I blame it on Facebook. Did Scott think about me and search for my name? Or was it a passive people-you-may-know coincidence? It does matter. In any case, he came across my profile picture taken four years ago in New York—fake aviator sunglasses, army cap, unimpressed smirk—and realized, “Wait a second, if that isn’t my old fuck buddy Joanna”.
Technically though, we never really did it. Fingers don’t count.
“Aren’t you going home tonight?” It’s my colleague Chen’s daily joke. He is sitting next to me, a waist-high fake-glass dividing wall between our desks. The open space’s illusion of privacy. Nothing kinkier than intimacy in a public place.
I offer a throaty grunt and an exasperated headshake in reply, the signal for busyness. I keep staring at my computer screen as if the resume I’m pretending to read is the answer to world peace. Meanwhile, touching myself might be the only way to relieve all the sexual tension that’s been accumulating inside me all day since Scott granted me his virtual friendship, along with memories of unfinished fantasies and moist panties. Wild parties, insane seduction games, decadent sex with strangers. No commitment, no feelings, and no regrets. Memories of a New York version of me much more attractive that the actual Hong Kong one. Reality check.
Raising my left eyebrow, I lean closer to the computer, insensitively suffocating the keyboard with my breast while realizing I’ve been staring at a CV in Chinese characters for the past ten minutes. I glance at my colleague’s profile on my right, but he does not notice the deception, busy as he is fiddling with the tip of his chin, his usual impulsive attempt to hide what looks like a horse muzzle. A Chinese Jay Leno.
In a second I drift from peeping to staring obsessively. Chen is a guy. For the past three years, since I settled down in Hong Kong with Bryan, I have been blind to every single male around me because: I’m in a relationship. The ease with which my colleague spins a pencil around his thumb is oddly arousing. Is Chen fuckable? Agility can make the difference between an unremarkable and a memorable fuck. I feel my New York version violently creeping back. Staring any longer would make for an awkward situation. I start shuffling papers on my desk and opening random Word documents, killing time to stay late in the office. One might say to avoid going home. Bryan and Joanna. Jo and Bryan. Relationship. Home. Scott’s warm breath on my neck in the back of a New York cab. Chen taking me savagely on my Hong Kong desk.
I move my head slowly from side to side to release muscular tension and shake away kinky thoughts. Squinting through my glasses I observe Chen, trying to figure out if he might be at least average looking. Even if he were likely to win Mr. Hong Kong, the issue of his teeth being like a daily 3D menu of his lunch would still remain. Ah, stringy vegetables today. Seaweed-something yesterday. I don’t want to end up with his half chewed pak choy inside of me.
Text message from Bryan, my boyfriend of almost four years: “Jo, I’m leaving the office now. You want me to pick you up on my way?” I hadn’t thought about the do-I-love-him issue since we wrote down our names next to each other on a lease agreement. Until this morning.
I rub my eyes and send him a lie: “No, I’m waiting for a candidate”. That was true until an hour ago. In the business food chain, headhunters come last, especially after seven o’clock.
Bryan replies faster than it takes my phone to acknowledge that my message has been sent. “Get rid of him fast, I miss you! Thai or Viet?”
I shake my head. Until this morning, predictability was attractive.
I write: “I don’t give a fuck. You bore me to death”. I don’t hit send because Bryan might actually jump from the sixty-second floor of our Pokfulam apartment, in our building for grown-ups, with top-notch facilities no one ever uses, fake grass on which we are not allowed to step, fake orchids we are not allowed to pluck, hand sanitizers in every corner we are kindly encouraged to use, a three-story clubhouse and what looks like hundreds of playgrounds for spoiled ungrateful kids whose nationalities you cannot even guess. Our sterilized bubble of perfection. Is about to burst.
I investigate the Facebook profile of my almost-fuck-buddy Scott for the seventy-eighth time today. Apart from the growing goatee, he looks just the same, so freaking hot in a bad boy way that I can barely look at his profile picture for more than two seconds. I might lick my computer screen. Going mad. He befriended me this morning and fucked up my life. He has never even been my friend but The Bobs’ buddy, my roommates in New York who happen to share the same first name. We spent our nights not being friends but hunting each other in an insane silent mind game of lust. He still makes me wet. Oh, yes, I am wet right now. I squirm on my office chair inconspicuously, slowly rolling my hips back and forth, for once appreciating the tightness around the crotch of my pants.
Twenty minutes later I’m still going through his pictures online. Scott backpacking in Burma, scuba diving in Antarctica, clubbing in Russia, gangbanging in Brazil—can you see who looks at your pictures? Online stalker. Seen by Joanna. Seen by Joanna. Seen by Joanna. Re-seen by Joanna. Seen 13 times by Joanna. Joanna is looking at your picture right now. Joanna is pathetically drooling on your picture and why did you come back in her life exactly?
I click on my own profile, making sure for the third time today that I have deleted all proofs of my life in Asia. Company dinners, hiking in Sai Kung, quarterly workshops, vacations in secluded romantic Palawan with Bryan—acknowledgements of a lamely normal life, an inflated picture face, professional-looking semi rimless glasses frames and a body two sizes bigger.
Let Scott mentally revive the past with the Joanna from New York’s pictures. I still can’t believe how good I looked. During two glorious years, a daily diet of greasy junk food, whisky, vodka, rum, tequila, cheap champagne, weed and ecstasy—yet the longer I lived there, the thinner I became. I could have starred in a commercial: “Do you want to look like me? Forget about Special-K, start your day with a glass of rum and a healthy bong!” With puckered lips, swaying hips and a BIBA face. Where do you even get weed in Hong Kong? I remember the last joint I rolled, in the back of a cab heading for JFK destination Hong Kong to find a job and start a sane and stable yet enjoyable life—Bryan’s words, not mine. He was upset because I was breaking my promise not to smoke so much or drink so much or party so much. Not to live so much. The only sin I could still indulge in was sex, but only with him. Unless you believe unconditionally in the saying that opposites attract, it’s a struggle to picture us together. The Bobs gave us three weeks top. It’s been almost four years. What can I say, I don’t know what happened; we met and had sex one day and then the day after and then the day after. Just another addiction.
