By John Sheng
When I took her home she did not say a word but the smell of wine on her left me worried that she might vomit in my car. It was now 3am in the wee hours although Kings Cross was as noisily exciting as ever. In half an hour, she would get off my car. She lived in a quiet apartment.
I worked as a chauffeur at a night club and my work involved taking those Japanese, Korean, Thai and Filipino girls home every night.
When I arrived home it was about 4 in the early morning and I was quite sleepy. After I brushed my teeth and washed my face, the girl emerged again in my memory whom I had just taken home. She was from the Philippines and her name was Imelda. She was tall, had the eyes of a film star and wore a tight-fitting black dress. I kept thinking of her till I fell into a dream before I knew it.
The next day, I went to work as usual. I began work at 9 every evening till 2 to 3am when I had to take the girls home. Occasionally, the girls had something private to do and they would get me to run errands for them. Shortly after I started work, I saw the big boss come out of the lift with Imelda. He told me to take her home first. Normally, she would sit behind me and I had hardly spoken to her before as I could see she was tired and silent. Tonight, however, she sat next to me. She did not smell of liquor but of high-class perfume. I wanted very much to talk to her, to ask her why she went home so early but just as I turned my head around I saw her fighting back her tears.
So I kept silent.
'I'll get someone to kill him,' said she in English, bursting into tears.
'Did someone bully you?'
'The animal was trying to rape me and when he did not get what he wanted he beat me.'
I did not know how to comfort her. She asked if I could give her a cigarette but I said I did not smoke. When we passed a shop I stopped and bought two packs of cigarettes for her. Shortly after, she arrived home. As she was leaving, she said she would pay me for the cigarettes. I said there was no need; it's a gift.
Around 1am that night, the girls went home early because there wasn't much business. Imelda was the last girl I was taking home. When I stopped outside her home she had a look at her watch and, all of a sudden, asked if I would like to go up and sit for a bit. She was of course being nice but I agreed.
The apartment was clean and the rent must be high, with a lot of well-to-do people in the neighborhood. Imelda shared a unit of two rooms with a Japanese girl. There was no furniture, only one bed, and all the rest of the stuff was contained in plastic bags, with several pairs of pretty shoes to the side that she wore to work. It was not till then that I made a discovery: the women who wore such alluring makeup at the nightclub were no different from single men when they returned home.
She gave me a glass of fruit juice as we sat down together on the floor of the sitting room.
'I am really sorry that there is not even a sofa,' said she.
'No worries. It's like that for many people in a foreign country.'
I asked if she felt better now and she said she felt much better. She said that such things happened on a frequent basis, and that she was used to it, it being the nature of the beast. Then, she told me her story.
I found that a woman's forte lay in her ability to tell strangers about themselves. I had met quite a few. We met for the first time and were only a few words into the conversation when they told me about themselves; a few minutes could contain much vivid experience.
'You have the eyes of a film star,' I couldn't help praising her.
She smiled and said, 'How long have you been in Sydney?'
'Nearly four years.'
'What about your family?'
'All in Shanghai.'
'Do you have a girlfriend?'
So, I told her of my love experience. I said that I had loved a few girls but I did not know why love was so hard that I had never really loved for once and one could hardly say that I had a real girlfriend.
When I said goodbye to her, I asked when she had time and if I could come back to see her again. She didn't say no. Thus, I felt at heart that something was bound to happen, like before when I had approached a girl. I didn't fall for Imelda although my heart was filled with a pitiable love for her. She was as beautiful as the girl I had loved before except that when I was in Shanghai the girls were all well educated, calculating women who knew how to control men. Imelda was nothing like that. As a woman of wind and dust, a whore, she was kind and lovely.
Before I left, I made bold to touch her on the cheek. In that moment, her eyes brightened up. A thought came to me: If I kissed her, she would probably not refuse it but I did not as I was subconsciously held from offending this woman.
