It wasn’t a very strange first conversation. Not the kind I prefer to have at 3:30 a.m. after a night of heavy drinking. None of the usual human truths filtered through a crank mesh of deliriousness, booze and embellishment. But how do you measure the strangeness of a conversation in the back doorway of a bar at closing time?
I discovered the dense overlapping network of scars on her wrists and forearms during our chat and found it difficult to take my eyes off of it. She noticed and said, “Oh, I cut myself once. Or maybe I mean, once I cut myself. Or maybe it’s, I used to cut myself. It’s something like that. I did it for a long time. It’s kind of hard to look at now. It’s not the sort of thing a good Chinese girl does.”
“Are you a good Chinese girl?” I asked.
“Yeah,” she said. “Mostly. But I guess I was a teenage masochist. The psychiatrist called it self-harm.”
She had me there, no quick come back. I took the easy way out and said, “What was that like?”
“It was like being alone on a hidden continent where hope and doubt both have sharp edges.”
“And what happened to the teenage masochist?”
“She does bit parts in movies now, and works at Starbucks. And she tries to avoid razorblades, pointy objects and bits of broken glass.”
I knew I had it coming, but I’ve never been a fan of conversations where people portray themselves in the third person. When it’s a woman, I keep waiting for the Audrey Hepburn pout. When it’s a guy, I keep waiting on the commencement of an incoherent personal manifesto. I watched her and waited. She did neither.
“My name’s Virginia Wong,” she said holding out her hand.
“People call me Roscoe,” I said shaking it, seeing a scarred red forearm attached.
I walked her home from the bar that night, no strings attached. We parted at her door with a tame little kiss and I took the long way back to my place.
And I didn’t see Virginia again for a couple of years.
She found me by accident one night in a bar just outside of Gastown. It was a quiet place with an elderly bartender and no cues for the pool table. The clientele was there to drink and to occasionally offend one another. I was reading a two week old copy of the Georgia Straight.
I heard a voice behind me say, “Hey, you’re the man people call Roscoe.” I looked up at the mirror behind the bar and saw her there.
“Virginia Wong,” I smiled. “Pull up a stool. What’ll it be?”
“Vodka on ice. Nothing Russian.”
The elderly bartender poured.
“How’s show business?” I said.
“It’s slow for a Chinese girl. Movies are for white people.”
“That’s tough.” There were fresh livid cut marks on her wrists poking out from under her sleeves. I looked at them a second too long and she moved her hands down to her side. “You okay?” I said
She looked down at her drink and sighed deeply. “There’s a demon after me,” she said with absolute conviction.
“What?” She’d done it again. Left me without a quick come back. “You’re being metaphorical, right? Is some guy stalking you?”
She shook her head. “No. It isn’t a stalker; it’s a demon. He doesn’t know I’m here. I gave him the slip but he’ll find me. Always does.” She seemed oddly calm and resigned. “He’s an eerie little bastard. Three feet tall. Wears a black tux. Calls himself Mr Stoke. Big eyes that darken a room – all pupils, no iris, no whites.
“It’s funny how easily a demon can get into your life,” she said. “Walk down the wrong back alley at the wrong dark moment and there it is. Grinning and reciting an inventory of your secrets and lies, past and future.”
“Forgive me for asking, but are you normally on some kind of medication?”
“Medication doesn’t work. Neither does liquor, really.” She gulped her vodka. “But at least with alcohol, you can’t remember in the morning.”
I noticed then how fatigued she looked and reached out to touch her cheek.
“Don’t,” she said, pushing my hand away.
“What don’t you want to remember in the morning?”
“It talks backward to me,” she smiled sadly. “It tells me my life story over and over, only backward. Then it says, ‘cut yourself use the vegetable knife the blunt one feel it burn’. It says, ‘now cut your face bitch cut your face cut your face’. That’s the shit I’d rather not remember.” She was getting loud, sounding a little desperate. The bartender gave us a look.
“Look,” I said. “We can get a cab. I can take you to the Emergency. I can stay with you while you wait to see someone.”
“Fuck the hospital,” she said. “People die there and don’t get out. They just stand around dead in their blue gowns staring at you, like they’re recruiting.”
“I really think you need….”
“Another drink,” she said. “I need another drink. But you don’t have to buy me one. I stole tonight’s take at my Starbucks store. Three thousand bucks. I thought I’d go out big.” She pulled a handful of bills out of her purse and dropped them back in. “I just need to find a happier place than this.”
She slipped off of her stool and straightened her jacket and top. More of the fresh red cut marks were visible on her forearms.
“I haven’t cut my face yet,” she said looking into the mirror behind the bar. “He wants me to real bad but I haven’t done it yet. That really pisses him off. Maybe I will, though.”
“Don’t,” I said and pulled out a business card. Handing it to her I said, “Call if you need to.”
She took it smiling. “That’s risky, Roscoe,” she said. “What if I do?” Then she walked out of the bar.
That’s when the bartender came over. “That the sort of woman you normally attract?” he said. “Girl needs electroshock or something.”
I paid up and followed her out. But she was nowhere on the street when I exited the bar. There was a fog rolling in and I couldn’t see half a block. She might have been nearby but lost in the mist. There were trains coupling nearby. Someone yelled the name Ruby out of a window of the Hotel Europe.
The next morning I awoke to a rapping on my door. It was a couple plain clothes cops. One was a woman. She said, “You know a Virginia Wong?”
“Not well,” I said. It was 8 a.m. Too early for me.
“Found this on her body last night.” She was holding my business card.
“Body,” said the cop.
“Maybe you can tell us.”
“I talked to her in a bar. Then she left.”
“Why’d she have your card?”
“Because I gave it to her. She was psychotic. I wanted to help.”
“Psychotic? You a doctor?”
“No, a band promoter. What it says on the card. Do I need a lawyer?”
“Nah,” said her partner. “Probably not. She was known to us. You know a Mr Carlyle Stoke, by the way?” The cop was looking at a notepad. “Little guy. Eccentric. Overdresses. Wears sunglasses. Says he’s blind.”
“Yeah I’m sure.”
“Says he knows you.”
“Never heard of him.”