She had one of those names that are so common in the Philippines, like Lucy or Linda. Maybe it was Dinah. I can't remember. I met her on the Manila waterfront. True to what I had been told, she did look a bit of a tramp, and an older one at that. You might even have called her mannish for her shape. But she was a she to the core, as all good ships are, and which I found when I boarded her. I'll speak no ill of her. Under the maritime subdivision of the Masculine Code, it is a bad thing to defame virtuous females, whether terrestrial or marine.
I was going to ride this cargo liner to the southern islands where I could relax in a place where nothing ever happens, and feel nostalgic. This was one of my many return journeys to the countries of the South China Sea since the end of the Vietnam war. It was in this region I came of age, and lived many years.
I was almost too young when I was sent out to this end of the world in the final years of the war. I was that guy everyone called "the kid" in so many old war movies about better wars. A navy man, I did duty sometimes on the "gun line" along the coast, and sometimes up the river. This is not a war story, so I'll just say that in the battles without and the battles within there was plenty to make a man crazy, I mean really truly bad crazy, unless he had something with which to ground himself. Some men got religion. Some took drugs. Others wrote songs or poetry. Still others just went crazy.
Me, I was lucky. I was able to get away frequently to the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia, all over the South China Sea, where I took my comfort with women. It was the Tribe of Women who kept my mind and spirit whole. I found I could sail to the antipodes, fight all the hordes of Ho Chi Minh, live in fire, go without beer, if I could but lie in the arms of a woman. I drank deeply from their cup, and their female powers sustained me. And there didn't always necessarily have to be any sex involved, although that was certainly a plus. Indeed, I remember times when the woman whose arms I would have most preferred were my mother's. Maybe you'll find it questionable that a grown man wants to nestle in his mother's arms, but any man who has been in war knows whence I speak. We all know stories of men dying in battle with the word "Mama" on their lips. You may be sure the stories are true.
So there I was in the islands again, roving southerly in a tramp steamer with no particular destination, and ready to put ashore on any island where a lady might find me good company. My cabin was located port side amidships and contained a bunk, wardrobe, sink and toilet, a little desk and chair, and a port hole. We had been at sea several hours when I decided to tour the vessel. I started at the bottom and began working my way up the decks, having the bridge as my ultimate goal. When I reached the level of the crew's quarters and the chart house I noticed a closet-sized space that held a swivel chair. A cigar box full of scissors, combs and other supplies sat on a makeshift shelf. A hand lettered sign above the door read, "Barber and Beauty Shop."
I kept climbing upward intending to reach the bridge. One level below my goal, I found a small bar. "Hot damn!" I thought, and walked in; the bridge be damned. The place had a port hole on each side, but otherwise no access to outdoor light. No electric lights were burning so the room was pretty dim. It was seedy looking, kind of like the ship itself, a tramp bar. Only a few passengers were in there. I figured it was mainly for the comfort of the crew. It looked like a waterfront dive. But I had drunk in many a waterfront dive, so that was okay with me.
I took a seat at the counter and ordered a San Miguel beer. The sleepy looking barman served it up with no glass but it was icy cold, and I downed it quickly then ordered another. I was taking my time with the second beer, gazing out a port hole when I heard someone sit down near me. I didn't turn around, but I heard a woman with a husky, Lauren Bacall voice order coffee in a Philippine accent. I heard the cup set down on the bar, the spoon tinkling in the cup as it stirred in sugar and milk, then sipping sounds. I realized that she was sitting right next to me. And all the other barstools were empty. I made a quick, silent prayer to Aphrodite that this woman be attractive, then turned, as casually as possible.
She was dressed in a kind of jumpsuit, but the sleeves and legs were short. It looked clean, but rather old. She was very slim and lithe looking, in the manner of one of Balanchine's dancers with their characteristic small breasts and hips. Her skin was the same color as her coffee with milk. Her hair was shoulder length and fine. She had big brown puppy dog eyes. She was not beautiful, but in no way was she undesirable. To my eye, her most remarkable features were her hands. They were very graceful and looked like they belonged to a sculptor. In one hand she held her cup and saucer, in the other, her spoon, with which she drank her coffee, just as a child might do with a cup of hot chocolate. She held the cup close to her mouth and looked at me over its rim. Her name was Luz.
A lot of women in the Philippines are named Luz. In Spanish, Luz means light, as all Filipinos know from their time as a Spanish possession. In the islands Luz is short for Luzviminda, a contraction of the names of the three island groups that comprise the Philippines. Luz, then, is a female patriotic name with a lovely double meaning.
