Monica Datta


We may describe friendly feeling (τὸ φιλεῖν) toward anyone as wishing for him what you believe to be good things, not for your own sake but for his, and being inclined, as far as you can, to bring these things about.

Aristotle, Rhetoric, 1380b36




Despite the free hostel bed and diet of abandoned pastas, paper dollars fluttered lemminglike through her fingers. In London she had scraped together a thousand pounds tending bar at the student union, all gone. After two months in New York her broad, unbroken shoulders shrunk and slackened.

"Anna's looking for someone."


"No, it's admin. But a first timer like you'd get two grand easy." He paused. "Fifteen hundred."

Weeks later, Reiko was running out of internet cafes. Today in a Queens basement she decided Jasmine's consort was a Venezuelan banker called Ernesto—Ernie by his mates but Jasmine was not his mate—who had received three services, two of which were her advertised specialties, "Nordic" and "HQMZ." ("R" had also been performed, but Anna indicated this was inadequate and not worth mentioning.)



In childhood Reiko had a mysterious command over nature.

At primary school the teacher invited a zookeeper, who brought in a sack of miserable baby animals. Most cried at the sight of snakes and iguanas crawling about the room, but not Reiko, who took the garden snake in her arms, covering it with kisses, and soothed the sweet, slimy thing until it relaxed.

Once someone asked what she loved and she said "nothing," but Reiko was a good swimmer, enjoyed field hockey, and had a penchant for rugby; she had been the best of the U-17 girls in Sydney.

Reiko too once had an innate mastery of the body, but did not yet know it was gone.



At nineteen she'd snogged only three boys, all older, all exactly once and didn't fancy any of them: an anthropology master's student who thought she was Polynesian, a glass-chested "actor" and a carroty Kiwi on the flight to New York.

Reiko had a December birthday, skipped year six, and, despite high marks and being elected head girl, was expelled after (accidentally) torching the drapes in one of the rooms the school used to receive guests and for blaming dull Ingrid who stank of wool and cats. Mr. Bunton, the chemistry teacher, helped Reiko find a place in neuroscience at King's College London through clearing.

Over a lunch of pelmeni—Reiko had a Coke—the ageless Anna of Tallinn, dangling a rubber thong from her left toe rings, branded each girl with a "talent," hair color, and average rating: worldly blonde Jasmine "Nordic" and harp playing, 10/10; gamine brunette Cerise Bacchanalian meals and something called "ABCD," 9/10; ginger Oriental Gabrielle something called "Baltic"—which Jasmine, incidentally, did not perform—and massage, 7.5/10, etc.

The online forum was a sort of virtual fraternity, explained Anna; the reviews weren't to be too positive or too articulate, because Anna would get caught.



Reiko rejected a call from her mother, who was born in Algeria and chased water all her life: Paris then California then Australia and now Tahiti half the year, with her new husband.

One of the German girls binned a banana and a diaphane of fruit flies hovered about the dormitory. Initially repulsed, Reiko now found them soothing, like someone else's pet.

Badly she wanted a swim. Reiko used to meet some of the boys for football in Chinatown, but even they begged off in the heat. Sometimes she nicked strangers' bikes and cycled to the Botanical Garden or Central Park Zoo or Far Rockaways.

Every day, Anna sent details about the previous evening's encounters; Reiko would write a story—with star rating—about what happened. Today: Cerise, Tuesday, aquatic. Reiko didn't know what "aquatic" was and dreamt the man was a marine biologist named Yves who helped Cerise prepare lobster in a bathysphere near the Mariana Trench.

She woke when something tickled her arm and struck herself so hard the skin steamed.



Once they all spent Christmas in New York, perfumed with sweat and money, her mother cheered: no one worked hard enough in Australia. Reiko's mother grew up in Paris and her dad was from a small fishing village in Wakayama and when they met on the Stanford MBA course they fell so in love with California they moved to a whole country of it. They were limber: her mother ran the Australian arm of a French liquor and knickers and leather conglomerate. Her father ran the Australian arm of a Japanese bank.

Reiko's Algerian grandparents followed after she was born and still lived in Sydney. Reiko inherited a dusky, feline face—Aboriginal or Burmese or Caledonian (New)—but was only Australian. Her labours alone vanquished three languages and three countries.

Anna said the first review was terrible because it was bland and the second terrible because it was vulgar—Philip wrote it—and that she would be sacked.

Reiko, who didn't suffer losers, wrote that Gabrielle had been taken on a desk and restrained with Scotch tape and stapled neckties. Anna sent a happy face. 



