Dec 122011
 

Xu Xi (Photo by W. McGuire)

 

XU XI is the current (2009-2012) Faculty Chair of the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing Program, an old friend, and colleague. This short story “Lady Day” is XU XI channeling Charles Dickens, at least to the extent that she originally wrote it for serial publication in the Hong Kong magazine Muse, much as Dickens did with his novels (serial publication, not in Hong Kong–in London–oh, the horror of dangling modifiers!). XU XI used to live in Plattsburgh, NY, and oscillate back and forth to New York. Often she would stop in Saratoga Springs, and she and dg would have coffee at a restaurant called  Scallions. There is less of that now, regrettably, since XU XI spends much more of her time in her native Hong Kong where she also teaches writing. DG misses those visits. But it is some consolation to be able to publish this lovely story, which, besides being in the magazine, also appears in XU XI’s brand new collection Access Thirteen Tales (Signal 8 Press, 2011). See early reviews of the book here http://www.susanbkason.com/2011/11/14/book-of-the-week-access/ and here at The Hindu.

XU XI is a Chinese-Indonesian Hong Kong native and the author of nine books of fiction and essays, including the novel Habit of a Foreign Sky (2010), shortlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize.  In 2010 she was named Writer-in-Residence at the Department of English, City University of Hong Kong, where she established and directs the first international low-residency MFA in creative writing that focuses on Asia and writing of Asia. “Lady Day” was serialized in a three-part bilingual (Chinese/English) publication in Muse, Hong Kong, Issue 11, 2007 & Issues 12 & 13, 2008. 

dg
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Lady Day

by XU XI

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It’s the stiff collar—tightly buttoned, covering the entire neck—that draws the eye to the lips. Makeup, high heels, and the walk are second nature; thighs—firm, barely, silkily there—flash through the fitting cheongsam’s side slits. Their glances, discreet or longing, slide up the leg, over the hip, away from the front and round back to where my black hair falls, like some endangered feline’s tail, long enough to sit on. I pass as easily here in Amsterdam as in New York, with less complications.

Medical complications are something else. Outwardly, nothing’s changed, not yet. But inwardly, I feel different, and know that the onset about which I’ve been warned has probably begun. There are things inside you can’t deny, and the best physicians and all the money in the world won’t yield the desired return.

Right now, though, I’ll live these nights, playacting a little longer. Tonight’s the “dynamic duo.” Double jeopardy, double the return. It’s their third transaction this week, the last night of their little “business trip” to the continent. They’re having the time of their life. Those boys obviously like my wares.

What I miss, what I’ll never get back, is the rush of control, the game of being her. Running the whole show on my terms. Many returned. Repeat business; Bernard taught me well.

Waan yuen, as Daddy might have said. Party’s over. No one to blame, not even Hewitt.

But most of all, I’ve missed daylight.

The day Hewitt called, however, I was getting a little tired of the day job, imagining perhaps things could still change if I had just that much more money to retire completely from the life, which is how all this started.

It was early on an April morning, two years prior, how quickly life moves on. Hewitt Chan. That’s how he introduced himself. He sounded young.

He gave three references: Bernard, the East Coast ivy league business professor; Kevin, the CEO of a Texas oil and gas concern; and Mahmoud, the Saudi prince.

“How do you know Kevin?” I asked. Kevin pays me in stock of relatively unknown companies and always says when to sell. The gains usually amount to ten times or more the purchase price. Years ago, he taught me to trade commodities. Kevin’s the reason I have this sizeable retirement portfolio and money for private doctors. Him I actually liked and in some ways regret losing the most.

Hewitt replied. “I interviewed him.”

“You’re an, ah… journalist?”

“Do you want this contract or not?”

“I placed this call?”

I almost said no, and sometimes still wished I had, but business had been slow, so I told him I’d check, and called Kevin, who was in transit and unavailable. Because it was the hour Riyadh, and Mahmoud, rested, I tried Bernard next. He was in class.

Hewitt called less than ten minutes later. “So did I check out?”

“Tight schedule?”

“Lady, are you selling or not?”

I remained polite. “Mr. Chan, you’re welcome to take your business elsewhere.”

“Money’s no object,” he said quickly.

“This is not just about money.”

“It always is.”

“We’ll call you,” I replied, and hung up.

This was annoying me way more than it should. Control. I inhaled, finished my coffee and signed on the net.

Hewitt Chan turned out to be a writer for magazines like Forbes and Fortune. I skimmed his interviews of Kevin Leighton and Carter Mahmoud. The stories were profiles of them and their companies. Maybe I was just having a bad day.

At around ten, Bernard called to vouch for him. “Go easy. This one doesn’t play hardball.” He laughed.

“Was he one of your students?”

“Sweetheart, how would I remember?”

I wanted to ask then why was he acting as a reference, but he had to run.

Although Bernard Jantzen’s a long-standing client, I don’t much care for him. He wants the kind of rough stuff I don’t normally handle, and his Cubans stink up my office. But he taught me most of what I know about running a business profitably, which gave me my independence for a long while. So him I indulged.

I called Hewitt Chan back. “Okay, no problem. See you at two.” I gave the address of the temporary executive suite where I’ve had an arrangement for years. They think I’m an international financial consultant because I say I am, dress like one, and never discuss my clients.

