Neon Red – Chapter 9

(DISCLAIMER: This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. It’s important to remember this is all totally fabricated, embellished, and exaggerated for entertainment purposes.)

**********

I waited for a callback, a text, a DM; anything to let me know he was okay. An unnatural silence followed, during which I rehashed the last twenty minutes at warp speed, inhaling the steam filling the stall. Remembering the desperation in his voice. The urgency in his moans. The stridency of his rasps against the speaker; half-choked. I pictured him sobbing, shoulders shaking, cold and unguarded. Lost in a wilderness of post-nut regret. I decided to break first and call. As I went to dial, my fingers slipped, mucking up the wet screen. A jigsaw of reflective spatters. Logic prevailed, urging me to towel it off before doing anything further.

“Z?!” G called from the other side of the door, her tone betraying an uncertainty of whether or not I was alone. I nearly dropped the phone when she shook the handle like a maniac. “Open up!”

“Yeah, babe, one sec!” I called, heart in my throat. Why the fuck was she awake? What was so pressing she couldn’t wait for me to leave the shower? Why was I trembling like a henpecked bitch? I locked the phone, swishing the water from the screen to pretend I hadn’t brought it in the shower.

“Open up!” She demanded, pounding on the door with the side of her fist.

“Are youh daft?!” I snapped. This wasn’t our place. If she damaged the paint we’d be charged for the entire door. Probably a paint job for the whole room. I slipped stepping out onto the matless floor, looking for a towel but finding none. She was so fucking selfish when we traveled, always using two towels after the shower; one for her hair and one for her body. Damn anyone else.

Zayn…” she ground out. “I swear to God, you have five fucking seconds to open this door or I’m tearing it down! Hurry up!”

“G, babe, chill! What the fuck?!” Using a washcloth to dab my face and hands dry, I ran it once or twice across the phone before flinging it onto her dirty clothes in the corner. Fuck it. It was now or never. No sense prolonging the inevitable, as my dad would say. I had stepped in it, and it was time to face the music. She definitely knew.

I took a steadying breath and set my hand to the handle. Why was I so unnerved? This wasn’t me. I didn’t react like this. But for some reason I was scared shitless. Her silence on the other side of the door was bloodchilling. The sort of fear you could taste. Gathering like phlegm at the back of your throat. Not fear of her, but the situation. Of the guilt or disgust she would project towards me. I’m almost certain I couldn’t face it. I slung the door open anyway, prepared to charge into a hostile encampment.

“Babe, I—”

“What the fuck were you doing?!”

“G, what the fuck are youh talkin’ about? I’m just showerin’, maan. Ever heard of that before?”

“Not in the middle of the night, idiot.” She was livid. She had put my t-shirt back on and her hair was a mess, slinging in straw-colored frays around her face and neck. Like she’d crawled out of a drying machine fraught with static cling. Her eyes were puffy with sleep, and she looked like she’d been crying. I could almost feel the gritty inflammation that singed the lids. She registered the phone in my hand and drew her own conclusions.

“You fucking disgust me…you truly fucking disgust me—”

“What is even happenin’ right now?!” I played possum, buying time and grasping at straws for a suitable lie. “What the fuck are youh on about?! Youh have a fucked up dream or sumethin’?!”

“You must really think I’m stupid…” she whispered angrily, looking like a cast-off from The Walking Dead. Her face had broken out badly overnight. Apparently the deep cleansing mask her mom swore by hadn’t worked at all. It was something she fretted over after shows, since the makeup artists used the same brushes and pallets on dozens of girls; never cleaning them between applications. Now she started to cry again and I winced at how badly her eyes must’ve burned. It was the fault of that nasty black makeup from earlier.

“Babe,” I whispered, covering my cock. “I think we sho—”

“Stop, Z! Just stop!” she sobbed. “I don’t want to hear it! I’m so sick of hearing the same old shit from you over and over again!” Her expression rapidly changed and she looked devastated. “One fucking trip….one trip and you couldn’t be supportive for even one day? Couldn’t survive a week without calling one of your disgusting little whores who you think I don’t know about? Am I that useless to you now?” I was entirely dumbfounded; no longer pretending.

Lil whores?” I repeated. “What whores, G?! You’re literally just making shit up now. There’s nobody but youh, youh hear me?! I flew all this fuckin’ way for youh to tell me this?! Youh think I’d fly seven hours just to be worried about some thot when I got here? I could’ve stayed home for that shit. I’m not tryin’ to hear this bullshit—”

“I’m not an idiot!” she shrieked, echo crashing around the bathroom; making it feel miniscule. If we weren’t careful our neighbors might dial up the concierge. “Tell me, right now. I won’t say it again. You have five fucking seconds. Who is she?!”

