I still remember how he stood beside me on the first day of senior year. We were taking a group photo in front of the stairs of the school building. I never had a word with him but he greeted me and offered to stand next to me. It was late summer and the weather was still warm. Then, by the end of the school year, we went to shoot the graduation photo. I wanted to find a reason to talk to him and maybe stand next to him, but he was talking with some of his friends and he seemed happy. So I gave up.
Rigel was one of my classmates in my new senior year class. I only noticed him briefly in my sophomore year when we were having a Geography class. He was tall, thin, well-built with broad and strong shoulders and had sun-burnt skin with a little goatee on his chin, which made him look more mature than he already did. He had these straight bangs that fell on his forehead. Later I would notice how after a fresh cut, he looked just like my father when he was young. They both had this bright smile on their face, like there was nothing in the world that could trouble them. But at the same time I could see on his face that he’d been through a lot and he had some pain underneath. I never saw this on anyone before, certainly not on someone his age. He smirked sometimes, like he was cool and funny, but when he was not, he looked like the kind of person who was righteous and fearless and was determined to protect the people that he loved. He had white, delicate fingers where he kept the nails nice and short, which probably helped since he loved playing mobile games whenever he had time: on the bus, in class, during class break.
Not long after the senior year started, the two of us met one morning on the bus to school. One stop before school, he came to me and asked me if I wanted to get off early and walk to school. The traffic was really bad, he told me, and it would save us from getting to school late. I knew the result of being late for school - Mr. W would scold us and ask us to stand in a line beside the stairs of their office. He was really aggressive towards the students and can be radical or even violent sometimes. I remember that he tore my exercise book to pieces in front of the whole class soon after high school started. He shouted at me for not finishing the homework on time, then he threw the pieces at my face. It was the worst that a teacher could be, I thought.
So I agreed and we got off the bus at the sports park. Rigel told me we should walk across the sports park to school because according to him, "it has a shorter distance". It never occurred to me that anyone would choose this route to school. But he did.
It was a cold morning with a little rain, and we walked through the roads and bridges surrounded by water, grass and flowers. Mornings were always stressful to me, but walking this way made my heart feel a little bit lighter. I didn’t remember exactly what he talked to me about, but he seemed like a kind and friendly person to me. Which didn’t happen a lot, to me at least.
I don’t know what he thought of himself at the time, but to me he was outgoing and funny. He was the kind of person that got along with everybody. He and a few guy friends were always talking about boy's stuff. He also knew what to talk to girls about: bands, TV shows... Seemed like there was nothing that he didn’t know.
I always felt like I wasn't really welcome in high school. The truth was at least some guys didn't take me seriously. I didn't really know how to talk to them at first, then they would tease me like I was a clown. And there was one girl that was friendly with me. She watched Sherlock and was obsessed with it. We talked a lot about school and TVs and music, but it didn't take too long before she stopped talking to me, maybe because she thought I was weird or something. I didn't really feel respected as a person in my freshman and sophomore year.
Then pop culture became one of my biggest inspirations in high school, before I even realized. I didn't really watch much, if any movies or TV series, but I did become seriously obsessed with Lady Gaga: her music, her videos and her equality speech. I treated Born This Way like it was a holy record or something. I would really listen to the songs over and over again just to hear the lyrics and what she was saying or implying.
Over the summer before my senior year, I became really excited for her new album cycle which was named “Artpop”. An album cycle probably translates better to football fans as something like a World Cup, but basically it meant that she was going to tease and release a few songs, and she was going to promote the shit out of them by releasing big budget videos and going on stage to shock everyone with her live performance. Different from an actual football match, an album cycle is a game played between the artist, the radio station and the fans, and as a fan, I spent a lot of my days playing the video of “Applause” on YouTube over and over. I could feel my blood pumping through my body while doing this, as if this little thing that I did could somehow change the chart next week.
That summer made me feel like I was part of a group that I belonged to and it wasn’t something that I had felt in a long time. I knew I was going to a brand new class, and would meet brand new people, and I just didn’t want to continue the tragedy that was my first two years. Being in the pop world basically made me feel cool again and I had an identity that could get me to communicate with at least some people (well, gay people). I also hated how I looked and behaved. I wanted to have a makeover. But I had no idea how to do my hair or make myself look cooler so I just used the warmth of my hand to pull back my bangs so that in my head it kind of looked like Adam Lambert. I tried hard to fall asleep early everyday and get as much sleep as possible during summer as I hoped this would help me be less nervous and shy during school days. I hoped I could be just as cool and free in school as I was in the pop world.
