Justin ran all the way from his studio space to the coffeehouse on the corner, but the rain fell faster than he could run. His hair was soaked, water running in streams down his face. He pulled his messenger bag and dripping jacket off, slung them both over the back of a chair at a table near the old-fashioned steam radiator, and got in the short line at the counter.
A few minutes later he felt a lot better, if only slightly drier. He had a cup of hot coffee and one of the cafe's specialties, a panino oozing with melted cheese, in front of him, and was checking his email.
"Is anyone sitting here?"
It was a soft voice, and Justin glanced up. "Go ahead."
He went back to his computer, and took a sip of his coffee. He observed the strict etiquette of the crowded New York coffeehouse, and didn't speak to or even look at his tablemate, other than to notice she was even wetter and more bedraggled than he'd been, her hair in wet hanks around her face and her glasses smeared with water.
When he stood up to leave, he also noticed she had a violin case resting on the floor next to her chair, but he didn't think anything of it.
The weather just got worse that week, and by Sunday, it was snowing.
"It's freezing in here," Justin complained into his cell phone. "If you stop hearing from me, it means I froze to death in my apartment." He turned on his tiny oven and left the door open.
"You're never happy." Justin could hear Brian talking to someone in the background for a second, then he was back. "It's always either too hot, or too cold."
"That's because it is always too hot or too cold," he answered, looking in the refrigerator to see if there was any food he'd forgotten about.
"Hang on... That sign-off line there, the one that already says 'Brian Kinney'? It means I already signed off on these. Now, why don't you try taking them to someone whose signature isn't already on them?" Justin thought he heard the distinctive sound of an intern whimpering, then Brian was back. "How about trading in starving artist chic for four stars and room service next weekend?"
"Brian, you really need to be nicer to your interns, they work for free."
"I don't seem to recall you complaining, unless, 'Yes, yes, harder, oh god, yes,' is a complaint where you come from."
Justin snorted. "This weekend sounds great. I could use..."
"A good hard fuck?"
He laughed. "Room service, central heat and a good hard fuck. And they say you're not a romantic."
Brian's voice was suddenly low. "Well, what the fuck do they know?"
Justin smiled. "Yeah."
The next day, it was Justin's turn. "Anyone sitting here?"
She looked up, a slightly dazed expression on her face. "Wha.... no. It's fine." She went back to her book.
Justin set his coffee cup down, and started to pull out his laptop. And this time, with her hair dry and her glasses clear, he realized she looked just a little familiar -- and not "seen you around the neighborhood" familiar.
Her phone was resting next to her elbow, and it gave a little chirp. She grabbed it, and started speaking rapidly in what sounded to Justin like Chinese.
When she hung up, he nodded at her violin case. "You're Lin Liu, aren't you?"
She looked startled. "Yes. Have we met?"
He nodded. "A long, long time ago. When you won the Heifitz. I used to date Ethan Gold." He grinned at her across the table. "I'm Justin."
She seemed a little flustered, but smiled back. "I'm sorry, of course I know Ethan, but I don't remember..." her voice trailed off.
Justin shook his head. "It was just once, and it was a pretty big day for you."
She shifted in her seat. "Ummm, so, do you live here?"
"Yeah, I have studio space across the street." He nodded towards her book. "You seemed pretty wrapped up in that; don't feel like you have to be polite." He grinned again. "Act like a New Yorker. Be rude."
She laughed, and it sounded genuine. "Thanks. Although a real New Yorker would never say that."
It was a few days before Justin saw her again, and this time, he didn't ask if he could sit at her table, he just did. She barely looked up from her computer, and he just gave her a brief smile. She half-smiled in return, and went back to what she'd been doing.
They shared a table in silence a dozen times over the next few weeks, but one day he got in line for coffee, and she was right in front of him, hair strained back in a knot, violin across her back.
She nodded shyly, and before she could drop her eyes and turn away, he asked, "Do you live near here?"
She shook her head. "No, I have rehearsal space around the corner. And my teacher is a block away. So I'm here every day."
"Weird I never saw you before."
"I was in Europe." She seemed embarrassed. "On a tour."
"Wow. How was it?"
