They sat in the restaurant shaped like a catfish, floating atop the River Saigon. From their table, Sandy could see the shore, grainy beneath a film of yellow light. Even from the water, she could hear the mopeds in their thousands, echoing through the streets like the people; a fierce, vibrant noise.
Stepping off the plane, she was told, “Don’t drink the water.” The water made people sick. Drink it boiled, if nothing else.
So they sipped hot tea as they waited for the ferry to move. Lotus tea had a sweet smell with just the barest hint of mud in the afterglow. It was an acquired taste, neither as tea-like as oolong nor as flowery as chrysanthemum. The bittersweet flavour could’ve been the earth itself, from the roots steeped in the death that remained here. Vietnamese soil was fertile, blackened and rich with blood and bone. But the River Saigon was not so lucky. Its skin brown waters were sewer line and trade route, a spittoon for the city it plied.
Irene picked at her peanuts half a round at a time. Sandy couldn’t bear the taste. They’d ordered what they knew and what English they could translate. This was luck and pictures of farm animals. Mostly the farm animals.
“Scavengers,” said Irene, nodding in the direction of the shore.
A phalanx of flower girls and cigarette boys lined the shoreline. Tourists thrust themselves into their grasp, pushed from behind by their taxi drivers and pulled onto the ferries by waiters with open arms. Set back in the shadows, men smoked and watched the children work, their cigarette glints smouldering like cats’ eyes.
“Scavengers,” Sandy whispered back, her eyes on the man who’d only just walked up the plank, some Chinese entrepreneur with each arm around a girl. The girls looked like prostitutes, and probably were. The tables around them were filled with their laughter, planted among men who wore loose cotton shirts with gold watches. It was at once a kind of new money—men who ate with their mouths open and smelled of sweat, and women who wanted life without the taste of grime.
Sandy threw her peanuts into the water, the individual splashes churning ripples until the boat’s motor sprang to life. The peanuts stayed afloat. There was no way to see the riverbed from above. If the peanuts had been eyeballs, they wouldn’t have seen past an inch into the water.
“I want you to follow me tomorrow,” said Irene. “I need a new dress.”
Sandy leaned on her arm, watching her from the veil of a badly-styled fringe. Irene was chubby. She was rosy-cheeked and slit-eyed, with a full head of black curls. The hairs that fell over Sandy’s eyes were brown—a colour called Nepal Rich Violet 64. As Irene’s had been, the roots were black.
“I was thinking I should make an ao-dai,” Sandy said, as she swept her bangs out of her face.
Irene peered at her from her stomach to her ears. “You’d look good in an ao-dai.”
“What about you?”
“I’d look like a wok.” She wrapped her hands around her love handles and grinned. “Follow me tomorrow and bring some magazines. These people can make anything.”
“Anything you want.”
The scenery glided into waterfront streets where shophouses stood straight and tall. Grandfathers squatted on stools by the kerb. Their grandchildren ran circles around them as they chatted, elderly neighbour with elderly neighbour, sipping tiny cups of the rich coffee that proliferated here. Behind them, the walls peeled like wrapping paper, as they had for forty years. Slatted windows opened on the second floor, as the hum of radios wound their way over the chatter below.
She tried to look Irene in the eyes. “I just don’t want to look like an Auntie,” she said.
The soup came, with far too much pepper and disintegrating fins. Irene sipped like a hippo with cleft palate. She motioned for Sandy to have more, adding, “You could make some fitted dresses, you know. You’re perfect for them.”
“Where would I wear them to?”
“They don’t have to be evening dresses. Just sun dresses, from linen, maybe. Those are expensive back home.”
“I could get them to embroider something.”
“They’re very good at that.”
The waiter arrived with rice. Sandy loved the smell of Vietnamese rice. It smelled of corn husks and the countryside. The melon flowers they ordered, on the other hand, were a flop, their limpid yellow petals lying face down in black sauce. The Vietnamese were terrible at stir fries.
They’d since drifted past the streets to the port. She read the name on a rusting vessel by street lamp, the ‘Morning Star’, and peered into another ship’s dining hall, where a white-coated waiter wandered past empty tables with a towel draped over his shoulder. The sky was a sheet of glare, impassable to everything but the smoke that blanketed this place at all hours.
