News & opinion on Greater China and the even Greater Beyond: by Biff Cappuccino.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

UN Bender Version II (incomplete… I’ll finish it or rewrite it later)

It was all very professional, very efficient, not to mention glamorous and well-paying. And it paid off at both ends of a candle, a sticky wicket in Emperor's Scarlet whose wicks were burning scads of money at both ends. Someday the shoe would fall and he'd get kicked upstairs, in one of those teary demotions that are actually a snickering-up-your-sleeve promotion. Before such a reassuring disaster could take place, he and his fellow industry of verbal fixers and sleight-of-hand putter-uppers could take pride in a good job indifferently done. Great deeds were getting done greatly cheap. Or something along them lines. For all the city slickers you met, it seemed a very grassroots, earthy sort of seedy corruption. Either way, the UN was coming here in its sunniest pick-me-yuppiest role: Johnny Seedmoney, buying the bootstraps for indigenous peoples who needed to lift themselves up onto their own bare feet.

Pssst! the can sputtered as I applied a final touch of metal paint to my shoes; a trick remedy from earlier, countrified mornings preparing for the excitement of a different imposture; the whole family hectic, the sprawling, sleep-deprived panic and giggling excitement of mater, pater, and familia discovering our Sunday best wasn’t up to the standards of a goldenrod and elm church morning. I grinned at the small reflective patch of fraudulence, the reflection finally sobering me up when I saw the workaphobia in my face. I sighed and leaned back. Voila! The dirty deed was done. I opened the window into the graying sunshine to let the fumes mingle with the cleaner traffic-tainted air from the freeway below. I turned over my trusty patent leather shinies, dust wiped and mold scraped, to review their worthiness. Good as new; which would have to do. I checked the mirror and ran my hand up top my head and through brush pelt clipped to superannuate the house comb. I could never find the damn thing, rooting through book collections, inspecting the heads of toppling stacks of old newsmagazines, sniffing my way may past the Indian and Chinese spices spilling from the sagging kitchen shelves and mellowing in the living room. I felt a raw, scratchy heat source and looked at my neck in the mirror. A practiced arm snaked out beneath the overhead fluorescent bulb, feeling on the shelf for a familiar yellow wrinkly tube of Kinglenic Ointment. Skin was reddening where mold was doing battle unto death with immune system. I applied a veneer of waxy undecylenic acid balm to make sure my side was victorious. I rubbernecked yoga-style in front of the mirror, getting the shoulders going, vertebrae cracking into alignment. I was rusty and recovering from an extended horizontal vacation; rested and ready to head back feet first into the working world.

It was my job as an interpreter to be professional mouthpiece, paid-for-confidante, and rent-a-pal. International clientele, drawn from the flyover-country-dodging jet set, busy with international what's-its and whatevers, would often forgot that we working stiffs were folks of some merit too. Crippled shoes and yesteryear fashions didn't mean crippled, yesteryear opinions. Or a vacuum where self-respect ought to be, despite many spirit-crushing moons on bended-knee, facilitating the inter-tribal talky-talk biz.

You had to have a sense of humor. But I’d run out of dead-baby jokes, ditched formulae humor a generation ago. The best I could muster on rubbery stage-frost bitten legs was wit. Which produced a leer giving away the show, betraying the sarcasm of a black heart. Coming off as a smart ass didn’t please frightened purchasing officers, sober auditing team leaders, smug legal eagles, blue-nosed activist academics and other no-nonsense types who formed the bulk of my clientele. I could only blame myself for a lack of discipline and for falling through the professional cracks.

When I thought about it, which was as seldom as possible, the core of my problem was the fathomless boredom of acting as mouthpiece once-removed, flapping my gums in gobbledygook on behalf of the mouthpieces of swarming global entities. I was a ventriloquist reading lines in a second-language through sock-puppets. I would have given anything to be taken to their masters. Instead I dealt professionally with hollow men, mimic men. The verbal filler tedium produced grinding teeth, fidgety feet, and air-conditioned sweats. I ventilated odd ideas, frank suggestions, ornery opinions. Anything for relief. And did so gratuitously, effortlessly, without begging for tips, which made me even more suspect to customers billed and already paid up. There was something sickly, vaguely unethical, probably second-rate, and most definitely unprofessional about doing stuff for gratis. I was suspected of being a do-gooder, a reddening turncoat to the corporate cause de jour. More than once I’d been accused of being here too long, getting burned-out, taking on ‘foreign ways’. A slap on the shoulder and sympathetic laughter followed by ‘Time for a vacation from paradise, my boy!’ And, worst of all, I ad-libbed. I embellished upon the original for amusement. I edited out for laughs. This first got me questioning looks, then shooting pains of complaint. It gave my employers grief. They grieved as they let me go. I gained a reputation as a wild card which would have enormously surprised my wife. Maybe I was shooting too much sperm; maybe popping too many pills. The rumor mill was grinding my street cred into dust.

