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Bad Habits



Black Pagoda Patpong Bangkok



Afternoons bring a wonderful and sudden relaxation to Somtam Beach. The breeze shifts onshore and things begin to cool down. The harsh white sunlight mellows and everybody stops squinting. The observer suddenly notices that the beach is not all china white; there are patches of caramel and tan and even rusty red. The sand cools down and bathers no longer hop like rabbits from their deck chairs to the sea and back. Waiters no longer dash from the shade of umbrella to umbrella. They can amble along, in no great hurry, the way God intended them to do.

In the Pension Grilparzer the bar starts to fill up. The residents come down from their rooms, where they’ve been napping in front of table fans. The expats come in from their offices in Phuket Town, or from their classrooms at Sri Phuket Girls’ High School. They remove their ties and roll up their sleeves. Every man takes the first slug of his first beer of the day and gets that Oh-Thank-God look on his face. Guys like me sit alone and think about how lucky we are to be here, and the terrible things we had to do to get here.

I was there at sunset last night waiting for Nigel to bring me my weekly carton of Marlboros. Nigel runs yacht charters down to Penang where American cigarettes are half the price they are on Phuket, and he’s kind enough to bring me back a carton on each run. I could ask him to bring me a couple of cartons at a time, or twenty cartons at a time, but on Phuket, once you open the carton, cigarettes go soggy and stale after a week.

I was on the stool at the extreme northern end of the bar, where sometimes there’s a bit of a breeze. It was so muggy my cigarettes weren’t staying lit. Two stools south of me Dill was bragging to a newb about his three-a-day habit. “I get one knocked out as soon as I wake up. Then I send the girl on her way and I get breakfast. There’s a super place on Krabi Road that does an American breakfast for twenty baht.”

From the way he talked you’d be forgiven if you assumed Dill was a resident expat, which is obviously what the newb thought, since he was hanging on Dill’s every word. Fact is, Dill sells insurance in Cedar Rapids and only comes to Phuket for two weeks each year. But the authoritative note in his voice that convinces young fathers in Iowa that they should protect their families with term life insurance had the newb mesmerized.

“After breakfast I’ll usually go to the wat and have a sauna, get a run in on the beach. If I’m feeling real good I’ll go over to the Holiday Inn and use their weight room. I’m not a member, but there’s never anybody in it but the towel boy; you tip him twenty baht and you got the run of the place.”

The newb was listening to Dill like he was getting the tablets of law from the hand of God. The look on his face said he couldn’t believe his luck, meeting an Old Asia Hand who was willing to pull back the perfumed veil and reveal the secrets of the harem.

“So then I get a light lunch, usually something from Sam’s Deli on the beach road in Patong. There’s a million places to eat in Patong, but most of ‘em don’t bring on their best staff until evening. They’re open until four in the morning, ya know? They do most of their business after the bars close at two. So whoever is on the grill before evening is definitely B-string players.”

I could see it wasn’t the kind of information the newb had been hoping for. Still, the promise was there that in the next moment Dill would pull out the old parchment map, stained with blood and powder burns, that would lead him to the gate of the Secret Garden.

“So after lunch I pop into Christine’s for a soapie. Got a couple girls in there I like. Place costs an arm and a leg, and there’s no discounts, but once you know a girl you can save a lot on her tip. And the rooms are real nice, water’s always hot, sheets are always clean. So I get a soapie and then I hang around on the beach until the sun goes down. The beach is really the only place I can stand to be in the afternoons. It costs fifty baht to rent a deck chair and umbrella, but anywhere else is either broiling hot or too much air-con. At least on the beach you got a breeze and cool water to swim in.”

The newb was starting to look impatient. He was peeling the label off his beer bottle. The massage parlors advertised on the sides of tuk-tuks, for God’s sake, and he could figure out how to rent a deck chair on the sand by himself. He wanted Dill to get to the good stuff.

“So an hour or so after sundown I’ll head back up Soi Bangla and pop in and out of a few places. See a few friends, get a little business done. You wanna do business with a guy in Patong, you gotta catch him in a bar. These guys don’t keep office hours.”

Dill is a tourist on Phuket, just like the newb, and has no business to conduct in Patong other than paying for sex. The note of authority in Dill’s voice was not having the same effect it had had on the newb five minutes ago. When Dill turned to order a drink the newb glanced at his watch.

