Alicia Ong

Gold Diggers Come Cheap

Gold Diggers Come Cheap

In my second year of training to qualify as a plastic surgeon, I signed up for a research secondment in Amsterdam. Jon insisted on picking me up from the airport. My flight arrived early, and I walked around feeling irrationally annoyed. The arrival area with its high ceilings was dry and chilly, chiller than Google said it was going to be. To calm myself down I thought about how, in a few months, people could go to parks in rural provinces and slosh around in white sledges.

I didn’t know anybody in the Netherlands except for Jon, whom I would be sharing a house with solely for convenience. Jon moved to Amsterdam right after university for a job that was hush-hush, involved lots of jargon and paid bonuses that made teenage boys on Reddit drool. I had no idea why it was in Amsterdam. Initially I thought it had something to do with windmills, but it turned out to be about businessmen with last names that made them sound like vampire nobility.

I knew Jon from our A-Level years – years where we were made to wear uniforms with badly-sized sleeves, years before we became anything approximating ourselves.

It had been eight years since I’d last spoken to him.

A little while after our A-Levels, Jon started going out with my best friend, Laurie. Laurie didn’t look anything like the girls in the movies, but she always knew how to behave in ways that fell squarely into some kind of personality golden ratio. When I read that the root word of glamour meant magic spell, I thought immediately about how Laurie had that effect on all kinds of people.

Being friends with her had not been especially conducive to my mental health.

Jon had won the Laurie game, not unlike how he was now winning in his very self-important, very aggravating job. Even our teachers cheered the Jon-Laurie situation on, that was how much of a winner he was. Jon did love Laurie, in the way only repressed seventeen-year-olds from conservative cultures can love, and only once at that. He made a Google folder with password-protected documents about how to win her over and shared it with all of us. The folder was named Watermelon Buddies Notes, in the spirit of inconspicuous whimsy. It was all puppy-love and shy glances; they didn’t even kiss, let alone fuck. Eight months in, and five months into Laurie and my time in medical school, they split. That bit was all very adult; they stayed friends. The folder was preserved – a curious, adorable relic revisited by its members while buzzed on thirty-dollar cocktails we once dreamed of.

Twenty minutes before the plane landed, I’d changed out of my sweatsuit into tailored vintage Levis 501s, a cracked-leather jacket and a white top which showed a hint of my black lace bra. Then I held up the disembarking line by making a mess out of putting on a stack of chunky silver cuffs that ran up my forearm. The pearly low-heel combat boots I lived in made me nearly as tall as Jon, something he was definitely not used to. My hair was naturally straight, flat and black, but it was now wavy, textured and chocolate-cherry brown. I had it done at Stuart Phillips’ Seven Dials salon in London, a place frequented by wives of Russian oligarchs and arm-candy of BAFTA attendees. I looked like a grown-up version of the girls who Jon steered clear of in school. Unlike Laurie’s, their countenances failed to indicate that baby talk, cuddles, or homework help requests were forthcoming.

Wow Chiara, you look great, Jon said. He was right, I did look great. It had taken me years to look anything near good, let alone great. Growing up I had always been bony and flat-nosed, wide-mouthed and the wrong kind of skinny. My face actualised the halfway point between grotesque and so unremarkable that people could never remember my name. Only around twenty did I start to grow into my features and develop curves at the right places. For my twenty-first birthday I bought myself a nose job, lip augmentation and cheek reshaping triple-threat package. I’d found a perfectly adequate aesthetic surgeon, one who fixed me personally and inspired me professionally.

Thanks, I said in a register that came out a little too bright. Is there a machine where I can grab a SIM card? I told Zach I’ll ring him when I got here. Zach was my boyfriend of one year. We met in medical school, after I became pretty. Zach was tall, four inches taller than Jon, with a classic pompadour and biceps suitably swollen from playing rugby. He was training to be a heart surgeon, which was another job that paid lots of money, except it also happened to save lives. Lots of girls wanted to date him, especially artsy ones who weren’t going to have good jobs, but I was a winner now.

