Tuesday, May 18th, 1937
The Lotus Land Lounge
— off Nanking Road —
The nightclub was astonishingly smoky.
It was also dimly-lit, apart from the stage; dim, almost to the point of opacity. By design, I was sure. It was not the kind of place, in which one wished to be seen, and recognized.
The tables bore out my theory. Most were tiny, suitable for two persons, really, and they were scattered about the room. In fact, the sleekly-dressed man who had seen us in, had put Tom and me a little bit apart from the others. At first I thought it a coincidence.
Up on stage, a Russian-looking woman was singing in French, a doleful song about unhappy love. A small band played quietly behind her; the band-members looked bored.
Tom sniffed, twice, in the gloom beside me.
"What's that smell — ?" he asked me, quietly.
I blinked, for just a moment.
"Oh," I said. I leaned my head in, closer to his. "Um … that's cannabis; it's also called marijuana … it's a kind of leaf that you smoke, like tobacco. But it is also a drug. It is very popular, among musicians." I'd smelled it before, in New York; there were a few jazz clubs that turned a blind eye to Jack and me sneaking in, on slow nights, during summer vacation.
"What's it do?" Tom leaned in even closer, and lowered his voice.
"Well, I think it relaxes you … I'm not really sure." I shrugged, a little. "I've never tried it. But I think it's mostly legal, back home. Back in America, I mean."
"Oh … "
A slightly-awkward pause, at that faint praise, then. I wondered what Mister Fletcher would say, if Tom told him; I decided to have a little talk with Tom, on the way home.
The doleful love-song ended, to some polite applause. A new song started; it seemed more sultry, more overtly sensual … the singer swayed, in a certain way, and moved her leg —
And I immediately noticed two things. First, that the singer's sheer, tight dress was slit at the side, from the hem, all the way up to the waist; and second, that she appeared to be wearing nothing, whatever, underneath the dress …
Another few lines of song; another suggestive move, of her leg.
No, there was no doubt about it; not even in the murk cast by the swirling, spotlit tobacco-smoke.
I couldn't help myself; I had to look over at Miss Lloyd, several tables away … I finally spotted her; her face was intent, and completely focused, as she watched the performance. At the table next to her, Monsieur Kerzhakov, the cinematographer, had a sketch-pad out, and he was sketching rather vigorously; I had the impression that he was paying particular attention to the spotlights, his eyes were darting everywhere, measuring light, and shadow …
"Gentlemen — ?" came a voice in the gloom. "What may I bring you — ?"
The white-jacketed waiter was Chinese, and ancient, and bald as an egg, and he spoke perfect English. I was a little startled; I hadn't seen him approach. I looked over at Tom.
"Oh … Coke, please?"
An ancient eyebrow lifted; and I rushed to fill in the awkward gap.
"Umm — a Coca-Cola for my friend, please. And I'll have … a champagne cocktail. With Cassis — ?"
I had no intention of drinking it, or of drinking all of it, anyway; but I knew from my explorations with Jack in New York, that if one sits at a table in a night-club, one is expected to buy something alcoholic. It is part of the price of admission.
"Very good, sir," from the ancient. He promptly disappeared.
Tom gave me a questioning look; I shrugged. "I'll explain later … "
Yes; there would definitely need to be a talk with Tom, on the way home.
Back on stage, the chanteuse moved into another French ballad, this one more explicit than the last. There was something about unfulfilled desire, and the resulting torment, and by her performance, the singer made it clear that the desire was of a sexual nature. Her slender leg, and bare side, made a more prominent appearance; her movements were almost feline …
"Hello, boys. May I join you?"
She did not wait for an answer; rather she sat down in a chair — I did not even see from where it had come — and settled in, comfortably. She was dark-haired, caucasian, and rather expensively-dressed, in a gown which left one shoulder bare.
She did not waste much time.
"Are you enjoying the performance — ?" She motioned with her head towards the singer. Her voice was deep; I could not determine the accent.
"Uhhh … yes, ma'am."
