Stephen called again just as they pulled into the apartment’s garage. Corinna had demolished an entire box of sushi in ten minutes flat and was holding her chopsticks like cigarettes between her teeth. The only reason Javier had gotten a bite in edgewise was that Rina didn’t like scampi. She handed him the empty box as they got into the lift, and he sighed.
“What?” she asked, “you’re off to a sushi feast in three hours. Without me. I deserve this.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” said Javier, sarcastically, “did you want to come?”
Corinna pretended to think about it. In his pocket, Javier’s phone continued to ring.
“Do I need to? Is he straight?”
Javier glared at her.
“I hope not,” he muttered, pulling his phone out as they walked through the front door, “for heaven’s sake, what?”
There was a clatter of conversation at the other end, then his best friend’s voice came through the speakers like a blast of air from an exhaust; warm and too loud.
“Ayyyyy, Jav! Finally!” Stephen Mansfield shouted down the phone.
Javier rapidly pressed the volume button, and Corinna sniggered, kicking off her heels and catching them with one hand by the straps. Javier ignored her and made a beeline for the kitchen to dump the takeout box.
“You’ve been ignoring me,” said Stephen, and Javier could hear the pout in his voice, “Clara says hi, by the way.”
“Hi Clara,” Javier said dutifully.
Corinna suddenly appeared at Javier’s shoulder and she pressed her face close to his phone.
“Hi Clara,” she announced, before vanishing in the direction of the living room.
“Oh, hey Rina!” said Stephen, “are you feeling better?”
“She’s gone already, but she’s doing just fine,” said Javier, wry.
He took the stairs two at a time, keen to get changed.
“How’s the fam visit going?”
“Good, all good. Her ama hates me, keeps calling me the ‘white ghost’ in Taiwanese…she thinks I can’t understand her but I totally can. The food though, holy shit, so good. Baos for days. I’m going to be fat when you see me next week,” Stephen’s voice turned away from the phone for a moment: “hey, babe, I’m gonna help Jav with his crisis–”
Javier frowned at his phone.
“–do you want me to get you a…okay, yep. Hang on, I’m gonna move to another room so we can talk.”
“There’s no crisis.”
“Video chat. I haven’t seen you in forever.”
“Stephen, it’s been a week.”
“Turn on the fucking camera!”
“Fine, fine, gimme a sec.”
Jav pushed the door to his bedroom open, letting it swing shut behind him with a soft click. He shrugged off his jacket and placed his phone on the corner of his dresser, swiping the projector-view open. There was a brief pause before the camera blinked a three dimensional projection of Stephen above the polished wood. His friend waved madly, face split into a familiar grin.
“Hey,” said Javier, smiling back.
Stephen was sitting cross legged on a couch, in nothing but briefs and a t-shirt. Javier did some quick math – it was about midnight in Taipei.
“Isn’t it late there?”
“Eh,” said Stephen, “someone wouldn’t reply to my texts. Or calls. I thought maybe you’d b–hey, where you going?”
“Hanging up my jacket, yeesh,” said Javier, walking back into the main bedroom area. He returned his tie to its rightful home, recessed lights fading to a warm honey glow as he pulled out the glass-topped drawer.
“So?” Stephen prompted, drawing out the vowel, “how was the date?”
He obviously couldn’t feel Stephen’s emotions remotely via a call, but they had known each other since they were in diapers. Javier’s brain was so used to Stephen greeting him with a burst of genuine happiness that the mere sight of his friend was enough to make him feel a little better, even made of just pixels and air.
“It’s not a date,” said Javier automatically, “and it hasn’t happened yet. It’s a dinner.”
Stephen leaned back into a cushion, looking disappointed.
“Oh, right… oops, I forgot how far behind London is. Why have you been ignoring me then?”
“Rina had to talk to the police about the whole,” Javier waved a hand, “…thing. Been with the lawyers and mum and Guilia all morning too. Had my phone on mute.”
