Short Fiction by Anna Nguyen
Last night there was an incident at the hostess bar across the street. A couple of white-man tourists had objected to the large bill for alcohol and sweet-talk – not understanding that alcohol and sweet-talk were the only things for sale at hostess bars – and trashed the place in a drunken tantrum, breaking windows and pulping faces. This morning there were officers weaving smart shoes through bits of broken glass to pin point blood stain trajectories and grade the colour of chipped teeth. Other officers, less concerned, were chewing gum and tap-tap-tapping on their phones as they absentmindedly pinch-picked white spots under their chins, rubbing the spindly extractions in between their fingertips. Another few wandered about, bored. One in particular thought no one was looking (too bad Pitbull was looking) and had discretely put his foot down on a scruffy leaflet featuring a gooey-eyed bare-breasted teen pinching nipple between forefinger and thumb. He studied it over the spread of his nose for a full ten seconds before he bent down and pocketed it right by his heart. Pitbull wanted to tell the poor guy that the leaflet had been circulating this part of town for a while, and whoever the sweetie was, she was printed off the internet and the number was a scam line.
Men and women were beginning to drip out of the establishments of this poor provincial city’s copy of Kabuki-cho like age-old grime. Women staggered home in worn kitten heels and spoke in variations of haggard shrieks and trumpet yawns as they shared the same old jokes about grey hair and saggy tits for comfort and familiarity – a version of hello’s and how are you’s. One woman walked by and Pitbull recognised her as one of those resident girls too far gone to be hanging around the clubs, but too old now to know any different. Her pale foundation contrasted against the darker colour of her neck and her short nylon wig scratched at her chin. Red spots like foetal eyes peeped through her double-stay foundation. Pitbull watched her as she gave one of the police officers the long eye; she couldn’t give the other because it was obscured by poorly glued fake eyelashes that flapped in the light breeze. The officer grimaced and the woman snarled showing teeth stained with years of tar and bad lipstick. She walked away with her matt gold bag swinging at the crook of her elbow and her leopard print coat holding on like a weak embrace around her shoulders. She tried to look like she didn’t care, but her belt was dragging on the floor and she leapt when a car coming to stop nearby beeped.
From the car, two men stepped out onto the scene. One was an older man, unwashed, unkempt, floating the deep end of fifty. The other was young, serious-looking and a bit fat. The older man turned over an exposed lipstick with his shoe. Pitbull pressed up to the window and saw that it was the perfect shade for summer, coral with flecks of shimmer and pink. When she pulled away, she left a splodge of nose on the glass.
Pitbull had been looking out the first floor window of Midnight Paris for a while. She had been looking so long that all the hosts and hostesses dripping out of the clubs on either side of the street began to look the same; their individuality which seemed so distinct and original in the early morning was now tired and boring. She made up stories for each and every one of them at first, but then she ran out of stories. The same types always came round again but she continued to look anyway. When she didn’t, she would catch herself in the window glass (gotcha!), and inwardly curl at the reflection of herself holding Ginta’s bloodied handkerchief to her face. Her skin was tanned a dirty brown, her nose flat at the bridge, her eyebrows thick, her eyes so small that her fake eyelashes shadowed all her whites so that she had a hard, black stare like a pit of tar. An immigrant. Not native. Some alien from one of those poor uncivilised Asian countries. Thai specifically, but no one cared to know. They cared when you worked in a hostess bar though, messing up your pitch between háshi and hashí in your attempt to engage them in witty banter: You no Japanese? You no good. Bye bye. But in the end, it didn’t bother the clients on the side. After all, the natives might have preferred a purebred, or at least a white-man mixed, but who needed to look when pussy and tongue tips felt the same the world over? All you needed was a bit of lube and a bit of technique and even though Pitbull couldn’t learn how to find a vein and stick a needle in it at nursing school a few years back, she knew how to ease her gag reflex and had plenty of technique.
Pitbull took away the handkerchief from her face and weighed the bloody linen in her hand, passing it from side to side. She snorted to free up the gunk and crust in her nose – not broken, but a bit bruised – and then pulled apart the gold-bordered hanky, attempting a bloated swan about five times (she counted) before she held it against her nose again. In that interval of no hanky, blood continued to drip-drop onto the carpet and she smudged it in with her sandals.
