Claire had walked around Hong Kong before, but never with so much excitement as when its streets have been draped with lights and colorful lanterns for the Mid-Autumn Festival.
Elliptical, spherical, cylindrical, and lotus flower lanterns in every color hung on nearly every street and shop. But she found the lanterns even more enchanting when they were alight and glowing at night, especially the fish-shaped ones which never fail to amuse her.
A delightful aroma tickled her senses when she walked by the meat store where she buys her favorite Peking duck. But she had a craving for cubed chicken with chicken feet cooked in soy sauce, ginger, and fermented black beans.
Claire paused outside her favorite dim sum restaurant. It was already eight-thirty on a weekday, but they were still packed. She walked in anyway and almost squealed like a child when she spotted an empty chair next to the window. She advanced toward it but immediately stopped when the person sitting opposite gaped at her.
Gabriel Trent. Oh, God. Why now?
He rose and gestured to the chair. Claire reluctantly claimed the seat and gave the waiter her order.
Breathe in, breathe out. Just fix your gaze at the window.
“The glass might crack if you stare at it too much,” said Gabriel. Claire braced herself before facing him. He grinned.
Ugh, that smile.
“How long has it been? Twelve years?”
“You look well, Claire.”
“Oh, come on.”
On his plate was a half-eaten meal of Pork Floss Buns. He said he was on his second plate and that it was one of his go-to comfort foods in the restaurant.
When the waiter brought Claire’s meal, Gabriel asked if it was one of her favorite foods.
“Enough, okay? I propose we eat without a word. Let’s not spoil our appetites.”
“Alright,” he said.
Both proceeded to eat, their past and awkward silence between them.
“I took care of the bill,” said Gabriel.
“Thank you,” Claire got up and headed to the door.
She kept on walking. She hailed a taxi and started to get in when an arm grabbed her by the waist and pulled her back to the sidewalk. Gabriel shouted something in Cantonese and the taxi sped off.
“That was my taxi!”
“Why the heck did you leave like that?” said Gabriel.
“Oh, I’m sorry, I actually thought that was out of generosity.” She took out a couple of dollars from her purse and handed them to him, “Here.”
“That’s not what I meant. Look, I know you’re angry with me, but will you please let me explain?”
“Please, Claire? We were friends once. Will you at least allow me to apologise?”
“Oh, boo! Some friend you were. You didn’t even have the decency to tell me our friendship was over.”
“Fine, fine. But don’t you dare lie.”
“When I met your parents, I thought we were on the same page. The long-distance thing was difficult for me. Of course, I wanted to be near you, but my position in the company prevented that, that’s why I asked if you wanted to move closer to me. But you said we were moving too fast.
“I realised if I wanted to be with you, I would have to wait.” Gabriel took a deep breath. “There was this girl in my department. She made it obvious that she liked me. It was hard not to be..ensnared.”
“Oh, poor you,” she said.
He held up a hand, “I was in a difficult situation. You were a thousand miles away and I didn’t know if you’d ever be ready for a relationship.”
“You mean intimacy.”
“I mean relationship. You seemed content with the level of friendship we had. I didn’t want to push you. I wasn’t even sure you wanted more than friendship. Then there was that girl. I didn’t want to make things awkward—“
“For both of us, that’s why I chose to just disappear.”
“I saw pictures of a gala in some business journal. The way you two were… Well, it spelled more than friends. You could’ve asked me if there was more between us. I introduced you to my parents. What did you think that was? One hurdle and you ran to the nearest pair of boobs. So where’s the girl?”
“She leaped into a billionaire’s lap.”
Gabriel shook his head, “Lucky escape. To her, I was a stepping stone. To me, she was an immediate solution to my loneliness, but not the right one. Definitely not the right one.”
Claire noticed the street was nearly deserted; the glow of numerous pink and plum-colored lanterns above them was making her eyes water. “Thanks for the closure. I have to go.”
“Let me take you home.”
“I have a rented car, it’s just around the corner.” He made a phone call and in a flash, they were being whisked away from the restaurant.
“I’ll pick you up tomorrow,” he said nonchalantly.