I did not think she was alluding to the singer's musical abilities. I felt acutely embarrassed.
"I have two friends, two very nice young girls, right upstairs … would you like to meet them — ?" She smiled at us. "They like to party, and they're looking for company … " She moved in, a little closer. "It's very dark, in this corner; no one would see you slipping away, I promise."
Suddenly, I understood why we'd been seated a little apart from the others.
I didn't need to look at Tom; I felt his eyes on mine, wide and helpless.
"Ummm … thank you, ma'am, but no thank you … I think we'll just stay and enjoy the show … "
It was a weak brush-off, and I knew it was a mistake, as soon as I uttered it.
The bare-shouldered woman's eyes darted between us, assessing, judging.
"Hmmmm … You boys are good friends, no — ?"
Neither of us said anything.
"I know another girl … her name is Anna, she is very young, very slim … " She smiled at us, and produced a cigaret, from out of nowhere. She put it between her lips, and lit it with a slender, silver-colored lighter. She gave it a long pull, and then exhaled the smoke, up and to one side, into the murk. Her eyes measured us, again.
"Anna likes boys your age, very much. Very much." A pause, for another puff, another exhalation. "You could share her. At the same time." Her eyes flicked between us. "She would enjoy that." A small smile crossed her lips.
For one, brief, mortifying second, I almost considered it; at least in one part of my brain. For Tom's sake; to give him the experience, the chance to see if he could at least pass, as a heterosexual man … and then I glanced at him, and read his expression.
"No. No, ma'am … I don't think so." I gave her a smile of my own. "Actually — you're probably asking the wrong boys."
I don't know what got into me.
Perhaps it was the darkness, and the utter anonymity of the situation. But I felt a swift, hot surge of pride, as I said it. And, wonder of wonders, I actually reached a few inches across the table, and took Tom's hand, and squeezed it, lightly, before letting it go.
A flicker of amusement, on the bare-shouldered woman's face. She took another long puff on her cigaret, and blew the smoke up, and away.
"So. Well." Another quick puff; her eyes glancing between us. "My poor Anna will be disappointed. Still," she went on, and all of a sudden, a card appeared on the table before her — "you boys think it over. And if you change your minds, just hand this to your waiter. Yes — ?"
"Yes, ma'am," I said; idiotically enough, under the circumstances, and then the bare-shouldered woman was gone.
An awkward moment of silence. I looked at Tom, helplessly.
"I'm sorry, I didn't — "
"No, no, no!" He was shaking his head, vigorously. "I — "
"Your drinks, gentlemen," from our ancient waiter, behind me.
With a smooth gesture I hadn't known I possessed, I palmed the bare-shouldered woman's card, and turned the movement into extracting my wallet from my inside breast pocket. Our drinks swept gracefully down onto the table.
"Oh, thank you. How much do I — ?"
"Nothing at all, sir," interrupted the ancient. "These are presented, compliments of the lady who was just at your table." He regarded us gravely, for a moment, in the smoky gloom. "Now, if there is anything else I can bring you, or anything else I can do for you, please don't hesitate to let me know — ?"
His meaning could hardly be clearer. To paraphrase Mister Grey, I wondered what his fair cut of the proceeds might be.
"Ummm … thank you … "
The soulful Russian chanteuse with the defective dress finally retired, to polite, scattered applause. The master of ceremonies made a heavily-accented announcement which I only partly understood —
And all at once, three Chinese girls swirled, giggling, onto the stage; each carried two, enormous, feathered fans, which they used to artfully conceal their bodies, dancing and twirling in time with the band's now up-tempo music —
They were not the most skilled dancers I'd ever seen. It was immediately apparent, that they were all quite nude, apart from their head-dresses, and their high-heeled sandals. But then again, I thought, perhaps their lack of skill was part of the act.
Oh, Lord —
I leaned in closer to Tom.
"You know," I said, quietly, over the cheerful, naughty music — "There are things, that you don't necessarily need to tell your father about … "
He looked at me as if I was daft.
