My stomach was empty, except for the duty-free Bombay Sapphire and tons of smoke I inhaled in the hotel bathroom earlier. My feet were as light as summer skirts. I passed dead residential houses and slightly livelier cheap motels. Even at night, the air was still scorching. A local cyclist intercepted me before the steps.
It felt so strange to finally be here.
It wasn’t my first time in Merlion City. A madwoman took me here once, perhaps the richest client I’ve ever had. Our mission was doomed to fail. I took some hits, returned home with bad memories, and everything was forgotten in a matter of days. That’s all I ever do anyway—take hits for other, more powerful people.
But now I’m back here, on another losing gig. Or a flight of fancy. Those are arguably interchangeable these days.
The cyclist looked as if he had left the stove burning and rushed back to save his apartment—only to confuse its location with the nearest brothel. I gave way to his haste, taking the time to admire the neon-embellished statue right next to the front door.
He opened the door and I tailgated.
My mind was as blank as minds could be.
The establishment’s owner was a full-clad businessman with zero hints in his eyes. The cyclist muttered something under his breath. My eyes were overtaken by a couple of elegant ladies sitting in the lounge, with jet black hair as smooth as childhood dreams. Not for long. They looked more like dolls than real figures.
The cyclist muttered something in Cantonese, but the owner swiftly gave him what I could only tell as a gentle refusal. His eyes changed when he noticed my slow figure. The businessman was more interested in me than a broke Singaporean.
“Chinese girl for one hour, one hundred fifty.”
I put on my best Bogart impression and laid one arm on the counter. “I only brought fifty.”
All the lofty hopes in his new prospect foreigner was clearly gone. “All Chinese are one hundred fifty. You want fifty, go to number Forty-One.”
I already strolled past there twice while scouting. As a matter of fact, I had traversed the entire three Lor next to my hotel. Too many kwee tiaos had catcalled my wide tourist eyes, not to mention the hidden law enforcement watchful between the shadows. I went out the front door and swirled to catch the house number. The two glamorous ladies sitting outside thought to themselves how many times they have seen my unusual black hoodie.
I decided to walk the other direction.
And right into the next establishment.
The owner grabbed my shoulder with no warnings. A suave, professional smile rippled on his wrinkled face. “Ya, ya, Number Ten is ready.”
I hadn’t said a word. Three girls were lounging around, waiting. Not one of them dared look at anything.
“Fifty,” I said dryly.
“Yes, yes.” I had no idea whether the price was right. But I wasn’t going to haggle anyway. It was the amount I had in my pocket, and it was the right amount for anyone.
“How many hours?”
The old man burst laughing. “How many hours? Ya, how many hours he said! Thirty minutes!”
Only in the next years would I realize how fucking green I sounded that time. But I was blessed with ignorance, and desperation, and just out of any logical faculty whatsoever.
“Then I’ll have everything in those thirty minutes. No tricks. Everything.”
“Yes, everything. Girls’ service is very good, ya? You won’t be disappointed. Okay? Now which one?”
Their faces were still kept away. He did say a number though—
She had almost-bob brown hair with a hidden ponytail. There was something quite familiar in the way she stared blankly forward, but I couldn’t place it. Still, it was easy to see why the old man kept insisting. She was the best specimen among the three.
I kept the Bogart façade and just slowly raised my finger.
I paid the fifty and once again the old man read me his holy warrant. Local prostitution law: pay before you bone. So it said, apparently, on the huge plaque right above the countertop. What a strange, funny country—but who’s complaining when you’ve got a whole goddamn complex of pink-shaded establishments right in the pissing distance of Silent Hill-style townhouses?
Number Ten led me into a cramped room which had all the insides of a young girl’s bedroom. Later I found out that it was indeed her boudoir, doubling as an indiscreet office. Bookshelves, clothes rack, tiny shower. The unique propaganda-slash-sex-ed posters from Singapore government furnished the pillowside of her wall.
A phone was being charged on a kindergartener’s table. She tapped on it and played a Mandopop song.
“Take it off.”
I was too busy admiring the paraphernalia and missed the moment she let that skimpy outfit loose. I was just in time to catch the snapping of her bra. Nothing impressed me anymore, but the child-bearing hips were something to take note of. She must have been way younger than me, but there was a glib deadness in her eyes that was frustratingly familiar.
“Okay, shower first.”
A punctual lady. She’s slipping into the routine like clockwork. A thousand times before in a hundred Geylang nights. She’ll take them all, Indians, Chinese, Malays. Beautiful blondes with blue eyes. Office suckers in white shirts. Even a lost fuck from another dimension like me. All with a vague Asian track bubbling from her charged phone. You know, my biggest regret wasn’t that I failed to milk the most out of those thirty minutes. My biggest regret was that I never showed her my Spotify page. Her shocked face would have been cute.
Perhaps that wasn’t it either. I had too many regrets to list down. Her lithe bookshelves would have imploded.
So when it’s all said and done and showered away, and she asked me with a gesture that would haunt me forever, in broken English that crudely translated to:
“You look so sleepy. Why don’t you go home and sleep?”
I can’t sleep, my sweet young immigrant. Tomorrow is a big day for me. I came all this way to see nine girls and I would only be seeing eight. And this missing girl—she’s the whole reason I even started. Hell, what was I supposed to do? The world broke her. Just like it will break you and me, sooner or later.
I picked up her phone, still playing another cursed mellow tune. She tutted behind me, barely putting back what’s left of her little getup. “Not okay,” she said, half-laughing. She already said so several times in the past thirty minutes. When I tried to kiss her, mouth or someplace else.
I skipped the song, just for the hell of it. Time’s up.
“Go to sleep.”
And all of a sudden I was back on the stale night, pushing out smoke, feet rambling to nowhere.
I held her phone for a while then. I could have asked for her number.
“Not okay,” I whispered to nothing.
That gesture. A sly peek-a-boo in the dark. Just like God herself taking a golden shower on my bubblegum dreams. I stomped on the cigarette and went back to my hotel.