I refresh Scott’s profile page. One last time. I feel the blood rushing through my ears when I discover his new status update. “Heading for Hong Kong in two weeks! Anyone around to party?” Now everything makes sense.
All day I’ve been composing messages in my head, until I find the perfect one to send him. “Hey Scott, nice to hear from you.” No, please. Too headhunter style. “Hey there, fuck buddy, surprised to find you here.” He found me, not the other way around. I’m not in need. Am I? “Hey, handsome.” I shake my head, blow my cheeks and exhale loudly. Lame, lame, lame. Perhaps I should just like his status update. Just to say, “I hear you Scott, I got it. We have unfinished business, right?”
“What was that?” Chen asks me, his pen rolling endlessly on his fingers.
I guess I was talking aloud. “I said—do you have a girlfriend?”
The pen slips from his hand. Getting flustered, Chen? He finds his I love tea mug on his desk and takes a few noisy sips. “Huh, no,” he finally replies, his eyes focused on the cup cover he’s holding in his right hand. “You?”
“Oh you know, it’s—complicated.” I answer emotionlessly, waving the complication away, my gaze fixed on his elongated fingers.
He takes a resume from the stack piling up on his desk and pretends to read, still holding his cup. When I ask him if he has any idea how to score pot in Hong Kong, he chokes on his tea. If we were starring in one of these supposedly hilarious feel-good Hong Kong movies, the whole drink would blow out his nose. I remain stoic, because we are both almost thirty and surely it’s acceptable to talk about such things.
“Huh, no,” he finally answers after an unpleasantly long cough fit. He pats his chin nervously then starts typing on his keyboard with the agility of a pianist, his eyes glued to the computer screen, not once glancing at the square letters. Or in my direction. I worry he might staple his eyes shut to avoid looking at me ever again.
I stand up, discreetly running a finger over the butt seam of my pants. It’s hanging in there but threatening to burst open any time. I leave my desk in an after-hurricane state, not even bothering to put my computer to sleep.
I’m about to wave goodbye when Chen asks me if I’m coming tomorrow night; there’s a karaoke party to celebrate Penny’s birthday, who quit a year ago but whom I will remember for the rest of my life as being the only person on earth who has never heard of Britney Spears. I haven’t been to a club or a party for the past three years. I was busy finding a job, and then I was busy being an exemplary employee, making a living, paying my rent, spending quiet time with Bryan, becoming someone I used to spit on.
Instead of blurting out the I-have-other-plans routine lie I accept the invitation. Time to get back on track, warm up before Scott comes to Hong Kong.
In the 5X bus taking me home, two bleach blonde toothpicks remind me of a party at Marquee in Chelsea. Just another typical snobbish New York club crowded with yuppies and pseudo-models, with all the usual drama at the door and a half-hour queue to change a tampon. My roommates’ favorite. Scott was leaving New York in two weeks, which gave me a deadline. After months of flirting and groping we had to finally have sex, for real. For closure I guess. We never talked about it. Actually I don’t think we ever talked, but it was an obvious tacit agreement. Because I was stoned with blowbacks in a place I despised, I kept throwing empty glasses on the floor, spilling full ones on suits and elbowing bimbos in high heels. I have been told that the security bulldogs kicked us out at some point, which was really too bad since Paris Hilton herself was on her way to the club. Scott managed to hide inside until everyone forgot about him. There went my closure.
I get off the bus in front of our building, ignoring the cheesy Japanese garden and the smiley doorman who still cannot pronounce my name correctly after three years, keeping my eyes on my iPhone, my thumb on the screen mechanically refreshing my Facebook news feed. I exhale loudly once before opening the door of our apartment. The colorful Thai food take-away bags from New Bangkok Restaurant fit just so perfectly on our bright green table it looks like an advertising campaign for Ikea. Fucking bright green. Bryan hugs me tight and tries to kiss my neck. Goosebumps all over my body. Not the romantic kind though. A thunderstorm in my mind.
“Did you order mango sticky rice?” I ask him, controlling myself not to bang his adorable Prince Charming head really hard on the fucking bright green table.
After a reasonable half hour of Pad Thai digestion, I’m miserably trying my hand at spinning a cuticle pusher around my thumb, cross-legged on the living room floor, when I feel Bryan roaming around me. Our beast-like signal for sex. As long as we don’t have to kiss and get all cuddly, it’s actually right on time if I want to manage to fall asleep at some point tonight. Insomniac people surely have no sex life. I head to the bedroom first to avoid holding hands. Once there, I get on my knees to limit foreplay at its minimum required. The privilege of intimacy. Guys read too many feminine magazines. Watch out, spoiler: sometimes all you need is a quick good fuck, yes, even girls. Oh, shocker. I pull off his boxers and swallow his wimpy penis with no further ado, just to get the satisfaction of feeling it growing inside my mouth, all the while trying to remember what Scott tasted like.
I blew him in the back of a cab when we were heading for a party but the driver gave us hell before Scott could come in my mouth. I don’t mind the taste; it’s just a few seconds, really, like when you visit an old lady who proudly insists you take a sip of her hand-made wormwood whose recipe has been secretly passed from one generation to another. And so you hold your breath, swallow and smile, even though you’re vomiting a little in your mouth. I don’t mind the taste and I don’t feel offended by the idea either. I find it arousing. Inside the club, Scott kept roaming around me just like Bryan a few minutes ago, attempting to lure me into a manwich on the dance floor like the kind dumb, shapeless, faker-sluts enjoy. I punished Scott for daring to compare me with them by grabbing the guy next to me, a Romanian or something, and we did it in a cubicle in the men’s restroom. I have no memory of the sex. Scott punished me by grabbing one of these girls and spending the night with her, as if trying to prove that they are not all faker-sluts.
