“Just because I agreed to cooperate with your insane plan doesn’t give you the liberty to abduct me at your leisure,” Ana grumbled as she strapped herself into Ken’s Porsche. They were at the conference hall of the Hongo campus of the University of Tokyo where she had just attended a conference. Ana had been one of the presenters that afternoon. She had been chatting with a couple of other researchers during the informal reception afterwards when she realized that her colleagues’ awed silence was due to something other than her advanced results and the preciseness of her answers. She had turned to find Ken standing slightly behind her, watching her. For a moment she had been reeled in by the indulgently affectionate look on his face before she remembered what he did for a living. She had scowled at him, but he had just smiled.
Although he was similarly clad in a suit, he completely stood out in the sea of black and white. His shirt was open at the neck and his suit was leanly cut. The growing buzz of speculation at his presence had alarmed her, but he had charmed her colleagues with his excuses. She was privately amazed at how smoothly he had extricated her from the gathering.
Ken chuckled softly as he strapped himself in. “Can’t I take my girlfriend out to dinner?”
“Pretend girlfriend,” Ana hissed as he pulled out of the parking lot. “You didn’t have to make such a spectacle of yourself,” she grumbled.
“Don’t play innocent. You deliberately put your arm around me when you saw Dan approach”
“I was playing a role.”
“You didn’t have to overdo it.”
“Who knows? I may truly be affectionate in real life.”
“Do you even have a real life?” she shot back.
He glanced at her, amused at their childish sparring, “That’s what we’ll find out tonight.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, shouldn’t we take some time to get to know each other?” He asked, glancing at her, “In order to play our roles out successfully, we have to do a bit of research and preparation. Isn’t that what they call a scientific approach?”
Ana saw the logic in his argument and pouted grumpily, “Oh alright, I see your point.” She conceded, “But I’m not some dog you can snap a leash on and lead away at your leisure. If you had called first…”
He glanced at her profile and was struck at how cute she looked when she was in a tantrum. Her arms were folded in front of her and she was staring stonily ahead. She had sass; he’d give her credit for that. He decided to try and pacify her, “I’m sorry,” he said, “I took it for granted that you would be free.” When she finally fell silent, he glanced at her once again and asked, “Is it just me or are you like this with every man you meet?”
“It’s you. I’m usually really charming,” she assured him. “So is it just me or are you this high-handed with every woman you know?” She countered.
He chuckled, “Pretty much every woman,” he told her, “however, it seems that you’re the only one who has fought back so far.”
“Thank you. I’ll take that as a great compliment.”
“No wonder you haven’t managed to get Sato,” Ken observed and smiled as Ana turned to him, and demanded to know what he meant by that. “Men like women who are soft and subservient,” Ken explained.
“Intelligent men like women who stimulate them,” Ana argued hotly.
“Soft women can be stimulating too.”
“Not that kind of stimulation!”
“Was there any other kind?” Ken discovered that he was having fun sparring with Ana. This was a novel experience. Since he wasn’t romantically involved with her, he felt comfortable saying what he really thought. Plus, he felt that she was tough to take anything he threw at her, and she gave back as good as she got.
Ana leaned back in her seat and stared at her companion in frustration. For what seemed the hundredth time, she berated herself for agreeing to his plan. She must have had a bout of insanity. They were never going to get along long enough to pull this whole thing off. She briefly wondered at her attitude towards the man who sat beside her, for some reason his taunts really got to her, and damned if arguing with him didn’t feel good.
Jon had said last weekend that she needed some Sturm und Drang to liven up her placid life. But this seemed to go beyond that. It seemed that she and Ken couldn’t go ten minutes in each other’s company without going for each other’s throats. She glanced at Ken, he had a truly beautiful profile, she thought abstractly. He wasn’t as pretty as most Japanese actors seemed to be, but there was an attractive roguishness about him that sort of crept up on you. She winced in mid-thought and shut her eyes determinedly. It wasn’t advisable for her to think of him in that way. They had a business arrangement. Boba. This was all pretend. She had her role to play and so did he, and it was utter foolishness to suppose anything else. She sighed, absently rubbing her temples.