"No kidding — ?"
I smiled at him sheepishly; and I risked a glance over at Miss Lloyd, and the other members of our party, I hadn't dared it since the bare-shouldered woman had approached us —
Miss Lloyd was leaning sideways, making some sort of remark to Doctor Yang; I could make out her wicked smile, even in the murk. Monsieur Kerzhekov was back to sketching, feverishly —
This time, Tom's expression gave me fair warning.
"Gentlemen," from our ancient waiter. "May I present Miss Hildemann — ?"
An assistant-waiter began rapidly setting up a stand, with an ice-bucket, holding what was obviously a steaming, freshly-opened bottle of champagne, next to our table; the ancient set down three empty champagne-glasses, with appropriate flourishes, and Miss Hildemann sat down at our table, unbidden. She was older than the bare-shouldered woman, and more conservatively dressed; almost primly so.
"Hello, gentlemen," she said, brightly, in an American accent; a Midwestern one. "Will you join me in a glass of champagne — ?"
The assistant-waiter was already skillfully pouring into the second glass, careful of the froth. Our ancient had disappeared.
"Actually, ma'am — " I started, trying to come up with a dismissal that would be short of inexcusable rudeness.
"Oh, do please say yes," from Miss Hildemann. "I would enjoy the company — and I think I could make it worth your while."
I blinked. There was a long pause.
The assistant-waiter finished pouring the third glass of champagne, replaced the bottle in the ice bucket, covered it with a cloth, and disappeared, in his turn. The girls on stage continued fluttering, and giggling, dancing little mincing steps in their high-heeled sandals.
I wondered what Miss Hildemann meant. As usual, the fear of blackmail lurked in the back of my mind; and I had, after all, just openly taken Tom's hand —
"Ma'am — ?"
"Oh, yes … But first. A toast, to Shanghai — ?" She lifted her glass, and waited for us to pick up ours — ignoring Tom's Coke, and my champagne cocktail — and clicked glasses with us …
She proceeded to chat with us — at us, really — for a few moments. All of it was inconsequential. I began to wonder about escaping, taking Tom with me, to Miss Lloyd's table, and her bodyguards, perhaps —
Then Miss Hildemann came to her point.
"You boys have an admirer. He is in this room; actually, he is watching us, right now, he's the one who sent the champagne." She gave us a prim, schoolteacher's smile.
"Uhhh … " I looked at Tom. His mouth was actually a little open.
I made myself not look around.
"He is a very nice man, perfectly clean, very gentle; he is a Japanese businessman, and he is very taken with the two of you … And, he is very, very generous." Another prim smile; she sat up very straight, and she held her hands together, in her lap. "He would enjoy getting to know you both — together — "
The emphasis on 'together' was unmistakable.
" — upstairs … "
"Boys, boys, boys," came a voice; light, dry, mocking. "What have I always taught you about sharing — ? You could have sent the waiter to fetch me." Mister Grey set down his chair — forcing himself into the narrow gap between myself and Miss Hildemann, obliging both of us to move, slightly. Then, brightly; "Champagne! How delightful!"
I pushed my glass across the table, a little, towards him.
"Excuse me, sir," from Miss Hildemann; and she sounded frosty, now, rather than prim. "I believe these two young men and I were having a private conversation."
"Oh, yes, yes, that was moderately obvious," from Mister Grey; in his laziest, and most ostentatiously aristocratic, tone. "But that hardly figures, does it? My traveling companions and I don't keep secrets from one another. Do we, Max — ?" he said, turning to me, smiling. "Do we, Joe — ?" he repeated, to Tom.
The irony of the assertion almost made me goggle.
"In fact, you might call the three of us, the most intimate of friends … " he paused, to take a sip from my champagne glass. "Oh, my, this is good … " he looked at the glass, admiringly, then set it down, and addressed Miss Hildemann, directly. "And since the nature of your private conversation is also relatively obvious, permit me to inform you that my two companions are, regrettably, … engaged … for the evening."
