Quid pro quo.
Knock knock knock. She nudged him back to poke her head into the main room. “Who is it?” she asked loudly and evenly.
“It’s your landlord,” said an older man’s raspy voice.
Elle quickly rolled her sleeves down and answered the door. “Morning. Please come in,” she said evenly.
“Morning,” he replied evenly and entered.
“Hey Xiong, what a surprise,” she said trying to sound cheerful. “Are you going to play a song for me?” she asked, referring to the guitar he was holding.
“Hi Miss Elle. Is he really here?” he asked quietly but eagerly.
Before she could ask who, the landlord said, “Last night, I came home and said that the Z-J guy was here, and he did not believe me. Is he still here so I can prove this one wrong?” as he ruffled his son’s hair.
“He’s not too happy this morning. Let me see if would like a visitor, ok?”
“Alright,” replied the landlord.
Elle returned from the bathroom dragging JZ’s wrist. “You remember my landlord. This young man is his son, called Xiong.”
“Kid, why are you disrespecting her by looking at her chest?” JZ said like he was not in the mood for anything.
“Her chest is so big. Much bigger than I last remembered. You must be feeding her well.”
His father gave him a burning glare. “My apologies,” said the landlord with some embarrassment. “He’s such a big fan of yours he feels like he knows you. He also knows she’s your girl.”
JZ said, like he had had enough of this kid already, “Her chest is big because she has a tremendous heart.”
“Do all girls with big chests have tremendous hearts?” he eagerly asked JZ.
“This is the only one I know,” he answered evenly.
“Ah JZ,” Elle began, “Xiong is 15 years old and taught himself how to use the guitar.”
“That’s great. What else does he use?” he asked, not entertained.
“I don’t think he uses others but he does play your songs. Why don’t you hear one from him?” she suggested sweetly.
JZ looked at her with a face that said, “I’m not in the mood to be nice,” She threw him a look that said, “Just listen to one of his songs, alright?”
“Alright,” JZ barely agreed.
Xiong tuned his guitar while Elle gently pushed JZ to sit on her bed. Xiong looked at Elle, who was smiling and holding two thumbs-up. Then he looked at his audience, JZ, who looked like his time was being wasted. Then he looked behind him at his father, who was smiling slightly then ruffled Xiong’s hair again. He took a breath and played.
JZ was looking at Elle, who was happily mouthing the words to that song on his first album. He reminisced the time when he was writing that song. He was in another man’s record label’s lounge past midnight, and wrote that song based on a foreign movie he had seen the year before. Remembering the lyrics to the song, the love-story/not-so-love-story was describing enough of his relationship with Elle. The husband and wife were high school sweethearts, and they got married right before he was sent to war. He came home from war a changed man. The wife loved her abusive and cheating husband but she continued to be loyal to him, even though he did not deserve it. He ended up killing her in one of his rages.
“What do you think?” JZ heard Elle say in the distance.
“Huh?” returning to the present.
“Do you think he did your song well?” she asked him with a smile and a sweet voice.
“I’ve heard a seven-year-old play better than him,” he said sounding like he does not care.
“Seven-year-olds who are better than him have parents with enough money to send them to music school when they were three years old,” she reasoned. She stuck her hand out, and JZ handed her his phone. She typed, “He’s probably just nervous because his idol and role model were watching him play. If he played an original song, would you listen to it?”
“He’s a bad kid and I’m not in a mood to listen to him play anything. But if I did listen to him, what do I get in return?” he typed back.
“I will give you time you talk to me,” she typed back.
“In addition to the date you agreed to?”
“Yes. Now tell him you will listen to his original song at your studio.”
“Why are we going to my studio?”
“1. Because if he plays his original song here, these cameras and listening devices will hear it and steal it. 2. Do you want him in your home performing? 3. You still have to go to work or go home. 4. It’s better for both of us if we’re apart. The cameras and listening devices are waiting for us to do something outrageous then everyone is going to see it or hear it. Most likely, something is already floating in the media. You’re more important, so the longer you stay here, the worst it’s going to get for you. They only need to get one of us, not both of us.”
He read it and understood her reasons, but thought her last two sentences were wrong. He looked at her indescribable face; her expressionless face had a hint of pleading in her eyes.
“She convinced me to listen to your original song. Do you have one?” asked JZ like he did not care.
“Yes, I do!” Xiong excitedly answered, smiling like he could not believe he had an opportunity to play two songs for his idol.
“Is the song in your heart or in your head?”
“It’s in both my heart and my head!” he replied excitedly. “Like you said to all the young people who want be your mentee!”
“Good. Let’s go to my studio so I can listen to it.”
“Can I come too?” asked Xiong’s father.
“She thinks you and I made him nervous,” he said to Xiong’s father, “so it’s up to you if you want to come.”
“I’d be too nervous if you were there,” Xiong said quietly, trying to soften his words.
JZ looked at Xiong.
“Some people are their best when they know their parents aren’t watching them,” Elle suggested to Xiong’s father. She took the phone from JZ’s hand and typed, “The fear of disappointing one’s parent is too great. Do you agree?” she showed both Xiong and his father then handed it back to JZ.
Xiong’s father was really tense. “Will you at least be there?” he asked Elle.
“Of course,” she said casually, “I’m driving.”
“You’re driving?!” all three of them asked, Xiong and his father out of shock, while JZ out of “no way is this going to happen.”
“You don’t have a car,” Xiong’s father said.
“I’m driving his car,” she said, leaning her head slightly to JZ, missing his point.
