Walking several blocks to the subway station, riding the subway, and then walked another few blocks to arrive at the studio was a three-hour long commute each way from home to work in the sweltering heat and high humidity for Elle. In a bright yellow, short-sleeved blouse, khaki short-shorts, and flats, she entered the newly-built three-story building. She turned her head to the right, and looked past the receptionist’s desk at the noise from the roughly 30 people in the common area. Everyone enjoying each other’s company with the A/C blasting. Elle was standing just before the room formed, absorbing the gay atmosphere with a smile. A moment later, New Guy noticed she was standing there, so he mustered a lot of confidence and invited her in.
“Why are you wet on your first day?” he asked laughing awkwardly.
“Because I rode the subway and walked far to get here,” she answered with a slight smile.
He laughed more honestly and passed Elle around the crowd, while staying close by. She was in the crowd for about 10 minutes until she got to JZ, who was wearing a crisp white dress shirt with the top two buttons unbuttoned and khaki shorts. When he saw her, he laughed. He went up to the narrow stage and brought her with him.
“Hey everyone, can I get your attention?” he announced in a loud voice. The crowd quieted. “This is Elle. I’m sure all of you have seen her all over the media for the past two weeks or so. Let me assure you, she is more than the angry mess; she has talent. She will now read the poem that made me scour through all the people in this country and ruin her privacy, to have her willingly come here today.” Then JZ joined the audience.
The audience warmly applauded then waited for her to start. The sun created her spotlight. With her naturally calm voice, she read,
Most of the audience mumbled, “What?” in confusion, while others mumbled, “That’s it?”
JZ quickly returned to the stage and addressed the audience’s questions. “Those of you who don’t understand the significance of this poem have until the end of the day to figure it out. Those of you who think the poem needs more also have until the end of the day to figure out why it is perfect the way it is.” Changing the subject, “Even more pressing than your poem,” he said to Elle, “everyone is dying to know why you came to work like you took a shower without soap.”
A little embarrassed, Elle announced, “I rode the subway and walked far to get here.”
A unanimous “Aaaah” of understanding from the audience.
“Those of you who did not get a chance to meet Elle, stay a bit longer so I can introduce her to you. Everyone else, get to work,” he said to the audience, and they dispersed into their spaces.
Holding her hand, JZ led Elle to Buzzy’s workroom through the delicious chocolate walls with cherry drizzle maze with soft lighting, as he caressed the back of her hand with his thumb. When he slid the door open, Buzzy, New Guy, and CeeCee were already in the room. She could not help but noticed the enormous honey yellow hive with a swarm of bees all around it, stamped flatly on the wall two meters around.
“Hey Buzzy,” JZ said enthusiastically to the guy in his late-thirties to early-forties wearing a striped polo shirt and cargo shorts.
“Hey,” Buzzy enthusiastically complemented.
JZ said, “Buzzy, this is Elle. You’ll be working with her. She’s from America, which is why CeeCee is here. Elle, this is Buzzy. He writes songs about nature and alludes them to human activities. Both of you will have to share New Guy as your intern.”
To Elle, JZ nicely said, “You promised I can see your poem today.”
Elle pulled out a neatly folded piece of paper from her enormous purse, and handed it to him. JZ looked at it from top to bottom, then at Elle with bedroom eyes. A moment later, without his bedroom eyes, he handed the paper to CeeCee and said, “Translate it.”
New Guy handed her a pen from his avocado green and red grape plaid shirt. After a minute of translating, she handed it back. JZ read it, looked at Elle with his bedroom eyes even more obvious, returned to normal, then handed it to Buzzy and said in his casual voice, “She wrote this on Saturday. Can you believe it?”
Buzzy read it for a first time, then a second time. “Really?” he asked with a tone of impressment.
“Yeah. CeeCee, New Guy, and I were there when she read it to us,” JZ replied.
“Wow, this is really good. How old are you?” Buzzy inquired.
Elle laughed nervously, hoping that he was asking a rhetorical question, Elle changed the subject, “Why do you think this is good?” She did not understand much of Buzzy’s answer, so she could only tell the poems’ strengths when JZ, CeeCee, and New Guy nodded their heads and looked happy, and the poems’ weaknesses when they nodded with their normal faces.