And with that, Mister Grey reached up and massaged my bare neck, slightly, with his warm fingers; and then his hand slid down my forearm, to rest on top of my own hand. His hand actually curled around mine, fingers interlacing, clasping it, intimately.
I felt myself flushing, scarlet. I thought I could actually feel the heat radiating from my face.
A long silence, from prim Miss Hildemann. It went on, for some seconds.
"And what price," from her, at last, "might persuade you to — postpone — your pleasure, for one evening — ?"
A shorter pause; and then Mister Grey gave out a puff of laughter.
"Such admirable directness! Such delightful brevity! I shall be equally crude, in my response. I am not in need of funds. And, my traveling companions are not for sale." He paused, for a moment; and then he cocked his head, a little. "However," he began, thoughtfully …
"Yes — ?" from Miss Hildemann; into the silence.
A small smile, from Mister Grey.
"I will confess, that you have appealed to my vanity. You see, I believe that the boys and I have developed … mutually agreeable … arrangements, during this trip, in matters involving much more, than just money. In fact, I would even assert that it is quite the enjoyable thing, for all three of us, all the way around … "
The hand holding mine unclasped, and twisted, and then he was caressing the back of my hand with his palm, with his fingertips —
Damn him, I thought, as I gave an involuntary shiver. He is enjoying this far too much —
" … And, I like to think that I am a generous employer. In more ways than one … "
More feather-light strokes, of his fingertips. His battered hand on mine was worn, and handsome, and elegant, and seductive.
"So. I think, perhaps, in this matter — I will leave the evening's outcome to them. Yes; yes, it will be up to the two of them. Without fear or favor. So, what do you say, Max — ?" He turned a crooked smile on me. "Would you care for, what I'm sure would be, a lucrative and educational night off, in exotic Shanghai — ?"
I kept my hand still, on the table, under his.
A brief, broader smile from him; and he turned to Tom.
"And you, Joe — ?"
"No." It came out, flat and quick.
Dead silence, for a few heartbeats. Then Mister Grey turned his gaze to Miss Hildemann, and shrugged, slightly.
"Ç'est l'amour," he said; with a smile.
Miss Hildemann sat still, for a few long seconds; and then, without a word, and with her back primly upright, she stood up, and left us.
An awkward silence, at our little table. On the stage, the fan-dancers continued their artistic exhibition; the band continued their dutifully-cheerful tootling. The tobacco-smoke swirled.
Mister Grey's hand slid away from mine. Reluctantly; I thought.
"Well," he said, at last; into the space between the three of us. "Well. I do hope you will both forgive my intrusion, into your private affairs. But when I saw the open champagne-bottle, I knew I had to do something … Boys as young and comely as you two, really ought not accept open bottles of wine from strangers, in establishments such as this; oh, my, no."
"Sir — ?" I managed. Feeling my flush, fading, at last.
Mister Grey cocked an eyebrow at me. The little laugh-lines crinkled, at the edges of his eyes.
"There is a long tradition, here in the East, of — adding — to such liquid gifts. Substances to make one a bit more compliant, shall we say; a bit more relaxed, and open to suggestion, perhaps — ? It is Shanghai, after all … "
A short, horrified silence.
"You don't really think — ?" I stared at the champagne glasses, the bubbles streaming upwards in the clear wine.
An undertone of laughter, in Mister Grey's voice.
"Oh, no, not really … as far as I can tell, it really is just very fine champagne. As champagne, goes, at any rate. If you like the stuff."
I knew he didn't.
"But the point is, one should be careful. I've heard stories … " He picked up his — my — champagne glass, and sniffed at it, delicately; and then took the slightest, most tentative, sip —
A long silence, then. Me, remembering the feeling of Mister Grey's hand, on mine; his fingertips actually caressing the back of my hand …
I looked sideways at Tom; and I reached for his hand on the top of the table, and I deliberately squeezed it, briefly, again.
He squeezed back.
