At the onslaught of the red light, he cut the engine short, firing the tiny black sports car into the crosswalk. He sighed, cursing the wait, letting a mouthful of smoke settle against the tainted windows like condensation.
“And what do you do after you kidnap them?” he scoffed. “Force them to work in your brothel and wait on you hand and foot?”
April plucked a cigarette from her purse and lit up too. From the backseat, I stole glances at her in the rearview mirror. Her black hair, parted slightly, framed a slim oval face; faint age marks tastefully touched with make-up. She put the cigarette to her lips and clenched it like she was close to biting clean through.
“I don’t run a brothel,” April announced, trying for a tone of mild consternation. She had her arms folded over her lap and wore a desultory expression on her face.
“Not a traditional brothel,” he countered, “not one of those pleasure dens for men. No, this is different. You find the guys online, chatrooms mostly, and then—.” He paused and leaned in close to April. “Your friend, he… he doesn’t know yet, does he?” The end of April’s cigarette reflected the glow of smoldering embers in the mirror.
“Know what?” I asked, craning my neck from the backseat.
“Poor thing,” he mouthed in between puffs. And then to April: “So when were you going to tell him?”
We arrived at a Thai restaurant downtown. April, a new colleague, had invited me for dinner with an old friend of hers who lived in Beijing. In addition to driving a sports car, he had a portly belly and a gold watch that cinched tight against his wrist. April announced that she was trying to be a better Buddhist and had recently given up eating sentient beings. He asked her if she ate fish.
“I just told you I’m vegetarian.”
“Well does your friend eat fish?” That was the way he posed every question to me; “your friend” this or “your friend” that. April nodded. He called over the waitress. “And two orders of curry shrimp,” he boomed, his pudgy cheeks trying to conceal a pleased grin. His gaze settled back on the table. “With all you’ve done, it’ll take more than becoming a vegetarian to earn your forgiveness.”
In the restaurant there was a small stage, and every evening a group of Thai dancers, dressed in little more than silk sarongs, graced it with their presence. After the first number, they prowled the restaurant, recruiting other women to join them. April was their first target.
“I tried to warn her,” he lamented absently, having never mentioned a thing. He sat smoking a cigarette, his eyes transfixed on the raised platform. I wondered how many women he had brought to the restaurant just so he could watch them dance. When April got back to her seat there was a small mound of goopy vegetables that he had scooped onto her plate, as if he were feeding a teething child.
The waitresses had brought out all the dishes at once: scallops in cream sauce, raw beef and wasabi, tom yum soup, pork fried rice. After a few bites, the man started up again.
“How much does your friend know about you?” he asked April.
“Please,” April said, her eyes staring into the clear broth of her soup.
“For example, does he know why you invited him here?”
“We’re having dinner and—”
“This is how it starts,” he said, “what she does with every new guy she meets.” I couldn’t tell what he was after, but I saw April’s expression get increasingly more harried. “A woman like that will never get married,” he continued, nearly rising to his feet, “and no man will have her outright, so she—”
“So she sweet-talks them, abducts them into her filthy brothel, and then forces them to fuck her.” He said it with so much conviction that I thought it was true. For a moment everything was still. And then, from his mouth spewed an odious laugh so deep it ruptured the table. I looked over at April, her eyes red and puffy, and quieted my dismay in the food.
It wasn’t until later that I learned he and April had themselves met online. I tried to imagine their first real life encounter – she flying halfway across the country to see him, he recognizing her from the worn-out photo he’d exhausted on all his friends. Three years of nervous anticipation. And then: the disappointment he felt at being turned down, the resentment he harbored ever since.
Slowly, he regained his composure. “Does your friend want to go to karaoke?” he asked.
“My friend can do what he wants,” April said, incensed. “I’m going home.”
The car ride back was silent, save for the intermittent sound of screeching tires. Now and then, a horn would ring out from behind us as we cut off another driver. Mostly I just gazed down at my feet, willing us home. We got to April’s apartment first, a tall high-rise on the outskirts of the city and opposite a small playground. The man put a hand on April’s thigh.
“I’m just concerned,” he said in a stern voice. “You have so many men in your life right now, so for your own safety—”
“Don’t drive so fast,” she told him before getting out and slamming the door, her face retreating from view. And then it was just the two of us, and the car slowly filling with smoke.
Even now, years later, I don’t know why I never said anything. I don’t know when I started to accept that the government monitors personal messages or that cooking oil is refined with heavy metals or that men can be rough with women. I don’t know when I started to see so much, and yet feel so powerless to change.