Jacky kind of left his post-Inn visit to chance, but that is not how Chen-ai operates. I may not know what her whole deal is about, but she had never sprung anything on me that hasn't taken some planning, even if I never see it coming.
Take last night. My co-workers and I are rolling out of the building at around 9:30pm - something can't miss its Christmas release date, and, no, it's not Star Wars - and doing the usual when we've been hit with that much unpaid overtime: Grabbing a snack at the taco truck a couple blocks away, because we've worked straight through dinner and who is going to want to fucking cook by the time we make our way home through traffic? Add some beers from a nearby convenience store, and it makes for a fine end-of-week bitch session.
It's my turn to buy the beer, and I'm walking back to the truck when a bright green convertible slams on the brakes and turns into the lot. The driver gets out, a blonde wearing a sparkly pink dress that shows pretty much all of her legs and has a plunging neckline that makes it clear she's got the sort of slender build to go braless, plus matching stiletto heels and dark sunglasses. She makes a beeline in my direction. "Missy?"
My colleagues raise their eyebrows, and I'm pretty confused too. "Do I--?"
She takes off the glasses, and it's suddenly more obvious that the blonde hair is a dye job. "It's me! Bingbing! Oh my god, the look on your face!" She quickly pulls a phone out of a handbag, shoves herself against me, and takes a tongue-out selfie with one hand while extending the two fingers with the other. "Can you believe this? Missy and I grew up together in Hong Kong, and then I'm out here doing a scavenger hunt of all things, and I find her! What are the odds?"
All my friends are smirking like seeing me uncomfortable is hilarious. Rafik is the first to respond. "If you want to catch up--"
"Yes! We're supposed to do this with partners, but since I'm between boyfriends... Oh, you're still hung up on that! But that was ages ago, and we were totally different people!"
I sighed. "Fine. Whatever you say."
Chen-ai/Bingbing squealed, and everyone made a point of calling me "Missy" as I got in the car, barely shutting the door before she hit the gas and tore out onto the highway, leaving me grabbing hold of the door while trying to buckle my seat belt, and soon work was out of sight (along my own car, I suddenly realized). I looked over at Chen-ai, expecting her to drop the act, but she just switched to Cantonese.
"I should have done this years ago! Is this what it felt like for you, seeing Yuan-wei's face in the mirror after choosing not to go back to being that fatty again? So light and sexy and full of energy and free?"
"No! What the fuck is wrong with you?"
She didn't say anything for a few minutes, and then seemed a little more serious and like the Chen-ai I remembered as we pulled into a gas station. "You know, it's going to go a lot better between us if you just let some things go. I promise." She reached into what passed for a back seat and pulled out a garment bag, then nodded toward the restrooms. "C'mon, go get changed."
I thought of refusing, but we were kind of out in the middle of nowhere and pissing her off was maybe not a great idea. I snatched the bag and went to the back of the station, hoping this wasn't how I got left behind.
It was a really nice dress, as sparkly as hers but not quite so low-cut, even if there was no wearing a bra with it. The cut (and underwire) pushed my tits up and in, anyway. The matching handbag was just big enough for phone, wallet, lipstick, keys, and pepper spray; the matching shoes were also stilettos, and I felt a little wobbly from not having really gone out in a while (and folks were just going to have to deal with my unpainted toenails).
Chen-ai hadn't abandoned me, so I tried to play it cool. "Pink and blue dresses? Trying to say something?"
"Nah, it's just funny. We've got a private joke." She let me get secure in my seat before driving off this time.
We were in the city a half-hour later, able to walk past a round-the-block line at a club. She asked what I was drinking, I said a 7-Up, and she said "Bicardi & 7, got it." Before I could say no, it was in my hands.
We attracted attention, and though we weren't attached at the hip for the next three hours, I would always find her near me after a while. I'm not going to lie, there were moments when I was a bit carried away by the great DJ, the cool light show, and the very hip crowd. Some folks bought me really expensive drinks, and I do have the phone number of an actor who went from flattered that I recognized his face to curious when I said it was from putting it on a stuntman's body.
But Chen-ai seemed to being having an even better time, grinding on the biggest stars in the place, screaming that she loved that song, flirting and getting numbers from people half her age like it wasn't fucking weird at all. Every once in a while, she'd make sure to introduce me to one, taking about how he might be a really good contact to have, or saying he'd been looking my way.