The ferry came to a halt. They’d long gone past the ability to hear the mopeds. Barring the businessmen and their whores, they had the luxury of silence.
It had been Sandy’s idea to order sizzling beef. The hot plate bubbled a brown muck over the meat. She forked a slice onto her plate. Propped against her rice, it was almost appetizing.
“Good thing we planned for dinner,” Irene said.
“Yes, it’s been very nice,” she replied, choking on a lump of un-dissolved starch she’d found in the sauce.
Irene waved a hand, showing off her nails, glazed like giant ladybirds. “No,” she said, “I meant it’s good we went out for dinner instead.”
Following the nails with her eyes, Sandy wondered if they made a clatter like loose Skittles against wood. Irene almost never put her hands on anywhere but herself, unless she was gesturing just so, which she did often. She shook her head. “I guess it would look uglier in the afternoon.”
“Oh, no,” Irene replied. “It looks exactly the same. But there’ll be scavengers, boats full of them shouting at you down there.”
Sandy leaned in and smiled. “I’ve read about them before. They just want our cans, don’t they?”
“Cans—,” Irene shrugged, “—money—they’re still scavengers.”
Sandy peered over the rail at the darkness below, reflecting the ovals of street lamps and the moths swirling figure eights in their glow. A splash came from somewhere behind them. A lone Coke can floated into view. She turned to stare at the table next door, at the man who was lighting a cigarette for an ash tray piled high and burnt out, and the swarthy, squinting little girl who clung to his arm like a vise.
“Don’t bother with them,” whispered Irene, “And they won’t bother you.”
A second splash followed.
Sandy looked at Irene, who was picking at the melon flowers. Turning back to the water, she saw a long shape drift by. As it came under the light, she saw two hands raised to the heavens, partially submerged. Between them were two breasts, like inverse soup bowls, and a tiny waist that sunk completely into the water. A face bobbed into view, the skin flayed away, with shades of hair like river weeds or maybe strips of skin from limbs that wavered with light and current.
“Look!” she cried, pointing to the water. “Someone’s out there!”
Irene squinted hard at the river, as though she were looking through a pinhole, and shook her head.
Irene gave the water another glance, and when she turned to Sandy for the second time, her face was blank.
Sandy leaned over the rail, close to summoning a waiter. Irene was four-eyed, maybe she was blind.
The water was still and empty, reflecting the streetlights. A moth flitted against the glass cover of a lamp, and failing to gain entry, swerved away.
Irene smiled, a drop of black gravy on her dimple. “Just because I said there might be someone doesn’t mean they’re really there.”
Sandy took one more look at the water, where the blackness replaced the missing darkness in the sky. “It was a branch,” she replied. “It could’ve been anything.”
Irene stabbed a flower head with her fork, pinning it against her plate till the sauce ran dry. “Don’t worry too much,” she said, “Those people don’t come out at night.”
When Sandy got home, Peter was in bed, picking through the channels like an itch up his nose. With his legs prone and his stomach bloated, he could’ve been one of those businessmen in their printed shirts and heavy jewelry. But Peter was European, and in the grand scheme of things, probably more attractive.
“Dinner was fine,” she told him. “The food wasn’t great.”
He ran his thumb over the volume dial on the remote, but none of the corresponding indicators appeared onscreen.
“Irene’s a nice girl,” she continued. “We’re going out again tomorrow.”
Peter dropped the remote beside her pillow and grinned. “Guess what happened this morning.”
Sandy pulled off her shirt, hating the way the smell of sweat and cigarette smoke seeped into her skin. With the shirt over her ears, his voice was momentarily dulled.
“I talked to Le when he dropped me off. He told me he had two kids, so I asked him how old they were. All he said was, ‘Yesssss.’ ”
Her hair was in tangles from shoving through the crowd on the way back. Running her fingers through her bangs, she felt the dust fall out with the strands.
Their apartment was furnished in modern, soulless style: pine-coloured panels, brassy trim and clear glass the maids polished every morning. The master bedroom was typical hotel gloss, with green damask. Amidst it all was Peter, fat, white and balding, like some 16th century king in his underpants.
