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The Envy of Vines

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It happened first outside of a karaoke bar in Hangzhou. Not late in the night, and neither of them so drunk as to be an excuse, although Lan Huan had been drunk, mostly with jet lag, but also on three Long Island ice teas, which felt like a joke he was playing on himself. Their first week in New York, he and his brother had drank four apiece, not knowing how strong they actually were after a decade of drinking watered down cocktails in Shanghai. So it was the jet lag, but mostly it was the way Meng Yao had turned his neck just so: the way the light caught on the long muscle of his throat, filtered through the smoke of the cigarette Lan Huan had just lit for him.

Maybe that was why. Maybe it was the way that Meng Yao didn’t jerk back when the door banged open - just stayed pressed up against the hot brick, his chin tipped up, letting a crowd of drunk businessmen pass them by in a swirl of smoke and laughter - the same way he’d let Lan Huan bend down and bite and suck on his neck and mouth, without explanation or permission.

 

-

 

Meng Yao was a shadow throughout all of the initial meetings with Interwoven Apparel, an inexplicable presence that tugged at Lan Huan’s awareness. At first Lan Huan thought he was the driver, then an unnecessary interpreter. It wasn’t until the fifth meeting, the first time over a conference table instead of at a restaurant or a bar, that he’d bowed low and put his name card in Lan Huan’s hands. Production Planner for Jinlintai Clothing & Accessories Factory. Not normally the kind of representative sent to these kinds of meetings - not the factory owner or general manager, though they’d been there too. He seemed young, and he didn’t talk much, only to answer questions in a soft, thoughtful voice.

Interwoven had sent financial records for ORCHiD to review, to contemplate their offer to buy the brand and bring it to America. The offer seemed good, and so did the numbers. Their sourcing and production records were shared too. Interwoven worked with other factories, of course, but JLT took the lion’s share, averaging around sixty five percent of production across all brands. At the time, Lan Huan had thought this was a good thing. Interwoven valued the relationship with their vendors. They nurtured long term partnerships. Everything looked good, felt good, seemed right.

JLT’s general manager had talked and laughed while Meng Yao sat quietly in the corner, smiling as he took down endless notes. He smiled always, all the time, reflexively. He smiled as the general manager barked orders. He smiled as A-Zhan drilled the JLT team about their quality practices, worker retention, sample room capabilities.

Twice he looked up and caught Lan Huan staring at him, and smiled.

 

-

 

The first year was the hardest. At times Lan Huan had felt sick with missing home, missing Shanghai. New York was strange. The city smelled different. Sour. A different flavor of hot garbage, A-Zhan said when Lan Huan mentioned it, and shrugged.

The first year, everything was so good, and so hard. ORCHiD showed at New York Fashion Week. Not as part of the Asian Spotlight, but on their own. Interwoven sent them to red carpet after red carpet in between market weeks, relentlessly promoting the brand, showering them with interviews, profiles in glossy magazines, promotional campaigns. A-Zhan for once in the spotlight he deserved, hating every moment of it except those white tent nights. Crammed backstage as a hired team helped him tear tens of thousands of dollars worth of clothing off of his models, frantically redress them, and hustle each one back out onto the runway. Lan Huan sitting in the front row so that he could see the look on his brother’s face as he took his own walk at the end, his expression so stony that you’d think the applause and the lights and the achievement meant nothing to him, were nothing less than what he’d been owed. Lan Huan clapped so hard his palms still burned the day after.

Still, it was hard.

 

-

 

Outside the karaoke bar, Meng Yao looked up at Lan Huan. His eyes cool and clear, his mouth red and swollen, his narrow chest heaving. In the morning he’d have bruises around his mouth, and Lan Huan would stare at them over the expanse of the conference table, sweat trickling down the back of his neck, the Americans fanning themselves with gold-stamped JLT folders, stuffed full of ISO certifications and capacity fact sheets that no one ever looked at.

“I thought you had a boyfriend,” Meng Yao said. He held out his cigarette as if Lan Huan had asked for it, as if he smoked at all. Their fingertips brushed together when Lan Huan took it.

