Chapter OneAna still felt a bit woozy as she entered the lab on Monday morning. She had woken up late on Sunday afternoon with a massive hangover. Had she been a little less devout, or had Kaye been a little less pushy, she might have almost missed the last mass at Roppongi’s Franciscan Chapel Center. Dinner and strong coffee at the Outback restaurant semi-rejuvenated her, but she still collapsed onto her bed when they reached home.
Gosh, she thought, I’m getting a bit too old for these all-nighters. She was more than thankful to Kaye, Tessa, and Jon for intervening before she could make more of an ass out of herself. She was even more grateful that they didn’t rib her about her actions the night before. When she asked why they were being so nice, Jon simply answered that they all had agreed to wait until she was sober again before teasing her. The memory of his answer brought a smile to her face as she sat down at her table.
She spied Dan at the coffee and tea percolators, tall and dashing in his white lab coat. Her heart skipped a beat when he suddenly turned, smiled at her across the worktables, and headed towards her.
“Hey,” he said as he reached her cubicle, an extra mug of freshly brewed coffee in his hands, “you look like you could do with this.”
Ana took the mug, closed her eyes, gratefully breathed in the aroma of the coffee and took a sip,
“Thanks Dan, you’re a lifesaver.”
“Tough weekend?” He inquired as he lounged about on the chair opposite her.
“I’ve had better,” she quipped as she took another fortifying sip. “What’s up?” she asked, it wasn’t often that Dan sought her out so early in the morning. He usually took care of official correspondence, budgets, and schedules in the mornings. Meetings with his colleagues and associates were in the early afternoon before he embarked on his experiments, which sometimes went well into the night.
“I wanted to have a word with you about the conference in LA next week.” He explained as he sat down opposite her.
“Fire away. I need practice anyway, I wish you could attend and present the paper yourself …” she began, but he interrupted her.
“What for, when I have a very capable co-author standing in for me? And it’s not as if I wrote the whole thing by myself. You worked really hard on this Ana, you deserve part of the glory.”
Ana’s toes curled at this last statement. How like Dan to be so generous, he was really the best! And when he stared at you with those eyes as green as a blade of grass in summer, one almost swooned in reaction. She mentally shook herself as she realized he was looking at her expectantly. “I’m sorry,” she said, “My mind seems to have wandered off. What did you want to talk about?”
“We-ell, I was wondering if we might discuss it somewhere a bit more private, than the lab …” He smiled and took her hand in his as he stood up.
She almost fainted on the spot. Was this the moment? “Oh.” She answered lamely, “Uh, sure. Uh, what did you have in mind?” Damn! This is no time to get tongue-tied Ana, she berated herself.
Dan smiled and took her hand in his as he pulled her up alongside him. “What about the pantry? It’s usually deserted at this time of the day,” he said as he pulled her out of the office and along the corridor.
Ana bemusedly followed him. Her hand seemed so small and fragile engulfed in his large warm one and the thought of it sent frissons of anticipation up her spine. She suddenly wished she hadn’t drank her coffee or that she had one of those handy breath mints in her pocket, just like in the TV commercials where the girl slipped one in her mouth before giving in to a guy’s passionate kiss. She was still indulging in her daydream when she realized that she and Dan were at the pantry door. He turned to her and smiled as he tightened his hold on her hand. She smiled warmly at him as he slightly leaned in, his other hand pushing open the pantry door. Ana’s eyes suddenly felt slumberous and heavy as she tilted her face up to his and waited.
The lights came on and party streamers suddenly burst from all sides. Ana jumped in surprise as a series of loud shrieks shouted in unison, “Surprise! Happy birthday Ana-san!” She slowly blinked and took in the image of her co-workers dressed in garish, paper party hats that clashed with their pristine, white lab coats.