The King was still awake. “So after work, when he came to pick me up, he suddenly said, ‘Good evening, Sir. How are you?’ I guess he must’ve gone to a bookstore or asked his friends for tips.”
Sandy unhooked her bra, finding it smelled as bad as her shirt. Reaching for the bathroom light, she felt grease on the switch, like the grease that covered her fingers. If Peter was any sort of king, that simply made her his queen.
The thought clung to her more viciously than her own sweat. Her body had barely begun to adapt to the air-conditioning’s chill, and Peter was a pig about coping with the heat. Sweat ran down breasts that had just begun to turn into tears themselves, the brown of her areolas weeping into the skin around them like melted chocolate.
Sandy was fat. She was slim, but only compared to Irene. Her pants had traced its outline around the fold of skin about her waist, in rectangular grooves of elasticised polyester. They were at the perfect angle to hold in her stomach and flatter her hips. Bared, the line under the fold of her stomach itched.
Sandy wondered if the combination of sweat and material was rubbing her skin raw. Perhaps she would have to make a sundress as Irene said, to hide away the girth she could pinch with her thumb and forefinger. Or find better panties to tuck it in.
It was a short step towards being an Auntie.
Minh Huong was located on a row of tailors and seamstresses, along a sun-speckled boulevard covered in trees. Mopeds, people and tourists wandered around in circles, haggling for sequinned shoes and lace tablecloths. Irene must have gained more weight since the night before. She’d only managed to waddle at duck speed since Le dropped them on the kerb.
Every tree along the way, each easily over a century old, was hemmed with square brackets. They had been painted from the base of each trunk to about waist height. Sandy peered at the coloured bark as they walked along, noticing how some trees peeled and some trees shone with fresh coats. “Why did they paint the trees?” she asked.
Irene was starting to breathe heavily beside her, hauling her tiny handbag like a bowling ball. “It’s so drunks won’t pee on them at night.” She switched her strap onto a different shoulder for the fifth time in five minutes. “Now they pee against the walls instead.”
Along the walls, wherever there were open drains, hawkers set up shop on plastic stools. Freshly fried coffee was ground and water drawn from pre-packaged drums. Customers waited for their coffee to drip through tin filters into yellowed coffee cups, cramping themselves on the low tables and even lower seats.
Sandy clutched her handbag to her chest like an involuntary child. The men at the tables took no notice, lost as they were in the dregs of their filters and the chatter that rolled over the pavement like mist.
Minh Huong was a tall, thin segment of shophouse that extended deep into the street. Headless mannequins modelled the latest ao-dai, made of the flimsiest materials and the most ornate embroidery. Sandy noticed that about the women of Ho Chi Minh. From the high school students to the women who held their boyfriends’ hands in the parks, their ao-dai were always nearly transparent, and their pants marginally less so. Yet however flimsy the cloth, every ao-dai came richly embellished with glitter pen sketches or immaculately embroidered art. Saigon women rarely accessorized.
They were greeted by a lady in a black shirt and pants of the same shade, with a jade bangle on each wrist. Mrs. Nguyen Minh Huong, the shop’s namesake, had yellow teeth, a warm smile and a mole that coincided with her right dimple. Sandy became fascinated with this dimple, watching it swing in and out of Mrs. Nguyen’s cheek.
“We’d like to make dresses.” Irene enunciated each word carefully.
“Come see some patterns.” Mrs. Nguyen led them to the inner room of the shop, separated from the outside by a beaded curtain. On the left were a counter and a small curtained square she assumed was the dressing area. Directly to the right were a set of worn sofas surrounding a rattan coffee table covered in books. Mrs. Nguyen picked a couple of these off the table and passed each of them a copy. “Pick any one you like.”
Sandy couldn’t remember flipping through a pattern book since high school, when she made her own dresses just like everyone else. The book she chose had power suits and formal dresses, stylish and starkly cut, suitable for the runway or a funeral. She was about the right age for them now. Slotted next to Peter, she’d make the perfect housewife.
Irene went through pattern books at a sharp pace, dog-earing pages with abandon.
When she looked up, she had only just finished her first book, while Irene had a pile of three.
Irene nudged and pointed to a freshly bookmarked page. “That’s the kind of sun dress I was talking about.”
Sandy peered over Irene’s shoulder. “It looks like a cheongsam.”
