WHEN MY ROOMMATE MOVED OUT, I was worried that Mrs. Chen might increase the rent. I had been paying three hundred dollars a month for half a room. If my landlady demanded more, I would have to look for another place. I liked this colonial house. In front of it stood an immense weeping cherry tree that attracted birds and gave a bucolic impression, though it was already early summer and the blossoming season had passed. The house was close to downtown Flushing, and you could hear the buzz of traffic on Main Street. It was also near where I worked, convenient for everything. Mrs. Chen took up the first floor; my room was upstairs, where three young women also lived. My former roommate, an apprentice to a carpenter, had left because the three female tenants were prostitutes and often received clients in the house. To be honest, I didn’t feel comfortable about that either, but I had grown used to the women, and especially liked Huong, a twiggy Vietnamese in her early twenties whose parents had migrated to Cholon from China three decades ago, when Saigon fell and the real estate market there became affordable. Also, I had just arrived in New York and at times found it miserable to be alone.
As I expected, Mrs. Chen, a stocky woman with a big mole beside her nose, came up that evening. She sat down, patted her dyed hair, and said, “Wanping, now that you’re using this room for yourself we should talk about the rent.”
“I’m afraid I can’t pay more than what I’m paying. You can get another tenant.” I waved at the empty bed behind her.
“Well, I could put out an ad for that, but I have something else in mind.” She leaned toward me.
I did not respond. I disliked this Fujianese woman and felt she was too smooth. She went on, “Do you have a driver’s license?”
“I have one from North Carolina, but I’m not sure if I can drive here.” I had spent some time delivering produce for a vegetable farm outside Charlotte.
“That shouldn’t be a problem. You can change it to a New York license—easy to do. The motor registration office is very close.” She smiled, revealing her gappy teeth.
“What do you want me to do?” I asked.
“I won’t charge you extra rent. You can have this room to yourself, but I hope you can drive the girls around in the evenings when they have outcalls.”
I tried to stay calm and answered, “Is that legal?”
She chuckled. “Don’t be scared. The girls go to hotels and private homes. No cops will burst in on them—it’s very safe.”
“How many times a week am I supposed to drive?”
“Not very often—four or five times, tops.”
“Do you pay for the girls’ meals too?”
“Yes, everything but long-distance phone calls.”
She gave a short laugh. “No problem. I don’t let them go that far.”
“By the way, can I eat with them when I work?”
“Sure thing. I’ll tell them.”
“Thank you.” I paused. “You know, sometimes it can be lonely here.”
A sly smile crossed her face. “You can spend time with the girls—they may give you a discount.”
I didn’t know how to respond. Before leaving, she made it clear that I must keep everything confidential and that she had asked me to help mainly because she wanted the women to feel safe when they went out. Johns would treat a prostitute better if they knew she had a chauffeur at her disposal. I had seen the black Audi in the garage. I hadn’t driven for months and really missed the feeling of freedom that an automobile used to give me, as though I could soar in the air if there weren’t cars in front of me on the highway. I looked forward to driving the women around.
After my landlady left, I stood before the window of my room, which faced the street. The crown of the weeping cherry, motionless and more than forty feet high, was a feathery mass against a sky strewn with stars. In the distance, a plane, a cluster of lights, was sailing noiselessly east through a few rags of clouds. I knew Mrs. Chen’s offer might implicate me in something illicit, but I wasn’t worried. I was accustomed to living among the prostitutes. When I first figured out what they did for a living, I had wanted to move out right away, like my former roommate, but I couldn’t find a place close to my job—I was a presser at a garment factory downtown. Also, once I got to know the women a little better, I realized that they were not “bloodsuckers,” as people assumed. Like everyone else, they had to work to survive.
I too was selling myself. Every weekday I stood at the table ironing the joining lines of cut pieces, the waists of pants, the collars and cuffs of shirts. It was sultry in the basement, where the air conditioner was at least ten years old, inefficient, and whined loudly. We were making quality clothes for stores in Manhattan, and every item had to be neatly ironed before being wrapped up for shipment.
Who would have thought I’d land in a sweatshop? My parents’ last letter urged me again to go to college. But I couldn’t pass the TOEFL. My younger brother had just been admitted to a veterinary school, and I’d sent back three thousand dollars for his tuition. If only I had learned a trade before coming to the United States, like plumbing, or home renovation, or Qigong. Any job would have been better than ironing clothes.
