"Tell me you love me."
"Excuse you? Excuse you for getting me into some snotty soiree? Excuse you for relying on me to win over the sponsor? What exactly would you like to be excused for this time?"
"Binding too tight?"
"…yes. And I can't work this damn bow tie." I muttered to the speakerphone.
"Tenoh, Darling, do you want a chance at breaking into the international circuit?" My agent's distorted words buzzed through insipidly.
"Do you think you could finance that on your own?"
"Then behave." He paused to breathe out in irritation. "There will be some good-looking women there…"
"Well, I know!" I checked my reflection. Nice suit. "There's me to start with…"
"Funny. One whiff of your gender bending tendencies and any right-minded sponsor would drop you in a second."
"I know, I know…chick's can't drive stick… wouldn't mind skipping on the bandages once in a while though."
"Not tonight. The guy's Abe Shun, corporate type. Likes to think of himself as a sports fan or something…"
"Great. And I have to kiss his ass?"
"God no. You think I'd hedge my bets on ability to charm a suit? A rep will be there on your behalf; he'll do the talking. You just need to turn up… mingle… network, I don't know! Just be there and act like you're enjoying yourself."
The event was as bland as I had expected. Some contemporary art gallery. Black tie. Open bar. Whatever. It was a matter of a brief series of pointless introductions to a bunch of guys, most of whom had brought their wives… making the whole woman-chasing deal too hazardous for my rep's liking. Brilliant. I took a glass, moved out of the conference center and ducked around the back way.
I sat only a moment, obscured by some kind of asymmetric architecture, before a giggle alerted me to my lack of seclusion. A child's laugh. My eyes hadn't quite adjusted to the dark before the snickering scuffler revealed itself, herself, from the garden's border only a few meters away.
"What are you doing?" She laughed as though I were out of place in the situation.
Cute. Holding her hands behind her back and rocking slightly cautiously from toe to heel, she appeared pale in the evening light, no older than five, obviously wearing 'the party dress.'
"Out here?" I was still missing out on the joke.
"Mm hmm. And you?"
"Nothing." She maintained her pendulum imitation. "I heard there were cats at this place, did you see 'em?"
"Cats?" At an art gallery? "Nope, afraid I can't help you… Do your parents know you're out here?"
"Oh yeah." She flopped her hand at the wrist dismissively, obviously a trait picked up on from adult company. "They have grown-up chats to do."
"Huh." Guess not.
"Yeah, it's real boring with no kids here. Plus I think the cats might be sleeping."
"Could be." Her arms were folded now. "Are you getting cold?"
"Nah, I like it here." Terrible liar.
"Well, perhaps you could try out this jacket for me?"
"A Man Jacket?"
"A…? Yes… It's getting a bit heavy for me. You'd be helping me out."
"O-Kay…I don't normally wear Man Jackets." She concentrated on securing every button.
Guess the chest binding came in handy.
"No of course not. You're clearly a Lady." She laughed at this.
"Lady!? I'm a girl!" She raised and lowered her arms like a wet sea bird.
"A girl?" I did my best incredulous act. "I thought you were a lady! I was going to ask you to dance with me!"
"…I can still dance." She shrugged, suddenly shy.
"Oh, I couldn't," I mimicked her previous hand flop. "Definitely not out here."
"Hm." She looked thoughtfully at the ground for a moment, clearly avoiding the 'grown-up-chat-area.'
"We can go dance inside…"
"Wonderful." Get the kid out of the bushes anyway. "And what is your name, young lady?" I affected a pompous tone. She took my hand through a scrunched blazer sleeve.
"Kuriko… Uh, Your Greatest Majesty Princess Kuriko."
"Very well, my greatest majesty princess Kuriko. Shall we go in?"
"Yes. No, you say your greatest majesty…"
"That's what I said."
"Oh. Come on." She pulled me up the stairs. "What's your name?"
"Mm… Like are you the King of something…?" She voiced in her best 5-year-old-royal impersonation.
"Me? Of course… King of the Sky… King of the Road… King…"
"No you can only pick one thing."
"Oh, I see." Juvenile logic.
"King of Dancing?"
"Are you married?"
"Me neither." Another shrug.
"Well obviously we're both too busy for that kind of thing."
She moved less eagerly as the light and noise of the function area increased. For that moment I understood completely. Eighteen years previously, that was me – the five year old at the twenty-thirty-forty plus convention. Perks of a rich upbringing. I crouched down to her level. It was a forest of legs, dark suit-pants, clicking, clapping heels, all converging, pausing and navigating across the marble floor.
"Need a lift? My greatest Majesty?"
"Uhm yes… I need to see my people." Kuriko raised her arms, feigning noble disinterest at her predicament, though shrieking gleefully at the sudden ascent. Held against my painfully crushed chest, the kid took a moment to observe her surroundings, pointing a small arm out towards the string quartet.
"That way to the dance." She instructed.
I winced as sandals wrapped and spurred the sides of my ribcage. My bow tie that had taken so long to fasten was being slowly loosened through her inspection.
"King?… You're not very big are you?" she kicked her legs around again experimentally
"Ouch… bigger than you."
"Hmm… is this like a hair ribbon?" she was still pulling at my neck.
"Not really. More of a neck ribbon." I looked pointedly at the musicians.
"Oh we made it!" She enthused.
"Yep." I pulled back to look at her. "Now, My Highness…"
"Sure. I hear you are a famously good at the waltz!"
"No." She looked down slightly. "We did the bunny hop one at school…?"
