Connor fidgeted, then leaning forward, away from the faux leather backrest, his hand reached behind trying to peel the clinging, sweat-soaked t-shirt from his back. He was hot; a furrowed brow, curled lip and occasional grunt revealing his irritation. The hired taxi which displayed ‘air-con’ signs splattered over dented doors was hot and humid, the freon long evaporated, replaced by a small battery-operated fan stuck next to the windshield. In reality, people in Manila lived on their wits or turned to crime, corruption and prostitution. Estimates suggested sixty per cent of the population earned less than a dollar a day. This city he mused, was an education in survival and the ability to adapt.
As they drove on through the district of Pasig, Connor registered a city in flux. Huge cranes: giant metal legos hovering over part built condos and office buildings. Regeneration was under full swing. Those squatters who recently inhabited this piece of land now scattered. Farther on, malls full of the latest fashions from Hong Kong and Paris appeared. Traffic was slow, allowing the reflections of the glittering shopping centres to illuminate the wizened driver’s face. On impulse, he began to make conversation. ‘What’s your name?’ he said to the driver.
‘Ernesto,’ came the reply. Silence followed for a moment then the driver continued. ‘You want good time?’
Conner stifled a laugh as he declined. He had heard about drivers offering transportation to paradise. His thoughts turned to the enormous contrasts existing within the Philippines’ capital. Twenty metres separated malls from rows of shanty structures, little scraps of rotting wood and rusted corrugated metal. Images of youths rolled by, each covering their noses with t-shirt fronts. Seconds later he knew why; holding his nose, pinched between forefinger and thumb, he recoiled from the assault of an invisible stench from the nearby open sewers.
‘Bad smell,’ shouted the driver, pretending to wave it away.
Connor opened his mouth to reply, but the sudden jolt caused by a pothole, snapped it shut, sending shock waves to his brain. Groaning as pain coursed through his gums, he glared toward the driver who appeared to be grinning.
‘Roads bad, government no fix,’ the driver said, the parted lips revealing a row of discoloured and misshaped teeth.
I’ll fix your teeth, thought Conner, who didn’t see the funny side. Instead, he fished a tissue from his pocket and spat. ‘Do you know any dentist?’ he growled.
The driver shrugged his shoulders and waved in a general direction. ‘Paranaque,’ he enthused, ‘want me to look?’
Conner’s fingers caressed his jaw as he glanced at his watch. He was on the way back to his apartment and could delay his evening bar crawl with his brother. Besides his jaw ached, and the traffic was getting heavier. He decided. ‘OK, let’s try.’
The taxi swerved as the driver turned the wheel sharply and headed for an opening that lay ahead, his actions causing other drivers to respond with finger gestures and horn blasts. For a moment it seemed impossible for the taxi to avoid an accident, but miraculously a path appeared and it reached the other side unscathed. This did not alarm Conner. He smiled, for he had become used to the undisciplined road manners that existed here and had grudging respect at the skill level needed to survive.
The taxi continues to head in the opposite direction for several minutes and Connor returned to staring at the passing buildings while trying to ignore the pain. To ease his suffering, he allowed his memory to drift.
Four weeks earlier, Connor had arrived to visit his brother Gordon, an aircraft engineer contracted to Philippine Airlines. What started as an escapade had evolved into a struggle. His high expectations had proved illusory, a combination of sweltering heat, grid-locked traffic, slums, sewage and intolerable mosquitoes made it a trip to forget.
As the taxi slowed then turned right along a side road, the driver slammed on the brakes and Conner was forced to grab the headrest in front. ‘Jeez, are you trying to break more teeth,’ he hollered, struggling to control his impatience as another stab of pain shot through his mouth.
‘Look,’ cried the driver, pointing.
A sign – Dental Clinic–2nd Floor – hung over an entrance next to a video shop. Conner’s eyes took in the building. Clean in appearance, the lower floor was occupied by a pharmacy and a baker’s shop.
‘This will do,’ groaned Connor, glad at last to be leaving the stifling atmosphere. The meter showed one hundred and twenty pesos. He extracted two hundred pesos and passed the money into a dirt-encrusted hand. The driver glanced at the money, unsure if his passenger expected change. Connor’s cursory wave of the hand before vacating the cab led to the driver grinning. Twisting his body back into the driving position, the driver pushed the stick into gear and accelerated away leaving the sound and smell of screeching rubber filling the air. Connor shook his head in despair, turned and headed for the entrance.
A security guard sat slouched over a desk, but the sight of a foreigner caused his eyes to widen and his torso to stiffen into an upright position. Connor didn’t want a conversation, besides, his knowledge of the local language was scant, so he just muttered ‘doctor’ and pointed upstairs. The guard nodded his head in compliance, saying ‘Doctor Bakla’ twice, before smiling. Connor ignored the smile and headed for the stairs.