"Are you going to Cebu?" she asked in her Lauren Bacall voice, and took a little sip from her spoon.
"Yes," I answered. "Are you?"
She nodded a yes and said, "But I'm not going to be stopping there. I work here in the ship. I have my beauty shop."
"Oh, yes. I noticed that."
"Do you want a haircut?"
She put the spoon into her mouth, upside-down, like a lollypop, and drew it out slowly between pursed lips. We made small talk. I offered her a beer but she declined, preferring more coffee. "Do you have a girlfriend in Cebu?" she wanted to know.
"No. No I don't. I'm just on a pleasure tour. Do you have a boyfriend? In Cebu?"
She looked into her coffee for a moment, stirring thoughtfully. "No," she said. "l don't got no boyfriend no more. I leave him because he's always hitting me."
What do you say to something like that? I tell you, it always upsets me to hear about men who beat women. I come from a long line of cowboys and lumberjacks and frontier sheriffs and other Neanderthals who have the quaint and outdated notion that men are to protect women and guard them against abuse. I have brawlers aplenty among my kinfolk in the Tribe of Men, but from earliest times I can remember their admonition: "Never hit girls, even if they hit first. It's a bad thing to do." I take it near personally when I hear of men who violate the code. You can call me old-fashioned, patronizing, patriarchal or sexist, but there it is. And I don't care.
I mumbled something I hoped sounded sympathetic, because I was, and because what else could I say, and she said, "Don't worry. That's okay. He's not going to hurt me anymore because I leave him forever."
"Good for you," I said.
She sipped another spoonful of coffee and then slowly licked the spoon, her puppy dog eyes on mine. We made some more small talk. I drank more beer. She even bought me one. Now and then, with the back of her spoon, she painted her lips with coffee and then licked the sweet creamy brew from them. She did none of these spoon maneuvers blatantly. Rather, each action was very subtle, as though she had learned to do it in some kind of finishing school where young ladies of position study social comportment and how to snare a man.
At length she said, "Can I come visit you in your cabin?"
"After they serve the dinner."
"Why not have dinner with me?"
She shook her head. "We're not allowed to do that. But I will come to visit you after the lights are out. After ten o'clock."
After dinner I killed some time in the bar and by walking on deck. After 10:00 p.m. all the ship's white lights were extinguished and only her running lights shone on the exterior. The moon still made plenty of light, and it reflected brightly off a mirror-calm sea. In the enclosed passageways the claret red night lights were on. I smiled as I remembered from navy days about red lights. They preserve your night vision, in case you have to go quickly between exterior and interior, where such a sudden change in light could temporarily blind you.
I returned to my cabin and waited. I opened the port hole and the moist scent of the warm sea filled the room. Only the dim reading lamp above the little desk was burning. Not long after, Luz tapped on my door. I opened it, and her silhouette stood in the dim passageway. She wore a sleeveless pullover and a full length cotton skirt, sandals on her feet. In the night vision claret light I could faintly see the gleam of her lip gloss. I stood back as she entered the region of languid light in the cabin. She reached across the desk and turned off the reading lamp. "I'm shy," she explained in a curiously small voice. I closed the door. The moonlight streaming through the port hole would be enough.
We sat on the bunk, not touching, leaning against the wall. "Did you enjoy your dinner?" she asked.
"Yes. It was very good. And there were a lot of interesting people to talk to." My eyes were adjusting to the moonlight and her features were becoming clear.
"Yes, I meet many people in the ship. Sometimes they send postcards to me. I like to see a view of other places." She slipped off her sandals and curled her legs up on the bunk. I know my breathing was coming deeper, and I could see her bosom rising higher. Her features, although muted in the shadowy cabin, as though in sepia, were clear now. Her head was inclined toward me, and she twirled a lock of hair in her fingers. She looked up at me in a sidelong glance.
"Maybe you think I'm bad," she said.
"Maybe you think I'm bad," I countered.
"No. You're not the bad kind of guy. You don't hurt nobody."
"No. I don't. I try not to, anyway."
She shifted the weight of her body in my direction. A few inches of space lay between us, yet I could feel her body. That tactile zone that surrounds the human body, lying normally close to the skin, was expanding outward, as it does in times of passion or tenderness. That special sensory reaching-out was in play. A shiver ran down both our bodies and our tactile zones swelled out to engulf each other. I became aware of our mouths, sealed together, breathing in humid kisses. Lips pressed urgently. Breath came short. I thought to break away for a moment to recover my composure but neither my body nor hers would obey anything but desire.