“Hard day?” Ken asked, glancing at her.
Her eyes still closed, Ana tilted her head back and said, “Uh-uh, same as usual. I’m just glad my presentation is over.”
“I saw your presentation,” Ken told her.
“I couldn’t understand half of what it was about, but I saw a lot of impressed faces.” He glanced at her and smiled, “It didn’t hurt that you cut a pretty impressive figure up there. And that’s not just lip service.”
She decided that he was sincere and smiled in response, “Thanks. I’ve found that it’s good to doll up for any presentation, especially when your audience can get nitpicky if you aren’t.”
“Isn’t that unfair for the men?” Ken queried.
“Hey, I’m a woman in a male-dominated field; I need all the help I can get.”
Ken glanced at her. She suddenly seemed so delicate, at odds with the hard-as-nails image he had had of her. He suddenly felt a twinge of guilt at what he was going to put her through. However glamorous it seemed, public life was hard; there were paparazzi all around, waiting for the right moment to make a scoop, reporters prying into every aspect of your life, and critics waiting to pounce on your next wrong move.
She had agreed to his proposition and he was grateful for that. He decided to try and make the task as easy for her as possible. In a deliberately light tone, he asked, “Ana?” when she opened her eyes to look at him, he smiled at her, “What if instead of pretending too hard to be lovers let’s try to be friends first?” When she gave him a quizzical look, he continued, “We’re about to embark on something that will ultimately affect both of us, shouldn’t we try to at least be friends?”
Ana looked at him in amazement, he seemed sincere enough. From a practical viewpoint, his suggestion indeed had merit. As she contemplated this, they arrived at their destination.
He stopped the car in front of large rambling house, surrendered the keys to a valet and went around to Ana’s side to help her out. “So what about it,” he asked when they were waiting to be seated by the maitre ’d, “do you want to declare a temporary truce? Are we to be friends?” He said as he held a hand out.
Ana looked at his outstretched hand and smiled slowly up at him before she grasped his hand in a firm handshake, “I’m willing to give it a try if you are. Sure, friends it is.”
The restaurant they went to was a trendy French bistro in the quieter part of Omote-sando. It was an old, rambling structure that had once been the house of a shogun’s descendant. It had been reconverted to accommodate several adjoining private dining rooms that afforded the users a modicum of privacy. The foyer was discreetly furnished in shades of wine and mahogany, and the wooden floors gleamed from a recent polishing. After perusing their menus, both Ken and Ana opted for a light dinner course menu. When the waiter had served them wine and water,
Ken turned conversationally to Ana, “So what do new friends talk about?”
She shrugged, “I guess they ask each other questions and try to get to know each other”
“Un, I’ll go first shall I?” He searched for a safe topic to start on, “Where are you from?”
“I’ll give you three guesses,” Ana challenged, her eyes sparkling up at him mischievously.
Ken considered her for a moment, “Hm, you aren’t American,” he observed, “South Asian maybe. Are you from the Philippines?”
Ana snorted, “How did you find out?”
“Lucky guess,” he answered as he held her gaze. Yoshi should see this, he thought. Ana, with her eyebrow slightly raised and a patient smile on her lips, looked very much like the schoolteacher he had initially likened her to. He finally shook his head and gave in, “I asked your lab assistants. They were very informative. Or at least one was.”
Instead of getting mad as he expected, the woman before him dissolved in giggles, “Nakano is a big fan of yours,” she said, “You bribed them, didn’t you?”
He grinned sheepishly, “Four free passes to my new movie at Roppongi,” he admitted, “Plus I had to autograph some pictures for her.”
“Well, she isn’t cheap at any rate,” Ana commented as she took off her glasses and laid them on the table. “So why did you ask if you already knew?”
Ken shrugged, “I wanted to see how you’d react.” He glanced at the folded glasses, and asked,
“How long have you been wearing glasses? Are your eyes really that bad?”
Ana chuckled as she regarded the glasses, “They’re just for show,” she admitted, “I used to wear them so that I’d look older, but now I wear them out of habit.”
Ken picked up the pair and studied the glass. He smiled at her in wonder, “So you’re an actor too, huh?”