So this time I was keeping my cards close to my skinny chest, playing it straight and narrow. This balmy tropic morning I would be servicing Benjamin Brinkley, a VIP fresh in from the cold at the United Nations headquarters.

Setting up this gig was Guy Thibodaux, a pale almost albino Frenchman with weedy blond hair. He was part of that elderly and jaded, publicly belching generation preferring extinction to extinguishing its smokes. We were in his office up on the seventh floor, far enough to be above traffic and just right for a three dimensional panorama of crumbling brick, newly poured concrete and the ancient mountains, the leafy festooned bedrock marvel upholding us all. But Guy hated distractions. He kept the drapes and windows firmly closed. The staff recycled his second-hand smoke, human humidifiers and air conditioners at fair market rates. He turned back to me and flapped his arms, frosted with white fur, as he strode aggressively in front of a white marker board, fat nicotine-etched fingers etching fat fingery arrows indicating project schedule, goals, strategy, and resources. The latter meant me. It being seven in the morning, his secretaries weren’t in yet and he had an audience, and air-conditioner, of just one.

He was chattering and I was fidgety all ready. But it didn’t pay to interrupt and ask him to cut out the crap and just leave the point. A chattering fidgety uninterrupted hour later, the gist was that this veep was parachuting onto our industrial island to quickstep through the backwoods aboriginal situation. I was to squire him to the pristine east coast and walk him through a bayside town walled in by kilometer-high cliffs. Once he got settled in, he'd part his briefcase, fire up his laptop, windup his spreadsheet and guestimate with mathematical precision how the indigenous folks were making out with their International Community guilt money. Privately I predicted traditional shell-games and hide-the-weenie.

It seemed so familiar. I couldn't suppress a smirk and a deadpan, 'Jeepers Guy, I mean, do you expect his report to be, uh… in the bag. Like a done deal or something?'

I overdid it, maw agape, awaiting flies. Guy Thibodaux, MBA, Ph.D., LLD from Francophone Canada, his sense of humor DOA, knew me both first-hand and by reputation. He replied: "If youse open your goddamn mout' this time and piss off de customer der won't be no more of these goddamn cakewalks for youse no more. I had nuff of your shit. You unnerstan me?"

I wiped a suddenly perspiring neck with one hand while timidly projecting the other, following the jab of his angry pointing finger through my skull and beyond to a yellowing topographical map of Southeast Asia. Through hard hectoring lips he told me that after this industrial whitewash, the veep would be on a flight to what he called 'everywheres-else-ville'. More hectic jet-setting over squabbling flyover countries to the next rain-or-shine money-bags of a destination.

Clearly, sarcasm was serious stuff and no laughing matter with Guy. It had a Catholic order and process. You grimaced with a frown, suppressed anger with pursed lips, uttered the regrettable naughty words, atoned by feeling someone’s pain -- preferably one’s own -- and got on with it. Laughter was not a laughing matter. Certainly not during office hours. The show must go on.

Speaking of shows, I wanted money-bags too. We, foreign workers whose consciences had been confiscated at Chinese immigration, certainly felt deserving. But we didn’t have a marketable shtick, a spiel. We lacked authenticity and cuddle-factor. They, the Other, had a song and a dance, often quite literally a dog and pony show. The novelty of ethnic impersonation had been growing on me, getting under my pale skin.

