A Bowl of Noodles
Naree made 8,000 baht a month working in an office. Her job was to scan DVDs and CDs that had been returned by businesses for non-sale. The scanning determined whether or not they were real or copies and, if real, where they were to be sent for refund.
She had been working at this job for a little over a year. Before that, she had worked as a clerk making 6,000 baht and before that as a cashier in 7 Eleven, making 4,000 baht. And even before that, she was a high school student, in a town in the north of Thailand near the Lao border.
Naree denied that her family was Lao, but since virtually everyone in Isaan, the northeast of Thailand where Naree was born, originally came from Lao, Naree could deny it all she wanted but the fact remained the same. The land had been empty of people when it was forcibly settled in the 18th and 19th centuries, mostly by going across the Mekong river and dragging Laotian farmers back. Other than the fact that there was a major river defining the border, there was virtually no difference between the northeast of Thailand and that part of Lao that bordered it.
Naree was the youngest of four. Her parents worked a small farm and grew enough food to feed the family, but not much else. The farm was royal land, and Naree’s father had the right to work the land and keep all the proceeds, and that right extended to his children, and their children, but the land could not be sold to a third party.
In any case, Naree’s father could make, in an average month (and most months in Isaan were average), about 4,000 baht. With that money, he had raised Naree, her mother, her two older sisters and her older brother. The house where she had grown up had a dirt floor, a firepit for a kitchen, and no indoor plumbing. To bathe, there was a cistern full of cold water, which one splashed on oneself before and after soaping up. To shit, there was a hole in the ground and your hand for cleaning up after.
Naree’s eldest sister worked in Bangkok at the same office where Naree now worked, her second eldest sister looked after eldest sister’s two children on the farm. Eldest sister’s husband had died of an unknown ailment in a truck stop in northern Malaysia. Second eldest sister had never married and so looked after the children while eldest sister worked in Bangkok. Elder brother had a job as a mechanic in Bangkok, making 12,000 baht a month, not enough to feed his wife, three kids, girlfriend, a pack a day, alcohol and gambling.
Naree was the prettiest, and smartest, of the four. She had a quiet, almost serious manner, which seemed to radiate the feeling that the family’s future rested on her shoulders, which in fact it increasingly did.
When Naree had worked at the 7 Eleven, every night a farang had come in and purchased two Heinekens near closing time. He always spoke to Naree in English, which had her lost after “Hello”. Naree’s first language was Isaan, a dialect of Lao. Her second and third languages, learnt almost simultaneously, were Thai and a local dialect spoken in Udon and Loei province. Her English was virtually non-existent.
She said something to Joy, a pretty girl who worked with her at 7 Eleven, and Joy gave her a few books to learn from. Every time Naree watched TV she would try to study a bit of English but the studying reminded her of high school and there didn’t seem to be much point.
One night as Naree was leaving the shop to go home, the foreigner was standing there, having bought four beers instead of the usual two. He steered Naree into a cab and then to his apartment where the inevitable happened. Afterwards, he gave her 500 baht for taxi fare, which she thought very strange since the foreigner seemed smart and so he should have known that the taxi fare couldn’t be more than 50 baht.
When she told Joy the next day, and said that the foreigner was stupid, Joy said You’re the stupid one, he should have given you 1,500 or even 2,000 baht. He cheated you.
Naree deliberately never spoke to the man again and eventually he stopped coming to the shop. One day Joy told Naree to put on her nicest dress and meet her at the corner of Sukhumvit and Soi 4 in Nana at 10pm. When Naree did, Joy was horrified at how she looked, and dragged her to a stall to buy a nicer outfit. Joy used her own makeup on Naree and showed her what to do, Naree never having worn makeup before. The two girls stood on the street corner and after a while a foreigner spoke to Joy and soon they were getting into a taxi. Joy’s parting words as she pressed two condoms into Naree’s hand were Don’t go with Indians.
After an hour Naree gave up and, ashamed, went back to the flat she shared with her sister. The next night was no better, but on the third night she found herself in a taxi going to someone’s hotel room, and shouted with glee when she saw the 2,000 baht nestled in her hand.
One night a third girl came up to them. Joy introduced her as an old friend named Tik. Tik said What are you doing standing on this street corner, you are both too pretty to do that. Meet me tomorrow at 7. The next night they went to Robinsons where Tik picked out the sexiest cocktail dresses she could find. They went to a salon to have their hair done and fingernails painted. Naree wanted something she thought looked great but Tik scoffed and said it was for 14 year olds and that Naree was a woman and needed to look like one.
Soon they were entering the basement of one of Bangkok’s leading 5 star hotels and Naree was entering a new world. Spasso was an Italian restaurant and disco in the basement of the Hyatt Erawan, opposite the Gaysorn shopping center in the heart of tourist Bangkok. While the food was considered by most to be overpriced and mediocre, the band was usually good. How else to explain the abundance of male businessmen who went there to dine, or just have a drink, and the equal abundance of young, very good looking Thai women who also went there for a drink. The women were often office workers, secretaries mostly, who found that 6,000, 8,000 or even 10,000 baht a month was simply not enough to live on in Bangkok, not with rent, electricity, food, clothing, and the inevitable amount that needed to be sent home.
