, the two cousins had been separated for years again. Xiao Jing hadn’t wanted to go, but Yanuo hadn’t relented, insisting that one of them should live their dreams.
“Excuse me, you dropped this,” a familiar voice said from behind her, intruding on her thoughts.
Xiao Jing looked up, her eyes meeting that of Sammy’s seatmate. Reaching out, she took her purse from his hands, nodding a silent thanks. Her fingers brushed across his, causing that spark to light once more. She shivered slightly, looking into his eyes. Seeing the surprise there, she knew that he had felt it, too.
He nodded at her, and then turned away. But, instead of leaving, he stood there. He glanced back at her, as if waiting for something.
She felt compelled to say, “Join me.” Her heart fluttered at the smile that appeared on his face.
He quickly sat down, ordering a scotch for himself, before relaxing in his seat. Turning his head, he gazed at her quietly, a contemplative look appearing on his face. “You look tired,” he noted.
Her mouth fell open. “Thanks,” she muttered, patting self-consciously at her puffy eyes.
“No!” he said, sitting up straight, aghast at what she might have thought. “I didn’t mean it that way. Truly. You’re beautiful. Gorgeous, in fact.”
“It’s fine,” Xiao Jing, bursting into laughter at the panic on his face. “I know I don’t look that great. It has been a long trip. You don’t look too hot yourself.” She flushed slightly, wondering who she was kidding with that line. She watched a smile break out over his face once more, and her heart melted again. ‘Please, stop it,’ she begged silently. ‘I barely know you.’ Taking a deep breath, she turned her attention back to him, trying to drown out all of the pleas her hormones were sending her way. That would be easy to do, if her heart hadn’t decided to chime in.
He nodded. “I have spent the past year in Africa working with the Doctors without Borders program,” he explained ruefully, rubbing at his face. “I’m a veterinarian,” he explained. “It’s been hard work, but fulfilling. Though, I am happy to finally be going home.”
“And where is home?” she asked inquisitively, resting her chin on her fist.
“Taiwan. Taipei,” he responded, taking another swallow of his drink.
She perked up at that disclosure. “That’s my home, too,” she offered, not caring if he thought her too forward. She smiled at him, her heart picking up speed when he smiled in return.
She had always teased Yanuo about whether her heart beat fast when Zifeng looked at her with his bedroom eyes. But those heart pounding moments hadn’t happened in her life for the longest time, either. But now . . . sitting next to this man . . . feeling his warmth centimeters away from her body, it made her feel all warm inside. She wanted to reach out and touch his hand, her mind still wondering if he was real.
Xiao Jing sighed, watching the small smile playing across his lips as he ran a finger over the rim of his glass. He exuded a sweetness that she surprisingly found very desirable. She’d taken note of how careful he had been of Sammy on the plane, whenever she’d walked by during the rest of the flight. She’d seen him keep company with another passenger. His personality, she knew, would be a direct contrast to her own sassy spirit. “I guess you’ll be happy to go back to your pet, your Chubby.”
He nodded happily. “I’ve missed him.”
“I’ve always wanted to have a pet,” Xiao Jing revealed, taking a sip of her drink. “But with the kind of job that I have, with all of the traveling, it just never worked out. My parents don’t like animals.”
“Dogs are a man’s best friend,” Zherui said. “If you want, you can always come to my clinic.” He looked at her, trying to assess her reaction. “I always have abandoned animals that I take care of until I can get them placed in a home.”
“Would that be okay?” she asked, tilting her head in question. “I wouldn’t be intruding?”
“I wouldn’t have invited you otherwise,” he answered. “It would be my pleasure to show you around. You’re welcome anytime.”
She nodded, a smile growing across her face. “It’s a date.” She closed her eyes, and then peeked up at him to assess his reaction.
“It’s a date,” he responded quickly, placing an arm over the back of her chair.
“I don’t think we’ve formally introduced ourselves,” she murmured, turning her body and holding out a hand. “My name is Fan Xiao Jing. Nice to meet you.” She waited for his hand to touch hers, knowing that the spark would be there once more. It was. A huge smile spread across her face, her heart happily racing along.
“My name is Chu Zherui,” he replied, “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Fan Xiao Jing.”
Xiao Jing’s smile disappeared.
. . . . . . . . .
