Thank God for legal technology, Jeno thinks, because instead of wading through thousands of documents with jargon so dense that could be used to anchor ships, he just needs to use e-discovery software to help him refine his search with a select few keywords.
Acting on behalf of a buyer who wants to acquire a distressed business means that there will be few warranties and covenants in the acquisition document, so Jeno and his team of paralegals and junior associates have to comb through the due diligence with a fine-tooth comb to ensure the target company is exactly what the buyer thinks they are acquiring. In terms of a lay person, this is a final sale product—no returns.
He’s so focused on reading a renegotiated loan agreement when he hears “What’s your favourite movie?”
“Hmm?” Jeno murmurs in reply, adding it to his preparation notes about the target’s liabilities.
“Are you in the mood for love?”
This captures Jeno’s attention, and he coughs, looking up, certain that he heard wrong. “I beg your pardon?”
“What’s your favourite movie?” Donghyuck asks, smiling innocently.
Jeno tilts his head, certain that he heard something else, and he’s just about to go back to his computer monitor when Donghyuck leans forward, getting dangerously close to Jeno’s face.
Jeno leans back in alarm, his eyes going wide. “Why do you ask?”
“Every Friday, if I have the time, I like to go watch a film after work,” Donghyuck settles back into his seat, satisfied that he has Jeno’s attention. “It’s the reward I give myself for getting through a difficult week.”
“By yourself?” Jeno raises an eyebrow, who could not contemplate going to the cinema alone.
“Yes,” Donghyuck shrugs. “What difference does it make, going to see a movie with someone or by yourself? You’re going to be silent while watching the entire time, after all.”
“So?” Donghyuck prompts, looking at him expectantly. “Your favourite movie?”
Jeno smiles wryly, “I’m fairly certain that I’m the worse person you can ask for movie recommendations. It’s been…” he draws a blank on the last time he went to the cinema. “I don’t watch many movies.”
“Do you not watch television?”
“Does the BBC News and Sky Sports count?” Jeno chuckles ruefully when Donghyuck groans.
“Alright… just give me a movie title. Something that you enjoyed.”
“Um…” It’s difficult for Jeno to recall the last movie he watched, let alone his favourite one. “Um, you just mentioned In the Mood for Love—that one was good.”
“Oh come on,” Donghyuck tut, wagging his finger. “That’s cheating. You cannot say you are the worse person to ask for movie recs and then name a critically acclaimed film. I’m surprised you even know it.”
“It’s my wife’s favourite film,” Jeno smiles slightly, bring his mug to his lips before immediately lowering it with a grimace when he realises the tea has gone cold. “I brought her to see it on our first date to impress her.”
“Did it work?”
“Well, she agreed to marry me, so I suppose it did.”
“That you certainly did,” Donghyuck inclines his head. “Your wife has good taste.”
“Of that, most certainly,” Jeno huffs a laugh, leaning back against his ergonomic office chair. “After I asked her out, I found out her favourite movie and deliberately found a cinema that was screening it.”
“Well, as we lawyers know, there can never be too much research,” Donghyuck chuckles, leaning back against the chair and allowing the sun to bathe him in golden light. “What did you like about it?”
“Uh…” Jeno stops, blinking and then looking away, focusing on the strange modern art piece that looked like it was made by a toddler but was probably worth thousands. “Truth be told, I don’t remember the movie much. I was too nervous the entire time to actually focus on watching.”
“Surely you two talked about the movie afterwards?”
Sheepishly, Jeno fiddles with his cufflinks. “You mentioned research? Yeah… I might have read up critic’s reviews to prepare talking points over dinner, but I don’t remember what I said.”
“You’re one of a kind.” Donghyuck says, the laughter barely suppressed in his voice. “You went at it like it was an interview to be aced.”
Jeno groans, flustered, “It was not my finest moment, but in my defence, it was my first date and I didn’t know what to expect. Also, I was scared stiff. I had promised her father to bring her home by nine, but it was a Sunday and the buses were running a limited schedule. Forgive me for being a bit scatter-brained.”
“Well, do you remember what she liked about the movie, then?”
Jeno stares out the window to the Thames, now a pretty blue-olive tone beneath the sun instead of the usual muddy sludge. “She really liked the setting and the clothes they wore?” Jeno tries. “Hong Kong is one of her favourite cities. We went there after we got married.”
“That must have been a nice honeymoon location.”
