They’re very easy, white men. They come to this part of the world in their suits and ties and expensive shoes, rushing through airports and hotel lobbies with their briefcases and laptops, swollen with a sense of their own importance. But really, they’re like children, ruled by their wants, enslaved by their appetites. They do not see how easy they are to read.
Take this man, for example, lying in bed with his pants around his ankles. He didn’t bother to take his socks off; he was in too much of a hurry. Dark fur on his chest, fuzz on his arms and legs, a patch on the back of his head where his dark brown hair is starting to thin. His erection has subsided.
I took care not to kiss him on the lips.
When he approached me at a bar earlier this evening, I pretended that I was intrigued, but cautious. I checked his right hand for a ring and made sure he noticed. He wasn’t wearing it, but it was easy to see that he regularly wore one. A good sign; he’ll think carefully about consequences when the time comes.
He tried to tell me what he was doing here, but held just enough back so that it would seem as though he were privy to matters too delicate and too important to be discussed with a stranger. I allowed him to think that I was impressed. I allowed the skirt of my wrap dress to slide off one thigh just so. I allowed him to gently touch it.
Still I behaved as though I was nervous and a little scared. I glanced around the bar every once in a while, as though I were anxious about being spotted by someone I knew. It was too early in the evening, the place wasn’t crowded yet, just a few locals. The bar staff were busy chatting among themselves.
He took my hand, stroked the inside of my wrist, tracing with his thumb the vein there, went into the spiel that I now know by heart. Are you afraid of me? Are you worried? Are you thinking of someone else? Are you afraid of hurting him? We’re not doing anything wrong. Life is short. I think we have a real connection here. I don’t want to look back on this moment and regret that I didn’t do anything about it. Do you? You’re so beautiful.
So here he is, lying where his appetites have led him. There is a part of me that thinks he deserves this, although I know he does not.
I look at my watch. Anita should be here soon. But I know that Lee and Joel will be late; that’s just the way it is. On his own, Lee would probably be here on time. But none of us would be here on our own. Joel is the glue that holds us together. Joel is the trap we have all fallen into, the chain that binds us.
While I wait, I make preparations. I snap on a pair of gloves. I run a bath and turn off the tap when the tub is about a third of the way full. I remove the pillows and strip the sheets off the bed. To do this, I have to roll him several times from side to side. He doesn’t wake. I take the pillows, roll the sheets into a bundle, toss them into the closet.
There is a knock on the door, and by the rhythm – tap-tata-tap-tap – I know it’s Anita. I open the door. She’s wearing a chambermaid’s uniform and she has one of the hotel’s service trolleys.
Anita is in her mid-fifties, a stocky, hard-looking woman. Or perhaps this business is making her look hard, making all of us look hard. I don’t know. Very early on, I learned not to ask questions. I don’t know anybody else’s story, not Lee’s, not Anita’s, certainly not Joel’s. The only story I know is my own, and it is my hard luck that Joel knows it too. Joel knows all our stories. Otherwise, we would not be here.
Anita moves briskly, efficiently, looking down both sides of the hallway to make sure nobody is watching. She puts a stack of neatly-folded plastic sheeting in my arms, and then takes two massive bags of tube ice from within the bowels of the trolley.
“You run the bath yet?” she asks.
I can sense her impatience like static in the air as she brushes past me. For some reason, Anita has decided that she doesn’t like me. I’m not sure why, although I don’t suppose I blame her.
I lock the door, go back inside and stand by the bathroom door to see if she needs anything. When she looks up and sees me, the irritation flares up and spreads across her face like a fast-blooming rash.
“What are you waiting for? Start laying those down!” she says, gesturing toward the sheeting in my arms.
I sigh, turn and do what she says. The sheeting is thin but durable, and one piece is enough to cover the entire bed. I roll the man around again to get the sheeting underneath him. Anita emerges from the bathroom, surveys my efforts for a moment. I’m out of breath from moving him around but she makes no attempt to help me. With a grunt, she turns away and goes back to the trolley for more ice.
As I start laying down the sheeting on the floor, I hear her come back into the room. I ignore her, she ignores me. She disappears into the bathroom again, and soon I hear the ice tumble into the bathtub.
A few minutes later, it is her turn to stand at the bathroom door, looking at me on my hands and knees laying down the plastic. I look at her.
“All set in there?” I ask.
“Good,” I say, for lack of anything to say.
Again, she does not try to help me.
“How old are you?” she asks suddenly.
“How old. Are you.” She says it slowly, as though she is talking to someone slow.
“Thirty-four,” I say, as I lay the last of the sheets down.
“That’s not young.”
“I mean, you look younger. Young enough to be stupid.”
“Thanks, Anita. Really, no more compliments.”
She draws in a quick, deep breath. “What I mean is — if you were younger, I’d understand. Young people can be stupid.”
“Old people can be stupid, too,” I say, spotting an opening. “You’re what? Fifty, sixty?”
She smiles, but it’s a sad smile. “I am stupid. Never made it past grade school. Never done anything with my life but clean up after other people. They throw up, they piss, they crap, and I clean it all up. The one time I try to be smart, the one time I try to get ahead – “
She falls silent a moment, then she fixes me in a hard stare. “But you. Look at you. You’re educated, you’re pretty. You seem like a sensible girl. You got parents?”
“Everyone’s got parents.”