“Not really,” Lan Huan said. This wasn’t true, but that year Lan Huan had spent almost as much time in Hangzhou as he did in New York, shuttling back and forth. He lived in a perpetual haze of jet lag and disorientation. He dreamed in English and forgot it all on waking. Not even Hangzhou smelled right, full of lake smells and detergents and the way that all factories smell after a while. Like dry concrete bathed in industrial oils and sweat, the way the ocean bathes a shore.

Meng Yao took his cigarette back. Drew deeply on it, contemplative. His eyes never leaving Lan Huan’s.

 

-

 

The thing was, Meng Yao was very good. Very, very good. Production planning, it turned out, was only a small part of what he did at JLT. After the first year it was clear how capable he was, how easily he’d added ORCHiD to the collection of spinning plates he kept aloft all the time, seamlessly adjusting fabric deliveries, accommodating extra units. Sometimes he asked Lan Huan for shipment delays, but only with good reason, no matter how A-Zhan complained.

Everything was easier after that first year. Orders went up. Lan Huan started dating someone in New York, broke up with him, started dating someone else. ORCHiD sold three exclusive styles to Barney’s. An ad partnership with Bloomingdales. Lan Huan’s time in Hangzhou went from every month to every other month, then every three. It started to make more sense just to schedule weekly calls with JLT, and calls to Meng Yao as well, after hours. It became part of Lan Huan’s routine. Curled up on the couch letting the video call run a thread of connection across the world for them. Meng Yao ate dinner in Hangzhou, and on his own continent Lan Huan watched sunlight spread across a city that was starting to feel familiar, to feel like a real place. The windows of his living room faced out over Manhattan, the sun gleaming against copper and glass towers. A-Zhan’s windows faced east and south, towards the bridges and Brooklyn. The windows in Lan Huan’s bedroom faced nowhere in particular.

 

-

 

The second year, when he went back to China, he went for longer. Long enough to see friends in Shanghai. To hook up sometimes with the boyfriend he’d left there. To have dinner in Suzhou with his uncle. But mostly, still: Hangzhou. JLT’s campus of factories, coaxing his brother’s dream to life. Fucking Meng Yao on the sprawling, soft beds of the Hangzhou Shangri-La. Treating him to dinner on ORCHiD’s corporate card. Ordering champagne to the hotel room. There were fewer red carpets that year. Fewer interviews. Still more and more orders, bigger and larger production quantities. 

That year they talked about everything. Their families, their hopes. Lan Huan’s parents, what happened to them. The parts he’s told no one else, not even A-Zhan. Work, of course. Meng Yao struggled with his boss. He was underpaid and under-appreciated, not that he said as much. It was just what Lan Huan thought. “Do you want me to talk to Interwoven?” Lan Huan asked once. Meng Yao laughed at him. He reached up, massaging shampoo into Lan Huan’s scalp.

“I don’t work for Interwoven,” he said. “What could you say that would help?”

Lan Huan ducked his head, kissed each dimple. Allowed Meng Yao to steer him back into the spray of water and start to wash him clean. “Well,” he says, eyes closed, pretending to think about it, “I can tell them, Treasure is incredible. He’s the best manager my brand could ask for. Every order happens so smoothly. All of our trims arrive like magic, even the custom ones. All of my brother’s fussy demands are met on schedule. Everything ships early.”

“They’ll never promote me if you tell them all that,” Meng Yao said, laughing still, twisting in Lan Huan’s wet hands. He was so thin, so finely built. Like he should be a dancer instead of inside a factory. Lan Huan’s fingertips touched when he wrapped his hands around Meng Yao’s slim waist. Meng Yao slipped his hands down Lan Huan’s shoulders, his chest, pressed their wet bodies together. “They’ll say I’m doing such a good job where I am. I’ll be stuck on your account forever.”

“Would that be so bad?” Lan Huan breathed.

Meng Yao’s fingers faltered. He asked, “Why? Are you trying to keep me, Huan-ge?”

 

-

 

They took a taxi from the karaoke bar. Meng Yao went inside and said his goodbyes first. Lan Huan followed five minutes later. Meng Yao waiting under a streetlamp, shoulders hunched around another cigarette. They didn’t speak in the cab, but their fingers brushed on the seat between them. Almost a year in America and Lan Huan had forgotten this: how electric touch could be when it had to be hidden. He was hard just from the slow caress of his little finger over Meng Yao’s, the way the other man’s breath caught almost silently.