“Not that one,” he said. “Your private office.”

“What’s this? Exclusive?”

“A big one.”

Exclusives run up to three hours and include entry. These take place at my office with the choice of a conference table, an office desk, and the reception sofa.

Oh, I forgot to say I used to only work day johns, at the office; by then, they always came to me, and not the other way around. Carter nicknamed me “Lady Day” years ago because he adores Billie Holiday, and it was a handle that stuck. Being a morning person, this matches my disposition, and an office is low overhead. No beds to make or sheets to wash; office furniture wipes clean. Plus I can get back to trading. On the date I claimed as my thirtieth birthday, Carter Mahmoud gave me use of a downtown space in a renovated building near Wall Street, for which I only paid running costs. My “private office,” in exchange for priority services. Having few inhibitions, Carter fully delighted in “strange fruit” as he sometimes named me. It was the nicest gift. I hated giving that up.

But I digress.

The man who met me that afternoon was as young as his voice—twenty-six or seven I’d guessand Chinese of the domestic variety, probably Cantonese. He was built like a runner or cyclist, lean and long. Sweet face, nice smile, but his chin was rather too round for his face and had his ears been a tad longer, he’d be Spock. He was nervous, which I hadn’t expected.

“Welcome,” I said.

His eyes skittered around the office. “So,” he said, trying to look cool. “Where do we start?”

“Your call, darling.”

At five that afternoon—I don’t do overtime—he stood naked by the conference table and cleared his throat. “I’m a little short,” he said, showing me his wallet.

Stiff me, would he? Time to stop being polite. “Cut the crap.”

He smirked. “Call the police.”

“Brat.”

“What’re you going to do? Spank me?”

I did. Despite my small frame, I’m stronger than I look and managed two resounding whacks on his buttocks with his face against the floor before he struggled out of reach. “Stop. I can explain, please.” Cowards are bratty and come in all colors, languages and shapes, but it had been awhile since I’d encountered one.

Let me explain about exclusives. The rules are simple. The john leaves his wallet in sight, and I lock away his pants. There’s a hand towel in the bathroom; towels for the shower are offered after money’s crossed hands. It’s a question of trust. No payment before services but no credit. Only once did a john walk out butt naked, before lunch, although he was certifiable. That was before I began checking references.

Hewitt was orally fixated—unusual for an exclusive the boy was insatiable—which meant I had not undressed. “So, talk.”

“Could I, uh, put my pants on?” He couldn’t hide the rise and blushed like the boy he was. It was as lame as Adam and the apple.

I glared.

He started talking quickly. “False pretences. I want to do a book about you, I mean with you. This,” He waved at the air, “wasn’t supposed to happen, but I couldn’t help myself.” He stopped, sheepishly wide-eyed, and turned a deeper shade of tomato. “You really are incredible, just like they all said.”

Like I needed him to tell me. “A book? This is how you go about asking?”

“So will you do a book? Lewinsky sold over a million.”

The comparison to an amateur riled. “She’s hardly in my league. Anyway, what would I want to write about?”

“I write it. Your life of course.” He winked slyly. “We could do a great exposé of your clientele and you’d never have to work again.”

That was when I pulled the handgun and motioned him towards the door. “Out.”

“But…”

“Now.” I grabbed his clothes, briefcase, and cell phone, opened the door, and tossed them out. The dot.com that took up most of the floor cleared out nine months ago and their quarters were still vacant. It was unlikely anyone would be around.

He was about to object until I pointed the gun at his “precious stones.”

“Okay, okay, I’m out.”

Don’t get this wrong, I’m not the violent type, but I don’t believe in biting the hands that feed you. The gun’s legal but I’ve never fired it except at a range. In my line, you’d be mad not to carry some insurance. I’m competent at martial arts as well.

Hewitt, however, had other ideas. Within minutes he was on his phone. “Don’t hang up. I’ll pay you, honest. I just didn’t plan on… you know. I’ve got the cash, I’m getting it even as we speak.”

He offered to buy me dinner. In Chinatown. “I’ll spring for a limo, as long as you’ll listen to my pitch. We could do a memoir-like novel, the kind we could sell for a movie deal? I’m well connected. If we do this right we could make a bundle.”

Like I said, business was slow, and I was getting tired of the day job. It was awhile since I’d eaten in Chinatown, and I wanted my money. Plus I’d have nothing to lose by listening. There was something pathetically attractive about him. For all his cool, he had zero finesse. Like a virgin.

Over the week or so he “interviewed” me, he’d come up with wild scenarios of my fictionalized life. The kid was funny, and asked tons of questions. I liked telling him the more-or-less-real story of my life, although he asked mainly about my being Lady Day on Wall Street. I told, probably too much, although it didn’t seem like it at the time. He “wrote” fast too. Every evening, he’d tape record our chats and by the next evening, he’d hand me maybe forty or more pages of “our novel” which I’d take home to bed. I’m not much of a reader anymore, except of financial news and such, but our book was fun to read. Besides, what with the war and all, business was bad so I had free time.

The idea, he claimed, was to spice things up and tell a story about a “China Doll Ring,” using pieces of my life. “In the movie version,” he said, “Michelle Yeoh could play the pimp and Gong Li her number one girl. What do you think?” I laughed at the idea of this dressed-up version of things. It all seemed unreal.