Then, school happened. The geography teacher was finally nicer to me. The English class was working out great for me - at least for the first month of school where I had enough energy. I memorized everything said in class even when I didn’t review them after class. And, Rigel was super nice to me for some reason - I took the same bus every day after school, then right before I got off, he would walk towards me and say goodbye to me. He was with his girlfriend then and they took the bus every day after school.
The first thing that he and I talked about, well, was music. Clearly we both listened to American pop music. He always made it clear that he hated Lady Gaga, presumably because she was too provocative and was not a “good girl”. He told me that she tore her clothes apart in London and showed people her crotch, which was something I didn’t even know about at the time. He liked Coldplay (who doesn’t though) and Hip Hop music. He just knew so much about what he was talking about. I told him that I could sing a bit and he joked that if I released my single one day, he would definitely buy it and make sure it went to top 1 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Then there was the PE class, where I just wandered around the playground alone as soon as free activity time started, as if I was exploring Mars or something. (Except there was nothing to explore.) Boys were always playing basketball together, and I always felt awkward because I couldn’t play basketball, like, at all. Ever since junior high in basketball class I was always ashamed of myself and everyone else was ashamed of me, like I was a total failure of a man or something, which made me feel useless and I always hated every second of it. If there was some way to avoid basketball classes, I would absolutely do it.
Sometimes I would see Rigel too at PE class. He was alone as well, at the parallel bars. I always thought all boys were supposed to be able to play basketball and that I was the only one who couldn’t. But I guess it’s not the truth.
Then one day at PE class, he walked towards me, said hello to me in a friendly manner and basically told his life story to me. It really felt like a heart to heart moment and he shared some personal stuff with me. But he did it in such a casual way that it didn’t feel weird at all. He told me he didn’t fit in at school and didn’t have a lot of friends. He also told me he used to play football in primary school but was constantly bullied by senior kids. It was an awful experience for him. He didn’t play basketball. He was given a warning by the school for fighting with other students.
I was mind blown by what he said, mainly because he had such a clear idea about who he was and what he went through, and also because it surprised me that he would describe himself as someone who didn’t fit in and didn’t have a lot of friends - I thought only shy and introverted people like me would use these words to describe themselves, not him; and I thought people would feel ashamed to admit this about themselves. But he didn’t hesitate, or have any doubts or regrets about himself, which was rare and special to me. It was almost like, at that moment, he became my biggest inspiration to finally look back on my life and myself, and think about what I should say about myself if anyone asked me about me. I really hoped that I could be that certain and precise and unapologetic about myself.
I was also moved by how nice he was to me that day. Nobody ever told me who they were with no filter. But he wanted me to know him, the good and the bad. And so I listened and tried to remember what he said.
Then he asked me what I did during activity time; I told him the PE teacher asked me to run around the playground 3 times each week in PE class. He told me that he loved running because the chemical that came with it made him feel good.
So I went and ran with him around the playground. He didn’t run at his full speed; instead he ran at a moderate speed, as if he didn’t want me to feel too much pressure keeping up with him. I tried to look for the feeling of the chemical kicking in. It didn’t really happen. But it was nice to spend that class together with him.
It was probably the most wonderful experience I ever had in a PE class, where nobody hated me or tried to isolate me but just wanted to be friends with me. Maybe this wasn’t a huge deal to him; maybe this was what he did to people, but it meant a huge deal to me. Nobody ever gave me that much attention and respect.
Another day when we were taught how to play in a basketball contest, I was totally confused about what I was supposed to do, and I froze when the ball came at me. Some guy was angry at me for my inability to play basketball and shouted at me, “do you know how to play or not?” I felt embarrassed and nervous, but to my surprise Rigel defended me by asking that guy to stop saying this about me. He even came to me later, patted me and encouraged me to not be nervous and play the ball as if I was just practicing on my own. I didn’t know what I did to deserve this, or him, but I felt that maybe he was the best thing that ever happened to me.