Last year I’d an epiphany: an eye-opening, gut-wrenching, mind-draining yet on recovery an invigorating and enlightening vision which brought me to the verge of burning my shingle. It was all the happy fault of a beckoning example, a doable exemplar. I’d guided a memorable parcel of somebodies way into the outback. The locals were ready for us. The red carpet and VIP treatment. The village elders had shut down the hooch stills and meth kitchens, shed their t-shirts, sneakers and shades, and given the village a poetically abandoned look by ordering most of the working-age men to make themselves scarce and shoving the rest on a bus headed into the lowlands on a gambling junket. The graybeards turned out in their best personal approximations of a tan and indigenous gear, organized the women into a boo-hoo water works brigade, and communally complained through their mouthpiece, me, that they wuz being wronged by the Global Village. They put them the veeps through a gauntlet of sympathy trips, embraced them with leathery begging hands, pummeled them with their warm bosoms, opened their hearts.

Given poverty chic and the consideration of not asking questions that inconvenienced their hosts or themselves, the Prada-haves found the Prada-have-nots hootenanny, i.e. groveling and singing for one’s supper, to be ‘cute’ and ‘authentically Third World’. They weren’t amused when I whispered that Canadian farmers and fishermen pull the same moves on the taxman: hauling hand-me-downs out of attic trunks, planting rent-a-wrecks about the property like shrubbery, stashing valuables in bottle-walled hunting camps, painting the house one different colored can of paint at a time, and otherwise camouflaging and depreciating their immobile assets.

‘Lose the attitude dude,’ somebody muttered under his breath, hiding behind the second-wind of a cough.

Who’s to say who is in the wrong? Nice guys finish last. The squeaky wheel gets the grease. What did I expect if I didn’t toot my own horn? Why speak up for others? Or why try to drag others down in the mud with me. If I couldn’t be self-centered, the mud was surely where I belonged.

I was learning.

A loud noise. Yet my eyes hesitated to draw back into focus. Somebody was asking me something. I willed vision to congeal and figured the odds were better than even that the right answer was: "Yes Guy. I mean, Mr. Thibodaux. Sorry, boss."

"I'm ain't chore fucking boss! T'ank god for dat!" He was red and blustery. “Now you better pay some damn attention, der mister.” He was saying whatever he was saying, but I didn’t hear any more than this. I was already dreaming. Boredom was cum pathological. My subconscious was off the leash and I couldn’t chase it down. It mattered little. My profession being small talk and other palaver all day every day, most conversations were of such a familiar pattern I could carry them for minutes by just going through the motions without the listener, or even myself, being the wiser. It wasn’t any more difficult than daydreaming while behind the wheel, the road disappearing for miles on end.

It was last week. In the security of a favored chat bar, Flunky, fortified with liquid courage, a rat-pack of translators was stammering hushed complaints about the 'Quebec Redneck'. He hectored in three languages: French, English, and Chinese. We, as a rule, only did the latter two. Our international clientele viewed the in-country tongue of Mandarin Chinese as a charming mumbo-jumbo which could be praised from a safe distance for its non-aligned charm. Fluency in the lingua francas was what counted. The frog had us beat two-to-one hands down.

Today was a working day and I was happily bouncing down the jumbly street, crowded with pedestrians and foreign compacts, myself on an uninsured scooter without tags. The wife was already at work, investment counseling in a boiler room. One of us was destined for financial independence and/or jail and I was hitched to her star. I set the peeling machine in the veep's hotel parking lot, resting the kickstand on a brick placed on top of the liquefying pavement next to a tour bus. The driver, probably a temp holding down two or more jobs, was catching up on his shuteye in the shade of ten-foot elephant grass.

I was trotting to the hotel parking entrance when the gold doors swung open and a short dapper middle-aged gentleman bellowed, "Top of the morning to you sir!" He smiled broadly and exclaimed, "I see from my travel package that your name' Norman." He winked and issued a regulation warm and hearty handshake.

“Hey, how are you this morning. How’d you recognize me?"

He flashed a color photocopy of an old brochure sporting a picture stealing my soul a dozen years past. The tropic climate, slippery stir-fry, and neo-colonialist-status aged one gracefully. I was chipper even with the two score years nature was holding against me. It seemed he agreed for I felt fingers gripping mine with an alarming enthusiasm. I shyly dodged his unblinking stare, my eyes going south. I was used to the cadaverous palming of the locals: virginal shy or patriotically refusing to give into foreign salutations. The veep's fingery embrace had begun by exploring the palm and was presently sliding down and loafing around the erogenous metacarpals. There was a spunky heat though he'd just emerged from the arid cool of his five-star extravaganza, the Podunkery Plaza International.