Cerise was requested to emulate different kinds of furniture.  "Dale"—good Aussie name—reported she was excellent as a chair, all right as an armoire, atrocious as a coat rack and sublime as an apothecary table.

Worse than the ones who smelt of wool and mould were girls who buffed their skins to marble, reeking of fruit liniments, tripping on tiny stilts, giggling like passive ewe, pretending to be air.

Jasmine, née Anna, oak thick as the Taame-Lauri tamm; Gabrielle, something Khmer she couldn't pronounce, an oily teak desk; Cerise, possibly her real name, of suburban Winnipeg, Manitoba maple cabinets.



One client publicly complained that Jasmine would not let him nibble her ears. She wrote back that the models were allowed to refuse anything—especially anything above the neck—and that in purchasing an expert service, they were obliged to act in the collective best interest. It would be like taking a dancing lesson and being allowed to stomp about the room in wellies like a maniac.

Reiko also thought the practice was ugly. During the staff meeting she watched Philip gnaw his cuticles like a livid hare.



Reiko's half-brother Jean-Philippe died at age four, ten years before she was born. He was referred to not as a deceased person, but as an ashy ghost in the present tense. He had limpid black eyes, bleeding tears in every photo.

"Ton frère fantôme," her mother used to say, "eats all his lentils. Eat your lentils."

"Ton frère fantôme loves blue. Wear the blue dress."

Old pictures: "c'est lui—ton frère fantôme," she crowed, laughing.

Reiko asked her father about it and was told, "bad blood."  She thought he had been murdered; only at university did she understand AIDS, but the smug English kids were more concerned with icky inconveniences than anything fatal, and with the exception of an internship in the neurosurgery unit where she learnt to draw blood, none of it concerned her personally.



At age ten, just after the divorce, she followed her father to a meeting in Queensland. One evening, they took the lift—less than a minute; Reiko's ears exploded—to the observation deck in the Q1. It was like an aquarium except that the water was in the ocean below.

She touched the glass skin and pressed her toes as far as they would go. Something dropped in her stomach and lightened behind her eyes. When she pulled back a bit the sky and sea spread so far she was just a drop. She ran in circles, faster, faster, faster through the crowded room till she threw up. Reiko wanted to do it again, but was promptly taken back to the hotel, where she sipped plain fizzy water and sat by the tall window.

This evening she strolled the Manhattan Bridge. Traffic sliced steel in sheets, whipping her in the wind. She gasped as the trains rumbled above and stayed there for too long, suspended and queasy and the greatest joy she had known in weeks.



Anna had a friend, Fumiko, a geisha who occasionally helped her out. She played the flute and the harp and danced and drank powdered tea in a complicated manner. Reiko wasn't to say a word about her to anyone.

She visited her father in Tokyo once a year. Together they went to Wakayama, where her relatives shouted at her in Japanese. Her little cousins tried to scrub her skin of pigment. Boys bounced the black coils that sprung from her head and laughed when she struck them away.

A swarthy fellow flopped next to her when she was out with the German girls. He smelt of sick and vetiver, as she pretended to when writing the reviews.

"You got a real strong back for an Oriental," he appraised. "What's your name?"

She threw down his spectacles, stamping them with her heel and bleeding the skin.



Umbrellas blew open. Reiko, enrobed in rain, heard human screams, shaking feline in the lightning, having never before seen water.

She stung her feet with Dettol and smeared them with Betadine. From the hostel lounge computer (scrubbed clean afterwards) she wrote that "Bob"—good American name—had an interlude with Anna after she, in turn, played an interlude of Ravel's Jeux d'eau on the piano.

After that, she put on trainers and a rain jacket, pushing away ropes of water.

Someone hissed: "Faster, you wet whore!"

They had no idea. She drank what poured from the sky. There were eight missed calls from Anna. Outside the storm broke all the windows.



Smartly suited as a city solicitor, Anna pounded the glass door with the heel of her palm.

"I can't talk here," said Reiko.

"You used my name on this garbage!"

"I did not."

"Do you know what our lives are like?"

Philip told Reiko that five years earlier, Anna had been sued by the website, who ratted her out to the cops. Two of the women were deported without settling their debts to Anna, or the men who brought them to the States. Having lost the lawsuit, the website's then-owner stalked her for months. He beat her with scrap metal and raped her repeatedly. Anna had no recourse.

But Philip had probably stolen the story from Law & Order. "S'not my fault."

"How nicely you were brought up, to believe such a thing."

"Are you firing me?"

"Well worse. You're aiding and abetting millions of dollars in—" She paused. "Jeux d'eau? Jesus."