“It does, doesn’t it? Except for the collar.” Irene nudged her again. “You’d look good in that.”
Mrs. Nguyen, who’d taken to leaning against the counter, chirped her two cents. “That one there very pretty. You slim. Look good.” She gave her a thumbs up. “We can also make with no sleeves.”
“Thank you,” Sandy replied, “But I’m not slim. My husband says I’m very fat.”
“No, no. You’re not fat.” Mrs. Nguyen gripped her waist, showing off the black cotton where it was shaped by two distinct rolls between her stomach and her hips. “This is very fat.”
As they laughed, Sandy studied the sketch of the simple, fitted dress. The slits to the calves on either side would highlight her varicose veins if she wasn’t careful. But the cut reminded her of the cheongsam her grandmother wore to her wedding, a sleek, sensible number that worked on any Asian body. “What kinds of material do you have?”
“Many kinds. You wait. I call upstairs to show you.” Mrs. Nguyen strode behind the counter and pulled out a phone.
Sandy turned away when she began dialling.
Irene was still marking pages as she worked through the books.
“I think I’ll make a sun dress,” she told Irene.
Irene looked up and smiled. “I’ll make one like that too.”
“What do you think of this?” Sandy asked, pointing to a sleeveless two-piece she’d found on the same page as the dress.
“That looks nice.”
“I was thinking, if I made it with Thai silk, it’d look good. So I have something to wear if someone invites us to dinner.”
Irene seemed to ponder this a moment, before calling out to Mrs. Nguyen. “Ask for some silk samples too.”
Mrs. Nguyen spoke curtly in Vietnamese and put the receiver down. “I asked them to bring down the cloth now. Please wait a minute.”
Sandy traced the path of the two-piece with her finger. The Capri pants would be comfortable in the heat. With light jewelry, she could take it anywhere. Looking towards Irene for counsel, she asked, “What’s a good colour?
“Red. You should make it in red.”
“Will that match my hair?”
A girl arrived with rolls of material she laid out on the coffee table. There were linens in various colours, and brocades of Chinese design. Included were two bolts of silk, one luminous green, the other denture pink.
Irene immediately held up a bolt of teal linen to Sandy’s chest. “What do you think?”
“Not bad.” Sandy fingered the thin, stiff threads.
“That looks good.” The girl from upstairs gave her two thumbs up.
“We can make small embroidery, if you like.” Mrs. Nguyen pointed to the edges of the pattern’s skirt. “Here and here.”
“That would be good,” Sandy replied.
Irene held up another bolt of linen, a kind of muddy yellow. “I’ll have the same dress. This colour.” She tapped the pattern and the cloth after each sentence, pronouncing slowly.
“Yes.” Mrs. Nguyen barked orders to the girl, who pulled measuring tape and note paper from behind the counter.
The girl gestured at Sandy to stand. “Please.”
Mrs. Nguyen began writing their bill.
“Leave some room at the sides, please.” Sandy pinched out a half inch on either side of her waist for the girl to see.
The girl nodded enthusiastically. “Yes.”
“What’s your name?” she asked, as the girl motioned for her to hold out her arms.
“My name is Phung.”
“Are you from Hanoi?”
“You still have my measurements, right?” said Irene, putting away the last of her books. All in all, there was quite a pile.
Phung pencilled the last of her notes and smiled. “Yes.”
“Are you making any more clothes?” Mrs. Nguyen asked.
“No more,” said Irene.
“I’d like to make this too.” Sandy offered the page with the two-piece to Mrs. Nguyen, who asked, “Which cloth?”
“This one,” she replied, placing her hand on the pink silk. It was smooth to a point. She could feel the tiny ridges in the weave of the silk, imagining the way it would feel pressed against her body, more luxurious than hotel damask.
“Okay.” Mrs. Nguyen scribbled more directions for her girl, who clipped it to their receipt.
Her dresses were two hundred dollars in all. She handed over the money, in cash. The bills felt like the silk.
“Thank you. Please come again.” Phung bowed her head slightly to her words.
Mrs. Nguyen bowed her head more briefly, at less of an angle. “Please come again.”