Another silence, between all of us. The girls on stage continued their giggling, feathery dance, to a different tune, now; something occurred, which gave rise to a round of applause, from the audience. It occurred to me, in turn, that we were perhaps the only three males in the room, who weren't watching the show —
Well, perhaps four; if the clean, generous Japanese businessman was still present …
I looked sideways, at Mister Grey.
"'Max' — ?" I said, drily. Then, "'Joe' — ?" I gave him a look. "Your, 'traveling companions' — ?"
The corner of his mouth curled, a bit; a little sheepishly, I thought.
"Oh, that … well. I was watching you, just casually, you know; I happened to be facing you, as it turned out … "
Meaning, I knew, that he'd seen our interaction with the bare-shouldered woman —
"And, well, I needed an excuse to intervene, didn't I — ? And, I thought to keep your real names out of it; prevarication does become a habit … And," he went on, giving another slightly-sheepish look; first to Tom, and then to me — "I confess; I must confess. I thought it would be fun." The corner of his mouth twitched up again, in amusement.
The sawing band reached a crescendo, of sorts. The fan-clad girls clip-clopped off the stage, still giggling, still covering themselves with their feathery fans, with varying degrees of success. The audience clapped, here and there; in the smoky murk, I perceived tables at which the show on stage was not the main attraction.
I turned back to Mister Grey; at last.
"Ta petite Sylvie would be disappointed in you," I ventured.
His half-smile, in the murk, actually dimpled; and the laughter-lines crinkled, more, at the corners of his eyes. I realized that I'd unconsciously used the familiar, 'Ta', rather than the formal, 'Votre'. It was almost the equivalent of addressing him by his Christian name.
"Oh, I don't know … my little Sylvie — " He blinked, and looked at Tom. "Did he tell you about my young friend — ?"
"No," from Tom; with a questioning look at me.
"Ah. Well, she is the young girl I keep in Paris. She is my cover story. She is not real." He crooked a smile at Tom, and looked back at me. "Ma petite Sylvie is very open-minded; why, I imagine she might even be stimulated, by the idea of a ménage, between the three of us boys … " He looked up, and with a casual ease which I will never possess if I live to be a hundred, flagged a waiter. The gentleman — not our ancient — came over, and a gin-and-tonic was duly ordered …
I looked sideways, a little, at Mister Grey, as the transaction was being consummated.
Sitting there with him, was still like sitting next to a sleek, and purring panther.
But he had not needed to intervene, in the way that he had done. I could not see that doing so would gain him any advantage, personally, or professionally. Rather, I thought, he had acted out of real concern for the two of us, for Tom and me … Or, I thought — and the thought came with a jolt — or, perhaps, also, from a sense of adult responsibility — ?
"Do you know," he said, a little plaintively, as soon as the waiter vanished into the gloom — "There was a time, not so terribly long ago, when I was myself the recipient of the kind of flattering attention that was just paid to you boys — ?" Another, slightly-crooked smile, aimed at the two of us. His hand reached towards my champagne glass; then stopped, as he thought better of it. "Why, I remember the very first time I arrived in Bangkok … "
* * *
We left the nightclub just a few minutes after midnight.
I was more than ready to go. The smoke in the room had just gotten thicker; the entertainment — such as it was — had coarsened. The latest act had been an imitation, Parisian Apache dance, which had bordered on open sado-masochism … The only redeeming feature of the latter part of the evening had been Mister Grey's fund of amusing stories, and his observations, delivered in an undertone, on the entertainment, and on some of the other patrons.
Mister Grey, I discovered all over again, could be quite entertaining; when he behaved himself.
Finally, our Australian bodyguard arrived at our table and informed us, in low tones, that we were due to depart. So, we all duly gathered by the entrance, and collected our hats, and Miss Lloyd's coat; and then the bodyguard, Miss Lloyd and Doctor Yang led the way out —
"Miss Lloyd!" came a voice. Then, in an overlapping chorus; "Miss Lloyd! Over here, Miss Lloyd, please — ?" "Miss Lloyd — !"