“First, I can see your content about the flower is true. Not many people know that peaches originated in China. Second, you have unique organization; from far away, you zoom in. As you go closer, you go farther. And third, a Chinese reader would instantly know you are writing about a life cycle most Chinese people believe they go through. This is something Chinese people could proudly display and explain who they really are to foreigners. This is an excellent poem by itself, however changing it so it becomes a song is much more difficult. I see some big problems. First, it doesn’t rhyme. Songs rhyme. Second, I read it twice and did not hear a melody or rhythm in my head. Third, there is no syllabic structure. It sounds like you threw it together and that’s why there’s no tune is what I’m saying. Fourth, it’s written in English, so there’s a high-risk of not translating accurately, no offense, CeeCee. Lastly, if I’m not mistaken, you didn’t have a purpose or a message when you wrote this. Songs and poems are forms of expression, so if there’s no point when you, an artist, write a song or a poem, others have no reason to listen or read it.”
She asked CeeCee, “Can you thank him for me? Tell him only an expert could see everything that I had put into that poem. I understand his criticisms and that making the poem into a song would be extremely difficult. What does he usually do when he doesn’t hear a rhythm?”
“I go to the musicians,” he responded. “Let’s go.”
The five of them steadily went through the maze to the musicians, experimenting with lots of sounds from drums and guitars to buckets of water.
“Hey guys,” said Buzzy, enthusiastically.
“Hey,” the musicians responded.
“Elle, these people are the musicians,” said Buzzy to Elle. “They’re fun and work really hard. The one with pink hair is Hero because she always finds a solution to our song problems. She’s also from America and speaks English,” he said referring to the only Latina in the room. Elle waved to the musicians and they waved back, saying in unison, “Nice to meet you again.” To the musicians, he said, “This is Elle,” handing Hero the folded piece of paper, “and this is what she is capable of.”
Hero and the other musicians huddled to read it. “Oooh ooh oooooh,” said Hero, impressed with the work from someone the media portrayed as an ugly animal.
To Elle, Hero said, “When the writers have a problem, they show us what they have and we play how it sounds like to us. It’s a real winner when all six of us play the same rhythm, whatever instruments we may use. Then the writers work with us to find what sounds right. Then they do their own thing, and find us again when they want to record one or more demos.”
“Ready guys?” Hero said to the musicians. “1, 2, 3, 4” and the musicians played six different rhythms.
JZ came forward and commanded, “I want you to play what you have,” to the musician who played the clarinet, “I want you to play what you have,” to the drummer, “but I want you to tap lightly, like really comfortable background noise, and I want you to make a water swirling in a circular bucket sound when I look at you,” he said to the musician with the water buckets. JZ went to the piano and said, “1, 2, 3, 4” and started playing with the clarinet player and drummer. After several notes of music, JZ made eye-contact with the water musician for a few notes, looks at his piano keys for a couple of notes, then back at the water musician for a few notes, then at Elle’s smiling face.
“Sounds fantastic guys. Get it on the tablet,” said JZ, and the five of them left.
JZ was met by One Word in the hallway.
“Hey JZ, I need you to comment on something,” said One Word said.
“Ok,” JZ said, “I’ll come find you later to give you tour of this place,” he said to Elle, then the two guys left in another direction.
One Word led JZ into the room that saw through the mirror in Buzzy’s workroom. He placed the piano chair parallel to the screen. He put his serious face on. “Sit and face me,” said One Word, and JZ did. “What makes you want this girl so much?” One Word asked like an older brother to his younger brother.
“Her beauty, her eyes, her talent…I don’t really know myself. I look at her and combine those qualities and I am drunk. I just feel like I can’t get enough of her presence. Being in the same room is not enough. I want to touch her all the time. Earlier today, I made a comment that she smelled bad; I can’t identify what she smelled like but it wasn’t bad.” JZ paused. “She’s not like the other girls. I want to tell her everything I know,” he sighed, “When she pushes me away, I want her even more. I just have to come back with something better.”
“I don’t think we smelled the same person. Getting to the point, you don’t know this yet, so I’m telling you now before it’s too late. The direction that you are pushing her is in the wrong one. Like you said, she’s not like the others. The others like the publicity you give them, not this one. The others grab the jewelry out of your hands before you can finish your sentence, not this one. Besides the ones that work in this building, I am uncertain that the others have talent, but this one does. She’s the kind that works until her job is done. That’s why you have to be professional with her like any of the guys here. Take the advice from an old man who’s been married for a long time; the antics you pull are funny to young guys but not girls like her. She is also an American, so she is likely to quit and run if she doesn’t want to be here.”
JZ’s face said, “You’re only fifty, what do you know?” But he knew the answer he would get and would not like it. “Any other advice, old man?” JZ asked in a playful tone.
“No, just one question. How much of the song do you have so far?” asking about the songs that JZ always wrote about the current girl he was infatuated with.
“Not very much. When I look at her all I see is light moving around her or a spotlight on her. None of the words I used before fit and none of new ones come to mind.”
“Every now and then, I feel the same way about my wife,” he said as he reminisced. “I’ve found some words but those are my words, not yours. So you’ll be working on this song on your own until you’re at a stage where I can help you.”