I was driving alone. I found it odd that I could so easily communicate with her although she was a Filipino girl, compared with Li Jing whom I had also loved but who I had to treat with falsehood and lies. She was pretty, dissolute, vain, and ambitious, so much so that I dared not even touch her hand when I first approached her. Back then, I missed her day and night although I pretended to be cold, trying to conceal my true feelings, whenever I met her. If I touched her face with my hand I worried that she might feel I wasn't respectful enough and that she might even think I was frivolous and rude. If I did not show her that I had ambitions she might dismiss me as not enterprising enough; I was thus made to hang my head low. My dates with Li Jing were not pleasures with a loved person but were battlefields in which I tried to conceal, to engage in big vain talk, and to return home exhausted, feeling sexually repressed with no passion. It was much easier with Imelda as I was able to frankly tell her everything, to reveal my natural sentiments and to express how I felt at heart without a thought, and to even realize my impulses.
I was deeply in love with Imelda now, with her figure, her smiles, her looks and her bright eyes. For days, my memory was filled with the shape of her. In the past when I was in Shanghai, I recalled, whenever I parted company with a girlfriend, I'd keep her in my memory, keeping her company, till I met another lover. At first, there was a resistance in me against her because she was different from the one I had lost. Then I resented my former lover for having betrayed me; but for that, I would have loved her with all my body and heart till I died. Now that she had left me, I had to desire someone else to love. After a period of time in which I interacted with another person, this feeling of resistance disappeared and I gradually submitted to this new person because she was, after all, innocent and I should forget everything about the past by devoting myself to her and trying to move her. I would be moved to tears when she revealed some of her genuine feelings because I was convinced of her love and of how much love was worth.
Why did Imelda disappear all of a sudden? I did not dare think that it might have been because of me. I had a feeling that we might be able to become close friends although I was nobody, a nightclub chauffeur, compared with the rich clients she met every day. What could I do to satisfy her? I thought of her voice and her face, my heart full of hope.
One night, about a week or so after, I was lazily sitting in a van, when I saw Imelda walk towards me. I came alive and went for her.
'Are you working tonight?'
'No. I'm not going to any more. I was going to my friend's place because Yumiko my roommate is returning to Japan. So, I'll find someone else to share accommodation with me.'
'Would you like me to take you home?'
On our way, I asked if she would like a smoke but she said she didn't smoke except when she felt depressed at work. I was wondering if she meant to tell me that she was quitting because she came to see me tonight. But of course I was so delighted that, gently, I took her hand in mine, her fingers thin and long, giving a strong impression of bones.
She and I went upstairs to her apartment and into a room. I looked at another room that was empty with nothing inside, giving one a feeling that the place had been vacated. Imelda and I were sitting in the empty room under the soft light. I felt that the place should be our resting place where I would like to often sit with her, chatting and drinking coffee. In fact, I had fallen in love with her although I did not know what plans she had.
'I'd love to move in so that I can see you every day.'
'All right. Do that then.'
Before I left, I touched her face again. She just smiled. There was nothing nervous about her. She did not pretend to say no. She seemed to always offer her smiles to my liberties. I offered to kiss her when she closed her eyes so naturally. I was greedy; I had desired fragrant lips for a long time. It would have been so hard and tortuous for me to take this step. I remembered that my first kiss was a stolen one. I lied about something black on the woman's eye and offered to wipe it off for her. There was rain that night and we were standing under the road lamp. I was just about to kiss her when she pushed me off and said angrily, 'You bastard!' Yes, if you tried to kiss a woman, you were a bastard. Even though it was a sweet curse it helped me form a view that I would be a 'bastard' if I tried to kiss my lover on a date.
I moved in the next day, without realizing what I was doing. All I knew was that I had kissed her. She was good looking. I liked her. She offered no resistance whatever I did. Perhaps that was what it was meant to be 'open'. People said that tropical islands women were quite open. When I approached her, there was no resistance. I did not have to be calculating, to play tricks, to try to be gentlemanly, to want to catch her without seeming to, and to make a solemn pledge of love as deep as the deepest ocean and as high as the highest mountain. As long as her eyes and mine clicked on making contact and our hearts went along, I would be happy to stay together with her. This unobstructed 'nature' formed such a sharp contrast with the 'rules' I set up for myself when dealing with women that I did not know who was more pure: a woman much humiliated or a woman pampered since childhood.
