The drunken foreigners walked along P. Burgos Street. They were old white men who struggled to find their way around. The neon signs flashed at them “Ivory”, “Rogue”, “Bottoms.” They followed the lights the to the nearest bar. Mrs. Roman, the manager, saw their intoxication and welcomed them in.
The room smelled of cheap perfume as the whores danced around. The foul odor was soon mixed with the stench of sweating bodies as more men entered in throngs. They were dressed for the summer heat, bearing the scorching Manila weather. They came for the native girls –the dark brown-skinned women who capitalized on their exotic preference. They flaunted their half-nakedbodies as they approached the foreigners.
Sitting at the bar across them, a young man named Gabriel finished another bottle of beer. He mumbled to himself in the local language though his immense capacity for drinking would have him mistaken for the foreigners around him. Yet he was silent all throughout — unlike the carousing perverts who now danced with the whores. This he was proud of.
In the distance, Mrs. Roman surveyed the crowd. She was a blunt woman who had grown impatient with age. She eyed Gabriel who was now visibly drunk. The bar had a strict policy: drinks must come with women. The young man indulged in one vice and abstainedfrom the other.
“Ask him to leave,” Mrs. Roman said.
“He’s not bothering anyone and he’s only one customer anyway,” reasoned Maria. Her fine features gave her a dainty look that stood out among the other women. “Too innocent-looking for a whore,” they would tease her.
“It’s either he gets a girl or he goes.”
“I’ll take care of it,” replied Maria. She had been observing the young man for quite some time. Hehad a boyish look to him. His face was devoid of the stiff bristles andhard crevices of the old white men. They were similar in color, however. Along with his sharp nose, he was certainly a mestizo, Maria thought. He wore a thick, black coat that stood out among the half-naked bodies. It was a peculiar choice of clothing given the weather but he did not seem bothered by the heat. He coolly drank his beer, detached from the frenzy around him. He did not speak to the eager bartender. From the distance, he looked handsome despite his icy demeanour — an observation that was confirmed as she got a closer look.
Gabriel stared blankly at his drink. He had a pensive look plastered on his face. She saw the pain in his eyes, a pain she’s seen in a dozen lonely men before. But his was a quiet one. An unimposing heartache that carried itself with a certain dignity. She knew men like him did not want to be pitied.
“You have to get a girl or they’ll ask you to leave,” Maria warned as she sat beside him. The young man didn’t stir. His soft eyes stayed glued on the empty glass. He ordered another drink and continued his binging.
“I’m serious! They’ll kick you out!”
There was no response. The music was getting louder as the merriment grew around them. The old white men were laughing away, engaged in an unspoken contest to out-drink one another. They stumbled onto the whores and spilled liquor all over them.
“What’s her name?” Maria half-shouted, making sure the young man heard her amidst the noise.
Gabriel turned to face her and was surprised to see her pretty face. Her fair skin stood out from the other women around. She was a whore like them, he was sure. Her scanty clothing was evidence of that but she seemed different somehow. She had a pleasantness to her. Her smile – for she was smiling now for some reason – was warm and sincere, unlike the forced smiles of the other girls. She meant well, he knew.
“Let me guess? She’s special. She’s the love of your life?” Maria pressed on. He listened now, intrigued by her insights.
“She’s anangel? A saint?A princess?What else? Go on!” He was tempted to respond but listening to the pleasantness of her voice was comforting. It was far from the cigarette-hoarseness with which the other women spoke.
“Men are such fools. Women are not as innocent as they seem! No matter how much they look the part!”Maria went on, lost in the flurry of her words.
“You can go on believing that fairy-tale all you want but look where that’s brought you!”
Gabriel smiled. Her bluntness was endearing.
“I don’t think any girl is worth th—“
“You know a lot about women,” Gabriel interjected, saving her from the breathlessness her endless barrage was causing as he admired the flushness of her cheeks.
“Well no—no. I mean, yes! Yes I do!” Maria replied, blushing even more. “Anyway forget her! Why don’t you get a girl? I mean that’s what you’re here for, right?”
“You’re a girl.” He took another swig of his beer.
“Oh well yeah. I am,” she replied softly, the whisper so gentle it was almost lost in the sea of noise around them. “But I don’t think you’d want me.”
“Well those dirty old men don’t like me. Our manager said they think I’m too pale.”
He noticed the change in her once fiery tone. He immediately felt sorry for having asked the question.
“I’m not one of those dirty old men.”
“I know. I didn’t mean to—well I’m also quite shy the other girls said.”
