All I saw was blood when she first appeared before me. Her cheongsam, in a screaming scarlet, collared at the throat and falling all the way to her ankles with a slit rising to the high of her thighs, exposed her lithe, bare legs. When she said Hello, my mouth opened and only soundless dry air came forth. She caught me staring so I shifted my eyes from her thighs to her hips to her bosom to her bare shoulders and then to the doe eyes of this alluring gazelle. She towered above me in her four-inch stiletto heels, her womanly curves tucked inside a dress that was too tight for her but just right for me.
“Good evening, Sir! Welcome!” she greeted me warmly. Her words sailed melodiously up and down my spine. “How can I help you today?”
I had made no future plans except wander aimlessly into a few casino hotels to gawk at their opulence. I vaguely remembered seeing gold varnished statues, Swarovski crystal chandeliers, water fountains with jet streams dancing acrobatically to some tunes by Debussy or Strauss or Queen. Orgasmic anthems climaxing to pyrotechnic displays of fireworks and a big musical flourish.
“I don’t know. What can you do here?” I asked.
“Do you want to play a game or two at the casino?” she smiled, showing lots of teeth, inching closer. She smelled sweet, with a lingering jasmine perfume. I recognised the floral note. My wife wore the same.
“What else have you got?”
“We have plenty of retail shops for you to relax and buy something for your family. We have many restaurants if you feel like dining. Are you a guest here in this hotel, Sir?”
“No, I’m not.”
“That is perfectly fine. What do you feel like doing?”
What I felt like doing was too illicit to be broadcast to her so I settled for the prosaic. “I’ll maybe gamble a little. I’ve never done it in a casino before,” I said, watching her reaction.
As expected, she opened up warmly, as if she had closed a sales pitch. I was to be that newbie gambler likely to lose a tonne of money before dinnertime.
“Let me show you to a table, Sir,” she cooed, touching my arm gently before releasing her touch. It had the effect of controlling me, this easy lamb to the slaughter. I followed her meekly. That slight body contact lingered in my mind. I watched her sashay in the tight red dress, watching her tiny waist and ample hips. She seemed the fertile type. I wondered if she had kids. She turned abruptly to me, “How do I address you, Sir?”
“Larry,” I blurted out quickly. My name was, in fact, Harry. I didn’t know why I lied.
“My name is Sally,” she responded, almost too smoothly, her smile now a thin snake on her lips. She pointed to her name tag. It affirmed what she had said. “See, Sally.”
Now, I know a liar when I see one. I had given a fake name and so did she. Hers was verified by a name tag. Mine was unverifiable. I had my reasons for lying. What was hers?
“What will you playing, Sir? Any preference?”
Sally brought me to change my money to chips. We then walked to the gaming tables. I surveyed the thick crowd of tense heads, most of them Asian with some Caucasians who either looked like serious players or had come along for a joy ride that was beginning to turn joyless. I was big on playing poker online, but the stakes at the tables were high. The minimum bet was HKD1000. The Black Jack tables seemed less tense, more convivial, obviously tourists among veteran card players. I knew my Black Jack. It was either an easy win or an easy fold. Less high stakes than poker. I sat down at a table with three people, two of them middle-aged ladies with dyed bronzed hair and a man in a jacket that hung limply on his shoulders. He seemed more apprehensive than the women, who stared at me as I sat down. Nobody smiled, except Sally, who stood near me and put her hand on my shoulder, keeping me under her spell. “Is there anything else you need?” she said.
I looked up at her with a lump in my throat.
“Would you like a drink, Sir? Beer? Juice?” she continued.
Sally made eye contact with the others at the table, greeting everyone. They ignored her. She leaned in to my ear, whispered, “Don’t worry. I’ll rescue you if you’re losing. I’ll tell you when to stop. These are our regular clients. Have fun.”
She took her hand off my shoulder and strutted off to the bar where she placed my order with a waiter, leaving me with a sweet floral scent of her skin and hair, and all I could think of as I placed my first bet with a rush of adrenaline was that this was definitely one game I was about to lose.
By the time I lost HKD20,000, I knew I was sinking so fast no appearance by Sally would save me. She was nowhere to be found. The players at the table had started to relax, chat among themselves in a thick Putonghua accent I instantly recognised them as mainlanders from China. Even the women were smiling at me from time to time – with the arrogance of being winners and the sympathy of being female. I wanted to get up, stop my losing streak, walk away. But a part of me kept thinking I could recoup my losses. Just one more round. The next one will be different. Again, another shameless defeat.
My phone vibrated with a fresh text. It was my wife. Don’t go to the casinos and gamble, OK? I’m warning you. We need to save for our Xmas trip to Zurich. Did you eat any Portuguese egg tarts yet? Don’t forget to get souvenirs for the kids and relatives.