The fresh, wet, outside air washed over me, like a wave. The flashbulbs were blinding, after the gloom; I could hear the tinkling, as the used bulbs were dropped on the street, to be replaced with fresh ones …
I was all the way outside, and off to one side, when Miss Lloyd stumbled.
Oh, she did it very well. I would have sworn it was a real mis-step, if I hadn't seen her stumble in exactly the same way, while holding Avery Wynne's arm, in 'Flying Clippers'. I was absolutely sure of it; I'd seen it happen six times, in six days, after all, with Jack …
But if the stumble was acting, there was nothing feigned, nothing artificial, in the way that Doctor Yang gasped as he caught her, hooking an arm around her waist. And there was nothing feigned about the look of tender, intimate concern on his face, as he looked down at her —
Just as there was nothing feigned in the intimate, familiar way she molded herself to his tall body; nor, even more so, in the genuine, shining, loving look on her face, as she looked up at him, a look I'd never seen from her before, not even in 'Mary, Queen of Scots' …
My jaw dropped. I believe there was a collective gasp, from the press. Then —
"Miss Lloyd! Miss Lloyd, please, Miss Lloyd!" "Miss Lloyd, who's your friend, is he from Shanghai — ?"
If I'd thought the popping of flashbulbs was blinding before, it was as nothing compared to now. It was a fusillade; the tinkling of used bulbs on the pavement was like scattered rain.
"Miss Lloyd! Look this way, please, Miss Lloyd — !"
I finally understood.
They had been conducting an affair. They still were. I was sure of it.
Doctor Yang, a widower with grown sons; Miss Lloyd, famously-single, famously-linked, romantically, to so many well-known men — It explained everything. Their shipboard intimacy, over so many long, insomniac nights … Doctor Yang's near-constant presence, at her side, here in Shanghai …
"Miss Lloyd! Miss Lloyd — ?"
Mister Ocampo — looking about ready to cry — was consulting with Doctor Yang and Miss Lloyd, awkwardly attempting to shield them both from the cameras, with his own body —
There would be a scandal back home in the States, of course.
Miscegenation — marriage, or sexual relations, across the barrier of race — was a criminal offense, almost everywhere. Of course, Miss Lloyd's studio would attempt to cover it all up, to downplay it —
But her studio's publicity department could do nothing about tomorrow's newspapers in Shanghai. Or in Hong Kong, or Singapore, or anywhere else in East Asia reachable by wire —
"Please, please!" Mister Ocampo was facing the press, holding his hands up, in desperation. "Please — ! We have a statement — "
At least a dozen notebooks came flying out of pockets. Flashbulbs continued to pop, less frequently, now.
"Miss Lloyd's companion, tonight, is an American. An American," he emphasized. "He is Doctor Howard Yang, a Professor of Linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley — "
But this was about more than just miscegenation. This was the greatest taboo of all. A non-white man — American, or not — romantically linked to a caucasian woman; rather than the other way around. It was the ultimate scandal …
"They are friends," said Mister Ocampo, with a special emphasis on the word. "They became acquainted on the boat over from Hawaii — "
She'd done it deliberately; I realized.
She'd set it up; she'd gotten word out to the press, herself; because she was proud of the liaison. Because she was proud of being linked romantically to Doctor Yang, in spite of the potential disapproval of society … And, she wanted to show it.
Evidently I was not the only one to think so.
"My word," murmured Mister Grey, approvingly, at my side. "That is courageous … "
And at that exact moment, Miss Lloyd turned, and found my eyes, for just a moment; my eyes, and Tom's. And on her features I saw the briefest hint, of a small, and secret smile —
I understood, at once.
It was a scandal, traded for a scandal, Tom's and mine. Scandal, for scandal, sexual indiscretion, for sexual indiscretion, forbidden affection, for forbidden affection —
My answering smile was huge, enthusiastic, and utterly heartfelt. And judging by the warm pressure of Tom's shoulder against mine, so was his.
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