In Our Lovely Deseret
Edited by Robert Raleigh

Twinkie
Thomas Bergess

[p.247]Here in Hong Kong they pay me to teach English to Chinese, but there aren’t many students around to teach. Summer courses start at the end of the month, so I read the newspaper. Lim the refugee, employed to clean the bathrooms and get us cans from the Coke machine, snores in the office next to me. And there is also the young receptionist, in her small skirt and short hair. She fills these slow days of early summer by reading a fashion magazine in her chair. She draws pictures of horses on the school stationery, and steps to the windows to watch the street traffic. Sometimes she chats in Cantonese with the parents as they come in to sign their children on for summer courses. I hear she is exceptional over the phone. She is dependable. She has taken the English name of Sandra. I never have learned her Chinese name.

As the weeks pass, I grow restless as I stay in the office, reading until late, until Lim forces me out, wanting to sleep. My thoughts wander to my friends still in school, and our simple, innocent pleasures: fun rides in the mountains, homemade ice creams, and happy songs. We pass our time in this way. It seems the Mormon men who pace the ramparts of my university are the only ones around who still are [p.248]taught the secrets of the world, and how to have fun. I read some lines from the mighty poet, Lu Yu:

I dream of the days on the
River at Tsa-Feng, and the
Friends of
my youth in Yen Chao.

And yet with all our pleasant games, which we long to teach the world, we are a solemn people, who live in remote mountains and deserts, unwanted by anyone else. We pray for rain, and our prophet, and we brighten our lives with numerous church parties. We live away from the subtlety and mischief of the more watered worlds around us. We take the bread and water and want the faith that makes a nonsense of our worries.

We try to feel the passions God would feel.

Or, we hope God has our same passions, that he is like us.

God was once a man.

We miss our old companions, now married and sharing their beds with/wives. Our eyes linger on the women in church, bows in their hair, who wait for us to make them whole.

Where is the passion?

If we are lukewarm, God will spew us out of his mouth.

We attend dances on campus, and let the soft music make our hearts swell, enough so that we ask a friend, painted and fresh now, to put her hand in ours and accompany us to the dance floor.

The sparkling punch. We are all friends. No one is afraid. We are lonely.

Instead of the friends of my youth, all I have to listen to is the headmaster, Mr. Ng, shouting to his friends in the evenings obscene accounts of his exploits with women and aphrodisiacs. Each in his set has his cellular phone, his Mercedes and Rolex, and so considers himself above the requirements of decency. Now and then Mr. Ng pushes me out the door, to accompany them as they drink and sing and make themselves merry in one of the thousands of karaoke clubs in the city.

I’ve never seen a prostitute, and so the bodies inhabiting the tiny dark skirts waiting in the corners, in the colored lights, or under the arm of Mr. Ng and his colleagues, are of unusual interest to me. I find [p.249]myself staring at them for long moments, until I see these women start to worry. When they return my stare, I can only look away.

The high halls and curious foods, the smoke flowers! The perfumed air, the ninety couples dancing. The women and the tender skin on their insincere hands, their small dresses, their practiced phrases. They pair off, like birds, with the customers in their bold ties.

The men of today: why are they not the men of old days? Truly love has grown cold in their hearts, to night after night inhabit such clubs of stupidity. Mr. Ng shouts at the rows of waiting tiny entertainers, or sings deep from his belly some annoying ballad, his shirt tails untucked.

As I wander in those weeks the many levels of the shopping mall, I often dwell upon the unhappy lot of the poor girls in the Club Deluxe: they are used and plundered, their most rare moments lost forever on old men testing out their impotency. They have no idea of a sober life, are mere toys of such men as Mr. Ng. Penitents these girls might some day be, but they are at present without prospect and are headed toward an unhappy end.

In my wanderings I often see one of these prostitutes in the crowds at around 6:00 in the evening, riding an escalator, on her way to work. She waves to me and I wave back.

Once I see her examining a row of video cassette recorders. Another time she stands in front of a set of mirrors, trying on a new miniskirt.

Eventually she sees me having my lunch alone, and she puts down her shopping bags and sits next to me. We work on our plates of rice and mixed vegetables, our Pepsis, close to a melee of kicking children who attend my school. I am in such a disorder I am unable to say anything to her, and I can only concentrate on my plate. She tells me her name—Twinkie—and that she means no harm.

She says Iam not wanting in any of the gifts of nature that a woman might find desirable. I am so pleased by her words to me that afterwards I am not myself. Confusion reigns in my senses, and the pilgrim facing me—solicitous, rice-stained-—n some way chances upon the idea of my celibacy. I’m not sure exactly how she excavates this sexual fact from how I use my chopsticks, or the way I place my napkin.

In the midst of our plenty, it is nothing I care to announce, but there it is, somewhere for her to see.

She follows me about that afternoon as I run my several errands—to the grocer, the laundry, the stationery shop, and, climactically, the shoe repair. As I make my right and obtuse angles through the crowds, clutching my plastic sacks and college-ruled paper sheets, I look down to see if her plum lips are still parted hopefully. So elevated am I to be seen with such a lovely creature that I scarcely know the ground I walk on, and only with the greatest efforts do I remember my list of afternoon errands. I am a youth void of all understanding.

So it is that, although I know my friends in school would never approve of my taking such freedoms, looking down from their mountain heights, their arms folded, I find myself kissing her later that afternoon in a construction site, under some bamboo scaffolding.