Anna came to America as a harpist and took no pleasure from the instrument. In Estonia she had been recruited for the national orchestra and developed calluses so thick she didn't bleed. In a kind of celebratory mortification she played for clients before, after, and during. Some found it fascinating purely as a trick. Others thought it vulgar or unnerving. Many saw proof she was an angel.



She disliked Philip but considered him a friend and even found him a bit exotic; a pockmarked bogan from Oklahoma who, after a decade of English teaching in Prague, Bangkok, Busan and a Kyrgyz village, was now assistant manager of the hostel.

They shared desk duty Tuesday and Thursday. Reiko knew not to placate him with silence or disgust. Proudly monolingual, Philip knew the best seven profanities in ten languages and regaled her with dull stories: smuggling minuscule amounts of marijuana on domestic flights, idiotic places to sleep, and loads of foolish women, interchangeable but for one extreme physical feature, weak boundaries and irrational behavior.

Philip said, "There was a girl in Memphis with talons like a hawk."

"Cerise scratched open a window with her fingers to let herself out."


"They talked about what he wanted to do and how beautiful she was and hoped she could stay like this forever."


"He offered to stuff her like a passenger pigeon."

Philip guffawed and went silent for the evening.



Onyx-murky as the Baltic, the depth of Anna's eyes incited obsession; nothing puréed grief and loss quite like their infinitude, the sky blasted to bits in a tarry trench. Sometimes they begged her to shut her eyes but she wouldn't, and they wept thanks like she was the bloody Pope.

Her gargantuan husband, Walter, was as cruel and stupid as stretched yeast. Today he tried to pawn a mysteriously large diamond. Reiko met them at the jeweller the precise moment he was informed it was a fake; when Anna introduced her he continued shouting obscenities into his mobile.

Then he cried, "Look with all your eyes!"



Blazing through the burning autumn forests, sharp woody air seeping through the window, she made a noble voyage to settle a woman's debts.

Reiko debarked at 30th Street Station and took two buses to the vile Americana Inn, itself and its landscape at some remove from the city rendered in bleached hay and landfill brown. Per Anna's instruction she took a side entrance to the basement.

Stripped, Leila of Beirut—nineteen, like Reiko—was being confirmed by her measurements per Anna's instructions. Her right hipbone was almost one-half inch higher than the other, saving a few dollars, but she was a sublime beauty, like the Nefertiti Bust at the British Museum, or a golden ship ornament.

"Thanks, bro," said Leila's escort to Reiko. "This was a tough one."

On the train Leila stared through Reiko. Eventually she asked, "tu parles français?"

"My mother."

Leila fluttered nonsense; to stay awake Reiko bobbed her head through the earbashing until Leila laughed at her own observation, yielding a familiar clang of French bells.

"Shut up," snapped Reiko. "I don't understand."



Thursday at desk duty Philip showed Reiko Quadrophenia, a film from the 1970s about a sad, silly boy who quit his mailroom job to join other sad, silly boys in battle.

"Four types of schizophrenia."

"This isn't watchable," said Reiko. "All he does is take pills and fail."

"He's like you. Kid off on his own."

"They're such drongos," said Reiko. "All day pushing each other off bridges and going to gigs. Their lives are nothing."

"As I said, just like you," Philip smirked.



Anna pushed a fine blond drape over a blue gash on her left cheek. She said Leila was replacing Gabrielle, who had been injured.

"Is she going back?"

"Her life is her own," said Anna.

Reiko understood the raw pleasure of brute force; in rugby and field hockey matches she enjoyed barrelling through packs of girls, knocking over several at once. She did the same on public transport. Anna's women provided switches, rods, poles, whips.  But in the reviews Reiko ignored violence; she had never experienced physical pain and could not empathize with those who had.



She didn't know why Anna's clients never met on long railway journeys. The clunky antiquity of the subway lulled her to sleep, lashing electrons and scraping old steel. After a visit to the Natural History Museum and hunting for internet cafés in the Bronx, her head bobbed against stray shoulders. A petrified glassy geriatric held out her hands so they wouldn't touch.

As the train emptied, deep into Brooklyn, she missed the interchange, sensing space she curled up on one of the benches. It was powerful: no one would sit next to or even across from her. The cars on either side were full.

Refreshed, she woke at Junius Avenue. She could do this all the time, if she forgot everything.



Reiko cut her own hair in the sink every fortnight, black bristles fluttering on porcelain like claw marks. It was already short but today she took off two inches, and then two inches and suddenly there was a short, straight bristle cut close, void of curl. She enjoyed the tingle of her newborn scalp. Philip asked if she had joined a cult.

All of Anna's women had mountain waterfalls of hair; when not concealing injury, and sometimes even with clients, Anna wore a long, heavy plait, like a Norse warrior maiden from one of those daft novels Philip enjoyed. It only looked like rope.



