The front desk at the Malaysia remembered my room. I washed up and went to Kenny’s Bar. He was wearing my ring. The girls were older and the beer warm. I stayed a night and in the morning I called Sam. He was down in Pattaya.
“I have your room all ready. Be prepared. It’s Songkran.”
“I forgot that.” The Songkran celebration ushers in the Thai New Year and the rains ending the hot season. The festival is focused on Wan Parg-bpee April 15, when homage is paid to ancestors and elders deserving respect because of age or position.
Young people pour scented water into the palm of an elder so that sins will flow away or they sprinkle water onto the older person who utters wishes of happiness and good luck. It was all quite charming, but the tradition has changed in recent years and how much was revealed by my trip to Pattaya.
The roads into town were packed with traffic. People threw water at each passing motorists. It took the taxi an hour to reach Rob’s high-rise overlooking the Gulf of Siam. His girlfriend was a teenager named Dtum. She was eager to meet her friends.
Rob gave her some money to have a good time and we went to a beer bar on the Beach Road. We threw water at everyone in sight. I soaked a girl. Her name was Vee. She was pretty, despite having one eye.
I invited her to eat at a small restaurant. She said she wanted to go home with me. We spent the week together and she quit working the bar. Rob and Dtum didn’t like her and said she was money hungry. They weren’t wrong, but I knew the score.
Small villages throughout the country had been modernized by bilked fools. I wasn’t planning on being one of them. We went to Koh Samui. The beaches were beautiful and we made love in the warm waters at sunset. I wrote a comedy about the first men having sex in Space. I thought it would make a great movie. After six months my money ran out and Vee asked, “I wait for you.”
“No, I can’t say when I can come back.” I gave her enough money for a month. Vee would be fine. A boyfriend from England was coming around Christmas. There would be no long-distance phone calls. No money transfers. No wins. No losses. Sam later called to say she had moved to the UK. It was better that way.
Sam parlayed his computer expertise into a corporation. He phoned with a job offer in Bangkok. A ticket was waiting at JFK. Richie was getting tired of my ping-ponging between Asia and New York.
“One day you’ll find out you don’t have a job here.”
“That day will come, when I can’t make you money.”
I flew to Bangkok business-class on upgrades. Rob had an office on Wireless Road. His company was building websites for Asian corporations. My job was writing content. Most of his employees were paid a fifth of my salary. I didn’t deserve it and figured this was his thanks for having transferred that money from his wire scam. We went to Bangkok’s trendy clubs and weekended at his beach house in Pattaya. Rob called his plan. “Work in Bangkok. Play in Pattaya.”
Vee wasn’t in Pattaya. She had married the Brit. I was free to do whatever I wanted and Rob’s wife hated us going out even more than before. I never brought anyone home other than her mates. She had plenty of those.
In truth I was getting old. My friends’ children had grown up. My nieces and nephews were attending college. I seemed doomed to spend my life in the last Babylon on Earth. I was not alone in my damnation.
My friend, AJ, flew out from London. We knew each other from the 80s. He was a cameraman and tai-chi teacher. He had told everyone that he was coming to Thailand for a diving certification. Pattaya had plenty of schools for PADI courses and a lot more too. I took the week off.
One evening AJ and I stopped at a bar of Soi 8. A slender Thai girl danced on a platform to a boy band hit. A skinhead farang was obviously her date for the night. She winked over his shoulder with a mercenary mirth.
In 1970 BLIND FAITH issued an album cover featuring a shirtless blonde waif. This girl was her Asian twin and I memorized her hips walking away from the bar. The mischievous backward glance should have warned me to watch my freedom.
AJ and I didn’t go out at night after that. He kept saying he had to get up early for his diving courses. I went to the bar on Soi 8 twice. The girl wasn’t there. The mama-san said she was on holiday with man from England. There were thousands of Brits in Pattaya. AJ was one of them.
After AJ departed for the UK, Rob’s wife banned him from going out with me. She had seen him with a girl at a disco. She blamed me. I moved to the Sabaii Lodge on Soi 3. It had a swimming pool and I didn’t have to hear them fight.
I returned to the Soi 8 bar. The skinny girl wore a band-aid bra over a breastless chest. Long black hair snaked down a bare back. She hopped from the dance platform and sat next to me. She pronounced my name wrong and told me hers. I offered her a drink and Mem said, “I no drink lao, maybe drink coke.”
I expected her to rattle off the list of bargirl questions; “Where are you form? How old are you? You have a wife? How long are you staying?” instead she sobbed out a tale about a man leaving for London. “He a diver for Navy.”
“His name AJ?” Girls in Belize, Manado, and Bali had also heard this tale.
“You know him?” She stifled a sniff.
“The very best of friends.”
“You think he come back?” She bit her lip in anticipation.