Sandy and Irene left the shop through the parade of ao-dai, butterflies and roses glittering under the fluorescent light. Sandy noted the pattern on a tunic as they passed, plumes of white lilies flecked in silver pen. The cut was clearly too thin, the pants clearly too small. The lavender of the cloth—simply too young. And if she ever wanted it, there was, of course, always time to return.
It was Le who suggested the barber shop that Peter chose. But it was Sandy who’d suggested her husband needed a haircut. The barber shop had tinted windows on both sides of the door. The door itself was a sheet of darkened glass, with a metal bar across the middle. A barber’s pole hung above the walkway, a token sign of the shop’s occupant. No other signage lurked elsewhere.
Inside, two mirrors faced two padded chairs. A cushioned bench sat against the wall. Beside it, a large stairway led to the second floor, which overlooked the front door by way of a teak balcony. Only the working portion of the shop, from the door to about a foot beyond the farthermost chair, was lit, and that by a bluish-grey fluorescence. Nothing beyond that, including the second floor, appeared to have any sort of lighting.
“Are you sure this shop is open?” she asked.
Five women in navy mini dresses appeared from the back of the shop.
Peter gestured to them with two fingers imitating a pair of scissors. “You cut hair?”
The women snapped to life. One strode back into the unlit portion of the shop, calling out in Vietnamese. Another motioned towards the bench.
Peter sat in one of the padded chairs. “It’s pretty comfortable,” he said.
Sandy chose the bench, eyeing the dusty velvet with caution.
A young man emerged from out back. He wore black pants and a collared blue shirt, tucked in. The central parting of his hair was styled upwards in tufts of fine down, tinged orange. He asked, “You want cut hair?”
“I want to cut my hair.” Peter, as Irene was prone to do, spoke slowly, enunciating each syllable as one would to a child.
A woman pushed a hairdresser’s trolley towards Peter’s chair.
“I just need to trim the sides.” Peter rubbed his fingers over both ears.
The man nodded.
Sandy watched him work. He took his time, in miniscule snips. The women lumped together at the edge of the light, shuffling in place with occasional mutters. They all wore short, black jackets and high-heeled sandals. Most were long-haired. Everyone wore at least lipstick.
The door opened. Two Chinese men sauntered in, with open collars and gold on every finger. The hairdresser gave them a look and mumbled to the women. They greeted the men with large smiles and open arms, like old friends. The men went upstairs, accompanied by two of the women, who took off their jackets at the foot of the stairs.
Peter sat up and stared straight ahead.
Sandy angled herself just enough to avoid his gaze.
Laughter drifted from the second floor. The men spoke in Mandarin, and a woman responded in kind.
The woman who’d gone to call the hairdresser returned with a tray and glasses of water. She served Peter first.
When it was her turn, Sandy nodded and smiled. The woman disappeared up the stairs. Sandy took a sniff of her drink, catching the perfume of lemongrass—a strong citrus scent edged with mint. Shreds of the herb floated on the surface of the water.
Peter gave her a pointed look with a grin, the furrow of his brows betraying worry.
Sandy continued to smile, feeling the edges of her lips reach for her dimples. “It’s really nice of them, isn’t it?” she said, before taking a deep drink.
Peter watched till she was done, and sipped from his glass.
The hairdresser finished thinning the remnant last of her husband’s hair. They paid an equivalent of four American dollars and left, with quick thank yous and never looking back. No one asked them to come again.
In the car, Sandy whispered to Peter in rapid English, hoping the driver wouldn’t hear. “They were whores.”
“Maybe.” Peter avoided her eyes, angling his head towards the window.
Sandy pressed closer. “Didn’t you see them? Normal woman don’t dress like that.”
“What if they were?”
“They were whores. And those disgusting men—”
Sandy amused herself by staring out Peter’s window. A couple of workmen drove past on two mopeds, balancing a sheet of glass between them. Peter nudged and giggled. Another man zipped by with a TV tied to his back seat.
She withdrew to her own window, refusing to meet the outside in the eye. “They must be using the shop as a front, for a massage parlour.”
“It was pretty empty.”
“We were the only ones there.”
“It doesn’t matter anymore.”
Sandy turned to gaze at the short hairs at the nape of her husband’s neck. It would be like sandpaper on his pillow for a while. He’d shut his eyes, but she knew he wasn’t napping. To the space between them she said, “They were whores.”