Outside on the street, she heard Ginta’s hoarse but high-pitched voice call out a name. She pulled up closer to the window and saw Ginta with the collars of his shirt open to reveal the dip in his bare-boned chest come out of Paris and wave at the older man. The younger fat one pulled a face as if he had stepped in dogshit. Ginta bent his knees and began to swing an imaginary baseball bat over his head and at his side as if he were at the plate, ready to hit the pitch. The older man then stepped back and narrowed his eyes before he wound up into a knot and lifted his leg showing the remains of coral lipstick at the edge of his shoe; he pulled his right arm back and paused for a moment. Then whoosh! he threw a fast one.
‘Bang!’ shouted Ginta as his imaginary bat hit the imaginary ball. He saluted at the sky and watched the imaginary ball fly across the criss-cross of telephone wires and break through the clouds.
‘I’ll give you this one, Ginta, but in real life you could never hit one of my balls,’ the older man said.
‘Ah, well, you’re an old man now, senpai. Now I know where your balls are, I always know where to hit,’ Ginta laughed.
One dead evening at Midnight Paris, Ginta sat with the girls and showed them his special baseball card collection. It was kept in a plastic sandwich pack with resealable lips and it lived inside Ginta’s breastpocket. Pitbull had seen him consult it often in the corner like a pack of tarot cards. They sat around the big table in the back, dust smoked underneath the spotlight and smudges of lipstick grease shone on glasses of cheap beer. Mama Paris played solitaire. Ginta took the pack of cards out of the sandwich bag (which he changed every week) and fanned out the cards like a ritual. His eyes shone with reverence as he went through each player and talked about them as if they were old friends. He recited not only their earned runs, win-loss records and how much they had been bought and paid for, but also the whole trajectories of their lives including the dogs, the divorces and the children. If they were dead, he knew the row and column of their internment in the Baseball Hall of Fame in the big city. After a while, one or two girls walked off bored. Pitbull stayed. When Ginta came to his final card, a special edition laminated in holographic film, he held it up to the spotlight and it shone a rainbow across his face.
Pitbull jumped and saw that Ginta was pointing straight at her in the window. The two men followed the aim of GInta’s finger and Pitbull made a face. Ginta spat on the ground.
‘Don’t stand there! Do you want the whole street to know!? Go and stand in the corner,’ he shouted, his hands cupping the sides of his mouth – the kind of mouth that had too much cheek around the corners. ‘Think about what you’ve done!’
Like a dog.
Pitbull was tired of looking down at the street anyhow. She turned her back and went to sit in Mama’s office chair, a button-tufted faux leather affair, and swivelled side to side her feet tapping on the wheels. They had locked her in the back office. Dangerous. Beware! But she didn’t feel the least bit dangerous, if anything she was tired and in pain, hungry. Her mouth was dry even though there was blood sitting like a bubble at the back of her throat. She bent her head back and swallowed but the bubble just seemed to pop back up again. She also needed to pee; she felt her bladder temper madly, pee pee pee! it told her, but sorry, bladder, she replied. She pointed straight at the lock on the door, locked on the outside dummy and then she turned and pointed at the window and said first floor, can’t aim that high. And anyway, the bathroom might be off-limits now. Broke the toilet, remember, silly silly! Earlier, she had pushed Momo’s face into the toilet basin, and when the flush stopped wanting to flush (the first flush was always the best for the shits), she settled for breaking Momo’s forehead and highly artificial nose against the ceramic basin until Momo stopped fighting. Up, down, up, down, one, two, three, four, and ah-lunge, and ah-pulse – come on that’s how you do it! like an exercise video. Pitbull couldn’t remember much of what happened, but she did remember lifting the toilet seat up as Momo was screaming hell and high, flapping her arms like a confused pigeon, her long shellac nails catching at Pitbull’s skin. If she went to the toilet now, she could put the toilet seat back down again and sit on that and the blood wouldn’t stain her bum.
It went on for a while. The business in the bathroom. It went on until one of the other girls came in and started screaming. Then Ginta ran in in his madcap way and got a hold of Pitbull and ripped her away from Momo so hard that when Pitbull was being dragged out of the bathroom, she was clenching a bouquet’s worth of Momo’s brassy blonde hair in her hand, bits of scalp and skin at the ends like disappointed flowers.
When did she let go of that clump of hair? She sat up and peered over Mama’s desk at the rest of the office floor. Must’ve dropped it outside, she thought. Then she slouched back down and opened up her palm and saw the mark of her long nails, a row of red crescent moons bitten deep across the intersection of the head and fate lines.