I called Zach, then Jon and I headed toward his loft apartment in Kijzersgracht. The train was packed. Everything looked and felt normal to an extent that unnerved me – my arrival in Amsterdam came right as an infectious, airborne novel virus was sprouting up in various parts of the world, with the country recording its first few cases. The virus caused inflammation of the heart muscle but could spread to other vital organs, which meant it was sometimes fatal but mostly just uncomfortable. Nobody knew the right level of alarm to accord it, especially people who were supposed to know. Everyone I knew settled into a very sensible rhythm of fretting for two days each month, then promptly not giving a fuck. Jobs were lost, small business decimated, front-line medical staff endangered and overworked. Jon made lots of money. Jon ruined lives in one way and Zach put them together in another. I turned that thought over in my head like a fluffy pancake, lemon ricotta for appropriate extravagance, and it amused me.

Jon was as convivial and well-adjusted as he’d always been, nodding and smiling as he asked about my plans. That social acumen was why he’d always been good with girls despite spending too much time mucking around with a light-up keyboard, yelling at people for being inbred sub-humans when they failed to kill fake people. In hindsight I realised what passed for easy-going adaptability was merely what my friends would term ghastly moral apathy. He hadn’t changed much; he hadn’t needed to.

Back in the apartment he offered to cook salmon soup, despite not being someone who needed to cook anything ever, let alone salmon soup. I entertained the idea that he only cooked ironically.

Of course I’m hoping for a Trump re-election, he said. More Trump, more volatility, more money.

Oh, definitely. What a fucking circus. Kanye would be ideal, no? Apparently his mode of small-talk was something I could switch on and slip into just as easily.

Actually, I thought you’d give me some grief.

Why?

I mean, you used to talk about all the good politicians should do.

Well, we’ve grown up, haven’t we.

Honestly, it’s quite weird hearing you swear

Jon blinked hard, shook his head and grinned. I looked at my hands and bit my lip, what was there to say? I’d long blocked it out of my mind, the days where I went around chiding my friends for saying cunt or motherfucker.

So why aesthetics? He asked.

I toyed with psychiatry, but no, fuck that, the money’s shit.  

Damn, really? For the money?  

No, I’m very passionate about Botox and boob jobs.

He thought I was being sarcastic, but it was true. I had a flair for it. No matter who I met, I could instantly identify the one procedure that would dramatically improve their face. At least half the population needed nose and chin fillers. As kids, we were told that we were lucky if our passion and profession coincided. Happily, providence had blessed me.

And Jon? Really, he only needed to fix his quizzical unibrow and counterintuitive fashion sense, but because he was a guy nobody cared.

I hear the cocktail parties are great, he said.

Sure you know all about the high life. Are the hookers living up to the hype? 

Jesus Christ.

I’m guessing since you have money the gold diggers come cheap.

Chiara, oh my God.

Hey, true in the eighties, true now. Some things never change.

Is that really what you think I’ve been getting up to?

Am I wrong? A year ago, I heard that Jon had split with his college girlfriend. People said he was an unromantic person, which was a big problem because she watched eighties romantic comedies the way men were said to watch pornography. Actually I thought it was far more sinister. At least the twenty-minute clips of women with silicon asses spilling cum from their noses were so grotesque that nobody doubted the problematics of it all. But once upon a time I liked those drama serials too, especially this one based on a manga. I liked it so much, until I didn’t, and then I hated it. Now when a video was labelled porn for women I made it a point to avoid it, since women clearly wanted outlandish things.

Jon hadn’t had anybody serious since, not that I’d heard of.

You know that I’d be the last person to do that, he said. I mean, my friends bring me to strip joints sometimes. Oh, and a peep show once. It wasn’t bad, just not really for me.  

What does that mean, not really for me?

I don’t know, I just felt kind of strange being there.

And the weed?

Kinda dull, honestly.