“So I’ll keep my eyes open as I go up the street. Always on the lookout for fresh talent, ya know? Sometimes a place will get a whole van load o’ girls from upcountry. Sweet things, ya know? Fresh off the farm. Lotta guys don’t like ‘em. They can be scared, sometimes, or maybe just inexperienced and clumsy. Lotta guys prefer a girl with some experience. But I like the new ones.”

Dill winked. “I like to teach ‘em things.”

Even the newb could tell Dill was blowing smoke up his ass now. The wink was over the top. He took a drink of his warm, flat beer and made a sour face.

“So if I don’t find anybody I like on the street, I’ll head into Juggs A-Go-Go. It’s at the end of Soi Bangla. Big place, three stories, ya can’t miss it. Tuk-tuk drivers call it “Chock,” cuz they can’t pronounce “Juggs.” So anyway, I know I’ll always find somebody good in Juggs. And this last one of the day is important, ya know, cuz I’m gonna keep her all night at my place. I want somebody I won’t mind waking up next to tomorrow.”

The newb was waving to Ying the Bartendy for his bill. He was pantomiming writing something on an invisible pad over his head. He reckoned he knew how a go-go bar worked.

“Here’s the thing,” said Dill. “It’s best if you wait until just before closing before you commit to a girl. The ones that need money get desperate then and you can make some sweet deals. I’ve had ‘em come home with me for a hundred baht. No shit. All night for a hundred baht cuz she had a motorcycle payment due in the morning. Well, a hundred baht and I bought her breakfast but fuck it. Ya know? So you wait until almost closing…”

The newb had Ying’s attention. She was gathering his drink chits and totaling his bill. He was organizing all the particolored confetti in his wallet. I saw bills from Vietnam and the Philippines in the mix. Not such a newb after all.

“So what, you takin’ off? Okay.” Dill tried to keep the disappointment out of his voice. He’s a salesman because he likes attention. “That’s cool. Whatever. So good luck on your three-a-days, Buddy. Come back some time and tell me all about it.”

The newb took two drink chits out of the bamboo cup in front of Dill and put them into his pile. He smiled at Dill and Dill said “Thanks, Dude. Listen, you ever want any more advice you come on back. I’m in room 3 on the second floor. Just have ‘em call up and I’ll come down, or leave a note if I’m not here.”

They shook hands and the newb went out to the taxi stand. Dill smiled at his reflection in the mirror behind the bar and checked his watch. Only another hour until dark and he would begin his evening. He drained his beer and went upstairs for a shower. The look on his face as he went up the limestone steps said that he felt very pleased with himself. He probably figured he’d earned some good karma today, teaching the newb the ins and outs of the three-a-day lifestyle.

Of course, it’s information he doesn’t share with the guys in the State Farm Insurance office back in Cedar Rapids. Not because it would be shocking to them, but because it wouldn’t be impressive to them at all.

The guys in the insurance office deal with figures all day long. They’d look at Dill’s situation with the cold, dispassionate eye of the actuarial industry. Dill would get about two sentences into his lecture and they’d already be calculating the realities of it:

A man who saves up all year to spend two weeks in Thailand has no sex life at home, obviously. Three sexual experiences per day, times fourteen days per year, is 42 sexual experiences per year, or one sexual encounter every 8.7 days. And the experienced bean counters of the State Farm Insurance Company would be aware that the statistical analysis actually makes Dill’s situation look better than it is. In fact Dill would give his left nut to get sex once every 8.7 days, instead of the reality of it, which is that he goes fifty weeks at a time without any sex at all.

That makes Dill the least-laid person in the office. Hell, the young guy in the cube next to Dill’s just got married; he’s getting it twice a day, every day, from a great looking gal who gave him her cherry and since then will do anything, absolutely anything, he asks her to do.

There are six men who work with Dill in the State Farm Insurance office in Cedar Rapids. Not one of them would trade places with him.

But in the Pension Grilparzer, with the gentle murmur of the surf randomly punctuated by the sharp clacks of the snooker balls, the geckos chirping from the ceiling, the smell of fried chicken and curry on the air, and women’s laughter coming from the bar beers up and down the beach as the girls come to open up for the night, with all that going on Dill seems more impressive.

His three-a-days seem like an accomplishment, like something a man learns how to do with years of experience, when in fact they are, of course, just the sort of thing that any idiot can do if he’s got twenty bucks in his pocket.

Buying sex is just like buying cigarettes. Whether you’re buying a pack today or a carton today, you’re still just buying cigarettes. And on Phuket they get stale real fast.