Twinkie is older than I, by perhaps ten years, yet she becomes in these early weeks of summer a companion of sorts. I listen to her heroic phrases, etched carefully out of the sides of her mouth, continually reminding me of the corners which teach her my language she speaks so longingly. She searches me out sometimes at the school, when I have an afternoon free, or after my evening courses. At first there is little between us except good intentions. When I ask her why she spends time with me, she says she wants to help me, though in what way or over what insufficiency she will not say. It doesn’t matter. A woman of dishonor, yes, yet one of such a pleasing temper, and a face full of such charms, she in no way resembles the hair-brained wenches of Club Deluxe. My spirits are all over the heavens when I think of the way she holds her bag by a leather strap, a bag filled with, I notice, small mirrors and cylinders of lipstick, and a case for her credit cards.

I tell myself I am only yielding to the fair speech of a strange woman, but when I think of Twinkie’s heightened brows and wise chin, her pale unnatural features—her red lipstick smearing her mouth, I am confounded. All I hope is she will contain her searching hands and racing lips and we will kiss in the streets and parks and no more. She actually takes to this easily enough and so we start taking strolls together after dinner. I tell her at first it is for my digestion.

We like to walk in Tsim Shau Tsui; as the motorists around us circle and zig-zag, locked onto an upward financial spiral, their eyes [p.251]tinted by the green numbers on their dashes, we keep a look out for sales on handbags and camera equipment. On these nights we are silly and distorted with each other, happy as larks when a new course arrives, or when the street light suddenly changes. I can’t help feeling though that because I am unable to speak her language that our hours together are a strain for her, filled as they are with what I imagine are exaggerated tendernesses on her part, and interest in my life. To make it up to her, somehow I always make it my habit to buy some small gift on our excursions, whether it is a bag of sweets or a new scarf. I want her company, Iwant to hold her hand, I want the silences between us. We are unnatural with each other, doomed, yet incredulously I listen to her every night, as we say goodbye, ask when we will see each other next.

“When are you free again?”

We meet one day in Kowloon Park, in the afternoon, when the pool opens to the public. I take the subway, happily twirling my goggles on my finger. Twinkie waits for me with a clear plastic bag in which I can see a towel, and a bathing suit. In her other hand she carries her handbag, bulging now with shampoos and conditioners. We pay the small fee and enter, separating for our dressing rooms.

In the pool we are supervised by bony lifeguards. We make our way into the water through a number of dog-paddling adolescents. Bobbing and rubbery I teach her to hold her breath and to let her face become wet. She has no bangs, and so she pulls her hair back in a bun. She fears I will leave her in the deep end. She doesn’t know she can never drown with narrow-shouldered youths choking one another around us, their eyes bulging. I take her hands and pull her along on her back and I see her open her eyes then and faintly shake her feet under the water. Suspended, she lets go, and, as if movement will cause her to sink, she stays afloat, inhaling. In my mind this creaturelucid, unreal, diseased-will be kicking soon. I will need to buy her a pair of goggles.

Often, with one leg floating to the side, she slowly steps and leans toward the deep end, on one foot. I watch her from the end of the pool. I cannot detect any sort of path she is taking through the crowds, any object to her route. She keeps her arms raised, high above the water. She forgets all about me.

Twinkie tells me she wants to learn how to swim, but sometimes [p.252]when I hold her by the waist she turns her head out of the water and says with that nasal whine in her voice, “You’re hurting me.”

I apologize over and over again.

Afterwards, on the street, she stares at me puzzled when I mention the goggles to her. Her eyes are red, an alien marking from our buoyant world. We see, because of the chemicals in the water, rainbows and ellipses in the air in front of us. Forms in a free fall from the sky.

I sit in the school office, reading the newspaper. I think of her summer dresses, her head separating from the rest in the subway stations, our long exhalations in the glass buildings, the thousands of escalators, her surprises at school, our day at the arcade. At first she assumes she will sleep with me, but when I retreat from this, she becomes resigned to the fate I have chosen for myself, for us. And yet, as suspended and inconclusive as our evenings are, as incoherent and clumsy my hands are in her hair, she always returns to me, with phone calls, with visits. Walking out of a class, I will see her crossed legs under the table in the office, and looking up she will be smiling, her chin high in the air. Dropping my papers on the desk, I will sit next to her until the amount of pleasantries we can possibly share between us is exhausted, and when she or I will ask the other when we can see each other next.

Summer arrives and our school is overrun by well-fed boys and girls, most of whom I call by the English names they have chosen for themselves: Frank, or Cynthia, for instance. They come in all ages, either on the arms of their friends or holding the hands of one of their parents, who retrieves them at the end of the hour. I actually take to this work right away, and use the free minutes at the end of the hour for different games the students are fond of. Simon Says, Hangman, and Scrabble. I use a mimeographed sheet at the end of lessons which lists a number of English adjectives and colors for height, weight, and hair, and personality. After going through the different lists of words for them, I pause and ask them to, in each category (shape of face, color of eyes, size of lips), describe someone they know, anyone. This excites them into curving their still elastic spines over their stationery and Terminator II pencil cases, elbowing each other in the tight economy of space in our classrooms and our mirrored, rinsed city. After discussing with them the half-dozen different colors the lesson [p.253]supplies for hair, eyes, and skin, it is disarming for me to listen to the lists they submit like police reports, standing: Hair—black, Eyes—black, Skin—white, Personality—nice. I smile when I first hear two or three students describe their sisters, aunts, and maids in the same way, and I suggest to the class they take another few minutes to use other words from the list, at least to describe personalities. Then when I call on another to read his list, I find out his father is nice, and hard-working. That her best friend is nice, and cheerful. That young Sarah has an older cousin who is nice, and quiet. Our time runs out, my time runs out, and we say goodbye until the next day. They gather their writing instruments and add them to the other ounces they carry over their rounded shoulders, and run for the doorway.

