NOTE: I wrote this immediately after it happened, over two months ago, and now that I read over it, it looks like total fiction.
All I can say is that this is the complete and whole truth, and that despite my general tendency to be full of shit, you will find not a word of it here.

Flashback to Beijing in early August:

The Den disco is next to the City Hotel, slightly south of south Sanlitun. Unlike most of the other discos in the area, where the music is almost all rap, they play a weird mix of American techno here, with the occasional Xinjiang pop song thrown in for variety. That’s Beijing magazine describes the atmosphere of The Den as “hormonally-charged,” and it is, in much the same way that the air in Beijing is “polluted,” or that the Cultural Revolution was “not a great idea.”

Steve’s girlfriend has had way too much to drink tonight.

We all meet up – Alex, Coco, the Finnish girl with the impossible-to-remember name, and I – at the Black Sun, and hang out there for a few hours. Steve shows up with his girlfriend fairly late – she just arrived back in China today – and her first order is two tequilas.
This strikes me as an extremely bad idea – she’s about the same size as I am, and I can’t handle tequila at all – and I relate the cautionary tale of my first experience with tequila*, that she might learn from my mistake.
“No problem,” she says. “It’s no problem at all.”
She goes on to drink two more tequilas, a Long Island Iced Tea, two B-52s, and a Blowjob*, and then we all go off to The Den to dance.

About five minutes after we get there, I go downstairs and outside to see Steve sitting at a table with his girlfriend, who is passed-out. I sit down too, and a few minutes later we’re joined by Coco, Alex, and the Finnish girl. They all sit for a while, but Alex is dancing with the Finnish girl, and Steve wants to go up and dance some more, and Coco disappears somewhere or another, and so I end up babysitting Steve’s girlfriend for three hours.

She wakes up slightly after Steve comes out and thanks him for staying with her the whole itme, and they go back to her apartment in the Haidian district. As they’re going out, I ask her how she’s feeling.
“Top of the world,” she says, miserably.

Alex and the Finnish girl leave around 15 minutes later – separately, to his apparent dismay – and when I get back upstairs, pretty much everyone else has gone too.
Screw it, I think, and order a Coke at the bar downstairs. (Cokes are expensive at discos for some reason; looking at the menu, I note that I could have gotten a shot of Jack Daniels for less, but decide that I’ve seen quite enough alcohol being consumed and then reverse-consumed for one night.)

I sat there and drank my Coke, and watched people filing out of the disco in various stages of disarray. A pretty girl with blond-dyed hair came up and sat next to me. When she saw that I was chatting with the bartenders in Chinese, she struck up a conversation:
“You’re drinking Coke?” (She spoke Mandarin with what sounded like a southern accent.)
“Yeah. I just babysat a friend of mine who’d had too much to drink for three hours, so I don’t think I’ll be drinking any more tonight.”
“Oh my God, that’s awful. You missed all the fun.”

We chatted for a bit – the usual what’s-your-name (Jenny) which-country-are-you-from (Korea) how-old-are-you (19 too – an amazing coincidence, she seemed to think) routine. She switched to English after I told her that I was from Ireland; she spoke almost perfectly.

“Where did you learn your English? Do you go to university in Beijing, or…”
“No, I work.”
“Oh? What j–”
“–I am a working girl.”
“… Oh.”

There was an awkward pause.

“…So you, um, work…here?”
“Sometimes here, sometimes Maggie’s*, sometimes Minder’s*. Usually as a call girl.”

“You must have a terrible impression of foreigners.”
“No. They get what they want and I get what I want. It is not what I want to do, but it’s OK.”

“What do you want to do?”
“Go to a university, but it’s so…too expensive. With this way, I can save money and send money home to my mother and father.”

“Is it good money?”
“Very good.”

She smiled proudly.
“Every day I can even eat at KFC, if I want to. I never can make so much money at home.”

“How long have you been in Beijing?”
“Almost three years.”

“Don’t you miss home?”
She looked at me strangely.
“No, of course not.”

We went on chatting – she seemed like a nice girl, besides the “prostitute” thing – for another half-hour or so, until about 6.
“It’s late,” she said, and then leaned over and whispered: “I must go back to my apartment. –Do you want to come with me?”
“-No money. You’re a nice guy.”

I declined, perhaps a little regretfully.

“At least I can call my driver and send you back to your hotel.”

Her driver was a friendly, bearish Beijingnese guy in his 40s or 50s. He pulled up in a black car with blackened windows and put on one of Jenny’s CDs when we got in.
“Sorry to call you so late,” Jenny said.
“It’s no problem,” he said. “My job, right? Your business is good, my business is good.”
“No no no – we’re just giving him a lift back to his hotel. Alone.”
He looked back, surprised.
“Hey, good for him.”