I packed up everything and burnt all the letters Li Jing had sent me. There was nothing I owed her, I felt, even though I now 'betrayed' her. I knew that men and women of bygone days loved in their desire for zhiyin, one's alter ego, living and dying for it. I, for one, went game hunting. I had to carefully set up baits for her to take her time biting and I had to seduce everything by various means although I was in no way able to deal with what I had to face afterward. There was more fear than desire in my heart. I kept a few photographs she had given me. I am leaving. I'm going to jump into Imelda's arms. She didn't seduce me nor did she try to resist me. I was the one to set my eyes on her, I was the one to touch her and I was the one to kiss her.
When I revealed that it was my first time to spend the night with a woman, Imelda smiled and said, 'But you are nearly 30.' I did not know how to explain it to her. I tried to tell her that I had stopped talking to the girls when I learnt about the differences between men and women. At the middle school, more daring boys would write love letters to the girls but these letters would soon be passed on to the teachers before they were further passed on to the parents. Then, the school and the parents would clamp down on the unhealthy behaviour. That was why I sighed with admiration when I saw, on first arriving in Australia, how the secondary school kids were cuddling with each other in public places. But Imelda told me a different story. In the rural Philippines, girls became mature early. Many of them went to big cities to be young prostitutes so that the money they earned could help their families farm the land and live in a house, and their brothers and sisters could go to school.
How vastly different realities we faced in this same world! For me as a budding kid, things between men and women were mysterious and to unravel the mysteries meant to commit crime. In contrast, Imelda, even when a young girl, was forced to sell her spring, as a prostitute.
I came from an ancient and conservative country whereas she came from a tropical island. We met and fell in love. While loving her, I asked myself if my act was not that of depravity even though I didn't think she, beautiful and kind, had done anything wrong. Imelda seemed to think that it wasn't proper for me to be with her. She thought I should find a pretty and cultured Chinese girl. I said that everything was yuan, serendipity or seyuandipity; we'd come together because of yuan. In fact, Imelda longed for a man. When I moved in with her, she immediately called her mom and told her that she had a boyfriend now and that she had stopped working in the nightclub. Generally speaking, once a girl in China informed her family that she had a boyfriend she had to go through a considerable period of trial till the relationship was well developed before entering this stage.
Imelda treated me well. She always waited till I came back from work after midnight. Then she would prepare fruit for me, even feeding me with the fruit. She had no special skills but she would patiently wait on a man. I, on my part, was ready to be a 'small man'. I had never experienced any womanly warmth and tenderness. I was actually hoping to have a termagant who would call the shots and order me around.
After living with her for a time, the dazzling beautiful feeling she had once given me was gone. In its place was an ordinary-looking woman. When she was not made up, she looked to me a bit plain and she was dark, too. I felt as if I was conned. I no longer believed in a woman's beauty. A woman was a stunner only in the shadows of the night, in the disguise of her makeup or when a man was half-drunken so that men desired them. When a man secured her, and when she removed her concealment and showed her true features, and when a man saw more of her, the eye was no longer pleased. In addition, the same thing was repeated daily, again and again, until one got vexed. After all, we loved each other and she was a hundred percent docile and obedient to me.
A few months after I lived with Imelda, she asked if I would be like to marry her. I told her that I did not like the idea of marriage. She said that she would like to go back to the Philippines. If I would like to marry her we could both go to the Philippines. Perhaps because I wanted to go to the Philippines or because I did not have the heart to say no, I took to this road of no return, leaving Li Jing forever behind. I was a man. I had a diligent woman following me. I was her only hope. I did not have any other choice.
At Christmas, we boarded the flight in Sydney that went to Manila. After about seven hours, we were above Manila. Even when I was at primary school, I had learnt about this city from the school textbook on geography. Now, I was above it. Excitedly, she held my hand. Seen from the airplane, Manila was beautiful. In the evening, there were rows of lights that moved with the plane in a magnificent blaze.
