She had come to Ten, albeit reluctantly, already knowing she was going to hate it. She came because she had somehow convinced herself that it was indeed, a business meeting he wanted to hold, and that she could make anything enjoyable.
But clearly, she wasn’t enjoying herself because she had decided to lock herself inside the washroom, doing everything but. She had many drunken nights spent inside washrooms; usually when her friends decide to grind their panties away with some guy in a club, or when she didn’t particularly want to babysit crying girls with running mascaras shrieking about their ex boyfriends–or boyfriends that should be exes by now anyway.
Or particularly bad company. Which in this case, was her boss.
Within three minutes of sitting down Ten’s red, suggestive chairs, he had already launched on an egotistic monologue about how he had spent his youth (before his wife, always the life before their wives, as if by not mentioning their wives, they’d stop existing, along with their children)–swimming in Niagara falls, camping in the deserts of Egypt, doing the Macchu Picchu trail–he had already pea-cocked and she hadn’t even ordered her first glass of wine.
She stared at herself in the mirror. Do it, she thought, firmly biting her lip, do it, but with grace.
Her decision made, she texted, quick as she could: call me in fifteen, I’ll pretend to have an emergency. Need to GTFO.
She waited a few more minutes before a buzz came with the reply: lol k.
As soon as she opened the door, the undecipherable, monotonous house music exploded in her ears. Row upon row of trophy wives leaned back their chairs and laughed, cocktails gleaming along with the diamonds on their fingers, fake breasts bouncing. There was so much tan in the restaurant it made the whole place gleam a faint orange. Old white men in suits cowered beside their blondes while young marketing consultants and business enterpeneurs lined up the bar like pigs to the slaughterhouse.
He waved at her clumsily from the table, knocking the candle centerpiece in the process. She sat down across from him, still disbelieving at how unfazed he seemed about everything, about the knocked centrepiece, and about how unceremoniously tight his pink shirt was on his chest. She had always been amazed at the massiveness of his chest; it was so huge it could practically become a separate creature if it wanted to. Like The Hulk–in pink.
“So, about the editorial,” she said, before he could interrupt, “I was thinking, I should–”
“You know I’ve been to Thailand?”
Oh okay. We’re going to talk about Thailand now. “No. I didn’t know that. How could I? You never brought it up before,” she laughed, to emphasize that it was a joke.
“Well, I say it because you’re from the Philippines,”
“Yes,” she confirmed, confused. His heavy Egyptian accent made it hard for her to decipher where he was going with most of his questions, which made her uncomfortable. Once she thought he said, “Most people around here are retards”. Not knowing what else to say, she had agreed with him and waited for him to say more. By the time he was talking about how old the community was, she realized he had actually meant, retired. The conversation that followed afterwards made a lot more sense after that epiphany.
“Philippines is a lot like Thailand, I hear.”
“Ah,” she said, nodding, “well. I wouldn’t know. I’ve never been to Thailand.”
“You should go! You should. Lots of beautiful beaches. I’ve spent every new year since I was 20 in Thailand. It is amazing. The beaches? Wonderful. You should go.”
You’re the one paying me. You KNOW I don’t have the money to go to Thailand. “Yes, I should. Some time.”
“I went and had–many beautiful experiences in Thailand. And the girls,” he made his eyes wider and raised his eyebrows suggestively.
“Yes, yes,” she said, out of habit. Upon realizing what her agreement implicated, she tried to retract: “I mean, yes! But no!”
But he wasn’t listening (they never do). “I like the food, and the sunsets and the–”
She stopped listening. All she could picture in her mind at the moment was how his eldest daughter was only four years younger than her. How could he? How could they?
“–people are very nice, very cheerful people. I spent New Year’s at the beach, you know, drinking,” he chuckled at his own joke; she nodded, her head bobbing like a parakeet, “every year, I go.”
She smiled faintly as a response.
“Wanna come next year?”
The question caught her by surprise. She tried to maintain all facial features in control, knowing one pursed lip or flared nostril will give her disgust away. Circumnavigating around his invitation, she said, “Sure! Why not. Will Helena come?”
“Helena?” his wife. Unlike her, his bewilderment showed nakedly on his face. “No, she won’t come.”
“How about Ronda? Or Akila?” (his daughters)
He laughed louder. “NO! They won’t come!”
Her eyes narrowed. Disgust was now on full display. Now an open invitation–intense hatred; pounding fury. He was so shameless; so narcissistic.
He tried to reach out from across the table, but she quickly hid her hands before his could land. Again, completely unfazed, he continued, “You want to go? Next week?”
She said slowly, so he won’t miss a word, “I can’t afford that.”
“There’s nothing to afford. I’ll pay.”
“I wouldn’t want you to.”
He shook his head, still smiling. He looked at her, straight in the eye, “You deserve it.”
She leaned forward, not breaking contact, purposefully unblinking, “No. Thank you.”
There was a slight moment of perceived epiphanies, in which they both leaned back against their chair and eyed the other. Both judging, both thinking. She was trembling inwardly, but clenched her fists on her side to still it. She did everything by the book to translate his thoughts; glanced at his eyes, glanced at his lips, but he showed no clue. They let a whole minute pass before he spoke:
“When I was young, your age, I went to Thailand knowing I wanted to see for myself, a Russian Roulette. Do you know what this is?”
She knew, but did not want to believe it. “Yes. It’s a gambling game.”
“Do you know what they do in this game?”
He stroked his chin nonchalantly, “Two men, in a jungle, while people watch. One gun with one bullet; nobody knows in what chamber. So they count, take turns in pulling the trigger, 1, 2, 3, and when it fires –” he then pointed to his head, his hand shaped like a gun, and shot. “One lives, one dies.”
“Because I wanted to.”
“I mean, why did they play?”
“These are poor villagers,” he replied, “poor enough to want to risk their lives f0r money. I tried to get my friends to come with me, but they did not want to. So I paid a rickshaw driver to take me to the jungle, where I had to pay a hundred dollars to get in.”
She felt a shiver crawl down the length of her arm and settle in her furious heart. “Who else was there?”
He grinned. “Mostly European business men.”
She couldn’t do it–she had to look down. He continued as soon as her eyes looked away: “Their screams–it was disgusting. As if they wanted to see the man die. I regretted it after a while, but I had to. You know, I had to see it–for myself. But what really stuck with me, what I remember the most, wasn’t the howls they let out before they pulled the trigger–but the howl of businessmen, my people, their howling, their excitement. It was…quite terrible.”
She glared at him, hated him so much that she could not believe this much hate could be possible. “Why? Why did you do it?” she asked one more time, wanting a logical answer.
But it was the same; his answer. With the same confidence and gallantry, with the same unrelenting tone, he said, simply, “Because I wanted to.” Because he could.
She let herself out with as much poise as she could muster, as soon her phone rang for her “emergency”; her cue for the exit, stage right. He smiled at her graciously, as if their conversation bore no aftertaste. Her shoulders still shaking, she kept her fists clenched until she was outside. She couldn’t let him see how much his words affected her; she couldn’t let him know that she knew his reasons behind his stories, behind his anecdotes. Stories are told for a reason; his couldn’t be any more clear.
It was only when she turned to the back alley of the restaurant that she allowed herself to heave, the acid from the wine lurching back to the roof of her mouth. Though the music from the restaurant continued to seep through the brick walls, all she could hear were howling: the howling of his audience, the howling of dead men, and his never-faltering, unfazed grin as he watched her stand and walk away.