The sticky carpet on the narrow stairs sucks at the soles of my sandals as I climb up to the third floor. They know me here; they know what I want. Room number six with the matte black walls and the zebra upholstery on the sofas.
The first time I went to the Lucky Club Karaoke bar it was at the invitation of a group of co-workers for my birthday. Being new to Saigon and knowing no one, they took pity on me and, after a challenging meal of raw ducks blood pudding, they physically manhandled me all the way up the street and into the establishment. We had a medium sized room to ourselves, a couple of plates of peeled pomelo and two bottles of the only thing I’ll drink: vodka. Even if it was my birthday, they wouldn’t let me have the karaoke machine controller. I spend six hours ping-ponging between blind drunk and depressingly sober to the sound of mournful Vietnamese love songs. I did get a look at the song menu, though.
Ever since then, once a month, I drag myself over to the Lucky Club and rent one of the smaller rooms. The staff were a little surprised the first time, but now they just nod and give me the key. A little boy gets sent across the street to buy a bottle of Stolichnaya, and it appears in a plastic box full of ice, along with a plate of fruit and a glass.
I turn the lights in the room off and watch the badly shot video loops of romanticized Saigon street life while I pick my way through the song menu, lining up my playlist. Then, when I’ve lit a cigarette, had a sip of vodka and relaxed back into the zoo couch, I press play.
I used to start with “All By Myself” but I noticed that I got weepy too soon, way before I was drunk. Now I slot “Dead or Alive” by Bon Jovi first, because it gives me a little energetic boost and gets me in the right, rambunctious frame of mind for what’s to come.
“I’m a cowboy, on a steel horse I ride
I’m wanted dead or alive
Wanted dead or alive.”
By the time it breaks into the second chorus, I’m screaming the lyrics down the mic. It’s got a nice little quiet part after the choruses, but I try to do justice to the last verse. It’s not that I ever liked Bon Jovi, I’m saving my favorites for later.
The next one is not really a favorite either, just a warm-up. “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” by Iggy Pop. I think I pick this one because I’m always so surprised they have it on the song menu. After all, they eat dogs in this town and I can’t imagine that they actually understand what the lyrics mean:
“So messed up I want you here
In my room I want you here
Now we’re gonna be face-to-face
And I’ll lay right down in my favorite place
And now I wanna be your dog…”
I sing this one lying back on the sofa with my feet up on the chipped coffee table. I like the fact that it’s naughty and kinky and doesn’t really have a melodic line at all. It’s more a talk-singing kind of song. Added to this, the karaoke version is all done with synths instead of ragged metal guitars, so it’s vaguely ridiculous. I smoke while I sing and let the streams of spent smoke flow out with the words.
It’s then that the black, vinyl-padded door swings open and the light from the hallway outside pours in. I sit up a little straighter on the sofa, looking put out and probably a bit guilty. And I’m actually a little shocked because the staff never come in the room once I’ve started singing, unless I’ve ordered another pack of cigarettes or something. These rooms are basically the cheap Vietnamese version of a love hotel; couples come here to make out because there’s no privacy for them anywhere else. This isn’t explicitly stated but it’s understood. That’s why there are so many karaoke rooms around town, and why the people who work in them don’t come into the room unless there’s a very pressing reason – like a fire. There is a lock on the door, but I’ve never used it. It’s not like I’m in here doing anything more serious than making a fool of myself.
The head that pops through the open door is Caucasian – a ragged blonde mop. At first I think it’s a girl. It’s hard to make out the face with the light streaming in from behind.
“The room is taken!” I yell out, over the end of the song.
“Wow! Iggy Pop! In Vietnam! Amazing,” the decidedly male voice yells back.
He’s turned a little towards the light and I can see the profile of his face and body. He’s got a crop of white-guy dreads and he’s wearing a white shirt un-tucked over baggy jeans.
“This room is booked. Try the other one across the hall.” I yell the first part just as the music ends and am left sounding shrewish hollering into the silence.
“All the rooms are booked. They sent me here. They said there’s only one white girl in here.”
Now I’m pissed. My finger jabs down on the pause button of the karaoke remote before the next song starts. I slam it down onto the coffee table and get to my feet.
“I book this room the last Friday of every month. It’s mine…” I growl between clenched teeth and walk towards the door. “Never mind… let me go talk to them.”
I push past him and run down the gummy staircase to the lobby. The guy who normally runs the place, a twenty-something boy with slicked back hair and a single sparkly gold tooth is grinning more than usual.
