Chapter 29:

Sweet Dreams

Sweet like Honey

Daily life resumed at the Honey Café, and it hadn’t been more than a few days when I returned to work when a peculiar character showed up.

She was a beautiful lady about my age, with curly light brown hair and dressed fashionably. She wore sunglasses reminiscent of Shirley’s, but smaller and more stylish. Unlike my girlfriend, she exuded confidence and wasn’t afraid to expose herself. She took her sunglasses off and narrowed her eyes as she scrutinized me.

“Welcome to Honey Café,” I said politely with a bow. For a moment, the brown-haired lady didn’t respond, and then her expression hardened.

“Is Shirley Li here? I’m looking for her.”

Shirley Li was indeed here, in her usual corner, but I remained wary. She was keeping a low profile, to avoid getting seen by her fans. Though her pictures on Instant Pound had attracted more customers to Honey Café, she only posted them sparingly and not all the time. As such, nobody knew she patronized this store everyday.

I wasn’t sure if this lady was a fan or perhaps someone from her agency. Was she here to harass Shirley?

“My apologies, but I’m not sure. Please wait a moment while I check. I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.”

“Oh?” The lady peered at me, a half-smile on her face. “I recognize you. You’re her new boyfriend, aren’t you? I’ve seen you on her social media.”

Huh? When did Shirley post pictures of me on her social media? I was pretty sure we were careful about it…

“You show up in the videos she was streaming and uploading on her accounts. The, uh, victim.”


Even so, I maintained a professional smile. “I’m afraid I cannot comment on that.”

“Come on, don’t be so uptight…”

“Junior.” Shirley coughed from her corner. “It’s totally fine. I know her. She’s here to see me – we arranged to meet up.” She scowled. “Though she pulled this on me at the last minute. I only knew she would show up this morning.”

“Hey, I’m busy too, you know? Unlike you, Ms. Retired idol. I just happened to have a new slot free up, and so I thought I should check on you. Aren’t you touched?”

“I’m so moved,” Shirley said sarcastically, retreating back to her corner even as the newcomer took a seat opposite her. She nodded at me. “This is Anna Fang. She’s a fellow idol from the same group I was in – Sweet Dreams. Anna, this is Junior…it seems like you already know him.”

“Yeah.” Anna chuckled as she put down her sunglasses and rested her chin on her steepled fingers. “I didn’t think you would choose a nerdy guy of all people. One of your fans?”

“Surprisingly enough, no. He never even heard of Sweet Dreams or me when we first met. He just thought I was another customer.”

“Speaking of which, is there anything you wish to order, ma’am?”

“Just get her a normal coffee. No sugar or honey.”

“Really?” I blinked, taken aback by Shirley’s instructions. But Anna nodded.

“Yes. I have a strict diet, so…I can’t eat anything too fattening.”

Honey wasn’t that fattening. I think. Nonetheless, if that was what the customer wanted, then I should oblige.

While I served the coffee, both ladies began whispering in hushed tones, probably so they wouldn’t draw attention from the other customers. They didn’t have to worry. Not only were they in a corner, there weren’t many people in this hour.

“So how are you doing? How is retirement treating you?”

“Not bad, actually.” Shirley stretched and relaxed. “How about you?”

Anna made a sour expression. “You don’t have to ask. It’s as awful as ever. I feel like I want to die.”

“Then you should quit too. There’s no need to waste your life away being exploited by those blackhearted bastards at the agency.”

“Don’t even joke like that,” Anna said stiffly. She fanned herself and sipped some of the coffee I brought her before bringing both hands down on the table. “You know how this industry works. If you want to shine, you have to put up with it. No matter how unreasonable the sponsors are…without them, we can’t do anything. If you want success, you have to make several sacrifices. That’s how the idol industry works.”

“And I’m sick of sacrifices. It’s not like I want success anyway.”

“Are you kidding me?” Anna snapped sharply. “Shirley, you were always the most passionate about singing among us. I couldn’t believe you just quit like that.”

“You know why.”

Anna was silent for a moment. She tilted her head to the side and exhaled. “I heard you returned to singing for a bit. Was it…as a performer for events and parties?”

“Yeah, but I quit after two or three sessions.” Shirley grimaced and slumped against her chair. “I still couldn’t get over my stage fright. Plus the agency wasn’t pleased when I…walked out of a major customer’s event after humiliating him.” She smirked. “It was totally worth it, though. That so-called doctor and his girlfriend were awful people. I was more than happy to refund them. Besides, they have more important matters to worry at the moment…”

However, Anna wasn’t interested in Shirley’s bragging.

