Saturday, August 06, 2016

The Hostess

It was the small silver chain, hidden amid various sundries, that brought back the memories of an incident I had long ago erased from my memory. I had forgotten even keeping the delicate bracelet, made of two little interlocking snakes. After nearly a decade working at a large firm in Taipei, the company was expanding and needed someone it could trust to run its new office in New Delhi. So there I was, packing my belongings by a late Sunday afternoon, when the glitter caught my eye from between the multidenominational coins, paid phone bills, and old receipts that had accrued, sediment like, at the bottom of a storage plastic box.
       As I held the chain between my fingers, the memories came rushing in with a vividness that caught me by surprise. Her name, which like the incident itself I had relegated to the dustbin of my memory, came back like an echo through time: Akiho.  
       I had met her—or to be more precise, I think I met her—in Okinawa several years ago. As a representative of the aforesaid company, I had been dispatched to Naha to explore business opportunities related, if memory serves, to a port facility expansion project.
I knew nobody on the southern Japanese island, and this was my first time visiting. The firm had put me up for my three nights’ stay at the City Court, a hotel which has left no mark whatsoever in my memory other than its concrete interior that made me feel like I was incarcerated in a large, multi-story prison.
       I didn’t go out on my first evening in Naha, choosing instead to grab a lunch box and a couple of Asahi beer cans at a nearby konbini and to spend the night watching Japanese TV programs in which, to the merriment of a studio audience, ordinary people eager to collect prize money tended to get physically injured. I admit myself taking a guilty pleasure in their misfortune.
       On the second night I ventured out to discover the city. I’d had a full day of meetings, followed by a rather alcoholic seafood dinner with officials from the city government and representatives from a number of prospective clients. After saying goodbye to my hosts I went back to my hotel room, where I peeled off my business suit, showered, and slipped into something more comfortable before heading out. My intention was to find a quiet bar somewhere near the hotel where I could grab a drink or two while reading a book, as is my wont when I travel abroad.
        It was 10 p.m. or so when I left the hotel. The night air was warm and laden with with the dampness and electricity of an approaching tropical storm. The city was bathed in the sepia of the incandescent lights along the river facing the hotel. I walked along the bank for a while until I reached a narrow bridge and crossed it. On the other side I came upon what looked like an entertainment area: three, four-story white stucco buildings with neon signs on the upper floors. I forget the name of the establishment I eventually selected, or the reason why I chose that particular one. It was named the Tropicana, or something along those lines.
        Stairs led to the bar, which was located on the fourth and uppermost floor of the building, but I chose to take the narrow elevator at the bottom instead. Judging from the advertisements downstairs, it seemed that every floor was occupied by a bar. In fact the entire neighborhood appeared to be comprised of such establishments, yet there was hardly anyone about.
        The small elevator, which couldn’t have accommodated more than three adults, slowly carried me upstairs. The doors parted and I walked through a curtain made of seashells tied along strings; the rattling somehow made me think of little Haitian percussion items made with animal bones.
         It was a cozy establishment, with a handful of tables, red sofas, and a narrow bar at the back. Blue and red lampshades created a tenebrous atmosphere. Eighties rock music was playing in the background. As all the tables were occupied, I headed for the bar. Only one stool was taken, by an elderly Japanese man who was in deep conversation with a middle-aged woman behind the bar. On his lap was a samisen, a traditional three-chorded instrument. I sat down and, stealing the woman’s attention for a second, ordered a beer. She absentmindedly poured me an Orion, the local brew, and immediately plunged back into her conversation with the man. Behind her, the shelves were filled with bottles of whisky and other liqueurs. I pulled my paperback out of my rucksack and began reading, occasionally taking a sip from my beer.
        A few minutes later a different woman appeared and leaned over the bar right across from me, exposing her ample breasts.
        “You’re from out of town?” she asked in passable English.
        “Yes,” I replied. “Taiwan.”
        Seeing her surprise, I explained that I was originally from — but that I worked in Taiwan. Exile plays tricks on one’s personality, and after years of living abroad, where I was from had become a rather elastic concept.
        She was a slightly large built with a stunningly beautiful face, a smile that drew you in, and eyes that mesmerized. Her low-cut décolletage also made it impossible to avoid looking her breasts, which beckoned like mermaids. Despite all these attributes, it was her fragrance that I remember the most, a concoction of exotic flowers and some other scent I just couldn’t place that seemed to fill the universe around me.
        Her name was Akiho. Originally from Osaka, she had migrated southwards looking for work. She had been studying English for a few months, which made our conversation easier, and her dream, she said, was to move to the United States one day.
        It became clear that I wasn’t meant to read my book. Akiho paid no attention to the other customers and concentrated on me alone. I ordered a second drink and she asked if I would treat her to one as well, which I did. She eventually joined me on my side of the bar and sat next to me on a stool, swiveling to face me. I remember she had a peculiar way of moving around, as if her feet weren’t exactly touching the ground. We spoke for what felt like hours, pouring out our life stories, how I had abandoned a job in government back home and taken my chances in Asia, how work had taken over my life, her mother’s suicide, her abusive father, her deep depression and her dreams of a new life abroad. We were only interrupted once when the locals clamored for me to join in karaoke, which Akiho’s insistence made impossible for me to refuse. I sang some song I forget by a British band and was accompanied on the samisen by the elderly man at the bar, who, as Akiho told me, was a legendary player across Okinawa. 