Lan Huan paid the cab driver, but Meng Yao led the way into Lan Huan’s hotel, nodding at the doorman and reception as if he knew them, as if he was staying there. At that point all the staff knew Lan Huan, asked after his brother, made sure to stock his room with extra oranges, with lychee when it was in season. In the elevator he turned fully towards Lan Huan. There was a bruise forming just below his jaw, shaped like teeth. He looked more clear than Lan Huan felt, but Meng Yao had been drinking Tsingtao all night, the barest sip for each ganbei, and presumably he’d slept last night.

He held one finger out, and drew it slowly, slowly down the front of Lan Huan’s shirt. The elevator stopped right as his fingertip came to rest against the buckle of Lan Huan’s belt. When he pulled away Lan Huan’s hips followed.

Meng Yao’s eyebrows went up when Lan Huan unlocked his room. He turned in a little circle while Lan Huan stood with his hands folded. “Do you want something to drink?” he asked. “The lounge is probably still open, I can call and...”

Meng Yao sat on the edge of the bed. He looked very small on it, and beautiful. He crossed his ankles. Began unbuttoning his shirt, smiling. Smiled more as Lan Huan trailed off, his mouth dry. He wanted. He ached with a year of wanting, a year of that smile and the hollow of that throat and the slim hips and those long legs he’d pictured so clearly wrapped around his waist.

Lan Huan stepped forward. He put his fingers into the bruise on Meng Yao’s throat, and pushed his chin all the way up. He jerked Meng Yao’s shirt open by the shoulder seam, baring him halfway. He was dizzy with wanting and jet lag and watered down cocktails, and by the look in Meng Yao’s eyes, bright and gleaming and hungry.

 

-

 

So that was how it went. When they were together, they were together. On JLT’s campus, on Skype Business calls, Meng Yao was only professional, perfectly warm, his smile unfaltering. Once he even came to New York for ten days, to visit JLT’s key clients. All of them were located within a fifteen block radius of Interwoven’s offices in the Empire State Building, but JLT had booked Meng Yao and their general manager all the way up on 56th Street, at the Parker New York. For ten days Lan Huan lived out of his suitcase in his own city. On the days where Meng Yao only had morning or afternoon meetings, he took the same time off. They visited MoMa and stood for almost twenty minutes in front of Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. They ate gyros from styrofoam containers in front of the fountain at Rockefeller. They walked the length of the Highline and had dinner in a restaurant with a tree growing through the middle of it, right in Chelsea. They held hands. They kissed on street corners.

It was one of the nicest weeks of Lan Huan’s life. Meng Yao’s English was excellent, and he needed no help navigating the subways, finding his meetings, or chatting with people in restaurants and bodegas. He was perfect. He was beautiful. He rode Lan Huan’s cock on the plush surface of the couch in his junior suite. He let Lan Huan suck his cock in the dirty bathroom of a karaoke bar near West 4th St. He followed Lan Huan gamely into bespoke cocktail bars, hidden above burger joints and down dark alleyways. They fucked in the mornings and at night and twice after sneaking away from Interwoven’s office in the middle of the day, wrapped safe and quiet in cherrywood paneling and crisp linen sheets.

Lan Huan had asked, of course, if Meng Yao wanted to stay at his apartment instead, to stay with him and Lan Zhan. Meng Yao had smiled. Reached up and touched Lan Huan’s cheek. And said no.

 

-

 

The third year, he met Mingjue. Michael Nie, the name on his office door said. Big and broad and merciless in his job, which was operations and customs compliance for Interwoven Apparel. A-Zhan made friends first, thrilled in his quiet way to have another Chinese person join their extended team. At that point A-Zhan was still going out sometimes - they went out together, though it was starting to be less often - and over beers and Korean fried chicken, Lan Huan found out also that Mingjue was funny, and kind, and had grown up in California, and found New York just as strange as Lan Huan and his brother did. But he didn’t figure out that Mingjue was gay until they ran into each other at Pride, literally, crushed together in the heaving West Village crowd.