When I was in my first year of high school, I fell into the heady throes of a crush on our school’s basketball captain. For a while, he was all I thought about . . . he was all I dreamed about. While I was raving about my idol, Yanuo became quieter and quieter. It took me a while to understand the reason for it.
I had to work it out. If I had a crush and the courage, I could confess. Maybe he would like me back. Maybe we would date. For Yanuo, there was no freedom to love. No hope, at least not for the next decade. And that was a lifetime for a teenager.
Because of the limitations the lies created in her life, Yanuo was existing, not living. She knew, better than anyone else, that most experiences were forbidden to her. She wouldn’t get a chance at love for years. I think she believed that she wouldn’t get a chance at all. Yanuo was going deeper and deeper into herself, closing herself to any possibilities.
And that was when I decided that I wouldn’t love, either. I made that vow to myself that year. It was only when I handed Yanuo to Zifeng was I able to open my own heart without any guilt.
. . . . . . . . .
He smiled at her, looking down at her hand before letting it go.
Xiao Jing stared at him, her mind frantically wondering if what she suspected was true. This man . . . could he be the same Zherui? “Do you have any plans when you get back to the city?” she asked distractedly, her mind frantically working through the possibilities.
“I’m going back after a year away,” he murmured, taking a drink from the glass, “and my first order of business is to see old friends. They got married while I was gone.”
She nodded. “You must be very sad to have missed the wedding of close friends,” she offered, wondering how he would answer that question.
‘Not really,” he said, stiffening when he realized what his words had revealed.
She looked at him, a brow raised at his words.
“I,” he stopped and then continued, “I thought that I was in love with the bride,” he finally explained, his voice stifled, a pained blush appearing on his cheeks. “Years ago, I overheard something that wasn’t meant for me. And out of sympathy . . . or whatever it was, I thought that I could save her. I would be her knight in shining armor. But children don’t realize how powerless they truly are. She disappeared one day, and I had nowhere to look.” He stopped, his mind focused on the past.
“What,” she stopped, clearing her throat, “What did you do?” She’d just met this man. For the longest time, she hadn’t allowed herself to feel anything because of her promise. Once Yanuo had married, she’d opened her heart, but no one had touched it. No one had made it race. For a while she had been afraid that she could no longer feel such emotions for another. That had all changed when she saw him. But he was . . . Her mouth twisted, as she struggled with her confusion.
“What else could I do? I gave up. Forgot. And then, one day, we crossed paths, and we became friends once more. I thought everything was the same. It thought that I would still be her knight. I thought her still that same damsel in distress,” he disclosed, a slight twist to his lips.
“And you were in love with her this time around,” Xiao Jing noted quietly.
“Yes. No!,” Zherui protested. “I mislabeled the need to help her . . .and sympathy over her past as love. Why are we even talking about this?” he suddenly said, looking at her questioningly.
“I want to know,” she said, urging him on.
“It took me a while to realize that there was already someone in her life. And that man hadn’t waited just because she was pretending to be something else. He wasn’t like me.” He took a deep breath. “And Yanuo . . . Yanuo didn’t need saving. She does the saving. If you knew her, you would know that about her. She’s not a damsel in distress. She’s her own knight in shining armor.”
“You are that Chu Zherui,” she murmured to herself.
“What?” he asked, turning his attention back to her. “What’s the matter?” he asked in concern, seeing her unhappiness.
“Nothing,” she responded brusquely, getting up and slapping down payment for her drink. “I have to go. It was nice meeting you.” Grabbing her purse and carryon, she strode away. He was that Zherui. Yanuo had told her about him. What was wrong with her luck? The first man she felt emotions for turned out to be the man who loved Yanuo!
“Hey! Xiao Jing! What’s wrong?” he demanded, grabbing her wrist and forcing her to stop.
She looked at his fingers around her wrist, wondering at how familiar that touch already was. Why? For a moment, she allowed the turmoil inside of her to shine through, showing this man the real her behind the facade. She hadn’t let the real Xiao Jing out for the longest time.
His fingers, instead of letting go, only grasped her more tightly. “What’s wrong?” he repeated, the concern on his face all too real.
“My name is Fan Xiao Jing,” she said huskily, putting her hand over his.
“I know. It’s a name that I won’t forget,” he responded, his fingers relaxing under her touch. His hold loosened a little bit, seeing that she was no longer intent on leaving.