“You…still have stage fright, huh?” She interrupted quietly. Shirley stopped at that before nodding silently. Anna closed her eyes. “You never had stage fright before. It only happened after that night with the CEO of Super Seasons. When he asked for you to entertain him, and then blocked your future concerts.”

Shirley’s eyes narrowed and she clenched her fists. She straightened, the fire back in her expression, and snapped vehemently. “I’m sick and tired of pandering to those old men. My body is mine. I will no longer give up my integrity…I have no intention of sleeping with them just to get money or a venue.”

“Shirley,” Anna said patiently. “Don’t be naïve. I’m not telling you to go that far, but you need to be more tolerant. A bit of…harassment is fine. You’re overreacting – he just touched you…”

“In the most inappropriate places! He should keep his hands to himself!”

“I agree, but that’s not how the real world works.” Anna sighed and hung her head. “There are millions of girls like us who want to be idols, but only one out of millions ever succeed in becoming one. You can’t just…give up this chance.”

“I can, and I already did.” Shirley met her friend’s stare evenly. “Look, what’s done is already done. There is no going back. Don’t worry about me, Anna. I don’t judge you. Do what you think is right. If you prize success, then do what you need to do. But don’t force your ideals upon me. You may place importance on being an idol, but I was never after the stardom or fame. I only ever liked singing. I didn’t enjoy all the other aspects.”

Anna exhaled wearily and her shoulders slumped in resignation. “Fine. It’s your life, after all. So, how are you doing now? Are you…feeling better now that you’ve retired?”

“Actually, yes. I’m enjoying myself tremendously now.” Shirley rested on the table, her face next to the mug of honey caramel coffee and her hands sprawled across the surface. “I sleep whenever I want to sleep, I wake up whenever I want without anyone nagging at me for being late. I eat whatever I want without having to worry about my weight. I don’t have to attend those stupid dancing lessons or choreography. I’m a lot freer now. I can fall in love with anyone I want, and I don’t need permission from the agency to date.”

“You shouldn’t give up your idol career for love,” Anna reprimanded her. “It’s not worth it.”

“You’re misunderstanding something.” Shirley raised her head and shook it. “I fell in love after I quit being an idol.” She smiled dreamily. “You know…it’s a wonderful feeling. Sure, I still don’t know what’s going to happen next, but I do know I have someone to accompany me down the path leading to the future. I no longer feel isolated or lonely. As long as we walk the road together hand in hand, I’m not afraid of what comes after, because I’m confident we can face anything life throws at us.”

For a moment, Anna just watched her friend…her ex-group mate and former idol. Searching her face for any sign of deceit or delusion. Then she nodded.

“I see. You do…look a lot more relaxed and healthier than when you were back in Sweet Dreams. A lot less stressed and less worked up. It does feel like retirement did you a world of good.”

She finished the rest of her coffee and stood up. Smiling, she inclined her head.

“I wish you happiness, Shirley. I haven’t had the fortune of being in love, but seeing you like this, I can’t help but want to cheer for you too. I want to believe that you made the right choice.”

“I won’t regret my decision,” Shirley said. “No matter what happens.”

“That’s a good attitude.” Anna offered her hand, and Shirley took it. Anna pulled her close to give her a quick hug. “Remember, my dear sister, that no matter what, we’ll always be friends. If you need any help, make sure you call me. Even if we’re no longer in the same idol group, we’re still sisters who went through hellish trials together and fought shoulder-to-shoulder in crazy concerts. Don’t hesitate to contact me. I’ll always be here for you.”

“Thank you.” Shirley returned the hug. “I’m so glad we met.”

And then Anna was gone, vanishing from the Honey Café as swiftly and abruptly as she appeared. I watched in awe as she climbed into a limousine that sported the logo of Sweet Dreams, and the luxurious vehicle sped off to whatever her next appointment was.

Shirley watched her friend depart through the window, and she smiled. A warm and genuine one. She must have been really close with Anna.

“We’ll meet again…perhaps as rivals on the same stage.”

I chewed on my lip when I heard her murmur. Closing my eyes briefly, I pondered over my next step.

Now I knew what I wanted to do. I was going to help Shirley reignite her dreams.

John Lee H. Wu
Steward McOy