The garden party was hosted by the Dutch Consulate, to celebrate Queen Maxima of the Netherland’s birthday. I didn’t know Holland still had a monarchy, and Beatrix? Really? Sure enough, the huge, lush garden was dotted around with kitschy plastic standees featuring a hefty woman in an orange dress doing that regal wave thing. We were only there for the free booze.
It was getting dark, which promised to bring down the heat but also to ring the dinner bell for the evening mosquitoes, so I was thinking of leaving when I saw her come striding across the ridiculously manicured lawn. All I could think of was: how could I have been living in the humid hell-hole of Saigon and not have noticed this woman before? Not possible. Not possible.
She was at least six feet tall, lean and lithe as bamboo, with close-cropped hair bleached a dazzling white. A cap of neat frost that gleamed against her dark, dark skin. Her face, her neck, her shoulders were carved from some secret, precious wood. The way her tendons stretched her skin, the way the lines formed at the corners of her wide mouth when she smiled. Her lips wet with plum lipstick the exact colour of her fluttering, oversized silk shirt. She was the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen.
“Who is that?” I asked Nicolas. When he didn’t answer, I elbowed him. “Who the fuck is that?”
“I don’t know,” he said. He clucked his tongue and dabbed at the beer I’d jostled onto his evening jacket.
“Bullshit. You know everyone.” And it was true. Nicolas knew everyone. He was the Spanish economic attache and the biggest slut in the tiny expat community in Saigon. That was saying something because, as diplomatic backwaters go, Saigon was the back of beyond. There was literally nothing to do but drink, play golf and fuck.
“I can’t remember her name. She’s the girlfriend of that English lady lawyer.” That explained much; Nicolas would never remember the name of a woman he didn’t think he could bed. “Es lesbiana.”
“Pues, mejor. Introduce me,” I demanded, dragging him by the arm across the grounds, close to where she stood, holding court and a flute of something in her hand.
“I didn’t know you liked girls,” he said, quietly. “We could have a threesome. I know this French chick who’d be up for that.”
“I’m never going to fuck you. You know that, right?” I whispered.
He sighed theatrically. “You’re a user and a tease.”
“Exactly. Now introduce me.”
“How can I make an introduction when I don’t know her name?”
I stopped, feeling my kitten heels sink into the sodden grass. “You’re a bloody diplomat. Think of something.”
I smoked a cigarette and waited in the evening gloom while he traipsed off to ask around. Someone switched the hanging lanterns on and I watched her talk and laugh and sip her drink and use her broad, long-fingered hands to envelope her listeners in whatever spell she was weaving. I couldn’t stop watching her. I wanted to be in that circle, within reach of those hands, and the perfume I was so sure she wore.
Nicolas returned with another glass of beer. “Jude. Her name is Jude.”
“Alright, come on then,” I said, tugging his arm.
“Fuck that. I’m bored. I’m leaving with the Columbians. Come with us. It’ll be fun.”
The ‘Columbians’ were not a drug cartel. The Restrepo family, a brother and two identical twin sisters, owned a vast coffee estate up in the highlands above Daklak. They were rumoured to be unnaturally close, to put it politely. Having sat across a table from them for a whole evening at some over-priced Australian gala, I was fairly certain the rumours were true.
“You prick. Introduce me first.”
“Introduce yourself.” And he was off.
I stood there in the dark garden, with the winking lantern lights, having my ankles ravaged by mosquitoes, watching her, listening to her talk and laugh. She had a laugh like spun sugar. Pulling off into sweet threads and then breaking abruptly when it got too thin.
The crush was paralyzing. I couldn’t find the courage to enter circle of light she gave off.