In these moments I wonder how they might describe me, their instructor. Or my friends in school. Whether exposed to their scrutiny, we qualify for the highest common denominator of my fair classes: nice. I take Twinkie out to dinner and I treat her to noodles and a Coke, and I watch her bend over to where her lips are two inches from the rim of the bowl, to inhale her noodles like there is no tomorrow. I say to her, “I like you, Twinkie. You are so nice. I like your hair—it is so black. And your eyes, they are also black. I love your eyes. Have I said that before? I love your eyes.” Twinkie wipes the spray from her cheeks, and gives me one of her aged and endearing smiles which turns my heart into the dripping, laboring organ on the wall of my apartment, and all the classrooms, pumping and working to produce fresh air.

“You are nice too,” she says.

On Sundays I put on my ridiculous white and student-blue seersucker in the apartment, and get ready for church in the afternoon. A boy in the hallway stares as I adjust my necktie in the mirror. He is perhaps six years old, and makes explosion noises with his mouth. He is a combination of stiff hair and small teeth.

I leave with my holy books under my arm and catch a train to the chapel across town, anonymous in the human mass. I go to a place for Americans, where the services are understandable.

I read the hymn book, the instructions in italics, on how to sing each song: Fervently. With devotion. Solemnly. Not too loud. With great feeling. We, on the other hand, sing our hymns With great reluctance.

Out the windows, in the streets, the men search for the hats the [p.254]wind has taken from their heads. Men sell red rockets on the corners, for absurd prices. The men of today: why are they not the men of old days? Truly love has grown cold in their hearts, to night after night inhabit such clubs of stupidity. Mr. Ng shouts at the rows of waiting tiny entertainers, or sings deep from his belly some annoying ballad, his shirt tails untucked. Just one of the many customers in their bold ties, consuming all the curious foods, smelling the smoke flowers. They pair off like birds with the women in their small dresses. They are happy in the high halls, for a moment, and look with contempt at me, the sad fellow there silently counting his inheritance in the semi-dark.

What fools we are! Fools! And yet God loves us still; he will reward us if we will be fools for him. There is nothing else, our stupidity is inescapable. There is only Twinkie, who is at this moment, I hope, making her distracted way towards me, passing the traders in pornography on the street, the executives depositing cough drops and lozenges onto their tongues. Twinkie is out there, and so is God, somewhere, on the high plateaus of his Kolob, dressed in his robes. I ask for his help as I do all I can to retain Twinkie’s affections. Any signal from her that I am doing right I receive with joy and thankfulness. Every helpful nod as I order yet another meal for us, plucking the plastic menu with my big thumb. I ask her forgiveness when through my own miserliness her poor eyebrows appear injured, or when I stand in the way of her seeing a new window display. When I lift her hands (which hang down as she walks!), and give support to her feeble knees (in the municipal pool); when I hold her waist so she may stroke her arms, I endlessly apologize. She will, I hope, learn how to swim, to love me, to love God, until we are no longer strangers with one another, able now to converse in a language all our own. She can put on her swimsuit with the rainbows, not for the men or their money, but for me. She will receive me finally into her room, as simply a man through whom she has seen the good things of the earth, the peaceable ways of God, without clamor or loud words.

Oh how I try to understand her, to please her. I even keep a list of her wants, which I update periodically, as new items occur to me: desserts in Causeway Bay, window shopping in Tsim Shau Tsoi, orchids in her hands. I study the list now and then, to see if I have forgotten anything—any sweets of any kind or taste, any item of jewelry. I think in this way I can in some way understand her, but her interests always fluctuate, are always fickle. A snappy pair of shoes [p.255]she wants on Tuesday magically transform themselves into a pearl necklace the Thursday next.

I don’t mind her assaults on my pocketbook, or her rounded, believing lips saying to me, as I walk her home in the twilight, thank you, and please, and why not. I don’t mind her fine dark eyes full of difficulties for me, or her poor petitions, her hunt for the precious life; they make my heart yearn for her.

I know our encounters in public parks are never in any sense what she really wants most. Her hands stray relentlessly under my shirt, and I have to pull away, biting my thumb. So if I don’t have the means to satisfy her, why try to extend the affair any longer? Why try to make her believe in a falsehood?

And yet if it is all only a lie, then why does she return to me, why does she find me in the school?

How does she stand such sweetness!

No, she endlessly defers to me, and this is the source of our endless suspension.

I try in some way to say these things to Twinkie. She only rolls her eyes and smacks her lips over her plate of soup. I try to stay at the table as long as I can, to talk, knowing that whenever we rise from any sitting position, we only converge in the air above, fulfilling some sort of universal physical law in doing so. But the clearness of her vacant face causes me to forget my words and plans, and so I pay the bill quickly and reach for her hand as we walk away. It is a twisted knot I have to undo; I have been long-winded.

At the school, in the afternoons, my mind wanders at certain hours as I wait for another set of students to enter the school. I will give them the lesson I have given for two days now, on words to describe weather and natural formations. In the riot in the hallway in the gray and dying light of late afternoon, there is slow little Ho, mingling with the better students in his class. Slight and frail young Samantha, running up to Fiona and Diane from behind, carrying her books across her chest; spoiled Bob, demonstrating the timer on his wristwatch to a group of dazed boys. If I have an hour between classes, I sit and watch the other American instructors tangle with their pupils, or I wait in the copy room, preparing supplementary lessons. When the din rises outside, I can, by merely turning a corner, be completely overwhelmed in their [p.256]noises. When I appear thus, a long and tanned American, honest and true, my arms outstretched to each side of me, in flames, the youths appear startled as, streaming, they divide around my waist and then return afterward to each other’s arms. I see the whites of their eyes as they address one another in a language I will never understand nor want to understand.