Our mouths inseparable, I reached behind her and caressed her buttocks, then up under her pullover to caress her back. I realized she wore no bra, so I reached around the front where I cupped a willing breast in my hand. It was unusually firm and the skin quivered at my touch. I held the nipple between thumb and forefinger and began to squeeze, ever so gently at first, but with increasing pressure. She moaned and almost sobbed into my mouth.
Suddenly her mouth broke away from mine with a gasping sound and she desperately began kissing my neck and chest. I tore at my shirt buttons while she, shaking, wrestled with my belt and zipper. My groin was throbbing so intensely, pressing so hard against my trousers that I was in near pain. Luz pulled the trousers down to my knees. She grasped through the cotton underwear with her sculptor's hands and I cried out with excitement.
She tugged my underwear down to my knees. She knelt over me for a moment, looking, panting, collecting herself. She brought her head slowly down to my breastbone and kissed. She followed the line of hairs that grow from breastbone to navel, kissing, biting, kissing, biting. I could feel her hot breath at my crotch. Her mouth poised over me and she waited, waited, waited until her desire was so strong that her will gave in and she fell upon me. Using one of her hands she forced me into her mouth as deeply as I could go, pressing me to the back of her throat. She trembled, and little desire sounds emanated from her. The universe contracted upon itself and all that there was were Luz's sculptor's hands, her mouth, me and the little sounds she was making. It all spun dizzily.
I felt that I was going to come at any moment, and that was too soon, too soon. Shakily I sat up, reaching for her skirt. Luz's mouth uncoupled with a wet sound as I pulled her skirt up and reached for her panties. She gave me a cry of protest, as though she were menstruating and didn't want me to see. But it was too late. I had the panties down below her crotch and was kissing upward when I plainly saw the little shriveled, flaccid cock and balls made lifeless by long use of estrogen.
I told myself I was seeing shadows, that it was the dizzy effect of passion. I touched to make sure. My hand recoiled of its own accord, snake-bit. Nausea billowed in my gut. My own tool went quickly as limp as Luz's. Luz's? Hers? His? I stood up in a haste and pulled up my pants, zipping and buckling them securely. Luz sat on the bunk, adjusted his underwear and covered his legs with his skirt, demurely. He sat there, hands on his lap, face down but eyes looking up at me, mortified, ashes of sepia. He trembled. His lip gloss was smeared and I knew that it was also smeared on my cock at that moment. I could feel it shriveling and withdrawing into my body.
With the back of his hand Luz wiped the saliva that had flowed out of his mouth and across his cheek and chin. "Spit that gushed out of his mouth while he sucked my cock!" my thoughts roared. "The pukey little lying, perverted faggot!"
I hit him, open handed. I slapped him full across the face as he sat there, and the blow jerked his head to one side. The smacking sound was satisfying and the stinging in my hand told me I had hurt him. But it wasn't enough.
Luz had made no sound, but sat there quietly, his head slightly awobble. I hit him again, this time on the other cheek. It was the one that had the passion spit on it and the residue came off on my hand. It felt like poison and I wiped it off on Luz's hair saying, "There! Let it poison you, you little queer!" Luz's head bobbed with the force of the wipings.
He stared straight ahead as I punished him, making no sound, no protest, no defense. A fat tear welled out of one of his eyes and ran in a stream down the hot cheek I had just slapped. "How dare you sit there and cry after what you just did to me," I spat. Then I slapped him again, as hard as I could. I grabbed him tightly by the hair, drew back my arm and spun my body towards Luz so as to put all my weight behind the blow. It landed perfectly on the cheek I had first hit and I felt the impression of the jaw and cheek bones on my palm. It landed with enough force that it made Luz finally cry out. It knocked him over, too, and he would have landed on his face had he not thrown out his hands to break the fall.
I took a step back, and watched as Luz slowly, effortfully sat back up. He put his hands on his lap and stared straight ahead, eyes not seeing. He took a deep, shaky breath. And so did I. Both his eyes were streaming tears now, silent ones. They were pain tears, yes, from the punishment I had meted out to him. But even in that dim light, nothing but the moon through the port hole, I saw the pain that went much deeper than his cheeks. These tears were distillate of suffering, rejection and abuse. Luz's mouth quivered, but then set firmly. He swallowed hard. "At least he's taking it like a man," I thought. "At least in this he's honest."
But he had lied to me to get me into bed. I recalled something that I had read by Gloria Steinem. She wrote that seduction was rape by other means. I had given it no thought at the time, perhaps even scorned the idea. Now I knew what she meant. Luz had seduced me, willingly misrepresented himself. He had violated me, stolen from me. He had taken a chance, doubtless not for the first time, and it had turned out badly for him, equally doubtless not for the first time. But at least he had the guts to take his medicine without complaint. And it was bitter.
