The only sounds were those of the piano, kneading the silence of the lounge gently like a sleepy cat ready to lay down on its pillow. Her fingers were unnaturally long and thin as they scuttled across the piano keys like deep sea crabs across the white sands on the ocean floor. Watching them move disturbed Ben, and yet he was mesmerized. He slouched on his bar stool, nursing a ceramic cup of saki while listening to the overly tall, middle-aged pianist ply her talents in a room so empty it was not only sad, but sleepy and in need of bed. It could have been the saki— hot, strong, overpowering—or it could have been the insomnia, or even the loneliness at long last taking its toll, but as he spent more time watching her abnormal fingers the more he wondered what they would have felt like scuttling across his arms and chest. She was not too many years older than himself.
Behind Ben, the bartender polished a beer glass. He was a silent man in a white collared shirt and a black vest. He was backlit by the bar’s cool blue lights— all of Hong Kong was lit in cool blue lights at this late hour. Shelves of booze lined the mirrored wall, the glass gleaming darkly like the skyscraper glass beyond this hotel’s windows. Ben saw his reflection in the mirrors as he turned toward the bartender. His eyes were rimmed blackly as if the four hour flight and the incessant itinerary of cities had suckerpunched him good, left and right.
And yet he was not knocked out for the count. He wished he had been. The incessant travel wore on him, fraying his senses while simultaneously denying him the relaxation and rest necessary to recuperate. He felt like a fish being taken out from one expensive aquarium sprawl and dumped in another, each one empty of water while he floundered and slowly died, breathless.
But at least the music was good. The pianist’s songs were beautiful arrangements of notes and silence, like stars punctuating the outer gulfs and their empty spaces. He had never been a student of music, or any other art, but he knew that space was needful for pretty forms to be realized.
“She’s really good,” he said to the bartender.
The bartender grunted, and then continued cleaning glasses. His face was marked with Chinese symbols that Ben did not understand. Tattoos, maybe. They extended down his neck as well and covered his hands and fingers.
The pianist wore a teal dress with a plunging slit down her back. Her sharp spine was knotched like knuckles through her pale skin, and her shoulderblades were sharp as they flexed and moved with the movement of her arms as she played. Her black hair was short to the nape— a common cut for women of a certain age—and her bangs were long to one side. Ben saw her face in profile, her eyes large, round, as if always agog, and her slight overbite always leaving her mouth open beneath the rounded nub of her nose; her lips full and puckered, yet a little flat against her face— too flat to be sensuous. She did not sing as she played, but Ben thought her someone who spoke through their nose and breathed through their gawping mouth. She looked at him, occasionally, with a glancing sidelong roll of her eyes, and he saw that she had a gap between her front teeth, though her teeth were otherwise straight and white. Her bare shoulders were so bony that he wondered if she had any flesh between skin and bones at all. Her eyelids bulged around her large eyes, as if desperate to keep the latter from slipping out of her eye sockets. She was emaciated, it seemed, but her fingers had great vigor and discipline.
Ben was the only visitor in the lounge. It was 3 AM on a Wednesday morning in a hotel in Hong Kong. Hong Kong never slept— it was true—but even its most money-mad twenty-somethings had better things to do on a worknight than visit an obscure lounge in a hotel booked at the last minute due to a layover. They had parties to go to, probably, and strip clubs. Ben stayed up because of stress. His prime was nearly behind him, taunting him like an athlete from a rival sports team. In the sleepy gloom of the lounge he could have passed for a twenty-something, but in the wide-awake world of daylight and deadlines his near-forty years betrayed itself with crow’s feet and the sneaky stray gray hair here and there. His body, too, had started its slump. Where he was once taut and strong there came an idle laxity to his muscles and their responsiveness. He was not overweight, but he could see the nascent depreciation in value already in his aging body.
“Another saki, please,” he said to the bartender.
The bartender took Ben’s ceramic cup and poured from an oddly shaped, obsidian-black glass bottle. There was a microwave in the corner of the bar. The bartender opened it and put the cup in, heating the saki for about two minutes. The hum of the microwave did not intrude overmuch on the pianist’s song, no more than the distant hum of Hong Kong beyond the windows. When the bartender gave Ben his saki, Ben gave him, in turn, a five dollar bill. The bartender grunted. Ben had no other form of currency, but the bartender did not refuse it.