One night Twinkie buries her aging head on my shoulder as we sit exhausted in some plastic booth, after eating. Chinese characters flash red and blue in front of us, and her face glows with digestive vigor, and mine with a provider’s pride.

They always conclude with something new, and then apologies.

Her black hair, her fond words. Her snarled hair after swimming!

Is this really so diluted? Across the tables, in the restaurants, we find satisfaction in each other’s air, in the chemical halos around our moist heads. Our reddened eyes want so to rest on the other, as we wolf down our meals in peasant abandon. I know that our hearts, if united by God, will never separate.

After swimming, we return to Twinkie’s apartment, which she shares with some other women. These are poor desolate girls, without any helpers in the world—prostitutes. They sit in an L-shaped room, some in bathrobes, others in white nightshirts, pulled now over their knees and toes. They are having a birthday celebration. A cake with two candles passes between them. The candles are figures of a man and a woman. The candles face each other across the cake.

They ask me to blowout the candles, as the man of the hour, the guest of honor.

My ears are full of water and I can hardly hear what they say. I try to say something friendly, something fun, according to my college traditions.

What to wish for? I have no idea. Nor do I have any gift for Vivian, the birthday girl, and for this I feel ashamed, as I stand among them. I have no bells, no pet birds to give, no wholesome treats or ice cream goodies, no mirrors or good luck candles, yet all of them close their eyes as I fill my lungs, and after a pause I blow the candles out. Vivian says thank you. She takes the candles from the cake, to save them for another celebration. I notice her hands—they are pudgy and not fully developed, still unformed. She is still of a very tender age.

[p.257]So what is my wish? “Money and health,” is what I say, when I decide they do not want at that time to hear my true desires (for them to be telephone operators and receptionists). They clap their hands and they cut the cake.

Twinkie takes me into her room, and then leaves to share the news of the day with the other women in the apartment, in their sunless hollows. As I doze on her mattress, my ears slowly drain from the pool, and soon I hear the distant noise of a radio playing, the heaving of some visitor, and the tinny notes of the bells Twinkie has strung outside her window.

She returns to the room and sits down. Her foot taps the carpeting. I open my wallet and empty its contents into her hands. But she only stares at my dollars in her hands, and then leaves them scattered on the sheets.

“Why?”

She won’t take my money. She says: “Since when has money been love?”

I feel I treat her like a whore, in my willingness to give her money, and no more. And yet it must needs be so. Twinkie’s life is as aimless as any I have ever known. She has no thought of an afterlife, alone she will face the hereafter, hoping only to be sent to a place not unlike Hong Kong, her home city. If I sleep with her, I will only be dirtied in its blood and sins, never to return to the secure and pleasant vistas of my university campus. After I die, I will be catapulted into an eternal Hong Kong, to remain in an insignificant condition, never to rise, never to rule, never to obtain what is mine. If I sleep with her, I will surely lose my inheritance, and any capacity for affection. I will regard her only as my wretched sister, the master of my folly with whom I played many foolish games.

We are taught in my university to stay away from blood and sins. We are taught to plant old world kisses, reserved and polite, on the puckered mouths of our sweets, and then to scatter from their company like stars or rain to our respective student apartments. To send thank you cards. To avoid the intimacies which will surely cause us needless sorrow. Thus there are no dangers, no stains: the female students at my school, when they leave the classrooms with their clipboards and binders, stare in all directions, and they are safe. The [p.258]men have learned to contain their passions, and, like gods, not to cause our women to sorrow.

Twinkie doesn’t sorrow. She eats and wipes her mouth and says she has done no wrong. Her face is a moon, luminous and uninhabited by the many worries of my slow and nervous head.

I don’t know why she sees me so often.

It’s not love. How can she love me when she has no idea of who I am? Where does love come from if not from God?

It’s not my money, since this is now what she will not accept. And it’s not salvation, since she does not love God or even have any comprehension of him. To her God is as good as a cloud in the sky, sending rain on both the good and the damned. As cumulus and mute as one of our afternoons in the municipal pool. His words to her are as pointless as the bubbles we spew out of our mouths, words without flesh or meaning.

I want to redeem her, but I am not, right now, a god. I have no powers, no planets or moons to my name; I am not aware of any magic in me, except in the municipal pool. And there she certainly has not found any joy in my grasp, in the careful touch of my hands, and so where to turn?

The next step, I decide, is to invite her to church on Sunday. She accepts. It is her first time. I wear the ludicrous seersucker and meet her in the train station. She wears a lovely summer dress, and sandals.

We take the subway downtown, to Central. The public transportation is packed with common laborers of all kinds. The crowds lean in the movements of the train, and then fit themselves into a seat when one is vacant. Teenagers with inane t-shirts put wet pinkies in their ears; maids from the Philippines stare at their wallet-sized family photographs. Twinkie and I stand facing one another, pressed together. Twinkie studies the advertisements above our heads, over and over. I ask her if she wants some chewing gum. She doesn’t.

Eventually we exit the train and then walk the narrow, winding roads to where the chapel is situated on its steep incline. The church doors are open, and we find seats in the back. We listen as the bishop makes his announcements. He does so with his eyes unknowingly trained on us, sitting there.

This frightens Twinkie. When he says we’re going to sing a song, Twinkie reaches for the song book in front of her and buries her eyes [p.259]in its pages. I find the right song and I proudly put her hand on one end of the book, so we can hold it together. I ask her to sit straight. She does for a few moments, but then she lets her hand fall away into her lap, dwindling away to nothing between her knees. She starts to slouch.

