Like a nail in a tire, all the air of my desire goes out. Her flattery is a screaming siren to me. The room is hot and smelly once more. At an early age, I learned smooth talk and a good heart do not usually come in the same package.
I’m sickened by myself and at this young woman, for she is no child. She carelessly plays her beauty like a winning card.
My longing for her plummets, and I grab her by both shoulders, wishing I could shake the little girl back into this prostitute. Fear wells up in her face, and I feel her muscles tighten as she strains towards her barrette, which now looks like a knife, not a hair clasp.
“How old are you?” I ask gently, searching for a tolerance I can’t find. “I forget,” she answers, struggling to pull away.
“Don’t you care what others think about you?” I hold her wrists tight, knowing her nails are weapons, disappointed in her and—more honestly—in myself.
“You crazy, man? Why you not let me go? I tell you Japanese in Burma, not here. What you want to do to me? You no like the way I look? Maybe I find you boy,” her voice is nonchalant, but underlined with tense alertness.
I don’t answer.
Her aloof stare, looks for a way out, and leaves me feeling beaten. “Why you care about me?” she asks.
I don’t care about her. So why does she make me feel like the sands anchoring my life are slowly eroding away?
“Others no think about me—too important. But men need women. I pretty. What wrong with that?”
“Do you like your life?”
Her expression of irritation surprises me. “What wrong with my life? I happy with myself.” She frees herself from my grip, swings around, and ties her hair up in a ponytail. She decides I’m not a threat, after all, and sits back down on the bed. “People believe woman like me weak because I buy pretty clothes, have nice things. They have nothing. Want to hear story that make them good, me bad.”
“Aren’t you hurt by what others say?” I realize it’s not just her I’m asking these questions. “Hurt by what? Words? Words just noise to me.” There’s a dull grief in her voice.
“Work as pretty girl, or no work. You think it better I sit in street and beg for food? No, I make decision to live with nice things.” She gets up and walks toward the door, then turns around and sneers, “Why so many questions for me? Why you not feel guilty ‘bout ripping my country apart? Why you not fight in your own country?”
I’m thrown off guard and don’t know what to say. Finally I answer, using the party line. “We’re fighting for world peace, and the Japanese are here, not in America.”
She tilts her head back wistfully and says, “Fight for peace, no make sense.” Pulling out a cigarette from my shirt pocket, she lights up, then continues. “War just excuse. Big America kicked in ass by tiny Japan,” she taunts. “You hypocrite, no look for peace. No care about people like me. But man who want honor back, you look to settle score.” She takes a long drag on the cigarette.
“You think I devil girl?” She spits in disgust. “My only sin is I daughter of poor man.” A dirty ray of light filters through the windowless opening above the door, highlighting a scar running the length from her ear to her collar bone. “My mother and father, they sell me to buy food. I dead to them. I cry no more.” She looks like a cold, dry, porcelain doll. “Our bad luck make our character. Push us where we must go. It women like me, who not behave, you not forget. It men who listen to heart of enemy who lead us to peace.” Then she stubs out her cigarette and pulls me down. “We sleep. Just sleep.”
We lie on the lice-infected mattress. I begrudgingly respect her understanding of her limits; her acceptance of her choices, or, really, her lack of them. My eyes focus on a hole in the ceiling, but my mind can’t be tied down. Why are we fighting here? Is it just self-righteous pride?
I awake before the roosters. The cooled air pricks up and down my exposed arms. As I leave, I mentally trace the outline of her supple body. Doubled over in a fetal position, like folds of silk, her lean legs lay relaxed. Her hair cascades loosely down her back and veils her face.
Like fresh berries, her lips are young and full. The hard life she has ahead of her saddens me. It’s the image of her slightly separated lips, sighing in wisps, that I keep as I close the door.
I know I’ll never see her again, but she’s opened a door that I wish I’d never even knocked on. It’s like I’ve been betrayed by my own beliefs. I always thought of myself as a good person, even though I’m not the most tactful. And I thought I championed all underdogs, until now.
When I reach the outskirts of the sleeping town, halfway to base camp, I realize I am being followed.
“You’re going need me to get back into those barracks.” Reginald sprints the last few steps to catch me. “And how was your amorous night in Ledo, my man?”
I don’t answer.
“I see,” he says, his profile a silhouette against the sieve of sunlight pushing up from the horizon. “Passion without the fireworks.” We walk on in silence.
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