You’re never so lonely as when there’s so much love for sale.
I woke up in a weird twilight haze, uncertain of the hour or day, and for a moment I couldn’t even be certain of which city or country I found myself in. I looked around the room for a minute before the fog around my mind began to clear, and I pulled my head up from a damp pillow to investigate my humble surroundings. I noticed an aluminum pipe on the floor next to my bed as I sat up and picked it up. There were still some pieces of half-smoked hash inside, and I felt tempted to continue puffing away again until I fell unconscious.
But I was in Angeles City, Philippines, I realized rather suddenly, and there were other things to do. I could tell it was some hour of the night and not too late by the lingering heat and humidity in the air. I stumbled to the bathroom and washed my face, happy that my room lacked a mirror.
I put on a pair of pants and stumbled out of the door, vaguely thankful that the prostitutes that had solicited me in the afternoon had disappeared. I wandered to the porch and sat down alone in a chair, my mind still hazy and disoriented.
A waiter of some sort approached me, and offered me a beer, which I accepted almost out of reflex. I drank the beer and watched the light pedestrian traffic outside of the hotel, prostitutes and tuk-tuks, viagra dealers and candy vendors.
When I finally finished the beer, I stood up and stumbled down the stairs into the street as if driven by some supernatural force. I meandered through the dusty sidestreets to a supermarket just outside of the red light district and bought two more Red Bulls, downing the first in seconds and sipping on the other as I drifted back toward the action.
When I came out onto Field’s Avenue, I was met by a group of Filipina girls in their late teens who immediately and somewhat unexpectedly surrounded me. One of them took me by the arm.
“I like you,” she said, smiling at me, “but I have a boyfriend. Do you like my sister?”
She pointed at a shy-looking but very cute girl in her late teens wearing a tight green blouse that beautifully hugged sensuous curves.
“She’s very beautiful,” I said, not sure how else to respond to such a direct onslaught.
“She’s not a prostitute,” the girl holding my arm went on.
The girl in the green blouse blushed and I laughed, scratching my head.
“You like girls, no?” she went on.
“Ha, yes, I do actually, but ahh, you know, I can’t pay for it. I don’t have any money anyway…”
“She isn’t a prostitute!” she shouted in mock anger. “You don’t pay, but you have to be very nice. She’s a good girl.”
We wandered around awhile together, talking and joking. They seemed nice by any standard, and the girl in the green blouse was gorgeous, if a bit shy. We were headed to their parents’ beauty salon when suddenly a fight broke out in the street a dozen meters in front of me.
A group of drunk Filipino men were throwing useless, flailing punches and slaps at one another for a minute until one man grabbed a bottle and broke it over another’s head. I watched as the fight progressed until finally a large group of onlookers stepped in to break it up. When I turned around, the girls had disappeared, probably afraid of the fight. I didn’t find them in the immediate vicinity and decided to keep roaming the streets, imagining that I would encounter them later in the night if that was destiny’s will.
I drifted the streets aimlessly for awhile, lost in thought between a thousand of life’s possibilities. I watched, for instance, as a large white man with a North American accent berated a rickshaw driver who was attempting to overcharge him for a ride. He shouted angrily and handed over what he understood to be the “fair” rate before swaggering off toward a bar with a young Filipina prostitute under each arm. The tuk-tuk driver counted the money with a slight grin on his face, though his face betrayed not happiness but hurt pride. I suddenly imagined how every foreigner looked in this town of madness and debauchery, and I shook my head, continuing down the street.
Eventually, I found myself getting tired, and wandered into a bar. Like every bar in Angeles, it was full of young women of varying standards of beauty and decay. I sat down and was greeted with a distinguished smile by a waitress.
“Hello, sir,” she began, “what will you have to drink?”
“San Mig Pale Pilsen,” I responded robotically.
“Which girl would you like?” she went on, pointing to the girls at the tables around the bar who were eyeing me with something less than enthusiasm. I noticed a certain business-like note in her voice which left me with a cold, empty feeling, and I leaned back in my booth until my head touched the concrete wall.
“It’s okay,” I said, “just the beer is fine…”
“Yes, sir,” she said, with a somewhat mischievous smile.
She wandered over to the girls and spoke to a couple in their ears. They immediately walked over and sat down next to me. One of the girls seemed shy, and she avoided eye-contact while the other sat down nearly on my lap and immediately began to massage my inner thigh.
“Hellooo, hansum!” the aggressive girl began, producing a forced smile. “You so hansum… Where you from?”
“America,” I said succinctly, trying to avoid any indication that I would be buying her drinks.
“Oooohhh,” she said, displaying her tiny white teeth in an odd smile, “I like America!”
I leaned my head on my hand and braced my right elbow on the wall as I eyed the other girl. She sat with her head down, seeming utterly ashamed of her surroundings and life. She wore a tight, skimpy dress of some shiny black fiber, and had an expression of utter solitude, misery and loneliness. The aggressive girl moved her hand to my crotch and giggled.
“You buy me drink?”
I looked at her for a moment and smiled.
“No, sorry…” I said, meeting her eyes for the first time.
“Pleeease,” she went on with a kind of childish persistence, “Be a gentle-man and buy me drink!”
I laughed at this, but could only refuse, as destitution was creeping in upon me with surprising haste. She quickly stood up and walked away, while the shy girl stayed in her place, sitting next to me but neither looking at me nor trying to get my attention.
“Hi,” I said quietly. “How are you?”
She smiled and looked at me for the first time.
“Hello,” she said timidly. “You’re from America?”
She moved closer to me.
“I… want to go to America,” she said softly, smiling at the idea. “It must be so nice…”
“Where are you from?” I asked her.