To entertain her I doodle on the printed church schedule, drawing little triangles. I write our names in our respective corners, the ones we have occupied since early summer: “Twinkie,” “Me,” “God.”

“See how connected we are? It’s all so simple.” I have a huge smile on my face.

Twinkie only stares at me, and then puts away somewhere the schedule with my drawings.

Then the deacons line up and receive their trays of bread and water, forming two white-shirted columns in front of us, the smell of heavily applied deodorant trailing after them. I take the bread, and Twinkie passes it on, hurrying it seems to move the tray on its way down the aisle. But when the water comes, Twinkie takes heart, and with a cup steady in her two hands she lowers her head almost to her knees to take a small sip.

Perhaps in memory of this small sip, I cannot restrain myself later as Twinkie pulls her hair back and drinks from the water fountain in the foyer. I lean forward at her side, closely watching every swallow, until she stops, and I quickly turn and smooch her wet lips with as much passion as ever is in me. Her wet lips—the holy halls—I want to tear her dress away. At first she consents to this kissing, and then she tells me quietly to control myself—we are in church, she says.

I look around and see dozens of men and women pass us to and from classes and knots of talking people. We are somewhat of a spectacle, Twinkie and I. Twinkie buries her poor head in my lapels, but I reach around her waist and lift her elbow so she will take the hand in pleasant greeting of the few who, now, come forward in curiosity. I know my conduct, all this tender care, sickens her, yet she continues to stay at my side, and soon we settle down and attempt to assume our place among the more seasoned and respected members of my church.

After carrying off a few introductions with admirable skill, we notice some photos taped to a bulletin on the wall. They are of the families we see around us: mother, father, son, and daughter. Their pets. Twinkie and I look at one another and we soon see how silly we [p.260]are—we in no way resemble any of the Saints on the wall. Twinkie now starts to fail in her confidence. Her chin falls forward. An old man compliments me on my seersucker, but suddenly Twinkie is very, very tired, and so we leave the chapel, passing through a mass of banana vendors outside.

We descend the hill towards the station, when she draws me into an alley close to a vegetable market. We kiss, and then she unbuttons her blouse. Her hot breath is in my face. “NO!” I say, “Stop this!” She ducks around a garbage dumpster and takes her skirt off. “Twinkie, please.” I follow her into the recess, picking up her scattered clothes, but she only hands me others, until she is utterly naked. I stare at her, her pale, unnatural beauty, her lovely breasts, then I toss her clothes in her face and run away. “WHORE! SLUT!” I shout, so she can hear. I run down the hill, past another set of banana vendors.

Ever since this incident I don’t seem to occupy any longer a very high position in Twinkie’s eyes. I am reduced very low indeed. We still see one another, but only when I come to her apartment, and wait until her knees have released her last client. I wait in Vivian’s room, and she shows me her coloring book of tropical fish.

Vivian has only memorized a number of trade compliments and movie star lines in English, and so we have little to say as we watch television, and the evening news. Vivian’s room is the same size and shape as Twinkie’s, but with pages cut out from different fashion magazines on the walls, different incense, different colored sheets. She at times breaks out into fits of uncontrollable laughter over something I do, like when I stir myself now and then to change the channel. I am not intending this to be funny. I get the impression she is in a slump.

If ever I become at all disturbed by the noises from Twinkie’s room, I try to put these thoughts out of my mind, saying to myself that I want Twinkie to earn all the money she can, so she’ll be able to leave her profession to others less gifted. To Vivian for instance. I feel less sorry for Vivian too when I think she’ll some day inherit a few of Twinkie’s accounts.

When Twinkie is at last ready for me, I take her to the pool, to continue our swimming lessons. She wears the same suit with the rainbows as always, but something is missing.

Instead of stroking her arms as I ask, as I hold her waist, her arms [p.261]just float in the water. Her hands form pale upset fists—they just float there—until I release her, and she stands on her own feet.

She neglects her goggles. Sometimes she never even enters the pool, but sits to the side, reading a romance. I sit next to her, and to get her attention I ask her to translate the phrases of the children swimming around us. Dispassionately, she does so: “Okay, here I go, I have to hold my bangs back,” “We’ll try and find each other under the water,” “Hold your fingers up under the water,” “Great, lardo’s here [Twinkie’s word],” “Did you bring clothes to change into?” “Can you do a dive with your hands on your sides?”

This task once added immeasurable delight to our day, but today—no dice—Twinkie returns quietly to her romance. I watch the swimmers around us for long periods, little else left to do.

Sometimes I take Twinkie swimming, but more often now I go alone. I float, with my limbs extended, along the bottom, to see how long I last. The water above is full of bald flailing limbs. The swimmers struggle to stay afloat.

There are flashes of indirect sunlight, reflections of the faces of the lifeguards. After a while I extricate myself from the rectangle of tangled legs and arms.

At home at night I try to pray, but my prayers are confused. I thank God for all I have, all I have ever had. I ask him to forgive me of my sins. But when I catalogue these for him, I lose my attention, and memories of Twinkie overwhelm the words of my prayer.

The days go on. The rain plants tiny asterisks on our windows. Steams rise off the streets.

The municipal pool is a distant, square piece of noise.

I stand in line for a bank machine, waiting to insert my card into the vast circulatory system of the city. The school repairs an air conditioner, and I catch a chill. I clear my throat and try to speak above the roar of the air conditioner. Parents gather by the glass partitions, and see the last few moments of each lesson: the fevered kicking legs of the students, the small rib cages swelling with laughter. I hurry out at night into the streets, blinded by headlights, to see Twinkie. I wait for her, with Vivian at my side, teasing, sneering at me now. “Give me some of your money! Give me some of your love!” Vivian has a way of annoying me such that I often flee before the last man has left Twinkie’s room.