"Why did you do it?" I asked sullenly.
In a misty voice he said, "Because ... I want to. Because when I see you ... I like you."
"You shouldn't have done it!" I insisted.
Luz just nodded his head and turned his gaze to the deck. He looked very small. Regarding him now, I noticed the tell-tale signs of the pre-op transsexual whores I had seen and resolutely ignored as they prowled the waterfronts of a dozen ports of call: larger hands, broader shoulders, narrower hips than most women; an Adam's apple. None of them in themselves meaningful, but taken together with exaggerated gestures and a low voice they're pretty suggestive. I looked at Luz's breasts. One was larger than the other; they pointed in different directions. "Must have had a back-alley surgeon," I thought. "Couldn't afford anything better. Probably saving what money he can to get chopped and channeled by the same guy or one like him. I wonder how often he gets beat up?"
"What's your real name?" I demanded.
"Luz," he squeaked. "Luzviminda."
"Isn't that a girl's name?"
"Luzviminda," he quietly insisted. "Luzviminda."
I went to the tap and filled a cup with water. I gave it to him and he said, "Selamat." Thanks.
I watched as he drained the cup. A realization came to me that made me shudder: I felt sorry for Luz. Some part of me even wanted to reach out and kiss and caress this crazy confusion of genders and make it better, for his were crazy-maker pains, pains he had to bear alone, with no one to comfort him, neither men nor women. A deep and unknown part of me even wanted to let him have his pleasure with me, let him have his way if it meant so much to him. After all, the damage was already done, he had already deflowered me, as it were. It wouldn't hurt me, and it seemed a world of satisfaction to him. But how could such a thing be? I quickly banished such thoughts.
He gave me back the empty cup. I took it, looked into it dumbly. I turned away and rested my hand on the little desk. And I stared at the wall, inches from my face. There in the half light I stood mutely facing aft while he, or maybe she, sat facing midships, drying his, or her, tears.
"Look," I said in the direction of the steel wall. "Look ... uh ... why don't you go back to your cabin now. It's late."
The clock stopped somehow. We shared a long long silence that didn't seem to register in time. The moment just hung there and stayed current.
"Before I go," Luz finally said in a small voice that yet filled the room, "will you embrace me? One time?"
I know I did not quite hear those words at first. But they echoed in my mind until they finally registered on my ear. "Embrace?" I thought. "Embrace him? Embrace her? Embrace whom?" Luz looked awfully pitiful, and in need of some comfort. Like a wet puppy. I would have known what to do in the case of a wet puppy.
I would have known what to do if Luz were a man. I could have put one arm around his shoulders, given him a brotherly punch somewhere and said, "It's okay now. Your buddy is here." But Luz sat there in a dress, and woman's underwear.
I would have known what to do if Luz were a woman. I'd have gathered her close to me gently, stroked her hair, and held her closely until the pain subsided. I'd have kissed away her tears. But Luz had a cock and balls, and no breasts of Mother Nature's making.
On the other hand, I could just throw Luz out. I knew how to do that. I'd just open the door, grab the nearest body part and walk the intruder out. After all, I had had enough trouble. Hadn't I? Hadn't I? The code gave me no guidance, but this seemed the nearest possible solution.
I do not know what moved me. Certainly it wasn't thought or knowledge. But I do know that my mother, whose principal motive is to nurture, would be disappointed if her son caused or allowed the needless suffering of a fellow creature, however crazed or confused. And while I am a man, my father's son and a warrior, so am I my mother's son.
And so my arms reached out. My hands found their way to either side of Luz's face, to those same hot cheeks that those same hands had so recently assailed. I lifted up his tear-wet face, and drew him to his feet. I gently pressed his head to mine, temple to temple, and stroked his hair. Luz trembled delicately. Then, as though it were the most natural thing in the world, I inclined his head forward, pushed back his bangs, and kissed his forehead. And then kissed him again. It did not seem like a bad thing.
I lowered my arms and allowed them to encircle his waist. Whatever bosom Luz professed, I drew to mine. He lay his head upon my shoulder, and sighed many sighs. And I watched through the port hole as miles and miles of moonlit sea slipped gently by; the good old ship, the Lucy or the Linda or maybe the Dinah, sailing smoothly on, bound I knew not where.
Copyright ©1997 Travelers' Tales, Inc. Used with permission of Richard Sterling.