“No one!”

“Fuck you!” Her eyes flashed and she lunged for the phone. I snatched it away and flung her arm aside, hearing it knock up against the doorframe.

Youh need to calm the fuck down, alright?!” I shouted, enraged by her temerity; even though I’d been caught red-handed. “Let’s just fuckin’ talk through this —”

“I’m so sick of you!” She slammed her hand against the door in a violent outlash, making it fly backwards on its hinges. “I’m done talking! You’re such a piece of shit!” She slapped me so hard my ear rang. She would have kept going but I shoved her away and tried to close the door.

Fuck you! I hate you! I hate you!” she wept. “Who was it?! Was it him?!” My stomach dropped. “Was it that disgusting piece of shit again?! Was it?!” She shoved the door back open and I slipped, catching myself before I hit the floor. My feet were still wet; puddles forming from the water that dripped down my legs. I tried to think of a quick defense as she lunged for the phone again.

“I can’t believe you did this to me again,” she sobbed. “You called him again?! After I told you not to?! Right in front of me?!”

“G, babe—”

Shut up! Shut up! Shut up! I’m gonna tell dad! He’s so sick of you! We all are! I’m so tired of defending you!” She slammed her hand against the door and left a deep crater. She seemed to have the strength of ten men. Now she swung on me with a closed fist and I dodged, but the momentum made me fall backwards to the floor, head banging against tiles. My senses were stunned, as though a captive bolt had been shot point blank through the front of my skull. I began to black out, looking up to see her hair flailing as she scrambled for my phone—

I jolted upright, wheezing for air, finding I’d fallen asleep on the shower floor. I was slumped against the stone wall, hugging my legs like some starved POW. I searched the shadows for any sign of her before breathing in relief. The shower was a large glass encasement situated in the middle of the room, with space enough to house half a dozen people. I sat there wide-eyed and distrustful like a chimp. Teeth chattering. And I had dozed off with my head propped awkwardly against the wall, which left an awful crook in my neck. All around me was unmovable blackness; as cold as a crypt. My legs were chilled to the bone; shuddering and stiff in the joints.

I got up and dried myself off, thanking every force in the universe it had only been a bad dream. Now I crept back into the bedroom to find she was asleep; still out like a light. I nearly pissed myself with relief, sliding into bed, heart beating a mile a minute. “Inshallah…” I whispered aloud. Contemplating that if I saw tomorrow, I’d make it up to her. Even if she had no idea why I was laying it on so thick.

**********

White roses filled our room with perfume. Chilled dessert wine and macaroons had awaited us in the sitting area as a welcome gift from the hotel, but we hadn’t touched it since we arrived and probably never would. It was just nice to look at. By now I was accustomed to all manner of finery and my tastes had only grown more sophisticated in the process, but this level of accommodation and opulence was absurd. It was divine. It made me uncomfortable; like I was going to shatter something or leave filmy fingerprints on every imaginable surface like some uncultured baboon. Everything was intimidatingly white and orderly; no place for a guy like me.

Morningbabeeeee…” G sang absently, reading her phone as I joined her at the breakfast nook in nothing but my briefs. She sat in a pale blue dressing robe, her hair bone straight and framing her face like curtains.

“You’re up early,” I said, kissing her pursed lips, which she presented to me without looking. She was reading over her itinerary for the day.

“I had the hotel set me up a few wakeup calls for the week…for my earliest days, y’know? I always, like, just completely sleep through my alarms like a lunk, and you’re just as hopeless as me in the mornings.”

“Yeah, well…” I laughed, sitting across from her and wiping her gloss from my mustache. “Mornings make me miserable. Born a night owl, die a night owl, I suppose—”

“Wow, how on earth do you function, sir…” she kissed her teeth before eating a fork-full of eggs. My heart had been sputtering since I woke up and found the bed empty. I thought she might’ve been off contemplating how to approach me over what she’d heard, but now I was beginning to think her suspicions were all in my head.