Truth is, Hewitt Chan made me laugh. Life’s too short to cry, plus I could see he had the proverbial gun in his pocket most evenings, although he was a gentleman and a teetotaler. On the last night, I offered to comp him and the poor boy exploded in my mouth, six times. Sobriety, I guess. He didn’t ask for anything else, and I assumed he was just scared, like many of the johns.

Anyway, when his real story hit the wires, exposing Kevin Leighton’s financial shell game, I was livid. The little creep had said he had to go on a business trip and would see me in a week. Right. On the front pages of The Wall Street Journal. He did get a non-fiction book deal later to expand on the collapse of Leighton’s empire, and in his book, he named Mahmoud and some of my best clients in a chapter about the “playthings” of oil men. Of course, before the book appeared, he published that chapter in Esquire, so it got this huge media splash. Such mendacity! The little creep embellished what little I told him, although all he had were composite johns, at best. As I said, when he tried to “interview” me for those kinds of details, I am paid to be discreet.

My only consolation is that he stiffed Bernard as well, that dumbass, the one who gave him the idea in the first place, and my number. Turns out Kevin and Mahmoud had never told him a thing about me, but Bernard did and told Hewitt who must have checked their schedules to figure out the best time to call. Bernard had the nerve to yell at me. There I was, my life’s work coming undone, and he was worried about his reputation? Just before I hung up on him, I said that in future, he could damn well whip his own back.

So that’s the story of Hewitt and why I’ve been lying low in Amsterdam. The joke of his “exposé” was how little he exposed, how he missed the real story because he was blinded by his own agenda, tricked by his expectations. Obviously, Bernard hadn’t told him everything, and sometimes, I think about telling Hewitt the truth, just to give him a jolt. I started telling him about Chou-li once, and might have given away the whole game, but he stuck to his specific line of questioning. In the end, Hewitt was just a scam artist after the money, but not nearly as smart as he thought he was.

Did I forget to say that I specialize in oral pleasure and back door entry? You’d be amazed at how large the market niche is of hypocrites, homophobes, and the maritally denied, the last being a cover for their true desires. Johns are predictable; for all their money, power, and bully-boy tactics, none of them can really face themselves. Which was how I could be her, Lady Day, the mistress of masquerade.

Penile agenesis. That’s the medical name for my condition. I used to think of myself as one of a long line of Chinese eunuchs, the privileged house slaves of Beijing’s royal concubines who lounged around with bound feet. It’s entirely likely that at least a few eunuchs were born intersexuals, rather than castrated. My life might have been gender-specific if I hadn’t been illegitimate, if I hadn’t been sent away, if Ah Lum, my baby amah, my nursemaid, hadn’t been the sweet, if sad, lady she was. If Daddy hadn’t been a rich and powerful man. But what if doesn’t make a life. What is, does.

So here’s my life, which isn’t a novel or a movie starring anyone, not even B.D. Wong, the actor who played such a brilliant butterfly girl on stage. When you’re one in twenty million births, your story vanishes in the history of the world.

My name… but you don’t need to know that, do you? I go by Lady Day Wai which is possibly my mother’s name. She was mixed race—a Chinese-Pakistani journalist I think—who had a fling with Daddy; his name you’d recognize because it graces a publicly traded multinational headquartered in Hong Kong. When Daddy dictates, the world listens. I envy him that. A long time ago, I studied international lady journalists, and turned up one surnamed Wai who fit the bill, and so took that name. But I saw her on television later, and she looks nothing like me. Also, she worked for some Australian fashion magazine and it’s unlikely she and Daddy would have met.

I only have Daddy’s word for it—and my pale-chocolate pigmentation—that my mother really was who he said she was.

Did I say I’m gorgeous, stunningly, exotically beautiful? That I age slowly, despite my condition which sometimes results in premature osteoporosis, that I am the dream Asian seductress, complete with dark, smoldering, slanted eyes, cheeks with a peach-blossom blush, and lips as succulent as the reddest lychees?

Daddy. Sometimes, even now, I can still conjure him up, or rather, his suits. They were all so determinedly tailored. Cuffed pants, razor-sharp crease; rich wool or gabardine or silk blends; thin, black leather belts with brushed gold buckles. He usually stood during his brief visits, and since I was a small child, I spent most of those visits studying his crotch.

Daddy did not subject me to surgery at birth, which was the usual treatment for my condition back then, to refashion the unborn penis into a vagina. As for my mother, well, you forget about what never was—she did allow me life after all—and remember Ah Lum instead.

I was tutored at home—in everything from classical Chinese to Latin to the geography and history of the world, I was nothing if not well educated—and dressed as a boy whenever Daddy visited. But all my early life, I was Ah Lum’s girl. She had a harelip that contorted her features so badly even I occasionally averted my gaze. She loved me though, fiercely, with the passion of one who recognizes and protects her tribe. She taught me control, the suppression of temper, and the power of a face that does not flinch.

On my eleventh birthday, I saw Daddy for the last time.

“You’re going away to school,” he said. He pulled off my cap and yanked at my too-long hair. “And we’ll cut this off, properly.”

I stared at his crotch. “Yes, A-Ba.”

“Don’t call me that. I am your uncle from now on, the brother of your mother who died in China. That’s what you’ll tell everyone.” He said uncle in English and right then I felt I wouldn’t see him again.