Jeno clears his throat, looking down. “Um, it wasn’t technically a honeymoon.” He rubs the back of his neck, explaining, “Soon after we got married, I was sent to Hong Kong for a client secondment with HSBC. The firm paid for my flat, so I asked if Yeeun would like to join me.”
“While you worked?” Donghyuck asks, his voice deliberately even.
Jeno closes his eyes. “Yes.”
Donghyuck whistles, “I don’t know who to feel sorrier for. Her, for spending her honeymoon alone, or you, for working those Hong Kong hours while she’s on her honeymoon.”
“I tried to do things with her on the weekends,” Jeno defends himself feebly to Donghyuck’s blatant judgement. “We visited The Peak, hiked at Lion’s Rock, went on the junk boats on Victoria Harbour, visited the pandas at Ocean Park, ate giant fishballs at Cheung Chau… I tried my best to make it enjoyable for her.”
The three syllables are enough to illicit a very visceral response in him. Jeno shudders, clutching at his stomach, “Lan Kwai Fong was 5 minutes’ walk from the HSBC Building, and I was going there with my colleagues on my weeknights. I didn’t need to go there on my weekends.”
“Aw, poor little pet,” Donghyuck teases, adopting a sympathetic tone. “I hope your liver is okay after keeping up with the Hong Kong investment bankers.”
“Why are we talking about this again?” Jeno reminds him pointedly.
“Ah yes,” Donghyuck straightens with a smile. “Actually—do you have any plans this evening?”
Jeno blinks, something niggling at the back of his mind, a weird sense of deja vu. “Um, no? I mean, other than going home and then crashing into bed?” He laughs awkwardly.
“So, are you in the mood for love?” Donghyuck asks, complete with jazz hands, and Jeno feels a burst of warmth in his stomach. “BFI Southbank are screening the movie tonight and I thought maybe you’d like to join me?”
Jeno licks his lips, glancing from Donghyuck’s hopeful face to his computer. “Well…”
“Come on,” Donghyuck wheedles, leaning forward with his hands clasped, and then he starts singing a suspiciously familiar tune. “It’s a Friday night, we’re looking for something dumb to do—”
Jeno groans, angling his face away so that Donghyuck can’t see his smile, “You’re just asking me to see a movie, don’t butcher Bruno Mars’ song like that.”
“Hey Jeno, I think I want to—”
“Marry me?” Jeno laughingly covers Donghyuck’s mouth with his left hand. “Polygamy is illegal.”
He can feel Donghyuck’s grin beneath his fingers, and he puts his hand down when Donghyuck says, “True, but the Americans have this wonderous title—work husband.”
“Can’t say I’ve ever been propositioned—wait no!” Jeno cuts himself off when Donghyuck reels back, his eyes wide, and Jeno shakes his head, blushing, “Proposed! Proposed, not propositioned!”
Donghyuck places a hand over his heart and dramatically proclaims, “I cannot believe you would slander my character so! I merely seek your hand in holy capitalism, but you defame me by saying I seek designs on you!”
Jeno fights his blush, trying to sound unamused as he says, “If I agree to watch the movie with you, will you stop saying that?”
The beam Donghyuck directs at him is brighter than the midday sun. “Offer accepted.”
Tonight, Jeno gets off work early at seven-thirty, leaving his office before his computer has even shut properly.
Donghyuck meets him at the office lobby, both hands wrapped around the straps of his backpack. He perks up when he spots him. “I thought you might have changed your mind,” he confesses as they set off along bankside, weaving past other tired office workers.
“I wouldn’t have stood you up,” Jeno reassures him, blinking rapidly in the face of the bright sunlight, unused to walking in broad daylight. “For that matter—who would stand you up?”
Donghyuck just laughs.
“You’re too polite to do that,” he amends his statement. “I just thought maybe you got dogpiled with work and decided that you would rather take a stab at that.”
On a usual day, Jeno would stagger into a taxi—kindly complimentary for colleagues leaving the office after nine—mutter his address to the driver and continue replying to his emails on his phone. But today, despite his incomplete to do list, Jeno decided that he would delegate it for weekend Jeno to finish.
“I made a promise, didn’t I?” Jeno reminds him pointedly. “Besides, I’m on track to meet my annual target hours by September. I’ve been clocking 250 billable hours for three consecutive months.”