She ordered a double espresso and a chocolate croissant, then turned back to him. "It was okay. Not much time to do anything but practice and play."
After he got his coffee he sat down at her table, but she was lost in a book and didn't say anything more.
Justin was at his studio one day a week later when Brian's ringtone sounded on his cell phone. "Hey."
"I can change my flight home to go through New York if you're free tonight."
"Sure. When do you get in?"
"I'll call you when I land."
They didn't get much sleep that night, and when Brian had his car drop Justin off on his way to the airport, he followed him into the cafe for some caffeine for the road.
Lin Liu was already there. Her glasses were lying on the table next to her while she rubbed her eyes, a bright red scarf wrapped around her neck, her cheeks red from the cold. She slipped her glasses back on and saw Justin, and nodded.
Brian glanced at her. "Who's that?"
Justin shrugged. "Just someone I know from here."
Brian nudged him. "Another violinist? Should I be filled with fear and trepidation?"
Justin snorted. "Sure. I always like to keep you on edge." He turned to the barrista. "Black coffee and a triple latte to go."
They kissed at the curb before Brian got into the car, and Justin stood and watched until it turned the corner. Then he headed for his studio to get in a few hours of painting before he had to be at the gallery.
The week before Thanksgiving was the first time they sat together without opening a book or a computer.
"What do you do at the gallery?" she asked him, stirring sugar into her coffee.
Justin shrugged, sipping the hot herbal tea he'd ordered to stave off the cold he suspected he was getting. "I'm a glorified gopher. I mostly get coffee, and occasionally have to tell someone which is the top and which is the bottom of an abstract painting."
"I've never had a job." She sounded ashamed. "My parents didn't want me to be distracted from the violin."
He nodded. "Same with Ethan." He thought for a minute. "I don't know, I like working. Sometimes I resent it, and hate having to walk away from a painting when the work is good. But most of the time, I'm stuck, and then I go to work, and when I come back, it's all clear to me again."
She almost bounced. "Yes! That's what I loved when I was still in school... I'd practice, then go to class, then when I came back to the practice hall, it felt fresh again."
"Well," Justin said slowly, "No one can stop you from getting a job, can they?"
She shook her head. "You haven't met my parents. They're very... traditional. They paid for music school, and they expect me to concentrate on that until I die." She tipped her head. "Or get married."
He burst out laughing. "They're not really equally dire fates, you know. Dying, or getting married."
She looked glum. "You have no idea who my parents expect me to marry."
He frowned. "Well, mine expected me to be straight and go to business school, Lin. You have to be yourself or it's all bullshit."
She sighed, sipped her coffee, and changed the subject.
Justin's cold turned into bronchitis, and he finally surrendered to it and went back to Pittsburgh. He didn't want to fly and spread his pestilence to everyone in his airspace, so Brian came and got him, and bitched at him all the way home.
Debbie made him chicken soup, his mother made him see her doctor, and Brian bullied him and mocked him and made sure he drank the soup and took the antibiotics the doctor prescribed.
"God, you have the worst bedside manner in the fucking universe," he told Brian sulkily after he'd been home for three days. "You're such an asshole."
"I reserve my good bedside manner for eating your ass and sucking your dick, not shoving soup down your throat," Brian informed him. "And for the record, this is exactly how you treated me when I had cancer."
"You needed it," Justin pointed out. "I'd be perfectly happy to lie here and listen to you tell me how much you love me while smoothing my hair off my fevered brow."
Brian snorted and stood up. "Your fever must have gone up. You're delirious."
Justin's only response was to try to hack up a lung, so Brian ruined his tough love routine by holding Justin's shoulders with one arm and pressing against his chest with his other hand. He even made him some tea, and after Justin fell asleep, he brushed his hair back off his forehead.
When Justin got back from Pittsburgh, he didn't see Lin Liu for two months. When she showed up one day in January, her black hair was scattered with snow, and her glasses fogged over in the warmth of the cafe. Which might explain why she bumped into him.
"Oh, shit," she said, then looked horrified, then giggled.
Justin had never heard her giggle.
"I'm so sorry," she said, then burst into laughter. "Shit."