I left my mit tucked in this zone of strange unfamiliarity. It wasn't like he was going to bite me. Public prudence and all that.

He sucked his teeth officiously, reminding me of his superior status: "Looks a bit of a scorcher today, wouldn't you say?" Continuing his southpaw shakedown, he mock-wiped his dry brow ambidextrously with his other hand. "Care for a refresher inside. No sense in rushing things. I wouldn't want to put you out on a hot morning like this. I’m buying."

I was too confused to speak but he was enjoying the moment, relishing in my discomfort, the awkwardness of his daring proposal heightening the anticipation of success. "I discovered some very naughty cocktails at the hotel bar last night." He paused, waiting for me to look up, whereupon he cocked his head and snapped it back sharply with wet moony eyes and moaned euphorically, "Whoa!!"

I threw up my hands as if caught in headlights trying to stop an oncoming vehicle. It was too early for all this. I was usually between calico sheets, soundly snoozing, my brain - I mean our brains - so empty of concern that the wifey and I never dreamed.

My mouth opened, but only a noiseless wind emerged. Accompanied by mad blinking. Serial blinking, like the circuits to my eyes were shorting out. My brain squirmed like a fist-sized maggot and a soundless voice suddenly shrieked 'For Christ's sake!!!'

And then the panic attack was over. It was eight o'clock in the a.m. and I was already wilting under the strain.

"You need an aspirin?" someone was asking.

"Huh? No, I'm fine." I sighed, grateful for the space to settle down. I realized it was the veep talking. I said, "Thanks for asking."

He got to the point: "I don't mean to be unkind, but do you think you're up to serving as my interpreter?"

"Oh, sure. No, no, no. Don't worry about it. It must be the heat." Realizing that wasn't going to cut the mustard I added, "...and dehydration. Too much salty food and beer last night with the wife. Electrolyte imbalance. Heat and dehydration's a perfect recipe for sunstroke. Nah, I just need some water. I'll get something in the hotel. I'll be right back."

He looked at me and tapped his watch.

On the train down I gulped more water. I was taking my own story seriously. Maybe I should have pled diabetes. Then again maybe I should take it seriously. That blinking thing was embarrassing. I’d only seen it in locals. Now I had it. Not the sort of acculturation I wanted.

I found a vending machine adjoining our carriage and scanned the display for a particular beverage. I looked approvingly over beckoning jugs of Pocari Sweat, Calpis, and BJ Coffee until I found Green Mountain Water. As I plunked my gold and silver change down the slot, a tall Chinese student bumped into me from behind, pinning me with his bulk like a drunken gay-bar pickup, breathing garlic on me and buttonholing me.

Not wishing to disturb this odd approach, striving to minimize my impact as an observer, I turned with the frailty of a woman wanting to be chased. He had massive shoulders and a face as impassive as the vending machine display. He was like a cigar Indian broaching cross-cultural relations, a strapping country boy who broke a bird’s neck when he wanted fried chicken. He was utterly innocent of the awkwardness he was creating. Mouth moving slowly, he chewed his Mandarin carefully to be sure foreigner understood. Unpruned sooty bristle loomed from nostrils on to wet rubbery lisping lips.

"Can you speak Chinese?" and in his eagerness he stepped on one of my foot.

“Ow!!” I yelped and jerked my leg to recover my foot. “No!!” I replied in Chinese: "No!”

“Oh sorry… “

“Yeah, I’m sure.” I wanted to go on about the oafs per capita in this country but instead the rocking of the train calmed me, and I said, “Sorry. I only speak English."

Now the encounter became an old one, long rehearsed, long since automated. Nursing my pain, I absorbed the echoes of our speech second-hand, as if two strangers were mumbling to one another beside me. I zoned into that chimney sweep of black bristle:

"Are you sure?" he prompted.

"Positive. Never had the chance to learn. Like to someday," I chirped hopefully, mechanically. "Yup. Someday." My indifference was reducing my stock smile to a flat-lining ghost. "I'm just passing through on business. All business and no pleasure."


"Sorry. Thanks for asking. See you round sport!"

He was disappointed but soon forgot me under the strain of making a selection from the tempting vending machine display.