AJ was not one to fall in love during a ten-day holiday. “Only Buddha knows.”
Her cascade of tears brought the mama-san over to see what was wrong. I didn’t understand the exchange in Thai and excused myself, “I’m going home.”
“I come with you. Same I stay with AJ?” The tears dried to a smile.
Saying no would have been easy. She wasn’t working the bar for laughs. If I agreed, then I was entering a financial agreement. Girls got 1000 baht or $25 to go with men. Ours wasn’t a match made in heaven, but Ae was very sexy and I had money in my pocket. “You come with me, but I can’t say it will last forever.”
“I happy with one day. One week. One month. Maybe more.” She bid good-night to the mama-san and we drove off to my hotel.
She faked orgasms like a porno star. The lie turned on the old fool in me. Our one evening lasted the weekend. We lay in bed and spoke of our lives.
Ae was 24. She had two kids. Her husband had deserted her for a younger woman. Almost every woman in Pattaya can tell the same story. They left impoverished villages. Friends found the prettiest girls jobs at go-go bars. The mama-san sold them a skimpy bikini and thigh-high boots. A lady-boy painted their faces. An older girl demonstrated the basic moves on the Firepole. As the new girls took the stage, goose bumps rose from their skin. Partially from the air-con’s icy breath, but due to the naked embarrassment caused leering Western men, then slowly these blushing amateurs realized they are in show business as much as any actress in a Thai soap opera.
The farangs buy the girls drinks and pay for their favors. Within a week they are seasoned pros, earning $1000 a month, which goes to clothing, food, gold, old boyfriends, family, police, doctors, and unforeseen expenses running their debt deeper than the day they debuted in the business.
Ae was no different. The go-go dancing supported her children, although the real money came from going with men. She couldn’t tell me how many. She wired money upcountry for her kids’ schooling. The remainder of her allowance fed her father and brother.
This altruistic streak fooled most farangs into thinking they have met a saint without considering that these women have also abandoned the dirt-poor villages to forget their cheating ex-husbands and drunken boyfriends.
Neither side of the equation asks too many questions and neither did I, when Ae announced on a beautiful Monday morning, “I say good-bye to Finland friend. Not boyfriend. Friend. Go see him to airport. He give me 5000 baht. I come stay with you.”
The Pattaya Mail had reported about a westerner marrying a dancing girl. They celebrated their wedding at the Royal Cliffs, the most expensive hotel in Pattaya. The next morning he woke to an empty bed. The hotel staff knew nothing. The police even less. A week later his wife showed up at his house and explained, “Have old boyfriend come see me. He give me 50,000 baht. You not mind?”
Now I was being posed the same question.
I said, ”Sure.”
Saying anything else wouldn’t have changed her decision. Two days passed without a phone call. That Sunday Sam’s British partner reneged on the balloon payment of his investment and our company joined the Internet crash.
The $10,000 in my bank would go fast in Thailand. Katmandu was three hours away by plane. The monsoons weren’t due for another two months. A small guest house in Annapurna’s rain shadow served pancakes in the morning. Life would cost $10/day. Mustang lay to the north. A month’s walk in the sacred Himalayas would erase my year in Babylon. I didn’t make it out the door. Ae stood in the hallway. She looked at my bag. “Where you go?”
“I’m going to Nepal to see the mountains.”
“Mountains?” Her face scrunched up in disbelief. “Why you go see mountain, when you can see me?”
She had a good point and the door remained shut for two days.
We had a holiday on Koh Samui. It was like a honeymoon. We stayed a week longer than planned. She taught me Thai and I learned the words for love, caress, hug, kiss, and jealous. I said “Rak-khun’ more than a man my age should tell a younger woman.
Female western holidaymakers gawked at us as if I were a sex tourist. In some ways they weren’t wrong. Ae and I had sex three times a day.
“It good with you. You not too big. Not too small.” She lay with her thighs clasped to trap me inside her. “I not finish with men from go-go. With you all the time.”
“You say that to all the men.” I didn’t need to hear about these other men, because Sherri had told me how easy it is to fake an orgasm. She had done so in hundreds of films and real life too.
“Yes, say, but not true. With you true.” Her hand caressed my shoulder with a tenderness no one had shown in years. It was something you couldn’t teach and I reciprocated with a gentle embrace.
“When we return to Pattaya, will you live with me a little?”
“Long as you want.” She was telling the truth, but only about that, because the truth in Thailand or anywhere else in the world is an onion with many layers.
We rented a utility apartment. Supposedly for us. Her youngest son joined us. His name was Dtut. Three of us in one room. Our love life suffered, but not as much as when her father moved to town.
He lived on a dirt road on the other side of the train tracks and shared a filthy room with his son and his drug addict girlfriend. She was six months pregnant. They drank heavily and played cards. My donations to Ae improved no one’s lives.