"Ah… I don't know that one…"
"But I have a plan."
"How are you at balancing?"
"Right." I set her down. "See if you can balance on these shoes."
"Stand on your shoes?" I held her hands to keep her from falling. "'Kay… Ah!"
"Now we're waltzing."
I took small slow steps in a miniature dance formation. Kuriko-chan. Not the kind of girl I tended to dance with, though I found I was enjoying the characterless event despite myself. She exhausted her remaining energy through a combination of intense concentration in anticipation of my next foot movement… and utter hilarity as she failed and relied on clinging to my arm to avoid hitting the ground.
She clapped to the musicians through her sleeves at the end of each piece, tiredness pulling at her eyelids.
"Hmm?" Stubborn as anything, she was virtually sleep walking.
"Can I go up?" The girl raised her arms for me to lift her.
Her head bobbed a moment before lying against my collarbone.
"You don't smell like my Daddy." She murmured. Finally.
"Really." I spoke quietly. "Which one is he?" I swung around slowly to allow her to see the collection of suits talking raucously by the bar.
"That one." She flipped her arm non-committaly." To my shock the sponsor appeared in the middle.
"Mr. Abe Shun?"
"Yup." Her eyes were closed.
I raised my gaze to him, one he returned, lifting his glass and mouthing an "Oh" to see the familiar child at my chest. Bastard. Clearly no chance of him stopping his conversation to collect my dance partner. Furthermore, my newly acquired friend was now rather too unconscious to assist in pointing out her mother. I turned away again rocking the two of us back and forth in time to the softening strains of the quartet.
A woman smiled from over the shoulder of her dance partner, looking between the sleeping bundle and myself. I smiled back, having forgotten the woman-pulling power of a cute kid…
"Kuri-chan…!" A softly scolding voice at my back. The mother presumably. The completely stunning mother…
Deja vu hit like a punch in the stomach.
Her eyes were clear, startlingly blue… concerned. Even in that slow moment, caught in the midst of such triviality, she moved in her own time, the grace of a geisha guiding her limbs.
Abe would be involved with a model.
"Mama…" She opened her eyes slightly, accepting defeat. "Have you met the King?"
"The… Oh, my," she smiled prettily back to me, her anxiety allayed. Her daughter's cheek was cupped against my chest.
"And I suppose you helped this gentleman in his Elvis impersonation?" She indicated my upturned collar. Back to reality.
"Hmm…" She pulled back from me, ready to return to the ground. "Not that King..."
I raised my hand as a quick goodbye, job done. Didn't want to get into the whole domestic conversation. Deja vu rattling insistently in my mind, I straightened my collar and walked out towards the parking lot. If that wasn't networking enough, too bad.
"Nah, King of the Sky and King of the Road and of Dancing…"
"You don't say…?" Their voices trailed after me.
Kuri-chan was completely worn out by the time we arrived home, for a moment I considered scolding my husband for the late night, though he seemed on such a high following the evening I couldn't bring myself to.
"My best girls!" He said, putting an arm around my waist as we left our daughter's room. "Always the prettiest girls at a party."
"You had a successful evening?" I took away my arm to remove my earrings, already knowing his answer.
"Of course!" He stole a rough kiss before dropping his clothes on the way to the ensuite bathroom, not stopping our conversation through the roar of the shower.
All go. President Abe.
It was one of the things that first drew me to him. He inherited his title as company president following his father's passing five years previously. It was remarkable, they had said, remarkable, given the circumstances, that he should pick up the reigns so convincingly. He never stopped.
Of course, when we first met his infatuation was clear; it wasn't foreign attention to me. I believe in our voiceless playing musicians have an unfair pulling capacity on the hearts of our audience. To nakedly express the emotion of a piece. To bow slightly as the finish as though it were just another performance. It wasn't fair. He was smitten. Ready to devote millions to endorse the arts. I was flattered, though no more than usual. Not at first.
"I've decided to go forward with the sponsorship!" Came the sound from the bathroom.
"Our logo blitzing across the finish line! Picture that!"
"You're very confident?"
"Did you meet the guy? Young guy. Tenoh Haruka. Ladies man!"
"A ladies man? You're not afraid to put your name to potential scandal?"
"Darling…" The water was shut off. He came forth wearing a towel at the waist. " Womanizing shouldn't be so scandalous. Anyway, Kuriko didn't seem to mind…"
"Oh? Not …the King?"
"King of the Sky, King of the Road…?"
"Heh. Sounds like the devil."
"The blonde… He was dancing with her…"
"Right, right. That's Tenoh."
"She doesn't have such bad taste then, our girl." I smiled teasingly.
"I hope not!" He dropped his towel. "This kind of international visibility is exactly what we need." I raised an eyebrow. He squared up to me, smiling gently.
"You'll come with me to see the race?" We fell onto the bed.
"Beastly, noisy machines?" I laughed.
"Just your cup of tea…" His unshaven face scratched lightly where he kissed my neck.
We didn't do this so often recently, four years into the relationship. It happens; familiarity, complacency, domesticity… we had that on top of the pressures of work to keep us occupied. It was a good marriage. He smiled down at me. Foolish man. Always so proud of his business achievements. I lifted my hand over my eyes.
A sponsorship deal with a sportsman. Tenoh Haruka. I have to say though; the strangest feeling had come over me. Deja vu. Like a skipped heart beat, or a sudden breath. Certainly I could see why women were drawn to him - we hadn't even spoke a word and yet, standing there with star-colored hair, with his determined eyes.
I felt my body warming.