“To lives lost, and lives worth losing,” Ben said. He tried to drink to his own toast, but the saki burned his tongue and he spit it back into the cup. He blew on the cup for a while, hoping his tongue would stop stinging soon. He hated burning his tongue. Food was one of the few pleasures in his life, now, and a burnt tongue ruined it.
But at least it meant he felt something.
“My wife…” he began to say, then corrected himself with a shake of the head. “My exwife, I mean—she hated saki. But I like it. It warms you up.”
The bartender said nothing in reply, his tattooed face sealed in the impassive expression of the Buddha. Ben turned his attention back to the pianist.
The piano was large, black and polished, its sheen a kaleidoscopic refraction of Hong Kong’s lights as they bombarded the gloom through the windows. The pianist did not have a glass for collecting tips, as he had often seen in other lounges around the world. Instead, she had a hefty wooden Buddha statue in whose lap was a porcelain bowl. The mouth of the bowl was sadly empty. Seeing this, Ben stood up and took out a twenty-dollar bill from his wallet. Walking over to her, and feeling very self-conscious as he did so, he laid the bill in the bowl. He felt embarrassed and somehow wrong when she suddenly looked up at him, stopping dead in the middle of her song. He felt as if he had been caught taking from the bowl rather than giving to it. Her expression was of wary confusion. He stared at the gap between her teeth, somewhat transfixed. Suddenly shaking his head, he hurried back to the bar, feeling as if he had broken some unspoken taboo. She started playing once again, more slowly than before, the notes accenting the slow, ponderous spaces between the melody—as if the song itself was dying in her.
Maybe it was the currency. In some parts of the world Ben had found that they preferred dollars to their own currency. Other parts resented the sudden appearance of American bills. It represented for them an imperial presence, or an arrogance, or simply a tackiness which did not reconcile well with their sense of propriety.
This was a relatively cheap hotel, however, with cheap booze and cheap thrills just down its streets. Ben worried that he had unwittingly insinuated something more nefarious than a simple tip to show some appreciation to a musician. Maybe he had ignorantly committed a faux pas. He had committed plenty of them in the past as he gallivanted around the world, soliciting supply and service arrangements between companies. It was ironic that his job entailed creating connections between people, because he often felt as if he had no connections of his own. He often said of himself that he had been dubbed “Has-Ben” by his friends, but he had no friends and the only person who called him that sardonic moniker was himself.
Sitting at the bar again, he turned away from the piano and stared at himself in the mirror. When the music stopped, he did not glance back at her, but he did see her leave the lounge, her tall, lithe figure floating by like a ghost in his periphery.
“Another saki, please,” he told the bartender. The bartender obliged, and received another five dollar bill for his trouble. The strangely tattooed man did not baulk at the American tender, hastily putting it in his pocket as if it might be snatched away at any moment.
The lights of Hong Kong flared blue and otherworldly in the mirrored wall. They looked like swamp gases floating about the lounge, or orbs of blue flames upon hovering braziers. When Ben looked back at them directly, however, he saw only the neon lights through the large windowpanes—nothing so intense as he had wrongly seen in the reflections of the room. He shook his head.
“Saki and insomnia do not mix well,” he said.
He looked at his watch, and despaired at the hour. Suddenly a figure loomed behind the bar. The bartender nodded to the new arrival and then promptly left the lounge. Ben could feel the person intently staring at him. He glanced up, as surreptitiously as possible, and was surprised to see the pianist looming from behind the counter. She was taller than he had previously thought. She pushed his twenty-dollar bill forward on the counter.
“I cannot be bought,” she said.
Ben was taken aback. “I only liked your songs,” he said, feeling a heat beneath his collar that did not originate in saki. “I wasn’t wanting…um…other services…”
She was not glaring at him—she was too goggled-eyed to glare— but her tone was not friendly.
“I play for myself. Not for you.”
“Okay,” he said, reaching for the bill. Her long fingers snatched his wrist as his hand took the bill. Her hands were even more elongated and slender than he had realized. They were cold, too, as if the bones were icicles beneath the skin.
“I play because I need to play,” she said, keeping eye contact as her grip tightened. “I play to distract from other needs. Not for any man.”
“I understand,” Ben said, as evenly as he could. He was embarrassed and wanted to leave. But she would not release his hand.
“No, you don’t,” she said. “No man does.”
“Well,” he said, “I apologize. I didn’t mean to offend you.”
She did not relinquish her grip, nor even relax it.
“How did you come to be at this hotel?” she said.
