The girl’s hair is short and of no particular colour. That mid-brown so many American girls have and dye to something more interesting. Elizabeth suspects she cuts it herself, in despair, in front of the bathroom mirror on Friday nights when her loneliness threatens to choke her. The girl—because she is just a girl, really—is called Caroline. Not beautiful. Not ugly. Just plain. Her jaw too wide, her eyes too small. Her arms plump and untoned, exposed in her cheap, brightly patterned sun dress. She’s long-bodied and inelegant.
Caroline sits at the bar in the Caravelle Hotel, her chubby elbows propped on the chrome rail. A loose sandal dangles from her left foot and her toes are bright with chipped cherry polish.
Wine glass in hand, standing in the open doors out onto the terrace, Emile whispers into Elizabeth’s hair. “Pick someone else…”
Elizabeth forces herself to release the smile. “No. Her.”
“Jesus.” He breathes into the curve of her neck. His hand molds into the curve of her back, then slides onto her hip. Desire unsteadies his fingers. “Jesus Christ.”
“Can’t you do her?”
“Of course I can do her. I can do anything. She’s just…”
He can do anything. It’s an ability she finds alien but enviable, disgusting and fascinating in equal measure. “Yeah, she’s sweet. She’s painful. She’s a saint.”
“Then her. I pick her.”
“You’re an evil bitch. I fucking adore you.”
There’s too much saliva in Elizabeth’s mouth. No matter how often she swallows, it feels like it will leak out of the corners at any moment and expose her. She takes the stool next to Caroline and flips on the warm charm.
“We met last month, didn’t we? At that seminar on governance?”
“Yes! I remember you. It was good, wasn’t it?”
Caroline is so earnest it makes Elizabeth’s gums itch. So well meaning, so sure that good old American know-how can salve the wounds of this crumbling, impoverished city. That obscene and cheerful arrogance is the plump, ripe sin that Elizabeth has decided merits punishment.
Emile doesn’t know this. That’s part of the game. He must trust her to choose a worthy victim.
* * * * *
Caroline sits between them on the cracked oxblood leather of the ancient Mercedes as it crawls through Saigon’s night traffic. The street is thick with insanely expensive SUVs on one side and over-burdened motorbikes and rusty bicycles on the other. Beyond Elizabeth’s window, a thin, bow-legged grandmother wrestles her soup cart over broken paving stones. She wears the expression of someone resigned to the fact that life is just going to keep serving up shit forever. The instant rage dries out her mouth. Its violence never ceases to shock her. After all these years, she keeps expecting to find that she’s grown a thicker skin, but it never happens. You can’t save everyone, she used to tell herself. Now she knows she can’t save anyone. In the dark, noisy chill of the air-conditioned car, Emile strokes Caroline’s thigh with the back of his hand.
Elizabeth feels her flinch, reads the girl’s distress through her clammy shoulder, and turns to her.
“Sh-hh. It’s alright. It’s what you want, isn’t it?” Her eyes slide past Caroline’s worried face and settle on Emile. “He’s handsome, isn’t he? You want him, don’t you?”
Emile’s fingers have drifted up the bare left thigh. They’re pushing into the crevasse of compressed flesh, moist with sweat and perturbed arousal.
Elizabeth cups her head and kisses her, wet against Caroline’s nervous, parted lips. “Don’t you want to be his little toy for the night? I want it. He wants it. Don’t you?”
And that’s all it takes. The girl’s reluctance is a scoop of vanilla ice cream in the noonday sun. Her thigh muscles relax and Emile slides his fingers into her. He worries her clit to orgasm just as they turn the corner onto August Revolution Street.
In the front seat, the driver laughs at Caroline’s choked sounds of pleasure. She stiffens.
Elizabeth strokes the girl’s cheek. “Oh, I haven’t introduced you. I do apologize. Trung, this is Caroline. Caroline, Trung.”
Trung glances into the rear-view mirror. “Chao, Em Caroline. Be careful with these two. They’re the strangest foreigners I’ve ever worked for.”
“We love you too, Trung,” says Elizabeth. Beside her, Caroline is mute, her body rigid, distress has soured the scent of her sweat. “You’re welcome to stay and watch.”
Trung makes a sound of disgust. “White girls aren’t sexy. They have breasts like cows udders.”
“Fuck you too,” quips Elizabeth, as they pull into the driveway of the crumbling villa.
“Don’t you approve of fucking the natives?” coos Emile. “Is that,” he pulls Caroline’s head back against the seat, licking her neck, “too politically incorrect for you?”
Caroline’s response is an unintelligible blend of anguish and arousal.
“Go on, get out of my car, you perverts,” says Trung. “My wife’s got dinner waiting for me.”