Hm.

So really, why aesthetics? Didn’t you want to be a pediatrician?

You can’t imagine how much the smallest superficial things mean. The confidence – they’re different people. And it’s creative, like painting. Much better than some screaming idiot kid with a cough. Jon didn’t know I had gone under the knife. If he suspected anything, he was too polite to ask, that was the way people from our hometown were. It was one of a few salient things Jon didn’t know about me.

True, but what about the kids? Hours and hours at that volunteer circle and I never saw you happier. Remember? He nudged me to be playful, and I looked away reflexively.

Vaguely. Laurie’s actually going through with the pediatrician thing though. She’s great with kids.

Oh yea, she told me when we met up. You know, she apologized for thinking that there was such a thing as a perfect relationship.

Clearly Laurie had once fallen prey to those ridiculous woman things. 

Shucks. What’d you say?

That she was too late.

Ouch. I wanted to be the kind of person that won what I wanted, no matter how slippery or bygone.

House-sharing with Jon turned out to be acceptable. Quite agreeable, even. We had floor-to-ceiling windows, and the whole place was bathed in floods of light every morning. Whoever got up first made poached eggs and peppermint tea. He was allergic to coffee and alcohol, an amusing genetic anomaly in his line of work. In the evenings if he didn’t make egg drop soup like the ones we had in school, I would make crispy orecchiette with cod, which we did not. He always wore cashmere hoodies and gym shorts to work, and I liked helping him find ones that made him look as homeless as all the rich people did nowadays.

Through various late-night conversations, I learnt about Jon’s preferred sexual positions, his most-frequented websites, what he typed into the search bars, his weaknesses during foreplay. In his own words, the knowledge that his closest male friends had about his predilections was nowhere close to mine. I knew more than Laurie ever did, ever would, ever cared to with her it’s a beautiful world good girl gait. But I wasn’t special – that line of discussion only arose due to what I called my anthropological interests, my brazen boredom, and my ability to get people to talk about sex with a particular ease that confirmed I was a passably pretty girl. Still sex was power and knowledge was power and sexual knowledge was a lot of power, but it was never clear what I had all this power over.

A few times a week, Jon’s friends would come by. Everyone got high, looked at memes about Biden’s tax plan and joked about fisting each other. They made me laugh. Because I’d done well enough with the pizza-and-beer-in-a-crop-top thing, I was always invited to their night-time reveries. They called it an Amsterdam rite of passage, but really, finding strip clubs should have been a pre-requisite for the jobs they did, no matter where in the world. It must have tickled them – how sincerely, how purely I enjoyed the spectacle. Besides, we all had cash to toss. A few vodka tonics in, I would start retrieving my mental checklist to compare myself with the girls on the poles. I didn’t have the tits for it but my ass and hips were decent. The walk, the flexibility, that I did have. And the wet crimson lipstick, the blowjob eyes – those were technical things, things I’d picked up easily years ago. I knew it, and possibly these new friends did too, all drunk enough to revel in that liminal awareness, but not quite enough to explicate it.

Sometimes they made observations of the empirical sort: you like these places more than Jon does. He wants his girls pale and bony as fuck. Once his friend Jerome said: to average girls, Jon shines brightly, but not for you of course. And then: I can’t imagine how attractive or impressive your boyfriend has to be to land you. That night I loved Jerome so much. I wanted to pat his head, wrap him in blankets and feed him biscuits. Another time, just before a country-wide lockdown, someone told me: you don’t know how many guys would’ve gone after you in school if you showed your degenerate side. Not vanillas, they’d be scared off, but fuck them. I was particularly fond of that caveat. Jon, for one, was a decidedly vanilla person. 