Ben frowned, thinking. He had been so tired when he had left the airport. The layover had upset him for some reason. He had encountered many layovers through the last few years, but this one exacted a terrible toll. He resented it. He bemoaned it. It grieved him, though he did not know why. Moreover, it exhausted him. He had no time to book a hotel in the area in advance. He remembered riding a taxi until he saw this hotel. When he saw it he told the driver to drop him off. The taxi driver had given Ben an odd look, but then accepted the money and left Ben at the curb in front of the hotel. Ben could not remember checking in, nor the clerk or even what the hotel looked like from the outside. He had been so exhausted that he simply wandered up, with his hotel key in his pocket, and came into this lounge, buying a drink and feeling sorry for himself. And then he heard the pianist’s song and decided to sit a while and listen to her play.
“I heard your song,” he said, confused. “I wanted to give you something for your song.” “I own this hotel,” she said. “I do not need anyone’s money for my songs. My songs are my own.”
Her eyes were bottomless blackness, no light reflecting in them whatsoever. Ben’s alarm increased as he tried to force his most casual, friendly smile. This was an impossible feat for him since he had not had the practice of smiling in years now. He felt like a trespasser, or a thief. He felt as if he had stolen something very precious, but he did not know what it was or how he had done so.
“Do you…do you ever sing when you play?” he asked her.
She did not say anything for a long time, but her expression was meaningful and intense. “Only for last rites,” she said.
Her expression did not betray anything of humor. It was not a joke, then. Her unblinking stare made him nervous, and so his eyes drifted down her face and her long neck, to the flat expanse of her chest. She had a shallow chest, with the slightest suggestion of cleavage. He looked at her throat, and did not see a pronounced Adam’s Apple. For a moment he feared that she was like one of those lady-boys in Taiwan that tried to hit on him in the bar. But her hips were wide in her teal dress, and her throat was slender and smooth. She was a woman, so far as he could tell, though her curves had been starved shallow by what must have been a ruthlessly ascetic diet. Her bones were too slender and narrow to be a man’s.
When Ben’s gaze returned to her eyes he felt even more embarrassed. He had not meant to stare at her chest while she was staring at him. He had not had much interaction with women for a long time; not since his divorce four years ago. And, much like the day of the divorce, he wanted nothing more right now than to hop a plane to some other place in the world.
“I…uh…should be going to my room,” he said. “I need some sleep.”
The pianist said nothing. Her gaze did not falter, nor her grip. She leaned over the bar, and was so tall that it did not seem that that bar impeded her proximity at all. She was within an inch of his face.
“Sleep well,” she said. “Do not let the spirits bother you.” She tightened her grip one final time before releasing him. “And do not bother the spirits.”
She returned to her piano, then, and began playing once again. Ben did not stay to listen. Her songs sounded somewhat uninviting now; unwelcoming, as if their slow cadences creeped along his back like spiders hostile to his presence.
The bartender returned to the bar. He had prayer beads encircling the collar of his shirt— large wooden balls that clashed with his more modern attire. Ben glanced at them as he left, and noticed the bartender’s tattoos faded from his skin. Where they faded, red hair grew thick and fiery.
Before Ben left the lounge he thought he saw, in his periphery, several people sitting in booths and at the tables in the lounge. He glanced back over his shoulder, and saw an empty room as before. Yet, the chill of their collective gazes lingered on him as he went to his room.
Ben fished in his pocket for his room key. He was surprised to find an old rusty key with Chinese markings along its oxidized metal. Attached to its loop was a paper slip with Roman numbers on it. It told him that his room was on the eighth floor, room 806. He walked up through the hotel, using the stairs in the hope that the physical exhaustion would help cure him of his insomnia. Coming to the eighth floor, he was winded and dizzy. He felt almost delirious. The air was cool and clammy throughout the building. He wondered, briefly, how expensive it was to keep such an old hotel so cool in the Summertime. These old Asian hotels were difficult to renovate affordably.
The eighth floor halls were quiet and still; dim as some half-remembered dream. The doors kept their secrets, but occasionally Ben could not shake the feeling that people were watching him as he passed by. His breath bloomed visibly in front of his face and drifted behind him, like a trail of hookah smoke. Even the distant sounds of Hong Kong were here muted. It was a cold, deaf world, like a graveyard, and yet it was peaceful in a way that Ben appreciated after years of being crammed on airplanes with bellicose passengers, neurotic hypochondriacs, and bawling babies. Part of him wanted to lay down to sleep and never get up again.
