Love and Other Strangers

Written by Jerry Portwood on . Posted in Posts.


JUNKO
HAS SCARS marring both arms.

Curious
why such a beautiful woman in her line of work would choose to openly show off
such an apparent defect, I ask her what they are from.

“Oh,”
she says, lifting her delicate eyebrows and nodding her head. “I had tattoos
removed.” She smiles as she almost looks me in the eye.

I
stroke the raised area, the first time I’ve touched her since she sat down
close on my left, her bare thigh rubbing against my jeans, and nod. These scars
are jagged and mean. They aren’t from any sort of tattoo removal I’ve ever
seen, and I should probably just drop the subject, but I continue.

“Then
why do you still have the one here?” I ask, touching the small red heart on her
wrist. “You still like tattoos?” She smiles, a bit more uncomfortably now, but
she remains bright and positive—and changes the subject. “You want more drink?”
She pours from the half-finished bottle of Remy on the table. A small giggle
and more smiles all around.

I’d
ended up at the “geisha bar” on a Thursday night because my friend Sam was in
town visiting an old fraternity brother. Sam is 50 and openly gay, but he still
values the link he has with these college guys and their yearly bonding rituals
of golf, drinking and fancy dining. So after he and I had a drink, his pal
Ronnie showed up. “I’m taking you to my geisha bar!” he informed us, as he
hailed a cab while standing in the middle of Park Avenue.

“Where
is it?” I ask. He laughs at my question, a puzzled look on his face, as if I
were being intentionally obtuse: It didn’t matter where it was. It just was.

I
hopped into the backseat with my middle-aged friends and took off uptown to
what looked like a dumpy karaoke bar in the East 40s. A glance at the menu,
however, revealed a caliber of clientele able to pay $750 for a bottle of
cognac or plunk down a black AmEx for champagne that runs more than my weekly
salary.

“I
was kind of a little too drunk here the other night,” Ronnie admits. “Let’s see
if they give me a hard time.”

When
we enter a small cheer goes up.

“Oh,
Ronnie-san!” one stunning young woman in a sexy short-sleeved suit greets Sam’s
pal.

“Hi,
Sally,” Ronnie says with a grin.

“You’re
not mad? I wasn’t too bad the other night?” “Oh, you so baaaad!” Sally in the
suit says. She continues to beam and walks us to an upholstered corner. It’s
flanked with screens to block the view to the bar.

Otherwise,
the place is nearly empty except for the young women clustered around the bar,
three of whom decide to partner with us. Junko sits beside me. Sam gets a shy
girl named Kimi. Ronnie has Jenny. These women aren’t dressed in some
outlandish geisha attire, they’re just pretty, high-end call girls.

“You
like my suit?” Sally, the hostess, asks, positioning herself at the head of the
table.

“Yes,
very much,” Ronnie answers. “It’s Bebe,” she says, sliding her hands down her
sides, over the tight-fitting jacket that only barely conceals her sharp
hipbones. “I like this suit very much.”

“It’s
very nice,” Ronnie answers. “But why are all you girls here? It’s Thursday
night! You should be out with customers before they leave for the Hamptons
tomorrow with their wives. I’ll never make any money!” He’s chiding them but
it’s also obvious that he’s half serious. One of the girls brings over a nearly
empty bottle of Remy Martin XO with a tag hanging around its neck labeled: Mr.
Ronnie. No. 125.

Sam
and I are curious about the way the place operates so Ronnie fills us in. He’s
part owner in the operation, “And I personally interview each of them,” he
explains, with a cheerful leer. He points at Sally: “I fuck her.” Then at
Jenny: “I fuck her.” He’s a proud prince showing off his harem.

“But
what if someone walks in and they don’t understand what this place is?” I ask.

“If
they come in off the street, someone will politely show them the menu. Once
they see the prices, they usually start to get the drift.”

Most
of the clientele are Japanese or Korean businessmen, and they seem used to the
idea that there may be a bar with expensive bottle service and beautiful,
submissive women to cater to their whims. Turns out the Korean guys come for
the karaoke, so there are two rooms in the back. As a few bustle in, laughing
and yanking on each other’s sleeves good-naturedly, they head to the rooms and
two of the other girls who have gathered nearby politely excuse themselves. An
older Japanese gentleman enters the room and takes a seat near the piano, where
a plain-looking woman, her hair in a ponytail and wearing little makeup, sits
and picks out easy-listening tunes. His bottle tag reads No. 5. He’s obviously
been coming here for some time.

“There’s
no sex on the premises,” Ronnie says. “If someone is found having sex here,
she’s fired. Immediately.”

Well,
at least we know there are some sort of standards. Having worked for years at
newspapers that carry advertising that cater to the seedier sides of men’s
fantasies, I have tried to maintain a level of magnanimity and when it comes to
the brothels and the happy ending massages offered, believing people should be
able to negotiate freely for what they desire—as long as no one gets harmed.