She was in a pretty good mood, from what I could tell, and likely had no clue what happened last or who I’d been speaking to. My night terrors were becoming more frequent and disturbingly life-like. It was difficult to distinguish between them and authentic memories come morning. I mentioned it to my mum a while ago and she recommended I consult with a therapist who would help me work through what they might mean. I had yet to do so, fearful of what a professional my unearth in my subconscious. And incidentally, fearful of what they might prescribe to cure them. All I could imagine were archaic psychiatric treatments; like shock therapy and trepanation. I shuddered to picture myself in a straitjacket, gagged and screaming at the top of my lungs in a cold cell. My mum told me I was being overdramatic and that I watched too many horror movies. Maybe she was right.

“How youh feelin’, babe?” I asked, biting into a chocolate drizzled croissant. “Youh look gud…”

“Thanks, bubba,” she beamed at me over her glass of grapefruit juice. “So, hair and makeup just left. I told them not to wake you. It’s way too early for all that,” she laughed. “But, uh, I just have a shoot with the Isabel Marant crew in about an hour, then a show later tonight—”

“Want me to come?” I asked, lifting the cover from my breakfast. French scrambled eggs over gluten-free toast.

“No need. I know you want to rest up. To be honest, I’m just grateful you came last night and that you went to the capsule meet and greet with me yesterday, and even dinner with Tommy. You’ve been amazing, babe. He’s been raving about you ever since.”

“I mean, what can I say? I guess I have that kind of effect on people–”

“Ew, shut it.”

“What?! It’s true!” I grinned.

Anywayssss…I was just saying I’m so happy you’re here and that you’re opening up to this stuff again. Honestly, Z you’ve been the best! But I don’t want to wear you out, you know? I know you get tired of social stuff fast—” I started to protest but she hurried and said, “Deep down! Deep down I know you’re not super fond of it. You’re really just doing it for me, which is adorable. So I actually scheduled you a massage so you can chill, and I made plans for after the show with a few friends I met in Milan. They’re here for the week too, of course. Bell and I met up with them over at Disney World—I mean Disneyland the other day, before you got here. That way you’ll have some time to yourself. To, you know, rest up since jet lag is getting to you. I saw it in your eyes yesterday.”

“Well damn…I guess you’re right, if I’m honest.”

“I know I am. You good then?”

“Gud babe. All gud. Cool, cool…” I said, shrugging and digging into the food. I would’ve preferred soft boiled eggs to scrambled. These looked like they’d been chewed up and spit out before I got here.

“D’you need that heated?” she asked, watching me poke around the soupy concoction with a fork.

“Uh…” I honestly did need it heated, but didn’t want to trouble her. “Noh, I’m gud. Thanks anyweh.”

“Of course.”

“Soh these friends of yours…the ones from Disneyland…they got names?”

Yessss, silly. Kasim…” she smiled. “And, uh…Michelle…”

“Kasim?” I asked, brows lifting to the top of my head.

“Yeah, I think it’s African.”

“Oh, she’s African?”

He’s a guy actually…”

Wicked…” I took a sip of coffee, cafe au lait, which was grossly lukewarm, and the foam on top was beginning to look like snot. I set it aside with a huff. “Damn, babe, I honestly wanted to spend some time with youh today…” She met my eyes and cocked her head; squinching her nose. “We barely had a minute to talk yesterday.” I rubbed an eye. “They’re dragging youh around everywhere, it seems. Like a chicken with your head cut off—”

“I know right—”

“—what gives? Sounds like Kasim’s seen youh more than me already. Or he will today anyweh. M’startin’ to feel a bit jealous, yeah?”

“Aweee, babyyy,” she pouted, putting her phone down for the first time since I arrived. “That’s so sweet!” She blew a kiss from across the table. “Don’t worry about him, alright? I think he’s gay. And we’ll have plenty of time together tomorrow around noon. My morning’s clear too.” She almost squealed, eyes becoming sparkly slits. “You know what that means right? We can actually sleep in! Then do a little sight-seeing…maybe a little shopping? How’s that?”

“I’d love it, actually….”

“Z, I’m telling you, they have all the best stores over here. Exclusive inventories and rare releases….so many sick brands that are still up and coming and won’t hit the States for years. We’d be lucky if we even see them in New York. And they’ll be huge, I’m telling you. We’re gonna get so much shit we’ll need more luggage—”

“Then it’s all on me, okay? Your money’s no gud here, fam.”

“Aw, look at you!” she smirked, flicking her hair behind her shoulder; picking up her phone again and flashing a shiny gel manicure. She chose nude varnish so that it wouldn’t clash with any of the looks on set. “You’re so good to me. And you don’t have to tell me twice. I won’t be fighting you on that,” she laughed, winking.

