Friendly Combat

By • Jun 7th, 2014 • Category: Diary

BannerThe following is an excerpt from a forthcoming collection of short stories about living abroad in Taiwan.

I Friend Zoned a prostitute in Taipei’s red light district, and it was easier than you’d suspect. 

During the first year after I had moved to Taipei, I lived in one of the city’s seediest neighborhoods, affectionately nicknamed the Combat Zone. I had been in other red-light districts before, most notably in Prague, where corrupt taxi drivers would “misunderstand” your desired destination, drive to a brothel that keeps the cabbie on the payroll, and charge double the fare to turn around and head back to where you just came from. Yet, none of these areas reeked of self-aware desperation quite like Taipei’s.

Referring to a specific couple of blocks that are offset a bit from the notorious Linsen N. Road, the Combat Zone gets its name because it rose to prominence during the Vietnam War in the early 1970s. The L-shaped corridor benefited from a nearby U.S. military outpost that housed troops fresh off the front lines. Those soldiers on R&R attracted entrepreneurial pub owners, who, in turn, hired packs of professionally friendly

The dark alley is lined on each side by gloomy, smoke-filled bars with names like Sailor, My Place, and B-52. A constant buzz hums off the neon signs that shine the only light down this unmarked lane. The flickering bulbs – some by design, most from shoddy wiring – lure gentlemen to wander aimlessly toward things they’ll soon rather forget. Some of the establishments have outdoor seating, like a rickety patio with more ashtrays than seats on a splintery picnic table, or lawn chairs on a rooftop deck that still are haphazardly capsized from a recent storm. It’s just for show. Nobody uses the outdoor seating. The dealings of the Combat Zone are best kept out of plain sight.

A trek through the neighborhood already looks like a walk of shame before the night has even begun. Foreigners scurry between bars as though there’s a limit on how much time they can spend out in the open all evening; the key is to conserve as many spare seconds as possible. With hands shoved in the front pockets of baggy jeans and their shoulders tensed – whether it’s cold or not – patrons navigate the Zone while staring at the ground just in front of their feet. Nobody wants to risk eye contact.

Inside, the bars are virtually the same. The upholstery usually is some combination of black and forest green faux leather, which is easy to wipe down and disinfect. It’ll be faded and ripped, when it’s not torn off completely. Dartboards gather dust and occasionally chime with promises of big winnings. Outdated artwork depicting Western pop culture adorns the walls – the movie poster for “Striptease” starring Demi Moore, the unfolded liner notes to the album “janet.” displaying a topless Janet Jackson being cupped by a stranger – cause establishments in the Zone to look like American bachelor pads in the early 1990s. Shelves behind the bars are stocked with the booze that all foreigners supposedly love: Jagermeister, cheap vodka (because nobody cares about what vodka is in a drink), name-brand gin (because everyone cares about what gin is in a drink), a few flavored rums, and usually one bottle of absinthe so tourists can tell their friends back home about the night they tried absinthe.My place

Time beyond the Zone’s borders may have progressed over the past half-century, but entering that dark alley is like taking a jump to the left and a step to the right through a time warp to before the energy crisis, before “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” before Pittsburgh’s Steel Curtain dynasty. The most prominent relics carried over from the district’s Nixon-era heyday are many of the women who still work there. More than the pungent stench of spilled beer. More than the forgotten bicycles rusted to lampposts. The aging workforce of Taipei’s Combat Zone has soldiered on through the years.

Taiwan, like many Asian countries, turns a blind eye to varying degrees of the world’s oldest profession. Although widespread prostitution technically is illegal, Taiwanese law-enforcement officials decided there are more pressing issues at hand because the prevalence of sex workers is one of the island’s worst-kept secrets. In 2009, a bill passed to decriminalize prostitution within sanctioned areas, allowing city governments the authority to designate legal red-light districts.

The Combat Zone isn’t a legal district, although its brand of tomfoolery can be mostly classified near the tame side on the sliding scale of sex work in Taiwan. There are some full-body massage parlors and private drinking clubs that accept only male memberships, but the majority of this strip is considered “hostess bars.” These places employ scantily clad women whose job description is to make friends with the male clientele. Any other arrangements are made – sometimes literally – under the table, but the mission statement of these places remains to provide an atmosphere. That’s all.