“What
do you all know about me?” Ronnie asks the gathered girls.

“That
you are very rich, Ronnie-san.” Now it’s starting to feel a little creepy.
“You, what’s your name?” Ronnie begins to interrogate Kimi, who has thrown in
her lot with Sam. But Sam has been unresponsive and she’s not sure what she’s
done wrong. “What is it?” he asks again.

“Kimi,”
she says, and she lowers her eyes. “Oh, Kimi is a very good singer,” Junko
pipes up.

“You
are?” Ronnie isn’t backing down.

“Why
don’t you sing for us if you’re so good.”

“No,
I don’t know any songs.” She is being demure, and I wonder if she is seething
just below the surface.

“She
is professional singer,” Junko says.

Is
she trying to deflect the attention away from herself? Because she’s just
thrown her gal pal under the bus.

“Oh?
You’re a professional?” Ronnie probes. “How often do you practice?”

“I
don’t know. Not very often,” she responds.

“Then
you must not be much of a professional. If you want to be good, you have to
practice every day. Tiger Woods, he practices seven hours a day or more. You
have to have commitment.” Ronnie obviously worships that strain of American
exceptionalism that has profited him in life. If you work hard, you’ll excel.
He’s made millions doing whatever it is that he does. He’s on his second wife I
learn (both Asian) and has kids that have been tucked into their cozy beds in a
penthouse somewhere.

He
begins to bully her more, telling her how she’ll never amount to anything if
she doesn’t try harder. Sam tries to defend her, but I can tell he’s feeling a
bit too exposed. My liquid courage has kicked in from an earlier bottle of wine
and the bottomless cognac, so I finally try to break it up.

“I’ll
go sing. If I sing, will you sing, Kimi?” She looks at me as if it’s some sort
of trick. And I wonder if I’ve trapped her in a geisha girl fib. Maybe she’s
only supposed to pretend to be a singer? She walks with me to the piano, and we
begin to rifle through the scores. Most are popular tunes with Japanese characters
written above the English lyrics. I’m searching for something that I won’t
massacre too terribly and finally find “Let It Be.” The microphone is handed to
me, and I begin to sing. Kimi supports me by clasping my right elbow and making
sure I keep the microphone held up close to my mouth. Ronnie isn’t interested
in a drunk guy belting out a Beatles hit, so he’s moved on to the new woman
seated next to him.

When
we return to the table, it’s only a moment before Ronnie swivels to Kimi and
says, “So now it’s your turn to sing.”

She
lowers her eyes and tries to beg off. But a deal’s a deal and eventually she
slinks back to the piano, tracks down a song, chats with the pianist and begins
to sing. I recognize that it’s a Carpenters tune, but then the lyrics kind of
shift. Sometimes they sound English, sometimes Japanese. I’m not sure what
exactly she’s singing about, but Kimi hasn’t lied: She does have a lovely
voice. When she’s finished, Sam and I applaud and she returns, triumphant, to
the group.

“That
was very good, Kimi,” Ronnie says. She basks in his approval.

By
now, a new gaggle of women has appeared and they make their way to our sides,
but they are just as confused that Sam and I are not pawing at them. In fact,
we both have our hands tucked politely between our legs, careful not to touch
the ladies.

“You
guys are wild. My friends, usually, they’d be all over them by now,” Ronnie
says and chuckles. It’s like he’s seen a rare pachyderm and it’s the first
irrefutable evidence to support the fact that some men really aren’t interested
in women as playthings. Or women at all. Sam’s been here before, and is
familiar with Ronnie’s antics. He explains how he turned off their other
friend. “We were in geisha hell and Chris just thought you were being cocky,”
Sam says. “He thought you just wanted to be the biggest cock on the block.”
Ronnie doesn’t care. “He was just being a pussy.”

Having
made the rounds, Sally is back to check on us. And it’s time for Ronnie to have
some more fun.

“You
know, Sally, my friends here are gay,” he says, nodding his head in our
direction. “They’re into other guys.” The drink has finally gotten to Sam, and
he’s now slumped forward, his eyes closed. At the moment, he’s not much into
anything.

“No!”
Sally says, shocked. “They not gay!”

“Yes,
they are.” Now I really feel like some sort of rare species of freak, but I nod
my head in agreement.

“Really?”
Her eyes are wide; her glossy lips in a beautiful bow that must make many men
squirm in anticipation.

Jenny
leans in to me and explains softly.

“Sally
is not very sophisticated. I don’t think she even knows what gay means.” Jenny
has been snuggled up close to Ronnie for some time now, and I see that she has
a pride of place amongst the women. She’s a sad beauty: long black hair parted
down the middle, draping her face in an oldfashioned way, her lips turned down
in a teasing scowl. She speaks English fluently and without much of an accent,
while some of the women struggle with each syllable. But Sally must have
understood because she has dragged the only male staff member, a bartender,
over and pushed him down across from me.