I gingerly padded over red carpet, limping carefully past empty seats of tan on scarlet terry-cloth upholstery, antimacassars advertising Cathay-Pacific Insurance in that pleasing scarlet lettered, leafy-green on a white cotton logo. The train was charmingly bereft of passengers on weekdays. Free from the squalor of standing room only, I bent over and crooked my neck to view the primeval scenery. To the left was ocean, clean azure pelagic swells and gloaming green tea surf. To the right, slate cliffs with skeins of fault lines and pressure warp carried up for a kilometer or more, indifferent to wind-tortured saplings and stunted greenery clinging to little more than a will to life, through wisps of steam and cloud, up to crags poking through thinning air and into the beginnings of inner space. The island was still active and, by geological standards, charging furiously out of the ocean, shaking, quaking, quivering, shattering. Rain lubricated the shards and the mountain regularly roared down avalanches, depilating a growing dermatitis of wriggling forest, etched roads, farting vehicles and belching travelers, carrying one and all to meet their maker. On a lemony day like this, with the roads and track cleared of debris and victims, the all-clear was out, the air was warm and bracing with the complex odors of elephant grass, beech, fig, camphor, and a hundred species of hanging orchid defeating the train's air-conditioning system. I inhaled deeply, glad to be out of the anaerobic city.

I began shuffling down the aisle. Merry with fresh fragrance, my mind was tripping and alert. A few seats later I was stopped up by another Chinese gent. The train’s anonymity and the rhythmic cover of the clickety-clack embolden the shy. With his ochre/chocolate tan and a well-fed oily face, pomaded bouffant, tan golf jacket, amber slacks, and Italian shoes with trademark leather frescoes and Mandelbrot curlicues, it was hard to place him. A sun-loving businessman or a fun-loving farmer? Then again, in these mix and match globalizing days, he could have been a Ph.D. wielding scholar-politician-gangster-pimp. He said, "So you speak Chinese, eh?"

I made a surprised face and spoke amiably in Chinese, "No. Not me, sir. You must be thinking of someone else."

He extended a beefy leg into the aisle, forbidding me from proceeding without crashing etiquette. He wasn’t being loutish. He was being my elder.

"I saw you chatting with that student over there."

"Yeah, his English is pretty good. A testament to the national education system." I whistled admiration.

He unconsciously tucked in his chunky leg a tad, chortling. I spied an opening but he was on to my escape. He placed his hand on my arm, taking his time, confident: "No, I insist. Please sit down." But there was no ‘please’ in that firm grip.

I sucked my teeth as my heart raced. Mafia.


Well... why not? The other option was back to the veep who was starting to sulk now that the novelty of my nervous condition was yesterday's news. Getting up to look for a drink was an escape in the right direction. Escaping this situation was fleeing in the wrong direction. My grace period was over and I couldn’t milk derangement no more. The veep resented his eunuch and mental defective. Two strikes and counting. I knew what was in the pipe.

So I sat down in the empty seat across the aisle. I looked at the well-to-do duffer and noticed the comely young woman for the first time.

He said, "You tricky foreign devils." But he laughed, approving my chutzpah, digging his expensive elbow into her.

I said, "Judging by that turn of phrase, you must be from the mainland originally."

"You’ve been here a while yourself.” He scratched his nose, revealing a shiny Rolex, the loose wristband clanging against itself like noisy jewelry. “My parents are from Shanghai, but I was born here in Taiwan. It doesn’t matter anyway; we're all Chinese in the end." The woman twitched.

"That's not what the locals think," I said, making conversation. She was nodding, curtain mats of loose dark curls waving in and out of sync. She had a decisive chin, alabaster skin, doe eyes. But she had a bulb nose; a Clintonesque confusion of genes squabbling over economy shield or air-splitting projectile. What excited my libido was the finger-width of bloodless skin at her temples where her eyebrows reached for her hairline. She was a looker, a keeper chosen for her western aspect, though the package reminded me less of Chinese grace than the go-go Philippines.

"The locals can think whatever the hell they want,” he snorted, swiveling to impress his disdain upon his pet. She indignantly flung her head away exposing a giraffe of a neck, attached to a body whose height I could now estimate. Perhaps she was a trophy wife. She was a good foot taller than our ethnic Han Napoleon out to conquer the 21st century for the Chinese.

But I felt his contempt for Taiwan locals was misplaced. His clothes, accent, and hygiene ensured he’d never be mistaken for a China homeboy. "Taiwan belongs to us," he barked triumphantly. "It belongs to all Chinese."