On one of the rare nights they were both home at the same time, Arisa revealed to Pitbull her palm, a chart of lumpy scars, their texture like octopus skin. ‘I didn’t like where my life was going, so I made my own lines,’ Arisa had told her. She had carved into both her palms with a fish knife and she used a fish knife because fish knives had a nice sharp curve to their ends. Her lines were neat, intersecting, so long that the fate line crossed the joint in between her middle and index finger, and her life line continued on over the bump that marked the end of her hand and down her wrist, running parallel to the double tendons underneath her skin. ‘The scars are also good for handjobs,’ Arisa added as an aside, but it wasn’t supposed to be funny so Pitbull didn’t try to laugh.
Pitbull was coming out of the cubicle – there were two cubicles but the other toilet wasn’t working and Mama was stingy – and Momo was bent over the sink picking at her face up close in the mirror. She was using her little fingernail to scratch at the foundation caked stiff in her dimples – she’d been braying hard all night. They caught sight of each other in the mirror but said nothing. Momo just rolled her eyes, but one of them was lazy and it didn’t roll right. Pitbull washed her hands and dried them on her bare thighs. Maybe Momo saw Pitbull pull a face at her wonky eye-roll, maybe Pitbull was an annoying speck in her eye, Momo opened her mouth and clucked a few words to Pitbull as she walked out. The door closed behind her and Pitbull stopped in the corridor for a few seconds. Then she turned around, pushed her way back inside, grabbed the back of Momo’s head and slammed it into the mirror. When Momo’s legs bent under her, Pitbull slammed her face into the edge of the sink before she dragged her to the one working toilet.
What had Momo said to her?
When Pitbull tried to remember, collecting all the images of that exact moment like piecing back together a broken vase – the image of Momo scratching at her make up in the mirror, the ping-pong reflections of her sequin dress underneath the lights – Momo’s words did not come to her. Instead, at the exact moment Momo was cued to speak, according to the projection playing in her mind’s eye, the last chorus of Siboney began to play and that was all Pitbull heard.
Oye el eco de mi canto de cristal, no se pierda por entre el rudo manigual.
They played the song a lot at Paris. They were trying to evoke that old world misty club feeling immortalised in Casablanca, but Paris was cheap and shit like Ginta’s nylon suit. Every time the song came round on the CD player and the woman stretched out her vocals for the last lines and the Spanish words melted together before separating again to accommodate the reintroduction of the strumming guitar, the tambourine and the little pedal hitting the main drum, the song stuttered because of the scratch in the CD, and Pitbull knew then that though the song was in Spanish and incomprehensible, no one really wanted the song from beginning to end, because the whole song from beginning to end would cast their lives into sharp, ugly relief and they would remember for a second amidst all the har-har cackle and the jazz hands flip-flopping in the air in amazement at the complete ingenuity of a client’s joke, that the song meant more than their lives did, and shit, who wanted to realise that when you were hawking, hoping for an extra hundred or two at the end of the night?
Pitbull breathed slowly through her nose. You had to hand it to Ginta; he could punch hard enough to hurt, but tender enough not to break anything. She dropped Ginta’s handkerchief on to a pile of papers on the desk, all folds unfurling, and she ran her tongue across her fingertips to clean the smudges of blood in her palm, sticky and stiff. She got up from Mama’s faux leather chair and stepped quietly towards the door. She tried the handle again, still locked, and then she placed her ear against the door. Nothing. Nada. Nope.