“Buy me a drink,” the women flirtatiously call out to the men scampering down the shadowy alleyway. “Just one drink,” they barter if somebody is curious enough to stop and chat to the woman posing in the doorway. It’s only after they’ve hooked a sugar daddy that the real smooth-talking begins. These women are masters of flirty chitchat, and they put their skills to use making the bars’ male customers feel like the most handsome, funny, intelligent, interesting people on Earth. Every joke is hilarious. Every story is captivating. A friend and I once sat at a Combat Zone bar and listened to a working girl convince a German businessman that she was “very moved” by his “very beautiful” childhood memory of building a snowman. (It was December, and the woman’s fishnet stockings had snowmen insignias on them because sex appeal is a dish best served festive.) She even dabbed her eyes as though she’d teared up. This girl was a pro. All the while, she kept ordering drinks on his tab.Chatters

That’s how women at these hostess bars make their money. When she orders her drink, it won’t be a cheap diet soda. It will be one of the priciest items the bartender can think up, and she gets a percentage of the price. The more drinks she shares with her male guest, the more money in her wallet at the end of the night. But she won’t ever get drunk. The bartenders know better than that. A sloppy hostess isn’t good company, and the goal is to keep the men in the bar for as long as possible. Thus, the ladies’ drinks will have about as much alcohol as mouthwash. Maybe.

The two people converse like old friends, connect like soul mates. One is sober and working; one is getting drunk and footing the bill.

The hostesses in the Combat Zone have seen – and worked through – just about everything imaginable. So as my corporate transfer to Taipei was completed and I relocated to the neighborhood during my first year in Taipei, the presence of this gangly American barely registered on their collective radars.

On the contrary, I’d walk through the area twice daily. The people’s faces became familiar to me quickly. Each morning en route to work, I’d pass the Zone’s female contingent gathered at the food stalls after a hard day’s night. They’d sit together at the market’s tables, dressed down in velour tracksuits and comfortable shoes. Their leftover glittery makeup and jeweled fake fingernails gave their profession away. In the evenings, I’d return home just in time to see the same women heading out to earn their wages. They’d strut down the street to various pubs, having replaced the morning’s casual attire with Saran wrap dresses and platform shoes that added several inches to their exposed legs.Eating

I wondered which was the “real” them. Did they fight to downplay their natural glitz each morning while slouched over tea, or did they have to psyche themselves up each night to parade about in skin-tight threads? Does Clark Kent pretend to be Superman, or is it the other way around?

The unique quality of the Combat Zone wasn’t what drew us to the neighborhood as Amy and I looked for our first apartment in Taipei. That would imply there’s some forethought to how house hunting in Taiwan works. There isn’t a method to the madness, and securing a place to rent has more to do with adjusted expectation than it does to conscious choice. It takes a little luck, too. Instead, the system is such that prospectors usually visit a property, sign a lease, and move in on the same day. What’s available today might not be in a week’s time, and often real-estate agents don’t bother publicly listing apartments because they’ll be snatched up before the websites get updated. It means people in the market for an abode are equally manic (“Quick! Sign or we’ll lose this place!”) and indolent (“No rush. New places will pop up tomorrow.”).

When relocating from Taichung to Taipei, Amy and I identified with the former’s anxiety. Unfortunately for us, the people helping with the search didn’t share that level of urgency when scheduling appointments with real-estate agents. We set out on a Saturday to find a home before Amy’s new job started on Wednesday. She was starting work in Taipei a few months earlier than me, which meant we’d be living long-distance as I finished up a teaching contract in Taichung. I had three months before my transfer went into effect, but she had only one afternoon to locate a suitable apartment for a new job in a new city 83 miles away. Time was of the essence. She had less than 96 hours to get settled in, and we had yet to inspect a single apartment.

This wasn’t an entirely new occurrence for us, though. We’d hunted for an apartment twice before in Taichung. The first was on the day that we moved to the city after having been in Taiwan for barely two weeks. That time, we arrived for a welcome lunch with our new company. When the meal wrapped up around noon, we proceeded to visit five properties back-to-back, … to back to back to back. As the fifth door closed behind us, the agent turned and asked, “Which place do you want to move into now?” We’d been in the city for less than four hours, and already we were inking our names on the dotted line. We had a home before we had bed sheets.

This previous experience in Taichung let us know that finding a decent apartment on a whim was possible, but it would require sacrificing some expectations.

Amy and I settled on that first apartment in the Combat Zone because it was a 20-minute walk from the company headquarters, the office from which we’d both soon be working. That’s how we ended up with a mailing address surrounded by dodgy bars and neighbors owning different 6-inch stiletto heels for every day of the month. The apartment was in a new building, and the only prior tenant was a monk who’d lived there for a half-year. The place was miniature and measured 14 pings, about 500 square feet. It had no windows and a loft bedroom with a ceiling too low for me to stand up completely. Its kitchen was no more spacious than a row of airplane seats, big enough for just a mini fridge and a washing machine where the oven should be. Somehow, the bedroom had a walk-in closet, but it also had a downstairs neighbor who definitely was one of the Zone’s working class and was exceptionally vocal when on the clock.