Arriving at his room, Ben unlocked his door and entered the chilly room. Most hotels that he stayed in were of the same general style—the American economy style. This hotel was similar in some ways, but different in others. The floor was carpeted in neutral colors and the walls were white. His room was furbished as conveniently as most others. There was a bed, a bathroom, and a run of drawers atop which sat a television. Ben rarely watched television. Having disconnected from it had helped him disconnect from any other thoughts that were painful or discomfiting. Thoughts about his exwife. Thoughts about his widowed father and dead mother. Thoughts about his estranged sister. Thoughts about humanity and normality and life. He lived his work now, spending nearly as much time in the sky as on the ground. Airplanes and skyscrapers made him feel as though he was free from the lows of his life— not living high and happy, but floating above involvement with anyone or anything. He had heard that when skydiving there was a moment when a person hit terminal velocity that he felt as if he was flying rather than falling. Perhaps Ben was falling so fast that he thought he was floating above the messy fray of existence. Perhaps he was a nocturnal phantom existing in parallel to the daylight world of other human beings. Whatever other part of himself that grounded him in the waking world had been taken in the settlement by his exwife. He was glad to let her have it. He would have been glad to let her have everything, including his life.
Ben brushed his teeth, stripped down to his boxers, and prepared for bed. The bed was twin sized modest with a maroon comforter decked with white lotus blossoms. Above the headboard a framed scroll of Buddha stood, his hand in the Mudra position and a mandorla circumscribing his figure.
Ben laid in bed for what seemed like an eternity, waiting for sleep to take him. Beyond the windows of his hotel room, Hong Kong jittered and glittered on like a swarm of fireflies and moths burning bright on a bug-zapper. He looked at its glow like an astronaut on the moon staring at the distant earth. It was bright and beautiful, but distant and unattainable. There was a peace in that hopeless doom of separation, too, much as there was a peace in a coffin when its buried, oblivious to all of the world’s endless ills six feet up.
The lights from Hong Kong spilled over Ben like a phantasmal waterfall. It reminded him of a dream he once had; a dream of a waterfall near a shrine in a bamboo thicket. It had been a peaceful dream, when he had it, but he woke from it in a clammy sweat, afraid. He had not been afraid of the dream, however. He had been afraid of the life he had woken to.
There was a jangling at the door, then the scrape and click of a key in the lock. The door opened and a tall, thin figure stood in the doorway, her silhouette stretched thin in the hall light.
“You do not belong here” she said, leaning under the doorframe as she stepped inside. She was taller and thinner than before; stretched inhumanly.
Ben sat up in bed, watching her willowy figure as she approached him. “If you do not want me here, I will leave.”
“You do not understand,” she said, closing the door behind her. “There has been a mistake.” The room plunged into deep shadow and soft neon lights. Her figure was embossed by the duality. The teal dress was now too big for her slender waist, swaying laxly, and too short to cover anything below her mid-thighs. She loomed over him like a thinned shadow, her eyes blacker than shadow. “You should not be here, and yet you are.” Her face was blue in the Hong Kong lights. Her eyes were without whites, reflecting nothing. “You are living,” she said, “and this is not a place for you. It is a place for the dead.”
Ben’s voice was even; his tone unshaken. “Sometimes I feel like I am dead.”
“That is not the same,” she said. She paused a moment, though, watching him silently as if in thought. At length, she spoke. Her voice was a whisper, yet it silenced all other sounds in Hong Kong with its command. “Are you not afraid? How far gone are you?”
Ben leaned back against the headboard, sighing.
“The first night of my divorce I was in disbelief. I told myself it wasn’t happening. But it happened, and still it seemed unreal. I never went through any stages of anger or grief. I just felt numb, like my brain had shut off all of its emotions. I tried listening to a few Phil Collins songs, just to see if they resonated at all. But I never felt them. I was indifferent to my own heartbreak. Part of me must have…died so completely that I didn’t have the capacity to mourn anything. It was a clean, painless excision. Like a perfect surgery that removed my soul, and I felt…not exactly contented, but empty.” Ben took a deep breath and exhaled, his breath a tumbling mist in the chilly air. “And then four years passed, and now I am here.”
“But you cannot stay here,” she said. “It is sacrilegious.”
“I can pay,” he said.
“You cannot bribe us here,” she said.
“I meant that I can make an offering,” he clarified.