“The province…” she said vaguely, referring to anywhere in the country outside of Manila.
“Aha… You’re new here? I mean, you seem new here…”
“Yes… a few weeks ago…”
She seemed lost in an abyss of thought, but continually moved closer to me, now sitting beside me and tucking her tiny body under my arm. I felt the soft skin of her shoulder lightly with my thumb and she nearly shivered. Indeed, she was freezing in the frigid air-conditioning of the bar.
“What’s your name?” she asked me softly, looking me briefly in the face before returning her gaze to the table.
“James,” I said, adopting her shy manner but rubbing her shoulder, now pulling her body to mine.
It was a strange feeling for me to have her next to me. I had been alone for months, isolated in a way that I had never been before. The standards and norms which had guided my childhood and early youth had evaporated, and I had not yet found any moral code or guiding principle to live by that could replace it. I wished that I could save this girl from the inevitabilities of her life, the downward spiral of abuse and self-neglect that would ravage her in the days, weeks, months, and perhaps years ahead, but I had no power to do so. We didn’t speak for a minute, and didn’t need to.
“I miss my home…” she finally said, sadly.
“You can’t go home?”
“I’m the breadwinner,” she said with a small echo of pride before shivering again in my arm.
Another white man passed by, looking me in the eye curiously. He was a middle-aged man with a tangled mess of red hair and a mass of freckles across his face. He seemed surprised to see me, and was almost startled that I would be holding the girl the way I was. Indeed, it was odd given the circumstances. It was like we were a loving married couple, and I began smiling, almost laughing.
“What?” she asked. “what’s so funny?”
“Life,” I answered. “Life, that’s all… I… I have to go… Good bye.” I said, standing up, glancing back into her sorrowful eyes for a quick second. She stood up and went back to her seat at the bar while I paid, and then I wandered back out into the dense humidity of the Filipino night.
I found a store nearby that sold Red Bull, and I followed my usual routine, which seemed to take the edge off of the sadness that was crowding around me. It is a strange circumstance that after a time of being continually on the road everywhere begins to feel like home, at least as much as anywhere else. This is probably impermanent and certainly not sustainable, but at that moment I felt it clearer than perhaps I ever would again. I was led by hedonistic desire in some ways, but felt ashamed of myself for it. I questioned my motives, but ultimately I found no answers to those fundamental problems that plagued my soul. Still, it was the healing process, for there is no cut so deep as those that can curse a young, idealistic heart. Yet her infinite blue eyes still haunted me, and her soft bronze skin still left me shuttering with pain and humiliation. Even though months had passed and great distances had been crossed, I found myself growing physically dizzy at the memories of my greatest failure and deepest shame…
I finished the Red Bull and found myself wandering aimlessly again through the red-light district, finally turning onto a remote dark alley and trudging through it, still lost in thought. I came upon a solitary door with a strange neon green glow and was beckoned in by some ladies in tight dresses. I hesitated, and was promptly dragged into the bar by a group of ladies, though I didn’t put up any real resistance.
I was immediately assaulted by the typical Filipino karaoke music: horrid, bloodcurdling anthems of a confused culture. I could tell that it was clearly a Filipino joint, given the music and general ambience of neon and red paint, though from what I could tell I was the only customer. I was directed to a seat and given a cold San Miguel beer.
Four girls huddled around me, each vying for my attention, but I noticed that the girls were now all the less attractive kind, having been picked over by the clients earlier in the night. Each one smelled the same, their hair perhaps having been washed with the same shampoo. I considered this as I finished my beer eagerly, growing tired of the accursed karaoke music, and I left as soon as it was gone. It seemed more vulgar somehow than the other bars, and I felt immediately better as I stepped back into the street. Hours passed in constant motion, weaving in and out of bars and back alleys…
It was early morning, and as I drifted back to the center of the red-light district I could see the “party” winding down. The sex tourists left in the street were by now stumbling drunk, but they were few in number. The prostitutes that were left around the bars and in the streets seemed tired, and their catcalls were made from seats and benches rather than the more aggressive tactics of the evening. I found myself somewhat frenzied and delirious from the large quantity of Red Bull and alcohol I had consumed and couldn’t focus on where I was going or what I was doing. Eventually, I arrived at a bar near the core of the zone, and I met a woman there who left me slack-jawed.
She was stunningly beautiful, her sleek black hair falling to well formed shoulders and a curvy body. Her face was exceptionally attractive, and given other circumstances she could certainly have been a model. She noticed me staring at her in the middle of the street, and walked toward me.
“I want to go with you,” she said abruptly, casually.
I couldn’t look away from her and couldn’t find any words to say. I understood what she meant, and every physical instinct in my body told me to accept it. I couldn’t resist.
“500 Pesos,” she said, clarifying her position, “short time…”
“Long time,” I begged, the notion that she would stay the night making me feel somehow less ashamed of my actions.
“Okay, where are you staying?”
We spoke little during the walk, mostly about where my hotel was and what it was like, but when we arrived she stopped in her tracks.
“This is where you’re staying?” she asked with surprise and probably a trace of disgust as we stood at the exterior of my horrendous lodging.
“Uhhh,” she hesitated, shaking her head, “I thought you had a good hotel. I can’t stay in a place like that… No… No…” she continued shaking her head as she walked away.
I couldn’t restrain myself from laughing at the situation. I stumbled to my room, opened the door onto my concrete hovel, stripped naked and flopped onto my seedy mattress and stared up to the cracked ceiling above me, still grinning at the ridiculousness of my life, vaguely thankful that my poverty had saved me from crossing a line that shouldn’t have been crossed.