That night nobody wanted to go home. That night everyone wanted to be young and thoughtless in the city of sin, and I wanted to be with them. We piled outside an alleyway brothel a few turns from the touristy red windows, deciding to conduct spontaneous fieldwork on the entry-to-exit time among patrons. Someone made it in and out in three minutes, very exalted or vaguely disappointed but probably both. Three minutes meant my own skills needed sharpening, but that night I felt quaint and buzzing. I went home and did a quiz with a bunch of how would you describe questions. It told me that my sex drive was considerably higher compared to the average woman of my age, and about the same as the average man’s. I didn’t know what to do with that information. I didn’t really know why I even did the quiz. Eventually I concluded that I was hoping for some hazy, unscientific correlation with other male dispositions. Eighty percent of plastic surgeons were men.

This whole time, I’d been co-authoring a paper on improving evidence grading scales used by plastic surgery journals. But the virus was sweeping across the city, and I got roped in to monitor allocations of membrane oxygenation systems. I sat behind a desk, staring at the growing stack of patient files, feeling like it was my fault that bad things were happening and having a small panic attack each time I thought I felt a throb in my chest.

Within a week a girl was wheeled into our hospital. She was seventeen – the age Jon and Laurie and I all met, the age Jon fell for Laurie. She was so limp, so small, spread like a botched four-leaved clover. Her body made spasms and jolts with the regularity of clockwork, a circadian nightmare. I thought about how she might be dissected for the incipient studies on how this virus traversed the blood-brain barrier. Machines stood over her with their crisscross wires, beeping every other second. They looked less like saviors than co-conspirators waiting for her to be ripped raw and good, for newspapers to report it, and for Jon to make more money.

Her name caught my eye – Kiara. My name, only with a k instead of ch.

I’ll text her family every three hours, I told the staff.  

Three days later she needed a ventricular assist device. Everything that could be stuck in a patient was stuck in her. Five days after that, she was in a medically induced coma.

I’d never experienced anything even faintly approximating how I felt seeing that unfold, at least not since I was seventeen. Back then I was convinced that some short, badly dressed boy being crazy for someone else was the worst thing that could happen to me. It felt like I had no choice but to eat with them, play console games with them, letting my insides writhe and wither and consume themselves alive. How frivolous I had been, how self-absorbed, a flimsy girl with all the choices in the world.

Jon began driving me to work, granting me the luxury of clutching my tea with both hands and staring at the fairytale canal houses dotted along the way. At night I started to wear oversized cotton T-shirts and joggers. I’d given up on my camisole sets, 100% 19 momme silk with a racer back cut be damned. I was too distracted by Kiara, by being homesick, by being cold. Jon and I fell into a routine of sitting in our living room, talking about podcasts or autobiographies. In school he’d tell Laurie about all the podcasts he liked and she’d relay it to me, twinkly and titillated. Hearing him talk about these things felt nostalgic, unjustifiably so, and I experienced it as a knotty flushing vertigo.

I always got home later than Jon, and he had a funny way of sensing if Kiara had been particularly poorly under my watch. When that happened, we watched Premiere League matches on my bed, keeping a pillow between us. I understood, more than ever, why and how feverishly some men needed sports. I even got Jon to watch re-runs of the women’s world cup with me, including the time the Dutch knocked out the Swedes to make the final after an overtime dogfight, a real Cinderella story. On weekends we started going on grocery runs together, like communists. Courtesy of colonialism, the city had very good South Asian supermarkets.

One night when we were slightly tipsy Jon almost dozed off on the couch, and in that unfortified space between sleep and hazy consciousness his usual decorum fell away.

There’s this girl from college, she just popped up on my Instagram feed and I suddenly wanted to send her something. She fancied me so much it made her a bit weird. Poor thing, she was such a nice girl.  

You sure?

Yea, I think so. I’m fairly accurate on these things.

Fuck’s sake. I don’t know where you come off, but not everyone’s grandmothers’ pet parrot’s cousin gets psychologically damaged from being unable to fuck you. I personally find it very hard to believe. The words were nasty and immature, but I was smiling.

Jesus, this Chiara. Am I that unlikeable? Out of context and in a very different register it could have been a very different, very combative conversation, but he was chuckling too.