The brothel had no name. I had once come across a newspaper ad in our kitchen that read: “Angels of Your Dream—Asian Girls from Various Countries with Gorgeous Figures and Tender Hearts.” It gave no contact information other than a phone number, which was the one shared by the women. I almost laughed out loud at the ad, because the three of them were all Chinese. Of course, Huong could pass for Vietnamese, speaking the language as her native tongue, and Nana could pretend to be a Malaysian or Singaporean, since she came from Hong Kong and spoke accented Mandarin. But Lili, a tall college student from Shanghai, looked Chinese through and through, even though she spoke English well. She was the one who handled the phone calls. I guessed Lili would return to school when the summer was over, and then Mrs. Chen might hire another twentysomething who was fluent in English. I wasn’t sure if my landlady was the real boss, however. The women often mentioned someone called the Croc. I had never met the man, but I learned from them that he owned some shady businesses in the area and was a coyote.
I liked having dinner with my housemates. We usually ate quite late, around eight p.m., but that was fine with me, since most days I didn’t leave the factory until seven. Often I was not the only man dining with them; they offered free dinner to their clients as well. The meals were homely fare—plain rice and two or three dishes, one of which was meat while the others were vegetables. Occasionally the women would prepare a bowl of seafood in place of a vegetable dish. There would also be a soup, usually made of spinach or watercress or bamboo shoots mixed with dried shrimp, tofu or egg drops, or even rice crust. The women would take turns cooking, one person each day, unless that person was occupied with a john and another had to step in for her in the kitchen. Some of their clients enjoyed the atmosphere at the table and stayed for hours chatting.
Whenever there was another man at dinner, I would remain quiet. I’d finish eating quickly and return to my room, where I would watch TV or play solitaire or leaf through a magazine. But when I was the only man I’d stay as long as I could. The women seemed to like having me around and would even tease me. Huong was not only the prettiest but also the best cook, depending less on sauces, whereas Lili used too much sugar and Nana deep-fried almost everything. One day Huong braised a large pomfret and stir-fried slivers of potato and celery, both favorites of mine, though I hadn’t told her so. None of them had a client that evening, so dinner started at seven thirty and we ate slowly.
Nana told us, “I had a guy this afternoon who said his girlfriend had just jilted him. He cried in my room—it was awful. I didn’t know how to comfort him. I just said, ‘You have to let it go.’”
“Did he pay you?” Lili asked.
“Uh-huh. He gave me eighty dollars without doing anything with me.”
“Well, I wonder why he came here,” I said.
“Maybe just to have someone to talk to,” Huong said.
“I don’t know,” Lili pitched in. “Maybe to find out if he could still do it with another girl. Men are weak creatures and cannot survive without having a woman around.”
I had never liked Lili, who would speak to me with her eyes half closed as if reluctant to pay me more mind. I said, “There’re a lot of bachelors out there. Most of them are getting on all right.”
“Like yourself,” Nana broke in, giggling.
“I’m single because I’m too poor to get married,” I confessed.
“Do you have a girlfriend?” Huong asked.
“So would you go with me if I wasn’t a sex worker?” Nana asked, her oval face expressionless.
“Your taste is too expensive for me,” I said, laughing, though it was only partly a joke.
They all laughed. Nana continued, “Come on, I’ll give you a big discount.”
“I can’t take advantage of you like that,” I said.
That cracked them up again. I meant what I said, though. If I slept with one of them, I might have to do the same with the other two, spending a fortune. Then it would be hard to keep a balanced relationship with all of them. Besides, I wasn’t sure if they were all clean and healthy. Even if they were, I disliked Lili. It was better to remain unattached.
Then the phone rang, and Lili picked it up. “Hello, honey, how may I help you?” she intoned in a sugary voice.
I resumed eating as if uninterested, but listened carefully. Lili told the caller, “We have many Asian girls here. What kind of a girl are you interested in, sir? … Yes, we do…. Of course pretty, every one of them is pretty…. At least one-twenty … Well, that’ll be between you and the girl, sir…. Wait, let me write it down.” She grabbed a pen and began jotting down the address. Meanwhile, Huong and Nana finished their dinner, knowing that one of them would have business to take care of.
