They had not gone far when the taxi turned off the wet streets of Ermita into the beach gray basement of a skyscraper. Hugh noticed some soldiers leaning over a plastic crate, puffing cigarettes, and playing with what appeared to be beer bottle caps. One glanced up, eyes moved from him to the girl, and then softened – the moving vehicle pulled the image from the viewfinder. Now Hugh saw yellow parking lines on walls, and numbers. There seemed to be endless columns, like gray dominoes, holding the skyscraper aloft. He saw faded blue lettering: something illegible and ‘HOTEL’.
They went by an elevator (just a hole in the side of the building) and directly up raw concrete steps. After just one flight, they walked over a stretch of carpet, along a corridor of white doors with brassy doorknobs. Hugh could smell rotting, damp carpet from down the hall, where the wood paneling and carpeting gave way to the gloomy gray skeleton of the building. In the unlit depths he could see the exposed guts of the building, with its tin foiled sinews, green weatherproofing and the tangle of wires that had started the fires. While she stood at the door, he glanced even further into the gutted, blackened depths; the ratty innards, silver cables and white plastic pipes, were poking out of the gloom like snakes. And then he stepped into their room.
The small man who seemed to have no problem chauffeuring them right into the bedroom, also stood on the bed now. He reached towards a rounded plastic button on the television, and turned it until it went ‘click’. A snowy blue picture emerged with naked people moving in some desperate dance. Hugh realized that the helpful fellow was the taxi driver.
“When you need ride to the airport?”
Hugh saw the man look briefly at the girl, and then the girl nodded as if this was okay.
“Okay I see you at 7.”
She closed the door.
Hugh stood for a moment, eyes sleepy, considering whether or not to take a shower. He felt hungry. Then he noticed she was lying on the bed. He put his bags in a corner, and turned on the bedside lamp. It flickered, purred with electricity, so he turned it back off.
“You can do what you like with me,” she said.
“Thanks,” he said, but without enthusiasm. He patted the blanket, perhaps testing for dust or whether an odor would coil out of the blanket, but none did. He lay down beside her, also on his back, staring at the ceiling, a glance at the television, then back at the ceiling. He noticed the ceiling fan.
“Can we turn this on? This feels like those Vietnam movies…”
She got up to turn it on, and as she lay down beside him, once more on her back, she said, “You don’t sound American.”
“No, I’m not. I’m a South African. But I work in South Korea. Tell me, have you ever been out of the Philippines?”
“Where are you from?”
“You can really do what you want to with me. Anything.”
He turned on his side, tucking his forearm under his ear: “Do you mind if I talk to you for a moment? I’d like to just talk for now.”
“Are you from Manilla?”
“No, I’m from Luzon.”
“Your parents are from Luzon?”
A dark cloud suddenly moved over her face.
“Please, you can really just do what you like. Don’t you want to touch me…?”
He swallowed hard: “And your brothers and sisters?”
“In Luzon,” she said, her eyes watering now.
“Do you miss them? I mean, do you like the big city life?”
“I miss them,” she said softly.
“And for how long have you been doing this?”
The cloud burst softly but powerfully over her, and she felt ashamed. This one, she thought, is not like the others.
“A few months.” She was choking on her words.
“You’re really beautiful. I think a lot of men have asked for you, just like me.”
“Yes. Many men.”
“What sort of men?”
“What sort? Older men. Do you want to take shower?”
“A shower? Maybe. These men, from which countries are they?”
She looked at him, cheeks flowing with tears, thinking he might be a policeman, but then remembering his bags, and his innocent manner.
“Which men are the worst?” he persisted.
“Germans, Koreans, British, Americans-.”
“No,” he said, touching her arm, “which men have been very bad to you?”
“German. The German man hurt me.”
“And your parents, how do they feel-“.
She interrupted him now, begging him to stop talking, and suddenly he saw her distress, that talking to her like this gave her no escape, no respite, no reprieve. Did she want him to sleep with her, if not for the sex, just to get it over with so she could go?
And his eyes moved over her, the body of a teenager, the face of a princess, the hair of mermaid; long, dark and flowing like the waves, but her eyes, eyes that had flashed and shone were now filled with blood and tears and hurt.
“Are you hungry?” he asked her, wondering what her real, immediate physical need was.
“Okay I am too. Why don’t you go out and get me a hamburger and a coke, okay?”
She offered a small smile. “And here’s some money for you, for the same, or whatever you want.”
“Okay,” she said. “You take a shower okay?”
“Okay, maybe I will.”
She stood there, waiting for him to undress.
He looked down at his own bare feet, his mouth moved in a wry smirk. It was a hard self deprecating movement of his mouth, there was no humor or amusement in it. Still looking at the ground he said, “You’re coming back right? You’ll come back with some food?”
He looked at her now and she nodded.
“If you don’t, though,” he said, taking a step towards her, and lifting a hand to her face, “then let’s let this be a goodbye hug.” He put his hand instead on her shoulder, and felt her rail thin body press softly against his big chest.
She went through the door, and soon after he stepped into the shower, and in the darkness of the room, the silence of the skyscraper, he found himself painfully alone, and wishing against the rain that it would stop, that perhaps she would come back, and he could quench the emptiness of his heart with a bosom she might want to give willingly. But he knew it was a foolish wish, and so, still wet, he lay on the brown woolly blanket, the fan whipping the dark air, and allowed himself to sleep for one hour at a time. Each hour he would set the alarm to go off one hour later, to make sure he would be awake and in time for the taxi and the airport.
And so well before 7 o’ clock, having slept hardly two hours, his woolly head and his dry eyes responded to a deafening hammering on his door. When he opened it, a fiery morning light blinded him. It came from the hollow end of the corridor, where the building fell to ruins into the side of a jungle, and the nuclear sun was burning the tips of palm fronds and blasting its way into the open door.
The heat was soon steamy, and the early morning throng had them surrounded as they drove to the airport. The taxi driver asked about the girl. Hugh pleaded ignorance. “I asked her to go out and get me some food. She didn’t come back”
The driver chuckled. “You paid and you didn’t get laid?”
Hugh looked out the window. Behind him was the tall building, the type you find in Las Vegas that have stinking carpets and are just days away from being condemned, and razed to the ground.
“These girls,” the driver said, waving a finger and grinning, “once you pay them you must watch them like a hawk. You own them for that time.”
Hugh glanced into his eyes, and they seemed to share a glimmer of understanding. Two men in a car, talking about women of the streets. But Hugh was surprised by something else, that a man could be this helpful and considerate to a man from another country, even if that man was preying on his countries women. Even so, there was a strange sting from not having touched her. Some satisfaction yes, but a sting of stupidity and frustration that he didn’t expect, and yet this man, this stranger, seemed to have said the wrong words to soothe him, but they had soothed him nonetheless. Perhaps all he needed was company, just someone, once again, to talk to.
The taxi sped towards the airport on dry, hot tar, while the cumulonimbus boiled and cooked, filling up the bright yellow sky.