“At this rate, you’ll make partner by thirty-five or die trying,” Donghyuck says, only half joking. “For your health, I’m taking you out for the evening. It’s summertime, but you’re still leaving the office after the sun sets. You need to get some Vitamin D, you’re looking awfully peaky.”
“Thank you, just what every man likes to hear,” Jeno says dryly, placing a hand to his face self-consciously.
“Oh please, you know very well that you’re pretty as a picture regardless,” Donghyuck glances away, clearing his throat. “It’s honestly unfair.”
It’s only because the sun is in his face which is why he feels flushed.
All too soon, they arrive at the BFI Southbank, a long rectangular building that looked like it was repurposed from a shipping container with a side made entirely of glass windowpanes. Since Donghyuck purchased their tickets, Jeno insists on buying concessions, getting two drinks and a large caramel popcorn for them to share.
On entry into the cinema with the amphitheatre shape and iconic red seats with the distinct cinema smell, Jeno feels rather excited, sharing a quick grin with Donghyuck as they get seated. As the previews start rolling, a cool female voice crackles on the speakers, advising them to turn off their mobile phones.
Jeno’s personal phone is perpetually silent, but his work phone? He likens it to a doctor’s pager, forever on standby for a call to action. Just the thought of muting it sends anxiety up Jeno’s spine, but Donghyuck takes it out of his hands—literally.
“Donghyuck!” Jeno whisper-yells, conscious of his voice even when— “you turned it off?”
“Relax,” Donghyuck cups a hand over Jeno’s ears as he whispers, his breath tickling Jeno’s earlobe. “You’re working with an Emirati company, remember? Friday is the Islamic day of worship, they’re not working.”
“Oh yes, right,” Jeno says weakly, having clean forgotten the basic fact in his panic.
Donghyuck lifts one side of Jeno’s blazer, placing his work phone into the pocket, and it’s supposed to be a comforting motion, but Jeno’s heart beats faster when Donghyuck pats his chest lightly.
Jeno clenches his left hand tightly on the armrest, trying not to think about any potential disasters that could occur in the next hour and a half. Oh God, the catastrophe that could happen: NYSE was still trading, and—
Donghyuck grabs his hand, his forearm bumping against Jeno’s on the armrest. “Do you trust me, Jeno?” he asks. “Trust me when I say that nothing will happen if you take two hours for yourself.”
The lights from the screen playing whatever Marvel movie trailer flicker against Donghyuck’s face, revealing his large, earnest eyes, asking Jeno to take a chance.
It feels scary to leap into this unknown, to deviate from all the norms that he’s been taught, going against the code that makes up every fibre of himself, but Donghyuck’s eyes tell Jeno that he’ll be right here with him, and with the sound of gunshots and car chases in the background, Jeno takes his hand and jumps.
“Okay,” Jeno whispers, unable to look away from Donghyuck. “Yes, I do.”
The last thing that Jeno sees before all the lights dim is Donghyuck’s comforting smile.
On a blackened screen in white: It was a restless moment. She has kept her head lowered to give him the opportunity to come close. But he could not, for lack of courage. She turned around and left.
In 1962 Hong Kong, a beautiful woman, Mrs. Chan, in a form-fitting floral cheongsam, moves into a flat next to her new neighbour, Mr. Chow.
It’s been more than a decade since Jeno has watched the movie and he finds himself watching with fresh eyes. Watching Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow move in on the same day without their respective spouses who are abroad on a business trip. Watching Mrs. Chow take a seat next to Mr. Chan in a game of mahjong. Watching Mrs. Chan delicately field calls from her boss’ wife and his mistress, later instructing her own husband to buy two handbags for her boss as gifts when he is in Japan—it didn’t matter if the colours were identical.
Slow and sublime, the movie’s pace is unhurried, and it makes Jeno feel like he’s back in hot and humid Hong Kong, hunched over a bowl of tender ngau lam ho. He watches Mrs. Chan walk down a corridor of stairs to an outdoor noodle shop all by herself. Then, watches Mr. Chow walk down to the same noodle shop with only a folded newspaper to keep him company, the scene cutting away to find him eating wontons alone in his room.
Afterwards, Mr. Chow asks Mrs. Chan to join him for tea at a cha chaan teng, where he proceeds to ask her if she could help him purchase the same style of handbag as a gift for his wife. Mrs. Chan replies that his wife might feel slighted if they have the same bag, so Mr. Chow asks if he could buy it in another colour. Mrs. Chan demurs because it was a gift purchased by her husband on a business trip and it’s not available in Hong Kong.