One Word left the room to leave JZ with his thoughts and muse. He placed the piano seat back facing the piano, his fingers resting on the keys, and gazing at his muse thinking about the problem she had in front of her. He began playing the keys with the notes recording on the tablet plugged into the piano. Two hours later, he wondered why she was so mysterious, then decided to check up on her progress, so he went back to Buzzy’s workroom.
“How’s it going?” he asked in Elle’s direction.
“Not good,” she replied.
“I have some time now,” JZ said casually, “why don’t I show you the cafeteria, gym, and pool, and talk about your poem.”
“Can you show me when Buzzy and I take a break?”
Buzzy interrupted, “We can take a break now. You must be hungry from all that walking. Go, go. I’ll be fine.”
“Can New Guy come, too?” Elle asked. New Guy was taken aback, like his name did not belong in that conversation.
“Buzzy needs him,” JZ replied.
Not wanting to put CeeCee in more uncomfortable situations, Elle said, “Let’s go,” and left with JZ.
“I don’t know if she’s brave or stupid to say ‘no’ to him,” said Buzzy.
JZ gently held Elle’s hand in his, as he quietly lead her past the one-story building that did not fit into the courtyard, then past the glimmering pool to the cafeteria, keeping One Word’s words in his mind. To her surprise, the cafeteria looked like an expensive restaurant. Servers wore suits, velvet cherry curtains shielded the Beijing summer sun, mood lighting, a spectacular chandelier, thrones encrusted with gold at each table, and plain white floor tiles mixed with plastic tiles with light bulbs that softly lit up the floor.
He led her to the kitchen and asked the head chef, “What is the best vegetarian dish you can make?”
“Potatoes, Green Peppers, and Eggplant,” the head chef happily replied.
“Make a dish. Tell the waiter I want two glasses of sparkling water,” JZ said, and led her back to the dining area.
He chose a table in a corner near the restroom, pulled out a chair for her, and then he sat on the chair facing her. He continued to gaze at her young face with rosy cheeks and big, soft, brown eyes.
“Why is he looking at me why is he looking at me why is he looking at me stop looking at me stop looking at me stop looking at me stop looking at me look away look away look away now now look away NOW!” Elle rapidly said to herself, and she looked away.
JZ held her hand once again and his thumb caressed the back of her soft thin-skinned hand. His ring finger felt her hard hand on the other side. His eyebrows shot up in surprise. “I never realized this before,” he thought, and turned the hand over and saw remnants of calluses and scars on her hand. Her hands looked like they lost a battle against manual labor. He took the other hand to see if they were congruent. Another beat-up hand. “What happened?” he asked earnestly.
“I worked,” Elle simply replied in a soft voice.
He understood what she said and wondered to himself, “What work did she do to get these kinds of injuries?”
The sparkling water arrived. Elle thanked the waiter and kindly smiled. They both picked up their glasses and Elle calmly said with a slight smile, “Ganbei.” He reciprocated with “Ganbei” and a smile. They clinked glasses and sipped.
JZ held her hand open with one of his hands, and the other to slowly trace the old calluses and scars on her small hand, still wondering what she did. Feeling uncomfortable, she took back her hand, clasping it to her other hand only freeing it when she drank the sparkling water. Without her hand to distract him, JZ kept looking at her like he could not believe he was looking at someone with so much beauty.
Hoping to distract him, she asked “Can I borrow your phone?”
He replied, “Mm hmm,” and without taking his eyes off her, he took his phone out of his pocket and handed it to her.
Elle typed, “I like the way this room is decorated. The light on the floors and ceiling reflect off the chandelier, making it sparkle despite the lack of natural light.” She handed the phone back.
He read it and typed, “The chandelier lights up. Come back in the evening and you’ll really see it sparkle.” He handed the phone to her.
Deterring any plans he may have had with her, “I’ll be home working on transforming the poem.”
“You can stay here and work on your poem. I can help you,” he handed the phone with bedroom eyes.
“Buzzy would feel so proud to have solved such a difficult problem. I can’t take the opportunity away from him.”
“No problem. I can reassign you to work with me and he can return to working on his own songs. I’m the boss, remember? Besides, if you were working on it at home, he wouldn’t be there, would he?”
“I can’t let him win,” she thought. “No, I guess not. If I don’t go home, how will I shower and change my clothes? I already smell really bad.”
“I have a pool, remember? I can get my assistant to buy you a bathing suit and new clothes right now. Just tell me what you want and give me your size, and I can have it here in 10 minutes. If you don’t like that, you can always come back to my place and shower there. I can put your clothes in the washing machine while you shower.”