It was about Arisa, whatever Momo had said to her in the bathroom. Arisa and Pitbull weren’t friends. They shared a room together in a slummy flat. They shared a bed too but they did different shifts at Paris and so not at the same time. Arisa was a biter. Said hello to her? Bite! Do you expect me to say hello back? Liked her nails? Bite! The fuck you do. Asked her to pass a can of cola? Bite! Are you crippled? No one liked her at Paris and she hated everyone else. She was not the best hostess. She only laughed when a client said something real funny, only flattered when she felt generous, which was not often. Somehow she had managed to weed out the bearable ones (the ones who liked the crack of her tongue and paid well), whereas all the others had to snuffle like pigs –snort! har har har! – through the shit to discover bits and pieces of golden truffle. But Pitbull had a theory (she was quite the theoriser). For the girls, and for Pitbull too, sometimes fuckery outside the bar was necessary and each time the dick went in and ripped himself out, he always took something with him and it showed. After a few years, you would be scraped hollow and the beat of your heels was the echo of that, clack clack clack. For Arisa, though, it was different. Arisa had a hard mass inside of her that no erect, gargantuan penis could reach, and if they ever did, Pitbull imagined the smooth head being flayed in the acidic heat, and the whole business so on fire that the veins and muscles burst like snapping cables on a bridge. Testicles would have second degree burns, sperm heads would scramble for the exit and scream. Blood would just spurt vertically like beheadings in Japanese horror films. And if this happened on a cold night, Pitbull thought, Arisa’s vagina would be warmed, that was for certain. Arisa had mastered the art of something which had eluded the others; and even if they had discovered what that was it was by now too late to regain what they had lost. So the girls made up a game to see what it took to break her. Arisa played along because it was the greatest coup. The girls paid the men on the down low to fuck Arisa, and Arisa took all the girls’ money. The greatest prank!
But, lo and behold, the dream was not real. Arisa got broken eventually. One evening when Pitbull came home and tiptoed to reach the short string of the shower light and switched it on, Arisa was sat in the corner, vomit drying around her mouth like paint. There was vomit down the length of her neck and when Pitbull followed the cakey yellow soup across Arisa’s body, mentally counting the bits of chewed leaf and chomped up bits of meat hanging on to her smooth skin like little baubles on a dying Christmas tree, the whole mess had trickled down into the short hairs of her pubic hair. The rank smell played on the air like a small child bashing piano keys, let me play you a jingle of gone-off milk and bursting stomachs of dead rats left out in the sun! Just a short detour from the jingle-jangle of diarrhoea.
Pitbull went up and pulled the shower head from the wall and pointed it Arisa like a gun. She twisted the dial to full blast and the water at first sputtered limp and then after a few seconds became a force of a thousand lashes, whipping Arisa awake. She coughed and wriggled, her eyes barely able to open. When she moved her legs, Pitbull could see a flash of her back and the small tiles imprinted in her skin. When Arisa was conscious, she stared at Pitbull through the clumps of wet hair wrapped around her face and then spat weakly at her. Pitbull pointed the showerhead away and instead began moving it up and down Arisa’s body, watching the dry vomit melt away from Arisa’s skin and little trinkets of masticated food roll and bump down the drain. Arisa worked her lips into a smirk and lifted her chin, pressing her head up against the tiles.
‘I liked it,’ Arisa declared hoarsely, but even in all her affectation, Pitbull noticed the little spark in her eyebrow, the jolt of pain somewhere as she said it. ‘And I came.’
Then Arisa pushed her back against the tiled wall of the shower and used her hands to push her weight up from the floor. Once she managed to get halfway to standing, her right leg then collapsed under her and she fell forward; her face smacked the floor. She moaned and at the same time laughed ha ha ha. ‘Fucking pins and needles.’
Pitbull continued to water Arisa’s body up and down gently along the curve of her spine up to the rump of her behind. The light in the bathroom was dark and grimy. There was a layer of slime and dust around the lightbulb and like a cut-out lantern in a child’s bedroom the shadows of slime were cast around the bathroom creating a poor-man’s popcorn stucco. When Arisa finally managed to stand up, Pitbull pulled one of the towels from the rack and Arisa snatched it from her hand and made a point of dropping it on the floor as she limped out of the bathroom. A mousebite’s worth of vomited food curved around her calf with the water and rolled down the back of left heel as she lifted her foot. Afterwards Pitbull picked up the large bits of food unable to go through the shower grill and threw them in the bin.
That was the night Arisa showed Pitbull her hands. Later Pitbull found out that Arisa was anal-fucked and mouth-fucked so bad that she could no longer swallow without crying. Arisa tried to pop some pills, but when she chucked them into her mouth, they kept missing. Spit came down either side of her mouth like a large mouthed St Bernard and Pitbull had to help her by lifting her chin up and slowly edging each pill down the wave of her tongue with her finger until by the gift of gravity it fell down her throat. When Arisa slept she drooled thick onto the pillows. The other girls had commissioned the spit-roast and Pitbull wondered about the ratio of cum and food that made up the delicacy that was Arisa’s vomit.