He almost thought she must be drunk or high, but when she pulled off her glasses, her eyes were red and puffy. He steered her over to the table. "Sit here. I'll get you some coffee."
She nodded, and let him. Which alarmed him even more.
He set a strong hot cup of espresso in front of her, and handed her three packets of sugar and a spoon. She only used one of the sugars.
"What is it?" he said after she'd taken a sip.
"I just had a fight with my mother," she told him. "She says she's coming with me on my tour next summer." She pulled off her glasses, because her tears were making them steam up again. "I've got to get away from her. I just have to."
"Tell her no," Justin said.
She sniffled. "It's not that easy."
"It is." He covered her hand with his. "You just have to decide which is worse, standing up to her, or putting up with her."
"You don't understand," she said, her lower lip jutting out. "Good Chinese daughters don't tell their mothers 'no.' And we don't travel to Europe on our own."
He looked at her. "How important is to you to be a good Chinese daughter?"
She stared at him. "I couldn't care less."
"I can't seem to stop."
Justin laughed. So did Lin, but her heart wasn't in it.
He changed the subject. "So, where have you been?"
She blushed. "I was recording a CD in Boston."
He sat back. "Is this your first?"
She nodded. "My first solo. I'm sure it will sell around six copies, but my manager says it's time." She added another packet of sugar to her coffee. "Besides, I didn't see you for a couple of weeks before I left. Where were you?"
He told her about his unfortunate lung rot, and before he went to the studio, he'd given her his email address and phone number, and gotten hers.
On Wednesday, she said she was playing at a small program at NYU. "If you want to come, I can leave your name," she said, then blushed.
She played like some strange little creature, awkward and shy, with all this wild beauty pouring off her strings. He thought about how Ethan played, passionate and just a little rushed, and when she followed a note up and up and into a vibrating fade he could feel on the surface of his skin, he thought, this is why she beat him.
Brian pretended not to care that Justin still had a lingering cough, and said that he had to be in New York the next weekend "on business." Justin just enjoyed the giant steam shower in their hotel suite, and was perfectly happy to order his chicken soup, orange juice and hot tea from room service.
"I don't really miss luxury when I don't have it," Justin told Lin at the cafe on Monday. "It's just that I really, really like it when I have it."
She laughed. "I had this dressing room once in Italy. It had gilded ceilings and sofas and these thick Persian carpets and a private bathroom. And then the next night, I was crammed in with six other musicians to a room with peeling linoleum on the floors and no windows." She broke her chocolate croissant into two pieces. "And it stunk."
"You should see my studio," Justin began.
"I'd love to," she said instantly.
He didn't answer right away, and she dropped her eyes. "Unless you don't want..."
Justin shook his head. "No, I was just surprised." He stood up. "How about now? You can bring your croissant."
She laughed and they ran across the street and down the block, skidding a little on the icy mud.
Justin had a coughing jag during phone sex Thursday night, so Brian came back the next weekend. Justin had to finish a painting for a group show at a Brooklyn gallery the next week, so they spent Sunday at his studio.
"It just gets worse every time I see it," Brian said.
Justin looked at him, alarmed. "My painting?"
Brian snorted. "No, Sunshine, your studio." He brushed his hands on his jeans. "Surely you've noticed it's encrusted with a century's worth of grime?"
Justin shoved his hand through his hair and turned back to the easel. "Actually, no."
Brian shuddered, and went back to his laptop.
They stopped for coffee before going back to the hotel. "I can't believe how much sugar you put in your coffee," Justin said, sipping his own bitter black cup.
Brian dumped in a fourth packet. "You've just noticed this now?"
Justin grinned and grabbed Brian's spoon. "No, I just decided to mention it now."
Brian tried to grab the spoon back, and knocked both their coffees over, reaching across the table. "Fuck."
Justin was laughing as he shoved his chair back to avoid the coffee waterfall. "Oooops." He stood up to grab some clean napkins, and stopped.
Brian looked up, and stared at Lin. "What the fuck happened to you?" he said. "Did you get attacked on the street by some out of work Queer Eye fashionistas?"
