Short Stories

Love in a Time of Expense Accounts
Manila, 1995

This was the scene at the bar every night. To your left, beautiful homosexual men, big swanky bar in the middle. To your right foreign men and the women who fancy them, whom they fancy. A mix of morally questionable sorts. Loose women, some say. The kind to cohort with foreign men. The kind like me. I loved this bar for that reason, once inside you could be in a different country. There was no sexual repression in here, and the best part - this was a high end bar in the heart of the central business district. Not shady, not dirty, just free. Everyone was equal here, gay and straight, commercial sex worker or not, all were equally welcome. We would mix with no issue - we weren’t after the same kind of love, after all. All secrets were safe. In here, everyone was  loose and free. Sex was in the air and in the bathrooms, electric and intoxicating. One night, David Hasselhoff walked in and  picked the left side of the bar, leaning on the counter, proud derrière calling out through his ahead-of-their time Skinny Jeans. Nary a gay hand took advantage of his ignorance of the order in this bar. In here, in this urban jungle called Giraffe, everyone was safe. Unless it was danger you craved. In this case, you needed to be a regular to know the secret rooms and secret alleys.

Shola was a regular. Formerly a man, she had made her money as an entertainer in Japan for years, now she was a textile manufacturer trading her textiles and her love to foreign customers. Shola had a body to die for and she knew it, she paid good money for her female parts. It is said that Japanese plastic surgeons are the best. Just about the time Shola danced on the high tables would be just about the time to go this was the cue, this was the point where decadence would tip over to damaging. But we are not there yet, no - the night is young, the drinks are flowing and the hips are swaying. And Shola? She is still plotting her dramatic entrance. Or taking her HIV meds. All part of her preparations for Saturday nights.

My thoughts are interrupted by his hand, here on the small of my back exposed in this little black dress I am wearing. He is new to my country and he is getting off on this scene. He is getting off on finally finding somewhere that is as classy as it is untamed. He is my first foreign lover, all six feet six inches of him, we are of the same tribe. A mix of three unlikely ethnicities, he is beautiful, olive Lebanese skin, strong Danish jawline, muscular Canadian build. We are on fire. I explain to him the lay of the land, remind him that some of the women in our company may be prostitutes - he should be careful not to take sips from their drinks. I remind him to look at a woman’s shoes, this is the give away. Only a pro knows what a real hooker shoe is, only they get it right.

Where I am from, the salable prostitute is exotic. Beautiful brown skin, full flowing black hair, big expressive eyes, small feminine frame. This is where some of the distinction begins. The Filipina beauty is a powerful thing, in me these features are diluted. The Spanish lightening my coloring a tint or two, the Columbian giving me a distinct suppleness of breast and thigh, I am not sure where I get my height from.  And I am well spoken in three languages, well educated, well traveled and impressively employed. American Express corporate cards will pay for all the cosmos the women are having tonight, only in my case I have paid for the first round since Steve bought me dinner.  None of this matters. Tonight, we are all the same woman. All casting spells on men who are drunk on the rawness of the night. And we like it like that. We are in this together, the men don’t see the raise of eyebrow, purse of lip, territorial kiss. Smart women work with each other, you see. We mark our territories, we plot for success. In a country where English is spoken, this is what the what the foreigners will never understand. The subtlety of signal, the protectiveness over our kind. A prostitute gives me a look and I know what I need to do, I take Steve’s hand and we make our way to my nameless new friend. I ask her if she wants a drink and we go to the bar. Steve begins speaking sports to her male companion. All is diffused, she smiles her thanks and finds new prey, her former date too drunk to care, he has transferred his rage to a Lakers’ losing streak.

The drinks keep coming, the not-so-secret joint we are sharing in the bathroom, body parts touching in discrete and flagrant ways. It is a Saturday night in Manila, capital of the Philippines, Catholic conundrum and democratic experiment. Some of us in this bar will probably be at church tomorrow, none of us will be confessing any of this. This white boy who is not so white, he can’t dance but he can certainly move. He knows where to place his hands on me, he knows where to place his breath on me. As the bar fills up, we are at that place where everyone else is starting to fade into the background, we are at that place where it is becoming just him and me.

It is time. Shola has walked in and they are clearing the tables. And just as she ambles her beautiful long legs towards her tabletop dance, just as she proceeds with her internationally renowned exotic dancing and just before Shola flashes her perfect breasts made by skilled Japanese surgeons, we leave.The night has turned romantic now, in the smokiness and sin of this morally ambivalent city the only breasts that matter are mine. The only foreign relations of consequence are ours. All acts worthy of  confessing are going down —on a Cal- king sized bed in a five-star serviced apartment that Coca Cola is paying for.

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