By comparison, we were leaving behind a gorgeous, two-bedroom flat in Taichung with hardwood floors, large plate windows, a private arboretum overlooking a park, and a spacious open floor plan, for about $300 a month cheaper. Our promotions to Taipei were going to be a tradeoff. What we gained professionally had to offset the struggles of that first Combat Zone apartment. The increased cost-of-living and the decreased space-of-living left us wondering what bobsled teammates did with all the extra footage in those sleds.

But that’s where we were for the first year in Taipei: sandwiched in an expensive shoebox with no windows in Taiwan’s capital’s red-light district.

For all its exposed blemishes and moral ambiguity, the Combat Zone was a fascinating place to reside, and my heart grows three sizes with memories of living in a place with such personality. As Taiwan evolves to be an even-greater mirror of the West, districts that accept their history and unapologetically hold on to their roots – no matter what they might have sprouted into – are rare. The Zone wasn’t a community down on its luck, just a community built on the hopes of getting lucky.

Residents knew that. There were no excuses. No whispers of what happened behind the closed doors of KTVs. People just lived, without opinion, going about life with minds on their own business.  And just as the gals in the pubs tempt outsiders to the Zone, it’s the men and women who live there that give those few square blocks all its depth. That’s the draw of the Combat Zone. The people. Whatever kind of person you’re looking for, they’re there. With hearts on their sleeves and quirks on display, the residents act as stronger testaments to the neighborhood than any rumor or shallow reputation can allude to.Church

Take the members of St. Christopher’s parish, for example. The beautiful stone church built in 1957 offers bilingual Catholic mass in English and Filipino and has become a hub for hundreds of misplaced immigrant workers from the Philippines. Every weekend, the sidewalk adjacent to the church is transformed into a street market. Vendors lay their goods on blankets and hock bags, clothes, electronics, shoes, toys, and home appliances. The heavy smells of traditional Filipino snacks like maruya and lumpia waft down the concrete corridors. Small crowds gather around stalls with TVs replaying Manny Pacquiao bouts, and cheers erupt with each victory, even though the outcome could be years old. It’s Taipei, … but on weekends at St. Christopher’s, it may as well be Manila.

There also was Bird Man: a Combat Zone regular who never left the house without his pet cockatiel. He’d stroll through the streets, pop into convenient stores, shop at a bakery, grab a drink at his favorite watering hole (The Green Door), utilize the laundromat and recline on park benches with the large, white bird on the lookout permanently perched on his shoulder. Its crown was tinged yellow, maybe naturally or maybe from its owner’s fondness for Marlboros. It could talk. It would dance. It would crack open peanut shells. It even could sneak up behind Amy and unhook her earring without getting noticed until it was scurrying away with silver jewelry dangling from its beak like a feathered version of Abu in “Aladdin.”Tailor

There was Jimmy the Tailor. Who, despite a nickname that made him sound like a mafia hit man, was actually just a tailor named Jimmy. The lifelong stitchman got his start earning pocket change as a teenager by hand-sewing patches on soldiers’ uniforms. By the time that I lived in the neighborhood 50 years later, he’d graduated to designing some of the best custom suits in Taipei, including the one for my wedding.

Every day, every instance in the Combat Zone was unique because the cast of personalities that frequented those streets. The one thing they all had in common was that they admitted that everyone was different. They didn’t just acknowledge it, either. They embraced those distinctions.

An abundance of white guilt spread over generations of reconciliation urges us to believe that people fundamentally are the same. We’re taught from a young age that, deep down, we all want corresponding things in life and share physical and emotional DNA. No matter race or creed, nationality or age, we’re implored to view everyone as being generally similar to one another. After-school specials plead with us. Teachers lecture us. Politicians advise us. Morals of the story inform us.

It’s rubbish. We’re not all the same. Yes, we’re all equal; that part of the message is true. But we’re certainly not the same. Believing so is crippling, and it does nothing but stagnate the message of open-mindedness that it’s trying to spread.