Bryan’s breathing tells me he is about to come. I stand up, remove my panties and crouch on all fours on the edge of the bed. He attempts to fight the dryness of my vagina by pushing his wet finger inside me, to no avail. In a state of exasperation and growing frustration I take a lubricant out of the bedside table to make myself artificially available. I look at our reflection in the tinted glass of the wardrobe’s sliding door but all I can see are my floppy tits and a roll of belly fat wobbling rhythmically with Bryan’s body, like a dog’s nipples so swollen with milk for her puppies that they almost touch the floor. I hear the splash of cellulite when my butt smashes with his thighs. It’s too slow; I can still think. To avoid staring at my body I look around the room. A 2,000 pieces National Geographic jigsaw puzzle of lion cubs is eagerly waiting for us on the windowsill; we’re halfway through. I extend my right arm behind me and squeeze Bryan’s ass, taking charge, making him go faster, harder and deeper. It’s over within a few seconds.
Unsatisfied and frustrated, I pull away from him, fighting the impulse to hurt him. I once broke up with a guy while we were having sex in a bathtub; while he was pushing himself inside me, I decided we were done and the sight of our interlocked bodies was so repulsive I did not wait to break the news. He did not come. Relationships are just as doleful as a birthday balloon deflating. I can’t fake love, I’m afraid. As for my disgust at my cellulite, I’ve been doing my research and found http://forskolinonline.org/cellulite-treatment-creams/.
“I’m gonna take a bath,” I tell Bryan, disappearing inside the master bathroom, sparing him the vision of unreasonable hatred in my eyes.
Not waiting for the water to cover my whole body, I sprawl as best I can in the ridiculously tiny bathtub and spread my legs. The pommel feels all right between my thighs but it might be too ambitious for instantaneous countless orgasms. I don’t know why in movies delicate women always pleasure themselves in a bathtub. They make it look so easy. I imagine tiny viscous trickles of sperm disappearing down the drain, a crowd of hungry spermatozoon swimming along the sewer pipes, trying to hold on to something, anything. All your life you’ve been told you would end up in a soft and cozy ovary but guess what, shit happens, every body’s disappointed tonight. Okay, orgasm in the bathtub, not happening. Reaching new levels of irrational anger, I shower in two seconds and snatch up Bryan’s bathrobe.
Hearing the TV in the living room, I close our bedroom door without making a sound, sit in front of the windowsill on the shaky old chair left behind by the former tenant, and look out over Mount Davis. I can always pretend to be working on my lion cubs if Bryan interrupts me. He likes to watch, as a matter of fact, but I’m not in the mood. I move the chair backwards against the edge of our bed and put my feet in a stirrup position on the window ledge. I find the aggressiveness of a woman gynecologist handling a speculum unjustified. Scrutinizing other women’s vaginas all day long might change you into a misogynist.
I open the bathrobe and touch my clitoris. Discontentment is the only thing growing inside me until I remember this Latino knockout I kissed during an ecstasy-filled rave party at Crobar to make Scott want me even more. I imagine him watching us make out on the dance floor in the middle of the unconcerned crowd. Her fingers skillfully disappear inside my pants; suddenly four hands dedicated to my pleasure are all over my body. I come fast and in silence. An even stronger feeling of disappointment and bitterness resurfaces faster than it takes for the sensation to be over. It’s a constant slap-in-the-face reminder it still seems natural to ignore over and over. The moment you come is never as good as the expectation of it. I stare at the unimpressed and stoic lion cubs in front of me, and like a consolation prize, I suddenly find the tip of a paw, the damn piece I had been looking for yesterday.
A few minutes later, I’m sitting in bed dressed in men’s boxers and an over-sized sleeveless shirt, holding a book I might have started reading a year ago. I look at the title on the cover. It’s All Right Now. How unfitting. I hear Bryan in the living room Skyping his mother. I understand that Uncle Jim made a fool of himself during the last family reunion. Something about inappropriate jokes after a few too many drinks. At least this time he didn’t grope anyone. As usual she nags at the old guy about anything and everything while Bryan finds him excuses, his bad hip, his dead wife, his pollen allergy. There’s something about loving and protecting people, you just want to use them as a baseball bat to smack the head of those who always criticize everything with a smile. What kind of guy talks to his mother every day? I cannot even remember the last time I talked to mine.
Running my fingers over my bikini line, I realize I should shave tomorrow morning, just in case the evening goes unpredictably well. I spot an ingrown hair and struggle with it for a minute until I manage to slip it out of my skin. The virtual conversation is fading away in the living room—there’s only so much you can say about Uncle Jim. I like Uncle Jim. He does not pretend to be perfect. If I had been to the family reunion, I would have made a fool of myself too, out of solidarity—or boredom.
I switch off the light and lie down in bed, trying one more time to come up with something cool and witty to show Scott I’m still game. “When are you coming to see me in HK? I miss your cock.” Or perhaps “How’s Sydney? Did you find another fuck buddy?” No. “I need a good fuck.”
Bryan steps into the room, interrupting my deep literary thoughts. I pretend to be sleeping on my side, facing Mount David and my lion cubs. Deaf. Dead. He spoons me and I hold my breath. I jerk my left leg backwards abruptly, hitting him hard in the shinbone with the heel of my feet.
“Wow, what’s going on?” he asks, slightly pulling away from me.
“What, oh sorry, I was sleeping.” Quite the professional liar today. “Can you move a little? It’s so hot,” I add, pushing him away with my hand. “I’m sweating already.” Thank god he doesn’t observe that I stopped sweating since I quit smoking three years ago.
I’m craving a cigarette.