Ana felt like a bucket of ice water had just been poured over her and she stood frozen for what seemed like hours. “Wow,” she managed to say after a second or two. People then started singing the birthday song in Japanese. “Hapi Basudei tsu yu, hapi basudei tsu yu…”
Her two lab assistants came up to her bearing a sponge cake piled high with strawberries and cream. The cake was decorated with a small candy plaque that bore the words “O Tanjoubi Omedetou Gozaimasu Ana-san!” in the middle. Three candles were aglow and Ana belatedly registered that she had to blow them out, as the birthday song had ended a few seconds ago. She did so and everyone burst into applause.
“Do you like our surprise?” Tanaka, one of her lab assistants asked her, a slightly worried look on her face.
“I love it” Ana reassured her and mustered up a genuine smile. “Arigatou. I just feel so overwhelmed at the moment.” Tanaka was prone to worry at the smallest thing. She was tall and lean, with short, cropped black hair and a serious demeanor. She was the very image of the lab assistant every researcher hoped to have.
“Happy birthday!” Ana turned as Nakano hugged her from behind. “Yokatta. We’re glad you liked our surprise.” Nakano was every inch the kawaii Japanese female with long, curly caramel-colored locks, false eyelashes, and a fully made up face. Ana had once had reservations about her working style, but those fears were quickly dispelled when she saw how hard the girl worked. Appearances could indeed be deceiving.
Ana loved her two research assistants, poles-apart in character though they were, they seemed to get along really well and she could very well imagine the two of them cooking up this birthday surprise weeks before.
“Sou desu ne. Yokatta. Happy birthday Ana-san!” Tanaka smiled in relief.
Ana hugged both of them. ”Thank you for this lovely surprise!” she paused and looked over at Dan who was smiling at her warmly.
“Jitsu wa, it was Dr. Sato’s idea.” Nakano told her, “He learned it was your birthday when he was filling in the conference application forms. So he told us and we planned this party together.”
“It was also his plan to bring you here” Tanaka added, “He was afraid we would give the surprise away.”
“It worked, didn’t it? Your face was so shocked when you walked in!” Nakano-san squealed.
“Tashika ni. I was indeed.” Ana answered and turned to Dan, “Thank you for helping organize this lovely surprise.”
“Anything for my favorite research associate,” He smiled and gestured to the cake, “It think everybody is waiting for you to cut the cake Ana”
Ana cut the cake and distribute it to the hungry researchers who welcomed any excuse to be away from their desks for a few minutes. Their predatory instincts had been firmly honed since their impoverished graduate school life … free food in any form was never turned down and free cake was akin to manna from heaven. Most of them worked in clean rooms and dealt with chemicals that made it impossible for them to eat at their workstations. They spent a few more minutes in the pantry chatting, eating the cake, and sipping coffee before settling back into more serious pursuits in the lab.
As people started filing out of the room, Tanaka and Nakano stated tidying up and Ana turned to Dan once again. “Thanks again,” she smiled shyly.
“Well, then again I do have a vested interest in pampering you,” he answered.
“Oh? And what would that be?” Ana asked, wondering if he was going to say something romantic.
“It’s an incentive for you to do us proud at the conference in LA next week. We’re all counting on you to put us back on the shortlist of top research labs”
“Oh, right.” Ana responded, a bit crestfallen, “Of course I’ll do my best.”
“Good luck! Let me know when you’re ready for a run-through alright?”
“Alright” Ana answered as Dan walked out of the pantry with a wave to Nakano and Tanaka. Ana slowly stood and stared at the swinging doors of the pantry. She should really get back to work and get her head out of the clouds, she mused. She sighed and turned back to help Nakano and Tanaka. They stood looking at her expectantly; she stared back, “Nani?” she asked.
“Oh, nothing,” Nakano answered as she emptied the pot of used coffee grounds “I was just thinking you and Dr. Sato look nice together.”
“In a professional way of course,” Tanaka interjected.
“Uun-n. Well and maybe something else?” Nakano mused.
Ana could feel a blush suffusing her face, she laughed to cover it up. “Something between Dr. Sato and me? C’mon. The past few weeks of late nights are starting to get to you. Lets go back to work.” She smiled as she herded them back into the lab.
