When the bill came, Lily had to check herself to ensure that what she was thinking was not similarly showing on her face. The bill was $465 HKD – almost $60 US – and on further inspection seemed to have been substantially driven higher by the fact that she had left the selection of her single glass of white wine to the waiter. But now in no position to argue, and not wanting to seem in any way displeased, she had no choice by to add gratuity, leave the cash and commence towards the door. As she stood she once again felt the pain from her shoes and feet shoot upwards towards her knees. She had, a few minutes before, briefly entertained the notion of allowing herself the luxury of a taxi from the queue she had spotted on Pedder Street on the way in rather than walking back to the MTR, waiting on the platform, and undoubtedly being forced to stand for the duration of the journey given the time of day, and then walking back to the hotel. But now, with the amount of money she had already spent, she knew that she no longer had any choice.
On the way out the door of the restaurant, she noticed the ladies’ lounge and quickly thought that she may yet have a solution. As she entered she found a brightly lit space with yet another large, cushioned sofa in the center, on which she quickly took a seat. She reached down and removed her factory reject shoes from her swollen, aching feet and then reached into her shopping bag and removed the Louboutins from their bag. But as she went to place them onto her feet, first the left and then the right, she found that they were now far tighter than they had been just two hours ago and whether as a result of the walking, the humidity, the wine or a conspiracy of all three, it was clear that these were also not an option. As she began removing the shoes she became more conscious of a presence in the room which she had only marginally noted on the way in and looked up to see standing over her an older woman who appeared to be the bathroom attendant. Lily knew that she could, at times, be paranoid and she again reminded herself of the near gaffe at the hotel the night before. But in this case, she knew that her instincts were not merely being oversensitive and that this woman was indeed staring at her, and in a manner of disapproval. Under the scrutiny, Lily’s actions, which she had meant to speed up, seemed to slow into a warm syrupy animation. She took off the Louboutins, placed them in their drawstring bag, and then back into the shopping bag, then slowly and deliberately placed her by now screaming feet back into her Guangzhou special manufacturing district wannabes.
She slowly stood and walked over to the counter where she resisted the urge to splash her face with cold water and then dry it in the comfort of the clean, fluffy towel the female attendant had by now lay alongside the sink. She knew it would be telling. Telling that she was suffering from one malady or another, or that she was perhaps even chronically weak, but mostly it would have simply said “I’m the kind of girl who comes from a place where we think it’s okay to take a splash bath in a public bathroom sink,” and so, though desperately needing some feeling of crispness, Lily merely washed her hands, brushed her hair, powdered her nose and lastly, assuming that what this woman was really lying in wait for was a tip to place in her half-empty dish, Lily reached into her handbag in an attempt to show this woman, definitively, that she did belong here. But as her hand began to reemerge from the bag, crisp, folded bill in its grip, and just as Lily swung it over towards the dish where others before her had left their thanks, the woman grabbed Lily’s hand and turned it over. Lily’s first instinct was of course to retract it, but as she did so the woman held more tightly and looked Lily in the eye, and in that instant, Lily somehow knew that the woman was not carrying out this gesture of aggressiveness out of any inherent greed. The woman took the money from Lily’s hand and stuffed it back in the side pocket of Lily’s handbag, but never removed her eyes from Lily’s hands as she examined them carefully: the nails, the cuticles, the calluses and the red-tinged, deadened skin fingertips.
As she continued turning Lily’s hand over and back, the woman looked at her again, this time with a softer sternness and handed Lily the pump of expensive hand lotion from the tray behind her. She then, without any expression whatsoever, and in a tone that was somehow monotonous yet brazen said, “What are you doing here? What are you doing paying all that money for such little food? Wasting money that you do not have. Go home. Go back to your mother and let her cook for you. This is no place for you — you, dressed like that. Now go.” Just then she dropped Lily’s hand as suddenly as she had grabbed it and Lily, more shaken than she had been since before she left the factory, stumbled as she attempted to exit the ladies’ room without turning her back on the woman. She scooted back towards the cushioned sofa, stopped down to collect her bags and then backed towards the door before turning quickly and disappearing back through it and into the entrance to the restaurant.
She did not pause for even a moment as she wanted nothing more than to run from that incident, to distance herself both from it and from the presumption of her past that had been thrust upon her by the old woman. Looking to her left she saw a lift that she had not before noticed, but which seemed to be a purpose-built express between the restaurant and the ground level. Just as the doors were closing, Lily quickly ran, the pain in her feet numbed by the resonance of the old lady’s words, and squeezed herself through and into the back corner of the lift behind two other preoccupied tai-tai who barely noticed her sudden appearance. In a haste to exit the lift and the store, when the doors opened on the ground floor, Lily saw daylight and rather than going back in the direction from whence she had originally come, turned right and walked through the nearest external door and out onto Queen’s Road.
As she did so she noticed that she had emerged next to the valet stand both for the Landmark and for the Mandarin Hotel, and that congregating in front of it were expensive foreign cars, all being exited or entered by beautiful people who seemed to match their automobiles both in style and in the way in which they exuded wealth. But rather than being in awe of this or even feeling that she, too, somehow and if only in her head already belonged to this exclusive club, she was intimidated and scared, and wanted to similarly separate herself from them just as she had from the lady in the restroom. She continued walking more quickly now until only several yards later, she came to the corner of what she recognized as Pedder Street and the taxi queue that she had noticed only an hour prior. Despite the fact that the queue was now far shorter and the pain in her feet was rising in volume, she no longer even slightly entertained the idea of taking a taxi. Even had she not spent the money with which she could ill-afford to part on that lunch, she also did not want to stand there in that line. She did not want to stand there alone. She did not want to stand still at all. She wanted to get lost in a crowd of anonymity, absorb herself into the masses and by doing so allow herself the solitude, if only momentary, of being alone amongst many. Lily quickly scooted past the queue and descended back down the stairs and to the platform of the MTR. With the other average people. Where she belonged.