[p.262]When I do catch Twinkie at a good time, we sometimes have dinner together.

Our dinners are strained enterprises, messy catastrophes of the senses as I watch her inhale her noodles and as I use my chopsticks like another man’s elbows to manipulate bits of rice and water chestnuts. Slurping our soup, we laugh in despair. The tea grows cold.

Our dinners are full of pained gratitude. My thoughts are mere scribbles, darting random words. I repeat all the tired polite phrases I know, in a thousand arrangements. These are now almost our only words to each other.

I see ourselves slowly, with every sad pleasantry, growing apart, until I can actually conceive of a time when, years later, I will be able to say, with no great feeling, “I once knew in the city of Hong Kong a prostitute, known by the name of Twinkie.”

I stare at Twinkie longingly, but her eyes dull in weariness, and I can see she wants only for our dinner to slow to its tired end, and to return to her apartment, maybe to spend some time with the other prostitutes in a quiet evening of television. I walk home and think of lines I like from the Chinese poets I read:

The twilight trees are full of crows.

The city
is full of flying pear flowers.
Hungry, ill-clothed servants treat
us with contempt.

Weeks pass in which I never see Twinkie, and then one day she surprises me in school. Unannounced she opens the door to my class, opens us up to the sunlight. It is out this day and at first all I see is her profile, the sun pouring in from behind her, from over her shoulders and between her legs. She enters the room, and opening her mouth, she comes forward. She kisses me. We embrace there for several moments and then she withdraws, closing us up again behind her. My students gaze at me and tap their pencils in expectation of some other display.

“Oh, fine!” one woman says.

Apparently I may in my previous impunity return to her apartment. And yet having abandoned hope, I don’t try to see Twinkie. Nor do I return to the chapel on its hill, or the side street where I saw her naked.

[p.263]I never even return to the municipal pool, its humidity, its dense collection of young swimmers.

Nothing happens. I return to my routine in the office. Lim’s moods are dark and explosive, probing the hallways with his mop and bucket. His clothes are ill-fitting, second hand, and Mr. Ng refuses to send Sandra to purchase new clothes for him. So he wears the same buttoned shirt with ancient blue bi-planes painted on his chest and back. His fly sometimes falls on him, and the thighs to his trousers are so tight that they prohibit him from kneeling or sitting without his legs swelling with blood.

He dreams of his family still in China, and of the day when he will in safety walk away from these school offices, away forever from Mr. Ng, whom he assassinates endlessly in his thoughts. And yet towards me, however, Lim is of a peaceful turn of mind, and often he offers me high-fives as he passes in the corridor with his cleaning implements.

Mr. Ng forces me out to see his bachelor buddies, to the clubs and lounges of the island. The parade of tiny dresses continues before my eyes, but I never see Twinkie. Mr. Ng asks me about her all the time, slapping my shoulder, wanting to know what ever happened to the woman he once knew so well, who once adorned the walls of the Club Deluxe, with whom he says he shared so many secrets, why hasn’t he seen her of late.

It is hard to assure myself there ever was a reason for God to put us together, the prostitute and I, in a world so far away from him, from my university, when Mr. Ng shouts in my ear in this way. I can only see all sorts of conspiracies; I don’t like to associate the two, Twinkie and Mr. Ng. To turn my thoughts away from such suspicions, I try to think of somewhere beyond the gates of the city, away from such mischief and strife, to the lands in the north: to the magnolias and river merchants. The farmers busying after the long rains. The swimmers who purchase sodas, and then find dressing rooms in the juniper trees. I think of the long sleeves of the perspiring gentlemen in the park, or of a young swimmer, walking toward the deep end, stepping on a bee. Refrigerated drinks coming from somewhere. Sandra saving her pennies for school uniforms. Or with a slender boy on Sundays, of a better sort, walking past the endless halls of mirrors.

I pick at the fruit plate someone has set before me, under the blue [p.264]and canary yellow lights. Someone suggests I take a turn at the microphone, and sing. At these moments my voice edges toward complete uncontrol, weakly moving across the room and getting lost eventually in the velvet and brass. All the lyrics and words from my mouth are only the sentiments of a small boy, ones only Twinkie would have patronized, yet they applaud, and I remember for a moment the joy of blue islands, the times I had with Twinkie last summer.

I try to concentrate on my students. In our grammar lessons I call on a student to fill in a blank, to answer my question, to say true or false, and he doesn’t know what to say, what the answer is. In silence we stare at each other for long minutes, this student and I, as other legs shoot out, as other arms fly to their full length, while the student and I gaze at each other in complete and overwhelming and wonderful incomprehension. The student’s face is calm and undisturbed.

In my own childhood I remember a simple phrase which served well in these circumstances: I don’t know. This is a phrase they seem never to have learned in their tentative, fern-like evolutionary patterns. Or perhaps it is a phrase one of them once regarded as unworthy of them, and discarded. I don’t know. I stand and they sit as I repeat the question, and I point with my pencil on the overhead projector to the answers from which my little he or she has to choose. They reposition their lunchboxes on their desks, put their hands on their knees, notice the forests of tan appendages tall in the air, and say nothing.

In the end I am the one who ends the silence and bliss by asking the question, “Do you know?” to which they do not respond, that is, until the third time, when they shake their heads, ending our impasse, and releasing a symphony of sighs and schoolyard smiles.