"Does it belong to the American Chinese too?"

His eyes narrowed and he bellowed with laughter. Wagging a fat finger, "You tricky foreign devils. If China belongs to the American Chinese then it belongs to the Americans, right?" He laughed patiently, the deep wheezing joy of control, the understatement of someone who didn't bark to be noticed. He said, "I see where you're going with this."

I smiled. He was imputing a motive I'd never contemplated.

He said, "You Americans think you are special. But the 21st century is ours. You will see."

I wasn't American, but I held my tongue. Correcting him now would be wasting a weapon, now best concealed for revelation at a more opportune time. So I said, "I like China. I really do actually. I just wonder why, um, you know, why Taiwan has to belong to China? Why can't it belong to itself?"

"Because Taiwan belongs to China. The motherland. We Chinese own China."

"But the Taiwanese got here first."

"No, the Chinese got here first. China discovered Taiwan." He nodded gravely, ramming his facts into my skull with his gaze.

"Wasn't it the Dutch? Or the Japanese?" I asked facetiously.

"No, no,” he patiently explained, shifting his weight to get a better purchase on his words. “No big noses. No Japanese dwarf pirates. Taiwan was discovered by China in the seventh century. It's recorded in Chinese history."

"But didn't the aborigines get here first around eight thousand years ago?"

"But the aborigines came from China."

"But China didn't exist eight thousand years ago."

He shrugged confidently and rubbed his hands, disposing of the issue: "Go read Chinese history. Can you read classical Chinese characters?" I began watching his leg again. He admonished me with a smile disguising rows of sharp teeth, "You see, foreigner, you can't read classical Chinese. So how can you know how long China has been around for? Trust me. I am a Chinese."

I made my eyes drunk with heaviness, "Can't I trust English language sources?"

"No. Of course not. Only the Chinese truly understand China."

"But I thought the first people to get to Taiwan were black. You know, Negrito. I mean look at your wife's hair. That's some nappy stuff. Add Jerry Curl and she'd be stylin'. "

"What’re you carrying on about?" he asked through narrowing eyes. Of course, it wasn’t the oblique reference to the hair product which flummoxed him and pricked his suspicions and drew more of his leg in from the aisle. It was the traitorous suggestion of blood relations with the Dark Continent. Thirty years of firing-squad enforced square-dancing to the national ditty had led to a popular affinity for goose-stepping. Tribalism emerged in roaring spiritual conniptions like a Great Awakening. Martial law had put the flourishing tropic island under glass, introducing a rot that degraded the national culture into compost. Hermetically sealed off from the rest of the world, the national thought chased its tail, the body politic inbred and though democracy’s recent revival, still but a sort a confused zombie risen from the Chinese grave, had scared a few of the old ways away, it remained a political necropolis, an open-air museum full of human debris blown about by the stale winds of racialism. The bulk of this big boy’s thoughts were wall-flowers pressed between Victorian sheaves. I was a frightened flunky, lost in an historical archive, sniffling with an allergy to dust.

But of course I was thinking too much, trying to edify myself above my intelligence. He wasn’t complicated. He just wanted a normal everyday conversation with a foreigner. The garden-variety you saw on TV. He had the global villager's fantasy of talking shop and shooting shit with a pasty fella with a big nose and lots of hee-haws going the rounds.

Sure, I was a wet blanket. But, for the love of Jesus, why be predictable? You couldn’t pay me enough to be bored.

He exclaimed, the lines hardening in his face, "There are no black people in Taiwan."

That was my opening, "Not now. But there were.” I grinned. “Plenty of the dark devils jumping all over the place. The first to arrive in the Philippines got there 22,000 years ago. Had the world's most advanced technologies, such as ocean-going boats. An amazing world cultural achievement."

‘Culture’ in Mandarin is a word only licensed for use in tandem with ‘Chinese’. His cheeks were darkening and his chest heaving now. "And it's recorded that the mountain aborigines in Taiwan included black people. At my home I have pictures of black aborigines up in..."

But I didn't get any farther than because he started to get up. As his legs withdrew completely from the aisle to support his weight and free up his fists, I scampered off to a volley of complementary curses.

When I got back to my seat, Benjamin asked with feigned indifference, "Where were you?"

He missed me. I was relieved. How sweet. But I could use that.

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