The text message had the effect of sobering me up. I was drugged by the effect of being surrounded by these people who were playing with money as if they were trading with fake money at a board game. I felt impulsive, emboldened by each ponderous second and minute as I agonised over whether to fold my cards or to go on. I had won only one round. That one round was enough to spur me on, make me feel invincible. Sally turned up just as I was about to start a fresh round of loss.
“Sir, would you like a break? Perhaps you want to eat something?”
I turned to her with desperation. She had appeared at the right time. My angel, Sally.
“OK,” I said feebly, standing up and following her.
She took me out of the gambling area, passed several retail shops towards a café. I didn’t know Sally at all, but I was already annoyed with her, and said rather curtly, “What took you so long?”
An imperceptible laugh escaped from her lips. “You from Singapore, Sir?”
“How do you know?” I turned to her, surprised.
“I can tell from your accent.”
“Yes, Sir. I worked before in Singapore, Sir.”
“Marina Bay Sands?” It was Singapore’s one out of two legal casinos. I assumed she had been working in the same industry.
“No, Sir,” she murmured, and all traces of the amiable disappeared. “Here, you can have your dinner. Enjoy,” Sally said something to the service staff at the café and walked off.
“Wait!” I ran after her. I sensed that I had slighted her.
“Yes?” Sally gave me a disinterested glance.
“Thank you for helping me earlier,” I said, with sincerity. “Would you like… to have a drink with me?”
This was a gorgeous woman who looked like she had been bought one too many drinks in her lifetime. Her eyes were clouded over by a kind of sadness that betrayed the vulnerability in her. She was no longer red cheongsam lady but fake Sally with real problems.
“Sure,” she mumbled.
We sat at a table in the corner. Men kept turning to look at her. She didn’t blink once. Male adulation was a response that the head-turning dress on her body was designed to elicit. I should count myself lucky for having her choose to sit with me.
I looked out for a ring on Sally’s finger. There was none. I, on the hand, wore mine, which she noticed right away.
“Do you want to eat something?” I asked her.
“I’m fine, just a pineapple juice will do.”
I ordered her a juice and a sirloin steak for myself with a glass of red wine. The steak took fifteen minutes to arrive. In that time, I watched her sip her juice, leaving red lipstick stains on the rim of the glass. My food hadn’t arrived, I had lost money, and I was hungry. Watching her made me hungrier than usual.
“How long have you been working here?” I had to break the ice.
“And before that? You were in… the Philippines?” I wanted to say ‘Singapore’ since she had mentioned it earlier. But I didn’t want to state the obvious. I didn’t want to embarrass her in case it reminded her of a past she might not be proud of.
“Singapore. Five years.”
“Wow. Long time.”
She stared at me, her long mascaraed eyelashes defiant. She seemed to channel anger at me.
“Yes, I was a maid,” she spat out the words. It was out in the open.
“I see,” I said. What could I say to change the atmosphere back to what it was before? I had made her repeat her history that had no meaning in the present. “Well, you’re in Macau now,” I shrugged, hoping she would notice it.
“Yes, and I serve gamblers.” She laughed sardonically.
“Serving is maybe not the right word,” I corrected her. “You host your clients. You’re like… a casino concierge.”
She burst out laughing. “You Singapore men are so straight.”
“What do you mean ‘straight’?”
“You do this one way, only one way. You think that way, only that way. So simple.”
“Excuse me?” I happened to hold a Masters degree in Predictive Analytics and a management job in one of the Big Four accounting firms and was promoted four times in the last seven years. I hardly saw myself as ‘simple’.
“Nothing, Larry. Your dinner is here.”
I ate in silence. Sally watched me the entire time.
“I’m a mother, you know,” she mumbled, staring listlessly into space.
I kept quiet, continued eating.
“My son is sixteen. I want him to go to college.”
If her son was sixteen, then how old was she? I peeked at her from the corner of my eyes as I chewed the meat. Thirty-three? Thirty-five? She looked at least ten years younger than whatever age she was now.
“He got a girl pregnant. She was fifteen.”
“You’re a grandmother?” I blurted, swallowing the meat quickly.
“She died giving birth last week,” her eyes turned red and moist.
“Oh. I’m sorry.”
“So now I have to work harder. Pay for college. And the funeral.”
“That’s kind of you.”
“She’s my best friend’s daughter.”
“I’m so sorry.”
“This is what happens when you have no self-control.”
My dinner was almost finished. I poked at the vichy carrots and peas with my fork and wondered who she meant by the pronoun ‘you’ in her statement. ‘You’ meaning people in general? ‘You’ meaning men? ‘You’ meaning herself in a different perspective, seeing herself as someone else?
“If I’m taking your time from work, please let me know,” I looked up from my meal and told her in a gentle tone. She had intimated her history to me, a stranger, without any persuasion on my part, while I’m not entirely sure what for.
“You are my work.”
She gave me a piercing look that said more than what was needed to be uttered.
“You mean you’re not just a hostess?” I croaked. The red wine was making my throat dryer than usual.