“I have a cousin named Pi Yanuo. The same Pi Yanuo that you are in love with,” she ground out with great difficulty. She stopped, hoping that he would refute her words once more.
His fingers fell away, his eyes widening in shock.
There was only silence.
. . . . . . . . .
When Yanuo fell in love, a new side of her came out. The shy, self-conscious her. The silly, in love her. The fearful, but courageous her. I did everything to encourage her and to bolster her self-esteem. But nothing I did would be enough until Zifeng said the words she needed to hear.
And I saw that Yanuo had gone all in, entering into this relationship with Zifeng and not letting the circumstances of her life hold her back. She had been courageous in love, even knowing that it could all blow up in her face and break her heart. But she had faith in the man she had chosen. Faith in him gave her the courage she needed to risk her heart.
The day Zifeng asked me for help with the proposal, I happily agreed, my heart overflowing with joy for my cousin. I was there when he proposed to her. I was there to see the tears in her eyes and her ecstatic yes. I was a part of one of the biggest days of her life.
When I helped Yanuo get ready for her wedding, my mind kept circling around one truth . . . she was in love. She had the right to use her heart. And the biggest truth of all? Yanuo was finally free.
. . . . . . . . .
“My dear cousin, you have to be happy.”
. . . . . . . . .
She turned to go, unable to stand seeing the confusion on his face. How could something that had started out as so exciting, had turned into something so surreal . . . so possibly heartbreaking?
“It wasn’t love,” Zherui reiterated.
She shrugged her shoulders, donning a causal air. She refused to believe his words when they had come after a pause. Her hands, gripping the handle of her bag tightly, revealed the strength of her hidden emotions.
Tugging at her arm, he pulled her to the side, outside of the stream of passersby. Reaching a secluded corner, he began to speak with quiet intensity. “I realized that it couldn’t be love. Fan Xiao Jing, whenever I was near Yanuo, I felt all these different emotions,” he explained with difficulty, trying to find the right words to make her understand. “Over the past year, I have taken those emotions apart piece by piece. The time away helped me see that what I felt was gratitude that she had grown up to be such a great person. It was regret for what could have been, tied to the dreams of a child. Petty resentment for what wasn’t. I was able to see that I was happy that she had found someone to love. I know that it was liking. It was friendship. But it wasn’t love.”
“How can you be so sure?” Xiao Jing demanded. “Didn’t you spend months chasing after her?” she shot back at him. “Yanuo isn’t the brightest girl when it comes to emotions, but even she got it when you revealed your feelings so brutally.”
He flushed, his eyes looking away unhappily. “I was confused,” Zherui blurted out. “Believe me! I’m sure it wasn’t love. You know why?” he suddenly said, looking at her directly. “Because I am honestly happy right now that she found her soulmate. Because I like the man she fell in love with. And because I consider that man my friend.” He took a deep breath and carefully cupped her cheeks.
Her hands, almost automatically, came up to rest against his wrists, wrapping warm fingers around them as they held her close. She wasn’t pushing him away.
“I’m a good man,” he said hoarsely. “At least, I consider myself a good man, but I’m not that good. I wouldn’t have found it so easy to let go unless I’d never really had her in the first place.” His thumb rubbed across her lips, seeing the flush covering her cheeks. He looked down at her hands holding him, and then up into her eyes.
“I know it’s not love,” he whispered, “Because my heart never beat for her the way it is racing for you right now,” he revealed, taking her hand and placing it over his heart. “I want to get to know you better. I want to learn you, Fan Xiao Jing.”
. . . . . . . . .
Yanuo had promised that she would be happy. I knew she would do her best to be happy. I knew she would work at it and never let her love go, because that was the kind of person Yanuo was.
Her bravery had always impressed me. As she stood on this new path, as she prepared for her new life with her lifemate, I still saw the same serenity in her irrespective of the unknown that lay in front of her.
“You too.” And she’d asked the same of me. She had asked me to be happy, too.
. . . . . . . . .
“Tell me, Xiao Jing, would you give us a chance?” he asked, gazing into her eyes.
The world moved on, and things that had happened became the past. Vows that were once made could be forgotten.
People that were lucky enough to find that special someone, shouldn’t be cowards. Xiao Jing had never been a coward. She would trust that Zherui knew his own heart. Just like she was listening to her own heart right now.
“Yes. I’ll give you a chance, Chu Zherui,” she murmured softly. “Learn me in the same way that I plan on learning you.”