As the nights lengthened she spent more time outdoors peering at the bleak sky. One night she fell asleep in a Chinatown park.

When she texted to quit Anna said: "Yes, was about to say the same. Let's call it a day."

She told James, the clear-eyed hostel manager, that her visa expired and that the consulate arranged for her to be catapulted through the sky on a flight that evening. With neither luggage nor goodbyes—Philip was out; the German girls had left for Chicago—she spent the afternoon in Central Park. When the crowd cleared she fell asleep.

A cyclone: hisses and murmurs and calls. The air clear, smoky. Crab-tightened chest. The sky said her name.

Was she dead?

No, just traffic.

She cried—for the first time in seven years—and asked the sky to devour her whole. No one listened to her anymore.



Philip had a private room with separate entry. Sanguine tomato dermis engulfed pasta veins and pesto guts but it was her first proper meal in a week and she swallowed without tasting. He whirled noodles in a spoon like an infant, gnashing the bales in half. They sat at his tiny plastic table, watching a game show. Philip was a dreadful speller.

"Couldn't do it no more, huh," declared Philip. "And now you're eating my pasta."

"I was tired."

"Life is hard, brother," he said. "You can't be a parasite all the time. Judging. Eating others' money."

"I'll find something else."

"You can crash here till you find your feet."

"Ta," she yawned.

Philip scraped together the last dregs of olive and tomato skin and clattered the plastic dish in the sink. When he came back he stood by Reiko's chair. She wrinkled her brow at the unnatural pose. He jerked her upwards by the elbows and pinned her standing to the wall, his left hand against her left shoulder and his right palm smack against her forehead. He pressed hard and tried to kiss her, with teeth, on the mouth and then the neck. Perhaps without meaning to she spat into the dank vent of his lips. Aghast he struck her, hard.

"You sick sow," he said. "All that filth and you won't touch me."

Reiko stared at her sandals. Again he thrust her against the wall and vice gripped her chest. With his other hand he reached between her legs.

She inhaled and threw him, gasping, flat on his back. She put a foot on his sternum. Philip fidgeted and wriggled for her ankle but couldn't move it. Reiko didn't look down: he might bite. She stared at the ceiling drinking back tears. 

On the way out she saw a smudge of blood on her right hand and didn't know where it came from.



Reiko couldn't find a callbox and took the subway to Penn Station so she could find one. It was seven in Paris. She dialled five numbers before her mother answered the landline from the house in Punaauia, let to holidaymakers most of the year. She had a lot of guests over, or a few loud friends.

Her mother slurred, "Bichette! How is London? Is it raining?"

She didn't know. After six months and an American telephone number. "Everything's fine."

"We'll be back next week. Come visit. It's been so long. How are your studies?"


"Vincent"—Reiko's stepfather—"shares a vineyard and brought the most lovely bottles," her mother continued. "You like wine, don't you?"


That madwoman's shriek. "You'll grow into it. I won't keep you. We have guests."



Her mother was a citizen of the moon who spoke French and English as seventeenth languages.



Reiko called Japan.

"You'd like to come here, then."


"Your mother, then."


"Sydney. Or London."


"Then what?"

"I don't know," she said, tightening her jaw.

He did not say, "you have a degree and limbs and your choices are Sydney and Tahiti and London and Paris and Tokyo and you pissed it all away to be an homeless arsehole," but she felt it, pulsing through the sea.



Numbly crunching snowy tufts and no longer able to sleep outdoors, Reiko splurged on a hotel near the train station, drew a bath, and slept through the early afternoon.

Outside the bright crystal blanket gleamed of roses and went sharp. She trudged to the subway and went to Pelham Bay Park, to be locked in a fortress of branches and vines and sweet piney oil; a dead tree, storm-splintered tipped at a right angle mashed into a hill so that in death it was a permanent fixture of the landscape.



After twenty hours on the naffly named Maple Leaf—thanks to snow and customs—Reiko was in a brittle Sydney without the ocean; boars and bison in every bush. By spring she had a working holiday visa, two flatmates and a job at the zoo, where she tended the grounds and, occasionally, helped feed the animals. 

In January, Ginetta—the world's oldest giraffe—passed away. Though dejected, Reiko and her peers agreed that the public killing of the baby giraffe in Copenhagen—and irony that the lions who ate him were killed shortly after—was entirely sound, in the way of nature.

In late May the mountain goats were born. One afternoon she was plucking shed goats' down from rocks and moss. Reiko watched them stumble and nudge each other, pecking at the grass, nuzzling pebbles.