She smiled at that, “I guess you could say that I am. In this field it not sufficient that you have the skills, people have certain expectations.”
Ken nodded, “I understand,” he said, “You have to be who people expect you to be.” Ana looked at him in surprise, she felt that he truly did understand. “Why did you choose to study physics?” he asked.
She shrugged and idly stroked the stem of the water glass, “I guess the main reason is because I like solving problems, and physics trains me to analyze and dissect problems and find solutions.”
“But what practical application does your research have?” Ken queried.
“My research deals in pure science, so it’s not about anything that will save the world, if that’s what your question is about. But hopefully some other researchers will be able to apply them to current technology. For instance, semiconductors and fiber optics have their roots in physics.”
Ken asked a few more questions and was amazed at the patience Ana displayed in making him understand. Instead of using highfaluting terms, she stuck to the basics. Her passion for her job was something that he understood and respected. He was caught unawares when she smiled and turned the tables on him by asking how he had got started acting.
He grinned ruefully at her, “You want the press-version?”
“Nope, I want the truth. Friends are honest with each other.” She declared as she popped a mushroom canapé into her mouth. Ken stared as she closed her eyes, enjoying the food. Most girls he took out had picked at their food, as if they were scared of gaining even half a pound. Ana’s appreciation for good food was certainly refreshing. He started when she pierced him with a direct gaze, “Well? I’m waiting.”
He smiled at her impatience, “Truth is, I started acting in middle school because one of the girls I had a crush on was part of the school production. I figured it was a good way to get close to her.”
“So did you? Get close to her I mean,” Ana asked.
Ken shook his head, “She got sick and dropped out in the middle of the production.” He ignored Ana’s amused snort and went on, “I was really disappointed, but by the time we finished, I was in love with the stage. I continued acting until I was scouted.”
She tilted her head in consideration, “Why did you shift to the movies if the stage was your first love?”
“Movies and TV paid more.” He answered simply. “My parents died early and I had to find a way to support myself. It seemed like the easiest solution.”
Ana smiled at him, “I guess we’re lucky,” she said. At his raised brow, she clarified, “To be able to do something we love and get paid for it.”
The rest of the evening seemed to pass in a blur. Ken was surprised to find himself opening up to Ana about his work. Somehow, she made him feel as if acting were simply a profession like any other, and that he was more than just an actor. He told her about his recent movie in the States, and about Yoshi, who to his surprise she actually knew of. He made her laugh as he told her of the things he was required to do as part of his job when he was much younger—joining game shows, and pulling gags on people.
In turn, Ana found out that Ken was easy to talk to. He expertly extricated details of her life from her; listening intently as she spoke of her family, friends, and work. She told him about living with Kaye and Tessa, and working with Nakano and Tanaka. She didn’t feel comfortable talking about Dan, and thankfully he didn’t seem to mind her omission.
“But your English is really good,” she exclaimed, wiping tears of mirth after he told her about the time he had been asked to interview twenty foreigners in Shibuya and how he had gotten his words mixed up, and ended up offending a large, African-American woman. So far, they had both been talking in a mix of Japanese and English. In fact, Ken was much better at it than some of
Ana’s co-workers who spoke English with very pronounced Japanese accents.
“Well, it used to be bad. To be honest I actually spent part of my childhood in the US,” he admitted, “My father worked there for a while and we accompanied him. I attended an American grade school for three years. But my skills have gotten rusty over the years.” Ken smiled at her, “Your Nihongo isn’t so bad either. Where did you learn it?”
“It was compulsory for all of us to study Japanese when we got here,” she answered in reference to her study grant.
“Was it hard to learn?”
She tilted her head as she considered his question, “Well the kanji was a bitch, but the pronunciation wasn’t so bad, it’s very close to Filipino pronunciation you see”
“Is it?” asked Ken, intrigued.
“Uhuh. I think that it would be one of the easiest languages for Japanese people to learn.” At his dubious look, she smiled, “For example, take the word hito,” she said.
“Hito as in person?” He clarified.
“Exactly. In the Philippines, hito is a fish. So you can just imagine one of my lab mates’ surprise when he saw a sign in Davao that said, ‘Live hito for sale.’ He thought it was part of a white slavery ring!” Ken burst out laughing at that.
