1. Pinnacle

They are standing on the couch in stilettos, tall, thin flutes of champagne in hand, swaying to the music and laughing at the onlookers. It is a black, leather couch that embraces a sturdy table made of marble, and they are dancing on it. Her friends can balance much better than she can. Once she realizes she’s not drunk enough to do this, she steps down onto the solid tile again. Relief.

The other girls continue until the end of the song. They smile desirably, trailing their fingers from the tenderness of their throats down to the softness of inner thighs and then back up. She wonders if she is desirable like that. At the conclusion of the song, they step down, still laughing. One of them knocks the table harder than expected, sending a rocks glass over the edge. It shatters.

No one is alarmed. They move together away from tiny peaks of glass and motion an attendant over to sweep up the mess.

On the dance floor, they find eager partners and move with the swell of the music. A young Chinese man dances in front of her and then beside her and then behind her. He possibly only knows the phrase “I want you” in English, a phrase which he whispers interminably in her ear as his hands become familiar with her shape. At first, she enjoys the power she has over him. She can touch him and make him move as it pleases her. Once his fingers slip under her skirt and pass over the softness between her legs, though, she pulls away. He is too bold.

Next, a woman. The woman is also Chinese, her cheeks whitened with powder and her lips reddened with wax. She leans close to speak in the girl’s ear. He voice is barely audible over the chaos of the music and echoes of the bass.

“My friend would like to meet you. Will you come with me?” she asks in a half Chinese, half British accent.

What will be required of me? What will I gain?  But she is young and single and invincible, so the girl nods and follows.

The woman leads her through a labyrinth of tables and patrons to the upper levels of the club. To the tables that oversee the dance floor. To the tables that preside over the patrons and attendants. To the tables for the upper-class, affluent clients. The girl’s stomach flutters, but she smiles and shakes hands amicably with all. Her skirt feels too short now. But this is fun. This is only fun.

A heavy-set, middle-aged man sits in the center of a white couch. The girl notes that the couches up here are white instead of black. This couch is the man’s possession, and she has been invited to join. He motions for her to sit next to him.

She’s never played the escort and has no plans to. But on the table, laid out like a grand feast, are grapes, cheeses, olives, charcuterie, and more champagne flutes brimming with the sparkling wine. In front of the man is a gold pack of cigarettes with curling Chinese characters across the front that the girl recognizes. That’s the expensive kind.

Well, fuck it.

She slides next to him and sits down. He puts his arm behind her head, but he does not touch her. The woman sits down on her other side. Acceptable, if not slightly uncomfortable. Her stomach somewhat loosens.

She asks him for a cigarette in Mandarin and he gives her one. The crackle as the flame bites the tip of the cigarette entices her; the smell intoxicates her. She inhales deeply and releases from her nose. Her stomach loosens more. This is fun.

Strobe lights swirl around below, splashing the clash of bodies on the floor. It is a world apart up here—quieter. Waiters can speak softly and politely to the patrons. They all look similar—slick, silk vests tucked in over long-sleeved collared shirts. All thin, all young.

One approaches the table where she sits with the man and his friends. The waiter examines the blank notepad in his palm carefully. His gaze never goes beyond the edge of the table, never graces its occupants. “Ninmen hao. Nage mei nu xiang yao shenme?” “What would the young lady like?”

The girl leans forward—responding directly in Mandarin. “I would like a beer, please.”

He looks up, somewhat surprised. “Ting hao de.” He bows and leaves.

She drinks the beer and smokes two more cigarettes. They chat about inconsequential things. Her work. Where she is from. How she learns Chinese. Nothing important.

When the conversation wans, the woman leans in close to her. Puts her hand on the girl’s thigh, gently moving her fingers. Her thumb traces invisible circles on the girl’s quadricep; her fingers briefly squeeze the girl’s leg and then slide deeper under the shadow of the skirt.  “Do you like this?” she asks, and the girl does not respond. The woman leans even closer. Her other hand skims the girl’s jaw. The girl does like this. Gentle. Their lips touch. Soft touch.

But the wax on her lips is not lush and dripping, it is the wax of a crayon. The girl can smell the woman’s makeup like thick dust caked in the hollows of her cheeks. And when they pull apart for a moment, the girl finds the man’s eyes watching them, watching the scene, watching the show.

Her stomach is tight again, and she stands up abruptly, thanking them for the beer and the cigarettes. Then, without waiting for a response, she slides around the woman and slips away from the table. The woman waits for a moment and then follows her, grasping her wrist. Her fingers are insistent.

“Please. You drank our champagne and smoked our cigarettes. This does not…” She struggles for the words. “Appear well.”

I drank no champagne , the girl muses, but she says, “I signed no contract.” And, after a short moment, the woman releases her.

The man has now removed his arm from behind the warm hollow where the girl’s body once rested. Each hand tightly clasps a knee. His face betrays no emotion. The woman retreats to the table, empty-handed. He leans forward and takes a sip of his champagne, then taps a cigarette onto the table from the gold pack.

She is American, after all. What is to be done?

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