        Little by little, I felt I was being drawn into Akiho’s spider’s web, and I was aware that the alcohol was playing tricks with my judgment. Around midnight, remembering that I had early meetings in the morning, I asked for the bill. The sum was extravagant and I barely had enough yen in my wallet to cover for my evening. It suddenly dawned on me that I was also paying for Akiho’s time, that she hadn’t simply joined me because she liked me. She and the manager, the older woman, sensed my discomfiture as I counted the bills and nearly emptied my wallet. I paid, got up, and walked out.
        Akiho followed me outside.
        “Are you OK?” she asked, clearly concerned.
        “Yes, I am,” I replied meekly. “I have an early start tomorrow and should go get some sleep.”
        “Do you have anywhere to stay?”
        Whether this was an invitation to take our encounter to the next step or stemmed from genuine concern after I’d evidently spent all my money, I did not know. I also didn’t know if she really liked me or simply wanted more of my yen, which made me uncomfortable. I had nothing against prostitutes, but something in me has always made it impossible for me to pay for sex. Never overly popular with women, I’d often sought confirmation through their having genuine attraction for me; to pay to go to bed with a woman seemed like an admission of defeat, proof of my shortcomings.
        “Yes,” I said. “I’m staying at a hotel nearby.” I hesitated, fighting an urge to invite her over. I decided against it, telling myself that she probably couldn’t walk away from her work anyway.
        She must have sensed my hesitation. She came closer and kissed me on the cheek, her perfume threatening to steal my soul. Around us, the night was still bathed in amber, the air moist and the night eerily silent.
        “I had a great time tonight,” she whispered in my ear. “Thank you.” Akiho grabbed my hand and deposited a little chain in it. She looked me straight in the eyes. “Something to remember me by,” she said. With that, she turned around and went back inside. I stood there for a while, fighting an urge to go back in, but then I remembered I had no money left. The angels of my nature prevailed over my demons and I desultorily tottered down the stairs, feeling lonelier than I had felt in a long time. I walked, a forlorn figure along the river, and went back to my hotel, all my senses still charged with my recent encounter.
        I barely slept all night. Try as I might, Akiho kept haunting me, the smell of her perfume mockingly radiating from my cheek.
        The following day—my last in Okinawa—was again full of meetings, which I attended in a daze. I couldn’t stop thinking about Akiho. By dinner time, I’d decided I would return to the bar, and this time I would take her home and claim her as mine, of her own free will or as part of a transaction, I didn’t care. Some fever had overtaken me and for once in my life I was willing to break my rule.
        Once again I had to attend an interminable dinner with various businessmen, but my mind was elsewhere and I extricated myself from the painful affair at the first opportunity. I ran back to the hotel, cleaned up, changed clothes, grabbed more money and retraced my steps along the river, across the bridge, and to the bar. By the time I arrived, it was 9 p.m. or thereabouts. I went up the elevator, through the seashell curtains, my heart pounding with feverish expectation.
        I looked around the bar but couldn’t find her. The samisen master occupied the same stool, and the mama-san was once again behind the bar, occasionally serving drinks but otherwise busy talking with the musician. There was no sign of Akiho. Thinking that maybe I was too early and that her shift had not begun, I grabbed a seat, greeted the old man, and ordered a beer.
        “Nice to see you again, young man,” the musician said.
        More than an hour passed by and still there was no sign of Akiho. It suddenly dawned on me that she might not be working that night, or that maybe she had taken ill. Had I missed my chance? Would I see her again? A strange panic overtook me and I waved the manager over.
        “Excuse me,” I said. “Could you tell me if the young woman who was with me last evening is working tonight?”
        The woman frowned.
        “Young woman?”
        “Yes, the young woman—Akiho?”
        The mention of her name brought a reaction I certainly had not expected. Her face gripped with fright, the mama-san took a step backwards and bumped against the bottles behind her, noisily tipping a few over. The musician was now paying attention to our conversation and immediately shuffled to the stool next to me.
        “There is nobody by that name here,” the mama-san said, her voice trembling as she rearranged the bottles.
        “But surely…”
        The musician cut me off. He, too, was visibly shaken. “Young man, I have been a customer here for several years, and I can assure you that no person by the name of Akiho works here nowadays.”
        “What about the woman I was with last night?”
        “You weren’t with anybody last night,” the man said. “You spent the entire evening reading that book of yours.”
  “Now cut it out. This isn’t funny,” he said with finality before returning to his stool and downing his whisky.
        Surely they were jesting. The previous night hadn’t been the product of my imagination or drunkenness. I had proof of my encounter, of Akiho’s existence. It was right there, in my pocket.
  I took the bracelet out and dangled it before their eyes.
        “Akiho gave me this,” I said.
       The woman screamed, and the musician rushed to her side of the bar just in time to catch her before she swooned. It was a wail filled with such horror that I dropped all my money on the bar, quickly fled the place and ran back to my hotel. The following morning I flew back to Taiwan and locked this peculiar experience away in the cabinet of my memory.

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