Lili said into the phone, “Got it. She’ll be there within half an hour…. Absolutely, sir. Thank you, bye-bye.”
Hanging up, Lili turned around and said, “Huong, you should go. The man’s name is Mr. Han. He wants a Thai girl.”
“I can’t speak Thai!”
“Speak some Vietnamese to show him that you’re not from China. He can’t tell the difference anyway, as long as you know how to charm him.”
Huong went back into her room to brush her teeth and put on some makeup, and Lili handed me the scrap of paper with our destination—a room in the Double Luck Hotel. I knew how to get there, having driven the women several times. I clapped on my brown duckbill cap, which kept my eyes hidden.
A few minutes later Huong came out, ready to go. “Wow, you’re beautiful!” I said, quite amazed.
“Like a little fox,” I said.
She slapped me on the arm. She wore a beige miniskirt and had applied lipstick, but she seemed more like a teenager who had messed up her makeup, so that her face appeared older than her petite body, which was curvaceous but tight. As she walked with her denim purse hanging from her thin shoulder, her legs and hips swayed a little as if she were about to leap. Together we went down to the garage.
The hotel was on a busy street, and two large buses stood at its front entrance, one still puffing exhaust out of its rear. Flocks of tourists were collecting their baggage, while a guide shouted to gather them for check-in. I found a quiet spot around the corner and let Huong out. “Call if you need me to come up,” I told her. “I’ll be waiting for you here.”
“Thanks.” She closed the door and strolled away, her gait as casual as if she were a guest at the hotel.
My heart sagged as I lay back in the seat to take a nap. She was young and beautiful and shouldn’t be selling herself like that. For sure she had to send her parents money regularly, but there were other ways of making a living. She wasn’t stupid, and she could have learned a respectable trade. She had finished high school in Vietnam and could speak some English by now. But from what I had gathered at the dining table, she was an illegal alien, whereas Nana had a Canadian green card and Lili held a student visa. They could make some money, definitely, but nothing like what the newspaper ads promised for the “massage” profession—“more than $20,000 a month.” Usually, the women charged a john one hundred at the house, but they had to give Mrs. Chen forty of that. Sometimes a client would give them a tip, between twenty and sixty dollars. Nana was rawboned and on the homely side, with a slightly cavernous mouth, so her price for incalls was eighty dollars, unless the men were older and had more cash to throw around. On a good day, they could each make more than two hundred after paying our landlady. Now and then an obnoxious client would not only refuse to tip them but also walk off with their belongings. Lili had once lost a pair of silver bracelets, stolen by a man who claimed to be from Shanghai, like her.
I had asked Huong about visiting hotels and private homes. She said she could make thirty or forty dollars more per client than at the house, though there were more risks. One night I had driven her to see a john at the International Inn, but on arrival she had found two men in the suite. They dragged her in before she could back out, and worked her so hard that she felt as if her legs no longer belonged to her. She had to take off her high heels to walk back to the car. She wept all the way home. She was sick the next day but wouldn’t go to a clinic, as she had no health insurance. I suggested she see Dr. Liang at Sun Garden Herbs. She paid ten dollars for a diagnosis fee. The old man put his fingers on her wrists to feel her pulse and said her kidneys were weak. Also, there was too much angry fire in her liver. He prescribed a bunch of herbs, which helped her recover. After that, I offered to accompany her into hotels and wait in the hallway, but she wouldn’t let me, saying it would be too conspicuous.
I couldn’t drift off to sleep in the car, thinking about Huong. What kind of man was she in there with? Was she all right? Did she like it if the john was young and handsome? Was she acting like a slut? Sometimes at night I couldn’t sleep and would fantasize about her, but when I was fully awake I’d keep my distance. I knew I was just a presser in a sweatshop, gangly and nondescript, and might never be able to date a nice girl, but it would be shameful to have an easy woman as a girlfriend. At most, I could be a good friend to Huong.
Tonight she returned in less than fifty minutes, which was unusual. I was pleased to see her back all right, though her eyes were watery and shed a hard light. She slid into the passenger seat, and I pulled away from the curb. “How was it? No trouble?” I asked, afraid that the client might have discovered she wasn’t Thai.
“Rotten luck again,” she said.
“The man’s an official from Beijing. He wanted me to write him a receipt like I’d sold him medicines or something. Where could I get a receipt for him? Nuts!”
