Gene’s house went really dark at night. He was rich enough to keep the lights on, wasn’t he? But none of the guys were scared. Even Frank Jr’s son used his phone like a nightlight, if he was scared at all.
This was an important meeting, though. I couldn’t look scared. I needed to look like the old CEO, who was coming back to the office in style. We talked about the boring parts first. There was a plan for handling public explanations, so as not to tank our stock and lose investors. Going through a number of CEOs in a matter of years was very suspicious. But they said that I resigned due to health problems. We could say the same about Mike. If I cared about him, I’d be worried too.
There were finances and other deals to keep, but these were all people I was familiar with. I didn’t know if they liked me, but they had to pretend in meetings, didn’t they? I pretended a lot of things too, like that my dream was to always be CEO. Because it definitely was not, and my eyes glazed over at the boring stuff.
The thought of Andrea stopped it from feeling like pretending, but he sometimes faded in my mind when I was at my happiest. That worried me. He seemed like the most content, perfect man in the world, until his cancer diagnosis anyways. My happiness had to be compatible with him. He used to be the only thing that made me happy.
“So, as for the lynchpin in our crazy plan, opinion on Mike will be tied if I get in,” Junior said, snapping me out of a daydream. “Even if I’m somehow not my dad’s favorite son and clear best Board of Trustees inductee…we have a backup. The tie.”
“I think it’s great that the opinion is tied, actually,” I said. “We might have a willing tiebreaker in any scenario after all.”
I never spoke to Cosavo with that much confidence, but I immediately hatched the plan in my head while nothing else was going on in it. This position benefitted all three of us, and we all had our fans. Junior was friendly and charismatic and a big player in business anyways. I was agreeable and let many people’s proposals and mergers go through, against many others’ grievances. And Gene…surely he left an impact on Cosavo by being Andrea’s best friend, didn’t he?
“But the question is, who’s on the line?” Junior asked. “I actually know that answer.”
“Well…we are meeting for a reason.”
“I…I never would have guessed.” I actually thought he was messing with my head, like everyone did. He wasn’t married to Mike but being romantic with the CEO at all was so special! You got pay and prestige and sex in the CEO’s office.
I also remembered Everett as such a sweet kid when we hired him. He probably didn’t think the same about me anymore, but then again, what if Junior knew something about him that I didn’t? Did Mike wear him down? I at least knew that feeling. I was feeling it in each meeting we had, wondering if anything mattered, even if I was CEO.
“Well, should I try, then?” I asked Junior. “I know…I know I like turning people against Mike, but this doesn’t sound like the place to do it.”
“Just trust me and my ears for office gossip.” His tone was slick but reassuring. I liked that. He needed to get on the Board of Trustees just to work at Cosavo again, because I was starting to like that attitude.
“Remember not to waste those little Asian titties on a fag like that,” said Gene, waving his fingers at me.
“I…guess this meeting is done.”
It wasn’t. My eyes glazed over again at the rest of the talk. Wasn’t I supposed to be more engaged? Andrea wanted me to be, but I wasn’t feeling the warmth of his approval either. It wasn’t a good enough reason. Something had gone wrong.
But it ended and Junior was leading his son out to their car. He was a charmer and I knew he would be, even though Andrea said he hated twelve year-olds. Maybe I should have worked as a babysitter instead, but that would just prove everyone else right. I couldn’t lead adults…but Andrea trusted that I would. And that nothing would stand in my way.
“I love it when it’s just you and me,” Gene said.
“I don’t…I mean, I think we work together better as a team with Junior.”
“One day I’ll win you over again.” He started to reach around my shoulder and lower. “I’m overdue for another Viet so I’m always going to keep waiting.”
“No, could you not?” I asked, trying to push his arm away. I always forgot that Gene was still much bigger than I was, and that I didn’t get much stronger at all. He didn’t resist.
“No, get off me now.” My elbow digging into his belly got him to let go.
“Oh wow, you’re really defiant tonight,” he said.
“Don’t stay angry, Thu. I’ll let you have it this time.” Gene had his shit-eating grin again as he walked away. “You’ll go back to your usual place again.”
“I’m a different girl now,” I muttered. I watched until I knew he locked the door to his ground floor master bedroom.
I had to call Gian to drive me back, or take the train. He’d worry about me if I did. And he’d worry about me if he saw me crying again after being near Gene and talking about Cosavo. Gian didn’t like me doing that, and I didn’t either! Not even for Cosavo! I barely touched Gene that night, but my mouth and throat hurt like he forced himself down there. I couldn’t breathe without choking.
He wasn’t even anywhere near me once he was in bed. He couldn’t hear me or hurt me. But I still broke down sobbing in his big house. Everything echoed. None of the lights were on. Junior had already left and didn’t seem disturbed by how Gene acted at all anyways.
Suddenly I felt warm. I felt like I was near one of those salt lamps that Elle wanted.
“I don’t want to see you cry.” Kari knelt down right next to me. She was in her pajamas again and holding a white pillow. “Did something happen?”
I could ask her do you think I’m a nasty cockslut, Kari? Because I called you fat once and had sex with your dad? She knew what we did together. I could say it if my throat wasn’t closing up. But she kept trying to calm me down instead. “Are you feeling ill? Do you need an aspirin? Did they say something?”
