“Tirare verso l’alto di più. Arricciare le dita. Più veloce. Non così in fretta. Più ritmicamente,” said the boy.
“My hand’s getting tired,” said Malmquist. “I can’t do this forever.”
“Buxing. Lidao yao junyun wenjian,” said the woman.
Malmquist withdrew his hand and shook it. “Please, I have to stop for a minute. My hand is too tired. I’ve never done this before.”
“Nushi, ta buhui shuo hanyu,” the slave boy told the Chinese lady on the massage table.
“Ta butai wen. Ni gaosu ta yao wenxie.”
“Wo zhidao. Keshi ta ye buhui shuo yidaliyu.”
“Ni weishenme buhui shuo yidaliyu?” she yelled at Malmquist. “Ni bushi nuli ma?”
“I’m telling you I don’t understand.”
“Weishenme ta buhui shuo yidaliyu? Ta naozi shi bushi you wenti? Ta jingshen zhengchang ma?”
“Torna al lavoro!”
Malmquist beaked his hand and with a sigh reinserted four fingers into the woman’s vagina.
“Iniziare lentamente e gradualmente costruire la velocità.”
“Budui. Lidao yao junyun wenjian.”
“My hand’s too tired!”
“Bu xing!” The lady sat up and smacked Malmquist on the face so hard he slipped and stumbled backward. The balneum interior echoed with the clang of his steel strigils on the marble floor.
Gesturing to the front area of the bathhouse, the boy said to her, “Nushi, wo keyi huidao qianmian qu zhaodai qitade keren ma? Xianzai zheli zhi you wo yige.”
“Hao, wo dai ta qu daikelixian. Ta xuyao peixun. Ni zou ba.” To Malmquist she said, “We go now. I take you to Daikelixian.”
“You speak English? Why didn’t you say so from the start? What is dica—”
“Diocleziano,” said the boy. “Terme di Diocleziano.”
“Big bath. We go now. Sorry I hurt you.”
She made him soap her down and rinse her with buckets of water. They dressed and emerged out into Suburra. She took him further down the narrow street he had come through and made a left turn at a junction.
“These remind me of low-rise working-class apartments in a modern European city,” said Malmquist. “The overhanging floors are a nice touch, like medieval city streets, and the big cobblestones look Roman enough, I guess.”
“Why you don’t speak Italy language? What’s wrong with you? Who is your master? When I on the table, I so surprised.”
“I don’t have a master, and I am not a slave. I’m from America. I don’t know how I got here. And at this point I’m not sure I want to go back. But at least I don’t seem to have a head injury,” he said, fingering his scalp. “Or do I? The bandages are gone. Oh, no, the stitches are there. Damn it!”
“You have no master, you in danger. But if you flee master you in bigger danger. So I hope you tell truth. I take you now. You are mine. Later we go register you.”
“I see the one concession to inauthenticity is the Chinese on the shops signs. And the dim sum in these shops. What kind of buns are these with the steam coming out? They smell nice.”
“Can I try one?”
She bought him one and he bit into it. “No taste,” he said. “So many sportswear shops. The running shoes are different.”
“They for Chinese customer. You can’t buy. I need to buy you correct clothes and shoes,” she said, pointing to a passing slave’s tunic and sandals. “What’s your name?”
“Jeff. What’s yours?”
A woman wearing nothing but anklets and a tattoo of a serpent wrapping around her thigh up to her shaved vulva, parted the bead curtain in a doorway and bore her eyes into Malmquist. Brazenly before his Chinese female owner she called to him, “Quale pianeta vieni?”
“Prostitute. You want sex? I give you sex.”
“How do you know English?”
“When I child I learn. We all learn. Until no more fashion. Today young people don’t know English.”
They made another left turn and minutes later came upon a tremendous walled structure with an endless portico punctuated by protruding rotundas.
“Wow, this is huge. I can’t even see to the end of it. What is it?”
“Daikelixian. Big bath.”
“Holy shit!” Malmquist said as they entered a gate into the structure. “Look at those buildings.”
They were in a vast park stretching as far as the eye could see, shrouded in pine trees and sprinkled with marble statues. Behind was an open vista with a long racecourse and thousands of cheering spectators. In the center was a series of monumental buildings. Zhang led him down the avenue of pines until they reached an entrance to the block of buildings, this one with a queue. She must have had cachet because she went right to the front of the line, and they got in.
“Magnificent,” said Malmquist as his eyes coursed around the vast interior. “I am humbled.”
Chinese and slaves by the hundreds milled about the huge vaulted foyer with its marble floor as finely hued as a Persian carpet. She led him to another entrance into which women were filing, an even larger space with skylights in the airy ceiling, and more naked women than he had ever seen in his life. The guard outside crossed her arms at him. “Nanren jinzhi runei!”
Zhang spoke to the guard. A woman of authority soon appeared. She greeted Zhang warmly, and they gestured at Malmquist.