The problem with believing that everyone inherently is the same is that it shines a critical spotlight on the things that are different. Choices you made that I didn’t must be “mistakes;” paths you took that I avoided have to be “missteps;” things you do that I don’t are “wrong.” If we share so many of the same emotional and physical traits, then everything that differentiates a doctor administering methadone to the heroin addict receiving it can be summed up by a fraction’s worth of decisions. It gives us the liberty to expect others to act just like us. We’re the same, so we should act like it.

But to view each person as different, as having less in common than more, helps to characterize each person, each life, as unique. As special. To say that people are agents of control instead of as victims of flaws. Sure, we’re all human, but the similarities stop there. We each possess different skills. We each abide by our own moral code. We each have succeeded and failed in ways that others will never know.

When we view people as unequivocally and unavoidably not the same, we no longer hold others up against our own standards. We stop viewing ourselves as being correct, and every different choice as not. We become free of judgment. It’s not “us vs. them.” It’s “us and them.” Nobody is perfect because there’s no such thing. There’s who you are and what you believe. There’s who I am and what I do. Neither is right. Neither is wrong. Because we aren’t the same.

People in the Combat Zone lived inspiringly free of judgment. It was a contagious trait carried by Jimmy the Tailor and Bird Man … and Linda.

Definitely by Linda.

If there were a face of the Combat Zone, hers would be it. She wasn’t the longest-tenured working girl in the neighborhood by any means. She wasn’t even born when those first U.S. troops learned exactly how friendly Taiwanese could be. But she was the most visible nowadays. She was the most vocal, too.

From a distance, Linda was stunning. The slim Vietnamese import assumed a position outside the same corner club each night like a lean statue of sequins and latex. Her wavy, brown curls reached just below her often-exposed shoulder blades. Her porcelain skin was whiter than most Taiwanese women’s, and the neon lights reflected off her body to make her glow as she stood waiting for passersby. Boots occasionally reached to her mid-thigh, but her skirts never did. She donned an array of plunging necklines and scaling hemlines, like arrows directing ones eyes to dart up and down and back up again.

Upon closer inspection, you could see her age. Makeup was caked on like frosting to fill in the wrinkles that no doubt come from spending every night forcing smiles and engulfed in second-hand smoke. Maybe her makeup needed to be that thick so it wouldn’t smudge during the night’s under-the-table arrangements. Her clothes were cheap knockoffs of designer brands. Various colored lipstick prints decorated the coffee cup at her feet, which she’d clearly used for a few days without washing.

Linda embodied everything about the Combat Zone: alluring from a distance, disheartening up close, engaging once you got familiar.

Her regular corner at the “L” juncture of the Combat Zone’s two streets made her the unofficial gatekeeper for men walking from either direction. To get into the Zone, you had to get past Linda. It also meant she occupied the area’s neutral zone.

Two feuding mamasans controlled each of the intersecting streets. Females working in bars on the North-South lane reported to a tall woman with a fondness for gaudy mother-of-the-bride dresses. The East-West alley was the territory of a tiny gremlin of a woman with a noticeable facial tick and, apparently, no short-term memory. These two elderly mamasans would advertise the girls down their respective streets before men got anywhere near the pubs. “I have sexy girl for you. Hey! Listen me! My girls young and sexy.” They’d offer up flesh like an auction. For people like me who enjoy busting stereotypes, these offers were discouragingly close to promising to “love you long time.”Poison

Linda stood at the crossroads of the two turfs. It wasn’t clear whether she was smart enough to report to neither mamasan or sly enough to be affiliated with both. The mamasas take a cut of the girls’ fees, but they trump up a lot of extra business with an aggressive, “always be closing” sales approach lifted straight from that “Glengarry Glen Ross” monologue. Girls aligning themselves with one of the factions stood the chance of making more, depending on whether they paid a finder’s fee to a mamasan or got to keep their hostess money in full.

From the looks of things, Linda operated by her own set of rules. She never was anchored down at a bar and always negotiated deals herself. No barstool office chair. No mamasan representation. She was the Zone’s lone independent contractor.

Every night for the first two months that I lived in Taipei, she asked me to join her for a drink. And every night for two solid months, I came up with ways, varying in politeness and truthfulness, to say no. I was new to the area but wasn’t ignorant to its reputation. Things are pretty standard in bar districts throughout Asia. I was cautious when declining, though, because I didn’t want to appear pompous. I was careful that my rejections not carry an air of being offended or imply that I was something of a higher-class citizen and couldn’t be bothered by such peasantry. “How dare you ask such a thing? You’re disgusting.” 

The trick was to decline but make the offer sound flattering.

“Buy me a drink?” Linda would heckle.