On the other hand, a girls’ monthly wage could be increased substantially in one night at Spasso, with the right luck. Kik tended to be forward. She would stand close to a single man at the bar, smile at him, and eventually be bought a drink. She would laugh at what he had to say, keep the smile going, maybe dance a bit if the man felt like it, and eventually get offered to go back to his room. Kik liked to get the price out of the way at that time, to avoid embarrassment or disappointment later. She would ask for 8,000 baht to spend the night, and usually get it.
Naree, as in everything, was different. She couldn’t walk up to anyone, and she certainly couldn’t smile at everyone. She sat on the bar stool looking quite attractive if aloof, and wait. Several times someone would come up to her. She wouldn’t smile or laugh with them, but she would listen and if she were asked a question would respond in her least serious tone. Naree had just turned twenty.
She looked at the clock in the office and decided that she would go to Spasso that night. She SMSd Kik and Joy and they agreed to meet there at 10. Naree did not go to Spasso every night, usually 2 or 3 times a week at most. It depended on how much money her mother had asked her for in their daily phone calls, and how much elder sister owed to the banks (at 27% interest), and whether Naree needed or wanted a new outfit.
That night, the bar was moderately full. It was 11 o’clock and Kik had long since left her. Naree could see her on the dance floor, sitting at a table with some men who appeared to be Arab, although Naree couldn’t be quite sure. Kik, along with everyone else at the table, was drinking blue colored vodka shots. There were twice as many girls at the table as guys, and the man who had invited Kik to the table was out on the prowl for more girls. Naree had turned him down when he invited her, and she felt sure that Kik was not going to be lucky with that man that night.
A slender, middle aged (no, make that old, thought Naree) man of average height was standing at the bar. His companion was a short, bald, slightly chubby man in his late thirties. Fatty had immediately found a girl, someone who Naree had seen before in the bar but had never spoken with. She saw the older man look at her several times, then Fatty looked at her, then Fatty said something to the girl, who started to walk in Naree’s direction.
The management of Spasso was perfectly aware of the real reason behind its success. It even fostered the image carefully. The girls were quietly screened and although it was never made too obvious, those who the management felt were not appropriate either never made it in or were quietly told to leave. The management also made sure there the ratio of girls to men was never more than 3:4. The owner of Spasso had once been to a disco in Yangon where there were ten girls to every man, and he simply did not like the atmosphere. So the girls were screened for looks and intelligence (as far as one could determine), for dress but most of all for that indefinable aspect called “class”. Spasso wanted classy girls. They attracted men who were willing to buy single malt scotch and designer tequila.
Once, someone from headquarters in the US came for a visit and was shocked to see what was going on. He ordered that the girls be banned. When he saw the next months disastrous decline in revenue he called the manager and told him to do what he felt best. The girls quickly returned.
Fatty’s girl asked Naree if she wanted to join them. Naree looked at the old man, decided he wasn’t that old, pictured him naked and on top of her, thought of 6,000 baht, and said yes.
Hi, what’s your name?
My name Naree.
He waited for her to ask him his, and when she didn’t he said Mine’s Frank. Naree nodded and promptly forgot it. She looked at her watch. It was pushing 1130 so in seven hours she would have to get up to go back to her room to change for work. She would never see him again so felt little need to know, and no need to remember, his name.
They chatted, and they danced. For an old man he wasn’t half bad on the dance floor, she thought. She was working on a theory that men behaved in bed the same way they did on the dance floor. His moves were fluid and graceful; he neither stood still and shuffled his feet nor gyrated about in a frantic manner. He was respectful to her, not grabbing her ass whenever he could but sometimes lightly placing just his fingertips on her waist. Sometimes they danced apart, sometimes he held her hand and let her spin herself around. She found herself having fun.
She drank red wine, while he had whisky, but neither had too much. His friend though, whose name was Seth, and the other girl, who called herself Apple, were drinking quite heavily and eventually started to open mouth kiss seated at their table. Naree saw that as a message that it was time to go.
Twenty minutes later found them in Frank’s hotel on a quiet street called Lang Suan. The office Naree had first worked at had been across the street so she knew the neighborhood. At Spasso, when Frank had asked her if she wanted to come with her, she had asked how much he would give her and he refused to answer. “Let’s just have a good time” he had responded, “don’t worry about anything else”.
But how could she not worry about the money? Her older sister had left a bank notice on the table in the apartment, showing 5,000 baht due that week, her mother had asked for 3,000 baht for repairs to the truck, and Naree’s phone service would be cut off tomorrow if she didn’t pay 1968 baht. It was easy for this guy (what was his name?) to say don’t worry about money but he didn’t have her financial problems to worry about. She was sitting in the back seat of the taxi brooding about this when Frank had said “Don’t be so glum, smile.” Naree had no idea what “glum” meant but knew that she had no intention of smiling.
Frank’s room had a kitchen, a living room and dining room and a separate bedroom. Frank had opened a bottle of wine for the girls and beers for him and Seth, but the drinks were still sitting on the table where they had used them only to toast each other. Apple was astride Seth on the couch, her skirt riding up over her thighs.