In turn, Mrs. Chan asks where Mr. Chow bought his tie, and he replies that all his ties are purchased by his wife. He also recalls that it was bought when she was abroad on a business trip, and it wasn’t available here.
Mrs. Chan smiles, remarking about the coincidence, before she confesses that her husband actually has the same tie as Mr. Chow, and Mr. Chan admits that his wife actually has the exact bag as Mrs. Chow.
With their cards on the table, they both acknowledge that their spouses are cheating on them with each other.
The first time Jeno watched the movie as a sixteen-year-old boy, he hadn’t understood the hype about it. It seemed flat almost, in the way that nothing really seemed to happen. There wasn’t any exciting action or witty banter or dramatic plot twists; he couldn’t see why Yeeun liked it or why it was considered a classic.
But watching it as an adult—a married man in his thirties—it brought out a peculiar sensation, an aching in his chest as he watched Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan skirt around the subject, without inflection or emotion, that their spouses have given them the greatest betrayal.
As the two of them walk back home, Mr. Chow curls a hand around Mrs. Chan’s, asking her if she would like to spend the evening with him, and Jeno gasps.
Donghyuck leans over to whisper, “They’re playacting.”
At that moment, Mrs. Chan takes a step away from Mr. Chow, her expression conflicted, and says that her husband doesn’t say such lines.
There’s something masochistic in trying to re-enact the seduction of your spouse’s affair, but in a way, Jeno understands exactly why they would do it.
Instead of a direct confrontation to their spouse, Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan confide in each other, becoming close firstly because of their mutual loneliness, and then out of shared interest in martial arts series.
It progresses to the point where Mr. Chow has to rent a hotel room for him to meet Mrs. Chan so they can work on a martial arts series he’s writing due to the scrutiny of their landlords and neighbours, even though their physical conduct is beyond reproach.
But just because they don’t physically consummate a relationship doesn’t mean that feelings don’t exist.
Mr. Chow tells Mrs. Chan that he’s going to Singapore for a job, admitting that despite their earlier promise to not be like their spouses, he was wrong. He knows she won’t leave her husband, so he would like to go away.
Mrs. Chan, always so dignified and reserved, breaks down into tears. It’s the only moment in the otherwise placid film where emotion is so visibly apparent.
When Mr. Chow asks Mrs. Chan if she would join him if he has another ticket, every part of Jeno wishes that she would.
But she’s too late, and she misses him.
And then he misses her, when she goes to visit him in Singapore, leaving nothing but a lipstick-stained cigarette butt in his ashtray.
And they miss each other again when Mr. Chow returns to his old flat in Hong Kong without visiting his next-door neighbour, a woman and her son, unknowing that it was Mrs. Chan.
Finally, just as he had once told his friend, when someone had a secret they could not tell, they would go up to the mountain, make a hollow in a tree, whisper the secret to the hollow and cover it with mud. At the Angkor Wat in Cambodia, Mr. Chow whispers into a hollow for some time, then he covers it with mud, and leaves.
It was like those vanished years were seen through a dusty windowpane. The past is something that could be seen but not touched. And everything he sees is blurred and indistinct. If he could break through the dusty windowpane, he could get back those vanished years.
It’s as if there is a rock crushing Jeno’s chest, a staggering weight that pinned him down with its poignancy, and Jeno feels weighed down with some strange sense of disquiet that he could not understand.
They sit in the theatre until the credits roll, until everyone else has left, and then very gently, Donghyuck presses a handkerchief into Jeno’s hand.
Jeno stares, not comprehending the reason behind the action, until he blinks and a tear rolls down his cheek. He hurriedly dabs his eyes, grateful for the cover of darkness, and then gets up.
He hears Donghyuck following him, his footsteps muffled on the carpet, until they open the door and the noise of the world comes whooshing in again. Jeno tenses, feeling exposed.
“I need to use the toilet,” Donghyuck says, and trails behind him, his eyes on the pattern of the carpet until they reach the smooth linoleum of the bathroom.
Jeno stares at himself in the mirror beneath the harsh glare of the white lights and promptly grimaces. He splashes some water onto his face, the coldness a welcome addition to his heated complexion, trying to wash away the sorrow, to drown out the redness.
As Donghyuck washes his hands, he gives him a once-over through the mirror and says conversationally, “You know, I don’t think this is quite the time and place for a wet t-shirt competition.”