“No, sorry,” and I’d scurry past, with my hands tucked in my front jean pockets, shoulders tensed even though it wasn’t cold, and eyes locked on the ground in front of me.

“Buy me a drink?” she’d ask the next night.

“Not, tonight. I’m feeling a bit under the weather. It’s kind of you to ask, though.”

“Buy me a drink?” It was déjà vu.

“I can’t hear you, sorry. I have headphones in.”

“Buy me a drink?”

At one point, I considered dusting off an old technique that I had implemented to outsmart my high school’s volunteer security guard when I wanted to ditch class: pull my shirt over my head and sprint past.

On average, every other night that I rejected Linda’s advance, I’d mention that I wasn’t single. She either didn’t mind, or there was something lost in translation. But after two months, I felt comfortable being a little more blunt about my relationship.

“Buy me a drink?” she said on cue as I walked home on a late-summer evening. The weather was particularly muggy that day, and Linda was accordingly stripped down. She lounged seductively, dabbing her collarbone with a moist towelette. There are porn films that open with less of a cliché.

“How about we make a deal,” I said. This was the first time in eight weeks that I had stopped moving long enough to plant both feet to talk with her.

“What deal? One drink and …?” I cut her off. I didn’t want to know where that sentence was headed.

“I will never take you to one of these bars to buy you a drink. You don’t have to ask me any more because I always will say no. But that doesn’t mean we can’t talk,” I interjected. “You can stop treating me like a customer, and I will stop assuming that you’re pretending to be nice because you want money. No business required. We can be friends.”

Linda didn’t say anything for a few seconds. It seemed longer. I felt like I had just called her scum and kicked dirt on the freshly polished nails peeping out of the toes of her patent-leather pumps. My stomach dropped. She peered assertively back at me. As she contemplated the proposal, I could see her tongue running back and forth over the front of her teeth behind her sealed lips. If this were poker, it’d be a definite tell.

Then her shoulders dropped a few inches, suddenly and both at once, like she’d exhaled a breath that had been held in far too long.

“Friends,” she said, and she extended her hand. She had a handshake of a person who didn’t shake hands often. Her fingers extended so straight that they curled backward, as stiff as a board. Her hands were tiny, too – even tinier than I’d expect given her diminutive frame. My palms almost enveloped her entire hand. We shook once and sealed the deal. It wasn’t under the table.

I turned the corner and went to my apartment building. Still not sure what to make of the situation, I knew it would only take a day for me to find out.Market

The next night, I took the regular route home from the office. West down MinQuan E. Road. Past a McDonald’s and a Subway. Past an elementary school. Past a spa offering weight-loss sweat boxes. Under an elevated expressway. Cross the hedonistic Linsen N. Road, and turning right up ShuangCheng Street toward the heart of the Combat Zone. I avoided the same Japanese restaurants I always kicked myself for not having tried yet. I cut through the neighborhood park. I weaved my way through the market’s food stands that were setting up for the dinner rush. Waved to Jimmy the Tailor as I passed his shop.

Then I approached Linda’s post.

“Hey! Hey!” she hollered as I came into view. I was across the street, but she didn’t care. I put my head down in shame. The concept of a friendship must have lost its appeal after she slept off the idea.

“Hey!” she persisted.

“Yes?” I exasperatedly said with a hint of arrogance as I crossed in her direction. I wasn’t interested in the same offer-and-denial routine we’d choreographed to perfection during the previous two months. I hoped last night’s proposal would have changed our dynamic.

“How are you today?” she asked, with no mention of buying her a drink.

“Fine,” I said, hesitatingly optimistic that it wasn’t a bait-and-switch gag to ask me to join her at a bar with the next question. “A little tired.”

“You work for a school? I saw the picture on your shirt some days,” she followed up. She actually was paying attention, invested in the conversation. “Long day at work?”

“It wasn’t too bad,” I said, guarding my words because I wasn’t sure where the talk was headed. “How’s work today for you?”

Asking a prostitute “how’s work today” is like realizing the keys still are in the ignition as you continue shutting the car door. You’re aware of the mistake in real time but can’t stop it. The question came out of my mouth with that same self-aware awkwardness. Like an out-of-body experience, I could see myself and thought, “What am I doing?” But I carried on speaking. Before I even finished asking Linda how her workday had been, my internal monologue was chastising my mouth for letting the words escape. What constitutes good day at work for a sex worker, anyway? No business or lots of business?

She didn’t miss a beat. She was unfazed by the absurdity of the query.

“OK,” she said. If she were dodging the question, it worked. “I’m a little hungry.”