“Did he haggle with you?”
“No, but he bit my nipple so hard it must be bleeding. I’ll have to put iodine on it once we’re home. My clients will think I’m diseased now.”
I sighed, not knowing how to respond. As we were crossing Thirty-seventh Avenue, I said, “Can’t you do something less dangerous for a living?”
“You find a me a job and I’ll take it.”
That silenced me. She slipped a ten into my hand, which was the unspoken rule worked out by the women—every time I drove them, they tipped the same amount. Actually, only Huong and Nana did that, because Lili didn’t take outcalls.
I thanked Huong and put the money into my shirt pocket.
The three women often compared notes. The best clients, they all agreed, were old men. Older johns were usually less aggressive and easier to entertain. Many of them couldn’t get hard and spent more time cracking dirty jokes than doing real business. Those old goats could be more generous, having more spare cash in their “little coffers,” unbeknownst to their wives. The older ones seldom ate dinner at the house. Some of them were friends of Mrs. Chen’s, in which case the women would treat them like special guests, and even give them Viagra. I was surprised when I heard that.
“Viagra?” I asked Lili about Mr. Tong, a bent man in his mid-sixties. “Aren’t you afraid he might have a heart attack?”
“Only half a pill, no big deal. Mrs. Chen said he always needs extra help.”
“He pays you well besides,” Nana said. “Lili, did he give you two hundred today?”
“One eighty,” Lili replied.
“Doesn’t he have a wife?” I asked.
“Not anymore. She died long ago,” Huong said, cracking a spiced peanut.
“Why wouldn’t he marry again?” I went on. “At least he should find someone who can take care of him.”
Nana let out a sigh. “Money’s the root of the trouble. He’s so rich he can’t find a trustworthy wife.”
Huong added, “I’ve heard he owns a couple of restaurants.”
“Also your sweatshop, Wanping.” Nana looked me straight in the face, as if forcing down a laugh.
“No, he doesn’t,” I shot back. “My factory is owned by a girl from Hong Kong named Nini.”
That had them in stitches. Actually, the owner of my garment shop was a Taiwanese man who taught college before coming to America.
Many of the johns were married men. They were reluctant to spend time and money on a mistress for fear of complications that might destroy their marriage. So they tried to keep up appearances while indulging in a sensuous life on the sly. But there were always exceptions. One day, Huong said a middle-aged client had told her that he hadn’t had sex for almost two years because his wife was too ill. Huong had advised him to come more often, at least twice a month, so that he could recover his sex life. As he was now, he was totally inadequate. “He’s a good man,” Huong told us. “He couldn’t do anything with me at all, saying he felt guilty about his wife, but he paid me anyway.”
“Then he shouldn’t have come to a whorehouse in the first place,” Lili said.
I could tell that Huong and Nana didn’t really like Lili either. She often bitched about misplaced things, and once accused Nana of using her cell phone to call someone in San Francisco. They had a row and didn’t speak to each other for days afterward.
The story about the man with a bedridden wife made me think a lot. If I were a policeman, knowing about his family situation, would I have arrested him for visiting a prostitute? Probably not. I used to believe that all johns were bad and loose men, but now I could see that some of them were nothing but wrecks with personal problems that they didn’t know how to handle. They came here hoping that a prostitute might help.
I was in bed one night when a cry rose from Nana’s room. At first I thought it was just an orgasmic groan she had faked to please a client. Sometimes I was unsettled by the noises the women and the men made, noises that kept me awake and fantasizing. Then Nana screamed, “Get out of here!”
I pulled on my pants and ran out of my room. The door of Nana’s room was ajar, and through the gap I saw a paunchy man of around sixty standing by the bed and madly gesticulating at Nana. This was the first time I had seen an older john make trouble. I moved closer but didn’t go in. Mrs. Chen had told me to give the women a hand whenever they needed it. She hadn’t made it explicit, but I’d guessed that she wanted me to provide some protection for them.
“I paid you, so I’m staying,” the man barked, and flung up his hand.
“You can’t make a night of it. Please go away,” Nana said, her face stamped with annoyance.
I went in and asked him, “What’s your problem? Didn’t you already get your time with her?”
He lifted his eyes to squint at me. His face, red like a monkey’s ass, showed he was drunk. In fact, the entire room reeked of alcohol. “Who are you?” he grunted. “This is none of your business. I wanna stay here tonight, and nobody can make me change my mind.”
