The heroine in the ‘The River in the Desert’, He Mo, left a note to her family a couple of days after graduating from High School ㅡ before she grabbed a backpack and started off on a long journey; crossing prisms of landscapes and multitude of sceneries from rainforests to deserts, sleeping out in the open with the starry night sky as her blanket.
The escapade lasted for a little over twelve months, give or take, before returning to her safety net, the embrace of her family which she called home hence the book. The book embodied truths laced with fiction.
To someone who liked to lock herself in the room and study such as Bo Ziren, He Mo’s journey was akin to a person seeking novelty. However, what touched her heart was the deep connections He Mo had with people around her. It was real and simple without any pretense. Her lover was gentle but melancholy ㅡ sometimes near, and sometimes far out of her reach, forever adrift without a destination. Her friend was generous and loyal. As she embarked on the long journey, her family was her rock through the storms and winds, they would always have her back.
On the seventeenth page, after leaving home for the third day, it was the first time He Mo phoned home. In that call, she asked for her parents’ understanding as she promised to take care of herself and regularly get in touch with them. Although her parents were very disappointed with her actions, they also well aware that He Mo could not be persuaded to return; within their hearts, actually there was not much reproach but more of worry for her. Her elder brother reminded her that his handphone would always be on for twenty-four seven, if she ever met with any troubles or problems, she must contact him at once.
One page eighty-one, He Mo wrote that every time she arrived at a new, strange city, the first thing she would do was head to the local bank, and there, she would find her family’s timely remittance, every single time. Thus, she never had to worry about money.
Page one hundred and fifty ㅡ He Mo sent a text massage to He Yan saying she misses home, and He Yan replied: [If you’re missing home, then come back.] However, He Mo’s reply was, it was not the time yet, and that she was thinking of the pickled vegetable meat dumpling back home. Knowing that, He Yan asked for her current address, and three days later, in the little hotel she was staying, she received a tightly wrapped package. Unwrapping it, other than what she wanted, there was no note or message in sight.
From beginning to the end, He Yan played the role of a quiet, supporting family member that did everything within his power to help his little sister to live a happy life, away from troubles.
When He Mo mentioned He Yan, she said she would forever be grateful to her parents for having him first before her. Grateful to him for coming into this world before her and became her elder brother, showed her the distinction of good and bad.
Bo Ziren closed the lid and put the book on one side.
These several nights before sleeping, she would read a couple of pages from the book. Reading this book again after lapse of some years, it still brought her the same calmness and warmth she remembered; similar to the time when He Mo spent the night in the Gobi Desert, sitting next to the campfire, while an old man was strumming on his guitar whereas she sat on the side making notes:
“From the many beautiful memories that I can always reminisce to this moment hereinafter, amidst the endless stretches of the glittering golden sand, whispers of the wind tickling my ears, and the vast and wide horizon on my side. I possess abundance.”
“If passing by was also a type of scenery, and who you came across were destinies, then everything you have is a fortune.”
This was what He Mo wrote, and Bo Ziren felt if she were in He Mo’s shoes, she would pen the same.
Staring at the ceiling above, her thoughts were being pulled back to the reality. Inadvertently, she thought of the man in the café from the previous Friday. This was the first time in her life she had ever taken the initiative to strike up a conversation with a stranger, and towards the opposite gender nonetheless. Conversing about what they had talked, got to know his name, and where he worked.
The fact was, she had used the Book Exchange Club as an excuse to built a connection with that good-looking man with bright eyes, nice voice, and good conversational skills. However, her bubble of having a good relationship could only end here, beyond that was evidently out of her reach.
Other than that tiny-ripples-on-the-calm-surface-of-the-water moment, Bo Ziren’s life returned to its normal routine. It revolved around classes and back to the dormitory and back again; it repeats in a loop.
The Adi sportswear guy, Fangzheng, ran out of patience waiting for her reply that never came, and finally, he decided on a certain evening to venture to the female dormitory ㅡ to wait and get an answer from Bo Ziren in person.
When he saw her, he immediately walked up to her and asked if she had taken a look at something from her coat pocket.
“I have.” Bo Ziren’s answer rolled off her tongue straight away without hesitation, “it won’t work, though.”
“Won’t you consider it a little longer?” Fangzheng looked straight into her eyes, “I’m very sincere.”
“You said you fell in love with me at first sight. However, I do not share the same sentiment.”
“I do not mind if you had not fallen for me at first sight, feelings can always be nurtured as long as you believe in me.”
Bo Ziren shook her head, “We’ve never held any decent conversation before this. You don’t know anything about me, how can you determine your feelings is sincere or not?”