I guess she didn't quite know how much Bingbing could hold, because after a while she put her arm around my shoulders and said she needed me to drive her to the hotel. I disentangled myself from the finance creep who was hitting on me, got her to the sidewalk, and took the key when the valet returned.
The car was annoyingly fun to drive, and the hotel was five-star. I tried to drop her at the elevator, but she grabbed my hand, half-drunkenly saying we had to talk. Her room was a suite, of course, and she had apparently already used the place's app to order room service, remembering how I liked my steak.
Hungry from not having my tacos hours ago, I attacked it right away, looking up to see her smiling.
"So what's this all about? Making sure I can see how well you planned everything and prepared to fit in so that I don't try and push back?"
She gave a little "ugh!" gap, like the accusation was me being paranoid. "Fitting in's not that hard, Jordo. Like, all those eighties and nineties movies and TV shows you millennials watch, that's us. Not that much has changed other than the phones! And as for what it's about, like I said, it's easier for everyone if we get along. Everyone thinks we're best friends anyway."
"Right, you want to be my friend."
"Why is that so hard to believe? I told you that I'm impressed by how you handled all this, I stepped in when I saw Carlotta and Giorgia were trying to mess with your life, I've shared what I know about the Inn. I know it's not great that I never really learned to play the part of a good mother because I resented Yuan-wei and that I like you better than her, but now I don't have to!"
"If you like me so much, why did you make me dump Jacky?"
"Did that turn out to be a bad thing? Look, it's not your fault that you never developed the instinct for when guys are trouble the way other girls do, but were you going to listen to the woman you imagine is some sort of supervillain if I said he set off alarms? Obviously not. I figured maybe a little time as a woman would have made him appreciate you more, but from how receptive you seemed to be to other guys tonight, I'm guessing it didn't turn out that way."
I didn't concede the point, but I didn't say anything.
"Besides, you're going to want me by your side when they start asking about your mother."
That was what I was waiting for. She said it in the same casual, fun-loving way as everything else, but a chill went up my spine and I carefully set my fork down. "Chen-ai, what did you do?"
"Nothing, really, but my old identity is in limbo, so when nobody sees her for a few weeks, there will be some questions, especially if anybody finds out she's not at that place I checked myself into." She gave me a look like I was the one making trouble. "What? It's not exactly easy to disappear for long enough to overstay a visa. But I trust you to cover for me!"
"You expect me to cover for you?"
"I wouldn't have given you power of attorney otherwise, although I admit, I did figure you'd be coming to your friend Bingbing for advice." She shrugged.
"What the fuck else?"
"What do you mean?"
"What sort of other fucking mess have you stuck me with?"
"There's no other mess, and the business runs itself." I crossed my arms and stared bullets. "Okay, fine, I put ten million dollars into a numbered amount. Hong Kong dollars, not U.S., I'm not greedy or anything. It's just kind of like start-up money."
"You did what?!!?"
"Hey, I earned that money, and I deserve to take some with me! It shouldn't affect you at all - I didn't touch your trust fund, and barring any sort of emergency, nobody will have any reason to freak out and call the police about how your frugal, sensible mother hasn't been seen in weeks if you just stay in California and let our employees do their thing."
I pushed away from the table. "There's the fucking threat."
She stood up and chased after me. "It's not a threat, Jordan, it's precautions, just in case something went wrong or I got homesick. I didn't even see the need to tell you before you started interrogating me because I could see you're so happy here and such a good person. Trust me, we're going to be great friends by this time next year. Maid of honor at my wedding."
I snorted, and she ignored it. A big, genuine-seeming yawn escaped her. "Wow, I haven't had a night like that in twenty years! I've got to crash. The hotel laid out a toiletries in the other bathroom and some really great pajamas in the other bedroom, so we can talk more in the morning if you want." She hadn't taken her heels off, and giggled as she had to find her balance on the way to the bathroom.
I said hell no to that, calling to charge a cab to the room as soon as she had closed the door. I'd been watching my drinks, but I still felt pretty drowsy when I got home, and feel asleep right away.
This morning, there were text messages from "Bingbing", saying she understood this was going to take some time, and since she had to go back to Hong Kong anyway, she'd give me my space. Then the selfie she took at the start of the night.
The whole night almost doesn't even feel real, even with that stupidly nice dress hanging by the hamper. There's got to be some sort of angle. There's no fucking way that Chen-ai really thinks we're going to be besties after all she's done, unless she's crazier than I thought.