We remember my mother’s birthday with red eggs. Grandma shells them with practised fingers. Her lips move, offering thanks to the small plaster Virgin Mary watching from above the sink. She looks tired, the Virgin, the paint peeling from her smock. The radio scratches out its sermons. We eat in the kitchen beside my mother’s photo. We don’t speak. The eggs’ briny scent. I save the rich, fatty yolks til last.
In the photo she is all limbs; her skinny ankles strapped into huge red shoes. It is spring, perhaps. The wind through the trees. The lawn cropped beneath her platform heels. She is turning away from the camera, her arms floating in the light, her long dark hair falling across her face. She looks small in her mini-dress, her knees kissing beneath the egg of her stomach.
Grandma is at church when I find them: red leather straps, the cork heels spattered with mould. I strip down to my t-shirt and underpants. My feet feel heavy in the high, high heels. The heady adrenalin as I pose in front of the mirror. Her mouth is fleshy while mine is thin, but there’s no doubt I’m her son. We have the same neat Filipino features, the same eyes, the same compact body. I imagine descending the fire stairs. My lips are painted. I’m wearing her dress. The boys out front stop smoking, their eyes on my hips. Someone wolf-whistles.
I escape, strapped in the belly of a plane. Balling across South East Asia, sick with guilt. It’s four hours before I’m delivered, centrifugally displaced.
Hong Kong City. Skyscrapers stretching up into the tobacco-stained haze. The peristalsis of relentless industry. Tentacled arms of construction reaching over the petrol- black sea.
Wan Chai. The red light district. With its body-heavy streets. Strip club saturation and the twenty-four hour pump of love-money.
I camp on tatami mats in a one room flat with two Japanese boys. Blue days I wash dishes, waiting for red nights when we arch our brows, our lips, and parade the saunas. I’m shy at first, pakipot. They tease me, say I’m coy. In the grey of the morning we lounge round, laugh, suck on cigarettes. We wring out our G-strings in the sink, then rig them out on washing lines stretched across the street, seventeen floors above Lockhart Road.
I notice his wife first, etched in the light of the Budweiser Club. She stands out amongst the gauche expats sweating the skin-parade. She is sophisticated, Chinese, feminine. I am envious even before I see him.
He leans against the bar. The smoke from his cigarette snakes between his teeth. He turns, holds my gaze. I lower my eyes.
There are dirty footprints on the toilet seat. The cubicle door bangs shut behind me. I brace against the cistern, against the weight of him. He comes quickly, pulls out, washes his hands.
A mistake, I know, but I haunt the bar in my downtime. I don’t see him for two weeks. Then, Tuesday he is back alone. We turn down an alley off Luard Street. The reek of fish seeps out the back of a restaurant.
We kiss the third time we meet. He smashes my mouth with his. And as he thrusts, his grip tight on my hipbones, I suck the burst flesh of my lip. Afterwards we walk back. A hose fills an esky of eel and gullet-up fish on the pavement outside an eatery. He holds open the door, pulls out my seat. I cannot eat. I stare at his slender throat. He smiles. His teeth are crossed slightly in front.
The waiting begins. The time in between. When my hair smells of strangers’ breath, when he is absent. I truss my feet in heels and walk the streets, weaving between girls on foldout seats and barebacked peasants carting refuse. Mornings, I crawl into jeans, the undershirt he left behind. I cannot stand the banter of the Japanese.
A week before my birthday I move into my own place. Proud of my four tight walls and my kitchenette. I play old records on an ancient turntable, a present. When he comes I let him wait on the welcome mat, warped in the fisheye lens. He is holding a plant to his chest, cloaked in the smoke from his cigarette.
His eyes swell as he takes me in. Sleek in my cocktail dress. My long dark hair falls down my back. Tiny crystals bead my lashes.
I take the plant. An orchid. Delicate crimson flowers.
He has brought balut. An aphrodisiac. A Filipino delicacy.
For your birthday.
Fertilised duck eggs. We sit in the kitchen beside her photo, peeling back the shell, sucking the broth through the hole in it, the scratch of a record on the turntable.
That’s my mother, I tell him. I swig on my beer. She died young.
He turns his face to mine. He smiles. His crooked teeth.
She looks so sad.
Her heart was broken.
I peel back the shell and salt the meat of the baby chick beneath. I save the rich, fatty yolk til last.
We knock the plant from the table, fucking. Moist beads of soil spray across the floorboards. The scent of the damp earth mixes with the smell of semen.
I stroke his face, the light stubble of his chin.
I love you, he says, as I fall into sleep.
For weeks I don’t see him. Then we are facing each other, cross-legged, for expensive Japanese. It’s the best table in the restaurant, secluded, intimate, the city stretched out beneath us. I’m a knockout in red chiffon and he’s handsome, brooding. But he hasn’t touched the meal. Lobster sashimi shivers on the table between us. I skewer a piece of flesh and chew on the silence.
My wife is pregnant, he says finally. He cannot look at me.
I bite my tongue, swallow blood.
That calls for a celebration.
I can’t – he stops. I cannot lose you.
The relief overpowers me and I am floating. The grey light through the window.
I raise my glass.
To wonderful news.
I will not think of the bump in his wife’s stomach.
When we part, I push through the stench of fast cash and fried meat, past caged live hens stacked three rows deep. Carcasses, raw and barbecued, hanging from butchers’ hooks, swing in the open air. My figure reflected in shop windows, just a series of sharp angles buried in chiffon.
In Chater Garden I start to breathe. The air is hot, jasmine-scented. At the fountain I stoop to wash my face. The water’s briny scent reminds me of red eggs. Of heavy, red heels on a kid’s skinny legs. Of my grandmother before her Virgin in her tiny kitchen, her wrinkled thumbs clasped. Of her rising slowly out of her chair to switch on the evening devotional songs. I swipe at my face. Smears of mascara in my hands.
I walk back through the bamboo scaffolding to the sea. Two boys pass laughing and I turn to hide my wet cheeks. The wind whips my hair about my face. The hills running down to the water are ochre flecked, deep green. It is almost spring. The egg shape of her stomach.