“Do you know how to drive?” Xiong asked.
“I know how to drive,” she affirmed.
“You’re not driving my car,” JZ said, trying to be as calm as possible but also firm on his position. “The last time you drove it, the mechanic said I needed to change the tires, brake pads….” She stopped listening to the long list and slipped his phone out of his hand. Then grabbed his keys from the counter and waited until he finished to simply say, “Don’t make me so mad next time.” Then she returned the phone that translated, “That’s all? Guess what I would have done if I wasn’t driving.”
“Let’s take the subway,” JZ suggested nicely.
“Let’s go,” she said as she jingled his keys in the air, then grabbed her purse and opened the door. She looked back and saw the three of them whispering.
“What if Xiong’s dad drove?” suggested JZ, despite guessing he did not know how to drive.
“Hurry up. I have to help him when I get home,” she said pointing at the ceiling.
They were whispering again. Elle returned to her apartment and went into the bathroom, taking her purse and his keys with her. JZ saw her walk past him and asked, “Where are you going?” “Where do you think I’m going?” she replied as nice as she could.
They heard running water, followed by a flush, then running water, and finally they saw her exit the bathroom. They saw her only holding her purse. “What? Are you ready to go?”
“Not yet,” replied JZ.
She went over to her bed, and placed her purse on the floor beside her and started making her bed. JZ quickly grabbed her purse, opened it, and rifled through it. “Where are my keys?” he asked really wanting to know where his keys were.
“Keep looking,” she simply replied and continued to make her bed.
“I know they’re not in here, so where are they?”
“If you are ready to go, I’ll get them,” she said simply, getting rid of the last wrinkle and getting four bottles of water from the fridge. She went to them and handed them each one, and asked again, “Are you ready to go?”
“I don’t think we have a choice,” Xiong said a little defeated.
JZ went into the bathroom. “It’s not in here either,” he said a little loud, then returned. He sighed. “We’re ready to go,” he said, admitting defeat.
“No you’re not,” she replied.
They all had a very confused face.
“You’re not going to use the toilet? It takes three hours to get from here to your studio by riding the subway. A lot longer by riding a car, especially with all the people waiting outside.
They smiled then laughed nervously. “You go first,” JZ said to Xiong. He did as he was told.
“Come here,” she said to the famous one.
“Why are you so smart?” he whispered.
She smiled and began untying his fingers. He took his hand away. She threw him a look that said, “Are you defying me?”
“You’re going to come and help me,” he said like he was paying her back for a prank.
Xiong came out.
She tilted her head to Xiong’s father and said, “Man,” then tilted her head to Xiong and said, “male kid.”
JZ shook his head.
“There are two guys here to help you,” she said smiling.
JZ shook his head again.
“You used the bathroom with other guys in there before, right? You did it in school, so it’s not so strange.”
“I’m an adult now. It’s not ok.”
“You don’t go to the same bathroom as other people at work?”
“No, I have my own bathroom.”
She flicked up her index finger and said, “One, you go by yourself,” then her middle finger, “two, you go with one of them.”
“But I want you to come and help me.”
“I’m not going in there to help you. I can help you out here.”
“I have something to show you.”
“Show the class.”
“Why do you have to make this so hard?”
“I’m not making this hard; You’re making this hard.” She flicked up her ring finger and said, “Three, go in the car.”
He sighed in defeat and extended his hand to her. He carefully watched her resume releasing his fingers and saw how relaxed she was despite being so focused and frustrated just a moment ago. She untied his fingers like it was another performance, but she was not aware she was performing. She moved on to his other hand, and her hair fell on her face. With his free hand, he tucked it back behind her ear, touching her delicate white face along the way. Then slid it down the side of her face, under her chin, and tilted her head up. He bent his head down to kiss her but she removed his free hand and resumed untying his fingers.
“Why?” he asked.
“Phone,” she ordered. He handed the phone to her and she quickly typed, “I’ll kiss you when you deserve it,” and handed it back without looking at him.
She finished freeing his fingers and looked up at him. She saw his face soften and staring at her. “Aren’t you going to go?”
She spun him around to face the bathroom and watched him walk there and look back at her. When he closed the door, she felt eyes watching her. She was right. Her landlord and Xiong were watching her. She blushed in embarrassment. “What is it?” she asked, trying to be calm.
“He really likes you,” said Xiong.
“I know he really likes me,” she replied.
He shook his head. “He really, really, really likes you.”
“I know he really, really, really likes me.”
He shook his head again. “He really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really likes you,” counting all the “really’s” with his fingers.
“I don’t think he likes me that much. He makes me mad all the time.”
“If he makes you mad all the time, it means he doesn’t know how to say how much he likes you.”
“Really? If he makes me mad, doesn’t that mean he doesn’t like me?” she said. “He’s a song-writer and composer,” she said to herself, “How does he not know how to say or show me how much he likes me?”
“Ready to go,” said JZ, buckling his belt and coming over to Elle. He extended his hand to her.
“Did you wash your hands?” she asked with a hunch.
“I washed my hands,” he said, like he answered a ridiculous question.
She began binding his fingers again when she heard Xiong and his father laughing quietly. She looked at them and they stopped laughing. Then she looked up at JZ and saw he was smiling like he knew something she did not. She resumed tying his fingers and kept hearing them snicker. After she was done, she washed her hands with soap.
“Let’s go,” she said firmly, grabbed her purse from the floor, and took the keys from her shorts’ waistband.
“Aaaah,” said JZ.
“Where else would I put it?” she asked like he did not consider the easiest place to hide keys.