Like every morning Bryan naturally wakes up a few minutes before six o’clock. I have been awake for a long time, talking to Scott in my mind, but I keep still, my face buried in the cushion, hiding from impromptu kisses. He showers in the guest bathroom, gets dressed in the living room and doesn’t open the fridge because the door squeals a little. He is so good at not making any sound so as not to wake me up that it makes me unreasonably angry. Wake me up for fuck sake, push me around, slap me, fight me, please, just make me feel alive. I’m hoping he will come back in the bedroom so I can tear him apart. When I realize he’s gone, I start wrestling with the bed sheets, throwing away the cushions, tearing up the stupid home decoration magazines on the bedside tables, kicking the mattress with my fists like a child throwing a tantrum.
For the next ten minutes I tsunami the second bedroom turned storage room until I unearth a dusty Converse shoebox full of souvenirs from the US. When I remove the cover a fat and dazed silver fish starts running away in all directions. After a second of confusion—how did it get so obese, what has it been feeding on trapped inside the box for so long? —I find a dirty old Kleenex on the floor and squash the shiny overweight insect against the side of the box, then throw the tissue back on the yellowish parquet. I ignore the old baseball game tickets, casino chips from Vegas, hip-hop party flyers and all the crap inside, I take out a pile of pictures, mostly The Bobs, Bryan and I since he kept gatecrashing our depraved life after bewitching me. He spent evenings taking pictures of us, using the lens of his camera as a shield against our excesses.
He fell in love with me because I was like a wild, unpredictable, and defective toy, which kept breaking down and needed to be fixed over and over. He felt it his duty to protect me from myself every night, slowly injecting tiny drops of perfection inside me.
I guess I fell for him because I was doing so much of everything that it didn’t feel good anymore. Every day I had to indulge in larger quantities of drugs and alcohol—a tiny bong to wake up peacefully, a glass of vodka to fight morning crowd anxiety, a snack time ecstasy—I did all I could to bring the happy-happy amateur feeling back but somehow once it’s gone, there’s not much you can do to experience it again. Still, you keep going, because what else are you supposed to do? Bryan offered me an excuse to stop trying by blackmailing me, “No more sex when you’re wasted”. It didn’t even look like a sacrifice because he is the kind of person who makes you feel good about yourself even sober. With him, it was ok to be dumb or weak or tired. And I had found my sexual soul mate. The first time he followed me in the bathroom I thought he was a weirdo, but for him it was just intimacy. “So what?” he said, palms up. Everything was so simple with him, I felt like I was on vacations, away from myself. He followed me in the bathroom because he wanted to watch me pee. The intimacy and simplicity of it all. He kissed my armpits, waxed my legs, used an epilator on my soft areas, clipped my toenails and spent hours between my thighs, taking mental pictures of my sex, “I just like to look at it, it’s beautiful”. He knew everything about me yet he still fell in love with me.
Among all the pictures there’s only one with Scott, before he left for Sydney, right before I met Bryan. I have no idea who took the photo, but I remember this New Year Eve’s party. The Bobs, Fuck-Buddy and I were supposed to meet friends in Soho. Since we couldn’t get a cab, we walked all the way from our apartment in Hell’s Kitchen. From the street we heard music inside a building and decided to investigate, the door of this loft was open so we entered, stole a bottle of champagne on a table. We spent the night smoking and drinking in an empty bedroom. Scott wanted me so bad, he kept moving around the room, walking behind me, slightly touching my lower back or the lace of my string, unsuspected, which is exactly what he was doing when the picture was taken.
The clothes in this picture make me smile. Not looking fashionable when we were going out to all the trendy clubs and hip bars my friends fancied so much was my obsession. They threatened not to drag me around anymore, they argued that the bouncers would never let us in but they always did, because it’s all in the attitude, not the clothes you wear. I took pride in feeling arrogantly untrendy. This 80’s long-sleeve vintage t-shirt from the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association is still hidden somewhere in my wardrobe. I chuckle, remembering the face of my roommates. “You mean you’re wearing that tonight? At Marquee? Did someone really wear this before? What’s that smell?”
I leave the shoebox on the floor and open the wardrobe in my bedroom. Behind piles of soulless Zara and Club Monaco office-appropriate clothes I find the tee shirt and a pair of hipster pants so long they dragged the floor. This is what I will wear tonight.
Or not. They don’t fit. Yet another reality check. Every part of my upper body is too large for the shirt, my boobs, and my upper arms, even my neck. The seam lines are threatening to come apart. My belly is sticking out as if trying to escape from my body but the elastic waist of the pants is lifting the whole thing up, making my tummy look like a human jelly, flabby buoy.
I don’t remember the last time I cried but I know if I just let go for a second I will drown, buoy or not. I find a pair of washed-out Levi’s jeans one size bigger and an old Nirvana Tee-Shirt greyer than black from too many washes. I manage to fit in even though I can hardly breathe and I will end up with a stomachache and every single stitch tattooed on my skin after wearing it for a few hours. I refrain from checking my butt in the mirror. I smell like old clothes, not even mothball, just plain old, but it’s all right, old clothes smell like nostalgia. I find my favorite pair of black retro Adidas shoes under the bed, the ones Bryan suggested I get rid of because the sole is so thin my feet might get wet on a rainy day.
I throw the clothes in a bag for this evening and borrow Bryan’s bathrobe while talking to Scott by telepathy. “Seeing your picture brings back sexy memories.” I look inside the souvenir box for the old lonely Marlboro Light I noticed earlier, its paper patchy yellow, as if it was left there to dry after it had been soaked. Probably one of my roommates, I would never buy lights, pretending I might somehow limit the damage on my lungs. I use the gas stove since lighters have long been banned from the apartment to help my brain forget faster how insanely good it is to poison my body. My first Hong Kong smoke, though it’s been there with me all these years, in my box, witnessing my weak decline into a coma, a silent companion patiently waiting for me to awaken. Surely there’s no expiry date on cigarettes. I need a coffee, but we drink tea now.