Caught in another trap, she began typing, and luckily for her, the waiter came with a steaming dish of Potatoes, Green Peppers, and Eggplant, and two rice bowls. She thanked the waiter again and smiled. She placed the phone faced-down. After the waiter placed everything on the table, she waited for him to pick up his chopsticks first. Wanting this meal to go fast, she impolitely picked up her chopsticks first. She picked up a slice of eggplant, and placed it on his rice. He still did not pick up his chopsticks. She then placed a piece of potato, then a slice of green pepper. Still not picking up his chopsticks.
“Why aren’t you eating,” she asked calmly.
“I’m not hungry,” he replied simply.
“You don’t eat, I don’t eat,” she politely threatened as she placed her chopsticks on her bowl, crossed her arms, accidently accentuating her breasts.
His eyes immediately went to her chest. Noticing that change, she immediately uncrossed her arms and shielded her chest with her small hands put a mad look on her face. He looked at her mad face with a smile, like he won a small battle against her. He picked up his chopsticks and placed a piece of eggplant from the dish in her bowl and began eating. She, suspicious of his eyes even more now, hesitated to pick up her own chopsticks to eat.
He smiled throughout the meal. Every now and then, he would glance at her breasts then glance back at her angry face. Right after the meal, the waiter came back with two bowls of ice cream and spoons. He knew she would not eat if he did not eat also, so he picked up the spoon, signaling that she would pick up her spoon also, and began eating. Once she began eating, he was mesmerized by watching her put the spoon in her mouth and slide it back out. Her lips lightly pressed against the spoon but still showed the definition of her lips. Before he knew it, she was done with her ice cream and his was melting in his bowl.
Without a word, he took her hand and led her to the gym, tracing the scars with his fingertip. The front room contained exercising machines and a mirror on one side. He saw that she was not impressed with this room. He led her to the middle room, which had mirrors on three walls and a hardwood floor. She stopped in the middle and stomped on the floor twice. She looked around the room, and JZ saw that she had some sort of flashback that had to do with a dance room similar to his.
“Would you like to dance,” he kindly offered.
She was not listening, but when she returned to the present, she saw his face like he was waiting for an answer to a question. “Huh?” she asked.
“Would you like to dance,” he kindly repeated.
With another look around the room, she said, “I don’t know how to dance,” and she returned to receiving the film the room gave her.
Seeing that she was still in her moment with the room, he took her hands and wrapped them behind his neck. He gently placed his hands on her back. She did not resist. They gently swayed left and right in circles, and he got closer and closer until her head was resting against his chest, and her body against his. He could feel her slightly fast breathing and her smile growing against his chest, which made his heart race a little faster.
When the song was over, she leaned out a bit, slid her hands down onto his chest, and looked up at his gentle eyes looking back at her. Her eyes relaxed and a slight smile on her face, he thought this was an expression he had not seen on her and he was intoxicated. He lowered his head toward hers. He kissed her on the lips and she kissed him back. It was slow and passionate. He held her tighter and tighter toward him. When he was done, he slowly opened his eyes, seeing her also slowly opening her eyes. He saw her pupils dilated and her cheeks bright red. When she looked back at him with a smile of genuine pleasure, he thought that he had never seen anyone so beautifully radiant in his life. For a good 10 minutes, this felt right to the both of them.
He bent down to kiss her again and she accepted. A few minutes passed. Then Elle wondered why her hands were on JZ’s pectoral muscles, pushed him back while stepping back herself, looked up at him and saw his bedroom eyes. She clasped her hands together and looked away, her body became tight. What she could not control was her bright red cheeks and fast heartbeat. Without looking at him, she quietly asked, “Can I go back to work?”
“You can go back to work when you look into my eyes,” he replied.
She could not bring herself to look at him. She fidgeted. A few minutes later, JZ came toward her, gently tucking her hair behind her ear. His fingertips grazed her face and he cupped her face with that hand. Then he brought his other hand up to her face, sliding the other side of her hair back, and cradling her head.
“Look at me,” he whispered.
She was quiet. He moved his face to face her, she jerked her head the other way, her face now in his hand. Her eyes, barely opened, looked at his hand, her lips partially apart touching the ball of his hand. She slowly exhaled, controlling her shaky breath. She dug deep inside herself, loosened her hands and arms, gently removed his hands from her head and face, and looked him straight in the eyes with her serious face.
He looked back, hoping his eyes would reignite her feelings toward him. Her face was serious, but all her feelings were in her eyes. He saw her big, brown, soft, and vulnerable eyes. He knew if he confronted her, she would deny it. “Go back to work,” he said solemnly.
JZ watched Elle exit the gym with the wind blowing her hair back.