“Okay, we go buy you clothes,” Zhang told him.
She led him to a gift shop in the foyer. Malmquist found the goods on display fascinating but was not allowed to linger, as Zhang made a beeline for a clothes rack containing tunics. On the front of each were the Chinese characters for what must have been the establishment’s name. Malmquist began spinning through an adjacent rack of tunics sporting Italian phrases.
“Here’s one in English!” he exclaimed. “WITCHES UNDERWEAR PARTY. Whatever the hell does that mean?”
“Italy language, not English.”
“Yeah, they’re all in Italian. But that one was in English. But where is it now? I can’t find it. It was right here, should be this orange one. But it’s Italian now. So strange.”
“You don’t know magic clothes? They very popular. Your body heat make the words change.”
“I want this one. LA FESTA DELLA STREGHE IN MUTANDE. What does it mean?”
“Why you ask me? I don’t know Italy language. You ask slave. Okay, you can try. When you see woman you like, the words become I LOVE YOU. But Italy language.” Zhang paid for the tunic and sandals and handed them to him. “Change clothes.”
“Where’s the changing room?”
“No changing room. Change here.”
Malmquist stripped down to his underwear.
“What’s that?” she said, pointing to his groin. “You no need underwear.”
The slave stepped out of his underwear and slipped on his tunic in front of the bemused customers. Zhang wrapped up his old clothes and put them in the shopping bag.
The women and their slaves back in the huge changing hall didn’t seem to mind Malmquist’s presence.
“Who are they?” he asked, pointing to a group of slaves surrounding a woman, one of whom was a black male.
“Rich lady. Rich lady can bring male slaves.”
“You’re rich too?”
She slipped off her stola and stashed her clothes in a locker. “You keep that on now. Slaves must be dressed in bath. See, the words change already.”
He pulled his tunic taut and struggled to read the words:
WHEN YOU DANCE
IT EXPRESS YOUR BADY MOSE
IS EXTRA REDFEELING
“It’s English now but there’s something wrong with the English. It doesn’t make any sense.”
Carrying her bath bag, he followed her out another door of the changing hall into a massive swimming pool with an open roof. Like the foyer, the walls lining the pool were extravagantly outfitted in multicolored marble and statuary, columns and friezes. Perhaps a thousand nude bathers splashed about. Slaves in tunics attended to those sitting along the pool’s edge. A closer look revealed a few to be sitting on their master’s face or various hands up their tunics.
“This pool has to be the size of a football field!”
“You shocked everyone naked?”
“Yeah. I didn’t think the Chinese were so openminded.”
“Xinluoma change people. But only this bath men and women go together no clothes. Other baths they wear swimsuit.”
“By the way, if you’re so rich, what were you doing in that shabby little bathhouse where I met you?”
“The slave worked there before you, he very good at massage.”
“Is he the guy who was killed?”
“Don’t you talk about that with anyone!” she admonished.
They entered the cold bath. Malmquist stood in astonishment. “This is as big as a huge cathedral.” Another thousand or so naked people ambled about in the cool air. The next bath they entered, on the opposite side, was warm and considerably smaller. Beyond that, a vast interior as large again as the cold bath but with a lower roof—the hot bath.
“We come back here later. I show you something first. Then you do training. Follow me.”
They exited a side door in the hot bath and passed through several more adjoining halls filled with bathers. The third of these, which required Zhang to identify herself to get in, was the most opulent yet. Roman-style frescoes toned in yellows, greens and reds brought orgy scenes to life, somehow all the more realistic through the opium haze that hung in the air. Tiled mosaics lining the floor around the pool depicted sea creatures and finned genitalia. The pool itself was encased in gold and received its water from a waterfall at the far end. It was distracting enough that the female Chinese bathers seemed to be of a more select group—every one of them big-breasted, painfully gorgeous and at ease. Between them and the naked slaves in wall niches playing crystal harps, and the entire panoply reflected in the mirrored ceiling above, it was all too much for Malmquist to take in at a glance.
Zhang poked her head out from behind the waterfall and motioned to him to follow. When he got there she was nowhere to be seen. He stepped back out from the waterfall and looked around.
“Nihao!” she shouted from a gallery above the waterfall.
“How do I get up there?”
He checked the wall again behind the waterfall. There was a fresco but no door. Suddenly a secret door swiveled open and Zhang pulled him into an elevator, which took them up to the gallery. It looked out onto a fourth bath on the other side. Here culminating in the center of the octagonal hall was a spiral of adjacent small pools. Each pool contained water of a different color and illuminated from within. The effect from afar was of a concentric string of brilliant jewels.
“The forty-five baths,” she said. “Count them. Forty-five. Kalekale also has this. They copied Kalekale, but this one nicer. Only rich people can use it.”
“Another big bath. Many big baths in Xinluoma. We go down there now.”
“Huanying guanglin. A, Zhang nushi, ninhao,” said the attendants in greeting.