Jeno glances down at himself and chuckles, the sound hoarse in his throat. He had forgone an undershirt beneath his dress shirt due to the heat, but he had splashed water all over his front, so the white shirt stuck to his chest. He untucks his shirt, accepting a stack of paper towels.
“I’m sure it’ll dry by itself in a jiffy,” Jeno says, after a futile minute of drying.
“Right,” Donghyuck supplies. “Shall we go?”
There’s a light breeze outside, the last defiant rays of the sun sinking below the Thames, and Jeno inhales mouthfuls of fresh air greedily. Through some unspoken consensus, they start walking away.
Away from the tightly packed seats in the theatre, away from the walls and frames that scrutinised Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow, away from Wong Kar Wai’s claustrophobic 1960s Hong Kong; away from the office, away from work, away from the constraining suit and the tie that chokes him at the throat, away from it all.
Rather than to dwell on something that unsettles him, it’s better to avoid it all together.
Donghyuck’s stomach grumbles audibly, tearing Jeno from his thoughts. “The only thing I ate today other than the popcorn is a bacon butty for breakfast,” he says embarrassedly. “Do you mind if we stop for a bite?”
“No, of course,” Jeno says immediately. “You should have told me—we could have stopped somewhere prior.”
“I didn’t want to be late for the movie.” Donghyuck points just ahead at a restaurant beneath the bridge. “Is fish & chips okay?”
“I’m fine with anything you like.”
He follows Donghyuck into Fishcotheque, a chippy with a giant lime-coloured fish as a mascot. At first glance, it’s a traditional chippy—outdated interior with tightly packed seats, framed autographs of celebrities, the distinctive smell of grease and a long counter where a heated food display cabinet shows off their wares.
As it’s past ten, they have their choice of tables. Jeno gingerly takes a seat, taking care not to place his elbows on the sticky tabletop, and glances at the menu.
A big, burly man taps at his notepad with his pen. “You boys ready to order?”
“I’ll have the large haddock and chips, with a side of gravy and mushy peas, please.”
Jeno requests, “Regular cod with salad for me. A bottle of still water too, please.”
The waiter leaves after confirming their order, and Donghyuck asks, “So, what did you think about the movie?”
Jeno tries to gather his thoughts, feeling them slip out of his head like water through a sieve. “It’s sad,” Jeno says, none too eloquently. “But not in a melodramatic way. It’s quite still? But it’s very impactful.”
“You know the phrase still water runs deep?” Donghyuck asks, cracking open his can of coke. “This movie feels like that to me. No dramatic soliloquies, no explosive confrontations. They don’t actually say much in the film. All that they need to say is in their facial expressions and their body language. The stillness of the surface only seems to draw out their internal conflict, the agony that could not be expressed out loud.”
“Yeah,” Jeno says, thinking about the tightly wound way that Mrs. Chan held herself, like she strapped herself into those clingy cheongsams to hold her together even when she most felt like breaking apart.
“What did it make you feel?”
“Hmm?” Jeno leans back when the waiter places their food in front of them. “Sorry, come again?”
He watches Donghyuck dunk a liberal heaping of gravy onto his chips. “I said, what did it make you feel?”
Jeno taps the back of his knife onto the golden batter of the cod, hearing the satisfying crack. “Well, I think—”
“Feel, not think.” Donghyuck waves his fork. “Wong Kar Wai’s movies are films meant for the heart.”
The words slip out of Jeno’s mouth, naming the feeling that he was struggling to categorise. Jeno isn’t one to feel much emotion, and he’s been told that his absence of emotion is a blessing. But Donghyuck looks at him encouragingly, waiting for him to elaborate.
“Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan came to know each other because of great personal tragedy. We never see the faces of their spouses, all we see is the effect that their cheating has on them, the loneliness, the agony. We don’t even know the ending, whatever that means. What happened to Mr. Chow’s wife? Did Mrs. Chan divorce her husband after having her son? There’s no… there’s no conclusion to this. You’re left to wonder what happened between the spouses, whether Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow ever met again.”
Jeno lowers his fork. “It’s just… the whole relationship is unfulfilled. It’s never consummated. All these times in the end where they keep missing each other… in the end, they resign themselves to the mere possibility of connection, what sustains them is the memory of each other.”
“And why is that profoundly sad?” Donghyuck asks, hanging onto the edge of Jeno’s words.