The LAX airport was swarming with people as usual. Ana sighed as she nabbed an empty seat near gate 34 where she was to board a plane back to Japan. She spied some of her colleagues a few rows ahead of her and gave a tired wave. It had been a hectic couple of days. She was tired and hungry and couldn’t wait to board the flight and go to sleep. The last few days in LA had been chaotic—she gave a presentation, listened to several presentations, and socialized. On top of that, she had also served as an unofficial translator for some of her Japanese colleagues. Going to conferences was one of the perks of her profession, but it was also very stressful. The preparation began at least 3-6 months before the actual event. An abstract was usually written and then submitted to the organizing committee for approval. Upon its acceptance, one embarked upon a series of experiments and hoped to God for satisfactory results. And after the paper was written, one still had to prepare the poster or presentation for the conference.
Although Ana enjoyed meeting other scientists and hearing about the exciting developments in their research, after a week in LA, she was more than ready to go home.
She had spent most of the morning shopping for souvenirs, as well as stuff that Tessa, Kaye, and Jon asked her to get them. After that, she had hurried back to the hotel to pick up her luggage and then grabbed the first taxi she found and headed straight to the airport. Her colleagues had gone on ahead and Ana cursed the precious minutes she had wasted trying to make everything fit into her suitcase. She had disposed of the carrier bags; as it was an unwritten rule that researchers from conferences should not be awash with shopping bags, save for the lone box of cookies or chocolates for their colleagues back in Tokyo. During the ride to the airport, she worried about Jon’s creams and Kaye’s makeup spilling onto her papers as she ruthlessly stuffed Tessa’s stuff into the front compartment of her suitcase.
“Paging Juana Madrigal. Juana Madrigal please proceed to the gate counter…”
Ana was surprised when she heard her name being paged over the P.A. system. What now, Ana sighed irritably as she stood and approached the gate counter with trepidation. It was to her pleasant surprise that upon identifying herself at the gate counter she was informed that she was to be upgraded to Business Class, because someone wanted to swap seats with her. She accepted with alacrity and smiled at her good fortune. They even offered to store her carry-on luggage for her. She yielded the bright orange case without a qualm, Business class luggage always came through first anyway, she thought. She hadn’t brought any other check-in luggage as she only packed the barest minimum for the conference and had packed a case that was specifically designed to fit the maximum requirements for the overhead compartment.
It was a fairly uneventful flight back to Tokyo. It was a cool and cloudy afternoon when the flight from Los Angeles got into Narita. The airport was crowded with the usual slew of people coming back after the spring holidays. People in brightly colored shirts, clutching boogie boards or surfboards, crowded the area. She stood in line at immigration and waited for the officer in charge to check her documentation. After he had ascertained everything was in order, she trudged down the escalators leading to the baggage claim area.
She smiled, the long flight couldn’t dim the glow brought about by the feeling of arriving home. It was funny she mused, how she thought of Tokyo as home now. She felt more at home here than she had in Cebu. She had indeed come a long way, she wryly acknowledged. She was slowly fulfilling what she had initially set out to do; she had a successful career, good friends, and it didn’t hurt having been awarded Best Paper at the recent conference in Los Angeles. This was it, Ana felt, this was what was going to earn her the recognition she rightly deserved … as well as the attention of a certain someone.
As she made a quick visit to the toilets, she wondered at how Daniel would take the news, and indulged in a giddy fantasy. She smiled at the turn her imagination took and approached the revolving rack as she spotted a flash of bright orange. Despite Jon’s taunts that he could see her coming a mile away, she privately delighted in the almost gaudy color of her suitcase. It was a happy color, and as no one else seemed to share her taste in luggage, it was fairly easy to spot her bag in the midst of all the black, blue, and green cases.