Zhang gave her slave a quick tour. They started at the first pool and worked their way outward. “You see the number of each pool, 1, 2, 3, deng deng? That’s every pool temperature, up to 45 degree, the hottest. Hotter than 45 and you burn. Different stuff in water in each, just right temperature. See, Xizang spring bath, very cold. From Xizang snow. 1 degree. Over here, xiangbin bath, also cold. 8 degree. Just right.”
“What’s that? Oh, champagne. Can we drink it?”
“Of course! But you not clean now you can’t go in bath. Later I clean you up.”
“Virgin xiaobian, you know?” she said, pointing to her groin.
“You’ve got to be kidding,” he said, bending down and smelling the amber syrup. “Why is it cool? 16 degrees?”
“Smell too strong. But good for skin.”
She pointed out the breast milk bath, set at 34 degrees. Lactating slaves were squeezing their breast milk into the pool, over the faces of two laughing male occupants, and back again into the pool. There was a red wine bath, set at 18 degrees. There was a bright green pool infused with ginger; a black pool of Chinese herbs, obsidian when lit up; jasmine, rose and lavender pools with petals floating on the surface; and many others with unrecognized names and fragrances. The hottest and last of the pools was sulfurous, fed directly by the hot springs underground. It was shaped into a dragon’s mouth. A clump of bathers were gathered in the open space beyond the forty-fifth pool, as if ejected from the dragon’s mouth. A man was massaging a woman’s vagina, and she was bucking her hips and moaning. The crowd was egging her on. She yelled and sprayed.
“Wa! Kuai dao liangmi le!” shouted one, noting the furthest point reached by her ejaculate along the graduated markings on the marble surface, falling just short of two meters.
They turned to Zhang and her slave. They recognized her but not him. “Ta paozi shangde yingyu shi shenme yisi? Weishenme you yingyu danci?” said one, pointing quizzically at Malmquist’s tunic.
“Ta shi wode xinnuli. Meiguoren. Ta buhui shuo yidaliyu.”
Malmquist looked at his shirt and noticed the words had changed again:
GOOD, AFTERNOON LADIES
THE SOUND OF WINGS
“What does it mean?” asked Zhang.
“I don’t know. The English still isn’t quite right. It’s nonsense.”
“Ta shuo zhexie ci’er meiyou renhe yiyi,” she told them.
Suspicious, they asked her what she was doing with an American. She deflected their question by getting down on the floor and inviting the slave masseur to massage her.
“You watch,” she said to Malmquist.
The masseur spread oil over her body, before working the area in and around her groin with firm yet delicate strokes. He did this until she began breathing heavily and moaned. He inserted his beaked fingers sideways, curled them upward and clawed against the inside upper surface of her vagina, with a gradually quickening rhythmic motion. Her hips bucked more violently and the lubrication flowed profusely, until drenching the masseur’s hand with a suctioning sound. She screamed and released several streams that reached over a meter.
“Tai bangle, Zhang!” said the previous contestant.
She laughed and protested she had a lot more work to do catch up to her. She turned to Malmquist. “Understand?”
“You train hard and get good, you can do her and a lot of beautiful women too. You happy to be my slave?”
“Yes, very much.”
They were looking again at his tunic, with disapproving expressions. It now said:
AN YOU DATE WITH THIS GUY?
“Ni zai na’er zhaodao ta de? Ni xiaoxin yidian, Zhang,” they told her.
“What’s going on?” said Malmquist.
“Nothing. We go now clean you up.”
She led him to the clinic, where his penis was inspected for sexual infections and a blood sample taken. The results came back instantly and he passed. Then an oil massage in the sauna to open up the pores. He was covered in sand, and the greasy mixture all scraped off with a strigil. From there they proceeded back to the cold room and took a dip in the cold bath. Back again to the hot room this time for more expelling of toxins from the flesh.
“How did you come here?” he asked her.
“Everybody want to come to Xinluoma. You need guanxi. Know what that is? I think you say ‘connection’ in English. But there are other ancient cities. Yadian, Babilun—”
“What’s the first?”
“Greek. Main city.”
“And ancient Chinese capital Chang’an built again too. Many Chinese live in ancient city now.”
“What’s your job?”
“Math. Mathmatic expert.”
“The Communist Party allows all of this?”
“Communist Party? What Communist Party? No more Communist Party. That finish long time ago.”
After another visit to the cold bath to close the pores, Zhang took Malmquist to a room off the warm bath with several massage tables and big burly male slaves.
“Ni jiaojiao ta.”
“Ta yifu shangde zi shi shenme yuyan?” they asked her, pointing to Malmquist’s tunic, which now said:
I LOVE GIRLFIGHT
I FUCK CRAZYROOM
“Wo buzhidao. Ni kuai xiaban shi tongzhi wo yisheng, Zhang nushi,” she told the head slave, and left.
Malmquist got to work.
* * *
Forthcoming (summer 2017): The Kitchens of Canton