I take a dirty glass on the dining table and rename it ashtray, sit on the sofa and take a small shy puff. A storm of wooziness hits me like a hammer on the back of my neck, the predictability of it making me snigger. The divine fragrance of poison makes up for the repulsive taste. I hold the cig below my nose and inhale the blue smoke. I’m so dizzy it feels like I’m sinking inside the sofa and I wonder how long it will take for my legs to get their strength back. But I’m tough and keep smoking, small drag after small drag. As if to teach me a lesson for abandoning it in an old box with a silverfish, the Marlboro turns out to be rebellious. When I take a larger hit, the smoke heads straight for my eyes, my glasses useless as a protection against the sting. I jerk my head backwards but my eyes are already teary. Occupational hazard.
To lure the cigarette back into friendship I attempt to impress it with my natural dexterity. My lower lip slightly hanging out, I let the smoke flow out slowly and inhale it right back through the nose. A virtuous circle. Feeling cocky, I try my luck at blowing bluish rings but it turns out much more difficult than I remembered. My mouth dries up and my taste buds remain disappointingly unimpressed throughout the whole ten minutes it takes to reach the filter. On the last draw I keep the smoke in my mouth longer, ultimately exhaling sideways a thin grey wisp. I lick the surface of my gums as if making sure the dark tar is penetrating deep inside me. I keep expecting the relieving side effect to hit my brain. Anyway I will still buy a pack within an hour. No more weed, fine; no more alcohol, fine; no more sex with strangers, fine. But I need one last addiction to keep me from going insane.
How about “Scott, I’m thinking we should meet next time you’re in HK, revive the past”? How odd that someone whose voice I cannot remember could have such an effect on my mind and my body. I shave in the bathtub, dress up in the same Massimo Dutti suit I was wearing the day before and head to work.
After lunch I find myself with a gigantic cup of bitter black coffee and a pack of Marlboro Reds in the outdoor smoking area of my office building. While looking for my brand new lighter inside my bag, I compose yet another message in my head: “Scott, do you remember our last party together?”
It was meant to happen on his last night in New York. I made sure it was a great before party at home with tons of weed and alcohol before hopping from one club to the other until dawn. Scott and I spent the evening flirting, brushing past each other, staring defiantly at each other, and making each other jealous. As usual we made our tottering way back home with The Bobs for the after-party and a DVD. One block from the apartment Scott pushed me inside a parking lot while the others kept walking. I ended up with my back against a wall and his body rubbing against mine. I tried to kiss him but he kept pulling away at the last second. We never kissed. I don’t think fuck buddies are meant to. The security guard kicked us out. Back home, while I was rolling a spliff—for no reason I was always elected the official roller—Scott started undressing me in the middle of the living room so I pushed him inside my bedroom. His fingers nervously disappeared inside me, my underwear still hanging around my left ankle. It was happening, the end of the game. But this fucker suddenly froze, pulled away from me and left the room without a word or a glance at me. He didn’t even pick up his sweater, and by the time I was dressed and in the living room, he was gone. My roommates were passed out on the sofa; I sat cross-legged on the floor, smoked a joint and watched Zoolander. Expecting him to open the door any moment—perhaps he went to buy condoms, perhaps he was sick—I kept myself mentally available, ready to start where we left it.
I woke up the next morning on the living room floor. I went to the deli next door for a coffee, came back home, lit a few dozen Marlboros, debated with my inner devil the necessity of a morning bong, lost the argument, then patiently waited for The Bobs to rise from the dead and switch on their brain. When I finally got their attention I asked for their male’s perspective. I could hardly believe their lack of surprise, they guessed that Scott was too wasted and he got a hard-on for so long that at some point he went soft. I could act and think like a guy but somehow this never crossed my mind. “Hey Scottie, I still have your sweater. Do you want it back? Come and get it.”
Back to the reality of the smoking area, I throw away my empty cup of coffee and light a cigarette, hiding behind an exotic potted plant higher than me. To my boss, nicotine addicts are just a bunch of smelly weak people who cannot face problems. Some bullshit like that.
This fag still tastes rotten but the good news is that I’m only dizzy for the first few hits. My eyes meet my reflection in the steel-structure of the wall and I wonder if I’m looking at a fat image of myself in one of these distorting carnival mirrors. To stop thinking I call Bryan.
“I have to go out tonight with my team. Freaking karaoke.” I blow the smoke in the direction of a woman walking by who’s covering her nose with her hand. Just ensuring she doesn’t do it for nothing. As if cigarette really was the ultimate source of pollution in Hong Kong. Seriously. I’ve never seen a guy do that.
“Karaoke? Really? That’s too bad. I was thinking Indian food from Bombay Dreams. Quiet evening, you know?” Oh, how I know. “I’m so hammered. Wait—are you smoking?”
Well I’m trying really hard.
“Why?” He chuckles nervously and I can imagine him at his desk with his palms up, exasperated by the ridiculous revelation that his girlfriend is a sinner who doesn’t even try to lie about it.
“Well, why not?” That is the right question, I believe.
“You quit for what? Three years? Do you remember how you struggled, the weight gain, the stress, and now, you’re fine, right? So—I don’t know, I don’t get it.”
“Come on, give the fucking perfect nun a break.” I laugh sarcastically. “You’ve got to allow me a smoke once in a while.”
“Yes, right, once in a while. You don’t know how to do things once in a while,” he murmurs. I’m sure he’s looking around, making sure no one can hear him. “I’m just surprised. I thought we talked about it, you know, trying to have a baby. I don’t get it, why suddenly you start smoking again.”