She exited the gates, slapped on her sunglasses, and reached into the front pocket of her suitcase to extract her train pass. She was puzzled when instead of her ticket, she found a small Tiffany’s bag. That’s odd, she thought, I never bought anything at Tiffany’s. She stopped and opened the larger front compartment to check her papers and was surprised to see a studded leather belt. Oh no, she thought, this is definitely not my case. Frantically, she looked around and out of the corner of her eye, spied a man pulling along a similar case just a few meters away from her. He was headed towards the bus pickup area. Ana’s eyes bulged, what were the chances of more than two people in one flight having the same taste in orange luggage anyway? It was definitely worth checking out, she thought.
“Sumimasen,” she called as she tried to catch up with the man as she wove through the chaos of bags and crying children. Was it her imagination or were there more people at the airport than usual? There were a ton of men with cameras hanging about. Maybe Beyonce was in town again, Ana mused. “Excuse me! Chotto matte! Wait up!” Damned frickin ipods, she thought as she hurried her pace. The man and his group had just exited from the gates when Ana finally caught up with them. “Excuse me, but I think you have my…” Ana started to say, grabbing hold of the man’s sleeve.
He turned to face her, and she stopped in mid-sentence. Ikemen da na, she thought as she stared up at him. And he was a hottie. His hair was longer than it should have been, but was styled in a way that was typical of the current fashion, his eyes were covered in dark lenses and the collar of his shirt was turned up. His skin was golden, but unlike the washed-out bottle-tans of most of the male population of Tokyo, his color seemed naturally healthy and bespoke the patience of someone who spent time in the sun. Even the golden brown steaks in his hair seemed to be caused by the sun, even if, as Ana knew well, similar results could be obtained with a visit to one of Tokyo’s more chichi salons. His frame, although taller than that of average Japanese, was leanly muscular.
His presence was so compelling that Ana stared at him in silence as he dug into his pockets for a pen and paper and scribbled something on it. She mentally shook herself and began again, “I’m, sorry, but you seem to have my…”
“Dozo. Here you go,” He said as he thrust a scrap of paper into her hands and turned to leave.
Ana looked down in bewilderment at the sheet, “What is it?” she asked.
“My autograph” He answered, raising a brow, “It’s what you wanted, isn’t it?”
Ana raised a brow of her own. Sure, he was good-looking, but this was too much. “I’m sorry, I don’t think you understand but …”
“You want a photograph? Sure, just make it quick, I really have to get going”
“It’s not that, I …”
“Ken-san we really have to get going” A balding, heavy-set man who seemed to be part of his entourage piped up beside him.
“Gomen, I have to go,” Golden boy said to Ana as he turned away.
“Now look here, I don’t know who you are but I think you have my suitcase.” Ana declared, clutching at his sleeve once more.
His brow went up again. The balding man beside him sighed, “Someone tried that already,” he said impatiently to Ana, and then to the man, “We really don’t have enough time for this” Once again they turned to leave. A large black van had pulled up the driveway. The other man opened the door and Golden Boy turned away from Ana.
But Ana had had enough of their high-handedness. She felt the blood rush to her head as she rushed to intercept them. She stood before them, arms akimbo, “Look, I don’t care who the hell you are, but I really need my suitcase. Now.”
The balding man sighed once more and his companion’s brows once again performed aerial gymnastics as they snapped together, forming a crease in between. “Enough of this,” he barked out, “we both know that this is not your suitcase.”
“How thick can you get? You think this is all a ploy to get you to notice me?” She took a deep breath and tried to calm herself. “Look there’s a simpler way to settle this, why don’t you look inside the front pocket and you’ll see my papers there, or even easier, check the tags.” She proposed.
The other man was about to protest when he was waved back by golden boy. “Sure, we’ll play it your way,” he agreed almost tiredly. He hoisted the suitcase onto the van’s floor and opened the front pocket. Ana could feel his eyes on her as he reached inside. Then suddenly his frown eased and both he and Ana looked down to find his hand emerge from the front pocket of the suitcase clutching a sheaf of papers with the conference details printed upon them. Ana’s smirk was short lived when he pulled his hand all the way out. Something else was in the compartment. Their eyes met over the two wispy pieces of frilly beige silk, which were Tessa’s omiyage from L.A.
Go to Chapter 3