The girls that fancy you are all so boring and typical. No offence to Laurie.  

Two of our living room lights had gone out and the imbalanced darkness was agitating. I felt like a cat, a black cat, fixating upon either prey or predator with the strangest eyes, nocturnal and haunted. I took the wine glasses to the kitchen, gripping them so tightly that my knuckles hurt. The sound of glass shattering was capable of triggering mental disarray that I didn’t have the bandwidth to handle.

I went to my room and locked the door. I leaned against the door, very aware that I was adopting the mannerisms of a character in a horror movie listening out for an inkling of what terrifying thing lay just beyond. I didn’t want to move, so I texted Jon saying just kidding you a good llama. He replied thirty seconds later with haha don’t worry I know. Of course he knew. Jon liked to say he knew everything when it came to me. He only said that in jest to rile me up, but sometimes I was afraid it was a little true and I hated him for it.

I didn’t know what to do with myself. I tried to watch Fargo, but grey landscapes and cynical men in peacoats made me think about all the money that Jon was making, all the money he would make. He could creampie girls who graced the back covers of magazines, they wouldn’t care that he was short. Or he could keep a standing dumb waiter of vapid teenage girlfriends by buying them the kind of bags I carried, take the virginities of as many round-faced, straight-bangs schoolgirl sweethearts as he wanted. Men like him, no matter the principles they tried to live by, ended up like that. Some things never changed.

And who could blame them? If I were them, I would make a chart of all the nines and tens I slept with and hang it in my kitchen. But the virgin sweethearts weren’t mine to sully. Their blood would never be on my hands. I paced about in circles grasping at bunches of my hair, pulling it against the top of my scalp like a soccer center-forward struggling to score. I clutched my door knob and folded myself into a crouch, going as small as my body would allow, instructing myself aloud to breathe in and out. Time passed, in its orderly and matter of fact way, and eventually there was nothing to do but straighten myself up. My eyes stung; my temperature was 37.5 degrees. My body couldn’t even decide if it had a fever. The air was stale and damp, which made me claustrophobic. I scuttled to the kitchen, got an ice pack and pressed it against my forehead.

I didn’t sleep until 4am, pre-emptively shaken up by the neon shades and contorted surrealist shapes that sometimes found their way to me. In the bathroom I turned my mirrors around, utterly sick of my own face, of the fact that I even had a face. I turned off all my lights and curled up on my duvet googling things on my phone. The sharp fluorescent white glare dared me to look away. I stared on, staring down the lurid rainbow haloes over all the words.

—— best breast implants amsterdam

—— boerhaave medical centre still open

—— how to become a lesbian

—— why don’t I look like margot robbie wolf of wall street

I clicked on a DailyMail article dated 4 February 2020: “The most beautiful woman in the world: Surgeons reveal why Margot Robbie has the most-requested face of the moment – and the makeup tricks you can do to get her look.”

I scrolled all the way down till I reached a hyperlink to an article fat-shaming Pierce Brosnan’s wife. Then I cleared my search history.

Three days later, Kiara with a k instead of a ch died.

I told Jon about it while in a stupidly hot bath, feeling prickly red heat splotches sprout across my skin. I was glad for the steam that obscured my face, but only distantly so. I was so tired. Jon was sitting on the other side of our thin shower curtain, leaning against the marbled tiles.

She never got the chance to have her heart broken. Have, I don’t know, swinger parties. Go to law school and complain about it, go to political protests.

To do anything really, I get you.

I know these things happen. And what right do I have to grieve someone who wasn’t even mine? 

You’re allowed to feel things, you know.

There was a beat, and then I said, I broke up with Zach two weeks ago.

Jon peeled the curtain back, but just barely. His features, unibrow and all, manoeuvred themselves into a cryptic arrangement. I squinted and sniffled, physically unable to look straight at him.

I didn’t know you guys were having problems.  

Yea, for a while now. 

Long distance?