We talked about it? There’s no we. I will never be a we. I don’t want kids. I never said I wanted kids. If I had been keeping a lame diary, it would be written on every damn page. Not every girl is meant to be a mother. There are good mothers, and—well, the others.
“It’s just one ciggy, ok?” I don’t want to discuss it.
He sighs. “So where is it tonight anyway? What time do you want to meet?
“No, no, you cannot come. It’s a company thing between colleagues.” No need to beat around the bush.
I hear a distant voice calling his name. “Hold on, I’m late for a meeting. I’ll call you back.”
“Just don’t wait for me tonight, ok?” I hang up hastily and throw the cell phone inside my bag as if it was a bomb about to explode. I’m crushing the cigarette butt with the tip of my shoe when I realize there’s a suit looking at my feet. Oh yes, right, littering is a terrorist crime punishable by execution in beautiful eco-friendly Hong Kong. This city is just like me, pretending to be perfect. “Are you still in Sydney, Scott? I’m coming.”
I pick up what remains of the cigarette butt, throw it in the direction of the ashtray, glance at the guy and walk away. He incidentally has the same superior gaze as Scott.
“You missed,” the suit calls after me. The motherfucker. Just my type of guy. Three years ago I would just give him the finger, craving to meet him again a few hours later for another heated confrontation. He might be a candidate or a potential client so I walk back coolly, pick it up, again, and dramatically put it in the smelly ashtray, on the top of the pile.
After work, we’re all lingering in the office, waiting for the party of the year to start. Chen will join us later since he’s meeting university friends at The Whiskey Priest first. I keep hearing about this bar from my candidates. I receive a text from Bryan: “Let me know if you want me to join you. Karaoke might be fun!!” I despise exclamation marks.
Half an hour later, while I find myself trapped in a surreal yet enlightening conversation about my colleague Gloria’s severe diarrhea issues, I refresh my Facebook page and almost scream at the sight of a new message.
“Are you coming Joanna?” someone asks me.
“I’ll see you guys over there. I have to reach a candidate.” Get the fuck out of my face.
It’s not from Scott but from one of my roommates who now lives in London. I only kissed him once during a party to help him make out with this Canadian girl he fancied. We tequila-shot-kissed to show her that it was no big deal even though he was kind of theoretically involved with her best friend. She still couldn’t warm up to the idea so I volunteered to kiss her. “See? It’s really no big deal. Maybe one more time?” I can’t remember her name but I am still obsessed with her body, short and tiny with beautiful and disproportionately plump breasts I really felt like touching. “See? It’s really no big deal.” Anyway it worked. Always here for my friends.
“What the fuck?” I mumble as the first few words of his special announcement start to make sense in my mind. I read it again: “We are pregnant.” Isn’t it the lamest thing any guy could say? He’s serious. “What the fuck?” I repeat. Just the sight of these three words on my screen makes me angry. I refuse to read more. Traitor. The cleaning lady, bored to death, is vacuuming with one hand as if trying to throw a bowling ball. I can feel her glaring at me. She always waits for me to leave so she can use our company phone unnoticed and reach her family on the Mainland. I switch off my computer and head for the restroom to get changed.
Once outside the building, I start walking, officially looking for a taxi, unofficially giving my pair of jeans a chance to stretch a little; they’re so tight it’s like a blood clots VIP party in my legs (besides,recently I’ve read about blood thinning drugs and that is horrible. Just look at http://sideeffectsofxarelto.org/xarelto-lawsuits/). Within a few minutes, I arrive in Lan Kwai Fong, Hong Kong Island’s party district, a perfect square of tiny streets filled with a dozen bars and clubs. It’s so small that you are bound to know every one after a few weeks. It occurs to me that I don’t have a single friend in Hong Kong.
Well, karaoke can wait. I’d rather join my colleagues with a beer or two in my stomach; at least I won’t feel so self-conscious with a mike. I head towards The Whiskey Priest. Inside, a few groups of suits are scattered around the place. I order a Heineken and sit on a stool at the counter, using the mirror in front of me to people watch. I spot Chen’s chin with five other Asian guys.
A few minutes later, my beer is gone. I was thirsty. Side effects are immediate, heavy shoulders and blow on the back of the head. The first glass always does this to me. However the numbness in my arms and legs usually comes much later. Amateur drinkers are pathetic. Waiting for a rum and coke I stuff myself with peanuts and keep discreetly eye-harassing Chen and his friends. He finally looks up. He seems to be hesitating between coming over and pretending not to see me. Too late, I’m waving. He fakes surprise with a twist of the chin, stands up and walks towards me. I awkwardly extend my arms, giving him no other choice but to hug me. I can’t think of anything to say, alcohol having a wimpy steam bath effect on my brain. I take a long swallow and push the empty glass in front of me. I invite Chen to join me and order drinks for both of us.
We bitch about a candidate who refused an offer and fucked-up our relationship with the client. I order more drinks. He shares some office gossip about the last karaoke party and our uptight colleague from Administration who got drunk and ended up mixing with a group of triad-looking guys.
This fourth drink hits home perfectly. I notice I’m slightly rolling on my stool; it’s all right as long as I don’t fall backwards. The bar is getting crowded and peoples’ elbows keep pushing us closer to each other. I am very tempted to lick the sweat off the tip of his chin. We keep talking about our colleagues and who is dating who, and somehow one word leading to another, I find myself trapped in a monologue while Chen gradually lowers his gaze.