“Because it’s real,” Jeno says, the answer coming easy to him, the ache in his chest intensifying as he recalls the scene where Mr. Chow admitted that he wished that Mr. Chan would stay abroad for business so they could forever remain in this happy little bubble. “Because it could happen to us—well, not us, but you know. Meeting a person you have a real connection with at the wrong time.”
Donghyuck lowers his head, his fringe hanging over his eyes, and sloppily cuts his fish—fork in his left and knife in his right, then he places his knife down and switches his fork over to his right hand to eat.
Then, Donghyuck asks, seemingly out of nowhere, “Do you know the title of the movie in Chinese is 花樣年華? Fa yeung nin wa—the literal translation is the times of the flower, or the flowery years. But what it means is, as popularised by that group, the most beautiful moment in life. The Chinese idiom identified that as the youthful and vibrant late teens and early twenties, where—like flowers—one blooms magnificently.”
“And then dies?” Jeno finishes.
He recalls a line from Anna Karenina, ‘he looked at her as a man might look at a faded flower he had plucked, in which it was difficult for him to trace the beauty that had made him pick and so destroy it’.
“Beauty and happiness peak in youth, and everything after that is worthless and ugly?”
“Rather bleak,” Donghyuck meets his eyes, chewing slowly. “Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung are both very good-looking, but twentysomething they are not. And yet, despite their age—that technically their flowery years has passed—or that their spouses had cheated on them, they found the most beautiful moment of their lives with each other. What do you think the film is trying to express?”
Jeno leans back against his seat, surveying Donghyuck. Beneath the yellowy fluorescent of the restaurant, he looked every bit the tired City professional with his shirtsleeves rolled up and creased shirt. This wasn’t youthful naivety, this was a tried and true belief that had been put to the test. Donghyuck had said as much back in the dance room that age didn’t matter when it came to happiness, that there was more to life than the golden times of youth. A part of Jeno wanted to agree, the other part of him argued there was a reason for status quo.
“Why do you think their spouses cheated on them?” Jeno asks.
Donghyuck hums thoughtfully, “We know that they had a lot of business trips abroad.”
“So it’s excitement and attraction? They’re both in Japan without their spouses, they decide to have some fun?"
“Perhaps,” Donghyuck supposes, but it’s obvious that he doesn't quite agree. “But their affair has been happening for at least a year. If it was mere excitement, wouldn’t it have worn off by then?”
“You think there’s something more?”
Donghyuck dips his chips into the gravy and then answers, “I think they were both lonely people in a foreign country, seeking comfort in one another. I prefer that answer more than superficial lust and attraction.”
“You really think it’s loneliness?” Jeno asks, sceptical.
“They’re both Hongkongers in Japan in the 60s. They would have been alive during the Japanese occupation. Don’t you think they would have complicated feelings over working in a country that once did horrors to their home? Isn’t it reasonable to think that they might have sought a piece of home away from home?”
Jeno ponders on it for a moment. “It’s no excuse for their conduct.”
“I never said it was,” Donghyuck eats a spoonful of green mushy peas. “But we’ll never know. Consider it this way—what reason would be a better justification for infidelity, blind lust or an actual connection?”
“You're making me choose between a rock and a hard place, neither are desirable,” Jeno huffs, losing his appetite. He exhales, taking a sip of water as Donghyuck waits for his answer. “Well, I suppose... if it’s just physical, there are ways to improve, you know?” He gestures vaguely. “You could get things done to enhance your appearance, you could use some apparatus to improve the bedroom, one could even see certain therapists.”
Donghyuck snorts, “A sex therapist.”
“Yes,” Jeno moves on quickly. “But if it’s an actual connection, then it goes beyond skin deep. If it’s love, trust and emotional compatibility… no Harley Street clinic can come up with something to patch that up.”
“Love and trust, the foundations of a relationship,” Donghyuck muses quietly. “To seek an intimate emotional connection elsewhere would suggest that there are divisive issues in the marriage. That’s emotional infidelity.”
“Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan did just that,” he agrees. “They never consummated their relationship, but they trusted each other, they told the other things they didn’t say to their spouses, they were paranoid of others finding out they were spending time together. And of course, Mr. Chow plainly admitted he loved Mrs. Chan.”
“Let me ask you a question,” Donghyuck looks at Jeno closely, a furrow in his brow. “Do you think Mr. Chan and Mrs. Chow divorced their spouses?”