“Hey! Who sent that foreigner up to my room?” I demand in bad Vietnamese.
“All the rooms are full.”
“So?” I huff. “Why didn’t you just send him away? Tell him to go somewhere else.”
“He sings alone – like you. Maybe you could sing together?” This is delivered with an unconvincingly innocent looking smile.
“I rent the room to sing alone! I don’t want to sing with anyone else!”
“But singing alone is sad.”
I think about launching into my diatribe about how some foreigners actually enjoy being alone, but years of trying to explain this to my Vietnamese friends never really got me anywhere. I try a different tactic.
“I’ll pay double for the room if you tell him to leave.”
The gold-toothed boy considers for a moment, then shakes his head. “I can’t tell him to leave. I already said he could share the room with you.”
Fuck. Now it’s a face thing. I know there isn’t any use arguing. I should just get my stuff and leave. There’s another, bigger karaoke club called the Starlite, down by the cathedral. They’re probably half empty. I look out the front door and watch the rain bucket down.
While I’m dragging my ass back up the three flights of stairs, I realize just how much my little monthly visits have come to mean to me. I’d started looking forward to them the way some people look forward to a manicure – a time to relax and do something nice just for myself.
When I get back to the room the door is closed. I open it and stomp in to find the foreigner comfortably settled on my couch, leafing through the menu, smoking one of my cigarettes.
“Hey! You have to go. I rent this room to be by myself.”
“I’ve been here a ton of times, but I never noticed they had any Iggy Pop.” He doesn’t even look up. He just runs his finger down the plastic coated page of the song menu as if it’s the most absorbing thing in the world.
“Hey! Asshole! Did you hear me? Leave!”
“I can’t. It’s raining.”
“Then I’ll leave.” I march around the coffee table, banging my shin painfully on the edge of it. “Fuck!” I clutch at my leg in pain with one hand and try to pull my purse onto my lap with the other.
“Do you like Abba?”
“No. I fucking hate Abba.” I grab my cigarettes off the table and toss them into my purse. Then start hunting for my overshirt. In the midst of the pain a couple of things occur to me: he’s really handsome, I’m dressed like a bag lady and he must think I’m one of those foreigners who’s lived here too long and has lost it. And, as the pain subsides, I realize how fucking nasty I’m being. My fingers, which have been busy screwing the top back on my bottle of Stoli, stop.
“Look, I’m sorry for being a bitch.” God that sounds lame. He looks up. “It’s just that I really look forward to hollering my lungs out by myself. It’s kind of therapy, you know?” I say, pathetically.
He nods as if he understands – I doubt he does. “Can I have some of that vodka before you go?”
Somehow, the request makes me feel a little better, like we’ve made some sort of peace. “Sure.” I unscrew the top and pour a couple of inches into the only glass on the table. But he doesn’t take it. Instead, he reaches over and takes the bottle from me and has a long pull at it.
“Come on, I bet you like Abba.” He pushes the remote, which is now in his lap. “It depends on which song.” His voice is cracking on the alcohol.
“Half past twelve
And I’m watching the late show in my flat all alone
How I hate to spend the evening on my own
Blowing outside the window as I look around the room…”
I’ve forgotten all about this song but the lyrics make me laugh. I remember, vaguely, what autumn winds felt like I don’t recognize it until it gets to the end of the first verse, then I can help myself, I sit back grinning and sipping my glass of vodka. At the chorus, I join in without a mic.
“Gimme gimme gimme a man after midnight
Won’t somebody help me chase these shadows away
Gimme gimme gimme a man after midnight
Take me through the darkness to the break of the day”
He slides over on the sofa right up next to me so that by the second chorus, we’re sharing the mic as we sing. I can smell him while we sit through the quiet, arpegiated riff before the next verse. He smells like rain and apples and smoke. I feel silly and unaccountably happy – the Stoli has hit my bloodstream.
It’s obvious that while I was downstairs, duking it out with the manager, he’s erased my whole songlist; the next song starts and I recognize it immediately – something I would never choose – Billy Idol’s “White Wedding.” The karaoke screen is helpful, despite the fact that the visuals have switched from cityscapes of Saigon to panoramic sunset vistas of the beaches at Nha Trang. The text at the bottom of the screen warns us not to start singing too early and the rendition is not bad, despite the synths trying to sound guitar-like in the intro.
When the lyrics finally appear and he starts singing, I realize he must have practiced this one. He sounds exactly like Billy.