Moments like these burn like embers for me as I rest on my pillow at night. “I don’t know.” The silence, the ignorance. The suspension and release. On Sundays I go to a place where they don’t speak my language, where I am left to hear only the hum of the Mormons as they listen and doze and sing and talk in Cantonese. These must be saintly words and inspired pleasantries, I tell myself. I listen and stare up at the lights and my sight becomes distorted so that I see enchanted swimmers in the air, with wings. The hum of the Mormons softly continues and I see swimmers suspended in the air, resplendent in their white suits; their countenances are fierce, their eyes are etched like [p.265]lightning. Their mouths are open, and what do they say? I can’t hear above the church hum; I don’t know.

And then it is winter and I am touring the department store across the street from the school, and suddenly I see Twinkie sitting alone. I sit down next to her. She tells me the hour is about to change. I know what to do when this happens, I have seen this so many times: to sit and say nothing, only to watch the neat and handsome women in the store take their small sons by the hand and cluster the young boys underneath a clock that hangs high on a wall. A mechanical clown seated on top awakes on the hour, and, winking, pulls a lever that opens the insides of the clock.

For a few light minutes, timed by the notes of a recorded xylophone, we sit in the midst of these sons and mothers. Metal painted children spill out of the clock, and dangle by levers and spools. The children around us, prodded by their mothers, wave at the clown, and the little mirths he has drawn to life. And then the greatest moments when the music peaks and then dies, the children turn on an axis up into the inner workings of the clock. The clock closes and the clown winks.

Twinkie and I leave the store and walk across a cemented playing field, in the direction of her apartment. As we do, neighborhood mischiefs toss firecrackers at our feet. These men are our antagonists, we are their targets, and they are delighted.

It starts to drizzle and her dress is pasted to her. We have no umbrellas, and my drooping trousers are now seamless. We stare into the windows of jewelry and watches and I cannot even make out the prices for each item. Wonderful incomprehension! It is drizzling.

Our train comes, and we add the smell of damp street clothes to that speeding vehicle. There is a new set of advertisements over our heads.

We ride for hours it seems, so impatient are we to return to her apartment. Twinkie scrutinizes the other passengers.

When we leave the train, it is dark, and the sky is full of dark shapes and winds that sometimes toss the papers and trash on the pavement around us. Twinkie’s area is poorly maintained.

Only the outlines of the hills on the mainland are visible to me in the dying, fading light. I read about those hills on the mainland in some of my students’ essays. A few describe their camp-outs, their short [p.266]hikes, the food they carryon their backs. A few once had relatives living in those hills.

Myself I have never visited those hills, and so they are still unseen and full of mystery, full of cherry trees and monkey gods, full of marshes and buried amounts of red money.

It is late enough now that the children have deserted the streets, and are by now in their beds, speaking in whispers, but everywhere I see in the street lights the marks on the sidewalk from their pivoting heels, their Popscicle sticks and candy wrappers, their deflated balls and tattered abandoned school assignments in the gutters. The street smells like watermelons. I think of a line from Tu Fu:

Midnight, we cross an old battlefield.

Twinkie and I enter her room. How well I know this room! The porcelain jar full of change and hair pins. The neatly made bed, the new sheets. The light she can turn to make bright, or to fade. The bells outside her window.

She says we ought to take a nap here, telling ourselves it is months earlier and we have returned from the municipal pool. This for me is a very pleasing idea, and so we lie on her bed, with her behind me; I easily drift off to sleep, with Twinkie and I in a letter S on her sheets.

As I doze, her hand caresses me, until slowly I am aware of feelings and sensations I never have felt until now. Twenty-five years of prayer and celibacy have not prepared me for this, only to resist, and yet I am unable, so well am I seduced by fair Twinkie. I am driven to such extremities in my passion that soon I feel precious ounces of my virtue pass through me and into her. When it is all over, I collapse into her pillow.

I say into Twinkie’s ear, “Do you love God?”

“Yes! Yes! I do! Always! Yes! For sure!” she says, her dress tangled under her arms now, her head touching the wall.

She looks happy at last, smiling like I have not seen since our first silly and distorted nights together, in the summer. I feel almost as if she is healed of whatever affliction has ailed her since. So she says she loves God, that’s swell. And once more she is solicitous of me; as we go out to eat she is full of good cheer, and pleasantries.

When as the days go on I ask her more of what she feels about [p.267]God, she says she is closest to him when I cause her to burn inside. I am ashamed by the immodest way we now speak to one another, yet I know what she means.

She is careful not to have other male visitors, conflicting with our time, so I will not be offended by their visits, so that I won’t be kept waiting, but I know she can ill afford this. I tell her I am willing to wait in Vivian’s room, if need be, only wanting her to be quick so we can hurry out to our dinners together. It is no use; I enter and leave her apartment now as if I am a landlord, or a young prince.

Vivian sews me a long purple robe, and a cap with twinkling stars.

Her roommates make us hot tea and bring us things like towels. Such deference! I am surrounded by it on all sides, yet earlier I was definitely in the dog’s house.

All the previous hopes return from the old days, percolating up now and then to the surface as we take our place among the citizens of the island in our favorite restaurants. My affections are released by the calls of the children in the corridor, the birds in the park, what we do in her bed, and I think in my little head that she will accept a position in some office, and forget her past. When I contemplate now a triumphant return to the municipal pool for us, it’s not so much to see her aimless wanderings, poised on one foot, among the enchanted swimmers, but as a place where her body might be cleaned and baptized, and placed on the street with a new apartment to return to. My sleeping with her only deepens such desires, but I know that I mustn’t speak of such things to her, these stirrings inside me.