I don’t know – no, actually. I think I just liked what being with him said about me more than I actually liked him. Sometimes it felt like we barely had anything to talk about. But maybe I’m overthinking it.

Right, yea.

And honestly, he should be with someone who actually acts like the wife of a heart surgeon.  

Don’t say that. 

Why? It’s true. During our residency he could have –  

Chiara, did something happen? 

No. Nothing happened. Nothing ever happens. But it could have. Should have, really.

Did you tell him? 

No.

Why didn’t you tell me about the break-up? 

I don’t know. 

He was a good one. 

I know. But I owed it to myself to do something like that. And to my almost namesake.  

I guess you feel what you feel.  

With him it was a decent feeling. Clear. 

But it’s not enough, is it.  

I don’t know. I don’t really feel things about things. And people.

Funnily enough I think I get it. I never felt much for girls that were, rationally, that good for me.  

Oh, I know. I laughed then. It was a flat surly laugh, but it was my first one in days.

But the feeling’s actually changing.

Does it have to? You feel what you feel. You shouldn’t force it. 

I didn’t.

I pulled the curtain back the rest of the way and looked down at the water with no discernible expression. I thought about Margot Robbie in The Big Short, her bubbles and champagne and slick lines about subprime something or other. This was no movie, only my sad unenhanced breasts in water rank with my sweat. Wordlessly Jon pulled his shirt over his head, removed his khakis, then his briefs. Without saying anything he got in like it was a normal thing to do, and in that instant he didn’t understand me, never could. Water spilled over the way histories did. I kept staring at the water, blank and mute and mindless, his legs against mine. The last time I had sat so close to him, my mind doused in the same soggy ache, was in a stuffy canteen with mediocre food, two months before I found out he was in love with Laurie.

Twenty minutes later I got out, and he followed. He went to his closet, pulled out a grey cotton hoodie and handed it to me. It had a loose thread, and the zipper had corroded just slightly. I stared at him, blinked, then knew. It was the one he wore in school, one of the few things he’d kept from the days where he didn’t have money. I let myself realize that I did miss it, the way people missed generic mass-produced objects that were never theirs, and then some. In school I wore khakis and men’s flannel which I fastened with a safety pin when the first button fell off. I didn’t keep any of those things.

He cut watermelons, my watermelon buddy. I laughed a little more.

We watched football. He didn’t leave after. The pillow stayed too, and I slotted an extra few in.

I got approval to stay here, I said. I applied a few weeks back and they told me today. Then I turned to my right so my back was toward him and the pillows. If I inched rightward any further, I’d have fallen off.

I have leave in two weeks. Let’s go to Hoge Veluwe, I know you wanted to see it.  

Only if you want.

The next morning was a Saturday, but I woke up at dawn and couldn’t get back to sleep. I sat by the window, watching as the magenta streaks in the sky morphed into orange and made the implausible, inevitable leap to baby blue. The snowfall was swirling, fierce and fast, white, so white, ethereal. Jon and I came of age right by the equator, in the clamminess of a perpetual summer. I almost thought about how this felt like the precipice of a different time and space. But that was the kind of starry-eyed, senseless twaddle I would have indulged at seventeen. Fuck that, fuck it all.

The day before Kiara with a k instead of a ch died, her heart started sputtering like an old car, taunting her body with frissons of faint hope. We got closer than we had any right to, my supervisor said. When I was a little girl, I wanted to be a doctor so sick children would feel less scared. I wanted it so much, until I didn’t, and never would again. Jon was right, most things changed with time. The best ones always did.

I was a winner now, with things to look forward to. I took a breath so deep it hurt, put my knees up and thought about sand dunes and heathlands transforming into a mythical savannah. It could be mine to see in two weeks, those majestic expanses kept untarnished against the odds. But I didn’t know if I could go through with it, if I even wanted it any longer. I just kept on watching the snow. When I heard Jon stir, I felt myself turn around. In spite of it all, some things never changed.

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