Afternoon Tea by Robert Leone
Take a number please
It’s a perfect Bladerunner night; drizzly and decaying. Hordes of exotic pedestrians push their way through garishly lit alleys in ceaseless waves. But to preserve the illusion, you’d have to turn a blind eye to the dowdy Australians in flip flops and tribal tattoos with their bags of cheap tourist loot. Mounds of rotting garbage share sidewalk space with food vendors frying up snatches of meat and fish in tiny portable kitchens. Stalls hawking bootleg CDs, ersatz Rolex watches and flimsy shirts made of Thai silk line the sidewalk. The buildings, battered by time and weather, rear up all around in a bewildering blaze of neon and arc lights. It’s only 10 o’clock, too early for any real action, as Johnny and Martin pass through the swinging stainless steel doors of Jupiter 2002. In another time and place these two would be termed ‘on the wrong side of fifty.’ But in reality, once that half century mark enters into the conversation there is no right side.
The map, as it turns out, is little help. Few of the streets and alleys are marked. They find it only by chance, following ancient, well-honed instincts for ferreting out a trashy dive no matter how obscure. And besides, it would have been unthinkable to return home without at least one good story. The downstairs is packed with bodies surrounding a miniature stage. “It seems to me there are more boys in here than customers,” Johnny whispers fiercely into Martin’s good ear in an effort to be heard over the booming sound system. Martin looks around and nods. Dressed in white t-shirts and shorts with numbers pinned to them, the boys hang on the arms of the few middle-aged customers.
A host appears and motions for the two men to follow him up a narrow flight of stairs. They’re seated at a table on the second level which hangs suspended in a smoky mist to one side of the stage. If Ridley Scott had envisioned a gay bar in his replicant movie it would be exactly like this. The crowds, cigarette smoke and vibrating floors make Martin think of fire and safety code violations, but it’s really too late to worry about that. Down below, the show is in full swing.
“Did you take your Immodium today?” Martin asks, ever mindful of the ravages of travelers’ diarrhea.
“Yeah,” he replies.
“How’s your digestive tract holding up?”
He waggles his hand from side to side. “Excuse me if I don’t elaborate, I’m trying to enjoy my martini.”
“I like this place,” Martin says, sipping on a Singha and squeezing Johnny’s hand; remembering to be gentle because of the arthritis. “It makes me think of younger days.”
“Well you can have those days again for a price,” he replies, slowly extricating himself from his companion’s grip. “400 Bhat to the bar, I hear, is the going rate. And whatever you negotiate with the dreamboat of your choice.”
“No, no, no, that’s not what I mean at all. And how do you know what the going rate is, we just got here?”
“Well, what do you mean then?” Johnny says.
“You know, fun. Staying up all night, dancing, don’t care about the morning after—fun!”
“Well that’s what we’re doing, isn’t it?” he says. “And, for your information, all of this? It’s on the web. Pictures of the boys, prices, everything.”
“You’ve really done your homework, haven’t you?” Martin replies. “But it kind of takes the excitement out of it. I’d rather just stumble along and take my chances.”
At that moment the throbbing, pre-apocalyptic music and semi-erect dancing boys catch their attention. Out onto the stage slithers a voluptuous piece of male flesh, number 76, wearing an American Indian headdress and little else. Carrying a fiery baton in each hand he begins to dance. His smooth, muscled body reflects the light sending it shimmering into the farthest corners of the bar. The rest of the boys recede into the darkness; their departure is barely noticed.
“Oh my god,” Martin says, “he’s going to set the place on fire and we’ll all be burned alive. But you know, I don’t think I’d really mind it. Much better to have people say ‘he died in a sleazy bar fire in Patpong’, than ‘he slumped over his desk two weeks before his pension kicked in, the poor thing.’”
“Well, just remember the way back downstairs,” Johnny replies looking around. “In case you have to make a fast exit.”
Back onstage, number 76 throws his fire sticks high into the air and, as they tumble back down end over end, he catches them easily behind his back. As the lights dim, a shadowy figure appears at his side. In the seductive glow of the flames he almost passes for a real woman.
“Look at those two,” Martin whispers to Johnny, taking his hand again, and motioning to a young Japanese couple on the main floor, right in front of the stage. The man, wearing huge glasses, clutches a matronly sweater around his throat. “He reminds me of a spinster librarian who’s had one drink too many at the office party,” Martin continues. His eyes, behind the thick lenses, never leave the dancer’s body. Twirling the straw in her drink, his companion sits stone faced at the opposite end of the table.
“Well either they’re brother and sister or there’s years of couples counseling in their future,” Johnny replies, giving Martin’s hand a cool squeeze before pulling away.
“I’ll be right back,” he continues.
“Hurry up, or you’ll miss the best part,” Martin says, draining his Singha and ordering another. Johnny looks down and smiles.
Meanwhile, the action onstage takes off. Number 76 lights the crotch of his jockstrap on fire bringing a collective, muffled gasp from the audience. Up until this point the crowd--with the exception of the Japanese closet case, who now appears to be trembling and sweating—has been unresponsive to the dancer’s charms. The female impersonator kneels at his feet as the theme song from the 1970’s television show Hawaii 5-0, bounces along in short staccato bursts. It’s impossible to know what will happen next. Will she blow out the flames, Martin wonders? Roast marshmallows? String popcorn and sing Christmas carols? But no. Instead she whips out a cigarette, lights it on the boy’s flaming crotch and pirouettes happily offstage, taking a deep drag and exhaling before making her exit.
“You missed the big production number,” Martin says as Johnny returns. By this time number 76 has quenched his blazing jockstrap with a few quick slaps and is back to twirling batons. At the next table an overweight Aussie continues his surreptitious masturbation.
“Oh, I saw most of it from downstairs, on my way back from the men’s room.”
“You were gone quite a while, not another round of projectile diarrhea, was it?”
“No, nothing like that. Actually I was talking to the host.”
“Oh really,” Martin replies, trying to sound cool. “And did any money change hands?”
“Look, Martin” Johnny says, reaching out to touch him, “I’ll see you back at the hotel, tomorrow afternoon, OK? Like we planned.”
“Well of course, but first let’s get down to business,” Martin says pulling away from him. “Who did you pick?”
“Number 42, he’s backstage changing. I’m meeting him outside in 10 minutes.”
“Does he have a name,” Martin continues, wondering where this wronged housewife routine was coming from, “or will you be calling him number 42 all night? ‘Ohh that feels so good number 42. A little harder number 42. Do you only take cash or can I put this on my Amex card, number 42?’”
Martin was starting to enjoy this.
“Aran, his name is Aran.”
“What a pretty name,” Martin replies. “And how much does Aran cost?”
By the way he’s looking at him, Martin can tell that he’s strayed into uncomfortable territory. Uncomfortable for Johnny that is. He hesitates but answers in a soft voice, barely audible over the music; “2,000 Bhat.”
© 2005-2008 Per Contra: The International Journal of the Arts, Literature and Ideas
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