“Hey little sister what have you done
Hey little sister who’s the only one
Hey little sister who’s your superman…”
His voice is low and sexy and I let him sing by himself because I don’t know the song very well and it’s in the wrong key for me. It’s a man’s song. I can feel the warmth of his thigh all the way along mine as he taps his foot. And suddenly, I can feel it acutely; it feels good, and frightening. I empty my glass and stare at the screen, watching the lyrics scroll by. He’s singing it so well, I’m actually scared to look at his face now for fear he’ll be doing that lopsided Idol snarl. Then he nudges at my shoulder and it makes me look at him.
“There is nothin’ fair in this world
There is nothin’ safe in this world
And there’s nothin’ sure in this world
And there’s nothin’ pure in this world
Look for something left in this world…”
He sings it at me with an odd intensity on his face. When he launches into the last chorus and it’s too much, I have to look away. I can hear the laugher infect his voice through the singing. I laugh too. I don’t know why. He’s turned me on.
He pushes the pause button on the controller, pulls the neck of the bottle up to his lips and drinks. “What do you want to sing now?”
The question embarrasses me because I know he’s seen my songlist. It was my private songlist; the songs were chosen for all sorts of reasons and I worry he misinterprets how they reflect on me. So instead of answering, I shrug, pour myself another drink and light another cigarette.
Inside, there are battles going on, on several fronts: I hate that I care what he thinks of my song choices, I’m uncomfortable that I’m attracted to him, and still there is the leftover resentment that my evening is not going as planned. My plan was safe; this new variation on it is not.
Being a stranger in a strange place, you get used to erecting barriers and establishing sanctuaries. I switch between admissions of knowing the language and being oblivious to it at my convenience, I live in a house with an outdoor kitchen and English language satellite TV, I make plans for how to spend my time weeks in advance and can say, regretfully but with absolute honesty, that I’m too busy to do something proposed on the spur of the moment. This man has encroached; he’s trespassed on carefully laid boundaries of time and space.
As he scans the song menu by the light of the screen, I inch away from him along the slippery surface of the zebra-stripped couch because the proximity is too unsettling. I can still feel the heat of his leg imprinted against my own and it’s been so long since I’ve noticed contact, it’s like feeling something new and yet addictively familiar. I tell myself that my over-reaction to the closeness is due, at least in part, to the alcohol. The bottle is half empty and I’ve had nothing but fruit for dinner, so I stare at the screen blankly, as if something interesting is happening there.
He’s having trouble finding what he wants. It’s not easy because the Vietnamese seem addicted to anything recorded before 1975. The import of foreign records was forbidden after the end of the war and only began again in 1992 so there’s a huge gap in what’s available. If I have to listen to “Hotel California” one more time, I’m going to slit my throat.
“Okay. How about this,” he said and pushes the play button, holding the mic out to me like a challenge. He’s keyed a bunch of the song codes in, but I can’t tell what they are.
It is one of the songs on my playlist: “Sweet Dreams” by the Eurythmics. It’s a good karaoke song because it never met a real instrument in its life anyway; it was always electronic. Also, it’s comforting to hear it start up – I’ve sung this song by myself in this dark room every month for the last year or so, so I’ve gotten pretty good at it. Unfortunately the intro is just a lot of “oohs”, which feel weird to sing with someone looking at me, so I close my eyes and pretend I’m alone.
“Sweet dreams are made of this
Who am I to disagree?
I travel the world
And the seven seas-
Everybody’s looking for something.”
I don’t need to look at the screen, I know the lyrics by heart and without quaint pastoral pictures of the Vietnamese countryside to distract me, I can picture the video in my head. I can see Annie Lennox’s wide, wide smile.
He snakes his arm around my waist and pulls me onto his lap. I’ve lost my place in the song and stop to try and find it again.
“Keep singing,” he whispers.
Easier said than done when some stranger is slipping his hand up under your t-shirt and cupping your breast. My voice breaks when he presses his lips against my neck. I’m worried the song will go on forever, or that it will end. By the time it does, he’s turned this into some weird game to see if I keep singing with all the stimulus going on. Twisting around in his lap, I nudge his head away from my neck and hand him the mic.
The music for the next song is starting and I don’t recognize it at all. “I don’t know this one, what is it?”
“Duran Duran.” He grins at the face I make. “I like Bond movies,” he says defensively.
I shrug and put my arms around his neck. “Fine. You sing it.”
As he does, I begin to recognize it. It’s the theme song from “A View to a Kill”.