“You know what I mean. Parents who were around for you. Put you through school. Taught you what’s what.”
This one stings worse than anything. I think about my father and my mother, him gone ten years, her gone just after this whole business started. When I lie to myself, I think that she’s the real reason why I’m here.
She wasn’t. Anita is right, I am stupid. I am the real reason I’m here.
“My parents are dead,” I say quietly.
She considers this a moment. “They’re probably better off that way.” Although the words are tough as usual, this time they don’t come out that way. “Lee says you have a kid.”
I nod. “Six years old.”
“He left when I got pregnant and never looked back.”
She snorts with a contempt that for once does not seem to be directed at me. “That’s what they do. No surprises there.” She looks around the room, then at the man on the bed. “I guess you’re all set.” Her voice softens again, for only the second time since I’ve known her. “You going to be okay?”
How do I even answer that? “Yes.”
She nods, heads for the door. “Tell Joel I’ll be back to clean up when you’re all done. Like always.”
She steps out into the corridor, looks both ways. Then without another word, she wheels the trolley down to the elevators.
I lock the door. I sit on the chair at the dressing table, where I can see the sleeping man in the mirror. I wait.
Finally there is a knock on the door and I rush to answer it.
“It’s about time,” I hiss.
Joel stands big and tall in the doorway, smoking, grinning. I snatch the cigarette from between his lips and stub it out on the hard wood of the door frame, at a spot where nobody would think to look. He smiles even wider, swaggers through the door and into the room, which suddenly feels very small.
Lee follows close behind him. He looks at me, and then at the cigarette butt.
“He shouldn’t be smoking in here,” I say. “Not with what’s about to happen.”
He nods. Lee is a small, quiet, serious man. I doubt that he wants to be here any more than I do. “You don’t want to leave that in here,” he says softly. “Put it in your pocket.”
I do what he says, and move aside to let him pass. He’s struggling with heavy black bags and wheeled suitcases. Inside them are the things we’ll be using – portable monitors, surgical instruments, bottles of saline solution, packs of plasma. As usual, Joel has not offered to help.
“Cooler’s in the hallway by the door,” he calls out over his shoulder. I nod, rush back out and pick up the cooler.
Suddenly a door opens, and a middle-aged white man emerges from one of the rooms. He glances in my direction, obviously likes what he sees, gives me a smile.
Shit, I’ve been seen.
“Looks like you’re having a picnic,” he says, pleasantly.
“A what?” I’m momentarily confused. He gestures toward the blue rubber cooler, and I understand. “Oh, this. I –“
“Honey?” Joel’s voice floats into the hallway from inside the room, and there is a note of warning in it that I’m certain only I can hear. “You want to bring those beers in?”
“Sure, baby.” I pick up the cooler, register the regret that flickers across the man’s face.
“Good evening, Miss,” he says, then turns away and walks in the direction of the elevators.
I want to run after him. I want to beg for his help, to tell him what’s going on. What we’re about to do to another man, a man very much like him, a stranger passing through on business, lonely for company, eager for a woman’s warmth. I want to tell him, look, the next time it could be you. So please. Help me.
But I feel a hand close over my throat and I’m pulled roughly back into the room, pushed up against a wall as the door closes. I feel Joel’s warm body pressed hard against my back, his stubble against my neck, his lips against my ear.
“You thinking of trying anything funny, sweetheart?” When I don’t answer, his fingers tighten over my throat. “Sweetheart?” he repeats.
“No. No, of course not, Joel.”
“You sure, baby?” His voice is a caress: silk draped over a sharp blade.
Lee clears his throat, and then calls out to us from the side of the bed where he stands, staring at the unconscious man. “This guy’s going to wake up soon if we don’t get moving.”
Joel relaxes his grip. “Don’t forget, sweetheart. I know where your little girl goes to school.”
I touch my neck. “No, Joel. I won’t forget.”
He turns away, strides back into the room, spreads his arms wide and beams at Lee. “Okay, man. Let’s get this party started.”
I take a moment to compose myself.
Then, without really thinking, I take the cigarette butt from my pocket and drop it on the carpet, a tight spot in between the wall and a side table. I push it in with my toe, deep into the thick pile, where I know Anita can’t find it. Maybe someone else will. Someone who’s actually looking for it.
Maybe they won’t find it this time. So I’ll do it the next time, and the next.
Our luck has to run out sometime, right?
F.H. Batacan is a Filipino journalist and crime fiction writer based in Singapore. She has a bachelor’s degree in Communications and a master’s degree in Art Studies from the University of the Philippines. She worked for nearly a decade in the Philippine intelligence community before making the transition to broadcast journalism. She was a fellow at the 1996 Dumaguete National Writers’ Workshop. Her works of fiction and personal essays have appeared in magazines and anthologies in the Philippines and overseas. Her first novel, “Smaller and Smaller Circles”, won the Grand Prize for the English novel in the 1999 Don Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature. The novel, published by the University of the Philippines Press in 2002, also won the Manila Critics Circle National Book Award in 2002, and the Madrigal-Gonzalez Best First Book Award in 2003. In 2008, her story “Keeping Time” won first prize in the English short story category of the Philippines Free Press Literary Awards. She took part in the UP National Writers Workshop in 2009. She guest-edited a special crime fiction issue of Philippine Genre Stories, launched in May 2011. She has just finished a collection of short stories and is at work on her second novel.
The above image is from here.