“Yes, uncle,” I replied in English.

“You will go to boarding school, in England.”

“Can Ah Lum come too?”

“You’re too old for a baby amah. You know that, don’t you?”

I kept quiet.

“Now I will show you something so that you can understand who you are.” He gestured for Ah Lum to leave the room, and locked the door. “Here,” he said, unzipping his pants and pulling out what towers in my memory as the tiniest penis in the world. “This is what you are. When you’re grown up, your manhood will help you survive and run successful enterprises. I came here from China with nothing. Now I have sons, and wealth.”

I stared at his shrimp-like thing, almost buried in his testicles, and wondered if he also sat to urinate, the way I did.

He zipped himself up and sat down, the one time I recall that he did. I stared at his face, the smooth, hairless chin, the thick lips that seemed permanently fixed in a scowl, the eyes that refused to look directly at me. “Even you,” he said, “will not disgrace me. At least you are intelligent, and diligent. Learn to be independent. In the end, there is no one you can count on except yourself.”

Years later, when all that was ancient history, I researched my father’s family and learned he had another son, a couple of years younger than me, and a daughter. He still runs the company, because the son is a good-looking playboy, not terribly bright, who spends all his time fucking models and pop stars, globally gracing the gossip pages with his licentious and drunken behavior. In an interview published in The Wall Street Journal some years back, Daddy refers to an older son who died as a child, a responsible and intelligent boy. By then his alabaster-skinned Chinese wife was dead and could not tell.

Did I say that puberty was the most horrifying time of my life?

At boarding school, I wore a pair of fake glasses, pretending myopia, so that the more honorable boys wouldn’t hit me. Being an A student, I bought safety through my enterprise, selling crib sheets with immaculately neat, hand-printed answers to exams that boys could hide without difficulty. I feigned illness to avoid physical activity, relying on the discretion and protection of the headmaster and doctor who knew, but exercised in secret to stay strong. But as voices deepened, and wet dreams sprayed the nights, I felt the encroaching danger of rampant masculinity, dogging me like a nightmare from which I couldn’t awake. My Adam’s apple did not bulge, and desire surfaced, but only within.

Linus Wu, the one other Chinese boy at the exclusive English enclave, arrived at the school when I was twelve. He was two years my senior, from some rich Chinese family in Singapore and fancied himself another Bruce Lee.

I was collating information for my enterprise one afternoon in the study room when he sauntered by in the company of his best friend, Gordon Littlefield.

“Hey, Miss Charlie Chan,” Linus said, laughing at his own joke. “I need a literature crib sheet. Make me one.”

I kept my head down. “That’ll be two pounds. Those take extra work.”

“What, no favors for your dai go?”

“You’re not my brother.”

He grabbed the back of my neck and squeezed it in a choke hold. “Do it, fairy, or I’ll tell headmaster what you’ve been up to.” Then, he released me, but not before banging my forehead against the table top.

“Now,” he said. “I need that literature sheet, and Gordon needs one for chemistry. One pound for both. Have you got that?”

I mumbled. “Yes.”

“Where are your manners?”

“Sirs.”

They laughed their way out of the study room.

I prepared those sheets. My consolation was knowing how unintelligent they both were, because here I was, one form behind them, able to answer their exams.

Their demands grew. Within a couple of terms, I was virtually doing all their schoolwork, and supplying crib sheets for too many subjects. To keep me in check, they regularly played what they called their “game” with me. Gordon, who was clearly subordinate to Linus, would drag me out of bed in the middle of the night and force me to suck him till he came. Linus watched, and masturbated. Eventually, I had had enough. I was tired of being pushed around by those two and decided to teach them a lesson. Things, I reasoned, couldn’t get any worse.

The success of my enterprise hinged on the fact that my crib sheets were imperfect. My customers needed to pass, which was not the same as getting As. Only Linus and Gordon demanded near-perfect grades, which was why they needed my full-time services for consistency. They may not have been the brightest, but they weren’t idiots.

A midterm was coming up. I settled on the literature exam for my revenge. This required full-blown essays, and I had to write out several in advance on thin sheets of airmail paper which they could fold up into tiny squares to bring into the exam. That spring, I laughed myself silly over their essays, which I peppered with as many deliberately wrong statements as I dared. The red herring was the one that began, “In Shakespeare’s comedy, The Tempest, King Lear is confronted with a dilemma. The queen had said of their daughters, Let them eat cake, which was meant as a treat, but Ophelia, the queen’s rival for Lear’s affection, poisoned the cake and all but the youngest girl died. Now, the queen wanted Ophelia executed, but the king was loath to kill his mistress.” Neither one, I knew, had ever read a single Shakespearean play. I marked that sheet as a possible answer for a question on The Tempest or on the character of Lear, or on the comedies, knowing in advance that neither The Tempest nor Lear would be on the exam, and that they would likely use one of the two other compare-and-contrast essays I’d prepared for the comedies, since those were obviously more appropriate, not nearly as silly, and would garner, at worst, a C-minus, which is what Gordon got.

Who knew? Linus was just stupid enough.

His class, I heard, howled over the teacher’s reading of that essay, for which Linus got an F. The boys who knew came and congratulated me afterwards; by then, those two had become a bullying pair no one liked. When Linus tried to confront me, everyone mocked him openly, and he left, red-faced and furious.