“It is a kind of feelings that makes me feel as if I’ve known you for a long time. Every time I see you sitting in the front row in class, my eyes naturally seek you out, and they can’t move away from you.” Fangzheng’s effort to convey his feelings to the best of his ability was hard to miss, “I can’t concentrate ‘cause you’re my distraction, and I always wonder what you are doing every second and every hour of the day.”
“If it’s like this,“ Bo Ziren stared straight into his persistent yet nervous eyes, and said without any reserved, “I’m even more sure than ever that I don’t feel the same towards you. A relationship like this is not equal and is unfair to you. I think there is no need for us to waste any precious time in this.”
The straightforward words were a blow to Fangzheng; he was dazed for a while, this outcome was totally out of his expectation. The fired-up enthusiasm he had awhile back was extinguished, replaced by a severely injured self-esteem.
Bo Ziren turned and headed up the staircases when she heard a chiding voice at her back, “I hope you won’t regret this. I mean, other than me, there’s no one else who’d have this kind of feelings towards you. You may have a nice face and all, but you’re a weirdo. Living like a lone fish in a small fishbowl, there’s no meaning to your life. That’s what everyone said behind your back.”
Bo Ziren’s steps halted: “Too bad you happened to fall in love at first sight with this kind of people.”
Fangzheng’s face flushed a beetroot red: “Perhaps I was mistaken. It’s only because I was too lonely during this time.”
Fangzheng left after he had dropped a bomb of a sentence first.
When Bo Ziren was back in her dormitory, she made dinner. After dinner, she started practicing exam questions; during a small break, she opened her mobile phone and found an unread message.
[Are you coming back this weekend? Since Uni started, you haven’t come back once.]
It was her Mom.
[This week I planned to stay at the library. Will come back next weekend.]
[Okay, take care. Don’t tire yourself too much.]
Originally, she wanted to make a trip back home this weekend, but she suddenly recalled something up. Inexplicably, she canceled her plans.
That’s right−−the Book Exchange Club meeting with that depressing number of attendants.
That Book Club Exchange meeting she had been looking forward to that Friday was the epitome of desolate. Until the last moment, Bo Ziren did not catch a glimpse of Cheng Jingpo, not even his shadow.
When she was paying at the cashier, she hesitatingly asked the waitress behind the counter, “Excuse me, isn’t there a part-timer Philosophy Teacher working here? He didn’t come today, did he?”
Needless to say, the waitress knew who Bo Ziren was referring to immediately, her answer came briskly, “You’re asking about Teacher Cheng right? He’s not some part-timer, he can be considered as one of the managers here. But this week he’s probably busy with something so he’s not coming over.”
“Oh, so it’s like this.” Bo Ziren sounded as though she understood something.
“May I ask what matters you have with him? If it’s convenient for you, I can make a call to him for you.”
“Oh, no need. It’s nothing important.”
“En,” the waitress maintained a professional smile, “Please come again.”
Twenty minutes after Bo Ziren left, the doors to the Lighthouse Café was pushed opened as somebody came in. The waitress turned around and saw Cheng Jingpo.
“Teacher Cheng? I thought you wouldn’t be coming in today, it’s already this time of the day.”
Cheng Jingpo said: “Some matters at Uni, was delayed a little.”
“Right, there was a young woman looking for you just now.”
He asked casually: “Who?”
“A tall and slender female student. She’s also a beauty. She came to join the Book Exchange Club meeting for a few consecutive weeks. Unfortunately, there was only her earlier.”
Cheng Jingpo searched his memories and knew who the waitress was referring to. “Did she say why she was looking for me?”
“She kept it a secret from me, yeah,” the waitress replied, “I’m also especially curious why ah.”
Hearing this, Cheng Jingpo’s eyes swept across the waitress in a quick glance, and the latter quickly composed her expression, thinking in her heart that she almost forgot, this person had a layer of insulation towards this kind of stuff, joking with him about this would only bring misery upon herself, and to work in an awkwardly tense environment is so stressful. Thus, she wisely zipped her mouth as if she had said nothing, whereas the former remained the same.
Taking the account book from underneath the bar counter, Cheng Jingpo flipped through a few pages before returning it to its place and went upstairs.
Passing by the first floor, he stole a glance at the sole source of light in that spacious room.
The same seat from last week, the soft cushion pillow on the seat was slightly flushed to the side, and there was nothing else but a glass on the table. The feeling it gave was similar to having an old friend who had come for a visit, left. The small lamp exuded a warm glow, and a familiar warm tea scent lingered in the air.