I ate as much of the cold food as I could stomach before calling it quits. As I stood up from the table, she wondered, “So, what’re you gonna get up to while I’m gone?”

“Shit, I dunno. Maybe play a few games. Maybe goh for a walk. Order a shit ton of beignets—”

“Ugh, you’re so basic.” We laughed.

“We’ll see, we’ll see…” I absently played with her hair, letting the strands slide through my fingers as I suddenly thought of Haz. “I’ll get up to sumthin’—”

“You always do. Be good ok?”

“Promise,” I muttered, pecking her on the lips before heading for the shower.

**********

After a deep tissue massage by a gorgeous blonde who spoke zero English, then an afternoon of short naps and too many online games, I got sick of looking at the same few walls and antique paintings. I got dressed and went downstairs to the lobby of the hotel to get recommendations from the concierge about what was in the area. I didn’t plan on going far since getting lost in this super touristy area didn’t appeal to me, particularly not on my own and knowing little to nothing of the language.

I passed through the swanked-out lobby and picked up notes of live music someplace, getting turned around near the courtyard but eventually finding my way. Now I headed across marble floors crowded with huge flower arrangements and Grecian statues, to the front desk adorned with a massive George V in gold leaf. They spoke with comically thick accents and referred to me as Monsieur Hadid throughout the exchange, according to the name on the suite. Then they tried really hard to convince me to dine in at one of the multiple Michelin-starred restaurants, but I declined, wanting to save the occasion for me and G.

Suddenly a guest approached with a squeal, struggling to speak even a lick of English, apart from the word camera. She fanned her face to dry the unshed tears, hopping up and down with an unruly energy. She jabbed her phone in my direction, presumably asking for a photo, before informing the others of who I was.

“Zen Malique! One Direction!” The gentleman behind the counter playfully gasped and said his daughters were obsessed with us. He didn’t take it further, as the George V had a reputation far too venerable to jeopardize over an autograph for his kids. I snapped the selfie for the fan who had begun to cry and didn’t want to let go of my waist.

“All gud? There youh goh, babe.” I passed the phone back and accidentally brushed her fingers. She hopped away in a flurry of brunette hair and giggly exclamations. Now the concierge centered their attention on me once more. They recommended I try one of the local cafes and named a few within walking distance.

As I thanked them and left the desk, I looked around and felt surrounded by an artificial summer. Huge mélanges of white gladiolus and pearly lilies filled the center of the entrance, complemented with heaps of peonies and hydrangeas lining the flanks, which overwhelmed the air with their intoxicating fragrances. I seemed to enter the real world after passing through the revolving doors, exiting a world of ornate hideaways and insurmountable leisure. Diversions fit for kings. I nodded to the doorman and started down the rainy street, glad it wasn’t heavily occupied. I pulled the hood of my Givenchy jumper over my head, hoping to not have another run-in with a hysterical fan. Not after the choppy sleep I’d had since I arrived here. My temper was becoming shorter by the moment, liable to spark at one wrong word.

I picked up the pace and cleared four blocks west of the hotel. The rain let up, but the wind still carried a damp drizzle. My heart jumped into my throat as I passed a doorway and a yappy Shih Tzu decided to go on the defense, bearing down and showing its teeth between barks. I nodded at the old man who kept it leashed beneath the mini awning in an attempt to stay dry. I rounded a street corner, grateful it was even more deserted than the last, filled with office spaces that didn’t seem to be open for business. They’d probably packed up and gone home long ago, as it was getting late. I rounded another corner that was downwind, so I drew my hood tighter around my face and shoved my hands into my pockets.

When I got to a café on the edge of the district, I requested an outside table despite the persistent drizzle, and ordered a plain American coffee. The server ran out and opened the patio umbrella, revealing a remarkable overbite each time he smiled, making little quips in French that I couldn’t begin to understand. He wiped down the tabletop with a cloth from his apron pocket before shimmying back inside to fill the order.

I sat and sighed, bored with myself already. I took out my phone and read through a few emails, stumbling across one in particular that caught my attention. It was an MP4 file, sent in a subject-less message. It was from a producer named Henrique Andrade who I’d met a few years ago and worked with on Mind of Mine. He had introduced me to Jahron Brathwaite aka PARTYNEXTDOOR last month, insisting we’d sound good on a track together. A while later, “Still Got Time” was born, inspired by dancehall and the tropical house tunes he listened to growing up. Looks like Henrique had sent over an update last night. The final draft was finished, and apparently I needed to confirm all changes before moving forward.