They were finishing off their main course when Ken turned to Ana and expressed astonishment at why she didn’t have a boyfriend.
“Wow, and it was really going well,” she observed, “That was a short truce.”
“Seriously, you’re not bad-looking at all,”
“Gee, thanks,” Ana muttered under her breath. “Ken, I do think some men look for more than just looks in a woman.”
“I completely agree,” he surprised her by saying, “but it's the looks that first catch our attention.” At her quizzical look, he continued, “I know you think we’re pigs, but most men classify women upon meeting them. There are two categories, friends and possible lovers.”
“How scientific.” Ana retorted, amused in spite of herself.
“The thing is, if you’ve already been sorted into one category, it would take a miracle to make a guy change his opinion. We’re mulish like that.”
“Okay, so you’re saying that Dan hasn’t noticed me because I’m not a Ms. U contender?”
“Sou desu ne,” he agreed and grinned at her sudden frown, she was really easy to rile. “Was I supposed to deny the fact?” when she hmphed, he laughed. “Ana-san, you are definitely not as stunning as some women I’ve taken out, but you have the potential to be.”
She sighed, “Ken, if this is going to work at all, I’m afraid I will have to insist on a few rules.”
“I know you think of this as playing a role, and in a way I guess that it is so, but I’d appreciate it if you didn’t treat me like a witless fan who’d drop to your feet if you so much as wink at me. We’re business partners, plain and simple. You don’t have to flatter me unnecessarily.”
“What do you mean?” He asked, truly puzzled.
“I mean save your platitudes for women who’ll fall for them. You don’t have to tell me that I’m beautiful or that I have potential.” Ana knew she was far from being butt-ugly, but she knew her limitations. Plus, she had fought long and hard to be recognized for her brain, not for her face. The climb up the academic ladder not only had made her downplay her looks, it also had made her think that it was something to be suppressed.
Ken stared at her incredulously, perhaps some of his earlier comments had indeed been desultory, but he hadn’t been kidding when he said she had potential. He had arrived during the tail end of her presentation, but he couldn’t help but notice that she had her audience spellbound. And although he couldn’t make heads or tails of what she was talking about, he suspected that her audience was much more interested in Ana as a woman than in the contents of her presentation. The sight of her standing on the stage, in a black suit, white shirt, and heels, looking confident and enthusiastic, had been truly arresting. Even the curly lock that had escaped her ponytail and the dark-rimmed glasses she had donned were sexy somehow. He imagined that the sway of her hips as she had walked off the stage, as well as the flash of well-turned leg revealed by the slit of her skirt, had most of the male percentage of the assembly drooling in reaction. He smiled, she seemed completely without guile or artifice. She was so unlike most of the women in his profession. He turned to her, “I think Ana, that I know more about female beauty than you do.”
She wondered whether she should believe him or not. He sounded sincere, but then again, he was an actor. But she agreed that he probably did know about female beauty—what with having females bodily fling themselves at him all the time.
“What?” she said after a prolonged silence.
“There’s actually an event next week that I want to invite you to,” Ken said
“Huh?” Ana was surprised at the quick change in topics.
“It's a launch for the new Suntory malt whiskey at the Keio Plaza Hotel,” Ken went on, “there’s going to be a big reception, would you mind coming with me?”
Ana noted the polite phrasing of the invitation. She smiled inwardly, this must be killing him, she thought. She smiled at him, “I’d love to go.”
He smiled, relief patent on his face, “You aren’t going back out at the last minute, are you?”
Ana bristled, “I never back out of something once I’ve committed myself to it. A deal is a deal.”
“There are a few things we need to take care of before next week,” he explained, “Are you free tomorrow?”
“Mmm, I have to go somewhere in the evening, but I’ll be free most of the day.”
“Great, I’ll pick you up at ten.” Ken said and turned his attention to the chocolate mousse on the table. He refused to divulge any information about their outing other than it would help her prepare for the event next week. He knew Ana would throw a fit when she found out what he had planned for her tomorrow, but he’d handle it somehow.
Go to Chapter 8