My phone vibrated with a fresh text. My wife. Again. Can you believe the maid just burnt your work shirt? The one I bought for your birthday! On the breast plate where the logo is! I’m going to make her pay from her next salary. Also she broke the crystal champagne glass today. Unbelievable!
“Flexible, you say?” I raised my eyebrows at Sally. She nodded. I gestured to the waiter, paid for the meal and led the way out of the casino where Sally followed me meekly and wordlessly.
She was very flexible as she said she would be. In that hour, I had temporarily forgotten the losses I had incurred at the casino. Two weeks’ wages I would have to justify to my wife. Fuck it. Sally was worth every dollar of a reckless gamble.
“My hotel is not as fancy as yours,” I said, apologising for the three-star hotel I had booked. I checked out her creamy body. Underneath the scarlet dress, she was pale and smooth, with a pliable belly – a tell-tale sign she had given birth before. “Macau is only a day trip. I’m actually on a work trip to Hong Kong.”
“Larry, it’s fine,” she said, yawning.
“My name is Harry, not Larry,” I admitted.
Her eyes sparkled. “My name is not Sally either.”
“What is it?”
“Guess?” It could be any name under the sun. I racked my brain hard. What’s a common Filipina name? “Maria? Angela? Lola? Teresa?”
I bit my lips to stop myself from laughing.
“Yes, I get that very often. It’s not exactly the right name to use in a casino. Mother of God watching your every move in a place of sin.”
I had thoroughly enjoyed and tasted the nakedness of her body as a married man. That was a sin. Throwing money down the drain for a couple of cards at a wrong turn didn’t seem so sinful in comparison.
Sally/Madonna seemed to know what I was thinking. She started to dress herself up. Her alabaster skin, smooth as a Venusian statue, was more real than the gilded lion statues I had seen in the casino lobby. More elegant. More classical than all the faux antique replicas and designer décor I had witnessed that day, stumbling upon one five-star hotel to the next, lost in the money trail of one posh gambling den after another.
“I have to go,” she said softly. She turned her back to me, her zipper undone. “Can you zip me up?” The zipper went all the way down to her derrière. I wanted to touch her there but I knew the moment was over. Before, she was eager, passionate and hungry, tasting me like the sirloin steak she had smelled earlier but hadn’t eaten. Perhaps she really was famished. I wouldn’t know for sure. She would be too polite to admit.
I affixed the zipper to the teeth. The two clasped together and bit as one, one jagged tooth overlapping the other while I pulled the zipper up with one hand in a smooth fluid motion, feeling the tension rising upwards between the metal and the fabric as I pulled down her red dress with the other hand, listening to the sound of the familiar and satisfying z-z-z-i-i-i-p-p-p as the zipper reached the top where her nape was. She bent her neck demurely to the side during that time, parted her hair to the front where it cascaded to her breast plate, and now she flipped her tresses back. I held her by the arms and turned her to me to take a closer look at her face – her lips were pillowy and no longer rouged, her eyelashes having clumped and fallen a few on the sheets, her nose upturned and perky, her eye bags evident of sleep deprivation or stress or long hours at work, yet I still found her mesmerising. I leaned in to kiss her. She pushed me away.
“I have to go,” she repeated her words. “You have to pay me.”
I held back a sigh, got out of bed without a shred of clothing to find my wallet. I crouched bare assed on the floor searching for my wallet, hiding my nakedness that I was suddenly self-conscious of. The rolls of my belly fat tripled and quadrupled the more I bent and dug for the goddamn wallet inside my pants’ pocket. My companion turned her head away. She was already dressed; she was slowly putting on her mask. Madonna was easing back into the performance of Sally. Back to the world of Macau and what it had to offer her that Singapore couldn’t.
I gave her what we had agreed on before we started stripping off our clothes, before we removed our layers of masks and becoming the animals we were, throbbing with the fresh blood under the skin of our bodies.
I watched Sally slip back into her scarlet cheongsam, tucking her curves into the tightness of the dress that immediately transformed her. On her lips, she repainted a new coat of rouge stained in the colour of dried blood.
“See you around, Harry Larry.”
And then she was out the door. I felt a bit of pain smarting on my neck and touched the spot. It burned. I rubbed my fingers over the sore area and looked at my hand. There was blood. I went to the mirror, examined the wound. She had left me a souvenir I would have trouble explaining to my wife and kids.
GRACE CHIA is an author from Singapore who has published a novel, The Wanderlusters, a short story collection, Every Moving Thing That Lives Shall Be Food, three poetry collections, womango, Cordelia and Mother of All Questions, and two non- ction titles. She is the editor of a prose anthology about alternative families, We R Family, and her writing has been anthologized for publications in the US, Australia, Germany, France, Serbia, Hong Kong, Macau and Singapore. She has been awarded writing residencies in Korea and Macau and was the national Writer-in-Residence for NAC-NTU in 2011-2012. A former journalist, she has taught creative writing, judged poetry competitions and is currently editor of educational resources.