“I tell you what man, love for life is a fucking illusion, a fairy tale people still insist on hanging on to. I just don’t get it, you see. I mean, please, a lifetime sexual desire for one single person? Please! Why do marriages fail? I don’t know one single settled couple that still has regular passionate sex. Apart from swingers perhaps. And you know what, that might just be the solution. Anyway, look at my parents, my friends’ parents, Uncle Jim, just about everyone. If you’re not looking for happiness, I’m talking about the real one, not the reasonable one obviously, if you are content enough being miserable and frustrated and angry all your life. Then great. Cheating is human nature, man. Look at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, sex is right there at the bottom, it’s true, you just check it out, Wikipedia, you’ll see. It’s just a freaking basic need. Just like water, it’s right there at the bottom of the pyramid. Have you ever seen this documentary about swingers? They are so happy you just want to throw a rock at your TV screen. So why? You tell me. Well I’ll tell you. Because they are honest people. They accept it. The fact that one body for the rest of your life is not enough. Take Bryan for example. Wait, did I say Bryan? No, no, I meant Scott. Take Scott for example, he’s nothing to me. I don’t even remember his voice. It’s weird, right? He’s just meat, a body, a desire, a kind of fantasy unfulfilled, could be him, could be you, could be anyone, really. I mean, the guy’s IQ is like, I don’t really know what’s a low IQ, but you see what I mean right?” I shut up to catch my breath and realize I might have been spitting in his face while I was throwing up these words. This all makes so much sense though, my mind is so much clearer now. I feel as if tiny dwarfs have been cleaning up my brain with a Kärcher. Chen remains silent. “Anyway do you want to go meet the others for karaoke? Or we could spend some more time together.” I wink instinctively. He swallows loudly.
“Huh, well—” Chen awkwardly shifts on his stool. “My friends are waiting for me.” He looks in their direction as if mentally begging them to come rescue him from the lunatic in front of him. If he had been listening, he would realize it all makes sense. The thing with alcohol, people don’t listen, they assume you’re talking bullshit.
“Oh, okay, great. What are you guys planning?”
He pretends not to hear me. “Actually I’m gonna go, they are waiting for me.” Perhaps it did not occur to him that I could join him and meet his friends. I’m about to state the obvious when he stands up abruptly and I realize the obvious, his plans do not include me any more. No goodbye hugs this time. Chin-Chin disappears.
I order one more drink, hoping someone might accidentally flirt with me. I check my phone, three missed calls from Bryan, nothing new on the Facebook side. “Tell me Scott, why did you leave the apartment like that on your last night? Why don’t you finish what you started?”
For the next five minutes, no one even glances in my direction. I hold my glass almost full, inform the waiter who doesn’t even look up that I need a smoke and I’ll be right back. Heading outside, I almost bump into a hugely pregnant woman coming in. What the fuck is she doing in a bar, isn’t she supposed to lay down with her feet on a cushion and memorize stupid What to Expect When You’re Expecting books? God, she is so big, there might just be 4 to 5 cubs inside her. Pregnant women are obscene, there should be a law forbidding them to leave their houses. She steps away from me, a hand on her inflated stomach like a shield, as if she can read my mind and knows I really want to poke her belly with a needle, just to see her blow up and fly around the room.
Outside the bar, I look around, tapping a Marlboro on the pack and wondering which way to go next. Lan Kwai Fong looks more and more like my kind of paradise now, a planet with all types of men everywhere and me. Girls are busy getting ready for the night, faking prettiness, hiding imperfections to lure men. I picture them in their bedrooms, applying layer after layer of thick make-up, checking their butts in the mirror, trying out different outfits, searching for hole-free stockings, the perfect pair of shoes. I lean against a wall and make sure I’m not lighting the wrong end of my cigarette. A glass in one hand, a smoke in the other, this might just be the height of happiness. I wonder if I’m allowed to drink in public and it occurs to me that me not knowing is surreal. I gesture to the taxi driver waiting for a customer. Before climbing inside the car, I take a sip of rum and one last drag before throwing the butt in the street—hereby possibly committing a double infraction. The excitement of life.
The driver doesn’t reply when I greet him in English, doesn’t nod to acknowledge my presence; he just puts away his newspaper when I give him my address.
“The Belcher’s. Bo Cho Yuen,” I articulate loudly, using my best Cantonese accent. There’s no way I can join my colleagues now, I might just end up trying to make out with the uptight Admin girl.
“Huh?” We do that a few more times until he gets it. I suspect he understood right away and is just messing with me. Fucker. I realize I really don’t want to go home.
“No, sorry, I changed my mind. We have to go back. Lan Kwai Fong.”
“Aii-yiah, gweipo blah blah blah—” He might just be insulting me in Chinese.
“What the fuck is your problem?” I ask him. It gives me a strange thrill to insult people. “Don’t give me your gweipo bullshit, ok?”
Looking at me through the rear-view mirror, he burps. Once. Twice. Does he expect me to blush or something? The guy has seven different cell phones hooked all over the dashboard. I’m feeling sorry for him. Not a single one is ringing. He burps for the third time, a smirk on his face, still looking at me. I’ve been living around guys long enough not to be shocked by anything. But then he doesn’t know that. He laughs after each belch. He’s getting on my nerves. I lean closer, in between the front seats. I’m so close to his face I could lick the inside of his left hairy ear. It’s my time to burp. Alcohol fumes. A long and loud belch coming straight from the heart. Courtesy of New York Jo. I stay right there, much longer than necessary, then slowly move back to my seat. No more laughing in the car. Asshole. I glance at the glass of rum I’m still holding in my hand, almost full. I spill the content on the floor.
“Oops.” Just being informative.
The driver ignores me and starts to drive faster. He drops me off in front of Lan Kwai Fong. I hand him the money for the drive, wave the change away and get out. He doesn’t wait for another passenger.
The streets are filling up fast now, even more suits than twenty minutes ago, and women. British 30-something chubby spinsters attempting to compete with Asian lolitas in ridiculously short skirts and dangerously high heels, struggling to keep their cool sexiness while handling the uneven pavement. I step inside a crowded bar, order a rum and coke and lean against the counter, checking out the crowd standing on what might become a dance floor later on. Gangs of guys in hunting mode trying to get the attention of smaller groups of girls who alternate between finger combing their hair, giggling, and sipping funky-looking cocktails with little umbrellas and colorful straws. The guy waiting for his drink next to me stares reproachfully when I take out a cigarette from the pack and from the corner of my eyes I see a bouncer approaching. Ah, yes, of course, in Hong Kong, one diligently respects the law. Amen.