“Mr. Chow left for Singapore without his wife, so I say he might have.” Jeno pokes at the bits of lettuce on his plate. “Mrs. Chan though... we know that she has a son, and considering that she never slept with Mr. Chow, it’s most certainly Mr. Chan’s. Divorce wasn’t really a thing in 1960s Hong Kong, and Mr. Chow seemed certain that she wouldn’t leave her husband, but the neighbour said that a woman lived there with her son… I don’t know, maybe they’re still married, just separated.”
“I wonder what she feels.”
“Mrs. Chan?” Jeno asks, catching Donghyuck’s eye.
“Yes,” Donghyuck holds his gaze. “Mr. Chow gets to travel across Asia as a journalist, he can leave behind his cheating wife and get a new start. But Mrs. Chan is stuck. She’s stigmatised by society if she gets a divorce, she has a young son she needs to take care of, she can’t leave.”
“Oh,” Jeno says, something occurring to him. “Mr. Chow at least gets to disclose his secret, to unload some of his burden at the end of the film. Mrs. Chan has to keep it all in, she has to swallow her agony and live with it.”
“Profoundly sad,” Donghyuck echoes Jeno’s words. “You might have a point.”
Jeno watches Donghyuck finish his meal, smiling slightly at his obvious satisfaction. “We talked about me, but how about you? What’s your favourite part of the movie?”
“The cinematography,” Donghyuck replies with sparkling eyes. “Wong Kar Wai is an artist. He makes the mundane so beautiful. The scene where they cross eyes at the stairwell to buy noodles? The tension is seductive. Then, the scene where Mr. Chow is working overtime and you can see plums of cigarette smoke wafting up in the air? Just gorgeous. And I especially like the way he uses the colour red."
“Red?” Jeno asks, trying to think of any particular scenes. “You mean her red trench coat?”
“That’s one of them,” he nods. “Speaking of her outfit, did you notice—though it was very quick—there was an elusive moment she wears a scarlet cheongsam at the hotel with Mr. Chow?”
From Donghyuck’s reverent tone, Jeno gathers that this is a significant thing.
“Similar to Korea, Chinese brides wear red when they get married,” Donghyuck explains. “A red cheongsam is their wedding dress, and that moment is the only time we ever see her wear red, when she’s with Mr. Chow.”
Jeno doesn’t doubt that it’s intentional. “So it signifies that—”
To think about a fleeting love that was someone’s most beautiful moment in life, a love so great but torn apart by social conventions is rather depressing. Better to avoid thinking about it.
“How are your chips?” Jeno asks instead, eyeing the congealed brown sludge with mild suspicion. “It’s such a Northerner thing. Are salt and vinegar not enough flavour? Is it even a good combo?”
Donghyuck scoffs, aghast. “I see that you’ve adopted the English taste, or lack thereof, more correctly. Bold words coming from an Englishman. Fucking colonised a quarter of the world for spices and then decided that fuck all, they’re not to my taste, and then went on to develop fucking brown sauce. Blergh.”
“Hey!” Jeno huffs, offended. “I grew up on my mum’s cooking, and you know Korean cuisine doesn’t skimp on spices or flavour.”
“Well then, you should know that chips have no flavour if you don’t slather it in something,” Donghyuck says, dunking a fat chip into the gravy. “Here—”
Jeno tilts his head, trying to dodge Donghyuck’s hand, “Hyuck, I’m on—”
“Nuh uh,” Donghyuck singsongs, making aeroplane noises. “Be good and open your mouth.”
Jeno glares at Donghyuck, who shows no sign of stopping or any apparent embarrassment, and resignedly opens his mouth to prevent further public humiliation.
Donghyuck pushes the chip past Jeno’s lips, deep enough that he can’t spit it out, and smiles in satisfaction when Jeno chews, his cheeks red. “There, good pet! See, that wasn’t so hard, was it?”
Mutinously, Jeno stays silent because he hates to admit that Donghyuck is actually right. The rich and salty gravy does compliment the mild and greasy chips.
“Well, the Canadians add cheese curds and gravy to their chips, so I suppose it can’t be too bad if that’s their national dish,” Jeno says, trying to regain his dignity.
“Sure,” Donghyuck winks. “Try to tell yourself that you didn’t enjoy it.”
“I think we’re finished here,” Jeno stands up primly. “I’ll go get the bill.”