To me, he was someone smart, kind, caring and full of energy, and overall a very good person. The last person that was similar was probably my older cousin, who acted in a caring way towards me during his stay at my home over the summer. After he left I cried and felt super lonely, as if my life had lost its meaning without him. I really struggled with being alone (still do). At school friends always came and left but I had a feeling that he would not do the same to me: he would not stop talking to me one day because of some little thing I did that bothered him, unlike those other kids who were so immature and sensitive about everything. He probably felt like a bigger brother to me, or like a sun in the sky with unlimited energy and light to give out.
I didn’t fully understand what he meant by he didn’t fit in then. It sounded like an exaggeration because he was funny and can handle social situations just fine. He made an attempt to befriend people and in my eyes he had chemistry with almost everybody. But I guess it was how he felt: he was way too independent, and might feel distant or weird to other people. But it wasn’t how I felt, apparently. He was someone that I looked up to and I enjoyed the attention that he gave me.
I guess I didn’t want to get too close to him for the first few months of school. I knew that in the morning he usually arrived 10 minutes earlier than me at the bus stop, but I never wanted to catch up with him. Maybe because I was too nervous to meet him and talk to him.
We would talk briefly about phones in the early spring, after the winter holiday was over. He was a big time Android nerd and had bought multiple Android devices. He clearly knew a lot about these phones, at least better than I did. I loved tech but mostly I loved the web and Windows, partly because I didn’t have an Android phone that was really usable. Later I found out that we were the only ones who would help teachers with their computer issues in class.
That day he added me on his phone and he shared with me where he bought the phones from. He said that he had a good relationship with the owner of the shop and if I wanted to buy anything from that person, I could just say his name.
I didn’t initiate most of the conversations with him, but he did talk with me a lot, sometimes during class breaks. At some point it made me wonder if we were more similar than I thought. Before then, it always seemed like he and I had completely different personalities. One day I would think about this during class; I looked at him and I wondered if we were both outcasts that were rejected by the majority, at least in his mind. I wondered if we were meant to be close with each other.
I decided to go out earlier in the morning and catch the same bus that he took. When traffic was bad, we would get off early and walk across the park to school. He would greet me with a simple “Shuai”. I could not tell if it was a compliment or a poke fun at me. But in my mind it made me seem closer to him. And he always treated me like I was a normal human being, like I was not weird or inferior to others, and me being myself was enough for him. And around the same time, he started walking me to the bus stop after school as well. Then we would take the same bus together and get off at the terminal station.
Sometimes I would wonder where his girlfriend was, because they used to get off school and take the bus together. But I figured it was none of my business, so I didn’t ask.
He would always talk about things that I would never even think about. He would check on the air quality on his phone and one day he told me that the air was “mildly polluted” according to baidu.com. He would research online about the law and even told me that by withholding his phone, the class teacher was breaking which law. Both of which would later become what I cared about in life, but by then, I didn’t know a thing about air pollution or the law.
He would share with me his memories and visions on life, or more precisely, pain. He always had this very realistic, or to be honest, very cynical view about the world. I knew he had conflicts with his parents, (duh) and according to his online posts and chat with me, some things that they did to him made him feel “tortured” and he would rather live without them after he had a job (“better stay away if I couldn’t afford to provoke them”, he said.) They also cut him off on pocket money for a period of time, and he had to borrow money from his mates just to buy breakfast. Which again sounded like something I never even thought of. My parents did do some horrible things to me (more of these at the moment) but I never thought they wanted to hurt me or torture me or that I should stay away from them. I guess in his mind, he didn't buy the bullshit that was the education system which consisted of school, teachers and the goddamn parents. Whether they wanted him good but eventually fucked it up or they just didn’t care, he didn’t trust them, which was probably something that I should have done more. I somehow still thought the education system was supposed to make most of our lives better, or at least they would not deliberately destroy or hurt our lives (I couldn’t make sense of the logic behind this if this was true.) I believed what they promised: parents were supposed to love me, teachers were supposed to help me, and my responsibility was to be kind and reasonable and follow their guidance. But did they ever fulfill their responsibilities? If not, why would I trust them in the first place?