She shook her head. "I had to get my photo taken for the cover of my new CD." She frowned. "Stop staring. Does it look terrible?"
"Well," Justin said slowly. "It looks good. It just doesn't look like you."
She was wearing her contact lenses, and her eyes were made up. Her lips were red with lipstick, her hair was in a soft French twist, and she was wearing a short black belted trench coat.
"I know," she said miserably.
Brian had gone to replace his coffee and Justin's, and brought Lin an espresso. She took it, and hesitated until Brian pulled a third chair over to the table. He sat quietly while Justin asked her a few questions about the photo shoot.
He excused himself to go to the bathroom a little while later, and when he came back, she was gone.
Brian raised an eyebrow. "Was it something I said?"
Justin shook his head. "She said she had to go." He stood up, and put his hands on Brian's shoulders. "Why don't you take me home and ply me with orange juice and a blowjob?"
Brian let his forehead touch Justin's lightly. "I'm sick of orange juice."
Justin laughed. "No shit."
Lin stood in front of one of Justin's paintings. He'd called it "Remains," and it took up half the wall.
Justin watched her for a while from across the room, then walked up next to her. "Does the fact that you've been chewing your thumbnail for 20 minutes mean you like it, or hate it?"
She glanced at him, and smiled. "It's nothing like I expected." She tipped her head. "It's emotional but doesn't make me feel..." she paused. "Like it's demanding anything from me."
He didn't say anything, and she went on. "The title... it's a verb, not a noun. Isn't it?"
Justin smiled. "It's a verb."
She turned away from the painting and looked at him with the same intensity. "You love to paint, don't you?"
He was startled. "Yes. I love it."
She smiled. "I can tell." She touched his arm. "I'm glad."
An hour later, he saw her walking away from two women she'd been deep in conversation with, stopping at the coat check in the foyer to get her coat.
He caught up with her. "You're going?"
She didn't look at him. "I have to practice early."
She took her coat and pulled it on, tugging the hood over her hair. "Thanks for inviting me. I love your work." Her voice was low. "It's beautiful."
Justin watched her leave, then asked for his coat before following her to the sidewalk.
"Lin," he called, and she turned, tears running down her face, her glasses in her hand. "What's wrong?" He walked close enough to put his hands on her shoulders. "What is it?"
She shook her head, and sniffed, hard, then swiped her nose with her arm. "I hate it."
He looked confused. "The show?"
"No." She sniffed again. "The violin." Her voice rose. "I hate the violin."
He almost told her that wasn't possible; he'd heard her play. But he caught himself in time. "Then stop playing."
She looked at him. "You don't..."
"Understand. I know." He looked at her. "You always say that, but I do understand. I understand not doing what's expected of you, I understand disappointing the people I love, I understand wanting something I think I can't have."
She shook her head, and more tears spilled out of her eyes. "Have you ever been really good at something you hate?"
He almost said no, but paused. "Well, professional go-go dancing."
She frowned. "I'm serious."
He was grinning. "So am I."
She stared at him, then started to laugh. "You're kidding."
He shook his head. "No, really." She was still laughing, and he said, "In my defense, I was young."
She laughed harder. "Go-go dancing? Like in a cage?"
"Pretty much." He smiled at her. "I admit, I didn't spend my entire life until that moment practicing to be a great go-go dancer..."
"Stop," she gasped.
"And my parents weren't brutally disappointed when I gave it up..."
She hit his arm. "Stop, stop, stop." She couldn't stop laughing.
He turned her around, and they headed down the street. "So, what do you want to do instead of play the violin?"
"I studied Chinese in college," she said. "Along with music. I want to apply to the East Asian Studies graduate program at NYU." She glanced at him. "And then I want to go to China." She grinned. "Without my parents."
Justin nodded, and they turned the corner, going towards the cafe. "There are a lot of ways to be a good Chinese daughter, you know," he said.
He saw her bite her lip for a second, but she pushed her hood back and looked at him. "They won't think so."
Justin steered her through the coffeehouse door. "Does that matter?"
She pulled off her coat and got in line. Her cheeks were flushed from the cold, and her glasses were steaming up again. "No, it doesn't. Not at all."