$200 settled a gambling debt. Another $100 to buy off a police loan shark. I rented her brother and father a small restaurant. They transformed the enterprise into a ya bah or Methedrine den. Her children went shoeless. Crooked policemen came to my house for tea money. Loansharks for delinquent loan.
$10,000 lasted eight months.
After this lesson in the futility of foreign aid I withdrew my sponsorship. Everyone was angry and Ae spat, “You not understand Thai life.”
She was right. My old boss, Richie, called from New York. He needed an extra salesman for Christmas season in the Diamond District. Ae said, “Go. You want leave me. Go.”
“I’ll be back.”
“Same you tell Vee.”
“No, I swear I’ll come back.”
I worked forty days in a row and sold 25-carat cabochon Burma sapphire to a well-known interior decorator, who whispered over dinner at a fancy Soho restaurant, “You’re sexy.”
Tony had a Ferrari, a 5th Avenue apartment, and a house overlooking a surfing spot in Montauk. Richie said I should marry him, if only to have him buy a big engagement diamond from his store. I didn’t play for that team and was calling Ae every day. I didn’t tell anyone. Not even Sherri and I booked a flight to the Orient. My money was enough for six months. Maybe a little more if I was careful.
Mem met me at the airport and said, “I happy now.”
“I want you.” I was happy too. “No one else.”
“Dtut can live with us.”
“You good man.” We moved into a house surrounded by swamps. Birds sang in the trees. Butterflies danced in the sunlight. She cooked triple fried fish and vegetables. The food was delicious. I drank a beer. The taste was off, but I drained the bottle.
In the morning my limbs ached and my temples pounded with acid hammers. The empty beer bottle smelled funny and I accused Ae of poisoning me.
“Poison?” She didn’t know the meaning in English.
“Yeah, magic potion.” Thais drape talisman around their neck, inscribe their bodies tattoos against evil, and visit fortunetellers and witches, instead of doctors.
Farangs deride the Thais’ belief in creatures eating your intestines or a greedy man doomed to wander eternity with a worm-sized mouth without taking into consideration that 65% of Americans believe in guardian angels. I was not an unbeliever and explained to Ae. “Vee took me to deep Isaan. We drove to a witch’s house.”
“Mae-mod.” Every Thai paid attention to my story about having seen a ghost in Jamaica after too many Planter punches. She had been transparent and spoke French. I had been too drunk to be scared and returned to my drunken slumber. Yet now I knew that not every bump in the night was a thief.
“Yes, they were many old ladies there. They picked a number.” I acted out the scene to help her understand. “One got a 4. She left the house. Vee told me they were going to kill her to make big magic.”
“Red-lum.” Ae's eyes widened, as if to better envision the candle-lit hut.
“Yeah, Red-lum.” Vee had later told me that the set-up was a scam and the same woman loses every night.
“I not do you magic. Only magic is in my heart.”
It was a sweet thing to say and I contracted the monks to exorcise the house, but whatever potion had been in that beer bottle lurked in my belly and its spell was bound to emerge from hibernation at a moment of weakness.
Life settled down after that episode. I woke with the dawn to re-edit my novel on pornography in our air-conditioned bedroom. The tapping on the keyboard rarely disturbed Ae's sleep. Thai bar girls were Olympic sleepers and Pi-Ek, the owner of Hot Tuna on Walking Street theorized that these bargirls preferred the world of dreams rather than a half-translated life with a farang.
“Same you live in a foreign movie and not have subtitles. Jep hoo-a.”
His conjecture was worrisome, since Ae had twice slept for twenty hours. On each occasion she had arisen from these comas demonized by a tigress in heat. Once I rolled off her sweat-drenched body and she murmured, “You love me?”
“Rak khun.” My heart was pumping too much blood to my head and the twenty-four year-old smiled quixotically. “You write book sound like monsoon rain. Why you love me?”
She knew nothing about the Red Sox, the coast of Maine, or CBGBs in the East Village. I had incorporated her breastless body into my novel without explaining my original attraction was based on a supergroup’s album cover. I winged my reply. “Because I feel young with you.”
“You my khun garh.” I was neither the oldest or youngest farang in her life.
“Yes, I’ll always be your old man.” I was somewhere in the middle.
She resumed her sleep of the dead and I read Peter Hopkirk’s THE GREAT GAME. Outside the distant hum of cars mingled with the buzz of mosquitoes beyond the netting. The night air was scented by jasmine. I rested the book on my chest.
Pattaya was so much different than my life in New York. There I worked. Here I wrote. There I slept alone. Here I made love to Ae every day. She would tell me about her lovers. They were many. In some ways it was like listening to Sherri. The two probably shared the same adventures. I was getting to think Pattaya could be home. Mrs. Adorno would never miss me.