Linus Wu and Gordon Littlefield surrounded my bed that night. Gordon grabbed my glasses.

“Get up,” he hissed. “We’re going for a long walk.”

“I’m not going,” I said.

Linus slapped my face twice with both hands, hard. “What are you going to do, girl face? Scream?”

The two of them forced me out into the chill of an English spring. Under an elm by the playing field, they raped me in turn, for real. This was as much their virginal loss as it was mine, because they rushed clumsily through the proceedings, never turned me over, and consequently never saw my strange fruit. Yet through all that, I knew it was their awful lust, and not just the need for revenge, that truly propelled them. Before they left, Linus ground my glasses under his heel. “Tell and you’re dead,” he said.

I lay out in that open field for hours, refusing to cry, refusing to feel sorry for myself. I thought of Ah Lum, brushing and braiding my hair which grew long in between Daddy’s visits, putting me in dresses with soft frills, showing me pictures of Chinese movie stars of the Forties with their crimped hair and rouged cheeks, bathing me with lavender soap, dusting me with rose-scented talcum powder. There was no one to blame, not even her, nor Daddy, for this mess I was in. What did I expect? I had my revenge all right, and this was the result. Eventually, I got up, shut out the pain, and found my way back to the dormitory where my assailants slept like rough logs. This was it. I had managed to hide my genitals till now and put up with the façade of boarding school, but the charade had to end before Wu and Littlefield subjected me to even worse torture. They weren’t done with me yet, of that much I was certain. I was fourteen.

That weekend, I disappeared to London. Luckily, it was near the end of term, so a large bank draft had arrived. I withdrew all the money and bought myself girl’s clothes, makeup, and a wig for until my hair grew out. In a public women’s toilet, late at night when no one was around, I discarded my male garb and became “Girl-Girl.”

Was I scared? Of course. Just because bodies were for sale all around me didn’t mean I wanted this life. But there is a desperation so profound that it is beyond all feeling, beyond what we call our common humanity. Daddy wasn’t wrong about my intelligence; I knew what survival meant. What is it Kevin says? Walk the walk; talk the talk. That’s how you do it.

Nightlife is a blanket more secure than narcotics or drink. I stayed undercover, shopping around my eternal girlishness. English schoolgirl, China girl-child bride, lascivious Lolita. There wasn’t a “Girl-Girl” I wouldn’t play for those who really wanted a boy. Johns of all stripe lack imagination, and I had to keep the money coming in. Daddy had closed the bank account after my big withdrawal, just like that, and never even tried to look for me. I half expected it but I cried that day, uncontrollably, frightened by this final, irrevocable severance, because a small part of me wanted to believe he loved me at least a little.

But I missed daylight, and school. A month after my transformation, I put on my girl’s school uniform, without makeup, and passed the daylight hours at the British Library, reading whatever I could.

It was there that I met Chou-li. He’s dead now, must be. He was already in his seventies then, surprisingly upright, which gives me a slender hope. I had seen him a few times in the reading room, always poring over the Chinese newspapers. Sometimes, he’d nod and wave. I couldn’t help noticing his extremely long, exquisitely groomed nails. All his nails were long, not just the pinkies.

He sat opposite me one afternoon. I recall the shaft of sun between us, glistening with dust motes. His eyes were startlingly sharp, and I felt as if he stripped me with his gaze.

“Chinese?” He asked, in English.

I nodded. “Mostly.”

“Do you speak?”

Ke-yi,” I replied in Mandarin, because he looked northern.

He smiled. “Ni bu shi nüxing de. Shi ma?”

I wanted to bolt. How did this old man guess my questionable girlhood?

“Don’t be afraid,” he said, laying one hand on my arm. “I’m like you too. Yan ren.

I didn’t understand, having never heard the term in Chinese. He noted my confusion and said in English, “Eunuch. You understand? You too?”

Despite his gentle voice, I was frightened by his unrelenting gaze. “No, not me,” I said in English, retreating to the safety of my by-then greater fluency.

“I see. Come with me?”

“Daddy wouldn’t like it,” I lied.

He cocked his head. “Really?”

I lowered mine, ashamed. “I have to make money.”

“No,” he said, leaning very close. “You don’t have to, not yet. Follow me.”

He stood up then and began to walk away, glancing back at me. “Lai, lai,” he urged. Come, come.

I shook my head and remain seated. He merely smiled, and left.

A few days later, I saw him again. He handed me an envelope filled with pound notes. “Soonggeini. Present.” He saw me hesitate and added, “Go on, take it. Your daddy can’t look after you forever.”

I wanted to push it away, but couldn’t. The night before, a john had hurt me so bad I was still bleeding in the morning, and he stiffed me. This time, I followed Chou-li to his enclave of transsexuals, transvestites, intersexuals, hermaphrodites, bisexuals, homosexuals. Many were foreign, from Asia and the Middle East, although there were one or two English. Chou-li had been a eunuch in the last Chinese court, or so he claimed. All I knew was, in this home, I had found my tribe.

He said, “You’ll stay with me. You can be my boy.” When I shook my head, adamant, he smiled. “Okay, girl,” adding, “mistress.”