“Meeting you with a view to a kill
Face to faces, secret places, feel the chill
Night fall covers me
But you know the plans I’m making…”
The words make me smile. I straddle his lap and attack his neck. The tendons move as he sings – so does his Adam’s apple. His skin tastes as good as he smells, but salty and smooth. The air-conditioner in the room is old and, when I unbutton his shirt, I can see a silvery path traced by a droplet of sweat. My mouth closes around his one, exposed nipple and I hear his throat close up. He arches his hips at me and moans, dropping the mic with a muffled thud and wrapping his arms around my head as I feed on him. I bite and he stiffens. Now the music has died, I hear his whimper, but the arms don’t release me.
All at once I know he’s exactly like me. You don’t know what it’s like to go so long without feeling someone else’s skin, or smelling them – tasting them. My tongue has a will of its own as I drag it up his chest, crossing little rivulets of sweat. The noises he’s making are manic and desperate, perfect aural reflections of the heat rising in my body, the throb between my legs. So, when I get to his lips, I don’t kiss; I eat them. Underneath the vodka, he tastes like oranges. His tongue slips between my lips, politely, but it’s not enough. I suck on it hard, till he fills my mouth.
The arms around me crush the air from my lungs, pulling me down to meet his hips as they rise. When the contact is made, his cock is so hard it hurts, bruising my crotch through the jeans. The air from his gasp slips down my throat. My cunt’s flooding, seeping through my jeans and I can feel the mess I’m making every time I grind against him. Slipping over bulges and seams, I can’t stop myself and, even if I could, he wouldn’t let me now. His hands are on my ass, pressing me down onto him. It creeps up on me so suddenly, I don’t get the chance to notice; I’m coming like an adolescent, whining into his mouth as I twitch and jerk against him.
And just like an adolescent, he kisses me softly after it’s over and then pushes me back gently. “You want to stop?”
“We can’t do this here.” His hands are shaking as he tries to button his shirt back up.
“Yes we can,” I pant. “What do you think everyone else does here?”
He gives me a crooked grin. “What?”
I reach out and take one of his little tow-coloured dreadlocks and roll it between my fingers, thinking.
I like him.
But if I think about this too long, I’m going to balk and run.
“They fuck,” I say, reaching for the remote and easing it into his hand. “Pick another song.”
“I don’t want to do this anymore. Come home with me.”
He looks slightly like a little boy, now, a little petulant, a little combative, as if he’s anticipating a short sharp pain.
Reaching behind me, grabbing the bottle of vodka and put it to my lips, just in time to feel all the mirth drain out of me. “I don’t know how long you’ve been here, and I don’t know what shape you’re in, but I’m not going to make it back to your house. I’m going to decide, in a moment of clarity, that this is a bad idea.” I’m trying to make my face sympathetic while I’m telling him this. I reach sideways, grab the songlist book and hand it to him. “Pick another song, or leave.”
Right then, something catches in my throat and my vision gets swimmy. I’m not sure why, but the admission of how fucked up I’ve become makes me want to cry. I know that, once outside the humid closeness of this room, I’ll turn back into stone or salt or ice, something solid and impenetrable, something infinitely sure of its isolation.
He nods, avoiding my eyes, and wedges the open song menu between us, paging through it. “Does it matter what it is?”
I take another pull on the bottle. “No, not really.” Droplets burst past the surface tension and a couple of tears roll down my cheeks. The act of pulling my t-shirt over my head wipes them away.
Again he nods and keys a number into the controller. It’s not an old song. In fact it’s recent and it’s too close to the bone. I watch the lyrics stream by at the bottom of the scream and feel his hand slide up my thigh. The lyrics on the screen are wrong, but it doesn’t matter, I know them:
“To pretend no one can find
The fallacies of morning rose
Forbidden fruit, hidden eyes
Curtises that I despise in me
Take a ride, take a shot now
Cos nobody loves me
Not like you do…”
As he curls his fingers around the back of my neck to pull me down to his lips, I curse the murderer who decided to convert this song to karaoke. Still, I open my mouth to him and I sing the lyrics in my head.
“Dead or Alive” – Bon Jovi, from the album “Slippery When Wet.”
“I Wanna Be Your Dog” – The Stooges, from the album “The Stooges.”
“White Wedding – Part 1” – Billy Idol, from the album “Billy Idol.”
“Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” – The Eurythmics, from the album “Touch.”
“A View to a Kill” – Duran Duran, from the original soundtrack “A View To A Kill.”
“Sour Times” – Portishead, from the album “Dummy”