I popped my headphones on and zoned out, letting it cycle through once before becoming super critical. It was such a fucking vibe though. A few tweaks and it would be perfect. My server back skittered to the table with the coffee and a free pastry, shivering.

Burrr! You are cold, no?” He ran back inside before I could even answer.

I immediately replayed the track, falling in love with it the longer I listened. It was a step-up for me in terms of branding and a step in the correct direction for where I wanted to end up in music: high versatility. I didn’t want to just be known as the ex-boyband guy, nor be boxed in as an R&B singer from my early solo stuff. I was capable of much, much more. This would help make a statement that I wasn’t afraid to experiment with style or genre, and that I was welcome to collaborating with artists from all walks of life and creative energy.

I took down my hood and shook my bangs out, flipping them away from my forehead. The door to the café burst open and my server came rushing out, feet drumming to a halt before my table. “Zen Malique?! Zen Malique! It couldn’t be?!” Fuck, he had finally recognized me. I nodded and gave a weak smile. “No wayyyy?” he gasped, laughing behind his scrawny hand. “With the voice, no?” He mimed singing a high note and spun in a circle. “Incroyable! Magnifique, you are! Have you eaten your coffee? How was it?!”

“Fantastic, thank you,” I chuckled. Then he gifted me with an incredibly choppy French remix of the “Pillowtalk” chorus.

Place to know our fearssss, place to deal with tearsssss, yeahhh…” I got up abruptly, ready to take off. I took out my credit card and asked for the check, but he wouldn’t hear of it.

No no no no no! How do you say: it’s on the houseS’il te plait, do me the honor of buying your cafe!”

“Of course, broh. Thank you. Uh, yeah…merci.” I gave an awkward double thumbs up, inclining my head. “Hey, youh want a picture or sumthin’?”

“Could I?!”

“Of course, of course…” He whipped out his phone, cased in dark purple, and yanked me over, pressing our cheeks together. Once I saw his cringy face in the selfie, I couldn’t help but laugh. I thanked him again and started down the street, happy to see the sun emerge.

When I got back to the hotel, I explored the famous Marble Courtyard since the rain had driven the guests away, and gazed up eight stories at hundreds of balconies and a wealth of history. Most of them occupied with people I’d never see again in my life. More live music drifted from the hotel lounge and I thought about wandering over to check it out firsthand, but thought against it because I was beyond ready to crash.

G hadn’t made it back yet, so I gave her a call, but it went straight to voicemail. I responded to a few texts from my cousins and mum, before hopping online for some sort of distraction. I called Henrique and we talked for a bit about the song, and I went over a few ideas for the video. I was thinking of a massive, psychedelic-crazed house party with barely any room to walk. Something dope as fuck to get everybody hype for summer. Told him I was thinking about filming it at my UK place as soon as I left France. He told me he’d be in touch.

I reached for my smokes and noticed they were empty. Right away I Googled the nearest smoke shop and noticed it wasn’t too far from the hotel. I shoved my boots back on and headed through the lobby again, this time with a beanie and a longish wool coat over the hoodie. For a final bit of disguise, I tossed on G’s Ray-Bans when I hit the street and tried to follow the Google map on foot.

The temperature was dropping so I was grateful I decided to wear layers this time. I got to the shop just before they closed, out of breath and with no cash on hand. The guy seemed annoyed. A skinny old woman in a black dress and low-heeled pumps squeezed by behind me, talking to the clerk over my head. She sauntered to the back of the shop like she owned the place, and only then did the guy address me again. He raised his voice. He was definitely annoyed. They would charge him a fee for using the card under a certain amount, so in turn he would need to charge me. I bought a couple packs of Marlboro Reds to eliminate that. It wasn’t exactly my brand, but it was the closest thing they had.

I lit one as I left the store, using a graphic lighter I’d purchased since I couldn’t travel with mine and I was sick of using the matches from the hotel. This one had disembodied boobs on it, which was hilarious. Walking twice as fast on the way back because my phone was at 8%, I surveyed the blocks and felt disenchanted already. It wasn’t much like the movies unless you were walking runways or hitting all the touristy spots or being escorted around like a dignitary. That wasn’t really my scene, so I was left with the more ordinary amenities. The everyday shit like crummy convenience stores and back-alley cafes. As I stopped at an intersection waiting to cross, a call came through. It was him.

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