And so for a time, I was his very precious daughter. He seemed to take pleasure in serving me, drawing my baths, arranging my meals, taking me anywhere in London I wanted to go. I was his “mistress” and he made me command, verbally, even physically, which I quickly discovered I had a knack for. I suspected he wasn’t really rich, but he didn’t seem to want for money. He took me regularly to doctors, to make sure no new complications had arisen. He tutored me in Chinese poetry and history, and took me to the library often, saying it was good to study. Once, I asked him about his castration, because he had told me it happened when he was five or six. He refused to talk about it. Then, I asked if he felt desire and he said that some things you know inside, undeniably, and nothing the world has wreaked in its inhumanity can ever take away the comfort of that knowledge. He had seen many naked women, and despite the men who raped him, he knew it was women he would have desired.

Most of all, he taught me what I needed to know about sex, as if he knew, somehow, that I could not escape the life. Take charge, he instructed. That’s how you’ll be safe. Remember what I’ve taught you. Compromise only what you must. And always, always, whenever you can, reduce the risk. The others in his home—a large, four-room flat that was always full—came and went, and I learned over time that almost all were prostitutes, escorts, or exotic dancers.

But even Chou-li couldn’t look after me forever.

On my eighteenth birthday, I made my Atlantic crossing. Chou-li cried when I left, but he let me go, saying he had done all he could for me. He placed in my purse a sealed envelope of money, which he told me to use prudently. Afterwards, I saw that he had given me two thousand pounds. Daddy’s wealth shriveled against Chou-li’s magnanimity. I wept tears as sweet as those I’d shed over my parting from Ah Lum.

My first day john was a Wall Street lawyer, sometime in the Seventies. I was in my early twenties by then, and managing. “He wants it before breakfast,” my transvestite pimp, Sarabella, said. “And he specifically asked for an Oriental, so I quoted double.” I smiled and took the address. This was before Asian immigration flooded the market, which was why I expanded internationally in the early Nineties.

So this client—Larry, or was it Michael?—was behind his desk playing with himself when in I walked at five a.m. sharp. Punctuality matters, especially during the day when schedules are tight. Decent-looking, early fifties, Jewish, not overweight, he was new at this. I know because after the first one he said, “Is it slanted at all or what?” and tried to cop a feel. I slapped his hand, hard enough to sting, but kept the tone light. “Sorry, off limits,” I said. “You know it’s extra for that.”

He offered coffee and donuts. I chose a cream-filled one to kill the bad taste. His was bitter and sour, and I wondered if he didn’t have some kind of illness.

“Do you always come to work this early?” I asked. Sarabella insisted we make conversation, to prove we were really an “escort service.”

He replied. “My wife’s leaving me. I sleep here sometimes.”

“So there’s a shower here?”

He pushed open the door behind his desk to an executive bathroom larger than the room I inhabited.

“Neat.”

“You finished with that donut yet?”

I swallowed and crawled over. Stay on your knees, Sarabella said. They like that.

When he handed me the money I asked, “So why did you want an Oriental?”

“Because her fucking boyfriend is.” He seemed embarrassed because he added, “Quit being nosy.”

Exit, stage left, but as the sun rose over the Hudson, I couldn’t help wondering why his wife had chosen an Asian, because I very nearly choked on this john. Not that all Asian men are… but Daddy, you know, and Linus Wu as well, for that matter. In my experience, Hewitt was a rare exception.

But he got me thinking about day jobs, because I am a morning person. The trade’s less conspicuous by day. More business-like. In a commercial building, traffic during office hours is the norm. I could look like the rest of the world in sunlight, which ameliorated the compromise.

So I started my “BLCB & CS fund” with ten dollars of the payment from that first day john. You know, I can still wear the Chanel suit, which, with care, has lasted nicely over the years. A lightweight wool-silk blend, gray with pale red piping along the edge of the waist-length jacket, a shapely skirt split modestly at the knee, that suit was made for me. None of my later, tailored ones ever looked as good. The black leather clutch briefcase has given way to a larger, hard-shell version, one with a compartment for business accessories, although I sometimes still carry the original, instead of a purse, for effect.

A few years later I left Sarabella to work only daytime johns and built my solo enterprise. It was an amicable parting. She supplied “ladies” for evenings, and was happy to send customers my way. If I must work for someone, I do prefer women, real or otherwise, who are so much more organized than their male counterparts. Which is why I don’t mind Madame here in Amsterdam. She’s a transsexual who runs a long-established, high-class, global escort service for “special needs.” I just don’t care for the nightlife because you end up looking sleazy, even in designer, because it’s what the clientele wants, because even those who need never become working girls have been seduced by fashion to ape the look.

War’s supposed to be good for business. This one wasn’t, but that probably has more to do with the economy. Revenue slid thirty percent. God-and-Allah-fearing leaders may or may not themselves be whoremongers, but the primary trick of their trade is to inspire the masses and maintain institutions. Crusades happen as long as there are men who want virgins, as Daddy once said. Surprising what sticks as the years roll along, like those odd Daddy-isms. Like Linus Wu and Gordon Littlefield.

This is getting complicated. All I meant to tell was about Hewitt and how he scammed me. Funny how telling one story leads to the next and the next.