As we walked out of the airport, we hailed a taxi and went in search of a hotel. Outside the window, one could see busy markets with Christmas lights and decorations as well as a great variety of street stands set up for a livelihood. I had lived in Australia for over four years and seemed to have forgotten that such things still existed. When I saw that those people were having snacks in a crowd under the dim lights, and that there were other stands, I felt very much like joining them and sitting there for a while.
We checked into a hotel. Although I was tired I could not suppress my curiosity for Manila. Soon, we went out.
We found an open restaurant. When we enjoyed beautiful wine and food, I could not but sigh with amazement at my own fate, wondering how I could have found my way here in this restaurant with Imelda. Was this woman fated to be mine or was she the fruit of my own finding? Had I betrayed Li Jing? What if I had not had that encounter with Imelda, when Li Jing remained so unmoved by my crazy love for her that she kept upping the ante while making empty promises? I was tired out on my way to love. Imelda looked pleased, imagining what it would like when she took me home. She told me that the village would turn out to meet me. I had seen her family, all of whom looked like country people. I could remember that girls in my neighbourhood would laugh at me in my childhood when I had relatives visiting us from the country. However, for an odd ball like me, her country parents gave me a sense of relief because I did not have to appear too reserved.
That night, we planned to travel from Manila to Laoag, a northernmost city in Luzon. Before daybreak the next morning, our bus entered the town. After we disembarked, we took a private taxi on our way to the village several dozen kilometers from the city. We travelled on the dark road. Because the taxi was a self-renovated tricycle, it was slow and noisy and I found it hard to stand the cold wind that came in through the window. Gradually, the day broke. I was curious to find the mountainous scenery of this rural area. Occasionally, I could see a few quite pretty Western-style buildings. I thought these must be the wealthy households in this mountainous region when Imelda told me that they were actually built with the money earned from sold spring when their owners were young. Here, it was normal for parents to send their daughters out selling their spring as a way of living.
At heart, I often cursed her parents because their Chinese counterparts would never have hesitated in sacrificing themselves for their kids. Here, in these peasant households, nearly every one of them would dispatch their daughters to sell their spring in order to meet their needs.
With the day breaking, meandering mountains in the distance revealed themselves. Imelda told me that her home lay at the foot of the mountains where I would see her parents and her sisters. I asked if her younger sister would also go out and sell her spring in the future when she grew up. Looking grave, Imelda told me that her family had no more worries about food and accommodation and that she would go to school and become a useful person.
Finally, the taxi reached her home, a building of two stories. On seeing us, her family members came out one by one. I did not say a word. The adults did not understand English but the kids had learnt English at school. All I did was smile to every one before I, carrying the luggage, followed Imelda inside the house. Shortly after, many of the villagers came to see me. Some said, full of praise, that I looked like a Hong Kong film star. Perhaps because Hong Kong films were popular in South-east Asia, they tended to liken me to a Hong Kong star when they saw a Chinese guy from overseas.
All morning, people — old people, adults and kids — kept coming to see me when a woman, about 40 or 50ish, turned up and touched my head on seeing me; I was then sitting on the floor. She told me that her name was Tsui. She then asked how old I was. I said 30. She said that she was the same age. I nearly jumped out of my skin. Tsui took me to go and see her house, a duplex Western-style one, also a war trophy from her sold spring. Gradually, I seemed to have got used to their ways of living. Either the whole family was so poor that there was nothing left or someone had to sacrifice herself for the benefit of all; a lucky girl might have the fortune of marrying someone overseas.
For quite a few days, I hardly had anything to do at Imelda's house, except reading a few books I had brought with me. The peasants were normally busy in the two seasons of seeding and harvesting; otherwise, they were unoccupied. They gathered together and chatted about household matters, in a very relaxed manner, unlike city dwellers who are daily worried, living under pressure.