I guess the difference between us was that he was out there and was not held back by his parents. Maybe because they didn’t protect him as much as they should. But his vision of this place, of this society would later become my reality - and it is filled with unfortunes and pain. My ideal world that would run on rules and responsibilities is nowhere to be found and it lets me down everytime I get a glimpse of the real world.
One thing I couldn’t figure out was what he would look like in an argument or a fight. He was always caring and polite around people, and frankly I never saw him being angry or pissed off with anyone, even when teachers publicly humiliated him in class. What kind of people would anger him so much that he decided to throw a punch? I had this image in my mind that when he was nearing the end of the race in the school sports event, his hair was blown back by the wind and he had an aggressive look on his face. So I guessed this was how he would look when he had an argument with someone.
The teachers didn’t really like him, even though he always acted kindly towards them. I remember one time the class teacher pulled him out to the corridor and just kept shouting at him “Don’t bargain with me!” the whole class could hear her. Then he was taken downstairs to Mr. W, who was in charge of all the classes in our year. I remember going downstairs and walking past the office, just to take a peek at what was happening.
I didn’t feel like what happened to him was fair, because the class teacher ignored him for the whole semester while he wasn’t paying attention in class, then came the second semester, she decided to finally take him to Mr. W? He could be given another warning or even be expelled. For the next few weeks, whenever the class teacher said anything to me, I would either be indifferent or just silent towards her. I guess I just lost all my respect for her. I never shared any of this with him, though. I only asked him one day if he hated Mr. W - he told me no. “Why would I?” He said. Maybe none of this was news to him.
It became my belief that he didn’t want to do much work at school because he had lost hope. I didn’t think many people in school would tell him that he was special or he was great, or that there was still time and he could do just fine if he started putting in work. And in my mind that was why he gave up. I somehow believed I could make a change inside him if I just let him know that I believed in him and there was hope. I guess I really believed in the power of words, huh?
So I did let him know. I texted him that I thought he was awesome and he had plenty of time to keep up with everything he left behind. And he could do it, as long as he wanted to. It was really embarrassing to look at even at that moment, and it was probably a disaster, but I don’t think I regretted doing this. I can never know if it really meant anything to him though. Maybe I was naive to believe I could make that much change with a text.
In the last few months before the exam, I would casually talk with him about the solutions to certain problems after an exam. I would act like I didn’t care that much but I actually wanted him to remember what I said and get it right next time. And I always made sure I wrote down all the notes when I was grading his homework in class. I didn’t really become his mentor though. I never offered to help him with any problems, probably because I thought it would be disrespectful or weird. And he didn’t ask me too often. And it wasn’t a school that believed in mentors - they already thought I shouldn’t have “messed around with him” (one teacher told me in her office, for obvious reasons. I actually wanted to thank her because I didn't realize that people saw us as friends, and it was an honor for me to know so.) And I’d like to believe they tried to make us stop hanging around.
And what was “friendship” anyway? I admired him and cared about him to death. I didn’t believe that anybody cared as much as I did, not his other friends, not his parents and certainly not the school. If I needed to risk my life to save him, I would do it.
But when I was around him, I could show none of my feelings because I feared that he would see through me and never wanted to talk to me again. I even questioned myself everyday if he already hated me. It was just an endless debate within myself of whether I should say or do something to him - part of me would want to do something really badly but the other part of me always said, I am going to mess this up, I understand nothing about people and there would be no going back if I did what I did, and so I always ended up doubting if anything that I was doing was really appropriate or smart.
He decided in spring that he would go to a police academy after high school; and after that he would join the army and he wanted to go to the front line. The word “front line” worried me a bit because it sounded like he was going to join an actual war or something, and the thought of him going to a distant place where war was happening made me feel sad. I wondered if this was where guys like him belonged - they would do things that excited them even if it meant it would put them in danger or even hurt them physically. (Luckily he didn’t go through with this.)
Then like every high school student in this country, our high school year ended with the big exam - the College Entrance Examination. I didn’t get all the stress and drama surrounding the exam - I learned everything that I was able to, and I didn’t think I would be able to learn the rest of the stuff that I couldn’t before. It wasn’t like anyone in the school really gave a shit about us or gave us any resources that we could use, so why bother. I did worry how I was going to manage college though, it just sounded like a totally strange zone for me. In high school, I thought I was so broken inside and tired enough that I didn’t want to socialize with anyone other than Rigel, so who was I going to be friends with in college?