He thought of the girl in black sweater and that book she liked. The seriousness on her face she talked about the contents of the book with honest appreciation in her eyes. Other than these, he had had no impression of her face, or as a matter-of-fact, the words she had spoken.
Oh, not right. There was something else he had recollected of−−her name. Strange yet unique, just like she had said, it was hard to forget.
He went over to switch off the lamp light, and as he did so, he saw a strand of long, black hair. Picking it up carefully, he let it floats down into the bin at the corner, rearranged the dented pillow, and finally turned off the light before leaving.
The entire first floor blended in with the darkness and enveloped in the silence. He had finished a day of lectures and spent the better part of the evening answering all kinds of weird questions from students. Now, at this moment, his body and mind fell into a contradictory state−–it was tired yet relaxed at the same time. Soon after, he climbed up to the second floor and threw himself onto the sofa. The first thing he did was to switch off his mobile phone before closing his eyes to rest for a while.
The next day was Saturday, even though it wasn’t a ‘school day’, but Bo Ziren did not have the habit of rolling in the bed past waking hours. She had already woken up a little past five in the morning. She changed into her sportswear, carrying a small backpack as she went for a jog. Running along the streets, she stopped at a snack stall at an intersection, bought a glutinous rice roll and hot soy milk for breakfast. Then she continued walking while eating.
Unknowingly, she came to the end of the intersection close to the Lighthouse Café.
Her nose smelled a thick fragrant aroma of coffee that was a hundred times more alluring than the hot soy milk in her hands. Hearing the sounds of a door being opened, she turned around and caught the sight of Cheng Jingpo holding a cup of coffee in his hand as he stood there, right in front of the café’s entrance.
She and he came face to face.
As everything in the world seemed to be veiled by a layer of soft mist, the tall man before her emerged like a burst of light, destroying the haziness that enveloped the world.
“Hello,” having seen it was her, he took the initiative to greet her, “you came to buy breakfast?”
Bo Ziren nodded, watching the spirited him, she waved the glutinous rice roll and hot soy milk in her hands.
“Rice roll and soy milk? Well-balanced nutrition.”
“You… spent the night in the café?” she guessed the reason for him to appeared from the café this early in the morning.
“En, correct.” He answered honestly, “I stayed too late yesterday, it was simply more convenient to sleep here.”
“I came for yesterday’s meeting, but I didn’t see you.”
“I was late.” He looked at her, his tone of voice was the ever same composed tone, “I heard you were looking for me yesterday.”
“Ah?” Bo Ziren was at a loss for words. Seconds later, she successfully thought up of an excuse after exerted some strenuous brain work, “Oh, it was about the book you mentioned last time. I tried looking for it at the campus library and the book shops around, but couldn’t find it.”
“That travelogue? It doesn’t belong to a popular genre, thus it’s a little difficult to find,” his head casted a bit lower, all the while politely looking at her, fresh and bright like the dawn of sunlight, “Coincidentally, there is a copy upstairs. Wait for a moment, I’ll go get it for you.”
Without waiting for a reply, he already turned around and walked back into the café. Through the glass panels between the wooden door, she could see him putting the cup of coffee down atop the bar counter before going up the stairs. Several minutes later, he came back down with a book in his hand. He walked out of the door and handed over the book to her.
However, it was evident her hands were occupied with hot soy milk and a half-eaten glutinous rice roll on each. In turns, she had no free hand to reach for the book.
Seeing this situation, she immediately turned around, asking: “Can I trouble you to put the book into my bag?”
“No trouble at all.” he patiently opened the zip of the bag and put the book inside.
“Thank you.” she turned around again, so they were facing each other. “I’ll return this to you once I’ve finished it. Will you be here next Friday?”
“If there are no other matters, I’ll be here. You don’t need to hurry, take your time to read it, return it when you are done. If I am not here, just pass it to the waitress behind the bar counter.”
Bo Ziren answered with a ‘sounds good.’
“Then I’ll see you around.”
And two seconds later.
“Wait, I thought of something….” she suddenly blurted it out a little too loudly.
“What?” his head looked back, waiting for her to finish.
“I suddenly remembered that I need to go home next weekend, I won’t be able to come over. Erm, would you be here the Friday after? If it’s possible, I want to discuss some books with you.”
Detecting the desire for knowledge and improvement in her voice, he felt surprised. He stood there at the same spot for a while, considering the matter, and then agreed, “Sure. Then our appointment is on the Friday after the next one, in the evening. I’ll be here.”
 picture of pickled vegetable meat dumpling
 There’s something like deep-fried char kuey inside. Char keuy is deep-fried soft dough stick that Chinese usually eats for breakfast along with porridge, etc.
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