“Hmmmm,” Martin says, whipping out his pocket calculator and punching in the numbers. “That’s just about $50 US. What does your website say about that? Are you getting a good deal? Maybe you should have bargained a little harder. According to the gay Lonely Planet you should pay no more than $40 for an orgasm while writhing in the arms of a 22-year-old Thai boy with an eight inch erection. “Johnny,” Martin says, reaching over to pinch his cheek as if he were an unruly child, I’m afraid you’re being taken advantage of.”

 

Johnny grabs Martin’s hand, looks at him and smiles, “Oh but you’re so wrong. Because not only is Aran 22 but his erection is much closer to 10 inches; I know because I checked, which means you add on another $10.”

 

Just then the music reaches a crescendo and they both turn to the stage in time to see dancer number 76 turn his back to the audience and let loose a blast of fire from his mouth that hits the back wall with the force of a flamethrower. They feel the heat up in the balcony. 

 

“Wow, what a finish,” Martin says.

 

“And you thought that flaming crotch number was something,” Johnny replies.

 

The wettest afternoon in the world

 

Monsoon season, the guidebook had said. Walking underwater was more like it, Martin thought. The waterproof walking shoes, poncho and cute little fold up umbrella were all pretty much useless. But after a rigorous, hour-long massage that would have been grounds for an assault and battery charge back in the states, Martin is completely relaxed as he hails a three-wheeled tuk tuk back to the hotel.

 

Once in the lobby, leaving the torrents of streaming water  outside, the sounds of an orchestra, playing something oddly familiar, greet him--a waltz version of the Sound of Music. Somehow it seems just right. The Fortuny silk chandeliers spiral from the lobby’s high ceiling and cast a warm glow on the revolving dancers. Beyond them, huge windows reveal windswept palm trees and a string of grimy river barges being pulled by a tugboat. It is Sunday afternoon, high tea at the Shangri La, and things couldn’t be more festive. Waiters and waitresses in their gray and cream uniforms smile incessantly and shuttle back and forth with trays of drinks, tiny sandwiches and pastry. Hotel guests, some still damp with rain, others who had had the good sense to remain inside chat, drink and eat all that is put before them.

 

Martin sits down at a window table to take in the spectacle. “Can I bring you a drink or would you like something from the menu?” the young waiter asks, smiling.

 

“Let’s see, I think I’ll have the mango peach tea and one of those chocolate things, with the whipped cream,” Martin replies. 

 

The waiter nods vigorously and hurries off to the kitchen.

 

As Martin waits for his tea and dessert, the Blue Danube waltz wafts over the room. The dancers are an odd mix he thinks. Middle-aged Thai women, some ostentatiously dressed and made up, paired with much younger, pencil slim youths decked out in spiky hair and skin tight jeans. They all take their dancing quite seriously; here at the Shangri La there are no sloppy turns, no awkward dips. One couple, in particular, catches his eye. Smooth black hair erupts like a fountain from the top of the woman’s head. Pointy white stiletto boots peek out from under a rust-colored silk dress that clings to her body as she moves. Martin is quite sure that, at one time, she has come under the plastic surgeon’s knife. Her partner, dressed all in black, maintains a bored expression on his frozen face as they whirl around the floor, stiff backed and stylized.  

 

“Did you order me something?” Johnny asks, brushing back a few damp strands of thinning gray hair from his face and sitting down.

 

“You look like you could use a towel,” Martin replies. “And so could I, now that you’ve dripped water all over me. Can you believe that couple on the dance floor? They move together so well.”   

 

“I was never a big fan of the waltz,” Johnny says, fidgeting in his wet clothes. “I want something with more of a beat.”

 

“They really are quite a team,” Martin continues. “I’ll bet they’ve been dancing together for years. They probably know each other inside out. Or at least they think they do.”

 

All around them the buzz of conversation insinuates itself into the ever present waltz music. Half heard bits of French, Italian and German add another dimension to the rich, relaxed atmosphere. But what comes across in every foreign word, Martin thinks, is the secret thrill of how much can be consumed here for so little cash.

 

“God, I’d love some iced coffee,” Johnny says, motioning to the waiter and reaching for a bite of Martin’s chocolate torte. “So what did you do this morning?”

 

Martin looks up at Johnny, trying and failing to duplicate the emotionless face of the dancer in black. His voice, which had started out calm and uninflected, has begun to seesaw.

 

“But you know, I’ll bet those two have got a few surprises under wraps. I mean doesn’t everybody? Beware the lady with the too tight facelift; she’s bound to be hiding more than her age.”

 

“And what exactly would that be?” Johnny asks.

 

“Well, I’m not really sure.  Something tucked away in a back pocket that would be… a little embarrassing if you pulled it out. Like a handkerchief with dried snot on it.”

 

Johnny stops fidgeting and reaches across the table for Martin’s hand, which eludes him.

 

“I have no idea what you’re talking about, but it doesn’t take a trained counselor to see that it’s all wrapped up with last night.”

 

“No one can pull the wool over your eyes, can they, Dr. Phil.”

 

“Not to point up the obvious, but I seem to remember that this whole thing was your idea. ‘Let’s take a vacation from the grim and narrow road known as monogamy,’ you said. Or something like that.”

 

“Well, so what? I see now that it was all a huge mistake. And one that can’t be fixed so easily.”

 

“This probably isn’t the best time to bring it up, but I’m seeing Aran again tonight,” Johnny says.

 

“Oh that’s just perfect.” Martin replies. “And I suppose I should be jumping up and down in my chair right now and muttering about what a gold digging little slut he is while throwing my mango peach tea in your face. But unfortunately I just don’t have it in me, not anymore.”

 

“Unfortunately?”

 

“OK, I’m jealous.” Martin interrupts. “Big surprise. I’m jealous, but after all these years not jealous enough to get very excited about the whole thing. And that’s what really bugs me.”

 

Johnny raises his glass and smiles, “cheers grandpa, you’re officially too old to throw a hissy fit. How does it feel?”

 

“Martin drains his tea and sets it down. “That’s a trick question and I should refuse to answer, but buy me a martini and I will.”

 

“Done!” Johnny says.

 

“The circumstances are completely different of course, but it feels exactly, but exactly, like hearing Liza sing New York, New York,” Martin replies. “It’s the year before we met. Carnegie Hall. She gets to that phrase, you know “my little town blues…” She starts off way down with a deep throaty growl, then her voice rises up from the depths clear and beautiful. As far as I was concerned it crystallized her entire public life up to that point and beyond--the youthful exuberance, the heady success, the pain, the humiliation, the knowledge that there are some things she will never do again and finally even a glimmer of world weary hope. She came almost full circle in just a handful of words.”

 

Outside, the rain continues rippling the surface of the river. And on the dance floor the fabulous waltzing couple sweeps by once again; a pair of windup figures on a music box.

 

Johnny resists the temptation to make a Liza joke. And besides, he can’t think of a good one. “Tell me more,” he says to Martin, pulling off his wet jacket and looking around for the waiter.

 

 

 

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Robert Leone

Fiction

 

© 2005-2008 Per Contra: The International Journal of the Arts, Literature and Ideas

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