And yet I can’t resist. As I speak of my instincts, she makes a face as if she has tasted a dish unbearably sweet. So I say nothing more, for several days. I ask her about God, and she tells me what I already have heard: “Yessir, of course. Why not?”

Slowly I sense she is willing to say whatever pleases me most. Slowly my hopes once more fade and dissolve. In despondency I lapse into meaningless sermons regarding God’s violet-blue greatness. Aroused by guilt I involve our liaison in my stirrings. At first she is upset in my ravings when I refer to her still as a prostitute. “Oh, don’t say that, not now,” she says to me, saying that what we now have between us is more than all that. I say no, that actually, she is still only a prostitute, and I am a man who has given the last favor he has to give. [p.268]That I am lost now in a city where people speak words I don’t understand, are full of subtle stratagems, with no virtue left to recommend me, either to God’s blessing or man’s assistance.

For a long time she regrets the times when I speak to her in this way, when I call her a filthy slut. But even this sadness fades, with time, so that now she loves to consume what is for her such idle table-talk. As I slump forward, she slurps and munches on another bowl of soup. Her eyes light up at my entertaining speculation, and when I reveal some of the mechanisms of my tortured conscience, it is, to her, like any novelty or new toy.

To be called whore! How she beams! Words I use, she has never heard, passions I have are for her like a rare tropical plant, and no more. She has changed: she smiles when I say slut; my outrage is delightful to her. That anyone can cause such torture!

The mutual recriminations, our wild and airy discourse. Eventually we exhaust ourselves, and we are silent over our scattered plates of rice and sliced cucumbers.

I ask myself what sort of dirty tree I am playing on.

I ask myself: what kind of butterflies are in my head, what sort of water is in my ears?

To collect myself I doodle for some time on my napkin, triangles as if I were in church. I label each corner with our names, the three of us involved. Me, Twinkie, and God. I show this to Twinkie.

“Not quite,” she says. “Where is Mr. Ng?”

“Who?”

She laughs, then reaches across the table for my hands.

“Let’s not have any more of this kind of talk, okay?” she says.

We return to her apartment and she uses the lemon spray in her room. She fades the lights.

I take off my pants and do as she says:

I put on the bright purple robe, and my cap with twinkling stars.

I assume my usual position on that doomed bed.

It is not so dark that she can’t see my face as I perspire, as I bellow in ecstasy and fear. Vivian bangs on the door with her fist, threatening to throw snakes on us if we are not less noisy. This is only her infantile sense of humor, once more, but it makes Twinkie laugh, and she says to Vivian to flee, that there is a god in her room.

In this way she taunts me now, makes fun of me, as if she has lost [p.269]all feeling for me, as if I were only another one of the men stalking the streets of the city, eyes full of crime and bodies full of iniquity. I try to return in spirit to my former state of wonderful incomprehension, of holy suspension above the sins of the metropolis, where I can like a fool for God say, “I don’t know,” and mean it.

But Twinkie’s sleeping form discourages me of such attempts: I know it so well now. My eyes have been opened. I am a fool, but not for God.

I stare at Twinkie naked, in her scattered hair ornaments, her arms arranged somewhere underneath her, where I can’t see, and I know her, and who I am: one of the thousand clowns who have taken similar freedoms, who have come this way. I can see myself in line, wallet in hand and toothpick in mouth, a full citizen of this polluted island.

When I see what sort of a fool I am, I kneel in the corner and say to God hello, here I am, with Twinkie, that she sleeps next to me here in this room. I ask him to take care of her, and to forgive me for my foolishness. I say I will never return to her apartment.

There is little else to say except that now I sit in the office until late, unable to form any coherent thoughts whatsoever. Day turns to night in an uninspired and senseless manner. I sometimes ask Sandra about her day. She only raises her forehead and stares at first without any sign of understanding, and with a little regret that I have in some way set her back in her work schedule. Her steady concentration on my face is only marked by an occasional blink of her eyes, or a slight tremor when the English I use registers in her mind. She returns to her work until she leaves for the evening—a set of limbs and a head full of black hair, lost in the quick steps of early summer.

Mr. Ng, who was so happy for me, once I said to him I finally had slept with his friend Twinkie, sees the state I am in, and says he has had enough of my nonsense. He assigns me a series of adult classes, shouting to me in his office that I am ready now to put all the children in my past. “Forget them. You’re wasting your time, learning nothing.”

I say that may be so. Then he says he is giving me a raise, more money. I say I don’t deserve a raise.

He says, “Yes, you do, you’ve worked hard. Really, I wouldn’t have let her work like that. Why did you do that?” He sucks on his teeth in disgust. “Women like that, they only take my money. I can never get [p.270]women like that,” he says. “What is it, am I not respectable?” He laughs.

He is so mean, Mr. Ng.

He laughs at me in the school office, and when his friends visit, they also laugh at me.

The clown in the department store howls at me too, as he opens his clock, as he draws his painted children to life.

Whatever happened to my purple robe? Where is my cap of twinkling stars?

I grow older now. I know God has a body, that he has passions. He has a heart. He wants us to have clean hearts and clean hands. He wants us like him, so when he shows himself to us, in his body, we won’t be afraid, we will see him as he is.

These days the adult students take turns introducing one another, and then they discuss the virtues of the ideal man, and the ideal woman. I let them fill the room with their idle speech, in all the sincerity they can muster, much as my friends once did at schoo!.

What is the use of talking? There is no end of talking.

THOMAS BURGESS lives in Salt Lake City these days with his wife, Tamara. He drives an economy car to and from work each day, listening to the radio on the way.