I'm too old for you to worry about attraction, I wanted to say. And I am sorry for that. It mortifies me, but I cannot change it.
It was so crowded in this overblown courtyard that there was no room even to exchange a few words. She looked at her watch and said something about the hydrofoil back to Hong Kong, even though the last one didn't leave for a few hours, and in my experience with Chinese girls, when they are interested in you there is a very obvious slowing of their usual quickness of movement. She didn't slow. I let the comment melt away and then touched her hand for a moment and she turned to look at me and, in that flashing way, we had agreed upon it.
She spoke very quietly.
"Where can we go?"
"We can go anywhere. Not my room."
The light around us was a little brighter. Her bracelet was one of those multicolored childish objects from the Piper collection that are endorsed by Paris Hilton. She must have seen it in a magazine and let herself be persuaded into a mistakethe small circles of enamel didn't suit her at all. At least she wasn't wearing one of the hideous blue rings from the same maker. In the cab she would not touch me, aware perhaps of the prying eye of the Chinese cabbie fixed upon us in the rearview mirror (a gwai lo is always checked out), and I suggested an older, colonial place near the An-Ma temple where I had not been before and wherefor some reason it matteredI would not be recognized.
T h r e e
It rained along the shore. Along the embankments stand twisted fig trees planted by the Europeans, and they were still faintly visible in that darkness. Opposite, on the far side of the Van Nam Lake, rises a vision of China modern enough to chill the blood: the expressways, the towers, the garbled instruments of rising power. A terrible thing called the Cybernetic Fountain. But on the shore the old villas stand behind their sand-colored walls and the trees drip in the monsoon. There is a memory of ease, of the necessity of grace, white and lemon arches glimpsed between the fig trees. We passed near the temple as a soft thunder rolled in from the open sea. There are goddesses here who protect sailors and fishermen, and who protect the gambler, too.
The hotel lay at the top of a series of steep steps that wound around terrace garden patios with wizened trees and wet tables.
As I closed the door behind us, she said, "I am not the usual prostitute. You think I am. But you may have made a mistake."
"I'm not a whore."
In the room we sat on the bed. There was the sound of the rain and the smell of flowerpots. I poured her a glass of wine from the mini-bar, but she didn't take it.
Quite the contrary. There was no opening up. She held her legs closely together as her hands lay curled upward in her lap in an attitude of refusal, and perhaps, I thought, darkness was required. It was a venal thought, a crass thought. I went to the bathroom and turned on that light, then brought the bathroom door to within an inch of the jamb. That would be enough light for us, enough darkness to unlock her curious inhibitions. She brushed the water drops from her jacket and shivered. She asked for a towel to rub her hair. I took off my own jacket and then my shoesit felt impudent, but there was nothing for it. She remarked on the rolling-off of the shoes and there was a disdain in her eyes, a sadness at the lack of imagination. Perhaps she really wasn't what I had thought.
She threw down the towel and decided to laugh her way out of this oncoming horror, because after all she could sense that I was not the usual customer. I wanted to apologize, and a woman can sense the imminence of a male apology. It's like a storm cloud on its way to hose you down.
Excerpted from The Ballad of a Small Player by Lawrence Osborne. Copyright © 2014 by Lawrence Osborne. Excerpted by permission of Hogarth Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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