Her father had a small chicken farm. He walked in a slow, leisurely manner. He hardly had anything to say to me. Her mother always cooked something delicious for me at mealtimes. Because of my different culinary habits, I had separate meals from them. Even though the treatment was nothing like what a city dweller would do to his guest, it was special.
The money I had brought with me was soon used up by her family members as I had to cover the expenses involving her mother's visits to her doctor, her sister's tuition fees and other daily expenditure. What surprised me most was the fact that when Imelda found that her father needed a haircut and told him to go for one, she stuffed some money into his hand, which he took for granted. As for her mother, she had been waiting at the door on the day of our arrival to receive money from Imelda. When she counted it and found it not sufficient, she asked for more.
I began regretting that I had ever come. Her whole family appeared like beggars in my eyes, even worse than Imelda. Beggars would beg along the streets, with their kids, but they begged from Imelda who had to satisfy them with what she had earned from selling her flesh. I regretted that I should have married Imelda in haste. At my heart of hearts, I began entertaining the thoughts of divorcing her. I couldn't possibly let the whole family rely on me alone. I had my parents myself. I had to repay their kindness in bringing me up. But what did they do in giving birth to Imelda?
These issues never bothered Imelda as she treated them well as a matter of course. Since she was a child, she had gone to Manila alone, often absent from home. So, every time she came back she was busy going places and chatting with people. That day, I went out with her. We stopped by a household, where they were building a house. Imelda told me that their daughter had gone to Hong Kong a few years earlier to work as a maid and had by now set up her home there. We went over a small bridge and made a turn before we reached another householder where they were also building. The woman of the house was holding the hand of a small girl, her grand-daughter, whose mother had gone to Japan to work. I knew what 'work' meant but, for people there, it was an opportunity. I was again shocked that the woman was only 38, 8 years my senior when she was already a maternal grandmother.
Imelda complained that those parents only cared how much longer their daughters would send money back to the exclusion of anything else but that was the way nearly every rural family lived in Laoag, where every girl had the spring-selling experience and every man went to brothels. The women they married were also the ones who had sold spring, a fair deal perhaps.
Imelda and I were one day sitting and chatting in front of the door when an old man walked past us, in quick and powerful steps. According to Imelda, it was her maternal grandfather. When he went past us he turned a blind eye towards us and everyone else. He had more than a dozen sons and daughters, with too many grand children and great grand children for him to give a damn about.
After one week in Laoag, we returned to Manila. City dwellers were certainly much busier than the country people. The streets were filled with an endless flow of people and vehicles, and every so often dust was raised that reached the sky.
That day, we went to Tsui's home in the centre of Manila, a two-story flat that she was renting.
When Imelda pressed the doorbell, a thin and small man came to answer the door; he looked 50ish. According to Imelda, he was the housekeeper.
As I walked in I saw a girl, aged about 20, lying in the armchair and watching TV. I sat in the sofa and watched her back.
Shortly after, Tsui walked downstairs, to greet us, and brought us coffee. A few words after, when the phone rang, she walked away. It was not till then that I saw a girl walk downstairs, looking as if she had just woken up; it was about two in the afternoon. She looked only 16 or 17, small figure, quite pretty, followed by a few other girls. All of them were peasant girls that Tsui had brought from the north and they were all working in the nightclub. I heard that more than a dozen girls would pack the place at its busiest.
When they all came downstairs, they sat down on the floor around the meal, a northern custom. Looking at them, I couldn't help thinking that, in mainland China, these girls would have been compared to 'flowers of motherland' and they would have been preparing for university entrance examinations. Here, however, they simply plunged into the ocean of business. They were not only young but also pretty.
After they had their meal they came to sit in the sofa next to me one by one; meanwhile, Tsui and her man were still eating. A moment or two after, a man dressed like a woman came. He had thick limbs, his hair in a coil on his head, and he had lipstick, talking in a woman's voice. He specialized in making up the girls. He was here to make the girls up before they began work.
The first girl came to sit there, in front of the dressing table, her head lifted. The man dressed like a woman did not give one any sense of strangeness as he chatted and laughed, carefully and skillfully making the girl up.