That first dinner, Hewitt talked nonstop. He said he wanted to interview me and write a memoir, fictionalized of course, he emphasized, because he figured “we” could get a lot of money. The kid was smooth, pretty convincing what with his impressive list of contacts. At one point, he pulled out this file folder with business cards of executives in big publishing companies, and Hollywood as well. He described a potential story line, a way to disguise everyone. It would not be an exposé; we’d work as a team. “We,” he kept saying.

“What do you say?” He asked when dinner was over. “Can I tell my publishers I have my source?”

I looked him in the eye. “You already have a contract?”

“Sure.”

“Show me.”

I can’t be certain now, but it seemed he hesitated, and that should have tipped me off. He could probably tell I wasn’t entirely sold. But he opened his case and pulled out a manila envelope right there and then and handed it to me.

“I brought you a copy,” he said.

The printed return address read Harper Collins. I took the envelope, smoothed my skirt, and stood up. “I’ll check it out. Thanks for dinner.”

The kid was smarter than I gave him credit for because the contract was for a half-million-dollar advance, with an editor’s name at Harper Collins. I verified the number with directory inquiry, called, and sure enough, this editor confirmed everything. Hewitt and I even signed a separate contract, giving me sixty-five percent of everything, but only because I insisted. I was happy, thinking I’d cut myself a great deal.

And then, the day his story appeared, everything stopped. There it was: “At the Office: From the Diary of a New York Call Girl.” The more I read, the angrier I got. He blew my cover, even naming whose offices I used. Carter Mahmoud yelled so loudly over the phone that I completely lost my cool. I was shaking, crying. Me. Who knows better than to lose control. Kevin slammed the phone the last time I called. He’ll likely end up in jail for a spell; the trial’s still not over. I felt worst for him. He made me money, ensuring my longevity, my survival, even if he was a crook.

For whatever reason, Hewitt Chan kept my identity secret, never attempted to deliver me to the D.A. Exposure wouldn’t have hurt, not the way it hurt the johns. What upset me, even more than the money, was that he never gave me the end of “our novel.” Which is why I started reading books about the life. Turned out he’d “borrowed” my story from one about some Mayflower lady pimp (some of the chapters were verbatimlike I said, the wanton man lacks imagination). When I had pointed out I wasn’t a pimp, he said, “details.”

Who knew?

You know, you shouldn’t believe those books. Most don’t tell it like it really is. Some dress up the life, so that it’s glamorous, racy, and salacious. Others are sob stories of unwilling victims or children of poverty, and manipulate your sympathies as shamelessly as pimps can. Trust me, I know. In the end, it’s just a business like any other, and for me, as good a life as I was likely to get. One of highs and lows, of good days and bad, of profits and people, of liars and straight shooters, of sinners and martyrs and all those in between. There are no winners or losers in this awesome game, just buyers and sellers of whatever it is we humans must transact, as long as we’re still in play.

Anyway, thanks to Hewitt, I disappeared for the second time in my life. Took my laptop, the gray Chanel plus a few other clothes, and left the country. With the war and all, there were inexpensively empty flights to Europe in first class. Also, the war has meant good profits on my currency contracts. At least this time I really can count on myself.

I should have known better, not been taken in by the scam, which is what irks me most. Hewitt planned everything so perfectly. Turned out the editor was his girlfriend—was that the brief hesitation?—and the document, false. Clearly, he was taking a risk, or rather his girlfriend was, but he had calculated, correctly, that I wouldn’t raise a stink. I did think about doing so, for all of five seconds. The thing is, thanks to the likes of Kevin and Bernard, I knew when it was time to cut my losses.

But he got me thinking about Linus and Gordon, and about my own feebly planned scam that failed. I wasted so much energy writing those essays, getting caught up in the fiction, that I forgot about the business of revenge, that it should be final, and the avenger untouchable. I left myself wide open, and was forced to disappear for fear of further reprisals, ending my profitable enterprise in crib sheets, ending what last hope I had for a viable daylight life. I would like to say that Linus and Gordon and that time are all behind me, but some things stay inside, whether you want them to or not.

Which is why I did some diligent research and turned up a few interesting details of my own. That’s how I came to work nights again, for Madame.

Linus Wu’s a big shot now. He runs a telecommunication enterprise in China and travels all the time. Linus never married; he only fucks whores. Gordon Littlefield’s a global venture capitalist in London with a trashy young wife who runs around, literally, with the raciest royals, cuckolding him publicly. Linus and Gordon are still best friends; we’re comfortable with our tribe, I suppose. They both continue to indulge their “special needs”—I rather suspected they did—and have been Madame’s clients for many, many years. They’re quite inseparable. All the “girls” here know about them and wouldn’t you know it, no one readily takes on the “dynamic duo” as they’re known, even though they pay double for the pleasure and are reliable regulars. Trust me, it is a smaller world than we think and some things really don’t change.

So I laid low for awhile, patiently working for Madame, studying the lay of the land, figuring that eventually, my day would come. I never told Madame my real story when we met, using a different name—risky, but I interviewed well—and offered myself for “B & B” transactions. It’s been tedious, tying up johns, but I needed the bondage practice.

About six months ago, the perfect opportunity presented itself.