“You
like?” she asks me.

“What?
Umm. What?” I babble.

“Sally,
what are you doing?” Ronnie has stopped whispering in a woman’s ear. “No,
Sally. He’s not here for that. He doesn’t understand.”

“Yes,
I ask him,” Sally says.

“Sally,
take him back to the bar. Sally, do it. Now.” This must be how Ronnie talks to
his kids. Stern. No nonsense. You do what Daddy says or else.

Sally
frowns, but she obeys. She takes the young Japanese man with his shaved head
(he is indeed attractive) back to the bar. Jenny finds the entire episode
hilarious. “She’s the hostess,” she explains. “She just wants to make sure
everyone is happy, that they have a good time.”

Ronnie
continues to scold her for the assumption that everything is for sale—for a
price. “But I asked him, and he said it was OK. He liked,” she says.

“Oh.
Well. In that case, bring him back.” Ronnie seems surprised, like it’s only now
that he realizes that it’s not just the dude who can pay for the chick that
makes the world go round.

He
and I get into a heated argument about the whole affair, one that somehow
shifts to how he raises his kids. “You have a problem with money,” he tells me.
As if it’s some righteous indignation that keeps me from understanding that
money isn’t dirty, it’s what enables everything. If you have it, you get what
you want. “My kids are going to be great. I’m sending them to the best schools.
I’m giving them the best that money can buy. And I love them!” His logic
astounds me, as if he hasn’t paid attention to countless TV, book and movie
plots that suggest that you can never control what your children will be, how
they will turn out, when they will reject you and your way of life. His
flummoxed reaction makes me realize that few people disagree with him. Money
has insulated him from insult. All these women are so obedient, but I imagine
they wish they could stab Ronnie in the heart if they could. I know I do.

We
move off the subject, however, when a shy, petite Russian joins us. She’s the
only woman working the room who is not Japanese or Korean and, although her
English is halting, we’re told that her Japanese is impeccable. A recent
college graduate hailing from Siberia, Janna is visiting on a tourist visa. She’s
been in New York for a month and somehow found her way here.

“Do
you like it?” Ronnie asks. “Are you enjoying yourself?” He obviously didn’t
“interview” her.

He
expects a positive response, but Janna has the spleen of a Russian and can’t
suppress her melancholy. “No. People are very bad.”

I’m
elated and urge her on, coaxing her to be honest and brutal in her summation.
“You need to cheer up,” Ronnie tells her.

“No,
more, more. I love it, she’s so Russian.” I’ve now had to put my palm
over the rim of my glass to keep any of the women from filling my glass. We’ve
finished the original bottle hours ago and have already made it halfway through
the second. Sam, long snuffled into his chest, only wakes now to join the fray.

“You
don’t get it. She needs me. She needs this place,” Ronnie says. “What sort of
opportunities does she have back in, where was it? Siberia?” He snorts. “Have
you ever heard of a female executive in Russia? What would she amount to back
in Siberia?”

I
know he actually has a point, but I hate that he could be proven right. I
realize that Ronnie feels some white man’s burden to help women. By fucking
them. His imperialist twinge means he’ll conquer as many soft female bodies as
possible, and in the process raise them up from the proverbial muck. Why work
at changing the way the world works? It’s his form of charity—just remember to
wear a condom.

“Men
are evil,” Janna hisses. And my heart leaps. I love her in that moment, wish I
could jump across the table and hug her. She has courage that these other
docile women don’t exhibit, and they seem nervous that Ronnie may snap.

“You
know why my friends won’t marry a Russian girl?” Ronnie asks. I hear the malice
in his voice. “You may be the most beautiful women in the world. You are very
beautiful, Janna. But a Russian woman will marry you. She will love you. Until
the day after she is safe, has her papers. And then next day, she will divorce
you. And take half of everything you have.”

Ronnie
is proud of his pronouncement, having summed up the problem with all the greedy
gals in the world. Janna sneers, and I can almost see her twisting the dagger
deeper. But Ronnie doesn’t like to be cruel, he’s the nice guy, and soon he’s
turned the charm back on. People are smiling again and Janna is no longer the focus.

Soon
after, I overhear a conversation and hear tenderness from him as he whispers to
Jenny, the sad beauty, still at his side. “You seem sad. You don’t like this
place anymore do you?” Jenny looks at him, not like an obedient servant, but as
if she wants to discern if she can trust him. She nods in agreement. “I can
tell: You don’t want to be here. Don’t worry. I have a good lawyer. I’ll get
you papers. I’ll get you out of here. All you need is a good lawyer and you can
do anything.”

It’s a
cynical pronouncement, but as we gather our things, pay the bill and say our
good-byes—hugs on the sidewalk as if we’re old friends who will see one another
someday soon—I wonder if Ronnie may, unfortunately, be right.

..