The sun was already up by the time the car arrived at the hotel. Jenny kissed me on the cheek as I got out, and her driver complimented me on my Mandarin.
The last thing I saw as I stepped out of the car was Jenny’s shoulder and the tattoo on it: a butterfly, faded such that it seemed to have had a wing torn off. Then they drove off, German techno blaring from the car’s speakers.

The next night, at the Den, I overhear an American guy talking to a Mongolian girl at the upstairs bar. He is very drunk, and she is smiling at him as seductively as she can. His head nods back and forth and his speech is heavily slurred as he asks her what her name is.
“Jenny,” she says.

And when I look out at the dance floor, all I see are Jennies. My Jenny* is nowhere to be seen, but the others might almost be her – their hair dyed, their faces made up, their bodies clad in homemade hoochie tops and cutoffs.

Later in the evening, I explain the meaning of the phrase “beer goggles” to Alex. It means that when you’re drunk, everyone is beautiful, I say. He laughs and gestures towards the dance floor, raising his eyebrows.

“Not drunk enough,” I say, and we laugh.

But they are beautiful, the Jennies and their johns, lit by flashes of strobe, seen through clouds of cigarette smoke, their faces lovely, their names forgotten and their homes far away, dancing from nightfall to daybreak.

Comments (7)

  1. Vlad wrote::

    This brings to mind an Oleg Gazmanov song I’m in the middle of translating.

    Ti sluzhish ukrasheniyem stola
    Tebya kak pivo k ribye podayut
    Lyuboi kto zaplatil imeet vse prava
    I vot nochnuyu babochku vedut

    You serve as a table ornament,
    You’re served like beer with fish.
    Anyone with money has full rights,
    And, lo, they lead the night butterfly away.

    It later goes to this….

    A pomnish shkolu, perviy potselui
    Ya imya tvoye v parte virezal
    Stikhi tebye pisal, i na uglu vstrechal
    Shto budet dalshe ya togda ne znal

    Do you remember school, your first kiss
    I carved your name into my desk
    I wrote you poems, I waited for you on the corner
    But what the future held I did not know

    And it goes on to talk about how fate had sent him off to war, and her, to the “currency bars”; the bars frequented by foreigners with international currency.

    A sad, sad affair.

    Wednesday, October 23, 2002 at 11:13 am #
  2. meg wrote::

    wow, brendan. that is very deep… very profound… you’ve managed art with philosophy. this is why i like reading you. ;)


    Wednesday, October 23, 2002 at 12:29 pm #
  3. Bridget wrote::

    My father used to know a woman named Bernadette. She would come by his office from time to time, looking for the things that people typically look for at State Rep’s offices: help with her rent, food stamps, just the basic things she needed to keep living. She walked Kensington Avenue, so she should have been someone he never would have helped–one of the people ruining the neighborhood, you know? Drawing in the johns from Jersey and Montgomery County who only come into the city for their jobs, their drugs, and their whores. He always helped her, though–he had this eternal hope that one day she would be able to walk away from it all. He offered to help her into rehab, or find her a half-way house. She was someone whose fundamental goodness seeped out, no matter how much effort she put into covering it with fishnets and miniskirts and track marks.

    She disappeared a few years ago–just stopped coming into the office. At first he wasn’t particularly concerned–she could go a few months without coming in, if business was good. She hasn’t been back, though. He’s put out feelers–asked around the police stations, so on, but nothing. He would always go on about how she was fundamentally a good person, just needed something to help her make one clean break.

    We hope that she’s gotten out of it somehow, and just didn’t stop by to say that she had–why would she?–but we all know it’s more likely she finally overdosed in some slum or dark corner.

    Thursday, October 24, 2002 at 1:05 am #
  4. Uncle William wrote::

    Brendan: I enjoy reading your postings very much. Could you repeat (or send me) your phone
    number as well as a good time to call you (converted to easter US please).


    Take care

    Uncle William

    Thursday, October 24, 2002 at 2:39 am #
  5. Jon wrote::


    so when’s this book getting published?

    Thursday, October 24, 2002 at 7:48 am #
  6. ron reinoehl wrote::

    Brendan –

    It’s 4:20 of a Monday morning, just awakened
    from some emergency sleep after a bizarre day
    in the Market- was it the three 9th street tenors,
    the Aqua String Band or the lady asking if she
    could still strain pasta in a colander clock?

    Anyway, I thought I would see what good old
    Brendan-baby was up to.

    Well! Ho-ho-ho.

    Your piece certainly lives up to its title, a faire
    blend of tension and restraint. In the end, does
    he get laid or not.?

    Ah well, another time, perhaps.

    Best wishes to the Bard of Beijing.


    Monday, October 28, 2002 at 5:28 am #
  7. heather wrote::

    you’ve heard it before, i’m sure. but you write beautifully.

    Thursday, October 31, 2002 at 6:42 am #