I had been watching their pattern. The two of them would show up, quarterly it appeared, hang out for a week, and call for girls three or four nights. I calculated that it might not be a good idea to take them on together right away, in case one recognized me. Each would also show up solo, Gordon quite regularly, and I decided it would be prudent to start with the subordinate. When Gordon called in alone that time, he wanted Kavali, this tiny Indian transvestite who specializes in bondage and Spanish fly transactions. Later, out of Madame’s earshot, I pulled her aside and offered double his rate to substitute.

“Are you crazy?” she asked, taking the money. “How will you convince him it’s okay?”

“Don’t worry about that. I’ll take care of things. You enjoy your night off.”

He was wary at first, but bought my story about Kavali’s “emergency.” That first night, I didn’t try to sell anything, and won trust by showing him such a good time so that he’d ask for me again. He had always been a big boy, but now he was portly and virtually impotent, which we fixed with Spanish fly, a mental rather than real aphrodisiac, and in his case, the bondage plus persuasive pandering seemed to be what really did the trick. What I remembered with clarity, what stuck over the years, was that whenever he was in ecstasy, he never seemed to feel pain, because I often used my teeth on him all those times during their “game” but he never once complained. His foreskin was thick and his penis unusually fat, which might have accounted for it, or else, he was unduly masochistic. He didn’t recognize me at all, which I’d counted on, because Gordon was one of those boys who never looked beyond the end of his nose. He hadn’t changed.

As I said, no one liked those two, so when I became Gordon’s regular, Madame was relieved. By then, I’d proved I would deliver and could more or less be trusted. Best practice, as Bernard used to say in his professorial tones, means satisfying the one who calls the shots. As for customers, you have to study the pattern of their needs. The corollary is knowing the immediate need and delivering that before all else.

About a month ago, I had Gordon tied up in bed one night when I told him about a super-fly Viagra combo that had “just appeared on the market.”

“It has to be injected though,” I explained, loosening his mouth gag to let him speak. Sensing his trepidation, I added, “Some men are terrible cowards. You’re not, darling, are you?” Earlier, I had given him what I said was the super-fly, in reality a Viagra, the kind that can cause the four-or-more-hour-erection side effect, to see how it affected him. An hour later, he was still in play but beginning to falter.

“Well,” he said, “perhaps just a teensy weensy bit?”

As I said, johns are predictable. The Spanish fly ones always want more, and the trick is to exhaust them or spike their drinks so they sleep.

We did the injection. It worked like a charm. Procaine’s an impressive substance.

Afterwards, I told him I wanted to take on his dynamic duo. He looked so pleased that I knew the deal would finally be sealed.

Tonight’s their last night. The first evening, Linus wondered aloud why I seemed familiar, but I poured him more brandy, flashed my privates and said, you wouldn’t forget that easily, would you, darling, allaying his suspicions.

Reduce the risk.

This time, I’ve planned properly, having learned a lesson from Hewitt. Had I been under Chou-li’s tutelage sooner, I would never have pulled the stunt I did with those two all those years ago. It’s good to study, Chou-li always said. Yan ren, castrated person. Chinese doesn’t hide the meaning like English does with eunuch.

I’ve studied castration.

In Gordon’s case, it’s easy. He’ll be tied up anyway and anesthetized, taken care off with the injection. Never was too intelligent, that boy, especially in the sciences. He used to follow my crib notes in chemistry lab to a T, one time creating a stink so bad the class was evacuated. When he complained, I pointed out how he’d confused a nitrate with a chloride. He mumbled something about my writing more clearly in future and never knew the difference. As for numbing him, he loved my biting him harder and harder, which I could do by progressively increasing the dosage. It’s all part of the plan. I want him to watch.

Linus still likes to watch, which he did earlier this week while I serviced Gordon. The thing is, these days, he helps himself along with liquor, vast quantities of it. It’s so typically Chinese, especially among the country-of-origin variety, making him inattentive and vulnerable. Surprisingly, the man didn’t need artificial stimuli, although he fizzles out fast on entry. In any case, the old-fashioned Mickey Finn will do the job—a mild version—plus I’ll tie him up and inject Novocain to prevent the pain reviving him. I’ve packed plenty of rubbing alcohol, gauze, bandages, and sutures along with the surgical blades. I’ll do him first. It’ll double Gordon’s pleasure. Linus will know quickly enough because his knockout will last only as long as it takes to finish off Gordon. The pain will kick in within an hour or two, by which time I’ll be off on a plane somewhere, dressed in timeless Chanel.

Strange fruit, perhaps, but we needn’t remain hanging “from the poplar trees.”

Time we ripened, don’t you think?

Oh I forgot to say that some of Lady Day’s most informative, and helpful, clients belong to the medical profession. Surprising how much you can learn from books.

After tonight, I’ll finally be done with the life. My one regret is that Madame will lose two of her best clients, although I will send a money order for the entire transaction, instead of just her commission. A small price to pay for severance. I don’t like to bite the hand that’s fed me, but this is business after all and nightlife has its risks. The bottom line? She’ll always have fresh johns.

Daylight again. Soon.

—XU XI

  2 Responses to “Lady Day, A Short Story by XU XI”

  1. Thanks for this terrific story, Xu Xi! I love the way the story builds in intensity, pulling the reader along, and how Lady Day never seems diminished by the various creeps who exploit her.

  2. Lady Day is inspiring in a complex way that is simultaneously discomforting. Powerful story. Thank you Xu Xi (and DG for bring Xu Xi and this story to NC).

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