“Good,” I sighed. No idea why it was good, but it seemed like the right thing to say. “See you tomorrow.” I went home relieved that I hadn’t been invited for a drink, pleased with the brevity, the frankness, and how genuine that first conversation felt.

The following night was much of the same. Pleasantries in passing, but no innuendo, no hint of financial motives. Just small talk. It was nice.

Over the next several months, that’s how most of the conversations played out. A few back-and-forth exchanges, a polite farewell, and not an undercurrent of judgment. I was careful not to linger too long, though. Not for my sake, but for Linda’s. She was, after all, still working, and I didn’t want to stand in the way of her earning a living. Guys see her occupied with me, and they’ll go to the next thirsty woman in need of a drink. So I kept the conversations brief but never rushed.

For one reason or another, people tend to open up to me quickly. They tell me things they’d otherwise avoid discussing or reveal things they probably shouldn’t. Some of it is throw-away small talk. Other times, people divulge secrets or confess transgressions with candor. They usually tack on the, “I can’t believe I’m telling you this,” qualifier. The things is, though, I can believe they’re telling me. They always tell me.

Through my years as a reporter, I developed the ability to ask tricky questions without seeming intrusive, to inquire about personal information without coming across as nosy. Journalists often discuss uncomfortable things, and the best ones are able to do so while never offending the person answering. Try asking a crying mother details about her son as fire crews still are cleaning up the fatal car crash. Take a shot at acquiring voting records from a politician in the midst of a bribery scandal. It takes finesse to ask personal questions without prying.

It’s something (ex)reporters can’t turn off, either. We ask questions to fill uncomfortable silences in elevators. We start conference calls with generic inquiries to break the ice. We stick our nose into people’s business, and we often don’t realize it. Stockpiles of information build up with each casual conversation. In time, a spreadsheet worth of useless information fills up the corners of our brains. Where a coworker went to university, a client’s favorite color, whether a taxi driver prefers chicken or beef, the last movie to make a colleague cry, why a friend was given their name, etc. These sorts of things come up naturally in conversations with me, but friends listen with perplexed looks as I rattle off details about acquaintances as though we’ve known each other for ages. Asking follow-up questions comes effortlessly to anybody who’s spent time in a newsroom. If a person says they attended a sister’s wedding last weekend, my inclination is to ask how many siblings they have. When they reply, I inquire about their ages, … then how the age gap affected their relationship, … then if that dynamic changed in adulthood, … then if they feel closer to one sibling versus another, … then if they speculate whether their parents also favored one over the other. Without trying, I’ve weaseled my way into their insecurities about mommy and daddy picking favorites. It helps to put people in context. Uncover enough innocuous minutiae, and you’re bound to unearth something of merit eventually.

Speaking with Linda was no different. Over the course of a few weeks, I’d pieced together a character sketch of the woman standing at the Combat Zone’s “L” shaped corner.

Back in Vietnam, she had dropped out of high school at age 15. As the youngest of six children, she worked at novelty stores as a teen while attending night classes. Eventually, she married a Taiwanese doctor and moved to the island at age 28. However, he developed a tendency to boss her around with his fist, so they got divorced. Her young child was sent back to live with her parents in Vietnam, and Linda began earning more money as a live-in housekeeper than she could in her home country. It’s a job she still kept a few days a week. Each month, she sent money to her son, who was now 12 years old. There are plans for him to join her permanently in Taiwan when he’s ready for high school, but now he just visits during his summer vacations. She wants to save enough money to leave the Combat Zone by the time he moves with her, since he’d be old enough to know what she does for a living. Linda didn’t like most European guys because she said they smelled bad. Italian guys are pushy. She thinks her hair is too curly, but the humidity in Taiwan makes straightening it a chore. She can speak English but not read it. A butterfly tattoo is in a place that only people who buy her a few drinks get to see. I didn’t ask how she got into the business of flirting for money. I didn’t care to know what other services were available, however, by the types of customers she’d leave with in taxis, I don’t think there were many things that Linda didn’t provide.

In the spirit of full disclosure, all the details I know about Linda came from Linda. As far as literary devices go, there couldn’t be a more textbook unreliable narrator. The woman makes a living telling guys exactly what they need to hear and is an expert at sizing a fella up to cut to his emotional core. There’s a chance nothing she told me was legit. Yet, I prefer to believe what she told me was the truth. A decade as a journalist sharpened my BS detector, and she passed the eye test. What I saw outweighed any lingering doubts about what she claimed.