Holding my drink, I leave the bar and head outside in the pedestrian street where the party is growing big. Everybody seems to know each other; sweaty handshakes, backs amicably slapped and bodies tightly hugged. I walk around, smoking and stumbling slightly, overwhelmed by people bumping into me. Keeping my drink inside the glass is a struggle so I finish it in one long swallow, wincing slightly. I never liked the taste of coke. I check my contacts in my iPhone, trying to think of someone to call but really, just to give me something to do. So many names, no less than three Sarah Chan, candidates whose faces I cannot place. A list full of Chiu, Chung, Lee—so many names yet no one to talk to. I can’t remember why I was looking at my contacts in the first place and put away the phone in my back pocket, even though Bryan—whose missed calls I keep ignoring—always complains that it’s not feminine.
The laughter and loud chatter are overwhelming. I follow a group of pathetic fat guys, stains of sweat in their back, shirts too tight and pants being slowly swallowed by their butt cheeks. They stare at every girl wearing a skirt, every one but me. One of them attempts to approach an Asian hottie walking by, the kind of cold beauty all too aware of her perfect body, all too blasé, who, unperturbed, passes on, waving without a smile at someone behind me. The big guy says something that I don’t get, his friends are laughing so hard that they have to hold on to each other. I have a better view of them now, there’s not a single one fuckable. It occurs to me that I might also be judged this way. The Asian girl walks past me, ignoring my presence, like I’m one of the Frat Pack boys, not deserving her glance.
I follow the group inside a bar whose theme might be exotic grotesque, with fake palm trees, beach parasols and waiters in Hawaiian shirts. It’s so lame I want to puke on the bar and rub my vomit all over these girls whose cleavage is as deep as their naiveté. Coming here week after week, praying to come upon the man of their dreams, a good looking and big hearted banker with an unlimited bank account who will tell them: “Baby, don’t go back to work, just wait for me all day long so we can make sweet love and cuddle in the evening.” I order another rum and coke, knowing I’ve almost reached my limit and feeling sorry for myself for being drunk so easily. I take out my iPhone and look at Scott’s Facebook page, then mine. Why couldn’t I be the Joanna from my profile picture all my life? Partying, getting drunk, taking drugs, having sex? Why do people want to settle down after a while? Was my roommate Bob a fake back in NY? Is the expectant dad the real one or the liar? Once you have a kid, you can’t get back to the real you, can you?
The waiter hands me my glass and leans over to talk to me. I’m already smiling, ready to flirt, ready to make him hard with words and the anticipation of great sex.
“You can’t smoke in here,” he says coldly.
What? I didn’t realize I was smoking. Staring at him, I take a long drag, blow the smoke in his face and toss the fag using my thumb and middle finger. It lands on the chest of a toothpick who’s trying to dance sexy even though she has absolutely no rhythm in her steep body. I almost feel bad for her because I see it in her eyes; she knows. She knows that a girl who can’t dance cannot be a good lay. I can always tell from the way people wriggle on a dance floor. She starts screaming like a dumb bitch when the cigarette hits her skin.
Her boyfriend shouts at me, “Come on! Watch out! What are you doing?”
Instead of backing away, I approach the couple, smiling like a psycho.
He pushes me away and the girl looks at me with hatred in her eyes for ruining her perfect little doll image. She’s nothing, I could break her neck; she can barely keep her balance with her high heels and two tons of foundation on her face. Does she hide from her boyfriend until she’s make-up ready in the morning? Looking the suit in the eyes, I inform him that I’m a good lay. “Really good,” I add.
“Please leave us alone. You’re drunk.” He looks away and leaves, holding his girlfriend’s hand.
I laugh bitterly, look around. So many eyes on me. I finish my drink, throw the empty glass on the dance floor and walk towards the exit while lighting another Marlboro and giving the finger to the waiter.
I wander aimlessly in the streets of Lan Kwai Fong. I step inside a bar, gazing at strangers, searching for nothing, pushing suits around, oblivious to their insults. Then I leave the place and step inside the next one, and do it again, and do it again, my mind as blank as my eyes. Music, laughter, conversations, high-pitched cries of joy, the sounds around me are too loud yet oddly inaudible. I freeze in the middle of the street, transparent, while groups of people brush past me, their elbows on my ribs feeling almost like a relief. When someone puts a hand on my shoulder I turn around, not even surprised to meet Bryan’s smile, which turns into a laugh.
He murmurs, “Look at you,” before hugging me. He says something else but I can’t quite get it, something like “I won’t let you go so easily.” I don’t ask him how he found me. Where else could I be?
He hails a cab but I pull him away and we disappear towards the quiet and undisturbed streets of Sheung Wan. We walk side by side, without touching each other, without a word. I cry. Hard. And I laugh just as hysterically and I’m not sure which one feels better. He doesn’t console me, we walk in silence for perhaps an hour and I realize we’re almost home. When I reach for a cigarette, he takes one too.
He’s strolling a few steps ahead of me when he suddenly turns around. “You know, I’ve been thinking. I’d love to watch you have sex with another girl.” He smiles and turns his eyes to the sky, like he’s picturing the scene in his mind then resumes strolling, hands in his pockets.
After a few more minutes, I stop in the middle of the street, holding my phone, while Bryan keeps walking, slightly more slowly though, as if waiting for me to catch up when I’m done. Unfriending Scott. Letting go.
Sophie Monatte has lived and written in France, New York and Hong Kong.
She’s earning her MFA in Fiction at City University of Hong Kong and writing her first short-story collection in English.
She’s a compulsive backgammon player. She’s afraid of exclamation points.