Rigel once told me about his plans for college: he wanted “no new friends” beyond high school (Drake had a song with the same name, I later found out) and he was going to rent a room outside his college dormitory, because according to him, he couldn’t stand to live with all the other guys in that small a room. It sounded bold to me, I didn’t even know if I should listen to my parents’ bullshit about “learning to adapt to” whatever I was given and learn to socialize with my roommates, or just go for whatever was ideal for me. It also sounded like he wanted to emphasize how important his high school friends were to him, though now I am pretty sure he wouldn’t abide by that moral of his - people grow apart and they move on, it happens more often than I could imagine. It would be naive to believe relationships last for a long time.
Time didn’t wait for anyone. I did remember acting out in the last few months and I still couldn’t explain why I did what I did. I would drink a lot of beer and feel numb to all the anxiety and doubt, like I was free. Sometimes I drank several cups of coffee in the evening at McDonalds, so that I could focus on doing my homework, also just so that I felt something, out of absolute nothingness. I would argue with the Chinese teacher in class for no good reason, just to show I was not a total coward. One evening I cut part of my hair with a face shaver and I ended up having to go to the barber’s to shave my head, almost completely.
Then it would hit me that the end was near. Other guys in class would express to one another how sad they were about the departure that was happening soon. They would leave notes on a piece of paper and give it to their friend, like it was a souvenir or something. I couldn’t do this. I couldn’t think of one reason to tell him why I needed a souvenir or a note from him. The truth was, I had no idea how to live on with my life without him by my side. To me, he was like a gift from heaven: he cared for me when no one was by my side; he taught me so many things that I never knew before, and I was sure that I would never meet anyone who was even close to him.
Then I guess I stopped thinking too much about what was going to happen and just got on with my school life. I buried myself in class, in homework, in all the things that were supposed to be so important that they could decide my entire life at age 18. But how could that be true while someone could just appear in my life and make me feel something I never felt before? Could it be that this was the more important thing to figure out at that point in my life, instead of what crappy school I was going to in a few months?
Then the last school day came. We cleaned the classroom together and then we were supposed to go home and prepare on our own. He waited for me at the bus stop. It was all so easy for him, he even said “meet me at the old place” loudly in front of the class teacher, like it was nothing. I remember one day when only he and I and this girl were in the classroom and she made a joke that she felt like Rigel and I were in love with each other. And I immediately felt so awkward that I had to leave the classroom for a few seconds - I wanted to scream at the top of my lungs. But he wasn’t nervous or uneasy with this. He still walked me to the bus stop that day like nothing happened.
Back to the last school day - he and I talked a bit at the stop. I thought of some things that could be important to remember before the exam and I just talked to him about this. And then we got on the bus. I continued with what I thought he should learn before the exam, maybe for the next 30 minutes or so. Then he talked to me about Geography for a while. At that moment, I felt sure that I was not just another classmate to him. I was constantly beating myself with this doubt that I could just be nothing to him. But he stood with me for the whole ride, not with another classmate of his, and for me it was something big.
After the last exam, he and I walked out together for the last time. This time, he didn’t go to the bus stop. His dad was waiting for him. He saw him, put his arms around his shoulders, like he owned him, and they walked away together and got in the car. I didn’t really like this, in my mind he didn’t care about him that much to deserve this relationship with him. I walked to the bus stop by myself. Not many people were on the bus that day, and I just sat on the bus alone, the first time in a long time. I felt like I was a soldier that just came back from war. The exam was over. School was over. My walks with Rigel were over. Everything I tried so hard to follow and keep up with in the last few months was gone forever. There were no more things in my life that I knew or cared about anymore. What was my life then? And what was I supposed to do now? Fuck. My brain was empty. My heart was empty. Everything has come to an end.
I went home, and I didn’t feel relieved at all. I felt so sad and angry that I wanted to cry.