“It’s the Mid-Autumn Festival tomorrow. You’re going to love the boulder-sized lanterns they have in Victoria Park.”
“Now you’re pushing me?” She let out an unladylike snort. “Right. What’s your endgame here, Gabriel?”
“There’s no game and I’m certainly not planning on ending anything.”
Claire released a giggle of sarcasm, “I’m sorry, but I’m not the same girl you left a decade ago. Scrap whatever romantic notions you have brewing in your head. I’m far too cynical for that now.”
“What happened?” She didn’t answer. “Tell me.”
“Disillusionment happened. When you just stopped communicating, I was devastated. Then I mistook a colleague’s advances for humor. When he got handsy, I blackened his eyes and filed a complaint. But he’d been gossiping about me. To counter my complaint, he said he broke up with me because I was getting too rough with him and that I was just out for revenge. Everybody took his word without question and I had to look for another job. A different and worse version of the story followed me to my new job. Imagine strangers judging you for a pack of lies.”
Gabrielle’s jaw clenched. “What happened to the guy?”
“He eventually got what he deserved.”
“Are you alright now?”
Claire nodded. They drove in silence until they got to Claire’s stop. “It’s a laundry shop,” said Gabriel.
“Yes, it is,” she said as she got out of the car. “This is as far as you go. Goodnight.”
“I’ll walk you to the door.”
“You don’t have to.”
“Alright, I want to.”
He laughed. “You used to smile when I tease you. I think I’d rather see you join a convent than become a mean old spinster.”
Claire sent him a murderous look.
“Okay, I’m sorry,” he said as he backed away and returned to the car. “Goodnight, Claire. Pick you up tomorrow?”
Claire walked past the laundry shop, turned a corner, then waved to the CCTV camera atop a huge gate. A figure in white came to meet her as the gate slid open.
“Sister Paula,” Claire walked right into the elder woman’s outstretched arms.
“I would have thought a day outside would brighten you up,” she said wiping an escaped tear on Claire’s cheek.
“Sister Paula,” said the guard on duty. “Should I let him in?” Both women turned toward the gate.
“Gabriel. What are you doing here?”
“What are you doing here? You said you were staying with friends.”
“It’s fine, John. You can let him in,” said Sister Paula.
“You don’t have to. He’s leaving.”
“No, I’m not.” The gate opened and in comes Gabriel Trent. Sister Paula quietly disappeared. “I thought I’d make a convincing case for our trip to the park tomorrow. Is this an orphanage?”
“It’s a home for the poor and sick elderly.”
“Why weren’t you straight with me?”
“Does it matter?”
“Are you..are you Sister Claire already?”
“You weren’t gonna tell me?”
“Why should I have to tell you? Why in the world would you expect that from me?” Gabriel couldn’t speak. “This isn’t helping either of us. You’d better leave.”
Claire had always loved the colors of autumn, but at that moment it was making her stomach churn. She faced her visitor standing over a stone bench, clearing away the sad orange leaves with a paper in his hand.
“How did you come into this place?”
“I left my job when the gossip became too much. Brooding didn’t work for me so I volunteered in a home just like this around our area.”
“That’s why you’re here?”
“I work here, but I’ve been contemplating on joining them.”
Gabriel handed her the paper. She took a quick look and gave it back bewildered. “I don’t understand.”
“I wasn’t sure you’d want to talk to me, so I googled your parents’ info instead of yours. I planned to visit them, beg for your whereabouts, and cajole a recommendation from them. If we hadn’t met last night I would’ve been on the first flight out to get to you.”
She looked into his clear blue eyes as hesitation overshadowed hers, “Why?”
“I wanted to say I’m sorry for hurting you. And to.. ask for another chance. I‘ve had a few relationships before, but—”
“How few?” she asked with both eyebrows raised making him smirk.
“But none came close to what we had.” He took a shaky breath and moved a step closer to her. “Marry me, Claire? Be with me?”
Claire bridged the small space between them and leaned onto him. He lightly locked his arms around her and rested a cheek on her crown.
“I love autumn,” she said.
Gabriel pulled her closer to him, “Me too.”
Claire raised her face to his, whispered ‘yes’, and sealed it with a kiss.