I could tell that he thought this was like China, where it’s commonplace for a john to spend a night with a girl if he pays enough. “I am just a tenant,” I said. “You’ve been kicking up such a racket that I can’t sleep.”
“So? Deal with it. I want my money’s worth.”
As he was speaking, I glanced at Nana’s bed. Two wet spots stained a pink sheet, and a pair of pillows had been cast aside. On the floor was an overturned cane chair. By now both Huong and Lili were up too, but they stayed outside the door, watching. I told the man, “It’s the rule here: you fire your gun and you leave. No girl is supposed to be your bed warmer.”
“I paid her for what I want.”
“Oh yeah? Call the cops and see who they’ll haul away first.” He seemed more awake now, his eyes glittering.
I pressed on. “All the tenants here will say that you broke in to assault this woman.” I was surprised by what I said, and I saw Huong and Lili avert their eyes.
“Cut that shit out! I paid this ho.” He pointed at Nana.
“She’s not a whore. Nana, you didn’t invite him here, did you?”
“Uh-uh.” She shook her head.
I told him, “See, we’re all her witnesses. You’d better get out of here, now.”
“I can’t believe this. There’s no good faith in this world anymore—it’s worse than China.” He grabbed his walking stick and lumbered out of the room.
The three women laughed and told me that the old goat was a first-time visitor and that they felt lucky to have me living on the same floor. We were in the kitchen now, all wide awake. Nana put on a kettle to boil some water for an herbal tea called Sweet Dreams.
I wasn’t pleased by what I had done. “I acted like a pimp, didn’t I?”
“No, you did well,” Huong replied.
“Thank God we have a man among us,” Lili added.
Lili’s words made me uneasy. I’m not one of you, I thought. But afterward, I felt they were more friendly than before, and even Lili started speaking to me more often and with her eyes fully open. They’d ask me what I would like for dinner, and cooked fish three or four times a week because I was fond of seafood. My factory provided steamed rice for its workers at lunch, so I just needed to bring something to go with it. Whenever it was Huong’s turn to cook, she would set aside the leftovers in a plastic container for me to take to work the next day. Nana and Lili often joked that Huong treated me as if I were her boyfriend. At first, I felt embarrassed, but little by little I got used to their teasing.
One morning in late July, I woke up feeling as if my lungs were on fire. I must have caught the flu, but I had to go to the factory, where a stack of cut pieces was waiting to be ironed. Unlike the sewing women, I couldn’t sit down at the ironing table. The shop provided tea in a samovar, which tasted a little fishy, but I drank one mug after another to soothe my throat and keep my eyes open. As a result, I went to the bathroom more frequently. Some of the floorboards were crooked, and I had to be careful when walking around. By midafternoon I was sweating all over and my pulse was racing, so I decided to rest on a long bench by the wall, but I tripped and fell before I could reach it. The moment I picked myself up, my foreman, Jimmy Choi, a broad-shouldered fellow of about forty-five, came over and said, “Are you all right, Wanping?”
“I’m okay,” I mumbled, brushing the dust off my pants.
“You look terrible.”
“I might be running a fever.”
He felt my forehead with his thick, rough hand. “You’d better go home. We’re not busy today, and Danny and Marc can manage without you.”
Jimmy drove me back to Mrs. Chen’s in his pickup and told me not to worry about coming to work the next day if I didn’t feel up to it. I said I would try my best to show up.
I felt too awful to join my housemates at dinner. Instead, I stayed in bed with my eyes closed, forcing myself not to moan. Still, I couldn’t help moaning through my nose occasionally, which made me feel better. Before dark, Huong came in and put a carton of orange juice and a cup on the nightstand, saying I must drink a lot of liquid to excrete the poison from my body. “What would you like for dinner?” she asked.
“I don’t want to eat.”
“Come on, you must eat something to fight the illness.”
“I’ll be all right.”