Javier sat down on the edge of his bed and flopped backwards.
“Ugh, I have a headache.”
“Oh no,” said Stephen, “painkillers?”
Javier squinted at the video projection: his friend had also flomped over on the couch in sympathy. They stared at each other across the gulf that was the carpet at the end of Javier’s bed.
“Gotta wait another hour,” said Javier, “it’s fine, just shitty day.”
“You can’t go on a date with a headache.”
Javier groaned and rolled over so that his face was buried in his duvet.
“It’s not a date,” he said through a mouthful of cotton.
“I can’t hear you,” said Stephen, “but I think you’re wrong, probs.”
Javier rolled back over and sat up.
“I said it’s just …a thank you dinner thing? I don’t know…”
“We’ve been over this. You said he didn’t want a thank you dinner, he said yes to dinner.”
Javier stared at Stephen’s translucent face.
“There’s no such thing as ‘a dinner’,” said Stephen, sagely, “it’s a date. Did you decide where you’re taking him?”
“His friend told me to choose somewhere fancy and with seafood,” Javier said, “so I thought Ito’s. Beautiful food but not too stuffy?”
“Oh, Ito’s is nice,” his friend agreed, “classy. And if you’re chatting to his friends already, you’re one leg up, right? Get some of that intel–”
“I wouldn’t say we are chatting,” said Javier, “they just gave me a list of…requirements.”
Stephen leaned in towards the camera.
“Why don’t you just text him?”
“Because he wouldn’t give me his number!” said Javier, throwing his hands up.
“Still? Mate. Did you send the roses like I told you to?” demanded Stephen, “and accept the changes I made in mark-up? Your note was lame. Way too formal.”
“I did everything you said and it was awful.”
“Did you keep sending flowers?”
“No. He told me not to.”
“Well there’s your first mistake,” said Stephen, grabbing the nearest couch cushion and pummelling it into a comfortable chin-rest. “You gotta keep sending them, right. Put your money where your mouth is. Always worked with Clara.”
“Whatever, it’s too late now. I’m just stressed out. He thinks I’m an idiot.”
“Ehh… don’t stress. Clara thinks I’m an idiot and we’re getting married!”
Javier slapped a hand to his face. Stephen had begun working the ‘m’ word into any and every conversation, and while Javier liked the accompanying oxytocin rush, he wasn’t getting the beneficial side effect with a long-distance call. He stared at his friend balefully.
“You are an idiot.”
“Well, so are you. Should work out just fine.”
“I said his hospital was a dump and implied he was incompetent, after he saved Rina’s life,” said Javier, looking for his own pillow to hug. He took two from the top of the bed and buried his face in them so he could yell into the fabric. “He thought I was high on drugs.”
“You said he seemed okay with your apology, right?”
Javier peered above the wrinkle-edge of the pillow.
“I made him laugh,” Javier recalled, hopeful.
“But at me, not with me.”
“Stop being picky. If he wasn’t interested he wouldn’t have said yes to dinner. Dinner is what you do before coffee. And then the coffee does you.”
As the only non-bachelor in their immediate friend group, Stephen was never shy with dating advice. But ever since getting engaged, he’d started taking it upon himself to act as some kind of relationship savant–clearly having forgotten that it was Javier who set him up with Clara in the first place. It was a little odd to realise that three years had passed already.
Thinking about his best friend’s engagement cheered Javier up a little: Clara was one of a select few people who Corinna seemed to actively like (as opposed to passively dislike). She and Stephen tended to cycle into a steady hum of solid affection whenever they were in the room together; it was very nice and warm to be around. Clara was quiet where Stephen was loud, but Javier aspired to have someone look at him with the same fierce exasperation.
Then a horrible thought occurred to him.
“What if it’s a pity date?”
“…hmm,” said Stephen, ominously, “you’re admitting it’s a date.”