* * * * *
The house smells of stale afternoon heat, of damp clay tiles, of soft, decaying plaster and, now, of the girl. Her odor rises up to him as he kneels between her spread legs. Her dress wadded around her waist and unbuttoned to her navel. Her panties now a striped lilac garter around one thigh. Her hips are arching up off the sofa cushions to accommodate the three fingers he has inside her grasping, sopping cunt. Emile caresses the memory of her distress, sucking its bones. Each flinch of fear, each flush of anxiety is a chunk of sweet, meaty marrow. It makes his cock throb. It makes him want to hurt her and roll her pain around his brain like a gobstobber, but he knows she wouldn’t be willing.
“Not a kinky bone in her body,” he says to Elizabeth, nested on a nearby armchair, feet tucked beneath her, sipping cheap rice vodka from a cracked bowl. It’s leaking. A rivulet has run down her forearm. The tang of the alcohol mixes with the smell of cunt.
“I’ll take your word for it. Can she suck cock?”
“I don’t know.” Emile gazes down at rumpled, half naked Caroline. “Can you suck cock?”
“Yes,” says Caroline, in an almost whisper.
“Good, because you want me to fuck you, don’t you?”
“Well, you’re not exactly a beauty. It’s going to take that to get me hard enough to do it.” This is a lie. Mussed and aroused like this, she’s really quite sexy, but Emile knows she doesn’t know it. He stands, unzips his pants and fishes out his cock, which is as hard as it ever gets.
“You cruel bastard,” says Elizabeth. “You awful prick.” Her voice snags on the vowels.
He grins at her and, cupping the back of Caroline’s head, slides into her mouth. The girl sucks with poignant and eager ineptitude. She gags as he pushes her head down, feeling the tip of his cock breach her throat. Her hands fly to his hips, her mouth loses its suck. She doesn’t like this. Pleasure and self-disgust coil around the base of his spine.
He could come like this, feeling her fingers grappling at his hips, consuming her paradox, her desire to please and her discomfort at gagging. But he won’t. Elizabeth wants to watch him fuck this girl. He knows this. She likes the sin of it—of being cruel together. And she loves imagining herself the discarded wife, the illusion of martyrdom. She wants him to be guilty.
God damn it, he’s about to come. Emile pulls his cock out of Caroline’s mouth, only to notice her face is tear-streaked. That almost pushes him over the edge.
“She’s crying,” Emile says.
“That’s so sweet. Fuck her, then.”
“Hey!” says Caroline. “Stop that. Stop…”
Emile smiles down at her and strokes her wet cheek. “Stop talking to my wife?”
“No. I didn’t mean that. Just stop acting like I’m not here.”
Elizabeth’s laugh worms through the penumbra of the room. “Good for you, Caroline. Assert yourself.”
Emile lays Caroline back onto the sofa, pressing kisses onto her teary cheeks, her hot, damp neck. “Of course you’re here. And I’m going to fuck you. When was the last time that pussy of yours was well and truly fucked?”
Caroline opens her mouth, but Emile doesn’t let her finish. His fingers are back between her legs, inside her while his thumb circles her clit. Then, spreading her thighs wider with his other hand, he replaces his fingers with his cock and shoves into her.
Women’s bodies, thinks Emile, are so easy. He has never understood why some men find them such a mystery. Caroline has forgotten what she was going to say. She’s straining beneath him, canting her hips as he thrusts, pushing her pelvis upwards to meet the pleasure of the thumb he has pinned to her clit. She’s making almost no sound, just soft squeaks that cut off as he hilts himself.
Across the room, Elizabeth is crying quietly. Like she always does. Emile has held her while she cries. He knows the jerky heaves of her shoulders, the sound her closed throat makes as she gulps air through the spasms, the way she unconsciously balls her fists, the creases at the corners of her eyes that channel the tears onto her cheekbones. The way they nestle into the folds of her nostrils, the crook of her mouth.
Beneath him, the girl is coming again, making it just that much harder to withdraw, before he shoves himself into her one last time and ejaculates.
* * * * *
The bedside lamp flickers. There’s a break somewhere in its wire and air from the ceiling fan buffets it, causing it to short out. Caroline has been dispatched by taxi, back to her hotel, with a minimum of awkwardness. The afterwards is always the tricky bit.
Elizabeth rolls on her side to look at Emile who is staring back at her over a field of worn, white cotton.
“Absolve me,” she says.
Emile smiles and pulls a strand of hair away from her lips. “Of course I do. Tell me the same.”
“You know I do,” she says. Rolling onto her back, she takes his hand and pulls it over her face. “We did a bad thing. Again,” she whispers against his salty palm.
“We always do, love.”