“Peter’s sick. I thought I’d make soup tonight.”
They walked down the slaughtering aisles of Ben Thanh Market, Sandy’s basket against Irene’s thigh. Poultry cages faced fish in tubs. Stumps overran with blood. It was the smell of feathers in hot water that churned the pit of her stomach.
“What did he eat?” asked Irene, as she pointed to a stall where a man in a blood-spattered singlet and khaki shorts had just brought his knife to the throat of a turkey. “I usually buy from them.”
“I don’t know. Must’ve been the water.”
“That’s dangerous. Never drink the water if you don’t know where it came from.”
“What if they offered it to us? We can’t say no.”
Irene shrugged. “Better to be safe than sorry.” She smiled for the butcher. “Hello.”
The butcher smiled back.
“We want one chicken,” said Sandy. Running her eyes over the chicken cages behind him, she settled on a muscular fellow with a neck like a cigar. “That one.”
The butcher jerked his head at his assistant, who pulled the bird out of its companions with squawks on both sides. He weighed the bird, took out a calculator, and began typing.
“It’s so hard to cook for Tom,” said Irene, who seemed to have taken a great interest in staring at her feet. “We usually go out for pasta or something. He can’t stand our food.”
As they waited, Sandy thought about the rest of dinner. Peter was fine with just the soup. She needed rice. It was a hassle to cook for one. She took stock of the seafood on offer, hoping to score a fish small enough for a single meal.
The woman who squatted over the fish wore cotton ao-dai in single colours. They hid their swarthy cheeks beneath straw hats or left their tightly pinned buns exposed, the hair weathered with dust. Pen knives flicked across the bellies of anchovies. The guts were emptied into one tray, the fish piled onto another. Every other stall, skinned frogs hopped for inspection, blind and barely bleeding. They twitched in time to the swimming prawns that languished in buckets of all sizes. Some prey was more precious alive.
The assistant handed her a calculator. “50,000 dong.”
“What about your kids?” Sandy asked Irene as she tapped a percentage off the price the assistant had keyed in, offering him a nod and a smile.
“They follow their father,” declared Irene, “So they’re doing well in England.” She ripped the calculator out of her hands and began adding a number of her own. “This much,” she told the assistant, her words going even slower than usual, “No more.”
The assistant gave them one of his squawks and chattered excitedly with his boss.
Sandy glanced at Irene’s numbers. In Mandarin, she told the other woman, “That’s too cheap.”
Irene returned to staring at her feet, responding in the same dialect. “Over here, you can’t take pity on them. They’ll squeeze you for everything you’ve got.”
“They have to make a living too.”
The butcher shook his head. His assistant typed in a new price. “Best price,” he said.
“Not best price,” insisted Irene, changing the numbers again. “This price.”
“No.” The assistant reset the calculator. “40,000 dong.”
“No.” Irene took the calculator again, showing the numbers to both men. “25,000 dong.”
“Best Price,” responded the butcher. “30,000 dong.”
Sandy pulled at Irene’s sleeves, whispering frantically into her ear. “Let’s just pay him and be done with it.”
“No.” Irene grabbed Sandy’s arm and dragged her off. “We don’t have to put up with that.”
The chicken peered.
Sandy peered back as they left.
Halfway down the aisle, between twitching frogs and women who gutted fish with dead eyes, the assistant called out. “Wait. Best price.”
“25, 000 dong,” he said.
Sandy made a show of searching for her purse.
The chicken reached the block. She waited for the slit of the knife. Irene looked away.
“What did I tell you?” Irene told her, in shameless English, as the assistant handed Sandy her meat.
Sandy was careful to smile and nod at both the butcher and his assistant, accepting her purchase with both hands. To Irene, she whispered in Mandarin. “Sometimes, we have to be kind.”
“They’re scavengers,” Irene replied. “They don’t have to be pitied.”
“But we don’t have to rip them off.”
“This isn’t back home.”
Peter let out a fart that sounded like a sigh.
Sandy pulled his cock out of her mouth. She strode to the bathroom with her hands relaxed, resting lightly against her sides, until she had the door closed, when she raised them to her lips. With the shower at full blast, she douched her cheeks.