“What are we even going to talk about? I don’t know anything about–surgical…stuff. Ethan’s a surgeon, he’s smart as hell… and I’m going to come across so boring and stupid after an entire night of small talk…I should have asked him out to coffee instead, or brunch.”
“Anything before 5PM is for cowards,” said Stephen, “this is why you should date more. You wouldn’t be so stressed if you had more practice.”
“You know why I don’t.”
Stephen sighed, stretching out over the length of his couch.
“Well at least you’re trying now, so don’t chicken out. You’re being pathetic about it, but you’re trying.”
“I thought the whole omakase setting would be a smart move,” muttered Javier, mentally visualising the restaurant interior, “you basically have someone interrupting you every three minutes, so the longest awkward silence wouldn’t be that long. Right?”
“Stop thinking. Just look hot and try your best. Do you have time for that face mask thing? That always calms you down.”
Javier peered at the clock. He had about two hours before he had to leave.
“Yeah, good plan,” he said, throwing his pillows aside, “I’m gonna shower, put one on, then get rid of the bags under my eyes. Wait, I want you to tell me which suit to wear.”
Leaping off the bed, Javier crossed into his walk-in wardrobe. It used to be a separate guest bedroom that got converted, and now adjoined the en suite bathroom and what was the original walk-in wardrobe. It offered a sweeping view of Chelsea, the floor-to-ceiling windows bracketing the tall wooden shelves.
Javier had spent a long time here on Wednesday evening, shortlisting outfits. He came back to the bedroom with two.
“I think something more casual, since he’s going to be coming from work,”he said, throwing the clothes onto the bed, “no tie, obviously, but I can’t decide on the colour.”
He held up the jackets to the camera.
“Navy Zegna or slate Dior? I’m not sure if the bright shirt is too much against this grey…but I don’t want to send the wrong message.”
“That I’m straight.”
“Ha! As if.”
“So?” nudged Javier impatient, “which one?”
“Can’t tell, mate, you gotta put them on.”
Javier blew out his cheeks but began stripping. A lifetime of getting in and out of costumes in greenrooms and a few years spent backstage at various fashion shows meant he made short work of the buttons. He was shrugging on the second outfit when a new figure entered the camera’s viewfinder. It was Clara, hair down over one shoulder and wearing a silky negligee. She had a tablet in one hand, a stylus behind her ear.
“Are we playing dress up?”
Stephen’s head whipped around and Javier knew he had about two seconds before he lost Stephen’s attention completely. He snapped his fingers.
“Baobei!” Stephen cried.
“This has been a very long ‘crisis’,” said Clara.
They traded kisses over the back of the couch. When it looked like they weren’t going to stop anytime soon, Javier cleared his throat. Stephen reluctantly came up for air.
“Mate, I gotta go,” he said, hand in Clara’s hair and not even looking at the camera.
Javier rolled his eyes.
“Just tell me if you’d wear the navy or the grey one.”
“Uh…probably the navy; the first one, yeah.”
“Righto,” said Javier, “grey it is.”
“Is this for the date?” asked Clara, raising an eyebrow. She gave Javier a thumbs up, “looks good. Stop stressing.”
“…thanks,” he said, a little doubtfully.
“It’s almost one in the morning here,” Clara said, patting Stephen, who was working kisses down the length of her throat. She pushed him off with a palm to the face, laughing as she got off the couch. Her projection drew closer to the camera lens, going briefly out of focus.
“You’ll catch us up later, yeah?”
“Yep, sorry,” said Javier, “talk soon.”
“Good luck!” called Stephen.
The call disconnected with a cheerful chirrup.
The room was very quiet, all of a sudden. Javier caught sight of his own reflection in the mirror. He took a deep breath and smoothed down the lapel of his jacket.
“Look hot and try your best,” he echoed, “well, at least you’ve already made the worst impression possible.”
© Frances Wren 2020, all rights reserved.
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