She handed the pillow to me. I couldn’t even speak. What was I supposed to do with it? Or to her? Something about Kari always left me flustered. Maybe I was scared of Gene’s children deep down, or what they thought of me.
I cried into the pillow and stained it with eyeliner. I didn’t feel her walking away from me. She left me flustered but it was like staring into a bright light. Kari was a lot like a bright light, because I wanted to curl up and fall asleep next to her…right at that moment anyways. But I always felt that way about people who listened to me when I cried.
“Maybe we can go upstairs? You don’t want my dad hearing you,” said Kari. “But it’s no problem for me! No one sleeps over with me anyways but, like, I gotta be a good host, right?”
She held onto me as we went upstairs. Strangers never did that to me either, unless they were Andrea or Elena. But it was like I was thrust into a different world. It was the kind of world where I shouldn’t have been crying…but also where it was okay to cry.
Kari let me rest on her bed. She said that she never had anyone sleep over, but her room was built for a guest. Everything was clean and decorated, it was spacious, and she even had a table for two with a tea set on it. Two of her stuffed animals were seated there instead. I never even asked a maid to do that. She had lots of toys and posters and even more books. I didn’t know that she read, or anything that she liked.
My vision was still blurry from crying, so everything was bathed in a blurry pink and green light. I expected to wake up sobbing on Gene’s floor, but I didn’t want to leave this dream. Or reality, if it was that.
“Am I dreaming?” I asked Kari, when she sat next to me.
“I was just gonna ask you want kind of toast you want,” she said. “I have this loaf of milk bread and it’s gonna go stale soon and…uh…it’s still great bread. I had some for breakfast today.”
“Why are you doing this for me?”
“Because it’s a nice thing to do?”
“Do I deserve that?”
“Of course you do.” Her face drooped into a soft frown. Did she actually want to see me happy? Deserving of love and hospitality? I had no idea, I barely knew her. “No matter what you’ve done or what you’ve done with my dad.”
“Do you have tea instead?” I asked. “My throat’s really sore.”
“I’ll get something special, I promise.”
She got us both a mug of hojicha tea. It was green and from Japan and not my first choice, but Kari was the host that night.
We curled up together on her bed with our tea. I didn’t even grasp who’s idea it was, but it felt so natural since she was so soft and warm. It was like when Andrea and I got engaged and I was still weak and unwell. It made Elena spend even more time with me and cuddle with me while she fed me desserts and warm, steamed milk. I always liked cuddling with her. Of course it was nothing like with Andrea…but it was also everything like that. I couldn’t ever stop myself from cuddling someone. Unless it was Gene.
Kari smiled a lot and her nostrils flared up so much whenever she did. She didn’t look like her dad at all. She was more like a plump doll with ivory skin and perfect side-swept eyelashes.
Then my cup was empty, and I was too.
“I’m scared to work at Cosavo again, but I don’t know why,” I said. It was a lot easier to say than I thought it would be. “Uh…I guess you know why I was ever there at all, right?”
“Yeah…I’m so sorry about your husband. I never even thought to put that together until…I dunno…I guess I had to figure out why my dad wanted his wife so much,” she said. “Do you still miss him?”
“I do! And…I’ll never stop, even when it really hurts.” Like it did trying to save his company. A Cosavo under me is what he died with a vision of. He wasn’t happy when he died but that was because the nurse wouldn’t give him one of those fentanyl candies. He would have been if he got one, because I was going to run Cosavo.
“I don’t want to work with your dad. I was stupid but I don’t like how he treats me. What if I can actually have someone better?”
“Yeah…like…I know this is going to sound stupid, but he just says offensive things,” said Kari. “You know, he says stupid and awful and racist things about Asians, but he’s not going to sucker punch one in the street. Maybe that’s all you’re going to have to tolerate at Cosavo. It’s an office, right? Just a big ol’ office where everything has to look pretty. He has to help keep it looking pretty.”
“That’s a…that’s a good analogy,” I said. “And I know what his file at HR was like. Gian said it’s full of assault or crime but it’s just him being offensive.” That much was true. There was also some groping, but everyone did that. Even Andrea did before he met me.
“And guess who got a job there too?” Kari asked. I knew the answer, and lit up a bit inside. “Well…it’s security at the ground floor’s front desk, but if you’re back, then you’re not that alone. You have me and that Persian girl already! That’s, like, the best power trio you could be part of. And it means I’ll get friends who actually live here.”
“I’ll trust you. Maybe I’ll feel good during lunch with you,” I said. “I need more friends too.”
“Oh my god, I didn’t even think of lunch! There’s this great dumpling cart we get lunch at every day now…”
It felt like we stayed up for hours. Time went by fast with Kari too. She was so easy to talk to, and she even called Gian for me. They spoke like they had met before…which had to have happened. Every Cosavo kid met Gian and everyone trusted him with their children.
Kari let me sleep in her bed. She said that her siblings were staying with their mother until school started again, so she had a lot of spare beds. But for a bit I knew she was still sitting on the side of the bed with a book. It was very late and past midnight, but was she watching over me? Or just sucked into that novel?
Either way, she made me feel safe in Gene’s house! I had to trust her…more than I ever trusted anyone else.
A/N: Thu’s just being a nice guest because hojicha tastes like dirt.
most Japanese green teas are just not for me I’m sorry