She still wore the skirt she’d had on that day. It was an elastic number, easy to slip off. There were no panties underneath, just the skin of her stomach, smooth with tiny ridges where natural dimples occurred. It felt good to scrub.
By the time she finished, the blood had risen underneath her skin, rouging her breasts and her hips. The steam on the mirror was like a screen for her modesty. The heat made her head spin.
She knew the air-conditioning had picked up by the way the condensation on the glass peeled away from the edges, by the lightening of colours in the reflection itself into paler shades of grey – until such a time there was no longer a shield between her reflection and herself – just the mottled picture of her before the sink. She pulled a towel around her against the chill.
Outside, Peter lay on his back, his deflated penis tucked just below the restive sack of his midsection. He turned to her when she came out. She drew a corner of the towel up to wipe the damp from her ear.
“I wonder why you’re okay,” he said. “You drank the water too.”
“Maybe it was the glass.”
He was staring. She knew he was following the line of her back. He liked it when she bent over. “Have you done something to your hair?”
She shifted the towel to cover her head, and with it, most of what he could see.
“It’s darker,” he said.
“It’s just wet.”
Peter rolled away from view. He was snoring by the time she dressed.
Sandy tucked the blanket up to his shoulders. He’d finished his dinner, the bowl catching the bathroom light on one side, and a glimmer of streetlight on the other where the curtains twisted back a fold. Through it, she saw the white lower trunk of a tree, and the girl who waited beside it, wearing a mini-skirt and a black jacket. Head lights made the girl’s face glow.
She listened to the hum of mopeds, occasionally broken by the rev of racer boys, waiting for a crash. It was like being in silence, looking forward to the unchangeable. Peter stopped snoring after a pinch to his nose. She shut the curtains for the night.
“This is a beautiful dress,” Sandy said. “But it’s too big.”
The fitting booth felt like a Barbie’s box, rubbing against her elbows at the slightest move. The floor was a step higher than the ground, or the height of the high heels to match the dress.
Sandy pushed out a length of slender, pale leg through the slit of her dress, observing how the cloth complemented her skin.
Phung rifled through her notes, making circles around numbers. She had her measuring tape out, wrapped around Sandy’s bust, using her mouth as a pencil-holder when she needed both hands. “Your size is different from last time. The dress is too big.”
“I know it is,” Sandy replied. “But I couldn’t have lost weight so quickly.”
Phung showed her the notes. “This is from last week,” she said, pointing to a column of numbers. “This is today,” she continued, pointing to a new column beside it.
Irene was frantic at a pitch. “You made a mistake.”
“No mistake.” Phung raised her notes towards her, rubbing the nib of her pencil over the new column again, her eyebrows knotted into a frown.
Irene dug her feet into her open-toe sandals and shook her head. “This is not good. I’ll tell Mrs. Nguyen.”
“I show you.” Phung wandered over to Irene’s side, notebook in hand. “No mistake.”
Alone in her cubicle, Sandy pinched out the extra material at her waist, counting a good two inches free on either side. Teal was a good shade for her skin, and the linen draped over her body like fine sheets. Sunflowers bloomed in a corner of the hem, framed by curling leaves. The embroidery was neat, with imperceptible stitches. The curve of her bosom was the only thing that strained the seams, just a touch, enough to feel uncomfortable. It was a nice dress to wear, at least once.
She whirled on her elevated square, flanked by a curtain on one side, and a floor-length mirror on the other. The noise the other women made reminded her of the chatter at the marketplace, like the conversations between chicken and geese.
“It’s alright,” she said, turning to Irene, smiling to her companion’s frown. “I can always give it to you.”
Trees lined the road to the docks, their white socks visible from the shadows. Girls waited between them, the glow of passing headlights tracing their legs to the pit of their skirts.
Peter warmed his hand on the inside of her thigh, his forefinger brushing audibly against the skin beneath her silk pants.
The car edged through schools of mopeds, taillights flashing smoke in clouds like the curl of a million cigarettes. Through that mist travelled flickers of ao-dai, schools of paradise birds swarming to some distant point beyond Sandy’s sight. In all this, she still felt Peter’s hand, hot and melting the sweat out of her pores.