“Yeah I know.” Maria hid her face as she turned away.
“Shy enough to make unsolicited assumptions about my motive for drinking,” Gabriel quipped.
“Hey! I just meant that—“
“You look like her you know,” the young man said. “Same eyes, same smile, and all.”
“So she looks like a whore?”
“No. You look like an angel.”
Maria grew flushed.
“Or a saint.Or a princess. Which one was it again?”
She snickered. Her laugh was pleasant, unlike the forced giggles of the whores, Gabriel thought. The old white men were now sitting with the them, whispering all sorts of flattery in their ears.
“Look at them. Perverts travelling half-way across the world to indulge in their fantasies.”
“Oh I live just a few blocks from here!”
“That’s not what I meant!”
“I know, I know! Don’t get all flustered!” Gabriel laughed.
“What are you doing here anyway?”
“Well I was originally planning on yeah…But I realized I’m not into that kind of thing.”
“And I thought you weren’t a dirty old man!”
“I know, I know. Don’t get all flustered!” Maria quipped.
The night was getting colder as the summer heat gave way to a gentle breeze. She now felt her nakedness.Gabriel noticed her trembling body. He removed his coat and covered her up.
“Thanks but the manager might see.” She had noticed Mrs. Roman watching them from across the bar. She was about to remove the coat when Gabriel stopped her.
“I’ll take care of her.”
“Don’t. Maybe we should pretend we’re flirting a bit just to show her.”
“I don’t like pretending.”
“Look we’ll both get in trouble if we don’t.”
“I’ll tell her you were trying but I just didn’t want to.” The young man sipped from his glass. He sat straight despite his evident intoxication. Maria wrapped his coat around her, burrowing herself into it.
“So I guess you’re really not a pervert?”
“And you’re not really a whore. Perfect! Together we can bankrupt this entire joint!” Gabriel exclaimed, momentarily catching the attention of the now dwindling crowd. It was getting late and the music was dying down. The old white men made their way out in small groups, leaving few behind. The silence was slowly taking over.
“It’s ironic,” the young man said as he looked around the bar. “All these places are on a street named after a priest.”
“Padre Burgos. He was a Filipino mestizo priest.”
Gabriel gazed at the crowd. The handful left managed to maintain the scandalous atmosphere of the bar.
“Oh. Well we’ve had priests here too!”
“Oh. Why? To save you from hell?”
“To take them to heaven!”
“Ah. I guess men are not as innocent as they seem. No matter how they look the part.”
“No one ever said men were innocent.”
“Touché.” Gabriel turned to Maria and couldn’t help but smile. The liquor was sinking in further into his system, dousing his anger. He now only saw her. She was beautiful, he thought to himself. And the resemblance was uncanny.
“You’re too good for this place, you know?”
“It doesn’t matter. I have nowhere else to go.”
Gabriel paused for a moment as he savoured the numbing effects his drink..
“You can stay with me.”
“You can live with me.”
“Drunk men are sincere.”
Gabriel stood and paid for his drink. He offered her his hand. Maria smiled at the gesture, her cheeks were once again flushed red. As she got off her seat an enormous shadow clouded over her. It was followed by the haunting sound of an all-too familiar voice.
“Maria! This is Mr. Pariseo, one of our best customers. He has personally requested your company.” Mrs. Roman, the manager, introduced.
He was fatter than the rowdy men. His face was covered in a thick white beard that contrasted his dark brown skin. His forehead was marked with the deep lines of old age.
“You look exquisite,” the old dark man said with a local accent, flattering Maria with a kiss of her hand. He was hideous. A real pig, Gabriel thought.
“Would you mind accompanying sir to our VIP booth?” Mrs. Roman urged.
“I’m her customer, might I remind you,” Gabriel interrupted.
“I’m sure we can arrange for another girl. We have plenty here for you.”
“Look here if you think–”
“It’s alright,” Maria interjected. “Thank you for your time,” she whispered as she handed Gabriel his coat back. She smiled at him. The same forced smile the whores wore.
“Now, sir. You can stay if you order a drink for one of our girls. That ought to keep them warm even without a coat,” the manager pressed with a thinly-veiled scowl.
“Alright,” replied Gabriel as he watched Maria walk away with the old dark man. “Get me a whore. Your least talkative one.”
A woman came to accompany him moments later. She flattered him endlessly, giggling at his infrequent responses but the young man didn’t listen. The bar was growing emptier by the hour. Gabriel watched the remaining old white men. They sat in their booths alone with the whores. He drank his beer and saw how sad they were.