The hot weather melted off my winter gut and my daily swims at Jomtien Beach toned up my muscles. A few friends from New York came out for a visit. We toured the go-go bars and discos. They wondered how they could stay here for the rest of their lives. I did too, since I had no money coming in.
In late March my cousin arrived from Boston with a Red Sox cap and a skimpy red dress for Ae. My mother had sworn me to take care of Bish. Ae modeled the skin-tight sheath. “Go out, have fun. I meet you later.”
Bish loved the food, the weather, and the wide-open nightlife. Each night we ate at a seafood restaurant on Beach Road. The hostess greeted us with a shy smile. Only a month in Pattaya Nu didn’t speak a word of English and Bish was impressed with my rudimentary Thai.
“I learned it from a book.”
“Why not from Ae?”
“She likes speaking English better.” No Thai bargirl encouraged her “Sponsor to learn their language in fear of losing the advantage of a communication chasm.
”In the states every woman we know would criticize our going to go-go bars.” Many farangs countered that men always pay to be with a woman. What was happening in Thailand was different, but not that much.
“Anyone of them give money to the ballet?”
“Well, then your tipping these girls after a show is more charitable than a donation to the Boston Ballet. These girls come from the end of the road. Their farms grow one rice crop a year. They have big families. Usually a brother kills someone and to avoid going to prison, they pay blood money to the cops by sending the prettiest girl to Pattaya, Bangkok, or Phuket to make money off some drunken beer lout.”
Bernard Trink of the Bangkok Post claimed that bargirls lie, cheat, only care about money, can’t be reformed, and regard their catches as cash cows to be milked for their life’s savings. He had resided here for years and I had witnessed nothing to contradict this opinion. Stephen Leather had written a book about his excesses. They had nearly ruined his life. I had no protective shield. Mem was a ticking time bomb. It was highly unlikely I could walk away from the explosion intact.
“You used to complain about not having served in the Peace Corps after college. Guess you are in the Peace Corps now.”
“Volunteer, head, and donor.” We clinked glasses and after a long tour of the Happy-a-Go-go, we crossed Walking Street to the Marine Disco. The Chicken Farm was loaded with free-lance girls looking for a short-time date. Most of the farangs were drunk enough to think these girls actually considered them handsome. Ae was dancing with Sam’s wife. Bish and I stayed on the other side of the bar. He asked, “Isn’t this spying?”
“That’s exactly what it is.” I only trusted Ae in her sleep.
“No fair, you see me I no see you.” She finally spotted me.
“And I see you don’t have a boyfriend.” The red dress clung to her body like a skinned boa.
“Only have you, khun garh.” She dragged me onto the dance floor. Dtum asked Bish to join her. I became Brad Pitt and Bish was Clint Eastwood. Sam showed up from Bangkok. He had settled with his investor for a few million baht. We celebrated with tequila. The police threw us out at dawn. Standing on Walking Street amidst the flurry of transvestites, off-duty go-go girls, and short-timers, Bish said, “This place is Garden of Eden.”
“More like the farm league for Hell, but I’m not religious.”
“Hell is more like a suburban mall. Lots to buy. None of it will make you happy. Not like here.”
“I’m in no position to argue, counselor.”
When Bish left, tears touched his eyes. He wasn’t looking forward to life in America. No bachelor in his forties deserved to be living in the suburbs, where life revolves around commuting, work, take-out food, and TV. Unfortunately no paradise can withstand the tempest of time. Certainly not one based on lies you believe to prevent your seeing the truth.
Several weeks later Ae's cellphone rang around 3am. Her hand snatched it from the night table with the speed of a cobra attacking a fat rat. She closed the bathroom door. The word tee-lat muffled through the wall. When she returned to bed, Ae read the murder in my eyes and flashed the number on the mobile’s LCD. “Sorry, have friend call me from Italy. He old boyfriend. Now finish.”
>Too little of it was the truth and I was tempted to throw her mobile out the window. “So when is your teelat coming?”
“Not boyfriend. Friend.” She pounded her fists on the pillows and rolled over, revealing spread legs. “You not trust me. I never go with man. Only with you.”
“You expect me to believe that?” I had my suspicions about her good-bye to the Finnish man.
“You are the one I want.” While Ae might possess a grammar school education, she played my emotions with the virtuosity of a concert pianist and we made love with an Armageddon urgency shadowed by the impending disaster. Afterwards I felt a little like Maulwin slipping into the Housatonic River and there was only one way out. I had to come to my own rescue.
Pizza and pasta were banished from the menu. My jealousy painted a portrait of a young Italian with greasy long hair. He wore a Juventus football shirt and chain-smoked between bottles of wine. Anyone speaking a romance language was suspect. The hot weather exacerbated my temper as did the arrival of the Songkran festival in April.