I knew she would be busy that evening, because it was Friday. After she left, I drank some orange juice and then lay back and tried to fall asleep. My throat felt slightly better, but the fever was still raging. I regretted not having gone to the herb store earlier to get some ready-made boluses. The room was quiet except for the faint drone of a mosquito. The instant it landed on my cheek, I killed it with a slap. I was miserable and couldn’t help but miss home. Such a feeling hadn’t visited me for a long time—I had always managed to suppress my homesickness so that I could make it through my daily routine. A busy man cannot afford to be nostalgic. But that evening the image of my mother kept coming to mind. She knew a lot of folk remedies and could easily have helped me recover in a day or two, but she would have kept me in bed for longer to ensure that I recuperated fully. When I was little, I used to enjoy being sick so she could fuss over me. I hadn’t seen her for two years now. Oh, how I missed her!
As I was dozing off, someone knocked on the door. “Come in,” I said.
Huong came in again, this time holding a steaming bowl. “Sit up and eat some noodles,” she told me.
“You cooked this for me?” I was amazed that it was wheat noodles, made from scratch, not the rice noodles we usually ate. She must have guessed that, as a northerner, I would prefer wheat.
I sat up and began eating with chopsticks and a spoon. There were slivers of chives and napa cabbage in the soup, along with some dried shrimp and three poached eggs. I was touched and turned my head away so that she wouldn’t see my wet eyes. This was genuine home cooking from my province, and I hadn’t tasted anything like it for two years. I wanted to ask her how she had learned to make noodles like this, but I didn’t say a word; I just kept eating ravenously. Meanwhile, seated on a chair beside my bed, she watched me intently, her eyes shimmering.
“Huong, where are you?” Lili cried from the living room.
“Here, I’m here.” She got up and left, leaving the door ajar.
I strained my ears to listen. Lili said, “A man at the Rainbow Inn wants a girl.”
“Wanping’s ill and can’t drive today,” Huong replied.
“The place is on Thirty-seventh Avenue, just a few steps away. You’ve been there.”
“I don’t want to go tonight.”
“What do you mean, you don’t want to go?”
“I should stay and take care of Wanping. Can’t Nana go?”
“She’s busy with someone.”
“Can you do it for me?”
“Well,” Lili sighed, “okay, only this once.”
When Huong came back, I told her, “You shouldn’t spend so much time with me. You have things to do.”
“Don’t be silly. Here is some vitamin C and aspirin. Take two of each after the meal.”
That night she checked on me from time to time to make sure I took the pills and drank enough liquid and was fully covered with a thick comforter of hers, so that I could sweat out my flu. Around midnight, I fell asleep, but I had to keep getting up to pee. Huong had left an aluminum cuspidor in my room and told me to use it instead of going to the bathroom, so that I wouldn’t catch cold again.
The next morning, my fever had subsided, though I still felt weak, not as steady on my feet as before. I called Jimmy and said I would definitely come to work that day, but I didn’t get there until after ten. Even so, some of my fellow workers were amazed that I had reappeared so quickly. They must have thought I had caught something more serious, like pneumonia or a venereal disease, and would remain in bed for a week or so. I was glad there was not a lot of work piled up on my ironing table.
A week later, some sewers left the factory and we all got busier. There were twenty women at the garment shop, and with two or three exceptions, they were all married and had children. Most of them were Chinese, though four were Mexican. They could come and go according to their own schedules. That was a main reason they kept their jobs, which paid by the piece, and not very much. Most of them, working full-time, made about three hundred dollars a week. Like them, I could keep a flexible schedule as long as I didn’t let work accumulate on my ironing table or miss deadlines. I must admit that our boss, Mr. Fuh, was a decent man, proficient in English and knowledgeable about business management; he even provided health-care benefits for us, which was another reason some of the women worked here. Their husbands were menial workers or small-business owners and couldn’t possibly get health insurance for their families. Like the other two young pressers, Marc and Danny, I didn’t bother about insurance. I was strong and healthy, not yet thirty, and wouldn’t spend three hundred a month on that.
We had been getting more orders for women’s garments lately, so I went to work earlier, around seven. But I took long breaks during the day so that I could sit or lie down somewhere to rest my back and legs.
Our factory advertised for some sewers to replace the ones we’d lost, and one evening I brought a flyer back to the house. Lili was with a client in her room, but at dinner I showed it to Huong and Nana and said I would try to help them get the jobs if they were interested.
“How much can a sewer make?” Nana asked.
“About three hundred a week,” I said.
“My, so little. Not for me.”
Huong broke in. “Does your boss use people without a work permit?”