Donghyuck only cackles, the smug bastard.
Though it might be late, the streets are no less crowded and noisy, but gone are the suits who have made way for the bodysuits. Jeno only realises that it’s properly late when he sees a gaggle of university age girls with body glitter, tube tops and retro runners stagger onto the road, clutching each other for balance and singing off-key to some song that’s probably dominating the billboards.
But strange enough, although he’s only had five hours of sleep for the fifth day in a row, Jeno feels weirdly energetic—must be something in the food. A part of him wants to ask if Donghyuck would like to go for a pint.
“How are you getting home?” Donghyuck asks.
“Um,” Jeno tamps down on his disappointment. “If the tube’s still running, I’ll take the Northern line from Waterloo to Hampstead.”
Donghyuck shoots him a look. “How are you a born and bred Londoner but not know about that the night tube runs 24 hours on Fridays and Saturdays on the Northern, Victoria, Piccadilly, Central and Jubilee line?”
“I never needed to stay out late when I was at school and if the firm pays for my taxi fare past nine, I'm not taking the tube!”
Donghyuck laughs at Jeno’s indignity. “Fair enough.”
“And you? Whereabouts do you live?”
They tap their oyster cards to the reader, descending down to the bowels of the London underground. “Finsbury Park, so I’ll take the Northern before transferring to the Victoria line.”
Jeno perks up at that. “Finsbury Park? We’re not very far from each other.”
“All you toffs live in Hampstead,” Donghyuck sighs as they get on the platform, waiting for the train to arrive.
“It's a nice area,” Jeno says, pulling Donghyuck back when he steps pass the yellow boundary of the platform. “You should come visit!”
“I'll hold you to that!”
Luckily, it's late enough that there are empty seats so they can sit together.
“God, I'm exhausted.”
Jeno quirks a smile, “What happened to Mr. I-used-to-go-clubbing-every-day? It's barely—for that matter, what time is it?”
Donghyuck snorts, pulling his phone out. “It’s 23:51. And that was when I was a stupid eighteen-year-old fresher experiencing the first taste of freedom. My stamina isn’t as good now.”
“Then you should go to the gym.” Jeno remarks pointedly. “We have a state-of-the-art gym in the building and even a personal trainer service. You should take advantage.”
“You know my preferred form of exercise.”
Jeno flushes, fiddling with his phone for a distraction. When the screen doesn't illuminate automatically at his face, he nearly has a cardiac arrest before he remembers that he—or Donghyuck, technically—had turned off his work phone at the cinema.
“Oh my God,” he mutters in disbelief when he’s able to briefly connect to the station Wi-Fi at Warren Street— honestly, what is the point of the UK being a first world country if they didn’t even have signal underground, only spotty Wi-Fi from the phone carriers at the stations itself?
“What is it?” Donghyuck asks, leaning on his shoulder to glimpse at his phone. “I don’t see anything.”
“Exactly,” Jeno says, still suspended in shock. “Nothing happened.”
“Is that it?” Donghyuck laughs, amused. His grin is brilliant. “See? The world doesn’t rest on your shoulders, Jen! It’s okay if you take a break! I told you that you could trust me!”
“Yeah,” Jeno says, blinking at Donghyuck. “I can.”
“Aren’t you glad I convinced you to go out?” Donghyuck crows, lightly elbowing Jeno. “Wasn’t it nice?”
“It was,” Jeno smiles softly. “It really was. Thank you, Hyuck.”
“Um, my pleasure,” Donghyuck clears his throat, his eyes darting over to doors. “Euston’s next, so this is me.”
The train begins to slow as they arrive on the platform and Jeno gets up with Donghyuck, walking with him to the doors.
“Oh, you don’t have to—” before Donghyuck can finish his sentence, the doors open.
“Bye, Jeno! Have a nice weekend! I had fun today!”
Before Jeno can even react, Donghyuck reaches forward to give him a quick hug and then nimbly steps out of the door seconds before it closes.
As the train thunders away, Jeno registers three things.
One, Donghyuck gives great hugs; it must be why it feels so nice.
Two, Jeno should ask for the brand of Donghyuck’s cologne.
Three, Jeno should have got off at Euston and escorted Donghyuck home. Finsbury Park could be unsafe at night and Donghyuck could be mugged. It’s only the right thing to do.
It’s only the right thing to do, and Jeno only wants to do the right thing.