It’s easy to get distracted by the Combat Zone’s visual stimuli. The legs. The eyelashes. The pushup cleavage. The dramatic posing. The flirtatious gestures. The beaming smiles. The high heels. The neighborhood’s glitterati employ many of the same misdirection tactics as Las Vegas stage magicians. Luckily, it doesn’t take sawing a woman in half to expose what lies beneath the heavily manicured surface. The heart’s true content is revealed in the details. The subtle word choices. The pauses, the deepness of her breaths. What these women say – not how they look when they say it – is the best glimpse of character.Kiss Me

“Wanna have fun tonight?” is a fairly standard question in the Zone.

“I’ll make you feel good tonight,” is a common promise.

“Need company tonight?”

“I want to see you tonight.”

“Spend time with me tonight,” is the command.

Time grinds to a halt in the Combat Zone. The women working there have learned the hard way that nobody visits them to make plans for tomorrow. The focus is tonight. In the next few hours. Slates get wiped clean at dawn as patrons resurface to head back to their real worlds.

“You’re handsome.” Linda butters people up with flattery. “Let’s get married. We can have a baby,” she’ll laugh heartily to mask the fact she’s not joking. Other women are looking to make a buck. Linda is looking for a way out. Not to con a rich man to be a trophy wife, but for a family to show for the years of transient buyers, fleeting conversations, and passing stares. Something to erase all the crap she’s had to pretend to enjoy. Something similar to the life she thought she once had back in Vietnam. Time in the Zone takes its toll. She longs for stability. A role reversal. One person to nurture her. To make her feel good. To love her for who she is, not lust for her for who she pretends to be. Her mind is on the future, on building a home. On making an impression that lasts longer than just one drink.

I was sitting in the shoebox apartment when Amy came home with the look on her face that means she’s been thinking something over and has fallen down a rabbit hole of thoughts.

“You haven’t introduced me to your friend,” she said. Emphasis on “friend.”

She didn’t need to clarify that she meant Linda. I knew right away. Amy has a hard time believing that a nun and a eunuch can develop a platonic friendship. The concept is a slightly harder sell when one of the people has been known to bump uglies for cash.

“Have you tried saying hi to her?” I asked.

“She’s your friend.” Amy explained. “Besides, you’re the one in the relationship, which she supposedly is aware of.”

I’d kept Amy abreast of my budding rapport with Linda, partly because I was proud to have circumvented the catcalling, and partly because the shortcut through the Combat Zone reduced my daily commute by several minutes and I didn’t want that route vetoed out of suspicion.

“When we walk past her together, your friend doesn’t say hi, even to you,” Amy continued. “I think it’s weird that when I’m around, she’s suddenly not talkative, nor have you introduced us.”

The logic made sense in Amy’s head but sounded one-sided to anyone listening.

I had a rebuttal because I always have a rebuttal.

“She’s probably accustomed to being shamed by other women,” I contradicted. “Always being distrusted or judged. I’d avoid that, too. Old habits die hard, old dog new tricks, and all that jazz.”

“I think ignoring each other when I’m around is pretty telling.” Amy reiterated, “It’s disrespectful.”

“Couldn’t you argue that it’s more respectful of our relationship not to butt in during our walks?” I said confidently. I wasn’t just playing devil’s advocate. I believed that counter point. “Maybe Linda assumes that nothing good can come from a sex worker interrupting a couple’s evening stroll. It’s like a prostitute code of ethics – the elusive hooker with a heart of gold – never to address a man when he’s with his lady. She’s used to being forgotten, so if she stays out of sight, she assumes she’s out of mind.”

The logic made sense in my head but sounded one-sided to anyone listening.

“I’d like to be introduced,” Amy said. The discussion was over.

On the list of things to do that week, slated ahead of folding laundry and buying a block of Gouda at the supermarket, was striking up a conversation with Linda while Amy was present. I ticked it off on a Thursday on the way to Jimmy the Tailor’s. The clumsy introduction lasted a few harmless seconds. After Amy retracted her peacock feathers, we went on our way to pick up some custom shirts and gorge ourselves on a meal that probably would prevent my newly tailored threads from fitting correctly. I felt better because Amy felt better. While my acquaintance with Linda never would get the stamp of Unconditional Wife Approval, it also no longer got heavy sighs and disparaging growls. That’s pretty must the best-case scenario when getting to know a woman who’s gotten to know a lot of guys over the years.

