Robert and Nuria walked back towards Lam Son Square, down the night-time chaos of Dong Khoi street.
“Thanks for that,” Robert said, after a considerable silence. “Madam Dai is one hell of a character. If she were ten years younger, I would have been tempted to seduce her.”
“I’m pretty sure she’d still be interested.”
“I don’t think I could get past the dusty wig. I don’t even want to imagine what those breasts look like.”
Robert was doing exactly that, Nuria suspected. There was a small, private cinema in his head, with a reel of silent film featuring Madam Dai: wig askew and ancient breasts swaying, seamed lips frozen in an ecstatic ‘o’, grey-haired cunt plundered by a headless cock in some jerky clip of impossible pornography.
Nuria shrugged. Forty years from now, perhaps she’d be one of those women. Women who retained some sad ghost of desirability. Women who time had placed beyond the reach of casual objectification. A woman who would hold allure only for someone with a penchant for the eroticism of disgust.
Eppur si muove.
That was the true horror, wasn’t it? That a woman might yearn to be desired once desire was impossible? Exiled to some imaginary table in the always-open restaurant of well-past-their-due-date women who were once beautiful, once desireable, once fuckable, but now not. Waiting at a table, cluttered with organic snake-wine viagra, for someone to overlook, or forgive, or even take delight in what time had done to her.
Is anyone aroused by what time does? Nuria suspected there were. Maybe there was a secret society of them who occasionally got together and partied with the small but fanatic amputee fetish club. Perhaps they traded photographs: I’ll trade you two wattles for a thigh stump?
“Can you take me to that club I’ve heard about? Apocalypse Now?” he asked.
“So now I’m your city guide?”
Robert smirked. “My dear young lady,” he quoted, “we’ve already established what you are, now…”
“We’re establishing your price. Yes, very funny. Sure I’ll take you. But it doesn’t open until 11. Want a coffee?”
“Sure. Coffee on the terrace at the Continental? That’d bring back memories.”
“Long gone, I’m afraid. The Saigon Tourist took over the hotel and enclosed the terrace. It’s a sub-standard Italian tratoria now.”
He nodded like a man grown used to the disappointment of the irretrievable.
Instead, Nuria chose Brodard’s – a cafe overlooking the same square. They sat by windows open wide to the scant night breeze, the petrol fumes, and the cacophony of the evening traffic. Overloaded motorcycles, three and even four astride crossed the square, avoiding collisions in strange, looping trajectories. At the Opera House, a localized version of Macbeth was over and primly dressed members of Saigon’s self-identified intelligentsia poured out onto its broad, colonial steps. Bicycle-based enterprizes, selling balloons and dried squid had strategically staked their territories, with the expectation of custom.
Their iced coffees arrived in tall, sweating glasses with long-handled ice-cream spoons and garish neon straws. For a while, they sipped and watched the mayhem.
“Oh, look. It’s my favourite man,” said Nuria. “We’re about to catch his eight o’clock show.”
In the middle of square, amidst the milling bikes, a man of about fifty was starting to dance. Terribly thin and barefoot, he had a close-cropped brush of dark hair. His clothes were torn, stained and faded khaki. The shirt came off first. He swung it over his head in a stripper’s parody, revealing a hollow chest, burnt almost chocolate by the sun. Then, after a little fiddling at the waist, off came his ragged, oil-soaked pants, slipping down over the swell of his pale and boyish buttocks and puddling around his shuffling feet.
“Holy shit. What’s he doing?” whispered Robert. “I have an urge to cover your eyes and tell you not to look.”
Nuria glanced at Robert. “I’ve seen it before.”
Motorcycles swerved around the naked man, giving him a wider and wider berth as he reached for his groin, clasped his semi-tumescent cock at its hair-thatched base and began masturbating.
“He does this often?” asked Robert. “Right in the center of the square?”
“Usually on Friday or Saturday nights. But sometimes on weekdays.” Nuria didn’t take her eyes of the small figure.
His sun-striped skin was an obscene contrast to the human-driven, metal and rubber machines that wove around him. He turned in slow, full circles as he wanked, like one of those plastic ballerinas in a jewelry box. Instead of a quaint and tinny music, he revolved to the experimental song of many beeping horns. Some like quacking ducks, broken-throated from overuse, some like tuneful gunshots.
“Don’t the police come?”
The figure in the centre of the square had stopped gyrating his hips. Intent now on completion, he stroked himself violently, ass-cheeks flexing as he delivered his cock into the cave of his fist. It was a race, but one in which the runner was fully aware of the spectators.
“I think it’s kind of a game for him. To see if he can make himself come before the cops arrive and bundle him off.”
On the steps of the Opera house, faces painted with disgust, parents firmly turned their children away from the spectacle. Pedestrians shouted curses. Young women giggled, their doll-like, perfectly manicured hands screening their mouths. But everyone who could look did look. Like Nuria, fingers on both hands crossed, silently willing the public masturbator to reach orgasm soon.
In the distance, above the song of the traffic, came the nee-naw-nee-naw of a police siren.
“They’re coming,” said Robert. But his eyes were also glued to the wanking man.
But the figure’s thrusts were tighter, more precise; his fist was pumping with the even automation of an assured and incipient outcome.
“They’ll be too late,” said Nuria with a smile. “He’s going to make it this time.”
Before the last words had left her lips, the naked man in the middle of the square, bronzed with the blush of the sodium street lamps and lashed with the headlamps of passing motorcycles, stiffened like an upright corpse and ejaculated.
A few people on the sidewalks clapped. More shouted obscenities. The spry, naked figure bent down to pick up his discarded clothes and bolted in the direction of gardens that ran alongside the Opera House.
Nuria released her held breath and beamed. “Bravo,” she whispered. “Bravo.”
Leaning back in his rattan seat, Robert shook his head in wonder. “I feel…I feel dirty.”
“You are. We are,” she said, still unable to dislodge the grin.
“Like I just had sex.”
“Well, in a way, we did.”