He told Meng Yao about it the next day, nursing his hangover. Meng Yao knew Mingjue as well, of course - they exchanged a steady stream of emails about HTS codes and container loading plans - and over the grainy video he smiled. “You should go for it,” he told Lan Huan.

Lan Huan didn’t say he already had. Didn’t talk about taking the molly Mingjue offered him, about dancing until he’d felt like both of their bodies had dissolved into glittering, rainbow lights. About stumbling away and finding his brother at the bar and being so happy he’d shouted joyfully to see him. A-Zhan’s pupils were blown out too. He had two frozen cocktails in his hands and suffered through Lan Huan hugging him, and then Mingjue hugging him too.

“You should tell him,” A-Zhan said before they went back to dancing, leaned close so that Mingjue couldn’t hear, but he hadn’t said who.

In the morning Mingjue cooked an early breakfast for Lan Huan and his brother, and the stranger A-Zhan had taken home with him, and then they’d napped, and when they woke up Lan Huan fucked Mingjue again, his hangover like a fever crackling through his body. His bedroom smelled like sex and the alcohol they were both sweating out. After, Mingjue asked if Lan Huan would like to go to dinner with him sometime, as a date, and kissed him goodbye. Lan Huan went to go take a second nap.

When he woke up, he stumbled into the living room and collapsed on the couch. Away from the smell of his own room - determinedly not listening to the music drifting through A-Zhan’s wall, covering up whatever he was doing in there - he called Meng Yao. It was late in China, and Meng Yao had been sleeping, but he turned on his little reading light and curled around his phone, listening with his eyes closed and a soft smile on his face as Lan Huan told him all about the parade, the parties, the rainbow lights.

 

-

 

Once, just once, sometime during Lan Huan’s second year in New York, Meng Yao took Lan Huan to his own bed, to the room he lived in at JLT’s dormitories. They’d worked late, later than normal, and JLT’s driver was a local man - he’d gone home without realizing Lan Huan was still there.

It was a private room, but that was all you could say about it. A hot plate. A locker for his clothes. A rack to dry them in the sunshine that came briefly through the small window. A strange potted plant on the ledge, yellowing vines hanging like lank hair. A red paper decal left over from Lunar New Year, stuck to the wall with peeling tape. A single bare light overhead that buzzed whenever it was on. The bathroom was out in the hall. The walls were sweaty when Lan Huan touched them. The bed creaked. They had to go slow, so slow, laughing about how slow they had to fuck, until it turned from something funny into something deeply, painfully hot - Meng Yao stretched fully under Lan Huan, their skin sticking together with sweat. Sunk as deep into Meng Yao’s body as he could possibly get, fucking as close as they possibly could. He kept his hand over Meng Yao’s mouth to muffle the way he sobbed and moaned, and the other hand on Meng Yao’s shoulder, trying hard to keep them both in place as he thrust deeper, grinding harder, so slow that he felt lost entirely, sunk somewhere just below orgasm.

Afterwards Lan Huan went first to clean up in the dormitory bathroom. It smelled deeply of cleaner, and with every step Lan Huan felt the potential of a cockroach underfoot. He splashed water on his face and under his arms, and washed his cock and balls quickly in the sink, unwilling to risk turning on the shower so late at night. Lan Huan kissed Meng Yao as he slunk back into the little room, handed off Meng Yao’s single towel so he could get clean, and was asleep by the time the other man came back.

Waking was painful. The mattress was thin and hard. Worlds apart from the big wide bed that Lan Huan had in his apartment back in New York. Through the walls he could hear people waking up, cooking breakfast in their own crowded rooms, shouting at each other to get out of the bathroom already. The plant in the windowsill looked paler and more unhappy in daylight. His arm was across Meng Yao’s narrow chest, his fingertips dug fitfully under his ribs. His neck hurt already. He thought for a long moment that Meng Yao was still asleep, he was so still - and it wasn’t until he’d shifted a little closer that he realized that Meng Yao’s eyes were open, that he was staring silently at the featureless ceiling, and he wasn’t smiling at all.