I watched some movies starring Will Smith in the next few days. Rigel always liked his works. There was this movie called “7 Pounds” in which a man decided to save his true love’s life by giving away his own body. There was a song called “Feeling Good” in the movie. It went something like this,
Dragonfly out in the sun, you know what I mean, don't you know
Butterflies all havin' fun, you know what I mean
Sleep in peace when day is done, that's what I mean
Stars when you shine
You know how I feel
Scent of the pine
You know how I feel
Oh, freedom is mine
And I know how I feel
It's a new dawn
It's a new day
It's a new life
And I'm feeling good
Which practically described how I felt that summer. Everyone was having fun with someone except me. I was rotting in my little bedroom, not knowing what to do with my hard-earned “freedom”. What was the meaning of freedom if I could do nothing with it? And it wasn’t like I was sharing my “freedom” with kids of my age - I had to share it with my abusive and violent father and my annoying mother. They would literally shout nonsense and laugh at me nonstop for hours if they thought one thing I did was wrong. They would completely devalue me, like I didn’t have low self-esteem already. No more caring friend to treat me like a normal human being. It’s over now. Welcome to hell.
He did invite me out that summer, to work together at someplace. But of course I was so stupid that I managed to fuck it up. I don’t think it really bothered him that I didn’t get the job. We didn’t really meet again after this, ever. I went out a few times with an old class friend for the next few years, but he didn’t talk about going out with me and I didn’t with him, either. The idea of chatting with him often stressed me out or made me feel extremely awkward. And I didn’t even know friends were supposed to hang out from time to time so that they wouldn't grow apart. I didn’t know that people always try to find topics to chat and they don’t always find it easy as well.
I wasted my whole summer being alone and miserable and I was already a mess. Then I started to have some serious depression only months into college. I remember that winter, I would cry uncontrollably in the morning because my mother was not home with me at the new year’s eve and I destroyed her gift to me, which was a toy car, with my barefoot, because that was how angry I felt. Everything at school seemed useless to me. Nobody wanted to do any real work, even the professors, so it just felt like we were wasting time and I really had no power to do anything. And I had to pretend I gave a fuck about those classmates and roommates, but secretly I hated them or just felt indifferent about them. None of them were any interesting. They were either boring, or annoying and pretentious. Pretending to like them and socializing with them drained all my energy.
I still checked his online status from time to time, but eventually it just became less important. I supposed he still lived a somewhat exciting life and he had his girlfriend and his roommates and there was no reason I would still mean anything to him. Sometimes I supposed that he definitely hated me. And I quite literally couldn’t think of anything to talk with him about. Less than a year after graduation, I saw him with his girlfriend in the underground. And the first thing I thought of was to hide somewhere and not be found by him. I watched him from afar for some time and then I went off, without saying anything to them.
I stopped reading social updates at some point. Social media became too much for me and reading my status message always made me feel weird.
He would send me messages occasionally that I replied to. I barely started the conversation with him. I forgot his birthday very soon after. I did write some fiction about him over the years but I don’t think they were any good or really authentic. Few more years later, he would talk with me about jobs and stuff. I still very much admired him for whatever he was doing, even though I wasn’t even able to tell a good job from a bad one.
I saw his photo a few days ago - the graduation photo. It has been years since I last saw it. It’s an 8 year old photo now. He looked so funny in it. It was a familiar face, but also so strange to me. For some reason, I got really emotional seeing it. I couldn’t believe it’s been 8 years and I never saw him once. I thought of all the messages he sent me. I didn’t realize he was trying to maintain our contact. I never thought he could be alone somewhere as well.
I wrote this on my Twitter account:
I don’t know which part of you I should trust from time to time. But you were special to me and you gave me respect and friendship when I had no one by my side. I care about you. And I love you, bro.
So much time has passed since I last met you and I hope you are doing fine. I also wish you know I would help you anytime if you need me to.
I always don’t know what to say when I’m with you. I get nervous and words get stuck. I don’t know if I’m ever going to get over this. But I really hope we can meet again someday, have dinner or something. Or just walk along the streets doing nothing.
You were funny. And caring. And always know what to say to people. I know you have an aggressive side though. And I wouldn’t be surprised if you feel like I’m boring or have already forgotten about me. Just know I believed you were the best person I met there.
I realized we shared the same experience in that school and that was just something that couldn’t be taken away from us. I realized that I didn’t want us to be strangers, ever. I guess it took me all these years to understand this, but now I do.