The sun was coming out now. Another hot day, she thought and then her thoughts were interrupted by her bladder. PEE, PEE, PEE! Pitbull looked around her for a cup or a container of some kind, she could aim if she was careful, but there was nothing around, so still humming Siboney in her head she roughly rolled up her tight skirt, leaving harsh red marks along her legs, and then she rolled down her knickers and squatted on the carpet and faced the window. The happy, burning sunshine bleached her skin of its tan and she squinted so hard that her long false eyelashes interlocked with the lashes along her waterline. She pissed into the carpet, not straight but wonky, a stream that momentarily split in two, and it splashed onto her ankle and left droplets like dew on the buckle of her sandal straps.
She didn’t know what finally happened to Arisa. She came home one early morning and the door to the bedroom was open and sunlight bled out into the hall, but the sunlight was interrupted with a deliberately slow shadow moving back and forth. Not Arisa’s shadow. Pitbull walked to the bedroom and stood outside the door. The sun was so hot that it cut glass. Inside an old man was picking up the objects around the room, appraising them and then putting them into a cardboard box cradled in his arm. He was short and had a little bit of a wobble to his head, like those bobbing heads on a car dashboard. He looked up at her and acknowledged she was there but said nothing. Pitbull said nothing either and continued to watch him pick up a nail file still covered in white shavings of nail, a small trinket box, a dish of safety pins, and the hoop of a phone strap, and drop them into his cardboard box.
When he walked passed her to leave, acknowledging her once again with the fall of his head but no words, Pitbull caught the whiff of hard cigarettes and sour armpits and yellow-yolk eyes threaded with red lines. She knew then that he was probably a regular at one of those Pachinko parlours populated with slot machines, those places boarded up with vinyl advertisements to block out daylight. She also looked down into the cardboard box and saw that he had taken her jewellery box and an elephant she kept at the windowsill. Pitbull let him walk away with all of it and once he was gone, she could no longer stand in the room with all that fierce sunlight and left, closing the door behind her.
Her piss smelt sour and settled into a dark patch on the carpet. Pitbull remained in a squat and stared out the window at the sky, replaying over and over again the last lines of Siboney, the moment the singer sustained a long note just short of a desperate shriek and just before the guitars and the band came back in again to comfort her: oye el eco de mi canto de cristal, no se pierda por entre el rudo manigual. She remembered being back home in her own country, nights she’d often have to navigate the dark alleyway of their tenement to the shared neighbourhood toilet, squat into the hole, hold her breath and at the same time hum a tune to let people know she was inside – there was no lock. When it was really hot, those deep dark evenings when all her siblings were squashed up together in bed and the one fan had sneakily been redirected by her parents to blow on their bodies only, she would blindly find her way out onto the street. She would squat with one leg on the road and the other leg on the pavement two inches higher and take a piss, aiming for the open drain. As she pissed, she would look up at the night sky and shoot the stars with her fingers and wave at airplane headlights. She would whistle breathlessly too, stopping in between to wipe the sweat from her face and dirty neck. She would shake her hips to throw the last drops of urine, thinking that when she was older she was going to own her own fucking toilet with an ice-cool white seat and a 2-step button flush whoosh woosh. People were going to have to pay to shit in her toilet! She had even figured out a detailed payment tier-system, but now that she was thinking about it staring out at the rectangular window of Midnight Paris, she couldn’t recall what that was.
Outside the window, Pitbull spotted a red balloon floating up into the sky in the far distance, maybe a building block away and she began to shake from the burning in her thighs. Sharp pain shot up from the back of her feet as her body weight was concentrated on the support of five inch skinny plastic sticks for high heels. Pitbull looked in between her legs and counted the small drips of urine falling onto the carpet. She had been wrong about Arisa. Arisa was the great illusionist! Wonderful magician, a complete trickster. There was nothing to her, no hard mass, no nothing! She was nothing but a body, nothing but the worn and dirty tag that anchored a helium balloon exchanging hands from one person to the next. They all thought they were pushing up against the curve of rubber, hoping to break the skin and make the birds hit the high notes and sing lush, but they were kissing and cumming over a heart shaped plastic tag that had long ceased to retain its paper labelling, scratched out by fingernails and street grit. Arisa was not how the girls could’ve been, only what they were going to be. That’s it. The whole complex conundrum sorted, done, voila! The magician finally reveals his tricks, har har har! But Pitbull didn’t feel much like laughing and instead she watched the red balloon float away from her, becoming a speck in the horizon, imagining it meet up with Ginta’s imaginary ball in the clouds and his ball bursting it dead.