At the water’s edge, flower girls pressed up against their door, touting red roses by the stem. Their outstretched arms wove towards her as she stepped out, and made a field of blooms that reached to her face. Sandy walked to the jetty with her shoulders curved in the crook of Peter’s arm, flowers and girls rustling around them.
The chatter of the crowd swept across the water, a brush of life as they climbed the plank onto the ferry. Irene stood to greet them as they approached their table, her husband Tom by her side. Her sleeveless two-piece shimmered a different pink with every change in the light. It blended into the colour of her skin, fattening her curves and bloating her arms, until it seemed what leaned against the squat Caucasian man was little more than a wag of meat.
“You look great,” said Sandy, grasping Irene’s shoulders and leaning in for the obligatory kiss-kiss.
“You’re the one who looks great,” responded Irene, running her candy-shelled claws down Sandy’s sleeve. “They look so artistic,” she continued, peering at the lilies embossed across her chest. “It looks like they’ve just painted them.”
“I’m glad I bought it.” Sandy shifted against Peter’s hand, as it clutched the material at the small of her back.
“Even the satin is hand-dyed.”
“She’s a china doll,” said Tom, reaching out to grasp Peter’s hand.
“Don’t I know it,” he replied.
Sandy felt her husband’s hand follow her to her seat, and even there, it seemed his arm would brush against her own, or the little finger of his left hand would find its way against the little finger of her right. She’d picked a balcony seat, and kept her eyes on the water as the engine choked to life.
Irene was tittering to some joke Tom made, to which Sandy occasionally nodded, and Peter would cast his comments in bellows. She took sips of iced tea to moisten her smiles. As the cubes in her tea melted, the flavour of lotuses diluted into scorched earth, a companion to the bitter oolong that rolled across her tongue.
The jetty became a distant blaze, the sounds of children fading. The shophouses with their constant neighbours and the static from antiquated radios filtered past like the drift of a mosquito’s whine. Soup was served, watery sharksfin with fresh crabmeat and too much white pepper. Sandy had all of a polite mouthful, letting her husband share the wealth.
Irene’s menu improved with her husband’s presence, as platters of steamed whole carp and drunken prawns appeared on their table, the one flakes of stringy meat soaked at the ends and the other lacking salt but rich in wine.
“Maybe I should dye my hair blonde,” began Irene, turning to Tom with a wistful smile.
“You’re no Goldilocks,” he said, patting his wife on the head. “Look at Sandy. She keeps getting younger.”
“Tom!” Irene gave her husband a playful shove and stared Sandy earnestly in the eye. “What do you think? Should I go blonde?”
“Aren’t you afraid it’ll damage your hair?” she asked, stopping midway between cutting a portion of fish and lifting it to Peter’s plate.
“That just depends on how well you look after your hair, right?” Irene ended her words with a giggle, and pushed a lock of Tom’s fringe away from the peninsula that extended to the back of his head. “You don’t have to worry about that.”
Sandy ladled gravy onto the white flesh beside Peter’s rice as Peter slapped a hand onto the table and laughed. The clear oil on the surface jiggled against the honeycombed silver of the carp’s skin, but did not break apart. It shuddered to a stop when the ferry did.
“Is that it?” Peter asked, waving his hand at the row of street lamps on the shore, moths circling their glow like falling leaves. “I wanted to see the sea.”
A cruise ship passed on the other side of the ferry, with a deck full of parties and a fresh coat of paint. Under the band that played with their backs to the rail, the name on its hull read, ‘The Morning Star’, to which Peter nodded. “I wonder how much it costs for a cruise?”
“Expensive,” Tom replied.
“We should try that someday, shouldn’t we?” purred Irene, wrapping her hands around his arms and laying her head on his shoulder.
Sandy kept her eyes on the river till waves of hair, darkened by water, floated into view. Two hands, raised to the heavens, accompanied a face flayed to strips. The breasts beneath the layers of neck curved like horns, their areolas smudges of chocolate. The waist was aloft with bloat, girded with red skin in rectangular grooves like the stamp of elasticised polyester.
Absently, noticing the jerk and flutter of a moth on the shore, Sandy scratched an itch that circled her waist, wondering if her sweat and the new clothes were rubbing her raw.