‘Thank you, Doctora,’ mumbled the patient through a piece of gauze held over her mouth. Sara Reyes locked the door behind her and flipped the vertical blinds closed. Turning, she strolled back to the treatment area, poured disinfectant into a basin where she had placed the instruments used during the extraction. It was frustrating knowing that she could have saved the tooth, but poor patients always chose extraction over the repair. It was by far the cheapest option. She removed her disposable apron and gloves, tossed them in the trashcan, reached her desk and pulled out the chair. It had been a busy day.
Sara released the clasp from her beehive, allowing the auburn cluster to cascade down her back. Staring into the mirror that adorned her desktop, she studied the image that gazed back. As she started to write a reminder to phone the beauty salon, the insistent doorbell ringing disturbed her train of thought. Peeved at the interruption, she sighed before proceeding for the door. Her long thin finger, whose red nail polish had chipped, slid between the slits of the blind. The opening showed a mature man, early to middle thirties she guessed, whose rugged face showed signs of stubble that glistened with sweat. Retracting her finger, she unlocked the door and pulled it open.
‘I’m sorry to trouble you,’ mumbled Connor, one hand holding his jaw, his eyes imploring. ‘I’ve damaged a tooth, and it’s giving me problems.’
Sara’s face betrayed no emotion. ‘Think nothing of it. Come in please, she said, a faint trace of annoyance hovering in her voice which Connor failed to pick-up on. He gave her a warm smile which helped her relax. ‘Please take a seat,’ said Sara pointing to the dental chair. Next, she turned, walked to a cabinet and extracted a fresh apron and gloves.
Conner’s eyes took in the view. The room was clean and compact, everything you’d expect from a clinic: except for one. The dental chair. What made Conner gasp was a magnificent throwback to a golden age of design. An early 1920’s model he guessed, American for certain. The leather upholstery appeared mottled from years of patients, but the padding had remained firm and comfortable. From his position, he could see the auburn hair draping the dentist’s back, and as his eyes continued downwards they registered the neat bottom and shapely brown legs. Nice, thought Conner, very nice. Turning, Sara caught sight of the stranger gazing; his cheeks reddening as he averted his eyes.
‘Now Mr…’ she began.
‘Hines… Conner Hines,’ he stammered.
‘Well Mr Hines,’ she said, emphasising his name, her tone sweet yet authoritative, ‘how did you damage your teeth?’
As Conner explained the incident in the taxi, Sara studied his face. Brown wavy hair fell forward over a lined forehead, and the puffed bags beneath his hazel coloured eyes created a haunting look. She continued listening whilst donning a face mask, politely waiting until he finished talking before placing a plastic napkin across his chest. Connor felt his senses stir as her hand lightly brushed him, unsure if his body was vibrating due to her touch or the chair reclining.
‘Open wide please,’ Sara instructed before inserting a mirror into his gaping mouth.
As she studied his teeth, Conner could feel her dextrous fingers press lightly into his jaw. Above the mask, a pair of brown almond-shaped eyes focused on the inside of his mouth causing a slight furrow to crease her brow. Being close he could smell the delicate scent of lavender and hoped that his armpit deodorant would mask his sweat for a while longer.
‘Ouch,’ he mumbled through his open mouth, as a sharp stab of pain reminded him why he was here.
‘You’ve broken your bicuspid,’ began Sara, ‘that pothole did a good job. I can fix it temporarily, but you will need to get a permanent denture when you return to your country. For now, I’ll repair the tooth to prevent any discomfort.’
Conner could only manage an ‘aah’ in response. Once more he found his eyes drawn to her as she turned and started to mix the restoration paste. This time he fully appreciated her shape through the fitted white tunic and didn’t avert his gaze as she twisted to face him.
It was Sara’s face that reddened. She didn’t find him unattractive; it was more the uncomfortable feeling she got when strangers were staring. Her adult life had been devoted to graduating from dentistry college and overcoming barriers in this male-dominated culture. As such, sacrifices had been made. Maintaining her college classmates at arm’s length in favour of studies had led to Sara being branded as aloof. Now, this Mr Hines seemed interested in more than having his tooth repaired.
‘In our culture Mr Hines, we find it rude when people stare and…’
Conner interrupted her mid-sentence. ‘I’m sorry.’ he said with a hint of sarcasm. Realising his mistake he chastised himself for not keeping his annoyance in check. He tried a different tack.
‘Forgive me, I didn’t mean to be rude.’
Sara felt another rush of blood to her cheeks. She felt that she had overreacted and silently cursed herself. Now this man was apologising for finding her attractive! Forty minutes later the tooth had been repaired and filled. Conner rinsed his mouth while Sara walked to the desk and flipped open her invoice book.
‘Are any more visits needed?’ enquired Conner.
Sara kept her eyes on the receipt book while replying. ‘Everything should be fine until your return home.’
Conner reluctantly rose to his feet. Disappointed, his thoughts boomeranged across the emotional waves his mind was creating. She was different. Her mannerisms, tone of voice and slim figure he found both calming and attractive. On a whom he decided to invite her out.