Frank went to his briefcase and took out two condoms. They walked together to the bedroom where he placed the condoms on the table next to the bed. Naree took her toothbrush, put toothpaste on it, quickly stripped off and hopped into the shower. Frank waited until she had finished brushing and then got in with her. Naree knew that she had a good body, flat where it was supposed to be, full on top where men liked it, and somewhat full down below and behind. Frank lightly ran his hands over her body, as if they were still dancing. She soaped him down and efficiently washed him, then tried to nudge him out so she could finish her own wash. He insisted on washing her, which she let him do until he was ready to leave. As he was drying himself she finished the job properly.
He was in bed, and she stood in front of the bed, completely naked, oblivious of the effect she was having on him. She set her mobile phone alarm for 629 the next morning, nine being her lucky number, and got into bed.
She lay on her back as he came over to her. He tried to kiss her but she moved her lips away. He then tried to kiss her ear and she gently moved away. He cupped her breast, which she allowed, but when he tried to suck her nipple she said “that hurt” and he stopped. After a few minutes he seemed stumped how to proceed so she said “condom?” and he wearily agreed.
She tore open the wrapper and firmly and efficiently put it on him, and rolled it down until it fit securely at the base. She climbed on top of him, inserted him into her, and began to methodically piston herself up and down. After a few minutes he rolled her over on her back and pushed her knees up until they were touching her chest. As his breathing began to get heavier and more ragged she started to moan in a very soft way so as to simultaneously not put him off his stride yet at the same time indicate that she was receiving some pleasure, although she was not and she presumed he knew it.
When he had finished she eased him off her and climbed into the bathtub to scrub herself thoroughly down below, having first removed the condom in a way to ensure it not leaking in her, on her, or on the bed where they would have to sleep. She left the light on in the bathroom so that if she had to get up in the middle of the night she would know where to go, but closed the door almost all the way so the light would not disturb her sleep, and then she got back into bed. Frank was already lying on his side facing away from her so she checked her phone alarm just to make sure and turned off the light. The last thing she heard before falling asleep (Frank was already asleep) was the door slamming. Good bye Apple, she thought, hope you made a nice pie.
At 2AM her phone rang and it was eldest sister asking if Naree was coming home that night. While Naree had never spoken of going to Spasso or where she spent the nights that she didn’t come home, Naree’s sister knew perfectly well what was going on, there being few other ways that a young girl could generate so much free cash. Naree’s sister wasn’t concerned about the morality of it, she just wanted to know where Naree was and whether she would be coming to work the next day.
After falling asleep for a second time, Naree was again awoken by the chime of her phone announcing an instant message. She knew it was Peyton sending her his usual good night message. She wondered where Canada was, and whether it was a country or a city.
Now it was 3 and she stayed awake for a while, listening to Frank's breathing, and just thinking. She was content. The money he would give her would go to paying off her phone bill and part of her sister’s debt. She had had fun dancing. The sex wasn’t as unpleasant as usual. She couldn’t hear the drone of the Bangkok traffic like she could in her own apartment, the sound being drowned out by the hum of the air conditioning. The bed was soft and the sheets felt smooth against her skin. She liked the stillness, and the hearing of nothing at all. Out of habit, she activated her cell phone but there were no new messages. She lay there, quietly breathing, staring at the ceiling and thinking of nothing in particular. Eventually, the man beside her rolled over and she rolled so that her back was facing him. He put his arm around her and lightly cupped her breast, and she pushed her bottom leg back so that his bottom leg went back and his top leg forward, which was how she liked to sleep. She moved his hand down so that it rounded her belly and with an inaudible sigh of contentment drifted off to sleep.
She could tell Frank had brushed his teeth, and realized he had also shaved, for which she was grateful. She hated having sex in the morning after having just had it a few hours before, but as it was her first time with Frank and he had been kind so far, she decided not to stop him. She still did not allow him to kiss her, or do anything else but actual penetration. He tried to kiss her below the waist, which she of course rebuffed, and she certainly didn’t offer to kiss him down there. When he was finished she showered and dressed, washing and blow drying her hair, and began to put on her makeup. It was easier doing it there then in her own apartment, and with her makeup done all she had to do was run home and change out of her disco clothes into something suitable for the office. It was 715 and the few hours of sleep she had gotten was enough to carry her through her tedious day. She decided against going to Spasso again that night.
Frank was all dressed and working at his computer when she came out. He took her purse and put some money into it. He did this casually so as not to embarrass her (although she would have been perfectly happy had he just handed it to her since she would then have been able to count it) but clearly wanted her to know that he had done it.
“Can I have your phone number?” he asked.
She sat down at his desk to write it out. She really didn’t care one way or the other whether he called her again. His 6,000 baht were as good as anyone else’s and he was older than she usually liked. She handed him the piece of paper, avoided his attempt to kiss her, and left. She looked into her purse to see how much was there and when she pushed the elevator button she was already thinking of a place down the street where she could get a good bowl of noodles.