“There’re some illegal workers at the factory. I can put in a word for you.”
“If only I could sew!”
Her words made my heart leap. I went on, “It’s not that hard to learn. There are sewing classes downtown. It takes three weeks to graduate.”
“And lots of tuition too,” added Nana.
“Not really—three or four hundred dollars,” I said.
“I still owe the Croc a big debt, or I would’ve quit selling my flesh long ago,” Huong muttered. Besides smuggling people, the man also operated gambling dens in Queens, one of which had recently got busted.
I said no more. For sure, a sewer made much less than a prostitute, but a sewer could live a respectable life. However, I could see Nana’s logic—her work here was more lucrative. Sometimes she made three hundred dollars in a single day. My housemates spent a lot of time watching TV and listening to music when they had no clients, but how long could they continue living like that? Their youth would fade someday. Then what would they do? I remained silent, unsure if I should tell Huong what I thought in Nana’s presence.
A slightly overweight white man with wavy hair came out of Lili’s room. He looked angry and muttered to himself, “Cheap Chinese stuff, fucking cheap!” Throwing a fierce glance at us, he turned and left. The women’s clients were mostly Asian, and occasionally one or two Hispanics or blacks. It was rare to see a white john here.
Lili came out of her room, sobbing. She collapsed on a chair and covered her face with her long-fingered hand. Huong put a bowl of wontons in front of her, but Lili fell back on her chair, saying, “I can’t eat now.”
“What happened?” Nana asked.
“Another condom break,” Lili said. “He got furious and said he might’ve caught some disease from me. He paid me only sixty dollars, saying I used a substandard rubber made in China.”
“Was it really Chinese?” I asked her.
“I have no clue.”
“It might be,” Huong said. “Mrs. Chen always gets stuff from Silver City.”
“But that’s a Korean store,” I said.
“I feel so awful to be Chinese here, because China always makes cheap products,” Lili said. “China has degraded its people and let me down.”
I didn’t know what to say. How could an individual blame a country for her personal trouble?
That night, I asked Huong to come out, and together we talked under the weeping cherry. The stringy branches floated in a cool breeze, while the leaves, like a swarm of arrowheads, flickered in the soft rays cast by the streetlights. Fireworks were exploding in the west, at Shea Stadium—the Mets must have won a game. I worked up my nerve and said to Huong, “Why can’t you quit this sex work so we can be together?”
Her eyes gleamed, fastened on me. “You mean you want to be my boyfriend?”
“Yes, but I also want you to stop selling yourself.”
She sighed. “I have to pay the Croc two thousand dollars a month. There’s no other way I can make that kind of money.”
“How much of your smuggling fee do you still owe him?”
“My parents paid up their fifteen percent in Vietnam, but I still have eighteen thousand to pay.”
I paused, figuring out some numbers in my head. That was a big sum, but not impossible. “I can make more than fourteen hundred a month. After the rent and everything, I’ll have about a thousand left. I can help you pay the debt if you quit your work.”
“Where can I get the other thousand every month? I’d love to be a sewer, but that doesn’t pay enough. I’ve been thinking about the job ever since you mentioned it. It would take a long time for me to get enough experience to make even three hundred a week. Meanwhile, how can I pay the Croc?” She swallowed, then continued, “I often dream of going back, but my parents won’t let me. They say that my little brother will join me here eventually. They only want me to send them more money. If only I could jump ship.”
We talked for more than an hour, trying to figure out a way. She seemed elated by my offer to help, but at moments her excitement unnerved me a little and made me wonder whether I was being rash. What if we didn’t get along? How could we conceal her past from others? Despite my uneasiness, in my mind’s eye I kept seeing her in a small white cottage stirring a pot with a large ladle while humming a song, and outside, children’s voices were rising and falling. I suggested that we speak to the Croc in person and see if there was another way of paying him. Before she went back to the house, she kissed me on the cheek and said, “Wanping, I would do anything for you. You are a good man.”
Great joy welled up in my heart, and I stayed in the damp air for a long time, dreaming of how we could start our life anew someday. If only I had more cash. I thought of asking Huong to share my bed, but decided not to, for fear that the other two women might inform Mrs. Chen of our relationship. A full moon was shining on the sleeping street, the walls and roofs bathed in the whitish light. Insects were chirring timidly, as if short of breath.