That evening, Tsui took us to go to the nightclub where the 'girls' worked. Together, we went to a high-class nightclub in the city centre. After Tsui greeted the guard, she took us in. We sat in the settee in the bar where there was a band playing. I could see, ahead of me and through the glass, a choreographed scene and what was happening inside. There were three steps, covered with a scarlet carpet, each step filled with sitting girls, about 100 of them. The girls in the first row wore black whereas some of the girls in the second and third rows wore pink and others wore green, the colours an indication of what services they provided. Each and every one of them was heavily made up, sitting there, ready to answer the clients' call. The girls with their vivid garments presented an eye-catching picture against the bright lights.
I watched, while Tsui was chatting with several working staff. Just then, two more girls came towards us and when they saw Tsui they greeted her before they left. A few days later, I had to go back to Sydney but Imelda had to stay, for the moment at least.
On my return to Sydney, I received another letter from Li Jing; it had arrived just after I left. She was hoping that I would go back to Shanghai for Christmas.
How I longed to see her again but I was no longer free even though I dreamt of meeting Li Jing. The first time we met, I recalled, it was in the same season. Regardless how much or little she loved me, our friendship over the years was, after all, a product of that seyuandipity. I would love to meet her again. I would love to go to the night market with her, hand in hand, or walk on the familiar streets, or go to the coffee house that we had frequented before, where we could talk about the days when we lived apart. However, I had skipped all that by jumping into marriage without even knowing what I had done.
In the days when we lived under two different skies, I sensed that she had a Taiwanese boyfriend in Manila in the past although I knew that Imelda was not the kind of women who had affairs; they had had good relationship although it did not develop. Back then, she was younger and more attractive. In those days in Sydney, when I found they were talking over the phone, I would roar at her. I could put up with her previous experience but I couldn't stand her continuing her ambiguous, perhaps even amorous, relationship with another man, after she got to know me. Whenever I felt that they were meeting again in Manila, I was furious. Initially, when I married her it was for her sake. If I found them meeting, it's would be all over between us, without any hesitation. Sometimes, I calmed myself down with the thought that they could do whatever they liked if they actually met as long as she liked it; I did not have to be bitter and upset. Imagining how many men lost their heads and got into a rage on learning about their wives' affairs, I thought I might have attained a special realm of spirit in my current nonchalance.
But, of course, both of us had reason to be worried. Perhaps she knew I was a man made for love, much love, although I did not easily allow myself to fall into a web of love as I knew that would hurt her, including myself. I did not have the heart to see her fall into the trap of emotions just for my own pleasure however brief it was, and whatever background she had come from.
Once again, I lived alone, my love for Li Jing deepened. Sometimes, I felt that I didn't deserve this as I had so easily passed on the opportunity to Imelda that Fate had allowed me to stay abroad in Australia. Was it all fated or did I not appreciate my life? In fact, if I had not gone to Manila, instead going back to Shanghai, and if it was not Imelda but Li Jing who had come to me, how excited I would have been. I did not know how much I loved Imelda although I did know that I was full of pity for her the same way I did not know how much I loved Li Jing but I was full of passion for her. But I was scared. If I married Li Jing I was afraid that my days in the future would not be easy. In Australia, I was an ordinary bloke, so ordinary that I felt ashamed by my ordinariness, compared with Li Jing, who was an ambitious woman. On the other hand, I regretted that I had married Imelda, a girl who had suffered much since childhood and who had had little schooling although she was kind-hearted and submissively docile to me. If good is rewarded it must be God who had rewarded her with me. Although, in my heart of hearts, I did not really love her, I did know that this was what happened between a husband and his wife. With Li Jing, though, I knew she had had too many suitors, I only one of them. For her, I was nothing.
I really did not know whether marriage was happiness or a disaster. I wanted a change but I was afraid of the change. However, without a change, there could be no peace for me at heart...
Translated from the Mandarin by Ouyang Yu QLRS Vol. 11 No. 3 Jul 2012