‘How much do I owe you?’ he asked instead.
Sara wrote a receipt for three hundred and eighty pesos. Conner removed the money from his wallet and proffered it to Sara. Handing it over, he felt the brush of her fingers once more heightening his excitement. Reaching into the drawer Sara produced a business card which she offered. Taking it, Conner pushed it into his pocket, surprised to find his hand trembling.
‘Thanks, doc,’ he said, and then inhaled deeply; his mind thinking how he could extend this conversation. ‘If you had taken the tooth out I could have made some money,’ he snorted, nerves making the words come out too quickly. ‘As children, we used to put them under the pillow.’ Without seemingly drawing breath he continued. ‘I’m sorry about earlier. Truth is, I just didn’t think. Is it be possible to make it up to you? Maybe we could go for a meal?’
Sara raised an eyebrow which gave her face a quizzical look but said nothing. Her heart began to pound and face redden once more, yet she found an attraction for the man.
Conner misread her expression. ‘Sorry, I…’ the sentence remained unfinished. She could feel her heart pounding once more, and wished he would just resist from apologising.
Conner misread her embarrassment. ‘Never mind,’ he said sighing, ‘but there’s no denying you’re a beautiful woman.’
Unexpectedly, Sara reached up and started to remove her wig while simultaneously watching Connors brow crease and mouth fall open as his face registered his surprise and confusion.
‘I’m afraid you are wrong Mr Hines, replied Sara, her voice appearing to deepen, ‘you see I’m a Bakla.’
Connors gaped as he looked at the shaven haired figure before him, a realisation beginning to dawn. ‘I’ve heard this word before,’ he spluttered, ‘what does it mean?’
Sara smiled broadly, this time seemingly lacking in embarrassment. ‘I’m transgender, Mr Hines.’ Her mouth creased from smiling at this disclosure. ‘If you’re still willing to go for that meal, I’m happy to accept your offer.’
Connor’s mind was paralysed with anxiety; churning, spinning, too muddled to react to Sara’s revelation. He didn’t respond to the question but managed to mumble thanks instead. His trembling hand turned the door handle at the second try and he stepped outside; pulling the door closed behind him with unexpected firmness. A huge sigh of confusion escaped his lips as he leaned against the white-coated wall. Gathering himself, he bounded down the stairs two steps at a time. As he reached the bottom of the stairwell, the security guard raised his sleepy head and gave a knowing smile as Connor moved past and stumbled into the darkening street.
Multiple taxis drove past: occupied. As he stood fidgeting, Connor tried to make sense of everything that passed, the questions tumbling one after another. Had he not felt an attraction? He had never seen his himself as fancying someone of the same sex. The clicking of heels made him turn his head. Her silhouette straddled the doorway.
‘Hi,’ said the image cloaked in semi-darkness.
Nerves jangled as passion flared once more. Connor was utterly confused, his mind going through a wringer. OK, just be calm and sensible, think about it man his brain screamed. His eyes widened as Sara stepped from the shadow onto the pavement, her poise unmistakably feminine.
Sara studied Connor for longer than was comfortable. He had been taken aback by her revelation. Yet something of his demeanour and earlier apology suggested he was willing to admit mistakes. Many times she had climbed mountains of doubt. ‘You’re nice,’ Connor remarked.
Sara’s wide grin showed unnoticed dimples. ‘I didn’t think you thought that when you were running down the stairs,’ she said.
Then they both burst out laughing.
‘Unfortunately, I couldn’t have gone out tonight, but if you still wish to go for that meal we could make an arrangement for another evening,” she suggested. You have my number on the card.
Connor gulped silently but the juddering movements of his Adam’s apple revealed the heightened emotion enveloping him. His head nodded in silent approval.
More taxis appeared and Connor, arms flailing in desperation finally succeeded in coaxing one to halt. Adrenalin pumping, he nearly took the door off its hinges in his anxiety. ‘Please’ he stammered, holding the door open.
Sara hesitated, before elegantly swivelling her legs into the vehicle. Goodnight Mr Hines she mouthed through the window as the taxi pulled away.
Two minutes later another taxi appeared and Connor climbed in. He travelled several blocks before finally let his sweat-soaked body relax. As he leaned back something sharp pricked his leg and realised it was the corner of the card that Sara had given him, he fished it out. His eyes took in the printed information, causing him to smile ruefully.
‘Your teeth are a reflection of your being. Avoid being judged by others–visit your dentist regularly.’ When he read this it made him think of both the evening’s events and those of the past month, and how he had judged this city, the culture and its inhabitants. All his perceptions had been dismantled by a missing piece of tarmac.
Connor began to chuckle. The taxi driver began laughing too. ‘You happy,’ he said.
‘Yes,’ said Connor, still chuckling at Sara’s joke. ‘I’m happy. I finally met a tooth faerie.’