Two days later, I left work earlier, and Huong and I set out to meet with the Croc, who had sounded Cantonese on the phone. We crossed Northern Boulevard and headed for the area near I-678. His headquarters was on Thirty-second Avenue, in a large warehouse. Two prostitutes, one white and the other Hispanic, were loitering in front, wearing nothing but bras and frayed jean shorts. Both of them seemed high on something, and the white woman, who had tousled hair and a missing tooth, shouted at me, “Hey, can you spare a smoke?”
I shook my head. Huong and I hurried into the warehouse. It’s interior was filled with large boxes of textiles and shoes. We found the office in a corner. A strapping man was sprawled in a leather chair, smoking a cigar. He sat up at the sight of us and smirked. “Take a seat,” he said, pointing at a sofa.
The moment we sat down, Huong said, “This is my boyfriend, Wanping. We came to ask you a favor.”
The man nodded at me. He turned to Huong. “Okay, what can I do for you?”
“No way.” He smirked again, his ratlike eyes darting right and left.
“How about fifteen hundred?”
“I said no.”
“You see, I have a medical condition and have to take a different job that doesn’t pay as much.”
“That’s not my problem.” He fingered his wispy mustache.
I stepped in. “I will help her pay you, but we simply cannot come up with two thousand a month for now. Please give us an extra half year.”
“A rule is a rule. If someone breaks it with impunity, the rule will have no force anymore. We’ve never given anyone such an extension. So don’t even try to get clever with me. If you don’t pay the full amount in time, you know what we’ll do.” He jerked his thumb at Huong.
She looked at me, tears forming in her eyes. I patted her arm, signaling that we should leave. We got up and left the warehouse after saying we appreciated his meeting with us.
On the way back, we talked about what the consequences would be if we failed to make the monthly payment. I was pensive, knowing it was dangerous to deal with a thug like the Croc. I had heard horrifying stories of how members of the Asian Mafia punished people, especially new arrivals who had offended them. They had shoved a man into a van and shipped him to a cannery in New Jersey to make pet food of him; they had cut off a little girl’s nose because her father hadn’t paid them the protection fee; they had tied a middle-aged woman’s hands, plugged her mouth, stuffed her into a burlap sack, and then dropped her into the ocean. The Chinese gangs spread the Mafia stories to intimidate people. Some of those tales might just be rumors, and, granted, the Croc might not belong to the Mafia at all, but he could do Huong and me in easily. He had to be a gangster, if not the leader of a gang. Also, he likely had networks in China and Vietnam that could hurt our families.
After dinner, I went into Huong’s room, which was clean and smelled of pineapple. On the windowsill sat a vase of marigolds. I said to her, “What if we just leave New York?”
“And go where?” She sounded calm, as if she too had this idea.
“Anywhere. America is a big country, and we can live in a remote town under different names, or move around, working on farms like the Mexicans. There must be some way for us to survive. First we can go to North Carolina, and from there we’ll move on.”
“What about my family? The Croc will hold my parents accountable.”
“You shouldn’t worry so much. You have to take care of yourself first.”
“My parents would never forgive me if I just disappeared.”
“But haven’t they just been using you? You’ve been their cash cow.”
That seemed to be sinking in. A moment later, she said, “You’re right. Let’s get out of here.”
We decided to leave as soon as possible. She had some cash on hand, about two thousand dollars, while I still had fourteen hundred in my savings account. The next morning on the way to work I stopped at Cathay Bank and took out all the money. I felt kind of low, knowing that from now on I couldn’t write to my parents, or the Croc’s men might hunt us down. To my family, I would be as good as dead. In this place, we had no choice but to take loss as necessity.
That afternoon, Huong had packed a suitcase secretly and stuffed some of my clothes into a duffel bag. I wished that I could have said good-bye to my boss and some fellow workers, and gotten my three-hundred-dollar deposit back from Mrs. Chen. At dinner, both Nana and Lili teased Huong, saying she had begun working for me, as a cleaning lady. The two of us tried to appear normal, and I even cracked a few jokes.
Fortunately, there was no outcall that night. When the other two women had gone to bed, Huong and I slipped out of the house. I carried her suitcase while she lugged my bag. The weeping cherry blurred in the haze, its crown edgeless, like a small hill. A truck was rumbling down Main Street as we strode away, arm in arm, without looking back.