She folded her long, thin arms across her shallow chest. “Our guests pay in spirit tokens, sutras, and beads,” she said. “Money means nothing to us. Only things of real worth. So…what do you have to offer, Ben, that could be of use to us?”
“What do I have to offer?” he said. This was a question Ben had not confronted since his wife left him for another man. “What do I have to offer?”
The truth was that he was not even sure what he had to offer— to himself or anyone else. He had detached himself from life. He had detached himself from family and friends and everything and everyone that had imbued him with the gravity of meaning. He performed his job in rote fashion, traveling here and there not because of duty or loyalty to the company, but because he had nothing else to do except what other people gave him to do. He had no personal motivations; no goals; no drives. He had emptied himself as a vessel and set it out to sea, letting waves take him wherever was their whimsy.
Ben’s head rolled to the side, his eyes gazing out the window at the busy, demanding world of mankind. It all seemed a futile hustle and bustle among which his absence would mean nothing.
“I have nothing to offer you,” he said. “Nothing to offer anyone. Except everything. My life. My existence. My body. My space. I have no reservations. You can have it all. I feel nothing for my life.”
“You feel nothing?” she said, sniffing irritably. “Then you are a fool. Life is a thing of desires. You are living, so there must be something that you desire.”
“I want to stay here,” he said. “I want to stay among this silence. I want to hear you play the piano every night. I want to live here for the rest of my life, and beyond.”
“Is that all?” she asked, reaching for him. Her fingers were longer than before, and slender as tree branches. A soft light flared in her eyes, like candles lighting in the corners of a shrine in the deep, dark bosom of a bamboo forest. As her long fingers slowly extended toward his chest, the soft candlelight glow expanded, filling up her overlarge eyes with a twinned moon luminosity. Her skin was so pale that it was like moonlight touching a waterfall.
“And I want to be touched by your fingers again,” he said.
Her fingers halted, quivering. They withdrew. “In time, perhaps.”
She stood there a while, looming over him. Neither said anything. Neither moved. They existed in a consummate silence that Ben found to be reassuring. And yet, only yesterday, he thought nothing would be reassuring on this fateful day.
“It is our anniversary,” he said suddenly, quietly. “The anniversary of my marriage to my exwife. She is with her new husband right now. Back in New York. I wonder if she thinks about me at all.” He shook his head and forced a smile; it was no more convincing than any of the other smiles he had feigned since the divorce. “How did you come to own this place?”
The pianist sat down on his bed, beside him. Even when sitting she loomed over him, tall and otherworldly. She slouched forward, the grooves of her arched spine sharply etched in the blue light from the city. She looked like some beautiful gargoyle perching atop a church pediment, peering sadly.
“I had sought the Buddha’s peace,” she said. “But I had not done so through piety and discipline. I did not care for Enlightenment, only abatement, and found it in an opium cloud. Everyday day I sought opium for my suffering. I could have been a musician, long ago, but I found less comfort in the piano than I did in a hookah. I had indulged overmuch and drifted beyond the mortal realm. Now I serve the dead here. It is my atonement. My penitence.”
Ben glanced around the room, and then at the pianist. “It is not so bad here,” he said, “is it?”
“No,” she said. “Death has been very generous to me. Perhaps even charitable.”
“It is a very nice place,” he said.
“With nice people,” she said. She turned and looked at him, meaningfully. “We treat our guests very well here.”.
“As we should,” Ben said.
They both nodded in understanding. She stood, then, and went to the door. She opened it and ducked under the doorframe, stepping out into the hallway. She looked at him one more time and closed the door behind her. Her footfalls receded down the hallway, like music in Ben’s ears. He fell asleep shortly afterward, and slept like the dead.
Days still pass in the hotel, but the hotel is endless. It is like no time passes at all. The bartender still serves saki to the visitors that stay at the hotel, and the pianist still plays gentle, calming songs for her guests. There is a new bellhop at the hotel. He is affable and industrious, carrying the bags of the guests without complaint or grunt or groan. And no matter how disturbing the guests might be, he never gasps in horror or refuses to serve them.
Every night, after his duties are completed, he retires to the lounge to listen to the pianist play her gently trickling notes along the keys. Then, when the hotel retires to bed, he and she go walking along bamboo paths near an old shrine that has somehow still managed to exist, tucked away between the skyscrapers and the milling streets full of people too hurried to see the ghosts of yesteryears taking their time and enjoying life slowly, happily, as only the dead can.