Occasionally, Linda would offer me a piece of guava or whatever fruit she was nibbling on. Once in a while, she’d ask if I knew any single guys who wanted to find a wife, then pretend like she wasn’t serious. She always had a lot of questions about my wedding – what were the colors, to describe Amy’s dress – and couldn’t understand why we didn’t plan to have kids. In an attempt to be neighborly, Amy would say hi to Linda, as well, but a conversation never would materialize. Amy’s isn’t used to being forgotten, so if she is out of sight, she assumes she’s out of mind.

One night I wobbled through the Zone well past midnight. After a night imbibing some of the best drinks Taipei had to offer, I’d left my friends as they continued making the most of the city’s nightlife. As I got to Linda’s corner, she stopped me in my tracks.

“Don’t go this way,” she said. “Go home another way.”

It’s not the kindest approach for a person in the service industry to greet somebody, especially a friend.

“You’ve had some drinks. It’s not good for a man who’s had some drinks to go down this street. The girls will be too aggressive,” she explained. “Go the long way home.”

I took her advice.Manila

The forces of the Combat Zone universe seemed in line, and things, dare I say, entered a stage of predictability, until the evening that two women who were unquestionably not Linda occupied the L-shaped intersection at the entrance to Zone.

I slowed down to get a better look at the pair of fresh-faced newbies posturing on the corner. They couldn’t have been older than 20, and weighed about 100lbs … soaking wet … combined. Fake nails. Heavy makeup. Sparkly stilettos. Exaggerated hemlines. These women certainly hadn’t roamed into the neighborhood by mistake. They knew where they were but not yet how things worked in the Zone. They had their scrawny, bare legs staking out Linda’s spot, and I couldn’t image she handed it over to these couple of imitators without a fight.

I did a double, then a triple take. It probably looked the same as the double-then-triple takes that guys had given the duo all night. But I wasn’t staring at who they were; I was baffled by who they weren’t. My pace had slowed to a stop without me realizing it, and I stood near these new women scowling with a judgment uncharacteristic to the Zone.

In this neighborhood, when a guy flashes a double-then-triple take, he’s usually bursting with intrigue over whatever beauty caught his eye. Women working these streets can detect even the slightest interest, so my triple glance invited a series of hollers from the pair.

“Buy us a drink,” said the one in a green dress and a wristwatch studded with fake diamonds.

They were a package deal, but I failed to acknowledge the tandem as I scanned the alley for my friend.

“Hey! Hey! You thirsty tonight?” added the other, taller girl.

Together, they were a hot mess. They strutted with the grace of a drunken sorority girl. Neither had mastered how to walk in such high heels, and each step looked like the prelude to a broken ankle. Their makeup was a cross between Dee Snyder and a kindergartener’s art smock. I would have pegged them as drag queens, except that their dresses crept high enough up the thighs that everything was on display. Gallons of perfume failed to conceal the stench of cheap, Taiwanese cigarette smoke. Nothing in the way they moved, or talked, or looked appeared fluid. They looked like junior high school students playing dress-up in their college cousin’s night club outfits.

Yet, I had done a double take, then a triple take, and they hadn’t forgotten.

“Hey, hello,” the taller girl repeated. “Want to get a drink tonight?”

I didn’t have to answer. Before I could reject the beverage threeway, a catty Chinese voice rung out over my shoulder. It was high-pitched and didn’t mince words. It was fast and forceful. Somebody was pissed.

Linda came into my peripheral vision wagging her finger at the presumptuous youngsters. She let them have it long enough for a few neighborhood residents to peek their heads out their windows to check what all the commotion was. This was her spot, and these new girls had to earn a stake in the “L” corner.

The tragic twosome stood silently to take their verbal lashing. They stepped backward to leave, and Linda tacked on one last nugget of wisdom to the end of her rant.

“Tā shì yīgè hǎorén.”

Translation, “He is a good person.”

When she calmed down, Linda looked at me.

“Buy me a drink?” she asked as the two women rolled their eyes and walked away.

The request caught me off guard. She hadn’t asked me that in quite some time, and it called into question whether the last several months had been a slow assault to weaken my defenses.

“C’mon,” I said, rolling my eyes just as the two younger women had done a moment earlier. “You know I’m not going …” She interrupted me; she didn’t want to know where that sentence was headed.

“From 7-11. A coffee. Black,” Linda clarified. “I need to stay here, but you can get it from across the street.”

I didn’t say anything for a few seconds. It seemed longer.

“Here is some money,” she said while digging for coins in a phony Chanel clutch.

“Buy me a drink?” I joked. Thankfully she didn’t hear. It gave me time to reconsider the quip. I swallowed the question, opting not to mock her.

It’s best to go dutch in the Friend Zone.

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